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US Staging Global Conference to Combat Ransomware Attacks

The White House is holding a two-day international conference starting Wednesday to combat ransomware computer attacks on business operations across the globe that cost companies, schools and health services an estimated $74 billion in damages last year.

U.S. officials are meeting on Zoom calls with their counterparts from at least 30 countries to discuss ways to combat the clandestine attacks. Russia, a key launchpad for many of the attacks, was left off the invitation list as Washington and Moscow officials engage directly on attacks coming from Russia.

This year has seen an epidemic of ransomware attacks in which hackers from distant lands remotely lock victims’ computers and demand large extortion payments to allow normal operations to resume.

Ransomware payments topped $400 million globally in 2020, the United States says, and totaled more than $81 million in the first quarter of 2021.

Two U.S. businesses, the Colonial Pipeline Company that delivers fuel to much of the eastern part of the country and the JBS global beef producer, were targeted in major ransomware attacks in May.

Colonial paid $4.4 million in ransom demands, although U.S. government officials were soon able to surreptitiously recover $2.3 million of the payment. JBS said it paid an $11 million demand.

Other U.S. companies were also attacked, including CNA Financial, one of the country’s biggest insurance carriers; Applus Technologies, which provides testing equipment to state vehicle inspection stations; ExaGrid, a backup storage vendor that helps businesses recover after ransomware attacks; and the school system in the city of Buffalo, New York.

Attackers have also targeted victims in other countries, including Ireland’s health care system, the Taiwan-based computer manufacturer Acer and the Asia division of the AXA France cyber insurer.

A senior White House official, briefing reporters ahead of the ransomware conference, said the U.S. views the meetings “as the first of many conversations” on ways to combat the attacks.

At a summit in Geneva in June, U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin created a working group of experts to deal with ransomware attacks.

“We do look to the Russian government to address ransomware criminal activity coming from actors within Russia,” the White House official said. “I can report that we’ve had, in the experts group, frank and professional exchanges in which we’ve communicated those expectations. We’ve also shared information with Russia regarding criminal ransomware activity being conducted from its territory.”

“We’ve seen some steps by the Russian government and are looking to see follow-up actions,” the official said, without elaborating.

While U.S. officials say they know the identity of some of the attackers in Russia, Moscow does not extradite its citizens for criminal prosecutions.

One of the major topics at the conference, the Biden official said, will be how countries can cooperate to trace and disrupt criminal use of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.

The countries scheduled to join the U.S. at the ransomware conference are Australia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, the Czech Republic, the Dominican Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Lithuania, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Poland, the Republic of Korea, Romania, Singapore, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom. The European Union will also be represented.

The senior White House official said, “I think that list of countries highlights just how pernicious and transnational and global the ransomware threat has been.”

Aside from government action, the Biden administration has called on private businesses, which most often are blindsided by the ransomware attacks, to modernize their cyber defenses to meet the threat.

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Increased Turkish-Syrian Tensions Over Idlib Could Benefit Putin

Syrian government forces backed by Russia have recently ramped up attacks against Idlib, the last rebel enclave. A Turkish military force stands in the way of Syrian troops that are poised to seize Idlib, a move Ankara fears could result in millions of refugees fleeing to Turkey. For VOA, Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul

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Shipping Giant Diverts Vessels From Crisis-Hit UK

Danish shipping giant AP Moller-Maersk said Tuesday it had started to divert vessels away from Britain’s biggest container port because of congestion, the latest fallout from multiple crises hitting the United Kingdom. 

The country is suffering runaway energy prices, shortages of goods, fuel delivery issues and a worsening long-term shortage of lorry drivers, with post-Brexit immigration controls and the pandemic among the causes cited by experts.   

Felixstowe in eastern England has been particularly hard hit, prompting Maersk to divert one ship each week out of the usual two or three that call there. 

A company spokeswoman said the ships, each carrying thousands of containers, were being redirected to continental ports such as Rotterdam and Antwerp.   

Cargo would then be loaded onto smaller vessels to dock at other British ports or at Felixstowe when space opens up. 

The spokeswoman said the firm was committed to getting goods to Britain for Black Friday and Christmas.   

Maersk official Lars Mikael Jensen said the driver shortage had slowed down container movements at Felixstowe, which deals with just over one-third of U.K. freight container volumes.   

“We are having to deviate some of the bigger ships away from Felixstowe and relay some of the smaller ships for the cargo,” he said. 

“We did it for a little while over the summer, and now we’re starting to do it again.” 

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Journalist Jonathan Mirsky Remembered as Sharp Observer of China

Friends and colleagues of Jonathan Mirsky, an American journalist known as one of the sharpest observers of China, are reflecting fondly on his legacy ahead of his funeral in London Wednesday, one month short of his 89th birthday.

Mirsky, who died in September, was a prolific writer, with hundreds of bylines inked in major publications in both Britain and the United States. In the end, the story of his life, how he changed from a self-professed “Mao [Zedong] fan” to one of the “sternest and most knowledgeable” critics of Beijing, as one obituary writer put it, was as much a story as any he covered in a career that spanned six decades.

The year 1989 was an eventful one for China, and for Mirsky. He almost lost his life while reporting on the pro-democracy movement that ended with a massacre directed by Chinese authorities. Mirsky watched students die in Tiananmen Square “right under the Mao portrait” before soldiers started beating him up.

Several teeth were knocked out and an arm was fractured, but he survived, thanks to a fellow journalist who rushed to the rescue. The next day, he would witness more people being killed as they tried to recover loved ones who had been injured or killed the night before.

Among those shot in the square were some of the medical staff from the Beijing Union Hospital, where Mirsky’s father, an established molecular biologist, had visited and worked in the 1930s.

Such bloody scenes were a far cry from the Beijing Mirsky had envisioned 20 years earlier, when, as a young college professor teaching Chinese culture and history at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, he stepped into a boat, along with five other American “peace activists,” and set sail to the shores of the People’s Republic.

Their goal was to break through the lack of contact between the Chinese and the American people since the Communist victory in 1949, as he recounted in a 1969 article for The New York Review of Books, under the title Report from the China Sea.

“Four days out of Nagasaki and seventeen miles from China we were intercepted by a Chinese Coast Guard vessel. After five days of discussion and entreaties we finally got the point: no Americans can visit China, no matter how friendly they seem,” Mirsky wrote.

It did not help, he wrote, to tell the Coast Guard officials, “We do not represent our government. We are private citizens who oppose American foreign policy regarding China.” The Chinese response, he said, was, “Chairman Mao does not agree to your coming. He wishes you to go away.”

The group had no choice but to abandon their mission of “friendship and goodwill,” and sailed back.

Mirsky, however, was undeterred by the setback. His wish to step on the soil of a Chinese “socialist paradise” — in contrast to a “greedy, imperialist America” — was fulfilled three years later. In March 1972, shortly after Nixon’s historic visit, Mirsky embarked on a six-week tour of the People’s Republic with a group of young American academics openly supportive of Beijing.

On that journey, he wrote later, he learned two lessons: the way workers and their families lived in China differed drastically from the prototype shown by officials, and secondly, the authorities really didn’t like anyone deviating from the script, including a spontaneous morning walk out of the hotel. Above all, he was touched by the honesty and bravery of ordinary Chinese people who didn’t hide their true living conditions when they were not monitored by government officials.

These lessons from 1972 would resurface, over and over, in the ensuing years as Mirsky became a foreign affairs writer focused on China, first for The Observer, then The Times of London, later The New York Review of Books, among others.

In 1989, the tension between “state” and “society” was laid bare in images seen around the world showing citizens of Beijing spontaneously organizing themselves in large groups and forming walls to stop the People’s Liberation Army from entering the city.

“That spontaneity spread from Inner Mongolia to Guangzhou. In Beijing, instead of the usual greeting between acquaintances, ‘Have you eaten yet?’ people asked, ‘Have you demonstrated yet?’” Mirsky wrote in a 25th anniversary piece about what happened in 1989.

He also recalled that “the staff of the Party’s newspapers appeared in the square holding high a banner bearing the words, ‘We don’t want to lie anymore.’”

Two years after Tiananmen, Beijing banned Mirsky, an erstwhile guest of the state who had been received in the 1970s by the likes of Zhou Enlai, from entering territories controlled by China. That didn’t stop him from continuing to observe the gap between the state and the society. Recounting a conversation he held with one of China’s leading dissidents, Wei Jingsheng, shortly after the latter had been let out of jail and sent into exile, Mirsky described Wei’s reaction to the sight of the Chinese embassy in London.

“As we drove past the Chinese embassy in Portland Place I said to Wei, ‘That’s your embassy.’ He burst out laughing. ‘I don’t know whose it is. It’s certainly not mine.’”

Upon hearing of Mirsky’s death, Wei issued a statement saying his straightforwardness had left a deep impression.

“When I first arrived in the West, in 1998, I was a celebrity, not many people would challenge me in my face, but Mr. Mirsky was different. He did praise me, too, but thought nothing of challenging me the next second,” said Wei, who described his encounter with Mirsky as being “as refreshing as taking a bite of ice cream.”

Perry Link, a well-known specialist of contemporary Chinese language and culture, met Mirsky in 1971 at Middlebury College in Vermont, where he was teaching when Mirsky came to visit a friend. “He was drawn to the pretty ideals that the CCP was touting in the 1960s and early 1970s, but when he could see, on closer inspection, that the words were a fraud, he changed his views,” he said in an email exchange with VOA.

Link considers Mirsky “one of those extraordinary human beings” who place moral values above material ones and are ready to act on their conviction. “Jimmy Lai in Hong Kong, recently, comes to mind as well,” he added. Lai is a media tycoon and the jailed publisher of Apple Daily, a pro-democracy newspaper that closed following police raids and the arrests of several executives. He is awaiting trial on national security charges.

Steven I. Levine, who taught Chinese history and politics at the University of Montana, had read Mirsky’s reviews of books on China in The New York Review of Books for decades before meeting him in person about 10 years ago. He says the two formed a “late in life friendship” cherished by both. 

Among the qualities that made Mirsky special, Levine told VOA in a phone interview, was that “he not only saw imperfections in his own government, he also didn’t, just because of that, idealize other governments.”

Mirsky initially had that tendency, “but quickly became disabused of that false notion” and turned his sympathy toward the Chinese people, especially those who dared to insist on a vision for a democratic China, and never looked back, Levine said.

After the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to jailed human rights activist Liu Xiaobo in November 2010, Mirsky explained his support for dissidents like Liu in an interview with VOA. Liu later died of cancer while under Chinese custody, his request to seek treatment abroad was denied.

“I mean how do they do it, guys like that? And keep doing it? It’s amazing.” He said. “You can’t have inspiring people like these Chinese and not have a response to that.” 

Mirsky was concerned that Western governments were settling into a position of accepting China as is and avoid any moral concerns.

He pointed out that some politicians were getting into a habit of saying, “We’ve got to start by understanding that China is an ancient civilization with a long and proud history.

“That the Chinese Communist Party has turned its back on that ancient culture appears unknown” to the politicians who make such statements, he wrote in an essay published in 2013.

“In any event, Syria and Iran, with equally long histories,” but are not treated with equal respect, he noted.

Deborah Glass, who met Mirsky in Hong Kong soon after he arrived to take up the post as The Times’ East Asia editor in 1993 and later married him, said Mirsky always loved swimming and was particularly fond of cold water, “Maine and the north of Scotland being two of his favorite swimming spots.”

In 1969, when the Chinese coast guard refused to allow his group’s boat to enter Chinese waters, Mirsky jumped into the China Sea in an attempt to reach those he had envisioned to be bosom friends. He was quickly turned away.

In the years since, one could say he kept swimming, valiantly, in search of what lies behind the ancient Chinese saying, “Within the Four Seas, all men are brothers.”

On October 1st 2014, a month before his 82nd birthday, Mirsky stepped out of his home in London’s Holland Park, a neighborhood adjacent to the better-known Notting Hill, to join demonstrators in front of the Chinese embassy in support of Hong Kong’s voting rights protests known as the Umbrella Movement.

“I want to tell you that I am fully supportive of what you do, and there are many others like me all over the world!” he told the crowd of about 3,000 people, according to a report by The Epoch Times newspaper.

“I feel sad Jonathan is no longer with us. He had a long life, was widely respected, had contacts all over the world, and he had the right friends and the right enemies as well. So, I think that was a life well lived, well spent.”

Mirsky, Levine said, was “crystal clear in what he wrote and thought.” Underneath that clarity was “an unmatched perceptiveness and acuity on the subjects he wrote about,” and a dedication to his trade.

“As long as I’m around, I’ll remember him and cherish his memory, and think how lucky I was to know him.”

Levine said there has been “an enormous outpouring of appreciation” from the community of China watchers, journalists and academics alike, serving as a testament to the positive impact Mirsky had on others.

“In certain African cultures, they say that the passing of an old and wise person is like a library burning down,” Robert Thomson said in a phone interview with VOA from his office in New York.

Thomson, now the chief executive at News Corp., the parent company to Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal, among others, was the Financial Times correspondent in Beijing whom Mirsky credited with coming to his rescue and leading him off the square “at great risk to himself” in 1989.

“Losing someone with Jonathan’s expertise and understanding – it really is a library burning down,” he said.

Mirsky’s funeral Wednesday happens to fall on the eve of a Chinese folk festival known as the Double Ninth, i.e., the ninth day of the ninth month on the lunar calendar. In the 8th century at the height of the Tang Dynasty, one of the most celebrated poet-painters composed a verse marking the day as an occasion for remembrances:

Alone in foreign land a foreign guest I am 

Memories of loved ones rise on days of festivities 

Far away, brothers of old are set to climb the mountain again

In their midst is one missing

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EU Officials Pledge to Support Ukraine’s National Energy Security 

European Union leaders met Tuesday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, pledging to strengthen ties and support the eastern European nation, particularly on the issue of Russia and energy security.

Zelenskiy hosted EU Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen for the 23rd EU-Ukraine summit, a meeting held annually to enhance political and economic relations. 

The energy issue was high on the agenda. The Ukrainian leader has expressed strong opposition to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which will link Russia to Germany, bypassing his country and, Zelenskiy says, increasing Europe’s energy reliance on Russia.

Ukraine, in conflict with Russia since Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, wants to ensure it will remain a key transit country even after gas begins flowing through the pipeline. 

Speaking to reporters following the meeting, Zelenskiy said, “Energy security is also a guarantee of Ukraine’s independence and national sovereignty. The completion of the Nord Stream 2 [pipeline] opens up new challenges for Ukraine in addition to the existing ones.” 

Von der Leyen said the EU understands his concerns and pledged to work with Ukrainian experts “to secure sufficient supply for Ukraine.” 

During the meeting, the EU and Ukraine signed an “open skies” agreement to facilitate air travel between Ukraine and EU member states, by opening the market to low-cost airlines. 

Von der Leyen and Michel commended Zelenskiy on progress the nation has made, but added Ukraine needs to continue “staying focused on implementing reforms” in order to take their “partnership to the next level,” referring to possible EU membership. 

Zelenskiy expressed frustration at the lack of a firm timeline for that goal. He said, “It is already clear that we are following the same path, but where is the finish line on this path?” 

Some information for this report came from the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

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Divorced UK and EU Head for New Brexit Fight Over N Ireland

It was late last Christmas Eve when the European Union and Britain finally clinched a Brexit trade deal after years of wrangling, threats and missed deadlines to seal their divorce.

There was hope that now-separated Britain and the 27-nation bloc would sail their relationship toward calmer waters.

With Christmas closing in again one thing is clear — it wasn’t to be.

Britain’s Brexit minister on Tuesday accused the EU of wishing failure on its former member and of badmouthing the U.K. as a country that can’t be trusted. David Frost said during a speech in Lisbon that the EU “doesn’t always look like it wants us to succeed” or “get back to constructive working together.”

He said a fundamental rewrite of the mutually agreed divorce deal was the only way to fix the exes’ “fractious relationship.” And he warned that Britain could push an emergency override button on the deal if it didn’t get its way.

“We constantly face generalized accusations that we can’t be trusted and that we aren’t a reasonable international actor,” Frost added — a response to EU claims that the U.K. is seeking to renege on the legally binding treaty that it negotiated and signed.

Post-Brexit tensions have crystalized into a worsening fight over Northern Ireland, the only part of the U.K. to share a land border with an EU country, which is Ireland. Under the most delicate and contentious part of the Brexit deal, Northern Ireland remains inside the EU’s single market for trade in goods, in order to avoid a hard border with EU member Ireland.

That means customs and border checks must be conducted on some goods going to Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K., despite the fact they are part of the same country. The regulations are intended to prevent goods from Britain entering the EU’s tariff-free single market while keeping an open border on the island of Ireland — a key pillar of Northern Ireland’s peace process.

The U.K. government soon complained the arrangements weren’t working, saying the rules impose burdensome red tape on businesses. Never short of a belligerent metaphor, 2021 has already brought a “sausage war,” with Britain asking the EU to drop a ban on processed British meat products such as sausages entering Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland’s British Unionist community, meanwhile, says the Brexit deal undermines the 1998 Good Friday peace accord — which sought to protect the rights of both Unionist and Irish Nationalist communities — by weakening Northern Ireland’s ties with the rest of the U.K.

The bloc has agreed to look at changes to the Protocol, and is due to present proposals on Wednesday. Before that move, Britain raised the stakes again, with Frost demanding sweeping changes to the way the agreement is governed.

In his speech in the Portuguese capital, Frost said the Protocol “is not working.”

“It has completely lost consent in one community in Northern Ireland,” he said. “It is not doing the thing it was set up to do – protect the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. In fact it is doing the opposite. It has to change.”

Most contentiously, he said the EU must also remove the European Court of Justice as the ultimate arbiter of disputes concerning trade in Northern Ireland and instead agree to international arbitration. He said the role of the EU court “means the EU can make laws which apply in Northern Ireland without any kind of democratic scrutiny or discussion.”

The EU is highly unlikely to agree to the change. The bloc’s highest court is seen as the pinnacle of the free trade single market, and Brussels has vowed not to undermine its own order.

Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, said Britain’s demand was “very hard to accept.”

“I don’t think we could ever have a situation where we had another court deciding what the rules of the single market are,” he said.

Some EU observers say Britain’s demand to remove the court’s oversight shows it isn’t serious about making the Brexit deal work.

Frost repeated the U.K.’s threat to invoke Article 16, a clause allowing either side to suspend the agreement in exceptional circumstances. That would send already testy relations into a deep chill and could lead to a trade war between Britain and the bloc — one that would hurt the U.K. economy more than its much larger neighbor.

The economically tiny but symbolically charged subject of fish, which held up a trade deal to the final minute last year, is also stoking divisions now.

France wants its EU partners to act as one if London wouldn’t grant more licenses for small French fishing boats to roam close to the U.K. crown dependencies of Jersey and Guernsey, just off France’s Normandy coast.

In France’s parliament last week, Prime Minister Jean Castex accused Britain of reneging on its promise over fishing.

“We see in the clearest way possible that Great Britain does not respect its own signature,” he said.

In a relationship where both sides often fall back on cliches about the other, Castex was harking back to the centuries-old French insult of “Perfidious Albion,” a nation that can never be trusted.

Across the English Channel, U.K. Brexit supporters often depict a conniving EU, hurt by Britain’s departure, doing its utmost to make Brexit less than a success by throwing up bureaucratic impediments.

“The EU and we have got into a low equilibrium, (a) somewhat fractious relationship,” Frost conceded. “(It) need not always be like that, but … it takes two to fix it.”

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British Parliamentary Report Condemns Government’s Slow COVID-19 Response

A report produced by the British parliament says a state of “groupthink” among government officials led to a costly delay in ordering a nationwide lockdown in the first days of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The 151-page report from the joint science and health committees in the House of Commons says Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Cabinet deliberately engaged in a “slow and gradualist approach” in the first few months of 2020 as officials sought to manage instead of suppress the spread of the virus. 

The joint inquiry says the virus was able to take hold across Britain because of that “fatalistic” strategy, which was finally abandoned as the country’s National Health Service risked being overwhelmed by the rapidly rising number of cases. 

The report also criticized Johnson’s government for its “slow, uncertain and often chaotic” testing and tracing system, while noting a failure between national and local governments and other public bodies to share data. 

The lawmakers concluded the government’s response to the pandemic was “one of the most important health failures” in Britain’s history.

In an interview with Sky News, Stephen Barclay, Johnson’s Minister for the Cabinet Office, repeatedly declined to apologize for the government’s actions. 

“We followed, throughout, the scientific advice,” he said. “We got the vaccine deployed extremely quickly, we protected our [National Health Service] from the surge of cases.”

“Of course, if there are lessons to learn we’re keen to do so,” he added. 

The final report was compiled from hours of testimony given by more than 50 witnesses, including former health secretary Matt Hancock and Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s former special adviser, who has emerged as a vocal critic of Johnson’s handling of the pandemic.

In France, officials have released a new study that shows people who are vaccinated against COVID-19 are far less likely to die or be hospitalized, even in the presence of the delta variant.

Researchers compared the outcomes of 11 million vaccinated people against an equal number of unvaccinated people beginning in December 2020. The study found the risk of someone contracting the coronavirus was reduced by 90% about 14 days after receiving a second dose of the Pfizer, Moderna or AstraZeneca vaccines. The single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine was not included in the study, since it was authorized much later in France.

The study says the vaccines are nearly as effective against the delta variant, with 92% protection for people between 50 and 75 years old, and 84% for people 75 years old and older. It also says the vaccines maintained their high level of effectiveness during the five months the study was conducted.

Some information for this report came from the Associated Press, Reuters, Sky News, and Agence France-Presse. 

 

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