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Fewer kindergarten students means money problems for schools and learning concerns for children.

Kindergarten enrollment in American schools has plummeted during the pandemic, potentially setting back educational and social development for children at a critical age and impacting public school budgets for years to come.

Most states don’t require kindergarten attendance. As a result, the drop in enrollment at that age has been steeper than at other levels — down 14 percent in Arizona, for example, compared to 5 percent across all grades. Nicole Swartz, an Arizona parent who did not enroll her son this fall, told, “I just really disagreed with just the mental well-being of what would happen with a 6-year-old sitting at a laptop all day.”

Parents made similar decisions across the country. Pre-K and kindergarten enrollment fell 18 percent in Massachusetts, compared to declines of almost 4 percent for other grades. In Ohio, kindergarten enrollment declined in nearly every local school district.

The youngest students, many experts agree, are worst suited for remote learning. They’re squirmy. They can’t figure out how to work computers without help. And much of their learning is social, emotional and motor skill-based.

But younger students might also be best positioned to return to schools safely, at least for now. Growing evidence suggests that they are less likely to transmit the coronavirus to adults or to suffer severe symptoms.

Some parents have turned to parochial and private schools, which could have a significant impact on public schools in states that use enrollment to allocate funding. That has already happened in South Dakota’s largest district, Sioux Falls, where 300 fewer students may mean a loss of $2.5 million in state financial aid.

In Georgia, where kindergarten enrollment dropped 11 percent this fall, public schools could lose $100 million in funding.

“If you lose five students in a classroom, you can’t turn down the heat by five students,” Stephen Owens, a senior policy analyst at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, told WABE. “You can’t fire one-twentieth of a teacher.”

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Muslim model Halima Aden quits runway over religious beliefs

Model Halima Aden will no longer “compromise” her religious beliefs in the name of the “toxic mess called fashion.”

The 23-year-old star — who has appeared on the covers of British Vogue, Vogue Arabia, Allure and more — is walking away from her runway career, telling fans on Instagram Wednesday that the gig would often force her to skip prayers, wear clothes she wasn’t comfortable in and style her hijab in ways she felt betrayed her Muslim values.

She came to the realization during the coronavirus lockdown, which gave her time to reflect on how her career choice impacted her religion.

“They could call me tomorrow and not even for $10 million would I ever risk compromising my hijab ever again,” she wrote, pledging to never take part in runway shows or travel for fashion weeks again.

“That’s where all the bad energy came from,” she asserted.

She also expressed regret over specific campaigns she took part in, including American Eagle’s 2017 promotion of their first denim hijab.

Makeup artist Hector Espinal, Rihanna and Halima Aden on stage during a Fenty Beauty event.
Makeup artist Hector Espinal, Rihanna and Halima Aden on stage during a Fenty Beauty event.Getty Images for Fenty Beauty

“Why did I allow them to put jeans on my head when at the time I had only ever worn skirts and long dresses?” she wrote, explaining, “I was just so desperate back then for any ‘representation’ that I lost touch with who I was.”

The same year, a Glamour shoot left the model emotional after allowing stylists to style her hijab with green fabric and feathers.

“I went back to my hotel room and just sobbed after this shoot because deep down I knew this wasn’t it. But was too scared to speak up,” she wrote. “Also very common struggle when you are the FIRST to do something.”

Aden set several records for Muslim women in modeling, including being the first to wear a hijab and burkini in Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue last year.

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Italy’s doctors face new threat: Conspiracy theories – POLITICO

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MILAN — From “heroes” to “terrorists.” In Italy, the doctors and nurses lauded for their exhausting, dangerous work in the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic are facing a new challenge: conspiracy theories accusing them of faking the emergency.

In one social media video, two women tell the camera they are in the emergency room at Sacco Hospital in Milan, one of the hardest-hit cities in Italy. They want to prove that the ER is empty, contrary to what is being reported by journalists, who have sounded the alarm about a drastic uptick in cases.

The women go inside the building, showing viewers a calm, empty interior. Next, they walk back outside to demonstrate there are no ambulances lined up. Doctors, journalists, and politicians have been lying, they say. “They are terrorists.”  

The video, which was shared thousands of times, is a fake. The rooms it features are not located in the emergency wing of the hospital, which are in fact full. Nor does the video show the places outside the hospital where ambulances regularly wait, lined up one after another, to discharge seriously ill patients.  

Similar accusations have proliferated on Facebook, Telegram, WhatsApp and countless other mediums, where posters claim ambulances are driving around aimlessly without patients on board, or turning on their sirens simply to scare people.

Others share images of deserted hospitals and theorize that doctors fabricated the emergency so they can earn more money. Still others recommend eating avocados to keep at bay a virus they insist is no more serious than a flu.

“If during the first wave we were called heroes, now someone has changed their mind,” said Andrea Artoni, a hematologist who works in a COVID-19 ward at the Milan Polyclinic. “We are tired, fatigued and we work exhausting shifts trying to put all the energy we have into saving those who get sick.”

It’s not easy to face a second wave of the pandemic just six months after the first, he said. “To those who deny the existence of this virus, I can only say to come and take a tour in one of our departments. Come and see how our people die suffocating, alone and lucid.”

Appeals like Artoni’s fall on deaf ears among those who have ventured far enough down the rabbit hole, armed with false theories about the severity of the global pandemic.

According to the deniers, the health emergency is an invention of the media, a distorted narrative peddled by politicians and powerful people who are seeking to manipulate the world from behind the stage curtain.

“Many times, conspiracy theories arise from the difficulty in accepting the unexpected,” said Massimo Polidoro, a science writer and university professor. “For some people, it is more reassuring to invent an imaginary evil figure to fight, because it is more comforting compared to the invisible virus that you feel you cannot control.”

A recent survey found that 81 percent of Italians are finding the second lockdown harder than the first, saying they feel more anxious and distrustful of the authorities leading the pandemic response.

Luca, a 43-year-old bar owner from Milan, said he is sure that Bill Gates plans to use the COVID-19 vaccine to inoculate billions of people with a microchip that will give him power over the population as if by remote control. Asked where he heard this theory, and why he believes it, he said it came from a friend who studied in the United States and “knows everything.” They talked about it during their children’s swimming class.

Although he still follows lockdown rules and wears a face mask, Luca said he is angry and frustrated with what he describes as the government’s mishandling of the crisis. In November, he was forced to shutter his bar in compliance with the latest regulations.

It doesn’t take much for these theories to spill out from the web into real life. In Milan earlier this month a woman kicked an ambulance while a parked driver was waiting to load a COVID-19 patient and started to yell at the paramedics, calling them “terrorists,” who “go around with sirens to scare people.”

Beyond concerns of people flouting lockdown measures, there is a growing fear that fringe denialist theories could hurt the country’s long-term recovery.

“In such a fragile historical moment as the one we are experiencing, certain nonsense does nothing but fuel the distrust in institutions, in the state, in hospitals, and in who is fighting this coronavirus,” Pierpaolo Sileri, Italy’s deputy minister of health, told POLITICO.

“With the arrival of the vaccine, these theories that circulate are even more dangerous because they risk hindering adherence to vaccination,” said Sileri, who is also a surgeon.

According to new research, one in six Italians say they will not get a coronavirus vaccine if it is available next year, and 42 percent said they will wait until they better understand its effectiveness. Only roughly a third of the sample surveyed said they “would certainly get it as soon as possible.”

In a medical center in Vercelli, in the region on Piedmont, a number of patients with COVID-19 still refused to believe they were infected. Marco, a nurse from Bergamo, said he was increasingly angry about the depth of people’s denial of the disease.

“If you don’t experience the effects of the virus, I can excuse your ignorance, but when you experience that reality and see the efforts, the energy mobilized by the medical community to fight this emergency, you cannot continue to question it,” he said. “It is offensive toward us, toward those who have died and their loved ones.”

Luigi Cavanna, the head of hematology-oncology at Piacenza hospital, and one of the first doctors in Italy to go door to door to help COVID-19 patients, said part of the blame does lie with the medical establishment.

During the early months of the pandemic, doctors and virologists appearing on television to explain the rapidly evolving crisis would often contradict one another. Those mixed messages offered rich pickings for the conspiracy theorists, according to Cavanna.

He added that he’d like to have a conversation with a denier. “I’d like to hear what they have to say. I’m an oncologist and I’m used to hearing the strangest things,” he said. “I would listen to them very seriously because I think that we, the scientists, have a little fault in this too.”

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Beijing wants to stop an ‘anti-China coalition’ in Asia

SINGAPORE – Beijing is concerned that there’s a higher chance of countries in Asia partnering with the U.S. to counter China under President-elect Joe Biden – and wants to prevent that from happening, according to a political consultancy.

“I think the key for them really is to try and prevent the U.S. from being able to organize many or most of these countries into what China would see as a kind of anti-China coalition,” said Andrew Gilholm, Control Risks’ director of the analysis practice for Greater China and North Asia.

Tensions between the U.S. and China have risen under President Donald Trump as the administration pushed an “America first” agenda, often taking a unilateral approach instead of coordinating with allies.

Reuters reported that the foreign ministers of Japan, India and Australia kept their statements vague at last month’s Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in Tokyo, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo strongly criticized the Chinese Communist Party.

That looks set to change under Biden’s leadership. He has emphasized the need for the U.S. to work with other countries, and his pick for head of foreign policy, Antony Blinken, supports that strategy.

Flags of the U.S. and China displayed on a table ahead of a meeting.

Jason Lee | AFP | Getty Images

Gilholm told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia” that Japan, India and South Korea are economically important to China, but that Beijing is well aware of Tokyo’s relationship with Washington.

“China has no illusions about Japan’s close alliance with the U.S., and to a lesser extent, South Korea’s, although President Moon Jae-in in Korea has been a bit keener to balance that with China relations,” he said on Thursday.

In Southeast Asia, there’s a “great divergence” between countries in terms of their positions on China, he added.

“But I think for China, their concern is that, with the end of the Trump era, the prospects for the U.S. coordinating its China policy with a lot more of these countries has improved,” he said. “China will be very keen to prevent that with every country involved.”

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‘Jeopardy!’ Shares Thanksgiving Message Alex Trebek Recorded Before His Death

The legendary trivia show host, who died on Nov. 8 at the age of 80, said in a prerecorded Thanksgiving message that, “in spite of what America and the rest of the world is experiencing right now, there are many reasons to be thankful.”

“There are more and more people extending helpful hands to do a kindness to their neighbors, and that’s a good thing,” he said.

“Keep the faith. We’re gonna get through all of this, and we will be a better society because of it.”

Trebek had hosted the beloved ABC show since its debut in 1984. He was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in March 2019. “I’m going to fight this, and I’m going to keep working,” he said at the time.

The show paused production earlier this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic but resumed over the summer. It returned for its 37th season in September.

New episodes featuring Trebek as host will air until Christmas Day. Trebek continued working in the final weeks of his life and was last in the studio on Oct. 29, just 10 days before his death.

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Wedding Rings Lost in Shipwreck Will Be Returned to Migrant Couple

The red backpack had been floating for two weeks in the central Mediterranean between Libya and Italy when a rescue boat came across it. Inside, along with clothes and some notes in Arabic, was a simple treasure: two wedding rings engraved with hearts and the names Ahmed and Doudou.

For rescuers with Open Arms, a nongovernmental organization that picks up migrants making the perilous journey by boat to Europe, the discovery on Nov. 9 was “like a punch,” Riccardo Gatti, the director of Open Arms Italy, said by telephone on Thursday.

Wreckage found later on the day of the discovery only heightened their dread. “We didn’t know if it belonged to someone that died or had a shipwreck — or someone alive,” Mr. Gatti said. “Without knowing anything, you’re holding a piece of a story of someone.”

It might have remained yet another presumed loss in the notoriously perilous Mediterranean crossing that migrants from North Africa have made to reach Europe. “Who are Ahmed and Doudou?” the Italian newspaper La Repubblica asked.

But in an unusual stroke of luck, the rings will be reunited with their owners, an Algerian couple who survived a capsizing in late October in a boat from Libya and were found two weeks ago by Doctors Without Borders representatives who have been providing support to the migrants in a reception center in Sicily.

When they saw pictures of the newly found rings, they “couldn’t believe it,” the couple, who declined to provide their last names for privacy reasons, said in a statement provided by the organization.

The rings were broken, and Ahmed 25, and Doudou, 20, had wanted to repair them after arriving in Europe. “We had lost everything, and now the few things we had set out with have been found,” they said.

The couple are among 15 survivors of a boat that left Zawiya on the coast of Libya in October. After a two-day journey in the Mediterranean without food or water, the boat ran out of fuel about 40 miles from the Italian island of Lampedusa, according to Doctors Without Borders. As the weather worsened, a wave capsized the ship and five people died, including a 2-year-old girl.

It is one of at least nine vessels carrying migrants that have sunk in the central Mediterranean since Oct. 1, according to the International Organization for Migration, a United Nations agency. In one sinking this month, at least 74 migrants in a boat from Libya drowned, and in total at least 900 have died this year while trying to reach Europe.

More than 11,000 others intercepted at sea have been returned to Libya, exposing them to possible human rights abuses, the U.N. agency said.

Passing fishermen rescued Ahmed and Doudou from the ocean, and the pair were put into quarantine as a coronavirus prevention measure before being moved to a reception center in Agrigento, Sicily. The backpack and the clothes inside have been washed and will be returned to the couple as soon as possible, Mr. Gatti said.

While they were happy about the discovery, Ahmed, Doudou and others from their boat were still in shock and processing the trauma, said Ahmad Al Rousan, a mediator with Doctors Without Borders.

They are also haunted by the loss of their five companions’ lives.

“They are still asking themselves if there was any other possibility to help the others,” Mr. Al Rousan said. One of the survivors, a 9-year-old boy, lost his mother and his sister, he said.

“We are very happy,” the couple added in their statement, “but we are still mourning our friends who didn’t make it.”

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Texas mom Jennifer Frenchmeyer ‘abandons boy, 4, to smoke crack’

Dead-beat mom Jennifer Frenchmeyer has been arrested by police in Spring, Texas, for abandoning her four-year-old boy at an ice skating rink for hours while she drifted through a drug-induced haze, KHOU reports.

She had taken the child to Skate Champions in the suburban town on Friday.

And then at some point, Jennifer Frenchmeyer abandons her boy at the rink.

In a tragic scene, the owner of the rink came to lock up at midnight when to his great surprise he found Jennifer Frenchmeyer’s abandoned boy.

When the owner of Skate Champions roller rink got ready to lock up late Friday night, he was surprised to find a young boy sitting outside alone.

Little boy found alone at midnight outside Spring skating rink; mom admitted she was doing crack, Precinct 4 says

Spring is a suburb north of Houston. 

The small community has a population of about 55,000.

According to News Break, the rink’s owner called the cops about Jennifer Frenchmeyer’s abandoned boy just before midnight.

The police quickly arrived to respond to the call about the abandoned boy and soon found Jennfier Frenchmeyer unconscious in a car parked nearby.

The owner called Precinct 4 just before midnight.

Little boy found alone at midnight outside Spring skating rink; mom admitted she was doing crack, Precinct 4 says

Narcotics, as it turned out, played a hand in the mother’s egregious behavior.

Jennifer Frenchmeyer disclosed to the police that after she abandoned her little boy at the skating rink, she smoked crack cocaine.

Then, shortly after Jennifer Frenchmeyer abandons boy, she passed out.

Jennifer Frenchmeyer was arrested and charged with child abandonment with intent to return for leaving the boy all alone in the rink, Crime Online reports.

According to Mark Herman of Harris County Constable Precinct 4, the suspect slurred her words and had “bloodshot eyes.”

Little boy left abandoned past midnight at skating rink: Police

Child Protective Services got involved and passed the poor child over to a more responsible relative.

Police reviewed the surveillance videos from the skating rink to determine the course of events that had transpired when Jennifer Frenchmeyer abandoned her poor little boy.

They concluded that the child had been on his own for at least four hours.

The Twitter account of Mark Herman, the Harris County Constable for Precinct 4, tweeted the tragic image of Frenchmeyer’s mugshot, which features her looking chastened and glum while sporting heavy black eyeliner and eyebrow pencil, blood-red lipstick on a mouth drawn down into a scowl, and a neck tattoo.



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Beijing’s influence in European Parliament draws fresh scrutiny – POLITICO

Just over a year ago, a prominent European lawmaker urged newly elected peers to help him rid the bloc of “acrimonious competition” with China.

On the face of it, the invitation to an EU-China Friendship Group event was business-as-usual in the European Parliament. Many so-called friendship groups seek to promote cultural and economic ties between the EU and countries ranging from the United Arab Emirates to Taiwan.

“Champagne and canapés will be served,” read the lawmaker’s invitation.

But the China group showed greater potential — and ambition — than others of its kind.

Its leader, a high-profile Czech conservative named Jan Zahradil, was vice chair of the Parliament’s powerful International Trade Committee. As such, he was able to weigh in on EU trade decisions and could obtain access to sensitive negotiating documents from the European Commission.

The group’s secretary-general was Gai Lin, a Chinese national who had helped to organize more than a dozen trips to China for EU lawmakers over the past decade and a half, and was plugged into Beijing’s extensive network of soft-power institutions.

In his invitation, Zahradil hinted at the advantage conferred by his position to prospective members. He promised to use his “stronger political profile” to bolster EU-China ties, especially in the areas of “trade and environmental policy” — the latter a highly contentious area at the outset of trade talks.

A year on, Zahradil’s group has come under fierce scrutiny over concerns that it is too close to Beijing, and could be giving China an edge in ongoing trade talks with Brussels. A senior MEP who leads the Parliament’s official delegation for outreach with China, as well as other parliamentary figures and think tanks close to the U.S. foreign policy establishment, say that the group is part of a constellation of organizations, loosely or explicitly tied to China, that seek to advance Beijing’s agenda abroad.

They point out that the group has ramped up its activities at a time when Beijing has grown more assertive on foreign policy, with the EU accusing China of spreading misinformation.

Zahradil rejected claims that his position had granted him privileged access to information on the EU’s China policies. “I do not specifically cover China files,” he told POLITICO in an emailed response to questions. “I do not have access to any classified or confidential informations on the issue, apart [from] open sources or publicly accessible European Parliament materials.”

But as the EU reviews its relationship with China in the midst of a contentious trade negotiation and suspected human rights violations, Beijing’s influence inside the European Parliament has set off alarm bells.

“We all understand that there are people outside who want to subvert our democratic system and processes,” said Raphaël Glucksmann, a French social democrat lawmaker who chairs a new Special Committee on Foreign Interference in all Democratic Processes in the EU. “It’s about threats that are inside the institutions and inside Parliament.”

Parliament officials who asked not to be named out of concern they could suffer political retaliation said the friendship group threatened EU interests because its positions reflected Beijing’s agenda, and because of its leader’s position on the trade committee.

“I quickly realized this group was not something we wanted to be associated with,” said one official who attended the event in October 2019. 

Others said the group fits in with growing efforts by Beijing to strengthen its influence in Brussels — efforts that have run the gamut from financing think tanks to suspected espionage targeting EU institutions.

Last September, Belgian security services opened an investigation into a former U.K. diplomat and ex-European Commission official on suspicion he was passing sensitive information in exchange for remuneration. And earlier this year, German prosecutors launched an investigation into Gerhard Sabathil, a former EU official, accused of passing information to China, though that probe has now been dropped. There is no suggestion that Zahradil has engaged in any such activities.

14 years, 15 China trips

While Zahradil took over in 2019, the EU-China Friendship Group has roots stretching back to 2006, when it was launched by a British Conservative MEP called Nirj Deva.

It soon stood out from other groups thanks to its level of activity. There were multiple trips to China — 15 in total, all at the invitation of Chinese institutions — and the group attended major events like the Beijing 2008 Olympic opening ceremony and the 2019 opening ceremony of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation.

The group also organized “high-level political dialogue with several heads of the state and some leaders of Chinese provinces,” according to internal communication from the group seen by POLITICO.

When its members traveled abroad, hotel and travel expenses were regularly picked up by the Chinese government, according to disclosures from its former chairman and former members to the European Parliament, which were confirmed to Bloomberg. The Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party also sponsored a trip last year for Yana Toom, a liberal Estonian MEP and current member of the Friendship Group, to Beijing and Shanghai for an event on China’s cooperation with Eastern European countries, according to disclosures the MEP made last year.

Last year’s relaunch event, held on the European Parliament premises in Strasbourg on October 23, 2019, was also attended by one Chinese diplomat from China’s Mission to the European Union. The mission offered to pay for drinks and snacks. “I agreed and I still don’t see any problem with it,” said Zahradil.

The Czech MEP had his mind set on another group trip to Beijing this year but had to postpone due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has also halted other group activities in past months.

Such visits, which featured meetings with high-level government and Communist Party officials in China, as well as speaking to Chinese media, have long frustrated EU lawmakers in charge of Parliament’s official China Delegation.

The delegation, formed shortly after the chamber’s first direct election in 1979, is Parliament’s official outreach group for China. But it has seen its agenda being derailed by the friendship group’s parallel contact with China’s leaders and in Chinese media — without the European Parliament’s formal consent.

“The EU-China friendship group has been an embarrassment for as long as I can recall,” said Reinhard Bütikofer, a prominent German EU lawmaker and chairman of the China Delegation.

Friendship groups “are initiated by a foreign government and are supported by that foreign government in one way or another, and gather people that are sympathetic toward that government,” he said.

The German lawmaker added that Chinese media portrayed the unofficial group’s members as the “true representatives” of the European Parliament.

As recently as last month, Zahradil was quoted in Chinese media on sensitive issues such as the ongoing trade negotiations — media appearances which Bütikofer said undermined the power of Parliament’s official China Delegation and its diplomatic work in Beijing.

Zahradil acknowledged the official delegation covered a “more complex agenda,” adding that his group was careful not to contradict the Parliament’s official position on issues relating to China. The group, for example, does not take public positions on sensitive issues like the Hong Kong protests or the detention of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, he said, referring to parliament’s rules of procedure that barred it from causing “confusion with the official activities.”

“This is what we fully respect,” said Zahradil. “Under my Chairmanship, we plan to concentrate on a positive agenda in mutual EU-China relations.”

The other figure who has drawn the attention of EU lawmakers is Gai Lin, the first Chinese national to be employed by European Parliament, according to the friendship group’s website.

Gai started work in Deva’s office, but remained a key player in the friendship group after moving to Zahradil’s services as a part-time accredited assistant following the May 2019 European Parliament election.

As its secretary-general, he helped to form the friendship group — at one point the largest of its kind in the Parliament, according to the group’s website. Zahradil said the group currently counts 15 members from 10 EU countries and represents the whole political spectrum.

But Gai has also drawn scrutiny over his links to groups with ties to Beijing. He was affiliated with a provincial Chinese “people’s association for friendship for foreign countries,” which belongs to a network of soft-power cultural institutions linked to China’s foreign affairs establishment.

China links

According to the Czech Atlanticist think tank Sinopsis, Gai’s membership in the group amounted to “evidence of the direct connection between the [EU-China Friendship] group and the [Chinese Communist Party]’s foreign affairs system.”

In a 42-page paper devoted to the Parliament’s friendship group, Sinopsis — which receives funding from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy — also underscores its ties to a vast network of other organizations including trade groups and chambers of commerce.

Asked about his membership in the provincial group, Gai wrote that his role was an “honorary title” without responsibilities that he held from June 2015 until May 2018.

He said he had not disclosed the position in a mandatory “declaration of absence of conflict of interest” when being hired by Zahradil because he believed the role fell outside of its scope.

Other records showed the European Parliament group has consistently cultivated ties with the Chinese state.

In 2010, it created an association under Belgian law that listed a number of Chinese authorities as “partners” on its website, including the Mission of the People’s Republic of China to EU, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and others.

Gai, who was secretary-general of this association until it ceased functioning in 2016, said the association had hosted meetings with authorities but did not have a “legally defined partnership” with the state. Deva, the former chairman of the friendship group, did not respond to a request for comment.

Analysts argued that the Parliament group is one of many organizations that conduct diplomacy favorable to China outside of official channels.

“They’re all working towards the goals of the [Chinese Communist] Party. And some of this goes through foreign affairs and some goes through these [friendship] groups,” said Mareike Ohlberg, senior fellow at the transatlantic think tank German Marshall Fund in Berlin.

A paper by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington-based think tank close to the U.S. defense industry, alleged that the Chinese Communist Party uses friendship associations to advance its “domestic priorities and foreign policy goals” and that it attempts to co-opt “elites drawn from Europe’s political class and business community” in order to do so. Zahradil denies that is the case with the EU-China Friendship Group.

Belgian intelligence services, which oversee most of the associations, NGOs and groups active in Brussels’ European Quarter, have also been following the activity of such groups.

Its 2017-2018 report notes that many China-friendly groups were focused on “setting up contacts with European institutions and political parties” in order to get access to information.

It found “numerous Chinese activities in Belgium” aimed at “acquiring prior knowledge about decisions, strategic plans and political statements that can have an impact on China,” the report said, without detailing the activities.

Chinese intelligence “tries, through all kinds of ways, to influence European policymakers, hoping they will take a pro-China stance,” the report notes.

A spokesperson for China’s Mission to the European Union said the group had played a “positive role” in strengthening EU-China relations. “It is a common practice for parliaments around the world to develop relations with their foreign counterparts by establishing friendship groups … Since the launch of the EU-China Friendship Group of the European Parliament, the Chinese side has supported in an open and transparent way some activities of the group such as people-to-people exchanges, cultural exhibitions and seminars.”

The spokesperson said the Chinese government “commends the EU-China Friendship Group for its efforts to build friendship and trust,” and said, “China remains committed to working with MEPs, including members of the Friendship Group to increase public support for China-EU relations, promote the growth of the relations and deliver more benefits to our peoples.”

Belgium’s State Security service declined to comment on questions related to the group.

‘Loyal to the EU’

Despite such concerns, the European Parliament never acted decisively to curb the influence of the EU-China Friendship Group — which has gained clout under Zahradil.

As vice chair of the International Trade Committee, Zahradil can request access to sensitive trade documents to fulfil his role of scrutinizing the Commission’s negotiations with trade partners, including China. Vice chairs receive updates from Parliament’s services on texts classified as “EU-RESTRICTED” and are invited to receive copies of these documents on request, which include sensitive working texts of ongoing negotiations like the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment.

Ordinary members of the trade committee can request Commission documents with lower levels of classification. The Commission also briefs MEPs in a “monitoring group” after it concludes negotiation rounds with Chinese counterparts and members of the trade committee are usually able to join such “in-camera” briefings, which are closed for the public.

“Access to information usually is on the basis of asking … The rule is it’s on a need-to-know basis,” said Iuliu Winkler, another vice chair of the committee and Parliament’s rapporteur for the ongoing negotiations over the EU-China investment deal. Winkler declined to comment on questions about Zahradil and the EU-China Friendship Group.

Zahradil said he had not sought access to sensitive information regarding EU-China trade issues. “I do not share with anyone information from ‘in-camera’ hearings and I do not submit any amendments when resolutions on China are voted,” he said.

Gai stressed that his loyalty was to the EU, and that he had never exchanged sensitive information with Chinese officials. “No matter … my Chinese citizenship, I have been loyal to the EU since I became a staff [member] of the EU institutions,” he wrote by email.

Zahradil noted that Gai’s hiring had been approved by the Parliament’s services and that he had signed declarations underscoring he had no conflicts of interest in his role and would respect confidentiality rules “which prevent him from disclosing any information outside,” the Czech lawmaker added.

“Mr Gai Lin has been living and working in Belgium for at least 14 recent years with full awareness and permission of relevant Belgian authorities, including appropriate security checks. Neither European Parliament authorities, nor Belgian authorities have ever — either formally or informally — approached me with any indications that Mr Gai Lin could pose any security risk to EU interests,” Zahradil added.

Parliament’s blind spot

For the European Parliament, friendship groups like the one headed by Zahradil fall into a regulatory blind spot.

In 2018, prominent lawmakers warned Parliament’s leadership about the malign influence of friendship groups, EU Observer wrote. And Parliament reformed its rules in January 2019 to force informal organizations including friendship groups to declare “any support, whether in cash or in kind” and to empower a select circle of MEPs to oversee these declarations and enforce the rules.

But friendship groups do not have have to declare their existence. “Unofficial groupings, including the so-called ‘friendship groups,’ are not bound by any obligation to declare their existence, nor their composition. Therefore, the Parliament does not have a list of these ‘friendship groups,'” a European Parliament spokesperson said.

Whether or not to make disclosures is entirely up to the lawmakers who lead the groups. Individual MEPs have to “make sure that their declaration of financial interests is accurate and updated,” including declaring gifts by foreign officials, the spokesperson said.

In the case of the China friendship group, because it is an “informal gathering of MEPS,” it “doesn’t own any bank account, has no own revenue sources, doesn’t prepare any annual budget,” said Zahradil. He said he had not received “any funding, donations and contributions or any other support” since the launch event in Strasbourg. Zahradil said he was “not aware” of the group’s funding prior to his chairmanship.

MEPs also rarely declare gifts: In the 16 months since 751 newly elected members took office, a total of three gifts were declared, Parliament’s records showed. Asked about the EU-China Friendship Group’s activities specifically, the European Parliament declined to comment.

“It’s difficult to enforce the existing rules,” Bütikofer acknowledged. “But the quaestors [selected members of Parliament who oversee the rules] should still perform their obligation under existing regulation to guarantee that rules are kept.”

The new Special Committee on Foreign Interference in all Democratic Processes in the EU has given itself the task of rooting out foreign influence from EU institutions, including the Parliament.

“Assessing the level of penetration when it comes to individual corruption and individual links will be one of the key things of our committee,” said Glucksmann, its chair, adding that the group would request input from security services.

“One thing that really pisses me off is the capacity of Europeans to be surprised every time,” Glucksmann said about foreign interference in European politics. “I’m fed up with this … Our responsibility, from left to right [in the political spectrum] is to make sure we’re not surprised anymore.”

Jakob Hanke Vela contributed reporting.

This story has been updated from the version that appeared in POLITICO’s print edition to include a response from China’s Mission to the EU.

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‘We should be back to normal’ by summer 2021, says Operation Warp Speed advisor

Operation Warp Speed’s Chief Science Advisor Moncef Slaoui told CNBC that Americans can expect to get back to ‘normal’ by summer 2021, as families across the United States spend Thanksgiving apart this year in order to keep their loved ones safe. 

“We hope that we would have vaccinated 70% to 80% of the U.S. population by May or June of 2021, so I would hope that by summer, we should be substantially back to normal,” Slaoui said in a Wednesday evening interview on “The News with Shepard Smith”. 

The coronavirus pandemic is ripping through cities and towns across the United States and the data shows that it has no signs of slowing down. There were 88,000 people hospitalized with Covid-19 on Tuesday, according to the Covid Tracking Project. Deaths are on the rise as well. The U.S. reported more than 2,100 deaths Tuesday, the most deaths since May, according to a CNBC analysis of Johns Hopkins data.

Doctors and scientists, however, are reassuring Americans that there will be a reprieve. Two weeks after Thanksgiving, the FDA will meet to discuss whether to green-light Pfizer’s vaccine. If it does, the government plans to ship out 6.4 million doses to communities around the country.

Slaoui said that inoculating all Americans will be a “challenge” but he thinks it is achievable. “People need to know that every year between 140 million to 180 million doses of flu vaccine are produced, distributed, and inoculated in the U.S. population in a period that goes between the month of August and the month of, maybe, January,” Slaoui said. “So, we may be doubling that number over the period of time, but it’s not from scratch, which was very different from the testing.”

Host Shepard Smith noted that another challenge will be convincing people that a vaccine is safe to take. A recent Gallup Poll showed that only 58% of Americans said they would take a coronavirus vaccine. 

“It’s a great concern and really it’s very unfortunate that the political context in which the development of this vaccine took place has exacerbated the hesitancy and the lack of trust that comes from the fact that we went very fast,” Slaoui said.

Slaoui explained that scientists did not “start from a blank piece of paper” and were able to jump off of 10 to 15 years of discovery and development work that took place around the platform technologies in which the vaccines are made. He said that although it normally takes 6 to 7 years to discover a vaccine, a lot of the groundwork had already been done because of the past years of research. Another factor that helped speed up the process were the large number of participants in the Covid vaccine clinical trials, Slaoui said.

“We will know more about these vaccines and their efficacy and safety than the ‘average’ vaccines in the shorterm,” Slaoui said. “What we will not know very much about is their safety in the long-term, just because the trials had to be conducted fast, and it is important that we immunize people. We have 2,000 people dying every day.”

Slaoui said there was a thorough system of surveillance in place to keep track of people once the population starts taking the vaccines. Slaoui added that if there was any sign of long-term issues, those issues will be dealt with “immediately.” 

“Please keep your ears open and your mind open, listen, and then judge on the facts and the data,” Slaoui. said. “I feel confident that if we do that, most Americans will agree to be vaccinated. 95% efficacy is insurance against this pandemic.”

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North Korean Gymnast Defects By Jumping Over Militarized Border Fence

A North Korean gymnast defected from the country earlier this month by jumping over a heavily fortified, 10-foot-tall fence that borders the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea, a South Korean official said Monday.

The man, said to be in his late 20s and of small stature, evaded capture for 14 hours after leaping over the barbed-wire-topped fence the evening of Tuesday, Nov. 3, according to Yonhap News Agency. Military cameras spotted him in the area twice on Monday night prior to his leap.

After he surrendered to troops about a mile from the fence, the unarmed civilian requested asylum.

South Korean soldiers patrol a fence in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing the two Koreas in Goseong on June 14, 2019.

Disbelieving South Korean officials reportedly asked the man to jump twice in their presence to prove he was indeed capable of clearing the fence.

To even reach the fence, the man had to first traverse the heavily militarized, 160-mile-long, 2.5-mile-wide DMZ, which is laden with landmines.

The South Korean military said the fences looked as though they may have been pressed down, but hadn’t been obviously cut or altered. Sensors on the structure that are supposed to sound if someone attempts to climb it failed to ring.

“We will look into why the sensors did not ring and make sure they operate properly,” an official for South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff told Yonhap.

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