Xinjiang, 7-Eleven, Hong Kong: Your Tuesday Briefing

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Good morning.

We’re covering China’s campaign to turn Xinjiang’s Muslims into an army of laborers and the arrest of a prominent geneticist who claimed to create the first genetically edited babies. We also share a few ways you can enter the new year with kindness.


Under pressure from the authorities, poor farmers, small traders and idle villagers of working age attend training and indoctrination courses for weeks or months, and are then assigned to stitch clothes, make shoes, sweep streets or fill other jobs.

The efforts parallel the social engineering carried out in Xinjiang’s indoctrination camps, which have held one million or more Uighurs and Kazakhs. Many laborers attend political courses similar to those in the camps, and practice military drills and learn Chinese songs.

Watch: We obtained rare footage looking inside the contentious labor program — where the movements and even meals of workers in uniforms are tightly controlled.

Fact-check: The government says it is helping villagers out of poverty and slowing the spread of religious extremism with steady work. But official documents, interviews and visits by The Times to Xinjiang show that local plans uproot villagers, restrict their movements and pressure them to stay at the jobs.

Big picture: The labor programs, along with the camps, are carrying out plans by China’s leader, Xi Jinping, to entrench control over Xinjiang, where Muslim minorities make up about half the population.

He Jiankui, the researcher who shocked scientists last year when he claimed that he had created the first genetically edited babies, was sentenced on Monday to three years in prison for “illegal medical practices.”

China’s state media said his work had resulted in a third genetically edited baby, who had been previously undisclosed.

Dr. He sent the scientific world into an uproar last year when he announced that he had created the world’s first genetically edited babies — twin girls. Many countries have banned such work, fearing it could be misused to create “designer babies.”

And Wang Yi, one of the country’s best-known Christian voices and founder of one of its largest underground churches, was sentenced to nine years in prison for subversion of state power and illegal business operations.

Mr. Wang’s arrest is part of a broader effort to subdue all social organizations that operate independently of the government.

Mitoshi Matsumoto, the most famous 7-Eleven convenience store owner in Japan, wants to do something unthinkable in his 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week industry: take a day off for New Year’s Day, Japan’s most important holiday.

Now, he says, 7-Eleven is trying to put him out of business.

The standoff has supercharged a national debate over the business practices of the 24-hour convenience store industry — integral to the country’s infrastructure — and over the country’s devotion to working long hours.

Back story: Mr. Matsumoto first drew attention when told 7-Eleven he was going to shorten his shop’s hours, inspiring others to do the same and drawing support from other convenience store owners.

The data: Last year, the labor ministry approved 246 claims related to hospitalization or death from overwork, according to government statistics — with the retail industry among the biggest sources of complaints. And 568 workers suffering job-related exhaustion took their own lives.

This year, Times reporters delivered 125 dispatches, an often colorful series of features meant to offer some offbeat context into a culture, from 44 countries and six continents.

Here are 12 of our favorites, including one about a school in South Korea that opened its doors to grandmothers, above, who had yearned for decades to learn to read and write.

Indonesia: One large mining company is trying to shut down illegal operations, which use mercury, but miners say there’s no other way to earn a living.

U.S. Congress: Representative John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia and a leader of the civil rights movement, announced that he has advanced pancreatic cancer.

Hong Kong: Massive protests are expected on New Year’s Eve and also on New Year’s Day, when a pro-democracy march given police permission will start. The protests today are set for malls, picturesque areas and an area known for parties and celebrations.

Russia: President Vladimir Putin called President Trump of the U.S. to thank him for a tip from intelligence agencies that helped prevent a terrorist attack planned in St. Petersburg on New Year’s Eve, the Kremlin said.

Snapshot: Above, polar bears in Svalbard, the world’s northernmost inhabited place. The Norwegian archipelago is poised to be the next extreme vacation destination for tourists obsessed with climate change, wilderness and chasing the Northern Lights.

A decade debate: For some people, the next decade will begin at midnight tonight. For others, it won’t start until Jan. 1, 2021. We break it down for you.

What we’re reading: This essay by a Navy SEAL via Medium. Steven Erlanger, our chief diplomatic correspondent in Europe, recommends the “slightly abashed testimony from a 52-year-old Purple Heart, now a freshman at Yale, about the respect he discovered for the young college students he might have once dismissed as ‘snowflakes.’”

Cook: It’s New Year’s Eve, but it’s also a weeknight. Salmon roasted in butter with lots of herbs is easy and elegant. (Our Five Weeknight Dishes newsletter has more recommendations.)

Read: An exclusive interview with Rihanna and a deep dive into the enduring popularity of the Japanese cherry blossom are among T magazine’s most gripping long reads of the year.

Listen: The podcast “Armchair Expert” has made its name as a place for candid conversations with celebrities, experts and authors, where many believe “invisible truth serum” seems to pervade each interview.

Smarter Living: As you head into the new year, remember to take more time for yourself — being alone can improve your creativity and your relationships. Here are seven more ways to be kind to yourself in 2020.

The Waterford crystal ball is perched about 500 feet above Times Square, and we all know what for, but, really, why?

The idea for the New Year’s ball drop came from our former publisher Adolph S. Ochs. First, he persuaded the city in 1904 to rename Longacre Square for The New York Times, as the newspaper moved to the area from downtown.

Then, on Dec. 31, 1904, about 200,000 people celebrated New Year’s Eve with a fireworks display at the 24-story Times Tower for the first time.

But Mr. Ochs wanted to top that. So The Times’s chief electrician made a giant ball out of wood and iron and outfitted it with 100 25-watt bulbs. It was lowered from the 70-foot flagpole atop the building at the end of 1907.

The Times has relocated nearby twice, but the holiday tradition has remained.

And it wasn’t the first time a giant ball was raised and dropped. Since the early 19th century, so-called time balls were used in harbors, dropping every day at noon so that sailors could view them through telescopes and set their ships’ clocks.

That’s it for this briefing.

We’re off tomorrow for New Year’s Day, but we’ll be back on Thursday.

See you in 2020!

— Melina

Thank you
To Mark Josephson and Raillan Brooks for the break from the news. Today’s Back Story is drawn from reporting by Adeel Hassan. You can reach the team at

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