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By Michael Martina

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bipartisan group of U.S. senators will revive legislation as soon as Wednesday to counter Chinese censorship in the United States, a new effort by Congress to hold Beijing accountable for its growing efforts to stifle criticism beyond its borders, Senator Jeff Merkley told Reuters.

U.S. officials have complained that the Chinese government has increasingly sought to suppress opposition to its ruling Communist Party by coercing U.S. companies – from hotel chains and airlines to Hollywood film producers – to take pro-Beijing stances.

"We must monitor and address the impacts of China's censorship and intimidation of Americans and our companies, so we can create a strategy to safeguard this bedrock freedom and hold those accountable who suppress and destroy it," Merkley, a Democrat leading the effort who will soon be chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, said in emailed comments.

The bill is co-sponsored by Republicans Marco Rubio and John Cornyn, as well as Democrat Elizabeth Warren. A similar bill was introduced in 2019, but stalled.

The new censorship bill would direct the president to set up an interagency task force under the National Security Council to monitor and address China's censorship or intimidation of Americans and U.S. companies.

It would mandate a report with recommendations for "industries in which freedom of expression issues are particularly acute, including the media and film industries," according to a copy of the proposed legislation seen by Reuters.

The censorship bill is among a barrage of legislation to confront China, as deeply divided Democrats and Republicans in Congress find common ground opposing Beijing. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on Tuesday he had directed lawmakers to craft a package of measures to counter China's rise.

Former U.S. Attorney General William Barr said last year that Hollywood companies routinely caved to pressure and censored their films to "appease" China, which last year overtook the United States as the world's largest film market. Entertainment companies did not respond to Barr's allegations at the time.

National Basketball Association games were taken off the air in China for a year in 2019 following a tweet from a Houston Rockets manager backing Hong Kong democracy protests.

In 2018, the Chinese government compelled global airlines and hotel chains to change their online references to Taiwan to imply the self-ruled democratic island is part of China.

SOME SEEK STRONGER RESPONSE

A Democratic Senate aide involved with the bill said drafters recognized it was a sensitive issue for companies, and did not want to make bad guys out of "victims of economic coercion."

"We want to help provide focus in the U.S. government to address this problem," the aide said. "In a certain sense, we are trying to help insulate companies from pressure rather than raise the temperature further."

Some in Congress argue that a task-force approach is not sufficient and call for a stronger response, such as making it easier for U.S. employees to sue if fired based on pressure from China, or requiring U.S. universities to disclose financial ties to Confucius Institutes, which are Chinese government-backed cultural centers.

American allies have also warned of Chinese censorship playing out at home. Germany said on Tuesday that China had tried to intimidate Hong Kong residents living in the country since pro-democracy protests broke out in the city two years ago.

President Joe Biden, who has voiced concern about China's "coercive and unfair" trade practices, and endorsed a Trump administration determination that China has committed genocide in its Xinjiang region, has signaled his administration will maintain pressure on Beijing.

(Reporting by Michael Martina; Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Jonathan Landay; Editing by Mary Milliken and Peter Cooney)

Copyright 2021 Thomson Reuters.

Tags: United States

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Exclusive: Bangladesh Under 'No Obligation' to Accept Stranded Rohingya Refugees -Minister

By Ruma Paul

DHAKA (Reuters) - Bangladesh is under "no obligation" to shelter 81 Rohingya Muslim refugees adrift for almost two weeks on the Andaman Sea and being assisted by neighbouring India, said Bangladesh foreign minister A.K. Abdul Momen.

India's coast guard found the survivors and eight dead crammed on a fishing boat and were trying to arrange for Bangladesh to take them, Indian officials said on Friday. While feeding the refugees and giving them water, India was not planning to take them ashore.

But Momen told Reuters late on Friday that Bangladesh expects India, the closest country, or Myanmar, the Rohingyas' country or origin, to accept them.

"They are not Bangladesh nationals and in fact, they are Myanmar nationals. They were found 1,700 km (1,100 miles) away from the Bangladesh maritime territory and therefore, we have no obligation to take them," said Momen, who is in the United States.

"They were located 147 km (91 miles) away from Indian territory, 324 km (201 miles) away from Myanmar," he said by phone, adding that other countries and organisations should take care of the refugees.

Indian foreign ministry officials were not immediately available for comment.

New Delhi did not sign the 1951 Refugee Convention, which spells out refugee rights and state responsibilities to protect them. Nor does it have a law protecting refugees, though it currently hosts more than 200,000, including some Rohingya.

More than 1 million Rohingya refugees from predominantly Buddhist Myanmar are living in teeming camps in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, including tens of thousands who fled after Myanmar's military conducted a deadly crackdown in 2017.

Traffickers often lure Rohingya refugees with promises of work in Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia.

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, expressed alarm this week over the missing boat.

NO 'GLOBAL CONTRACT' TO AID REFUGEES

The refugees have been drifting in international waters after leaving southern Bangladesh on Feb. 11 in the hope of reaching Malaysia.

On Saturday, they were under the aid and surveillance of India as officials were holding talks to return them to Bangladesh.

The boat, which sailed from the massive Cox's Bazar refugee camp, was carrying 56 women, eight girls, 21 men and five boys.

Many of the survivors, according to Indian officials, were sick and suffering from extreme dehydration, having run out of food and water after the boat's engine failed four days into their journey.

"Has Bangladesh been given the global contract and responsibility to take and rehabilitate all the Rohingya or boat people of the world?" Momen said. "No, not at all."

Momen said the UNHCR should also take responsibility as around 47 people on the boat hold ID cards from the UNHCR office in Bangladesh stating that they are displaced Myanmar nationals.

"If (the refugees) are UNHCR card holders, why did they allow traffickers to take their card holders to adrift on the high sea leading to death?"

UNHCR officials were not immediately reachable for comment.

(Reporting by Ruma Paul; Additional reporting and writing by Rupam Jain; Editing by William Mallard)

Copyright 2021 Thomson Reuters.

Tags: Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, Malaysia

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