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China's Missing Tennis Champion; Europe's COVID Surge; Migrants Losing Hope. Aired 1-2a ET

Aired November 18, 2021 - 01:00   ET




JOHN VAUSE, CNN ANCHOR: Coming up here on CNN Newsroom, more questions than answers an apparent e-mail from a missing Chinese tennis star style raising concerns for safety. Europe goes into pandemic offence wrapping up restrictions as infection surged even in places with high vaccination rates. And caught in the middle of a geopolitical dispute, the migrants whose desperate desire for a better life was cynically exploited and could soon now be forced to return home.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Live from CNN Center, This is CNN Newsroom with John Vause.

VAUSE: For two weeks now, Chinese tennis Peng Shuai, has been not seen in public. There's been no proof of life ever since she disappeared shortly after accusing a former Vice Premier a top official within the Communist Party of sexual assault.

But now the government control China global television network has released what it claims is an e-mail from Peng in which she says she's fine and never made any allegations about sexual assault.

The e-mail was an attempt to make this story go away it has been a resounding failure. Officials with professional tennis quickly call it out for what it was highly unbelievable and said it only raises concerns for Peng safety. Details now from CNN's Ivan Watson.


IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The royalty of professional tennis expressing concern about the welfare of one of their own.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Honestly it's shocking you know that she's missing.

WATSON: Warnings echoed by other champions past and present. I hope Peng Shuai and her family are safe into okay writes Naomi Osaka, adding hashtag where is Peng Shuai. I've known Peng since she was 14, writes Chris Evert. Where is she? Peng Shuai a Chinese tennis champion.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Peng Shuai moves into the quarterfinals.

WATSON: Hasn't been seen or heard from in weeks.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN, CNN SPORTS ANALYST: This is really extraordinary. A top athlete, 35 years old a name that a lot of people know, formerly number one ranked doubles player in the world just goes missing. Gone.

WATSON: In early November, Peng published this bombshell post on her Chinese social media account and open letter to a former top communist leader named Zhang Gaoli now aged 75, who Peng accuses of sexually assaulting her after the two had an affair. Why did you have to come back to me, take me to your home to force me to have sex with you, the Post reads? Yes, I did not have any evidence and it was simply impossible to have evidence.

CNN cannot independently confirm these allegations. And we reached out to Peng as well as Zhang and his wife through the Chinese government for further comment with no results.

Shortly after the controversial post, Peng's online profile more or less disappeared.

(on camera): Until recently, Peng Shuai was one of the biggest tennis stars in China. But look what happens when you try to search for people with her name in the Chinese internet. You get the message. No results found. Censors have all but scrubbed this woman from the Chinese internet.

(voice-over): On Thursday, Chinese state media released this e-mail purportedly written by Peng to the head of the Women's Tennis Association. It completely disavows the previous allegations of sexual assault, adding I'm not missing nor am I unsafe, and I hope Chinese tennis will become better and better.

WTA Chairman Steve Simon responded in writing saying the statement released today by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts. I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the e-mail we received. Unable to communicate directly with Peng despite multiple attempts, he's calling for independent and verifiable proof that this Chinese tennis star is safe. Ivan Watson, CNN, Hong Kong.


VAUSE: Christine Brennan is a CNN sports analyst and sports columnist for USA Today. And it's been a while it's good to see you.

BRENNAN: Great to see you, John. Thanks.

VAUSE: You're welcome. Now, just as this story was gaining a lot of global attention suddenly, unexpectedly, what do you know? Now so this one coming an e-mail from Peng herself to the boss of the Women's Tennis Association, creating an earlier statement from the WTO.

Now this e-mail reads in part, the news in that release, including the allegation of sexual assault is not true. I'm not missing nor am I unsafe. I've just been resting at home and everything is fine.


So the man who received that e-mail, Steve Simon, was not convinced and said in a release a press release only -- it only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts. I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the e-mail we received or believes what is being attributed to her.

Clearly what was an attempt to make the scandal go away? His only brought more attention and made matters worse for officials in China.

BRENNAN: Oh, absolutely. And the WTA his response was terrific. Calling them on it right away that that was the e-mail so to speak, that we're being told, was sent by Peng Shuai is coming through China's state run media. And you read it once and you just shake your head. It's ridiculous. It's preposterous. I mean, it just reads like something that some PR person wrote. And we have no idea. There's no video, John. There's no pictures. There's no timestamp. There's no assurance at all that Peng Shuai had anything to do with that.

And of course, every syllable of it screams out she did not have anything to do with it. It is just so transparently a PR move by the Chinese government. That's my read. And that's the read, obviously, of a Steve Simon, the CEO of the WTA, who has been a leader, really setting the tone throughout this whole thing demanding transparency, demanding that they hear from Peng Shuai herself, wanting independent analysis of sexual assault allegations against a former top Chinese leader, and the WTA standing very tall tonight in terms of asking for accountability, and for speaking out for women, and those who are alleged victims of alleged sexual assault.

VAUSE: And actually, from the get go, you made this point here, this response from the WTO -- WTA has been notable for that just calling for that investigation. But Steve Simon told the New York Times, if at the end of the day, we don't see the appropriate results from this, we would be prepared to take that step and not operate our business in China if that is what came to. That it's no small threat, given your reports that the WTA earns about a third of its total revenue from China.

You know, in the past, other professional sporting leagues have buckled under pressure from Beijing, I guess. You know, in the past, there hasn't been a case of like this, where they're growing fears about the safety of a high profile athlete.

BRENNAN: That's why what the WTA is doing is so remarkable. And really such a watershed moment in sports, to be doing the right thing to be speaking out, to be saying enough is enough that we're actually not worried about our business. We're worried about this one human being. And we want answers.

You're right, the NBA buckled the International Olympic Committee could have done so much before the 2008 Beijing Summer Games to push for human rights and changes and the human rights abuses in China to have them stop the international because they did nothing going into 2008. And it's done nothing going into the Winter Games, which are coming up in less than two and a half months and again in Beijing, the 2022 Winter Olympics.

And IOC buckles under the thought of losing business in China, the NBA buckles under the pressure. And here's the WTA saying enough is enough standing up doing what's right. When in the world do we see that anymore in sports a major pro sports league and or entity doing the right thing, and doing it in such a wonderful way.

There are 11 tournaments, WTA tournaments in China, it would be a big loss. But I think what the WTA is doing is trying to get China to blink first, because China cares very much about hosting those tournaments, and having a foothold throughout sports in all sports. And I think that's the genius of what the WTA is doing.

VAUSE: How much is all is likely to factor into a decision from the U.S. president on whether or not there'll be some kind of different like boycott of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, because that's on the table right now.

BRENNAN: It certainly is. And it's certainly going to make it very easy for President Biden, if he were to choose to do this John, to boycott or to have a diplomatic boycott, not an athlete boycott by any means. But it would be easy to do it because you look at this, we are -- as I said, we're two and a half months away from the next Olympics.

This story is a devastating PR nightmare right now for China. They need to rectify this immediately and let Peng Shuai speak. Let her be seen and investigate the allegations that she's making. And as long as China prolonged this, it's November 2 that she went missing. So it's been more than two weeks.

I think it heightens the chances that there will be diplomatic pressure put on not maybe just by the U.S. but other countries. The athletes will compete by very smart move would be to take your some kind of a nominal delegation and not have them show up. That would make a strong statement while letting the athletes still do what they do best which is compete at the Olympic Games.

VAUSE: Yes, leave the athletes to compete, let the politicians do the diplomacy and take it from there. Christine, thanks for being with us.

BRENNAN: John, thank you very much.


VAUSE: The warning lights if it read once again across Europe as COVID infections continue to rise. According to the World Health Organization, new cases increased by 8 percent from a week ago COVID record deaths rose 5 percent. CNN's Melissa Bell reports Europe is once again in the grips of a surging pandemic.


MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Dublin, November 2020, empty streets businesses shuttered. Now a year later Ireland braces for similar scenes as a pandemic endures.

LEO VARADKAR, IRISH DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Things were going so well. I think as a nation where we're a little bit crestfallen, a bit heartbroken that we're back into a difficult space when it comes to COVID.

BELL: Despite one of the highest vaccination rates in Europe, Ireland is battling a surge in new infections. More than 4,000 people on average are contracting the virus each day, even though about nine and 10 adults is fully vaccinated against COVID. Now the government's imposing a curfew on pubs and clubs from Thursday, as it battles a new wave of the pandemic.

VARADKAR: The idea of that is to reduce the amount of people who are mixing, reduced socialization, reduce the number of different groups who meet each other. It's not the only restriction we have, of course, there's capacity limits and hospitality. We're extending the vaccine past to more settings and asking household close contacts to stay at home.

BELL: Ireland's one of a growing number of European countries that's reintroducing restrictions, as the region heads into winter. Leaders here tightening screws on the unvaccinated battling a COVID surge that's sweeping the continent.

Police in the Austrian capital checking vaccination proof of people on Vienna's busy streets. They're enforcing what some are calling national lockdown on the unvaccinated introduced Monday as cases they're sore.

Similar restrictions in the neighboring German capital where vaccination proof or a negative test is required to enter most social venues. As Germany's new infections reach record levels, leaders there consider imposing even stricter rules on the unvaccinated.

ANGELA MERKEL, GERMAN CHANCELLOR (through translator): The present pandemic situation is dramatic. I can't put it any other way. The fourth wave has hit our country with full force.

BELL: Also Wednesday, the Belgian Prime Minister mandating wider use of masks and enforcing work from home as there too COVID cases spike. Germany, Austria, France, Slovakia and the Czech Republic just some of the country's seeing infections rapidly rising, many with the majority of citizens fully vaccinated against the virus.

As Europe becomes the global epicenter of Coronavirus, outbreaks a wary public resumed its fight against a lasting pandemic. Melissa Bell, CNN.


VAUSE: Dr. Anne Rimoin is a professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. She's with us this hour from Los Angeles. Welcome back.


VAUSE: Good to have you. Now, Ireland's deputy prime minister, he puts the number of fully vaccinated adults in the country around 94 percent. That high rate, he says is one reason why the entire country is not heading into another total lockdown. But there are questions of just how effective the vaccines are. And for more on that, again, he's the Deputy Prime Minister, listen to this.


VARADKAR: It's very evident now that immunity from the vaccines is waning. And we can see that happening across Europe. And that's why we're going to need to give people a third dose.


VAUSE: So the trials have shown that a booster dose dramatically increases immunity. But do you know at this point, for how long? How long before the immunity from a third shot or a booster shot begins to wane?

RIMOIN: Well, John, that's a really good question. And a question that we're all going to be asking as time goes on. What we do know is that from the data that we've seen so far, that this third dose for the mRNA vaccines, in particular is going to extend immunity for several months. I believe that there have been some indications of up to eight, nine months at a minimum.

But the thing is, is that we really don't know how long it's going to last. Well, we did at the very beginning of this pandemic because we wanted to make sure that people had maximum immunity. So we really wanted to get as many vaccines into arms. And then with the mRNA vaccines, we, you know, we got people boosted three and four weeks out.

You know, the thing is, is that really got a lot of immunity out there. We really had a good kind of ring around cases. But then what we didn't have is long term immunity. What we're looking for is longer term immunity. We don't know how long it's going to last. It's certainly going to do a good job for a period of time. We're going to have to be monitoring it and monitoring it carefully. Do really good job at looking at breakthrough cases.


I think that what we've really done here in the United States, we've really missed this opportunity to understand breakthrough cases. There have been places in Europe like the UK, Israel that did a really good job at looking at this. And so I think that that's the thing that we're going to be looking for going forward. What did these breakthrough cases look like really monitoring it, and also looking at hospitalizations, severe disease and death.

VAUSE: Question, we're seeing this push for booster shots out, especially in Germany, where the shots are available, but new infections have doubled over the past two weeks. Here's the German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking before Parliament.


MERKEL (through translator): Israel set an example on how to break the fourth wave with booster shots. I therefore ask for your support with booster shots, and bureaucratically, and with everything we can manage logistically so that we can weather the very difficult coming weeks.


VAUSE: She was addressing the state officials there, but it seems the booster shots and vaccines only make a difference when people actually go out and get them. And in Europe, at least that the plan here is not just to rely on booster shots alone, because they're putting back mass mandate, social distancing, some places are going into lockdown. So, you know, the booster shots are not being relied on by themselves to control this surge, right?

RIMOIN: There's no silver bullet here. The vaccines are our number one defense because they're not only going to provide protection against severe disease, hospitalization and death, but they really do reduce the risk of infection in general, limit the amount of time that people who do get these breakthrough in cases are infectious.

So on a number of levels, this is really, really important. But they're not a single answer. When we have no single answer here, we have to have a layered approach. And that's why masks, social distancing, really paying attention to all of the risk factors around us are going to be important.

You know, I think that the one thing that we have to remember from this pandemic, we're always looking for some cure, some just way out the door here so that we can get to the other side, but is going only going to happen through a multi layered approach. No single solution here.

VAUSE: Yes, we hear from the Biden administration, though, that it's looking to boost the global supply of vaccine by about a billion doses a year. And they'll do that by providing government assistance to domestic production. CNN is reporting in the short term, this would make a significant amount of COVID-19 vaccine doses available at cost for global use. And in the long term, it would help establish sustained domestic manufacturing capacity to rapidly produce vaccines for future threats. That's according to a Biden administration official.

At the risk of making the good the enemy of the great, when this be a better plan if manufacturing was shifted to those countries where there is already the greatest need?

RIMOIN: John, you're absolutely right. And as you know, I spent my entire career working in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where we really have very few vaccines available. And, you know, what I can tell you having just returned from DRC, just a week and a half ago, that we really need to get vaccines on the ground. And we really need to have long term vision about how we're going to be able to maintain vaccine presence on the ground have enough supply.

And it's not just going to be about supply, we have to remember that. We need to be able to not only have the supply there, but we have to have the kind of logistical chain to be able to get those vaccines into arms. We experienced that here, right in the United States that we had lots of vaccine, and we took a while to be able to work out the kinks to get those vaccines into arms. You can imagine in low resource settings, that's going to be a very, very complicated scenario, particularly with vaccines that require cold chain.

So, you know, it's going to be important, what the U.S. is doing is important. But again, it's going to be multi layered that there's not one solution here. So yes, we need to be producing vaccines here. But we also need to be laying the groundwork to be able to get vaccines produced on the ground, make them available to people locally, and then be able to work out how do we get them into arms? Not just once but in perpetuity.

VAUSE: Yes, no one is safe until everyone is safe. And thank you, Professor Anne Rimoin. I appreciate you being with us.

RIMOIN: My pleasure.

VAUSE: Well, they now have shelter away from the cold. But what's next, the migrants on the border between Belarus and Poland facing a false return to where they came from, an update in a moment.

Also widespread protests against the military coup in Sudan had turned deadly. We'll tell you about the international community's response to one of the darkest days so far in Sudan.



VAUSE: Tensions at the Belarusian Polish border are beginning to ease and at the same time, hopes for a better life are fading among the thousands of migrants who've been caught up in this hybrid war.

Germany's Chancellor urged Belarusian president to allow the UN and the EU to provide aid to the migrants as well as help with repatriation. Many migrants have now been placed in temporary shelter. And with that comes fear, deportation will be next. CNN's Matthew Chance has our report.


MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR ITNERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): These are the few 100 migrants refusing to give up, still at Europe's border now begging to be allowed through.

Behind the razor wire, Polish border guards showing little sign of backing down.


CHANCE (on camera): Help.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Help. Yes. Help Poland.

CHANCE: That's what they're shouting.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. This is what they're shouting.

CHANCE: And the Polish they're not helping?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, not helping.

CHANCE: Not helping?


CHANCE (voice-over): Before the please, there was anger. This was the violence that engulf the border between Belarus and Poland just a day before, at times surging out of control as young migrants desperate to enter Europe toward that the barricades in fume.

(on camera): They are throwing stones and see the Poles are responding with water out, with water cannon covering us in water. Sometimes that water is quite accurate. It has some sort of pepper components in it and so it's sort of stinging your eyes a little bit.

(voice-over): But now Belarus accused of orchestrating the crisis appears to be ratcheting the pressure down filling this makeshift migrants processing center away from the volatile border. Families who've given food and blankets here and warm clothes to stave off the cold. It's still basic, but lives are less at risk.


CHANCE: Lives of migrants like Shohan (ph) from Iraqi-Kurdistan and her son, Ashi (ph).

(on camera): Hello Ashi (ph). How are you?

(voice-over): We first met them a few days before in the freezing camp at the border desperate to leave for Germany.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We came here because of my son, because he needs an operation.

CHANCE (on camera): He needs an operation?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, big operation in the back.

CHANCE: Oh, see, he's got this splint on his leg.


CHANCE: I see.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He can't walk away. Here's this because it's too much warm. CHANCE: Much warmer.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. Warmer than the forest and we have food, we have this for sleeping. Yes.

CHANCE: Yes. They're given you these blankets.


CHANCE: Are you still hopeful that you will get, you and Ashi (ph) will get to Germany? Do you think it will still happen? Or will they send you back to Iraq?

UNIDENTIFED FEMALE: I have big hope to go to Germany because I think Germany have humanity.

CHANCE (voice-over): But back at the border camp, there are growing doubts, a passage to Europe is really installed. After having their hopes built up in Belarus, these desperate migrants may now see them dashed. Matthew Chance, CNN on the Belarus-Poland border.


VAUSE: Sinan Antoon is a renowned Iraqi poet, writer and commentator. He's an associate professor at New York University and his most recent novel, The Book of Collateral Damage is set in Iraq post-U.S. invasion where destruction has touched every aspect of daily life.


Sinan, thank you for being with us.


VAUSE: So Iran's foreign minister told CNN that Belarus was exploiting Iraqis who are looking for a better life. And he says, the Iraqi government doesn't have a lot of options here to try and fix this problem. Here he is.


FAUD HUSSEIN, IRAQI FOREIGN MINISTER: We are communicating with the refugees themselves for those immigrants, to bring them back to Iraq. That's our policy, talking to European Union, trying to convince those people to come back to their country, and at the same time, giving signals to the government in Minsk that this is not the right approach.


VAUSE: Tell us more about the people being used as weapons in this hybrid war, will a friendly chat from an Iraqi official be enough to convince them to return to their old lives in Iraq?

ANTOON: No, I don't think so. I mean, one has to think about the despair that drives someone to leave their country and go and risk their life to be somewhere else. So the statement of the minister, it's true that Belarus is exploiting this, but the -- this is deflecting away from the real problem, which is the massive poverty in Iran.

The minister is part of a government that has wasted $600 billion since 2003. So this is just to distract from the real problem, which is the huge inequality, the corruption, and the lack of any hope for Iraqis in Iraq or in the Kurdish region.

VAUSE: CNN's Matthew Chance has been covering the story on the border between Poland and Belarus. He's a little more of his reporting about possibly the fate of many of these migrant. Here he is.


CHANCE: They're still being told there's a possibility that they could go to Germany that they could enter the European Union, but there's been no indication from the Poles that they're going to open those barricades is in the Germans that are prepared to open some kind of humanitarian corridor that the Russian officials are saying that decision in Germany has not yet been taken.

But the fact is, if these people are not given some kind of rite of passage into the European Union, they will most likely be deported back to their country of origin, which in the case of the vast majority here is Iraq. The majority of people say that from Iraqi- Kurdistan.


VAUSE: And a lot of these people from Iraqi-Kurdistan -- the region Iraqi-Kurdistan, they go back having spent their life savings to make this journey. What would life be like for them if they are forced to return?

ANTOON: I mean, they will return to the very conditions that they were running away from. In the Kurdish region, which I must say, for all these years, mainstream Western media was always touting and celebrating the Kurdish region, as the region where there is stability and success. But there are too we have oligarchs, we have a political elite that is completely blind to the suffering of its people. So they will go back to the same problems that we have across Iraq, which are high unemployment, poverty, a huge gap between the haves and the have nots. And the degradation of the environment.

VAUSE: In your level, The Book of Collateral Damage, the main character you write is leaving Baghdad. It's been there for a visit. He's about to drive to Amman, in Jordan, it's a long drive back in the day was pretty dangerous as well. Before leaving though, he becomes nostalgic. And you're right, he -- this is his thinking. I wanted to see the Tigris and say goodbye to it. I don't know when I would come back or whether I ever would. The Tigris look so pale on this visit. It no longer look the way I remembered it. But did anything still look the way I remembered? Nothing had managed to escape turning pale. You know, I was in Iraq for six months during the war. I went there back a couple of times after that. I've never thought about using the word pale to describe what I saw. But in hindsight, it seems a very accurate description. And is Iraq, in your opinion, still pale today? And what did you mean when you use that word pale?

ANTOON: Well, I'm -- I was comparing the images that I had in my mind from 20 or 30 years before. And despite the dictatorship, and I was against the dictatorship, but it was just looking at what three decades of war from 1991. And then the most severe sanctions in modern history from 1990 until 2003. And then the U,S, invasion, and all of the bombing and how that had affected not only humans, but the environment and nature. And it had to do with everything in Iraq.

So the river was very pale compared to the old times. Any Iraqi who goes after 10 or 15 years is completely shocked because of the huge gap between what used to exist and what exists right now. And that's so is really dysfunctional in the country, almost everything is dysfunctional. It's barely functioning and that's what the Iraqis living there will tell you.


VAUSE: It's a very hard place to live especially -- you know, it was hard under Saddam, it is hard now. The hard just never seems to end.

Sinan, thanks so much for being with us.

ANTOON: Thank you.

VAUSE: Still to come, more on the missing Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai and why a purported email from her is only raising more questions than answers.

Also ahead, the curse of black gold pollution from oil production in southern Iraq, deadly and toxic and in the air, the land and water supply.


VAUSE: Welcome back, everyone.

I'm John Vause. You're watching CNN NEWSROOM.

If a purported email from Peng Shuai was meant to be some kind of proof of life then it's backfired in a big way. China's state- controlled media released an email allegedly from Peng in which she claims to be safe, at home resting. She also walked back allegations she was sexually assaulted by a senior Communist Party official.

Peng has not been seen since she accused that official of pressuring her to have sex. The head of the Women's Tennis Association is among many who are just not convinced the mail is legit.

CNN'S Kristie Lu Stout live this hour from Hong Kong. Does anyone believe this email is actually for real? KRISTIE LU STOUT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Not many people, and little

wonder, calls are growing all over the world for something, for verifiable evidence that this Chinese tennis star, Peng Shuai is safe, especially after what happened on Wednesday, with this bizarre tweet that was sent by CGTN, this is an English language Chinese state-run media outlet of a screen cap of an email allegedly sent by Peng. It runs 10 sentences long in the middle of the screen cap, bizarrely you see a cursor picture in the middle. And in it she says quote, "everything is fine". And then goes on to backtrack and recant her earlier sexual assault allegation against a very powerful man, the former vice premier of China Zhang Gaoli.

It also goes to say this, let's bring it up for you quote, "If the WTA, the Women's Tennis Association publishes any more news about me, please verify with me, release it with my consent. As a professional tennis player, I thank you all for your companionship and consideration. I have to promote Chinese tennis with you all if I have the chance in the future. I hope Chinese tennis will become better and better," unquote.

I should add that that alleged email has not been verified by CNN, and interestingly it has not been shared on domestic social media, or media in China.


STOUT: The head of the Women's Tennis Association also issued a statement casting serious doubt on the veracity of that allege screen cap of the email by Peng Shuai.

We've also been hearing similar pushbacks from human rights organizations. Including this -- we'll bring up the statement -- this one is from Chinese human rights defenders and they say this, quote, "Peng Shuai latest statement released to state media should not be taken at face value. The Chinese government has a long history of arbitrarily detaining people involved in controversial cases, controlling their ability to speak freely, and making them give forced statements.

Until Peng Shuai is free, the burden of proof should be on the Chinese government to prove that she's not detained." Unquote.

I should add that CNN has put in a request for comment to the State Council Information Office, and we do plan to be monitoring the ministry of foreign affairs, a briefing that will take place later today.

But Peng Shuai is a national hero in China. She is a sporting legend, a two-time grand slam champion in doubles tennis for Wimbledon and the French Open. It was just two weeks ago, on November the 2nd, when she made that accusation against Zhang Gaoli, saying that he had forced her to have sex with him.

She made that accusation on her verified Sino-Weibo post on her account. It was quickly taken down. She has been literally scrubbed off the Internet and social media in China under a blanket censorship. And concern is rising about her fate. And also general concern about athletes in general. Especially now with the Beijing Winter Olympics Games just months away. Listen to this.


CHRISTINE BRENNAN, CNN SPORTS ANALYST: It takes it right to the front burner of speaking out, athletes rights, how you are treating women, how you're treating athletes in general and human beings in general. And so two and a half months before the Beijing Olympics, this is a nightmare for China.


STOUT: A lot at stake for the Olympic host, China, and the eyes of the world right now locked on the future and the fate of Peng Shuai, John.

VAUSE: Kristie, thank you. Kristie Lu Stout live for us there in Hong Kong.

U.S. military officials say a recent test of a hypersonic missile by China has the hallmarks of a first-use offensive weapon. It could be proof that China's technical capabilities are advancing faster than anyone realized.

CNN's Alex Marquardt has details.

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR U.S. SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: It was a stark warning from one of the highest ranking U.S. military generals about China's growing military capabilities. General John Hyten, the vice chairman of the joint chief of staff says that "In a Chinese hypersonic missile test last summer, the missile went around the world five times at the speed of sound.

He told CBS News that the test, quote, "has the potential to change a lot of things, and that the U.S. has to be concerned". Take a listen.


GEN. JOHN HYTEN, VICE CHAIRMAN OF U.S. JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: They launched a long-range missile. It went around the world, dropped off a hypersonic glide vehicle that glided all the way back to China. That impacted a target in China, hit the target close enough.

Why are they building all of this capability? It looked like a first use weapon. That's what those weapons look like to me.


MARQUARDT: A first use weapon means it could be used as a first strike in warfare, as opposed to a deterrent or a response to another attack. The reason that China as well as the U.S. and Russia are developing hypersonic missiles is they are less predictable, and detectable than intercontinental ballistic missiles that fly in an arc.

These fly closer to the earth, that could mean General Hyten said, that China could one day launch a surprise nuclear attack against the United States.

Now General Hyten has been sounding the alarm about the pace of China's progress in developing advanced weapons. Last month, he called it stunning while saying at the same that the Pentagon is unbelievably bureaucratic and slow.

He called the Pentagon bureaucracy brutal. And he also said that China will surpass the U.S. if something isn't done.

In terms of numbers, the Pentagon believes that by the end of the decade, China will have around 1,000 nuclear warheads. For comparison, the U.S. right now has almost four times that.

But in terms of the testing that they're doing on hypersonics, China has done hundreds of tests in the last five years, General Hyten says. While the U.S. has done just 9.

Alex Marquardt, CNN, Washington.


VAUSE: The southern Iraqi province of Basra sits on some of the biggest preserves of oil in the world. And what was once a blessing now appears to be a curse with oil pollution bringing cancer and other deadly diseases, as well as incredible damage to the environment.

CNN's Jomana Karadsheh reports officials there seem to be in no hurry to fix the problem.


JOMANA KARADSHEH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): For decades, (INAUDIBLE) had lived in the shadows of this thick black toxic cloud that he says suffocating his southern Iraqi town.

"When the wind comes that way the whole river dies," he says. "In my house, my trees, and my garden are dead."


KARADSHEH: The flames burning in this oil field and many others in Iraq, are known as gas flaring -- burning off the natural gas produced doing oil extraction. It's a common practice as old as the oil industry, but it's one of the biggest polluters of the planet.

And Iraq is the world's second worst offender, according to the World Bank. It contributes to around 10 percent of the global flaring greenhouse emissions.

Oil's a media driver for the climate crisis, but residents here say it is also the cause of a local environmental disaster. It is killing the village of Nahran Omar, its mayor says. Mayor Basheer al-Jabari says there's been a rise in cancer cases and respiratory illnesses in his village over the past decade. In one neighborhood alone, he says there're about 40 cancer cases in 130 households. Many of them, children. While experts say there is no evidence of a direct link, and it still needs more research, everyone here blames it on the poisonous air they have been breathing their entire lives.

And it's not just this village that is suffering, it is at the entire province. Basra sits on some of the world's largest oil reserves, but its black gold may also be its curse.

Officials, with the ministry of environment say everything from the remnants of war to industrial waste contribute to Basra's pollution, but the top polluter, they say is the oil industry.

FAIZA AL-RUBAIAE, IRAQI ENVIRONMENT MINISTERY (through translator): Health facilities, landfill sites, sewage filtering stations, leather factories, power stations. But it is the oil industry activities that are the mother of all pollution in Basra and other provinces.

Imagine you keep breathing this, every minute, every day, every month and every year. That is why we have seen the rates of cancer, especially those related to air pollution, increase on an annual basis.

KARADSHEH: The Iraqi oil ministry says it is shifting towards clean and green energy. Iraq is also committed to eliminating all routine gas flaring by 2030.

But for the few Iraqi environmental activists, like Falah Hassan (ph), change can't come soon enough.

FALAH HASSAN, IRAQI ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVIST (through translator): The people of Basra, in the midst of an inferno, we are dying a slow death. Basra is in hell. But people don't feel the slow death because of the gradual environmental impact on their lives.

KARADSHEH: Years of war and sanctions have decimated the country's infrastructure, and with everything Iraqis have been through, he says raising awareness is a battle.

HASSAN: people don't feel environmental issues are a priority. They feel it is a luxury. But we are trying to make it a priority for them. This is our cause.

KARADSHEH: Iraq is running out of time. According to a U.N. report, it is the fifth most vulnerable country to the effects of climate change. And many here say they are feeling the impact.

"We used to have lots of fish, now it's gone," fisherman Hadi (INAUDIBLE) says. "Nothing good comes from this river anymore. Everything is gone."

Jomana Karadsheh, CNN -- Istanbul.


VAUSE: Still ahead here, a deadly crackdown from Sudan security forces on anti coup protesters with many more determined to defy their military dictators.



VAUSE: Sudan has seen one of its deadliest days of protests since last month's coup. At least 14 protesters were killed, dozens wounded when security forces opened fire Wednesday. Demonstrators are demanding a return to civilian rule but the military

refuses to budge.

More details now from CNN's Larry Madowo.


LARRY MADOWO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wednesdays deaths mark another escalation in the military's violent crackdown on protesters in Sudan. This follows days and weeks of civil disobedience which have followed the October 25 coup, which essentially the military took over, and now the protesters say despite the heavy toll, despite the dozens of people injured in these protests they will keep going at it until the military hands over back to civilian-led transition, which would midwife a democratic process in Sudan.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is in Nairobi in Kenya, specifically addressed the situation in Sudan.


ANTONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We support the Sudanese people who have repeatedly made clear their aspirations for democracy, and we back their call to restore Sudan's democratic transition.

We are continuing to work with the international community to urge the Sudanese military to release all those detained with the takeover, Sudan had been on the path towards democracy and stability. Returning to that path is the best way for Sudan to attain peace and prosperity, become a leader on the continent, and to restore very strong support from the international community.


MADOWO: Secretary Blinken, like many in the international community, consider the restoration of the position of Abdallah Hamdok as prime minister key to providing legitimacy to a return to a civilian-led transition in Sudan. He was initially detained after that coup incident but has now been released, has been meeting with diplomats and envoys but has not been seen in public since that time.

The Sudanese Professionals Association which has been leading many of these protests say the blood of those who have been killed are on the hands of the military. And they have reported widespread crimes according to them, including the military beating protesters and using live bullets.

The international community wants a return to a civilian-led democratic transition. A release of those people who are in custody, but so far the military is not listening.

Larry Madowo, CNN -- Nairobi.


VAUSE: Well as Cuba cracks down on anti government demonstrations, one of the leaders of the island's protest movement has fled to Spain. His arrival Wednesday was confirmed by the Spanish government, ending the mystery about his whereabouts.

CNN's Patrick Oppmann has more now from Havana.


PATRICK OPPMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Ever since trying to organize protests in Cuba at the beginning of the week, Yunior Garcia Aguilera, an opposition activist here has been out of touch. Apparently the governor had cut off his communications. The last time I saw his house was surrounded by state securities agents.

Police and government supporters were lowering flags over the windows of his apparent to keep him from communicating with journalists outside. So a number of his fellow activists were quite concerned about his well-being, whether he was detained, under arrest or as they say, had been disappeared.

So when he showed up on Wednesday in Spain, it was both a surprise and something of a relief to those activists who had been wondering where he was.

Garcia Aguilera to date has not explained what led him to leave but he did post on Facebook that -- "We've arrived in Spain," he writes, "alive, healthy, and with our ideas intact. We have to thank many people who have made this trip possible. I've been without communication for several days, and I need to find out about the situation of other members of his group called "Archipelago". He said very soon he will be telling more about what he calls his odyssey to Spain.

The Cuban government has released photos of Garcia Aguilera at the airport in Havana, seeming to indicate they say that he was not under arrest, or that he was not escorted to the airport.


OPPMANN: Garcia Aguilera though was facing charges he told me from the 11th of July protest that he took place in, that he'd been arrested for. And he said it was very likely that he thought he was going to face further charges for trying to organize these protests that the Cuban government had banned.

There are several other people who have been arrested following the protests. And many of his supporters and fellow activists had also been blocked in their homes. The Cuban government has been furious that he tried to organize these protests follow up to the widespread protests we saw over the summer. And so Garcia Aguilera very clearly has chosen to go into exile. He says he will continue to fight but it's unlikely he'll be able to return to Cuba for quite some time.

Patrick Oppmann, CNN -- Havana.


VAUSE: Well, with his face paint and fur helmet and horns, the man who became known "The Face of the January 6th on Capitol Hill will be heading to jail. What prison time for the Qanon shaman could mean for other defendants.


VAUSE: Well, in the skies over Croatia, something unusual. What looks to be drones planting seeds the size of golf balls. Scattering them in hard to reach remote areas.

This is an attempt to replant forests which have been damaged by fire. The company managing the project says more than 40 percent of the seeds should take root. All an effort -- if this actually succeeds in Croatia, the company hopes to do the same and replant forests in other parts of the world.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth has held her first engagement since spraining her back and missing Remembrance Day services over the weekend. The 95-year-old stood without assistance for a meeting with at General Sir Nicholas Carter, at Windsor Castle on Wednesday.

Later, Prince Charles said his mother is doing all right.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: People have been concerned, sorry. Is she ok? We send our best wishes.

PRINCE CHARLES, PRINCE OF WALES: Once you get to 95, it's not quite as easy as it used to be.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you so much.

PRINCE CHARLES: It's bad enough at 73.


VAUSE: Buckingham Palace says General Carter has relinquished his role as chief of defense staff in the U.K. The Queen telling him that his departure was rather sad.

The man who became the face of the January 6th insurrection has been sentenced to more than 3 years in prison. Jacob Chansley, known as the Qanon Shaman, stormed into the Senate chamber that day carrying a spear and bullhorns.

In September he pleaded guilty to a felony charge of obstructing Congress, (INAUDIBLE).

We've got more details now from CNN's Ryan Nobles reporting from Capitol Hill.


RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): It is the harshest sentence handed down to rioters in the January 6th Capitol insurrection. Jacob Chansley, the so called Qanon Shaman, was one of the first people to storm the Capitol. He defiantly climbed the Senate dais shirtless, and clad in a horned bearskin headdress and left a note that warned, quote, "justice is coming".

His theatrics all part of an attempt to interrupt the certification of the election results.

The Justice Department wants his sentence to serve as an example to others, and the judge agreed. Handing him 41 months in prison, plus 36 months of supervised release. His attorney asking the public for grace.

ALBERT WATKINS, LAWYER FOR JACOB CHANSLEY: : We all need to be patient, because the last thing we can do is act devoid of compassion, and tell someone they're nuts. All that does is skew the resolve and make permanent that great divide.


NOBLES: Meanwhile the January 6 Select Committee continues their probe into who is responsible for the deadly riot.

REP. PETE AGUILAR (D-CA): We had over 200 interviews with witnesses. We've looked at over 25,000 documents and we continue to make significant progress.

NOBLES; They contend they are making progress, despite resistance from those loyal to former president Donald Trump. The committee is holding off on referring former chief of staff Mark Meadows for criminal contempt of congress, instead writing him a letter with a list of what they want to know from him, including answers to questions about a personal cell phone, and messages they say Meadows may have destroyed.

REP.BERNIE THOMPSON (D-MI): We have information that that phone may or may not be in his possession. The number's not active and more -- and we just want to know.

NOBLES; While Meadows remains defiant, the committee continues to insist that he must appear.

REP. JAMIE RASKIN (D-MD) You can't stay home and sit on your couch and, you know, talk to people about the Fifth Amendment or executive privilege, but not show up. You have the legal duty to show up. Now, once you show up, you begin to answer questions.

NOBLES: Meadows, just one of 35 subpoenas issued by the committee. Other targets also continued to evade the requests. Former DOJ official Jeffrey Clark is still in a standoff with the committee, and members say Trump associates like Dan Scavino and Kash Patel have had their subpoena deadlines postponed while they negotiate.

Despite this lack of cooperation, chairman Bennie Thompson says more subpoenas are coming this week.

(on camera): Now, the committee says that more subpoena requests could be coming soon, but that most high-profile subpoena target Steve Bannon, his criminal contempt case is now making its way to the court system. On Wednesday Bannon said that he told the court that he plans to plead not guilty.

That means his arraignment scheduled for Thursday likely won't happen. So we will have to wait and see when his trial is set.

Ryan Nobles, CNN -- on Capitol Hill.


VAUSE: I'm John Vause. Stay with us. Another hour of CNN NEWSROOM in just moments.

Stay with us. I'll be back 100 percent more Vause, after the break.