What We're Watching

Civil war endgame in Libya? – General Khalifa Haftar – a warlord who controls parts of Libya – has launched a military assault on Tripoli to seize the capital city from a UN-backed government there. The background is that after Muammar Qaddafi was killed in 2011 and Libya fell into civil war, Haftar, a former Qaddafi general who turned against his former boss, became a powerful warlord. Earlier this year, he seized oil-rich territory in the country's south, and he's now making a play to reunify Libya on his own terms. The UN and US have condemned his move on the capital, but both have evacuated personnel.

Your score on the Xi Jinping app – At the urging of the government, tens of millions of Chinese citizens have downloaded a new multimedia app from the propaganda ministry that teaches people to think like President Xi Jinping. The app awards points for study and knowledge of the material. High scorers are praised by state media, low scorers are stigmatized at work and school. It's part of Xi's bid to bolster the power and appeal of the Communist Party. We're watching because it's another fascinating example of how authoritarian governments are appropriating the kinds of social media technologies that people once assumed would be forces for democratization and openness. The app is even used as a dating platform!

What We're Ignoring

"Black" Hungarians – Hungary's national opera house is currently staging American composer George Gershwin's 1935 work Porgy and Bess, a story of love, poverty, and violence set in a black community in the American South. But here's the problem: the performers are white, violating Gershwin estate rules that only black casts can perform the opera. Undaunted, the opera has gotten its performers to sign letters saying they "self-identify" as "African-American." A nice bit of cross-cultural trolling (and a swipe at "identity politics"), but we're ignoring this for two reasons: Hungarians are more Siberian than they are African or American, and because this production of Porgy and Bess really just sounds horrendous.

US sanctions against Iran's Republican Guard – On Monday, the Trump administration formally designated Iran's elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a "foreign terrorist organization" alongside other regional menaces like al-Qaeda and ISIS. This is the first time the US has added a branch of another country's military to this terrorist list, but beyond that, there's not much to see here. The IRGC already faces a huge number of sanctions, including American ones -- this symbolic move won't register as a significant new provocation of the IRGC. Blood between Washington and Tehran is already about as bad as it can be.

Amid the current need to continually focus on the COVID-19 crisis, it is understandably hard to address other important issues. But, on March 31st, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed landmark facial recognition legislation that the state legislature passed on March 12, less than three weeks, but seemingly an era, ago. Nonetheless, it's worth taking a moment to reflect on the importance of this step. This legislation represents a significant breakthrough – the first time a state or nation has passed a new law devoted exclusively to putting guardrails in place for the use of facial recognition technology.

For more on Washington's privacy legislation, visit Microsoft On The Issues.

Over the past decade or so, the European Union has weathered the global financial crisis, a migrant crisis, and the rise of populist nationalism. Sure, it's taken its fair share of bumps and bruises along the way, but the idea of a largely borderless Europe united by common democratic values has survived more or less intact.

Then came the coronavirus. The global pandemic, in which Europe is now one of the two main epicentres, is a still-spiralling nightmare that could make those previous crises look benign by comparison. Here are a few different ways that COVID-19 is severely testing the 27-member bloc:

The economic crisis: Lockdowns intended to stop the virus' spread have brought economic activity to a screeching halt, and national governments are going to need to spend a lot of money to offset the impact. But some EU members can borrow those funds more easily than others. Huge debt loads and deficits in southern European countries like Italy and Spain, which have been hardest hit by the outbreak so far, make it costlier for them to borrow than more fiscally conservative Germany and other northern member states. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, this imbalance nearly led the bloc's common currency, the Euro, to unravel.

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3.5 billion: There are now an estimated 3.5 billion people worldwide under some sort of coronavirus lockdown after residents in Moscow (12 million) and Nigeria's capital Lagos (21 million) were ordered to join the ranks of those quarantined at home.

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North Korea has zero coronavirus cases? North Korea claims to be one of few countries on earth with no coronavirus cases. But can we take the word of the notoriously opaque leadership at face value? Most long-term observers of Pyongyang dismiss as fanciful the notion that the North, which shares a border with China, its main trade partner, was able to avert the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe. Many point to Pyongyang's lack of testing capabilities as the real reason why it hasn't reported any COVID-19 cases. To be sure, Kim Jong-un, the North's totalitarian leader, imposed some of the strictest lockdown measures in the world, well before many other countries – closing the Chinese border and quarantining all diplomats. The state's ability to control its people and their movements would also make virus-containment efforts easier to manage. We might not know the truth for some time. But what is clear is that decades of seclusion and crippling economic sanctions have devastated North Korea's health system, raising concerns of its capacity to manage a widespread outbreak of disease.

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As the coronavirus continues to ravage the world, all eyes now turn to the place where it all started. For more than two months, the 11 million residents of Wuhan, the Chinese industrial hub where the novel coronavirus was first detected, have lived under near complete lockdown.

Now, as China reports a dwindling number of new cases, the city's people are slowly emerging back into the daylight. Some travel restrictions remain, but public transportation is largely functioning again, and increasing numbers of people are cautiously – with masks and gloves and digital "health codes" on their phones that permit them to move about – going back to work.

The rest of the world, where most hard-hit countries have imposed various forms of lockdown of their own, is now keenly watching what happens in Wuhan for a glimpse of what might lie in store for the rest of us.

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