Bad News: The China edition

Bad News: The China edition

Want to hear some bad news? No, we don't either. But if you're leading a government, you need accurate information about what's happening inside your country and what people think of you—especially if it's not what you want to hear. You also need good advice about how to respond to what you hear.


Case in point: After Yuri Andropov became Soviet leader in 1982, he admitted publicly that Soviet economic decision-making had fallen prey in previous years to "elements of separation from reality." His predecessors had spent much more time on propaganda than on rational economic policy. Andropov, and eventual successor Mikhail Gorbachev, also knew that the Kremlin had no idea what Soviet citizens thought about anything.

That's one reason that Russia's Vladimir Putin allows his government to publish credible economic statistics, good or bad. It's why he's allowed the Levada Center, a public polling organization based in Moscow, to publish credible opinion surveys with only occasional political pressure. At least, so far.

Unwillingness to hear bad news and dissenting views made headlines again this month when Donald Trump seemed surprised by the furious response from within his own party following his announcement of a US troop pullback from northern Syria—as if no one had warned him this reaction was inevitable. He also provoked anger and disbelief with a (since aborted) plan to host next year's G7 Summit at a Trump-owned hotel. He faces fresh accusations that he's rid himself of advisors willing to speak truth to power.

At least as worrying is the question of whether China's President Xi Jinping is hearing warnings of trouble inside his country. Tom Mitchell wrote in Monday's Financial Times that China's heavily centralized system "may be great at building infrastructure, repressing dissent and censoring the internet, but it is often hopeless when it comes to passing bad news up the chain." We've written before that a future economic or financial crisis inside China will leave investors wondering whether the statistics Beijing publishes are reliable.

Take for example the introduction of a law in Hong Kong earlier this year that would have permitted residents of the territory to be extradited into mainland China's highly politicized court system. If senior Chinese officials knew of this proposal in advance, they were naïve to believe it would be easily accepted. If they didn't know in advance, then the center isn't effectively connected to local administrators, even on crucial questions. Either way, that law sparked protests that have convulsed Hong Kong for three months now.

For now, there are no economic or political problems that Beijing can't manage. But what about the future?

President Xi has repeatedly promised a "new era" in which China will "take center stage in the world." Is there anyone within China's leadership willing to tell him that this expansionist rhetoric might needlessly provoke pushback from foreign leaders, particularly in the United States and Europe? Is there anyone to take aside a man – whose "thought" has been written into the constitution – to offer a frank appraisal of why so many Hong Kongers are so angry?

Even if someone is willing to speak the truth, is Xi Jinping listening?

Vaccines are the best hope to end the COVID-19 pandemic. But rich countries are hogging most of the doses, with more than 83 percent of shots administered to date having gone to residents in high- and upper-middle-income countries. Most poor countries will have to wait years to achieve widespread vaccination, according to one study.

To address this inequity some stakeholders are pushing hard for waivers to intellectual-property (IP) rights through World Trade Organization trade rules so that manufacturers in poorer countries can make their own vaccines locally. India and South Africa have been leading the charge, which would essentially mean that deep-pocketed pharma companies like New York-based Pfizer, for instance, would have to hand over the keys to the kingdom, allowing local companies in New Delhi and Johannesberg to make generic versions of their vaccines.

Unsurprisingly, the debate has gotten fiery, with passionate arguments emerging both for and against.

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Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, shares his perspective on Europe In 60 Seconds:

What are the Russians up to against Ukraine?

We simply don't know, except the fact that they're concentrating a huge amount of military forces. And you don't do that for nothing or for fun. They are there for a purpose, to have pressure or to undertake limited to larger operations. We simply don't know. And when Putin delivered his State of the Union speech the other day, he didn't say a thing about this. They are now talking about withdrawing the forces. But let's wait and see. They have talked about withdrawing forces from Syria for a long time, but we haven't seen that as of yet.

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Australia rips up Belt & Road deal: Australia cancelled two 2018 deals signed between Victoria, Australia's wealthiest state, and the Chinese government, that committed the two sides to working together on initiatives under China's Belt and Road infrastructure development program. Foreign Minister Marise Payne said that the agreements "were adverse to our foreign relations." Similar deals between Victoria and institutions in Iran and Syria were also abandoned by the Australian government this week, under a 2020 law that allows Canberra to nullify international agreements struck at local and state level. (Australian universities say the "foreign veto bill" amounts to "significant overreach.") Meanwhile, Beijing hit back, calling the move "unreasonable and provocative," and accusing Canberra of further stoking divisions after a series of escalatory moves by both sides that have seen China-Australia relations deteriorate to their worst point in decades. Chinese investment in Australia dropped by 62 percent last year, a massive blow for Australia's export-reliant economy.

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50: The US will aim to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent from 2005 levels by the end of the decade. The Biden administration's commitment, double the goal set by Barack Obama almost six years ago, was announced to coincide with a virtual Earth Day climate summit attended by dozens of world leaders.

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Russian president Vladimir Putin on Wednesday threatened an "asymmetrical, rapid, and harsh" response for anyone that dares to cross a "red line" with Russia.

What's the red line? Putin says he'll decide on a case-by-case basis. And the cases at the moment are growing: the US has sanctioned Russia over cyber crimes; Putin critic Alexei Navalny is near death in a Russian prison; the Czechs say Russia blew up a Czech munitions depot; and as many as 120,000 Russian troops are reported to be massing along Russia's border with Eastern Ukraine.

Which is to say: there's potentially a Sol Lewitt's-worth of red lines to ponder now.

Europe has been hit by a green wave in recent years. Green parties in countries as varied as Germany, Belgium, France, Ireland, Finland, and Sweden have made sizable electoral gains, with some now sitting in national governments.

The Green phenomenon seems to be gaining yet more momentum in the lead up to some crucial European elections (Germany, France) in the months ahead. What explains the green shift, and where might this trend be headed?

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More than 930 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine have already been administered globally, and another 1 billion more are expected to be manufactured by the end of May. Most of the manufacturing is concentrated in a small group of countries. While some — like China, for instance — are exporting roughly half of the shots they make, others — mainly the US — are keeping most of the supply for domestic use. Meanwhile, export controls have been a particularly thorny issue in the European Union and India, where governments have come under intense pressure to stop sending vaccines to other parts of the world amid sluggish rollouts at home. We take a look at what the world's top manufacturers are doing with the vaccines they are producing.

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