Even Autocrats Get Headaches

Your Tuesday author has written about the sharp drop in Vladimir Putin’s approval numbers following unpopular changes announced to Russia’s pension system. That story made news again this week with a new poll that gives United Russia, a party distinguished only by slavish devotion to Putin, an approval rating of just 37 percent. That’s their lowest point since 2011.


Putin isn’t the only autocrat with a headache. After an historic consolidation of power over the past year, one made possible by purges of rivals and a surge in state censorship, President Xi Jinping has established a degree of political dominance not seen in China since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. But Xi is now grappling with two main sources of anxiety and anger.

The near-term problem is a public health crisis. A party that holds a monopoly on power assumes direct responsibility for the security and wellbeing of its citizens. In years past, China’s people have fallen victim to unsafe food and medicine, and last month a government investigation and news reports revealed that a major Chinese drug company produced at least 250,000 doses of vaccine for diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough that didn’t meet safety standards. This is China’s third vaccine scandal in eight years. Protests erupted on social media and on the streets of Chinese cities.

The long-term challenge centers on growing economic anxiety. China’s economy has been slowing for years, in part by design, as the leadership shifts from heavy reliance on exports to a model fueled by the spending of Chinese consumers. It hasn’t been a smooth process, and the state has recently had to inject more than $100 billion to keep the economy moving at a healthy pace.

A growing trade war with the US has only added to unease about the future. President Trump again raised the stakes this week with threats to impose 25 percent tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese exports to the US.

Last October, as presidential term limits were lifted, and a twice per decade Communist Party congress became a kind of coronation, Xi proclaimed a new era for China, one in which his rising nation need no longer hide its strength and surging self-confidence. Yet, if China’s economic worries continue to grow, some will blame Xi and this triumphalist message for provoking an unnecessary confrontation with the US and others.

Let’s be clear: Xi and Putin have plenty of power in reserve. Neither is in imminent danger. But both must fear that, over time, emboldened critics may limit their ability to take unpopular but necessary steps for the long-term health of their countries.

Technology has played a big role in accelerating globalization. While it's our business to advance technology, we also believe that technology should respect and even help protect the world's timeless values. That conviction has led us to announce a new and fourth pillar to Microsoft's AI for Good portfolio – our $125 million, five-year commitment to use artificial intelligence to tackle some of society's biggest challenges. This new pillar will focus on AI for Cultural Heritage. Read more at Microsoft On The Issues.

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This Saturday, July 20, will mark the 50-year anniversary of the day a human being first stepped onto another world. A moment born out of Cold War political pressures, it's easy to forget a half century later how much bitter controversy the project provoked at home and the intensity of the worldwide fanfare that followed its success.

The moon mission's primary purpose was to defeat the Soviet Union. By the time John Kennedy became president in 1961, the Soviet Union had advanced far ahead of the United States in the race for achievement in space. In October 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the world's first satellite. A month later, a dog named Laika became the first living creature to travel beyond Earth's atmosphere. In April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth, the first human to do so.

In early May, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, spurring Kennedy to announce a far more ambitious plan. On May 25, Kennedy famously pledged that by the end of the decade Americans would go to the moon and return safely to the Earth.

Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, but new President Lyndon Johnson quickly signaled his intention to see the promise kept. The Soviets held their space lead through 1965, by landing an unmanned craft on the Moon.

The moon mission stoked controversy in the United States. A review of polls reveals that only in 1969 did a majority of Americans support the project. Many people argued that the billions spent on a moonshot should go toward the war in Vietnam or to fight poverty in America's inner cities. "No hot water, no toilets, no lights. But Whitey's on the moon," sang musician and activist Gil Scott Heron. It didn't help when a fire during the Apollo 1 mission killed three astronauts and destroyed their space module.

But when Neil Armstrong became the first person to step onto the moon on July 20, 1969, the event took on a life of its own. It was a decade framed by two images of respected TV anchorman Walter Cronkite—shaken to the core on air by the 1963 murder of President Kennedy and then speechless with awe as Americans bounded across the surface of the moon.

A decade that included confrontation with the Soviets in Cuba, the assassinations of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, a failing war in Vietnam, race riots in American cities, and violent chaos at the 1968 Democratic Party convention ended with an accomplishment a quarter million miles away, that was watched live by 94 percent of Americans who owned a TV.

Americans weren't the only ones watching. About 650 million people around the world watched the moon landing live on TV, making the event the first truly global televised event. Nine weeks later, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins began a world tour.

Concerns that planting an American flag on the moon's surface would seem an act of obnoxious nationalism faded as the three men were greeted by overflow crowds in 27 cities in 24 countries over 39 days. An estimated one million people greeted them in Dhaka (then Pakistan) and some 1.5 million turned out in Mumbai (then Bombay).

Fifty years later, moon missions are still a mark of national prestige. Russia, China, India, the EU, Japan, and Israel have all sent probes to orbit the Moon or landed vehicles on its surface. But none of them matches that first "giant leap for mankind."

Next up: Mars? For thoughts on the next space race, click here.

Bonus fact: An iPhone has more than 100,000 times the processing power of the computer that landed Apollo 11 on the moon.