Even Autocrats Get Headaches

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.

On Tuesday, a major US intelligence report said the top threat to America right now is China. A day later, John Kerry, the Biden administration's "climate czar," got on a plane to... China.

Such is the drama of ties between the world's two largest economies these days.

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More than a dozen COVID-19 vaccines have been fully approved or are currently in early use globally, and COVAX, the global initiative started last year by the World Health Organization and other partners, is pushing for equitable access to vaccines for all. But most of the half billion jabs given so far have gone to citizens of wealthy countries, with half going to the US and China alone. What's the problem with so-called vaccine nationalism? Ian Bremmer explains that besides the clear humanitarian concerns, the continued global spread of COVID increases the risk of new mutations and variants that can threaten the entire world, vaccinated or not.

Watch the episode: Vaccine nationalism could prolong the pandemic

Should wealthy individuals and nations shoulder more of the burden in addressing climate change? Pulitzer Prize-winning climate journalist Elizabeth Kolbert argues that Big Tech leaders like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk should shift more of their focus to fighting for our own planet's survival, instead of space exploration. "We're doing as much as we can to make life difficult on planet Earth for ourselves. But there's virtually nothing we could do to make it as difficult as life on Mars, where there's, among other things, no oxygen." Kolbert, the author of Under a White Sky, discusses why it's so crucial for a few rich countries to bear most of the climate burden, since they're also the biggest emitters. Her conversation with Ian Bremmer is featured in the upcoming episode of GZERO World, airing on US public television stations starting this Friday, April 16. Check local listings.

In recent days, Northern Ireland has seen some of its worst street violence in over a decade. The anger has subsided a bit this week, but post-Brexit fears leave many uncertain about their future in a deeply divided land with a long history of political violence between Irish republicans and UK unionists.

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Fighting climate change is about making the planet get less hot. The more quickly countries slow down their carbon emissions, the faster that'll happen. All the more important for the nations that pollute the most — but not all of them are on board. Although the majority, including China, are setting future targets to go Net Zero, India doesn't want to commit (yet) to when to stop burning fossil fuels to spur economic growth. We take a look at when the world's top polluting economies intend to go carbon-neutral, compared with their share of global emissions, of renewable energy as a source of electricity, and percentage of global coal consumption.

Peruvian runoff: Perú's presidential election is going to a runoff in June between two surprise and polarizing contenders, each of whom won less than 20 percent of votes in a highly fragmented first round. Pedro Castillo, a far-left union leader and teacher who benefited from a late surge in the polls, will battle rightwing populist Keiko Fujimori, daughter of the country's imprisoned former strongman. Castillo wants to rewrite the constitution to weaken the political influence of the country's business elite and maybe to allow the state to nationalize parts of the mining sector to pay for social programs for the poor. Fujimori wants to use mining revenues to create jobs by investing in infrastructure and healthcare. The runoff will probably be a national referendum on Fujimori, a divisive figure running for the top job for the third time. No Peruvian president has ever left office without facing corruption charges, but Fujimori already faces several — and she'll avoid jail time if she wins.

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900 million: Egypt has impounded the Ever Given, the ship that recently blocked the Suez Canal for almost a week, until its owners pay some $900 million in compensation for losses and the cost of the rescue operation. The blockage of this major naval chokepoint caused severe disruption to the global maritime shipping industry.

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