Three Stories In The Key Of: Political Definitions

Three Stories In The Key Of: Political Definitions

The summertime lull is an opportunity to slow down and contemplate the big questions: What is a terrorist? Is the Caspian Sea a lake? And is a trout a salmon? The first question is deadly serious. The second determines which countries have a legal claim to vast natural resources. The third is absurd. But they all have one thing in common: they show how definitions affect politics in ways both big and small.


Uighurs in China: In 2009, violence broke out in Xinjiang province in western China, where millions of Uighurs, a Muslim minority, have long bridled under Communist rule. Nearly 200 people, most of them ethnic majority Han Chinese, were killed as a result. A crackdown ensued. Car bombs followed. The crackdown intensified. Most recently, China has been accused of turning Xinjiang into a surveillance state and engaging in systematic repression of Uighurs. On Monday, Chinese officials appeared before a UN panel to rebut allegations that more than a million people had been forced into “re-education centers.” No such thing, they argued: Sure, there are “Vocational Technical Education Training Centers,” where minor offenders receive instruction. But the authorities in Xinjiang are operating within the law, doing what any government would do: providing security in a region prone to terrorist violence. Needless to say, there are big assumptions built into any government's decision to identify enemies of the state.

The Caspian Sea: Over the weekend, the leaders of Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan signed a pact designed to resolve a long-simmering debate about whether the Caspian Sea is, in fact, a lake. The distinction matters: the Caspian is home to enormous deposits of oil and gas, the fish that produce 90 percent of the world’s caviar, and a tangle of sometimes-conflicting territorial claims. If the world’s biggest inland body of water is in fact a sea, as its name implies, then the five countries that border it would have claims to some parts of it, while others would be considered international waters under maritime law. Either designation creates winners and losers. Russia, for example, wants its navy to be able to freely navigate much of the Caspian while opposing other countries’ efforts to build energy pipelines across it that would undermine its grip on the region’s energy flows. The solution? An epic fudge that divides up the surface according to the law of the sea while divvying up the lakebed between the five countries. The lesson: don’t let strict definitions stand in the way of a deal.

Trout vs salmon: Back in May, Chinese state television broke the story of an epic bait-and-switch: it turned out that up to a third of “salmon” sold in China was actually trout, the salmon’s freshwater cousin. In a controversial move, an industry organization attached to China’s Ministry of Agriculture this week officially blessed the practice, saying that trout could be labelled as salmon since they were both part of the Salmonidae fish family (apparently, the group has requested that restaurants and fishmongers also identify the precise species being sold under the new catch-all salmon label, presumably in the fine print). This is patently absurd. “There’s no way a trout is a salmon, and that's a hill I’m ready to die on,” was Alex Kliment’s response on hearing about this story on Tuesday. But how governments define food is a serious issue in global politics: The French guard their appellations like some countries guard their nuclear codes, and the European Union has long been at odds with the US over genetically modified foods. In China, the fundamental tension involves a government and industry trying to define away the difference between what people are getting (trout dressed up as salmon) and what people actually want (the real thing). It’s a good bet that Chinese consumers can taste the difference between trout and salmon, and the market will sort this out. Even in China, top-down control has limits.

Building on more than 15 years of sustainability leadership, Walmart is doubling down on addressing the growing climate crisis by targeting zero emissions across the company's global operations by 2040. Walmart and the Walmart Foundation are also committing to help protect, manage or restore at least 50 million acres of land and one million square miles of ocean by 2030 to help combat the cascading loss of nature threatening the planet.

One of the world's most famous political dissidents may die in a Russian prison this week.

Alexei Navalny has been on a hunger strike since March 31 over the authorities' refusal to let his own medical team examine him after he developed signs of tuberculosis. Now, one of his aides says Navalny is "close to death."

The fate of Vladimir Putin's most prominent critic — who was poisoned last summer, allegedly by state officials, treated in Germany, and then jailed upon his return to Russia — is being closely watched both inside and outside the country.

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How bad is the climate crisis? Every year, the UN's Emissions Gap Report shows a large gap between the trajectory we're on and the trajectory we ought to be on, explains climate journalist Elizabeth Kolbert. "Every decade now is warmer than the decade before. And we're seeing the damage pile up," says Kolbert, whose latest book is Under A White Sky: The Nature of the Future. "We saw the tremendous wildfire season in California last fall. The hurricane season in the Gulf. These are all connected to climate change, and we're just going to keep seeing more of that." She spoke with Ian Bremmer on GZERO World, airing on US public television stations starting April 16. Check local listings.

Watch the episode: Can we fix the planet the same way we broke it?

Ian Bremmer and Bill Maher discussed the global leadership of the United States compared to that of China on a recent episode of Real Time. "The level of corruption in China, the level of corruption in China, even the buildings and the rails you talk about - the average building the Chinese build lasts for 20, 25 years. In the United States, it lasts for 40 to 50. There's a reason why we are still the world's most powerful country," Ian argued. "I'm just saying China's not eating our lunch - that's all."

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As the price of Bitcoin has skyrocketed in recent months, so has the amount of energy that procuring it hogs. Research shows that Bitcoin "mining" now uses 80 percent more energy than at the start of 2020. Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates recently sounded the alarm on crypto, saying that he would not invest in Bitcoin because mining for the digital currency requires huge amounts of energy, much of which is powered by fossil fuels that harm the environment. So where does Bitcoin rank in electricity consumption compared to nations?

Even if the US, Europe, China, and India reduce carbon emissions at the rate they've promised, much climate damage has already been done. That shouldn't stop these and other countries from doing all they can to meet their net-zero emissions targets, but they also better start preparing for a world of people on the move.

Climate change will displace an unprecedented number of people in coming years, creating not just a series of humanitarian crises in many parts of the world, but lasting political, economic, and social upheaval as those of us who live on higher ground try to find a sustainable place for these climate refugees to live.

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Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hi, everybody, Ian Bremmer here, kicking off your beautiful spring week from New York City. A little Quick Take. I thought I'd talk today about Russia, going to be in the news this week. Putin doesn't like it when they're out of the news for too long, certainly plenty going on between the US and Russia right now.

I'd say, first of all, to start off, the relationship is in the toilet. We know this. It is the worst it's been since the early '80s. That was true even under Trump. Trump and Putin personally had a pretty good relationship, but Trump wasn't able to get anything really done for the Russians, because both the Republicans in Congress, key members of cabinet under Trump, massive amount of constraints on what Trump could actually do, whether it's trying to bring Russia back into the G7 or recognize Crimea as a part of Russia, or remove or reduce sanctions. None of that actually got done. In fact, the relationship deteriorated over the four years.

But now we've got Biden and the focus is of course, more on human rights. The focus is more on climate change, which means that Russia as a massive energy exporter and particularly in terms of their influence on Eastern Europe and Western Europe on the downstream for gas delivery, for example, something that Biden is much more focused on. So a lot more pressure on the Russians, and the Russians don't care. Their willingness to hit back and show that the Americans are not willing to take any significant risks to constrain the Russians is also fairly significant. And this is playing out in a number of ways.

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Pakistani radicals vs French cartoons: It's been a tumultuous week in Lahore, Pakistan's second largest city. After widespread protests broke out across the Muslim world late last year after Paris defended French publications' rights to publish satirical images of the Prophet Mohammad, the radical Pakistani Islamist group Tehrik-i-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), gave Pakistan's government until April 20 to expel the French ambassador, when it had planned nationwide demonstrations. When Prime Minister Imran Khan refused to meet their demands, more violence erupted across the country and authorities arrested the TLP leader — prompting TLP supporters to hit back by kidnapping six state security personnel in Lahore this past weekend. Authorities have now banned the TLP outright and are bracing for more violence in the coming days. France, meanwhile, has urged all of its citizens to leave Pakistan.

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