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.

This time last year, world health experts were speculating about why Africa appeared to have escaped the worst of the global pandemic. Younger populations? Natural immunity created by exposure to past viruses? Something else?

They can stop wondering. Africa is now in the grip of a COVID emergency.

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Listen: Stanford historian Niall Ferguson joins Ian Bremmer on the GZERO World podcast to talk about the geopolitics of disaster. Throughout human history we seem to be unable to adequately prepare for catastrophes (natural or human-caused) before they strike. Why is that? And as we emerge from the greatest calamity of our lifetimes in the COVID-19 pandemic and look to the plethora of crises that climate change has and will cause, what can we do to lessen the blow?

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Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi barred two Republican members from serving on the Jan. 6 commission. What's going on?

Well, the Jan. 6 commission was designed to be a bipartisan commission, taking input from members from Democrats and Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had the opportunity to make recommendations but the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, could always veto those recommendations. In this case, she did, saying no to two members, Jim Banks and Jim Jordan, both of whom are strongly aligned with President Trump and who voted against certifying the election results in 2020. The Republicans for the most part see the Jan. 6 commission as an opportunity to score political points against them, and the Democrats say this is going to be a fair, non-biased, and nonpartisan investigation into what happened on Jan. 6, starting with a hearing next week with some of the police officers who were involved in the battle with the protesters inside the Capitol.

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In his New York Times op-ed, David Brooks says the US is facing an identity crisis — protecting liberal and progressive values at home while doing little to stop autocrats elsewhere. But has the US really abandoned its values abroad just because it's withdrawing from Afghanistan? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Charles Dunst take out the Red Pen to argue that the US can advance democracy without being the world's sheriff.

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When the Tokyo Olympics begin on Friday, Japan watchers will be following more than just the performance of Japan's star athletes, including tennis star Naomi Osaka. They will also be tracking the political fortunes of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is taking a big gamble by staging the event — amid a raging pandemic — in the face of strong and longstanding opposition from the Japanese public. What are the stakes for Suga, particularly with elections on the horizon? Eurasia Group senior analyst Ali Wyne explains.

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YouTube pulls Bolsonaro's rants: Google-owned YouTube pulled down a series of videos on the channel of Brazil's populist President Jair Bolsonaro, accusing him of spreading misinformation about the pandemic. YouTube removed more than a dozen clips for touting quack cures for coronavirus or claiming, in defiance of scientific experts, that masks don't reduce COVID transmissions. Last year, Twitter and Facebook also removed some content from Bolsonaro's feeds for similar reasons. But critics say that YouTube's move is too little too late, because Bolsonaro has been spreading misinformation about COVID since the pandemic began. Many Brazilians hold him personally responsible for the country's abysmal pandemic response, which has led to almost 550,000 deaths, the second worst toll in the world. Will YouTube's move change Bolsonaro's message? His weekly address to the nation, where he converses not only with government ministers but also various conspiracy theorists and loons, is broadcast on YouTube. Surely he doesn't want to risk losing that — or does he?

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Boycotts! Bans! Protests! Drugs! Think you've got gold medal knowledge about politics at the Olympics? Test what you know with this special Tokyo Olympics Quiz. And to stay current on all the latest political stories at the Games and around the world, subscribe here to Signal, our daily newsletter. Now, without further ado, the first question is...

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