The Politics of Trash in the Heart of China

Last week, protests shook one of China's most important cities as thousands took to the streets to defend their quality of life. But the disturbances weren't about political freedoms, extradition laws, or judicial transparency. This wasn't the prosperous former British colony of Hong Kong but the sprawling central Chinese metropolis of Wuhan. And the protests were about…garbage.

Residents of the 10 million-strong city oppose the government's plan to replace a landfill site with a new energy-producing trash incinerator. The authorities say it's a more environmentally (and olfactorily) friendly way to dispose of the city's growing mountains of refuse. But many Wuhanese, particularly those who live near the proposed site, fear it will spew toxic fumes into the sky over their homes and schools. They don't believe the secretive local government's assurances that the newfangled plant will be safer than the filthy ones China has used in the past. So when rumors spread that construction had started, thousands poured into the streets, braving riot police and undercover cops to make their point.

The problem of what do to with trash is hardly unique to Wuhan of course — it's been a big issue in other Chinese cities in recent years. The thing about lifting a billion people out of poverty is that wealthier people consume more stuff, which means they produce more garbage. As that garbage piles up, people expect their governments to safely and efficiently dispose of it. This is a growing challenge for many rapidly developing countries, and even for some developed ones (see: Naples, Italy).

The Wuhan demonstrators were careful to distance themselves from the political protests a thousand miles away in Hong Kong. But how governments deal with the trash is inherently political, because citizens don't have the means to make it go away by themselves. Garbage disposal requires complex systems to organize and oversee the collection, transport, and disposal of waste — and everyone can see and smell the result when government fails to get the job done. Recycling programs add a whole other layer of compliance and complexity. Getting these things right requires that governments be efficient and accountable.

In the Chinese case, the quality of life concerns of an increasingly affluent population — trash collection, environmental depredation, and poor infrastructure — may ultimately prove to be a bigger challenge to the Communist Party's opaque governance system than concerns about the lack of political rights.

In Italy, stacks of plastic boxes in supermarkets and stores are not garbage - they are collected and reused, thanks to a consortium that specializes in recycling them for food storage. How do these "circular" plastic boxes help reduce energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions?

Learn more in this episode of Eni's Energy SUPERFACTS series.

Over the past few years, we've seen three major emerging powers take bold action to right what they say are historical wrongs.

First came Crimea. When the Kremlin decided in 2014 that Western powers were working against Russian interests in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops to seize the Crimean Peninsula, which was then part of Ukraine. Moscow claimed that Crimea and its ethnic Russian majority had been part of the Russian Empire for centuries until a shameful deal in 1954 made Crimea part of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. Americans and Europeans imposed sanctions on Russia. But Ukraine is not part of NATO or the EU, and no further action was taken.

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British economist Jim O'Neill says the global economy can bounce back right to where it was before, in a V-shaped recovery. But his argument is based on a lot of "ifs," plus comparisons to the 2008 recession and conditions in China and South Korea that may not truly apply. Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group's Robert Kahn take issue with O'Neill's op-ed, on this edition of The Red Pen.

Today, we're taking our Red Pen to an article titled "A V-Shaped Recovery Could Still Happen." I'm not buying it. It's published recently by Project Syndicate, authored by British economist named Jim O'Neill. Jim O'Neill is very well known. He was chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management. He's the guy that coined the acronym BRICS, Brazil, Russia, India, China. So, no slouch. But as you know, we don't agree with everything out there. And this is the case. Brought to you by the letter V. We're taking sharp issue with the idea that recovery from all the economic devastation created by the coronavirus pandemic is going to happen quickly. That after the sharp drop that the world has experienced, everything bounces back to where it was before. That's the V. Economists around the world are debating how quickly recovery will happen to be sure. But we're not buying the V. Here's why. W-H-Y.

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The United States and the European Union have comparable population sizes, but their COVID-19 death toll trajectories have recently become very different. Since the beginning of July, the average number of both new fatalities and new deaths per 1 million people is rapidly increasing in the US while it remains mostly flat in the EU. We compare this to the average number of new cases each seven days in both regions, where the US trend continues upward but is not surging like the death toll. EU countries' robust public health systems and citizens' willingness to wear masks and maintain social distance could explain the disparity.

"Neither America first, which is ultimately America alone, nor America the world's policeman," Sen. Chris Coons told Ian Bremmer in describing VP Joe Biden's approach to foreign policy should he win the presidential election in November. In the latest episode of GZERO World with Ian Bremmer, Sen. Coons provides details of how U.S. relationships with foreign governments and multilateral alliances could change in a Biden presidency. He also defended President Obama's track record, saying "I think it is a mischaracterization of the Obama-Biden foreign policy for President Trump to say that we were picking up the tab and fighting the world's wars and that we were disrespected." Coons stated that Biden would work to restore U.S. involvement in alliances like NATO, and shore up global support to pressure China on labor and environmental standards. The exchange is part of a broad conversation with the Senator about COVID response and economic relief, Russian interference in elections, and the 2020 presidential race. The episode begins airing nationally in the U.S. on Friday, July 10. Check local listings.