The stories COVID buried

The stories COVID buried

This year has been disastrous on so many levels as the COVID crisis wreaked havoc around the world. While coverage of the once-in-a-century pandemic dwarfed everything else in 2020, we have seen other huge political stories this year that will continue to shape the world for years to come.

We, your four Signal writers, each chose one big story that, to one degree or another, went under the radar as the global health crisis took centre stage. What do these tell us about the current state of our G-Zero world?


Carlos' pick: China's subjugation of Xinjiang. Over a million detained in mass "reeducation" camps. Forced sterilization. Muslims barred from wearing beards and veils. An entire region the size of Iran turned into an Orwellian surveillance state. In 1989, the Tiananmen massacre led to years of international isolation for China — but that was before decades of explosive growth, the creation of a complex network of international trade ties, and the arrival in Beijing of Xi Jinping. In 2020, the strongman president ended democracy in Hong Kong, continued militarizing the South China Sea, and sharply upped pressure on Taiwan. All these shows of force got more attention than China's persecution of minority ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang. In my view, China is succeeding in its quest to dominate this once-restive region because Xi takes the long view: the West will express outrage but move on quickly to other issues, leaving 12 million Uighurs at Beijing's mercy. That's a chilling message for ethnic minority groups seeking political power around the world, especially in Asia (yes, I mean you Indonesia and Myanmar), where China will be calling the shots for the foreseeable future.

Alex's pick: Turmoil in Belarus. An aging autocrat overtly rigs an election. Hundreds of thousands take to the streets. Security thugs crack skulls, raid universities, and torture people. Europe and the US slap sanctions on him. And months later... the guy is still in power. That's the story of Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko, who has faced mass protests on and off since August. I chose this story for 2020 because it's a sobering narrative that we've seen time and again in recent years — whether in Venezuela, or Hong Kong, or Thailand: no matter how big the protests are, so long as leaders keep their security services on side and find some key foreign friends (looking at you, China and Russia) they can usually ride things out. And even when despots are deposed, their cliques often find a way to maintain power anyway (hello to Algeria and Sudan — Tahrir Square you say? Same same.) To me, the grim but important lesson is that the moral momentum of millions doesn't always bend the arc of the universe as fast as we'd like. That's especially true at a time when the rest of the world is so distracted by the pandemic, and when democracy is suffering globally to begin with. Can 2021 flip the script? I'll wait here.

Gabrielle's pick: Hindu nationalism in India. Earlier this month, Indian police made their first arrest under the so-called "jihad law" — a controversial phrase dubbed by Hindu nationalists who contend that Muslim men surreptitiously seduce Hindu women, forcing them into marriage and conversion to Islam. The suspect, a Muslim man in his early 20s, says he has "no link" to the woman he stands accused of luring. This development is the latest in an ongoing saga in India that's seen Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his nationalist BJP party try to turn the country into a Hindu-nationalist state. Throughout 2020, India's 200 million Muslims have increasingly found themselves under attack: footage released earlier this year from New Delhi, the capital, showed local police joining Hindu vigilantes in attacking Muslims, resulting in scores of deaths. Meanwhile, a discriminatory citizenship law that offers refuge in India to ethnic minorities from neighboring countries (while excluding Muslims from those protections) gave rise to violent clashes along religious and ethnic lines. Modi also stands accused of stripping majority-Muslim Kashmir state of its autonomy to flood the area with Hindu settlers. Though the BJP's anti-Muslim aggressions are well documented and the country faces an uphill battle in containing the coronavirus pandemic, Modi continues to defy political gravity, maintaining high popular support that gives him a mandate to continue to shape the future of the country's 1.4 billion inhabitants.

Willis' pick: The intensifying US-China rivalry. Had COVID never happened, the intensifying US-China rivalry — particularly in trade and tech — would probably have been the international story of the year. The pandemic itself both obscured the importance of this standoff and heightened its intensity by provoking mutual recrimination over responsibility for COVID fallout. In 2021, Joe Biden and Xi Jinping will want to dial down tensions, at least at first. But, as Xi well knows, the great difference between the Biden and Trump approaches to China rests mainly in Biden's determination to coordinate a containment strategy with allies in Europe and Asia. Trade, tech and data disputes, Hong Kong, and repression of Muslim Uighurs will offer plenty to talk about. As 2021 progresses, however, we'll be reminded that the US-China rivalry is far more complex than the US-Soviet conflict, because 21st century economic interdependence is far deeper, and because common problems like global health and climate change transcend iron curtains and border walls.

Building on its previous commitment, Walmart is investing an additional $350 billion in products made, grown and assembled in America - supporting more than 750,000 new jobs by 2030. This pledge will aim to avoid more than 100M metric tons of CO2 emissions, advance the growth of U.S. based suppliers, and provide opportunities for more than 9,000 entrepreneurs to become Walmart suppliers and sellers through Walmart's annual Open Call.

"The people are stronger," pro-democracy demonstrators chanted as news broke that the Sudanese military had staged a coup Monday, overthrowing the joint civilian-military government and dashing hopes of democracy in the war-torn country.

The backstory. In 2019, Omar al-Bashir – a despot who ruled Sudan with an iron fist for 30 years – was deposed after a months-long popular uprising.

Al-Bashir was a bad guy: he cozied up to terrorists like Osama bin Laden and dropped barrel bombs on his own people. He also embezzled truck loads of money from oil production while millions of Sudanese went hungry, and oversaw a genocide in the Darfur region that left 300,000 people dead and displaced 1.6 million.

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Sort of, but governments haven't lost all control yet. On the one hand, The Atlantic CEO Nicholas Thompson says that governments can still push tech companies for transparency in their algorithms, while Microsoft has partnered with the US government to together fight hackers "so the company is seen as a champion for freedom and democracy." On the other, over time Thompson expects tech firms in the US and China to gradually become more powerful as the state becomes less powerful toward them. Watch his interview with Ian Bremmer on the latest episode of GZERO World.

Watch this episode of GZERO World with Ian Bremmer: Big Tech: Global sovereignty, unintended consequences

As COP26 nears, the need for real climate action has never been more urgent. There are reasons for hope, but many scientists believe the ambitious goal of net zero emissions by 2050 is unattainable without immediate and significant change. Governments, financial institutions, and private sector companies alike have all recognized the need for a multistakeholder approach to solving this crisis of a lifetime.

Watch "Climate Crisis: Is net zero really possible?" a one-hour virtual livestream, hosted by GZERO Media and Microsoft as part of the Global Stage series, to hear scientists, corporate leaders and policymakers debate this question and offer critical perspectives on the way forward. Live on Tuesday, November 2nd at 11am ET, we'll break down what "net zero" means, take stock of where the world is on the path to carbon neutrality, and discuss critical steps needed to make real progress.

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Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hey everybody and happy Monday. Back in the office, getting a little cool. So I've got my sweater going on. It's the first time I've had a sweater on. What do you do with that? Discussing fashion, as I talk to you about what is on my mind this week?

And what's on my mind this week, Facebook. Facebook is on my mind. It's a tough week for Facebook. There are all sorts of whistleblowers out there. There's testimony going on. There's calls for regulation. Everybody seems unhappy with them. Indeed, you even got the government relations types, Nick Clegg, who I've known for a long time back when he was a policymaker in the UK saying that the headlines are going to be rough, but we're are going to get through it. But I will say, first of all, I'm kind of skeptical that any of this goes anywhere in terms of impact on how Facebook actually operates.

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Turkey's Erdogan ups the ante with the West: Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared diplomats from 10 Western countries "persona non-grata" after the group — which includes the US, France, and Germany — called on Ankara to release Osman Kavala, a Parisian-born Turkish businessman who's been held in jail since 2017 but hasn't been charged with a crime. Erdogan says that Kavala was involved in an attempted coup against the government in 2016. This latest move is a sign of Turkey's authoritarian drift in recent years, which has seen Erdogan's government increasingly crack down on opposition members as well as journalists. It also reflects Turkey's increasingly fraught relations with the West: things got particularly bad between Washington and Ankara after Turkey purchased missile defense systems from the Russians in 2019. The Council of Europe (the continent's leading human rights organization) had previously warned that Ankara has until November to release Kavala or it would impose "infringements," though it's unclear what those would be.

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ASEAN gets tough(ish) with Myanmar: The leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations meet Tuesday for their annual summit with one notable absence: the head of Myanmar's military junta. It's a rare snub from ASEAN, a regional bloc that's gotten a lot of heat in the past for giving tyrants a free pass. The junta says ASEAN violated its traditional principles of deciding by consensus by disinviting its leader, and non-interference in domestic affairs for demanding the bloc's special envoy meet detained former leader Aung San Suu Kyi. For their part, the other ASEAN members have grown visibly alarmed at Myanmar's rapidly deteriorating political and economic situation since the February coup, and they're worried about the spillover effects of Myanmar becoming a failed state. More importantly, Myanmar is a big thorn in ASEAN's side as it walks a fine line between keeping warm ties with the US — which most members want cash and security from — and getting along with China, one of Myanmar's few remaining friends and viewed with suspicion by most ASEAN members over its South China Sea shenanigans.

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149: The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached a record-high 413.2 parts per million in 2020, 149 percent above pre-industrial levels. A new report by the UN weather agency released ahead of the COP26 climate summit found that last year's lower emissions due to COVID-related lockdowns had no impact on the overall amount of greenhouse gases causing global warming.

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