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.

That's Bank of America's new target in its Environmental Business Initiative in order to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon, sustainable economy.

Here's how it will drive innovation to address climate change.

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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Should the Biden administration "reverse course on China" in the hope of establishing a friendlier relationship, as diplomat Kishore Mahbubani argues in a recent Financial Times op-ed? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Michael Hirson take out the Red Pen to explain why it's not that simple.

And today, we are talking about the United States and China. The relationship between the two most powerful nations in the world is the worst it's been since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Pundits and policymakers alike all around the world are trying to figure out how Washington and Beijing can at least stop the bleeding because a reset is nowhere in the cards.

That's the topic of the op-ed that we are looking at today. It's from the Financial Times, written by Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani, and the title summarizes the key argument: "Biden should summon the courage to reverse course on China." Meaning, he should throw out the Trump era approach and open the door to more cooperation and kinder, gentler relations.

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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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