What We're Watching: A poisoning in Russia, new weapons for the UAE, China vs food influencers

What We're Watching: A poisoning in Russia, new weapons for the UAE, China vs food influencers

A poisoning in Russia? Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny remains in critical condition after falling ill in what his aides say is a poisoning. Navalny, a vocal anti corruption activist, is the most prominent opponent of President Vladimir Putin. A history of high-profile poisonings of Putin nemeses has led to suspicion that the Kremlin might have had a hand in the alleged attack, but there is no evidence to support that as of now. More immediately, the incident may put Putin in a tricky spot: Navalny enjoys substantial popularity — he was one of the leaders of the mass protest movement of 2011. In 2018, the Kremlin flimsily disqualified him from running in the presidential election, rather than facing him outright. His demise could well provoke a new wave of unrest at a sensitive moment for Putin: although the Russian president recently secured the right to rule until 2036, his approval ratings are touching all time lows, protests against him have recently erupted in Russia's Far East, and hundreds of thousands protesting next door in Belarus sets an example he surely doesn't want Russians to follow. We are keeping an eye on Navalny's condition, Russia's streets, and how Western countries will react if a deliberate poisoning is in fact traced back to someone in the Russian government.


New weapons for the UAE? There has been much fanfare recently over the historic agreement between the United Arab Emirates and Israel, brokered by the Trump administration. United in their mutual enmity towards Iran, it's the first time that a Gulf Arab state has normalized ties with Israel. But in recent days, widespread optimism has been clouded by reports that the Trump administration used its bargaining power to negotiate the sale of sophisticated F35 fighter jets to the Emirates — a contract the UAE has been trying to lock down for years. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not happy about the reported side deal, to which he was not privy. Why? Since the 1970s, America has committed to ensuring Israel maintains a "qualitative military edge" over its Arab neighbors (this policy was reflected in a 2008 US law). As a result, successive US administrations have refused to sell Arab states that are hostile to Israel some sophisticated weaponry (rousing the ire of allies in the Gulf). Now, with reports that the Trump administration is pushing for the arms sale — which would include stealth F35 fighter jets and advanced drones — Israel is worried about how this will affect the sensitive balance of power in the region. But at the end of the day, neither the Trump administration nor PM Netanyahu will have the final say because only the US Congress can certify such weapons sales. Stay tuned.

China's crackdown on... food influencers: The Chinese Communist Party's crackdown on ethnic minorities and dissenters is well established. But now, it's setting its sights on a new demographic: food influencers. Food shortage in China — exacerbated by the deepening trade war with Washington — is a massive problem that President Xi Jinping is trying to address through his "Clean Plate" campaign, aimed at shining a light on food wastage — a value at odds with food influencers who often peck at over-the-top meals prepared for the digital gaze. Now, food influencers within the popular Korean digital scene known as Mukbang (loosely translated in Korean as "eating broadcast," where people tune in to watch their favorite stars... eat) are having their videos blurred out on Chinese platforms. Meanwhile, Chinese people searching relevant terms are also being served warning notices by the government to stop engaging with the content. "I don't eat much in my videos and try to eat healthy food," one Korean influencer recently said in response to the latest act of Chinese censorship.

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The Taliban’s never-ending crisis

Afghanistan has now become what the UN is labeling the planet’s worst humanitarian disaster. Indeed, last week the world body issued its largest-ever donor appeal for a single country to battle the worsening crisis there, caused by freezing temperatures, frozen assets, and the cold reception the Taliban have received from the international community since they took over last summer.

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What We’re Watching: China's problems, UAE vs Houthis, Nord Stream 2 split

China's mounting problems. Xi Jinping is not off to a good start in 2022. First, Chinese economic growth slowed down to 4 percent in the last quarter of 2021, almost a percentage point less than the previous period. While annual GDP was up 8.1 percent year-on-year, beating government expectations, the trend is worrying for the world’s second-largest economy. Second, annual population growth fell in 2021 to its lowest rate since 1949, when the ruling Communist Party took over. Although Xi probably saw this one coming, he's running out of ideas to encourage Chinese families to have more children — which the government needs in order to sustain growth and support the elderly over the long term. Third, and most immediate: the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics canceled ticket sales for domestic spectators — foreigners were not invited — as the more transmissible omicron variant has driven up COVID infections in China to the highest level since March 2020. It's only the latest sign that Xi's controversial zero-COVID policy is setting itself up for failure against omicron without mRNA vaccines. What'll it take for China to reverse course?

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Hard Numbers: Tongan volcano, Ukrainian cyberattack, Zemmour fined over hate speech, NK-China border reopens

100,000: We're still waiting for news from the Pacific nation of Tonga, two days after a massive underwater volcanic explosion triggered a tsunami that was felt thousands of miles away and sent a plume of ash 100,000 feet into the sky. With communications mostly cut off, Australia and New Zealand have sent airplanes to assess the damage.

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Iran’s nuclear program runs hotter

Talks between Iran’s government and world powers over the future of Iran’s nuclear program continue. The US and Iran are still not communicating directly; Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia are shuttling between them.

The good news is that they’re all still talking. The bad news is that, after eight rounds of negotiations, the main players haven’t agreed on anything that would constitute a breakthrough.

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Omicron is here. The bad news is that it's more contagious. The good news is that mRNA vaccines work against death and hospitalization. COVID may soon become endemic in some parts of the world.

Not in China, where Xi Jinping's zero-COVID approach faces its toughest test to date with omicron. Why? Because China lacks mRNA jabs, and so few Chinese people have gotten COVID that overall protection is very low.

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January 6 laid bare "the deep divisions, the partisan infighting, the polarization within our society," says Fiona Hill, the former US senior director of the National Security Council. In a GZERO World interview, she spoke with Ian Bremmer about her concerns about the state of democracy in the United States.

Hill famously testified against her impeached boss, Donald Trump, who stayed in power after being acquitted by the Senate of abuse of power and obstructing Congress. She also notes that divisions actually make America look weaker on the global stage — particularly to someone like Russia’s president Vladimir Putin.

Watch this episode of GZERO World: American strife: Will US democracy survive? Fiona Hill explains post-Jan 6 stakes

Kevin Allison, director of geotech at Eurasia Group, is concerned about the rise of very powerful tech companies disrupting centuries of geopolitics led by the nation-state.

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