What We're Watching: Coronavirus cases soar, Ethiopia hits free speech

What We're Watching: Coronavirus cases soar, Ethiopia hits free speech

Coronavirus flare up: Officials in China's Hubei Province on Thursday added almost 15,000 new reported cases of coronavirus to their tally, the largest single-day increase on record. That brings the total number of cases in the outbreak epicenter to nearly 50,000. This week's steep increase highlights how difficult it is for Chinese health workers to grasp the scope and severity of the deadly illness and it has also raised doubts about the Chinese government's transparency and preparedness: specialized kits for diagnosing the infection are in short supply in Hubei. As the human and economic toll of the virus continues to rise (there are now more than 60,000 reported cases worldwide) the World Health Organization says that a coronavirus vaccine is still at least 18 months away.


Ethiopia stifles free speech: Ahead of national elections slated for August, Ethiopia's parliament has passed a bill that prescribes up to five years in prison for anyone who posts or shares online content that might stir social unrest. It's a seeming step back for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who came to power in 2018 promising to spearhead Ethiopia's democratic awakening and has since released thousands of political prisoners and journalists while lifting the country's ban on opposition parties. But recent months have also seen a resurgence of religious and ethnic tensions that have left dozens dead and displaced more than two million people. Proponents of the new social media law say it's necessary in order to avoid violence in the run-up to elections. But the law's critics, including the United Nations, say it's a flagrant violation of free speech.

This classic love letter from Angela Merkel: She was a young chemist. He was a bored young KGB agent. This Valentine's Day, we are rewatching the missed connection that may have shaped our world.

What We're (trying to) Ignore

Two rich guys destroying each other on Twitter: US President Donald Trump says media tycoon and presidential hopeful Michael Bloomberg is short and boring. Bloomberg, former mayor of New York, says Trump is a fraud and a laughing-stock in his own hometown. As Bloomberg storms into the fragmented field of Democratic presidential contenders, you can expect a lot more of this in the coming months, particularly if Bloomberg rises in the polls. Try to ignore it, just try.

A blue graphic using 1's and 0's to form an image of roads leading into a city

Governments, civil society and industry are beginning to understand the value of data to society in much the same way they considered the importance of thoroughfares 200 years ago. Just as these roads ushered in a new era of physical infrastructure that helped society thrive then, today we are beginning to understand the need to invest in modern approaches to our data infrastructure that will enhance economic growth and innovation, support individual empowerment and protect us from harm. Just as our physical infrastructure of roads and highways needs to be used appropriately, maintained and protected, so does our data infrastructure.

To maximize the benefits and minimize the harms of our data use, we need privacy regulations to serve as our global rules of the road that preserve our ability to use and share data across borders, supported by innovative tools and solutions that protect privacy and empower individuals. As we reframe our focus to support data use, let’s examine the regulatory approaches that have been working, and develop new approaches where needed to enable the responsible use and sharing of data. To read more about Microsoft’s approach to protecting data infrastructure, visit Microsoft on the Issues.

Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, our parent company, has opened this year’s GZERO Summit with a provocative speech on the near future of international politics. Here are the highlights.

Are the United States and China now locked in a new form of Cold War? Their governments behave as if they are.

But Bremmer isn’t buying it. He’s not predicting that Washington and Beijing will become more cooperative with one another, but that both will be too preoccupied with historic challenges at home in coming years to wage a full-time international struggle.

In Washington, the main worry will be for America’s broken political system. US politics is becoming even more tribalized as TV and online media target politically like-minded consumers with hyperpartisan news coverage. Widening wealth inequality fuels the fire by separating white and non-white, urban and rural, and the more educated from the less educated. Deepening public mistrust of political institutions will fuel future fights over the legitimacy of US elections.

Beijing’s burden centers on how to extend decades of economic gains while moving away from a growth model that no longer works, as higher wages in China and more automation in factories elsewhere cut deeply into China’s manufacturing advantages. China is still a middle-income country. To reach the prosperity level of wealthy nations, it needs 6-7 percent growth for another 20 years.

But China must spend less in coming years to keep giant, deeply indebted companies afloat and more to care for the largest population of elderly people in history. And its leaders must accomplish this at a time when China’s people expect ever-rising levels of prosperity from their government.

The domestic distraction of US and Chinese leaders will create new opportunities for European, Japanese, Canadian, Indian and other political and business leaders to contribute toward international problem-solving. But other governments aren’t the only new players stepping into this power vacuum.

Technology companies are fast becoming important geopolitical actors. We’re entering a world in which economic winners and losers, election outcomes, and national security will depend on choices made by both governments and by the world’s big tech firms.

Bremmer calls this a “techno-polar moment.”

The idea is simple but transformative: Just as governments make the laws that determine what can happen in the physical world, tech companies have final authority in a digital world that’s becoming both more expansive and more immersive.

The biggest tech companies will establish sovereignty by defining the digital space and its boundaries, the algorithms that determine what happens within that space, and the “terms and conditions” that decide who gets to operate in this world.

For skeptics, Bremmer poses this question: Who will do more to influence the outcome of next year’s US midterm congressional elections: The president of the United States or the CEO of Meta? According to Bremmer, since the vote will be influenced by both real-world rules changes and the online flow of information, the answer isn’t obvious.

How will tech companies try to expand their power? Some will behave as “globalists” by trying to reach consumers and influence politics everywhere.

Others will act as “national champions” by aligning with individual governments and their goals.

Still, others will behave as “techno-utopians,” companies that expect historical forces and tech innovations to help them replace governments in important ways.

The relative success of these models over the next decade will decide how government and tech companies share power over the longer-term and whether democracy or autocracy will have the upper hand.

What’s to be done? “Think adaptation, not surrender,” says Bremmer. Steps can be taken to limit the sometimes negative influence of tech companies in the political lives of democracies. But just as climate change can be limited but not avoided, so we must understand and adapt to a world in which governments and tech companies compete for influence over our lives.

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

I want to talk about Russia. And you will, of course, be hearing all of the stories about Russia gearing up for a war with Ukraine, taking more territory. The Americans saying don't do it, but not setting up any clear red lines. What's actually going on here? Well, it's worth going back to the last that Biden and Putin met with each other. That was in Geneva back in mid-June. And you'll remember that Biden snapped at the end of the meeting and the press conference. He was asked by someone, "How come you trust Russia, you trust Putin?" And he said, "I don't trust Putin. We'll see what happens over the coming months." Now at that point, Ukraine was not the big topic that was being discussed.

This was on the back of the attacks, the cyberattacks against Colonial Pipeline in the United States, clearly coming from criminal gangs in Russia, operating with the full knowledge of the Kremlin. And the big takeaway from the meeting, from the summit, from Biden was telling Putin, "look, you need to put a stop to this because if you don't, they're going to be direct consequences." A stop to what? A stop specifically to cyberattacks emanating from Russia, even if not directly from the Kremlin against critical infrastructure in the United States. Not espionage, which the United States does as well, of course. Not attacks, malware attacks against noncritical infrastructure, which is an annoyance, which the American would like to put an end to. But which Biden was not saying was a red line, but specifically critical infrastructure. And indeed, it's been several months now, almost six months and there has been movement. There has been some progress.

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Ian Bremmer shares his insights on global politics this week with a look at Biden and Putin's talk, the US boycott of the Beijing Olympics, and the omicron variant.

As Presidents Biden and Putin meet, how are US-Russia relations at the moment?

They're pretty bad. I mean, I would say compared to China where we have lots of mutual interdependence, in the case of Russia, that is not the case at all. The United States does not need Russia economically. The Russians feel like the present geopolitical order, especially in their backyard really doesn't suit them. And Putin also feels like he has more ability to press the Americans harder because Merkel is leaving; energy prices are high. And also because the Europeans coming into winter need Russian gas much more. So for all those reasons, this is going to be a much stroppier, chippier meeting, if you don't mind me using those terms, than we would've seen last time they met in Geneva back in June.

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The Taliban claims they will allow women and children to go to school, but that reality has not been realized, says Afghan education activist Pashtana Durrani.

The last time that she spoke with Ian Bremmer on GZERO World, she was in hiding, moving location to location, in order to avoid the Taliban as they took over the country. Now safely in the US after fleeing Afghanistan in October, she is working as a senior fellow at Wellesley College and continuing her work on girls education in the country she fled. Her nonprofit, LEARN, has started emergency relief programs for women and children facing malnutrition and starvation.

“I'll believe them when they open schools for girls. I will believe them when they open working spaces for girls. I'll believe them when they actually walk the talk instead of them claiming whatever they do,” she said in a new interview on GZERO World.

Watch Ian Bremmer's State of the World 2021 speech live on December 6

WATCH LIVE: Join us Dec 6 at 8 pm ET to hear Ian Bremmer's unique perspective on the most pressing geopolitical events shaping politics, business, and society in our "GZERO" world.

Ian's State of the World speech will examine:

  • Are the US and China engaged in a cold war?
  • How powerful have tech companies become on the global stage?
  • Is there hope for the world to unite to fight climate change and other shared challenges?
A Q&A session with Ian follows, moderated by Julia Chatterley, anchor and correspondent at CNN International. Tweet your questions for Ian to @gzeromedia using the hashtag #SOTW.
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What We’re Watching: Biden and Putin chat, Scholz takes the reins in Germany, Remain in Mexico returns, Pécresse enters the French fray, Suu Kyi learns her fate

World War III or nah? US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are set to speak by phone on Tuesday, as the crisis surrounding Ukraine gets dicier by the day. Russia has massed more than 100,000 troops along its border with the country, and the US is warning that Putin is gearing up to invade soon, though the underlying intel isn’t public. No one is quite sure what Putin’s up to with this stunt. Is he trying to pressure Kyiv into moving ahead with the lopsided (but probably best possible) Minsk peace accords of 2015? Or is the Kremlin seeking a broader NATO commitment not to expand further? Or does Putin actually want to invade Ukraine? Either way, Biden has his work cut out for him. Putin is clearly more comfortable risking lives and money to preserve a sphere of influence in Ukraine than the West is, so the US president has to be careful: don’t set out any red lines that NATO isn’t willing to back, but also don’t push the situation into a broader war that no one (ideally) wants.

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 The Beijing 2022 logo is seen outside the headquarters of the Beijing Organising Committee for the 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in Shougang Park, the site of a former steel mill, in Beijing, China, November 10, 2021

US government reps will boycott Beijing Olympics. The US announced Monday that American government officials will not attend the Beijing Winter Olympics. China responded to reports of the diplomatic boycott by saying that the move is a “naked political provocation” and an affront to China’s 1.4 billion people. For months, the Biden administration has toyed with whether to skip the Beijing Games because of China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and elsewhere. Washington, however, has not banned US athletes from competing, which would be a major escalation at a time when US-China relations are at their lowest point in years. Still, from Beijing’s perspective, the move is humiliating and a blow to its prestige on the world stage, particularly if other countries follow suit and pull their representatives, too. Beijing vowed Monday to hit Washington with “countermeasures” if it goes ahead with the diplomatic boycott, though it’s unclear what the CCP might whip up as payback.

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