What We're Watching: The NBA's Double Dribble With China

The NBA and the PRC – When the world's largest consumer market is also an opaque, highly nationalistic autocracy, global businesses have to walk a fine line between their values and their valuations. The latest example comes from the world of basketball. Over the weekend, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, a team in the US-based National Basketball Association (NBA), posted an image on Twitter in support of the Hong Kong protesters, who are currently fighting pitched street battles against the Chinese state. But after Chinese sponsors and state broadcasters immediately pulled the plug on Rockets games, the NBA issued a statement distancing itself from the post and apologizing for any offense it had caused in China. That contrasted markedly with the NBA's more supportive stance of its players' views on social justice issues in the US. The cold math here isn't hard – China is a billion-strong basketball-crazed market whose leaders, and people, are touchy about outside criticism. But should the NBA use its platform to speak out on global issues like this? What do you think?


Fresh Protests Against Lenin – Ecuador has been rocked by increasingly violent protests and strikes in recent days as people take to the streets to vent their anger about higher prices for gas and other consumer goods. President Lenin Moreno was once a devoted vice president to the socialist leader Rafael Correa, but since winning the presidency himself in 2017 he has pursued austerity policies (lower spending, higher taxes, fewer government jobs) designed to rein in the country's debt and stabilize the economy with IMF help. A recent decision to abolish fuel subsidies provoked the current unrest. In addition to cracking down on the protests, the government has been arresting shopkeepers for overcharging people for staple foods subject to price controls. A two-month state of emergency has been declared.

North Korea-US Talks Back on Ice – Evidently it took all of 8.5 hours for the latest round of nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang to break down. Ahead of the weekend talks in Sweden, things seemed to be promising: for one thing, the White House no longer employs John Bolton, who ferociously opposed talks with North Korea. For another, the US reportedly arrived with a proposal to lift some sanctions for 36 months in exchange for the verifiable closure of North Korea's main nuclear facility. But the North Koreans, who insist on a full removal of sanctions, said the meetings were "sickening." The US now has two weeks to come back to Sweden with something more appetizing. President Trump seems to want another summit with Kim Jong-un before the 2020 election, but – as with several other outstanding foreign policy issues – time is running out to seal a "deal" that he can point to in his campaign.

What We're Ignoring

Putin Picking Mushrooms – Russia's president spent the days leading up to his 67th birthday hiking through southern Siberia's rugged and richly forested landscapes with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Just two ordinary fellas enjoying the bounty of nature. Putin's vacation pictures are always carefully choreographed by Kremlin imagemakers (imedzhmeikerstvo is a real word in Russian), so there is clearly a political point to portraying Putin in this way. But we are ignoring this because we preferred the ones where he drove a Formula 1 car, shot a tiger, or disguised himself as a mommy Siberian white crane in order to lead a flock of the endangered birds on migration.

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How did an entire country's media spread false news for a night?

Fascinating case study in France over the weekend. For less than a day, we thought that the most wanted men in the country had been caught in Scotland. Turned out to be a case of mistaken identity. The so-called news was actually reported quite carefully at first, on Friday night with careful words. But the language quickly moved from conditional to categorical and therefore, to misinformation through human error. What you have here is the tension between being first and being right, which has always been present in journalism but is more and more as you have these 24 hour news channels, social media, and the incredible economic pressure on news sites that are advertising based and therefore click based.

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Donald Trump announced a fresh "phase 1" trade deal with China last week, part of his ongoing bid to reduce the United States' huge trade deficit with China. The US has been buying more from China than China buys from the US for decades, but since coming into office Trump has made reducing that deficit central to his "America First" agenda. It's not easy to do. Consider that in 2018, after two full years of the Trump administration, the trade deficit with China actually swelled to its highest level since the Clinton years. That's because many perfectly healthy economic factors contribute to a trade deficit: stronger economic growth under Trump has meant more demand for foreign goods, so as long as the economy keeps humming along, it will be hard for Trump to reduce the deficit. Likewise, the strong US dollar makes foreign goods cheaper for US consumers to import, while China's own economic slowdown in 2018 decreased Chinese demand for American goods. For a historical perspective on all of this, here's a look at how the US-China trade balance has developed under each US president going back to 1993.

On Friday, we detailed the main arguments for and against President Trump's decision to withdraw US troops from a pocket of northern Syria where their presence had protected Washington's Kurdish allies against an attack from Turkey. We then asked Signal readers to let us know what they thought.

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Dangerous Chaos in Syria – Turkey's military move into northern Syria had two stated goals: to push Kurdish fighters inside Syria further from Turkey's border and to create a "safe zone" inside Syria in which Turkey could place up to two million Syrian refugees currently living in camps inside Turkey. But the Kurds have now allied with Syria's army, which is backed by Russia, and these forces are now moving north into that same territory toward Turkish troops and Arab militias backed by Ankara. Meanwhile, large numbers of ISIS fighters and their families have escaped prisons where Kurds had held them captive. Turkey's President Erdogan vows to press ahead with his operation until "ultimate victory is achieved." Pandora's Box is now wide open.

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