Tehran Postcard: What Has Rouhani Changed In One Year?

On Valiasr Street, Tehran's longest avenue.
On Valiasr Street, Tehran's longest avenue.
Claudio Gallo

TEHRAN — A trip down the 19 kilometers of Valiasr Street, the avenue that splits Tehran in two, is like walking through a metaphor for Iranian society. At one end, by the railway station on Rahahan Square, the houses are narrow and tatty; but continue towards Tajrish Square, and glass skyscrapers and shining buildings rise on the horizon.

On the south side of the city, people cling to the politics born from the 1979 Islamic Revolution. In the opulent north, improbable dreams have carried the liberals in a country where 70% of businesses are state-owned.

It is said that the rich and the poor are stuck together in the same boat, both victims of the crisis and sanctions that have strangled the country. But there are obvious differences — and that’s without even counting the wheeler-dealers who made serious money from the embargoes, and can now be seen cruising around the city in their Porsches.

Skyscrapers on Valiasr Street, near Saei Park — Photo: KeroseneHalo

The restaurants on the sides of the square in front of the train station seem like they’re all part of the same house. The people here voted en masse in the past for former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, even if they’re not so convinced anymore.

Even in 2009, when the unfit head of state was reelected for a second time, petrol cost around 4.5 euro cents per liter — now it’s closer to 25. The sanctions have crippled foreign trade, oil, banks, and shipping; and thanks to the effects of Ahmadinejad’s political and economic suicide, the official inflation rate is 32.5%.

One year ago, President Hassan Rouhani was elected to pick up the pieces of the country, a tremendous challenge that both the nuclear deal and the future of the sanctions weigh upon.

In this kind of emergency, democracy is the least of people's worries, though some attempts have been made — like when the president said that the Internet shouldn’t be censored. But the truth is that it isn’t Rouhani who gets to decide. It’s the State powers, such as the judiciary, who seem to have but one goal: limit the government’s actions.

Vultures, conservatives and the Revolutionary Guards watch the new president's every move, in silence, ready to raise their voices in case of signs of failure.

Still, the first results from Rouhani’s presidency can be seen in the numbers. This year the GDP will increase by 1.5%, after having fallen 5.6% in 2012 and 1.7% the previous year.

While progress can be seen statistically, it hasn’t yet arrived into the Iranian people’s daily lives.

Choking on sanctions

"Nothing has changed for me," says Karim, sneering out from under his white mustache as he carries a plastic bag with bread and a bottle of fruit juice. From Golestan, near Iran's northern border with Turkmenistan, this 60-year-old is just passing through the capital.

Traffic jam on Valiasr Street — Photo: jez s

"Enough with these damned sanctions, let us breathe," he shouts.

In front of a drug store, three men are smoking and chatting. Jalal, 57, speaks for the others: "Ahmadinejad, Rouhani — they’re both the same. Neither of them is prepared and we’re sinking," he says, exhaling both smoke and pessimism. "The sanctions? Of course if they lift them … but they won’t and it will be worse than before."

Zahra, 34, emerges from the Vali-ye Asr shopping mall with heavy make-up and a tight gray coat. "I see no difference. Everything has gone up in price: Electricity costs 25% more, water 30% more, and now they have also doubled the price of a bus ticket. I don’t believe in a deal with Obama," she says. "There is no end to the Americans' demands — they just want to humiliate us."

Saina, 28, who speaks to me in English, says Iran's clerics are the real problem. "As long as they’re in power we’re screwed!" she says with a loud laugh.

Along the long, ancient wall of the Golestān Palace, where the Qajar dynasty ruled from, two young boys are clambering over a mulberry bush to get to the berries. Further on is the City Theater and the square that houses the Line 4 metro stop, shining in the sun with its steel and glass. Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf built this transport network for the eight million inhabitants of this city — 14 million if you include the greater metropolitan areas.

We’re now more or less halfway across Valiasr, the imaginary border that separates the rich part of the city from the poor. The number of metro lines, designed by the Chinese, has doubled from two to four, and finally the ring road is running well. Bridges, underpasses and new bus stops were constructed, and now it’s just the appalling pollution that seems like an invincible plague.

Morality play

Two young men emerge from the escalators: Nima, 22, and Pouya, 23. "The atmosphere here has gotten better," says Nima. "The morality police aren’t harassing us so much anymore, and the tourists have come back. But we’re from Isfahan, in the center of the country, and everything there is still closed."

As we head north, the shops become higher-end, the houses bigger and more modern, and the prices double — triple even. Mohammed, 50, is dressed in a suit and standing on Vanak Square outside the courthouse where he'd come to fill out papers for his divorce.

Down Valiasr Street — Photo: ninara

"Rouhani can’t perform miracles," he says. "He inherited a disastrous situation. It’s said that Ahmadinejad burnt $100 billion of foreign reserves. Of course, if they lifted the sanctions it would all come back, but I don’t know. I have little trust in the good faith of the Americans."

Marjane is 44, elegant and beautiful with her black Ray-Bans as she gets out of her white Toyota 4x4. Though she shows no sign of fear we'd seen in the past, there isn't much joy either. "Nothing has changed," she says. "Rouhani can’t do much. The Americans? Ah, they don’t want to make any deals, they only do what Israel says."

Tehran was once called the city of the plane trees: The northern part of Valiasr is lined with the trees that bend towards the center of the street, giving it a green canopy roof. There are more in Mellat Park, and Tajrish Square leans towards the Alborz mountains which rise from the Caspian Sea and divide Tehran. This is where Valiasr ends.

The Tehran Times recently reported that the number of European tourists has increased by 450%, and the larger hotels are full of foreign businessmen, nervously waiting in the starting blocks to restart the economy of a country of more than 83 million inhabitants.

Iran’s future lies in Vienna, where the next round of nuclear negotiations will begin on June 16. Everybody is wary of everybody else, but in the end the alternatives are more insidious and unreasonable than any possible agreement. The people of Tehran, however, know well that reason hasn't prevailed in these parts in a long time.

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How China Flipped From Tech Copycat To Tech Leader

Long perceived as a country chasing Western tech, China's business and technological innovations are now influencing the rest of the world. Still lagging on some fronts, the future is now up for grabs.

At the World Semiconductor Conference in Nanjing, China, on June 9

Emmanuel Grasland

BEIJING — China's tech tycoons have fallen out of favor: Jack Ma (Alibaba), Colin Huang (Pinduoduo), Richard Liu (Tencent) and Zhang Yiming (ByteDance) have all been pressured by Beijing to leave their jobs or step back from a public role. Their time may be coming to an end, but the legacy remains exceptional. Under their reign, China has become a veritable window to the global future of technology.

TikTok is the perfect example. Launched in 2016, the video messaging app has been downloaded over two billion times worldwide. It has passed the 100-million active user mark in the United States. Thanks to TikTok's success, ByteDance, its parent company, has reached an exceptional level of influence on the internet.

For a long time, the West viewed China's digital ecosystem as a cheap imitation of Silicon Valley. The European and American media described the giants of the Asian superpower as the "Chinese Google" or "Chinese Amazon." But the tables have turned.

No Western equivalent to WeChat

The Asian superpower has forged cutting-edge business models that do not exist elsewhere. It is impossible to find a Western equivalent to the WeChat super-app (1.2 billion users), which is used for shopping as much as for making a medical appointment or obtaining credit.

The flow of innovation is now changing direction.

The roles have actually reversed: In a recent article, Les Echos describes the California-based social network IRL, as a "WeChat of the Western world."

Grégory Boutté, digital and customer relations director at the multinational luxury group Kering, explains, "The Chinese digital ecosystem is incredibly different, and its speed of evolution is impressive. Above all, the flow of innovation is now changing direction."

This is illustrated by the recent creation of "live shopping" events in France, which are hosted by celebrities and taken from a concept already popular in China.

10,000 new startups per day

There is an explosion of this phenomenon in the digital sphere. Rachel Daydou, Partner & China General Manager of the consulting firm Fabernovel in Shanghai, says, "With Libra, Facebook is trying to create a financial entity based on social media, just as WeChat did with WeChat Pay. Facebook Shop looks suspiciously like WeChat's mini-programs. Amazon Live is inspired by Taobao Live and YouTube Shopping by Douyin, the Chinese equivalent of TikTok."

In China, it is possible to go to fully robotized restaurants or to give a panhandler some change via mobile payment. Your wallet is destined to be obsolete because your phone can read restaurant menus and pay for your meal via a QR Code.

The country uses shared mobile chargers the way Europeans use bicycles, and is already testing electric car battery swap stations to avoid 30 minutes of recharging time.

Michael David, chief omnichannel director at LVMH, says, "The Chinese ecosystem is permanently bubbling with innovation. About 10,000 start-ups are created every day in the country."

China is also the most advanced country in the electric car market. With 370 models at the end of 2020, it had an offering that was almost twice as large as Europe's, according to the International Energy Agency.

Photo of a phone's screen displaying the logo of \u200bChina's super-app WeChat

China's super-app WeChat

Omar Marques/SOPA Images/ZUMA

The whole market runs on tech

Luca de Meo, CEO of French automaker Renault, said in June that China is "ahead of Europe in many areas, whether it's electric cars, connectivity or autonomous driving. You have to be there to know what's going on."

As a market, China is also a source of technological inspiration for Western companies, a world leader in e-commerce, solar, mobile payments, digital currency and facial recognition. It has the largest 5G network, with more than one million antennas up and running, compared to 400,000 in Europe.

Self-driving cars offer an interesting point of divergence between China and the West.

Just take the number of connected devices (1.1 billion), the time spent on mobile (six hours per day) and, above all, the magnitude of data collected to deploy and improve artificial intelligence algorithms faster than in Europe or the United States.

The groundbreaking field of self-driving cars offers an interesting point of divergence between China and the West. Artificial intelligence guru Kai-Fu Lee explains that China believes that we should teach the highway to speak to the car, imagining new services and rethinking cities to avoid cars crossing pedestrians, while the West does not intend to go that far.

Still lagging in some key sectors

There are areas where China is still struggling, such as semiconductors. Despite a production increase of nearly 50% per year, the country produces less than 40% of the chips it consumes, according to official data. This dependence threatens its ambitions in artificial intelligence, telecoms and autonomous vehicles. Chinese manufacturers work with an engraving fineness of 28 nm or more, far from those of Intel, Samsung or TSMC. They are unable to produce processors for high-performance PCs.

China's aerospace industry is also lagging behind the West. There are also no Chinese players among the top 20 life science companies on the stock market and there are doubts surrounding the efficacy of Sinovac and Sinopharm's COVID-19 vaccines. As of 2019, the country files more patents per year than the U.S., but far fewer are converted into marketable products.

Beijing knows its weaknesses and is working to eliminate them. Adopted in March, the nation's 14th five-year plan calls for a 7% annual increase in R&D spending between now and 2025, compared with 12% under the previous plan. Big data aside, that is basic math anyone can understand.
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