In The News

U.S.-Taliban Talks, China-Taiwan Tensions, Coconuts And Prayers

U.S.-Taliban Talks, China-Taiwan Tensions, Coconuts And Prayers

Tunisia: Demonstration against President Kais Saied's coup

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hallo!*

Welcome to Monday, where American and Taliban negotiators sat down for the first time since the U.S. withdrawal, Taiwan's president pushes back on China threats and a couple is accused of selling nuclear submarine secrets. We also look at the migratory path of the international bubble tea craze.



U.S. and Taliban talks: Delegates from the Taliban and the United States have held "candid and professional" talks in the Qatari capital in the first face-to-face meeting since the hardline group took over Afghanistan, according to a U.S. official. Over the two-day discussions, the Taliban called for international recognition. Meanwhile, the U.S focused on security, "terrorism concerns", women's rights, and evacuations from Afghanistan.

COVID update: Sydney celebrates the end of 107-day lockdown as Australia aims to begin "living with" COVID-19. Cafes, gyms, and restaurants welcomed back fully vaccinated people after almost four months of closing. In the U.S., drugmaker Merck announced it has asked the Food and Drug Administration to authorize emergency use of its experimental antiviral pill to treat COVID-19.

Protests in Poland amid Polexit fear: More than 100,000 Poles rallied in support of European Union membership after the country's constitutional court ruled that parts of EU law are incompatible with their constitutions. This decision, refusing any European control over Polish laws, could mark the first step towards "Polexit."

Iraq's election turnout was 41%: Polls have closed in Iraq's parliamentary election with some 41% of eligible voters casting their ballots. This is the lowest turnout since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, highlighting the growing disillusionment among Iraqis who view the political system as dysfunctional and their leaders as incompetent.

Nobel Prize economy: The Nobel Prize for economics was awarded to three U.S-based economists who used "natural experiments" in their work. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences cited David Card, Guido Imbens, and Joshua Angrist for having "completely reshaped empirical work in the economics sciences."

U.S. couple accused of selling nuclear submarine secrets: A U.S. Navy nuclear engineer and his wife have been charged with trying to sell nuclear secrets to what they thought was a foreign state. Jonathan Toebbe and his wife Diana were arrested in West Virginia on Saturday, the Justice Department announced.

Coconuts and prayers: Lost at sea for 29 days, two men from the Solomon Islands have been rescued off the coast of Papua New Guinea 400 kilometers (250 miles) away from their starting point. The duo said they survived on coconuts from the sea, oranges they had brought, rainwater they collected, and prayers.


"Exchange of chancellors saves the coalition," titles Austrian daily Salzburger Nachrichten, reporting on the resignation of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz this weekend following revelations he was under investigation for corruption. He will be replaced by Austria's Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg, to save the governing coalition between his conservative party and the Greens.


Taiwan to Hong Kong to L.A., birth of bubble tea culture

Originating in Taiwan, bubble tea is an internationally beloved, tapioca-based drink is about more than consummation — it's an entire culture, reports Zhang Yan in Chinese-language digital media The Initium.

🥤 According to Alan Yu, founder of Lollicup, a restaurant chain as well a major supplier of North America's raw tapioca material, at least 20,000 stores in the U.S. specialize in this drink, and the tea is also sold in an additional 30,000 restaurants. Even fast-food chains such as Sonic Burgers, Chilli's and Taco are Mr. Yu's clients for raw materials. They all aim to profit off boba tea which has gone far beyond the Chinese-speaking diaspora to become a trendy drink among mainstream American yuppies and young people.

🧑🤝🧑 Considered "bars for minors," boba tea stores are places where youngsters from migrant families can gather with their friends after school. "Most of the boba tea stores' customers are teenagers. After going to SAT classes, they meet up there. This is a place to cram for exams, but also a place for dates and being broken-hearted. In this space, they can feel a sense of belonging, which surpasses the meaning of milk tea itself as a drink," says Clarissa Wei, a foodie writer born in Taiwan but who grew up in Los Angeles.

🌏 Born in the U.S. in 1984, Philip Wang is a second-generation Taiwanese American and a renowned YouTuber. He still recalls his teenage years when the term "Asian pride" was on everyone's lips. It was the moment when Japanese animation and South Korean pop music entered the U.S., and Asian Americans were increasingly asserting themselves as the export of Asian pop culture confronted a mainstream American culture that was overwhelmingly white. "For the first time, boba tea made me feel there was a cultural product belonging to the Asian community in the United States", said Philip Wang.

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"There should be absolutely no illusions that the Taiwanese people will bow to pressure."

— During National Day celebrations yesterday, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen pushed back on recent aggressive words and actions from mainland China. Tsai warned that Taiwan is facing the "most complex situation" since the end of the Chinese civil war 72 years ago. Her speech came days after China flew record numbers of warplanes near the island nation and Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed to pursue what Beijing called "reunification" with Taiwan by peaceful means. Tsai said that Taiwan will not "act rashly," but will do whatever's necessary to defend its sovereignty.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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