Welcome to Friday, where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded to two journalists risking their lives in Russia and the Philippines, the U.S. pushes the Iran nuclear deal back on the table, and a Swiss CEO is ousted after offering a different kind of COVID incentive to employees. From rural Sweden, we also look at how a new-age festival has become a touchstone for debate among new-age communities who don't trust the COVID vaccine.
Taiwan, keeping calm and watching China
Despite a recent record number of Chinese military jets approaching Taiwanese air space, both citizens and leaders in the island nation have developed a method for living with the threat of an invasion from China, writes Wen-Ti Sung in the Conversation, with excerpts below:
China has been flying a record number of military aircrafts into Taiwan's "air defense identification zone" in recent days, heightening regional concerns about the risk of military escalation or even an outright war.
Taiwanese people are largely alert, but not alarmed. So, why are the Taiwanese not losing their minds over what seems to be intensifying "drums of war"?
It comes down to familiarity with China's pattern of military pressure tactics, as well as a general alarm fatigue from decades of exposure.
Why is China flying so many jets near Taiwan?
Many Taiwanese see the Chinese military display as more of a show than a preparation for an all-out invasion. There are several reasons being China's "show of force" in recent days, pointing to short- and medium-term goals.
Domestically, the military pressure serves Chinese President Xi Jinping's propaganda and political agenda. Xi's defining political idea is promoting the "China Dream" to his people, which partly entails becoming "a strong nation with a strong army".
China had just had its National Day celebration on October 1, and a public show of force is a visual embodiment of that narrative. China's nationalist Global Times newspaper even went so far as to call the flight incursions a form of National Day "military parade".
Another reason why Taiwanese people are not very alarmed by the increasing number of Chinese warplanes is simply the law of diminishing impact over time.
People are used to this type of low-intensity Chinese military provocation. In fact, they have been living in the near-constant presence of Chinese military and diplomatic pressure for over a quarter century.
In the run-up to Taiwan's first direct presidential election in 1996, China's People's Liberation Army conducted massive missile tests in the waters near Taiwan, which strongly hinted at a possible invasion.
Since then, China has frequently staged military exercises around Taiwan, including flying military jets into the island's vicinity. These are intended to underscore the risks of potential war and caution Taiwan against crossing Beijing's "red lines".
Chinese state television, for example, once published a video of the Zhurihe training drills of 2015, which included footage of Chinese soldiers assaulting a building that bore a remarkable resemblance to Taiwan's presidential office.
This long-standing Chinese strategy of brinkmanship theatre has been a double-edged sword. It has encouraged pragmatism in Taiwan's pursuit of a stronger identity on the global stage, but it has also alienated many Taiwanese from Beijing.
Then why does Beijing still resort to these alienating tactics, if unification is the ultimate goal?
One explanation is Beijing places a higher priority on deterring Taiwan's further movement towards independence than promoting unification, so it is willing to trade the latter for the former. In other words, Beijing may simply not be as zealous about pursuing unification in the near-term.
Instead, keeping an eye on the long game, Beijing is willing to risk short- to medium-term costs in losing hearts and minds in Taiwan. The hope is, in time, it can eventually regain the initiative. For this reason, being able to deter further movement towards independence may be sufficient to buy China much-needed time.
So what is Beijing's ultimate plan?
According to hawkish General Qiao Liang, the plan is "strategic patience".
This means waiting until the cross-strait military balance tilts further in China's favor, using the military option only when it can comprehensively overwhelm Taiwan and disincentivise or even deny American military intervention.
— Wen-Ti Sung / The Conversation
🌎 7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW
• Nobel Peace Prize: Journalists Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov jointly win the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for their courageous fight for freedom of expression, in the Philippines and Russia respectively.
• U.S. nuclear submarine collision: A U.S. nuclear submarine struck an "unknown object" while operating in international waters in the South China Sea, injuring about a dozen sailors. US officials said there were no life-threatening injuries and the submarine was still fully operational. The incident occurred amidst rising tension in the region.
• Nigeria hostage rescue: 187 people kidnapped by armed groups in Zamfara State, in dense forests of northwestern Nigeria, have been rescued by Nigerian security agents during raids on camps of criminal gangs. The victims had been captured during separate attacks, police say.
• U.S. calls for "imminent" return to nuclear talks with Iran: The Biden administration has called for an imminent return to talks in Vienna to revive the Iran nuclear deal with Iran, which had been on ice since June's election of a new hardline Iranian president. Persian-language Kayhan-London writes that Iran thinks it has the West cornered after making significant progress on weapon development.
• South Sudan flooding affects more than 600,000: Torrential rains cause rivers to flow affecting at least 623,000 people in South Sudan since May, deluging houses and farms in eight of the country's 10 states, and forcing many to flee their home, the United Nations said.
• Tesla HQ heads to Texas: The electric car manufacturer, Tesla, plans to move its headquarters from Silicon Valley in California to Austin, Texas where it is building a massive car and battery manufacturing complex, announced CEO Elon Musk.
• Māori in Antarctica: 700-year-old soot preserved in ice found by researchers in Antarctica was linked to fires set in New Zealand by Māori settlers, the islands' first human inhabitants. The researchers say the finding is an example of early humanity's environmental impact.
🗞️ FRONT PAGE
TIME magazine dedicates its front page to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as revelations from whistleblower Frances Haugen about the company prioritizing profits over the safety of its users could spark stricter regulations of the social media.
Poland's constitutional court has ruled that some European Union treaties and rulings go against the country's law. The ruling has led some to qualify the decision as setting the country on the path to Polexit (a hard-to-pronounce portmanteau combining "Poland" and "exit"). Warsaw and Brussels have recently locked horns over changes to the Polish court system, which the EU sees as damaging to democratic checks and balances.
📰 STORY OF THE DAY
"Conspirituality" is what some are calling the movement of those spirituality seekers and organic food devotees who don't trust the vaccine. It's highlighted in the fallout from a summer peace-and-love festival of Tantra followers that became a COVID cluster.
🦠 In rural Sweden, what was supposed to be six days of summer love turned into a COVID-19 superspreader event as more than 100 people became infected during a tantra festival. At the time, the June gathering in the town of Ängsbacka for enthusiasts of the peace-and-love eastern rites created a minor storm in Sweden. But even though they have mostly faded from view, the attendees are now being mocked as everything from filthy hippies to sex-obsessed anti-vaxxers, according to a recent interview with event organizer Lin Holmquist in Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter.
💉 The outbreak caused such a spike in regional COVID-19 rates that neighboring Norway announced it would once again classify Värmland as a "red region." Holmquist said in the Oct. 2 interview that the majority of people attending her events are, in fact, vaccinated. Nonetheless, she understands why the public might draw such conclusions. As The Australian daily reported, the blend of new-age philosophy and conspiracy theory has grown at an extraordinary rate since the beginning of the pandemic — an unlikely collision of realms increasingly referred to as "conspirituality."
🙏 In countries around the world, both misinformation and general anti-vaccine messages are spread by social media influencers who focus on natural remedies, holistic health and new-age spirituality. In the U.S., reports of various forums of wellness influencers spreading conspiracy theories like QAnon have multiplied throughout the year. This pandemic-fueled turn from alternative religion and medicine to alternative facts is in a sense counterintuitive, especially as new-age spiritually emerged in the 19th century as a response to the challenge science posed to Christianity.
➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com
"Come on, get out of here!"
— Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah told the BBC he originally thought the phone call informing him he'd won his year's the Nobel Prize for Literature was a prank.
❗❓ WHAT THE WORLD
Swiss start-up CEO ousted after offering bonus to unvaccinated employees
In recent months, governments and companies around the world have used a variety of incentives to boost vaccination rates — from cash to free beer to a live cow. But in Switzerland, a startup CEO chose to do the exact opposite, encouraging his staff not to get vaccinated and rewarding them with a big fat Swiss francs bonus.
As Swiss online media Heidi.News reports, Daniel Héritier, CEO of Opeo — a company near Lausanne specializing in the sale of containers and waste collection —, sent an internal memo offering a 1,000 Swiss francs ($1,077) bonus to any employee who chooses not to get vaccinated by March 31, 2022. This, as the note reads, to thank them for "not having yielded to this [vaccination] dictatorship which is genocide".
Héritier later tried to justify his action, saying he only aimed at "restoring equity" in the face of COVID measures, which he felt were "unfair to the unvaccinated." Despite his justification, Héritier was promptly fired by Opeo's board of directors, who stated they were in "total disagreement" with the CEO's anti-vaxx stance.
➡️ Keep up with all the planet's police reports and plot twists on Worldcrunch.com
📸 PHOTO DU JOUR
Movie theaters reopened across Nepal after an 18-month closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic. — Photo: Skanda Gautam/ZUMA
✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger
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.
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
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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