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Geopolitics

China’s Bogus Death Counts And The Benefits Of Realpolitik

The insidious path of COVID-19 across the planet reminds us how small the world has become. Worldcrunch is delivering a daily update on this crisis from the best, most trusted international news sources — regardless of language or geography. To receive the daily Coronavirus global brief in your inbox, sign up here.

SPOTLIGHT: CHINA'S BOGUS DEATH COUNTS AND THE BENEFITS OF REALPOLITIK

Can China be trusted? The question, posed by its neighbors for centuries, has moved to the center of the world's political and economic agenda with Beijing's emergence the past decade as a virtual superpower. With the global pandemic of COVID-19, the trust factor now has taken on another set of implications, and gravity: Friday, after weeks of doubts about the impact of the virus, officials dramatically revised the death toll by 50% in Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the novel coronavirus is thought to have originated late last year.

The veracity of the death toll raises other questions about the management of the crisis, which has since spread to virtually every country in the world. Speaking to the Financial Times, French President Emmanuel Macron tersely said: "Given these differences, the choices made and what China is today, which I respect, let's not be so naive as to say it's been much better at handling this."

Indeed, the COVID-19 crisis marks an unforeseen turning point for China's place in the world, after 40 years of carefully weaving its soft power and imposing its manufacturing might. The country's initial response highlighted the one-party rule's capacities in enforcing a tough lockdown, which some saw as an opportunity for China to fill the void left by the U.S."s inaction and Europe's self-confessed woefully inadequate responses to the crisis.

But to be a true leader of the world pack, you also need trust. For large swathes of the population, coronavirus is — as U.S. President Trump put it several times before thinking better of it — a "Chinese virus," leading to reservations about how we can trust the country to successfully contain a pandemic it's seen as having unleashed. But as the South China Morning Post notes, more than the speculation surrounding the origin of the virus, it's Xi Jinping and his government "penchant for secrecy", silencing of whistleblowers and general tendency for covering up domestic problems that is losing China the world's trust and hampering any ambitions of bonafide Chinese leadership.

U.S. historian Hal Brands puts it bluntly in Bloomberg: No, in the long run, China cannot be trusted. Still, he says, that doesn't mean that the world shouldn't work hand-in-hand with Beijing. It has no choice, really, as scientific, medical, economic and social cooperation between nations is the only way out of the current situation. "A coronavirus detente," his piece concludes "could well be a good idea, so long as we keep its limitations in mind."

It is a keen reminder that the old precepts of realpolitik can, and sometimes must, be applied to unexpected events in the modern world. "Can we trust China?" may not be quite the right question to ask right now, but rather: "How can we still work with China, knowing fully well that we don't?"

— By Bertrand Hauger


THE SITUATION: 7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Revised tolls: Wuhan revises death toll by 1,290 to 3,869, an increase of 50% following updating reports and statistical reviews. China denies accusations it has covered up deaths. Meanwhile new figures in Ecuador suggest thousands could have died, far beyond 403 so far reported.

• Economic blows: For the first time in decades, China GDP shrinks by 6,8% in first three months of the year. In the U.S. 22 million jobless claims have been filed since the pandemic began. Stock markets nevertheless are heading toward second straight week of gains.

• Brazil health chief sacked: President Jair Bolsonaro fires Brazilian health minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta who defended social distancing measures.

• Crackdown on shutdown: Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte threatens to send military and police "like martial law" in Manila, following reports of an upsurge of cars on the capital's roads.

• "Lucky" break: Donald Trump's former personal attorney Michael Cohen will be released early from prison due to the pandemic.

• Back to (different) Earth: Three members of the International Space Station crew return to Earth after spending almost a year in space.

• E-virus: Google reveals Gmail blocks an average 18 million malicious COVID-19 related emails a day.

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Geopolitics

Worldcrunch Today, Jan. 8: Capitol Aftermath, Grounded Boeing, Electric Norway

Welcome to Friday, where a cop dies in the aftermath of Capitol mayhem, Boeing's fraud won't fly, and Norway hits an electrifying record. Meanwhile, Les Echos weighs the possibility that Asian populations are genetically more resistant to COVID.

SPOTLIGHT: FROM PINOCHET TO TRUMP, WHEN DEMOCRACY IS UNDER ATTACK

A dictator-in-waiting orchestrates a violent assault on the seat of government. Shots are fired. A stunned world watches what most agree is an attack on democracy itself, a rejection of what had long seemed self-evident: that a nation's health and prosperity depend on an orderly transfer of power from one elected leader to another.

Two days after the stunning scenes in Washington, I am reminded of those grainy images from a different historical chapter in another nation's capital, Santiago, Chile. It was nearly a half century ago when military forces, under the command of General Augusto Pinochet, launched their assault on the La Moneda presidential palace on Sept. 11, 1973.

In doing so, Pinochet and his collaborators toppled the democratically elected government of then-president Salvador Allende, who died in the mayhem and was quickly replaced by a military junta. Next came a wave of excruciating human rights abuses and a dictatorship, under Gen. Pinochet, that would last for 17 long years.

Chile was eventually able to reestablish a democratic system of government; but even now, more than three decades after the infamous strongman finally stepped aside, his legacy lives on. And while some credit Pinochet for planting the seeds of Chile's relative economic success, many others see him as a stain that's still in need of removal.

That ongoing debate was put to the test in a referendum last October on whether to scrap the country's constitution. And when the votes were tallied, the result wasn't even close. Nearly 80% of voters chose the apruebo (approve) option, backing efforts to dump the 40-year-old document despite uncertainties about how or when a new constitution will be drafted.

The result of the plebiscite was even more remarkable given that — as backers of the status quo point out — the constitution has, for all intents and purposes, already been rewritten thanks to numerous reforms and amendments by the democratic governments that succeeded Pinochet. But any lingering whiff of authoritarianism in the document was enough to welcome the opportunity to write a whole new constitution.

The assault on the Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump, who had refused to guarantee a seamless transfer of power after his defeat to Joe Biden, seems to mark a turning point in the American political system. And perhaps there are lessons to cull from Chile's recent history.

Unlike the United States, with its proud, uninterrupted tradition of democracy and a 234-year-old constitution that most Americans treat with a "holy book" kind of reverence, most Chileans understand that theirs is an imperfect system, one in need of constant revision and improvement.

And as an American who spent years living and working there, it was something I always admired. It stood in sharp contrast with the U.S. political mindset, where faith in the perceived genius of the system has inoculated it from meaningful and necessary reform.

The dictatorship in Chile, for its part, shattered any illusions about the inevitability of the systems of government that both preceded and eventually replaced it. In some ways, this was a good thing.

From voter suppression strategies to district redlining, corporate campaign financing, and an anachronistic electoral-college system that twice, in the span of just 16 years, sent men to the White House who failed to win the popular vote, there is much that can and should be improved in America's system of democracy.

Doing so, however, requires a bit of humility. Seeing its very seat of government breached was an ugly and embarrassing scene for the United States, and shocking for those around the world who look to the country as a model of democracy.

Fortunately, unlike back in Santiago all those years ago, it won't mark the start of a brutal dictatorship. Still, America would do well to see the riot in the Capitol for what it was: an urgent warning, and an opportunity to start making improvements to its system of democracy now, before it really is too late.

— Benjamin Witte

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Geopolitics

From Lula To Park To Zuma, Rough Times For Former Presidents

-Analysis-

The bigger they are, the harder they fall. Rarely has the old expression had as much global echo as it does this morning. Over the past 48 hours, no fewer than three former heads of state, in three different continents, have had to face judges over accusations of corruption.

In Brazil, South America's biggest country, there is no bigger name in politics than Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — better known as Lula. But the former president now has until this afternoon to turn himself in so he can begin serving a jail sentence of 12 years and one month.

The 72-year-old claims the charges are politically motivated and designed to prevent him from running for president in the next election, in October. The best defense, as another old saying goes, is always a good offense. And baffling as it might seem from abroad, given his long list of legal problems, Lula remains highly popular in Brazil: He has been leading in the polls ahead of the election so far, owing to a form of nostalgia for better times in a recession and crisis-hit Brazil, and to his — largely circumstantial, if not mythical — record on poverty.

Over the past 48 hours, no fewer than three former heads of state have had to face judges.

While it remains unclear whether Lula will hand himself over to the authorities, or push ahead with his bid to win a third term at the helm (and thus escape jail), many voices in Brazil, including the newspaper O Globo, are praising the judicial system for showing that "justice applies to everybody" and that the country's institutions are "strong." Lula's sentencing, the newspaper's editorial reads, "is the acme of an ethical cleaning-up process' that's still ongoing via the Car Wash operation.

Halfway across the world, in South Korea, another political bigwig, former president Park Geun-hye, was sentenced this morning to 24 years in prison and fined $16.9 million. A year ago, Park was the country's first democratically elected leader to be impeached. Like Lula, she denied wrongdoing and accused the judges of being biased against her. And just like in Brazil, corruption in South Korea goes well beyond these mediatized and recent cases.

Former South Koren President Park Geun-hye — Photo: KOREA.net

As The Economist notes, "corruption has long been a feature rather than a bug in South Korean politics." Indeed, "all four of South Korea's living ex-presidents have now either been convicted of corruption offences, or are in jail being tried or investigated for such crimes ... and three deceased presidents were also touched by corruption scandals."

For those keeping score, that's seven in a row for South Korea leaders — though current President Moon Jae-in looks like he's trying to put an end to this shameful tradition, having recently made anti-corruption a priority of his new government.

In South Africa, in the meantime, prosecutors this morning ruled that former president Jacob Zuma, who was forced to step down a month ago, will stand trial later this year on 16 different charges, including fraud, corruption and racketeering. Speaking to his supporters outside the court in the eastern coastal city of Durban, Zuma defended himself by — you guessed it — saying the charges were politically motivated. "I am being targeted because of my stand on radical economic transformation," news portal IOL quotes him as saying.

It also stands to reason that justice systems are susceptible to political persuasion.

Go back a few weeks, and it was Nicolas Sarkozy's turn to be charged with corruption and illegal campaign financing. The former French president is accused of taking public funds from former Libyan strongman Gaddafi to finance his 2007 election campaign. Same pattern here as elsewhere: Sarkozy accuses his accusers of being politically biased and has repeatedly described the allegations against him as a "conspiracy."

Could it really be that all of these cases are just aimed at dragging people's names through the mud? Conspiracies meant to derail the still powerful political figures from running in elections they might win? Or is Lord Acton's famous assertion that "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" as true now as it was when he first penned it, in the late 19th century?

The answer, as is so often the case, probably lies somewhere in the middle. Sure, where there's smoke there tends to be fire, as yet another saying goes. But it also stands to reason that justice systems are susceptible to political persuasion, especially when judging prominent people. As much as we pretend otherwise, legal systems are only human after all.

Society

A New Brand Of Antisemitism, From France To Germany To Britain

The targeted murder by a Muslim of an elderly Parisian Jewish woman connects hatred of Jews today to that of Europe's past. And it's not just in France.

-Analysis-

The murder last Friday of Mireille Knoll, an elderly Jewish woman stabbed to death and partly burned after her killers set fire to her small Parisian apartment, has made front-page headlines across across France — for reasons, both past and present.

News reports have noted that the 85-year-old victim of what has been classified as a targeted anti-Semitic attack had, decades earlier, narrowly escaped occupied France's 1942 Vel" d'Hiv Roundup and Nazi deportation. But the brutal killing also took place on the same day as an Islamic terror attack in a supermarket in southern France in which four people were killed — and also almost exactly one year after the murder of another Jewish woman, 65-year-old Sarah Halimi, in the same Parisian neighborhood.

It is neither new nor limited to France.

The similarities between those two murders are indeed striking. Knoll and Halimi each knew their killers, in both cases Muslim neighbors, and were targeted because of their religion. France, which is home to Europe's biggest Jewish community, has seen a rise in violent anti-Semitic acts and crimes in recent years, including the 2015 attack on a kosher supermarket near Paris and the 2012 assault on a Jewish school in Toulouse, both perpetrated by Islamic extremists.

As disturbing as it might be for some in Europe to face, it is undeniable that the most pressing danger facing the Jewish population right now doesn't come from far-right groups but from radicalized Islamic minorities. Many in France are calling this a "new form" of anti-Semitism, but it is neither new nor limited to France.

Germany too is experiencing a rise in anti-Semitic acts, as Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged earlier this year. The case of a Jewish girl being bullied and facing death threats by fellow Muslim pupils in a Berlin school has made its own round of headlines this week in German papers. It's not an isolated case either, coming after reports a few months ago that the son of Wenzel Michalski, the director of Human Rights Watch Germany, had been the victim of anti-Semitism from Muslim children at school, with acts that went from insults, bullying and hitting to a mock execution.​​

Kalen Ockerman mural in London — Photo: MEAR ONE

"School yards have always been merciless amplifiers of what's been whispered and talked about among adults — and so there is also a reflection and intensification of anti-Jewish and Christian hostility, which is unfortunately preached in many mosques," columnist Matthias Drobinski writes in Süddeutsche Zeitung. Particularly troubling, he adds, is that "school administrations appear to react halfheartedly, powerless, showing the wrong sort of tolerance."

A similar charge of awkward leniency is currently being made in Britain against the Labour Party, with Jewish leaders writing an open letter accusing the party's leader Jeremy Corbyn of "siding with antisemites rather than Jews," after a controversy of an apparent endorsement of an anti-Semitic mural. The open letter blames "the far left's obsessive hatred of Zionism, Zionists and Israel."

We've passed the first basic step of problem-solving — identification.

But the Labour party's problem with anti-Semitism goes deeper than that, according to The Economist. "Another source of Labour's anti-Semitism is British Muslims," the magazine writes before mentioning a poll from last September which found that "55% of Muslims held anti-Semitic attitudes, with 27% believing that "Jews get rich at the expense of others," compared with 12% of the general population."

The fact that these cases are being reported on and are sparking national debates — unlike what Le Figaro described as "media silence" following Sarah Halimi's murder last year — shows that we've passed the first basic step of problem-solving — identification. Now it's time to find solutions.

blog

The Economist Warns 'Reluctant' UK Against Brexit

The Economist, Oct. 16, 2015

London-based weekly The Economist warns against the growing risk of "the reluctant European" as it calls the UK facing the spectre of a so-called Brexit from the EU.

As part of a special report for the weekly, writer John Peet argues that it would be a mistake for the UK to leave the European Union, as its membership has proved beneficial to both the country and the union.

The euro crisis has sapped trust in the EU everywhere. But why, asks the newspaper, is Britain the only one of the union's 28 members seriously considering leaving the club?