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Photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin at a 2019 gala celebrating diplomatic relations between Russia and China
Andrej Mrevlje

What If Putin's Invasion Of Ukraine Was Really A China-U.S. Proxy War

Putin may seem an irrational actor, but he is clearly staging a wider war against the West and the U.S. Even if Russia couldn't survive an urban guerrilla battle in Ukraine, it has China's silent support.


WASHINGTON — While discussing the new nuclear age with Christopher Lydon on the Open Source podcast, Joseph Cirincione, a distinguished fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said something obvious but very accurate: “All our deterrence theory is based on the idea of rational actors. That is why we see so much reference to the game theory in these things. What is the logical thing someone would do when confronting this situation? … Do we know if Putin is logical, is he stable?”

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We may not know the answer until Putin goes completely overboard, but it may be too late by then. The Russian president had no apparent reason to start the murderous war in Ukraine, and I see nothing that could stop him from turning the war into a nuclear disaster.

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Andrej Mrevlje

New York On Its Knees: A Foreign Eye On The Pandemic's Wrath

An immigrant's reflections on a dying city that is bound to be reborn.

NEW YORK — Back in March, just before the pandemic arrived, I walked down Broadway to Soho. It was an unusually hot, sunny day and the streets of New York City were packed with people. Something told me I did not want to be there. Suddenly, beyond the usual city noises, I heard the voice of a young man calling out to people, asking them if they might be interested in getting a tattoo. I felt that there was something strange in this call. Was this how to advertise a tattoo? Isn't redesigning your body a profoundly intimate decision? Getting a tattoo is not the same as getting a coffee.

However, that voice told me one thing: that the business must be short of customers. Since we already knew about coronavirus at the beginning of March, I associated the advertising voice with the pandemic knocking on the door of the most vital city in the nation. I looked around again, realizing that this city that I knew so well, and that I was no longer in love with, was the perfect place to spread the virus at the speed of light. What if it really happens? I wondered. Appalled by the possibility of a human catastrophe of massive proportions, I became worried about the people I know and love. New York, with its dense population, was the perfect setting for a virus outbreak.

When I first arrived in New York, the city leaned outwards, attracting foreigners but also the Americans who don't feel comfortable in the interior of the continent. It was a place of uprooted people. A place where bagels were sold by Thai corner store owners and Vietnamese bakers, where all the staff of the Jewish sports center was Christian Orthodox and my superintendent was a fugitive from Kosovo whose daughter was attending a prestigious university.

When there's a lack of government instruction, the degree of paranoia is even higher and more dangerous.

And then it happened, seemingly overnight. After I ran my errands in Soho, my wife and I went to see Elaine, my mother-in-law. She was staying in an assisted living facility north of Manhattan, but when we arrived security would not let us into the building. My wife had visited the day before, but management had decided to stop visits in order to protect the aging residents from coronavirus just one day later. After much negotiation, we managed to convince the staff to bring Elaine down to sit with us in the garden. This was the last time we saw her. She died two months later, probably infected by the coronavirus. During the last weeks of her fading life, we were only able to stay in touch over the phone. We could not organize a funeral for her. Besides the brutal pandemic and the loneliness she was forced into for the very last period of her life, COVID-19 also infected my stepson, now in his mid-twenties. He probably had a lighter form of the virus and went through it in a couple of days.

In DC, people coming from New York were considered dangerous and suspicious. There were vague announcements, restrictions, and even unspoken hatred towards anyone coming from Manhattan, as if they were zombies. When there's a lack of government instruction, the degree of paranoia is even higher and more dangerous. The phobia expressed against New Yorkers reminded me of the John Carpenter movie, Escape from New York, in which all of Manhattan is transformed into a prison surrounded by the tall concrete walls. Similarly, in real America at the peak of the pandemic, Americans were building a wall around Manhattan in their minds, hoping to prevent New Yorkers from getting out of the city. Let them die there, was the tacit thinking when it came to all things related to New York. However, Escape from New York, shot in 1981, does not feature an explicit reason for why the wall, why the lives of the entire city were left to chance, to the brutal laws of self-survival. Could it be because some kind of virus had afflicted the city, making the rest of America terrified? An allegory for exceptionalism, since New York with its zeitgeist has never been considered part of the country?

Riding the NYC subway on Sept. 30 — Photo: Richard B. Levine/Levine Roberts/ZUMA

Some 30 years after "Escape," Tony Judt, in what became the book he dictated on his deathbed, described the conditions that make New York so unique, giving the outside world reason for envy and even hatred. Reflecting on the city that became his, after he lived in many other places and cultures, Judt said:

"I prefer the edge: the place where countries, communities, affinities, and roots bump uncomfortably up against each other – where cosmopolitanism is not so much an identity as the normal condition of life. Such places once abounded. Well into the twentieth century there were many cities comprising multiple communities and languages — often mutually antagonistic, occasionally clashing, but somehow coexisting. Sarajevo was one, Alexandria another. Tangier, Salonica, Odesa, Beirut, and Istanbul all qualified — as did smaller towns like Chernovitz and Uzhgorod were small. By the standards of American conformism, New York resembles aspects of these lost cosmopolitan cities. That's why I live here.

Had Judt found in New York what had been lost in Sarajevo, Alexandria, Istanbul, Beirut? All these cities belonged to the Middle East and grew into the centers of Muslim culture. Did Judt rediscover them in New York? Knowing the city well, I recognize that Manhattan does have some aspect of a great bazaar that functions perfectly well but respects no rules, at least no apparent ones. If Carpenter was a visionary and was able to predict a vindication of the less cultured, rural world over the highly enlightened urban community by sealing off the city and letting it die — as it happened in Sarajevo — then the historian and citizen of the world, Tony Judt, and all of us who defend and cherish multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism are about to lose the battle."

Forty years later, Carpenter's vision of the destruction of Manhattan has almost become a reality. In the last few weeks, New York has been written about as a dying city, if not dead already.

The first subtle, interesting observation arrived from The Atlantic, claiming that New York has lost its constant background sound, similar to the sound of the galaxy with its constant background radiation. New Yorkers, the piece says, have used that sound to situate themselves, much as astronomers use radiation to fix our place in the universe. In the early days of the pandemic, the background noise of the city became weaker than any living person can remember. It went down as much as five decibels. That means that the decreased noise of countless cars, trucks, trains, construction sites, sirens, whistles, phones, aimless drilling, assorted ruckuses, conversations, laughter, shouts, curses, televisions, music played too loud, and dogs barking too long— has changed the ecosystem to the extent that New Yorkers have become disoriented and have started to flee the city.

"A mad rush for the exits as New York City goes down the tubes," declared the New York Post, asserting that the Upper West Side of Manhattan is on the verge of panic as mothers and children flee for safety to President Donald Trump"s white "suburban dream," while criminals run amok and homeless people and drug addicts fill local hotels. Was the New York Post thinking about The Escape from New York?

Street life in Manhattan has dropped into anonymity.

Until four years ago, I lived on the Upper West Side. It is an area of Manhattan I know well, including the many friends I made there. It used to be a quiet residential area populated by academics and journalists. But even during my stay there, that is, before the pandemic, the city was changing rapidly. In the last few years, the neighborhood lost good restaurants and bars, and my favorite stationery shop closed. In my neighborhood, but also all over the city, there are almost no butcher shops. I miss little grocery shops where you can build a conversation around food, cooking, ingredients. My European verve has not allowed me to grow accustomed to shopping in big supermarket chains where it is impossible to establish contact with the sellers. Street life in Manhattan has dropped into anonymity. Apartments are now less affordable while the number of banks is increasing, contrasted only by the growing number of cheap junk food joints. In short, the quality of life in New York has been falling for years as the crisis of affluence has driven out everything we love most about cities. Everything has been turned over to land bankers, billionaires, and the worst people in the world –criminal landlords, writes Kevin Baker in his book about the downfall of New York:

"The landlords are killing the town. This is not some new phenomenon, but cancer that's been metastasizing in the city for decades now. Even worse, it's not something that anyone wants, except the landlords, and not even all of them. What's happening to New York now—what's already happened to most of Manhattan, its core, and what is happening in every American city of means, Boston, Washington, San Francisco, Seattle, you name it—is something that almost nobody wants, but everybody gets. As such, the current urban crisis exemplifies our wider crisis: an America where we believe that we no longer have any ability to control the systems we live under."

But what if the bankruptcy of retail chains like Kate Spade, Subway, Le Pain Quotidien, Victoria's Secret, the Gap, Brooks Brothers, Lord & Taylor, and J.C. are actually a new chance for the city? What if COVID-19 is proving that the exponential growth of the economy and hyper-consumption was the wrong model? What if we now have a chance to reset the Big Apple? Remember that fatal phrase of then-mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, who said, "If we could get every billionaire around the world to move here, it would be a godsend."? He then began to build the ugly looking, very tall skyscrapers for anonymous billionaires from Russia and China who pay dozens of millions of dollars for luxurious apartments they will never live in. There is no doubt that those skinny, towering buildings in the city growing on every corner of Central Park are made for launderers of the quickly and illegally created wealth by foreign oligarchs. We were lucky that Bloomberg had a very short run for the presidency and we are now hopeful that the city can be downsized and redesigned. All that is needed to bring the Big Apple back is new management, someone who will replace the current inactive mayor Di Blasio and manage to recruit the younger generation that has much better ideas on how to create a liveable city.

Masked Liberty — Photo: Jon Tyson

Last week, I returned to my neighborhood in New York and I fell in love with the city again. There is about 40 percent less population in the city. The affluent New Yorkers left the city for their coastal summer homes as soon as the pandemic began. After the apocalyptic scenes during the pandemic in which 241,000 New Yorkers were infected with coronavirus and 24,000 died, the city is now turning back to life. Many streets have been taken over by restaurants that previously had no outdoor seating. They are packed but respect social distancing measures. During my one week sejour in the city, I did not see a single person not wearing a mask. Whoever is not going to restaurants now is using various home delivery services that were in swing even before this last emergency.

But what happened in the last few months is amazing. There are hundreds of electric bikers zooming up and down Broadway, crossing the road at the red lights, driving against traffic on the pedestrian side delivering food, medicine, and other supplies. They are fast and silent and dangerous too, but nobody is complaining about that. How will this develop? I remember "Pony Express," the fast scooter delivery that compensated for the slow and inefficient postal service in Italy in the nineties.

Why does my shoemaker on Broadway need to pay $24,000 a month for rent?

At the moment, New York seems to be absorbing any innovation that may lead to a new beginning, showing its great strength. Sure the subways are still more or less empty, but people are using more buses than before, having a chance to admire the city. New Yorkers are buying bikes and cars and those who can afford it are looking to buy a second house outside of the city. No matter how much New York might become attractive again one day, the folks have now learned the importance of spending more time out of the city and under the open sky.

The super crowded images of the city are no longer a sign of modernity, COVID-19 has helped us understand this. The bandwidth that allows us to do almost every job from home creates the impression that going to offices will no longer be necessary. That would definitely lead to the death of cities as we knew them. It is impressive to know that the Washington Post and the New York Times are homemade papers now, written and put together by thousands of journalists scattered across the suburbs of Washington D.C. and New York City. According to the current pandemic rules and restrictions, improved after much hesitation from the federal government, the two papers, before reopening their newsrooms, will have to restructure the buildings, the elevators, and the offices in order to enable more than 1000 journalists to work in-person again. The papers are extending the period of remote work until sometime next year.

But as most discussions are proving, the permanent work from the home model will, in the long-run, impact the quality of journalism that needs to be discussed, questioned, inspired, edited, and researched in person. Zoom is not enough as it is one-way communication. The need for in-person communication has been noticed even by gym patrons, who for the months have exercised at home. They have now rediscovered an urge to go back to their regular gyms. The piece is an interesting read about how the workout in America has been transformed into the way of life.

So why not transform New York, the city of art and architecture, into a lab for new forms of urban life, changing it into a second home destination and moving workplaces into Queens and New Jersey? Why does real estate have to dictate the way of life in the city? Why does my shoemaker on Broadway need to pay $24,000 a month for rent, and Victoria's Secret at Herald Square $937,000 a month? The good news is that the landlords can no longer ask for those prices. Shops are closing and people are leaving, waiting to come back when the prices begin to tumble. This is mostly the reason why so many media outlets wrote an early obituary to New York.

When I first arrived in New York, my first bank manager was a Chinese man who discussed passive and active interest rates but had problems pronouncing "three" in English. No matter how much I would love to see that New York again, it is gone. But boy I cannot tell you how much I can't wait to see what is coming next. It will not be a funeral, it will be another party.

Melania Trump in the White House on June 20
eyes on the U.S.
Andrej Mrevlje

What To Make Of The Mysterious Melania Trump

Slovenian-born writer Andrej Mrevlje tries once again to get a read on the fiercely reserved first lady, this time with the help of new book called The Art of Her Deal.

NEW YORK — As I finished reading The Art of Her Deal, a biography on Melania Trump by Mary Jordan, it struck me that I could not remember anything relevant that the first lady has ever said that would be worth publishing. Nothing I have heard from Melania has ever been uplifting or even depressing. And in Jordan's book, there was nothing new in what Melania was saying, nothing inspiring, nothing we haven't heard before. It was as if Melania had kept repeating the same mantra again and again, like this phrase, largely used in Slovenian: "The sun always shines after the rain!"

In the book, Melania's expressions are packaged in small blurbs and read like haikus on survivalism that contain common-sense wisdom, rooted deeply in a rural mindset. Her words have an overtone of fatalism, restraining even the tiniest glimmer of hope. Most of the time, when she says something, it's just a dull expression of an obsolete weltanschauung.

Choosing words can be either an art or just the plain repetition of common sense expressions that we Slovenians inherited from our rural ancestors and the Habsburgs. Is it possible that Melania uses them to cover-up her misanthropic nature? She may also sound dull and reluctant for many reasons we do not know about: perhaps because of her looks, which to her mind might not be good enough for public appearance; or maybe she is simply not interested or is unsure about what to say. Maybe it's because a nondisclosure contract with her husband bans it. Or could she be putting the president of the United States on ice, ignoring him because he offended her? Perhaps she carries herself the way she does because her mother taught her how to survive in a world governed by men; how to defend herself and be desirable at the same time, a technique Melania applied to Donald Trump from their first encounter on.

Most of the time, when she says something, it's just a dull expression of an obsolete weltanschauung.

Melania lives in a cocoon, protected with layers of common sense wisdom she learned during her childhood. On rare occasions, when she steps out of her golden cage and opens her mouth, she reminds us of Chance the gardener (Peter Sellers) in Hal Ashby's 1979 cult movie Being There.

Chance lives in the townhouse of a wealthy old man in Washington D.C., tending to the garden. He never leaves the property. Other than gardening, he watches TV, his only contact with the outside world. When his benefactor dies, Chance finally leaves the house, wandering aimlessly. He passes a TV shop and sees himself captured by a camera in the store window. Entranced, he steps backward off the sidewalk and is struck by a chauffeured car, owned by mogul Ben Rand.

Rand's wife, Eve, who is in the car, brings Chance to their home to recover. Rand is a confidant and advisor to the president of the United States, whom he introduces to Chance. In a discussion about the economy, Chance takes his cue from the words "stimulate growth" and talks about the changing seasons of the garden. The president misinterprets this as optimistic political advice and quotes Chance in a speech. Chance now rises to national prominence, attends some important dinners, develops a close connection with the Soviet ambassador, and appears on a television talk show during which his detailed advice about what a serious gardener should do is misunderstood as his opinion on what his presidential policy would be.

The Trumps in November 2019 — Photo: Andrea Hanks/White House

Being There is a comedy. It's a story about a misunderstanding between parallel worlds. As Chance, Melania is misread for what she really is. Or better, her parsimonious words are generic and open to loose interpretations, just like Chance's. "People do not know me," Melania says repeatedly, meaning, nobody understands her. She is right. One of the best insider moments that open a little crack into Melania's personal life is a quote about the spa Melania built in a section of the top floor of the Trump Tower penthouse in Manhattan. Melania described it in an interview for Allure magazine in 2008:

"I wanted some privacy and comfort when I needed to get a massage, manicure or pedicure, or have my hair or makeup done. It's 300 square feet, all white marble and silver fixtures with white towels and robes. Everything is from Italy and it's all very modern — a very different look from the rest of the apartment which is more… baroque."

Taking care of her body is essential central, the core business of Melania Trump. Her body is her most important asset, her looks are her passport. She spends most of her time in a spa or any place where she can recreate her image before she appears in public. She depicts her beauty parlor in aseptic, surgical terms, as space where she painstakingly works herself to perfection. When Melania was asked if Donald Trump ever joined her in the spa, Melania laughed. The spa is her sanctuary. Nobody could cross that threshold.

Of course, the interview with Allure is 12 years old, but according to a Vanity Fair report, Melania Trump's makeup artist of over a decade, Nicole Bryl, was responsible for setting up a designated room for hair, makeup and wardrobe in the White House. "Melania wants a room with the most perfect lighting scenario, which will make our jobs as a creative team that much more efficient since great lighting can make or break any look," she said. Bryl added that it takes "about one hour and 15 minutes of uninterrupted focus' to do the first lady's makeup.

Her looks are her passport.

But there is more. The fresh news comes from Jordan's book after she interviewed the housekeepers at the Bedminster Trump National Golf Club, one of the presidential couple's favorite places. "One of the worst jobs was cleaning up the residue from Melania's regular applications of tanning spray to make sure any traces were removed from all the white surfaces in the bathroom. The bronzer washed off in the shower, and Melania used it nearly every time she left the house," the housekeeper Victorina Morales said. Is this what Melania is all about? Devotion to her body? Solitude in her beauty?

As Mary Jordan observes, Melania's inner circle is small, her former staff sign non-disclosure agreements and old acquaintances in Europe are discouraged from speaking: "In three decades as a correspondent working all over the world, I have often written about the reluctant and the reclusive, including the head of a Mexican drug cartel and a Japanese princess, but nothing compared to trying to understand Melania," Jordan writes in the book.

In my own journalism career, I have always tried not to interview people like Trump and Berlusconi, as any dialog with them would be completely predictable and useless. Melania, I thought, was a different story. I wrote my first piece about her at the insistence of my friends and readers, who thought that I was in a unique position to do so. However, I soon understood the difficulty of the endeavor:

"A couple of years ago, as a Slovenian reporter, I started to follow Mrs. Trump's Twitter account, @MELANIATRUMP. I dropped the effort soon after because my former countrywoman did not show any signs of political life or any otherwise interesting activity. It was all about tacky mundanity interrupted by occasional close-up photos of a single rose. An attempt to demonstrate her artistic talent or just touting the fact that her Donald brought her a bouquet of roses? I did not pay attention to these details back then."

Writing about Melania can only be done by adding speculation and fiction.

I very quickly abandoned the effort to reach Melania for an interview. None of the contacts I had worked, all channels were blocked. There were people who — in return for a payment — were offering pieces of third-hand information on Melania. Disgusted, I refused all of them. Whichever way I turned, I bumped into a thick wall. I assume Jordan must have felt the same since she considered Melania to be a more reluctant and reclusive subject than the head of a Mexican drug cartel and a Japanese princess. My conclusion, more than four years ago, was that writing about Melania can only be done by adding speculation and fiction. I concluded my first piece on Melania Trump by writing:

To me, Melania is similar to a sleeper cell. She's not a terrorist of course, but she could be radicalized in the same way former Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi's wife, Veronica Lario, did. She was a B-list actress when Berlusconi approached her at a bus station in Milan. He went to see her in a theater. Veronica was nowhere to be seen for many years. She gave Berlusconi three children and lived in a "castle" as Melania does. Then Veronica met an intellectual – a philosopher and former mayor of Venice, Massimo Cacciari – and became radicalized. She'd had enough of her husband's nonsense. Illuminated by Cacciari, she didn't want her kids to be like their father. She filed for divorce and started the end of the Berlusconi era. All this after the whole country failed to get rid of him.

Unlike Veronica, Melania Trump has only one 10-year-old son with Donald Trump. She spends a lot of time with him and apparently talks to him in Slovenian. Is there the hope that Melania will do something similar to what Veronica did? And as a consequence deprive Trump of her support or stop him from being that violent, reckless person that he is? Or perhaps come out on the open and say something that will stop Mr. Donald Trump from running for president?

Lauren Collins of the New Yorker read correctly what I was trying to do:

"On the site Yonder News, the Slovenian-born journalist Andrej Mrevlje considered—in what amounted to an inspired piece of non-fan fiction — whether Melania could ever undergo a transformation similar to that of Veronica Lario, Silvio Berlusconi's ex-wife." In her great piece, Collins — she too, was never able to interview Melania — found a magnificent definition for the presidential couple: "For Trump, as it turns out, Melania is the perfect body on which to hang a brand."

Once I started to write about Melania, I received calls and emails from journalists who were trying to know more about her, checking in with me to see if Melania was a story worth writing. I told them about what I thought was the main difficulty, the challenge.

I thought that Melania could be a great character for a spy novel. An inspirational, beautiful woman planted as a spy in the White House by a group of former international diplomats with financial links to Silicon Valley. They are using the first lady to promote a new device that would enable corporations, with the help of the Chinese, to surveil the communications among "Five Eyes," intelligence agencies from the dilapidating Western world. The group organizes a cover-up operation, a horse parade on Pennsylvania Avenue. But the transport of 400 Lipizzaner horses gets hacked by Russians and becomes a cover-up for another big operation, in which the initial group of plotters plays the role of double agent for a Pan Slavic organization that smuggled trillions of dollars from Russia into Swiss banks.

In the novel, a famous young pop philosopher organizes lectures and workshops on film, Lacan, and Hegel in the Rose Garden of the White House. The presidential palace becomes an intellectual gathering spot, a booming cultural center like College de France in the age of Michel Foucault. But things get complicated when the beautiful female agent, the first lady, falls in love with the famous philosopher. The well-balanced spy business gets disrupted as the first lady starts to take over the White House, causing the president to have a massive heart attack when he realizes that his wife and philosopher speak the same language.

I thought that Melania could be a great character for a spy novel.

The Art of Her Deal, is, obviously, a completely different book. It has 280 pages of starkly different material, based on Jordan's 44 minutes of phone interviews with Melania in 2016. Nevertheless, the book has a fascinating opening. In the first chapters of the book, Melania Trump appears smart, balanced, and determined, with a strong agenda in mind. Melania is portrayed as the strategist who the 45th president of the United States depends on. She is the Melania who picked Pence as vice president, the wife who scolded her husband for being a wimp during the campaign, commanding him to go back to fight and win the election. Melania who stubbornly remained in New York for the first six months of Trump's presidency.

Refusing to go to the White House from day one, Melania must have remembered her mother's advice on how to use her charms (the words are mine). While she was away from the White House, she became aware, Jordan wrote, of the leverage she had when it came to her influence over her husband. Trump's team was pressing her to come to Washington and help stabilize the president. According to Jordan, Melania wanted to secure her son Barron's position with a new nuptial agreement, leveling his status to that of the other four Trump children. Melania won, earning a new nuptial agreement, writes Jordan. Her actions echo what Veronica Lario did to her husband, tycoon, and prime minister Silvio Berlusconi before she filed for divorce.

When I read the first part of the book, I thought it was promising. I loved the way Jordan demonstrates the rudeness of young Melania ascending the social ladder. She built good working relationships with the people who helped her modeling career. But as soon she managed to take it a step further, when she left Ljubljana for Milan, then went to Paris and eventually ended up in New York, she never looked back. She cut off all contacts and past relationships. There are plenty of interesting details in Jordan's book if you are interested in Melania's world. I for one did not know that Donald Trump suffers in small spaces and how obsessed he is about sleeping in his own bed. There is more.

But in my opinion, the interesting part of the book, unfortunately, dissolves into detailed reporting of Melania's modeling career. Jordan confirms many times that Melania is a so-called "commercial" model, good for catalogs and advertising, but nothing like a top, career model. But we kind of knew that. As I was reading the book I slowly lost interest and started to wonder who on earth would like to know the minutes of Melania's life with roommates, managers, rivals, in short, explaining all the petty networks that helped her to climb to Trump Tower.

It seems that Jordan got carried away by her journalistic ethics to report out facts. As the facts were scarce, she plunged into the microcosms of a person leading a totally uninteresting life. As a consequence, there are at least two Melanias in Jordan's book. Let's hope nobody tries will to write about a third one.

Beijing-bound aboard the Trans-Siberian train
Andrej Mrevlje

China 1976, And My Hunt For The Coronavirus Origin Story

Our Slovenian writer's bygone trip through a China still not plugged into the global economy reveals some clues for how the pandemic has brought us to this point.


This is a strange time. We are locked in our homes and in our thoughts. We try to touch the outside world and aspects of our lives with video chats and phone calls. We can stare at old photos, read messages from friends, and share memories on social media without leaving our room. We can do all that or we can dive into the coronavirus news updates and go insane. To be honest, it is nearly impossible to ignore what is happening in the world at this moment. This Yonder entry will attempt to explain where it all began. It is my version of the story about how the coronavirus was conceived.

At the end of 1976, I boarded the Trans-Siberian train in Irkutsk headed to Beijing. Thanks to a skillful currency exchange in Moscow, I paid only a small amount of money for the first-class car, which included a shower, an armchair and a never-ending supply of black tea and wafers. There were only two of us in the dining car, with borsch ad infinitum. It felt like sitting atop the agonizing Russian Empire itself, speeding past on the large railway tracks; an obsolete luxury with a shortage of supply. Outside it was freezing, but Lake Baikal was stunning, with magnificent pine trees watching us from ashore.

I remembered my father, who would have loved to have one of those Baikal pines in his garden. When he died, my younger brother, a landscaper, planted one over his grave. Where did my father's desire for the Siberian pine tree come from? As children, we hiked the mountains with him. Moreover, he was born in the karst area of Slovenia, a place that has pines. Was that it? I will never know. He died when I was 10. The thought disturbed me. I was so far away from home, learning my first Chinese lesson in a first-class car, watching the artistically formed crowns of pine trees shaped by the constant wind.

After nearly two days, the train stopped at the Russian border. It was a long stop since the Soviets needed to adjust the train wheels to fit the standard size of the rail tracks that the Chinese and the rest of the world were using. As we waited, I was searched by Soviet customs officers. I planned on living in China for a couple of years, and I did not want to be there without reading. But my books were in several languages and the officers wanted to make sure there was nothing they would not like. Five of them came into my cabin, one for each language. I could barely suppress a giggle as they tried to read my handwritten notes. Oh god, let me get to China, I thought as the officers tried to convince me to stay in the Soviet Union. The schools there were supposedly better than the ones in China, they said.

She asked us to leave the train and get a vaccine.

After everything was done and no one changed their mind, the train continued on its way toward China. Half an hour later, when it was dark outside, the train stopped at the Chinese border. Was it at Manzhouli? The station was a small countryside building that seemed to have been newly repainted. Everything was perfectly clean, and there were two flower lawns on each side of the building. I recall being surprised at this since it was the middle of winter. There was some calligraphy on the building, but who knows what it spelled out. What I saw was cute and childish at the same time, but compared to the brutality of Russia a few miles behind us, this place was heartful, a burst of life.

We were approached by a young Chinese girl in a padded jacket, large baggy pants, and a fur hat on her head, braids peeking out below. There was a large smile on her face. Later on, we discovered she was a People's Liberation Army soldier. We handed over our passports, filled out health and customs declaration forms, and she asked us to leave the train and get a vaccine.

I can't remember if we had any discussions about immunizations prior to this, but there should have been one since we took all possible precautions before leaving Yugoslavia. I found my diary from that day and it says I got a smallpox vaccine, which is something we all received as children back home. However, when asked to get it again, I consented without much objection. I was happy to be in China and did not want my first encounter with this new country to go badly. I told my travel companion that I was certain I would fall in love in China and all its irresistible beauty and energy.

As we walked into the station, border personnel seated us in what was supposed to be the waiting room but looked more like a tea room. It was very neat, or gemutlich as the Germans would say. There were a few young people hanging around, but it was impossible to figure out their role since they were all dressed in the same Mao dresses — the kind of uniforms that only the army wears today. They were all laughing and seemed happy. We were getting the vaccine in a separate room, divided off by a hanging bedsheet. My Slovenian travel companion fainted at the sight of his own blood, but the barefoot doctors reacted with no panic, laughing even more.

After the vaccine, they sat us down in comfortable armchairs and served us tea. I tried to orient myself; there was a particular rubber smell to the soil, and the air of the unknown country was filled with the pleasant scent of tobacco. We were offered cigarettes, they were passed out as a small gesture of generosity. In reality, it was a small act of corruption; an investment. I inhaled one cigarette and this time it was I who almost passed out.

During my first hour in China, I noticed that compared to the Russians, the Chinese had no notion of personal space. They touched each other easily, sitting very close to each other. They began to talk to us in English. I realized it was less because they were curious about us and more because they wanted the opportunity to practice their English. China was opening. That was the most recent Party order everyone had to obey. But we learned about this later. On that day, I forgot about the vaccine. China seemed fun and the food in the dining car from the Chinese border to Beijing was a dream compared to what we had gotten on the Russian side.

Beijing in 1976 — Photo: Heinz Bunse/Wikimedia Commons

How was this possible? China was poorer than the Soviet Union! With fewer means, China somehow gave the impression of a well-functioning country. My mind was boggled. I realized that I was traveling to a place where I would have to reset many things. My life was great before I got on that train, but I was ready to take a step further. My first impression promised a great adventure into the unknown, beginning with smells, sounds, colors, landscapes, food, language and other elements of culture in general. I soon understood that Claude Lévi-Strauss was not a key in unlocking this new, unknown encounter. I will have to decode this by myself, I thought. The cultural impact grew stronger with every mile the train rattled past on its way through the Inner Mongolian plains.

I did not know then, that I, like other students already in Beijing, was a kind of bottle opener for China. We were all there to serve a purpose, not as missionaries but as part of the new opening. We were there to serve as a message to the Chinese. We were the foreigners, the virus of the outside world, suddenly reappearing in a country that had just lived through two decades of total isolation. We were the messengers, very young and not the soldiers, not the priests and yet, we were "the other" that existed outside of the uniformed Maoist world. But we were too young to understand the role we had in the opening of China.

Beijing was the collector, a recruiting center for all the foreign students from the entire world except the United States. The Americans were not there yet, as China still had a Party relationship with Albania and North Korea, and Beijing could simply not switch from Marxism-Leninism to Wall Street immediately. The jump would be too big, and nobody would understand it. The fact that China now had students from revisionist Yugoslavia was already a daring move, a strong signal.

Yet, for someone like me, who before China did not think politically, Beijing was overwhelming. It was a world that still woke up to strokes of an International anthem blaring over the loudspeakers, a sharp contrast to the division of the foreign students into groups according to the Maoist ideology of the division of the world, with western countries at the top of the hierarchy. China was searching for a new identity as it had done before after the fall of the last dynasty in 1911.

Things started to move fast.

When Mao died on Sept. 9, 1976, a universe collapsed and the fight for power began. In the few weeks after his death, Mao's wife and three extreme leftist politicians — the gang of four — were arrested. The fraction of the Party that wanted reforms and a stronger China won. Things started to move fast. On Jan. 1, 1979, the United States was back in China. The Vatican was not. Deng Xiaoping toured the United States and loved it. That marked the time for me to return home. My experiment had come to an end, but I was sad to leave so many new good friends behind and around the world. China continued to open and prosper. The 80s were happy times until the Tiananmen massacre happened in 1989.

That was when the deal was done. The Communist Party ordered the army to shoot down the voice of fervent democracy. Thousands of people, mostly students, died in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. China sacrificed its best to turn toward the rudest form of capitalism. Exploitation, inequality, privileges, and enrichment replaced the Communist Manifesto.

The United States was happy to finance the plan, transferring much of its venture capital and production to China. That was the virus that eliminated the regulation, the social mechanisms of surveillance of the new development. The Chinese soldiers killed the voice of civil society. The Party and Wall Street worked hand in hand, promoting new economic models for faster-growing profits. The capital of the free world flooded into the most populated, and one of the poorest countries in the world. The international capital and the Communist Party were the deadly combinations for human society.

The global economy was supposed to solve all the problems of this planet. Instead, it increased the greed, pollution, inequality, climate change, caused financial markets to crash and the erosion of healthcare systems around the world. So when it comes to the virus, the United States and China should once and for all sit down together and clean the shit they have created with full accountability. If they do not do this, viruses will continue to come.

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Trump press conference, April 9
Andrej Mrevlje

COVID-19 v. TRUMP-20: A Viral Battle For Our Attention

When a virus sucks all the oxygen out of the public space — and then another arrives.

WASHINGTON — Life has become one-dimensional. I don't mean that life before the Coronavirus was much better. Donald Trump was still the President of the United States — and he is not all that different from a virus.

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, it was Trump that was everywhere. He contaminated the media. He left us stupefied by his incomprehensible expressions, provoking constant bewilderment at his discombobulated manner of speech. He penetrated the social fabric, obliterating all other relevant news. Many of us were counting down the days until the end of the Trump epidemic, which has finally arrived now.

He could come back stronger than ever.

But while the fight against the Coronavirus has overshadowed Trump's daily performance, he has not left the stage completely. He still is in the White House, waiting for better times. There is a strong possibility that he could come back stronger than ever when this is all over. But he is now competing with the Coronavirus. He cannot tolerate someone or something – in this case, the virus – occupying center stage in his place. This is the only reason why Trump finally decided to fight COVID-19. This is a war between one virus and another.

Read more at Yonder

President Xi's new leadership style
Andrej Mrevlje

Coronavirus, China And You: Political Systems Put To The Test

WASHINGTON — During the coronavirus pandemonium, the voice of Slavoj Žižek is an essential one. The renowned Slovenian philosopher is there when you need him: decoding a mind-boggling event, explaining a new phenomenon that is shattering global society, connecting the dots, filling in loose ends, shedding light on the unknown. There isn't anybody else on this planet who could instantly transform the coronavirus into social theory. Never expect Žižek to do something banal or obvious. Always provocative, Slovenia's most famous export chose to speak from the Russian platform, RT (Russian Television), which is controlled by Vladimir Putin:

When I suggested that the coronavirus epidemic may give a new boost of life to communism, my claim was, as expected, ridiculed. Although it looks that the strong approach to the crisis by the Chinese state worked – at least it worked much better than what goes on now in Italy, the old authoritarian logic of communists in power also clearly demonstrated its limitations. One of them was that the fear of bringing bad news to those in power (and to the public) outweighs actual results – this was apparently the reason why those who first shared information on a new virus were reportedly arrested, and there are reports that a similar thing is going on now.

As Žižek says, China has done a pretty good job fighting the virus because of the Chinese state's strong approach to the crisis. Meanwhile, the predominantly noncommunist world (Italy excluded) is still awaiting a spike in the epidemic. The critical moment–when the capacity of hospitals, the number of respiratory machines, and the medics will become scarce–is still looming. The pandemic may become too big to be managed by a single country, Žižek says:

The coronavirus epidemic does not signal just the limit of market globalization, it also signals the even more fatal limit of nationalist populism which insists on full state sovereignty: it's over with ‘America (or whoever) first!" since America can be saved only through global coordination and collaboration.

I am not a utopian here, I don't appeal to idealized solidarity between people – on the contrary, the present crisis demonstrates clearly how global solidarity and cooperation is in the interest of the survival of all and each of us, how it is the only rational egotist thing to do. And it's not just coronavirus: China itself suffered the gigantic swine flu months ago, and it is now threatened by the prospect of a locust invasion. Plus, as Owen Jones noted, climate crisis kills many more people around the world than coronavirus, but there is no panic about this.

Let's recapitulate: epidemics like the coronavirus, Sars or Swine Flu are dangerous enough to teach humanity that isolation – sealing off a single country – will not block or eliminate the virus. Only global solidarity and cooperation will enable us to survive. There are only more bad viruses and climate change in our future. These upcoming calamities will not be resolved by a simple teleconference among global leaders. Obviously, something much stronger and binding will be necessary.

Žižek finishes his thought:

From a cynical vitalist standpoint, one would be tempted to see coronavirus as a beneficial infection that allows humanity to get rid of the old, weak and ill, like pulling out the half-rotten weed and thus contribute to global health.

The broad communist approach I am advocating is the only way for us to really leave behind such a primitive vitalist standpoint. Signs of curtailing unconditional solidarity are already discernible in the ongoing debates, as in the following note about the role of the "three wise men" if the epidemics take a more catastrophic turn in the UK: "NHS patients could be denied life-saving care during a severe coronavirus outbreak in Britain if intensive care units are struggling to cope, senior doctors have warned. Under a so-called ‘three wise men" protocol, three senior consultants in each hospital would be forced to make decisions on rationing care such as ventilators and beds, in the event hospitals were overwhelmed with patients."

What criteria will the "three wise men" rely on? Sacrifice the weakest and eldest? And will this situation not just open up space for immense corruption? Do such procedures not indicate that we are getting ready to enact the most brutal logic of the survival of the fittest? So, again, the ultimate choice is this or some kind of reinvented communism.

File Image: Zizek speaks in Liverpool, 2008 — Photo: Andy Miah

So this is it? Some kind of reinvented communism? Why call it communism? Communism as the new world order sounds utopian, Trotsky-esque even. "Reinvented" hints towards a more creative and open model of society instead of the pure, rude communism from the Soviet Union. But does the new model include the methods that China is applying under Xi Jinping? A decade ago, Žižek considered the challenge between authoritarian and democratic regimes to be a priority that the world needed to resolve:

Following this path, the Chinese used unencumbered authoritarian state power to control the social costs of the transition to capitalism. The weird combination of capitalism and Communist rule proved not to be a ridiculous paradox, but a blessing. China has developed so fast not in spite of authoritarian Communist rule, but because of it.

There is a further paradox at work here. What if the promised second stage, the democracy that follows the authoritarian vale of tears, never arrives? This, perhaps, is what is so unsettling about China today: the suspicion that its authoritarian capitalism is not merely a reminder of our past – of the process of capitalist accumulation which, in Europe, took place from the 16th to the 18th century – but a sign of our future? What if the combination of the Asian knout and the European stock market proves economically more efficient than liberal capitalism? What if democracy, as we understand it, is no longer the condition and motor of economic development, but an obstacle to it?

The image Žižek puts forward paints China as the most efficient regime when it comes to dealing with the emergencies the world is facing at the moment. It's been a week since we were flooded with reports on how successful China was in dealing with the latest plague.

These reports were sustained in a big way by an interview with Dr. Bruce Aylward, who led the W.H.O. team that visited China to assess the country's response to the coronavirus outbreak. Dr. Aylward's praises for China are endless. But if you do not want to read through all of them, you can watch the video in which a journalist from the New York Times who interviewed him shoots out a concentrated version of the Chinese model that sounds like a fairy tale. In addition to the widespread reporting on China's success, images of the dismantling of the hospital that was built to cope with the pandemic in Wuhan and a video of Chinese workers taking off their face masks are circulating throughout the internet. However, the propaganda peaks with footage of the plane loaded with Chinese experts and medicine landing in Rome a few days ago. It is supposed to show that China is now back on its feet and ready to save the world.

But let us not forget that the coronavirus sprung from the wet markets of Wuhan in China and that the Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping ordered containment— of both the virus and information about it— on January 7. Only on January 20 did the Chinese government allow any public disclosure about the deadly outbreak, losing vital weeks in which the world might have done more to prevent a pandemic if both the scientific genome sequencing and the dangers had been shared.

As Dispatch.com reports:

Xi's prime concern was not lives at risk, or containment of the virus, but rather the nation's and his reputation, place in the global supply chain and his grip on power. In this, Xi is much like every other dictator who prioritizes everything above the well-being of his own people, let alone others'.

Iran and Russia have also joined in as regimes that have mismanaged the virus for political purposes. As much as it might be hard to believe, Donald Trump joined the elite of dictatorial regimes. There is no difference between the way Xi and Trump forced their members of government into obedience, making them publicly praise their wisdom and success in leading their nations.

As Dispatch puts it, there is not much difference between the two regimes:

When we consider the United States' failings on this front, it's fair to argue that Donald Trump has been more Xi and less Abraham Lincoln than desirable. (See, in particular, his insistent tweets that the virus was "contained" in the United States and his reluctance to let in the passengers of the Grand Princess cruise ship because it would hurt the "numbers.") The president and the CDC were initially slow to face up to the challenge.

But even in this instance, the nature of the American democratic state has served to defuse Trump's selfish impulses, with institutions stepping up to fill the void. And as we will likely see, the U.S. will belatedly come to speed, with lower fatality rates that reflect the democracy/dictatorship divide.

It will only be after the pandemic ends that we can start to face what lies beyond.

Even though China's leadership finally managed to mobilize the country against the virus, how can we trust these people? The Chinese authorities put themselves at the front lines of the battle against the coronavirus, but only after they screwed it up and allowed the virus to travel from Wuhan across China and then out into the world. Trump did the identical thing when he hushed data on the potential pandemic, blocking efficient measures that would contain the virus. Was all this done to let the financial markets remain high, to get reelected?

Turning back to the always inspiring Žižek, we can ask if Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, and a dozen similar dictators, can reinvent communism ... or reinvent anything. Why did Xi Jinping not close the wild animal markets when he knew that the coronavirus could easily jump from animals to humans in these places, creating a pandemic? Why did Donald Trump abolish the protection plan that the U.S. administration created in the case of a pandemic breakout years ago? Why today, when China is claiming to have resolved the crisis, can we not read more reports about the real state of things there?

It will only be after the pandemic ends and the regimes pass by that we can start to face what lies beyond the immediate emergency. The coronavirus will definitely change our future behavior and our way of life. Take social distancing, working from home, spending more time reading and in nature: how can we go back from this? There is no doubt that even a few weeks of a lockdown will improve climate change. What will we learn from it? There's no doubt that we will have to reinvent many of the things that we took for granted in the past.

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Bernie Sanders on March 1
Andrej Mrevlje

Bernie Or Bust: Do The Democrats Have A Chance To Beat Trump?

Ahead of Super Tuesday's crucial Democratic primaries, a look at the unlikely 'broken clock' frontrunner whose time seems to have finally come.


WASHINGTON — Will Bernie Sanders become the Democratic Party's presidential nominee, challenging Donald Trump in November? The 78-year-old self-described democratic socialist–a term not very easy to explain– has seized the commanding position by extending his coalition beyond his devoted Generation Z supporters.

Sanders has not only solidified his position as a front runner but has also increased some Democrats' fears of a possible electoral disaster come November. Those who still think that Sanders will be a calamity for the party are moderates and the Democratic establishment that has never liked the disruptive, headstrong senator. But as the race has so far demonstrated, there's no denying Sander's huge appeal.

Andrew L. Stern, former president of the Service Employees International Union, explained: "The party has shifted to the left, and I don't think many of the more traditional, legacy leaders of the party got it. The good news for Bernie Sanders is, he's like a broken clock. He's been in the same place for 35 or 40 years in terms of his positions, and the times have found him."

Sanders does not only promise jobs, but he also wants to save the planet. There's something very tender about the manner in which young Americans relate to the 78-year-old senator from Vermont with a heavy Brooklyn accent. They identify with him, putting their trust into the hands of a white-haired man who, four years ago, got crushed by Hillary Clinton"s war machine. In 2016, Clinton stopped Sanders from winning the nomination with the help of the Democratic National Committee. In the end, she lost the election against Donald Trump, throwing the nation under a bullying presidency.

The Sanders movement resemble the determination of the young Hong Kong protesters.

After three years of the loud, nonsensical, rude, racist and egocentric Donald Trump in the Oval Office, the younger generations have strengthened their conviction in their choice. Always a solitary fighter, Sanders hasn't changed his political vision. He sticks firmly to the democratic values that have been crushed by authoritarian regimes around the world, the current American administration included. His firm faith in those values has only earned him stronger support from young voters, who view Sanders as the only chance for their future.

The struggle and hope of the Sanders movement resemble the determination of the young Hong Kong protesters, who went into the streets ready to fight and even give their lives for autonomy from China, protecting their small island from Chinese despotism. Sanders' supporters are similar in their fight for their future and the future of the planet. Compared to the Hong Kong protestors, young Sanders fans are in a better position as they have not (yet) been physically persecuted. They do not need to go into the streets to fight for their freedom. Young Americans are free to vote, they just want to ensure that their vote won't be wasted, that it can secure their future. In many conversations with Bernie voters, I sensed a strong determination within them to exercise their constitutional rights and give democracy a chance.

Another thing is certain; almost no one who belongs to this young and politically pure generation will ever vote for Michael Bloomberg. The billionaire is considered to be a corporate candidate and therefore the enemy of angry youth who feels they are stuck with a gloomy future. They will not vote for Bloomberg, even if this means losing the election to Trump. For them, Bloomberg and Trump are cut from the same cloth.

Mike Bloomberg on Feb. 1 — Photo: Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons

Is it political suicide or just pure idealism to hope that the entire country will wake up on November 3rd and say No to Trump, massively supporting Sanders? Is the young generation ready to take to the streets if Trump wins again? Do these young voters know that, according to pollsters and analysts, Sanders has no chance of getting more than 30 percent of the delegates that can nominate the winner of the primaries and therefore the Democratic presidential nominee?

Even after Sanders' triumph in Nevada, where he earned votes across the entire electoral body, experts are declaring that someone who calls themselves a socialist will never, ever get the support of the majority of the country. If this is true, then Sanders alone cannot win the nomination and challenge Trump. The same goes for the Democratic candidates who are trailing behind Sanders. The party's convention in Milwaukee is therefore set to become the venue for an extremely important battle for the American future. It will also be considerably chaotic when the convention decides who to nominate as the candidate who will go on to challenge Trump. And yet, four years ago, very few of us predicted that Trump would win. We have six months to go and this time, many more voices are saying that Sanders could be a surprise nominee.

Sanders thinks that energy and excitement are essential for victory. We may have a clearer picture on Tuesday, where primaries in 12 different states could show where Bloomberg and everybody else stands.The Democratic party bureaucrats are still not very hot about the old man. Some people hold the opinion that people like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and other key Democratic figures should step behind Sanders and endorse him soon.

Then there's James Carville, an old age political hawk, who, after the Iowa caucus screamed from the bottom of his lungs: "The only thing, the only thing between the United States and the abyss is the Democratic Party. That's it. If we go the way of the British Labour Party, if we nominate Jeremy Corbyn, it's going to be the end of days. So I am scared to death, I really am."

What if there aren't really American swing voters?

It sounded dramatic and exaggerated. But it is also true. The problem is that we already live in a world that Donald Trump defines as "post-true," a world in which "alternative facts" and lies are as good as the facts, principles, and values. Carville is the Democrat and campaign strategist who put Bill Clinton in the Oval office. He too was convinced that Clinton would change America into a more righteous country and perhaps, for this reason, missed seeing Barack Obama surfacing. We do not know what cards the 75-year-old political analyst is playing in this game, but one thing is certain, without mentioning his name, Carville made space for Michael Bloomberg with his outcry:

"We have one moral imperative, and that's to beat Donald Trump. The fate of the world depends on the Democrats getting their shit together and winning in November. We have to beat Trump. And so far, I don't like what I see. And a lot of people I talk to feel the same way."

What if, as Rachel Bitecofer, part of a new generation of political analysts, says: "Everything you think you know about politics is wrong? What if there aren't really American swing voters — or not enough, anyway — to pick the next president? What if it doesn't matter much who the Democratic nominee is? What if there is no such thing as "the center," and the party in power can govern however it wants for two years, because the results of that first midterm are going to be bad regardless? What if the Democrats' big 41-seat midterm victory in 2018 didn't happen because candidates focused on health care and kitchen-table issues, but simply because they were running against the party in the White House? What if the outcome in 2020 is pretty much foreordained, too?"

Bitecofer says that it's obsolete to claim that the pool of American voters is basically fixed: that about 55 percent of eligible voters are likely to go to the polls and the winner is determined by the 15 or so percent of "swing voters' who flit between parties. And that the general election campaign amounts to a long effort to pull those voters to your side.

It is now true, claims Bitecofer, that with the polarization in America that began with the appearance of the Tea Party in 2010, the concept of negative partisanship has evolved. Today, voters are more motivated by defeating the other side than by any particular policy goals. Bitecofer explains: "In the polarized era, the outcome isn't really about the candidates. What matters is what percentage of the electorate is Republican and Republican leaners, and what percentage is Democratic and Democratic leaners, and how they get activated,"

According to some calculations, millennials and Gen Zers could make up 116 million potential Bernie Sanders voters. Would they also vote for Bloomberg? Someone else? They are all leaning towards the Democrats. If only these young, well-educated individuals would get their asses up and go vote on November 3rd.

Cobbler's Bridge in Ljubljana, Slovenia
food / travel
Andrej Mrevlje

Ljubljana Postcard: Slovenian Native Son And A Beauty Restored

The author grew up in the city. On a recent trip back, he finds the Slovenian capital revitalized in a way he'd dreamed about during his youth.


LJUBLJANA — Two elderly men were standing a step away from Šuštarski Most (Cobbler's Bridge) in the heart of the old part Ljubljana. They looked like longtime friends involved in deep, calm conversation. Like a reflection of the bridge in front of them, which has connected two sides of medieval Ljubljana since the 13th century and was last redesigned in 1931 by architect Jože Plečnik, they seemed to be relics of the past.

The men stood in near complete solitude, with no intention of moving. They seemed to have all the time in the world. When I walked past them, I heard the taller one say: "He was a big painter." They were reminiscing, or perhaps the man who was emphasizing the importance of the painter had just learned something new about him, or about the Slovenian capital, and was now telling it to his old friend. I did not hear the painter's name but the image of those elder locals, involved in a conversation about the history of their city, struck me as an apt symbol of today's Ljubljana. Judging by the tone of the conversation, the diction, the familiarity and the awareness of both men with the space around them, I had no doubt that the subject matter of the discussion must have been about a local artist, dead for a while, but living in their memories.

During my recent visit to Ljubljana, I got the strong impression that the entire city was digging into its past and learning from it. The fragmentary encounter with two men is an illustration of this process, but so are the many young people who are eager to learn about the city splendors. "There are many new facts we are learning about Ljubljana, but there is also a new way to narrate the story of this city," said Gregor Bulc, a tour guide and former student of philosophy. I joined his tour for young Slovenians who would like to learn more about the city's history, particularly its revolutions.

A sunny day in Ljubljana city— Photo: Sami C/Wikimedia Commons

The tour started in 1968, and it ended by visiting abandoned industrial and military places and turned them into social and alternative art performing centers. Some of these places have existed for decades and became part of institutionalized life here, hosting art, performance groups and social movements. This online guide, though not exact, may give you a hint of what I am talking about. While Bulc knew a lot of interesting little spots in Ljubljana and how to present them, another young man, whose name I do not recall, quite disappointingly failed to present the wider historical context of "revolutionary" events in Ljubljana.

Generally, though, tours and similar activities have become popular because of the dynamic changes in Slovenian society, which continues to search for the nation's identity. Or is it that Slovenia is trying to encode the most recent discoveries and foster pride? It might be, also, that these immersions are the simplest way to protect the small country and its city from touristic invasion. All the changes that made Ljubljana attractive and sexy have also met strong opposition from people who, in this new dynamic reality, are losing their entitlements and comfort zones. Perhaps, even, their identity.

This is, however, the image of contemporary, boiling Ljubljana with its touching beauty. I grew up in the city, and fondly remember the Ljubljana of the past, but the one I experience now is revitalized as I had wished and dreamed about. How many times did I wander through the city in my student years, in search of human life, a cozy bar or coffee shop, urban encounters, surprising events, or something that would quench my thirst for curiosity? During my socialist youth, one could not even buy a newspaper on Sundays in Ljubljana; the whole city was shut down. On weekends, Ljubljana turned into a ghost town, shop display windows the only thing to watch.

I knew them all by memory. They changed them only four times a year, with every new season. So what was left to see were the deteriorating facades of bourgeois houses, some medieval, some more recently built after the earthquake that damaged most of the city in 1895. But, 80 years after the earthquake, the Ljubljana of my youth aged again. Just as an 80-year-old body gets slow, so too did the city; it could not cure its ailments. Without makeup, the heart of the old city showed all its wrinkles and scars. Still beautiful on the inside, with many well-kept apartments still preserving the intimacy of what was left of the bourgeois lifestyle, the outside of the old houses looked abandoned, unappealing. Today shiny, vibrant and full of life, the center of the city in those years was half empty, with restaurants you could count on one hand.

It would be like declaring war on the regime.

During socialism, Ljubljana's Belle Epoque — the rebuilding period between 1896 and 1910 that introduced the architectural changes from which a great deal of the city dates back to today — was challenged and contrasted by the brutal concrete, rectangular, spartan, and purely functional constructions that served as the dormitories for the working class, the victors of the socialist revolution and the liberators of the country from the occupation of the Nazis and fascists. The new rulers of the country, our parents' generation, did not destroy the old, as happened in some other countries. But whatever was built with or created by the hands of a socialist, revolutionary man, was dropped and left aside. For them, the past belonged to a different ideology and was threatening the existence of the new regime. The entire old part of the city was therefore left to age and to decay. There was, of course, a lack of finances, but what really mattered was the choice to prioritize ideology. Nobody who belonged to the new political class would dare to spend any money on maintenance or restoration of the historic part of the city. It would be like declaring war on the regime. Ljubljana in the "70s and "80s was not only lonely but also murky. Even in its darkest times, however, we still sensed Ljubljana's potential beauty.

Thanks to my extended family, it was my privilege as a teenager in the 1970's to get to know a group of young students of architecture who ascribed themselves the allure of artists. Besides being annoyingly egocentric and loud, they were also very aggressive in proposing changes. This group of baby boomers followed the teachings of the spiritual father of Slovenian architecture then, Edo Ravnikar, who in turn was a pupil of the much more famous Jože Plečnik, the greatest Slovenian architect who gave Ljubljana its soul by effecting a wonderful transformation of the city. Not only this city, for Plečnik chose his own original artistic path and left an impact on such important central European cities as Vienna and Prague.

It was in the late 1980's that Plečnik's legacy was at last undusted, first in the form of publications and debates, and then more research. His name was finally freed from suspected dangerous liaisons with reactionary ideologies. In the last 12 years, after successful Slovenian business manager Zoran Janković became the mayor of the city, Ljubljana developed to its full potential.

Janković, who is of Serbian origin, was torpedoed by Slovenian nationalists from Mercator, a very successful chain of supermarkets that dominated the retail market in Slovenia and the former Yugoslavia. Mercator fell to disgrace after Janković was forced to leave, but the former CEO decided to run for mayor and won. Janković then surrounded himself with a team of very open-minded people who started to dig into Ljubljana's soul. Among them is Janez Koželj, the architect, who was part of the group of loud young students I mentioned earlier. Koželj, who today acts as deputy mayor, is behind it all. As Janković admitted in last year's interview for Mladina, "the person behind the entire urban redesign of Ljubljana, using various styles and urban concepts and connect them into the whole. Koželj is the happiness of this city. It will be inscribed in our history with golden letters."

During the last dozen years, the mayor's team created the new face of the city. Ljubljana built many new bridges (some of them were never-materialized Plečnik's ideas), turned river banks into walking areas, and closed downtown to car traffic to build a modern sports center. Koželj's team worked hard to extend a touch of Plečnik's legacy to the city, respecting the identity the grand architect envisioned. Koželj managed to integrate a previously isolated castle that hovered over it into Ljubljana, improve the city's bloodstream with new bridges and footbridges, and revitalize the river, now an active part of the city with its sightseeing boats and paddlers. Janković promised that in two years, after his last mandate, he intends to dive into the Ljubljanica, symbolically becoming the first swimmer of the now-clean river.

So the hill with the castle, the river and its banks, and the whole of the city are all part of the same entity with one heartbeat; the streets are full of good restaurants, drinking the good coffee is now entirely possible, and sitting in any of hundreds of garden restaurants is now an accustomed-to pleasure. You cannot but fall in love with Ljubljana. As mayor Janković says, Ljubljana no longer needs to learn from Barcelona and Vienna, because it is a Slovenian capital that is now a model city.

Airbnb is still the problem.

And yet, there seem to be some issues, as I learned from friends and locals I talked to during my recent three-week stay. The opposition to increasing crowds of tourists is growing. The 400,000 annual visitors to Ljubljana have now grown to 1.6 million. The mayor has set a goal to achieve a three-night minimum stay from every visitor (the average is now 2 nights). Ljubljana is building more hotels and residential housing, and its Airbnb business is booming as the city hesitates to tax landlords any higher.

On the other hand, real estate taxation in Slovenia is ridiculously low, which means that the income earned by renting it is highly profitable, thanks to the changes and newfound popularity of Ljubljana. As for the fact that the city is short on student homes, and that massive tourism is raising the rental prices, Janković answered with the need for a university campus, which it has never had. Here, again, Janković is right.

But Airbnb is still the problem, admitted Koželj, whom I met during the exhibition opening for the 50th anniversary of Alan Ford, quite a celebrity in former Yugoslavia. Koželj told me, however, that the city has practically finished the job, citing the major renovation of the city's two industrial complexes: a former bicycle plant named Rog and a former sugar refinery, Cukrarna, which will become a youth art center, as well as conference and administrative centers.

"We are capable to start building the additional university library, the long-awaited Ljubljana railway and bus stations immediately, but we cannot touch them because those are the central government projects," Koželj said, full of desire to put city hands on two very challenging projects. In the meantime, however, while discussing the issue with the state bureaucracy, the deputy mayor is thinking of expanding Ljubljana into the hinterland by following the curves of Ljubljanica river and improving cooperation with touristic facilities in more minor Slovenian cities. In short, Ljubljana, with less than a one billion Euro budget, is not only a better model than Barcelona and Vienna but seems to be more efficient than the Slovenian government itself. As Deng Xiaoping used to say, "It doesn't matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches the mouses."

Remembering the Tiananmen massacre, 30 years on

Memories Of Tiananmen And A Passing Yugoslav-Chinese Flirt

I was not at Tiananmen those weeks in the spring 1989, when thousands of students occupied the square, demanding more room in a modernizing China. Nor was I there in those horrid hours between the third and fourth of June, when under the cover of night the People's Liberation Army first surrounded the area, then pushed toward the square shooting madly at anything that moved, crushing young lives with tanks.

And yet, during my almost 10 years in China, I went to Tiananmen a lot. Firstly, just to gaze at that immense empty space, trying to make sense of its importance. I also went there as a journalist covering the gatherings of the Communist party nomenclature, like the Party Congress and sessions of the National People's Congress in the Great Hall of the People. When studying in Beijing, someone from the Yugoslav Embassy lent me a suit so I could join the banquet Deng Xiaoping threw in honor of Josip Broz-Tito in the Great Hall.

It was a strange and funny reminder of when I wore a borrowed suit at the funeral of my father when I was 10 years old. But during all the time I spent in that gigantic and empty square I still couldn't make much sense of it. That is, until the late 1990s when I met Zhang Yuan, then a young film director who showed me Quanchang, his documentary on Tiananmen.

Two years ago, I wrote about what I learned from watching the documentary:

"Tiananmen is a great example of the public square/space contended for by the public authority, the state, and civil society. Zhang Yuan in his Guangchang – The Square describes and demonstrates this battle for a public space that is normally empty. In the case of Tiananmen, it was empty because Mao Zedong wanted it that way so that he could rally one million obedient red guards whenever he needed them to bolster his Cultural Revolution."

"Later, the square was used for military parades. Then, for a short period of time in 1989, the students and newly born Chinese civil society occupied Tiananmen for a few months. They got crushed by the leadership, who sent the military to clear the square. It was a massacre. It is from that time that Chinese authorities fear the crowds will come back and take the square from them. Zhang Yuan filmed all the camouflaged agents and policemen who've surveyed the square after 1989. The regime started to plant trees in the square and built a national flag pedestal guarded day and night; it does everything possible to create obstacles for potential spontaneous public gatherings."

After the massacre, I remember the protest in front of the Chinese embassy in Rome.

With the 30th anniversary of the massacre this month, all the memories of Tiananmen returned with incredible force. I tried to place myself back in time, remembering what I was doing during those monumental days three decades ago. I was working in Rome, not yet as a journalist. In 1989, there was no internet; we depended on the news from Beijing that national and commercial Italian television was broadcasting. One could rely on the BBC World Service on shortwave radio. We also read the reports in papers and worked the phones a lot. After the massacre, I remember the protest in front of the Chinese embassy on Via Bruxelles in Rome. It was a sad and silent protest, with more sinologists than average citizens. I was in contact with people and friends who were involved in the complex rescue operations of Chinese dissidents and students involved in the events on the square. Back then, I was not aware of how complex and risky some of those operations were. Two years after the tragedy, The Washington Post published this report on one of the rescue operations, Operation Yellow Bird.

Was the rescue of Su Zhaoshi, director of the Marxist-Leninist Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Science, part of the Yellow Bird Operation? This is the first time that I've ever considered this possibility. We will never be sure, as the 82-year-old Su Zhaoshi just died in Beijing within one day of the 30th anniversary. Anthony Saich, the Professor of International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School and a friend of Su's informed me of his death, the coincidence with the world marking the brutal repression of a budding civil society that forced him into exile is more than symbolic. It's tragic.

I got to know Su from the time we met in Ljubljana in 1980, or perhaps a year later. Su Zhaoshi was head of the Chinese delegation that was exploring the dreadful Yugoslav model of socialism, called "self-management." They were meeting various experts and politicians, the high echelons of the Slovenian Communist party, who were trying to explain to the Chinese how it functioned in Yugoslav socialism. Deng's China was looking for bridges toward the West, and Yugoslavia at that time seemed to be appropriate. (Mao Zedong before them considered self-management revisionist communism.)

During his visit to Ljubljana, I was Su's interpreter. After a couple of meetings, I remember being in a government limo with Su when he told me what he thought of the Slovenian leaders' explanations. He thought that the self-management system was a perfect system to subordinate the working class, but that it was too complicated to implement in China! I cracked with laughter. He did not hold it back it either. Hearing this kind of thing from a Chinese official, I thought for the first time how fast China was moving towards the liberation from the Communist dogma. Su Zhaoshi, I learned later, was a genuine reformer, and understood that the system of micro-distribution of power practiced in Yugoslavia would disintegrate China, while it managed to paralyze Yugoslavia.

Soon after Su's visit, the short love affair between the Chinese and Yugoslav ideologues was over. Beijing ditched Yugoslavia for more open Western democracies and Su became a natural supporter of Hu Yaobang, the much adored Party secretary whom the students mourned at Tiananmen. Hu was a resolute social reformer. As a short-lived party boss, he downgraded the party's discredited Maoist ideology, introducing more flexible and pragmatic policy, and replacing the cult of personality with collective leadership by recruiting younger, better-educated cadres. Hu got massive support from the youth, who were pushing for even faster and more radical changes, something that scared party conservatives. They removed Hu Yaobang in 1987. He died of a heart attack on April 15, 1989. Among the young and progressive, his death aroused the worries and fears about the fate of reforms in the country that had only just been introduced to democracy. The soldiers and the tanks on the streets of Beijing confirmed their fears. They brutally repressed any hope that China would ever become an open society.

May 19, 1989 protests on Tiananmen Square — Photo: Edgar Bauer/DPA/ZUMA

Su Zhaoshi and most of the people of the Academy of Social Science were intensely involved in the debate on the square before the massacre. As a consequence, they would become direct targets of the regime once the clean-up operations that tried to conceal the bloodshed were over. Reports from Beijing cited a massive manhunt across the country. Anthony Saich told me that hours after the massacre, he was approached by the U.S. Embassy to see if he could help Su Zhaoshi out of the country since the embassy could not get involved directly. Saich, who at the time was Associate Professor at the Sociologisch Instituut at the University of Leiden, and temporarily visiting China with a group of students, got Su's passport stamped for exit by the Dutch Embassy. They registered Su as one of Saich's students, who were leaving Beijing that day on a Finnair flight. With the help of a diplomat, Su made it on the plane and was in the Netherlands the next day. A year later, we all met at some conference on Chinese democracy in Bologna. There was plenty of time for stories.

After years in exile in the U.S., Su Zhaoshi decided to return to China eventually but was not allowed to publish or speak in public. He died silenced and in near complete darkness, as he was going blind.

During Christmas vacation in 1989, I managed to go back to Beijing. I knew the city very well, but this time it was covered by a cloud that had never before existed. The Capital of the North had been transformed into a ghost city. I particularly remember the naked, motionless construction cranes; it felt like being in Chernobyl. Everything in the city was at a standstill. There were very few people on the streets, Tiananmen was still sealed off, the hotels empty. The intellectuals, artists, poets, writers who wanted to remain needed some connection to a friend within the State security. I remember that a poet friend was under such protection, and asked if we could exchange foreign currency with his protector, the only collateral he could offer. We did, with some increased stomach pain after the protector moved us to a hotel within the State Security compound. My room was facing Tiananmen; it was a nightmare. It was my final two nights in Beijing, and they drove us to the airport in a state security car. We needed to stop at some hotel to exchange clandestine material with a reporter. It felt bizarre, but it was the most secure way.

What would have become of China without the 1989 crackdown?

In an attempt to prevent the oblivion of one of the biggest crimes in the history of humanity, the 30th anniversary has flooded us with new and old material on Tiananmen (like this collection of photos). Among the essays, reflections and memories on the bloodbath, and the end of a democratic epoch China was never able to return to, allow me to mention Minxin Pei, who wrote an essay about the end of the Chinese enlightenment, which came about with the crackdown on Tiananmen. Perhaps ‘enlightenment" is not the best term to use since it has a specific historic significance, but Pei's intention is clear. He is asking himself what would have become of China without the 1989 crackdown.

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the intellectual fervor and diversity of the 1980s when we look at today's China, where ideological re-indoctrination, censorship, and persecution of outspoken thinkers have turned the country into an intellectual wasteland.

For those who still remember, the enlightenment movement showed what China could have become had the hard-liners not engineered the bloody crackdown three decades ago. By all accounts, the enlightenment movement that made the 1980s the freest decade in the history of the People's Republic was the product of coincidences.

First, after nearly thirty years of self-imposed isolation, Chinese society was seized with an insatiable curiosity about the West (I still recall standing room only lectures given by foreign professors and sold-out classical music concerts). Meanwhile, Mao's blood-soaked rule and the impoverishment of a hardworking and entrepreneurial people forced the survivors of Maoism, including Deng Xiaoping and many fellow leaders, to reflect on the deeper causes of the national tragedy that was the Mao period.

Pei then explains other circumstances that created the democratic fervor in China, which could perhaps only be compared to the intellectual and cultural awakening in the period that followed the fall of the Qing Empire, in 1911. Further on, Pei underscores the role of the leaders, such as Hu Yaobang, who created a permissive political atmosphere in which the exploration of new ideas and critical debate about sensitive topics could take place. In that short period of time, there was also the space and tolerance for a critical examination of China's long history, in particular, its autocratic tradition and its mindset of self-glorification and isolationism.

All this is gone, gone with the gerontocracy that replaced the youth on the square but drank their blood in order to continue liberal economic reforms in the fashion of the worst of brutal capitalism. All the economic reforms were implemented in the complete absence of democracy, and to this day new forms of the personality cult (Xi Jinping) have been reinstated, while modern electronic and AI surveillance, additionally poisoned by deeply cultivated nationalism, guarantees further isolationism and cultural separation.

Minxin Pei concludes his essay with dark optimism: "Now that the Chinese economic miracle, buffeted by a structural slowdown at home and a looming economic cold war with the U.S., is fading, the party will find it increasingly hard to sustain its anti-enlightenment project. As only the catastrophe of Maoism could have given rise to the enlightenment movement in the 1980s, it is a reasonable hope that the next enlightenment movement will emerge also only from the unravelling of the "China model."

My thinking is even darker then Pei's. It originates from the student-formulated requests on the Tiananmen in 1989:

(1) affirm as correct Hu Yaobang's views on democracy and freedom; (2) admit that the campaigns against spiritual pollution and bourgeois liberalization had been wrong; (3) publish information on the income of state leaders and their family members; (4) end the ban on privately run newspapers and permit freedom of speech; (5) increase funding for education and raise intellectuals' pay; (6) end restrictions on demonstrations in Beijing; and (7) hold democratic elections to replace government officials who made bad policy decisions. In addition, they demanded that the government-controlled media print and broadcast their demands and that the government respond to them publicly.

If you look around, you will realize that the democracy the Tiananmen students desired no longer exists in this world. There are no more models the fresh and young democracy could learn from. There is no more substantial dialogue between present-day China and the rest of the world, if there ever was any. And so, this time, the Chinese have to do it by themselves.

Chinese New Year festivities in Milan last month

Will China's New Silk Road Lead To Rome?

The center-right populist Italian government has recently bowed to Chinese flattery, announcing it was ready to sign a Memorandum of Understanding that will connect Rome and Beijing on a modern Silk Road. At the end of a long, slow path of decline and political confusion, Rome is in bad need of fresh investment to boost its impoverished economy. Italy, which in 1957 helped found the European Economic Community, still counts as one of the most important EU members and is turning its back on Brussels in hopes that distant Beijing can solve its problems.

Italy was once famous for being a nation of Saints, Poets, and Sailors, and until 30 years ago it was a member of an exclusive club: among the five most developed countries of the world. The country was booming in the late 1980s, until the fall of the Berlin Wall. Instead of more prosperity, as arrived in the countries of emerging economies, the end of the Cold War for Italy was the beginning of a disaster. With less U.S. support, and the explosion of a massive corruption scandal, Tangentopoli, Italy stepped through what now seems to be a point of no return. In 1992, the corruption scandal paralyzed the whole country: half of the Italian Parliament was investigated, while the major political parties that ran the country for decades collapsed. As judges were replacing politicians and calling the shots, a political vacuum was created. The void was soon filled by Silvio Berlusconi, the media tycoon, who, after he lost his political sponsors, needed to protect his livelihood. He needed to get into the prime minister's office to cover up his dubious businesses.

More than 25 years later, Italy still suffers from the consequences of Berlusconismo: high unemployment, widespread tax evasion, enormous public debt, and young people and talents that flee the country at first opportunity. But last year it got worse when — after a left-wing interregnum that gave little hope to the pauperized country — the elections brought to power two populist parties: the Five Star Movement (M5S) and the League (La Lega). The two movements agreed on the program and formed the government with a prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, who does not belong to either of the two political forces.

This government has now prepared the aforementioned Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which will be signed in Rome this week during the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Launched by President Xi in 2013, the New Silk Road project, also known as the Belt Road Initiative (BRI), is considered the largest program of economic diplomacy since the US-led Marshall Plan for postwar reconstruction in Europe, and will include dozens of countries and a total population of more than three billion people.

The idea that both sides are now trying to sell is that the BRI is nothing but a modern version of the Silk Road, the ancient network of trading routes that stretched from China to Italy, transporting goods, skills, and ideas halfway around the world. As it is now, more than a thousand years later, a shrunken Italy hopes to play an equally important role in international development. But in joining the BRI, Italy risks having an even smaller role in this world.

Rome intends to open the ports of Italy for Chinese merchandise and technology coming out of Asia, creating transport hubs and rebuilding its crumbling infrastructure, a plan that has provoked a strong reaction from Brussels and Washington. As I am writing this post, growing speculations out of Rome include the possibilities that Beijing might tackle Italy's enormous public debt, which as a matter of fact would resolve one of the European Union's enormous problems, but at a high price. China will now sit in the backyard of Brussels, and want more.

With all these fast changes, I called Brussels and talked to a high official of the European Commission I've known for many years. I asked him what the EU plans to do, and what he thinks is happening in Rome. He said:

Evidently, this is another deliberate sign of Rome taking distance from the EU. The MOU is even more important than previous gestures since it comes at the moment in which the EU is making an effort to set up a consistent strategy with China based on a balance of opportunities and risks. It is fundamental that Italy in negotiations with China would obtain reciprocity. Italy should be aware that it can obtain the reciprocity only if negotiating with China respects the line with the EU.

Short of any meaningful and sustainable strategy, Italy's gesture seems to be a sign coming from the country that it's ready to sell its assets in exchange for a bit of cash, trying to resolve the poor state of its economy that has no appeal for foreign investors. The Chinese understand this situation very well and, after maybe a first and short phase of benign interest, will oblige Italy to accept their hard conditions, as everywhere in the world.

Without dramatizing this agreement, it is worth noting it further aggravates the negative image of Italy without bringing actual benefits. It would have been better for Italy to agree on a specific concrete deal for a project rather than to follow this unwise and politically costly path.

A devastating assessment. Brussels can do very little to stop what the adventurous government in Rome is up to. It can smash the Catalan referendum, but it cannot stop Italy from leaving the boat.

This was bound to happen.

On the other hand, this was bound to happen. Ten years ago when I was working in Italy as a reporter, I investigated the Chinese economic presence in Italy; Italy was the first of the developed countries that suffered the entry of China in the World Trade Organization. Italian businesses, fragmented but very creative and highly productive, were located mostly in the north of Italy where the current government has its roots and lost its ground against the flood of much cheaper products coming from China. It was not only the area of Prato, once famous for its textile industry but now populated predominantly by the Chinese labor community. There was also illegal penetration of poorly controlled Italian ports, where the Chinese for more than a decade have landed thousands and thousands of containers of merchandise without paying any duties. I interviewed public prosecutors in Rome who, with the help of the Customs Police, led the investigations into the phenomena.

The prosecutor back then told me that her office wrote to the government asking what should they do. Without any concrete answer, she sent a report of their investigation to Brussels. No reaction either. She then sarcastically told me the Italian government should negotiate with Beijing a certain amount of commission on a yearly basis. It would be enough to run a national budget with this, the prosecutor said with a wry smile on her face.

Sunrise in Shanghai — Photo: Dave Ginsberg

A decade later, this is exactly what's happening. The future BRI agreement may as well become an Italian financial rescue plan designed in Beijing, adding legitimacy to this shadow practice. Here, on this side of the Atlantic, where the current U.S. administration couldn't care less about the EU's destiny, the news from Rome broke the ceiling. White House National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis said the belt and road scheme was unlikely to help Italy economically and could significantly damage the country's international image. The U.S. government first warned Rome not to give access to the Chinese at the port of Trieste, as well as further cooperation between the leading electricity providers of both countries. The Prime Minister Conte refused: "With all the necessary precautions, Italy's accession to a new silk route represents an opportunity for our country."

Other than the prime minister, considered a puppet at the hands of the two coalition parties, the Italian official who most strongly promoted better ties with China is Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio, the 32-year-old leader of the Five Star Movement. As South China Morning Post reported:

Di Maio also leads the Ministry of Economic Development. His deputy in that ministry, Michele Geraci, held several university positions in Zhejiang province and in Shanghai for a decade before his official appointment last year.

In charge of Italy's international trade, he is regarded as playing a central role in Rome's warming ties with Beijing. In an interview with Bloomberg last year, Geraci said the current administration had taken a different stance, adding: "We are trying not to ignore China as has been done in the past.

Italy's Foreign Minister, Enzo Moavero Milanesi, visited Washington in January and held meetings with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, expressing a seemingly different opinion from his government. Among other things, he discussed banning Chinese telecom giant Huawei from 5G mobile development, the Italian media reported. However, the impact of the U.S. and Brussels on the Italian decision might be hard to quantify. Italy is by no means the only member of the E.U. to show interest in BRI and Chinese investments. Several E.U. countries have already started forms of cooperation with Beijing. And it is not just marginal and indebted countries like Greece, but the leading economies of the old continent. Suffice it to say that, if between 2000 and 2018 Beijing invested about 15 billion euros in Italy, Chinese investments in France were roughly the same level, and in Germany, they exceeded 22 billion euros. Meanwhile in the UK they came close to 50 billion euros, according to a recent study by Merics and Rhodium Group.

Before they jump the fence, the Italians, who in principle ought to be more loyal to the strategic partnership with the E.U. they helped found, should also read more carefully the reports on some difficulties BRI projects are encountering around the globe. Last December, Bloomberg published a report that is indicative of how China imagines navigating this boat. But perhaps even more interesting is a recent alert that comes from Minxin Pei, an expert on U.S.-Asia relations:

Beneath the surface, there is growing unease in China about BRI. And rightly so. With the country feeling an economic squeeze, fighting a trade war with the U.S. and facing criticism from nations receiving BRI funds, Chinese skeptics, including academics, economists and business people, of BRI are quietly asking if their government is putting its scarce resources to the right use. To be sure, there are no official announcements that Beijing is about to pare back Xi's BRI dreams. Tight censorship has removed any direct criticisms of BRI from the media.

Minxin's observation on the economic difficulties China will have to face in coming months and years is that while leaders in Beijing continue to stand by BRI, Xi's original ambitions are being rolled back out of public view. We should not be surprised if Beijing eventually lets BRI, at least BRI 1.0, die quietly, Pei concludes.

Is Pei's just one of many different opinions? Perhaps, but what is happening is extremely interesting and coming upon us much faster than expected. So for the time being, if I were you, I would not miss a second in watching what will happen in Italy when Xi Jinping and his court land in the jewel country of Mediterranean.

Chinese President Xi Jinping

Traits Of A Nation? Blind Spots Of The Old China Hands

How is it that analysis of the rising world power is reduced to an abstract notion from the field of genetics? Established experts on China are not looking at the future.


WASHINGTON — Presenting the latest report of the China Task Force, Susan L. Shirk, a research professor at the University of California, San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy, asked the following series of questions: "Is the pragmatic gene that we saw in Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and even at the beginning of the Hu Jintao, still alive in China? Is Xi Jinping motivated and able to modify its policies to reduce the cost China is bearing because of the current backlash? Or, are this kind of overreaching policies – statist, mercantilist and aggressive foreign policies – hard-baked into the Chinese Marxist-Leninist Communist Party rule? Are the Chinese leaders still able to make the changes in a practical, pragmatic manner to reduce their own cost?"

The China Task Force was founded in 2017 to advise the Trump administration on China. For two days in February, the group toured Washington, visiting Congressional offices and intelligence agency safe rooms; they met with members of the Administration and reported to the National Security Council.

At the end of their visit, they also met with a select group of experts and journalists on the top floor of the prestigious National Press Club, just a few blocks away from the White House, around the corner from the FBI building, and a half mile from the shiny dome of the Capitol. As Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at Asia Society, and co-chair Susan Shirk introduced the report, they apparently tried to add some flavor to the dry academic language of the document.

Sponsored by the Asia Society in New York, the task force currently includes 17 well-known experts on China, a select group of academics, journalists and former diplomats. All the members of this advisory group are accomplished experts and have been well-informed China hands for decades. They are the finest minds the U.S. possesses in the topic of China. And yet, why did the final words of Professor Shirk, the main speaker of the task force, sound incredibly naive?

For a scholar who has done significant research on contemporary China, Shirk missed the opportunity to deliver a more comprehensive judgment that could illuminate the reasons for recent Chinese interference, a term that the task force uses frequently. How is it that otherwise excellent analyses and observations were reduced to an abstract notion from the field of genetics, a hope that perhaps one day our Chinese competitors might somehow reactivate their well behaved nature – a gene! – that will put things back in order and reestablish the harmonious relationship between East and West. Can one rely on the goodwill of the competitor, after pages of accurate descriptions of unfair trade game played by China that protect its market and favors its enterprises, thus enabling exponential domestic growth and military build up?

Back then, it was the West who had a massive appetite for reaching the Chinese market.

The economy section of the report contributed by Charlene Barshefsky, former United States Trade Representative, criticizes China's intentional disrespect of the rules they signed on for when entering the World Trade Organization. Barshefsky's no-nonsense analysis demanded that the U.S. revive the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, extend it to Europe and thus assemble 60% of the world GDP, allowing the U.S. and its partners, now under economic strain, to reform the rules of the WTO with China.

I have no way to know whether this assault plan of Madame Barshefsky could work or not. I remember that back in 2001 when Barshefsky was head of the U.S. Trade delegation, the negotiations with China in Beijing were tough, complex but full of promises. Back then, it was the West who had a massive appetite for reaching the Chinese market, hoping to get shares of Chinese telecoms, insurances, banks and other big business. Did they relent in exchange for cheap labor and highly profitable offshore manufacturing that made the rich in the West even richer?

Joining the WTO helped China grow enormously. They were able to create their middle class while the West's shrunk dramatically, and then U.S. voters vengefully elected populist President Donald Trump in 2016. Is Barshefsky now seeking her revenge? She speaks plainly, far from the formula that imagines a solution in a presumably "good" Chinese nature, like Shirk, or in metaphysics, as did the otherwise energetic and entertaining Orville Schell.

Schell, who is putting his face and reputation forward in the effort to enable the U.S.-China dialogue, came out with a similar solution to Shirk:

China, as it increases the scope of its pretensions, globally in almost every realm, and expands outward, has also begun to elaborate a picture in which it is seeking to protect its interest as it describes it — in a global way. And that is both, military and culturally, with propaganda and media.

But I also think that buried in these pretensions there is some notion that has come of age in 2008 and 2009 during the financial crisis, and maybe China does have a better model, a better way of doing things. I think its efforts to expand broadly are sort of calculations to protect itself at home, because the world is no longer one in which China could move in autarchy. So it sees its own national interest as a begging broader and global protection and thus the project like One Belt One Road and myriad other ways with which China projects its power.

What did Schell mean by this? That Chinese nationalism, militarism, the economic and trade expansion, which in Africa has reached the threshold of a new colonialism, are the protective layers for what may in fact lie more profound in the body of China; some kind of embryo of a new China model, that we may not know about, but that might surprise us?

I wish Orville Schell the best. I appreciate his remarkable work when he was a reporter, professor and also managing a complex institution like Asia Society. His task force keenly observed that, for the first time, both aisles of Congress are united in pushing back on China. I shared with him the fear that the prevailing instinct for herding in America will not bring us better times.

During the discussion in the Press Club, someone mentioned the anti-Chinese storm that is brewing in Congress. Part of it comes from the fact that the Trump administration, with all its clumsiness, hit the nail on the head by being consistent in pushing China back. Just by saying things, by his nature, Trump shook the Chinese and got their attention. But his trade war, while perhaps a useful tactic, is not a strategy.

As for Beijing, they are losing time thinking about what's buzzing in Trump's head. And it is precisely this point that worries Schell and the rest of the group: the unpredictability of what might happen if the size of the current crisis is misunderstood and places additional stresses on the U.S.-China relationship, escalating an already tense dynamic.

Asia_Society_exhibition_ NewYorkCity

Art exhibit hosted by Asia Society in New York City — Photo: Ellen Wallop/ Asia Society

Currently, this is what the debate with the task force illustrated: U.S. politicians are anti-Chinese in the same way that they were pro-Chinese a generation ago when they were visiting China to get part of their cake. It is for this reason that the task force proposed a new type of relationship with China, calling it "smart competition." It can be named anything, but the effort should focus on finding the balance, to protect and preserve. To protect is to do everything to ensure that the U.S will be able to compete again with China. That is, to invest in research, infrastructure, education, technology, and to take care of the environment, which is just as much a question of national security as are cyber attacks.

The good advice that comes from the China hands is also to preserve what once was the American dream. In short, do not go ahead with the persecution of everything Chinese or Asian, as happened when Japanese residents in the U.S. were interned after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The group strongly advised America not to isolate itself from the talent and productivity that is coming from Asia. Be vigilant, build better security on industrial theft and tech transfer, but do not shut the door, as this president seems to be doing.

Winston Lord, former ambassador to China, who started his career as a very young adviser to Henry Kissinger during Nixon's visit to China, is the most pessimistic member of the group. He does not think that any twist towards the better and more constructive dialogue with Beijing is possible with Trump sitting in the Oval Office. It was hard to watch the veteran diplomat with his shoulders sunken, his voice slow and without energy. His carefully designed and constructed vision of the new world of coexistence, built over a half of century, had come to naught.

They perceive America as an underdeveloped country.

Not everybody in the room thought the same way, though. Susan Shirk, who seems to be the most outspoken person of the group, said that she does not believe that the Chinese have the formula and exact plan for their future. She is convinced that the controlling party interest and hegemony does not represent the interests of the entire Chinese nation. Aggressive foreign policy and an increasing military threat do not correspond with the interests of the growing middle class, who, according to Shirk, are well-traveled and have lived abroad, therefore expecting the Communist party and Chinese leadership to return to reform and create a better and more open civil society. We have to help them with this, Shirk said at the very end of the second public debate on the report, this time in New York at the headquarters of Asia Society.

And this is what worries me: how often Shirk and other China experts walk the streets of American cities, streets flooded with Chinese students. I see these young people, and try to talk to them. They have no interest in Shirk's ideas. They have no interest in America, per se. Coming from bustling China, where everything is faster, shinier, more modern and yes, even cleaner. They perceive America as an underdeveloped country. They think that New York is full of old and dysfunctional buildings, that American bridges are not safe and should not be trusted, that the trains are noisy and slow. They came to the U.S. ready to pay $60,000 per year for a college, buying experience and a degree. And then they want to go home, as soon as possible.

Once back in China, they don't care to discuss politics or the social order. They are China's millennials, the privileged millions who were born into the world with no political rights. They delegate them to the supreme body. This is the new pragmatic gene of China; the one the task force is searching for dissolved back in 1989. Perhaps the task force too should be suspended, because that China – that world – no longer exists. This, my friends and respected scholars, is the only point that makes me understand your confusion about your hope that one day the good gene will start to reason and lead again. It does so already — you just haven't found the right name for it.

In Hong Kong, support for Huawei's arrested CFO Meng Wanzhou

Chinese Pride, Global Power And The Battle For 5G

WASHINGTON — How long must you live, how strong must be your memory, to turn back and say: damn it, this world has really changed. Look at the millennials, they seem to be better educated than the boomers, but they are sui generis in their thinking, seemingly inspired and shaped by memes rather than historical experience. The Generation X that preceded the millennials was instead suffocated by the boomers, who hold onto their positions for too long, blocking the regular and continuous passage of power between the generations. Generation Y – the millennials – are equipped with technology and capable of multitasking, and have only recently started to make more decisive steps forward, penetrating the control rooms. The future of the world, therefore, seems dependent on the dialogue between them and technology.

Why this introduction? As one of the boomers, I consider myself privileged when it comes to measuring the socio-historical changes; I only have to look at China, a country that I had known from the times when it was still predominantly Maoist and poor, underdeveloped and isolated. It was, however – and I love to emphasize this – a country with great dignity and modesty, with many great and generous people. Nothing, not even Mao's iconoclastic and totalitarian efforts, could erase the sense of history from the minds of the old and young in that sleeping giant. The memes, the invasive currents of social media and the internet, seem to be doing a much better job of wiping out the lessons of history. This, though, is a slightly different story.

Observing the enormous progress China has made in the last 30 years, one realizes why the current world order, tailored to the Western alliance that won World War II, feels like a straight jacket to modern China. Booming China, of course, is not the only new reality contributing to the massive change on this planet, changes that urge a reshaping of the post-War victors' now obsolete world order.

Allow me to mention just one of the changes that illustrate the enormity of the new order. After 20 years of reforms, China added to the world 120 million new industrial workers. This phenomenon is not an isolated statistic concerning only China; it is earth-shaking economic change impacting the entire global economy, substantially increasing the whole world's workforce by adding the equivalent of 25% of the European population.

And yet, such phenomenal shifts in the parameters of our everyday lives has left untouched the paradigms of our thinking, and for too long. There is a reason why recent international crises generated by the American administration's reactionary politics, and answered by similarly reactionary Chinese nationalism, are called by the wrong names, such as Trade War, a new Cold War, South China Sea crisis, Spygate and so on. In reality, all the daily bursts of mainstream news using these phrases are obscuring and missing much deeper, tectonic changes that will result in a disruptive, seismic shake of enormous dimensions before – let's hope – the world settles down into a new geopolitical framework.

As Ian Bremmer put it a short time ago: "Since too many bad seeds have been planted, the world is no longer capable of stopping the looming crisis. It's not only about the U.S. losing its breadth but the disruption and erosion of the old, post-War alliances. We can no longer know or predict which world destiny will favor when implosion rears its ugly face." Bremmer is a hipster who created a niche for himself in explaining the edges of the old world. But with his bad-seeds theory, he sounds like a Templar, a crusader of the old world. He, to my mind, represents the resistance to change, similar to how the boomers managed to suffocate Generation X. The post-War order of relations, put simply, no longer exists.

In Beijing — Photo: Mitya Ku

The crux of the current situation can be understood through the battle for 5G. The acronym does not stand for a summit of the world powers but denotes the fifth generation of cellular mobile communication. This dry definition has already been memed as the new industrial revolution, bringing unprecedented interconnectivity while replacing the obsolete and slow process of globalization. 5G will make everything instantaneous! It will connect artificial intelligence and self-driving cars to telemedicine and virtual reality, and to as yet undreamt-of technologies; all the things we hope will make our lives easier, safer, and healthier will require high-speed, always-on internet connections, writes Wired.

5G is the technology that will enable split-second communication between all the devices we can think of and the people using them. Eventually anyway. As it is, U.S. carriers promise that 5G will be available nationwide by 2020, but the first 5G networks won't be nearly so fast. For China, taking a top role in 5G technology is no mere matter of national pride. The new technology will not only permit ultrafast video streaming and communication between, for example, a self-driving car and a traffic control system. It is also meant to accommodate simultaneous connections with large numbers of devices: everything from consumer wearables to industrial sensors.

It is evident that China wants to dominate this development. In a recent report by MIT Technology Review, the Chinese seem to have gained some advantage in applying the 5G network:

"If you count the launch of commercial service in any form, the US is in front of China. Verizon started selling its own 5G service, which is essentially a wireless version of wired broadband for homes and offices, in four US cities in October. AT&T plans to introduce mobile 5G service in 12 US cities before the end of the year. T-Mobile and Sprint say they will turn on their 5G networks by mid-2019. Chinese operators don't plan to start selling 5G service until 2020. However, if you think a country needs to roll out 5G to all its major cities in order to claim leadership, China looks likely to come out ahead. China Tower, a company that builds infrastructure for the country's mobile operators, has said it can cover China with 5G within three years of the government's allocation of spectrum. That points to national coverage by 2023."

So how will this evolve? The outcome of the competition between the Old World, the United States, and its allies, and the new, more aggressive Chinese world, is to be seen. In the past, when the top tech minds sat down to set the global standards underpinning today's cellphone networks, China was left mostly on the sidelines. Companies in the West owned much of the important technology, and they prospered. But things have changed, as the New York Times reports:

"As the world prepares for a new generation of mobile internet the Chinese company is determined to lead, putting it at the center of an international flight over the technology's future. Huawei, the giant maker of telecommunications equipment, has been pouring money into research on 5G wireless networks and patenting key technologies. It has hired experts from foreign rivals and pushed them to guide international groups that are deciding the technical standards for tomorrow's wireless gear."

The determination of China causes worry in Washington. Since 2012, with Barack Obama in the White House, the U.S. has been trying to stop the expansions of Chinese tech giants like ZTE and Huawei on American soil. Huawei was effectively shut out of the United States after a 2012 congressional report denounced Beijing for the use of Huawei's equipment to spy on Americans. In 2018, President Trump blocked Broadcom Ltd. from pursuing its hostile takeover of Qualcomm Inc., scuttling a $117 billion deal that had been scrutinized by a secretive panel over the tie-up's threat to U.S. national security.

For the Chinese, national pride is everything.

While the "war" over Huawei, the harshest competitor of the American tech giants, continues with the arrest of its CFO and political hostages on both sides, the sanctions for ZTE's illegal exporting of the U.S. technology to Iran and North Korea has been settled with some apparent "personal favors' between Trump and the Chinese government, as the Chinese government issued a loan for an Indonesian theme park project with a Trump golf course in May 2018, Wikipedia reports.

In Beijing's strategy "Made in China 2025," the U.S. detected a principal strategy of Chinese tech, if not overall domination of the world. To avoid the weeds of the present scuffles between the two competing powers, let me quote an observation by James Kynge, one of the most informed reporters:

"For the U.S. engagement with China that held sway for almost 40 years has dissolved and given way to a de facto strategy of confrontation. But what is particularly revealing about the case of Huawei is that Washington has shown that it has no intention of taking on China alone. It is insisting that its allies fall into line, particularly on issues of national security."

As for the Chinese, national pride is everything. When, in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Western colonial powers dominated the oceans with their technological supremacy, it was to satisfy their palates, to fulfill pleasures, seeking new flavors, spices, tea varieties, scarlet-diaphanous silk, and other exotic merchandise. As a consequence, the demand for Chinese goods in Europe created a trade imbalance that the British countered with the imposed opium trade. The Chinese authorities tried to ban the opium trade but were too weak to combat technologically superior colonial forces which, in return, penetrated deep into Chinese territory and transformed an already declining empire into an opium-addicted, enslaved nation.

This colonial cruelty has never been forgiven. To this day, it represents the core of historical teaching and the heart of Chinese patriotism. It now takes aim at the U.S. The new China strongman made propaganda art of the strategy, as James Kynge observed: "As the mist rolled off the Yangtze River, Xi Jinping stood on top of the Three Gorges hydropower dam in Yichang, a proud symbol of engineering prowess, and proclaimed that China would blaze its trail to become a technology superpower. The Chinese president's immediate audience in April was a group of smiling workers in blue overalls. But his remarks were directed at the White House, from which rumblings of a trade war on China were emanating."

It is the Chinese Dream to counter Make America Great Again.