Moscow airport
Javier Cáceres

BRUSSELS- The European Union-Russia summit taking place in Yekaterinburg has a major sticking point forming over privacy for travelers arriving -- or even just passing through -- Russian territory.

The Russian Ministry of Transportation has decreed that airlines flying in Russian airspace, or taking off or landing in Russia, have to provide authorities in Moscow with all the information they gather about passengers when the passengers book their trip. That includes credit card numbers, seating preferences, but also addresses and names at their destinations in Russia.

The decree, which goes into effect on July 1, does not distinguish between airplane passengers and those traveling by train, boat or bus. A spokesperson for EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström told the Süddeutsche Zeitung that the decree was the cause of "great concern."

If Moscow does not relent, European airlines would find themselves facing a conflict between EU norms and the Russian Federation. EU law forbids airlines to simply turn over the personal data of passengers outside the framework of an agreement such as the one on passenger data signed between the United States and the EU in 2012.

There is much speculation in Brussels for why Moscow has pushed through the measure. Some believe that Russia may, like the US, justify the move in terms of deterring terrorism and crime. Others say it may simply not want to be treated any differently by the EU than the Americans are.

Knut Fleckenstein, a member of the European Parliament, said that the Russian demands were made in the context of long stagnating negotiations about easing visa regulations. If the Russians "put a massive tree trunk" like the data decree in the path of resolution then it sheds doubt on whether Moscow is truly interested in finding a solution to the visa issue, he said. Under no conditions should the Commission relent on this, he added, urging Moscow to rescind the decree at least for the time being so that a viable way forward could be found for both issues.

Russia is not the only country demanding data, said Green member of European Parliament Jan-Philipp Albrecht: Qatar and Saudi Arabia are making the same demand, he said.

Topics at the Yekaterinburg summit include Syria and energy policy alongside the visa issue. Those in the EU delegation include the head of the Commission, José Manuel Barroso, and Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger.

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Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe

BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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