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China

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Coronavirus

In an emergency, the good thing about a dictatorship is that it can respond very fast. The bad thing is that it won’t respond at all until the dictator-in-chief says that it should. All the little dictators who flourish in this sort of system won’t risk their positions by passing bad news up the line until the risk of being blamed for delay outweighs the risk of being blamed for the emergency in the first place.

You can see how this works if you consider China’s response to the emergence of nCov-2019 (novel coronavirus 2019), a new viral threat potentially as serious as the SARS virus of 2003. Some things it has done well, but others it did very badly, and the odd that the virus will spread globally are now probably evens or worse.

The local health authorities in Wuhan, the 11-million-strong city in central China where the virus first appeared, spotted it on 31 December, when only a few dozen cases had come to their attention. That’s as fast as you could ask, and they promptly shut down the seafood and wild game market where the victims caught the disease. Score: 9 out of 10.

China’s national health authorities also acted fast. On 9 January they announced that they had a brand new coronavirus on their hands, and just one day later they released its full genetic sequence online so medical researchers worldwide could start working on it. Elapsed time: eleven days. Known deaths at that point: one. Score: 10 out of 10.

But these are medical professionals, doing their duty according to internationally agreed protocols. We don’t know what they recommended to China’s political authorities at that point, but they must have called for widespread testing, and probably also for travel restrictions to control the spread of the virus. But nobody dared to rock the boat: nothing was done.

A pause here to recall how you control the spread of a new infectious disease for which there is no vaccine, nor any effective cure. You isolate the victims as soon as they are identified, and give them what medical support you can: some will die, but most will usually survive. And if you do that soon enough and thoroughly enough, the global pandemic never gets going.

There are often complicating factors. The spread will be far faster if the virus can pass from one person to another in the air. It will be much harder to isolate the people carrying the virus if they become infectious before they develop visible symptoms. But the methods available to slow or stop the spread are still the same: identify the carriers and isolate them.

Now, back to what happened in China. The medical people did their job; the political people did not. It was two more weeks before the city of Wuhan was cut off from the rest of the country and the world. Lunar New Year, the biggest holiday in China’s calendar, was coming up fast, but nothing was done although half the population goes home for a visit at this time every year.

Now Wuhan is in lockdown, and the regime has even extended the New Year holiday by three days to keep people where they are a little longer. That doesn’t really help – people still have to go home eventually, and Wuhan’s mayor, Zhou Xianwang, admits that 5 million people left the city for the New Year celebrations. But it LOOKS decisive. Score: 2 out of 10.

We now have two pieces of bad news that would have made it even more urgent to seal Wuhan off if they had been known at the time. The new virus does propagate through the air, and people carrying it do become infectious before they display any symptoms.

Zhou didn’t dare advocate isolating the city, and neither did anybody else, until the Great Panjandrum Himself had spoken. President Xi Jinping finally spoke last Saturday (25 January), saying that China faces a “grave situation”, and now the system is racing to do what it should have been done two weeks ago.

Too bad, but this pandemic (if that is what it becomes) will probably be on the same scale as the Sars virus, and that is not really horrific: deaths in the high hundreds or a few thousands worldwide. The mortality rate among those who catch it appears to be about 2%, compared to 1 % for ordinary seasonal influenza. And ordinary ‘flu kills about 400,000 (mostly elderly) people every year.

But one of these days something like the 1918 virus that caused the ‘Spanish’ influenza will emerge again. That killed around fifty million people worldwide, out of a global population only a quarter of what it is now.

Since Chinese food markets now seem to be a prime source of dangerous new ‘flu-related viruses, the Chinese government has a particular responsibility to contain them early. The Chinese doctors will do their duty, as always, but it would be nice if China had its political act a bit more together before then.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 10. (“There are…them”; and “We…symptoms”)

Deadlock at Madrid, Firestorms in Australia

“The point of no return is no longer over the horizon,” warned UN secretary general António Guterres as the 25th climate summit (COP25) opened in Madrid two weeks ago, and the multitude of delegates from more than a hundred countries presumably understood what he meant. But they ignored it anyway.

The ‘point of no return’ arrives in the mid-2030s, when the rising emissions of greenhouse gases (they are still rising, not falling) pushes the amount of carbon dioxide equivalent in the atmosphere up past 450 parts per million. 450 ppm of CO2 drives the average global temperature up past +2̊C (2 degrees higher than the pre-industrial average) and into runaway.

In diplomatic-speak, what happens then is ‘dangerous climate change’, but that is actually happening already, with carbon dioxide at 405 ppm and average global temperature ‘only ‘ 1.1̊C higher. We are seeing firestorms in Australia, rising sea levels, catastrophic storms and melting glaciers.

What happens at 450 ppm is that the two degrees of warming caused by human beings trigger natural processes (‘feedbacks’ or ‘tipping points’) that also cause warming – and once they start, human beings cannot stop them. The Big Three feedbacks are the loss of the Arctic Ocean’s sea ice cover, the melting of the permafrost zone, and the release of vast amounts of CO2 by the warming world oceans.

Guterres called it ‘the point of no return’ because after that we lose control. The warming will then continue even if human beings eventually stop all of their own emissions. We will be trapped on an ‘up’ escalator that delivers us into a world three, four, even five degrees hotter than the pre-industrial average.

That is exactly where the World Meteorological Organisation predicts we will be by the end of this century if current promises on emissions cuts are kept, but no more is done. Long before the end of the century that would mean the collapse of food production in the tropics and the sub-tropics, famines and huge refugee flows, mass death.

They never spell these things out at the climate summits, but almost everybody there knows them. And yet, once again, they failed to produce a deal that moves the process forward. The best that can be said is that they stopped a concerted attempt by the biggest emitters, led by Brazil and Australia, to gut the proposed rules for a global carbon market.

How can they be so blind to their own long-term interest in survival? The answer, alas, is that our evolutionary past of human beings has not made human societies good at long-term thinking. Moreover, human politics is dominated by those whose interests will be advanced or damaged by what the government does right now, not in fifteen years’ time. Take Australia, for example.

Australia is the driest continent, and as the heat mounts (much of the country is expecting temperatures in the low to mid-40s C this week) the number and scale of bushfires has exploded. The biggest blaze, in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, has already burned over 400,000 hectares and is still growing.

But Australia is also the world’s biggest exporter of coal, mostly to China and Japan. Coal-mining only employs 38,000 Australians, but it brings in a lot of money, some of which inevitably ends up as political contributions that link the industry with all the Australian political parties.

That’s why, two years ago, Liberal (i.e. conservative) politician Scott Morrison brought a lump of coal into parliament. It was ‘clean’ coal, in the sense that it had been lacquered so that it wouldn’t dirty people’s hands. Morrison passed it around to his parliamentary colleagues saying “Don’t be afraid, don’t be scared, it won’t hurt you. It’s coal.”

ScoMo (as the Australian media have nicknamed Morrison, presumably because it sounds a bit like ‘scum’), is now prime minister, and as the country burns he continues to deny any link between burning coal and global heating. He offers his “thoughts and prayers” to the victims of the fires, but insists that climate change is only one of “many other factors” in fuelling the bushfires.

Deputy Prime Minister Deputy PM Michael McCormack takes an even more robust line, dismissing climate change as a concern of “raving inner-city lefties”. That will not endear him to the hundreds of families who have been burnt out, but there are millions of families who have not yet lost their homes, so this may still be a viable political position.

Of all the major emitters, only the European Union is taking its responsibilities seriously. The rest range from deeply conflicted countries like China and Canada, both aware that climate change is an existential threat but both hugely dependent on fossil fuels, to the outright deniers like Australia, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

So one by one, we are missing all the exits on the Highway to Hell.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 13. (“In diplomatic…glaciers”; and “Deputy…position”)

Hong Kong Protests

After the 17th consecutive weekend of increasingly violent protests in Hong Kong, the first protester was wounded by a live bullet on Tuesday. 18-year-old student Tsang Chi-kin, one of a group of about a dozen students attacking a policeman who had become separated from his comrades, was shot in the chest as he struck the man with a metal pole. He is expected to survive.

A hundred other Hong Kongers, civilians and police, were treated in hospitals on the same day for injuries incurred during what the Beijing regime calls “riots”. The violence has grown over the months, and sometimes that is an accurate description of what is going on in the streets. Even if the protesters are in the right, they are definitely a lot less non-violent than they were at the start.

What is remarkable (though rarely remarked upon) is the restraint shown by the police who, although employed by the Hong Kong city government, ultimately serve the repressive dictatorship in Beijing.

It’s only relative restraint, of course – we are not talking about the Royal Canadian Mounted Police or ‘kindly British bobbies’ here – but during months of escalating violence they have still managed not to kill anybody. Even on Tuesday, when the rest of China was marking the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic, the protests in Hong Kong continued and nobody died.

To understand how remarkable this is, ask yourself this. How many protesters would American police have killed by now if equally violent protests had been taking place in the streets of a major American city every weekend for the past four months?

This is not proof of how nice China’s rulers are. It’s evidence of how worried they are. They dare not make too many concessions to the protesters, but they want to avoid using major force against them – doing another Tiananmen Square massacre, so to speak – because they think the price would be very high. They are right about that.

When Britain returned the colony of Hong Kong to China in 1997, it was China’s main financial window on the world. That’s why it was granted a special status in China (‘one country, two systems’) for the next 50 years. It has free speech, the rule of law, all sorts of privileges that do not exist in the rest of China – but ultimately it must bow to Beijing.

Two decades later, its status as a global financial centre remains a major asset for the regime, but there are red lines that President Xi Jinping will never cross, like letting Hong Kong people choose their own government in a free election. This is now one of the protesters’ demands (although it wasn’t at the start), but it simply is not going to happen.

The Communist Party rules through carefully chosen, mostly non-Communist puppets in Hong Kong, but it does rule. As Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, explained in a private meeting with business leaders last month, her freedom of action is “very, very, very limited.”

She got into trouble in the first place by putting forward a new extradition law that would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be tried in Chinese courts, where accused people have few rights and the conviction rate is 99%. She probably did it against her own better judgement, but the orders came from above.

When the public pushed back, sensing that this could be the beginning of the end for Hong Kong’s relative freedom, Lam probably wanted to drop the matter, but it took her months to persuade Beijing to let her do it. In June she “shelved” the law, in August she said it was “dead”, but only in early September did she actually get Beijing’s permission to withdraw it.

Too little, too late. By then the protests had escalated far beyond the specific law to sweeping demands for democracy in Hong Kong. Most people outside China will sympathise, but it cannot happen. The Communist regime’s first priority is its own survival, so it will not permit such an example to flourish on Chinese soil.

The protesters have won what they originally came out for: the withdrawal of the extradition law. Their other demands will never be granted, because they imperil the ultimate authority of the Communist Party. It’s time to collect their winnings and step away from the table.

If they don’t, Beijing will ultimately crush the protests no matter how much economic and reputational damage that does. In August it doubled the number of troops it keeps in Hong Kong under the guise of ‘rotating’ the garrison: the replacements came in, but the others didn’t actually leave. Sooner or later, if things go on like this, they will be used.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (‘It’s only…months’)

Greenland’s Gamble

From his purchase of New Jersey casinos to his proposed acquisition of Greenland, Donald Trump’s real estate deals have always been plagued by bad timing. The United States could probably have bought Greenland from Denmark in 1917 (when it did buy the US Virgin Islands from the Danes), but he’s a century too late now.

Nevertheless, his latest bad idea does give us an incentive to catch up with what’s been happening in Greenland, and it’s quite interesting. Trump may not know this, since he rarely reads intelligence reports, but in November 2017 Greenland’s premier, Kim Kielsen, led a government delegation to Beijing to seek Chinese investment.

Greenland, the world’s biggest island, is not yet fully independent, but it is autonomous from Denmark in everything except foreign affairs and defence. Kielsen was looking mainly for Chinese investment in mining enterprises, but he was also interested in attracting a Chinese bid to build three modern airports in the island, which currently depends on World War II-era airstrips.

This set off a security panic in NATO, involving implausible nightmare visions about Greenland getting so deep in debt to Chinese banks that it would end up letting China (which has comically declared itself a ‘near-Arctic nation’) operate military aircraft from those airports.

The US military, which has a large air base at Thule in northern Greenland, then took fright. Washington strongly urged the Danish government, which provides two-thirds of Greenland’s budget revenue, to nip this threat in the bud. Copenhagen had previously refused to fund the new Greenland airports, but late last year it suddenly came up with very low-interest loans for them. End of panic.

By then Kim Kielsen’s government in the tiny capital of Nuuk (pop. 17,000) had collapsed, but his Siumut Party came out ahead in the election last April and he is back in power. And the issue of Chinese mines in Greenland is still on the table.

In fact, there already is one in southern Greenland, producing uranium and rare earths for a Chinese-Australian consortium. Other projects potentially involving Chinese capital (and Chinese workers) are under discussion, including a huge open-cast iron-ore mine near Nuuk, a zinc mine in the north, and both offshore and onshore oil and gas leases.

For the 56,000 Greenlanders, 90% of whom are Inuit (Eskimo), the geostrategic implications of Chinese investment are irrelevant – and they are probably right about that. What worries them, and occupies a central place in Greenlandic politics, is the cultural and social implications of foreign investment by anybody, Chinese or not.

The Greenland Inuit are one of the few indigenous society in the world that has full or almost full control over its own destiny, but the impact of the modern world on their traditional culture has been as destructive as it was for all the others: depression and other psychological illnesses, rampant alcoholism and drug use, and an epidemic of suicides.

So they face a choice. Do you go on trying to preserve what is left of the old Arctic hunting and fishing culture, although it’s already so damaged and discouraged that it has the highest suicide rate on the planet? Or do you seek salvation in full modernisation through high-speed economic growth, while keeping your language and what you can of your culture?

What’s remarkable about Greenlandic politics is how aware the players are of their dilemma and their options. “If you want to become rich, it comes at a price,” says Aqqaluk Lynge, one of the founders of the Inuit Ataqatigiit (Community of the People) party that ran the government until 2013.

Lynge and many others didn’t want to pay that price, and under the Inuit Ataqatigiit administration all mining was banned in Greenland. Quite apart from the environmental costs of large-scale mining operations, they believed, the many thousands of foreign workers they would bring in would have a devastating impact on the already very fragile Greenlandic culture.

The decision was made in 2013, when the Siumut Party took power. It believes that modernisation has gone too far to turn back now. Better to gamble on solving the current huge social problems by enabling everybody to live fully modern, prosperous lives. If you’re no longer marginalised and poverty-stricken, you’ll feel better about yourself.

As Aleqa Hammond, Kielsen’s predecessor as premier, said in 2014: “The shock will be profound, but we have faced colonisation, epidemics and modernisation before. The decisions we are making (to open the country up to mining and oil drilling) will have enormous impact on lifestyles and our indigenous culture. But we always come out on top. We are vulnerable, but we know how to adapt.”

Let us hope so, but the die is cast. Greenland will modernise, and in due course we will find out if that helps. It makes little difference to Greenlanders whether the foreign investment comes from Denmark, China or the United States, so long as they have political control – but they certainly don’t want to become Americans.

The ‘Greenland Purchase’ is not going to happen. As Soren Espersen, foreign affairs spokesman of the Danish People’s Party, said last week: “If (Trump) is truly contemplating this, then this is final proof that he has gone mad.”
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11, 12 and 14. (“What’s…culture”; and “As…adapt”)