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Sensemaker: Exit strategy

Sensemaker: Exit strategy

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Al-Shabab gunmen killed at least four people in an ongoing attack on a Mogadishu hotel. 
  • Bob Dylan apologised for using a machine to autograph ‘hand-signed’ copies of a $599 limited edition of his new book.
  • Matt Hancock finished third in I’m a Celebrity.

Exit strategy

Last month, Xi Jinping was enjoying the spotlight. He had secured a groundbreaking third term as China’s leader at the Communist Party Congress, and the only symbol of possible challenge, former leader Hu Jintao, had been literally removed from the stage. 

Now, Xi is in trouble. Demonstrations erupted across the country at the weekend after a deadly fire linked to a Covid lockdown in Urumqi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang region. Three years’ worth of pent-up anger at Xi’s zero Covid policy boiled over in protests in at least five big cities; protesters in Shanghai called openly for Xi to “step down”. 

So what? The Communist Party has not faced this level of public anger in decades, and the protests are seen as a personal rebuke for Xi. People may have hoped for policy change after the party congress; now, frustrations are sending them into the streets at serious personal risk. Most want out of zero Covid. Some just want out. 

Voting with their feet. The congress was a tipping point for the country’s elite. David Lesperance, a lawyer who helps wealthy Chinese leave the country, said: “Literally as soon as that video [of Hu Jintao] came out, I had clients saying: ‘Right, I’m leaving. What’s my future here?’”

Xi confirmed his hold on power for at least another five years, with the possibility he could rule for life. Absent an upheaval that removes him from power, that means:

  • More Covid. It’s unclear if the protests will force Xi to ease Covid controls. But he doesn’t have any easy options. Nomura, an investment bank, says 21.1 per cent of China’s total GDP is currently under lockdown, up from 9.5 per cent a month ago. But the virus is still there – China reported its fourth straight daily record of infections on Sunday. 
  • More taxes. In a speech to the congress, Xi called for a “well-regulated” system of wealth accumulation in China, which stirred speculation about major tax reform as part of his “common prosperity” drive to reduce inequality. 
  • More risk. Lesperance says his clients “don’t want to be the next Jack Ma”. There have been a number of high-profile disappearances under Xi, including that of the Alibaba founder, who went awol for three months after daring to clash with the regime over tech regulation in 2020. Billionaire Xiao Jianhua was sentenced to 13 years in prison this summer for financial crimes, five years after being seized from the Four Seasons hotel in Hong Kong. 

Where next? By one estimate 10,000 wealthy Chinese will emigrate this year – the second biggest number for any country after Russia. Investment migration consultancy Henley & Partners said Chinese enquiries jumped 134 per cent in the first six months of this year. 

Hong Kong, once a favourite destination for Chinese wealth, looks less attractive as Beijing tightens its grip. The US, UK, Canada and parts of Europe are other long-popular options, while in Singapore, the number of family offices that manage private wealth nearly doubled from 400 at the end of 2020 to 700 last year, according to the Monetary Authority of Singapore. The number of Rolls Royces registered there is up 90 per cent on 2019.

What next? Back home, Xi faces three urgent questions:

  • Will he stick with zero Covid? The strategy has come to define his rule, but it isn’t working.
  • If not, will he allow the use of foreign-made mRNA Covid vaccines? They could immunise the Chinese population sufficiently to allow a broad easing of restrictions, but so far he’s refused to let them be licenced for Chinese use.
  • If not, how many elderly people can he afford to let die? A third of Chinese over 60 are not fully vaccinated, and so not protected against the most recent Omicron variants.

China’s impatience with zero Covid is serving as cover for broader frustrations. Citizens point to the World Cup, where maskless fans fill the stadiums, as proof of how their country lags behind the rest of the world in Covid recovery, not to mention personal freedom. It will take more than cutting away from crowd shots of the football to put this genie back in its bottle.

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Matthew d’Ancona

The former health secretary’s surprisingly successful performance in the jungle is a warning that purely technocratic politics is no longer enough


CAPITAL ECONOMY, BUSINESS AND FINANCE

Oil under the bridge

The US has allowed Chevron to resume oil production in Venezuela, after Nicolás Maduro and opposition leaders restarted political negotiations. It’s a major shift in the US government’s attitude to Venezuela, three years after Washington tried to oust Maduro from office by recognising Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate leader. Officials said that the six-month licence is a reward for political progress (with an eye to Venezuela’s 2024 presidential elections), not a reaction to high global oil prices. But as the West tries to reduce its dependence on Russian energy, revived links with a country that sits on the world’s largest proven oil reserves must seem appealing.


TECHNOLOGY AI, SCIENCE AND NEW THINGS

Underground fresh

A farm in a World War II air raid shelter in South London can get rocket and watercress onto diners’ plates in nearby restaurants within two hours of being harvested. Supermarkets like its produce too. Zero Carbon Farms, in Clapham, reports strong demand from Marks & Spencer and others and says low water and fertiliser costs are helping to offset the high price of energy, which is a big factor in its business model because it shines lights on its crops 24 hours a day. This is not a scoop. The company has been operating 30 metres below ground – well below the Northern Line’s Tube tunnels – for seven years. But Reuters has an update on progress, which seems mixed despite the company’s optimism. What makes so-called vertical farming so exciting, its development director says, “is that no one’s quite cracked it”.


The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Civilians flee Kherson 

The big military win that was Russia’s withdrawal from Kherson is being followed by a humanitarian emergency as civilians evacuate the city under a rearguard Russian bombardment. There is virtually no prospect of Russian troops retaking the only regional capital they have captured in this war, but they are shelling the city even so. One evacuee told the AP he was leaving with his family because there was no power, heat or water. The same is periodically true of much of Ukraine as Putin targets its electricity infrastructure for want of any coherent military strategy, although Ukrenergo, the state grid operator, said yesterday it was meeting 80 per cent of demand. That could improve if reports that Russia may be preparing to evacuate the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant prove accurate. 


Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Shark unbait

Anyone concerned about shark numbers or biodiversity more generally will be thankful for the near-miraculous interaction of ampullae of Lorenzini and electricity. Ampullae of Lorenzini are receptors clustered near the noses of sharks and other elasmobranchs (including stingrays). They are highly sensitive to electric pulses, which are generated every two seconds by small cylindrical devices invented by a company called FishTek and placed above fish hooks on long lines intended to catch tuna. Tuna don’t react to the pulses but elasmobranchs, on the whole, do. The result in an experiment reported in Current Biology and the Economist was a 91 per cent reduction in the number of sharks caught by lines with the devices compared with those without. Largely because of “bycatch” – the collateral damage of tuna and other long-line fisheries – shark numbers overall have fallen by 70 per cent since 1970.


CULTURE soCIETY, IDENTITY AND BELONGING

Rebels with a cause

Only eight nations have won the men’s football World Cup in its 92 years – and they’re all from Europe or South America. In Qatar though, the also-rans are rebelling. Group stage wins for Costa Rica, Morocco, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Japan have freshened the familiar narrative of old world domination. Motivation has been a clear factor for teams from the Middle East, except Qatar, already the worst World Cup hosts in history, with a maximum group stage total of three points (if they can beat The Netherlands). No game represents the old order quite like Wales v England on Tuesday – the so-called “M4 derby.” They first met in heavy snow at London’s Kennington Oval in 1879. Wales were meant to lead the underdog pack in Qatar, but have lacked bark and bite.

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The week ahead

UK

28/11 – Rishi Sunak gives foreign policy speech at Lord Mayor’s Banquet in London; GMB members of the Scottish Ambulance Service begin 26-hour strike; Greek PM visits UK, 29/11 – GMB strike ballot closes for 15,000 ambulance workers across England and Wales; Wales play England in the World Cup, 30/11 – Royal Mail staff go on strike; last day of university staff strike; Prince and Princess of Wales visit Boston, 1/12 – Anne Sacoolas due to be sentenced over Harry Dunn’s death; Chester by-election, 2/12 – Royal Mail staff on strike.

World

28/11 – Cyber Monday; G7 justice ministers meet in Berlin; Nicolas Sarkozy appeals corruption conviction, 29/11 – Nato foreign ministers meet in Romania, 30/11 – Tokyo court expected to rule on same-sex marriage; US Democrats vote on new House leader; Emmanuel Macron visits US, 1/12 – First day of meteorological winter in northern hemisphere; India takes on G20 presidency; World Aids Day; European Council President Charles Michel visits China, 2/12 – Twitter due to launch new verification system; US unveils new B-21 Raider stealth bomber, 4/12 – Opec+ meets in Vienna.


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Jessica Winch
@jswinch

Additional reporting by Giles Whittell and Paul Hayward.

Photographs Getty Images


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