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Sensemaker: Revolutionary road

Sensemaker: Revolutionary road

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Saudi Arabia announced plans for a six-runway airport in Riyadh.
  • Cryptocurrency lender BlockFi filed for bankruptcy. 
  • A Frenchman won a legal right to not be “fun” at work. 

Revolutionary road

There’s a case to be made that the protests being suppressed all over China threaten the very foundations of Communist Party power.

Exhibit 1: a notice issued last night by M&G Stationery, based in Shanghai, saying it was banning the sale of A4 white paper to “maintain national security and stability”.

The notice went viral. M&G’s stock fell four times faster than the Shanghai Stock Exchange average this morning. “Nobody knows if it’s real or not, which becomes part of the joke,” says Isabel Hilton of China Dialogue.

So what? Students, professors and their supporters are holding up blank sheets of white paper all over the country. Hence #whitepaperrevolution. Whether it unseats Xi Jinping or (much more likely) not, it signals that…

  • Censorship hasn’t worked. The surveillance state Xi has worked so hard to create hasn’t prevented the widespread use of virtual private networks and the Telegram app, both illegal in China, that police are now searching for on people’s phones.
  • There’s a whole set of grievances shared among millions – to do with lockdowns but also the party and Xi himself – that don’t even need to be written down. 
  • These grievances are national and include Tiananmen-style cries for freedom for three nights in a row, for the first time in 30 years. Local protests by students and workers, fuelled mainly by anger over corruption, pollution and working conditions, are routine and routinely suppressed – there have been tens of thousands of them since 1989. But the lockdown experience has been a) a national trauma, b) blamed on Xi personally, c) puncturing the myth of his infallibility.

There are important implications for 2023. 

Double bind. Xi’s shown no sign so far of easing lockdown rules in response to the protests. That would be an admission his zero Covid strategy was flawed and it could endanger the lives of tens of millions of inadequately vaccinated elderly Chinese. But the alternative of more lockdowns risks provoking more protests and a…

Hit to growth. Chinese GDP growth is already forecast to end the year at least 2 per cent below the party’s 5.5 per cent target. Global growth will suffer as a result. Multinationals are downgrading forecasts for the Chinese market (VW sales are 14 per cent below expectations), and more protests and suppression would only exaggerate the effect of lockdowns on the manufacturing sector, which produced 30 per cent of the world’s goods last year.

Frayed knot. Western governments are assuming they will have to go on dealing with Xi. Last night Rishi Sunak promised “robust pragmatism” (translation: I still dare not offend Beijing). Biden officials are saying privately they don’t think the protests can be sustained. They could be wrong. Censors are purging the Chinese web of all mention of white paper, A4 and Shanghai’s Wulumuqi Zhong Road, which was filled with protesters on Saturday. But Xi’s power base has been exposed as fragile. The social contract he offered – prosperity in return for obedience – has broken down. There is talk of emboldened factionalism in top party echelons behind the scenes, and the protesters know it. 

Watch out for

  • next weekend, when crowds could return to the streets of Beijing and Shanghai and the relatively restrained police response so far could turn ugly; and
  • Tibet’s southern border, where Indian sources have accused China of territorial incursions and a troop build-up they fear may be a prelude to deployments designed to distract attention from domestic Chinese unrest.

Number of the week: 29,256 – Covid cases in China (seven-day rolling average)

Number of the day: 7 – factor by which US per capita intensive care bed numbers exceed China’s.

Zero Covid has come to define Xi, and it is doomed.  

world cup 2022

England vs. Wales is a distraction from a real-life rivalry

Paul Hayward

England against Wales isn’t close to being today’s biggest World Cup grudge match. It’s Iran vs. USA, where the pre-game press conference featured a question about the position of US naval ships in the Gulf.

Diplomats the world over will forgo the Battle of Britain between the English and the Welsh to look for pointers in America’s deepest enmity, with the Islamic Republic of Iran, now beset by protest that has spilled into Qatar’s World Cup. There were convulsions too when USA and Iran met at the 1998 tournament in France (“the mother of all games”). CRS riot police drew truncheons to quell an anti-regime protest by Iranian dissidents.


Europe’s LNG habit

Europe has failed spectacularly to sanction piped Russian gas since the start of the war, leaving Putin to weaponise it at will by limiting supply. As remarkably, Europe has increased its imports of liquified Russian gas transported by ship. Those imports rose by 40 per cent between January and October, the FT reports. Russian LNG still accounts for less than a third of total Russian gas imports, but Europe’s increasing dependence on it will only intensify arguments within the EU and between Brussels and Washington about how to stop funding Russia’s war just by keeping warm. Even a worst-case scenario for Russia in which Europe stops buying its LNG is not all bad in geopolitical terms. It can simply sell it at a discount elsewhere, making new friends in the developing world as it did in the Cold War.


The centre cannot hold

Marjorie Taylor Greene must be enjoying Elon Musk’s ownership of Twitter. The right-wing Georgia congresswoman had her personal account reinstated last week, more than ten months after it was suspended for spreading Covid misinformation (which she’s now doing again). Her congressional account, meanwhile, has gained more than 300,000 followers since Musk bought the platform – part of a trend that has seen high-profile Republicans gain followers in the past three weeks, while Democrats lose them, says the Washington Post. It found that on average, Republicans have gained 8,000 followers while Democrats lost 4,000. Musk plans to reinstate all banned accounts that didn’t break the law or post spam.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Watering down

The Online Safety Bill’s progress into law fell victim to the political turbulence in the UK Conservative party over the summer, and again in October. Next Monday, it returns to parliament – with current culture minister Michelle Donelan proposing several amendments including criminalising content that encourages self-harm and posting deepfake porn. The most significant change is axing powers that would force tech companies to take down “legal but harmful” content for adults in favour of “freedom of choice”. Ian Russell, whose daughter Molly ended her life aged 14 after viewing self-harm and suicide content online, said the worst content she viewed “could be described as legal but harmful” and that removing the clause “watered down” the legislation. The bill’s original goal was to control big tech, protect free speech and safeguard children. Cutting “legal but harmful” shows how hard that is. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Migrants on a rudder

Perched underneath the vast hulk of an oil tanker, the figures sit close together, balanced on the ship’s rudder. The Spanish coast guard released a picture of three people who had climbed onto the rudder of the oil and chemical tanker Alithini II for an 11-day voyage across the Atlantic from Nigeria to the Canary Islands. The picture showed them sitting with their feet about half a metre above sea level. They were taken to hospital with moderate dehydration on arrival. It’s not the first time stowaways have been found on rudders: three people were found on a ship’s rudder in the port of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in November 2020; another three a month earlier, according to Spanish media. In 2021, the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) recorded 1,532 deaths on the West Africa-Atlantic route to the Canary Islands.


Russia’s religious frontline 

While the Russian army invades Ukraine, the Russian Orthodox Church in the country is spreading pro-Kremlin propaganda, says Kyiv. Ukraine’s security service (SSU) raided the largest Moscow patriarchate monasteries and churches in Kyiv and western Ukraine to counter suspected “subversive activities” by Russian special forces. They found letters from Moscow ordering clergy to deny the Russian invasion during church services; military medals awarded for the annexation of Crimea and books containing “Russian world” propaganda, which claims Ukraine was created artificially. “Kyiv apart from Great Russia is unthinkable by all means,” one book read. The SSU has opened two criminal cases. More will likely follow. 

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Giles Whittell

Additional reporting by Jessica Winch, Nina Kuryata and Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Getty Images, Salvamento Maritimo

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