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Sensemaker: China’s long hello

Sensemaker: China’s long hello

What just happened

Long stories short

  • France signalled its openness to send fighter jets to Ukraine after the US ruled it out.
  • Former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro applied for a six-month US tourist visa.
  • MrBeast – real name Jimmy Donaldson – paid for 1,000 people to have their sight restored through cataract surgery.

Number of the day: 29 – fall from Elon Musk’s purchase price of Twitter to its present value, in billion dollars. 

China’s long hello

Officials say the pandemic is coming to an end in the country where it started, and the government of the province of Sichuan says married and unmarried couples alike can have all the babies they want.

So what? Xi Jinping’s three-year trial of strength with Covid is over. China is trying to reopen as if nothing fundamental has changed about its place in the global economy or what it means to be Chinese. Will the world buy it? As Zhou Enlai might have said, it’s much too soon to say. 

The dead. When rumours first surfaced last November that Xi was about to lift Covid restrictions, China’s official death toll for the duration of the pandemic was just over 5,000 compared with more than 1.1 million in the US. Then…

  • In December, Xi’s zero Covid regime was dismantled almost overnight without widespread access to mRNA vaccines or herd immunity to the Omicron variant.
  • In early January an estimated 37 million Chinese were being infected every day. No new official fatality statistics were issued but US satellite pictures showed streets and car parks filling up outside hospitals and mortuaries. 
  • Now: as of today, China has owned up to a total of 84,190 deaths. Public health analysts elsewhere say the real total could be closer to a million. 

The living. China’s 470 million households reunited in person en masse for the first time since 2019 in an epic show of human mobility that ended last Friday without a new Covid surge, officials say. Lunar new year celebrations involved 300 million trips, a 75 per cent jump on last year that brought internal tourism to 90 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.

All of which prompts two questions:

  • Remember November? Xi would rather not. The 1.4 billion Chinese over whom he asserts authority switched on their TVs from deep within lockdown to see the rest of the world mask-free at the World Cup. Protests followed in dozens of Chinese cities at which crowds called openly for Xi’s removal.
  • What next? Xi’s calculation is that i) his surveillance state will have caught and punished every last protester; ii) his propaganda machine can muzzle coverage of any surge in excess deaths; and iii) $2.6 trillion in personal savings accumulated over the pandemic will now fuel a spending spree that compensates at least in part for last year’s miserable (by Chinese standards) 3 per cent growth.

Who plus one? A spike in domestic consumption is already happening. A return for China to its dominant pre-pandemic role in the global economy is less of a sure thing. There were loud sighs of relief when Liu He, one of Xi’s deputy prime ministers, told Davos earlier this month that Beijing planned to help reboot China’s tech and property sectors and that “opening up to the world is a must, not an expediency”.

Also: any uptick in Chinese growth will mean a tourism boost across southeast Asia and a commodities boom in Australia and Latin America.

But during the pandemic some things have changed for good:

  • Logistics. Global brands that once depended on Chinese manufacturing, Apple chief among them, have learned from Covid-induced bottlenecks not to put so many eggs in one basket.
  • India is a prime beneficiary, trumpeting new Foxconn-Apple joint ventures in multiple states and crowing that the old “China plus one” mantra for brands seeking supply chain diversification has been replaced by “India plus one”.
  • Babies. India is producing more of them. It has surpassed China as the world’s most populous country and with half its population under 30, its workforce is much younger. China’s population fell last year for the first time since 1961 and its birth rate is at its lowest since 1978. Hence Sichuan’s new acceptance of babies out of wedlock.

Xi’s next act. His authority fluctuates with the virus and another surge is likely in March, says Professor Minxin Pei of Claremont McKenna College. Overall, his power has been dented: “He had to abandon zero Covid, which was touted as his signature achievement. He also had to pivot to the economy against his own wishes.”

It’s the year of the rabbit. Rabbit, run.


The slow lane

The IMF has downgraded its growth forecast for the UK, leaving it the only G7 country expected to be in recession this year and predicting a worse economic performance even than Russia’s. Japan, Canada, the US, France, Italy and (by a whisker) Germany will all escape recession this year, the fund says – and all their forecasts were upgraded. Britain’s was marked down from minus 0.3 to minus 0.6 per cent, while Russia’s, despite sanctions, was marked up to plus 0.3. These are only forecasts and the IMF is often wrong, as senior Tories noted this morning. Still, this “raises questions over why the UK will have missed out on a better global economic backdrop than expected,” as Faisal Islam put it. Which in turn raises questions about why the BBC’s economics editor can’t bring himself to use the B-word.


Smart rings

Wearable health tech is currently dominated by major brands (Apple, Samsung) and comes with a hefty price tag. That doesn’t mean innovation from smaller health companies can’t kick them off their pedestal. TechCrunch has an interview with the CEO of Movano, who’s pitching what he calls the first medical-grade health wearable designed for women. The “Evie” is a smart ring aimed at women over 30 to help track generic metrics such as heart rate and blood oxygen but also “female-focused” ones like menstrual cycle and menopause symptoms. The cost: under $300. Movano is seeking regulatory approval, which will be subject to FDA rules on data privacy – particularly important for women in America concerned about personal data collection post-Roe v Wade. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

End of homework?
English teachers at Alleyn’s School in southeast London recently tested ChatGPT, the new AI-powered chatbot, giving the essay it produced top marks. The school is now changing its homework model, and could ultimately abandon written essays in favour of setting research topics for discussion in class. It’s the same story in America, where teachers are trying to ban ChatGPT on school wifi networks and university professors are redesigning their courses to include more oral exams and group work instead of typed essays. “We need to up our game,” one professor told the NYT. With generative AI in its early stages, there will be more change coming. 

We were curious about how ChatGPT would write this nib. Here is the artificial intelligence version, written in a nanosecond: 

Command: Write 100 words about why AI-generated essays are a threat to traditional teaching methods.

“AI-generated essays are a threat to traditional teaching methods because they can easily replace human writing, potentially reducing the need for human teachers. With AI systems capable of generating essays on a wide range of topics at a much faster rate and with higher accuracy than humans, the demand for human-generated content may decline. Furthermore, AI-generated essays may perpetuate bias and perpetuate inaccuracies, leading to a decline in the quality of education. Traditional teaching methods based on human teachers may also become obsolete as AI systems become more advanced, and students may begin to rely solely on AI-generated materials for their learning. This may lead to a lack of critical thinking skills and a loss of personal connections in education.”

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Jamón is off
Jamón ibérico bellota, the cured ham produced from pigs found exclusively in the oak forests of northwest Spain, is under threat from climate change. The production process behind bellota – the best and most expensive of Spain’s ibérico hams – requires a very specific ingredient: acorns from the region’s dehesa oak forests. Blackfoot pigs must spend the last month of their lives eating these acorns before they end up on a plate. But higher temperatures and lower rainfall in the region has meant that there’s been a dip in acorn production, leading to less jamón. Extremadura, one of four small regions which produce the ham, reported a 20 per cent drop in output last year. The industry accounts for thousands of jobs in some of Spain’s poorest regions.


Slap in the face

It’s unusual for the Oscars to get through the nominations and awards without some form of controversy: last year Will Smith slapped Chris Rock on-stage. This year the Newcastle-born actor Andrea Riseborough’s surprise nomination for Best Actress is more of a metaphorical slap in the eyes of rival campaigns. The Oscar campaign for To Leslie, which grossed just $27,000 at the box office, has been accused of breaking guidelines set out by the Academy whose members vote for the awards. A line may have been crossed by the film’s directors who orchestrated A-list endorsements which the Academy is now reviewing. Riseborough’s nomination is also being seen as at the expense of Black actresses Viola Davis and Danielle Deadwyler. The director of Till, which stars Deadwyler, accused the Academy of “unabashed misogyny towards Black women”. 

Thanks for reading. Please tell your friends to sign up, send us ideas and let us know what you think. Email sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Giles Whittell

Additional reporting by Jessica Winch, James Wilson and Phoebe Davis. 

Photographs Getty Images, Momentum Pictures

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