Category: International Affairs/Foreign Policy

SAIS Explainer Series: Russian Interference in US Elections

The new SAIS Observer Explainer Series aims to help SAIS students understand the most complex issues of the day. No politics — just the facts.

October 31, 2019

By Alex Kessler

WASHINGTON,⁠ D.C. — On October 30, several high-profile veterans of the U.S. intelligence community gathered at the National Press Club to discuss their assessment of Russian attempts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election, and what measures could be taken to address this threat moving forward into 2020. Present to report on the event was the SAIS Observer.

Moderated by CBS “Face the Nation” host Margaret Brennan and hosted by George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, a panel comprised of former acting director of the FBI Andrew McCabe and previous CIA leadership figures John Brennan, Michael Morell, and SAIS’ own John McLaughlin fielded questions regarding their collective understanding of Russian efforts to influence the American democratic process.

According to John Brennan, the CIA knew since at least August of 2016 that Russian President Vladimir Putin may have attempted to influence the November 2016 U.S. presidential election. The CIA reportedly passed information to executive and legislative leadership, who then confronted Russia. We can not be certain how many votes were affected, or if and how the United States’ efforts to confront the Russians may have altered the Russian strategy. However, Morell warned that there is evidence that suggests that Russia is continuing efforts to influence both voters and the voting process in the United States.

What does this foreign intervention look like? Brennan listed several major avenues of the Russian effort. The most obvious of these appears in our social media feeds, where foreign intelligence units spread targeted disinformation (or normal information) to exacerbate political division within the U.S. population. There also exist vulnerabilities in both the voting process and within companies that design and store voting software, all of which are susceptible to digital attack. Russia can also attempt to influence American politics by endorsing certain politicians, or by making financial contributions to a particular political contender and later leaking information of their contribution to discredit the contender in the eyes of the public. In short, Russia aims to take advantage of the United States’ free media environment to manipulate the perception of the electorate.

McCabe described the FBI as having a robust cybersecurity organization that is prepared for the next “attack,” but individual states’ cybersecurity infrastructure may not be as secure. The question was also raised whether the U.S. government is capable of coordinating resources to detect and combat a widespread, diffuse interference campaign⁠.

Looking ahead to the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Professor McLaughlin identified four major priorities for the U.S. to combat the threat of foreign interference: Better reporting of foreign connections with U.S. officials; enhancing the intelligence community’s tracking of Russian agents within the U.S. and their data collection processes; improving the system of alerting the public of public disinformation; and securing the voting process — even if this meant returning to the use of paper ballots.

All four panelists agreed that the members of the intelligence community would continue to deter and combat the present threat.

Tunisia’s parliamentary elections beget a fractured assembly

By Will Marshall

October 30, 2019

BOLOGNA, Italy — In a major milestone for the Arab world’s sole democracy, Tunisian voters went to the polls on October 6 for the first parliamentary elections since 2014.

Preliminary results released by Tunisia’s independent electoral commission, known by the French acronym ISIE,  show that Ennahdha, a former Islamist party rebranded in 2016 as the “Muslim Democrats,” will retain its position as the largest bloc in Tunisia’s unicameral assembly. Ennahdha claimed 52 parlimentary seats. Qalb Tounes, or “Heart of Tunisia,” a newly constituted populist party headed by Tunisian media mogul Nabil Karoui, placed second with 38 seats.

The ISIE will confirm official results on November 13. In the meantime, preliminary results will be subject to appeal.

Disillusionment with the previous coalition government headed by Nidaa Tounes and Ennahdha contributed to low voter turnout (ISIE reported 41% turnout compared with 60% in the 2014 elections) and a surge in support for new parties, such as Attayar, led by human rights activist Mohamed Abbou, which won 22 seats.

Mongi Dhaouadi, a Tunisian living in Washington D.C. with ties to Ennahdha, said that low turnout is attributable to the impression that the elections won’t be able to deliver improved outcomes. Many Tunisians, he added, believe the country’s politicians are incapable of curbing unemployment and rising prices or providing basic services.

“I, like many Tunisians, came out to tell those who are in charge that you have failed. We need new faces,” Dhaouadi said.

A controversial presidential election in the same month overshadowed the parliamentary results. In a  runoff vote held on October 13, Tunisians chose Kais Saied, a former constitutional lawyer, over Nabil Karoui, the media mogul behind the rise of Qalb Tounes. Karoui, who ran part of his presidential campaign from a pre-trial detention cell (he is accused of money laundering and tax fraud), was temporarily released on October 10 to be allowed to campaign ahead of the runoff. 

Saied’s victory, with 72% of the vote, was a blow to Karoui’s Qalb Tounes coalition, which is largely built around his anti-establishment appeal. Without Karoui in elected office, his party will need a strong leader in parliament who can unite the various factions of the fledgling party. 

Ennahdha, which called for its supporters to back Saied ahead of the runoff, said this week it would be willing to include the new president in talks on forming a new government. However, London-based newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat reports Ennahdha may move to name party leader Rached Ghannouchi prime minister without consulting Saied. 

The disintegration of the once-powerful Nidaa Tounes party — an amalgam of secularists, industrialists and former Ben Ali regime officials led by the late former Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi — contributed to the relative success of new parties such as Qalb Tounes and Tahya Tounes. Tahya Tounes is the party of current Prime Minister Yousef Chahed, ejected from Nidaa Tounes earlier this year after tensions arose with Essebsi’s son, Hafedh Caid Essebsi. The splintering of Nidaa Tounes also left the assembly highly fractured, with no single party receiving more than 20% of available parliamentary seats, complicating efforts to form a new coalition government.

Should the parties fail to form a coalition government, the widespread disillusionment Tunisians have with their democratic political system may be amplified, said Sharan Grewal, visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy.

“The parliament is incredibly fragmented…It will take at least four parties to come together to form the government, a tall order given that each of them have already publicly expressed their refusal to work with one another,” Grewal said in an email to the Observer. “There’s a real danger that the fractured parliament will feed into desires for a strong presidential system, which could pose a threat to democracy depending on who occupies that office.”

Tunisia, which underwent a bloodless transfer of power in 2011, has been described as a model for the Maghreb and wider Middle East region. Yet the country’s ongoing transition to democracy has faltered under the strain of a series of security crises and a stagnant economy. 

A pair of terror attacks in 2015 targeting foreigners hurt the country’s important tourism industry, which has only recently begun to rebound. Recent political unrest in Algeria and the ongoing chaos in Libya have contributed to regional instability that threatens to spill over into Tunisia.

On the economic front, the unemployment rate has hovered around 15% and inflation remains at 6.8% despite tighter fiscal and monetary controls in the first half of 2019. In particular, high youth unemployment has led to an exodus of university graduates toward Europe—exacerbating the country’s brain drain.

The prospect of an extended struggle in parliament to secure a coalition may distract Tunisian politicians from the task of strengthening its nascent democratic institutions. For instance, failure to form a coalition would further delay the appointment of judges to the Constitutional Court, Tunisia’s supreme court.

Once the ISIE announces official results in November, Ennahdha will have two months to name a prime minister and collect the 109 votes needed to form a new coalition government. Should they fail, the president will have an opportunity to secure a majority in the assembly. If both fail to create a coalition, the government will call for new elections.

Disclosure: Will Marshall worked as a communications consultant for the Ennahdha party in Washington D.C. from 2016-2019.

This article refers to ISIE’s latest results release on Oct. 9.

Deadline for Brexit deal looms as UK-EU negotiations continue

By Laura Rong

October 2019

BOLOGNA, Italy — The crucial question of whether the United Kingdom will leave the European Union  remains uncertain as the October 31 deadline for reaching a Brexit compromises rapidly approaches.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson suspended the British parliament for five weeks in a perceived attempt to prevent any further action that would delay Brexit. However, the Supreme Court ruled that  it was illegal to stop members of parliament (MPs) from carrying out their duties in the run-up to the Brexit deadline on October 31. According to a poll, more than 30% of UK citizens oppose Johnson’s new deal, while another 40% remain undecided regarding the proposal.

While Brexit hinges upon a wide variety of issues, the status of Northern Ireland is particularly significant. Presently, Ireland and the UK participate in the EU’s single market and customs union, meaning traded products are exempted from customs inspection or verification of quality in cross-border transactions. After Brexit, all this could change—the two parts of Ireland may be located in different customs and regulatory regimes, which could result in new standards of inspection at the border. Of pivotal importance to Johnson’s proposal is the inclusion of a border proposal for Northern Ireland to align with the EU’s single market, eliminating the need for a hard border between the EU and Ireland. 

In an interview with the SAIS Observer, Christopher Hill, professor of European Research Seminar and Foreign Policy Analysis at SAIS Europe, said Johnson is being  coerced to reach a compromise in his own rhetoric, and that he would likely agree to further concessions with the aim of cementing a deal with the EU.

“I think Mr. Johnson is in a difficult position because he has made it so clear that he wants to avoid any extension, and at the same time that he’s willing to go ahead with no deal on the one hand,” Hill said. “And on the other hand, he wants to have the advantage of going to a general election to be able to say, ‘I settled the Brexit problem’, so he proposed this compromise.”

Jennifer Varney, professor of English language at SAIS Bologna, said it’s striking to her that Johnson has proposed to solve the Irish backstop problem by introducing not one, but two borders. 

“His proposal displays a shocking insensitivity towards, and perhaps misunderstanding of, the delicate balance that was achieved in the Good Friday Agreement,” Varney said in reference to the 1998 deal between the UK and Northern Ireland bringing peace to the region and notably the removal of a hard border between the two countries.

Daniel Hinds, an Irish student at SAIS Europe, said that the installation of a border would put people with families on both sides in danger, and that citizens need more detailed information about a border plan. 

“The biggest annoyance for people in Ireland is what seems to be Boris Johnson and the English government’s lack of understanding and appreciation of the political situation in Brexit.” Hinds said. 

In terms of trade, Hinds believes the new deal will drastically affect people in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, as the majority of Irish exports are transported through the UK.

“It will drastically affect the economic growth of Ireland,” Hinds said. “It will drastically affect the agricultural sector, which has a large part of its exports to the UK. So people’s livelihoods are at risk.”

Furthermore, Hill predicts that  if the UK fails to leave by the end of the month, Brexit may be even further delayed in order to leave room for further negotiation. 

“I cannot imagine that there would be another date for leaving, until say, March 29, 2020, which would be exactly a year on from the date which we were originally supposed to leave on,” Hill said. “Now at the moment, especially to the Brexiters, it seems like a very serious delay, but in the long perspective, it’s not a long time.”

According to Hill, Britain is facing the most serious conflict in British politics since World War II. The EU is ready to grant the UK another extension, but whether Johnson will agree to further delay the date to leave remains uncertain. 

Media’s medicine: Alleviating the social symptoms of China’s healthcare system

Can a doctor show, ER Doctors《急诊科医生》alleviate some of the social symptoms (医患冲突) of China’s healthcare system?

By Markayle Schears (席凯乐)

NANJING, China — During my experience working as an intern in several Chinese hospitals, I wondered why many of the doctor-patient relationship dynamics I witnessed appeared strained, often characterized by brief interactions or frustration for both parties. As part of my research, I spoke with a young surgeon named Dr. Lin about my observations.  He said that today, most medical students in China do not study how to interact kindly with patients—and that the healthcare system gives them little time to do so.

ER Doctors’  Dr. Liu (far left) with her trainee at a patient’s  bedside. Photo credits:

Dr. Lin used wordplay to illustrate the problem. In discussing serious conditions such as cancer with their patients, some hurried doctors will quickly discuss chemotherapy treatment, or huà liáo (化疗), without offering much in the way of compassion or comfort. Some patients become so upset that in a frightening number of instances, they have jumped to their deaths from their hospital windows. Dr. Lin opined that Chinese doctors must make an effort to provide a treatment that begins with healing words, or huà liáo (话疗) – a homonym for “chemotherapy.” He believes doctors’ interactions with patients should be considered part of the treatment and infused with compassion and patience.

It wasn’t until I took part in the Hopkins-Nanjing Center’s first film class in the spring of 2019 that I considered the doctor-patient relationship through a new lens—a camera lens.  Beyond its entertainment value, visual media can serve to educate and socialize individuals. People and places once distanced, unrelated or  unfamiliar to viewers become real, human and close. What struck me in this class was the possibility that a television show could be the impetus for resolution of social challenges such as societal conflicts, stigma or ignorance. I decided to explore the complexities of the doctor-patient relationship by analyzing how a popular medical show, ER  Doctors《急诊科医生》portrays this relationship in the country.  

I was intrigued to find that the series is supported by a number of Chinese governmental arms and medical organizations, including the National Health and Family Planning Commission, Peking Union Medical College Hospital and Beijing Chaoyang Hospital. It seems as though the Chinese government believes that exposing the general public to hospital dynamics and a curated version of the doctor-patient relationship could help educate the masses,  and perhaps even relieve mounting social conflict that has arisen over the years. 

Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), China’s healthcare system has made impressive leaps by significantly improving health conditions across the population. Yet many problems began to emerge after the “Basic Health Insurance System” was implemented during the economic reforms in the 1980s. Significant reform shifted healthcare from a social welfare initiative to a system that places the burden of financing on the individual. Adding further pressure, some scholars argue, is the fact that underlying institutions within China’s healthcare system are presently still in flux. Today the  government faces the difficult  challenge of meeting growing healthcare needs while continuing to develop the health industry.  Over the last several decades, healthcare reforms have led to a variety of decentralization issues. This shift forced hospitals to compete for patients, generate revenue and capitalize on the deregulation of drug prices. In response to these financial pressures, some hospitals and providers responded by speeding up patient consultations or over-prescribing expensive medications. Over the long term, these actions have contributed to the exponential growth of healthcare expenditures in China. The results of these reforms have yet to be fully determined, but serious inequities in healthcare remain. 

Unsurprisingly, this has created tension in the relationship between healthcare representatives and the general public. On an individual level, institutional moves made in response to reform pressures have resulted in the widespread mistrust of hospitals and doctors.  Patients point to a lack of privacy in hospitals, medical treatment privileges awarded to only the well-connected patients, and arrogant, uncaring doctors. Conversely, doctors express dissatisfaction in their wages, overwhelming workloads and a lack of professional autonomy.  Together, these factors have severely worsened the doctor-patient relationship dynamic in China. This strain has culminated in an alarming trend of  patients, or patients’ family members, using violence against doctors and health professionals in hospital settings. A survey conducted across 90 county-level hospitals found the workplace violence incidence rate to be a staggering 69.38% in 2016, a glaring symptom of the larger issues regarding healthcare reform in China.  To address this concerning trend, stopgap measures aimed at increasing the social consciousness of patient populations and to buy time for reform are underway. Creative examples of this can be found in the socialization efforts in the media and in the boom of Chinese medical TV shows. 

In 2017, several new Chinese medical dramas aired, representing a new wave in a previously small genre in China. One of these shows, ER Doctors, is anchored in the lives of three doctors: Dr. He, Dr. Jiang and Dr. Liu, all of whom work together in a Beijing emergency room. The show follows the complex web of interactions between the doctors, their patients, their families and their larger communities both in and outside the hospital.

From this foundation, the viewer observes the personal, professional, moral and social choices of the doctors.  Viewers are immediately positioned to learn more about the life and experiences of the doctors compared to the patients. Memorably, the pilot episode begins with a highly intense scene in which Dr. Jiang pursues a young thief attempting to steal her purse. The thief suddenly collapses as he is running away. We watch as Dr. Jiang works to assess the boy’s condition and get him safely to the hospital, all while the boy’s friends make off with her purse. Dr. Jiang is presented as a hero who places the value of another’s life above her own material possessions and as a professional who will provide care in spite of the fact that the patient took advantage of her.

As the other two doctors’ characters are developed, the camera tends to follow Dr. He and Dr. Liu in their daily lives. Such scenes are centered around common experiences such as having dinner with their families and conversations in the car while driving to work or school. A slower, leveled approach to character development and narrative flow provides contrast to the hectic emergency room pace, but more importantly, humanizes doctors for the viewers. Observers see how doctors are also just people who are raising families, sitting in traffic and going out to eat hot pot. At the hospital, viewers see the humanized doctors struggle with ethical issues such as consent or delivering difficult health news. Their professional skills are highlighted as the doctors are depicted explaining (and then re-explaining) medical treatments simply and concisely to confused patients and their families. Viewers watch as senior doctors remind the trainees to be more professional and place the patient’s needs above all. As viewers take in the scenes of  doctors doing real life chores and spending time with their families, they can relate to and even admire these characters.   

Throughout the series, the viewer has little to no information about the patients’ backgrounds, and usually learn more about family members than the patient themselves. Family members tend to be presented as rude, cheap, abrasive, dishonest, uneducated or violent. According to scholars, patients being presented as relatively one-dimensional is characteristic of the majority of medical films, and in line with other countries’ medical TV show portrayals. Such bad behaviors likely also serve to illustrate to the viewer the social challenges Chinese doctors face on a daily basis.  Patients’ families usually play active, but brief, roles in which they might accuse doctors of inventing reasons to make their son get more expensive surgeries, slap the nurse or talk loudly on their phones in the hospital. Based on the show, it appears that most Chinese patients aren’t always consulted directly; although the doctor will ask the patient questions, their attention and advice is aimed at the family of the patient. In rare scenes, doctors and patients interact directly; usually, these are the most heartfelt. 

There are many lessons to be taken from China’s ER Doctors. Viewers learn about the doctor side of the doctor-patient relationship. They are reminded that doctors are humans too, with good values, though perhaps not without ego or fault. Themes such as consent, full disclosure of information and doctor-driven charity all surface as potential solutions to creating a more transparent and cooperative partnership between physicians and patients off screen. It is a clear message in the show that Chinese patients want frank assessments and direct care. Viewers are encouraged to notice that medicine in China is changing, but it is not happening overnight. The discussions and conflicts that arise are rooted in the old paternalistic system and the precarious balance of the new economic order. 

Overall, based on highly positive ratings, this government-backed TV series is successfully exposing the wider population to a healthier view of doctors, with the intention of increasing trust all while exploring deep-seated conflicts within the healthcare system. By portraying doctors’ burdens and strong morals and humanizing their struggles, viewers and potential real-life patients can learn to trust and respect doctors.  Conversely, young future doctors watching may take away from the series the most successful strategies for better communication methods. It remains to be seen whether the government’s efforts to promote medical shows can truly ease real-life social conflict, but at the very least something can be learned about social interactions in healthcare settings and the ways to communicate with viewers through a camera lens.

What Trudeau’s re-election means for the Canada-U.S. relationship

By Shirley Wang and Evelyne Goulet

October 2019

On October 21, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party won the most seats during the 43rd Canadian federal election. This means that Trudeau, who has served as prime minister since 2015, will continue to head the Canadian government for the foreseeable future. However, the Prime Minister’s new mandate is also very much defined by the nature of its victory, which resulted in the formation of a minority government. Because Trudeau lacks a clear majority in the House this time around, his Liberal government cannot simply rely on party discipline in order to gain support for legislation and will be forced to negotiate with opposition parties. What will this mean for Canada’s relationship with its neighbour to the South? 

Minority governments in Canada are not a new phenomenon. Since the 1950s, the last 20 federal elections have yielded nine minorities. And despite the associated political instability, minority governments can also produce periods of legislative accomplishment due to the level of political cooperation and conciliation required. This was apparent during the Pearson years, in which the implementation of universal healthcare, the Canadian Pension Plan, and the unification of the armed forces were achieved, among other accomplishments. For Trudeau’s Liberals, however, cooperation with other parties on foreign policy may prove difficult. The NDP, for example, has called for a recommitment of Canada to peacekeeping, something that has flickered out of substantial existence since the Harper era and not faced much Liberal revival. The NDP and the Greens are also seeking the cancellation of a $14 billion contract to send Canadian-made armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, of which the Liberals have upheld. 

For the Canada-U.S. relationship, this will play out most significantly in trade. Amidst an oft-fraught personal relationship between the two leaders, U.S. President Donald Trump congratulated Trudeau on his victory and tweeted he was looking forward to working with him “toward the betterment of both our countries.” 

President Trump came to power in November 2016 promising to fix the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a free trade agreement established with Canada and Mexico since 1994. Following rounds of negotiation in 2017 and 2018, the three countries were able to compromise on a new agreement, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). However, while the changes to NAFTA were mostly minor, the new trade deal has yet to be implemented. Given the economic importance of the USMCA, the agreement’s ratification will be a priority for both Trump and Trudeau in the coming months.

During the campaign, the Liberal Party presented the NAFTA renegotiations as an important victory of his government, highlighting that the agreement was concluded during a time of protectionism in the United States. Given Trudeau’s touting of the USMCA on the campaign trail, it could be expected that the agreement will be ratified once the House of Commons is back in session. However, it is not guaranteed that a majority of MPs will vote in favour of the trade deal since the Liberal minority needs the collaboration of other parties to ratify the agreement. All other parties have criticized the trade deal, meaning an uphill battle awaits the Trudeau government to get a majority of votes.

South of the border, ratification is also far from a done deal. Despite a recent plea by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to lawmakers asking them to ratify the agreement, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has yet to commit to voting on the agreement in the House of Representatives. Trump has expressed frustration at the slow process, recently saying, “I don’t know that they’re ever going to get to a vote.” There have been multiple meetings between Democrats and the Trump administration to come to a compromise, but nothing tangible has been achieved yet. Until a majority of Democrats support the USMCA, it is unlikely that Pelosi will agree to vote on the agreement. Trump and Trudeau favour the ratification of the trade deal, but it remains to be seen if they can both achieve domestic victories.

Trudeau’s government will also face substantial challenges in reconciling domestic concerns and energy trade with the United States. Canada’s perennial reliance on the U.S. market is punctuated by a significant surplus in energy commodity trade, with exports of USD $75.62 billion in 2017, nearly four times the value of exports from the United States to Canada. And of the aforementioned value, Alberta contributed USD $56.9 billion worth of commodity imports and exports, far out-pacing any other oil and gas production hub on either side of the border. With all but one riding in Alberta going blue this election, and similar trends throughout much of Western Canada, Trudeau will be forced to concentrate his efforts on assuaging Western agitation, all the while answering progressive calls for greater energy independence and environmental protection. In this political climate, Keystone XL, Line 3, and further cross-border pipeline development will likely continue to stall for the foreseeable future. 

Of course, trade is only one component of the Canadian-American relationship under this new, and weaker, Trudeau government. In December 2018, at the request of the United States, Canadian authorities arrested Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei. Soon after, China arrested two Canadian citizens, who have been detained since. The Trudeau government had hoped that the White House would provide assistance to secure the release of these two Canadians, with Trump publicly committing to it. However, the Sino-American relationship is currently rocky due to a trade war, making Trump’s help in negotiating unsure. On security, the two countries will likely continue to squabble over claims to the Arctic to no significant effect and cooperate within the confines of NORAD, NATO, the Permanent Joint Board on Defense, among other cooperative defense frameworks. 

Despite all the talk of a weakened Trudeau and the election of a minority Liberal government in Canada, it is doubtful that general themes of the Canada-U.S. relationship will face significant change in the near future, excepting the possible passage of the USMCA at some point. However, President Trump will too face re-election in late 2020 and minority governments are notoriously short-lived, so just how long this relative equilibrium will hold remains to be seen. 

Tencent holdings: The Chinese technology conglomerate at the center of global pop culture controversy

October 30, 2019

By Alex Cowen

NANJING, China — The NBA regular season started on October 23 in China. If you had purchased the Tencent Sports NBA package with the intention of watching the New Orleans Pelicans take on the defending champion Toronto Raptors, you would have been disappointed. Not because Kawhi Leonard left Toronto in free agency, and not because high-flying wunderkind Zion Williamson, New Orleans’ first pick and the first overall pick of the NBA Draft, wasn’t playing. You simply wouldn’t have been able to watch the game at all — and the reasons have very little to do with basketball. 

Tencent has been streaming the first week of the NBA regular season on roughly a 40 second delay, while also only streaming a select few of the games each night (or morning in China). There has been no explanation given to customers about the selection process, but the reasons for the tape delay are quite clear. On October 4, as the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers were about participate in promotional events across China, including two preseason games in Shanghai and Shenzhen, Daryl Morey — the longtime General Manager of the Houston Rockets — tweeted out vague, now-deleted support for the months-long protests in Hong Kong. What followed was one of the stranger sports stories of the decade and has brought questions of the intersection of entertainment and politics to the fore. And every time the story starts to lose steam, something happens or someone says something that fires up headlines yet again.

Daryl Morey tweeted this image on October 4.
 Image credit: Yahoo Sports

In a story that involves multiple high-profile personalities, including but not limited to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver; players LeBron James and James Harden; Congresspeople Ted Cruz, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, and Marco Rubio; President Donald Trump; and the Chinese government, one of the more underreported aspects of the affair is the technology conglomerate at the center of it all — Tencent Holdings.

Daryl Morey with Rockets star player, James Harden, who apologized for Morey’s tweet.
 Photo credit: Houston Chronicle

Tencent is a Fortune 500 company with over $47 billion in revenue and $105 billion in assets. It possesses a portfolio of over 600 companies. It owns a huge stake in Alibaba’s biggest e-commerce rival, It has a huge stake in Meituan Dianping, a Chinese combination of Seamless, Postmates, and Yelp. It owns WeChat, a Chinese combination of Instagram, Twitter, and Venmo with over 1 billion users. It owns 12% of Snap Inc., the developer behind the Snapchat app. Subsidiary Tencent Video has an exclusive partnership with HBO and owns the streaming rights to Game of Thrones. When the final episode of the series aired after a multi-day delay in China, Tencent was at the center of the story. Many customers demanded refunds for their Tencent Video subscriptions, while Tencent apologized and blamed “media transfer issues” via a Weibo post. Tencent Music (TME) is analogous to Spotify and trades on the New York Stock Exchange (Spotify and TME have a strategic cooperation where they each own 10% of the other’s shares). When Facebook acquired WhatsApp for $19 billion, it was Tencent who they outbid. 

Tencent has also been making forays into movie production. In August, this ignited a controversy about China’s soft power projection, when the trailer for the Tencent Pictures-produced “Top Gun: Maverick” was released. In the first movie, released in 1986, Tom Cruise’s bomber jacket sports patches of the Japanese and Taiwanese flags. In the sequel, these patches have been replaced by two vague symbols with similar color schemes, so as to avoid suggesting that Taiwan is a sovereign nation as opposed to a PRC territory (or that it supports Japan). In addition to Top Gun, Tencent Pictures has produced and is producing many other pieces of classic American IP for the silver screen, including “Venom,” “Wonder Woman,” “Men in Black,” a Transformers movie, a King Kong movie, and a Terminator movie. They are also producing a movie about Mr. Rogers starring Tom Hanks, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” 

The two patches in the original jacket, left, show the Japanese and Taiwanese flags. The new jacket, right, shows patches with unidentified symbols with similar color schemes 
Image Credit: CNN

Over the summer, Tencent Sports extended its distribution rights for all NBA games through the 2024-2025 season. Analysts estimate the deal to be worth roughly $1.5 billion, and according to Tencent’s announcement about the deal, more than 490 million people used Tencent’s platform to watch NBA games last year, with 21 million people tuning in for Game 6 of the NBA Finals. But Morey’s tweet about Hong Kong and the subsequent responses of high-profile personalities who continue to attract attention to the demonstrations in Hong Kong make it difficult for the games to stream unimpeded, while also inspiring previously neutral-on-China sports fans to read up on “what exactly is happening in Hong Kong, anyway?” Responses from players, commissioners, lawmakers and commentators on both sides of the story have alternated between playing up the outrage or trying to tone it down without having developed any clear or cogent strategy for how to move forward. The NBA, an organization that prides itself on social justice and its ability to ask hard questions, has found itself holding hands with an apparatus that prefers to keep the man behind the curtain concealed as much as possible.

On the heels of the NBA-Hong Kong kerfuffle, Hearthstone player Chung Ng Wai, who streams using the name Blitzchung, was banned from Hearthstone tournaments for one year during a Grandmasters event because he made statements advocating for the liberation of Hong Kong while wearing a black mask in an interview. The interviewers were swiftly fired and Blizzard Entertainment, which makes Hearthstone (and is owned by Tencent), justified their decision by citing a rule that any action which “offends a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damages Blizzard’s image will result in removal from Grandmasters and reduction of the player’s prize total to $0 USD.” 

People use sports, video games and movies as a way to escape and forget the stress of daily life or the depressing tickers scrolling the news networks. Audiences often prefer to leave actual unpleasantness at the door when they sit down to be entertained. And it makes us uncomfortable that our entertainers might hold views about the world different than our own. But as 2019 turns to 2020, it seems as if the last thing anyone can do is just shut up and dribble.

Sino-American obstacles to addressing climate change 中美在应对气候变化时面临的挑战

Daniel Mikesell

October 29, 2019

NANJING, China — In October 2010, Chinese leaders were infuriated with the United States after the American Embassy in Beijing tweeted about “crazy bad” levels of air pollution. The embassy’s air pollution data showed that air pollution in Beijing was much worse than the official Chinese data suggested. To Americans, this episode seemed to prove China’s negligence and dishonesty regarding its environmental problems. Eight years later, Chinese mocked the resurgence of climate change denial in American politics. To many Chinese, the fact that someone who actively disregards science (or at least pretends to for the sake of economic growth) could become America’s commander in chief is evidence that American democracy is fundamentally flawed.


As the United States and China struggle to address climate change, they have encountered different types of barriers. U.S. climate policy must contend with climate-change deniers and vested corporate interests, whereas in China, climate policy is often at odds with economic development goals.


In the U.S., part of the problem is denial. About one in six Americans think climate change “is not a threat” to America at all. That’s not precisely the same as saying climate change “isn’t real,” but both statements demonstrate a similar degree of disregard for the international consensus on climate science. 


Since 2013, climate change has become a major concern for Democrats but not for Republicans.
Image Credit: Pew Research Center

This phenomenon can be understood in terms of the influence of partisanship on the American public. Worldwide, there is a strong positive correlation between one’s level of scientific knowledge and one’s belief in the risks posed by climate change. However, American Republicans are an exception to this pattern. Whether or not a Republican believes that climate change will harm the planet has no relationship with the degree of his or her scientific knowledge. 


Democrats with more scientific knowledge are more likely to view climate change as a threat, but most Republicans don’t view climate as a threat, regardless of their scientific knowledge.
Image Credit: Pew Research Center

Why do so many American conservatives deny the effects of climate change? Some researchers attribute this to the so-called “conservative white male effect” in doubting anthropogenic climate change; in other words, a growing body of research suggests that conservative white men around the world are less likely to believe in climate change than other demographic groups.


Political and business interests also play a key role in American climate denial. Efforts from the fossil fuel industry to obfuscate the conversation on climate change have successfully confused the American public. Campaign finance contributions by the oil and gas industries are primarily directed to Republicans, further leading Republicans to less stringent climate policy. 


In China, widespread climate change denial is not the problem. The Chinese government “wants everyone to believe in climate change,” said Pan Siran, a Hopkins-Nanjing Center (HNC) student from Hainan. In China, climate change “is not a political issue,” she said. According to Fang Jianyu, an HNC student from Inner Mongolia, climate change is taught in freshman high school geography, so anyone with a high school education should know about it.


But because high school is not compulsory in China, there are some people who never learned about climate change in school. A 2017 study conducted by the Center for China Climate Change Communication (CCCCC) showed that roughly 5% of Chinese adults don’t think climate change is happening, and a 2012 CCCCC survey showed over 6% of Chinese adults have never heard of climate change.


Taken together, these data could suggest that the main reason some Chinese don’t believe in climate change is that they have never heard of it. This was corroborated by Zhang Haiyan, Associate Professor of Energy, Resources, and Environment (ERE) at the HNC. She said virtually everyone in China who has heard of climate change knows that it’s real, but that some people with less education may not know about it, and hence not believe in it.


Professor Zhang further emphasized that addressing climate change is especially difficult for developing countries like China. Developing countries are still in the process of setting up basic infrastructure and providing basic social services; how can they be expected to be on the vanguard of climate change adaptation? Chinese recognize the need to address climate change, but poverty alleviation based on economic development is a far more urgent priority. This tension is reflected in the concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” which dates back to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. This concept acknowledges that wealthy, developed countries with greater capabilities must shoulder a greater share of the burden of dealing with climate change.


The problem in China isn’t denial but rather the notion that developing China’s domestic economy is a higher priority than helping the planet. Compared to economic growth, the environment is a small concern. A popular phrase in Chinese media reflects this systemic lack of concern for environmental law: “The costs of illegal behavior are low, but the costs of following the law are high.”


China and America have the world’s largest carbon footprints, but their barriers to addressing the problem are vastly different. In the United States, those who dispute the facts of climate change have significant political power. On the other hand, climate change is widely accepted in China, but the reaction has been to deny responsibility. China has seen some major environmental protests in recent years, but the push for economic development seems unstoppable. 


As key players in the international effort to address climate change, America and China will face enormous environmental challenges in the coming years. Expanding the exchange of ideas between China and America may prove essential for the health of the planet. Such cross-cultural exchanges may also allow each side to avoid the mire of endless criticism and search for mutually beneficial solutions.


With fire over Syria, smoke obscures Washington

October 23, 2019

By Dennis Murphy

Johns Hopkins SAIS is a school that cannot be divorced from the world it studies. This was made clear when President Trump announced the withdrawal of American forces from parts of Northern Syria. Within minutes, professors were receiving calls from media outlets requesting comment. Many professors wrote lengthy articles describing their analysis of the situation, while some traveled out of DC in order to speak with other experts and academics about these events in person.

Mara Karlin, the director of the Strategic Studies program, passed along an article she wrote in late September. In this article, she remarked quite pointedly that “precipitously redeploying U.S. troops from Syria, particularly without consulting key coalition members,” would be among the key missteps that the Trump administration should avoid.

Daniel Serwer, the director of the Conflict Management and American Foreign Policy Programs, conveyed his thoughts via an article he authored on October 17. Serwer stated that the situation in Syria was “predictable and predicted.” Serwer believes the United States should have reduced its military commitments in the Middle East to a sustainable level, and done so in a way that left no power vacuums that other powers could exploit. He expressed his view that reasonable compromise is what is required in relation to the situation, but that such reasonableness is impossible to achieve under President Trump.

In an interview with the SAIS Observer, SAIS Professor Seth Jones, who teaches a course covering counterinsurgency, stated that the decision to withdraw troops raises serious questions regarding our reliability as an ally in the region. Jones feels that the damage done to our reputation cannot be underestimated. The Kurds “put a lot on the line, including their lives” as our allies, Jones said. The Russians have positioned themselves in former U.S. strongholds in the area, as televised scenes show Russian soldiers moving into recently abandoned American bases.

Jones expects that the war against ISIS is far from over, complicated further by the presence of al-Qaeda and other jihadi groups in the region.Jones stated that over 50,000 jihadi fighters are estimated to be in Northern Syria, and that ISIS is pursuing a strategy of using the remote landscape of the desert to rebuild and reorganize their forces in the Northern, Eastern and Southern regions of the country. If a resurgence occurs, Syria has the potential to become another version of Afghanistan, accompanied by all of the complications that entails regarding refugees, combat and humanitarian aid.

These events have produced a demoralizing effect for many students and professors on campus. Middle East Studies professor Camille Pecastaing stated that the decision to withdraw U.S. troops  “infuriated most American analysts of the region and politicians, not to mention their counterparts in Europe.” While it is unlikely that SAIS courses will be changed in response, patterns of US engagement in the region have altered students’ desired career paths, with a notable shift of Middle East Concentrations moving from a career in government to the private sector since 2010. However, Pecastaing said, “A curriculum of regional studies cannot be defined by the actions of American administrations.” As of Monday, October 20, Pecastaing had not heard any favorable outlooks from students on the decision to withdraw from parts of northern Syria.

In an interview with Alia Awadallah, the second year Strategic Studies student took a highly critical stance against the actions of the Trump administration and condemned Turksih military action along the border. In Awadallah’s view, withdrawing from northern Syria serves no strategic purpose, and instead risks the danger of ethnic cleansing occurring in Syria. Similarly to Jones, Awadallah believes that the decision has deeply damaged the U.S. reputation in the region, giving way to a pattern of using allies to the benefit of the U.S. before discarding them.

For Awadallah, the issue is not that there may be a resurgence of ISIS in the region; she believes that those who were susceptible to radicalization have already been radicalized. Rather, the issue for her is the symbolic victory in the civil war for President Assad that these actions represent. As long as the Syrian Democratic Forces remained active in the region, there was a sense that the war was not yet over, and that Assad’s forces had not won. Following the withdrawal of US forces, Russia, Iran and Syria have already positioned themselves to best take advantage of Kurdish helplessness. 

Not all SAIS students were of the same mind, however. One student interviewed by the SAIS Observer, Alperen Eken, believes Turkish action in Northeastern Syria may not be as bad as it might appear. Eken views Turkish actions as predominantly a counterterrorism operation against YPG forces, a primarily Kurdish group labeled as a terrorist organization by the Turkish government. This is a move with “strong support domestically,” Eken said. As for the possibility that Turkish actions may lead to a resurgence of ISIS, he argued that Turkey has “suffered enough” at the hands of ISIS, has “no intention to release any ISIS fighters,” and “everyone knows that Turkey does not support… ISIS.”

Eken stressed that YPG forces in the Kurdish region have “really strong connections with the PKK,” an organization broadly identified as a terrorist organization.Turkey has never appreciated the close U.S. relationship with YPG forces, and has feared its vulnerability to attack by YPG training camps. Eken feels strongly that Turkish action is strategically defensive in nature.

Since these interviews took place, Turkey has begun meeting with Russian officials in order to work together to remove the Kurdish military presence along the Turkish-Syrian border. Additionally, there has been renewed migration out of Northeast Syria into neighboring Iraq, as individuals flee under the presumed threat of violence.

The SAIS Observer will continue to track these events closely.

Elections in Canada: Divisions north of the border?

By Nikole Ottolia and Dennis Murphy

WASHINGTON D.C. – Johns Hopkins SAIS students and faculty watched with great interest when, on October 21, Canadian Prime Minister and leader of Canada’s Liberal Party Justin Trudeau secured a second term in office. While the Liberals lost the popular vote to the Conservatives, and now occupy twenty fewer parliamentary seats, they were not dislodged from their position of leadership.

The New Democratic Party lost 15 seats, while the Bloc Québécois saw its seat share triple from 10 to 32. The Green Party gained one additional seat. Maxime Bernier’s populist People’s Party failed to secure a single seat.

Canada is a parliamentary democracy but can be governed without a majority coalition government. The Liberals secured more seats than the Conservatives but lost their parliamentary majority, now holding157 out of 338 seats. Professor Christopher Sands, director of the Center for Canadian Studies at SAIS, remarked that the new government in Ottawa will likely govern far more cautiously than it did during Trudeau’s first term in office.

How Canada governs is of great interest and importance to the US-Canada relationship. Professor Charles Doran, director of the Canadian Studies program at SAIS, relayed to the SAIS Observer that the United States often has more investments in Canada than anywhere else (China excluded); as such, Canada will always be of critical importance to the United States. Additionally, Doran highlighted that many of the issues that exist in the US, especially in energy policy, are shared by Canada.

Following the election, Canada now appears to be a divided nation. This is evidenced by the fact of a ruling minority party that failed to win the popular vote. Canadian Studies Professor Tamara Woroby expressed concern about domestic regionalism, resurgent populism within the Bloc Québécois and division over oil politics.

In western Canada, there is frustration that federal elections are often decided before votes in the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta are even counted. Indeed, Professor Sands provided the SAIS Observer with a chart detailing that 199 of 338 seats come from Ontario and Quebec. This dissatisfaction is felt even more keenly in Alberta. Due to “equalization of payments,” a process whereby each province provides funds for redistribution according to the strength of their economic endowments, Alberta contributes more to Canada than it receives. This has long been a point of considerable tension.

Albertan oil production has for years been treated as a form of wealth by the Canadian federal government, but they have consistently failed to find a reliable means of export. Neither British Columbia nor Quebec, Professor Woroby conveyed, are willing to allow a pipeline to be built through their province that would facilitate the transport of Albertan oil to foreign markets. Exacerbating matters, those provinces are often more than willing to consume Saudi oil. Further, Quebec’s hydroelectric power is not considered as contributing to the endowment of their province, further irritating the Albertans. Professor Woroby expressed concern to the SAIS Observer about what this means for Canada and the bilateral relationship with the US.

Professor Doran echoed Woroby’s concern that Canada is being torn apart by its desire to fight climate change and its desire to promote economic development. He also mentioned the conflict between the New Democrats and Quebec over the passage of Bill 21, which bans the use of religious symbols by public officials. However, Professor Doran was much more optimistic about these tensions, and while they were mentioned, they were not overly emphasized in our interview.

The elections have, of course, been a major point of interest for Canadian Studies students. The SAIS Observer interviewed SAIS students Taylor Jackson, Yiwen Han and Mariana Zepeda, about their judgments vis-à-vis the Canadian elections. None believed, even if the Conservatives won the election, that there would be major implications for the Canada-US relationship — and especially not for the bilateral trade relationship.

Speaking to the SAIS Observer, Jackson said, “We have seen that Trump is often more impulsive than ideological, and I think both the Liberals and Conservatives recognize that the top priorities in Canada-US relations will be to ensure that the USMCA (United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement) is ratified in the United States and to stave off any potential tariff increases from the President.” Zepeda agreed that the Liberal government would do what it could to ensure the passage of the USMCA.

Han does not believe there will be much change with a minority Liberal government, although it is clear that whoever is in charge will need to address a way to export Alberta’s oil and gas. Han was particularly critical of Trudeau’s dismissal of Minister of Justice and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybold. Jackson noted that he believed Trudeau to be a hypocrite who actively interfered in a criminal investigation. All told, it appears likely that uncertainty and doubt about Trudeau’s leadership will continue into the future.

While Canadian Studies professors at SAIS believe tension between economics and the environment has divided the country, SAIS students appear to think this can be overcome. Jackson expressed his view that the choice between economics and the environment is a false dichotomy. Han concurred, arguing that the tradeoff between economic growth and climate protection is not necessarily set in stone,  especially as an economy transitions away from the manufacturing sector. Areas of Canada are already reducing energy consumption and climate contamination without damaging their local economies.

There is a palpable sense of optimism about the Canada-US relationship. Professor Doran made certain to impress upon the SAIS Observer that the Canadian Studies department is one of the oldest, and in many ways one of the most important, majors offered at SAIS. Doran called for greater cooperation between the United States and Canada to achieve goals that are often in alignment.

Professor Woroby echoed this optimistic tone. “Despite divisions, division from the point of view of America, Canada is still a kinder and gentler country. Canadians are on board with universal health care. Room for improvement, but no challenging of the fundamental assumptions (of Canadian governance).” “Peace, Order and Good Government” is still the motto that Canada aspires to.

America’s economy is dematerializing

October 22, 2019

By Gerhard Ottehenning

WASHINGTON, D.C. — 30 years ago, a full page Radio Shack advertisement listed 15 items with a total value of $3,054.82 — or roughly $5,750 today. Of the 15, only two haven’t been replaced by smartphones (unfortunately there’s no app for Tiny Dual-Superhet Radar Detectors). Integrating all of these appliances into a single item not only saves consumers thousands of dollars, it also results in the use of less natural resources by the economy as a whole. Jesse Ausubel, Director of the Program for the Human Environment at The Rockefeller University, said that since the 1970s in the United States, “a decoupling is occurring so that our economy no longer advances in tandem with exploitation of land, forests, water and minerals.” 

From approximately 1900 to 1970 the U.S. economy grew at a rapid clip with total resource use increasing correspondingly. “We just had this kind of Cookie Monster Economy…and, it’s really understandable why people would start blowing the whistle really hard around 1970, and saying, ‘Gang, we cannot keep doing this,’” said Andrew McAfee, a Principal Research Scientist at the MIT Sloan School of Management. The clarion call of the environmental movement ultimately led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the passage of a number of laws protecting wildlife and limiting the emission of pollutants. 

Though the U.S. economy is roughly 21 times larger today as compared to the economy of 1970, the relative — and in many cases, the absolute — quantity of resources consumed has actually diminished. Between 1980 and 2018, the EPA reports that “total emissions of the six principal air pollutants dropped by 68%.” Agriculture constitutes the largest use of land in the U.S., with corn outstripping every other crop combined in terms of land use. Since the 1940s, American farmers have quintupled yields of corn while using the same or less land. Crucially, Ausubel says, “rising yields have not required more tons of fertilizer or other inputs. The inputs to agriculture have plateaued and then fallen — not just cropland but nitrogen, phosphates, potash, and even water.” 

With less land required to grow the same amount of food, much of the marginal agriculture land is returned to nature. This transition began in 1900 when states such as Connecticut went from being primarily wheat fields and pasture land, almost completely denuded of trees, to densely forested land. Measured by area, the total land reverting back to forest has been growing since 1990. This phenomenon is not unique to the U.S. A study by geographer Florian Schierhorn found that since the 1990s, an area the size of Poland has been abandoned and reforested within the area of the former Soviet Union. 

The reduction in resource intensity extends well beyond cropland. In the 1970s, there was a fear that the U.S.’s insatiable appetite would strip the planet bare. Instead, Ausubel says, “a surprising thing happened: even as our population kept growing, the intensity of use of the resources began to fall. For each new dollar in the economy, we used less copper and steel than we had used before…America has started to dematerialize.”

Despite this optimism, there exists a profound tension in connection with climate change and environmental costs incurred by unbridled economic growth. However, the connection between the two does not need to be zero-sum, says Andrew Blake, a second year Southeast Asia concentrator at SAIS. “Because climate change is a global phenomenon, the U.S. has [an] incentive to assist in the development of green technologies abroad. Technology transfers and investments in green technology in industrializing countries not only promotes economic growth, but allows for sustainable growth with long term dividends for the global economy.” 

While noting that “climate change is real. And it’s bad. And the range of bad is somewhere between bad and catastrophically bad,” Mcafee said, “My great frustration is that we have…something close to a silver bullet in our policy toolkit and our economics toolkit…and we’re not using either of them.”

Mcafee strongly supports the use of market mechanisms, such as a revenue-neutral carbon tax or cap-and-trade, to regulate carbon emissions. Together with a mix of regulatory and technological changes, a similar system saw sulphur dioxide emissions reduced by approximately 80% between 2005 and 2014. Ausubel cites the potential to turn an area the size of Iowa into a wildlife refuge  by eliminating corn cropland dedicated to ethanol production for use in cars. 

For Mcafee, the implications for the rest of the world are that “we have to help the rest of the world get rich. That will bring them past that hump of maximum exploitation of the planet.” Blake agrees, stating that “the onus is on high-income countries to help incentivize the developing world to adopt policies and instruments that can mitigate the carbon emission-filled growing pains of industrialization.”