The World Today for April 18, 2017


Squaring the Circle

During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s meeting with US President Donald Trump in Florida earlier this month, the leaders of the world’s two largest economies made strides toward avoiding a full-scale trade war.

Now North Korea might help erase whatever misgivings remained between the two leaders.

On the campaign trail, Trump accused China of amassing a $347 billion annual trade surplus with the US through unfair business practices and currency fixing. He threatened tariffs in response.

But Trump told the Wall Street Journal last week that he would be willing to settle for deficits if Beijing would help tone down the Hermit Kingdom’s nuclear ambitions.

Critics said the White House shouldn’t leverage trade for unrelated foreign policy goals, CNN reported on Monday, citing officials from past Democratic and Republican administrations.

But North Korea’s failed missile test on Easter Sunday upped the ante in that debate.

The New York Times, quoting a political scientist, referred to North Korea’s nuclear program as “a Cuban missile crisis in slow motion.” That 13-day standoff over ballistic missiles in Cuba, Italy and Turkey in 1962 was the closest the US and the Soviet Union came to nuclear war.

Recent US-South Korean military exercises led North Korea’s ambassador to the UN to say Washington was creating “a dangerous situation in which a thermonuclear war may break out at any moment,” the Guardian reported Monday.

Now China has stopped coal shipments to North Korea and issued strident statements against the isolated country’s saber-rattling. North Korea cancelled a meeting with Chinese diplomats in response.

The situation puts Beijing in a tough position between Washington and Pyongyang, its traditional ally.

China doesn’t want conflict on the Korean peninsula or a trade war with the US, after all. Its leaders are juggling plenty of other challenges.

After 40 years of embracing open markets, China’s rapid economic rise has hit a plateau. Its economy grew only 6.7 percent last year – a great rate for the US but the slowest growth for China in 26 years.

A nagging smog crisis is poisoning its people. Rising sea levels, a result of global climate change, threaten its megacities, the New York Times reported.

Tensions in the South China Sea have also seen an uptick in recent weeks.

In other words, despite all the hype surrounding its stellar economic rise, China still faces many barriers to reaching superpower status, opined the South China Morning Post.

But North Korea has given China a chance to square the circle. If Beijing could pacify North Korea, it might also avoid a costly trade war with the US.

That’s how a superpower negotiates.


An Emerging Leader

Thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails have begun a hunger strike to demand better conditions.

Marwan Barghouti, whom many see emerging as a future Palestinian leader, was behind the unusually large protest, the New York Times reported. The newspaper cited unconfirmed local reports as saying that Barghouti had been moved to solitary confinement at a different prison from the one where he is normally held as punishment for organizing the strike and smuggling out an essay that was published Sunday.

The essay accused Israel of creating a system of “judicial apartheid,” where Israelis can commit crimes against Palestinians with impunity but the Palestinian resistance is criminalized.

Protests erupted on Monday in support of the prisoners in West Bank and in Gaza. But it’s anyone’s guess whether the prisoners will be granted any of their demands – which include more family visits, an end to solitary confinement, better health care and greater access to education.

Against a Sea of Troubles

As his opponents prep for what they say will be the largest rally yet to press for new elections, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said Monday he aims to increase the size of his armed left-wing civilian militia five-fold.

It is time for Venezuelans to decide if they are “with the homeland” or against it, the Associated Press quoted Maduro as saying, in what could be read as a thinly veiled threat of violence. “Now is not the time to hesitate.”

The beleaguered president unveiled plans to boost the Bolivarian militias created by the late Hugo Chavez to 500,000, up from the current 100,000, and provide each member with a gun, the agency said.

It’s not clear how long that would take – probably too long for the mob to be deployed against opposition protests planned for this Wednesday. But the speech itself could energize pro-government vigilante groups that opposition leaders already say have been allowed to attack demonstrators with impunity.

They also blame Maduro for the country’s triple-digit inflation, rising crime and its devastating food shortages, even as he seeks to solidify his position by undermining the separation of powers between the branches of government.

The Family Jewels

India unveiled plans to sell stakes worth more than $5 billion in seven state-run companies to finance spending on rural development programs and infrastructure projects.

The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi aims to raise 725 billion rupees ($11.26 billion) through sales of its holdings in private and government-run firms over the year, Reuters reported.

The sales are important if the government is to meet its deficit target of 3.2 percent of gross domestic product for the year ending in March 2018. There’s also a signal of intent in the proposed deal, as disinvestment of state-owned enterprises has long been championed as vital to India’s economic reforms, even though the stakes in question only range from 3 percent to 15 percent.

In October last year, the Press Trust of India reported that the government was considering selling its majority holdings in as many as a dozen such “public sector undertakings” – including profitable ones.


Of Ribs, Skulls and Jazz

New music was notoriously difficult to come by in the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The domestic music industry wasn’t setting the world on fire. Western rock-and-roll was the music of the enemy. Russian recording artists abroad were considered traitors.

But a duo of die-hard music lovers devised a clever way to copy records that had been smuggled into the USSR, often by sailors, despite the bloc’s lack of vinyl.

Ruslan Bugaslovski and Boris Taigin, living in the city then called Leningrad, found that discarded x-rays were made of plastic soft enough for cutting by a recording machine they built out of scavenged tool parts and old gramophones.

“You have these pictures of the insides of Soviet citizens, impressed with the music they secretly loved,” Stephen Coates, a British musician who founded the X-Ray Audio Project to document the pair’s efforts, told National Geographic.

Their bootleg “bone records” would emit Russian tango, say, against the backdrop of an image of broken ribs, while another featuring an x-ray of a human skull played American jazz.

But they also paid a price for their subversive actions. Bugaslovski was imprisoned three times.

“That’s how much music can matter,” said Coates.

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