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China’s Economic Recovery: A Mere Façade

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It would not be too far from the truth to say that China is not all that it says it is. Many of its military and diplomatic actions have gone against norms and messages propagated by its own government. Retracting its own statements and even concealing the truth comes naturally to a government that maintains a monopoly over all information in circulation within the country as well as that which leaves it. Recent statements from the Chinese government have painted a colorful picture for the coming months, with it soon to “regain the economic growth it lost” and maintain its internal strength. How much truth can actually be accorded to such a statement though? Is China’s economy truly in a good shape or is such a statement to be seen as a mere façade, shadowing a highly unstable country?

If recent trends emanating from the country were to be analyzed, one could indeed point to the latter. At the beginning of the year, China’s economic growth had already begun a steady decline, falling to its lowest in 27 years, a mere 6 percent in the 3rd quarter of 2019. Predictions during the time, from both within and outside, projected the growth rate to fall further, with an economist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences predicting a drop below the annualized 5 percent. Additionally, reports questioning the accuracy of the data released by China have also emerged. China’s national accounts are based on data collected by local governments who are rewarded for meeting growth and investment targets. In this regard, it has become apparent through outside observation as well as internal admittance that many of China’s provinces have had an incentive to skew local statistics, some by nearly 20% a few years ago.

Such manipulation of data can have serious ramifications on the calculation of national data, especially since China’s GDP is based on input data rather than real performance. It is also to be noted that in addition to local governments manipulating data, there is a discrepancy between underlying economic activity and GDP figures, which has allowed the government to ignore bad investments and project only the figures it approves off. Based on such an understanding of the Chinese economy, reports from 2019 show that both GDP as well as GDP growth in China are far below official predictions and statements. It must also be understood that the Chinese government itself has always had an incentive to project greater growth during its developing years. Claiming higher growth rates and lying about recessions has allowed China to retain or even increase investment. With that being said, it has become increasingly evident that the statistics and figures released by China cannot be wholly relied upon.

While the above highlights the concealing factor behind China’s economy, it also points to the possibility that China’s economy is currently in a bad state. With the shuttering of businesses across the country, it is evident that the Covid-19 crisis dealt a devastating blow to China’s already floundering economy. Reports published by China’s National Bureau of Statistics in April showed that the country’s GDP had fallen by 6.8 percent, a contraction the likes of which, China has not seen since at least 1992. However, with lockdown measures now ending and policymakers stepping up stimulus to combat the massive economic shock, the country is now set to return to a modest growth rate according to its government. This may be true as China has begun on a path of recovery, however, its economy may have to face another looming crisis soon.

Over the past few months, it has become increasingly evident that not only is foreign investment fleeing the country but there is increasing unrest among local investors as well. China’s economic downturn which began with the trade war and culminated in the COVID-19 economic crisis has frightened investors across China. Since the beginning of the trade war with the US, many international companies have begun shuttering business and departing from the country. The pandemic has seen that number only increase over the past few months with potentially disastrous economic outcomes. Additionally, fears within China have surfaced as well, with many attempting to send their capital abroad. The recent political turmoil now plaguing Hong Kong is also reviving fears over massive capital outflows from the country. China’s new national security bill and the retaliation promised by the US and others has stoked significant concerns. The first instance of this is seen in the immediate aftermath of China’s announcement of the Bill on May 22 when Hong Kong’s benchmark for local stocks plunged by 6.9%. Essentially, with tensions rising, further turmoil and capital flight may soon be in the cards.

Only time will tell whether the government will be able to reduce the possibly disastrous consequences of such capital flight or even reverse the same. In 2015, when similar fears of capital flight occurred, it spurred the country to spend nearly US$1 trillion of its reserves. However, with the current economic downturn in China, it would be highly unlikely that the Chinese government will be able to muster the funds needed in countering such consequences. The Chinese government has seemingly taken cognizance of this fact though and has therefore introduced measures aimed at ensuring Chinese investment and capital remains within China. Not only has China already put a cap on the amount of money allowed to leave the country but also cracked down severely on its underground banking system. Additionally, the government has been attempting to woo the fleeing investors back with promises of economic stability and recovery. China’s current projection of post-pandemic recovery and growth must therefore be viewed through a critical lens, and seen as merely a tool through which it attempts to influence and reassure investors.

On the government’s attempts at ensuring investment though, it has not merely acted in the field of rhetoric and promises though. Since the beginning of last year, the Chinese government has put a cap on the maximum amount allowed for withdrawal from its economy. According to new rules, individuals will only be allowed to withdraw a maximum of the equivalent of around $15,000 and carry transactions up to only $50,000 abroad in a year. Any Chinese citizen found to be withdrawing in excess of that amount will be barred from making any withdrawals for two consecutive years. Additionally, any Chinese citizen leaving China with an excess of RMB 20,000 in cash require a permit issued by the bank that provided the same. In enforcement, the State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE) has already begun its crack down on capital flight. In November of last year, the agency fined Chinabank Payments $4.2 million for moving money overseas. In the following month, SAFE fined the Bank of China $6,000 for breaking a government rule and allowing a customer to withdraw over $50,000 in cash according to reports. One can be sure that the situation in China is indeed serious, when its government has become overly concerned over a mere $15,000 being withdrawn from the economy.

This concern has also been extended to the new surge in China’s underground banking system. China, in its efforts to counter threats to its economy, has begun a serious crack down on all capital outflows, whether legal or illegal. The Supreme People’s Court recently introduced stiff penalties for any and all illegal currency exchanges. According to new rulings, the government will introduce jail terms of five years or more for those operating ‘underground banks’, which currently facilitate illegal foreign exchange and cross border trading. Through this process, the Chinese government has effectively sought to stop tens of thousands of Chinese from funneling millions out of the country through these services. Since the government has put a cap on the amount of money being withdrawn from the country, people have sought other mechanisms through which they can transfer funds overseas, either for the purpose of investing in property or making other significant foreign exchanges.

The requirement for such mechanisms has motivated the creation of an Informal Value Transfer System (IVTS) known as ‘Underground Banking’. The IVTS involves the transfer of funds to a bank account controlled by a Chinese IVTS provider who then transfers the same into an account of the remitter’s choice. This allows for the transfer of large amounts of funds out of the country without the knowledge of the Chinese government. The stiff penalties now being imposed on such transfers are once again indicative of the governments need to retain capital within its own economy. Any large capital outflow can result in a fall in exchange rates, negative spiral of declining confidence and finally, no buffer for government debt. For a country currently facing a debt to GDP ratio of nearly 300%, capital outflows could result in serious consequences for its economy, especially during a time when mechanisms like the IVTS has seemingly gone into overdrive.

The government is currently doing everything within its power to paint a picture of recovery, provide opportunities for investment and crack down on individuals attempting to evade its rules and directives. While the crackdown on capital outflows and underground banking is evident, there has also been significant actions taken on the digital currency front. Within China, there has been a surge in both the transaction as well as mining of Bitcoins over the past few years. Many experts have stated the need for three factors in ensuring effective cryptocurrency mining, i.e. low-cost electricity, colder weather and reliable internet. The availability of all these factors in China has facilitated massive incursions into the usage of cryptocurrencies, with reports showing between 35-37 variants of the same currently available in the country.

With the property market currently being viewed as inflated and the stock market as a scam, cryptocurrencies provide an alternative to Chinese citizens who wish to make investments that are not riddled with problems or subject to government scrutiny. Many middle- and upper-class Chinese have thus begun making investments and transactions through Bitcoins and other cryptocurrencies. With the government being unable to shutdown Bitcoin accounts or monitor transactions made through the same, this mechanism effectively allows individuals to subvert it. It is estimated that this medium alone has accounted for transactions ranging in billions of dollars over the past few years. With the Renminbi (RMB) essentially losing its transactional value, the number of people now adopting these mechanisms has seen a significant increase, putting the government on alert. However, the only action the government can undertake in this regard, is accelerate the launch of its own sovereign digital currency and hope its citizens will give up on Bitcoins and other cryptocurrencies (a highly unlikely prospect).

It is evident that the government in China may soon have an economic crisis on its hands, one which it may be unable to counter. Extremely high debt to GDP rates and possibly massive capital outflows has put the government in a precarious position. It has therefore sought to curb high debt and also put out reports that its digital currency would be a game changer for Asia, allowing for more RMB demand in the region. Undoubtedly these reports are another one of its propaganda activities, aimed at retaining investment. According to reports, China’s economy will face two major shocks, a pandemic stimulus and a post-pandemic economic fallout.

It must also be noted that China depends on the global economy for its own recovery and if this does not occur soon enough, its economy will have to face serious consequences. The reasons for this are manifold. Most importantly, China, the world’s largest exporter, relies on the United States, Japan, South Korea and others for its economic activity. Exports to the US, are currently facing a shortage of demand as well as disruptions across global supply chains. Additionally, China needs to ensure continued implementation of its Belt and Road Initiative in order to continue a majority of its overseas economic activity. Currently, from Europe to Asia, trade as well as infrastructural projects across the BRI, which accounts for around 17 percent of China’s exports, have been put on hold.

It has therefore become apparent that China’s economic growth is not all that it would seem. While it is the second largest economy in the world and has shown spectacular growth in the past, it would seem like China’s glory days are behind it. Forces that once drove China’s economic growth are now withering. China’s economy can no longer rely on a trade surplus or foreign investment to boost growth and will probably see increased capital outflows in the coming months. Additionally, China is now on the verge of a debt crisis and the massive foreign reserves it has repeatedly used as stimulus in the past have been slowly declining. In this context, it is imperative to question the narratives propagated by the Chinese government. If the Chinese economy is truly on the path of economic recovery, then why has there been an increase in the lack of confidence shared by its own civilians? And if such are the woes facing the country, is the future of its’s economy truly as promising as it’s government would have the world believe? One would think not.

Zeus Hans Mendez is a Research Associate and Centre Coordinator at the Centre for Security Studies (CSS), Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global Univeristy. He is also a Research Assistant at the Centre for Security and Strategy Studies (CeSCube).

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EEU: An Irrelevant Anachronism or a Growing Digital Enterprise Dynamo?

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A commonwealth of interests

The search for a stable Eurasia depended on the effectiveness of a durable system for the post Soviet space which could easily descend into an arc of instability if was not properly managed. Moscow had to be careful not to view these ex Soviet countries as its natural hinterland to be taken for granted and to upgrade its relations with each of them to preserve a communality of interests that had eluded it in Ukraine. The world of the command economy centred on Moscow would be made over on an entirely new basis that reflected the fast moving 21st century digital economy. Where common standards and freedom of movement of people and capital was meant to create a climate of openness and facilitate cross border business not to seal off Eurasia from the outside world. The fragile nature of post Soviet identities meant that a sense of commonwealth and common citizenship rooted in an overarching Eurasian identity would be more appealing to a growing entrepreneurial class disillusioned with the results of narrow ethno- nationalism as a ruling idea. The danger was that the more the Eurasian Union grew in stature it would have to navigate roadblocks deliberately placed there by powerful nationalist interests who perceived it as threat to their power base. And by stoking tensions with Russia periodically these former Soviet states could remind the outside world that they were not tame satellites of Moscow or artificial constructs but were free to decide their own destinies.

The path to some kind of durable Eurasian concept was obstructed by the reluctance of many Eurasian states to give up on the idea that eventually find a place in the west. The Eurasian union might be a useful stopgap while they waited to the privileged world of the west where they felt they ultimately belonged. Even though the chances were slim that it would ever happen. The Russian view of the Eurasian Union was that it would be a modernizing force which would have the express aim of bringing the region closer to the world and transforming it into a forward thinking technological giant. It would not be a repeat of the “Soviet experiment” which was a parallel universe closed to outsiders with information tightly controlled. And with the official version vastly at variance with the grim reality. Its core vision this time around was to effectively connect the region to the outside world and be at the forefront of new innovation. It would not depart from international standards and go off on its own tangent or conduct its affairs with guarded secrecy. But happily embrace new ideas and fresh thinking. Russia’s objectives were to circumvent parochial state leaderships and local bureaucracies and create a global brand that would capture the imagination of high net worth investors and provide a real alternative to pro western orthodoxy. With first class transport, logistics and a digital economy that would be the envy of the world, it would be first and foremost technocratic and meritocratic and not so much ideological in nature.

The Russian leadership concentrated on achieving maximum consensus in decision making and adopting policy positions where the weaker states would not be unfairly disadvantaged. While Russia would be providing the bulk of the digital infrastructure and at its own expense it would be considered common property of the Eurasian economic union in many ways. Russia’s contribution was based on a more generous model than its Chinese partner which took the form of loans that could result in forfeiture of assets if loan payments were not met in time.

Digital future

Thus Russian prime minister Mihail Mishustin recommended at a meeting of the inter Government commission implementing a “digital project” across the whole Eurasian union. This would provide a “specialist information system” in the sphere of “migrant labour” that would better serve the needs of business and the migrant communities. These measures would seek to gradually phase out and replace the patchwork, confusing system of regulations with a common framework. So for example in future the EEU would receive powers that would promote standardization. The Eurasian commission adopted a new technology based system of labelling products that “would apply in future in relation to new categories of labelled products.” The prime ministers of the EEU states approved a document that would “establish a time limit by which member states would be notified of the intention to introduce labelling on their territory.” And would give them a “period of nine months to outlaw unlabelled products.”  The new system should eventually be incorporated fully at the national level so that business could “escape unnecessary burdens” caused by “different systems of control.” and gradually filter out bureaucratic anomalies.

The priority was to create a level playing field so that the EEU was not perceived as just an exclusive club for Government connected state companies. But that it would also create conditions for small and medium enterprises to thrive and expand and ease substantially the costs of doing business. As well as reversing the favouritism traditionally shown to large companies by making the ability of SME’s to operate in an environment that was transparent and equitable more concrete. For example the prime ministers of the EEU states agreed to a “unified ecosystem of digital transport corridors”. The total cost of the scheme would be around 10 billion roubles. The cost divided between the union and the member states. It would provide a “service for the access of electronic route maps, international transport charging rates” as well as electronic protocols that would give updated information on interior ministry regulations etc. This unified system was especially useful to SME sector who were often reliant on “outside platforms” which were often “not connected to each other” and ” the absence of coordination added to their logistical costs.”

Open banking

Similarly the five member states of the EEU have agreed to form a common financial market by 2025. A key role in this is played by financial technology which will be deployed to make financial services “more accessible, cost favourable and safer”. Private and business customers can expect “financial services of higher quality and greater choice to be available”. And with such a hi tech financial monitoring tool at the authorities disposal “credit and financial institutions will have to reveal the origin of their capital”. An important element was the Application Programming interface which gave the programme the capacity to conduct biometric identification and to connect IT systems together so “they can exchange information between themselves.” Also a pilot project was launched which the AFT system together with 13 Russian banks were undertaking. “The aim of it is to improve automated online credit lending for small and medium businesses.” And create a level playing field. This was another example of how the Eurasian Union was preparing the ground for a greater role for the more dynamic and innovative SME sector in anticipation for a shift from a resource based economic model to a more diverse demand and consumption one.

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Capitalism and the Fabrication of Food Insecurity

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Human security can be depicted as the notion through which the widespread and cross-cutting challenges to the survival, livelihood and dignity of individuals can be identified and protected. In simpler words, folks are protected against threats and situations that deem to violate their vital human rights. Thus, with human security, the protection and empowerment of people is promoted. With that said, under the umbrella of human security, food security holds immense significance; as, it is responsible for sustaining human life and health. In addition to that, it also stipulates individuals on the required energy for progression, resulting in the evolution of state institutions and its functioning. Henceforth, food security has a direct co-relation with the development of a state.

Notwithstanding, the lack of access to sufficient quality of affordable food results in food insecurity, which can be depicted in several states and communities across the globe. However, contrary to popular belief,this food insecurity is not a subsequent of scarcity; in fact, the annual production of food surpasses the benchmark of sustaining one and a half times more food for the world’s entire population. In reality, the scarcity narrative was produced by corporate food regimes to serve their interests through capitalism. Since, it can result in the incorporation of price increase and generation of maximum profit, indicating how the agricultural sector is influenced by the interests of elite companies. In fact, the top eight firms in agriculture hold 80% of the sector’s market share, and these particular institutions dictate the conditions and rules for our food system, while effectively setting the price of grain for the world subsequent to their benefits. As a result, several regions of the world experience food insecurity, which essentially tarnishes their road to progression.

Through capitalism, food has transformed from a necessity into a commodity, solely for the purpose of profiting from its high demand. This denotes the horrors of capitalism; because, profits are given priority over human needs. Due to this lust for profit, corporate food regimes initiated the “Green Revolution” in the 1950s and 1960s. On the surface level, the movement consisted of the development of new disease-resistant strains of food crops, primarily wheat and rice. The incentive was to increase crop yield in the developing world, through countries such as India and Mexico. Nevertheless, beneath the surface, this movement led to an increase in food insecurity and served the interests of the elite. The green revolution led to the introduction of subsistence farming systems, in the form of new technology. However, in order to adapt to this system, farmers required cash to buy seeds, fertilizers and equipment, along with the continuous supply of cash to maintain them. Meaning, the farmers could not rely on eating their own produce and selling the surplus. Instead, crops had to be traded with agricultural corporations, in order to continue to earn a living through farming. Thus, the green revolution did not lead to improving small-scale farmer productivity. In fact, it monopolized the agricultural sector and consolidated the profit in the hands of specific transnational corporations. The companies in turn influenced the agricultural market to their benefit, leading to food insecurity.

Furthermore, food insecurity is a result of the systematic failure of capitalism. One of the ways to attain maximum wealth for agricultural corporations and their shareholders, is through over production. Hence, these companies set a fix price for the farmers cost. In this manner, farmers cannot produce less crops despite declines in agricultural markets. As a result, crops are over produced and their market price declines. In order to cover the fixed costs, the farmers have to carry out more production, which puts them in perpetual debt. In addition, with over production, goods pile up unsold, workers are laid off, demand drops and prices of products increases, resulting in lack of access for poor people.

A country fighting against the influence of the corporate food regime is India; as, Indian farmers in Punjab and Haryana have carried out mass protests recently. Reason being that the Indian Parliament has passed three agriculture acts—Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance, Farm Services Act, 2020, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020. Since Modi’s regime favors the interests of the elites and the corporate regimes, these laws have made farmers of India vulnerable to exploitation and the prevalence of food insecurity. Firstly, the laws aim to remove the agricultural produce market committee (APMC), which is the area that regulates the notified agricultural produce and livestock. Through the APMC, traders were provided with licenses and a minimum support price for crops was set. As a result, corporations could not dominate the agricultural sector; however, the new laws challenge that very concept. Even though the Indian government has argued the changes will give farmers additional freedom, the farmers claim that the new legislation shall eliminate the safeguards set to shield them against corporate takeovers and exploitation. Therefore, the monopolization of corporate regimes in the Indian food system shall further devastate the livelihoods of vulnerable communities, and the food insecurity will prevail.

As a solution to food insecurity arising from capitalism, a reappearance in the pre-capitalistic reality should occur, where food is not bought and sold to the highest bidder. Instead, food is sold outside exclusive markets as a basic right of all citizens of a state. This system can be regarded as the system of communal responsibility. The success of which can be traced back to the era of empires, where individuals did not experience food insecurity despite the rise and fall of empires. Proving how, co-operative production and fair distribution of food is possible. Hence, in conclusion, food insecurity is a fabrication of capitalism and the interests of corporations; where, wealth is saturated in the elite class. Accordingly, the solution is to return to the pre-capitalist reality and focus on communal responsibility. 

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China’s Emerging Diamond Industry

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Since the 1980s, China’s economy has been on the rise. With a prosperous manufacturing industry, China has a growing middle class and an ever-increasing demand for luxury goods. Compared to Russia, China does not have large diamond reserves. However, the country makes up for its lack of resources by gaining access to diamond reserves in Africa and producing affordable synthetic diamonds.

The Underdevelopment of China’s Diamond Industry

China’s diamond industry is underdeveloped due to lack of resources in diamond mines domestically and overseas. According to a report by Frost & Sullivan in 2014, China is still developing its overseas diamond market, and only a few companies have access to diamond mines.

According to the F&S, Chow Tai Fook, a Hong Kong-based jewelry chain is the only Chinese company that has obtained the DTC (The Diamond Trading Company) qualification of distributors. As a subsidiary company of De Beers, the DTC sorts, values and sells about 35% of the world’s rough diamonds. As a renowned company in the industry, Chow Tai Fook has its diamond polishing factories to source rough diamonds from mining companies directly. It also has supply agreements with Rio Tinto, Alrosa and De Beers. Chow Tai Fook has four diamond cutting and polishing factories—two in South Africa, one in Botswana, and another in China. However, for other renowned Chinese companies on diamond processing, such as Henan Yalong, or CR Gems, they cannot purchase rough diamonds directly from the market, so they mainly produce synthetic diamonds. Even if they are to process rough diamonds, they can only purchase raw materials from secondary markets, where the price of rough diamonds is high, leading to even higher production costs.

By contrast, India, the world’s largest diamond processor, has more than 60 companies with the DTC qualification of distributors. India also has access to a number of essential diamond mines. For a long time, India has relied on suppliers from Russia and Africa and diamond trading centres such as Antwerp, Tel Aviv and Dubai for rough diamonds. Most of the diamonds produced in the world are shipped to India for cutting and grinding and then go into the global retail market. In this way, India dominates the diamond processing industry.

China’s diamond processing industry and African mines

By securing deals with companies and governments that control diamond mines in Africa, China is breaking India’s monopoly on diamond processing through the Belt and Road Initiative. This had caused China’s diamond exports to increase by 72% by 2014, generating revenue of US$8.9 billion. Countries and regions that signed the Belt and Road Initiative in central and southern Africa, such as South Africa, Gambia, Zaire, Botswana, Zimbabwe and their surrounding areas are the most famous rough diamond sources and producing sites of the world. In recent years, Chinese company Anjin Investments, a joint venture between Anhui Foreign Economic Construction Co. Ltd., and Matt Bronze Enterprises of the Zimbabwe Defense Ministry and the Zimbabwe Defense Forces, has been negotiating with the Zimbabwe government on mining resources. President Emmerson Mnangagwa of Zimbabwe has recently allocated fresh diamond mining claims to Anjin Investments in Chiadzwa in Manicaland province, four years after the company was evicted from the mineral-rich area alongside other miners on allegations of under-declaring proceed in 2016. Meanwhile, Russian company Alrosa also signed a number of agreements with Zimbabwe Consolidated Diamond Company (ZCDC) to establish a joint venture for Zimbabwe’s primary diamond deposits. It will be interesting to see whether China and Russia will cooperate in Zimbabwe for diamond mining in the future.

To summarize, combining Chinese craftsmanship and rough diamonds of high quality is bound to be a massive opportunity for the global market in the future. Besides, it is also crucial for China to strengthen workers’ vocational skills to improve the diamond processing industry’s overall efficiency and production level. As China begins to further invest in the BRI project, Chinese companies may find more opportunities in Africa in the future.

China’s synthetic diamond industry

According to the F&S report, the global market for rough diamonds will lead to a shortage of 248 million carats by 2050. Customers from China and India have significantly contributed to this number. By advancing its technology in producing synthetic diamonds, China finds another way to develop its diamond industry.

In recent years, China’s synthetic diamond industry has been expanding along with the increasing global demand for China’s synthetic diamonds. According to a report by Leadleo on China’s synthetic diamond industry, there were 8,278 diamond equipment, materials, micro-powder, composite sheet, diamond tools and diamond products companies in China’s diamond industry as of the end of 2018. The top five leading enterprises in the industry occupy about 80% of the market share and have high market concentration. In terms of the industry’s geographical distribution, large leading synthetic diamond enterprises are mainly located in the Henan Province due to the local government’s policy preferences. By contrast, small diamond manufacturing enterprises concentrate in the Anhui Province. On a technical level, the low-end sectors of China’s synthetic diamond industry have developed their international market competency by improving their products’ quality to reach international standards. By contrast, Chinese enterprises that manufacture high-end diamonds with special functions still have a long way to go. There is a significant gap between them and leading global manufacturers such as the UK’s Element Six, one of the world’s best manufacturers for high-end synthetic diamonds. Therefore, many artificial diamond companies in China are currently working on enhancing their technology, striving for breakthroughs to meet global customers’ various demands, and obtaining more significant profit margins.

To conclude, China’s diamond industry is emerging. With the development of the synthetic diamond industry and more access to African mines, China is hoping to make more breakthroughs in the diamond industry in the near future.

From our partner RIAC

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