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Crisis in Hong Kong: Can China Sustain?

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By attempting to put on a brave front, China cannot mask the problems that it is currently mired with. Over the past year, the country has faced protests from various regions that it claims as its own territories. After the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, China has also been experiencing a certain degree of indignation from the international community. In addition to that, nations like the United States and India have either had an economic fallout with the country or are steadily withdrawing their financial investments from China. Also considering that every move that China makes is being viewed with suspicion if not critically evaluated, sheds light on how the nation is struggling to keep its allies close.

However, in the midst of so many issues, one major concern for China should be its economy. And given the ways in which it is attempting to shelter its financial status from the world, just raises some questions about the wellbeing of the economic giant. China’s recent crackdowns on Hong Kong in the name of national security law, might have backfired. Even though the international financial hub, experienced a certain degree of autonomy, under the newly introduced law, its status will be no different from its mainland counterparts. This shift in the power balance might have some damaging implications on the Chinese economy.

Hong Kong’s previously enjoyed autonomy was what made it an able economic arm of China. Due to its low tax rates and favorable legal and financial systems, it was able to attract sufficient investments from various institutions. As per the Ministry of Commerce of China, over 58%  (USD 70 billion) of China’s nonfinancial Outbound Direct Investment (ODI) went to Hong Kong as of 2018. By the end of the same year, this volume plummeted and reached USD 622 billion. Over 60% of the Chinese Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) is channeled via Hong Kong. Not to mention, the USD 1.1 trillion worth of Chinese bank assets that the territory holds. As of 2019, Chinese companies raised $64 billion globally, out of which $35 billion came from Hong Kong alone. Apart from that, the territory also plays an important role in bolstering the Chinese currency. Even though Hong Kong has its own currency, the Hong Kong dollar, it is also the biggest market for foreign exchange including the Chinese Yuan or the Renminbi. This serves as one of the primary reasons why investors are attracted to Hong Kong. From 2016 to 2019, alone, the rate of such foreign exchange transactions has increased by 3.9%, which is $77.1 billion in April2016, to $107.6 billion by April of 2019. However, in light of the pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong, these numbers have significantly decreased, as investors no longer feel safe to carry out their transactions there.

The national security law imposed on Hong Kong, mainly criminalizes four types of offences- sedition, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. Even though these laws pertain to aspects of security, they do have some impacts on the Chinese economy as well. The new national security law is not just limited to Hong Kongers, but also extends to every cooperation that has investments or business in the region. The requirement would need them to be wary of not toeing the line. This has naturally dissuaded investors, especially foreign investors who do not wish to be caught up in the political and legal crossfires. Considering that Chinese political advisor, Leung Chun-ying, has publicly called for the boycott of HSBC, on social media platforms and China has been pressurizing accounting firms like PwC, Deloitte, KPMG, and Ernst & Young to investigate and fire employees who were associated with Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests. According to a survey carried out by the Hong Kong’s American Chamber of Commerce, over 60% of its members believed that the national security law would harm their business and 29% of them considered relocating. This clearly shows the fear among enterprises and investors operating in Hong Kong.

Taking into account that China’s new law diverges from its earlier policy of “one country, two systems”, there is a high probability that the tax rates in Hong Kong might mirror those of the mainland. In such a case, Hong Kong which was previously known as the tax haven, would experience a serious downfall in its number of investors.

The repercussions due to the national security law were soon felt after it was imposed. On May 22nd of this year, Hong Kong’s stock market plunged by 5%. This was considered to be one of the biggest falls since 2015. The property sector sub-index too fell by 7.7%, worse than the 2008 crisis. Companies like Sun Hung Kai Properties lost 7.1 percent and New World Development dropped 8.1 percent, while Wharf Real Estate Investment shed 8.7 percent. Hong Kong has also experienced a contraction of 8.9% , as a result of the combined effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, protests and U.S tensions. In response to the stock market plunge in May, the Hong Kong market saw an inflow of money from the mainland, as many Chinese state owned firms bought up the Hong Kong stocks. But this does not change the fact that ever since last year, the city has been experiencing major dips in its finances. One of the best indicators of its economic distress, is the fall in the Hong Kong’s FDI. FDI for 2019, was $53.17 billion which is a decline by 45.2% since 2018. Additionally, Hong Kong’s GDP in the second half of 2019, also fell by 1.2%. As per UNCTAD’s officials, the city was met with disinvestments worth  $48 billion. 

But China is not unaware of Hong Kong’s troubling finances, and is desperately  yet subtly trying to grapple with the issue. To understand how China is dealing with a possible economic and legal recoil, one needs to take a look at its recent policies and actions. Soon after the declaration of the national security law, China launched the “Wealth Management Connect” on June 29, 2020, as a response to the flailing economy of Hong Kong. This was done with the intention of creating a better integration among all of China’s territories together and also to turn the Greater Bay Area including Hong Kong, Macau and nine cities in Southern Guangdong province into a financial hub by 2030. According to this initiative, residents in the area will be allowed to buy wealth management products that are available in each other’s markets. This will allow for better investments with the regions, under the PRC’s supervision. However, the success rate of this initiative is highly debatable as a global recession might be in order due to the pandemic.

The Wealth Management Concept was just one aspect of the deal, Beijing now seeks to tax its diaspora to make up for its tax revenues. The income tax regulations were amended in January 2019, however, expatriates are feeling the burden of its enforcement  since the past two months. The ones that are severely affected due to this change are the Chinese mainlanders who reside in Hong Kong. Many SOE’s are informing their employees to declare their 2019 income, so that they can start paying taxes that contribute to their homeland. The tax rate that was previously 15% has been significantly increased to 45%. While the Chinese diaspora cope with this higher tax rate and the living expenses of Hong Kong, many analysts speculate that the city might experience a brain drain. As of 2019, around 29,200 people have been reported to leave the territory. Even though Hong Kong does not publish high frequency immigration reports, there has been a 50% increase in the applications for good citizenship cards, which are averaged to be around 2,935 as of June, 2019. The increasing taxes clubbed with the fear of protests, might lead to a wave of emigration from the region, thereby reducing the lucrativeness of Hong Kong and negatively affecting China’s economy.

Despite the actions and regulations that China seems to have posed in the past year over its so- called territories, its actions in the international domain do not seem to fit in their own narratives. Trump and Xi Jinping have been engaged in a trade war for the most part of their presidencies. However, in light of the pandemic and the upcoming US presidential elections, this war seems to have been heated more than ever. As of February 2020, the US debt was estimated to be around $22 trillion. Out of which China owned $1.1 trillion, this amounted up to 21% of the US debt held overseas and 7.2% of the US’s total debt load. These figures, however, have changed in the past three months alone, as China has increased its holdings of US treasury securities by USD 10.9 billion. This sudden spike in buying US debt amidst a trade war, appears to be suspicious to say the least. Buying of treasury bonds is a common practice in the global market among nations, as it enables a country to anchor their currency at a certain amount. China’s sudden purchase of treasury bonds, could possibly mean that it is attempting to peg its currency to that of the US dollars. Another possible outcome could be that China might sell off these bonds at a higher rate in the future, so as to significantly damage the US economy. However, as per some Chinese sources, this shall be a “nuclear move”  on the part of the Chinese. As per another Chinese source, China Power, the nation bought these treasury bonds in order to manage the exchange rate of the ChineseYuan, and such a trade does not give the nation an edge over the US. Despite whatever narrative that China wishes to bring to the table, it cannot be denied that its sudden interest in purchasing its rival’s treasury bonds and taxing its own diaspora might be an indication of a bigger issue.

As of today, China is running out of economic allies. The US- China trade war had significant repercussions for the global market as is. But its recent conflict with India might affect China to a certain degree as well. In light of the recent border dispute between India and China, the notion of boycotting Chinese products in India has been increasingly popularized. India shares a trade deficit of $57 billion as of last year. If India, one of the largest consumers of the Chinese market were to boycott its products, this could have serious ramifications for the Chinese economy.

It is no secret that China has been met with criticisms on various fronts by the international community. But considering the recent events and the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, China could be attempting to cover up a major economic breakdown within its system. Earlier this year, a Chinese company was accused of depositing a “ghost collateral”. A private owned Chinese company, Wuhan Kingold Jewelry Inc., which owed many Chinese financial institutions and trust companies a loan of 20 billion Yuan ($2.8 billion) in the form of pure gold as a collateral, turned out to be fake. This company’s Chairman is Jia Zhihong, an ex- military man who defaulted on paying his investors. When 83 tonnes of Chinese gold turns out to be gilded copper, it does not paint a very good picture for the Chinese economy. Many could pass this incident off as the default of Kingold, but there is more than what meets the eye. China’s hasty enforcement of policies over its own territories and its apparently stable economy after suffering a major pandemic; whilst battling over issues of commerce with multiple nations, simply does not add up. In all probability, China could be heading towards an economic downfall and is still choosing to keep a tightlipped approach about it.

Research Analyst at Centre for Security Studies at O.P Jindal Global University, India.

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East Asia

The Mystery of China’s Internment Camps: Genocide of Uighurs

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Human rights abuse is not an alien concept to the world, especially over the ghastly events posted through the two decades into this century. Whether it’s the mutiny in Syria leading to the rise of ISIS; dismembering the regional population, or the massacre of the Rohingya community at the hands of the draconian military of Myanmar; trudging the Muslim minority under the most inhuman conditions known to mankind in the name of ethnic cleansing. Even the lockdown of innocent Kashmiris, under over-the-top scrutiny and extremist mindset of the BJP-championed government of India, has been the highlight in the discussions heated in the Human Rights Councils around the globe. However, none of the human rights violations have been so systematically concealed that the very existence of a genocide is rendered a rumour for years and continues to challenge the authenticity of the news coverage obtained in today’s modernised world. The genocide of the Uighur Muslim Community in China is an accurate example of such a pogrom; the community being deliberated to renounce their faith and being subject to servile conditions, incarcerated in controversial camps under the prevailing communism in China.

Xinjiang is the extreme western region of China and enjoys the entitlement of being the largest autonomous region of the mainland yet still being a notch lesser in degree from Beijing. However, the self-governance status is as superficial and contrasting to the status of Taiwan; little to no discretion awarded to the region yet still hailed as autarchic. The Uighur community decent from the Turkic ethnicity and make up about 50% of the total population of Xinjiang, a tally totalling to about 11 million people. China was accused in the preceding years of intense surveillance of the Uighur Muslims eventually escalating to the point of being taken captive in internment camps; being forced to learn mandarin, pushed to relinquish their religion and even forcing Uighur women to marry non-Uighur men in a systematic attempt to erase the community from the region in a gruesome exercise that could only be described as an ‘extermination’ as per the definitions of The United Nations.

China’s position over the state-run genocide has stayed intricate over the years, since the initial reports of the internment camps breezed to light through international media and local activists. The Chinese officials claim that the world outside doesn’t realise the true essence of the situation in Xinjiang. The Chinese authorities have labelled the genocide as ‘Defence’ and ‘Retaliation’ against the specific groups of Uighur militants operating to bombard China with rampaging violence pivoted on the grounds of ethnic separation in the region; a movement sighted by China Communist Party as an effort to gain independence from China stemming from the brief campaign launched back in the 20th century before the communal population submitted to Communist China in 1949. China has repeatedly denied the accusations of ‘Ethnic cleansing’ and has continued to push the narrative of conducting ‘Vocational Camps’ for willing participants to fight against the militants instead of running internment torture camps to decimate the entire community.

While the world has remained dormant over the excessive brutality within the borders of the People’s Republic, the apparent heat of the genocide is pervading over China under the communist ideology posed by President Xi Jinping. His extremist comments have incited a crunch against not only the Uighur community but the Muslims residing all over China, being forced against fasting in Ramadan and even being mocked in daily prayers and for wearing veils. The recent movement in Xinjiang is projected as a programmed skit to promote the Han Chinese community in the industrial flourish of the region, thereby settling the non-natives and skimming the Uighur population gradually. The United Kingdom has continually threatened sanctions over China and even the rising Biden administration in US has addressed the genocidal tendencies within Xinjiang on the account of utter violence and discrimination. However, no substantial efforts have been taken to even probe into the situation let alone resolve it. As ethnic and religious violence continue to rage under the arching communist regime of China, a little more than critical comments and envisioning threatening policies is required from the global community to relieve Uighur’s from their misery.

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Nanjing tragedy – massacre or “incident”?

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On December 15, China was marking the 80th anniversary of the Nanjing massacre by Japanese troops.

In Japan, they avoid using the term “massacre,” however, so when covering the tragic event the local media referred to it as the “Nanjing incident.”

In December 1937, at the height of the second Sino-Japanese war, Japanese forces entered the city of Nanjing, then the capital of Nationalist China, which had been used by the Kuomintang government as its headquarters since 1927. The Chiang Kai-shek government had earlier decided to move the bulk of its forces out of the city, leaving behind just a small garrison. All that time, the citizens were kept in the dark about those plans. Moreover, they were prevented from escaping, even though there still was plenty of time to evacuate the civilian population. As to the Japanese, in Nanjing they didn’t encounter the serious resistance they had faced in the battle for Shanghai.  And still, in addition to mass-scale looting and torching of houses, they staged a real bloodbath killing thousands of unarmed city residents and POWs. Judging by numerous accounts of that massacre, including by a handful of Europeans who remained in the city and were spared by the Japanese, who agreed to place them in a special “safety zone,” it seems that the city was being overrun not by soldiers but a giant crowd of characters from American movies about sadistic serial killers. The elaborate torture and murder of pregnant Chinese women was especially shocking.

The reasons for such behavior by the Japanese military still defy a clear explanation. One thing is clear, though: Japanese militarism as a phenomenon is characterized by the complete loss by politicians of control over the military and of officials closely associated with it. That being said, senior officers, unlike the “field generals,” were often unable to prevent the atrocities committed by the lower ranks that quickly became widespread. Unlike in the Navy, the system of personnel training in the Imperial Army allowed uneducated conscripts from peasant families to rise to the rank of officers. A chance to feel oneself as part of the “military caste” and traditions of the samurai, which their ancestors could not even dream of, might be a reason why many of those new officers began to “revel” in their own power. At the same time, medieval customs, like testing the sword’s sharpness on unarmed people, and ritual cannibalism were coming back. Japanese newspapers of that period wrote about two officers in Nanjing who competed who of them would chop off more heads, thus executing hundreds of people.

It was not until the close of World War II that the events in Nanjing attracted international attention, as even the Kuomintang propaganda had been keeping mum about it. The Japanese militarists committed countless other crimes, but for them the Nanjing massacre carried a special meaning, not because of the number of victims, but because of the reputational risks it posed for the imperial family, since one of their members (Prince Yasuhiko of the Asaka clan) was the one who personally supervised the capture of Nanjing. After the war he was not put on trial and enjoyed immunity granted to members of the imperial family, with the full consent by the US occupation authorities.

In 1948, the case of the Nanjing massacre was considered by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, which handed down two death sentences. The tribunal determined that more than 200,000 people were killed in Nanjing. A year before that a series of “smaller courts” held in China, including in Nanjing, put the death toll at 300,000.

In post-war Japan, the “Nanjing Incident” remains a much-disputed issue giving rise to all sorts of conspiracy theories concerning not only the historical past, but also present-day relations between Japan and China.

These include attempts by the so-called “revisionists” to question both the methods of counting the victims (with just 40,000 mentioned as the lower limit) and the very fact of the Nanjing killings.

Meanwhile, a movement that emerged in Japan during the Cold War period, led by representatives of the country’s academic community, people of the arts and members of the teachers union, challenged the way historical facts, including the Nanjing massacre, were presented in school textbooks.  However, their activities started to die out during the 1990s, when the  nationalists, opposed to the “masochistic view” of history, began to play a bigger role in Japanese politics.

The famous Japanese writer Haruki Murakami took a lot of angry flak from the extreme right-wingers when in one of his books, published in 2017, he had one of the characters reflecting on the question about “the difference between 100,000 and 400,000” of people killed.

Getting back to the present, there is one question that is begging for an answer. Tokyo’s policy towards China was one of the biggest achievements of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who stepped down in September 2020. Amid a  deep crisis that Japanese-Chinese relations found themselves in in 2012, due to the inability of the Democratic Party, which was in power before him, to stand up to the nationalists’ populist actions, during his eight-year premiership Shinzo Abe managed if not to make them friendly, then at least to restore “normality.” Moreover, in solving this difficult task, he neither made any concessions on key issues for Tokyo, nor irritated Washington, which had its own plans for Beijing. At the same time, Shinzo Abe continues to be viewed in East Asia and also in the West as a “hawk,” whose statements and even some symbolic gestures clearly smack of revisionism. On one occasion, for example, he was photographed at the controls of a Japanese-designed fighter with “731” painted on its fuselage, evoking clear associations with the Japanese Unit 731, which was testing bacteriological weapons on humans in Manchuria. In 2013, Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine, drawing negative reaction not only from Japan’s regional neighbors, but also from Washington. How come a politician with such views was able to “make friends” with China?

There is a circumstance here that has not been lost on the Japanese media.  Since 2018, [Chinese President] Xi Jinping has not attended events marking the anniversaries of the Nanjing tragedy, although it was he who in 2014 proposed to mark the Day of Remembrance for the Victims of the Nanjing Massacre. This time round he did not show up either for the December 15 event (due to the pandemic, as was officially explained). On December 13, Japan’s state broadcaster NHK reported that amid a further deepening of its confrontation with the United States, China intends to demonstrate its interest in strengthening ties, primarily economic ones, with Japan. Therefore, the mourning ceremony was organized so as not to harm the current status of Sino-Japanese relations.

However, the gradual “unfreezing” of relations between the two countries began long before Donald Trump declared a sanctions war on China. It was Shinzo Abe who, speaking in parliament back in 2014, invited Beijing to resume the dialogue between the two countries’ leaders. In that same year, a group of prominent Japanese politicians, among them the former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, paid a visit to China. When Fukuda’s father, Takeo, was prime minister during the late 1970s, Japan signed the Treaty of Peace and Friendship with China, and his surname has since been a symbol of a “reset” in bilateral relations. This time the elderly politician was once again used as a “fire engine.” In the same year, Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping met on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Beijing, and their meeting in Hangzhou, China, during the September 2016 G20 summit is now seen as the beginning of the active phase of mending fences between the two nations.

During the Trump presidency, this process only accelerated, much to the benefit of both Beijing and Tokyo, each of which had serious problems in relations with Washington. Notably, as the Sino-Japanese Treaty of Peace and Friendship was signed in 1978, each year ending with “8” could bring new headways in bilateral ties. This tradition is especially important for China, where ceremony plays such a big role in politics. During Shinzo Abe’s first visit to Beijing in October 2018, the sides agreed to launch over 50 infrastructure cooperation projects, which experts were quick to hail as the dawn of a new era in Japanese-Chinese relations. In fact, many of these joint projects later turned out to be just for show, and were subsequently shelved. Still, when Shinzo Abe met his Chinese counterpart at the 2019 G20 summit in Osaka, they agreed that Xi Jinping would pay an official visit to Japan in the spring of 2020, but the visit was postponed due to the pandemic. The epidemic could also have been the reason why Xi Jinping refrained from attending this year’s memorial event in Nanjing.

As for Shinzo Abe’s revisionist views, they are probably seen in Beijing as mainly intended for domestic consumption, in contrast to the pro-American nationalism of another charismatic Japanese politician, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Unlike Koizumi, Shinzo Abe was more of a “nationalist-pragmatist,” focused on solving problems pertaining to the national interests of Japan.

During his first news conference after taking office, Japan’s new Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga, said that he would like to build stable relations with neighboring countries, including China and Russia.  Still, chances are high that the subject of the Nanjing massacre may return to the bilateral agenda since the age-old traditions of historical memory will not let the onetime foes forget this tragic event.

From our partner International Affairs

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South Korea’s Potential for Global Influence is Weakened by its Mistreatment of Women

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In recent years, the Republic of Korea has become a pop culture juggernaut.

Eight years after “Gangnam Style” went global, K-Pop still reigns supreme with boy band BTS topping charts and issuing IPOs. Bong Joon-ho’s film “Parasite” swept last year’s Oscars, kimchi now has UNESCO cultural heritage status, while Samsung smartphones are used all over the world, second only to the mighty Apple.

The global appeal of the Korean Wave, known as “Hallyu,” recently attracted the attention of a report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which argued that this rising soft power could in turn boost South Korea’s global influence and drive diplomatic leadership on a broad range of transnational issues, from climate change to public health to democracy promotion.

This all sounds great, but there remains a nagging problem. Despite its flourishing culture, there have also been a string of scandals highlighting the plight of women in the country, who facing everything from inequality to workplace discrimination and rampant sexual harassment.

By any measure, the problem is significant and costly to the country’s interests. According to a 2019 report by the World Economic Forum, South Korea ranks 124 out of 149 countries in the world in terms of economic opportunity for women, while another report cites the highest gender pay gap among OECD nations at 35%. This low level of female participation in the economy is not only a drag on future GDP growth, but also coincides with a parallel mental health crisis: suicides among Korean women in their 20s have jumped by more than 40 percent in the last year, at the same time that male deaths are in decline.

Mistreatment of women in Korea may be a feature, not a bug, of the system. A recent string of sexual abuse scandals has reached the highest levels of the country’s political elites.

This past July, the country was shocked to wake up to the news that the popular Mayor of Seoul Park Won-soon had committed suicide when accusations of sexual assault against his secretary were made public. Mayor Park had built his image as stalwart champion of women’s rights, and yet, the secretary, who has been threatened and blamed following the suicide, says that she “felt defenseless and weak before the immense power” of the Mayor.

Months later, we are discovering the very people meant to protect the victims instead act to protect the alleged perpetrators. Congresswoman Nam In-soon, one of South Korea’s highest profile women’s rights activists, is being called on to resign after it was revealed that she leaked news of the sexual harassment investigation into Mayor Park. Another member of congress, Yoon Mee-hyang, was forced out of the ruling Democratic Party after facing criminal charges of embezzlement from the “comfort women” charity she used to direct, which raised money for survivors of World War II military brothels.

Before Mayor Park’s suicide and the comfort women scandal, there were many others. Last year, South Chungcheong Province Governor Ahn Hee-jung was convicted on nine counts of rape and sentenced to three and half years in prison. Mayor of Busan Oh Keo-Don was forced to resign following the assault accusation. Ahn Tae-geun, a former senior prosecutor whose case had become symbolic for the #MeToo movement, had his conviction overturned earlier this year.

These patterns stand in stark contrast to the image the government seeks to project.

In public speeches, President Moon Jae-in frequently advocates in defense of women’s rights in speeches and interviews. Speaking at the last UN General Assembly, he declared a commitment to inclusiveness and reducing inequalities. The ruling DPK has long associated itself with rights activists, and has made gestures toward combating misconduct and mistreatment of women – but critics say they aren’t doing enough. A headline on CNN last summer went so far as to call out the hypocrisy: “South Korea’s President says he’s a feminist. Three of his allies have been accused of sex crimes.”

Despite numerous protest movements and well supported marches, Korea has not yet experienced a breakthrough #MeToo moment. According to media testimonials, many women continue to face significant obstacles to advance in their careers. Even after 70,000 women marched last year to protest the prolific abuse of spy cams set up in bathrooms and changing rooms, patriarchal attitudes continue. This month, guidelines published on an official government website advising pregnant women to cook, clean, and to lose weight for their husbands after childbirth caused a social media uproar.

This is a deeply concerning problem. As highlighted by the Carnegie report, Korea’s role as a “middle power” in a such a volatile region would be highly welcome, and not just on things like climate and coronavirus vaccine distribution, but also their crucial role in containing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and holding firm in the shadow of China’s expanding authoritarian reach.

Some Korean groups have advocated internationally against gender-based violence, which is undoubtedly a very worthy cause. But until the Moon government can get serious about tackling these inequalities and abuses at home, its efforts to project influence abroad will fail to meet potential.

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