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THE WRAP-UP: 5 October 2021

Josh and Hugh’s fortnightly recap of international news is back! (Trust us, we're as excited as you are!!) 

Join us as we discuss:

  • The power outages crippling Chinese cities and factories.

  • What Germany's election stalemate means for EU stability.

  • Whether a boxing champ could be the Philippines’ next President.

  • Nigeria’s decision to turn off phone networks and ban motorcycles.

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CREDITS: This episode is produced by the Young Diplomats Society on the lands of the Wurundjeri/Gadigal people. We pay our respects to the traditional custodians of the lands upon which we operate and live.

Josh: Hello, you’re listening to Global Questions – the podcast breaking down international news and politics. I’m Joshua.

Hugh: And I’m Hugh. This is The Wrap Up -- your fortnightly dose of news from around the world.

Josh: That’s right, we’re back!!  I’ve missed this -- it’s good to be sitting down again and discussing the fortnight’s news.

Hugh: For sure - so without further adieu, let’s get back into it.

Topic #1 - China’s energy crisis 

Hugh:  Well Joshua we’re going to start with quite a major story that you may have heard in the news lately - for the first time since the start of the pandemic, factory activity in China has gone on the decline.

And you might be thinking that this is a result of something like the spread of the Delta variant but actually, this time it’s power outages that are behind the situation.

Those outages have been ongoing for about two weeks now and they’ve effectively slammed the brakes on the Chinese economy.

We’ve seen some really drastic steps being taken by officials, including power rationing and factory closures which have been witnessed across the majority of China’s 22 provinces.

Josh: Wow, for a nation that depends so much on manufacturing, that’s a serious development.  How on earth did it get to this point?

Hugh:  Well the crisis is honestly pretty complex as things often are when you start talking about energy, but really the situation boils down to some pretty basic problems.

For one, due to COVID, the Chinese manufacturing sector has been dormant over the last year, but now as China and the rest of the world open up, factory orders are through the roof and so all of a sudden, huge amounts of energy are required to power China’s manufacturing sector.

Temperatures also get cooler in China at this time of the year and so electricity demand is also increasing for homes and businesses as people try and stay warm.

That sort of increased demand for energy is always going to place strain on electricity production but it gets worse because at the same time, coal prices are absolutely going through the roof and so it’s actually been quite difficult for China’s coal-dependent electricity providers to get their hands on supplies as demand increases.

In fact, in late September it was estimated that Chinese coal-fired power plants only had about a fortnight’s worth of coal on hand.

Josh: Can that shortage of coal be blamed on the Chinese Government’s decision to ban the importation of Australian coal?  I remember it did that last year, as part of its trade spat with Australia.

Hugh: Yeah that’s a good question - a lot of people have been pretty quick to blame the situation on China’s ban on imports of Australian coal but there are a few reasons why that policy isn’t the main problem.

Firstly, a lot of the coal that China imports from Australia is actually used in other industries so it’s not entirely relevant to electricity production. In fact, most of China’s electricity providers rely on domestic coal mining to fuel their facilities.

That said, when China banned Australian imports of coal, it actually helped contribute to a wider global increase in coal prices. And that has made it harder for Chinese firms to get access to coal from the rest of the international market.

Yet even with rising coal prices, domestic mine closures and problems affecting other international suppliers have also exacerbated the problem.

Another problem has been a drought in China’s south, which has essentially put a stop to vital hydroelectric power facilities and forced officials to rely even more on coal-fired power plants.

Josh: Why is China so dependent on coal?

Hugh: It’s funny you mention that because the other relevant factor is China’s emission reduction plans.

You see, despite being a massive industrial powerhouse, China wants to be carbon neutral by 2060. So central government figures have been placing a lot of pressure on provincial authorities to lower their energy consumption, especially when it comes to coal - and that’s contributed significantly to this crisis.

And that means that even with the current crisis, which has seen mobile phone networks go down and rolling power outages, local governments are really reluctant to buy up more coal when they’re being asked to keep consumption low.

That’s why we’ve seen some industrial sectors having to cut their production in half and the introduction of power rationing in cities despite the fact that China’s biggest annual holiday is just around the corner.

And I think that really speaks to the challenges faced by the Chinese economy. Part of this crisis has been caused by drought in the south and that shows that China is going to be really vulnerable to climate change going forward.

And yet as China attempts to move away from coal, it’s finding that its economy is struggling to keep up, so the challenge for Chinese officials is going to be finding a way to move China beyond dirty manufacturing while still trying to deliver economic growth.

Topic #2 - The Germany election, and what it means for EU politics 

Josh: Well Hugh, as I’m sure most of our listeners know by now, Angela Merkel is in the final months of her 16 years as German chancellor.

Last week, Germans went to the polls to choose her replacement … and the results were, well, rather complicated:

The fact that there’s no clear outcome could have significant consequences for both Germany and the EU.

Hugh: Okay, first things first … can you give us quick recap of the election?

Josh: So the election was a contest between 6 parties. There was Merkel’s party, the CDU, which is a centre-right party.  It’s been in power for 52 of the last 72 years.

On the other side, was their traditional rival, the centre-left SPD. And then there were a collection of minor parties: the Greens, the Free Democrats, the Left Party and the notorious far-right AfD.

Despite initially being the clear favourite, Merkel’s CDU Party recorded it’s worst ever performance, getting only 24.1% of votes.

Their rival, the SPD, ended up on top, but it didn’t do too much better -- it only got 25.7%. The remainder of the votes were split among the minor parties.

Hugh: Yikes, that’s a pretty crushing defeat for Merkel’s party!  But given no party is even close to a majority of the vote, who’s going to form government?

Josh:  That’s the question everyone is asking! And the answer is: it depends who can get support from enough minor parties to form a coalition.

That’s going to get messy, because, to reach the 50% threshold, at least 3 parties are going to need to partner up, which has never happened before in Germany.

Now, for its part, the SPD says it should lead the government, given it got the most votes.

But Merkel’s party, the CDU, has refused to concede.  After all, it came second by only 1.6% percentage -- which translates to a difference of 10 seats in a parliament of 735. So really, it could go either way, and it’ll probably take months to work out who the new Chancellor will be.

Hugh: Sounds like Germany’s in for some uncertain times ahead!

Josh: Yeah, that’s putting it mildly.  And that uncertainty may affect Europe.

Hugh: How do you mean?

Josh: Well, for the last 16 years, Merkel has been Europe’s de-facto leader. Whenever the EU has fallen into crisis, she’s generally come to the rescue.

When Greece and other countries defaulted on their debt in 2012, she helped organise a bailout.

In 2015, when the EU migrant crisis struck, Merkel said Germany would take in one million refugees; And, when Covid-19 hit, it was Merkel who helped broker a historic 750bn euro recovery package.

In her absence, it’s not clear who’ll lead Europe.  Analysts are saying it’s quite possible the EU could be leaderless for some time.

Hugh: So Germany’s political instability could directly affect Europe’s stability?

Josh: Yeah, there’s a real chance of that. And it’s not helped by the fact that Germany’s inconclusive election results are being mirrored all over Europe.  For example: Spain held two federal elections in 2019, and neither returned a clear result.  A coalition government was eventually formed, but it’s very fragile.

Over in Italy, its coalition government has fallen apart twice in the last 3 years. And in the Netherlands, its national election resulted in a hung parliament this year.  It took 225 days to cobble together a coalition between four parties.

All of this suggests that support for major parties is declining, and politics is becoming more polarised. And that raises the question: how do you run a stable government when it’s no longer made up of 1 or 2 parties, but perhaps 3 or 4 parties with different priorities?

If domestic governments are weak, they become less able to focus on the challenges facing the wider EU -- of which there are many.  So interesting times for the EU.

Topic #3 - Philippines election

Hugh: Joshua, politics often has a reputation for being somewhat bland but every now and then, a political leader will come along from a completely unexpected background. We’ve seen that from Donald Trump who was previously a reality TV star, Arnold Swaznegger and Ronald Reagan who were both Hollywood actors and so on.

And now, following last Friday, that list will also include international boxing champion Manny Pacquiao, who has handed in his gloves and retired from his sport to officially stand as a presidential candidate in the 2022 Philippine elections.

Josh: Oh dear, I have to admit, I’m highly sceptical of celebrity politicians… Now here’s where I admit I know very little about Pacquiao because I have zero interest in boxing, so can you give me a quick bit of background on him?

Hugh: Yeah so Pacquiao will often make headlines when he goes into big fights with other international champions but if any of our listeners follow boxing closer than I do, they’ll probably know him as a regular fixture of the sport.

You could probably say that he’s the Ronaldo of boxing. But in addition to that, he’s also a pretty regular fixture of Filipino politics. You see, the Philippines is a country where personality and charisma are often really important in politics and Pacquiao is no exception to that rule.

He’s been involved on and off in the Philippine senate and house of representatives since 2007 so he’s actually been quite a prominent figure for some time now.

Josh: What does he want to achieve as president?

Hugh: Pacquiao plans to run on an anti-corruption campaign. He’s actually accused the current administration run by President Rodrigo Duterte of quote “taking advantage of the nation” and “robbing the Filipino people”.

Of course, those are some strong words, but they’re particularly interesting given that earlier this year, Pacquiao was actually in charge of Duterte’s political party.

He was only ousted in July after heavily criticising the Duterte administration for corruption and being soft on China. So as I hinted at earlier, Filipino politics are often very dramatic and the Duterte-Pacquiao dispute is no exception to that rule.

Josh: What are President Duterte’s plans for the campaign?

Hugh: Well, under the Philippine constitution Duterte is limited to one, six-year term. So at the end of his administration, he’ll have to step down as President.

Up until very recently, however, he was planning to run as Vice-President, which many people feared would essentially allow him to have a second term.

And that’s a particularly sensitive concern for the Philippines, which has been the victim of dictatorships in the past and which has seen Duterte employ a very brutal leadership style as part of his infamous war on drugs.

And yet in the last few days Duterte has announced that following widespread criticism of his decision to run for VP, he will instead officially retire from politics at the end of his term - so there’s now a bit of a gap open leadership wise.

Josh: What does that mean for the Philippines?

Hugh: It’s definitely going to be significant. Duterte’s unique leadership style has left a profound impact on the Philippines, which is known as a democratic giant in Southeast Asia. And that means that a lot is now in question with his retirement.

Duterte’s violent war on drugs has been the target of constant international criticism and it’s seen the deaths of thousands of civilians. And his foreign policy has really strained the Philippines’ historic relationship with the US while both working with and at times confronting Beijing.

So with Duterte stepping back while Pacquiao and other anti-Duterte candidates step forward, an important question remains. Will the Philippines 68-million registered voters opt for change or will they look for the same style of leadership as the current President.

At the moment it’s too early to tell, but we’ll be sure to keep our listeners updated.

Topic #4 - Nigeria 

Josh: Hugh, our final story takes place in north-western Nigeria, specifically the state of Kaduna. Spare a thought for the nearly 8 million people who live there:

Just a few days ago, the local government announced that it was shutting down the state’s entire mobile phone and communications network.

It also banned weekly markets, selling animals and the use of motorbikes. The only vehicles that are allowed to be driven are commercial ones, and they all have to be painted yellow and black.

And the state of Kaduna isn’t the only one to do this. Other Nigerian states have also shut down their communications networks, with at least 17 million people affected.  Apparently, residents are being forced to communicate via letters delivered on buses.

Hugh: Wait, what?? Why????

Josh: The bans, as outrageous as they may seem, were introduced for some serious reasons. Over the last decade, criminal gangs have been wreaking havoc in north-western Nigeria.

They frequently raid villages, steal livestock, kill civilians and kidnap schoolchildren. The Nigerian military has previously tried to break up the gangs, but often these gangs would get prior warning and escape before soldiers arrived.

That’s what’s led to these measures.  The thinking is, if the entire telecommunications network is shut down, gang members won’t know when the military is going to strike.

As for the other parts of the ban: they’ve been introduced because these gangs often travel on motorbikes and make money from selling livestock at markets.

Hugh: A worthy aim, but still, it’s a huge decision to turn off mobile networks for tens of millions of people…  How are ordinary Nigerians feeling about it?

Josh: It seems most people support the bans.  Residents say they’re sick of living in fear of the gangs, so the restrictions are a small price to pay. And it seems the measures might be working.  In one state, the military has reportedly captured 2,000 gang members since the bans began.

It’s also worth noting that blanket bans aren’t a new thing in Nigeria. Earlier this year, the Nigerian President banned all 205 million Nigerians from using Twitter after the company deleted one of his tweets.

Rather comically, the announcement that Twitter was being shut down was made via Twitter. The decision caused an uproar, with even Joe Biden calling on the Nigerian President to reverse his decision.

Though, in a bit of a twist, Donald Trump also issued a statement, congratulating Nigeria and calling on all countries to ban Twitter because it is “evil”.

Interestingly, just a few days ago, the President said he’d be willing to lift restrictions on Twitter, as long as the company pays tax in Nigeria and actively regulates content.

Though, with the shutdown of the telecommunications network scheduled to last for months, even if the Twitter ban is lifted, millions of Nigerians won’t be able to access it anyway.

Hugh: Pretty extraordinary stuff...

Josh: Yep, absolutely.

Hugh: And that’s all for this fortnight’s edition of The Wrap-Up!

Next week’s episode will be Part 1 of our In-Depth series on the Decline of Democracy. 

Josh: Our new host, Rhiannon, will be chatting with Tom Daly, a lecturer at Melbourne University and Asanga Abeygoonasekera, an expert on the Sri-Lankan government, about how Covid-19 is affecting democracies, and whether they can survive it.

Hugh: In the meantime, for more news updates, quizzes and bonus content, check out our Instagram page.  You can also get in touch with us via our website. Links are in the episode description.

Josh: We will see you in a fortnight! Bye.

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