What Happened Today: April 29, 2022
Beijing strengthens Moscow ties; the rise of private police patrol; SoCal turns off the water
The Big Story
Just as President Biden has requested a new $33 billion spending package to send weapons and humanitarian supplies to Ukraine, Russia’s most significant ally, China, continues to shrug off U.S. requests to temper its support of Russia as the war drags into its third month. Today, China’s Foreign Ministry representative Zhao Lijian spoke of the “success of China-Russia relations” as the two nations “commit themselves to developing a new model of international relations,” adding that Beijing and Moscow seek to “rise above the model of military and political alliance” of the Cold War era, a not-so-subtle dig at the United States strengthening its partnerships within political alliances like NATO. Indeed, Beijing has pointed to the NATO expansion toward Russian borders as the justification for Russia’s Ukraine invasion.
While Beijing has been careful not to flagrantly disregard President Biden’s directive to not help Russia skirt Western sanction packages, Beijing’s rhetoric today further underscores the lack of impact the White House has had on the deepening Sino-Russian bond—a military, economic, and political friendship with “no forbidden zones,” that President Putin and President Xi Jinping formalized in February at the Winter Olympics. With foreign ties as strong as ever to Russia, Beijing today looked to further consolidate its control over some of its richest domestic corporations, with The Wall Street Journal reporting ongoing negotiations between China’s regulators and Tencent Holdings (the nation’s most valuable corporation) and Meituan (its largest food delivery company) in a deal that would give Beijing a 1% equity stake as well as “a direct role in corporate decisions.”
In The Back Pages: Your Weekend Reads
→ A muddling of messages and information from government officials continues to drag out U.S. approval of COVID-19 vaccines for young children, after Moderna and FDA officials said this week that Moderna’s vaccine trial applications would be submitted to the FDA by May 9. Though ostensibly the final step before FDA approval for the release of the Moderna vaccine to young children, Dr. Anthony Fauci said the FDA would in fact withhold the approval for Moderna until Pfizer similarly completed its trial—otherwise, Fauci argued, the disparate rollout of approved vaccines could “confuse people.” Citing an unnamed FDA source this morning, The New York Times reported “the agency would prefer to make decisions about the two vaccines at the same time, partly to allow parents to decide which vaccine is best for their young child,” though per standard pandemic procedure, federal agency deference to parents here is, of course, only rhetorical.
→ Though usually deployed in gated communities or high-end business districts, private security details are growing in popularity as U.S. cities continue to struggle to protect their residential and commuter neighbors against escalating levels of crime. In Chicago, at least five neighborhoods near or within the city’s North Side now have groups of residents pooling money together in neighborhood associations to pay for off-duty police to patrol their streets. Allowed to carry guns because they’re law enforcement, the off-duty police work for a private firm that provides them with security vehicles outfitted with lights and communications equipment to deter criminal activity. In San Francisco, a private security firm operator says his client roster grew from 75 to 175 during the coronavirus pandemic as the city became more dangerous. In Philadelphia, the parents of several students living near the Temple University campus have hired a private security firm to keep watch of their children six nights a week, following a spate of area shootings and the murder of a student during a botched car jacking in November 2021.
→ Chicago Moves, a controversial Chi-Town program that will distribute $12.5 million in free gasoline and transit cards to low-income city residents, was narrowly passed into law Wednesday. The program was proposed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot just weeks after Dr. Willie Wilson, a potential opponent in the city’s mayoral election, spent more than $1 million of his own dough to buy people gas. “People need some relief,” Wilson explained, as hundreds of cars queued up for a free fill. This led some critics to speculate that the mayor pushed the $12.5 million program simply to outbid her political opponent’s contribution. Mayor Lightfoot adamantly denies that the distribution of transit cards—which will prominently feature her name—has anything to do with Wilson or February’s mayoral election. “Are we solving every problem with this? Of course not. It’s a modest program,” Lightfoot said. “But to suggest that it’s a gimmick, it’s a stunt …let’s put all that nonsense aside.”
→ Some 6 million residents in Southern California were told by state officials that the water shortage there was dire enough that they must now limit their outdoor water usage to one day a week, an unprecedented restriction that Adel Hagekhalil, a manager of the region’s water district, said reflected “conditions unlike anything we have seen before.” Now into a third year, the drought in California has depleted the state’s largest water reservoirs, forcing Southern California municipalities to levy fines against residents who do not obey the restriction, which is set to begin in June. Some county leaders there warn that local parks, fields, trees, and “nonessential” grasses around business districts may need to go unwatered if water conditions do not improve this summer.
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→ After a Los Angeles Times reporter uncovered that the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department attempted to bury evidence of a deputy’s abuse of an inmate, Sheriff Alex Villanueva held a bizarre press conference on Tuesday, not to challenge the evidence, but rather to malign the reporter, Alene Tchekmedyian, announcing a criminal investigation into how she obtained her evidence. Standing in front of a poster that said “What Did They Know and When Did They Know It?” and depicted Tchekmedyian’s name and face beside the faces of the county’s inspector general and a political rival, the sheriff said, “These three people have some important questions to answer.” Seemingly unaware or unconcerned about the role of the First Amendment, the sheriff faced immediate criticism from media associations and several regional and national outlets for his blatant attack on a reporter for performing the basic duties of the job. Soon after, citing the “incredible frenzy of misinformation being circulated” about the press conference, the sheriff contradicted his previous statements and said, “We have no interest in pursuing, nor are we pursuing, criminal charges against any reporters.”
→ The virtual-reality headset wars continue to heat up, with Mark Zuckerberg hoping his forthcoming line of glasses will act as the innovative hardware comparable to Steve Job’s iPhone and solidify his legacy as a tech visionary. The Verge reports that Meta is dedicating immense resources to roll out four different pairs of virtual glasses over the next six years—glasses that will transport users to the metaverse, the nascent cloud-based environment that Zuckerberg has identified as the future for his beleaguered platforms. “He wants it to be an iPhone moment,” a former Meta employee who worked on the glasses told The Verge, noting that “Zuck’s ego is intertwined with [the glasses].” The race to develop the dominant pair of glasses that serves as a conduit to the cloud also includes Apple, whose own version of reality-altering specs is expected by industry analysts to reach consumers sometime next year. Meanwhile, Microsoft is trying to corner the coveted military market for high-tech goggles, though its current deal with the U.S. Army has come under scrutiny this week after the Pentagon’s inspector general said the Microsoft goggle deal could “result in wasting up to $21.9 billion to field a system that soldiers may not want to use or use as intended.”
→ By the numbers: 34,000 abandoned car complaints in Philadelphia, a fivefold increase in the number of calls to the city’s help line since April 2020. The city has struggled to adequately staff the police unit that handles abandoned vehicles, and towing companies have been restricted from removing cars to give owners more time to make repairs.
→ Canada’s preeminent virology lab is at the center of a sprawling scandal that’s either a story of an elaborate network of Chinese spies or much ado about a paperwork problem. Last year, two National Microbiology Lab researchers, Dr. Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, both originally from China, were escorted from the Winnipeg lab and stripped of their security clearance without explanation. They were fired shortly thereafter and their students ejected from the lab, which Canadian law enforcement said was the result of an ongoing criminal investigation, though it didn’t offer much in the way of detail or formal charges. Canadian opposition parties have demanded an explanation from the Liberal Party leaders in parliament, who have delayed responding to inquiries for most of the past year—until Wednesday, that is, when they struck a deal to hand over a file of documents about the investigation. Meanwhile, Canadian journalists have tried to crack the case themselves, and thus far it appears—to them, at least—that Dr. Qiu and her husband either passed intellectual property from their virology lab to China or unwittingly neglected to file some paperwork about a patent.
→ As seen in the video below, a group of men overlooking the Al-Aqsa Mosque this week chanted “khaybar khaybar ya yehud,” an Islamic war cry that should make Jews recall the fate they met in the oasis of Khaybar (present-day Saudi Arabia) during the seventh century, when Muhammad and his army attacked and conquered a fort held by Jews. The more recent context for this chant is the escalating tensions at what Muslims call the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Jews call the Temple Mount, where Palestinians stockpiled rocks, fireworks, and gas bombs in anticipation of Jewish tourists who were cleared to visit the site. Hundreds of Palestinians and 21 Israeli officers were injured after Palestinians began throwing rocks at a security checkpoint. As clashes at the site have continued for the past two weeks, some Palestinians have waved the flag of Hamas, the terrorist group that’s been central in disseminating the false claim that Israel is threatening to bar Muslims from the Al-Aqsa Mosque—a claim that has continuously led to more violence and tension in Jerusalem and beyond.
Your Weekend Reads
→ In a review of two recent books on agriculture, Christopher de Bellaigue writes of the tension between the idyllic depiction of farming often conjured by affluent urbanites and the continued hostility of policymakers toward those who make our food and tend to our land. That tension is reflected ironically in the title of one of the works, English Pastoral; the author of that book, James Rebanks, points out how the idea of pastoral is itself a “work of art portraying or evoking country life, typically in a romanticized or idealized form for an urban audience.” The review, in discussing the books, tells some of the story of how we got here and what recent political efforts like Brexit will have on English farmers:
The reforms the government has embarked on after leaving the EU and the Common Agricultural Policy will shift the target of subsidies from farming to caring for the environment. But subsidies as a whole will drop, perhaps by as much as half, even for farmers who join the government’s Environmental Land Management Schemes—and these will involve spending so much time filling out forms and letting in inspectors that many small farmers won’t consider them worthwhile. Farms will get fewer and bigger. Andersons, a farming consultancy, predicts that the number of full-time farm businesses in the U.K. will fall by 20% in the next decade, from 54,000 in 2020 to 42,300 by 2030. It is likely that the most productive parts of the country, such as the Fens, will be farmed ever more intensively, while uneconomical hill and dairy farms close or amalgamate.
The government and the National Farmers Union are in public agreement that not less than 60% of the food that is consumed in Britain should be produced here, but the recent trade deal with Australia, which will remove tariffs on Australian sugar, beef and lamb over 15 years, points the other way.
→ Reading wasn’t always a solitary pursuit—for centuries, in fact, to read was often to do so out loud, socially, an extension of the oral tradition of storytelling that moved from the voice to the page. As documented in this history of silent reading published by Quartz, it wasn’t until the 19th century when literary consumers of text made the seismic shift from reading aloud to silent reading, a change driven in part “by the spreading of literacy and diverse kinds of reading material,” with a bounty of everything from newspaper to children’s literature. Some resisted the change as they suspected it encouraged daydreaming and “sins of idleness”—or worse, internal reflection that took place in a reader “without religious guidance or censure.”
→ The future of men’s tennis appears brighter every week, or at least every time Carlos Alcaraz, the 18-year-old Spanish phenom, steps onto the court. The newly ranked No. 9 player vaulted himself up the rankings after electrifying victories at the Miami Open (that tournament’s youngest ever champion) and most recently at the Barcelona Open, paving his way toward what seems like an inevitable Grand Slam win on the horizon. For tennis fans who’ve been waiting to see which of the so-called Next Gen players, all of whom are older than Alcaraz, would step in to fill the shoes vacated by the Big Three (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic), the teenage Alcaraz has leapfrogged ahead of that Next Gen set. Indeed, because of his incredible speed, uncanny shot making from all parts of the court, and high tennis IQ, Alcaraz now appears to be the natural evolution of the Big Three era. As Erik Hanes writes in this recent piece on his blog, Alcaraz—“a hummingbird holding a sledgehammer”—may very well be an extension of the sublime and extraordinary reinvention of tennis that David Foster Wallace memorably captured in a notable essay on Roger Federer.
First of all, the movement—no one else is doing what Alcaraz is doing. I don’t know what else to tell you. Modern, groundstroke-oriented tennis prioritizes supreme lateral quickness, the ability to move back and forth across the back of your court like a windshield wiper in order to efficiently track down shots off the bounce. The innovation Wallace describes Federer showcasing is his ability to then move forward into the court at the right times, fusing lateral baseline play with the skillset of players comfortable around the net, traditionally two separate stylistic lineages. But what tradition of play does Alcaraz embody, when he’s camped on the baseline one moment then suddenly stepping forward to play an eerily well-tuned dropshot the next, then back again to play an opponent’s reply off the bounce, then to the net once more to finish? How is it that he oscillates like this with seemingly no spatial drawback, never overcommitted or out of position, that at all times he is exactly where you do not want him to be?
See it here: