G-20 Leaders Pledge to End Financing for Overseas Coal Plants 

G-20 leaders meeting in Rome have agreed to work to reach carbon neutrality “by around mid-century” and pledged to end financing for coal plants abroad by the end of this year.

The final communique was issued Sunday at the end of a two-day summit, ahead of talks at ahead of a broader U.N. climate change summit, COP26, this week in Glasgow, Scotland.

Leaders in Rome addressed efforts to reach the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, in line with a global commitment made in 2015 at the Paris Climate Accord to keep global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and preferably to 1.5 degrees.

“We recognize that the impacts of climate change at 1.5°C are much lower than at 2°C. Keeping 1.5°C within reach will require meaningful and effective actions and commitment by all countries,” the communique said, according to Reuters.

The group of 19 countries and the European Union account for more than three-quarters of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Two dozen countries this month have joined a U.S.- and EU-led effort to slash methane emissions by 30% from 2020 levels by 2030.

Coal, though, is a bigger point of contention. G-20 members China and India have resisted attempts to produce a declaration on phasing out domestic coal consumption.

Briefing reporters ahead of the summit, a U.S. senior administration official said U.S. President Joe Biden and other leaders are hoping to get a commitment to end overseas financing of coal-fired power generation. 

Climate financing, namely pledges from wealthy nations to provide $100 billion a year in climate financing to support developing countries’ efforts to reduce emissions and mitigate the impacts of climate change, is another key concern. Indonesia, a large greenhouse gas emitter that will take over the G-20 presidency in December, is urging developed countries to fulfill their financing commitments both in Rome and in Glasgow.

Global supply chain 

Biden will hold a meeting at the summit’s sidelines to address the global supply chain crisis. The group of 20 countries in the summit account for more than 80% of world GDP and 75% of global trade. 

“The President will make announcements about what the United States itself will do, particularly in respect to stockpiles, to improving… the United States’ capacity to have modern and effective and capable and flexible stockpiles,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told VOA aboard Air Force One en route to Rome, Thursday. “We are working towards agreement with the other participants on a set of principles and parameters around how we collectively manage and create resilient supply chains going forward.”

Addressing global commerce disruptions has been a key focus for the Biden administration, which is concerned that these bottlenecks will hamper post-pandemic economic recovery. To address the nation’s own supply chain issues, earlier this month the administration announced a plan to extend operations around the clock, seven days a week, at Los Angeles and Long Beach, two ports that account for 40% of sea freight entering the country. 

“Whether it’s you’re talking about medical equipment or supplies of consumer goods or other products, it’s a challenge for the global economy,” said Matthew Goodman, senior vice president for economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Some of the concrete measures to alleviate global supply chain pressure points may need to be longer term, such as shortening supply chains and rethinking dependencies, said Leslie Vinjamuri, director of the U.S. and the Americas program at Chatham House.

“Those are not quick fixes,” she said. “But the G-20 is historically set up really to be dealing with short-term crises. So, I think that there will be considerable effort made to really discuss and come to terms with that.” 

While global supply chain issues are a key concern for the leaders in Rome, Goodman said he doubts the meeting will result in tangible solutions. 

“It’s a very difficult group — the G-20 to get consensus to do very specific things. And this may be one area in which it’s going to be particularly difficult,” he added. 

President Xi Jinping of China, considered to be the “world’s factory,” is not attending the summit in person. In his virtual speech to G-20 leaders, Xi proposed holding an international forum on resilient and stable industrial and supply chains, and welcomed participation of G-20 members and relevant international organizations. 


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Thai Businesses Eager for Foreign Tourists’ Imminent Return

Before the pandemic effectively closed Thailand off to the rest of the world in March of last year, Bangkok’s Kin & Koff Café was perfectly placed to catch the throngs of tourists traipsing past the city’s gilded Grand Palace and its orbit of opulent temples.

In the capital of one of the world’s most popular holiday getaways, the resplendent grounds of the former royal residence were a must-see for most first-time visitors. Then came COVID-19, lockdown and a hard freeze on foreign tourists, decimating a pillar of Thailand’s economy — and the core of Kin & Koff’s client base with it.

So, like many in the business of catering to those tourists, owner Siripong Sanomaiwong welcomed the news that Thailand will start lifting lengthy quarantine mandates for some fully vaccinated foreigners on Nov. 1. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha announced the move Oct. 11 in a televised address.

“I think the government is [acting] the right way to open up because we cannot hide from the virus,” Siripong said on another slow day in his café opposite the palace walls.

“We must live together with the COVID; we must live together … in safety,” he added, reflecting the business community’s general mood of wary resolve.

Risk and reward

In his address, Prayut acknowledged the risks. He said daily COVID cases were “almost certain” to rise with new arrivals but insisted Thailand was prepared and had to cash in on the coming November-March high season having missed out on the last one.

“We will have to track the situation very carefully and see how to contain and live with that situation because I do not think that the many millions who depend on the income generated by the travel, leisure and entertainment sector can possibly afford the devastating blow of a second lost New Year holiday period,” he said.

The World Bank says tourism accounted for 20% of Thailand’s gross domestic product and more than 1 in 5 jobs in 2019, when some 40 million people visited the country. The government says Thailand will be lucky to see 100,000 visitors in 2021 and is aiming for 1 million through this high season.

The Tourism Council of Thailand, an industry body, says the lockdown has cost the country some 3 million tourist-linked jobs. Even so, most Thais may not be on board with the government’s timing.

In an online poll conducted by Thailand’s Suan Dusit Rajabhat University between Oct. 11 and Oct. 14, 60.1% of respondents said the country was not yet ready to reopen to tourists without quarantine mandates. They cited Thailand’s low vaccination rate as the main reason.

While Bangkok and the popular resort island of Phuket have fully vaccinated the large majority of locals, the fully vaccinated rate nationwide only recently topped 40%. New daily COVID cases peaked at nearly 22,000 in mid-August but have yet to dip below 7,000. Thailand has recorded about 1.88 million cases in all.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, said local polls can be unreliable but believed Suan Dusit’s latest effort frankly mirrored the popular mood.

“The sentiment on the ground is that the infection numbers are still high and the government’s vaccine management has been inept … [that] lives are still at risk and reopening too soon is still not optimal,” he said.

Positive thinking

The government hopes to allay those fears by opening up to only 46 countries at first, including major markets such as the United States and China, much of Europe and some Asian neighbors.

In addition to showing proof of vaccination and a negative test result before departure, visitors must have health insurance covering COVID for up to $50,000, download a tracking application and wait one night in a government-approved hotel for the results of a second test on arrival. If cleared, they will be free to roam the country. If not, they will have to spend more time in a hospital or approved hotel.

Siripong hopes that will be enough for his café to claw back by March about 40% of the business it had before the pandemic, and he’s confident the authorities can keep the virus in check.

Katenaphas Muattong is not so sanguine.

She left her catering job to help her parents run their small restaurant by the palace after the pandemic hit and their two employees had their wages cut and then quit. Tapping into online delivery services helped them survive, but business is still less than a third of what it was.

Katenaphas worries the government may apply the entry rules in what she called “Thai style,” explaining that to mean a lax attitude toward enforcement.

“On one [hand] we should open because business is going down, down,” she said. “But if we don’t have a good plan, we should wait.”

Turning the thoughts over in her mind a moment, she finally sided with the government and said Thailand should take the risk.

Vali Villa owner Val Saopayana is more of an avowed optimist.

Three years ago, the professional artist turned her childhood home into a boutique mid-range hotel a few blocks from Bangkok’s Khaosan Road, another popular tourist haunt packed with bars and clubs that once throbbed with dance music into the early morning hours. With nary a customer in sight one recent Friday afternoon, most of the strip was closed or boarded up, a microcosm of Thailand’s tourist sector writ large.

With Thailand now reopening to foreigners, Val is hopeful about reclaiming at least half of her pre-pandemic business by the end of this season.

“I have a good feeling that we’re going to be able to do it and the whole economy of Thailand is going to be better because I believe in the medical system and they try to do their best,” she said.

“We just hope that it will be back to normal very soon,” she added. “We have to believe and we have to have positive energy, and people are going to come.”

Reality check

The Association of Thai Travel Agents, another industry body, says “normal” will take a few more years, as some major markets such as China still mandate weeks of quarantine for travelers on their return.

“When you have that amount of quarantine days, it’s going to be a real limit for us. So, I think the opening, while we’re making great progress, it will very much depend on the origin countries’ levels of restrictions and quarantine days as well,” said ATTA board member Pilomrat Isvarphornchai.

She said the association was being “realistic” about the coming high season and forecast a 20% return to pre-pandemic business for inbound travel agencies, at least for those still open. The ATTA’s last member survey found that roughly half of them had closed during the past 19 months of lockdown, some for good.

“In terms of the economy, we are at that point now where we’re going to have to learn how to live with the pandemic, not just in terms of tourism but even opening up domestically, for example with restaurants, with retail stores. It needs to happen now,” Pilomrat said. 

 

 

 


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China Hits Reset on Belt and Road Initiative

Green energy is the new focus of China’s one-of-a-kind Belt and Road Initiative or BRI, that aims to build a series of infrastructure projects from Asia to Europe.

The eco-friendlier version of BRI has caught the attention of some 70 other countries that are getting new infrastructure from the Asian economic powerhouse in exchange for expanding trade.

The reset on China’s eight-year-old, $1.2 trillion effort comes after leaving a nagging layer of smog in parts of Eurasia, where those projects operate.

Now the county that’s already mindful of pollution at home is preparing a new BRI that will focus on greener projects, instead of pollution-generating coal-fired plants. It would still further China’s goal of widening trade routes in Eurasia through the initiative’s new ports, railways and power plants.

The Second Belt and Road announced in China on October 18, coincides with the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, which runs from Sunday through November 12 in Glasgow, Scotland. China could use the forum to detail its plans.

“China’s policy shift towards a more green BRI reflects China’s own commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2060 and its efforts to implement a green transition within China’s domestic economy,” said Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist with the market research firm IHS Markit.

“Furthermore, China’s policy shift…also reflects the increasing policy priority being given towards renewable energy and sustainable development policies by most of China’s BRI partner countries,” he said.

The Belt and Road helps lift the economies of developing countries from Kazakhstan to more modern ones, such as Portugal. BRI also unnerves China’s superpower rival, the United States, which has no comparable program.

History of focusing on fossil fuel

China has a history of putting billions of dollars in fossil fuel projects in other countries since 2013, the American research group Council on Foreign Relations says in a March 2021 study.

From 2014 to 2017, it says, about 90% of energy-sector loans by major Chinese banks to BRI countries were for fossil fuel projects and China was “involved in” 240 coal plants in just 2016. In 2018, the study adds, 40% of energy lending went to coal projects. Those investments, the group says, “promise to make climate change mitigation far more difficult.”

South and Southeast Asia are the main destinations for coal-fired projects at 80% of the total Belt and Road portfolio, the Beijing-based research center Global Environmental Institute says.

Global shift toward green energy

Chinese President Xi Jinping said last year China would try to peak its carbon dioxide emissions before 2030. The Second Belt and Road calls for working with partner countries on “energy transition” toward more wind, solar and biomass, the National Energy Administration and Shandong provincial government said in an October 18 statement. 

Some countries are pushing China to offer greener projects due to environmental pressure at home, though some foreign leaders prefer the faster, cheaper, more polluting options to prove achievements while in office, said Jonathan Hillman, economics program senior fellow at the Center for International & Strategic Studies research organization.

“There was a period in the first phase of the Belt and Road where projects were being shoveled out the door and with not enough attention to the quality of those projects,” he said.

Poorer countries are pressured now to balance providing people basic needs against environmental issues, said Song Seng Wun, an economist in the private banking unit of Malaysian bank CIMB. The basics still “take priority,” he said, and newer coal-fired plants help.

“Although I would say environmental issues (are) important, I think a lot of people don’t realize how much more efficient these more modern coal plants are, so I think we must have a balance,” Song said.

In the past few years however, cancellation rates of coal-fired projects have exceeded new approvals, Hillman said. “The action honestly has come more from participating countries,” he said. “They’ve decided that’s not the direction they want to go.”

In February, Chinese officials told the Bangladesh Ministry of Finance they would no longer consider coal mining and coal-fired power stations. Greece, Kenya, Pakistan and Serbia have asked China to dial back on polluting projects, Hillman said.

“The next decade will show to what extent the Belt and Road will drive green infrastructure,” London-based policy institute Chatham House says in a September 2021 report.

Belt-and-Road renewable energy investments reached a new high last year of 57% of its total for energy projects in 2020, according to IHS data.

New pledges at COP26?

COP26 is expected to showcase the environmental achievements of participating countries as they try to meet U.N. Paris Climate Change commitments, Biswas said.

China’s statements ahead of the conference so far differ little from past statements. But China’s energy administration said on October 18 that its second Belt and Road “emphasizes the necessity of increased support for developing countries” in terms of money, technology and ability to carry out green energy projects.

Chinese companies on BRI projects may eventually be required to reduce environmental risks, Biswas said. Those companies would in turn follow principles released in 2018 to ensure that their projects generate less carbon. A year later, as international criticism grew, Chinese President Xi added a slate of Belt and Road mini-initiatives, including some that touched on green projects.

But the 2019 plans were non-binding and untransparent, Hillman said. At COP26, he said, “I would take any big announcements with more than a grain of salt.”


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US Wages Jump by Most in Records Dating Back 20 Years

Wages jumped in the three months ending in September by the most on records dating back 20 years, a stark illustration of the growing ability of workers to demand higher pay from companies that are desperate to fill a near-record number of available jobs.

Pay increased 1.5% in the third quarter, the Labor Department said Friday. That’s up sharply from 0.9% in the previous quarter. The value of benefits rose 0.9% in the July-September quarter, more than double the preceding three months.

Workers have gained the upper hand in the job market for the first time in at least two decades, and they are commanding higher pay, more benefits and other perks like flexible work hours. With more jobs available than there are unemployed people, government data shows, businesses have been forced to work harder to attract staff.

Higher inflation is eating away at some of the wage increases, but in recent months overall pay has kept up with rising prices. The 1.5% increase in wages and salaries in the third quarter is ahead of the 1.2% increase in inflation during that period, economists said.

However, compared with a year ago, it’s a closer call. In the year ending in September, wages and salaries soared 4.2%, also a record gain. But the government also reported Friday that prices increased 4.4% in September from year earlier. Excluding the volatile food and energy categories, inflation was 3.6% in the past year.

Many experts expect inflation to slow

Jason Furman, a former top economic adviser to President Barack Obama, said Friday that inflation-adjusted wages still trail their pre-pandemic level, given the big price jumps that occurred over the spring and summer for new and used cars, furniture and airline tickets.

Whether inflation fades in the coming months will determine how much benefit workers get from higher pay.

Many economists expect inflation to slow a bit, while wages are likely to keep rising.

Pay is rising much faster in the recovery from the pandemic recession than in the recovery from the Great Recession of 2008-09, when wage growth kept slowing until a year after that downturn ended. That’s because of the different nature of the two recessions and the different policy responses.

There has been much more government stimulus during and after the pandemic recession compared with the previous one, including the $2 trillion financial support package signed by former President Donald Trump in March 2020 and the $1.9 trillion in aid approved by President Joe Biden this March. Both packages provided stimulus checks and enhanced unemployment benefits that fueled greater spending.

Lower-paid workers have seen the biggest gains, with pay rising for employees at restaurants, bars and hotels by 8.1% in the third quarter from a year earlier. For retail workers it’s jumped 5.9%.

The healthy increase for disadvantaged workers “is the result of specific policy choices to give workers a better bargaining hand and to ensure the economy recovered faster,” said Mike Konczal, a director at the left-leaning Roosevelt Institute. “The fact that it’s happening is pretty unique.”

The stimulus checks and an extra $300 a week in jobless benefits, which ended in early September, gave those out of work more leverage to demand higher pay, Konczal said. In addition, the Fed’s low-interest rate policies helped spur more spending, raising the demand for workers.

In August, there were 10.4 million jobs available, down from 11 million in July, which was the most in two decades.

Millions of Americans are responding to rising wages by quitting their jobs for better-paying positions. In August, nearly 3% of American workers quit their jobs, a record high. A higher number of quits also means companies have to raise pay to keep their employees.

Workers who switch jobs are seeing some of the sharpest income gains in decades. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, in September job-switchers saw their pay jump 5.4% compared with a year earlier. That’s up from just 3.4% in May and the biggest increase in nearly 20 years. For those who stayed in their jobs, pay rose 3.5%.

‘It was a no-brainer’

Esther Cano, 26, is one of those who found a new job that paid more in the July-September quarter. A recent college graduate who isn’t yet sure of her long-term career path, she left a job as a dispatcher at an HVAC firm in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for a position at the job placement agency Robert Half. She started in July and got a raise of about 10%.

“What I was requesting was lower than what they were willing to pay,” Cano said. “It was a no-brainer on that end, plus the environment, the room for growth, the opportunity.”

Cano has already gotten a promotion to a team leader position, where she helps place temporary employees who work in finance and accounting.

Most economists expect solid wage gains to continue for the coming months. Data from the Indeed job listings website shows that employers are still posting huge numbers of available jobs.

Higher pay can fuel inflation, as companies raise prices to cover their increased costs. But that’s not the only way businesses can respond. Lydia Boussour, an economist at Oxford Economics, notes that corporate profits in the April-June quarter were at their highest level in nearly a decade. That suggests many companies can pay higher salaries without having to lift prices. 


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Central Bankers Struggle to Tame Markets’ Inflation Fears

Central bankers and government officials around the world are scrambling to convince both the financial markets and the general public that recent spikes in price inflation are temporary, and don’t signal a period of prolonged price hikes. But many are skeptical of their analysis.

Inflation is marked by the increase in prices across all sorts of different goods and services in an economy. While some inflation is normal, a high rate of inflation makes it difficult for people to afford essential things like cars, food, clothing and shelter.

Typically, people tend to blame the government for rising prices, which makes managing inflation an important task for politicians. In the U.S., for example, evidence of rising prices is currently being used by the Republican Party to criticize President Joe Biden, a Democrat, for his handling of the economy.

With the exception of much of Asia, most of the world has seen a significant surge in the cost of living since the coronavirus pandemic began in early 2020. The food price index maintained by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization is up 32.8% from last year. The cost of fuel of all sorts — gasoline, natural gas and coal — is on the rise globally. 

On Thursday, data was released showing that Spain is experiencing an annualized inflation rate of 5.5%, and Germany is seeing 4.6% inflation. On Friday, a report covering the entire euro zone will be released, and economists expect it to show a regional 3.7% rate of inflation, the highest since the global financial crisis in 2008. 

Across the globe, countries including Russia, Nigeria, Brazil and Turkey have reported inflation above — sometimes well above — 4%. In the United States, the Consumer Price Index maintained by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that overall prices increased by 5.4% in the 12 months ending in September. 

Europe stays the course 

Despite all this, most central bankers insist that the price spikes are a transitory reaction to the global economy opening up again after being largely shut down in the early stages of the pandemic. 

“Recovering demand related to the reopening of the economy is outpacing supply,” European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde said in a virtual press conference on Thursday. “While the current phase of higher inflation will last longer than originally expected, we expect it to decline in the course of next year.” 

She added, “We really looked and very deeply tested our analysis of the drivers of inflation, and we are confident that our anticipation and our analysis is actually correct.” 

Lagarde’s remarks came after the European Central Bank signaled that it will keep interest rates at their current very low levels through next year. 

That cuts against the advice of some high-profile economists, like former U.S. Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, who has called on the Federal Reserve and other central banks to begin tightening monetary policy, which was relaxed in response to the pandemic, in order to avoid a situation in which inflation gets out of control. Government bonds are currently trading at prices that suggest that markets believe interest rate hikes are inevitable. 

Higher interest rates make borrowing more expensive and inhibit economic activity, slowing demand for goods and services. With reduced demand, prices tend to fall or moderate. 

Bank of Japan unconcerned 

In Japan, where the inflation spike affecting other countries has not materialized, Bank of Japan head Haruhiko Kuroda said that he doesn’t expect that to change. “I believe that the sort of inflation acceleration risk that’s been a cause of concern abroad is extremely limited in Japan,” indicating that he also expects the bank’s efforts to stimulate the economy to continue indefinitely.

Not all central bankers are as calm about inflation risks, though. Early this month, New Zealand’s central bank raised interest rates for the first time in seven years. In the United Kingdom, the Bank of England has signaled it is about to raise rates in order to keep inflation in check. 

 

Around the world, bond markets are setting prices that suggest that market participants don’t believe most central banks will be able to stick to their promises that rates will remain at current low levels for a long time. 

The situation in the U.S.

Federal Reserve board Chairman Jerome Powell admitted last week that the factors driving inflation, and particularly a global supply chain crisis, have not subsided as quickly as the Fed had expected.

“The risks are clearly now to longer and more persistent bottlenecks and thus to higher inflation,” he said at a virtual event hosted by the South Africa Reserve Bank. “We now see higher inflation and the bottlenecks lasting well into next year.”

He said that while the Fed will begin “tapering” a bond-buying program that was designed to push more cash into the U.S. economy during the pandemic, he doesn’t anticipate raising interest rates any time soon.

“I would say our policy is well-positioned to manage a range of plausible outcomes,” he said. “I do think it’s time to taper and I don’t think it’s time to raise rates.”

Joseph E. Gagnon, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said that he thinks the Fed is right to keep interest rates where they are for the time being, and that people who are warning that the U.S. is headed toward 1970s-style out-of-control price increases need a history lesson.

“Everyone remembers the bad old ’70s, when no one had any idea what inflation was going to be and every time inflation stepped up, people expected more and it just got out of control,” he said.

However, he said, “If you look at what led to that, it took five years of the Fed never fully responding to inflation, not talking about inflation, not doing its job, before that happened. In other words, it was a gradual process that took many years. And the Fed is just not going to let that happen. If inflation doesn’t come down next year, they are going to raise rates.” 

 


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Facebook to Rename Itself ‘Meta’ 

Facebook announced Thursday it was changing its name to Meta, rechristening itself as a digitally innovative company moving beyond 2D screens even as insider revelations paint the tech giant as apathetic toward hate speech, misinformation and mental health. 

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said during Thursday’s livestreamed augmented reality and virtual reality (VR) conference that Facebook’s name change reflects a shift beyond its scrollable social media feed. 

“The next platform in medium will be even more immersive,” he said. “An embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it. We call this the metaverse.” 

Zuckerberg said he was inspired by the classics. “Meta,” he said, comes from the Greek word for “beyond.” Facebook-owned apps such as Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger will still figure into the company’s mission, but as it builds out its VR vision, Facebook has found “a new North Star to help bring the metaverse to life,” Zuckerberg said. 

Facebook has been the subject of intense scrutiny since Frances Haugen, a former employee, leaked a trove of internal documents now known as the Facebook Papers. According to The New York Times, Haugen has made the rounds with lawmakers and regulators in the U.S. and Europe, arguing for tighter controls on the rapidly growing company. 

As part of its rebranding, Facebook will develop a newly immersive VR option. Digital avatars will be “living 3D representations” of users, Zuckerberg said, which will allow people to work, play games and socialize together. Users can customize their experience with virtual items and cosmetics, integrate non-Facebook applications such as Dropbox and Slack, and meet friends and coworkers remotely.

This social platform, called Horizon, will be accessible through Facebook’s Oculus Quest, the company’s VR headset. Privacy and safety will be key features of the metaverse: Users can block people and “teleport to a private bubble to be alone,” Zuckerberg said.

Horizon will take a four-pronged approach to privacy, according to Zuckerberg, with its Responsible Innovation Principles: “Never surprise people,” “Provide controls that matter,” “Consider everyone” and “Put people first.” It’s reminiscent of Google’s founding rule, “Don’t be evil,” but critics say Facebook has done a poor job in the past of protecting users’ private data.

Zuckerberg acknowledged the metaverse’s sci-fi sound but predicted it would be mainstream within a decade. In that time, he hopes the metaverse will reach 1 billion users, facilitate billions of dollars’ worth of e-commerce and support millions of new jobs, according to his keynote address at Thursday’s virtual conference. 

 


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US Lawmakers Vote to Tighten Restrictions on Huawei, ZTE

The U.S. Senate voted unanimously on Thursday to approve legislation to prevent companies that are deemed security threats, such as Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. or ZTE Corp., from receiving new equipment licenses from U.S. regulators. 

The Secure Equipment Act, the latest effort by the U.S. government to crack down on Chinese telecom and tech companies, was approved last week by the U.S. House in a 420-4 vote and now goes to President Joe Biden for his signature. 

“Chinese state-directed companies like Huawei and ZTE are known national security threats and have no place in our telecommunications network,” Republican Senator Marco Rubio said. The measure would prohibit the Federal Communications Commission from reviewing or issuing new equipment licenses to companies on its “Covered Equipment or Services List.” 

In March, the FCC designated five Chinese companies as posing a threat to national security under a 2019 law aimed at protecting U.S. communications networks. 

The affected companies included the previously designated Huawei and ZTE, as well as Hytera Communications Corp., Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology Co., and Zhejiang Dahua Technology Co. 

The FCC in June had voted unanimously to advance a plan to ban approvals for equipment in U.S. telecommunications networks from those Chinese companies even as lawmakers pursued legislation to mandate it. 

The FCC vote in June drew opposition from Beijing. 

“The United States, without any evidence, still abuses national security and state power to suppress Chinese companies,” Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson at China’s Foreign Ministry, said in June. 

Under proposed rules that won initial approval in June, the FCC could also revoke prior equipment authorizations issued to Chinese companies. 

A spokesperson for Huawei, which has repeatedly denied it is controlled by the Chinese government, declined to comment Thursday but in June called the proposed FCC revision “misguided and unnecessarily punitive.” 

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr said the commission has approved more than 3,000 applications from Huawei since 2018. Carr said Thursday the bill “will help to ensure that insecure gear from companies like Huawei and ZTE can no longer be inserted into America’s communications networks.” 

On Tuesday, the FCC voted to revoke the authorization for China Telecom’s U.S. subsidiary to operate in the United States, citing national security concerns. 

 


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Tariff Debate Divides US Solar Industry

Some American solar energy companies are calling on the U.S. Commerce Department to expand tariffs on Chinese solar components to include Chinese-linked products from Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand. VOA’s Mike O’Sullivan reports on a debate that has divided the solar industry.

 Camera: Roy Kim for port shots


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US Economy Slowed Markedly in Recent Months

U.S. economic growth slowed markedly in the July-to-September period, weighed down by a summer surge in the coronavirus pandemic and a snarled supply chain for consumer products, the country’s Commerce Department reported Thursday.

The agency said the world’s biggest economy grew at an annualized rate of 2% in the third quarter, down from the 6.7% figure recorded in the April-to-June quarter. It was the weakest quarter of growth since the pandemic recovery began in mid-2020.

As the delta variant of the coronavirus spread through the U.S. in recent months, many Americans curtailed summer vacation travel plans and cut back on family outings to restaurants and other activities. At the time, more than 150,000 new coronavirus cases a day were being recorded; the figure now has dropped to less than half that.

As a result, some economists said they expected U.S. economic output to expand more rapidly in the coming months. But worries remain over the supply chain as container ships full of consumer goods from Asia remain anchored and unloaded off the U.S. Pacific coast.

Meager job growth is another worry. In September, only 194,000 new jobs were added to the U.S. labor force, down from the August figure of 235,000. The jobless rate fell to 4.8%, but that was because 5 million workers dropped out of the labor force.

Those monthly figures compared with more than 2 million jobs added during June and July.

About 8.4 million workers remain unemployed in the United States. There are 10.4 million available jobs in the country, but the skills of available workers often do not match what employers want, or the job openings are not where the unemployed live. In addition, many of the available jobs are low-wage service positions that the jobless are shunning.

The supply chain slowdown has left many U.S. retailers with dwindling stocks of clothes to sell and shelves empty of other products just ahead of the busiest annual holiday shopping season. Car dealers are often short of vehicles to sell.

The dwindling number of products to sell has boosted consumer prices in the U.S., pushing inflation up 4.3% in the third quarter from a year ago.

But the number of first-time claims for unemployment compensation continued to fall, the Labor Department said Thursday, as businesses avoid layoffs.

The agency said 281,000 claims were filed last week, down 10,000 from the week before. It was the third straight week the total was the lowest since the coronavirus pandemic started its sweep through the country in mid-March 2020.

The Federal Reserve, the country’s central bank, has said it could start reducing its support for the pandemic recovery in November, eventually increasing its benchmark interest rate to curb inflationary pressures.


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Facebook Inc. Rebrands as Meta to Stress ‘Metaverse’ Plan

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said his company is rebranding itself as Meta in an effort to encompass its virtual-reality vision for the future — what Zuckerberg calls the ” metaverse.” 

Skeptics point out that it also appears to be an attempt to change the subject from the Facebook Papers, a leaked document trove so dubbed by a consortium of news organizations that include The Associated Press. Many of these documents, first described by former Facebook employee-turned-whistleblower Frances Haugen, have revealed how Facebook ignored or downplayed internal warnings of the negative and often harmful consequences its social network algorithms created or magnified across the world.

“Facebook is the world’s social media platform and they are being accused of creating something that is harmful to people and society,” said marketing consultant Laura Ries. She compared the name Meta to when BP rebranded to “Beyond Petroleum” to escape criticism that it harmed the environment. “They can’t walk away from the social network with a new corporate name and talk of a future metaverse.”

What is the metaverse? Think of it as the internet brought to life, or at least rendered in 3D. Zuckerberg has described it as a “virtual environment” you can go inside of — instead of just looking at on a screen. Essentially, it’s a world of endless, interconnected virtual communities where people can meet, work and play, using virtual reality headsets, augmented reality glasses, smartphone apps or other devices.

It also will incorporate other aspects of online life such as shopping and social media, according to Victoria Petrock, an analyst who follows emerging technologies.

Zuckerberg says he expects the metaverse to reach a billion people within the next decade. It will be a place people will be able to interact, work and create products and content in what he hopes will be a new ecosystem that creates millions of jobs for creators.

The announcement comes amid an existential crisis for Facebook. It faces heightened legislative and regulatory scrutiny in many parts of the world following revelations in the Facebook Papers.

In explaining the rebrand, Zuckerberg said the name “Facebook” just doesn’t encompass everything the company does anymore. In addition to its primary social network, that now includes Instagram, Messenger, its Quest VR headset, its Horizon VR platform and more.

“Today we are seen as a social media company,” Zuckerberg said. “But in our DNA, we are a company that builds technology to connect people.”

Facebook the app, along with Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger, are here to stay; the company’s corporate structure also won’t change. But on December 1, its shares will start trading under a new ticker symbol, “MVRS.”

Metaverse, he said, is the new way. Zuckerberg, who is a fan of classics, explained that the word “meta” comes from the Greek word “beyond.”

A corporate rebranding won’t solve the myriad problems at Facebook revealed by thousands of internal documents in recent weeks. It probably won’t even get people to stop calling the social media giant Facebook — or a “social media giant,” for that matter.

But that isn’t stopping Zuckerberg, seemingly eager to move on to his next big thing as crisis after crisis emerges at the company he created.

Just as smartphones replaced desktop computers, Zuckerberg is betting that the metaverse will be the next way people will interact with computers — and each other. If Instagram and messaging were Facebook’s forays into the mobile evolution, Meta is its bet on the metaverse.


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Nigerians Skeptical About New Digital Currency Days After Launch

Thousands of Nigerians are expressing concern about the country’s new digital currency after its user app was temporarily removed from the Google Play store this week. The app has recorded tens of thousands of downloads since its launch on Monday.

Central Bank authorities said a system glitch unable to handle the huge amount of traffic on the download site led to the temporary removal of the eNaira Speed Wallet.

They say the problem has been resolved.   

The eNaira app has recorded over 100,000 downloads on the Google Play store alone since launching on Monday. But thousands of early users say they encountered many difficulties.

Among them was Ogunbiyi Olubiyi, who runs a Lagos-based digital company.

“It’s a great initiative by the Central Bank, they’re positioning for the future which means they’re heading somewhere with this. But the execution could have been better,” Olubiyi said.

Nigerian authorities restricted cryptocurrency transactions in the country earlier this year and promised to create a safer option for citizens – the eNaira. 

The government expects to leverage the blockchain technology to improve financial inclusion, ease cross-border trades, increase remittances and boost the economy. 

But users like Abuja stock trader Leonard Nwankwo worry about hacking.  Nwankwo says the Central Bank’s terms offer no insurance in the event of losses of revenues or profits.

“Whether it’s an error that is caused by them or an error that is not caused by them, so that is to tell you that only the consumers of this product or investors in this currency are bearing 100% risk, so an agent can decide to do something dubious and he’s free to go because by limitations of liability he’s not to be held accountable,” Nwankwo.

Olubiyi says more awareness is needed to boost user confidence on the eNaira platform.

“I don’t think that people downloaded and tried the app before they began to report it. You see that is due to mistrust. I think the CBN (Central Bank of Nigeria) needs to go on a campaign, introducing and educating people about the eNaira and how it’s going to be solving problems in their lives,” Olubiyi.

Central banks around the world are adopting digital versions of their legal tenders. The Nigerian government hopes that the eNaira will boost Nigeria’s gross domestic product by $29 billion in the next 10 years.

But experts say that goal can only be achieved if end users have confidence in authorities and the currency itself. 


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US Retailers Pull Products From Companies Linked to Rights Abuses in China

Three U.S. retail giants have pulled products made by tech surveillance specialists Lorex and Ezviz, following revelations by the tech press that the companies are linked to human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang region, home to Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups.

According to reports from American online news outlet TechCrunch and video surveillance news site IPMV, big-box retailers Best Buy, Home Depot and Lowe’s terminated contracts with Lorex and Ezviz after the two news outlets questioned their partnerships.

In an email statement to VOA Mandarin, Home Depot said it has stopped selling products from both Lorex and Ezviz. “We committed to upholding the highest standards of ethical sourcing and we immediately stopped selling these products when this was brought to our attention,” said the statement, which is also on the company website.

Best Buy told TechCrunch that it was “discontinuing its relationship” with both Lorex and Ezviz. Lowe’s did not respond to a request from VOA Mandarin for comments, but a recent search shows neither Lorex nor Ezviz surveillance products are available on its website.

Lorex is a subsidiary of Dahua Technology. Ezviz is a brand of video surveillance cameras owned by Hikvision. Dahua and Hikvision were added to the U.S. government’s economic blacklist in 2019 for supplying Beijing with technology it uses to surveil ethnic groups.

Yet because the 2019 sanction covered only sales to the U.S. federal government, Lorex and Ezviz remained free to sell to private-sector buyers.

The proliferation of Chinese companies in the surveillance equipment sector reflects Beijing’s growing reliance on advanced technological tools to monitor the lives of its citizens in Xinjiang and to expand an already extensive surveillance infrastructure throughout China.

According to Human Rights Watch, the Xinjiang Bureau of Public Security uses what it calls the Integrated Joint Operations Platform, a system that gathers data on residents through iris scanners, digital cameras with face recognition, DNA samples and cellphone data.

In the China section of its 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, the U.S. State Department said that Hikvision and other tech companies are related to the development of a “Uyghur alarm” based on a face-scanning camera system.

The report said the Chinese government is conducting significant human rights abuses against Uyghurs, including “mass detention of more than one million Uyghurs and other members of predominantly Muslim minority groups in extrajudicial internment camps and an additional two million subjected to daytime-only ‘re-education’ training.”

China, which contends that Uyghurs hold extremist and separatist ideas, denies the allegations, saying that Xinjiang’s camps are “re-education” facilities aimed at combating terrorism.  

 

 


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US State Department Creates Bureau to Tackle Digital Threats

The State Department is creating a new Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy to focus on tackling cybersecurity challenges at a time of growing threats from opponents. There will also be a new special envoy for critical and emerging technology, who will lead the technology diplomacy agenda with U.S. allies.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the organizational changes underscore the need for a robust approach for dealing with cyber threats. 

“We want to make sure technology works for democracy, fighting back against disinformation, standing up for internet freedom, and reducing the misuse of surveillance technology,” Blinken said in a speech on modernizing American diplomacy. 

Blinken said the new bureau will be led by an ambassador-at-large. The chief U.S. diplomat is also seeking a 50% increase in State Department’s information technology budget. 

The announcement comes as hackers backed by foreign governments, such as Russia and China, continue to attack U.S. infrastructures and global technology systems to steal sensitive information.

Earlier this year, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said that more countries are relying on cyber operations to steal information, influence populations and damage industry, but the U.S. is most concerned about Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.

The U.S. technology giant Microsoft said on Monday that the same Russia-backed hackers responsible for the 2020 SolarWinds breach of corporate computer systems are continuing to attack global technology systems, this time targeting cloud service resellers.

A senior State Department official told reporters on Wednesday that Washington has been clear with Moscow that cyber criminals targeting the U.S. is “not acceptable.” The United States has asked the Russian government to “take action against that type of criminal behavior.” 

Confronting cyberattacks continues to be “a high priority” in U.S. relations with Russia, the senior official said.

China is also considered to be one of the United States’ main cyber adversaries, having coordinated teams both inside and outside of the government conducting cyberespionage campaigns that were large-scale and indiscriminate, according to analysts.

Over the past year, experts have attributed notable hacks in the U.S., Europe and Asia to China’s Ministry of State Security, the nation’s civilian intelligence agency, which has taken the lead in Beijing’s cyberespionage, consolidating efforts by the People’s Liberation Army. 

In addition to expanding the State Department’s capacity on cybersecurity, Blinken also unveiled other steps to modernize American diplomacy, including the launch of a new “policy ideas channel” that allows American diplomats to share their policy ideas directly with senior leadership, building and retaining a diverse workforce, as well as a plan to “reinvigorate the in-person diplomacy and public engagement.” 

The organization changes to beef up resources and staffers to tackle international cybersecurity challenges came after the State Department completed an extensive review of cyberspace and emerging technology.


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Pandemic Worsens Prospect of Global Labor Recovery

New figures from the U.N.’s International Labor Organization indicate the global labor market has been slow to bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic, with the economies of lower-income countries faring worse than those of the wealthier countries.

Early this year, ILO economists had anticipated a fragile, but steady recovery in the global job market. However, they acknowledge this relative optimism now has faded due to new waves of the pandemic and slower than expected economic recovery.

Based on its findings, the U.N. agency now projects the number of global hours worked this year will be 4.3% below pre-pandemic levels. This is the equivalent to a loss of 125 million full time jobs.

ILO Director-General Guy Ryder says more worrying still is what he sees as the two-speed recovery between higher and lower-income countries.

“This is reflected in the fact that the higher income countries, with more resources managed to recover in 2021 at least to some extent, whilst lower income countries continue to suffer very severely from the pandemic…The pandemic has exacerbated inequalities between countries, as well as within them,” he expressed.

Ryder blames this growing divergence on differences in the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccinations and fiscal stimulus packages. He says the pace of each nation’s recovery depends heavily on its ability to vaccinate its population and it will also depend on the ability of countries to provide a financial cushion to protect workers and businesses from the economic impact of the pandemic.

“In low and middle-income countries, fiscal constraints and slow vaccination progress are expected to continue to hinder progress. And without concrete financial and technical support, the great divergence between developed and developing countries will persist,” he insists.

The ILO reports the prospects for labor market recovery for the rest of the year remain weak and uncertain. Ryder says no country or region will get out of this crisis alone. He says the only sustainable path out of this health and socio-economic dilemma is for all nations to work together.


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US Holiday Sales Could Hit Record Levels

U.S. holiday sales could rise over 10% this year, a trade body said on Wednesday, as major consumer goods makers and retailers work to prevent supply chain disruptions from leaving shelves empty of in-demand toys and games. 

The National Retail Federation (NRF) forecast sales to increase between 8.5% and 10.5%, to between $843.4 billion and $859 billion, during November and December, compared with a previous high of $777.3 billion last year. 

Rising income and household savings have never been stronger and would help people pay more for goods at a time when companies have raised prices to deal with inflation, the NRF said. It added there is exceptional demand for holiday products this year, although a survey last week showed customers were worried about availability. 

“If retailers can keep merchandise on the shelves and merchandise arrives before Christmas, it could be a stellar holiday sales season,” NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz said. 

NRF also said the arrival of international travelers to the United States amid relaxed COVID-19 restrictions would further drive sales higher. 

“That’s going to give a jolt to the retail side, because there is a high correlation between international travelers and tourism in the U.S., and retail sales,” NRF President Matthew Shay told reporters. 

Several retailers had also begun their holiday selling as early as September, warning their customers their favorite items could sell out or delivery could take longer than usual. 

“There may be some categories in which there will be some shortages or which consumers will need to do some switching or trading … they won’t go home empty-handed,” Shay said. 

Amazon.com, Inc. has secured more shipping storage, while Levi Strauss & Co and Crocs Inc. have been redirecting their goods to come in through East Coast ports, away from the congested West Coast. 

 


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