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What Happened: December 15, 2021

Tablet’s afternoon news digest: Huawei & Surveillance, Putin & Xi, AWS & Outages

The Scroll
December 15, 2021

The Big Story

Two articles published this week illustrate how the Chinese government uses private digital technologies as systems of social control and a means to exert cultural influence. Chinese telecom giant Huawei, the second-largest smartphone manufacturer in the world behind only Samsung, helped build surveillance technologies that were used in labor and “reeducation camps,” according to internal company marketing documents obtained by The Washington Post from a public Huawei site that was subsequently taken down. Those technologies, including facial-recognition and location-tracking software, were developed as part of a larger surveillance project in coordination with other Chinese companies that was used, in part, to target members of China’s ethnically Muslim Uyghur minority population. One slide from the marketing documents referred to Huawei’s products as “the foundation of the smart prisons unified platform” and described how it can be used in the “analysis and evaluation of reeducation efficacy.” Huawei has been under sanctions from the United States since 2019, when the Trump administration added it to a blacklist of companies deemed a national security threat based on Huawei’s ability to share user data with the Chinese government. On the soft power side of the ledger, an article in Monday’s New York Times detailed how China has courted young social media influencers to burnish the country’s international reputation by paying both in cash and —in the native coin of the social media realm, clout and popularity. “State-run news outlets and local governments have organized and funded pro-Beijing influencers’ travel … paid or offered to pay the creators.” Beijing’s backing has also “generated lucrative traffic” for the influencers doing PR for the Chinese state “by sharing videos with millions of followers on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook.” 

Read it here:
And here:

Today’s Back Pages: Why Wokeness Wins

The Rest

→ Russia and China shored up their anti-Atlanticist alliance Wednesday with a video meeting between Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. With both countries facing sanctions and diplomatic standoffs with the United States, the two leaders showed off a burgeoning alliance that is, for now, setting aside their ongoing disputes to make common cause in declaring their spheres of influence off limits to Western intervention. Going forward, the two countries would “more effectively safeguard the security interests of both parties,” Xi told Putin during the meeting, according to Chinese state media. 

→The misinformation police have a chronic problem with getting their facts wrong, but lucky for them, they also get to decide what counts as truth. On Wednesday it was reported that on Dec. 2, Twitter quietly changed its terms of service concerning COVID-19 to classify as misinformation “false or misleading claims that people who have received the vaccine can spread or shed the virus (or symptoms, or immunity) to unvaccinated people.” People who make such claims can be banned from the site, which is a problem for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as the journalist Stephen Miller pointed out, since on the CDC website it states very clearly that fully vaccinated people can still spread the virus. Tough call for the CDC: Should it stick to the established science and risk getting banned from Twitter, or just change its stance, avoid any possibility of getting labeled anti-vax, and stay on good terms with social media’s masters of reality?

→For the second time in as many weeks, widespread outages were reported at Amazon Web Services, temporarily taking dozens of websites down Wednesday morning before service was restored. The problems Wednesday were traced to a different region than the outage from last week, and the company says they are unrelated, but as noted here previously, the episodes illustrate the internet’s extraordinary degree of reliance on a single web-hosting provider.

→Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer found guilty of of second-degree murder for killing George Floyd by kneeling on his neck, pleaded guilty Wednesday in federal court to charges that he willfully violated Floyd’s civil rights.

→Another entry in the catalog of business connections between members of the U.S. ruling class and the Chinese government. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo’s husband is an executive at an artificial intelligence company, PathAI, that lists as one of the main sources of its funding, Danhua Capital—a venture capital firm backed by the Chinese government. An article in the Free Beacon exposing the potential conflict of interest notes that a 2018 Reuters report on Danhua Capital described how “China’s penetration of Silicon Valley creates risks for start-ups.”
Read more:

→A new Pew survey of religious affiliation shows overall levels of religious identification continuing to decline in the United States, while a subset of people who were already religious say their faith grew stronger over the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the latest research, only 63% of Americans now identify as Christians, down from 78% in 2007. The percentage of so-called “nones” who say they have no religious affiliation now stands at 29%, up from 16% in 2007. Religious service attendance is down by an estimated 30% to 50% since before the pandemic, with many houses of worship forced to close, but millions of people in the United States migrating to worshipping online, according to data collected by research firm Barna Group.

→As White House officials insist rather strenuously that President Biden definitely intends to run for office again in 2024, the numbers are not looking good. A new Politico poll conducted earlier this week with 1,998 registered voters found that only 34% say they want Biden to run for president again in 2024, while 58% do not want him to run. Even among Democrats, only 63% said they want to see the incumbent president run again, compared to 28% against.

→Cornell University, which boasts a 97% vaccination rate in its total population, shut down its Ivy league campus in upstate New York and instituted an “alert level red”—when did colleges develop “alert levels” as if they were part of Homeland Security?—in the midst of finals week. The shutdown was triggered after a number of students tested positive for the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus, which so far appears to produce less severe infections than previous strains but spreads more rapidly.

Raise a glass and a l’chaim to the extraordinary life of Henry Orenstein. Born in 1923 in Poland, he hid from the Nazis as a young man but gave himself up after reaching the point of starvation. At a concentration camp in Germany, he heard the Nazis ask over the loudspeaker if there were any scientists among the Jews and, despite having never even attended college, raised his hand and said he was a very good scientist. The bluff paid off when he got recruited to a secret program, which he eventually figured out was a hoax dreamed up by German scientists to convince Hitler they were working on a super-secret weapon so that he wouldn’t ship them off to fight in the east. Orenstein survived the war, moved to the United States, and got into the toy business. In 1983, after a trip to Japan, where he saw a cool shape-shifting toy, he took a meeting with Hasbro in the States and sold them the concept, calling it Transformers. And if that wasn’t enough, he was one of the world’s best poker players and the inventor of the hole cam, which lets viewers at home see each player’s cards and which was responsible for turning poker into a popular televised sport.

The Back Pages

backpages Why Wokeness Wins

A recent New York Times column from Ross Douthat on the so-called new right makes the case that a rising generation of reactionary conservatives are particularly relevant to the current political moment (and potentially the concern of today’s voters) because of their focus on a set of problems that have arisen in the years since 9/11:

[In the United States], the threat to liberty from Silicon Valley monopolies enforcing progressive orthodoxy and the threat to human happiness from the addictive nature of social media, online pornography and online life in general. The collapse of birthrates, the dissolution of institutional religion and the decline of bourgeois normalcy, manifest in the younger generation’s failure to mate, to marry, raise families. The post-1960s “great stagnation” in both living standards and technological innovation. The costs of cultural libertarianism, the increase in unhappiness and high rates of depression and addiction in a more individualistic society.

Then finally, the way in which the technocratic response to the pandemic, the retreat to a virtual life suited only to a “laptop class” (and maybe not even to them), may make these problems worse.

Douthat is correct to point out that some of the new right’s critics, or what he sees as the more progressive flank of liberal democrats, devote more of their energy to problems that have been on the shelf for several decades—a broader, more robust social welfare system, for example, and what Douthat describes as “the deconstruction of white male Christian heteronormativity for woke progressivism.” But there’s a narrowness, too, in Douthat’s application of this catch-all description to the new right’s opponents. Indeed, the existential crisis Douthat sees on the right is in fact quite real for both sides of the aisle, and the new factions share a good deal of concern about the same set of problems—crime and drug addiction, income inequality, and high rates of depression—if not the same ways to fix them.

If there are two core common beliefs of these small but growing flanks, it’s first a dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party’s own obsession with identity politics as a solution to many of these more modern issues. And second, there’s a shared belief by both sides that any real political progress requires the dismantling of the sclerotic institutional parties from which both flanks originate.

To what extent a complete overhaul is possible for either party will be determined in no small part in the upcoming midterm elections, when races such as the open Senate seat in Pennsylvania feature a showdown on the Democratic ticket that illuminates the lack of party coherence and a growing anti-establishment sentiment that continues to chip away at the priorities of the party leadership. As the so-called centrist democrat, Conor Lamb has been critical of his party’s advocacy to defund the police and other various identitarian policies that “are unworkable and extremely unpopular.” As the so-called far-left candidate and Pennsylvania’s current lieutenant governor, John Fetterman has mixed a Bernie-style class populism with an advocacy for the working-class Pennsylvania towns that are afflicted by lost livelihoods and the drug overdose crisis and don’t see much of themselves in the Democratic appeals to their laptop-class constituents. To solve the problems afflicting these voters right now, Fetterman has been touting not very green New Deal things such as natural gas fracking, which he sees as necessary to bring desperately needed jobs to struggling post-industrial Pennsylvania cities. That the leading Democratic candidates in a key swing state sound increasingly unlike the party they represent points to the growing dissatisfaction we’re likely to observe nationwide come next November.

Send your tips, comments, questions, and suggestions to [email protected].

Tablet’s afternoon newsletter edited by Jacob Siegel and Park MacDougald.

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