2018
January
22
Monday

I suspect I’m not alone in being alarmed by what has been happening in Washington in recent years. Whether we like it or not, any nation’s politics is a mirror of its values and culture, and the view has not always been reassuring.

Then I began reading David McCullough’s marvelous biography of President John Adams. During his administration, the Alien and Sedition Acts essentially abolished freedom of the press. People crossed the street rather than tip their cap to members of the other party. Intrigues were rampant. Newspapers were unabashedly scurrilous. There was near-constant talk of civil war.

Yet the nation endured. Why? “However striking [the Founders’] differences in temperament or political philosophy, they were, without exception, men dedicated primarily to seeing the American experiment succeed,” Mr. McCullough writes.

The United States remains the world’s greatest political experiment. Can a nation that is not built on a common religion, ethnicity, or language create a governing sense of “us” based on principles and ideals alone?

Yes, Congress has been dealing with a government shutdown. But it is also continuing the struggle of answering that most fundamental question. 

Among our five stories today, we look at a different view of the Senate showdown, China from a unique perspective, and a new idea to help girls stay in school.  

1. Flashpoint in Syria shows complexity of a conflict’s endgame

President Trump has signaled that containing Iran is central to his Middle East policy. What happens next in Syria will be a crucial test of the administration’s commitment to that vision.

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In the midst of an erupting dispute with Turkey last week over US support for a largely Kurdish force in northern Syria, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spelled out the Trump administration’s updated Syria policy. Like previous iterations, it seeks eradication of the Islamic State group and envisions a postwar Syria without President Bashar al-Assad. But it adds a third main goal consistent with President Trump’s broader policy in the Middle East: containing Iran. A main US asset in pursuing those goals is the Kurdish force, which is to be deployed along Syria’s border with Turkey. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who sees the Kurds as terrorists, was furious, leading to Turkish air and ground attacks on northern Syria over the weekend. With Turkey threatening the US allies, and with Russia and Iran already having the upper hand in Syria, analysts are asking whether the United States will be able to see its new policy through to fruition. Says one: “As ever with the Trump administration, the tide seems to turn so quickly, it’s really hard to know how much this new approach is anchored in anything real or sustainable.”

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1. Flashpoint in Syria shows complexity of a conflict’s endgame

Turkish tanks rolled into northern Syria Sunday, attacking Syrian Kurdish forces that have been instrumental US allies in the fight against Islamic State militants.

The Turkish offensive is the latest move in a confluence of events that mark a new stage of the seven-year-old Syrian conflict. As the main players strive to establish facts on the ground to maximize their own chances of shaping postwar Syria, Turkey in particular is challenging core components of the Trump administration’s foreign policy.

The short-term catalyst for the clash was a Pentagon declaration last week that the United States now plans to extend indefinitely a military presence in northeast Syria, and build a largely Kurdish force of 30,000 to help achieve its aims. ISIS has been squeezed from most of its territory in Syria, thanks largely to a US-backed Kurdish force, but momentum in the war is favoring President Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian and Russian allies.

The declaration infuriated Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who called the northern Syria Kurdish forces a “terror army” established by the US. He vowed that the Turkish military would cross into Syria to “strangle” the new US-backed force “before it was born.”

The new force is a key piece for the Trump administration as it rolls out an ambitious, three-pronged Syria policy, which aims to prevent the reemergence of ISIS, help orchestrate a postwar Syria without President Assad, and contain Iranian influence.

But analysts note that Russia and Iran have already prevailed in Syria, and the US is acting from a position of relative weakness. And they ask whether the US administration, which has a history of inconsistent messaging on foreign policy, has the capacity and patience to achieve those goals.

The backbone of the new militia would be the umbrella Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the US-backed group that is led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) that also include some Arab forces. The new militia would deploy on Syria’s northern border with Turkey, its eastern border with Iraq, and along the Euphrates River.

Turkey has long been angry at the overt US support for the YPG over its close affiliation with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which has waged a lethal insurgency against Ankara.

In an attempt to defuse the clash with Turkey over the force, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis acknowledged Sunday that Turkey had “legitimate” security concerns. But Turkey's vitriol signals a new low in US-Turkey relations.

At the same time, while Turkish forces advance to create what Ankara calls a 20-mile deep “security zone” in northern Syria, analysts wonder if the Trump administration will be able to see its new Syria policy through to fruition.

“There does seem to be an element of Washington giving up on Turkey and driving forward their position in Syria with an anti-Iran prioritization, but as ever with the Trump administration, the tide seems to turn so quickly, it’s really hard to know how much this new approach is anchored in anything real or sustainable,” says Julien Barnes-Dacey, a senior policy fellow for the European Council on Foreign Relations in Brussels.

'A very weak position'

For years, Washington and its allies, including Turkey and Persian Gulf states, supported anti-Assad rebels in a proxy war. But today, the Americans “are in a very weak position,” and achieving results that press both Damascus and Tehran “would require a much wider and deeper military push than Trump is ever going to be prepared to undertake,” says Mr. Barnes-Dacey.

He also notes an “inherent contradiction” in the policy the US shares with the European Union and the UN that Russia – whose airpower helped ensure Assad's survival – can pressure Assad into compromises at the negotiating table. That can happen only with a joint Russia-Iran push. Yet the declared US anti-Iran approach will likely “kill off any hope” of such an outcome, says Barnes-Dacey.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who tried last week to calm the dispute with Turkey, on Wednesday publicly enunciated the emerging US policy. It was anti-ISIS, anti-Assad, and – emphasized for the first time on that battlefield – anti-Iran.

Mr. Tillerson said Iran had “dramatically strengthened” its role in Syria, a status that would be “further” enhanced by any US disengagement, enabling Iran to “continue attacking US interests, our allies and personnel.” The continued US presence, he said, would be aimed at “reducing and expelling malicious Iranian influence."

Whether or not Turkey and the US are aligned on ISIS and Assad, however, Turkey’s reaction is being driven by the prospect of a sustained US presence in Syria, which is “tantamount to a security guarantee” for the Syria’s Kurdish militias, says Aaron Stein, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East in Washington.

Turkey chose to vilify “whatever is left of US-Turkish relations” with its rhetoric and cross-border incursion, while the US was also insensitive by stating it would create a new force in Syria when it already had one in place, says Mr. Stein.

Operation Olive Branch

Turkey on Saturday announced the launch of Operation Olive Branch, with shelling of YPG positions. The ground offensive began on Sunday, and Turkish media on Monday reported that Turkish forces had advanced more than three miles into the Kurdish enclave of Afrin, north of Aleppo. The YPG claimed it had pushed back the offensive.

The aim is to “liberate the area by eliminating the PKK-YPG-linked administration,” according to a Turkish official who commented on condition of anonymity. He said the operation would continue east toward the larger city of Manbij. The SDF units with direct US support are farther east, across the Euphrates River.

“I suppose Washington is trying to keep Afrin entirely separate from the situation east of the Euphrates,” says Frederic Hof, director of the Rafik Hariri Center at the Atlantic Council. “The logic would be that the … SDF is the anti-ISIS coalition ‘partner force,’ and that the partnership in question does not extend to Afrin or any place beyond the anti-ISIS area of operations.”

While the US-Turkish fight over Kurdish control unfolds, the addition of the US anti-Iran strategy stems from a desire by some at the National Security Council to “get tough and put Iran on notice,” says Stein.

“Anybody who knows how Iran operates … knows that this will not put Iran on notice,” he says. “Iran and Russia and the [Syrian] regime have won this war, they will settle this thing on their terms. The US is hanging on for dear life, and trying to alter an outcome that’s probably unalterable.”

That is not stopping Washington from trying. Iran was high on the list of priorities during testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, when David Satterfield, acting assistant secretary for Near East affairs, was asked about the continued role of US forces in Syria.

“We are deeply concerned with the activities of Iran, with the ability of Iran to enhance those activities through a greater ability to move materiel into Syria,” said Mr. Satterfield.

Balancing policy aims

Analysts say that if Iranian forces and their allies were to move unopposed into eastern Syria it could trigger a backlash by the Sunni population, which resents the Shiite-flavor of Iran’s military presence.

“The US problem with Iran is that it uses a [Shiite] sectarian agenda to prop up these rickety states like Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere that generates stronger and stronger variants of ISIS and Al Qaeda,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The new US policy will try to balance these multiple policy aims in a way that Washington has never achieved throughout the Syrian conflict. Instead, immediate focus on tactical gains – such as using Syrian Kurds as a key component against ISIS, despite the anger of a NATO ally – has often created new dilemmas.

“Successive US administrations have failed to find a means of taking into account Turkey’s very real, and to some extent understandable, objections to support a group so closely linked to the PKK,” says Noah Bonsey, the senior Syria analyst for the International Crisis Group.

At the same time, “a precipitous [US] withdrawal from northeastern Syria could very well pave the way for a new war,” he says, in which the many enemies of the YPG might move against the Kurdish militia.

“The rhetoric probably does overstate what can be achieved, [but] to some extent by maintaining a US presence you diminish the likelihood of that destabilizing scenario, at least temporarily,” says Mr. Bonsey.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

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2. Shutdown saga prompts debate about how to fix 'broken' Congress

For years, the momentum in Washington has been toward dysfunction and discord. But amid the shutdown there was also the spark of a rebellion against the conviction that this is the way it has to be.   

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The impasse in Congress may have been resolved – for now – as Democrats and Republicans reached a deal to reopen the government for three weeks in exchange for a promised vote on immigration. But with two partial shutdowns in four years, a budget that has been limping along on temporary extensions, and searing partisanship, it’s hard to quarrel with the conclusion that something is broken in Washington. President Trump and many Republicans, especially in the House, think the answer lies in changing the rules by getting rid of the 60-vote threshold in the Senate, or the filibuster. But others say it’s not the process, but the people – lawmakers, parties, outside interest groups – that need to change. Over the past few days, a “common sense coalition” of 25 senators met to try to find a way to end the shutdown in a deliberate effort to restore the kind of bipartisan, constructive talks that were once a Senate hallmark. On Monday, Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York credited the group with helping to move things forward. “I believe that this group,” he said, “has the potential to return the Senate to the kind of place it should be.”

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Shutdown saga prompts debate about how to fix 'broken' Congress

On day two of the government shutdown, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D) of Wisconsin concluded her floor speech with a broad indictment: “The biggest problem we face right now is that Washington is broken,” she said.

This latest impasse may have been resolved – for now – as Democrats and Republicans reached a deal to reopen the government for three weeks, in exchange for addressing a host of other issues, and a promised vote in coming weeks on immigration.

But with two partial government shutdowns in four years, a budget that has been limping along on temporary extensions, searing partisanship and unresolved pressing problems, it’s hard to quarrel with the Wisconsin senator’s conclusion that the nation’s capital is dysfunctional.

Still up for debate is how to fix it. President Trump and many Republicans, especially in the House, think the answer is to change the rules – specifically by getting rid of the 60-vote threshold in the Senate, or the filibuster. 

Others argue it’s not the process, but the people – the lawmakers, the president, the parties, the outside pressure groups – that are the problem.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska observes that the rules have changed very little in the 15 years that she’s served in the Senate. What’s different is the way lawmakers today use those rules.

“There has been greater comfort by members to use the rules to slow, to delay, to grind the gears in a way that is not constructive,” she says.

Bipartisan efforts

Over the past few days, Senator Murkowski was part of a bipartisan effort by 25 senators – a quarter of the Senate – to operate more constructively. Known as the “common sense coalition,” the group met in “little Switzerland,” the office of Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine to try to find a way to end the shutdown. Senator Collins assembled a similar group to help end the shutdown of 2013.

Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York on Monday credited the group with helping to resolve the impasse. “I believe that this group has the potential to return the Senate to the kind of place it should be,” he said on the Senate floor. “A place for bipartisanship. A place for action. A place for achievement.”

Still, it remains a question whether the deliberately cumbersome system of checks and balances, designed by the Founding Fathers to forge compromise, can truly remain viable in today’s fast-paced, highly polarized environment.

Going into this shutdown, the left exerted enormous pressure on Democrats to stand their ground on protecting the young, undocumented “Dreamers” who were brought to the US as children, and to link the issue to the budget deadline to force a solution. After the deal was announced, some outside groups accused Senator Schumer of “caving,” pointing out that he only secured a promised vote in the Senate, not a guarantee to protect Dreamers.

In the 2013 shutdown, it was the GOP’s base that insisted on tying efforts to defund the Affordable Care Act to budget negotiations. Then, too, hardliners ultimately failed to get what they wanted from the shutdown.

Increasingly, lawmakers seem to be trying to craft deals to satisfy their party’s fringes – as opposed to focusing on finding middle ground. The White House appears to be letting hardliners such as Sen. Tom Cotton (R) of Arkansas and others in and outside the White House take a lead role in immigration negotiations.

“The president has consistently said he wants to make sure Tom Cotton and I can embrace a deal that he cuts, and I trust him at his word,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R) of North Carolina told reporters last week. Congressman Meadows heads the hard-right House Freedom Caucus.

Disagreement over filibuster

Meadows and many other Republicans in the House would just as soon get rid of the filibuster in the Senate, which they see as blocking the will of the majority.

On Sunday, Mr. Trump again tweeted his support for canning it, saying Republicans should take the “nuclear option” and go to a 51 vote threshold for legislation, and pass a budget (they already have a simple-majority rule for approving executive branch nominees, federal judgeships, and Supreme Court nominees).

“I for one would love to see Mitch McConnell do away with the filibuster, and then America would truly hold Republicans responsible for these decisions,” Rep. Chris Collins (R) of New York recently told reporters.

Those in favor of ditching the filibuster for legislation point out that it’s not in the Constitution. That’s true, says former Senate historian Don Ritchie. But what is in the Constitution is the ability of each chamber to write its own rules.

Originally, he explains, each chamber had nearly identical rules, based on the British parliament. But the House was designed to be closer to the people, whereas the Senate is meant to cool the populist impulses of the House – and over time, Senate rules evolved to give a lot more power to the minority party. That’s partly because a majority of senators represent a minority of the population, says Mr. Ritchie.

And the Constitution reflects the difference between the chambers and the need to give the minority party a voice. It requires a two-thirds Senate vote to convict in the case of impeachment (which only requires a majority in the House), as well as for overturning a presidential veto or ratifying a treaty. “The Senate has always understood you need a supermajority to get things done,” says Ritchie.

Many senators strongly resist the idea of getting rid of the filibuster – including Senator McConnell, the Senate majority leader. Despite Trump’s stand, there are not the votes now to do away with it.

“I think it is important that the Senate operate with a 60-vote margin on the critical issues that face our nation because it forces us to work together,” says Senator Baldwin in an interview. She says one reason the Senate is at a standstill over the budget is because in the last year, Republicans have become “too accustomed to running the Senate like the House” – using special rules that require only a majority vote.

In a way, the filibuster is needed more than ever, she says. Many of the conditions that helped lawmakers forge compromise in previous eras no longer exist. She points to the practice of committee chairs and ranking members holding weekend potlucks for committee members and their families – no longer possible now that most members return to their districts every weekend.

Murkowski, too, defends the filibuster. “If we are to change our rules to make it easier to overrun the minority, you really have lost the framework of what the Senate was established to help provide,” she says.

Tweaking the power-balance 

But that doesn’t mean that the Senate’s internal operations couldn’t use a good tweaking. In the bipartisan meetings in Collins’s office, a “sidebar” conversation emerged about how spending bills are handled, Murkowski said. Bringing such bills to the floor for debate is subject to the 60-vote threshold. Because the Senate can’t clear that threshold to even bring these bills to the floor for consideration, it is failing in its most basic job.

According to Murkowski and other lawmakers from both parties, there seemed to be bipartisan interest in narrowly changing the filibuster rule just to be able to proceed to debate on spending bills.

After the Senate moved toward reopening the government on Monday, Sen. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia, said he’d like to see another rule change. The leaders of the two parties have too much power to set – or block – the agenda, given the size of the “common sense coalition” that was so instrumental in pushing McConnell and Schumer to end the shutdown.

“I don’t believe that either leader on either side should have the powers that they have … to be able to set an agenda or stop an agenda, when you have a force as strong as ours,” he told reporters at a joint press conference with Senator Collins.

“They listened. And that’s what moved it,” he said. “Because we weren’t backing off.”

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3. Back to an old beat: a reporter’s return to a changed China

What is China today? It's the question reporter Ann Scott Tyson asked herself upon returning after 25 years away. She found elements of the stereotypical view of the country: lots of surveillance and booming materialism. But in the seams of everyday life, she also found more. 

Mark
Aly Song/Reuters/File
A woman walks near the financial district in Shanghai, China, today.

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A gray landscape greeted novice reporter Ann Scott Tyson when she landed in Beijing in 1983. “The airport road was empty but for a few people bundled in ragged clothes pedaling bicycles,” she recalls. Mao Zedong’s death – and the end of his fanatical Cultural Revolution – was only seven years past. The country was isolated and poor, traumatized by famine and purges. For most of the next decade, the writer had a front-row seat as pragmatic leader Deng Xiaoping jettisoned communism for capitalism. In the spring of 1989 she watched the rise of a pro-democracy movement and the crackdown that followed. Upon her recent return, Ann found herself on a sleek bullet train, floating on a magnetic cushion as it pulled away from Shanghai’s international airport. From that modern megacity she began to take in China’s new story – heading also to rural Gansu, a sharp contrast that underscored rising inequality. “Rejecting the West as a model,” Ann writes, “[President] Xi sees China setting the example for other nations.” But that means tackling problems such as corruption and severe pollution. Experts say China could ease its future by encouraging civil society and organized political participation, fostering paths to compromise. But so far China’s leaders are instead tightening their grip. 

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Back to an old beat: a reporter’s return to a changed China

The ultra-sleek bullet train, floating on a magnetic cushion, accelerates as it leaves Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport for the megacity of 24 million people. Outside, a futuristic metropolis unfolds. Curved skyscrapers and raised freeways flash by until they blur. Inside the car, green digits above the doorway shoot upward: 200 kilometers per hour ... 300 ... 431. 

The car is uncrowded, its well-dressed passengers unimpressed by the world’s fastest commercial train. Some riders stare at mobile phones. No one speaks. Less than eight minutes later, the train glides to a stop and passengers alight, stepping past stewards wearing long coats into a high-ceilinged station. 

I’ve arrived in China, but I feel worlds away from the country I first encountered decades earlier. A gray, frozen landscape greeted me when I flew into Beijing one wintry November day in 1983. The airport road was empty but for a few people bundled in ragged clothes pedaling bicycles, and a panting horse pulling a wobbly cart. I was fresh out of college and taking up residence as a novice reporter.

It had been only seven years since Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 and the end of his fanatical Cultural Revolution. The country was isolated and poor, its
1 billion people exhausted and traumatized by economic stagnation, famine, and political purges. China’s 800 million peasants toiled on “people’s communes.” Urban workers had an “iron rice bowl” of assigned jobs and food rations.

Courtesy of Ann Scott Tyson
Ann Scott Tyson in 1985 on Wangfujing Street in Beijing (then called Peking) when she was a reporter for United Press International.

For most of the next decade, I lived in Beijing and Hong Kong, taking a front-row seat as pragmatic leader Deng Xiaoping jettisoned communism for capitalism, and China sprang to life. In the spring of 1989, I watched the buildup of a pro-democracy movement. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese rallied in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, only to face a brutal military crackdown on June 4.

Many of my contacts disappeared into hiding, jail, or exile. Few Chinese dared speak with me. Taking my infant son for a stroll in Beijing’s Ritan (“Temple of the Sun”) Park was one way to have innocuous contacts. Even then, plainclothes police sometimes followed us. Later, I managed to evade authorities and travel, capturing the life stories of several Chinese for a book I co-wrote. By the time I left in 1992, China was a second home. I spoke and often dreamed in Chinese. In many respects, I knew China better than I did my own country. 

Now back to visit my son in Shanghai, I am eager to rediscover China after 25 years – and see whether I can reconnect.

What most surprises me about Shanghai and the country are the extremes, the sheer magnitude of it all. China, I know, is the world’s biggest trading nation. Soaring growth has lifted more than 700 million Chinese from poverty since 1990, creating a robust middle class and hundreds of billionaires. After a mass migration from villages, more than half of Chinese now live in cities. Still, I was skeptical about China’s ability to modernize against such huge odds. In Shanghai, those doubts vanish.

“China has with remarkable speed restored itself to ‘wealth and power,’ fuqiang, the watchwords of Chinese nationalists from the late 19th century on,” says Chas W. Freeman Jr., a veteran United States diplomat now in academia. 

Mr. Freeman recalls arriving at Shanghai’s airport in 1972 as an interpreter on President Richard Nixon’s historic trip, and hearing birds sing. “There were no aircraft,” he says. China “was a cultural desert in the middle of [Mao’s] Cultural Revolution.”

Today, Shanghai is a thriving, cosmopolitan metropolis, every bit as chic as Paris or New York – and with more people than any other city proper in the world. 

From the window of my son’s apartment, skyscrapers stretch across the horizon. Far below, people flow down tree-lined streets by bicycle, scooter, automobile, and DiDi car (the Chinese ride service now rivaling Uber). Shanghai has 1,000 bus lines and the world’s largest subway system, its riders orderly and aloof. 

The city boasts the world’s busiest container port and fourth-
largest stock exchange. “China is not trying to make revolution anymore; it is trying to make money, which is much more wholesome,” says Freeman, a senior fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.

I stroll down Shanghai’s upscale Nanjing Road, past displays of Swiss watches and designer fashions. At the 1920 Art Deco French Club, now a hotel in the former French Concession, I discover an extravagant Chinese wedding complete with rose petals strewn on a spiral staircase. The bride poses for photos beneath nude sculptures, which are again on display after being boarded up during the Cultural Revolution. 

On Fumin Road, school lets out and uniformed children crowd sidewalks and shops, buying snacks such as boiled tea eggs and warm soy milk. Shanghai’s upwardly mobile residents pay $30,000 a year to send their children to private high schools and pave their way to college overseas. Since China’s opening in the late 1970s, millions have left to study abroad, including some 300,000 now at universities in the US.

Chinese are traveling more than ever. On Shanghai’s colonial-era waterfront, the Bund, crowds of Chinese tourists listen to guides describe a “century of humiliation” under foreign powers. Indeed, Chinese tourists far outnumber foreigners at every historical site I visit, from Mt. Huang in the south to Buddhist caves on the edge of the Gobi desert.

But Shanghai, I know, is only one side of China’s story. From there I head west, to the hinterland.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
A farmer uses a donkey to plow his rocky field while planting millet on his narrow plot in China’s Gansu province in June 1988.

Riding by train through rugged Gansu Province along what was once China’s ancient Silk Road, I scan the landscape of wind-blown loess, expecting to see farmers tending terraced fields as years before. Instead, I see a strange moonscape, a parched expanse. The few clusters of mud-brick homes appear dilapidated and sparsely inhabited, with only some small groups of people harvesting cotton.

The train’s interior seems empty, too, compared with those of the “hard seat” cars I rode in years before. Gone are the crowds of people, jostling and chatting together on wooden seats as they cracked sunflower seeds and sipped jasmine tea from enamel cups.

Occasionally, the train passes a “ghost city,” a jarring block of unoccupied high-rise apartments, evidence of futile government efforts to lure more Chinese to the remote region. A vast wind farm appears, its thousands of alien-looking turbines motionless because of a lack of both demand and transmission lines. 

Rural Gansu is the land of China’s have-nots. Its stark contrast with Shanghai underscores the country’s new inequality. In the 1980s, China was one of the most egalitarian societies in the world. Now, it is one of the most unequal. As coastal cities flourished, the rural interior lagged. Shanghai has roughly the same population as Gansu, but is five times as wealthy.

“They have not gone nearly far enough to bridge the gap” between urban and rural areas, says Kenneth Lieberthal, an expert in Chinese politics who has conducted on-the-ground research in China since 1976. Health care and education remain “primitive” in much of the countryside, where most Chinese youth still grow up, says Mr. Lieberthal, professor emeritus at the University of Michigan and a former Asia senior director on the National Security Council.

Migrant workers lack access to urban benefits, including public schooling for their children. They leave behind children and elderly parents, who often struggle.

“I used to grow cotton and corn, but the lack of rain, and the low grain prices made it impossible for me to make a living,” says one older farmer in northern Gansu. A year ago, he took a job as a street cleaner in a nearby town, making about $165 a month. “The wage is low, but many people need jobs so we need to spread it out,” he says.

As China’s population rapidly ages, a consequence of the recently relaxed one-child policy, a pressing question is who will care for the rural elderly, most of whom lack a government pension. Urbanization is hollowing out rural areas, causing the abandonment or destruction of more than 900,000 traditional villages.

“All the young people have left,” says Hu Ziyong, born and raised in a riverside village in Sichuan province, which borders Gansu. She tells me her four children couldn’t make a living farming. Illiterate, she lives alone in a moss-covered stone house, raising a few ducks and chickens.

At a nearby shrine, Ms. Hu burns incense to honor her ancestors, represented by two seated stone figures under a curved roof. I realize how traditional farming villages, with their close-knit communities, folk customs, and ancestral halls, contain much of the essence of Chinese culture. As they disappear to make way for a more modern, materialistic society, a part of China is lost with them. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
People walk around a Buddhist shrine in Rejabgeh, on the Tibetan Plateau, in China.

Venturing beyond China proper, I head upland by bus, toward the country’s ethnic frontiers. China’s population is 91 percent ethnic Han Chinese, but vast border regions – about a third of its territory – are inhabited by Tibetan, Uighur, Hui, Mongol, and other ethnic groups. 

Tensions have long simmered as ethnic and religious minorities press for autonomy, bringing harsh reprisals from China’s atheistic government. But there are exceptions.

As the bus rolls past cornfields and into the foothills, I am surprised to see dozens of mosques, each with distinctive domes and minarets, towering over the countryside. This territory belongs to the 10-million-strong Hui ethnic group, which has long assimilated with Han Chinese, speaking the same language, intermarrying, and living dispersed throughout China. Unthreatened by the Hui, Beijing is unusually tolerant of their religious activities.

In contrast, the government is tightening controls on Buddhists in Tibet and Muslims in Xinjiang, where authorities have reportedly destroyed mosques, forbidden officials from fasting at Ramadan, and imposed other restrictions on worship in the name of preventing terrorism.

The bus climbs into the mountains, past a white stupa draped with prayer flags, and stops near Labrang Monastery, a major center of Tibetan Buddhism with about 2,000 monks and six colleges. At dawn, Tibetan pilgrims in long-sleeved cloaks circle Labrang, chanting and spinning prayer wheels. 

Security cameras inside Labrang monitor the monks’ activities. Monks are required to undergo political indoctrination critical of their exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who seeks greater autonomy for Tibet, and are barred from displaying his portrait. 

In and around Labrang, I spot only one photograph of the Dalai Lama, high on the wall in the corner of a Tibetan clothing shop. “Whenever there is a crackdown, I cover it,” explains the shopkeeper, using a yellow silken cloth as a quick curtain. She folds her hands and bows toward the image.

Monks at Labrang and other monasteries staged demonstrations against Chinese policies in Tibet in 2008, and since then scores of Tibetans have self-immolated in protest. Several monks from Labrang have been arrested, and some remain in jail, local Tibetans tell me. 

“Our religious leader is the Dalai Lama; we want him to choose the incarnations, not the Communist Party,” says one Tibetan resident, a former herdsman, referring to the sacred process of identifying successors to high lamas. “The party controls everything – politics, religion, and culture.”

A large Chinese paramilitary installation stands several blocks from Labrang. Armed police patrol the streets, ramping up during Tibetan festivals, residents say.

China’s heavy-handed religious repression and security presence in Tibet and Xinjiang, along with the resettlement there of millions of Han Chinese, is driven by a greater objective: to secure the country’s strategic and resource-rich periphery at all costs. 

The border areas, especially Xinjiang, are critical to China’s ambitious push to expand its economic power, security, and leadership role across Asia and beyond. Under its trillion-dollar “Belt and Road” trade and investment initiative, China will build roads, pipelines, and ports throughout Asia to Europe, a plan involving as many as 65 countries with a total of 4.4 billion people.

“China is moving ahead more rapidly than any of us appreciate,” says David Lampton, a professor of China studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He is writing a book on China’s construction of high-speed railroads. “We need to wake up and realize China is a competitive force.”

Communist Party chief and President Xi Jinping recently called for building “a great wall of steel” around Xinjiang to guard against Islamic extremism. Echoing this sentiment, a sign at a military installation near the Tibetan region likens China’s Army to the Great Wall. Yet the heightened security measures risk backfiring, perpetuating a cycle of ethnic unrest.

As I prepare to catch a flight to Beijing, it occurs to me that while China’s leaders are nervous about minority unrest, they are far more fearful of dissent among the majority Han Chinese.

Aly Song/Reuters/File
A migrant laborer works at a construction site in Shanghai, China.

Traveling across China, two faces are unavoidable – those of Mr. Xi and People’s Liberation Army soldier Lei Feng, the legendary 1960s communist role model.

On a giant video screen above Shanghai’s train station, Xi appears in camouflage fatigues, reviewing a phalanx of troops. At the westernmost watch tower of China’s Great Wall, he hovers larger-than-life in a poster, dwarfing the wall itself.

Lei, in his furry ear-flap hat, looks down on city streets and transport hubs, reminding citizens to help others and practice the 12 “core socialist values” – the state-
imposed moral code.

The two images are emblematic of Xi’s consolidation of power to a degree not seen in China for decades, and his aggressive push for Communist Party supremacy and ideological conformity. Xi’s name and “thought” were enshrined in the party’s Constitution in October, and all Chinese – including the country’s 228,000 journalists – are being urged to study it. One Chinese shopkeeper I speak with goes so far as to call Xi “China’s second Mao Zedong.”

As impressed as I am with China’s modernization and confident world outlook, I am troubled by the party’s unbridled impulse to control the Chinese people – reflecting what seems to be a deep domestic insecurity.

The party’s mandate depends on its ability to make good on what Xi calls China’s dream – a nationalistic vision of a strong, prosperous China regaining its place at the center of the world. Rejecting the West as a model, Xi sees China setting the example for other nations.

To achieve this, the party must tackle serious problems: rising inequality, corruption, overcapacity in heavy industry, and severe pollution. China’s growing middle class is eager to secure its hard-earned wealth through property rights and the rule of law. Experts believe China could smooth this process by encouraging civil society and organized political participation, fostering paths to compromise.

Instead, China’s leaders are tightening their authoritarian grip. Beijing is reining in nongovernmental organizations, and arresting activists, human rights lawyers, and bloggers, according to Freedom House, an independent watchdog group.

It is also building a high-tech surveillance state. Authorities use cameras, some enhanced with facial recognition software and artificial intelligence, to watch people, unconstrained by privacy protections. Individuals are monitored for “untrustworthy” behavior at work and in public places, as well as online and on their phones. The government reportedly plans to assign each person a “social credit” score that will affect access to jobs, schools, and even airline tickets.

Chinese officials manipulate the internet, blocking websites, posting and deleting social media comments, and scrutinizing texts. Foreign television is censored in China. I saw CNN and BBC broadcasts cut off when commentary turned critical of Xi. The party controls universities, where lectures are videotaped.

“If someone crosses an ideological line, they can be punished,” says Elizabeth Perry, a professor of government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

In Beijing, I decide to walk to Tiananmen Square to see the flag lowered at dusk. After passing multiple security checkpoints, I join a crowd of hundreds of Chinese. As white-gloved military guards fold the flag with a flourish, onlookers capture it with cellphones. I wonder how many of these mostly young Chinese think about the 1989 Tiananmen democracy protests, or the blood that was spilled where they stand. 

The day before I’d met a Chinese man, his hair speckled with gray, who was a university professor in Beijing in 1989. On the night of June 4, he made his way past soldiers and tanks to the square to make sure his students escaped.

“I always feel ashamed now when I go there,” he said in a low voice. “The Army should never open fire on its own people. It should defend them.” Frustrated by the party’s intensifying controls, he said China needs more democracy and freedom, but many Chinese are blinded to this by materialism. 

After the color guard marches off, vans full of police, barking through loudspeakers, herd the crowd out of the square. I walk down a side street, past vendors selling steaming corncobs and sticks of candied hawthorn. Several blocks away, I realize I am being followed by plainclothes police. Unfazed, I eat dinner and return to my hostel down a narrow Beijing alley.

My trip is coming to an end, and I feel an inexplicable sadness.

Ann Scott Tyson
An amateur opera group performs in Rutan Park in Beijing, which, for the author, echoed similar performances she watched there 25 years ago.

The next morning, I go looking for my old neighborhood in eastern Beijing. Emerging from the metro, I enter a canyon of concrete and glass buildings and struggle to get my bearings. Finally, I find the gate to Ritan Park, where I used to push my son in his stroller and collect child-rearing tips from Chinese grandmothers.

Walking down a stone path lined with willow trees, I approach a familiar red-pillared pavilion on the edge of a small lake. The sounds of a Chinese erhu fiddle and drum meet my ears, and without warning a wave of emotion sweeps over me. Tears roll down my cheeks as I sit on a bench, listening to the amateur opera group perform, exactly as I remembered. The next thing I know, a middle-aged Chinese man sits down next to me.

“Why are you crying?” he asks, patting my shoulder.

“The music,” I manage to say. He begins describing the opera – Yu opera from Henan province – in halting English. Switching to Chinese, I explain that I know the park. I lived nearby many years ago. “I’m sorry,” I say, “I can’t stop crying.” 

“Don’t worry,” he says, trying to cheer me up. “You look like a movie star ... like Nicole Kidman.”

I have to laugh. With that, we begin a long, far-reaching conversation. As fate would have it, he is a journalist about my age, and began living in the neighborhood about the same time I did. He speaks freely of Chinese perspectives on America and of Xi, describing how people evade internet restrictions, and the prospects for China democratizing. Two hours quickly pass. I wonder whether we could stay in touch.

“As a journalist, if I have contact with foreigners, it will bring difficulties for me that I don’t need,” he says. “Ask me whatever you like here, now.”

We talk more, while listening to the opera. I know once the conversation ends, I will likely never see him again. As I prepare to go, I struggle again to hold back tears.

“Don’t cry,” he says. “Don’t cry for Beijing.”

I walk away without turning around, finding another place to sit and gather my thoughts. Several minutes later, I look up. He is standing in the distance watching me. Once our eyes meet, he smiles and waves. I wave back. He is gone.

The meeting brings an epiphany of sorts. Traveling across the country, I was subconsciously searching for the China I knew so well, a place that was slower paced and earthy, less jaded and detached. The park offered a glimpse of it, although in many ways that China no longer exists. Still, the heartfelt encounter makes it all right. Kindness is timeless. The willingness to cross whatever barriers exist to form a human connection – nothing can take that away.

Karen Norris/Staff
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Briefing

4. What to expect at next month’s Winter Games

One of the great adventures of my 21 years at The Christian Science Monitor was the sheer joy of covering seven Olympic Games. Are you getting excited for Pyeongchang yet? Maybe you should be.  

Mark
Choi Jae-gu/Yonhap/AP
Women modeled the uniforms to be used in the victory ceremonies for the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games during an unveiling ceremony in Seoul, South Korea, Dec. 27.

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Wait, it’s time for the Olympics already? Yes, on Feb. 9 South Korea will welcome the world – and perhaps most significantly, its northern neighbor – to its doorstep. The host city is Pyeongchang, located on the mountainous eastern side of the Korean Peninsula, just 50 miles from the demilitarized zone that separates North Korea and South Korea. Much of the pre-Olympics hoopla has focused on the two Koreas, who, after negotiations, will march into the Opening Ceremony under a unified flag and even compete on a joint women’s ice hockey team. South Korea is also expected to shine on ice in another discipline: short-track speedskating, in which the country holds seven of 11 world records. As for Americans, there’s a slew of all-stars returning, like five-time Olympic snowboarder Kelly Clark, as well as some folks you’ve never heard of who are poised to make history. And in three disciplines in which the US has never won an Olympic medal – men’s biathlon, women’s biathlon, and women’s cross-country skiing – it is bringing 2016 World Championships medalists who are hoping to add some stunning Pyeongchang hardware to their collection.

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What to expect at next month’s Winter Games

The Winter Olympics are coming to Asia for only the third time and feature new sports, with the aim of attracting a more diverse global audience.

Where is Pyeongchang?

Pyeongchang is the name of both a city and county in the rugged eastern mountains of the Korean Peninsula, just 50 miles from the demilitarized zone that separates North Korea and South Korea. Olympic organizers are capitalizing the “c” – making it PyeongChang – to avoid confusion with the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. (A Kenyan delegate to a United Nations conference flew to the wrong city by mistake in 2014 and was reportedly interrogated for five hours.)

With these Games, Pyeongchang hopes to put itself on the map as a winter sports destination rivaling those in Japan and China.

Does North Korea pose a threat?

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), Olympic organizers, and US State Department have maintained that there is no undue danger posed to the Games by North Korea and its nuclear program. In fact, following a Jan. 1 overture from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, his country and the South held talks resulting in an agreement for the North to send a delegation of athletes and others to the Games. A North Korean figure skating pair who perform to The Beatles had already qualified for the Olympics, and short-track speedskaters and cross-country skiers could also come. Athletes from both countries will enter the Games together behind a unity flag, and the governments have agreed to field a joint women's ice hockey team – which some South Koreans say is a step too far.

Pyeongchang is a compound of the Korean words for peace and prosperity, and South Korea has trumpeted the Games as an opportunity to improve relations with its northern neighbor.

What Olympic events are debuting this year?

There are four new events: mixed doubles in curling, a mass-start race in speedskating, and big-air competitions in snowboarding and freestyle skiing. The additions are aimed at improving youth appeal and attractiveness for television, the IOC says.

What sports is South Korea good at?

One event sure to be popular with locals is short-track speedskating. South Koreans hold seven of the 11 world records in the discipline, including both the men’s and women’s 3,000-meter relay. And at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia, all eight of the Korean medals were won on ice – among them a silver in women’s figure skating.

Although tickets for many events start at 20,000 won (about $19), the tickets for short-track start at 150,000 won ($140), and the best seats cost 550,000 won ($515).

Why is Russia banned?

As host of the 2014 Olympics, Russia spent a record $51 billion and took away more medals than the Russian and Soviet teams had ever won at a Winter Games. But investigators concluded that they did so through a years-long doping program and sophisticated coverup operation – with a former Russian antidoping official-turned-whistle-blower detailing how they passed athletes’ tainted urine samples through a secret hole in the wall of the Olympic drug-testing lab and replaced them with previously collected clean samples.

The IOC ruled in December to ban Russia from competing as a team at the Olympics but to allow individual Russian athletes on a case-by-case basis. The controversial decision aimed to strike a balance between punishing the state sponsorship of doping while not unduly punishing athletes who were not involved.

Who are some top United States athletes to watch for?

Ice dancing’s brother-sister pair Alex and Maia Shibutani, who frequently feature Instagram videos of themselves as toddlers who clearly adored each other, bring a special presence to the ice. Nathan Chen is the only figure skater to have ever landed five quadruple jumps in competition. Mikaela Shiffrin, the world’s top woman alpine skier, is likely to add at least one medal to her 2014 gold in slalom. Kelly Clark, the 2002 Olympic gold medalist and snowboarding’s winningest athlete, is back for her fifth Games – and those she inspired, like 17-year-old phenom Chloe Kim, will be challenging her for another gold. The US women’s hockey team, which has overhauled its team culture, is seeking gold after a silver left the players disappointed in Sochi.

But the funny thing about the Olympics is that sometimes it’s not the favorites who win, but a dark horse who has the performance of a lifetime. That could help US biathletes Lowell Bailey and Susan Dunklee. They’re coming off a gold and silver, respectively, at the 2017 world championships and are looking to win their country’s first Olympic medals in the sport, which combines shooting and cross-country skiing. Speaking of which, no US woman has ever medaled in Olympic cross-country skiing – but this year the US women have a strong shot, especially in the team relays. Watch for them in their red, white, and blue knee socks powering up Pyeongchang’s hilly courses. 

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5. California keeps girls in school by supplying a basic need

When we created the EqualEd section, one of the things we wanted to look at were the hidden barriers that keep students from succeeding. The next story gets at one that many people think is a problem only in developing countries.

Mark

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California state legislator Cristina Garcia had a question: If students have access to free or reduced lunches to ensure they focus on their education, why should it be any different for feminine hygiene products? Girls would tell her they couldn't ask their parents to buy products because they were having trouble affording food. Some girls wind up skipping school because they feel embarrassed. In California, a law spearheaded by Ms. Garcia requires that all Title I public schools stock free feminine hygiene products in at least half of their bathrooms for students between the sixth and 12th grades. That law, AB 10, points to the direction that other states are headed in as well. As of Jan. 1, all schools in Illinois must stock tampons and pads in bathrooms for students between sixth and 12th grades. New York City passed a similar law in 2016. “Young women were telling me stories about things I would hear among homeless women,” says Garcia, talking about efforts to jury rig homemade products, “or just not go to school.”

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California keeps girls in school by supplying a basic need

“Tampon Queen.”

That’s Assemblymember Cristina Garcia’s nickname around the California State Capitol, and she’s proud of it. In fact, “Tampon Barbie,” – a smiling Barbie holding a tampon – even sits on her desk to remind her and her colleagues of her signature cause.

Assemblymember Garcia, a Democrat representing an area southeast of Los Angeles and chair of the California Legislative Women’s Caucus, has been working to eliminate the sales tax on feminine hygiene products for the last three years, to no avail.

But during her crusade, young girls have approached Garcia to thank her for her efforts, telling her how difficult it is to afford a $7 box of tampons or pads every month. 

“A lot of them would say ‘I can’t ask my parents to buy them, they are having a hard time getting the money to buy baby formula for my sister,’ ” says Garcia. “They talk about the shame and stigma of asking a grown-up.”

Rich Pedroncelli/AP/File
Assemblymember Cristina Garcia, a Democrat from Bell Gardens, Calif., is leading the way on legislation in California to help make feminine hygiene products more affordable to low-income women and girls.

If she couldn’t make tampons and pads more affordable for everyone, Garcia decided to at least make sure low-income girls in California had easy access. If students have access to free or reduced lunch to ensure they focus on their education, Garcia wondered, why it should be any different with feminine hygiene products?

Garcia first drafted AB 10, a bill addressing this issue, in late 2016. In less than 10 months, in the fall of 2017, the legislation passed both houses with bipartisan support. On October 12, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed Garcia’s legislation into law.

Now, all Title I public schools in California must stock feminine hygiene products in at least half of their bathrooms for students between the 6th and 12th grades. School officials across the state are working quickly to comply with the law, which allows them to be reimbursed by the state for their costs.

California’s AB 10 points in the same direction other states are headed. As of January 1, all schools in Illinois must stock tampons and pads in bathrooms at no cost for students between 6th and 12th grade. New York City passed a similar law in 2016. While many Americans assume that menstruation only causes girls to skip school in poor, underdeveloped countries, principals and politicians across the US are learning it is actually a problem that exists here in this country.

“Young women were telling me stories about things I would hear among homeless women,” says Garcia. “I was surprised to hear girls in my backyard would use socks with newspaper, or extend the life of a product, or just not go to school.”

'Can I have a cookie?'

School officials in Los Angeles say students have always had access to free tampons and pads in the school nurse’s office. But as students and school staff explain, it’s not always that easy.

During her 10 years as a school nurse in California, Lorna Bascara has worked at several schools. And at all of her posts, supplying tampons and pads to young girls has been a central duty.

At James Monroe High School, a Title I school in northern Los Angeles where she now works, Ms. Bascara orders the products in bulk. She has five to 10 students come to her office each day needing feminine hygiene products. If the student is in a group, and too embarrassed to ask for a tampon or pad outright, Bascara says they use secret code phrases, such as “Can I have a cookie?”

Lisa Ryder, a health and physical education teacher at Taft Charter High School in northern Los Angeles, says she and other teachers often buy tampons and pads for their classrooms with their own money because students will seek out teachers with whom they feel most comfortable.

And while Ms. Ryder says she doesn’t know of any of her students who skip school altogether because they have their period, she has experienced students being late to class because they are trying to find a teacher they trust who has supplies, and then find a bathroom, all in the few minutes in between classes.

Taft Principal Daniel Steiner says he has even had some students ask him for a tampon or pad. But he’s not surprised or uncomfortable. At Taft, almost 70 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, so if a student comes to him needing supplies, he knows it is typically because she can’t afford them herself.

“We can’t assume they have access [to basic necessities],” says Principal Steiner. “When a student has to think about other things, they are distracted. Anything that we can do to help them get focused back on their learning, that’s a positive.”

Potentially one million students affected

When Garcia’s office contacted Jessica Bartholow to help rally support for the bill, she was initially confused. As a policy advocate at the Western Center on Law & Poverty, her work focuses on low-income Californians, not young women. But after learning more about the issue, Ms. Bartholow realized this work was directly in line with her mission to help as many disadvantaged Californians as possible.

California has 2,230 Title I middle and high schools as of this year, a designation which typically means at least 40 percent of the student population is in poverty. Based off of the average size of a California school, and assuming that girls make up half of the student population, AB 10 stands to serve almost 1 million female students.

Many of them won’t go to school during their periods if they don’t have access to tampons or pads, say advocates. And in California, a state that has some of the strictest attendance policies in the country, missing class can have serious repercussions for low-income families.

A student who misses 30 minutes of instruction more than three times in a school year is deemed a “truant” in California. Truancy has a sliding scale of penalties for both parents and students, from weekend school for students to $500 fines or jail time for parents.

“Instead of saying: ‘What do you need to come to school?’, they have said ‘Here is a penal code violation,’ ” says Bartholow. “This is one of the few topics that has addressed the barriers to participation in schools, rather than increasing the penalties to not showing up to school.”

Other legislative attempts

After being held in the Assembly Appropriations Committee since May, Garcia’s latest attempt to repeal California’s tax on menstrual products was effectively killed in the state legislature on Jan. 18. Opponents of the bill cite the the potential fiscal effect: repealing the sales tax on tampons and pads could cost the state $10.5 million annually

It’s difficult to get this kind of legislation passed, says Garcia, because the majority of legislators are men and can’t relate. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, in 2018, less than 25 percent of California’s state legislature is female, which mirrors the national average.

Garcia says the women in legislators’ lives typically don’t have a difficult time affording the necessary products. Above all, many women are taught not to talk about menstruation. When people think “period” and “pad” are “bad words,” says Garcia, it is difficult to learn what young women need.

Some advocates say that is what makes AB 10 so special.

“It was a unique space where you had low-income advocates, women’s advocates, and social justice advocates all at the table,” says Bartholow. “[T]his campaign really pulled us all together… It strengthened the bonds of sisterhood in the Capitol at a time when we really needed it.” 

And Garcia plans to introduce a new tax repeal proposal by mid-February.

“We have a long way to go,” says Garcia, “but things are changing quickly.”

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The Monitor's View

Facebook’s about-face on news credibility

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Like many digital platforms that provide news, Facebook long believed that software algorithms could discern qualities of thought such as trust, fairness, and honesty. These traits of character, however, require constant upkeep among journalists and, yes, feedback from paying customers. Good judgment on news relies on orders of consciousness beyond what a machine can do. Now, Facebook hopes its “diverse and representative” sampling of users can lead to a ranking of news outlets; it believes that would help bring a measure of objectivity in its news feed. The company has essentially chosen to outsource news credibility to the collective wisdom of individuals and their ability to distinguish truth from falsehood. And by placing its trust in people as seekers of truth, Facebook could, in turn, earn greater trust from its users. Its shift away from computer-driven news selection is a welcome step toward restoring trust in the overall business of news. 

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Facebook’s about-face on news credibility

Artificial intelligence, or AI, is called artificial for a good reason. Facebook made that point last week by ending its attempt to rely heavily on software algorithms to select news items for its 2 billion users. It announced Jan. 19 that the Facebook “community” will be asked to rank news outlets by their trustworthiness.

This reader feedback will promote “high quality news that helps build a sense of common ground” in a world with “so much division,” said chief executive Mark Zuckerberg. The first surveys have started in the United States and will soon expand to other countries. The company plans to include the local news outlets of users in its surveys.

Like many digital platforms that act as news providers, Facebook had great faith in a belief that programmed electrons in computer servers can discern qualities of thought such as trust, fairness, and honesty. Even in respected newsrooms, however, these traits of character require constant upkeep among journalists and, yes, feedback from paying customers. Good judgment on news relies on orders of consciousness beyond what a machine can do.

Rather than move toward becoming a hands-on gatekeeper of news, Facebook now hopes its “diverse and representative” sampling of users can lead to a ranking of news outlets – and that would bring a measure of objectivity in its news feed.

The company may be in the news business but it has chosen to outsource news credibility to the collective wisdom of individuals and their ability to distinguish truth from falsehood.

In other words, if people choose to be self-governing, they will also demand accurate knowledge from media.

By placing its trust in people as seekers of truth, Facebook could earn greater trust from its users. This is a lesson for many companies, especially digital platforms or those in the media business. According to the latest survey of trust in institutions worldwide by Edelman communications firm, “media has become the least-trusted institution for the first time,” more so than other businesses or government.

Edelman’s survey of 28 countries also offers this insight: “A majority of respondents believe that news organizations are overly focused on attracting large audiences (66 percent), breaking news (65 percent), and politics (59 percent).”

In particular, the US is “enduring an unprecedented crisis of trust” among many of its institutions, says Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman. “The root cause of this fall is the lack of objective facts and rational discourse,” he adds.

Facebook’s shift away from computer-driven news selection is a welcome step toward restoring trust in the overall business of news. This is not a new problem. “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1807. Yet the Digital Age has forced the issue of trust for news providers. By inviting readers to participate in solving this problem, Facebook has itself set a new bar for earning trust.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Meaningful giving

In the spirit of evolving the Monitor Daily toward the best and clearest statement of the Monitor’s mission, we’ve made some changes to the Christian Science Perspective, beginning today. Learn more here.

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Today’s Christian Science Perspective article explores the idea that because our true identity is the reflection of God, infinite Love, everyone has something meaningful to give. We’re never left without love to express.

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Meaningful giving

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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What makes a giver?

A lot of heartwarming stories out there would suggest that there’s more to giving than simply dispensing funds.

For example, in my community, children celebrating birthdays have asked friends to donate pet supplies to the local animal shelter instead of bringing gifts. And on the global scene, in November Haiti pledged a donation to other islands hit by hurricanes Irma and Maria. As a Monitor editorial pointed out, the contribution is “almost sacrificial” in the context of the resources Haiti – the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country – has (see “In the giving season, a special act of charity,” CSMonitor.com, Nov. 27, 2017).

In another instance, quite some time ago, a poor widow dropped two coins into her temple’s treasury. The amount paled in comparison to what the wealthy folks around her were contributing, but her offering didn’t go unnoticed or unvalued. It caught the eye of Christ Jesus, who commented, “This poor widow put in more than all of them, for they have all put in what they can easily spare, but she in her poverty has given away her whole living” (Luke 21:3, 4, J.B. Phillips, “The New Testament in Modern English”).

In each of these cases, we might say that the supplies or funds being contributed were a drop in the bucket of the overall need. But that didn’t stop these folks from giving.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that occasions like these tend to tug at our heartstrings. There’s something special about the spirit of such giving – we’re moved by the compassion, love, and selflessness behind it.

In fact, in their truest sense, those underlying intangibles represent the essence of what it really means to give, to care. They are qualities that emanate from God, and because God is limitless, universal, all-powerful Love itself, divinely impelled selflessness is truly a healing light for our neighborhoods and our world.

That’s not to say living these qualities is always a piece of cake. It takes an acceptance of God’s boundless love for His entire creation, the humility to let divine Love guide our thinking and actions, and a willingness to reflect that love outward toward others – even when we might feel we have nothing to give. But as the very spiritual reflection of infinite Love, we’re never left without love to express.

And as Jesus showed on so many occasions, the result of reflecting Love is tangible blessings. His constantly clear understanding of the supremacy of God, Love, was so profound that reformation, healing, and abundance were the inevitable outcomes. What tremendous gifts!

In “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” Mary Baker Eddy, who discovered Christian Science, writes: “The rich in spirit help the poor in one grand brotherhood, all having the same Principle, or Father; and blessed is that man who seeth his brother’s need and supplieth it, seeking his own in another’s good” (p. 518). Making a difference in the world around us isn’t limited to the financially affluent. Everyone can cultivate the richness of spirit that nurtures selfless giving by opening his or her heart to the bountiful largesse of God, infinite good. As we do, we’ll find that we all have something to give, because we’re made to give, to express divine Love. And as we do so, we’ll be moved to give in meaningful, appropriate, and inspired ways.

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Viewfinder

Unity in Ukraine

Gleb Garanich/Reuters
Marchers carry national flags while forming a human chain on a bridge across the Dnieper River during celebrations of Unity Day in Kiev, Ukraine, Jan. 22. On this day in 1919, the Ukrainian People's Republic and the Western Ukrainian People's Republic were proclaimed unified amid a brief period of pre-Soviet independence. In some recent years, the marches have turned violent.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( January 23rd, 2018 )

Thanks for reading today’s Daily. Come back tomorrow. We’re working on a story about how women in a besieged rebel city outside Damascus, Syria, are finding ways to maintain morale even as they grapple with a meager food supply and other existential concerns. 

Monitor Daily Podcast

January 22, 2018
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