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Rethink the News

Perspective matters.

Reducing news to hard lines and side-taking leaves a lot of the story untold. Progress comes from challenging what we hear and considering different views.

2018
March
30
Friday
Clayton Collins
Daily Edition Editor

Spy wars continue, debate mounts over whether an affable physician should manage a troubled $186 billion federal agency, and the Chinese space station Heavenly Palace 1 tumbles toward Earth.

What else happened this week? Lots.

And, in the margins, global society kept up its slow struggle to advance tolerance and accommodation.

Girls-education activist Malala Yousafzai made a surprise visit to Pakistan five years after she was shot there. She hinted that she saw a different country than the one she left and that she hoped to one day return to stay. Costa Rica has elections this Sunday that hang partly on marriage equity.

Stories with far lower profiles offered small signs of shifting mind-sets. Women flight attendants for Cathay Pacific won the right to wear pants on the job. Young employees at the professional-services firm PwC have successfully rejected the all-hours workplace grind as “a holdover from an era when the rank and file was dominated by men from single-earner households.” Priorities and policies evolve.

Finally, the zeitgeist registered (as always) on television. Some 18 million people watched the reboot of “Roseanne,” in which the title character is a Trump supporter. The show delivered what one reviewer called “a more nuanced portrait [that] helps to humanize the white working class.” Others found it deeply problematic. But it got people talking.

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Now to our five stories for your Friday, looking at delicate balancing acts in global diplomacy, policing, and students wanting to do well for themselves – and do good for others. 

1. For America’s allies, is Trump trying a new tune?

Increasingly, President Trump is speaking appreciatively of America’s allies – including some with whom he’d taken a dismissive tone early on. One take on that: ‘America First’ has worked. Another: It’s a recognition that America needs partners. It could also be a little of both.

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Could President Trump be singing a new tune on America’s allies? For some countries feeling chafed by the “America First” administration, with its disregard for old alliances, this last week seemed a breath of fresh air: strong punishments for Russia after the poisoning of an ex-spy in Britain, for example, and a renegotiated free-trade deal with South Korea. Even cooperation between the United States and Mexico is on an upswing, policy analysts say, despite the border-wall furor that’s defined Mr. Trump and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s public relationship. But if there’s new willingness to compromise, it’s sometimes disguised by the familiar strains of “America First.” Trump and his officials tend to declare that their tough talk and threats have jarred allies into doing what the president has demanded, allowing him to move in their direction. It’s a have-it-both-ways approach that may face its toughest test this spring as the administration determines its approach to yet another deal Trump has steadily blasted: the Iran nuclear agreement.

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For America’s allies, is Trump trying a new tune?

President Trump came into office showing deep disdain for America’s allies.

Mexicans crossing the border were murderers and rapists, and needed to be separated from the United States by a “beautiful” wall.

Europeans were deadbeats who relied on America for their defense. Similarly, the South Koreans had gotten rich while letting the US military hold a hostile North Korea at bay.

And all of them had built up their own economies through unfair trade deals and on the backs of American workers.

That tune barely changed over the course of the president’s first year in office.

But lately Mr. Trump seems to have discovered the value of America’s allies near and far.

This week, after the poisonings of a Russian ex-spy and his daughter in Britain, the president ordered the strongest punitive measures since the cold war against Russia, citing the need to show solidarity with America’s closest allies at a time of crisis.

On Wednesday, the administration announced it had reached a deal with South Korea to tweak a free-trade agreement that Trump had long said was “horrible” and might just have to be scuttled. The Koreans also got an exemption from Trump’s steel tariffs – as did the European Union last week.

To top it all off, administration officials and policy analysts close to the administration say that despite appearances, US-Mexico relations are on the upswing – with even some senior Mexican officials confirming that the cross-border dialogue has never been more fruitful.

What’s going on?

Trump seems to be discovering that to do much of what he wants to do both at home and on the world stage,  he needs allies and partners who are not estranged from the United States, foreign policy analysts say. Thus the strident threats and criticisms are mostly out.

But that doesn’t mean compromise is always in – at least in the way the administration explains its actions. Unlike other presidents who have alienated allies in the past, some add, Trump and his officials tend to declare that their tough talk and threats have jarred allies into doing what the president has demanded – allowing him to move in their direction. It’s a have-it-both-ways approach that may face its toughest test this spring, as the administration determines its approach to yet another deal Trump has steadily blasted: the Iran nuclear agreement.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that the president has come around to the value of solidarity and close working relations with our allies, and we’re seeing that right now with the Europeans and the South Koreans,” says Lawrence Korb, a national security analyst at the Center for American Progress in Washington and a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration.

“But he’s also making sure that he’s going to have it both ways,” he adds. “He’s figured out that when he does honor our commitments or make concessions to our allies to get their cooperation, he’s going to say that they caved and his tough words got them to do their part so we can go back to doing ours.”

'A bit of relief'

The sudden shift towards allies comes just weeks before a crucial deadline: By May 12, Trump must decide whether or not to extend waivers on Iran sanctions. His choice will likely decide the fate of a deal he disdains, but which allies say is working to roll back Iran’s nuclear program – one of the administration’s most high-stakes diplomatic puzzles, in which Trump may be loath to back down from his longtime hard-line stance. And with a hard-line national security team coming in that wants to scuttle the deal, a turn to allies could prove to be short-lived.

“There is a bit of a relief among allies that Trump seems to be stepping back from his most extreme comments and disregard for them,” Mr. Korb says. “But they’re also worried about Iran and they know that this president could still do anything out of the blue.”

Indeed Trump provided an example of his potential to still throw allies for a loop when he told an audience in Ohio Thursday that he might “hold up” the renegotiated trade deal with South Korea until after the US gets a deal with North Korea on its nuclear program. Trump hinted that he could still hold the “strong card” of a trade deal over South Korea’s head to ensure that the ally presents a united front with the US in talks with the North.

That may hardly sound like a new allies-appreciation song, but analysts close to the White House say that such hard bargaining is simply Trump. The real story, they argue, is that the president is acting with allies and getting results, even if it is in his own way.

“What we’re seeing is a pattern in which the president and the administration are highlighting how promoting America First also benefits our allies,” says Ana Quintana, a US-Latin America policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “What all the focus on Trump’s tough rhetoric with allies has missed is that behind the scenes there’s a lot going on,” she adds. “It's just that this president is not going to give up something without getting something back in exchange.”

Breaking the wall?

Relations with Mexico are a case in point, Ms. Quintana says. It’s true that Trump has had testy phone calls with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto over the border wall, and that Mr. Pena Nieto recently called off a scheduled Washington visit over how funding for the wall would be treated publicly during the visit. But the White House and federal agencies have been pursuing deepened relations on everything from immigration and drug enforcement to trans-border trade in legitimate goods, she adds.

Just one example of how relations with Mexico affect US domestic policies: As much as 90 percent of the heroin coming into the US arrives through Mexico, Quintana says, so getting a handle on the opioid crisis in the US includes working with Mexico to address transnational organized crime, among other things.

Moreover, Quintana notes that NAFTA renegotiations are headed into their eighth round – suggesting that in fact Trump wants to preserve a deal that everyone thought he would have ditched by now.

“It’s really not going too far to say that the cooperation is unprecedented,” says Quintana – echoing Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray, who in February declared that the US-Mexico relationship under Trump “is more fluid, is closer than it was with previous administrations.”

And then there’s Trump himself. Quintana points out that when Trump visited the border recently to review border wall prototypes, he made no mention of his campaign pledge to have Mexico pay for the wall, and even called Pena Nieto “a wonderful guy.”

“What we’re seeing is that not only is Trump changing his tune on Mexico but he’s publicly comfortable with changing his tune on Mexico,” she says.

Watching warily

Still, some analysts caution against reading too much into recent moves.

When it comes to the Russian expulsions, Trump may have been convinced by aides that the US had no choice but to respond dramatically to underscore a commitment to NATO allies, says Geysha Gonzalez, associate director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center in Washington.

“This is not a president who is typically keen to lean in on his advisers’ advice, but I think in this case he was convinced that he needed to show strength on Russia,” she says. “Plus [the solidarity with Britain] shows he understands that he needs to make up some ground in that relationship.”

White House and senior administration officials including Defense Secretary James Mattis saw the poisoning in Britain as a must-do moment to stand by friends and come down hard on Russia, Ms. Gonzalez says. “Here’s a NATO country with a ‘special relationship’ with the US, so this provided the best opportunity to make this statement.”

For those unconvinced that Trump’s recent actions constitute a real change, the Iran nuclear deal looms large on the horizon. Speculation runs wide on just what impact a US decision to break the deal would have on the international accord’s ability to survive, but there’s little doubt that a US withdrawal would plunge relations with European allies (Britain, France, and Germany are signatories to the deal) into crisis.

It’s one reason some experts expect, against the grain of conventional wisdom, that Trump will stay in the deal – his way.

“I know I’m going out on a limb on this, but I do expect him to do something short of putting the sanctions [on Iran] back on, which would mean the deal is still OK,” says Korb.

It would simply be “disastrous” for Trump to pull out of one nuclear commitment just as he’ll be trying to get an even trickier denuclearization deal with North Korea, Korb says. He believes that on Iran, Trump will follow his recent pattern of cooperating with allies but claiming it’s his tough talk that has made that cooperation possible.

“I think what he’ll say is that the Europeans are now coming over to us and we’re working together to do something really tough on Iran’s ballistic missiles,” he says. “Like in these other cases his point will be that they caved, so it’s OK to keep working with them.”

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2. After Sacramento, familiar story amplifies drumbeat for change

Law enforcement officers need to be empowered to be effective. But calls keep rising for unanimity around what constitutes the just and reasonable execution of that power – and around how to hold police accountable when they overstep to tragic effect.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Stevante Clark, shouting the name of his brother, police shooting victim Stephon Clark, disrupted a meeting of the Sacramento (Calif.) City Council March 27. Mr. Clark, who was unarmed, was shot and killed by Sacramento police March 18.

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Mourners attending the funeral for Stephon Clark on Thursday had little time to grieve the loss of the young father of two. The hundreds of demonstrators drawn to the California capital spent much of the past week reigniting calls to end what they say is systemic racism among law enforcement. But taking police officers to task is a tough ask at best. Few officers face prosecution, and even fewer end up with convictions or prison time. Administrative actions are almost as hard to pursue. Officers are often shielded by policies forged in collective bargaining agreements. Advocates for law enforcement say these protections are well within police officers’ rights and are necessary to empower officers to make tough decisions in dangerous situations. Critics argue, however, that these policies need to be reexamined in a way that accounts for the dynamics of race and class, and by extension, power, that exist in interactions between law enforcement and the communities they serve.

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After Sacramento, familiar story amplifies drumbeat for change

It’s a news story that’s grown uncomfortably familiar in the past four years: A young black man, apprehended by police, flees a scene. The officers give chase and, thinking he has a weapon, fatally shoot the suspect. No weapon is found. The community rises up in protest, demanding justice.

This time, the community in question is Sacramento and the young black man is Stephon Clark, a father of two who was shot eight times by police on March 18, according to an autopsy released Friday. His funeral the day before drew hundreds of demonstrators to the California capital. The gathering capped more than a week of traffic-stalling rallies. Activists reignited calls to end what they say is systemic racism among law enforcement and to punish officers involved in the deaths of unarmed civilians – too many of whom happen to be black and brown men.

“You’re killing us. It’s genocide, it feels like genocide,” Tanya Faison, head of Black Lives Matter Sacramento, reportedly said Tuesday at a City Council meeting at Sacramento City Hall. “Those officers need to be fired. That’s the only way we’re going to get justice.”

But taking police officers to task – especially for the use of excessive or deadly force – is a tough ask at best. Studies show that law enforcement agents rarely face prosecution for a shooting. And few of those who do end up with a conviction or prison time. Administrative actions are almost as hard to pursue. State, local, and department policies erect a series of barriers that, according to legal scholars, make it difficult to discipline, much less fire, an officer for misconduct that stems from use of force. Changing those policies is further complicated by the fact that the decisions are often tied to collective bargaining agreements.

By themselves, such laws and policies make sense. Cops have a demanding, dangerous job and they need to know that they’re not at risk of losing their livelihood or going to jail every time they do something expected of them, like using force, in the line of duty.

Gabriela Bhaskar/Reuters
A protester wearing a 'Black Lives Matter' earring chants slogans as she marches in Times Square in New York on March 28 during a protest against the death of Stephon Clark. An autopsy released Friday indicated that Mr. Clark, a father of two, had been shot eight times by police in Sacramento, Calif.

Legal analysts point out, however, that these policies don’t operate in a vacuum. Race and class tensions have coexisted with policing in America since at least the 19th century, a reality that has resulted in deep mistrust between law enforcement and minority communities. Events like Mr. Clark’s death exacerbate the situation. Laws and policies that seem to shield cops from accountability further heighten that mistrust, critics say, especially since police possess the greater share of power and authority in most interactions with civilians.

“Do these laws protect good cops who found themselves in an unfortunate situation? Yes. But they also protect bad actors,” says Kami Chavis, a law professor and director of the criminal justice program at the Wake Forest University School of Law in Winston-Salem, N.C. “We have to balance some of those protections against protections of citizens who are at the mercy of these officers.”

Finding accountability

There are two main ways that law enforcement agents can be held accountable after an incident involving use of force results in a civilian death or injury.

One is legal: A municipal, state, or federal agency, or some combination of the three, can investigate the officer’s actions under a number of statutes that regulate police conduct. Those statutes present a slew of challenges, including vague definitions of what reasonable use of force looks like, and standards that require prosecutors to prove beyond reasonable doubt that an officer used force with the specific intent of violating the victim’s constitutional rights.

Complicating matters is the fact that cops, in the course of their duties, are allowed to do things that otherwise would be considered crimes, says Seth Stoughton, a former police officer and now assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law in Columbia. They can drive around with illegal drugs to take into evidence, violate traffic laws during a pursuit, or use force in interactions with resistant civilians. That makes it difficult to identify whether or not the officer committed an infraction at all, he says.

“An officer may use exactly the same amount of force and have it be legal in one incident and illegal in another,” Professor Stoughton says. “So we have these additional protections to avoid punishing them for doing their job the way we want them to do it.”

In the end, few investigations amount to much. One study, which looked at more than 3,000 criminal cases against cops between April 2009 and December 2010, found that 33 percent were convicted. Of those, only 36 percent ended up in prison. And that’s when allegations against an officer even made it to court. More often – as in the cases of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, and, this week, Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge – no charges are filed against the cops involved.

The other method of holding officers accountable is procedural: Administrators have the right, duty, and ability to investigate and sanction officers who violate department policy. But here, too, there’s a high bar for proving inappropriate use of force. In about a dozen states, including California, a Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights codifies that standard and often bars the public from learning whether or not an implicated officer has a history of bad behavior. It also outlines a method of appeal against disciplinary actions.

So even when a cop is fired for misconduct, it doesn’t always stick. A Washington Post investigation found that since 2006, 1,881 officers in the nation’s largest police departments were terminated for actions that betrayed the public trust. Nearly a quarter were reinstated after lawyers were hired to review the process.

Securing rights or providing cover?

Advocates for law enforcement say these protections are well within police officers’ rights. It’s not supposed to be easy for law enforcement officers to lose their jobs because they acted in accordance with training, says James Touchstone, legal counsel for the Sacramento-based California Peace Officers Association. He disputes the notion that having a bill of rights prevents meaningful oversight and accountability.

“Is there always room for improvement? Yes. California law enforcement is always striving to improve daily,” Mr. Touchstone says. But he adds that police officers, like everyone else, “are entitled to appropriately defend themselves when they face allegations of wrongdoing. An accusation doesn’t make it true.”

Critics argue, however, that these policies need to be reexamined in a way that accounts for the dynamics of race and class, and by extension, power, that exist in interactions between law enforcement and the communities they serve. Legal mechanisms that shield officers from liability, while justifiable on their own, shift a significant burden of risk and uncertainty to the communities most often surveilled by police – which happen to be disproportionately high-crime, high-poverty, and majority-minority, Stoughton says.

“There’s a real imbalance there,” Wake Forest’s Professor Chavis adds.

These laws thus reinforce mistrust already inherent in the police-community relationship. Among cops, having so many barriers to liability bolsters what military veteran and senior National Review writer David French calls a “sense of risk way out of proportion to the actual threat.”

“It’s often said that cops have mere seconds to make life-and-death decisions, and that’s exactly right,” Mr. French writes. “But do you know who else has mere seconds? The suspect. A suspect who is far more likely to be frightened, confused, disturbed, or drunk than he is to be committed to killing cops.”

To minority, and especially black, communities, the laws embody a system that treats their lives as expendable – or at least less valuable. “Every male person of color cannot be a suspect. You can’t shoot on sight. And unfortunately ... we’re developing a rule that it’s OK to shoot certain people on sight,” Chavis says. “These laws provide cover [for that].”

Yet experts also contend that addressing the issue requires something other than stripping law enforcement of protections, or increasing the number of criminal prosecutions against officers. Going after a single officer in a particular case – whether it’s Michael Brown or Stephon Clark – could speak to a community’s broader sense of justice, they say. But it doesn’t deal with the daily interactions between police and the public that create hostility. It doesn’t force police, political leaders, or the public to consider hard questions about what law enforcement’s mission is and how they should go about accomplishing it. And it doesn’t, they add, challenge the structures that allow for all this to take place.

“People respond to the culture and systems they’re operating in,” says Judy Lubin, head of the Washington-based Center for Urban and Racial Equity and co-founder of Sociologists for Justice. “The legal structure needs to be challenged ... with transparency and accountability and openness to the public in mind.”

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3. ‘Opportunity’ calls from Beijing, and young Taiwanese face a choice

China is wooing young Taiwanese entrepreneurs with business incentives, hoping to sway their views on unification. But in the long term, these young people must weigh profits on the mainland against democratic freedoms at home. 

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When Wen Liwei returned to Fuzhou, China, after 24 years, he barely recognized it. Mr. Wen, now 29, had lived here as a child, when his parents owned a textile factory. Today, it’s a modern city of gleaming skyscrapers and rush-hour traffic jams – and 17 start-up bases for Taiwanese entrepreneurs like Wen, whom the mainland is wooing with financial incentives. China’s economy is growing more than twice as quickly as that of Taiwan, the democratically governed island Beijing views as a breakaway province. Relations have been particularly tense since 2016, when a candidate from the pro-independence party was elected president. And they’ve grown even more hostile recently because of a D.C. law encouraging official visits between the United States and Taiwan. China has never renounced the use of military force to reunite with Taiwan, but business incentives like the ones Wen has received highlight a more friendly faced effort to sway young Taiwanese people’s attitudes toward China. Will it work? “I’m Taiwanese,” Wen says. “I think my identity is hard to change.”

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‘Opportunity’ calls from Beijing, and young Taiwanese face a choice

Last Tuesday morning, as President Xi Jinping delivered a speech at the closing of China’s annual legislative session in Beijing, Wen Liwei was at work in this coastal city 1,000 miles away. He was too busy meeting with business partners – discussing market strategies for his health food company – to pay it any attention. Besides, his office doesn’t have a television.

Had Mr. Wen watched the address, he would have heard Mr. Xi issue a thinly veiled threat against his homeland, Taiwan, the democratically governed island that Beijing views as a breakaway province. “Any actions and tricks to split China are doomed to failure,” Xi said before the nearly 3,000 members of the National People's Congress, adding that any such attempts “will meet with the people’s condemnation and the punishment of history.”

It was a stern warning at a fraught time for Taiwan. Relations with China have been tense since 2016, when Tsai Ing-wen from the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party was elected president. Yet they’ve become especially hostile in recent weeks because of a new law passed in Washington that encourages official, high-level visits between the United States and Taiwan. China has never renounced the use of force to reunify Taiwan with the mainland, and last Wednesday, the Global Times, a state-run nationalist newspaper, went as far as to urge Beijing to “prepare itself for a direct military clash in the Taiwan Straits.”

Wen, who’s 29 years old, prefers not to think about the rising tensions. He’s more concerned with sales plans than geopolitics. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t affected by the decisions made in Beijing. Chinese officials consider young Taiwanese a key demographic to win over as they seek to bring the island under the mainland’s control – a mission for which attitudes and income may be as powerful as intimidating fighter jets or naval drills.

With Xi having recently tightened his grip on power, some experts warn that he could press harder for the return of the island. Others predict that he will play the long game. With the help of lawmakers voting overwhelming to abolish presidential term limits earlier this month, Xi can rule for as long as he wants – and his government can try to shift the young Taiwanese generation’s view of their next-door neighbor. 

To that end, Beijing has introduced a growing number of policies aimed at making it easier for Taiwanese to invest, study, and work on the mainland. It announced the latest ones — 31 altogether — on February 28. Wen, who has already qualified for tens of thousands of dollars in government subsidies, is sure to benefit from some of them. But whether they’re enough to buy his political loyalty appears to be a long shot. “I’m Taiwanese,” Wen says. “I think my identity is hard to change.”

Mainland appeal

Wen isn’t entirely new to Fuzhou. He lived here as a child, when his parents owned a textile factory in the city. But when he returned after 24 years in 2016, he barely recognized it. China’s economic boom had transformed Fuzhou into a modern city of more than 7 million people, complete with gleaming skyscrapers, a subway line, and rush-hour traffic jams. “When I was young, the streets were full of tricycles and rickshaws,” Wen says. “It now feels like a different city.”

Wen arrived after graduating from Tamkang University, one of Taiwan’s top schools, with a degree in public administration. Having grown up in a business family, he was eager to start his own e-commerce company – but not in Taiwan. The island’s economy was stagnant and its online shopping industry far less developed than China’s. Then there were the financial incentives on the mainland: about $1,500 for business supplies and two years of free office rent.

It didn’t take long for Wen to find an office. Over the last three years, more than 50 start-up bases have opened across China to serve Taiwanese entrepreneurs. There are at least 17 in Fuzhou alone. The incubators are also open to mainland companies, but they offer the most incentives to those from Taiwan. In addition to free office space, many provide subsidized housing rent and tax breaks.

Wen ultimately settled on the Fuzhou Taiwan Youth Startup Base. Located in a nondescript office building in one of Fuzhou’s many industrial zones, the Startup Base is home to 83 Taiwanese companies that sell everything from cosmetics to car parts. Chen Xiurong, the incubator’s founder, is a Taiwanese native who has lived in Fuzhou for 25 years. She is a strong advocate for young people like Wen who move to the mainland. “Living in Taiwan is waiting for death,” she says. “Going to the mainland is looking for a chance to live.”

Ms. Chen’s grim assessment is based on the fact that China’s economy is growing more than twice as quickly as Taiwan’s. To make matters worse, starting salaries for graduates in Taiwan have remained stagnant since the late 1990s. Rather than waiting for President Tsai to fulfill her promise of creating more opportunities for young people on the island, many have chosen to leave. More than 420,000 Taiwanese now work on the mainland, where they can earn much more than they would in Taiwan.

Many of the 31 new measures revealed last month by China’s Taiwan Affairs Office are meant to make it easier for business entrepreneurs by lowering costs and allowing greater access to the mainland market. An Fengshan, a spokesman for the office, told reporters that the measures would provide “targeted solutions for the benefit of Taiwan society.”

Wen says he would have come to China regardless of the incentives, but he admits that they do make life easier for him. Not that he has found it that difficult to adjust to the mainland. In many ways, Wen prefers living here. There are the small things, like having the ability to pay for almost anything with a smartphone app. Then there are the big things, like the mainland’s fast-paced economy.

When Wen’s friends back home tell him they’re considering moving to China, he tells them to come see for themselves before they decide. One of his closest friends, Luo Yujie, moved to Fuzhou last July after doing exactly that. “There is more space for development on the mainland,” Mr. Luo says. “There are just more opportunities here.”

Brain drain

While Beijing has long targeted business interests in Taiwan as a way to shore up support, it didn’t appear to give much thought to the island’s young people until 2014. That year, a group of protesters broke into Taiwan’s legislature and occupied it for 23 days to block the passage of a new trade pact with the mainland. The youth-led protest became known as the Sunflower Movement, and it made Chinese officials sit up. If unification were still to happen peacefully, then they needed to get young people on board.

“The mainland government started to care more about Taiwanese youth in 2014,” says Zheng Zhenqing, an associate professor of Taiwan studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “It was a turning point.”

With Taiwan struggling to jumpstart its sluggish economy, Beijing has resorted to one of its most common tactics: trying to use its economic clout to buy influence. And it’s not only going after budding entrepreneurs. Last year, China’s education ministry said it would relax entrance rules for Taiwanese at mainland universities, and Fujian province announced plans to recruit 1,000 Taiwanese academics to teach at its universities by 2020.

The mainland’s campaign has started to raise alarms in Taipei. Nearly 60 percent of Taiwanese working overseas were employed in China in 2015, according to statistics released by the Taiwanese government last year. Desperate to stem the flow of talent, Tsai’s administration is pushing back.

“Some council members said that young people in Taiwan set great store on democracy and freedom, which is exactly what the environment in mainland Chinese society cannot provide,” Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said in a statement released last Friday. “The government can strengthen and show off Taiwan's advantages, and help young people understand the possible risks.”

On top of the brain drain, Taipei has struggled to compete with an increasingly powerful China in diplomacy. Only 20 countries still formally recognize Taiwan, which is officially known as the Republic of China. Panama ended its relationship with Taiwan last year. The Vatican could be next, as the Holy See and Beijing move closer to a historic deal on the appointment of bishops in China.

Since separating from the mainland at the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, Taiwan has become a wealthy, vibrant democracy. The island is functionally independent, and many of its 23 million people want to keep it that way. Opinion polls conducted last year show that 70 to 80 percent of Taiwanese prefer autonomy over unification. Tsai has said that she wants to maintain the status quo, despite her party’s long history of favoring formal independence.

Yet Chinese leaders remain suspicious of Tsai, who has refused to endorse the “One China” principle under which Taiwan is considered a part of China. As relations between the two sides continue to sour, some experts warn that Beijing’s economic campaign and growing hostility could backfire. Richard Bush, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and former head of the American Institute in Taiwan, says Xi’s authoritarian tendencies have also disheartened young Taiwanese.

“The general social and political environment in China is bound to affect the way they think about any sort of political union between Taiwan and the mainland,” Mr. Bush says. “One could argue that the direction Xi Jinping has taken China will make Taiwanese much more loyal to their own democratic system, for all its problems.”

Xie Yujuan/The Christian Science Monitor
Liu Zongxin, a Taiwanese golf instructor, at the golf training center he opened with his older brother on the outskirts of Fuzhou, China. Mr. Liu moved to the mainland in 2016 to open the golf school.

Liu Zongxin, a 29-year-old Taiwanese golf instructor in Fuzhou, doesn’t consider himself to be very political. When asked about China-Taiwan relations, he says he just wants the status quo to stay in place. He sees no other option.

Mr. Liu moved to the mainland in 2016 to open a golf school with his older brother. He says adjusting to life here hasn’t been too difficult. His biggest complaint is when locals try talking to him about unifying Taiwan with China. Unfortunately for him, such conversations are happening more and more frequently. It’s the same every time.

“First they talk about our president, then ask about my position, and then they talk about unifying Taiwan by force,” Liu says. “When I hear that, I want to leave.”

Xie Yujuan contributed to this report.

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4. Ivy degree, and then? These grads struggle with class, careers.

This next piece looks at a different kind of balancing act for young adults. Once students with low-income backgrounds finish at elite US schools, they find themselves with new “social capital.” How they choose to spend it can determine – fairly or not – how others view them.

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Teens from low-income neighborhoods who make it into the Ivy League often face a dilemma after they graduate: Make money or make a difference? About 15 percent of enrollments at top schools are now made up of students who are the first in their families to go to college. Many are struggling to navigate one of the most difficult transitions in a modern, developed society – moving from one socioeconomic class to another. Lacking a road map for flashy internships and six-figure job offers, college students often look to each other for help. One student network started in 2014 to deal with “first-gen” issues held a meeting in February that drew 559 people from more than two dozen schools. And last fall at Harvard, a campus forum called “Selling Out: Corporations in a Moral Perspective,” drew a standing-room-only crowd. “There is this burden of not only thinking about yourself, what you want to accomplish, but thinking about your race, your community, your ethnic group,” says Nuha Saho, one of the forum organizers. Mr. Saho, who was raised in the Bronx, a borough of New York City, and whose father sells beaded jewelry imported from Gambia, finds it “shocking how much privilege I have now.”

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Ivy degree, and then? These grads struggle with class, careers.

When Chantel Brown was a child in rural Morganton, N.C., she savored the illusion that she “could come off as middle class.” That doesn’t take much when one-quarter of the residents live in poverty. But Ms. Brown cleaved to the bling she had: her family’s one-story brick home in a one-street subdivision with a fancy name, “River Hills.” 

Underneath that veneer of status, though, her extended family battled every cliché you’ve heard about rural life: low education levels, poverty, and “an addiction to something.” Her father, a long-haul trucker, was rarely there. Her mother, in poor health, relied on Brown for help. Her parents struggled with debt. Brown felt the weight of low expectations, of being seen as just another poor black girl from the South. “Even from preschool,” she says, “I knew I was expected to be a teen mom.”

But Brown liked numbers. Or rather, as she put in her college essay, “my eyes were glued to the board whenever my teacher wrote out a math problem.”

By her senior year of high school, she had run through every Advanced Placement course the school offered. She earned a near perfect score on the SAT Math II subject test. She had a 4.0 GPA. In other words, Chantel Brown was the ideal candidate for an elite college.

It is perhaps no surprise that Brown was accepted at 19 of the 23 schools to which she applied – including most of the marquee names in higher education. She ended up attending Brown University in Providence, R.I., majoring in applied math and biology. Last May, she graduated and landed a job at The Parthenon Group, a consulting company in Boston, “making more than anyone in my mom’s family makes or will ever make.”

Ann Hermes/Staff
'I am like, "Whoa! I am not meant to be walking in professional attire to a corporate job." You still wonder how it happened.' – Chantel Brown, a graduate of Brown University who now works for a consulting firm in Boston

All good – absolutely good – with one exception: The success she has achieved comes with a mother lode of expectations and personal complications. The sudden immersion in a world of relative wealth and opportunity can make it difficult to relate to friends and family back home and even new acquaintances in the workplace.

Brown’s experience epitomizes some of the social and moral tensions that a generation of low-income students graduating from elite colleges in the United States now face as they head out into the work world. For years, Ivy League and other top schools have been aggressively recruiting poor students, many of whom are minorities, as a way to diversify their campuses. 

As these brilliant children of housecleaners and bus drivers move en masse through the higher-education system, they are struggling to reconcile what it means to go from being poor to privileged: Low-income students who are the first generation in their families to go to college now represent about 15 percent of top college enrollments. Many feel an acute pressure to succeed. Many are conflicted about whether to go for a platinum paycheck or save the world. More broadly, many are struggling to navigate one of the most difficult transitions in a modern, developed society – moving from one socioeconomic class to another.

As Brown puts it with simple mathematical precision, “I am trying to work through what it means to be who I am.”

***

The most exalted schools in higher education, coveted golden tickets to success, don’t come with warning labels: This will change your life. Your relationship with your family. Even how you identify yourself. For generations of privileged students who filled these campuses, after all, the environment was familiar. It was what was “normal,” comfortable.

When elite admissions offices stepped up recruitment of low-
income and first-generation students several years ago, they focused on financial aid, not noticing the culture. As a result, these students suddenly found themselves challenged by the social shock of sharing a campus with 1-percenters with money for eating out, spring break trips, and thousand-dollar designer puff jackets. 

There was outcry – and organizing. Student groups specifically representing low-income first-gens, such as Penn First and the Princeton Hidden Minorities Council, plus groups such as the Harvard Black Student Association became powerful advocates and communicators. 

Low-income first-gen students also worked across institutions. They have built a movement. In 2014, three students at Brown University started 1vyG, short for inter-Ivy first-generation college student network. In February, the group held its fourth annual conference, at the University of Pennsylvania, drawing 559 attendees from more than two dozen schools. Strikingly, 102 were campus administrators, there to discuss how to better serve low-income first gens. Penn President Amy Gutmann, a first gen herself, gushed in her remarks about how much such students mattered.

Courtesy of Mowa Li/University of Pennsylvania
Students share ideas at a conference for first-generation low-income students at the University of Pennsylvania.

“There is a reason we are both here,” Dr. Gutmann said, noting that both she and Wendell Pritchett, the provost, were present on a Saturday morning. “We couldn’t be more excited about what you will do with your lives. There is nothing more important to us.”

In dorm rooms and dining halls, students at elite schools are having heated arguments about their newfound earning power. How should they use their name-brand degree: To make money? Or to make a difference in society? Last fall at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., four friends fresh off corporate internships got into such a fiery argument that they organized a campus forum, “Selling Out: Corporations in a Moral Perspective.” When held in November, it was standing room only in the small room they booked. More sessions are planned. 

“There is this burden of not only thinking about yourself, what you want to accomplish, but thinking about your race, your community, your ethnic group,” says Nuha Saho, one of the forum organizers. Mr. Saho, who was raised in the Bronx in New York City and whose father sells beaded jewelry imported from Gambia, finds it “shocking how much privilege I have now.”

***

Students like Brown don’t want to be seen as ingrates, turning away from the communities and people who raised them. Yet, by dint of their degrees, they are joining a different social class, acquiring tastes and sensibilities they can’t undo. Career offices help with résumés, interview prep, even networking, but not with making sense of social divisions.

“I wish I’d had somebody keeping it really real about this transition,” says Victoria Shantrell Asbury, a sociology graduate student at Harvard who moderated the November forum and was a low-income first gen at Stanford University. 

The low-income first-gen identity has become a powerful campus force, she points out. So what happens when you graduate? “Am I still low income?” asks Ms. Asbury. “So much of who I am, so much of my identity is wrapped up in that.” Yet family members see the elite degree and suspect a new identity. “I don’t know if we have any food that you eat,” one told her on a trip home.

Just because you can land fancy jobs, however, doesn’t change basic things you lack that well-off peers take for granted. Think: money for apartment security deposits and work wardrobes. There’s no access to professional networks and little advice to weigh career options. Asbury didn’t know what to make of her first job contract. “I can’t go to my mom, who earned $25K and no benefits, and figure out if this is a good offer,” she says.

Even once you get settled in a new job and apartment, the tension between past and present can pop up in subtle and unsubtle ways. Brown admits that the view of Boston Harbor from the Parthenon Group reception area above Rowes Wharf, which she shows off on a crystalline March day, was important in her decision to work there. The room, with its confident blue carpeting and crisp white trim overlooking a matrix of colorful, bobbing boats, exudes financial security.

Elise Amendola/AP
A woman walks by Harvard University, where students have held forums on whether taking a corporate job is ‘selling out.’

Brown looks every bit the young professional: hair in a workplace ponytail, neat gold earrings, and glasses with clear frames. She marvels some days as she traverses the brick and cobblestone sidewalks from the South Station subway stop to her office.

“I am like, ‘Whoa! I am not meant to be walking in professional attire to a corporate job.’ You still wonder how it happened.” Brown is now firmly middle class, but her earnings are not fully hers. She sends home $600 to $700 a month for cellphone bills and to cover her nephews’ karate lessons. 

“It’s a pretty large portion of my budget,” she says. When there was a glitch in her mother’s disability check, she got a phone call seeking money. Despite tight family connections, she has new tastes in food, clothes, and travel. “Now, I won’t eat at Olive Garden,” she says of her family’s special-occasion spot. And despite her generosity, her mom judges her decisions. “Why are you traveling?” she will ask. “You should save that money.”

Brown loves her job but knows co-workers have different backgrounds. It’s one reason she found company perks during her summer internship that were meant to impress – Red Sox tickets, open bars, concerts, dinners – awkward. “I was very appreciative, but other people were expecting it and not treating a server or a bartender that well,” she says. “I was thinking, ‘That could be my cousin.’ ”

***

New research backs up the idea that low-income first gens experience familiar economic, social, and cultural barriers when they get to the workplace. Nicole Stephens and Andrea Dittmann at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and Sarah Townsend at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California interviewed 30 first-generation MBA students about the college-to-work transition prior to business school. 

Their research, not yet published, revealed feelings of class isolation when co-workers bonded over skiing and golf. Some from low-income backgrounds responded by avoiding such conversations and working extra hard “to prove they fit in.” Others who were open about their low-income background suffered, says Dr. Stephens, and found it “harder to connect with their elite peers.” The takeaway is that even if students absorb new social cues and expectations in college, says Stephens, “it’s not as though they become middle or upper class in the way they understand themselves.”

Low-income students often have fewer built-in shock absorbers at home, too. One gift wealthy parents give their children is the belief that they deserve to be successful, and the parents usually are a model for what that success looks like. The students from privileged families are exposed to sophisticated dinner-table talk about financial- and career-planning options and decisions. If they choose to make money after they graduate, their parents usually reinforce it. If they decide to try to save the world, their parents will often support them financially – and boast to friends about their work during intermission at the symphony.

For low-income first gens, career decisions are more complicated. The presumption that they will – or at least should – cash in their “golden ticket” of going to a top school and receiving substantial financial aid can be strong.

“There is a huge amount of pressure to show that educational investment produced the types of outcomes your family and community expected it would,” says Stephens, the Kellogg professor. “Middle- or upper-class students have the luxury of making mistakes. Students from working-class backgrounds – that one mistake can send them back down the economic ladder.”

Still, attending an exclusive school is hardly all onerous. Elite companies like to recruit students from elite campuses. A review of recent career center surveys of seniors (from Harvard, Amherst, Princeton, Yale, Northwestern, and Brown) shows about 40 percent of graduates taking jobs at financial services firms such as Goldman Sachs; tech giants such as Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn; or consulting companies such as Deloitte or McKinsey & Company.

Because corporations struggle with a lack of diversity in top ranks, they are looking to hire more minorities out of school. That’s why low-income first gens on prestigious campuses report being flooded with opportunities.

“You don’t have to choose banking,” says Enrique, a recent graduate from Harvard, who requested that his actual name not be used. “You have to actively not choose it.”

Ann Hermes/Staff
'You don't have to choose banking. You have to actively not choose it.' – Enrique, a recent Harvard grad who now works on Wall Street.

He had “no intentions” of pursuing finance but filled out an internship application on a whim – and got it. “Before you can think of anything else, you are being told, ‘Hey, you can make more money than you have ever seen in your entire life.’ ”

Enrique now works for a Wall Street firm, earning six figures. He’s 22. It’s a trip. In high school he lingered at McDonald’s for hours “having bought one small drink.” He may now work 60 hours a week, but having grown up with adults who toiled at physically exhausting jobs, banking, he says, “is not difficult work.” 

He has a nice apartment, sees friends and family, and indulges in Omaha steaks. But the job has had an effect. “I am seeing myself changing already,” he says. “I am talking about [things such as] ‘this decision in the incentive structure’ instead of ‘the right thing to do.’ ”

Many low-income first gens agree that climbing the corporate ladder is both intoxicating and worrisome. “You hope not to get trapped down the rabbit hole,” says Enrique. As another puts it: “You will get comfortable with that lifestyle. You will send your kids to private school. You won’t be able to quit.”

While pursing work that has a “social impact” is a signature of Millennials, low-income first gens and students of color often feel that burden more intensely. As more pursue corporate jobs, notes Cengiz Cemaloglu, one of the Harvard forum organizers, there is often “judgment in the air” from peers.

After interning at Goldman Sachs, Mr. Cemaloglu took a job with ReD Associates, a consulting firm with an anthropological research spin he could morally get behind. Yet he hears it’s “such a waste of your potential” because it is corporate. “If I’d taken a job in a social impact field, I would be a different kind of person in people’s eyes.”

***

That calculus troubles Anthony Abraham Jack, an assistant professor at Harvard who studies race, class, and culture at elite institutions. He says it frames “a false understanding of what upward mobility is for us.” Dr. Jack, a low-income first-generation student at Amherst College himself before earning a PhD at Harvard, says economic success does not require rejecting your roots. 

“It’s really important that we don’t perpetuate this myth that if you are poor or black or Latino that you must go through racial erasure or socioeconomic erasure, that you must be cleansed by white wealth to make it in America,” he says. While many are conflicted, he says some low-income first gens struggle more than others. 

Just as those who have gone through college support programs or private high schools acclimate better to elite colleges – he calls them “The Privileged Poor” – he argues they find corporate jobs less fraught. “It doesn’t scare you to go to Goldman Sachs, to go to Chase, to start your career,” he says. “You’ve already heard the ‘sellout’ comments. You already know how to be of your community but not always in it.”

For some, this is precisely the moment when low-income first gens, particularly African-American and Hispanic students, must use their shared identity to forge new financial and career paths. 

“We are what wealth creation looks like,” says Jonathan Jackson, who graduated from Washington University in St. Louis in 2013. After working at LinkedIn, he co-founded Blavity, an online site about the black Millennial experience. He wants to be among those putting a new, nonwhite face on the popular image of wealth and power. 

***

Rudy Torres has long sought to serve kids from his East Los Angeles community, a Latino neighborhood where low-riders cruise storied Whittier Boulevard on Saturday nights. But two years after graduating from Brown University, he lives in the same ramshackle stucco structure from which he set off as a celebrated student with an Ivy League future. 

Jenna Shoenefeld/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
'Is anybody going to write about depression? Share their unemployed adventures? How they found their first job after struggling for five months?' – Rudy Torres, a Brown University grad who is living with his family

The house could be a metaphor for his postgraduation state, a jumble of construction lacking a logical floor plan. As the California sun streams through avocado and orange trees out front, the home’s interior is shadow and confusion. In the living area, his grandfather watches TV. Nearby, a purple-walled alcove that used to be a closet is fitted with a mattress and serves as a bedroom. It used to be where Mr. Torres slept. Now his sister has claimed it. For the past year, says Torres, “I have been sleeping on the couch.” 

Returning home has brought emotional upheaval. Torres tries to rescue his father, Alfred, from a swirl of destructive forces; Alfred struggles to keep a job, stay out of jail. Torres fears the four jobs he has had since graduation echo his father’s experience. His family, he says, “expected me to go into banking and be making money.” Yet he faces the daily fact that “I am living a similar life” – Ivy diploma or not – as before.

Online, he scans the career boasts of college friends. This one started a grad program; another “just got an offer from Deloitte,” says Torres. “Is anybody going to write about depression? Share their unemployed adventures? How they found their first job after struggling for five months?”

Recently, a friend helped him see that what’s he’s facing is “a common experience among peers that no one has the courage to talk about.” They created a website, As Told by You, to collect stories to show that “no life is linear.”

Top colleges have dazzling postgraduation results, but rarely mention the social networks privileged students bring with them. Sixteen percent of Yale’s class of 2016, for example, secured jobs through “a personal contact or family friend.” What if your family friend is a fast-food cook? Even as low-income first gens begin to define their demographic power, they feel confusion. Is this the moment to serve your community, or ascend the social ladder, gaining money, power, prestige?

Torres is a wiry, high-energy, talented musician and deep thinker, trying to match challenges with positives, trying to bring balance to his life ledger. He purposefully did not pursue corporate jobs at graduation, opting for the less clear-cut path into nonprofit work. Six months ago, he landed a job at the Southern California College Access Network, a coalition of nonprofits that encourages kids from low-income families to go to college. He bought a car – a black Prius – and recently ran the Los Angeles Marathon (4 hours, 23 minutes) after training for months with a colleague.

Gaining his footing has taken longer and been more difficult than he imagined, but says Torres, in perhaps a coda for many of his first-gen brethren, “I think I have finally hit my stride.” 

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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On Film

5. Our critic’s Top 4 movies for March

Longtime film critics can be hard to please. Peter Rainer is no Wes Anderson fanboy, but the ingenuity baked into the stop-motion marvel ‘Isle of Dogs’ got his tail wagging. He also was bracing for another earnest look at the horrors of war before being pleasantly surprised by the transcendent spirit of ‘Journey’s End.’ To read capsule reviews and find links to Peter’s full-length, graded reviews of those March movies (and two more), click on the blue “read” button below. 

Fox Searchlight/AP
In 'Isle of Dogs,' a 12-year-old boy goes in search of his guard dog on Trash Island, a remote garbage dump where the dogs from Megasaki have been exiled by mayoral decree. Monitor critic Peter Rainer calls the film 'so flabbergastingly original that, despite being replete with references to other movies, it is practically a genre entirely unto itself.'
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Our critic’s Top 4 movies for March

This past month, some of the films that caught Monitor film critic Peter Rainer's attention had themes including the spirit that can transcend war and how people forgive in unimaginable circumstances.

Black comedies don’t come much blacker than 'The Death of Stalin'

Good political satires are rare. This one is not only nonstop funny but it also contains some very pointed and pertinent takes on modern political intrigue. –Peter Rainer

Black comedies don’t come much blacker than “The Death of Stalin,” the latest satiric whirligig from co-writer and director Armando Iannucci, best known in the United States for “In the Loop” and HBO’s “Veep.” Based on a French graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin and co-written by Iannucci's frequent collaborators, David Schneider and Ian Martin, it’s set in March 1953, shortly before Stalin’s sudden demise from a heart attack. When Stalin keels over, the Kremlin intrigue kicks into high gear, with each Committee member conniving for power.

It’s a marvelous crew of comic actors. They include Rupert Friend as Stalin’s dissolute son, Vasily; Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov, Stalin’s putative successor; Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev (just thinking of Buscemi as Khrushchev is laugh-inducing); Michael Palin as Vyacheslav Molotov (he of the infamous cocktail); and, best of all, that grand Shakespearean actor Simon Russell Beale as Lavrenti Beria, the lethal head of the NKVD.

The central conceit of “The Death of Stalin” is that what is funny is not always just funny. In this sense, the film is closer in spirit to “Dr. Strangelove” than, say Mel Brooks’s “The Producers.” The latter was a jape; the former was a cautionary howl. It’s a howl that very much resonates in our own political era. This must be why Russia banned this film for, among reasons, being “extremist.” They got that right. Grade: A- (Rated R for language throughout, violence, and some sexual references.)

'Isle of Dogs' is a stop-motion tour de force that is flabbergastingly original

Wes Anderson's movies are an acquired taste that I have not always acquired. But this stop-motion movie is a marvel of visual ingenuity. –PR

The best justification for making an animated movie is that its story couldn’t best be told any other way. This is certainly the case with writer-director Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs,” a stop-motion tour de force so flabbergastingly original that, despite being replete with references to other movies, it is practically a genre entirely unto itself.

Set primarily in a near-future fantasyland Japan, “Isle of Dogs” posits a world where dogs have been exiled from the teeming city of Megasaki to a remote garbage dump called Trash Island because of the rampant spread of “dog flu” and “snout fever” that is crossing into the human population. The hatchet-faced mayor, Mr. Kobayashi, is descended from a long line of dog haters, so it becomes increasingly clear, especially when a pair of scientists reveal that they are on the verge of discovering a cure, that something more conspiratorial is afoot.

Despite its zigzaggy wit, ‘Isle of Dogs’ is also a political movie, to a far greater degree than we have previously seen from Anderson, and with sometimes too heavy a hand.

At times, it’s too much of a good thing. Like Terry Gilliam, Anderson is one of the few directors around who suffers from having too many good ideas. But there is so much to look at in “Isle of Dogs” that a second viewing is almost mandatory. You can forgive its fetishism. Mania this dedicated deserves its due. Grade: A- (Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some violent images.)

'Journey's End' shows horror of war, spirit that transcends it

It always feels good to be pleasantly surprised by a movie. I wasn't especially looking forward to another earnest movie about the horrors of warfare, but "Journey's End" is one of the best of its kind ever made. –Peter Rainer

I did not expect to be as moved by “Journey’s End” as I was. Based on the 1928 R.C. Sherriff play about a battalion of doomed British soldiers during World War I, the play is such a sturdy contraption that, as directed by Saul Dibb and written by Simon Reade, it transfers almost seamlessly to the screen. The power of the material survives because the anguish and heroism inherent in the story are enduring. So, alas, is war itself.

Set in March 1918, at a time when the German Army is poised to launch its Spring Offensive, “Journey’s End” focuses almost entirely on the vastly outnumbered C Company lying in wait in a muddy trench in northern France. Into this purgatory arrives Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), a fresh-faced enlistee just out of basic training. His former schoolhouse monitor, Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin), whom he idolizes and who is wooing his sister, is in charge.

“Journey’s End” does justice both to the horrors of war and to the spirit that can sometimes, somehow, transcend it. Grade: A- (Rated R for some language and war images.)

In ‘The Forgiven,' Desmond Tutu faces off with a white separatist

This film portrays the redemption of a white separatist in ways that are not only credible but moving. -PR

An intermittently powerful drama loosely derived from real events, Roland Joffé’s “The Forgiven” takes place in newly post-apartheid South Africa and is based on a play by Michael Ashton called “The Archbishop and the Antichrist.”

The archbishop is Desmond Tutu (Forest Whitaker), who was chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which sought to investigate the brutal politically inspired abuses committed during the apartheid years. The antichrist is Piet Blomfeld (Eric Bana), an unregenerate white separatist with a history of apartheid-era violence who is doing major time in Pollsmoor Prison. Their dialogue over several meetings is the intense core of the conflict in “The Forgiven” and by far its strongest aspect.

The most powerful scene in the movie, and the one that most fully encompasses its meaning, belongs to Mrs. Morobe (the marvelous Thandi Makhubele), a mother who has pleaded with Tutu to uncover the circumstances behind the likely murder of her teenage daughter. When she confronts the perpetrator, her blinding rage and sorrow come pouring through and you ask yourself how this woman will ever find it in herself to forgive. And yet she does, and in a way that most of us could never believe ourselves capable of. Before our eyes, and by her furious grace, she unshackles herself. Grade: B+ (Rated R for disturbing/violent content and language throughout, including some sexual references.)

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The Monitor's View

A guide to watching Arab elections

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Hopes of the Arab world embracing democracy after the Arab Spring have long focused on Egypt, its most populous nation. Yet those hopes were dashed again this week in a sham election. The Middle East can’t seem to shake its three governing models: nationalist dictators, reigning monarchs, and radical Islamists. But notice this. All three have something in common: the denial of the liberty of conscience. To really track progress in Arab politics, it is far better to focus on Tunisia, which enshrined such liberties in a 2014 Constitution after a wide public debate about Islam and freedom of conscience. On May 6, the North African nation holds its first municipal elections since the Arab Spring. The enthusiasm is not hard to miss. More than 57,000 people have signed up to run. Tunisia could be about to see a new flourishing of its democracy, which would serve even more as an example for the region. Other Arab nations such as Egypt do not deserve as much fawning attention to their politics. At least not until they adhere to freedom of conscience.

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A guide to watching Arab elections

Any hope of the Arab world embracing democracy has long focused on its most populous country, Egypt. Yet despite a burst of freedom after the 2011 Arab Spring, Egypt again dashed those hopes this week in a sham election designed to keep military strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in power.

The one opposition figure allowed to run in the March 26-28 election barely campaigned. Only about 40 percent of voters, who were largely ordered to go to the polls, cast a ballot. The mirage of democracy was easy to see through.

To be sure, Mr. Sisi remains popular for ousting the other extreme on the political spectrum from his own secular authoritarianism. In 2013, he led a coup against the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, who was duly elected but quickly started coercing democratic opponents.

The Middle East can’t seem to shake its three governing models: nationalist dictators, reigning monarchs, and radical Islamists. But notice this. All three have something in common: the denial of the liberty of conscience. All three believe it their sole right to determine which, if any, of its opponents can participate in governance.

To really track progress in Arab politics, it is far better to focus on Tunisia. For three years after ousting a dictator in the Arab Spring, Tunisians held a public debate while crafting a new constitution. The most difficult part was defining liberty of conscience. No Arab constitution until then included such a phrase.

Many Islamists in Tunisia as well as the elite remnants of the former dictatorship opposed the notion of individual freedom in faith, speech, and other areas of life. Nonetheless, the idea was enshrined in the 2014 Constitution. And it has begun to sink into the thinking of this largely Muslim country in North Africa.

On May 6, Tunisia will hold its first municipal elections since the Arab Spring. The campaign has yet to officially start. Yet the enthusiasm is hard to miss. In the one Arab country that most firmly embraces individual rights, more than 57,000 people have signed up to run for offices in 350 cities and towns.

By law, political parties must include candidates from three groups: women, youth, and those with disabilities. As a result, nearly 50 percent of those running are women, while more than 50 percent are under the age of 35. One in 10 has a disability. But what really surprised observers was the high number of independents. That is viewed as a sign of disgust among youth toward traditional parties as well as frustration over a stagnant economy.

Such a breadth of representation speaks to Tunisians’ understanding of the liberty of conscience. “Religion should not divide the society,” says Rachid Ghannouchi, head of the moderate Islamist party. In 2016 he announced his party, Ennahda, would separate political and religious activities.

After the local elections, the central government is expected to take up a bill that would grant more powers to municipalities. Tunisia could be about to see a new flourishing of its democracy, which would serve even more as an example for the region. Other Arab nations such as Egypt do not deserve as much fawning attention to their politics. At least not until they adhere to freedom of conscience.

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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.

Jerusalem – city of hope

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In today’s column, a woman reflects on a recent visit to Jerusalem and explores the universal message of hope and healing that Christ Jesus’ resurrection inspires.

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Jerusalem – city of hope

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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“When you see this, your heart shall rejoice, and your bones shall flourish like grass” (Isaiah 66:14). These words, translated here in the New King James Version of the Bible, were hastily carved by a 4th-century pilgrim as graffiti on the crumbling Western Wall in Jerusalem. I’ve heard it said that the temple wall had so captured his heart that it became a place of hope and renewal for him.

I was fascinated by this ancient graffiti when I visited Jerusalem. The city itself is one of momentous history but also, I found, extraordinary vitality, making it an inspiring place to visit. Historically, it has often been a center of turmoil. Christ Jesus lamented, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not!” (Luke 13:34).

But the turmoil in Jerusalem in Jesus’ day was secondary to the deeply restorative and liberating events that would take place – such as Jesus’ resurrection. Fearing Jesus’ influence as he healed and reformed the sick and sinning, the religious and political authorities of the time crucified him on a cross. Yet this aggressive reaction to Jesus’ teaching and healing couldn’t stop the ultimate act of salvation for all humanity: Jesus’ victory over death.

His resurrection revealed that God, the divine Father of us all, is indeed all-powerful, and brought with it the promise of life as so much more than what it seems to be on the surface. Jesus’ resurrection points us to a new and higher idea of existence as spiritual. It shows us all that our real identity is defined not by matter, but as the spiritual creation of God, divine Love.

In thinking about Jerusalem, I have found a passage in “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by the discoverer of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, to be thought-provoking. It defines Jerusalem in part as a symbol of oppression and tyranny, but also as a spiritual symbol of home and heaven (see p. 589). One thing that pondering Jesus’ resurrection has helped me see is that because we can never be separated from our divine creator, heaven is not some far-off place, but something we can increasingly feel at home in right here and now. Each of us can let Jesus’ resurrection inspire in us the courage and yearning to follow his life’s example and let divine Love lead us.

This isn’t always easy, but the outcome is that we see firsthand that the power of God to restore health and harmony is still effective today. For instance, a woman I know told me of an occasion when she chaired a meeting of government officials from several countries and there were many disagreements. She had no idea how to bring the parties together and feared that many people would suffer if a solution was not found.

Having found prayer helpful in the past, the woman turned to God to calm her fears. She asked God how to bring the redemptive truth of the resurrection to this inharmonious situation – to be more receptive to God’s boundless love and care for all, including each of those participating in the meeting. As she prayed, she felt a sense of peace about the situation; ideas soon came to her about how to move the meeting forward constructively, which proved successful and resulted in aid for many thousands of disadvantaged people.

This experience indicates to me that the same divine power that was behind Jesus’ resurrection is as active today as it ever was, blessing the course of humanity. It is not surprising that Jesus’ resurrection occurred in the area of Jerusalem, the city of renewal, and its message is one of profound hope for all humanity. In the words of St. John in the Bible’s book of Revelation: “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (21:4).

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Jonathan Browning
Members of the Tai’an acrobatic circus perform at the San Lin Expo Culture Center in Pudong, sometimes as often as twice a day. Led by two coaches, the group comes from China's Shandong province, about 500 miles north of Shanghai. Most of the 20 performers are children and young adults, from agile 11-year-olds to 20-something daredevil motorcycle riders who steal the show at the end. Many come from poor rural families. Depending on their age, act, or skill level, they can earn anywhere from $600 to $1,600 a month. The daily routine for the troupe usually includes free time in the morning or some school classes and then rehearsals and practice in the afternoon to be ready for a performance at 7:30 p.m.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( April 2nd, 2018 )

Clayton Collins
Daily Edition Editor

Thanks for being with us today. Our lineups for next week are shaping up. We’ll have an analysis by Ned Temko, in his "Patterns" column, of the increasingly undervalued importance of old-school diplomacy. And we’ll look at the future of “zero emissions” goals amid signs that Washington seeks to roll back automotive standards. 

Monitor Daily Podcast

March 30, 2018
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