2018
December
18
Tuesday
David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

Here’s a quick quiz. If you were a Hollywood exec, who would you choose to star in your next film: Scarlett Johansson or Chris Hemsworth?

If you answered Ms. Johansson, you’d likely make an extra $70 million. A recent study found that female-led movies dominated the box office from 2014 to 2017. Out of 350 films, fewer than one-third were female-led. Yet, in big- or small-budget movies, films starring women, on average, sold more movie tickets.

Why haven’t more female-led films been greenlighted? “A lot of times in our business there is a lot of bias disguising itself as knowledge,” Christy Haubegger, who worked on the study, told The New York Times.

That bias was exposed in an email exchange in 2014 between Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter and Sony CEO Michael Lynton under the subject line “Female Movie” – where Mr. Perlmutter listed three female-led superhero movies that flopped.  

But the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data,’ as is noted in today’s podcast episode of Perception Gaps (more below).

The past three years suggest that by failing to be more gender or ethnically diverse film industry execs are hurting profits. But we’ll leave you with one sign of gender-equity progress: Ms. Johansson will reportedly bank $15 million to star in Marvel’s upcoming film “Black Widow.” That’s the same salary Chris Evans (Captain America) and Chris Hemsworth (Thor) were each recently paid for their starring roles as Avengers.

Now to our five selected stories, including an interview with a rising star in Congress, drone deliveries in Africa, and what Mary Poppins might teach us about balancing tradition with modernity.  

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1. Connection or control? On the new Silk Road, two tales of China compete.

Beijing has cast itself as a global leader, building relationships with other nations through roads, pipelines, and trade. But its security policies at home rely on exclusion and fear, and China’s international partners are taking note.

David
Thomas Peter/Reuters
An ethnic Uyghur woman walks in front of a screen with a picture of Chinese President Xi Jinping in the main city square in Kashgar in the Xinjiang region of China on Sept. 6, 2018. The screen's slideshow of images of Mr. Xi includes propaganda images of his previous visit to Xinjiang.

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China has touted its Belt and Road Initiative, a trillion-dollar, three-continent web of roads, ports, and railways, as an emblem of globalization and global leadership. But here in Xinjiang, a vast frontier region of China that is an essential hub of the Belt and Road, that message contrasts sharply with the reality of Beijing’s policies. Authorities have detained as many as 1 million people in reeducation camps, most of whom are Muslim minorities, in a counter-extremism drive. But long before the crackdown, many Xinjiang natives resented recent decades’ influx of Han Chinese, who tend to hold higher-paying jobs. Today, similar concerns are growing in countries along the Belt and Road. Those countries are wary that China will reap the lion’s share of jobs and profits from the expensive projects. Polluting plants, relatively lax safety standards, and what critics call “debtbook diplomacy” to extract concessions when countries fail to repay Chinese loans have also stirred opposition. The situation in Xinjiang exposes a paradox underlying China’s push to assert itself as a world power and model for other countries, some analysts warn. “You can’t have true connectivity and leadership on global trade when domestically your key driver is stability maintenance and locking down people,” says James Leibold, a professor at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.

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Connection or control? On the new Silk Road, two tales of China compete.

The Pakistani businessman braved the rugged Karakoram Highway, crossed the freezing Khunjerab Pass, and spent an hour undergoing security at China’s border to reach the city of Kashgar, in the frontier region of Xinjiang.

Eager to promote his adventure tourism company, the young entrepreneur set out in October in hopes of finding a travel agency to partner with. Instead, he ran up against China’s paramilitary surveillance state and its anti-Muslim policies.

It began with a simple transaction – trading US dollars for Chinese yuan. He passed through one of Kashgar’s ubiquitous airport-style security checks, entered a Bank of China branch, and waited to see a teller. “I went to the window at my turn, but when they saw my first name was Mohammad, they refused to change the money,” he says, asking that his last name be withheld.

Mohammad soon learned that, as a Muslim and foreigner, he would be met with intense suspicion and harassment by authorities in Xinjiang. He was forbidden from praying at Kashgar’s ancient Id Kah mosque, told that the posted prayer times were just for show. Hotels denied him rooms. Police interrogated him, and he spent a night in a squad car. Soon, he abandoned his plan.

Xinjiang authorities have detained as many as 1 million people in reeducation camps, according to human rights groups, in a campaign to eradicate what authorities label the “three evil forces” of separatism, religious extremism, and terrorism.

Most are Muslim ethnic minorities, many targeted because of contacts or travel in 26 “sensitive countries” with large Muslim populations, including Pakistan. Some are spouses and children of citizens from neighboring Pakistan, Kazakhstan, and elsewhere, and foreigners have been detained. The repression is complicating foreign ventures like Mohammad’s – and also Beijing’s largest overseas experiment of all.

China has pledged $1 trillion in loans and investments to its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a plan to build a vast web of roads, railways, ports, and pipelines across nearly 70 countries on three continents, tracing the ancient paths of the Silk Road. The goal is to spur commerce and interconnectivity, while advancing Chinese strategic interests and influence, analysts say.

Xinjiang, a huge, resource-rich swath of desert and mountains on China’s western periphery that shares borders with six countries, is an essential BRI hub and gateway to the rest of Eurasia. But experts warn that the harsh crackdown here, which Chinese officials argue is needed for stability, exposes a basic contradiction – and weakness – underlying China’s push to assert itself as a world power.

Thomas Peter/Reuters
People make their way through the Old City in Kashgar, Xinjiang region, China on Sept. 6, 2018.

“The fundamental contradiction at the heart of the strategy … is between the idea of connectivity and the flow of Chinese goods, ideas, and information globally, and this concern for stability domestically,” says James Leibold, an expert in Chinese ethnic policy at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. “You can’t have true connectivity and leadership on global trade when domestically your key driver is stability maintenance and locking down people.”

President Xi Jinping has centralized the Communist Party’s power – with himself at the helm – to a degree not seen since the rule of revolutionary leader Mao Zedong. Meanwhile, he is tightening the party’s grip on not only Xinjiang but many aspects of Chinese society, highlighting Beijing’s authoritarian priorities in a way that experts say limits the appeal of a global leadership role.

“It speaks to an inherent weakness in China itself, the necessity to repress people to this extent,” says Elizabeth Economy, senior fellow and director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. China’s autocratic trend, along with pressing internal problems such as economic inequality, pollution, and the weak rule of law, undermine Beijing’s efforts to advance its “soft power” and promote itself as a model for other countries to follow, she says.

“With artificial intelligence, the installing of cameras, what is going on at universities, constraints on the internet – it’s part of a continuum of political repression and a fusion of political and technological means of repression,” Dr. Economy says. “There are few citizenries globally that will look at that as an attractive option. That is a big challenge for China as it goes forward globally and tries to sell itself.”

Belt-er beware

Since the Communist Party took power in 1949, China has mobilized a large migration into Xinjiang of millions of ethnic Han Chinese, who now make up nearly 40 percent of the population once dominated by Muslim, Turkic-speaking ethnic groups such as Uyghurs and Kazakhs. Hans have taken over land, commerce, and oil and gas industries as well as other resources, and typically hold higher paying jobs. This encroachment – as well as the party’s severe restrictions on Islam and minority cultures – has caused resentment among Uyghurs and other Xinjiang ethnic groups. 

SOURCE: Reuters, Bloomberg, Xinhua
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Jacob Turcotte and Ann Scott Tyson/Staff

Similar concerns exist in some countries involved in BRI, with local people worried Chinese workers and companies will gain the lion’s share of jobs, sales, profits, and other economic gains. China’s polluting plants, relatively lax safety standards, and use of what critics call “debtbook diplomacy” to extract concessions when countries fail to repay Chinese loans have also stirred public opposition, as well as doubts in some governments that initially welcomed the influx of Chinese-funded projects.

A flagship BRI project in Pakistan, the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, includes a 2,000-mile conduit of roads, railways, and pipelines linking Pakistan’s Chinese-operated port of Gwadar with Xinjiang. The pipelines will create the fastest route for China to import oil and gas from the Middle East and Africa.

Key infrastructure will go through the region of Balochistan, where nationalists charge that local people will benefit little from the project. Popular opposition is significant, and Pakistan’s new premier Imran Khan has reportedly pushed to focus the project on job creation. In late November, a militant nationalist group that opposes the project, the Balochistan Liberation Army, attacked the Chinese consulate in Karachi.

Kazakhstan, where China has invested heavily in the energy sector, is another key BRI partner where concerns over Chinese influence are growing. Beijing is also building a major rail hub in Kazakhstan to load and unload trains running from China toward Russia and western Europe. But in 2016, when Kazakhstan’s government proposed allowing foreigners to rent land for 25 years, protests erupted in opposition to what many Kazakhs feared would turn into a Chinese land grab, and the government postponed the plan. This year, Kazakhstan has quietly pressed China to release Kazakh citizens from detention in Xinjiang, as more ethnic Kazakhs speak out about about how they or their relatives have been ensnared in the camps.

In Malaysia, amid concern over what Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad calls “a new version of colonialism,” the government this year suspended a $20 billion BRI railroad project and canceled pipeline projects worth $3 billion backed by China. Mr. Mahathir has vowed to review all “unequal treaties” linked to Beijing.

And in southern Sri Lanka last year, China obtained a 99-year lease on a port after the city of Colombo failed to repay Chinese loans, a move criticized as an erosion of Sri Lankan sovereignty.

“We have seen a lot of backlash and projects stalled,” says Economy. “The talk about the major land acquisitions in Kazakhstan and the port in Sri Lanka has bred calls of neocolonialism.” Problems with China’s overseas business practices – such as debt sustainability, environmental concerns, and labor issues – are not new, but now the scale is magnified, analysts say.

Ann Scott Tyson/The Christian Science Monitor
The Id Kah mosque in central Kashgar, Xinjiang region, China, is largely deserted apart from Chinese tourists, seen here taking a snapshot outside.

Exporting ideas

The gap between China’s rhetoric of interconnected development and the reality of its policies on the ground is felt acutely on the streets of Kashgar. Wall paintings of smiling and dancing ethnic minorities and huge red banners proclaiming love for the Communist Party contrast with the fearful looks on the faces of people walking by. Helmeted police carrying rifles and shields scan people’s IDs and cellphones at checkpoints before they can enter neighborhoods ringed with barbed wire and surveillance cameras. Police lead shopkeepers armed with clubs in mandatory anti-terrorism drills at set times each day.

“The Chinese state needs to be in complete control [in Xinjiang] and so they just keep hammering the nail harder,” says Sean Roberts, director of the international development studies program at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. Dr. Roberts believes the government views the Uyghur population in Xinjiang as an obstacle to Beijing’s economic expansion plans, and so is pressing ahead with strong-armed cultural and ideological assimilation.

Chinese officials and experts defend the stringent security and reeducation camps – which they call “vocational training” facilities – as needed to prevent terrorism.

“The three evil forces – separatism, extremism, and terrorism – are stubborn diseases,” wrote Niu Changzhen, an official at the general office of Xinjiang’s Communist Party Committee, in an October article in the state-run Global Times newspaper. “Acute illnesses need equally drastic medicine.”

Since the 1990s, Uyghurs have committed a number of knife and bombing attacks, and some protests in Xinjiang have turned violent. But many foreign analysts who study the region say China has exaggerated the terrorist threat, inaccurately labeling Uyghur rights groups and a small number of militants as terrorists. They attribute spontaneous acts of violent resistance by ethnic Muslims to China’s decades of repression. “The Chinese government has created the only enemy it ever faced from Uyghurs,” Roberts says.

As part of China’s bid for greater influence, Beijing is promoting counterterrorism cooperation with Central Asian nations and others participating in BRI, while seeking to export its values, policies, security systems, and surveillance technology. This is a lucrative prospect for Chinese companies profiting in Xinjiang, and for China’s race to lead the world in artificial intelligence.  A representative of the Chinese security software firm Leon Technology, which is heavily involved in Xinjiang’s surveillance state, said at a 2017 conference that the market has “huge and unlimited potential” and Leon seeks to become the most influential security firm in Central Asia, according to a transcript of his speech by the ChinAI newsletter, which focuses on China’s artificial intelligence policy and strategy.

Thomas Peter/Reuters
Tourist enjoy their meal in the Old City in Kashgar in Xinjiang region, China, Sept. 6, 2018.

“To crack down on the ‘three forces,’ international cooperation is of prime significance, especially coordination among countries in South and West Asia and Central Asia, which serve as the main gateways for infiltration and escape of Chinese terrorists,” wrote Wang Peng, an associate research fellow at People’s University in Beijing, in an August op-ed in Global Times.

Chinese officials suggest other countries should emulate the anti-extremist policies and approach to human rights in Xinjiang. China’s model emphasizes state-led development to provide for the basic needs of the majority, often at the expense of political, civil, and minority rights. The severe restrictions in Xinjiang are “ensuring most people’s safety, which is protecting human rights to the greatest extent,” said Li Wei, a Beijing-based terrorism expert, in a Nov. 20 Global Times article.

Eyes on Xinjiang

Yet China’s aspirations as a global power may suffer as the world takes note of its actions in Xinjiang.

More than 630 scholars from 40 countries, 21 of which participate in the BRI, have signed a statement urging action to address “the mass human rights abuses” in Xinjiang. The Nov. 26 statement calls for economic sanctions on Chinese leaders and companies involved with the detentions, UN action to investigate and close the camps, and expediting asylum requests for members of Xinjiang’s Turkic Muslim minority groups. It urges countries negotiating BRI projects to make their participation contingent upon China ceasing repression in Xinjiang.

Another group of more than 115 Sinologists from the Czech Republic and Slovakia – both in the BRI – have condemned the reeducation camps and called for their closure. Beijing is exaggerating the threat of religious extremism as a pretext to consolidate control over Xinjiang because the region is critical to the BRI, the statement says.

Published on Dec. 10, Human Rights Day, the statement also voices strong concern over China’s push under Mr. Xi’s leadership to promote its own national concept of human rights, and encourages other nations to do the same. Denying the universal validity of the values embodied in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and entitling governments to define them “in accordance with their own needs,” will ultimately threaten “the rights and freedoms of other countries’ citizens,” it says.

“The issue of Xinjiang and political repression and aggression in China is raised at every conference,” Economy says, “as a sign that China is not moving in the right direction.”

SOURCE: Reuters, Bloomberg, Xinhua
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Jacob Turcotte and Ann Scott Tyson/Staff
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Perception Gaps

Comparing what’s ‘known’ to what’s true

2. Where gaps come from, and how we can close them

Misperceptions tend to occur when people are given evidence that directly conflicts with their worldview or their values (on climate change, for example). Our latest podcast looks at how we might start to bridge those gaps.

David

In this final episode of our “Perception Gaps” podcast series we ask: How do you solve perception gaps? The first step is understanding how they develop. We perceive the world in ways that are often at odds with reality, says Ann Reid, director of the National Center for Science Education, and this starts when we are young. One classroom experiment tests the perceptions of American fifth-graders: What happens if you put a thermometer in a mitten? Invariably, the students guess the temperature will go up. “When you actually have them do it and the temperature doesn’t go up, they don’t immediately say, ‘Oh, my understanding of the world must be faulty,’ ” Ms Reid says. Instead, like adults, they challenge the evidence before them, including seeing if maybe the thermometer is broken. Through experimentation, students eventually learn that mittens act as an insulator, and are not intrinsically warm. When challenging assumptions or deep-seated values, the facts alone typically aren’t enough to close a perception gap. It’s often a process of education over time.

To listen to this episode, please visit csmonitor.com/perceptiongaps. Also, please fill out this survey to share your feedback on the “Perception Gaps” series.

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Interview

3. She went toe to toe with Schwarzenegger. Now Karen Bass is ready to take on Trump.

Here’s a rising star to watch: The incoming leader of the Congressional Black Caucus talks with the Monitor’s Francine Kiefer about investigating the president, protecting voting rights, and whether African-American women are being taken for granted by the Democratic Party.

David
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Rep. Karen Bass (D) of California (c.) walks through the Capitol with Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) of Washington, D.C. and Rep. Paul Tonko (D) of New York, last month. Congresswoman Bass, the incoming chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, has been mentioned as a potential future House speaker.

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When California Rep. Karen Bass (D) takes charge of the Congressional Black Caucus next year, she will be leading a group that is growing in numbers – and clout. Of its 55 members, five will chair full committees in the next Congress, while another 28 will chair subcommittees. That includes Representative Bass, who will head the subcommittee on Africa and global health and human rights. The Monitor recently sat down with Bass, who in 2008 became the first female African-American speaker of the California Assembly – or any state legislature. A determined woman who has brown belts in the Korean martial arts and who weathered a personal tragedy when her daughter and son-in-law were killed in an auto accident in 2006, she has focused during her eight years in Congress on strengthening America’s relationship with Africa and reforming foster care. She’s also earned respect in behind-the-scenes roles, helping to recruit candidates, round up votes, and fundraise. She’s a frequent guest on MSNBC and CNN, and Politico once quipped that Bass “looks more and more like a Pelosi-in-waiting each day.” What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of the interview.

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She went toe to toe with Schwarzenegger. Now Karen Bass is ready to take on Trump.

As Democrats prepare to take over the House, the spotlight has been on Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi of California. Yet standing in the wings are a number of rising stars – some of whom are already being mentioned as potential speakers down the road.

One of them is Rep. Karen Bass, from Los Angeles. Back in 2008, as California was facing the Great Recession and a state budget crisis, she became the first female African-American speaker of the California Assembly – or any state legislature. Two years later, she was elected to Congress.

Today, Representative Bass is the incoming chair of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), which is growing in numbers and clout. Of its 55 members, five will chair full committees in the next Congress: government oversight, financial services, homeland security, science and technology, and education and workforce. Another 28 will chair subcommittees. That includes Bass, a former physician’s assistant, who will head the subcommittee on Africa and global health and human rights.

The Monitor recently sat down with Bass, a determined woman who has brown belts in the Korean martial arts and who weathered a personal tragedy when her daughter and son-in-law were killed in an auto accident in 2006. In her eight years in Congress, she has focused particularly on strengthening America’s relationship with Africa and reforming foster care.  

She’s also earned respect in behind-the-scenes roles, helping to set policy for the Democratic caucus, recruit candidates, round up votes, and fundraise. A frequent guest on MSNBC and CNN, Politico once quipped that Bass “looks more and more like a Pelosi-in-waiting each day.”

What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of the interview:

Q: The Congressional Black Caucus has topped 50 members – a first. How is the caucus going to use that power?

A: The Congressional Black Caucus historically has been known as the conscience of the Congress. That means fighting for the most vulnerable in our country. So that will be front and center.

You can go down the list of CBC members and where they are and the leadership they will provide in the committees.

For example, take the Financial Services committee and the attempt to dismantle “Dodd-Frank” Wall Street reforms and consumer protections. Chairwoman Maxine Waters of California will be at the forefront of protecting Dodd-Frank.

We have a secretary of Education who, from our point of view, believes in privatizing education. You can imagine that [Education and the Workforce committee] chairman Bobby Scott of Virginia will be on the forefront of that.

When it comes to the caucus overall and the Congress overall, it’s going to be an adjustment for our Republican colleagues to recognize that they’re now in the minority.

Q: Sen. Kamala Harris of California says that black women are the “backbone” of the Democratic Party, yet they’re not always given an equal voice. Can you comment on that?

A: Black women have been probably the most reliable sector of our society in terms of voting Democratic. In 2016, 94 percent of black women voted for Hillary, 52 percent of white women voted for Trump. If you look at the election of Democratic Sen. Doug Jones in Alabama, black women were there. Pretty much any election, you have seen black women vote Democratic more than anybody.

There has been little to no acknowledgment of that – meaning public acknowledgment, but also in terms of the status of black women inside the Democratic Party. I think black women will be taken more seriously now. I also think that black women have stepped up and said, “you know what, we’re tired of this.” 

We have the race of Stacey Abrams – who, in my opinion, is the governor of Georgia. In my opinion, it was just outright stolen. The idea that you would have a secretary of state who was running for office and counting the votes at the same time is something you hear about in other countries and should never happen in ours.

Q: Nancy Pelosi wants to bring up voting rights early in the next Congress. There’s such a difference between Republicans and Democrats on this issue. Can that be bridged?

A: I think the Republicans have been pretty clear that their goal is to reduce people’s ability to vote. I don’t know of a case where Republicans have wanted to expand the electorate. The reason why Democrats are winning in these races is because we are expanding the electorate. HR1 [the incoming House Democrats’ first bill] will expand the electorate by making registration and voting easier. But there will be a separate voting rights bill that is more specific.

The goal should be, in the 21st  century, with technology what it is, we should want everyone to vote.

Q: You were the first black female speaker of the Assembly in California, and it was in a time when the state legislature was Democratic but the governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was a Republican. We’re heading into a period of divided government. Are there lessons learned from your experience then that Democrats could practice now? 

A: Absolutely. Working with Governor Schwarzenegger, I was working with somebody who had a personality as big as this room. He was a mega-celebrity. He sucked up all the oxygen when it came to messaging and it was very hard to compete with him. Trump might be a mega-celebrity, but he’s a different type of personality. They are very, very different.

For Democrats, there might be opportunities for us to agree with Trump. For example, criminal justice reform is an issue that he seems to be interested in. So hopefully he'll be able to deal with his side in the Senate.

One of the things Arnold would do to Republicans is go to their districts and campaign for stuff he wanted them to do. If they didn’t agree with him, he’d hold a town hall in their district and that would help bring them around. Maybe Trump could do that instead of using his town halls for his own adulation.

As speaker, what I was most proud of was – you know, the state went off a cliff because of needing a supermajority in the legislature for the budget, and the budget went from $110-$120 billion, down to $83 billion. We had to make drastic cuts in health and human services. But Arnold wanted to dismantle programs. Making the cuts allowed them to be saved. And we were able to jumpstart the economy by the strategic use of funds that we did have access to.

Q: Your name often comes up as a someone who is eminently qualified to be speaker of the US House. Can you see yourself being speaker some day?

A: I don’t know. By the way, one of the reasons I came to Congress was to have the opportunity to work with then-Speaker Pelosi, so my support for her was never in question. Would I like to serve in a leadership capacity in the future? We’ll see what the future brings.

One of the things that I really wanted to do after I was here for a while was to serve as the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. Many of the reasons I ran for office are the same issues that members of the caucus fight for. And members don’t only fight for social issues that the African-American community faces. They also fight for business expansion, for entrepreneurship, for leadership in that way. You have a much better chance of African-Americans being hired if you have African-American businesses. So it’s a holistic approach that the caucus takes.

Q: Nancy Pelosi’s 2008 memoir was geared toward America’s daughters. This incoming class of women lawmakers is highly accomplished. What can they learn from her?

A: I think what she could help the freshmen women understand is to take your time. You’re coming off the energy of a campaign where you’re under the gun and it’s rush, rush – and you get here, and you want to rush. But you need to take your time and build relationships and understand that in a legislative body, if you want to get anything done you have to have people support you. You can’t do it on your own.

There’s so many people who have been here for a long time, and I was able to build relationships with them and learn from them – because there’s not too many ideas that are new, and you will be surprised, but you’re not the first person that thought of whatever it is you want to do.

Q: You’re on the Judiciary Committee, and that will be ground zero for investigating Trump. If impeachment comes up, it will go through that committee. Pelosi has talked about the need to be “strategic” with investigations. Are you concerned about overreach?

A: I'm actually not concerned about overreach, and it’s because I think both leaders are strategic – and that’s Speaker Pelosi as well as Jerry Nadler, the Judiciary chairman from New York. He’s a constitutional lawyer. I’m not sure where we will start. Unfortunately, this guy gives you new things to do every day.

My agenda on that committee is criminal justice reform from a women and children perspective. I also want to deal with is what is happening with ... children on the border – the family separation.

I’m doing a bipartisan bill on women who are incarcerated and pregnant. We chain and shackle them even during delivery, if you can imagine. Also, their health and nutrition needs.

A couple other things: Nobody visits women in prison; everybody visits men. And so women are separated from their children and a lot of their children wind up in foster care, which is time limited. If you don’t get out of prison in time, you can have parental rights terminated. There’s also not that many women’s facilities, so women tend to be housed much further away from their families.

Women are rarely in prison for violence. If they’re non-violent, why can’t they be in halfway houses that are closer to home?

Q: So much has changed in California in the last 20 years. People are leaving the state. The new tax law caps a popular deduction for state and local taxes. Mega fires. Is the bloom off the rose in the Golden State?

A: No. California is such a bubble – meaning that we are sheltered from so much of the madness. I kind of knew that intellectually, but boy, do I feel it now. And in L.A., and in the Bay Area, those are double bubbles.

So for example, we might be burning up, but we have the most environmental foresight, knowledge, policies. We understand that the fires are because of climate change. In terms of taxes, I’m hoping we can do something about that, because that was a major blow. And I think that contributed to the fact that Republicans lost so many seats in California. We have 53 members of Congress, now only seven of them are Republican. They cut their delegation in half this year.

Q: Are you worried about it becoming a political monoculture?

A: No, not really, and here’s why. Even though the overall state would be judged as progressive compared to the rest of the country, there are still degrees of progressiveness. And that’s not everywhere.

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Breakthroughs

Ideas that drive change

4. In Rwanda, zippy drones deliver quick fix, but gloss over deeper needs

We’ve watched Africa leapfrog the traditional path to progress before when it quickly adopted mobile phones over landlines. But this story notes that new tech may not always be the best long-term solution.

David

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When the Silicon Valley robotics company Zipline first dispatched a fleet of drones to Rwanda in 2016, it was hailed as a lifeline. The company’s delivery drones promised to slash the time it took to deliver blood supplies to hospitals. And it has. But as the stature of Zipline and other medical delivery drone services operating in Africa have grown, they haven’t just provided answers to African health challenges. They’ve also raised a slew of new questions – particularly about the value of high-tech solutions for what are often, at their core, low-tech problems. Investment in specialized solutions can help address one problem, experts say, but it does little to address the deeper challenge. For example, if you need to have drones deliver blood because of poor road networks, why not build roads instead? “This isn’t to say that governments like Rwanda’s shouldn’t invest in forward thinking technology and thinking...,” says Jennifer Foth, a technology and public health expert. “But what’s the potential trade-off if we’re so focused on these new leapfrogging technologies that we ignore more boring infrastructure that serves other needs as well?”

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In Rwanda, zippy drones deliver quick fix, but gloss over deeper needs

It’s 10:39 a.m. when the phone inside the Zipline pharmacy begins to buzz. 

“Emergency order received from Kabgayi Hospital for four units of O positive platelets,” announces the pharmacy tech, and the room around him whirls into motion.

By 10:46, four small bags of liquid are carefully packed into an insulated cardboard box, and by 10:53 the whole contraption is loaded up and ready to depart for the hospital. 

Then, just as the red numbers on the digital clock in the pharmacy flip to 10:56, the delivery drone hurtles up an inclined metal track outside the pharmacy windows, slingshotting itself over a landscape of leafy banana trees and tidy squares of farmland.

Today, 20 percent of Rwanda’s blood supply is delivered to hospitals this way, in tiny unmanned aircraft that launch from a distribution center in this small town an hour outside the country’s capital. The drones are the invention of a Silicon Valley robotics company called Zipline, which is contracted by the Rwandan government to parachute blood supplies to 21 of its public health centers.

Since the drones first took flight here in October 2016, they’ve earned a flurry of international attention and praise. But as the stature of Zipline and other medical delivery drone services operating in Africa have grown, they haven’t just provided answers to African health challenges. They’ve also raised a slew of new questions – particularly about the value of high-tech solutions for what are often, at their core, low-tech problems.

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
Zipline engineers disassemble one of the company's drones after its return from a delivery of blood to a local hospital.

Drones, for instance, have often been touted for “leapfrogging” over problems like bad roads, isolated hospitals, and a lack of delivery vehicles in order to bring healthcare to the world’s poorest and most isolated people.

But some public health experts worry that by focusing on flashy technologies, governments and donors risk obscuring the deeper problems that made the fancy solutions necessary in the first place. 

In Ghana, a similar deal between Zipline and the government recently sparked backlash from some members of parliament and leaders in the medical community. MPs called it a “high-tech vanity project” and the Ghana Medical Association has called on lawmakers to halt the deal, saying that it will not solve the nation’s most pressing healthcare problems.

Similar concerns have been raised in Rwanda. For example, if you need to have drones deliver blood because of poor road networks, why not build roads instead?

“Solutions like drones might feel very innovative, but they don’t replace the long-term needs for things like better infrastructure and better staffing,” says Donna Patterson, the director of Africana studies at Delaware State University and a public health expert. “They may temporarily reduce some health inequities, but what we really need is greater investment in the longer-term solutions.” 

Better roads, for instance, wouldn’t just make it make it easier for supplies like blood to reach remote hospitals. They would also make it easier for people to get there as well – crucial in areas where travel time and cost are major factors in keeping patients away from healthcare. And good roads are a crucial part of development more generally. Without them, staple goods are more expensive, and both people and products have trouble getting to where they can be most useful within a country. 

But fixing big-picture problems like bad road networks is a sprawling, expensive task whose payoff may be years or decades away. And that can make it a harder sell for donors and governments looking for the short-term payoff of a mission accomplished, Dr. Patterson says.

Determining the ‘true cost’

After drone #164 – or as the company calls it, a “Zip” – whizzes away from the Zipline distribution center in Muhanga, an iPad set up beside the launch pad shows it creeping along its preset flight path toward the hospital about three miles away. Package 19632 is on its way to Kabgayi, a text message tells the hospital staff. Estimated time of arrival is 11:03.

Five minutes later, the drone arrives, swooping low over the hospital as it drops the box from its small cargo hold. A paper parachute attached to the box billows open, and it lands softly near the hospital doors.

Drones sit at the intersection of two of the country’s biggest ambitions: to expand healthcare access and to cast itself as a technological leader in East Africa. The country’s health ministry has promised to put essential health services within 30 minutes of all of its citizens, and has expanded high-speed internet access so quickly that fiber-optic cables have arrived in parts of rural Rwanda more quickly than roads. When Zipline offered its services here, the government quickly shifted its aviation regulations to make the drones’ flights possible.

“It’s the greatest investment we have, our people, and every single opportunity that can add value to what we’re doing [for their healthcare], we take it,” explains Rwandan Minister of Health Diane Gashumba in a Zipline promotional video.

Neither Zipline nor the Rwandan government – which pays the company a monthly subscription fee – will say how much the drone deliveries are costing them, but the company's deal in Ghana is slated to cost $12 million over four years.

But Zipline’s director of national implementation for Rwanda, Israel Bimpe, says there are also many hidden costs in traditional deliveries – like time spent by rural healthcare workers traveling to collect supplies from depots or larger hospitals. And since trucks typically transport larger quantities of medical products, they’re more prone to waste if those products aren’t needed in the end.

“Drones don’t replace vehicles or healthcare workers, but they can complement them,” he says. “Those things need to be in place, but health supply chains are also messy, and drones can help with that.” 

The company is getting ready to expand delivery to include vaccines and other medical supplies in Rwanda.

The value of those services, however, will depend on how they’re used, says Jennifer Foth, a technology and public health expert and author of the Quartz opinion piece, “We haven’t considered the true cost of drone delivery medical services in Africa.”

It’s one thing, she says, for a drone – nimble and fast – to deliver small quantities of blood, or emergency medicines like anti-venom or a rabies vaccine, to a hospital in an emergency. But when it comes to more routine deliveries, there’s less of a case for the high-tech option.

“This isn’t to say that governments like Rwanda’s shouldn’t invest in forward-thinking technology and thinking, or that they have to go through every stage of development that other countries went through to get to the same place,” she says. “But what’s the potential trade-off if we’re so focused on these new leapfrogging technologies that we ignore more boring infrastructure that serves other needs as well?”

At 11:10, the Zip announces its return to Muhanga with a high-pitched whine. It swoops toward the ground, its hooks snagging on a line designed to catch the drone and bring it back to earth. Two engineers in Zipline hoodies and skinny jeans stand up from their Macbooks and rush toward it. 

By 11:13, they’ve removed the wings and battery, and the body of Zip #164 is hanging back on the wall, awaiting its next mission.

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Film

5. ‘Mary Poppins’ makeover: A new story, a new vision of Cherry Tree Lane

John Myhre was a fan of the 1964 classic film as a child, and now he’s helping bring its sequel to a new generation. How a production designer tackles envisioning the new with a nod to the old. 

David
Courtesy of Disney
Disney’s ‘Mary Poppins Returns' stars Emily Blunt (l.) as Mary Poppins and Lin-Manuel Miranda (r., rear) as Jack. The sequel to the 1964 ‘Mary Poppins’ pays homage to the original with scenes that include animation.

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Behind the marquee actors in “Mary Poppins Returns” – Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Meryl Streep – is a team of people whose job it is to solve problems like how to get a grand piano to hang upside down from a ceiling. Oscar-winning production designer John Myhre is chief among that group, overseeing everything from furniture to shrubbery. “As a designer, you’re not just designing pretty sets, you’re designing sets to help tell the story,” he explains. For Mr. Myhre and his collaborators, the challenge with the sequel, opening Wednesday, was to create visuals that connect to the original film but that allow for a new adventure set some 20 years later. “I really embraced 1934 in England,” he says, noting that the first of the books by P.L. Travers about the magical British nanny was published in 1934. “It … really suited our story, which is a completely different story from the first movie.”

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‘Mary Poppins’ makeover: A new story, a new vision of Cherry Tree Lane

“Mary Poppins” was the first movie John Myhre saw in a theater. At Seattle’s Northgate Theatre in the 1960s his imagination was ignited by a Disney character come to life.

As the 6-year-old walked in, there was a full-size figure of Mary Poppins, complete with umbrella and carpetbag. 

“This was the greatest thing in the entire world,” Mr. Myhre remembers of his reaction. “So maybe that’s what made me a designer. I was looking at that figure of Mary Poppins [and thinking], ‘Anything is possible.’ ” 

Five decades later, the Oscar-winning production designer got his childhood dream job: the chance to design a world for the magical nanny. As the production designer on “Mary Poppins Returns,” which debuts Dec. 19, Myhre has had a hand in everything from the furniture in the children’s nursery to the use of real greenery on iconic Cherry Tree Lane.

For Myhre and those he collaborates with – including the animators, costumers, and director – the challenge with the sequel was to create visuals that connect to the Oscar-winning original, but that allow for a new adventure set some 20 years later.

“I really embraced 1934 in England,” he says in a phone interview, noting that the first of the books by P.L. Travers about the British nanny was published in 1934. “It was a really terrific, rich period that really suited our story, which is a completely different story from the first movie.”

The original, starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, is still beloved today. It won Oscars for editing, visual effects, score, song (“Chim Chim Cher-ee”), and its star.

Ahead of the official opening, the sequel has scored 78 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, with some mixed reviews. But it also has four Golden Globe nominations, including best picture in its category of musical or comedy. 

Jay Maidment/Disney/AP
From l. to r., Lin-Manuel Miranda , Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson, Nathanael Saleh and Emily Blunt in 'Mary Poppins Returns.' On Dec. 6, 2018, the film was nominated for four Golden Globe awards, including for best motion picture – musical or comedy.

Myhre, a two-time Oscar winner for art direction (“Chicago,” “Memoirs of a Geisha”), has seen the original “Mary Poppins” many times since that first theater visit as a kid, but says he referred to it less for the new film’s source material. Myhre notes that he and his collaborators based their vision on the new script, written by director Rob Marshall. “As a designer, you’re not just designing pretty sets, you’re designing sets to help tell the story.”

When we first reunite with the Banks family in “Mary Poppins Returns,” Michael (Ben Whishaw) from the original is grown and has children of his own. He’s going through tough times after the death of his wife and subsequent financial struggles, troubles echoed throughout the country as 1934 England experiences “the Great Slump.”

Knowing what the Banks’s world really would have looked like is an important consideration of Myhre’s. He says he immerses himself when creating a look for a movie. “I always research what is absolutely correct and I share that with the director and the writers and the producers,” he says.

That knowledge lets them then wander off in other directions. “If we decide we want to bring in something that’s from a slightly different period,” he explains, “we know what was real and we can make those choices.”

They did just that in an animated sequence in which Mary (Emily Blunt), lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), and the three Banks children (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, and Joel Dawson) visit what appears to be a “turn-of-the-century vaudeville hall,” explains Myhre. 

One of the most challenging sets for the design team was reportedly that of the home of Mary’s cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep), as everything – including the grand piano – had to be hung upside down. 

“It’s two big hats, right?” says David Christopher Krause, an assistant professor in the cinema and television arts department at Columbia College Chicago, where he also coordinates the production design curriculum. “The sort of imaginative and fun part of trying to dream up a world that meets a director’s vision and then at the same time figuring out how to make all that actually happen.”

But “Mary Poppins Returns” begins and ends on Cherry Tree Lane. When the movie opens, the scene is “very gray and gritty,” Myhre explains. “It was an uneasy world we come into, with the Slump.”

It is only when happy times come again, that the street “bursts into beautiful pink cherry blossoms,” he says, adding jokingly, “I’m not giving anything away by saying it has a happy ending.”

His team used more than 900,000 silk cherry blossoms on the trees, he estimates, but they also used real greenery to express the newfound happiness of the Banks family. “We brought in grow lights just to kind of make the shrubs get a little more greener and happier,” he says.

“But in a real Mary Poppins, magical moment, a week after we put on grow lights, most of the bushes and shrubs started blooming.”

“I feel like I’ve got the best job on the movie,” Myhre says.

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The Monitor's View

Climate change action goes home

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Reaching any agreement from a body as large and diverse as a gathering of nations at the COP24 climate conference was always going to be a daunting task. But some essential, if somewhat wonky, progress was made there. Most significant: an agreement on how countries will measure and monitor carbon emissions. Action now returns to individual countries – and in some cases cities – and what they will do. In France, a government attempt to enact a fuel tax was met with protests. Canada may be the next testing ground. A carbon tax there soon will raise the prices of oil, gasoline, and natural gas. In the United States, a so-called Green New Deal is gaining momentum. It would speed the transition from fossil fuels in the next 10 years. The new Congress, with its Republican Senate and Democratic House, now has the opportunity to resist turning the Green New Deal into a battlefield for partisan warfare. It could move forward on a plan that already has clear voter support – one that could make a significant contribution to stemming the ill effects of global warming.

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Climate change action goes home

High hopes preceded a two-week gathering of some 14,000 delegates from nearly 200 countries that concluded Dec. 15 in Katowice, Poland. The conference, known as COP24, was expected to reignite worldwide efforts to curb climate change.

Whether to applaud the meeting’s modest achievements or condemn the lack of major action on this urgent issue lay in the eye of the beholder. The conference chair, Poland’s Michał Kurtyka, was so pleased at the conclusion he leapt off the podium to congratulate delegates. Yet earlier speaker Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old Swedish schoolgirl who has raised international awareness of the dangers of climate change, scolded the gathering, saying, “You’re not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to your children.”

Reaching any agreement, especially one that might call for national sacrifices, from such a large and diverse body was always going to be a daunting task. But in fact some essential, if somewhat wonky, progress was made that keeps the 2015 Paris global climate pact alive and keeps open the possibility of more progress.

Most significant was an agreement on how countries will measure and monitor carbon emissions, essential to understanding exactly what each nation’s emission levels are – and whether they are growing or shrinking. 

Action now returns to individual countries – and in some cases even cities – and what they will do. The challenges ahead were dramatically illustrated recently in France, where the government attempted to enact a fuel tax to discourage the use of fossil fuels. After days of confrontations with rowdy yellow-jacketed protesters French President Emmanuel Macron was forced to back down. 

Canada may prove to be the next testing ground. A carbon tax going into effect there soon will raise the prices of oil, gasoline, and natural gas. But the money collected will be returned to households; in most cases, families will receive a larger “rebate” than the cost they incur in higher energy prices. 

In the United States, a so-called Green New Deal is gaining momentum. It would speed the transition from fossil fuels in the next 10 years, converting 100 percent of the nation’s electricity supply to renewable sources. It would also update the nation’s energy grid, increase energy efficiency of buildings, invest in research into more green technologies, and provide job training for workers in a new green economy.

When described in these terms, without attachment to any politician or political party, 81 percent of American voters either “strongly” (40 percent) or “somewhat” (40 percent) approve of such a plan, according to a new survey from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.

The plan was seen most favorably by Democrats (92 percent) and independents (88 percent). But nearly two-thirds of Republicans (64 percent) liked it, too.

That may be in part because 82 percent of those surveyed had heard nothing previously about a Green New Deal, though the idea already has the support of some 40 members of Congress.

The new Congress, with its Republican Senate and Democratic House, now has the opportunity to resist turning the Green New Deal into a battlefield for partisan warfare. It could move forward on a plan that already has clear voter support and that could make a significant contribution to stemming the ill effects of global warming.

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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.

The meekness of the manger

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While Jesus’ advent was meek, what he gave us is invaluable. This season and beyond, each of us can pause to humbly acknowledge Jesus’ example and walk forward drawing on the healing goodness God freely provides to all.

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The meekness of the manger

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Maybe you’ve heard about the interesting experiment performed by some employees of The Washington Post. They arranged for world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell to play one morning at the entrance of a downtown subway station. Mr. Bell often performs to standing-room-only audiences, but as he played his $3.5 million Stradivarius there at the subway station, wearing jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt, and a baseball cap, no one recognized him. Of the 1,000-plus people who walked by, only seven stopped to listen!

The setting was far different from any of his sold-out concerts – no tuxedo, no white bow tie, no huge stage flooded with lights, no esteemed patrons. Yet, although given freely in a humble setting, the performance was most certainly as valuable and beautiful as others he had given.

This reminds me of another day, this one over 2,000 years ago. This beautiful time of year often prompts one to think more deeply about the circumstances of Jesus’ arrival. On the surface, it was such a plain and humble event. Jesus’ advent had been prophesied more than 700 years before his birth, yet his first resting spot was a feeding trough for livestock. The Bible describes how Mary, Jesus’ mother, “brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger” (Luke 2:7).

But his meek beginning there in a manger diluted none of Jesus’ import for all humanity. On the night of his birth, only a handful of people came to visit Jesus. Today, so many recognize and put to use the gifts of inspiration that he embodied. In the words of the Bible, “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God” (I Corinthians 2:12).

“The spirit which is of God” can be seen as the uplifting, freeing, and transforming inspiration for which humanity always hungers. This spirit is the Christ, God’s message of love for all, which Jesus so completely expressed that it’s reflected in the title so connected with him that we almost think of it as his name: Christ Jesus.

As they were for Jesus back then, so God’s Christly communications are our answers to prayer today. The Christ is the message of God’s perfection and our true, spiritual identity as the expressions of His wholeness. This never goes away or diminishes.

Yet, like those busy subway commuters listening to Bell’s music, we have to pause to hear and receive these divine gifts, or inspiration. As illustrated by Jesus lying meekly in the manger, God’s loving messages to us often don’t arrive along with trumpets and fireworks. They often arrive in our thoughts simply, quietly, along with a deep sense of God’s limitless love.

Meekness and humility allow God’s loving messages that redeem and heal to penetrate and change for the better the way we think and act, including the message learned from the life of Jesus. Monitor founder Mary Baker Eddy observes in her book “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” “In vain do the manger and the cross tell their story to pride and fustian” (p. 142).

Pride, I remember, had to be put down when someone once cheated me in a business agreement. How could this happen to me? It seemed reasonable to feel angry, but I realized acting on emotions fueled by a sense of hurt pride wouldn’t get me anywhere. It wasn’t until I humbly turned to God in prayer that this spiritual insight came to me: God is the source of all of the goodness in existence. As His spiritual offspring, at one with God, each of us is always at one with His goodness, too. It actually couldn’t be taken from me! I hadn’t known that before.

I was so inspired by this Christly good news that the pride that had been blinding me lifted. New ways forward were revealed, and within a year, what was lost in that business deal was restored, and so much more.

“Be of good cheer,” Jesus said. “I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). While Jesus’ advent was meek, what he gave us through word and example is invaluable because it is spiritual truth. This holiday season and always, we can stop often to acknowledge Jesus’ example and walk forward drawing on the healing goodness God freely provides.

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Viewfinder

Starting over

Bruno Kelly/Reuters
A resident looked out over the Educandos neighborhood of Manaus, Brazil, Dec. 18 after a fire swept through part of that Amazon Basin city. Several hundred homes were lost, and more than 2,000 people were forced to flee. The cause was being investigated, though a cooking accident was suspected.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( December 19th, 2018 )

David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow: We’re working on a story about a California congressman's effort to tap Big Tech to revitalize struggling rural communities – and why this attempt may be different.

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