2019
August
15
Thursday

Today, we have stories for you examining China’s likely moves on Hong Kong, India’s lockdown of Kashmir, U.S. efforts to stem legal immigration, the invisible traces left by fish, and a particularly persistent Hollywood villain.

First, let’s take a moment to honor an upwelling of kindness. Tomorrow, Antonio Basco buries his wife. She was his only living relative, but he will not be alone.

Margie Reckard was one of 22 people killed in the El Paso, Texas, shooting Aug. 3. Mr. Basco says he has no other family so he invited his city. And his city is turning out to support him.

The funeral home issued the invitation on Tuesday – and is paying for the costs of the service. By Wednesday night, more than 1,000 people had RSVP’d, including Mayor Dee Margo and Rep. Veronica Escobar. A mariachi band, a choir, and other musicians have volunteered to play, funeral director Harrison Johnson told NPR. People from out of state sent flowers. Some are flying in. 

This outpouring of love echoes what El Pasoans told Monitor reporter Henry Gass about their home, calling it the most welcoming city in the world. Of the gunman, one said: “It sounds like he was not getting love. He would have got love from us. We would have given him love.”

On Friday – and after – the city is making sure Mr. Basco feels that love. Mr. Johnson, who is also a pastor, told NPR that he will make sure Mr. Basco feels supported after the funeral is over.

“We’re trying to give him some comfort right now.”

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1. What are Beijing’s best options for ending Hong Kong protests?

To address the escalating unrest in Hong Kong, what are China's most likely paths to progress – for all sides?

Yvonne
Tyrone Siu/Reuters
China's People's Liberation Army soldiers have been conducting very public drills in and around Hong Kong in recent days. Shown here, a June 30, 2019 ceremony at Stonecutters Island naval base, in Hong Kong.

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After more than two months of Hong Kong pro-democracy protests, escalating this week into airport shutdowns and violent confrontations with police, Beijing is signaling that it has had enough. 

Chinese People’s Liberation Army soldiers are conducting highly visible drills in and around Hong Kong. Mainland Chinese officials are using the word “terrorism” to describe the protests. 

At this critical juncture, China watchers envision three possible scenarios: a military intervention by Beijing, an attrition strategy by Hong Kong police, or a negotiated resolution between Hong Kong officials and protesters.

Another Tiananmen Square-type confrontation would have major political and economic costs. It would also destroy any credibility Beijing might have in bringing Taiwan into a similar “one-country, two systems” arrangement. The most likely option, say analysts, doesn’t involve Chinese military intervention, but rather a war of attrition. 

It would mean an intensified response by Hong Kong’s 30,000-strong police force, including more arrests and tougher punishments for protesters. “This could backfire,” warns Victoria Tin-bor Hui, at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. “They have hurt so many other people who are not hard-core protesters. The majority of the population is very angry.”

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What are Beijing’s best options for ending Hong Kong protests?

As Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests draw increasingly harsh denunciations from Beijing – which says the demonstrations show signs of “terrorism” – fears are growing of a military crackdown by China.

Such concerns are not unfounded. They have been stoked by widely publicized anti-riot drills by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Hong Kong garrison, with about 6,000 troops. And across the border in Shenzhen, thousands of People’s Armed Police, the PLA’s paramilitary force tasked with quelling domestic unrest, conducted drills last week.

“Should the situation in Hong Kong deteriorate further into unrest uncontrollable” by Hong Kong’s government, “the central government will not sit on its hands and watch,” Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, told a London news conference on Thursday. “We have enough solutions and enough power within the limits of the basic law to quell any unrest swiftly.”

Thomas Peter/Reuters
Military vehicles are parked on the grounds of the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center in Shenzhen, China Aug. 15, 2019.

Hong Kong’s protests erupted in June as millions of residents took to the streets to oppose a bill that would allow the extradition of criminal suspects to China. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam suspended the bill, but protester demands have since grown to include its complete withdrawal, an independent inquiry into police brutality, amnesty for arrested protesters, and democratic electoral reforms.

At this critical juncture, China watchers envision three possible scenarios with vastly different consequences for the future of Hong Kong and the region:

  • A military intervention by Beijing with extremely heavy costs.
  • An attrition strategy involving intensifying coercion and repression of dissent by Hong Kong authorities – the most likely scenario.
  • A negotiated resolution between the Hong Kong government and the protesters – the best-case scenario.

Under Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which governs the “one country, two systems” framework by which the former British colony reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, China has two options for intervening militarily in Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s government could ask for assistance from the PLA garrison to maintain order, and in that case the Chinese military must follow Hong Kong law. Or, China’s government could declare a state of emergency exists in Hong Kong “that endangers national unity” and apply national laws, allowing for a PLA deployment.

Beijing’s condemnations of what it calls a small group of foreign-backed “black hands” and “extreme radicals” waging “terrorism” laid the groundwork for justifying such an emergency.

Still, the military option would have major practical drawbacks as well as devastating consequences for Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s young and agile protesters describe themselves as moving “like water” and could melt away from PLA formations, laying low or “going to sleep,” as some protesters say.

“All this raises very complicated logistical questions beyond the unseemly appearance of Chinese troops invading this modern New York-like city and trying to control what local people are doing there,” says Michael Davis, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., and a former law professor at the University of Hong Kong.

If some protesters did stand up against Chinese troops and were injured or killed, China’s leaders would be condemned for waging another crackdown along the lines of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crushing of pro-democracy protests.

Chinese President Xi Jinping knows “repeating a June 4, 1989 Tiananmen-type massacre ... would be a disaster for him ... his leadership, his people, and certainly for Hong Kong,” says Jerome Cohen, faculty director of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at New York University School of Law and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Using force would show the ‘Chinese dream’ is a nightmare,” he says, referring to Mr. Xi’s trademark slogan on China’s future. “But if push comes to shove, he’ll use force.”

Even without bloodshed, analysts say a Chinese military intervention would greatly undermine Hong Kong’s status as an Asian financial hub that serves as a vital business conduit between China and the world – likely leading to an exodus of international companies.

“It would signal the death knell for Hong Kong’s autonomy under the one country, two systems framework,” says Thomas Kellogg, executive director of Georgetown University’s Center for Asian Law. Beyond economic costs, the intangible benefits for culture and politics of having a uniquely autonomous, relatively free space within China would be lost, says Professor Kellogg.

By effectively ending Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous status, Beijing would sacrifice any credibility it might have in persuading Taiwan to reunify with mainland China under a similar formula. “A failure to resolve the situation successfully in Hong Kong will put to an end for all time ... any thought people in Taiwan might have of integration with the mainland under one country, two systems,” Professor Cohen says.

Moreover, the United States and other countries could revoke the special status they accord Hong Kong.

The attrition strategy

Given such major drawbacks, many analysts say Beijing and Hong Kong authorities will persist instead with an attrition strategy aimed at wearing down the protesters.

This more likely scenario would see an intensified response by Hong Kong’s 30,000-strong police force, including arrests as well as an escalation of punishments for protesters.

Yet with Hong Kong police already facing charges of being overaggressive, and of arresting some innocent bystanders, this strategy could fuel more protests and public discontent.

“This could backfire,” says Victoria Tin-bor Hui, associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. “They have hurt so many other people who are not hard-core protesters, the majority of the population is very angry,” says Professor Hui, a native of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong authorities – and indirectly Beijing – can also exert influence over local political bodies, institutions, and businesses to pressure the public and curtail demonstrations.

Let’s negotiate

Still, with a late July survey showing broad public support for key demands of the protesters – more than 70% of respondents said the government should formally withdraw the extradition bill and investigate police abuses – many analysts say a negotiated resolution would be the most effective way to diffuse tensions.

Under this scenario, an independent group of Hong Kong civilian leaders – such as representatives from business, law, education, and other sectors – would have to step forward, say observers. This group would have to work imaginatively to persuade both the Hong Kong government and the protesters to enter into negotiations.

So far, the Hong Kong government has not indicated it is receptive to such talks. The protesters, many of whom are students, have deliberately chosen to be anonymous and leaderless as a form of protection. Both sides would have to compromise.

“Hong Kong should adopt the approach of a free and open government in addressing this crisis ... they need to show some degree of political accountability,” says Professor Kellogg.

For example, if the government formally withdrew the extradition treaty and agreed to an independent investigation of police abuses, “it would diffuse the conflict and most Hong Kong people would want to see the protest wind down,” says Professor Davis. “It is the lack of democracy that has produced a government that is very poor at defending Hong Kong’s autonomy. It is a festering sore, and these steps need to be taken now.”

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2. How geopolitics enabled India’s gambit in Kashmir

India’s decision to strip Kashmir’s special status is the kind of move you expect to get global pushback. But that hasn’t been the case – which highlights significant shifts in big-power politics.

Yvonne
Akhtar Soomro/Reuters
People chant slogans to observe a "Black Day" protesting India's decision to revoke the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, during a protest in Karachi, Pakistan, on Aug. 15, 2019. Overall, however, India has faced muted global backlash for the move.

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India's decision last week to revoke a decades-old constitutional provision granting the Muslim-majority territory of Kashmir a degree of autonomy comes at a particularly fortuitous moment in global politics.

A resurgence of respect for national sovereignty and waning interest in multilateral solutions for territorial disputes work in India’s favor. Western powers are less prone to defend the democratic rights of regional minorities than they might have been following the Cold War. Moreover, a return of global big-power competition means that none of the heavyweights (the United States, China, and Russia) wants to do much of anything to alienate an emerging economic and security player in a critical geopolitical region.

For example, “the United States is basically saying, ‘Kashmir is an issue for India and Pakistan to figure out, but it is not something for us to get involved in,” says Sadanand Dhume of the American Enterprise Institute. “India is gaining importance for the United States as part of its Indo-Pacific strategy and as one of the most important bulwarks against a rising China. ... It is not about to let an issue like Kashmir stand in the way of that priority.”

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How geopolitics enabled India’s gambit in Kashmir

To India, its decision last week to revoke a decades-old constitutional provision granting the Muslim-majority territory of Kashmir a degree of autonomy is no one else’s business. 

Indeed, sensitivity to even a whiff of international interference shone through in a jab at a rather bland response from the Chinese government. India “does not comment on the internal affairs of other countries,” the foreign ministry sniffed in a statement, “and similarly expects other countries to do likewise.”

Despite such protestations, it seems clear that India knew such a unilateral move on an issue that has stoked regional tensions for decades would not simply slip by as if New Delhi had just raised the domestic price of rice. The action in effect nullified a 1972 agreement with Pakistan that any revision of the disputed territory’s status would be decided bilaterally between the two nuclear-armed archrivals.

The reality is that India made its move to revoke Kashmir’s autonomy – something the country’s Hindu nationalists have demanded since shortly after independence in 1947 – at a particularly fortuitous moment in global politics. 

A resurgence of respect for national sovereignty and waning interest in multilateral solutions for territorial disputes work in India’s favor. Western powers are less prone to defend the democratic rights of regional minorities than they might have been following the Cold War. At the same time, international sympathies for autonomy movements are nowhere near as robust as they once were – especially if they harbor any element of terrorist ideology.

Moreover, a return of big-power competition to the world stage means that none of the heavyweights (the United States, China, and Russia), not to mention lesser powers, wants to do much of anything to alienate an emerging economic and security player in a critical geopolitical region.

The muted American response to the move is a case in point.

President Donald Trump caught India off guard when he chose a Washington visit last month by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan to offer to mediate the Kashmir conflict. He said Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has recently asked him to consider playing such a role – a claim Indian officials quickly denied.

But now, “The United States is basically saying, ‘Kashmir is an issue for India and Pakistan to figure out, but it is not something for us to get involved in,” says Sadanand Dhume, a resident fellow focusing on South Asia at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington.

“What that tells me is that India is gaining importance for the United States as part of its Indo-Pacific strategy and as one of the most important bulwarks against a rising China,” he adds. “It is not about to let an issue like Kashmir stand in the way of that priority.” 

And then there’s China.

In another era, India’s giant neighbor might have come down harder against unilateral action in a region where it, too, has a territorial dispute with India. And initially Beijing did issue statements supportive of Pakistan’s “legitimate rights and interests” in Kashmir, to the satisfaction of Pakistani officials. 

But China has its own issues with restive territories – look no further than the recent turmoil in Hong Kong – and is not inclined to condemn another country’s action to deal with such trouble spots, some regional analysts say.

“The all-weather friend of Pakistan – by which of course I mean China – might have been expected to come out more forcefully on this, but to use an expression from cricket, it also finds itself on the back foot,” says Waheguru Pal Sidhu, a clinical associate professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and an expert in the role of India and other emerging powers in an evolving global order.

“China has the issue of Xinjiang [region], and even Hong Kong, so for it to become the champion against this kind of action by another country – its credibility would be incredibly low to say the least,” says Dr. Sidhu.

Xinjiang is home to 10 million Muslim Uyghurs and, though to a lesser degree than Kashmir, harbors resistance to central-government efforts to fully integrate the province politically and culturally into the nation. Some 1 million residents of Xinjiang are believed to have been detained in guarded reeducation centers, though China claims most have been released.

Pakistan’s initial aim was to press for what experts describe as an “internationalization” of the Kashmir issue, first by having it taken up in the United Nations Security Council. Lack of enthusiasm among council members initially made that step seem unlikely, but by Thursday a closed-door consultation on the issue was set for Friday morning. It would be the first council discussion of Kashmir in decades.

Dr. Sidhu notes that Russia, one of the Security Council’s five permanent members, has come out in support of India’s move in Kashmir – “payback,” he says, for India’s quiet response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Even major Muslim countries have indicated either outright support for India’s action on Muslim-majority Kashmir, or have shown they do not intend to let it stand in the way of their relations with New Delhi.

Manish Swarup/AP
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi on Feb. 20, 2019. Saudi Arabia’s response to the Kashmir situation is complicated by its close ties with both India and Pakistan, but like many countries, it appears reluctant to jeopardize ties with India's much larger economy.

Mr. Dhume of AEI points to Monday’s announcement by Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil giant Saudi Aramco of a $15 billion investment in one of India’s largest companies.

“Saudi Arabia has traditionally been close to Pakistan, but over the past several decades India and Pakistan have diverged economically to where India’s economy is now about eight times larger than Pakistan’s,” he says. “The Saudis can’t ignore that” for the sake of Kashmir. 

New Delhi has experience braving international opposition, with some regional analysts noting that India weathered decades of harsh reaction to its nuclear program and nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, the muted responses to Kashmir can’t help but elicit a sigh of relief from India’s government, Mr. Dhume says.

“Round One of the diplomatic maneuvering on this has clearly gone India’s way,” he says.

While that may be true, some say the real test of international tolerance will come over the coming months, as India shifts from the current lockdown to implementing Kashmir’s new status and relationship with the central government. One key element to watch: how India handles Kashmir’s transition as the anticipated U.S. withdrawal from nearby Afghanistan plays out.

While most experts concur that India’s decision to act now on Kashmir reflects domestic politics, such as Hindu nationalists’ victory in May elections, some believe advancing U.S. talks with the Taliban over U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan precipitated India’s action.

Pakistan could move to activate its proxies in Kashmir (and in Afghanistan) to disrupt any political transition in the territory, Dr. Sidhu says, but that would likely only reduce whatever sympathies India’s rival has mustered over Kashmir, and “provide India justification for a much more muscular crackdown.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include new reports that the Security Council plans to discuss Kashmir.

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The Explainer

3. With new legal immigration rule, a deep bow toward ‘America First’

Who is most deserving of a foothold in America: those in need of help or those who help themselves? The Trump administration’s new immigration rule represents a hard shift toward the latter.

Yvonne

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“Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.” This twist on Emma Lazarus’ iconic poem, as delivered by Trump immigration official Ken Cuccinelli, represents a new focus: Receipt of a green card or permission to enter the U.S. in the first place will be harder for those of modest means and who use public benefits – or may do so in the future. Merit-based immigration is the new priority, not family unity.

Supporters argue that the new rule prioritizes self-sufficiency, a foundation of U.S. immigration law since the 19th century. To critics of the new policy, however, the change represents no less than a fundamental shift in the meaning of America. A federal lawsuit filed Tuesday in San Francisco charges that the new rule discourages use of public health care programs, and thus endangers community safety in instances of contagious disease.

Barring a court injunction or intervention by Congress, the new system will go into effect Oct. 15.

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With new legal immigration rule, a deep bow toward ‘America First’

It is perhaps the starkest example yet in the Trump presidency of “America First.” 

Foreigners in the United States, legally present, could find themselves on a flight back to their native land. Families of “mixed status” – typically, noncitizen parents with citizen children – could face a choice of either leaving the U.S. together or splitting up. And over time, the face of American immigration could become whiter and wealthier. 

The Trump administration’s new rule expanding the definition of “public charge” is designed to promote self-sufficiency among noncitizens and prevent them from being a drain on taxpayers, proponents say. The policy, released Monday, will make it harder for legal migrants who use public benefits to obtain green cards, the way station to full citizenship. It will also make it harder for low-income, less-educated foreigners to get into the U.S. in the first place. 

“Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge,” Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said earlier this week on NPR.

To critics of the new policy, this recasting of the iconic sonnet by Emma Lazarus at the Statue of Liberty – which refers in the original to “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” – represents no less than a fundamental shift in the meaning of America. 

“The whole mindset of the Founding Fathers was that America is a land of refuge; it’s a place you can come, you can get a new beginning,” says James Hollifield, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and an expert on immigration. “What we’re doing now is essentially criminalizing poverty.” 

What exactly do these new guidelines entail? What is the likely impact? Might the new rule be overturned in court? Here are some answers: 

What is the new rule? 

For many noncitizens already in the U.S. legally, the rule broadens the categories of public assistance that, if used, could be held against someone applying for permanent residency – a green card. Such forms of assistance include Medicaid, food stamps, and subsidized housing. 

For prospective immigrants applying to enter the U.S., immigration officials will judge an applicant’s skills, assets, and health, and thus their ability to avoid reliance on public assistance. This represents a shift to a merit-based system over one that currently privileges family connections. 

“If fully enforced, it’s the most consequential action of this administration in immigration to date, perhaps the most consequential action in decades,” says Mike Howell, a former Department of Homeland Security official and now an adviser at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “In terms of preventing people from coming in, it’s huge. It will certainly add a lot more folks to the ‘to be removed from the interior’ tally.”

Other observers note that this system will make it harder in particular for people from low-income countries to immigrate to the U.S. President Donald Trump has said he wants more immigrants from countries like Norway. 

Is anyone exempt? 

The new system, which goes into effect Oct. 15, will not be applied retroactively and will not apply to people renewing their green cards. Also exempt are pregnant women, children, refugees, asylum-seekers, and immigrants serving in the U.S. military. 

One challenge comes in “mixed-status” families, and the potential for a chilling effect. Some noncitizen parents may fear using benefits for their citizen children, such as food stamps or housing assistance, in the belief that such use could lead to a parent’s deportation.

On Monday, Mr. Cuccinelli said that such use of benefits for citizen children would not be held against a noncitizen parent, but among immigrants, there is still fear. And the impact could be widespread.

“It will diminish many children’s long-term prospects because they won’t receive benefits important to their growth and development, which will weaken the future U.S. workforce,” says Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in a statement. 

Noncitizen parents without green cards also face heightened risk of deportation, which could split up families. 

Is this new policy legal? 

Most likely yes, legal experts say. Self-sufficiency has been a foundation of U.S. immigration law since the 19th century. The current law, enacted in 1996, penalized immigrants dependent on cash assistance; the new rule expands the definition of “public charge.”

“Congress does have a say in this,” says Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University. But “to the extent that Congress does not act, the executive branch can fill that void.”

Defenders note that the Trump administration followed the formal rule-making procedure, including a lengthy public comment period – garnering more than 266,000 comments, a record for DHS. 

A federal lawsuit filed Tuesday in San Francisco charges that the new rule discourages use of public health care programs, and thus endangers community safety in instances of contagious disease.

Are immigrants a burden on taxpayers?

A 2017 study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that immigration has “an overall positive impact on the long-run economic growth in the U.S.”

But the benefit doesn’t appear until the second generation. First-generation immigrants cost the government about $1,600 per person annually, more than native-born Americans, according to the report. But second-generation Americans outperform the rest of the native-born population.

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Peering into the deep

Discovery beneath the waves

4. Message in a bottle: Forensics meets marine science with eDNA

You’ve heard of the challenge of seeing the forest for the trees. Marine scientists have a similar struggle. A new tool enables researchers to study not just individual sea creatures, but whole ocean communities. This is Part 3 of “Peering into the deep,” a five-part series exploring our evolving understanding of life beneath the waves.

Yvonne

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In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a peculiar gathering of sharks, known as the White Shark Cafe, has fascinated scientists for nearly two decades. But they are still working to sort out what draws such a crowd.

A new tool may help unravel the mysteries of the cafe – and many other riddles of the deep. Environmental DNA, or eDNA for short, offers an inexpensive way to answer big-picture questions. 

As creatures go about their business, they slough off cells into the water, much like humans shed dandruff. The DNA in that discarded material gives scientists a way to identify which fish have been swimming around. All they have to do is take a water sample. 

eDNA is brand new to marine science, but researchers say it could help pierce the veil of the strange world beneath the waves. 

“The beauty of eDNA is that oceans aren’t transparent, it’s very hard to tell what’s there, and much of life on Earth lives beneath the sea,” says marine biologist Barbara Block. “It is one of the most promising techniques we have to rapidly census what’s in our oceans.”

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1. Message in a bottle: Forensics meets marine science with eDNA

It doesn’t look like much. At a glance, it seems Mark Stoeckle is holding a bottle of water to quench his thirst. But there’s so much more than H2O in that small plastic bottle. 

Dr. Stoeckle pours the fluid through a special filter atop a glass contraption that looks a bit like a pour-over coffee maker. A yellowish gunk collects on the filter. Clearly this liquid isn’t potable. It’s seawater the scientist collected in Barnegat Light, New Jersey. 

And that slime? That’s actually the stuff he wants. It potentially contains cells, or bits of cells, from as many as 20 species of fish that sloughed off into the water as the fish were going about their business. By sequencing the DNA fragments in that gunk, Dr. Stoeckle aims to identify which fish were swimming around the area just before he collected those water samples.

This trace genetic material known as environmental DNA, or eDNA for short, can also be found on land in soils, snow, or other environmental samples. Scientists have only just begun to plumb the possibilities for discovery that eDNA holds, but in the ocean, it might help pierce the veil of the strange world beneath the waves. 

Much of ocean life remains a mystery. Scientists suspect there could be hundreds of thousands of species yet to be discovered. The more they learn, the more complex and dynamic a view of ocean life they get. A myriad of high tech observational tools have offered scientists glimpses of isolated pieces of that environment. But eDNA offers an opportunity to stitch those pieces together for a view of the whole tapestry of life in the ocean.

“It’s like we have a star map now where we can see the brightest stars but there are many more out there,” says Dr. Stoeckle, senior research associate in the program for the human environment at The Rockefeller University in New York. “I think [eDNA] has the potential to greatly improve our understanding.” 

To survey ocean life, researchers typically drag trawl nets or haul up traps and log what turns up in them. Development of underwater cameras, sonar, and hydrophones that record the sounds of the sea can offer additional texture to those snapshots. The ocean is vast, however, and these methods can be costly, time consuming, dangerous, and limited in scope. But eDNA offers an inexpensive way to widen that lens.

“It opens up a whole world of what we can do,” says Francisco Chavez, an oceanographer who also uses eDNA extensively in his work.

Eva Botkin-Kowacki/The Christian Science Monitor
Researcher Mark Stoeckle demonstrates a new scientific tool at his laboratory at The Rockefeller University in New York on July 8, 2019. From a bottle of seawater, he can identify which fish swim in a particular underwater area using environmental DNA samples.

Forensics of the deep

eDNA analysis is a lot like forensic work at a crime scene, says Dr. Chavez, a senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI). Investigators gather evidence, compare it against a suspect bank, and hope for a match.

When targeting a specific species, researchers sift a sample for a signature segment of DNA, called a barcode. At other times, they sequence all the DNA in the sample and then compare the gene soup against barcodes in a scientific library to identify the variety of species represented in the sample.

Generally, says Dr. Chavez, they get a number of “hits” and often an equal number of “unknowns.” Those unknowns can be as exciting as the “aha” of finding a match, because they offer the opportunity to learn something new.

Dr. Stoeckle knows that thrill of discovery. Water samples he took from Barnegat Light previously revealed two fish that had never before been documented in New Jersey waters: Gulf kingfish and the Brazilian cownose ray.

eDNA could also help unravel some riddles scientists are already puzzling over. Like the so-called White Shark Cafe, a mysterious gathering of adult white sharks in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Barbara Block, a marine biologist at Stanford University, discovered this enigma through her pioneering work using electronic tagging to track highly migratory fish like tuna and sharks. But she isn’t sure why the sharks she tagged gather at the cafe. Could some other fish that the white sharks like to munch also gather there?

“Biologging tags pointed the way for where the sharks were,” Dr. Block says. “I believe that the eDNA will help us paint the picture of who [else] was there when the white sharks were there.” 

Furthermore, the traditional biologging techniques, while successful, are expensive and challenging. So Dr. Block and her colleagues tested out new mobile eDNA sequencing tools on a recent trip to the Shark Cafe. In less than two days, researchers on board the ship were able to confirm the presence of great whites without having to wait for one to surface and show off its telltale fin.

It was a proof of concept test, and the results were incredibly encouraging, says Dr. Block – showing that rapid sequencing with mobile technology could be used on board a ship.

“The beauty of eDNA is that oceans aren’t transparent, it’s very hard to tell what’s there, and much of life on Earth lives beneath the sea,” she says. “It has the promise of providing us a little bit more of a direct knowledge of who’s present on a real time basis.”

Illuminating blindspots 

eDNA could also fill in gaps left behind with traditional surveying techniques. There are places large trawling boats and nets simply cannot go, for example. But eDNA can detect the presence of any species that has shed cells in the water collected.

Greg Hinks, principal biologist for the New Jersey Bureau of Marine Fisheries, has been testing the new technique against the old. He co-leads a regular ocean trawl survey of sport fish off the coast of New Jersey and has begun to take water samples alongside the trawls for Dr. Stoeckle to compare the results. 

“The eDNA is definitely going to find more species than what we’re catching in the trawl survey,” Mr. Hinks says. “I have no doubt whatsoever.”

He doesn’t expect eDNA will replace trawling altogether, however. Physical surveys allow scientists to measure and count fish, evaluate their health, and answer other important population monitoring questions. 

In a far more remote region – a marine protected area in the middle of the Indian Ocean – Dr. Block has also been experimenting with eDNA surveys. Already, her team detected the presence of rare shark and other fish species in the area.

“It’s a neat technology that still has to be fine-tuned and made a little more precise,” says Dr. Block. “But with scientific investment, it’s one of the most promising techniques we have to rapidly census what’s in our oceans.” 

There’s still a lot to learn about the role eDNA might play. Can eDNA ferret out and identify species never before known to science? Why do some creatures leave a clearer trail of genetic material than others? Does eDNA reveal only a fleeting snapshot in time, or can it offer more of a time-lapsed image? 

“As science goes, it’s brand new,” Dr. Stoeckle says. He hosted the first national conference on marine eDNA at The Rockefeller University last year. “There’s a lot of excitement about it. It’s not standard practice in any application yet, but I think certainly over the next 5 to 10 years it will be a standard part of fish assessment in the ocean.”

This story is the third installment of “Peering into the deep,” a five-part series on the ocean. 

Part 1 dives into the ocean’s “twilight zone,” where a conveyor belt of tiny critters transport carbon up and down the water column each day.

Part 2 highlights the surprising discovery of vibrant coral communities thriving in the seemingly inhospitable deep.

Part 3, which you just read, features an emerging technology that is enabling researchers to survey fish populations using a small sample of water. 

Part 4 explores how discoveries of life in the deep sea are informing the search for life elsewhere in the universe.

Part 5 will be an auditory treat featuring the mysterious sounds of the sea, from grunting haddock to singing cusk eels.

 

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Film

5. Gender inequality, the stubbornest villain in Hollywood

Let them eat cupcakes? Equal bonuses for equal blockbusters are just one of the things women in Hollywood are fighting for. Male directors get a car. The women? A mini cupcake.

Yvonne
Francine Kiefer/The Christian Science Monitor
The documentary “This Changes Everything” explores persistent sexism in the entertainment industry. Panelists in a July 25, 2019, discussion include the film’s director Tom Donahue, Kimberly Peirce, Geena Davis, Catherine Hardwicke, and moderator Devra Māza.

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Even in the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, men still dominate the entertainment business. “I have worked with two female directors and one of them was me,” quips Oscar winner Natalie Portman in the new documentary “This Changes Everything.” The title is pure irony, lifted from Geena Davis’ comment in the film that she and others kept thinking cinematic breakthroughs like 1991’s “Thelma & Louise” would change everything for women in their industry. They did not.

Frustration with the status quo courses through the film. It follows efforts by women to change the industry from within. They include legal battles – failed so far – and education campaigns, such as lobbying by Davis for more female role models.

As a journalist who left D.C. after 20 years, I’ve been wondering whether Washington might have something to offer Hollywood for a change. In January, I watched the largest number of women ever elected to Congress sworn in, a sea of women dressed in pink, red, green, and yellow.

The documentary was director Tom Donahue’s idea. “I don’t believe this is just a problem for women. I believe this is a man problem,” he said at a panel discussion. Men and women have to solve it together, he added.

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Gender inequality, the stubbornest villain in Hollywood

Successful directors are often given a car as a bonus for their work. After Catherine Hardwicke directed “Twilight,” a girl-meets-vampire blockbuster that earned nearly $400 million worldwide, she famously got a cupcake. A mini cupcake.

Frustration with the status quo courses through a new documentary, “This Changes Everything,” about gender inequities in Hollywood. The title is pure irony, lifted from Oscar winner Geena Davis’ comment in the film that, mistakenly, she and others kept thinking cinematic breakthroughs like the 1991 hit she starred in, “Thelma & Louise,” would change everything for women in the entertainment business. They did not.

“I have worked with two female directors and one of them was me,” quips Oscar winner Natalie Portman in the film. 

In moving and sometimes amusing interviews with Hollywood A-listers such as Davis, Meryl Streep, Taraji Henson, and Sandra Oh, viewers learn the surprising degree to which men still dominate the entertainment business – even in the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp.

Last year, for instance, 92% of the directors who made the top 250 movies were male. Also last year, 85% of the top 100 movies were scripted by men. In family films – so impressionable on children – male characters outnumbered females 2-to-1 in lead roles, in screen time, and in speaking time in 2017.

Things were not always thus, the documentary reveals. The silent era was one of relative female empowerment for writers, directors, and actresses. Then came the switch to much more costly sound, and the need for financiers – male bankers. The Depression descended and up sprang the guilds. But they kept women out. 

“This Changes Everything” follows the efforts by women to change the industry from within. They include legal battles – failed so far – and education campaigns, such as lobbying by Davis, who is armed with data from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.

The institute tracks gender representation and diversity in media for children, and encourages correction of bias among television and film creators. She founded it in 2004, when she became “horrified” over the lack of female role models for her toddler daughter, she explains in a recent post-screening panel in Los Angeles.

Good Deed Entertainment
Actress and filmmaker Natalie Portman appears in “This Changes Everything,” directed by Tom Donahue. “I have worked with two female directors and one of them was me,” she says in the documentary.

It’s not all bleak. Davis’ institute, for instance, finds that of the top family films in 2017, the percentage of female leads doubled in just four years (the latest example: “Dora and the Lost City of Gold”). And family films with female leads, as well as films with racially diverse co-leads, earned considerably more than films with only male or white protagonists.

After seeing “This Changes Everything,” I’ve been wondering whether Washington – from which I just decamped after working as a journalist for more than 20 years – might have something to offer Hollywood for a change.

I remember standing in the press gallery of the U.S. House in January, watching a sea of women dressed in pink, red, green, and yellow in the chamber below as lawmakers were sworn in to the 116th Congress and Nancy Pelosi took her second turn as speaker. 

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters/File
Democratic female members of Congress cheer after President Donald Trump said there are more women in Congress than ever before during his second State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, February 5, 2019.

Never had I seen so many female representatives. It was, in fact, historic – a largely one-sided, Democratic phenomenon, to be sure, but the largest number of women ever elected to Congress, with a total of 102 in the House and 25 in the Senate. In addition, a record six women, including an African American and a Samoan American and all Democrats, are running for president. Five of the six are current members of Congress.

From the top, longtime political warrior Nancy Pelosi encouraged and recruited female candidates – as did the leaders of the Democratic machine. Women stepped up to run for office, buttressed by partisan groups and nonpartisan women’s centers at universities, which offer candidate training. At the grassroots level, energized women – and men – volunteered for these candidates and voted for them.

Women have been pushing to get into elected office for decades, but the impetus last year came as a reaction to the presidency of Donald Trump.

“This Changes Everything” was directed by a man, Tom Donahue. It was actually his idea. “I don’t believe this is just a problem for women. I believe this is a man problem,” he said during the recent panel discussion. Men and women have to solve it together, he added. 

Donahue ends his film with the Women’s March on Washington and the #MeToo movement, and an appeal to individuals to take up the cause – to apply outside pressure. Will this be the catalyst that actually changes everything?

The entire documentary, if at times wandering, packs a universal message that change takes commitment from all levels, the top and the grassroots, through all avenues possible.

It is as true for Hollywood as it is for Washington.

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The Monitor's View

Hong Kong’s countermessage to ethnic patriotism

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For three months, at least a third of Hong Kong’s population has been protesting for democratic rights. Yet Beijing’s powerful leader, Xi Jinping, has not crushed the demonstrations. Why? One possibility is that he would be crushing one of his claims to power: the promise of a “China dream.”

This grand idea rests in part on a racial stereotype. It is the myth that all people of Chinese descent share a cultural unity and their political identity must be defined – and enforced – by the Communist Party.

Yet Hong Kongers have coalesced around a shared self-governance, mutual respect, and open-mindedness. The crushing of the protests could not crush this internalized identity.

In their thinking and actions, Hong Kong’s protesters have already overthrown Mr. Xi’s ethnic branding. Their conscience is already free. Their identity is chosen, not given, and rooted in universal values, not an imposed dream of ancestral traits. Whatever crackdown may still be imposed, this self-determined identity cannot be crushed. This may be giving Mr. Xi pause.

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Hong Kong’s countermessage to ethnic patriotism

For three months, at least a third of Hong Kong’s population of only 7 million has been protesting for democratic rights in the streets of the semi-autonomous territory. Yet Beijing’s powerful leader, Xi Jinping, has not crushed the demonstrations. Why? Does he worry about economic fallout? Or the loss of China’s hopes to be seen as a benign global leader?

One possibility is that Mr. Xi would be crushing one of his claims to power: the promise of a “China dream.” This grand idea, repeated again and again, rests in part on a racial stereotype. It is the myth that all people of Chinese descent share a cultural unity and their political identity must be defined – and enforced – by the Communist Party.

It is this notion of ethnic patriotism – or bloodlines as destiny – that has been so ably challenged by the protesters. Their embrace of civil values as a collective identity is not based on dimensions of “Chineseness.” They have forged a cultural unity around the daily practice of freedom of speech and assembly, equality under a system of law left by British rule, and political transparency and accountability.

Hong Kongers – which most prefer to be called instead of Chinese – have coalesced around a shared self-governance, mutual respect, and open-mindedness. The crushing of the protests could not crush this internalized identity. A violent display of authority would expose the empty myth of a homogeneous ethnicity. The emperor would be seen as having no clothes.

Since his rise to power in 2012, Mr. Xi has tried to extend his “China dream” to both Hong Kong and the independent island nation of Taiwan. In a 2015 meeting with Taiwan’s then-leader, Ma Ying-jeou, he stated, “We [China and Taiwan] are brothers connected by flesh even if our bones are broken. We are a family whose blood is thicker than water.”

The Taiwanese, who have enjoyed democracy for three decades, do not buy this claim, especially as it is made under the threat of military coercion. Nearly two-thirds of the country’s 23 million citizens see themselves as Taiwanese, not Chinese. Their view is reinforced by Beijing’s rising threats against the Hong Kong protesters.

The “China dream” is based on the work of Mr. Xi’s ideology mastermind, Wang Huning. The former scholar sits on the party’s powerful politburo. His writings argue that Chinese people are prone to accept authoritarian rule out of Confucian-style reverence. They are “descendants of the dragon” and not yet advanced in their thinking to really know their interests. They need the paternalistic rule of an unchallenged Communist Party, not a system based on the choice of individuals. Mr. Wang says democratic freedoms and basic rights are “self-defeating.”

Cultural typecasting is not unique to China’s rulers. Many leaders hold to power on claims of ethnic cohesiveness rather than a civic nation.

In their thinking and actions, Hong Kong’s protesters have already overthrown Mr. Xi’s ethnic branding. Their conscience is already free. Their identity is chosen, not given, and rooted in universal values, not an imposed dream of ancestral traits. Whatever crackdown may still be imposed, this self-determined identity cannot be crushed. This may be giving Mr. Xi pause.

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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.

Helping others after a tragedy

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When a college student learned that a shooting had taken place on her previous campus, panic threatened. But a tangible sense of God’s inextinguishable love brought calmness and mental strength that empowered her to better support and encourage friends who had been at the site.

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Helping others after a tragedy

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My heart overflows with compassion for all those immediately affected by the recent mass shootings in the United States, and for our society in general, as we navigate this difficult time.

I’ve been reminded of what helped me find peace, love, and strength in the aftermath of a mass shooting some time ago involving people I knew.

After my freshman year of college, I transferred to another school. A few months later, I woke up one morning to hear that someone from that freshman class had shot six people on my previous campus, killing two of them. I knew both the shooter and one of the people who had died. I was overwhelmed with feelings of shock and sadness as well as worry for the safety of other friends who were also on campus. My heart went out to everyone there.

I tried calling my friends, but got no answer. There was no way to find out any more information at that time, and it was hard not to panic. But I did what I have always found helpful in times of great emotional need: I prayed.

A verse from Psalms in the Bible gives this assurance: “Wherever I am, though far away at the ends of the earth, I will cry to you for help. When my heart is faint and overwhelmed, lead me to the mighty, towering Rock of safety” (61:2, Living Bible). I wasn’t turning to prayer as a way to ignore what had happened. I prayed to God in order to address the fear in my thought, so that I could think more calmly and clearly about the situation. If I was consumed by fear, helplessness, or confusion, I couldn’t help others as effectively.

I have frequently found comfort in time of distress in the example and teachings of Christ Jesus. Even though his ministry was one of love, he was confronted with hatred so intense it led to his crucifixion. Nonetheless, he didn’t shy away from his message that we are all God’s beloved children, and that we need to love others as God loves us. Through his healing and saving works he showed that evil and hatred can never truly extinguish God’s goodness and love.

The Bible describes God as Love itself (see I John 4:8). Nothing can be bigger than infinite Love, which is reflected in all of God’s spiritual offspring. None of God’s children can truly be separated from the Divine, who is Life itself. And even in the face of the ugliest expressions of hatred or violence, we can let divine Love guide how we respond. Each of us has a choice about what we accept as the truth about God and His creation. We don’t have to accept that evil can be equal to God or more powerful, or that love is powerless in the face of hatred.

The discoverer of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, writes in her primary work, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures”: “Evil is not power. It is a mockery of strength, which erelong betrays its weakness and falls, never to rise” (p. 192). And in another place in Science and Health she asserts, “Love must triumph over hate” (p. 43). Being receptive to this spiritual reality brings help and healing.

As I continued to pray with these ideas, I felt more calm and secure. Feeling God’s love more tangibly gave me the mental strength to move forward with equanimity, instead of reacting with fear and panic.

Over the next couple of days, I heard from each of my friends. I was grateful to learn that they were all right. I was also grateful for the calming and healing effect of my prayers: I felt better prepared to listen to my friends’ stories in a supportive way and to offer love and encouragement as they dealt with the aftermath of the tragic event.

It is comforting to me, even when confronted by acts of violence, to remember that God is Love, and that no one is left out of His limitless, supreme love. It forever embraces us all.

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Viewfinder

Eternity’s sunrise

J. David Ake/AP
Two paddle boarders stop to watch the sunrise on a stormy morning in Sanibel, Florida, Aug. 15, 2019.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris and Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( August 16th, 2019 )

Thank you for joining us today. Come back tomorrow. Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib was one of two lawmakers Israel denied entry to today. We’ll have a story from her home district in Michigan about how residents feel about their lawmaker making so much news.

Monitor Daily Podcast

August 15, 2019
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