2019
September
26
Thursday

Today’s five hand-picked stories look at the “fog” of impeachment in the United States, how the Taliban see peace, new models of change emerging in Mexico’s feminist protests, a quirky portrait of China in Africa, and goodness on the silver screen.

First, an intriguing lesson from history.

For its first 222 years, America had one impeachment proceeding. Now, it is facing the prospect of a second in 21 years. Yet that first impeachment of President Andrew Johnson in 1868 is instructive.

The 1868 impeachment fight, the Smithsonian writes, “was a fight over the future direction of the United States; a fight with implications that reverberate to this day. Johnson’s real crime in the eyes of opponents was that he had used the power of the presidency to prevent Congress from giving aid to the four million African-Americans freed after the Civil War.”

In other words, that impeachment was less about the actual charges and more the product of a deep national divide in which the House and the president were on opposite and apparently irreconcilable sides – a political echo of the Civil War itself.

Tellingly, the American impeachment that never happened – the resignation of President Richard Nixon – also came at a time of tremendous national upheaval, in the echo of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement.

The facts of the current case will come to light in due course, and the concern is not just on the Democratic side. But amid a time of partisanship unprecedented in modern history, the past offers insights, too.

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1. Trump, Pelosi, and the ‘fog of politics’

Whose interpretations will hold sway in the Trump impeachment inquiry? Getting anyone to change positions either way will be difficult amid thickets of allegations and counter-allegations.

Mark

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In politics, as in war, the fog can get so thick that it’s hard to see what’s really happening. 

The government whistleblower complaint released Thursday contains, on its face, some of the most serious allegations yet against President Donald Trump. It charges Mr. Trump used his office for “personal gain” when he asked the Ukrainian president in a July phone call for help investigating former Vice President Joe Biden. The complaint also alleges senior White House officials tried to “lock down” all records of the call.

Mr. Trump denies the accusations.

On both sides, the “fog” is taking different shapes. For House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, it’s creating the impression that a major rubicon has been crossed – as signaled by her announcement earlier this week of an “official impeachment inquiry.” Yet the reality is, the House Judiciary Committee has already been conducting an impeachment inquiry into various aspects of Mr. Trump’s conduct. And there’s no guarantee that the House will ever take a vote on impeachment.

Mr. Trump’s fog machine is a public persona that can capture attention and spin heads. But despite calling the charges a “witch hunt,” he could actually be facing the greatest threat of his political career.

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Trump, Pelosi, and the ‘fog of politics’

In politics, as in war, the fog can get so thick that it’s hard to see what’s really happening. 

The government whistleblower complaint released Thursday contains, on its face, some of the most serious allegations yet against President Donald Trump. It charges Mr. Trump used his office for “personal gain” when he asked the Ukrainian president in a July phone call for help investigating former Vice President Joe Biden. The complaint also alleges senior White House officials tried to “lock down” all records of the call, a sign they “understood the gravity of what had transpired.”

Mr. Trump denies the accusations.

On both sides, the “fog” is taking different shapes. For House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, it’s creating the impression that a major rubicon has been crossed – as signaled by her announcement earlier this week of an “official impeachment inquiry.” Yet the reality is, the House Judiciary Committee has already been conducting an impeachment inquiry into various aspects of Mr. Trump’s conduct. Five other committees are also investigating the president. And there’s no guarantee that the House will ever take a vote on impeachment.

Mr. Trump’s fog machine is a public persona that can capture attention and spin heads. But despite calling the charges a “witch hunt,” he could actually be facing the greatest threat of his political career.

“Pelosi is working strategically – mollifying the progressives but not hanging her moderates out to dry in a way that will threaten her majority in 2020,” says Matthew Dickinson, a political scientist at Middlebury College in Vermont.

“Trump doesn’t think in a grand strategic way,” Mr. Dickinson continues. “He’s winging it. He’s a counter-puncher, and this is an opportunity to counter punch.” 

One of Mr. Trump’s favorite techniques is deflection, and on Ms. Pelosi’s latest impeachment move, the president and his defenders are claiming that House Democrats haven’t followed the proper procedure. With President Bill Clinton, impeachment proceedings were launched with a vote by the full House, which didn’t happen with Mr. Trump. 

The reality is that the U.S. Constitution does not lay out a specific procedure for impeachment – just that a majority of House members are needed for the final vote to impeach. Removal from office would only come after a trial in the Senate, with a two-thirds vote required to convict. 

“There is no right procedure,” says Michael Gerhardt, an expert on impeachment and a visiting law professor at the University of Pennsylvania. When Mr. Trump and his defenders say the Democrats aren’t following proper procedure, “it sows the seeds of confusion and maybe distrust of the legitimacy of what the Democrats are doing. That’s always been his modus operandi.”

At the same time, just because most House Democrats now favor an impeachment inquiry, that doesn’t mean they’d all vote to impeach. In recent months, polls have shown public support for impeachment hovering in the high 30% to low 40% range. For the House to impeach, that number likely needs to be higher. And getting enough Senate Republicans to vote for conviction would require a wholesale shift in public thought against the president. 

Thus, the Democrats are working hard to portray Mr. Trump’s dealings with Ukraine as his biggest scandal. Congressional testimony by the whistle-blower and his sources would certainly grab public attention.

Moving U.S. public opinion may require “material facts that link the principal with the given scandal,” as happened in Brazil two years ago, says pollster Clifford Young, president of U.S. Ipsos Public Affairs. “Could the whistleblower complaint be that? It could, depending on how people assess the credibility and truthfulness of that information.”

A YouGov poll released Sept. 24 suggests public opinion on impeachment is malleable. This hypothetical question – If Mr. Trump suspended military aid to Ukraine in order to incentivize the country’s officials to investigate Joe Biden and his son, would you support or oppose impeachment? – had majority support. 

The battle to shape opinion over Trump-Biden-Ukraine has only begun. Some Democrats think they have the winning story – that Mr. Trump tried to collude with Ukraine to win the 2020 election. On Wednesday, the White House released a summary of Mr. Trump’s July 25 phone call with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, thus acknowledging its content – including that Mr. Trump asked the Ukrainian for “a favor.” 

The issue is interpretation. Trump defenders say that he was asking for help investigating the origins of the Mueller investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. And they say the whistleblower complaint released Thursday is all “second-hand information” – likening it to the unconfirmed Steele dossier that circulated at the start of the Trump-Russia investigation. 

So far, no Republican in either house of Congress has voiced support for impeachment. But a full-throated defense of Mr. Trump has yet to emerge. And some have expressed concerns. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., told Politico Thursday that he is troubled by the whistleblower’s claim that White House officials tried to “lock down” records of the Zelenskiy call.

Whether American voters will delve into the whistleblower complaint and draw clear conclusions about the Trump presidency is an open question. Democrats are reportedly trying to narrow the impeachment inquiry to focus solely on Ukraine, believing it presents a clear example of presidential abuse of power and coverup. 

Regardless of how that effort to shape opinion plays out, Mr. Trump is expected to swing back as hard as ever – as he always has. Feeling under attack puts Mr. Trump right in his wheelhouse, says Trump biographer Gwenda Blair. And the power of the presidency combined with Mr. Trump’s performative skills could make him hard to outflank. 

“His foot is stapled to the accelerator,” says Ms. Blair. “And he’s not going to lift it.”

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2. What the Taliban are telling themselves about war and peace

One ingredient of a successful negotiation is the integrity of the negotiators. Another is their ability to deliver. This inside look at how the Taliban are talking about peace offers clues about both.

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Questions linger for many Afghans about the suspended negotiations the United States and the Taliban were holding in Doha, Qatar. The insurgents still talk of the “Islamic Emirate of the Taliban” and dismiss the Afghan president as an American puppet. So what does the Taliban leadership tell its own foot soldiers?

“Naturally they present themselves as the victors, that they won the fight,” says journalist Abdul Waheed Atif after listening to a speech delivered at the funeral of a Taliban commander. “There is no doubt there are several groups of the Taliban,” he says. “I know some ... don’t care about Doha, about their leaders. Anything they want, they can do.”

The Taliban have been working to curb such dissent, but with mixed results. The leadership consulted local commanders and fighters over the summer, but much was left unsaid, says Rahmatullah Amiri, a political analyst. Many Taliban, he notes, have an “absolute, 100%” expectation of once again ruling.

“The people I speak to on the ground literally tell me: ‘They took government from us, they have to give it back to us,’” he says. “The Taliban leadership did not share the whole thing with the ground troops, such as power-sharing, so this is a huge problem.”

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What the Taliban are telling themselves about war and peace

The funeral for the Taliban commander killed in an airstrike was reaching its most critical point.

Just as the corpse of the veteran Afghan jihadist was due to be lowered into the ground – in Taliban territory – an Afghan journalist’s telephone rang in the capital, Kabul.

A mourner at the funeral had made the call and held up his phone, so journalist Abdul Waheed Atif could hear the graveside speech of a local Taliban chief.

Such memorial addresses are one way the arch-conservative Taliban are spreading the word among their followers, part of an increasingly important mechanism of dissemination as insurgents making decisions about war and peace aim to ensure broad compliance among their own.

Just a week earlier, on Sept. 7, President Donald Trump had ended nearly a year of U.S.-Taliban talks about an American troop withdrawal, declaring them “dead” after a Taliban suicide car bomb in Kabul killed a U.S. serviceman, along with nearly 20 Afghans.

So what have the Taliban been telling their own foot soldiers about the future – and their role in possibly ending America’s longest-ever war?

“Naturally they present themselves as the victors, that they won the fight,” says Mr. Atif, describing the funeral speech in Wardak Province, southwest of Kabul, which is one of many local Taliban discourses he has heard.

“They said: ‘There is a break in the peace process, but don’t worry, it will resume,’” says Mr. Atif, quoting from the graveside message, as he fingers a string of green glass prayer beads.

The Taliban often take advantage of such local gatherings to press their case for legitimacy in the community, as well as to overcome widespread unhappiness about continued violence and deprivation in Taliban territory. The Taliban control or have influence in half of Afghanistan, more today than they have held at any point since U.S. forces orchestrated their ousting from power in 2001.

“Peace is coming”

Another message is that “peace is coming,” says the journalist, “and we will have a good life.”

That would be good news for most Afghans. Over the weekend, 40 civilians were reported killed when a wedding party was hit by military helicopters during a raid in Helmand province. That came just days after a U.S. drone strike killed 30 farm workers.

But not all Taliban fighters may be on board with giving up the fight, despite the Taliban leadership’s negotiations with the United States in Doha, Qatar. They have presented themselves as ready for peace – in exchange for the departure of some 14,000 American and 8,600 NATO troops – and as having evolved from their days of ruling Afghanistan in the late 1990s, when they severely restricted women’s rights and forbade education for girls.

Rafiq Maqbool/AP
A suicide-bomb blast ripped through a wedding party on a busy Saturday night in a Dubai City wedding hall in Kabul, Afghanistan, seen here on Aug. 18, 2019.

But critical elements to peace were not part of the U.S. talks, including a cease-fire and power-sharing with the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani, which the Taliban dismiss as an American “puppet.” Mr. Ghani is vying for a second term in an election on Sept. 28, which the Taliban have vowed to disrupt.

“There is no doubt there are several groups of the Taliban,” says Mr. Atif. “I know some of the Taliban groups don’t care about Doha, about their leaders. Anything they want, they can do, without their permission.”

Indeed, even as the talks with the U.S. were reported to be almost complete, some Taliban commanders in the field vowed to carry on the fight.

“We will continue our fight against the government and seize power by force,” one commander told Reuters in late August.

The Taliban have been working to curb such dissent, but with mixed results. The leadership sent delegations to local Taliban commanders and fighters for consultations over the summer. All Taliban centers of power, inside and out of Afghanistan, agreed on the basics of a U.S. and foreign troops withdrawal, and the need for Islamic government.

Maintaining unity

But much was left unsaid, says Rahmatullah Amiri, a political analyst based in Kabul.

“When we speak about ‘Islamic regime,’ what do we mean? Do we mean this election will be part of that Islamic regime?” says Mr. Amiri. “These are things they didn’t discuss.”

On top of that lack of detail are Taliban assumptions about what postwar Afghanistan will look like, including the “absolute, 100%” expectation of once again ruling from Kabul.

“The people I speak to on the ground literally tell me: ‘They took government from us, they have to give it back to us,’” says Mr. Amiri. “The Taliban leadership did not share the whole thing with the ground troops, such as power-sharing, so this is a huge problem.”

At the same time, the Taliban in recent years have reformed and centralized their leadership structure, so they are in a better position to navigate peace talks, says Mr. Amiri, and only a “very small proportion” are likely to reject any deal approved at the top.

“They very much understand their commanders,” says Mr. Amiri. “The Taliban understand that sharing a lot of information with their fighters could easily crack things in the Taliban lines.”

At stake for the leadership, he says, is their political standing.

“So you can’t just say, ‘Oh yeah, we’re going to do power-sharing,’ because the Taliban understand that if they do power-sharing, in the way the Western media or Afghan government perceive it to be, that would damage the Taliban,” he says.

Islamic Emirate of the Taliban

Such sensitivities were evident in a key speech in late August, made to commanders and broadcast on Taliban social media channels, to mark the 100th anniversary of Afghanistan independence from British control.

The Taliban’s chief negotiator, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, warned repeatedly against being “too proud” of what he called the Taliban victory over American forces. He implied that the Taliban would soon take total control, and – as peace would soon dawn on Afghanistan after four decades of war – he sought to reassure women and minority ethnic groups, while calling on his commanders and fighters to respect all Afghans, to “tolerate” and “accept” each other and rebuild the country together.

Yet in the 45-minute address, Mr. Stanikzai made no mention of the Ghani government, nor that power-sharing was an option. He also did not speak of the heavy toll on Afghans, many thousands of them civilians, who have died at the hands of the Taliban.

“Each bullet we shot at the Americans, and each negotiation we had with the Americans, now we have arrived at this victory,” said the black-turbaned and gray-bearded Mr. Stanikzai.

Every Afghan should be respected, as if “each brother was a commander for the jihad, and each sister is the wife of our martyr,” he said.

Mr. Stanikzai also promised that the “Islamic Emirate of the Taliban will solve all your problems and will be responsible for your security.”

Afghans have heard such platitudes before, over many years and across many battlefields. And as the Taliban have expanded territory under their control, they have also exposed themselves to popular anger for failing to provide services, or for extending the war.

“The Taliban know only fighting and conflict, they don’t have any program,” says Mr. Atif, the Afghan journalist who heard the Taliban funeral speech in Wardak. Fighters have become tired, he says, since hospitality shown them in previous years, like opening homes and providing food, has dried up, as the Taliban shifted from striking military to civilian targets.

“For this reason now, in communities, there is no space for them. People don’t like them. They hate them,” says Mr. Atif. “Unfortunately, when people are under the Taliban they become too tired and hungry.”

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3. How attacks on women mobilized Mexico’s ‘feminist earthquake’

Righteous anger can be seen as ennobling and effective – or the opposite. As Mexico City’s feminists protest gender-based violence, they’re also provoking a debate about how to push for change.

Mark
Alfredo Sosa/Staff
On the anniversary of two deadly earthquakes, women marched in Mexico City Sept. 19, 2019, to protest decades of increasing violence against women. In August, two alleged rapes of teen girls by police spurred demonstrators to march in the capital.

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In Mexico, where nine women are killed each day, female anger is mounting. 

Last month, after a teen accused four police officers of raping her in their patrol car, that anger burst into the open. Outraged feminists in Mexico City doused the city’s security minister in pink sparkles, and days later defaced the capital’s most iconic monument. “Terremoto feminista,” they called another day of demonstrations this month: “Feminist earthquake.”

Their so-called “glitter movement” has attracted plenty of backlash, though – from misogynistic slurs, to criticisms that support their goals, but not their methods. But many of the women protesting see themselves as challenging not just impunity, and rape, and patriarchal attitudes, but ideas about how women ought to push for change. 

“They call us vandals. I call it dignified rage,” says Irinea Buendia, whose daughter was a victim of femicide. Her daughters’ death was initially labelled a suicide. After five years of legal battles, her daughter’s husband was arrested, and the country’s Supreme Court ruled that all violent deaths of women must be investigated as possible femicides.

“I will not stay silent,” says Ms. Buendia, explaining why she refused to participate in a silent march. “Everything I have gained has been from screaming.”

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How attacks on women mobilized Mexico’s ‘feminist earthquake’

They were called vandals and provocateurs.

But Irinea Buendia didn’t mind. She was thinking of Mariana, chanting for an end to gender violence in Mexico, a photo of her murdered daughter hanging by a string around her neck.

This latest demonstration of women was organized under the hashtag #terremotofeminista (feminist earthquake) and controversially called on Sept. 19, the day the city marks two of its deadliest quakes. But it was just one that has gained force – and backlash – here in recent weeks.

In August women, Ms. Buendia among them again, were so outraged by allegations that police had raped minors that they doused the Mexico City’s security minister in pink sparkles, and days later defaced the capital’s most iconic monument. It became known as the “glitter movement” – and outside feminist circles, it wasn’t widely welcomed. “They call us vandals, I call it dignified rage,” Ms. Buendia says.

In a country where 41% of women say they’ve experienced sexual violence – and nine are killed each day, according to the United Nations – female anger is mounting. But with it has come even greater outrage directed back at them, with critics lobbing sexist slurs. Others support their goals, but not their methods. Yet far from viewing it as a step back, many of these women say the rejection of their movement is a sign that a paradigm shift is underway.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
After police labeled her daughter's 2010 death a suicide, Irinia Buendia's efforts to get answers resulted in a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2015 that sets precedent for future cases of gender violence.

Andrea Medina, a lawyer who has worked with many victims of gender violence over the decades, sees anger against the movement as a sign that the status quo is giving way. Society is reacting as it sees women put their foot down, she says. “It’s a form of inhibiting women from continuing to denounce violence. They are saying, ‘You cannot be angry, you can’t defend yourself, you have to accept violence quietly.’ ”

She believes, despite how unpopular the protests are, it is a turning point. “Public silence of the victims has been broken.”

Femicides, or the murder of women for being women, have been on the agenda in Mexico for decades, especially since the notorious murders in Ciudad Juarez starting in the early ’90s: Hundreds of women were violently killed in the border town, and most of the cases were unsolved. But marching was rare, especially for victims or their families.

As the rate of women’s murders has grown – with 30% of the 52,000 deaths registered since 1985 happening since 2010, according to 2016 government figures – so has the feminist response.

Like in many women’s marches, it was specific cases that pushed women to the streets this summer – as in South Africa, where the brutal rape and murder of a teenager led to protests earlier this month. 

Here, it was two girls – a 17-year-old who says four police officers raped her in their patrol car, and a 16-year-old who accused an officer of raping her in a museum. But if marches are spurred by local events, activists say, they are catalyzed by global ones, from abortion debates in Argentina or Spain to #MeToo and its iterations around the world. For Yndira Sandoval, who belongs to a feminist collective here, “The movement has never been more alive, more forceful, more awake, or more powerful.”

Alfredo Sosa/Staff

The cases here set off a particular fury because of the girls’ ages. But it was also their vulnerability in the face of impunity: that the very authority figures meant to protect them from wider violence are their alleged violators. 

It was particularly painful for Ms. Buendia. Her daughter was found dead in June of 2010. Suicide, said her husband, a police officer. Ms. Buendia had never heard the word femicide. But she felt in her heart that her 29-year-old, a law student who loved to dance and sketch and whose favorite character was the gloomy Eeyore – a detail she says doesn’t square with Mariana’s rosy disposition –  wouldn’t take her own life.

She fought for the next five years to have the case reopened, which led to the arrest of Mariana’s former spouse; his case is still in the legal system. Her battle led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2015 – that all violent deaths of women must be investigated as possible femicides, among other things – and now she’s part of a group on the front lines of the marches that calls itself “Moms in Resistance.”

“Almost all cases hurt me, because it’s like they are killing my daughter all over again,” she says, the day before the latest march. 

The next day, she and the women – moms and grandmothers, and young and single women alike – came to the streets to protest about a long list of grievances, from femicide, to rape, to impunity, to patriarchal attitudes in general. But they also see a role for themselves in challenging perceptions of how women should effect change: fiercely, they say. 

Gabriela Mijares, who works in public administration and has attended all these recent marches, raises a conch shell to her lips and blows to initiate the protest – what ancient warriors used to do to instill fear in their adversaries, she says.

Mexican journalist Ricardo Raphael, writing in the newsmagazine Proceso after the launch of the “glitter movement,” says that men from Julius Caesar to Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata have used their anger to transform societies and are celebrated for it, but there is a double standard for women. “If a woman dares to exercise it, it is because she is a sorceress, like Circe, or the Harpies that harassed Ulysses.”

That kind of social bias, the women say, is part of what they’re pushing back against – walking with pink and red spray paint bottles, and graffiti-ing walls and pavement alike with the Venus sign and a raised fist. 

“It is anger, but it is what protects us. ... It is what has gotten people to turn and look,” says Ms. Mijares. 

Not all agree with her – men and women alike. Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum – Mexico City’s first elected female mayor – called their actions in August a provocation. At the Sept. 19 march, one woman on a speaker said they would only talk to female journalists. One male journalist on the sidelines, who did not give his name, said he was harassed by women in the “glitter protest,” and that while he understands their grievances, there is no excuse for defacing national monuments that all Mexicans must pay for.

The way Marcela Oropa, who is marching with her 11-month-old daughter, sees it, some critics lack empathy for what it’s like to suffer aggressions, big and small. Destroying buildings is nothing compared to destroying lives, she says: “We never know when we’ll be next.”

Ms. Buendia walks with a cane, but says she would have scaled the walls around the Angel of Independence, the monument now barricaded while it undergoes restoration from the feminists’ graffiti, if she could. She doesn’t believe such controversial actions undermine the cause. 

In fact, one of the recent marches was a silent one by family members who have lost women. But Ms. Buendia refused to participate. “I will not stay silent,” she says. “Everything I have gained has been from screaming.”

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A letter from

Uganda

4. 5,000 miles from China – and yet not far at all

The story of China’s impact in Africa isn’t told just in billions of dollars and thousands of acres. It’s at hotel front desks, shoe shops, and the people living at the crossroads of two different worlds.

Mark
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Han Shiqin, who is from China, works in a wholesale shoe store in Kampala, Uganda, as a security guard stands behind her, on Aug. 15, 2019. She has lived here with her husband for about two months.

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As I checked into my hotel, I noticed a familiar sight. Sitting on the reception counter were complimentary copies of China Daily, the English-language newspaper published by the Chinese Communist Party. 

I headed back out the door to the currency exchange. Blow me down if I didn’t almost immediately come across another distinctively Chinese piece of urban furniture – a sliding security gate, opening and closing like an accordion. 

When I was a reporter in Beijing, I’d seen countless versions of this gate blocking the way to countless government offices and other places that I wanted to go all over China. This example of the genre was sitting in front of the China National Offshore Oil Corp.

But this wasn’t Beijing. I was in Kampala, Uganda – in part, to report on China’s hotly contested role in the region. Even so, I had not expected to find China and its works so ubiquitous here. The Chinese are indeed everywhere, as many Ugandans told me with varying degrees of approval: building roads, prospecting for oil, erecting hydroelectric dams, extending airports, setting up telecommunications networks, opening farms, and manufacturing floor tiles, foam mattresses, plastic sandals, and goodness knows what else.

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5,000 miles from China – and yet not far at all

Five minutes out of Entebbe Airport, the gateway to Uganda’s capital, Kampala, you hit the new expressway. And all of a sudden you are in China.

I lived in China for a number of years. It didn’t take me a second to recognize the tollbooth architectural style as Chinese mock-monumental. Farther toward town, the concrete structures reinforcing the earthworks were familiar too.

The China Communications Construction Company, which built the road, had used the same tried and true cookie-cutter designs that you find all across the People’s Republic.

As I checked into my hotel, I noticed another familiar sight from my time in Beijing: Sitting on the reception counter were complimentary copies of China Daily, the English-language newspaper published by the Chinese Communist Party.

I decided to walk up the hill to a nearby currency exchange office. Blow me down if I didn’t almost immediately come across another distinctively Chinese piece of urban furniture – a sliding security gate that opens and closes like an accordion.

I had seen countless versions of this gate blocking the way to countless government offices and other places that I wanted to go all over China. This example of the genre was only half closed, so visitors could get into the car park in front of the China National Offshore Oil Corp. without too much difficulty.

Newly acquired Ugandan shillings in hand, I went to buy a local SIM card. And who should I find just ahead of me in the line? Two young Chinese guys, one helping the other, clearly a newcomer, to get his account set up. Both worked for Huawei – the Chinese telecom giant that was in the Ugandan news a few days later because of a report in The Wall Street Journal that its engineers had helped the government hack into opposition politicians’ conversations.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
The central commercial area bustles with activity on Aug. 15, 2019, in Kampala, Uganda. About 90% of the goods sold here are from China – including mattresses, shoes, clothing, decorations, and kitchen items.

I had read quite a lot about China’s spreading presence and influence in Africa. I was in Uganda, in fact, to report on Beijing’s hotly contested role in the region. Still, I had not expected to find China and its works so ubiquitous. The Chinese are indeed everywhere, as many Ugandans told me with varying degrees of approval: building roads, prospecting for oil, erecting hydroelectric dams, extending airports, setting up telecommunications networks, opening farms, and manufacturing floor tiles, foam mattresses, plastic sandals, and goodness knows what else.

Everywhere – yet apart. Chinese communities here have a reputation for keeping to themselves, but that is not Han Shiqin’s style.

She is an adventurous young woman who came to Africa two years ago to study Arabic in Sudan, then went to work as a translator in Nigeria, and now manages a wholesale shoe shop in downtown Kampala, flogging low-end footwear to traders from across East Africa.

En route she picked up an Arabic name (Afiya) and a Chinese husband, whom she met on the Chinese messaging app WeChat, wooed virtually for a month, and married during a 10-day trip home.

“He was very nervous,” Ms. Han recalls. “But I encouraged him to come to Africa; everybody ought to travel.”

“I go to visit villages and I go to people’s homes to chat,” she adds, and “I eat Ugandan food” (though she says she is the only Chinese expatriate she knows who does so). “I don’t want to stay at home. I went to the source of the Nile, too.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Wang Yuxin (left), who is from China, works in a wholesale shoe store in a central commercial area of Kampala, Uganda, on Aug. 15, 2019.

Wilson Street, where Ms. Han works, is lined by Chinese shoe shops selling imported or locally made sandals and sneakers by the truck load, literally. Just up the street, Wang Yuxin, spectacles perched on his nose, is busy writing out invoices, receipts, and orders while a colleague behind the counter counts thick wads of 50,000 shilling notes.

Mr. Wang, who is 26, came here five years ago. In those days, he recalls, most of his compatriots “feared Africa as a place that could terrify people, with sickness and heat.” But for him, it was “an escape.”

“In China 6 million people graduate from university every year,” he points out. “I couldn’t find a good job that fit my aspirations. So I made a different choice.

“People were suspicious at first because we were new and different. But as time has passed and more and more Chinese have opened shops in this street, it’s better.”

Mr. Wang can count and say “hello” in Swahili, but that’s about as far as his integration goes; he lives in a house with 11 other Chinese businessmen and a Ugandan woman who can cook Chinese, and he has a clear goal once he has saved enough money.

“When I get married, I’ll return home.”

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On Film

5. From Mister Rogers to ‘Just Mercy,’ movies that make good look good

Can goodness ever shine as brightly as badness in movies? Our critic shares several films he used as a life raft in a sea of dark offerings at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Mark

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Goodness is extremely difficult to portray convincingly in the movies. Or in literature, for that matter – the villains in the novels of Dickens, for example, are almost always juicier than his paragons of virtue. 

Any actor will tell you that he would much rather play a bad guy than a good guy. Goodness can seem wan and insubstantial and uncomprehending of the dark dungeons of life. But what if the goodness on display acknowledged that darkness and bursts through anyway? Might not the strength of that radiance be doubly valued?

The Toronto International Film Festival included burningly divisive films like the controversial satire “Jojo Rabbit,” featuring Hitler as a 10-year-old German boy’s imaginary friend, and the very dark “Joker,” starring Joaquin Phoenix in an origin story about Batman’s nemesis. But goodness offered a life raft of sorts from those. It shone through, in varying degrees, in the films “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” “Just Mercy,” “The Two Popes,” and “Varda By Agnès.”

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From Mister Rogers to ‘Just Mercy,’ movies that make good look good

Sometimes you need a life raft in a storm. Looking back on the more than 300 movies screened at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, the most burningly divisive were the controversial satire “Jojo Rabbit,” featuring Hitler as a 10-year-old German boy’s imaginary friend, and the very dark “Joker,” starring Joaquin Phoenix in an origin story about Batman’s nemesis.

All that high-intensity badness made me hungry for some prominently showcased goodness. I found it, in varying degrees, in at least four of the 20 movies I saw in Toronto: “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” “Just Mercy,” “The Two Popes,” and “Varda By Agnès.” (All of these movies will be released theatrically by the end of the year.)

I must admit that when I first heard about “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” I didn’t relish putting myself through a biopic about Fred Rogers, even one starring Tom Hanks. We already had a wonderful documentary, Morgan Neville’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” that canvassed that neighborhood. 

But the filmmakers – director Marielle Heller and screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster – do something very canny. The film’s focus is not Mister Rogers, it’s Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a magazine writer notorious for his dirt-digging investigative pieces, who reluctantly accepts an assignment to profile the public TV icon for Esquire magazine. (Vogel is based on real-life journalist Tom Junod.) Vogel is a new dad who has a fraught relationship with his abusive father (Chris Cooper). The movie is about how Rogers, by his words and his example, undoes the writer’s cynicism and heals his wounds. 

Now goodness is extremely difficult to portray convincingly in the movies. Or in literature, for that matter – the villains in the novels of Dickens, for example, are almost always juicier than his paragons of virtue. Any actor will tell you that he would much rather play a bad guy than a good guy. Goodness can seem wan and insubstantial and uncomprehending of the dark dungeons of life. But what if the goodness on display acknowledged that darkness and bursts through anyway? Might not the strength of that radiance be doubly valued?

Something like this happens in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” The audience is initially placed in the same position as Vogel. We can’t quite believe – even though we might want to – that Rogers is as humane as he comes across. But Mister Rogers isn’t merely disarming in his encounters with Vogel; he is beneficent in a way that seems to come from deep inside. Hanks and the filmmakers do not portray Rogers as a saint. If they did, we would not buy it. He is a human being with an unshakable belief in the sacredness of every individual, large or small. The movie’s standout achievement is that it makes this belief seem not only believable but necessary.

Of course, good messaging does not always make for a good movie. “Just Mercy” is about the Harvard-educated real-life
lawyer Bryan Stevenson, whose decadeslong career has entailed getting unjustly convicted prisoners in Alabama, most of them poor and black, off death row. Stevenson is portrayed in the movie by Michael B. Jordan, a dynamic actor who tamps down his vitality here. As portrayed in the film, Stevenson’s goodness is worthy and righteous but also a bit boring. His rectitude doesn’t have enough psychological levels. He is, in the end, no Atticus Finch. It is Jamie Foxx’s Walter McMillian, as the convict Stevenson rescues, along with McMillian’s extended family and friends, who provide the film’s true transcendence.

As a master class in acting, I enjoyed “The Two Popes,” which is structured as a series of imagined conversations in 2012 and 2013 between then-Pope Benedict XVI, played by Anthony Hopkins, and his eventual successor, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, played by Jonathan Pryce. Polar opposites in many ways both personal and doctrinal, these very human eminences bond over soccer and ABBA songs. Hokey, yes, but, to quote the film’s director, Fernando Meirelles, “What I like is this idea of two guys who [at first] didn’t like each other but had to learn to listen. That was tolerance. Nowadays we don’t like to hear people with whom we disagree; we prefer to kill them.” 

The Toronto movie with the greatest glow for me was Agnès Varda’s final film, “Varda by Agnès,” a documentary completed shortly before her death in March. She conducts a playful guided tour through her marvelously variegated seven-decadeslong career as filmmaker, photographer, and creator of art installations – like the “cinema shack” she created out of hanging strips of celluloid from one of her early movies. 

What comes through most in this film is Varda’s great gift for communion. Even if you have never heard of her, the experience of watching this movie is like reconnecting with an old friend. The feeling she engenders is a tribute to her intense curiosity and her compassion for humanity in all its wayward permutations. 

She tells us in the film, “Nothing is trite if you film people with empathy and love.” Her final film testifies to that. What a fitting valedictory it is.

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The Monitor's View

Unlearning corruption, the Indonesian way

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For the past week, tens of thousands of young people in Indonesia have protested in cities across the world’s fourth most populous country. Their main aim: to block an attempt by lawmakers to weaken the independent Corruption Eradication Commission, or KPK as it is known. The investigative agency is the most trusted state entity for its success in achieving the convictions of hundreds of corrupt officials since 2002.

These student demonstrations are the largest since 1998, when similar protests felled a dictator in the Southeast Asian nation and restored democracy. Their sheer size, along with the fact that thousands of the protesters are in high school, is a hint that people in one of the most corrupt nations may finally be unlearning a deeply rooted culture of bribery. Many young Indonesians have taken part in educational programs from the KPK that teach honesty and integrity.

Anti-corruption scholars have long studied how countries can “unlearn” corrupt practices passed down over generations. If the protests are any clue, Indonesia might someday be a model of how to unlearn corrupt ways.

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Unlearning corruption, the Indonesian way

For the past week, tens of thousands of young people in Indonesia have protested in cities across the world’s fourth most populous country. Their main aim: to block an attempt by lawmakers to weaken the independent Corruption Eradication Commission, or KPK as it is known. The investigative agency is the most trusted state entity for its success in achieving the convictions of hundreds of corrupt officials since 2002. Many current legislators are the targets of the KPK’s probes.

These student demonstrations are the largest since 1998, when similar protests felled a dictator in the Southeast Asian nation and restored democracy. Their sheer size, along with the fact that thousands of the protesters are in high school, is a hint that people in one of the most corrupt nations may finally be unlearning a deeply rooted culture of bribery. Many young Indonesians have taken part in educational programs from the KPK that teach honesty and integrity. One example: A popular book for preteens is called “Aku Anak Jujur,” or “I Am an Honest Child.”

Anti-corruption scholars have long studied how countries can “unlearn” corrupt practices passed down over generations. Indonesia, a country of nearly 270 million people, has the advantage of being close to Singapore and Hong Kong, two places where officials have changed public attitudes within a generation to expect clean governance.

The focus of the protests is President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, a popular leader who has the power to overturn the new law that would neuter the KPK’s effectiveness. He came into office in 2014 and was reelected last April on the promise of a “mental revolution,” which includes changing attitudes about corruption. He supports the new measure yet claims he can also protect the KPK. Experts on Indonesia are puzzled over his motives.

A recent survey found bribery accounted for 10% of Indonesia’s production costs. Corruption also explains the lax regulation of new palm-oil plantations. Much of Indonesia is currently covered with a smoky haze from the burning of forests to plant new palm trees.

Early in its work, the KPK discovered many Indonesians had no knowledge of the word “integrity” or its meaning. If the protests are any clue, that may be changing. Indonesia might someday be a model of how to unlearn corrupt ways.

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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.

From ‘the liberal’ and ‘the conservative’ to friends

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When opinions clash, it can be hard to see past what we perceive as another’s faults. When a woman found herself in that very situation with a colleague, the idea that God loves all His children totally changed the way she saw this person, opening the way for friendship.

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From ‘the liberal’ and ‘the conservative’ to friends

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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Early on in my teaching career, there was a colleague I worked closely with whose views clashed with mine on everything from food to politics to fashion. I tried to get along with this individual but had a hard time seeing past our differences, which I chalked up to our upbringing in very different parts of the country. It was clear one of us was “the liberal” and the other was “the conservative.” (Sound familiar?)

One day I went home stewing about yet another conversation with my colleague that had left me feeling annoyed and even slightly unwell. That night, it finally dawned on me that I couldn’t change her, but I sure could change how I had been thinking about her.

A daily goal of mine was to find solutions to any challenge I faced through prayer, to consider things from a spiritual vantage point in quiet communion with God. I’ve seen the value of this kind of approach many times. “The habitual struggle to be always good is unceasing prayer,” wrote Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Monitor (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 4). Well, I wanted to be good, and this situation sure wasn’t making me feel good. So I prayed.

I love her, so why can’t you?

That’s the message that came to me as I reached out to God that night. My thoughts were so crowded with what I perceived as this colleague’s faults that at first it was hard for me to think of anything I could love about her. But this divine inspiration reminded me that the source of love is God, divine Love itself, which is impartial and never based on politics or opinions. God sees goodness in everyone, because God sees us as spiritual, the very expression of infinite Love.

To make this point even more concrete, it came to me to write a list of qualities my colleague expressed that pointed to her true, Godlike nature as Spirit’s expression. The list included examples of her kindhearted ways with the children we worked with and her enthusiasm and talent for teaching. This wasn’t an exercise in positive thinking, but rather acknowledging the spiritual nature we each possess as unique expressions of an all-loving God.

My list soon grew until it filled several pages. I was so surprised! By the time I’d finished, it was so clear to me that I had been focusing on human personality and superficial commonalities to define our relationship, and that it was much more productive to look to our innate spiritual identity, which is the basis for harmony in all relationships. I felt at peace and no longer unwell.

The next morning our interactions took on a decided change. I felt myself softening to my colleague’s viewpoints, respecting her ideas and not immediately wanting to challenge her on every issue that came up in conversation. Instead of just desiring to share similar human traits and opinions, I could see that our relationship should be about the mutual charity that comes from a desire to know and express God’s love. I felt I’d glimpsed something of her true nature. A sweet friendship grew between us from that day on.

This experience taught me the importance of looking past surface labels and strongly held opinions to see the good being expressed in everyone.

It’s not always easy, but each of us, no matter our background, can cultivate this healing habit, encouraged by this message from the Apostle Paul: “If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care – then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand” (Philippians 2:1-4, Eugene Peterson, “The Message”).

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Viewfinder

Merkel ducky, you’re the one

Michael Sohn/AP
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (left) signs a rubber duck version of herself for Agriculture Minister Julia Kloeckner, (right), during a meeting of the German parliament at the Reichstag building in Berlin Sept. 26, 2019.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( September 27th, 2019 )

Thank you for joining us today. We hope you’ll come back tomorrow when correspondent Fred Weir looks at how the fight over a former factory points to glimmers of a new and different Russia.

Monitor Daily Podcast

September 26, 2019
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