Friday, October 1 2021

Dive In

Conversations between those two, both pudgy white guys with crazy hair, redefined the word random. Johnson once told us over breakfast that Australia was ‘the most deadly country – spiders, snakes, crocodiles and kangaroos’. Then they discussed how powerful kangaroos were at considerable length.

That’s Donald Trump’s former press secretary Stephanie Grisham describing the interaction between him and UK PM Boris Johnson—who clearly had many interests in common. Grisham’s memoirs are full of gossipy gems. Example: The time when Trump told Imran Khan “India reminded him of California with all of the homelessness.” The Guardian has more such excellent tidbits.

Stuff to check out: The latest episode of the splainer podcast ‘Press Decode’ features a lively discussion on Indians’ genetic ancestry—and the equally controversial subject of plastic surgery. Be sure to head over to the IVM website, Spotify or Apple Podcasts to listen to it.

Big Story

The world’s money lender: The colossal debt owed to China

The TLDR: US-based research lab AidData has uncovered the true amount owed to China by countries around the world—thanks to its “Belt and Road initiative” (BRI) projects. The total amount: $385 billion. The number of countries: 165. This is certainly bad news for these nations. But is it also bad news for China?


Wait, what’s this BRI?

In 2013, President Xi announced a multi-billion dollar global project called the Belt and Road Initiative—a wildly ambitious plan to connect Asia, Africa and Europe with overland corridors and maritime sea lanes. The yi dai yi lu is a “21st century silk road” that initially involved 71 countries—which account for half the world’s population and a quarter of global GDP. 


The latest version looks like this (see it in far greater detail here)


How this works: Most of these corridors run through low and middle income countries. Beijing lends vast amounts of money to them to finance big-ticket infrastructure projects (think ports, highways, railway lines etc). Chinese construction companies then come in to actually execute the projects. The problems start when the nations can’t repay the loans. 


Ok, so how much do they owe China?

That’s where the new research comes in. AidData analysed more than 13,000 aid- and debt-financed projects worth more than $843 billion across 165 countries—over a period of 18 years upto the end of 2017. And it found that the amount owed to China is “substantially larger” than what global credit agencies and financial institutions estimate.


The real numbers: At least 165 countries owe $385 billion to China. More worryingly, debt owed to China in 42 low-to-middle income countries exceeded 10% of their GDP—which includes Laos, Papua New Guinea, the Maldives, Brunei, Cambodia and Myanmar. 


The hidden debt: Until now, the true size of the debt trap remained unknown. The reason


  • Initially, China used to lend directly to governments—which had to publicly declare these loans. 
  • However, Beijing pivoted to lending money to private entities: “Many poor governments could not take on any more loans. So [China] got creative.” 
  • Now, almost 70% of its loans go to state-owned companies and banks, joint ventures and private institutions. 
  • Their reporting requirements are not as strict—and therefore the loans don’t appear on a government’s balance sheets. 
  • And the discrepancy is staggering. One example: The $5.9 billion China-Laos railway project is funded entirely with unofficial debt equivalent to about a third of the country’s GDP.


Point to note: Until now, there was no official figure on how much these countries owed on BRI projects—or even China’s own BRI investment. One reason is that the definition of a ‘belt and road’ project has been kept deliberately fuzzy. Another reason: China does not disclose details of its overseas lending—which is often made through state-owned banks and companies in US dollars. So until now we’ve mostly relied on guesstimates.


Why does any of this matter?

Headlines that matter

A key medical finding

A study out of Florida suggests that Covid may trigger “pretty severe” erectile dysfunction. This confirms earlier research that showed infected men are six times more likely to develop such problems either briefly or in the long term. Issues include inability to have or maintain an erection, damage to the testes, testicular pain or swelling, inability to achieve orgasm, low testosterone levels, and mental health issues. Biopsies on men who died of the disease revealed virus particles in testicles, penis tissueand poor sperm quality in others. (National Geographic)


Famous music festival endangers eels

In 2019, the party-goers who attended the popular Glastonbury festival in the UK did so much drugs that their urine contaminated the nearby riverand endangered aquatic life, including a rare species of eels. According to a new study, the amount of MDMA was 104 times greater downstream than upstream in the weeks after the festivalwhile cocaine concentration was 40 times stronger. Happily for the eels, the festival was cancelled during 2020 due to the pandemic. (The Guardian)


Two things to see

One: Residents of Bilbao, Spain, are upset by an art installation titled ‘Bihar’ (which means ‘Tomorrow’ in Basque). The reason: It appears to show the eerily lifelike face of a young girl drowning. The artist says the project is intended to raise awareness about climate changeand make people realise “their actions can sink us or keep us afloat.” Watch her here.

Two: People are also upset with a new sculpture in Italy which is inspired by ‘La Spigolatrice di Sapri’ (The Gleaner of Sapri)—an 1857 poem written in tribute to a woman who joined revolutionaries. The reason for the ire: The woman is wearing a transparent dress, and women politicians say it is “an offense to women and to the history it is supposed to celebrate.” The mayor defends it as "a very important work of art which will be a great tourist attraction for our town.” See her below:



In today’s edition

Sanity Break

  • An immersive digital experience by Marina Abramović


Weekend Advisory

  • Why consent is about a lot more than just sex
  • The appalling lack of safety standards in the Indian pharmaceutical industry
  • Why 'spicy' isn't a taste like 'sweet' or 'sour'
  • Amazon’s over-hyped robot Astro will apparently ‘throw itself down stairs'.

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