Tag Archives: geopolitics

Bill Gates Just Tweeted Something About China’s Growth That’s Guaranteed to Blow Your Mind

China’s economy has been growing at an extremely fast pace over the last couple of decades. Their annual GDP has been rising rapidly, especially since the late 90s, and is expected to surpass U.S. GDP next year.

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A huge part of this growth has come from construction and real estate. Real estate has become a larger and larger portion of the Chinese economy in recent years.

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But even those who have been well aware of China’s rapidly growing real estate sector will be shocked by this tweet posted by Bill Gates a few days ago.

Just to add some more perspective, in the last 100 years the U.S. has built pretty much the entire interstate highway system, as well as thousands of skyscrapers, tens of thousands of dams and hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses.

China’s real estate market is not really what it seems, though. There are a number of ghost towns in China- extravagantly built new neighborhoods full of shiny new buildings and beautiful parks and gardens. The only thing missing is people.

While some argue that the towns will eventually be inhabited as more and more Chinese citizens move up to the middle class, many analysts say that very few people will actually be able to afford to live in these new developments any time soon.

60 Minutes did a great piece on China’s ghost towns last year. You can watch it below. You can check out aerial images of some of the ghost towns courtesy of Business Insider here.

It’s also worth noting that China’s housing market has taken a downturn recently. China is the world’s largest trading nation- the fact that their economy depends so heavily on this sector is fueling worries that a Chinese housing slump could cause economic reverberations across the globe.

The Latest from the Middle East: Terrorists, Rebels and the Geopolitical Clusterf***

I’ll try to make this as quick as I can.

Yesterday, we reported on how the new emergent terrorist group ISIS captured Iraq’s second largest city on Tuesday and stole nearly half a billion dollars from the central bank there. All this week the group has been advancing towards Baghdad, taking a number of towns along the way.

ISIS's advance towards Baghdad. Click to enlarge (Courtesy of The New York Times)
ISIS’s advance towards Baghdad. Click to enlarge (Courtesy of The New York Times)

Then early this morning, reports came out that the Syrian government, which the United States is trying to overthrow by backing largely Jihadist rebels (the Syrian government calls them terrorists), is coordinating with the Iraqi government (which was put in by, and is still heavily backed by the U.S. government) to fight against Jihadist rebels/terrorists in Iraq.

Are you still following? Feel free to read that last part again- I had to read it at least five times myself. Ok, ready? Let’s continue.

Amidst all of this ridiculousness, Iran (one of the U.S.’s biggest political foes) has offered to help it’s former sworn enemy, Iraq, and its biggest political foe (the U.S.), to fight against the Jihadist rebels/terrorists of ISIS as well.

It’s interesting how quickly all of these countries were able to put their political differences aside as soon as there was a common enemy.

On top of this already massive mound of geopolitical shit, the Daily Beast just reported that ISIS has been funded for years by wealthy donors in Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia: three of the U.S.’s closest allies in the middle east.

Welcome to the geopolitical clusterf***. My brain hurts.

Iraq’s New Major Terrorist Group Just Stole Half A Billion Dollars

As the United States has ramped down their military presence in Iraq, the militant groups have been ramping up their attacks.

One of these groups, ISIS, which stand for The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams, is proving to be particularly dangerous. The group captured the city of Falluja, just 40 miles west of Iraq’s capital of Baghdad, back in January, and currently control much of northern Iraq.

Fighters from the militant group have also been aiding the rebels fighting against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Their eventual goal is to create an islamic state across the Syrian-Iraqi border.

ISIS's advance towards Baghdad. Click to enlarge (Courtesy of The New York Times)
ISIS’s advance towards Baghdad. Click to enlarge (Courtesy of The New York Times)

This past Monday (6/10/2014) ISIS forces struck the city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city with nearly 700,000 people. The ISIS attack was unexpected and swift: many of the U.S.-trained Iraqi police forces and troops fled their posts in the face of the advancing militants, some even abandoning their uniforms, according to the Washington Post.

The next day, Mosul’s regional governor announced that the militants had looted the city’s central bank, stealing 500 billion Iraqi dinars (equal to $429 million) in cash. The terrorist group also seized a large amount of gold bullion from the bank.

According to the International Business Times, this makes ISIS now the world’s richest terrorist group. Aside from the cash and gold, the militants also seized a considerable amount of U.S.-supplied military weapons and military equipment. They also freed 1,000 inmates from Mosul’s central prison.

ISIS began after a number of hyper-extreme Al-Qaeda members were kicked out for being too violent. The group is led by the fiery Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, a former top man in the Al-Qaeda hierarchy.

The only two known photos of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The one on the left is from his detention five years ago. The one on the right is more recent (Courtesy of DailyMail)

Interestingly enough, Abu Bakr was in American custody just five years ago, at Camp Bucca military detention center in Iraq. Camp Bucca was closed in 2009, however, and sometime after that, Abu Bakr was released.

The details are unclear, but one theory posited by The Telegraph is that he was released and amnestied along with thousands of other prisoners as the U.S. prepared to pull out of Iraq.

Whatever the case may be, ISIS, with Abu Bakr at its head, is becoming increasingly powerful, with a significant presence in both Syria and Iraq now.

A picture posted to Twitter showing ISIS forces in Syria with captured American humvees

However, it seems that many of the Iraqis fleeing Mosul actually prefer the militants over their own government, which they see as corrupt and non-existent when it comes to the problems of the actual Iraqi citizen.

ISIS is taking advantage of this, promoting themselves as the alternative to Iraq’s corrupt government. Despite their reputation for violence against American troops and Iraqi government forces, the group has been fairly gentle with Mosul’s civilians. One woman, asked if ISIS had been harming residents, said,

“No, no, no. On the contrary, they are welcoming the people.”

A police officer from Mosul who abandoned his post after seeing the Iraqi troops flee voiced the worries of many Sunni’s in Mosul: that Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki is targeting the Sunnis (Sunnis and Shiites are the two major islamic denominations):

“Maliki wants to end the Sunnis. Can you tell me how many Shiites are arrested on terror charges? Almost all those in prison are Sunnis. He is targeting us. I want to go back to Mosul, but we are afraid we’ll see another Falluja.”

Two boys stand beside a burnt-out car in Mosul while the fighting rages not far off (Image: Reuters)

With no reason to trust the Iraqi government, which has proved it can’t even protect citizens in its second largest city, Iraqi citizens have to be realistic about their options- often times tolerating the militants offers the best chance of survival

But don’t be fooled though. ISIS’s Mr. Nice Guy routine probably won’t last for very long.

They recently distributed a leaflet in Mosul, which detailed a number of new rules to be implemented in the coming days, including forbidding alcohol and cigarettes and requiring women to, “stay home and not go out unless necessary.” It also stated that anybody working with the government would be killed unless they sought “repentance.”

And yesterday, the terrorist group tweeted this picture of a decapitated Iraqi police officer, with the caption: “This is our ball. It’s made of skin #WorldCup”

Courtesy of the Daily Mail

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The Unbelievable Story of the Japanese Man Who Survived BOTH Atomic Bombs

Tsutomu Yamaguchi may very well have been both the luckiest and most unlucky man ever.

On August 6, 1945, he was riding a small trolley across the city of Hiroshima. Yamaguchi recalls hearing the roar of an aircraft engine in the skies above during the ride, but thought nothing of it, since warplanes were constantly flying overhead during that time.

What Yamaguchi didn’t know was that this was no Japanese plane- it was the U.S. Bomber the Enola Gay, preparing to drop a 13 kiloton uranium atom bomb on the city.

Yamaguchi stepped off the tram at approximately 8:15 a.m. He looked up and saw the Enola Gay passing overhead. Then he saw two small parachutes (these chutes were attached to the warhead, though he couldn’t see the bomb itself).

The Enola Gay and some of its crew (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Seconds later, the scene turned to chaos. Here’s Yamaguchi describing the moment of impact:

“[There was] a great flash in the sky and I was blown over.”

Yamaguchi was less than three kilometers away from the bomb when it detonated. The shock waves from the explosion ruptured his eardrums and the bright flash of light left him temporarily blinded. The heat from the warhead also seriously burned on the left side of his upper body. The last thing he remembers before passing out is seeing the mushroom cloud rising skyward.

Hiroshima before and after the bomb. Each circle represents 1km from the center of the explosion
Hiroshima before and after the bomb. Click to enlarge

He eventually regained consciousness, and was able to crawl his way to an air raid shelter, where he spent the night. Upon arriving at the shelter, he found his three work colleagues who had also survived the blast. All four of them were engineers from Nagasaki who had just happened to be sent to Hiroshima for work that day.

The next morning, Yamaguchi and his three colleagues left the shelter, wanting desperately to return home to try to make sense of what had just happened. On their way to the train station they passed horrific scenes of destruction, including countless charred and dying bodies.

Burnt and blackened bodies in the streets of Hiroshima. The delivery truck in the top left of the picture had its front grill melted of by the intense heat. Click to enlarge

They finally reached the station, boarded the train, and made the 180 mile journey home to Nagasaki. Yamaguchi, who was in a pretty bad state upon returning home, had his wounds tended to and bandaged as soon as he arrived back in Nagasaki.

Despite the seriousness of his injuries, Yamaguchi decided he was well enough to return to work on August 9th, just three days after the Hiroshima explosion. Upon returning, Yamaguchi recounted the tale to his boss and co-workers, who were horrified yet amazed at the same time. When he described how the bomb had melted metal and totally evaporated parts of the city, Yamaguchi’s boss Sam simply couldn’t believe it. He asked Yamaguchi,

“You’re an engineer. Calculate it. How could one bomb…destroy a whole city?”

According to Yamaguchi, it was at the exact moment that Sam asked this question (11:02 a.m.) that another blinding flash of light penetrated the room they were in: the second bomb had just been detonated in Nagasaki.

The mushroom cloud above Hiroshima and a before and after picture of the city (the numbers represent number of meters away from the detonation point). Click to enlarge

Though many people are unaware of this, the second bomb’s original target was the city of Kokura, but since Kokura was obscured by clouds that morning, the U.S. military switched the target city to Nagasaki.

Miraculously, not only did Yamaguchi survive the second blast, but so did his wife and baby son. The family spent the next week or so in an air raid shelter not far from the ruins of their home.

Yamaguchi was one of about 160 people who survived both blasts, but is the only one who was officially recognized by the Japanese government as an eniijuu hibakusha (double bomb survivor) in 2009, a year before his death.

Tsutomu Yamaguchi shortly before his passing in 2010

After the war, Yamaguchi spent the rest of his life speaking out against nuclear proliferation. Speaking about his experiences a few year before passing away, Yamaguchi decribed his life as a, “path planted by God,” and said,

“It was my destiny that I experienced this twice and I am still alive to convey what happened.”

Yamaguchi finally succumbed to the radiation poisoning in his body in 2010, when he passed away from leukemia just two years after his wife died from liver and kidney cancer. He was 93 years old.

Read more from the Surviving History blog here.

Russia Annexes Crimea and Gets Kicked Out of G8; Ukraine Preparing for War

Here’s a quick timeline of the most recent events in the Russian-Ukrainian crisis.

On Sunday (March 16), residents of Crimea voted on a referendum of whether to leave Ukraine and join Russia- the measure passed by upwards of 90%. It is important to note, however, that all signs point to a pretty illegitimate vote.

For one, the ballot didn’t even include an option to stay with Ukraine- the two options were to leave Ukraine and join Russia, or leave Ukraine and become independent.

Secondly, it’s obvious that there was plenty of intimidation involved- Russian soldiers and armed “unmarked militia” (that pretty much everyone agrees are pro-Russian forces) patrol the streets of Crimea. This blog from Jon Lee Anderson at The New Yorker describes some of the intimidation tactics he saw employed by the “thugs” in the streets of Crimea.

Armed men, believed to be Russian servicemen, march outside an Ukrainian military base in the village of Perevalnoye

Lastly, some of the actual results are simply ridiculous. For example, 123% of the major Crimean city of Sevastapool cast votes on the referendum. Mykhaylo Malyshev, chair of the committee overseeing the vote, announced on the evening of the 16th that 1,250,426 people had voted, but said that figure did include Sevastopol’s electorate. Including that city, he said, 1,724,563 total people voted.

The difference between these numbers (474,137) should be the number of votes cast in Sevastapool, right? Well, last year’s census put the voting-age population of Sevastapool at 385,462…very suspicious to say the least.

The next day (March 17), Defense Minister Ihor Tenyukh responded to the results of the referendum by saying,

“Crimea was, is, and will be our territory.”

Ihor Tenyuhk (Photo: Ukrainian Ministry of Defense)
Ihor Tenyuhk (Photo: Ukrainian Ministry of Defense)

When asked if Ukrainian troops would fight to defend Crimea, he replied carefully, saying,

“The armed forces will execute their tasks… Ukrainian forces will stay [in Crimea] until all their tasks have been completed.”

While Tenyukh said that Ukraine would “do everything possible to prevent war”, he noted,

“the threat of war is real…We are strengthening our defense capacity. Ukraine is ready to defend its territory.”

Then earlier today (March 18), Russian president Vladimir Putin signed a treaty which effectively annexed Crimea, making it a part of Russia.

Putin speaking in front of Russian parliament earlier today (Photo: BBC)
Putin speaking in front of Russian parliament earlier today (Photo: BBC)

Putin said the moves corrected a “historical injustice”, as well as saying that Crimea has “always been a part of Russia”.

Naturally, the Ukrainian foreign ministry responded, saying,

 “We do not recognise and never will recognise the so-called independence or the so-called agreement on Crimea joining the Russian Federation.”

A few hours later, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced in an interview with Europe-1 radio that the other members of the G8 (a forum for the 8 leading industrialized countries) had decided to suspend Russia’s membership.

Fabius did, however, say,

“We are continuing dialogue with the Russians, despite the fact that we do not agree with them.”

BONUS: After the US announced (relatively inconsequential) sanctions against some Russian officials including the freezing of their American visas, Putin’s top aide said:

“The only things that interest me in the US are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg, and Jackson Pollock. I don’t need a visa to access their work. I lose nothing.”

Props for being a Tupac fan at least!

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Ukraine Latest: Crimea Votes to Join Russia, Russia Sinks Their Own Ship

Earlier today (3/6/2014), the parliament of Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula in the Black Sea at the center of the current situation with Russia, voted to secede from Ukraine to become part of Russia.

The issue will be put to a referendum in 10 days, when the citizens of Crimea will decide whether or not to approve their parliament’s decision.

Ukraine’s interim Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, immediately denounced the move as having no legal basis in Ukrainian law, saying,

“Crimea was, is and will be an integral part of Ukraine.”

Arseniy Yatsenyuk (Photo: Sergei Chuzavkov- AP)

While European Union leaders echoed this sentiment, calling the move unconstitutional, there doesn’t seem to be anything they can do about it without provoking violence, as Crimea is currently occupied by the Russian military.

On Wednesday, Russian sailors pulled an old anti-submarine vessel out of a junkyard and sank it in the strait that connects the Black Sea to the Donuzlav Lake, preventing Ukrainian ships docked nearby from being able to go to sea.

Russia’s scuttled vessel (Photo: AP)

While the European Union has presented plenty of tough rhetoric, they are hesitant to actually do anything.

Why? Well, because Russia is one of their biggest trading partners, and also provides a substantial portion of the EU’s gas and oil- putting economic sanctions on them would hurt the EU indirectly.

So despite that President Barack Obama called Russia’s intervention a “violation of international law,” and said that,

“the resolve of the United States and our allies and the international community will remain firm,”

it seems that he might actually be on his own with this one.

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Russia, Ukraine, the Prostitution of Media Coverage and the Dangers of Ultimatums

If you have been following the situation in Eastern Europe, you’re probably aware that some pretty crazy things have been happening the past few days. If you haven’t been following the situation here’s a quick rundown.

Shortly after the ouster of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin deployed a number of troops and tanks to the Crimean peninsula in southern Ukraine. Crimea is an important strategic position for Russia, which is why they have a naval base there.

Cities of the Crimean Peninsula

Whether or not the Crimeans want Russia’s involvement is up for debate. Some sources say they don’t, others say they do. It’s difficult to really get a sense of what is true and false in this conflict, since so much of the coverage is hinged on the attitudes of the citizens involved.

Both the pro-Russian and anti-Russian factions know this and will use their media outlets to paint a picture of the situation that is most favorable to them. Also, in tense situations like this, media outlets tend to be way more concerned with being the first to cover a story than they are with actually checking the factual accuracy behind it.

Remember, news channels are businesses too, so take everything you read about this situation with multiple grains of salt, and ask yourself who stands to gain from a particular story, both from an economic standpoint (ie. making money off breaking a big story), and a geopolitical standpoint (justifying certain military/political moves based on a story).

A comparison of Russia and Ukraine's militaries
A comparison of Russia and Ukraine’s militaries

This murkiness of truth was evidenced perfectly today. Early this morning, a report from Russia’s Interfax agency came out that Alexander Vitko, commander of Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet (which has a base in Crimea), gave the following ultimatum to Ukrainian forces in Crimea:

“If they do not surrender before 5am (3am UK time) tomorrow, a real assault will be started against units and divisions of the armed forces across Crimea.”

Naturally, the internet freaked out. Within hours, this story was plastered all over the front pages of major news outlets across the world. A few hours later, however, the very same Interfax agency quoted Russia’s Defense Minister as saying the report about the ultimatum was “total nonsense”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin observing war games (Photo: AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin observing war games (Photo: AP)

Then this evening, the EU followed with it’s own deadline, giving Russia 48 hours to withdraw their troops from Crimea. William Hague, Britain’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs was a part of that meeting. He said,

“In the absence of de-escalating steps by Russia, the EU shall decide about consequences for bilateral relations between the EU and Russia and will consider further targeted measures.”

It’s assumed that these “targeted measures” will mostly be harsh economic sanctions. Russia’s economy already took a huge hit today. The Moscow stock market fell almost 11%, costing Russian business more than $60 billion dollars (the Sochi Olympics, at $50 billion, were by far the most expensive Olympics ever).

The Russian currency, the ruble, also hit record lows today as its value dropped alongside the stock market.

Exchange rates for the ruble (Photo: Radio Free Europe)
Exchange rates for the ruble (Photo: Radio Free Europe)

The only thing that is certain in this situation is that nothing is certain. The more coverage there is on a situation this complicated, the easier it is for misinformation to become very real in its consequences; this is the biggest danger of sensationalized news coverage.

Also, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about politicians over the years it’s that their biggest fear is losing face. Too many times I’ve seen a President or Prime Minister make some arbitrary “red-line” or deadline to give off the impression that he or she is strong-willed or tough on [insert issue or country here].

While some may see this as a sign of strength, I see it as a sign of foolishness. These issues are usually extremely complex, and drawing a line basically says, “I don’t plan to take into consideration anything that happens after I make this speech.”

I think most of them don’t think that the line will ever be reached or crossed, but when it is, they find themselves trapped in a self-induced political corner. Either they don’t follow through and are lambasted as being weak (even if this choice makes much better sense), or they do follow through, usually taking a step that only escalates the situation further.

Russian troops entering Crimea (Photo: Reuters)
Russian troops entering Crimea (Photo: Reuters)

Real diplomacy is dying as geopolitics becomes more of a reality show than anything else. Politicians’ number one concern is their public image, and more often than not they make decisions that will maintain their image, even if they know the decision will have a negative effect in the grand scheme of things.

We can’t know exactly what’s going on in the streets of Russia, Ukraine and Crimea. But we can use what we know about politics and the media to put the situation in perspective.

Remember, there’s always more than one side to a story…and usually, there’s hundreds.

To read more, check out these stories: