SAN FRANCISCO (By Stephen Nellis, Reuters) – Microchip firm Qualcomm is joining Amazon to spread the use of Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant in wireless headphones, the companies said on Monday.
Under the deal, Qualcomm will release a set of chips that any maker of Bluetooth headphones can use to embed Alexa directly into the device. When the headphones are paired to a phone with the Alexa app on it, users will be able to talk to the voice assistant by tapping a button on the headphones.
The functionality would be similar to Apple AirPods wireless earbuds, which enable users can tap the devices to talk to Apple’s virtual assistant, Siri.
Amazon and Alphabet’s Google, whose voice assistants have most often been found in their respective smart speakers for the home, are rushing to partner with headphone makers.
Models from Bose Corp and Jabra feature Alexa built in, and Sony Corp said earlier this year that a software update will make some of its headphone models work with Alexa. Google Assistant can be used on headphones from Bose, JBL and Sony, along with Google’s own Pixel Buds.
The Qualcomm partnership could expand that lineup. Qualcomm has developed a pre-made circuit that headphone makers can drop into their device to imbue it with Alexa.
“This radically reduces their [engineering] cost and time to market,” Anthony Murray, senior vice president and general manager of voice and music for Qualcomm, told Reuters in an interview. “It makes it simple for the industry to adopt this.”
Murray declined to comment on whether Qualcomm would make a similar offering for Google Assistant but said the chip firm plans to support other partners in the future.
The move is part of a broader push by Qualcomm to diversify away from its dependence on processor and modem chips for mobile phones. That business proved lucrative for Qualcomm, but its patent licensing model drew regulatory fines and lawsuits from customers such as Apple.
At a conference in Hong Kong slated for early Tuesday local time, Qualcomm also said it is working with action camera maker GoPro to put more Qualcomm chips for image processing in the devices. The firm has said it expects about $5 billion in revenue from non-mobile sources this year, or more than 20 percent of the $22.4 billion in sales that analysts expect.
HTC today announced that its blockchain phone Exodus 1 is now available for purchase, but there’s a catch — customers can only pay for them with Bitcoin or Ethereum.
The phone will be sold through its website with the company expecting to start shipping sometime in December. The cost is pegged at 0.15 BTC ($959) or 4.78 ETH ($965).
Project Exodus is an attempt by HTC to build a smartphone optimized for the decentralized web. The company believes that by incorporating blockchain technology, it can make the phone’s data more secure as well as enable safer mobile transactions. It’s also hoping to ride a wave as a growing number of corporations embrace blockchain technologies.
“It’s been both 10 years since the launch of the first Android phone by HTC and nearly 10 years since the launch of Bitcoin and the Genesis Block,” said Phil Chen, Decentralized Chief Officer at HTC, in a statement. “For digital assets and decentralized apps to reach their potential, we believe mobile will need to be the main point of distribution.”
For additional security, the Exodus 1 has a locked area on the device that is walled off from the Android operating system. This secure pocket will contain the user’s crypto keys, which could include virtual currencies or tokens. There is also a new recovery procedure for this crypto data in case the phone is broken, stolen, or lost.
As part of this release, HTC is putting out a call to developers and cryptographers to suggest ways to improve the design and security. The company is also working on an API to allow developers to create their own crypto-related applications for the phone.
IT workers looking for a growing tech sector where their earnings will stretch further may want to consider the nation’s capital.
Washington, D.C., had the highest number of job openings for IT professionals over the past 12 months, according to a report released today by IT trade association CompTIA.
The report identified the top 20 “tech towns” based on six variables: the number of IT job openings in the last 12 months per 10,000 people employed in that city, the total number of IT job ads over the past 12 months, cost of living, cost of living adjusted for median earnings, and one-year and five-year projected growth rates for IT jobs. CompTIA used data from Burning Glass, as well as the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
More than 170,000 ads for Washington, D.C.-based IT jobs were posted in the last year — more than in top tech hubs like San Francisco, San Jose, or Seattle. Most of these jobs are, unsurprisingly, for government contractors.
Booz Allen Hamilton, General Dynamics, Accenture, and Deloitte are among the companies hiring for the most IT roles in D.C — though they may soon get some competition from Amazon.
D.C. is still one of the most expensive cities to live in in the country. But with IT professionals earning a median salary of $103,397, CompTIA estimates that their salary still goes further in D.C. than in it would in San Jose, San Francisco, or Austin.
The city that was rated the top tech town by CompTIA was Charlotte, North Carolina. A hub for financial institutions like Wells Fargo and Bank of America, Charlotte had 44,000 openings for IT jobs posted on Burning Glass within the past year.
Charlotte IT workers only make a median salary of $87,775. However, cost of living in the city is 1.3 percent below the national average.
Other places IT workers might want to consider are college towns. Boulder, Madison, and Durham-Chapel Hill all made CompTIA’s top 20 list, with solid rankings in cost of living factors. All three cities are home to growing startup communities, but their universities and government agencies remain some of the top employers of IT professionals.
Travel booking platform GoEuro today announced a $150 million raise as the company continues to push its service beyond Europe.
Based in Berlin, GoEuro allows users to book trips across transportation modes such as planes and trains and across borders. The company’s primary goal is to unify all types of travel booking on a single platform.
“The investment by these outstanding firms is a testament to our team’s hard work to build the leading booking platform for transport in Europe and a recognition of the tremendous growth opportunities we see ahead,” said GoEuro CEO and founder Naren Shaam, in a statement. “Over the past five years, we’ve brought most European transportation onto our platform, creating a simple, consistent, and familiar experience for our customers. We see extraordinary potential to transform travel booking by expanding our platform to the fragmented, mostly offline systems for managing transport globally.”
GoEuro launched five years ago and in Europe can now make bookings with 80 percent of transportation companies. The company has already expanded beyond Europe, offering bookings in 36 countries, and it will use the latest funding to add more countries, as well as for hiring and product development.
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Conversational AI startup Spot today announced that its anonymous sexual harassment reporting bot for the workplace can now be adopted by businesses. The Spot bot uses conversational AI and the cognitive interviewing method to collect information about incidents of workplace harassment.
The Spot beta launched in February. Individuals who experience harassment simply speak to the bot, which then generates a report that can be handed over to an employer. Companies that adopt the Spot bot can see all reported harassment incidents in an online dashboard.
Employees can sign into Spot using an employee ID number or email address. Though Spot submissions are anonymous, HR staff can follow up using a chat tool on Spot.
Spot requires companies, before implementing the product, to commit to following up on reports within 10 business days. If an employee hasn’t heard anything about their report after that amount of time, they can email Spot with their report ID and Spot will reach out to the company, All Turtles head of product Jessica Collier told VentureBeat in a phone interview.
Spot is part of All Turtles, an AI startup studio created in 2017 that works with companies with offices in San Francisco, Tokyo, and Paris.
All Turtles was cofounded by Evernote CEO Phil Libin. Spot was cofounded by clinical psychologist Dr. Julia Shaw and former Evernote employees Daniel Nicolae and Dylan Marriott.
A number of conversational AI services have been created to aid people impacted by harassment.
Nvidia and Scripps Research Translational Institute — a nonprofit research organization — are teaming up to develop genomics processing and analysis tools guided by artificial intelligence (AI). In the course of a partnership announced today, Nvidia data scientists will colocate alongside Scripps genomics experts and bioinformaticists with the goal of studying health care problems “end to end.”
“It’s an extraordinary time in health care and medicine, with the intersection of massive datasets and our expertise in wearable sensors and genomics,” Dr. Eric Topol, founder and director of Scripps Research Translational Institute and professor at Scripps Research, told VentureBeat in a phone interview. “That’s what the Institute was founded on 12 years ago.”
The firms’ joint research will focus on whole genomic sequences (the complete DNA sequence of an organism’s genome), continuous physiologic wearable devices and other sensors, and illness prevention — specifically digital sensing prediction of atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat that increases the risk of stroke. Future work will involve as-yet unselected diseases and datasets.
Scripps will supply the bulk of the research datasets, one of which contains over 1,000 continuous heart rhythm recordings (another comprises the whole genomic sequences of 1,400 people ages 80 and older who’ve never been sick). And researchers from both companies will employ a combination of bespoke neural networks and pretrained models in research data experiments. Assuming all goes well, they’ll package up their work and tools and make them broadly available through open source.
“The goal is to provide methods and infrastructures to the research community at large,” Kimberly Powell, vice president of healthcare at Nvidia, said. “We’re seeing pretty massive breakthroughs [in the field]. Dozens of algorithms are becoming FDA approved now, [and some of them] are transforming the radiology workflow … Radiology and imaging have ridden on the coattails of breakthroughs driven by imaging and video.”
Powell’s not wrong.
Companies like Deep Genomics use machine learning to identify patterns in large genetic datasets and draw connections to cellular processes. And in 2017, Google released an open-source tool called DeepVariant that uses machine learning to identify all mutations that a person inherits from their parents. (It took first prize in a 2016 FDA contest promoting improvements in genetic sequencing.) Meanwhile, direct-to-consumer genomics companies like 23andMe have begun using machine learning to map the impact of individuals’ genetic material on phenotypes such as weight.
Pharmacogenomics — which examines the role of genetics in the context of how a person responds to drugs — is another field that’s seen encouraging progress. Genoox, a startup that raised $6 million in 2018 in a round led by health care investor Triventures, taps AI algorithms to analyze large amounts of genetic data, runs the data points through a search engine, and generates personalized, actionable recommendations.
“AI has tremendous promise to transform the future of medicine,” Topol said. “With NVIDIA, we aim to establish a center of excellence for artificial intelligence in genomics and digital sensors, with the ultimate goal of developing best practices, tools and AI infrastructure for broader adoption and application by the biomedical research community.”
Today’s announcement comes after Nvidia unveiled a partnership with Canon Medical Systems to promote the use of AI techniques in medical and related research. Earlier this month, it embarked on a separate project with King’s College London to “accelerated discovery” of critical data strategies and speed deployment in clinics.
WANG JIANQIN, in a thick red jerkin worn over her working clothes, does not look like an agent of superpower reprisal. The 60-year-old farmer rears 4,000 pigs in a brick-walled compound in Shunyi district, some 45km from Beijing. About a fifth of the food that she uses to fatten them up is soyabean meal, something China has come to import in vast quantities from the American Midwest.
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Over the past 30 years, as the demand for pork in China has outstripped that in any other country, Ms Wang and her peers have done very nicely out of that American soya. And in America farmers have done well out of Ms Wang. Chinese money helped them pay for lots of cheap, Chinese-made goods at Walmart—as well as for the genetically modified seeds and other high-tech inputs stuffed with American know-how that make them so productive.
But this year their earnings will be a good bit down. In April President Donald Trump accused China of stealing intellectual property, coercing American firms into technology transfers and other unfair trade practices. Mr Trump spent a dizzying spring and summer announcing punitive tariffs, expanding their scope and amping up their severity. There are now tariffs of between 10% and 25% on $250bn of imports. Mr Trump has growled his willingness to go up to 25% on all of those goods and start in on the remaining $267bn if he does not get his way.
When China punched back, announcing tariffs on up to $60bn of American imports, it included a 25% tariff on soyabeans to hurt farm states that had voted for Mr Trump, such as Iowa. Despite China’s president, Xi Jinping, having fond memories of the time he spent in Muscatine, Iowa, in 1985, the fact that the state is both second among America’s soyabean producers and disproportionately influential in American politics makes it a prime target. Ms Wang was weaponised. As the price of soya has shot up, she says, some of her peers have switched to other feed, and she is thinking of following suit. The Chinese Feed Industry Association has proposed new standards for pigfeed that cut the soyabean content to just 11-13%—a change that could reduce annual consumption by 10m tonnes.
China wants to do a deal. But America may want more than it is willing to give, because its concerns are wider than trade. Mr Trump sees himself leading a fight against “globalism”, by which he means any order that binds American sovereignty, or fails to put American workers first. As he put it to the UN General Assembly in September, “We reject the ideology of globalism and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.” And his great patriotic fight is with China. “When I came,” he said in August, “we were heading in a certain direction that was going to allow China to be bigger than us in a very short period of time. That’s not going to happen any more.”
A broadly based interdependence ties Beijing’s pigs to Iowa’s fields, interweaves supply chains and distribution networks across the Pacific and has seen copious Chinese investment in America. That had, until recently, led observers in both China and America to think attitudes like Mr Trump’s could be nothing but bluster. Though relations might be testy from time to time, the economic logic which favoured getting along was simply too strong to ignore. But American unease about China’s growing technological heft, increasing authoritarianism and military strength is now overriding that logic.
America is undergoing a deep shift in its thinking about China on right and left alike. There is a new consensus that China has a deliberate strategy to push America back and impose its will abroad, and that there needs to be a strong American response. The coalition takes in conventional free-traders in the White House as well as the zero-summists in Team Trump and the national-security hawks in Congress. Pentagon chiefs and the bosses of spy agencies have framed China as the greatest threat to America’s security, requiring a “whole of government” response. In civil society, the coalition includes religious conservatives, human-rights advocates, labour unions and old-school protectionists.
On October 4th Vice-President Mike Pence hammered the new attitude home in a de facto declaration of cold war. As well as decrying China’s internal repression and its surveillance state, he inveighed against its attempts to hack and bamboozle America: it was employing “political, economic and military tools, as well as propaganda, to advance its influence and benefit its interests in the United States.” One example: a supplement in the Des Moines Register, Iowa’s newspaper of record, which China paid for in an attempt to turn Ms Wang’s American suppliers against the administration’s trade policies.
Given Russia’s blatant attempts to interfere in the election that brought Mr Trump to power, one could be forgiven for rolling one’s eyes at this stressing of the mote, as opposed to the beam. But Mr Pence levelled charge after charge, hinting, without supplying evidence, at darker interference. He deplored the China-friendly programmes supplied to dozens of American outlets by Chinese state radio. He accused China of exerting pressure on American universities by threatening to deny visas to researchers, and bribing and bullying Hollywood into portraying it in a positive light.
The vice-president accused the Communist Party of obtaining “American intellectual property—the foundation of our economic leadership—by any means necessary”. It would feed this into its “Made in China 2025” plans to dominate advanced industries such as robotics, biotechnology and artificial intelligence. He decried its intimidation of Taiwan, which China believes to be a rogue province, and its broad military ambitions. China, he said, “wants nothing less than to push the United States from the western Pacific and attempt to prevent us from coming to the aid of our allies.” This would not stand. The Trump administration, Mr Pence said, “has now pledged to fight back hard on all fronts—and win.”
This is not just a war of tariffs and words. In early October Xu Yanjun, a functionary of China’s foreign-intelligence agency, was lured to Belgium and then extradited to America on charges of stealing trade secrets from American aerospace companies. It is the first time a Chinese national has been extradited to America for such spying. A few days before that, in what a spokesman for America’s Pacific fleet called “a series of increasingly aggressive manoeuvres”, a Chinese destroyer came within 40 metres of an American guided-missile destroyer, the USS Decatur, which was on “freedom of navigation operations” within waters China stakes a claim to on the basis of a couple of disputed reefs nearby. Warships acting like dodgems feels like an escalation.
The ship that foundered
In an ocean of mistrust, it is worth recalling what still holds. The two countries’ bilateral trading relationship remains the world’s biggest, despite the trade war. The Chinese diaspora and 350,000 Chinese students in American colleges and universities mean there are a great many personal ties between them. China co-operated in harsh sanctions aimed at getting North Korea to restrain its nuclear programme. Some progress has been made in cracking down on the flow of Chinese opioids to America. And it is not as if the two countries are fighting proxy wars in third countries. This is not—yet—a cold war like the previous one.
But genuine, if sometimes wary, engagement has been replaced by frank talk of strategic competition and deepening mistrust underlined by big tariffs. As Kevin Rudd, a former prime minister of Australia now running the Asia Society Policy Institute, a think-tank, puts it, the ballast that once kept the relationship on an even keel has been jettisoned. What went wrong?
The original ballast, the steadying factor which allowed Richard Nixon’s opening to China in the 1970s, was a shared strategic mistrust of the Soviet Union. America’s underpinning of East Asia’s security gave China the confidence to begin its opening up to the world in the late 1970s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a shared dislike of it was no longer much of a basis for a relationship—especially as the overtly pro-American tone of students in Tiananmen Square in 1989 had made the party afraid that America was bent on toppling communism there, too. But gradually, over the 1990s, the two sides found a new way to steady their relationship: trade.
The era of closest alignment was the early 2000s, after America helped China become a member of the World Trade Organisation. China had been building up its armed forces since the Taiwan Strait crisis in 1996, when a show of naval force by President Bill Clinton brought Chinese missile tests designed to intimidate the Taiwanese to an abrupt halt. But China was not in a position to mount a serious regional challenge to America—where concern about its rapid rise was tempered by an assumption among political and business elites that the rapid expansion of its middle class would bring some measure of liberalisation. It was not just Westerners who imagined that an authoritarian China might liberalise internally and become a “responsible stakeholder”, in the phrase an American diplomat, Robert Zoellick, used in 2005. Many Chinese argued the case, too.
There were incidents that raised tensions, such as the forced landing of an American spy plane on Hainan after a collision with a Chinese fighter in 2001. But neither side saw an attractive alternative to getting along.
Then two things changed. The global financial crisis narrowed America’s economic lead. After the collapse of its export markets threw some 20m Chinese out of work in just a few months, the government responded with a massive stimulus, rolling out high-speed rail, motorways, sewage-treatment plants, housing projects and more. Chinese GDP bounced back; America’s growth remained well below par for years, seemingly justifying a certain technocratic cockiness, as well as a degree of Schadenfreude. In 2006, measured in current dollars, America’s economy was five times bigger than China’s. In 2017 it was just 60% bigger (see chart).
The second change was Mr Xi. His ascension in 2012 began what Chinese officials now call “the new era”. He celebrated and sought to entrench the state’s leading role in the post-crisis economy. He stifled dissent and tightened the authoritarian screws. His new-era China loaned vast sums to governments with dodgy records on everything from human rights to corruption and the environment. Its Belt and Road Initiative and the lending institutions that support those infrastructural ambitions, along with its talk of “reform of the global governance system”, make it plain to Mr Rudd that China is not embracing the American-led global order. It is seeking to change it—at precisely the time that America, under the anti-globalist Mr Trump, is giving up on its support.
American concern over those changes has been exacerbated by a generational shift in its bureaucracy. Douglas Paal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think-tank, points out that the public servants who knew China as a poor country and saw the fruits of it opening in the 1990s are retiring. Whether they be the kindly folk who administer development aid or hard-boiled China-hands at the Pentagon or CIA, the younger officials now running China policy have known only a wealthy, powerful nation breaking promises of reform. In 2014 many also saw their own sensitive data, sometimes including information about love lives, drinking habits and finances gathered for security clearances, stolen by Chinese cyber-thieves from the Office of Personnel Management. “That makes the risks personal,” says Mr Paal.
Such malfeasance continues. On October 9th CrowdStrike, an American computer-security company, published a report into intrusion attempts it had monitored, identifying China as the most prolific source of nation-state attacks on American computer networks in the first half of 2018. The firm cited evidence of China-based hackers attacking firms in biotech, aerospace, mining, pharmaceuticals, professional services and transport. Foreign diplomats and Western businessmen say that Chinese intruders frequently target sensitive commercial data held within servers in China and even Western home countries. The agreement between Mr Xi and Barack Obama in 2015 that China would refrain from state-sponsored intrusions to steal commercial intellectual property is clearly in poor shape. Controls on Chinese investment in American tech businesses are tightening up.
The Chinese government’s response is to declare its support for cyber-security and the protection of intellectual property, though American firms which have had their technology snaffled say that Chinese courts make no pretence of upholding the same law for all. On October 15th the state news agency, Xinhua, published a commentary calling America “a cyber-predator that has a notorious record of violating other countries’ interests and rights.” The country’s ulterior motive was “fearmongering” against China, it said, citing the “eye-popping” revelations made by Edward Snowden, a former American cyber-spy turned leaker who revealed how America’s National Security Agency used hacking techniques and hidden vulnerabilities in high-tech kit to eavesdrop on America’s foes—including China—as well as its friends. Xinhua also accused America of “slandering” Chinese high-tech enterprises such as Huawei, a telecoms giant, in order to “stir up Sinophobia in other countries so as to browbeat or hoodwink them into blocking Chinese competitors and saving the market for US companies.”
China is also becoming a new source of competition on the high seas, its warships increasingly active from Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, where China has established its first overseas base, to the East China Sea, where America is treaty-bound to protect disputed islands controlled by Japan. Last April China’s largest-ever naval exercise saw scores of ships in the Taiwan Strait. China has also been picking away at the dwindling number of states that maintain official relations with Taiwan.
Raising the stakes
China’s military spending has not changed much as a share of GDP; but when your GDP is as large as China’s, and growing as fast, you can afford to buy a lot of arms. The International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank, notes that since 2014 China has launched naval vessels “with a total tonnage greater than the tonnages of the entire French, German, Indian, Italian, South Korean, Spanish or Taiwanese navies”. What is more, the increasing number of its ships may well understate the rate at which China is improving its ability to sink enemy vessels. China’s anti-ship missiles, launched at sea, in the air or from the ground, are more plentiful and more advanced than America’s, and some boast longer ranges, too; the same goes for some of its other munitions. That, according to Eric Sayers, who until recently was a consultant at America’s Indo-Pacific Command, is what America’s planners need to worry about.
A growing array of satellites and sensors, including some on disputed islets, can funnel panoptic targeting data to this wide array of missiles, making it dangerous for hulking American aircraft-carriers to station themselves near flashpoints. “In any air war we do great in the first couple of days,” says Christopher Johnson, formerly the CIA’s senior China analyst. “Then we have to move everything back to Japan, and we can’t generate sufficient sorties from that point for deep strike on the mainland.” If America cannot destroy missile sites on the mainland it risks incurring severe losses in any fights near Chinese shores.
America does have one thing that its rival does not: friends. Many of these, including India, Japan and Taiwan, are glad to see it dispensing with old niceties and calling China a strategic competitor. America, India and Japan hold annual exercises that grow more ambitious by the year, flying aircraft off one another’s decks and sharing tips on how to hunt unfriendly submarines. An intelligence-sharing agreement between America and India, which Indian leaders had kept on ice for years, was signed in September, paving the way for more advanced weaponry to flow to India’s armed forces. America and Australia have both sounded out Papua New Guinea on the prospect of new bases in the southern Pacific. The “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance, in which America, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand freely share the fruits of their eavesdropping, has been energised by joint efforts to track China’s interference in foreign countries.
In fractious times, it is good to talk. Yet lines of communication between America and China are shutting down just as they are most needed. A high-level diplomatic and security dialogue between the defence ministers of America and China, hailed as a “pillar” of the relationship when it was launched last year, was abruptly junked by China last month, after its armed forces fell foul of American sanctions on buying Russian arms. China has also curtailed or cancelled several other military contacts between the countries—not that these have ever been extensive or especially fruitful. A lower profile Military Maritime Consultative Arrangement, in which each side swaps complaints about encounters like that in August, continues to function. Were that to now be abandoned, alarm bells should really start ringing.
Tensions between the two powers have risen before—but only when there has been a crisis, as in the Taiwan Strait in 1996 or on Hainan in 2001. What is alarming is the degree to which they have heightened without any such flashpoint. Now that the relationship’s ballast has been largely jettisoned, future squalls will be even scarier.
Chinese caution might offer some hope. Officials in China are remarkably casual, even dismissive, about the idea that the country’s behaviour played any role in stoking today’s tensions (see Chaguan). But they still hope to de-escalate the trade war. This is why, though Chinese media routinely call America a bully, and treat its complaints against China as false pretexts for strategic containment, the taps of nationalist outrage have not yet been cranked fully open, and communist propaganda chiefs have not launched a personal campaign against Mr Trump. If the Chinese public has been taught to see the American president as their foe, it is harder to cut a bargain with him.
Economic officials in China insist their country remains committed to open markets. Li Wei, head of the Development Research Centre at the State Council, China’s cabinet, sets out clearly that this is for reasons of self-interest—a shrewder tactic than merely mouthing pieties about Chinese benevolence. China must continue to open and reform its economy, he says, because of its own development needs. Recalling the phrase of China’s paramount leader in the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping, that opening a window to the world would bring in both fresh air and a few flies, Mr Li says that “people generally find that there’s quite a lot of fresh air that came in with reform and opening up, not a lot of flies.” He insists that if China punches back on trade, it should be seen as aggression in defence of globalisation, not a rethinking of China’s commitment to open to the world.
But an ambition for further development is hardly going to placate America. Take the Made in China 2025 initiative unveiled in 2015 by the State Council and filled with references to “indigenous innovation” and self-sufficiency in high technology, a cause that Mr Xi has made his own. Though Chinese diplomats now downplay the plan’s importance—lamenting that, intended for domestic consumption, it has become a focus for international concern—it was enshrined in the central government’s latest Five Year Plan, approved last year. A study undertaken by the European Chamber of Commerce in China in 2017 that tallied up central and local government announcements found hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies, research funds and other forms of support. In sectors from electric vehicles to industrial robotics, foreign firms face pressure to hand over core technologies to Chinese joint-venture partners, merely to keep market access. Mr Pence fumes that “Beijing now requires many American businesses to hand over their trade secrets as the cost of doing business in China.”
The charge that America would not tolerate China growing larger under any circumstances used to be something of a fringe view in Beijing. Now there is a debate at the top of the government as to whether it is in fact true, and that America has become a foe so implacable that there is no point making concessions to it. That atmosphere makes it harder to avoid a deeper trade confrontation. Even if Mr Trump surprises the world once again and settles for a deal over trade that he can tout as a win, the mood of competition over regional security could bring tests of strength on the seas and in the sky, as well as miscalculations and possible clashes.
Well-connected scholars and retired officials have shared their concerns with Western contacts about a febrile mood within China’s national-security establishment. They detect genuine excitement over the prospect of a great-power contest in which China is one of the protagonists. This coincides worryingly with the squeezing of public space for discussion. Scholars are not now supposed to debate foreign policy in the open, and strident nationalists dominate what debate there is. Even the idea of an expensive arms race with America strikes some Chinese experts as a fine plan, given their confidence in the long-run potential of their economy. In this dangerous moment, blending grievance and cockiness, it seems astonishing to remember that less than a generation ago Chinese leaders assured the world that they sought only a “peaceful rise”.
THE MINISTER’S exit proved well-timed. It fell during the festive week of Navaratri, when Hindus celebrate the mythical victory of the ten-armed goddess Durga over the wicked, buffalo-headed, cobra-encoiled demon Mahishasura. The resignation on October 17th of M.J. Akbar, a junior minister, marked the first big triumph for India’s #MeToo movement, and perhaps a turning point for women’s rights.
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Mr Akbar, a suave and erudite former newspaper editor, responded with fury to allegations that he repeatedly made unsolicited advances on female subordinates. Asserting that no one had accused him of any form of assault, he dismissed the stories as “fabricated, spiced up by innuendo and malice”. Mr Akbar’s lawyers lodged a private criminal defamation case against Priya Ramani, his initial accuser. The minister also suggested that the accusations were politically motivated.
Within hours, however, some 19 other former female colleagues volunteered to testify against Mr Akbar. Among other things, they alleged that during his newsroom days he had habitually ogled female underlings, touched them inappropriately and scheduled meetings in hotel rooms when he was not fully clothed. Mr Akbar abruptly decided to step down to defend his reputation “in a personal capacity”.
Mr Akbar is the biggest fish, but not the only large one, to be ensnared by such accusations. Since September a score of prominent figures in media, the arts, academia and business have been parrying claims that range from date rape to stalking, groping or merely insistently texting female colleagues. Some have lost their jobs; others have been suspended. Many, pilloried on social media, have gone silent.
Some have fought back, even while expressing sympathy for the #MeToo movement. Varun Grover, a popular comedian, issued a detailed rebuttal of anonymous charges that he had molested a fellow student in his college years. He invited his accuser to present her own detailed case, even if she wished to remain anonymous, because it was important for the movement that the testimony of women should be substantiated. “Revolutions can be messy but they can’t be perceived as unjust,” he says.
The sudden exposure of sexual wrongdoing in high places has prompted fierce debate. Accusers who have gone public risk a barrage of insults on social media, including charges of publicity-seeking or of having invited abuse by their own moral laxity. Mimi Mondal, a Dalit (formerly known as Untouchable) writer, notes that since curbing sexual abuse requires women’s testimony to be taken seriously, Dalit women stand at a double disadvantage.
It is true that, so far, the exposure of male misbehaviour has been limited to the uppermost crust of Indian society when, in blunt fact, lower class women suffer immensely more. Some 52% of Indian women, according to government health surveys, believe it is permissible for husbands to beat their wives. A recent online survey found that 78% of people who claimed they or a relative had suffered sexual abuse at work had not reported it.
The elite nature of India’s #MeToo movement has also invited criticism from the political right. “This entire debate of sexual exploitation…is peculiar to certain industries, involving glamour and money,” sneers the Organiser, a journal considered the mouthpiece of India’s biggest Hindu-nationalist group. “Why is it so that the professions like modelling and acting are infested with such incidences?” Its answer is that “so-called liberal elites” have strayed from the proper path of virtue.
But who is to lead people on that path? Long before the current wave of exposures of sexual predators among the wealthy and privileged, “godmen” of varied faiths provided the most glaring examples of male misbehaviour. In the past decade alone at least a dozen prominent gurus, priests and “babas” have been tried and jailed for rape. In a recent case in the state of Haryana one Baba Amarpuri stands accused of drugging, raping, filming and blackmailing some 60 women. No wonder the avenging goddess Durga is so well loved.
THE PHRASE “happy as Larry” was coined to describe an Australian boxer who won a bumper prize in the 1890s. But it might have been designed for Larry Culp, the new chief executive of General Electric, who has been awarded a contract that could pay out $237m.
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Mr Culp is a member of a lucrative club. In 2017 a chief executive at one of America’s 350 largest firms earned on average $18.9m, according to a study by the Economic Policy Institute, a left-of-centre think-tank in Washington, DC. That is 312 times as much as the average worker, a ratio that is close to its peak in 2000, of 344. The thread connecting those two dates is the soaring value of share options. The stockmarket was at the end of a long boom in 2000 and surged again last year, prompting many bosses to cash in their shares.
Back in 1980, before the enthusiasm for awarding share options to executives took off, the ratio between chief-executive and worker pay was 32. And it turned out that, just as bosses started to be paid more in the form of equity, the stockmarket took off. At the start of 1985 American shares traded on a cyclically adjusted price-earnings ratio (a figure which averages profits over ten years) of ten; now the ratio is over 31, according to Robert Shiller of Yale University.
In Japan bosses have rarely been given share options, perhaps because the country’s stockmarket has never recovered from the bursting of the 1980s bubble. Owing also to an egalitarian mindset, Japanese executive pay is a little more than a tenth of that in America, and about a quarter of the British level.
If the argument goes that executives have to be paid stratospheric salaries to run multinational businesses, this contrast seems odd. Japan has plenty of globally competitive companies in fields such as cars and robotics.
In other words, it is not obvious that CEOs in America and Britain are raking it in because they are uniquely skilled. Moreover, their stock-option paydays have been driven in part by declines in interest rates, designed to boost the whole economy. Bosses have won the monetary lottery.
In a new book*, Deborah Hargreaves, a former journalist (and ex-colleague of Bartleby), describes the experience in Britain. Pay has outstripped improvements in corporate performance. Between 2000 and 2013, the pay of chief executives at FTSE 350 companies in Britain rose by 350%, while pre-tax profits rose by 195% and revenues by 140%.
The standard explanation is that such divergence is the result of a global “war for talent” in which firms must pay up for stars, just as football clubs compete to hire Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. But many promote from the inside. Ms Hargreaves cites a 2013 study of Fortune 500 companies, which showed that less than 1% had poached a boss from abroad.
Some reforms have been put in place, particularly the introduction of long-term performance-based incentive plans, designed to discourage chief executives from focusing only on the short term. But these plans have generally been awarded on top of existing pay packages and have done nothing to reduce the huge gap between executive and worker pay.
In Britain shareholders have a “say on pay” in annual meetings and have occasionally staged revolts, such as at WPP, an advertising agency. But last year shareholders at only 18 of the FTSE 100 companies mustered the 20% vote requiring the board to address their concerns under corporate-governance codes. When it comes to companies with billion-dollar valuations, shareholders may not care enough about the impact of high pay in the mere millions.
If investors don’t care all that much, why should others? One problem is that the award of equity to executives means that the income-rich and the capital-rich are more than ever the same people, widening inequality. According to “Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalisation”, a book by Branko Milanovic, the likelihood that a person in the top 1% of labour income is also in the top decile of capital income rose from just under 50% in 1980 to 63% in 2010.
Ms Hargreaves argues that a sense of the system being rigged in favour of wealthy elites has reduced public trust in business and fuelled the rise of populism. The Larrys may be happy. The public is anything but.
* Are Chief Executives Overpaid?, published by Polity Books
AT ELSA RíOS GONZÁLEZ’S hair salon in Atenco, east of Mexico City, the chatter turns to the most controversial issue in town, the construction of an international airport. Mexico’s biggest infrastructure project, known as NAICM, is being built just a few kilometres away. Opinion in Atenco is divided. Some of Ms Ríos’s clients fret about the noise and pollution the airport will bring. Others hope for riches. “No one is well informed enough” to judge its merits, says the hairdresser.
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Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who will become Mexico’s president on December 1st, disagrees. A longtime foe of the project, he has put its fate in the hands of voters through a referendum-like “consulta”, to be held on October 25th-28th, more than a month before he takes office. How this unorthodox plan turns out will reveal much about what promises to be an unorthodox presidency. A veteran populist, Mr López Obrador portrays himself as an instrument of the will of ordinary Mexicans. He will offer them an opportunity to vote him out of office midway through his six-year term. The airport consulta is a preview of the sort of direct democracy that he says will characterise his administration.
As mayor of Mexico City from 2000 to 2005, Mr López Obrador sent survey-takers door to door to find out what people thought of his initiatives. He was fishing for the answers he wanted, some said. His first presidential foray into popular democracy will be more contentious. Unlike recent votes on airports in Berlin and in Nantes in France, the consulta does not just test opinion of citizens in the vicinity. It will be organised by Mr López Obrador’s inner circle, not by the national electoral institute (INE). Activists from Mr López Obrador’s Morena party will set up and monitor 1,073 booths in about 500 municipalities, home to 80% of the population. Just 1m ballot papers will be printed for a nationwide electorate of 90m people. They will be counted by a little-known NGO. Without access to the INE’s electoral rolls, it is unclear how the poll workers will prevent people from voting more than once.
Participants will be asked to choose whether to press on with construction of the X-shaped airport, which is already 30% completed, or to scrap it. The alternative is to supplement the existing airport with a new one at the Santa Lucía military airbase north of Mexico City. Mr López Obrador says the result will be binding, whatever the turnout.
Few doubt that something must be done. The capital’s airport, the busiest in Latin America, handles 50% more people than it was designed to do. It has no space to expand. The number of passengers is growing by nearly 10% a year. The boggy land near Atenco is one of the few areas available for a replacement. Vicente Fox, Mexico’s president from 2000 to 2006, tried to buy land cheaply on the east side of the area from farmers, who protested with machetes. In 2014 the current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, said the airport would be built on the western side, on land owned by the federal government.
It would eventually serve 120m passengers a year, more than any other airport in the world today and treble the capacity of the capital’s existing airport. Its backers say it will attract firms that might otherwise make Panama or Brazil their Latin American hubs and bring jobs to the capital’s poor eastern districts. If Mr López Obrador cancels NAICM, which was designed by Norman Foster, a British architect, and is being built by a company controlled by Carlos Slim, Mexico’s richest man, he will unnerve investors whose confidence he has tried hard to secure.
But the project has been criticised from its inception. It will imperil 100,000 migratory birds that alight in the area and, critics contend, cause more flooding in flood-prone eastern Mexico City. Two-thirds of Mexicans have never been on a plane. That makes the airport look to some like a bauble for the rich. The 285bn-peso ($15bn) price tag is 70% higher than the government originally budgeted.
These shortcomings are the result of Mexico’s slapdash process for planning and approving big projects. Developers rarely consult residents who will be affected by them or publish information on subcontractors. Although contracts to build NAICM were awarded in a transparent way, the companies that secured them are not required to report regularly on their progress. That feeds a suspicion that cost overruns are the result of corruption. The government published only an executive summary of its report on the airport’s environmental impact.
Such problems are compounded by politics. Mexican presidents, who serve just one term, rush to build pet projects, or at least to make enough progress that their successors are obliged to complete them. Construction often starts before blueprints are final. NAICM’s perimeter wall started going up before builders knew where the airport’s entrance was; they had to make expensive changes. Agencies responsible for projects often do not talk to each other. Mexico’s shoddy procedures bedevil infrastructure projects of all descriptions, including line 12 of Mexico City’s metro and a planned drainage tunnel for the capital. “The problem is not the cake, it’s the oven,” says Mariana Campos of México Evalúa, a think-tank.
In the case of NAICM, Mr López Obrador says he prefers a different cake. Repurposing the Santa Lucía airbase is the sort of low-budget, low-impact alternative that appeals to the ostentatiously austere president-elect. But the new cake has problems. Santa Lucía is farther from the city centre than NAICM. Some passengers would have to transfer to a different airport to catch connecting flights. Planes landing at and leaving the two airports, all of which must pass through the same corridor in the city’s north-west, risk colliding. That is “a safety issue that the Mexican authorities would surely never allow”, says Bernardo Lisker of MITRE, an institute that studies air traffic.
That decision now will supposedly be made by the people. Polls suggest that Mexicans favour completing the new airport by two to one, but the consulta may not reflect that. As few as 100,000 people will participate, some analysts believe. Ms Ríos, who wants construction to continue, plans to stay home. A determined get-out-the-vote effort in one corner of the country could swing the result. Some observers suspect that Mr López Obrador is engineering a vote in favour of NAICM, giving him an excuse to complete a project that he claims to oppose but would be difficult to abandon.
The controversy over NAICM is a sign that Mexico’s democracy is maturing, argues Onesimo Flores, an urban-planning expert. The elite can no longer feel comfortable “ramming projects through”, he says. But Mr López Obrador’s alternative looks ill-considered. He has shown scant interest in improving slipshod planning procedures. His own favourite projects, such as a “Maya train” through Mexico’s south, have already been endorsed by voters through his election, he claims. If Mr López Obrador has changed his mind about Mexico City’s new airport, this month’s vote may give him political cover. It is not a blueprint for the projects of the future.