Category Archives: Reportages

Document Number Nine

The People’s Republic of China had its seventieth birthday on 1 October. ‘Sheng ri kuai le’ to the world’s biggest and most populous example of … of … well, actually, that sentence is hard to finish. There’s no off-the-shelf description for China’s political and economic system. ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ is the Chinese Communist Party’s preferred term, but the s-word makes an odd fit with a country that is the world’s most important market for luxury goods, has the second largest number of billionaires, stages the world’s biggest one-day shopping event, ‘Singles’ Day’, and is home to the world’s biggest, fastest-expanding, spendiest, most materially aspirational middle class. Look at the UN’s Human Development Index: after seventy years of communist rule, China’s inequality figures are dramatically worse than those of the UK and even the US. Can we call that ‘socialism’?

It’s equally hard to claim China as a triumph of capitalism, given the completeness of state control over most areas of life and the extent of its open interventions in the national economy – capital controls, for instance, are a huge no-no in free-market economics, but are central to the way the CCP runs the biggest economy in the world. This system-with-no-name has been extraordinarily successful, with more than 800 million people raised out of absolute poverty since the 1980s. Growth hasn’t slowed down since the global financial crisis – or, as those cheeky scamps at the CCP tend to call it, the Western financial crisis. While the developed world has been struggling with low to no growth, China has grown by more than six per cent a year and a further eighty million mainly rural citizens have been raised out of absolute poverty since 2012. There is a strong claim that this scale of growth, sustained for such an unprecedented number of people over such a number of years, is the greatest economic achievement in human history.

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Posted by on December 9, 2019 in Asia, Reportages



The real David Attenborough

In the late 1980s, a meeting was convened
at the BBC studios on Whiteladies Road in Bristol. Its participants –
mainly amiable former public schoolboys named Mike – discussed the
imminent retirement of a grey-haired freelancer, who had been working
with the BBC for almost four decades. “We need to think about who is
going to take over from David when this series is finished,” a junior
producer, Mike Gunton, remembered his boss saying. David Attenborough
was nearing 65 and putting the finishing touches to The Trials of Life,
the third of his epic series about the natural world. These programmes
had been broadcast around the globe. They had established a new genre,
perhaps even a new language, of wildlife films. It was a fine legacy.
Now it was time to go.

When Alastair Fothergill became head of the BBC Natural History Unit a
few years later, executives were still worrying over the same question.
director-general asked him to find a new David Attenborough. “I
remember thinking, that’s not very sensible,” said Fothergill. “He has
always been this great oak tree under which it’s been hard for a sapling
to grow.” Today, Mike Gunton has ascended the ranks to become creative
director of the Natural History Unit. He still attends meetings on
Whiteladies Road. But, three decades after the subject was first
broached, finding the next David Attenborough is no longer on the
agenda. “We still haven’t got an answer and I don’t want one,” Gunton
told me.

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Posted by on December 1, 2019 in Reportages



The Money Farmers: How Oligarchs and Populists Milk the E.U. for Millions

Under Communism, farmers labored in the fields that stretch for miles around this town west of Budapest, reaping wheat and corn for a government that had stolen their land.

Today, their children toil for new overlords, a group of oligarchs and political patrons who have annexed the land through opaque deals with the Hungarian government. They have created a modern twist on a feudal system, giving jobs and aid to the compliant, and punishing the mutinous.

These land barons, as it turns out, are financed and emboldened by the European Union.

Every year, the 28-country bloc pays out $65 billion in farm subsidies intended to support farmers around the Continent and keep rural communities alive. But across Hungary and much of Central and Eastern Europe, the bulk goes to a connected and powerful few. The prime minister of the Czech Republic collected tens of millions of dollars in subsidies just last year. Subsidies have underwritten Mafia-style land grabs in Slovakia and Bulgaria.

Europe’s farm program, a system that was instrumental in forming the European Union, is now being exploited by the same antidemocratic forces that threaten the bloc from within. This is because governments in Central and Eastern Europe, several led by populists, have wide latitude in how the subsidies, funded by taxpayers across Europe, are distributed — even as the entire system is shrouded in secrecy.

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Posted by on November 25, 2019 in Reportages


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Money Is the Oxygen on Which the Fire of Global Warming Burns

I’m skilled at eluding the fetal crouch of despair—because I’ve been working on climate change for thirty years, I’ve learned to parcel out my angst, to keep my distress under control. But, in the past few months, I’ve more often found myself awake at night with true fear-for-your-kids anguish. This spring, we set another high mark for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere: four hundred and fifteen parts per million, higher than it has been in many millions of years. The summer began with the hottest June ever recorded, and then July became the hottest month ever recorded. The United Kingdom, France, and Germany, which have some of the world’s oldest weather records, all hit new high temperatures, and then the heat moved north, until most of Greenland was melting and immense Siberian wildfires were sending great clouds of carbon skyward. At the beginning of September, Hurricane Dorian stalled above the Bahamas, where it unleashed what one meteorologist called “the longest siege of violent, destructive weather ever observed” on our planet. The scientific warnings of three decades ago are the deadly heat advisories and flash-flood alerts of the present, and, as for the future, we have hard deadlines. Last fall, the world’s climate scientists said that, if we are to meet the goals we set in the 2015 Paris climate accord—which would still raise the mercury fifty per cent higher than it has already climbed—we’ll essentially need to cut our use of fossil fuels in half by 2030 and eliminate them altogether by mid-century. In a world of Trumps and Putins and Bolsonaros and the fossil-fuel companies that back them, that seems nearly impossible. It’s not technologically impossible: in the past decade, the world’s engineers have dropped the price of solar and wind power by ninety and seventy per cent, respectively. But we’re moving far too slowly to exploit the opening for rapid change that this feat of engineering offers. Hence the 2 A.M. dread.


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Posted by on November 22, 2019 in Reportages



Online games worden steeds verslavender. De afkickcentra lopen vol

Nederlandse verslavingsklinieken worden overspoeld door opmerkelijk jonge klanten. Hun leven is tot stilstand gekomen door online spellen die bewust steeds verslavender worden gemaakt. Ontwikkelaars worstelen zelf ook met die trend: ‘Volgend jaar doen we waarschijnlijk dingen die ik nu dubieus vind.’

‘Play. Loading 100%.’ En je bent opeens een vrouw met een pikhouweel, midden op een grasveld. Om je heen rennen allerlei andere spelers, sommigen doen dansjes. Jij draagt een standaardoutfit – groen shirt, beige broek – terwijl anderen in extravagante pakjes rondlopen: een hip meisje helemaal in het rood, Catwoman uit Batman, en zelfs iemand in een bananenpak met een enorme ijslolly in zijn handen.

Dan vertrekt de Battlebus, een ouderwetse blauwe schoolbus die aan een luchtballon hangt. Langzaam zie je een eiland onder je door schuiven, tot je besluit uit de bus te springen. Je suist naar beneden en net als je denkt dat je op de grond knalt, klapt je glider uit en leg je het laatste stukje langzaam zwevend af. Niemand in de buurt? Mooi. Snel op zoek naar wapens.

Verderop staat een verlaten restaurant, daar moet iets te vinden zijn. Voorzichtig loop je naar binnen, want gebouwen trekken ook andere spelers aan en tegelijk met jou sprongen nog 99 anderen uit de bus. Maar gelukkig ben je de eerste die de schatkist achter de bar plundert: een sniper rifle en medicijnen! Nu een goede plek zoeken waar jij de rest wel ziet en zij jou niet.

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Posted by on November 11, 2019 in Reportages



A Reporter From Hell

The title of the talk was “The War in Syria Is Not Over,” but it was more like Nir Rosen’s valedictory address. For roughly 20 minutes, the gonzo war-journalist-turned-mysterious-diplomatic-operator—who counts top advisers to both former U.S. President Barack Obama and Syrian dictator Bashar Assad among his acquaintances and admirers—laid out his narrative of Syria’s civil war, the most lethal and defining conflict of the 21st century. In the speaker’s view, no one but he had gotten it right.

The U.S., Europe, and others that continued to sanction and isolate the Assad regime would be culpable for the “new social collapse” likely to follow Assad’s reconquest of much of his devastated country, Rosen told his audience at a Valdai Discussion Club event in Moscow in late February of 2019. “The same countries who claimed to care about the Syrian people and speak on their behalf supported insurgents, tried to overthrow the government and now are trying to starve Syrians,” the published version of the speech reads. “That the Syrian government behaved abhorrently does not justify the international intervention that followed and in fact the intervention helped cause these crimes.” The West’s motives for these ongoing “crimes” in the Levant were so obscure that they could only be described in theoretical terms. “Capitalism doesn’t work the same way everywhere,” he explained. “[T]he value of the Middle East is the accumulation of capital through war.”

In the text, one can forget Rosen is discussing a government that had murdered tens of thousands of people in a network of secret torture camps, bombed bread lines and hospitals, and gassed entire towns. In fact the Syrian dictator and his backers deserved thanks for defending the global order against the jihadist hordes at a steep cost in manpower and prestige. “The world owes Russia and Iran a debt of gratitude for preventing the collapse of the Syrian state,” Rosen said, to an audience that included senior Iranian and Russian foreign policy officials, as well as Robert Malley, the National Security Council’s Middle East director for most of Barack Obama’s second presidential term.

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Posted by on November 6, 2019 in Reportages



Blood Gold in the Brazilian Rain Forest

One day in 2014, Belém, a member of Brazil’s Kayapo tribe, went deep into the forest to hunt macaws and parrots. He was helping to prepare for a coming-of-age ceremony, in which young men are given adult names and have their lips pierced. By custom, initiates wear headdresses adorned with tail feathers. Belém, whose Kayapo name is Takaktyx, an honorific form of the word “strong,” was a designated bird hunter.

Far from his home village of Turedjam, Belém ran across a group of white outsiders. They were garimpeiros, gold prospectors, who were working inside the Kayapo reserve—a twenty-six-million-acre Amazonian wilderness, demarcated for indigenous people. Gold mining is illegal there, but the prospectors were accompanied by a Kayapo man, so Belém assumed that some arrangement had been made. About nine thousand Kayapo lived in the forest, split into several groups; each had its own chief, and the chiefs tended to do as they pleased.

Ever since the Kayapo had come into regular contact with the outside world, in the nineteen-fifties, whites had been trying to extract resources from their forests, beginning with animal skins and expanding to mahogany and gold. In the eighties, some chiefs made easy profits by granting logging and mining rights to outsiders, but after a decade the mahogany was depleted and the price of gold had dropped. After environmental advocates in the Brazilian government brought a lawsuit against miners, the Kayapo closed the reserve to extraction. Since then, though, international gold prices have tripled, to fourteen hundred dollars an ounce, and an influx of new miners have come to try their luck.

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Posted by on November 5, 2019 in Reportages, South America


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Can You Really Be Addicted to Video Games?

Charlie Bracke can’t remember a time when he wasn’t into video games. When he was 5, he loved playing Wolfenstein 3D, a crude, cartoonish computer game in which a player tries to escape a Nazi prison by navigating virtual labyrinths while mowing down enemies. In his teenage years, he became obsessed with more sophisticated shooters and a new generation of online games that allowed thousands of players to inhabit sprawling fantasy worlds. Ultima Online, World of Warcraft, The Elder Scrolls — he would spend as much as 12 hours a day in these imaginary realms, building cities and fortifications, fighting in epic battles and hunting for treasure.

During his childhood, Bracke’s passion for video games, like that of most young Americans, didn’t cause him any serious problems. At school, he got along with just about everyone and maintained straight A’s. His homework was easy enough that he could complete it on the bus or in class, which allowed him to maximize the time he spent gaming. After school, he would often play video games for hours with his cousin and a small group of close friends before going home for dinner. Then he would head to the den and play on the family computer for a few more hours before bed. When his parents complained, he told them it was no different from their habit of watching TV every night. Besides, he was doing his homework and getting good grades — what more did they want? They relented.

When Bracke went to Indiana University Bloomington, everything changed. If he skipped class or played games until 3 in the morning, no one seemed to care. And only he had access to his grades. After a difficult breakup with a longtime high school girlfriend and the death of his grandmother, Bracke sank into a period of severe depression. He started seeing a therapist and taking antidepressants, but by his junior year, he was playing video games all day and seldom leaving his room. He strategically ignored knocks at the door and text messages from friends to make it seem as though he were at class. Eventually, he was failing most of his courses, so he dropped out and moved back in with his parents in Ossian, Ind., a town of about 3,000 people, where he got a job at Pizza Hut.

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Posted by on November 5, 2019 in Reportages


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Krijg je echt geen koeienoren van een prik?

Rebecca Chandler praat op opgewonden toon terwijl ze door de gangen van het Renaissance Hotel in Washington D.C. loopt. Het is begin maart 2019, het belangrijkste vakcongres over vaccins is gaande. De Amerikaanse arts en vaccinveiligheidsexpert heeft zojuist een presentatie gehouden over haar werk in het Uppsala Monitoringscentrum voor Geneesmiddelenbewaking van de Wereldgezondheidsorganisatie (who) in Zweden, maar dat is niet wat haar opwinding veroorzaakt. ‘Er hangt iets in de lucht’, zegt ze terwijl ze op de roltrap richting lobby stapt. ‘Er lijkt een andere kijk op zeldzame vaccinbijwerkingen te ontstaan.’

Chandlers visie op vaccinveiligheid veranderde voorgoed in 2009. Ze werkte toen nog bij de Zweedse evenknie van ons landelijke bijwerkingencentrum Lareb en zag tijdens haar zwangerschapsverlof in het nieuws de gevallen van narcolepsie (slaapziekte) verschijnen, die in verband werden gebracht met het vaccin tegen de Mexicaanse griep. Als infectieziekten-arts was ze altijd uitgesproken voorstander geweest van vaccineren en destijds kon ze als jonge moeder niet wachten om haar eigen kinderen te laten vaccineren, vertelt ze. ‘Ik ben nog steeds ontzettend pro, maar we kunnen er als het over vaccinatie gaat niet meer simpelweg van blijven uitgaan dat alle mensen gelijk zijn.’

Verschillende onderzoeken hebben inmiddels aangetoond, vertelt Chandler, dat er naast een grote groep die normaal reageert ook twee heel kleine andere groepen zijn: ‘Een die te weinig reageert en dus onvoldoende afweer opbouwt – bij een hoge vaccinatiegraad geen ramp – en een andere die overreageert, wat leidt tot bijwerkingen, die in uitzonderlijke gevallen ernstig kunnen zijn.’

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Posted by on October 31, 2019 in Reportages



America Wasn’t a Democracy, Until Black Americans Made It One

My dad always flew an American flag in our front yard. The blue paint on our two-story house was perennially chipping; the fence, or the rail by the stairs, or the front door, existed in a perpetual state of disrepair, but that flag always flew pristine. Our corner lot, which had been redlined by the federal government, was along the river that divided the black side from the white side of our Iowa town. At the edge of our lawn, high on an aluminum pole, soared the flag, which my dad would replace as soon as it showed the slightest tatter.

My dad was born into a family of sharecroppers on a white plantation in Greenwood, Miss., where black people bent over cotton from can’t-see-in-the-morning to can’t-see-at-night, just as their enslaved ancestors had done not long before. The Mississippi of my dad’s youth was an apartheid state that subjugated its near-majority black population through breathtaking acts of violence. White residents in Mississippi lynched more black people than those in any other state in the country, and the white people in my dad’s home county lynched more black residents than those in any other county in Mississippi, often for such “crimes” as entering a room occupied by white women, bumping into a white girl or trying to start a sharecroppers union. My dad’s mother, like all the black people in Greenwood, could not vote, use the public library or find work other than toiling in the cotton fields or toiling in white people’s houses. So in the 1940s, she packed up her few belongings and her three small children and joined the flood of black Southerners fleeing North. She got off the Illinois Central Railroad in Waterloo, Iowa, only to have her hopes of the mythical Promised Land shattered when she learned that Jim Crow did not end at the Mason-Dixon line.

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Posted by on October 23, 2019 in North America, Reportages


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