How China Is Taking Over International Organizations, One Vote at a Time
By Yaroslav Trofimov, Drew Hinshaw and Kate O’KeeffeSept. 29, 2020 12:33 pm ET
When China curtailed political freedoms in Hong Kong this summer, two rival declarations circulated at the United Nations Human Rights Council. One, drafted by Cuba and commending Beijing’s move, won the backing of 53 nations. Another, issued by the U.K. and expressing concern, secured 27 supporters.
China’s show of strength was just the latest diplomatic triumph in Beijing’s drive to sway the system of international organizations in its direction. As the Trump administration stepped back from many parts of the multilateral order established after World War II, China has emerged a chief beneficiary, intensifying a methodical, decadelong campaign.
Beijing is pushing its civil servants, or those of clients and partners, to the helm of U.N. institutions that set global standards for air travel, telecommunications and agriculture. Gaining influence at the U.N. permits China to stifle international scrutiny of its behavior at home and abroad. In March, Beijing won a seat on a five-member panel that selects U.N. rapporteurs on human-rights abuses—officials who used to target Beijing for imprisoning more than a million Uighurs at so-called re-education camps in Xinjiang.
Washington has recently attempted to counter this effort at the U.N., cajoling and wooing countries around the world. Those efforts, hamstrung by damaged relationships with partners and allies, have had a limited impact so far.
China’s success raises a conundrum for the U.S. and its allies. After the Soviet Union fell, these nations expected the U.N. to become a mechanism to promote democracy and human rights. Now, in a dynamic increasingly reminiscent of the Cold War, Beijing’s clout at the U.N. instead helps the Chinese Communist Party legitimize its claim to be a superior alternative to Western democracies.
“It’s China’s sense that this is ‘our’ moment, and we need to take control of these bodies,” said Ashok Malik, senior policy adviser at India’s foreign ministry. “If you control important levers of these institutions, you influence norms, you influence ways of thinking, you influence international policy, you inject your way of thinking.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping, addressing the U.N. General Assembly this month, called for the organization to play a “central role in international affairs,” particularly amid the coronavirus pandemic. “The global governance system should adapt itself to evolving global political and economic dynamics,” he added, an allusion to China’s rising clout and its perceptions of a U.S. decline.
The Trump administration views the U.N. system as divided into parts that Washington should fight to fix and those that are beyond repair, U.S. officials said. In July, the administration began withdrawing from the World Health Organization, saying the U.N. agency’s deference to China at the outset of the pandemic allowed the virus to spread.
Many U.S. allies say that abandoning the field by leaving organizations like the WHO offers China a strategic gift. Their concerns have been heightened in recent months as Beijing chastised democratic countries for speaking out on Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and engaged in deadly border clashes with India.
“The U.S. is withdrawing from multilateralism to our great regret, and the Chinese are moving in,” said Hans Blix, a former Swedish diplomat who chaired the U.N.’s weapon-inspection program in Iraq.
Washington didn’t have a say in the selection of human-rights rapporteurs in March or in the dueling statements about Hong Kong: The Trump administration had quit the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2018, citing one-sided criticism of Israel. It also left the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization over similar concerns the following year.
Those decisions overlapped with tensions on trade, military spending and other longstanding issues that have pushed a wedge between the U.S. and its traditional allies in Europe and Asia.
To Beijing, such divisions and the U.S. pullback from the multilateral order presented an opportunity, said Lanxin Xiang, director of the Center of One Belt and One Road Studies in Shanghai: “If this is your voluntary withdrawal, not us driving you away, filling in the vacuum should not be considered a provocative action.”
Out of the U.N.’s 15 specialized agencies and groups, Chinese representatives lead four, beating Western-backed candidates last year for the top slot of the Food and Agriculture Organization. Only a concerted campaign in March by the U.S. and partners defeated a Chinese effort to take over the leadership of a fifth body, the World Intellectual Property Organization, known as WIPO. No other nation has its citizens running more than one U.N. agency.
China Expands a Global Influence
Beijing has secured spots at the helm of U.N. institutions that set standards for air travel, telecommunications and agriculture.
China heads four of the 15 UN* and UN-affiliated agencies or groups that collectively function as the machinery of the UN system.
Earlier victories put Beijing in position to shape international norms and standards, notably with air travel under the Chinese-led International Civil Aviation Organization. The Chinese secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union, who took his post in 2015, has backed Huawei Technologies Co. in its fight with the U.S., and pushed for a new internet protocol that Western governments say would allow more surveillance and censorship.
Some 30 U.N. agencies and institutions have signed memorandums in support of China’s Belt and Road infrastructure project, including the U.N. Industrial Development Organization, which has been under Chinese leadership since 2013. As a result, China can present its state-run Belt and Road projects, which mainly employ Chinese firms and often leave poor nations in debt, as benign U.N.-approved assistance.
“China has been able to make the U.N. more Chinese,” said Moritz Rudolf, founder of Eurasia Bridges, a German consulting firm that studies Belt and Road. “It’s systematic.”
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China has had its own stumbles: After placing one of its top law-enforcement officials as president of Interpol, it detained him in 2018 and later convicted him on corruption charges—underscoring how Chinese officials serving in international organizations remain under Beijing’s control.
China’s leaders say its aims at the U.N. are altruistic and that it has set a global example for dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.
The U.N. advance has cost relatively little. Even though China is the world’s second-largest economy, it often pays discounted rates as a so-called developing nation. In 2018, it contributed $1.3 billion to the U.N. system, a fraction of the $10 billion annual commitment from the U.S.
Instead, China has leveraged loans and other assistance to dozens of developing nations in Africa, the Pacific and elsewhere to create voting blocs and defeat Western-backed candidates and proposals at the U.N.
“Unfortunately there’s a real threat that China is going to use multilateral institutions to advance their own initiatives and their own values as compared to the values of the United States,” said Sen. Todd Young (R., Ind.), who last year introduced a bill to investigate Beijing’s influence.
Last year, member-states of the Food and Agriculture Organization gathered in Rome to select a replacement for the agency’s outgoing director-general. China nominated Qu Dongyu, its vice minister of agriculture.
Beijing looked for support from the developing world. In Uganda, Chinese diplomats met at President Yoweri Museveni’s ranch and pledged to build a $25 million beef abattoir and a textile plant if his government backed Mr. Qu.
Cameroon put forward economist Médi Moungui, a candidate with the potential to rally support in West Africa. When China canceled $78 million in overdue debt owed by Cameroon, Mr. Moungui abruptly withdrew. Neither Cameroon officials nor Mr. Moungui responded to requests for comment.
The U.S. and Europe, meanwhile, were at odds. Europe backed French agricultural engineer Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle. The U.S. threw its weight behind Davit Kirvalidze, a former agriculture minister of the republic of Georgia.
China sent a delegation of 80 to 100 people to the Rome gathering, compared with a typical delegation of a dozen or so, U.S. officials said. The Chinese delegates brought high-powered telephoto lenses to the vote and videotaped what was supposed to be a secret ballot. In some cases, they asked representatives from other countries to take photos of their ballots as proof they had backed Mr. Qu, U.S. and European officials said. The Chinese missions in Rome and Geneva didn’t reply to comment requests.
With the democracies divided, Mr. Qu clinched a lopsided victory. “I’m very grateful to my motherland,” he said after his win.
Gérard Araud, who previously served as France’s ambassador to Washington and U.N. envoy, said China is doing what the U.S. used to do decades ago—offer countries gifts or twist their arms.
“China does it now. It does it brutally, but there is nothing abnormal about this,” Mr. Araud said. “The fault is not of those who win. The fault is of those who lose.”
Wang Huiyao, a counselor to China’s State Council and head of the Center for China and Globalization think tank in Beijing, said lobbying for Mr. Qu succeeded because “China agriculturally has done very well, and the world has recognized that.”
Mr. Qu’s win proved a wake-up call for the U.S. and its allies. In November last year, President Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien traveled to New York to meet permanent U.N. representatives from Europe, Japan and other democracies, proposing a common front against China.
The European response, summarized by a person familiar with the meeting: Sure, but where have you been until now?
European officials said they shared U.S. apprehensions about China but saw the contest differently. To the U.S., China is a rival that seeks to dethrone America as the world’s pre-eminent power. To the Europeans, China is a danger because Beijing seeks to upend the rules-based international order, which, they say, Mr. Trump also threatens to do.
At the start of the year, the U.S., European nations and partners such as India put aside rivalries and together opposed China’s bid to lead WIPO, the Geneva-based agency that protects copyrights, patents and trademarks across borders.
China leapfrogged the U.S. last year as the top source of international patents filed with WIPO, largely because international investors like to file from China, where rates are cheaper and where locally issued patents offer more protection.
The American message opposing Beijing in the WIPO race was pointed. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has more than 1,000 open investigations into actual and attempted technology theft by individuals and entities connected to China. “We couldn’t afford to have a serial IP violator running the world’s intellectual property organization,” said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a written statement.
U.S. officials focused on setting rules for the election, hoping to avoid the kind of aggressive measures China used in Rome. The U.S. won support to limit the number of delegates in the voting room and ensure voting privacy.
The race began with 10 contestants. Washington, convinced that only a developing country could win, persuaded Japan and some others to withdraw early in the campaign and to support a Singaporean candidate. Though the city-state is one of the world’s most prosperous nations, it is grouped with mostly developing countries under U.N. rules. Other withdrawals left Singapore’s Daren Tang and China’s Wang Binying as the two front-runners.
Ahead of the March 4 vote, China complained that the U.S. was bullying smaller nations. Washington engaged in “immoral behavior,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said, trying to defeat Ms. Wang through threats and blackmail.
On the day of the vote, the U.S. sent two delegations. One was a six-person voting-room team with connections to Geneva-based diplomats. Another was made up of high-level ambassadors and senior officials who campaigned outside. The goal was to keep the election short and not allow Beijing time to apply diplomatic pressure on countries overnight. The tactic worked.
As the votes were cast, Singapore’s Mr. Tang overtook Ms. Wang in the first round and gained an absolute majority in the second round.
Some delegates were taken aback by the tensions. “It was like two elephants fighting,” said one of the candidates who withdrew.
Summer always seems to be the cruelest season in the Middle East. The examples include the June 1967 war, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the hijacking of Trans World Airlines Flight 847 in 1985, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and the Islamic State’s rampage through Iraq in 2014. The summer of 2020 has already joined that list. But the world should also be attuned to another possibility. Given how widespread bloodshed, despair, hunger, disease, and repression have become, a new—and far darker—chapter for the region is about to begin.
Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.
A little more than a decade ago, analysts imagined a region in which political systems were reliably authoritarian and stable. Since the Arab uprisings in 2011, the narrative has shifted to one of instability but with an expectation of an imminent new wave of democratization and further economic and political progress.
Those hopes are now gone. The Middle East has long faced challenges—foreign intervention, authoritarian leaders, distorted and uneven economic development, extremism, wars, and civil conflict. But this year has added to the mix a global pandemic and a wrenching global recession, resulting in a scale of crisis that exceeds any other time in history.
The region has become a dystopia marked by violence, resurgent authoritarianism, economic dislocation, and regional conflict, with no clear way out. There were times in the not-so-distant past that developments in the Middle East rendered even the most optimistic despairing, but those were moments when crises seemed to come one at a time. When they abated, there always seemed the possibility that better days would come. Not anymore. For the first time, it is entirely reasonable to feel hopeless about the Middle East.
A worker reacts as he stands on the wreckage of a store hit by Saudi-led airstrikes in Sanaa, Yemen, on July 2. KHALED ABDULLAH/REUTERS
The litany of horrors is long. There is Yemen, the poorest country in the region, where a multisided civil-cum-proxy war has laid waste to hospitals and wedding halls and school buses packed with children amid an uncontrolled outbreak of cholera—the largest in epidemiologically recorded history—and now COVID-19, which the head of health for the International Committee of the Red Cross stated would be “impossible to manage” in the country. Not unlike Yemen, Iraq is a country in terminal collapse with little hope of reversing its fortunes. That’s because Iraqi political institutions manage to generate corruption while inviting manipulation from neighboring Iran. Sometimes state failure is a more chronic condition, as with Egypt, and since coming to power in a popularly supported coup in 2013, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has not only overseen a multiyear assault on society but initiated the bloodiest and most repressive period in contemporary Egyptian history. Then there are the Palestinians, who seem fated to live in a bizarre and macabre existence, locked into the Gaza Strip or living in the West Bank with the trappings of statehood and an elaborate facade of ministries, protocol, and bureaucracy.
But Yemenis, Iraqis, Egyptians, and Palestinians are not the region’s only sufferers nor its most emblematic. The cases of Lebanon, Syria, and Libya deserve deeper consideration. In these places, the continuing grind of dystopia is most visibly on the verge of unprecedented collapse.
In Lebanon, Syria, and Libya, the continuing grind of dystopia is most visibly on the verge of unprecedented collapse.
Lebanon, whose capital of Beirut is oft-cited as the “Paris of the Middle East,” has experienced one shattering blow after another. Last fall, the government tried to impose a 20-cent daily tax on WhatsApp communications. It was an odd move until it became clear just how desperate the government had become to raise revenue in the shell game that had become Lebanon’s finances. It worked so long as private banks attracted dollar deposits through the promise of high interest rates and then turned around and loaned the money to the government. In mid-2019, however, dollar deposits decreased, but a skittish Lebanese public began demanding more dollars. In order to maintain the illusion of currency stability—critical to attracting greenbacks—Lebanon’s central bankers maintained the lira’s exchange rate to the dollar at about 1,500 to 1. That’s when the black market took over, shattering the illusion of the lira’s stability, leading to a sharp depreciation in the Lebanese currency. This produced the worst of all possible worlds: runaway inflation, a government unwilling or unable to undertake reform, and mass protests against the WhatsApp tax that quickly transformed into demands for the end of the government. In March, Lebanon defaulted on its debt.
The coronavirus pandemic has only added to the misery of Lebanon’s financial crisis. Although the incidence rate and case fatality rate (roughly 1 percent) are low in comparison to other countries in the region, authorities have imposed lockdown measures that have had a multiplying effect on the economic well-being of the Lebanese. Now people who have been thrown out of work due to the health crisis are contending with the parallel effects of a precipitous slide in the value of the currency. The lira is worth 80 percent less than it was in the fall of 2019, rendering goods and services more expensive. The World Bank estimates that poverty will almost double in 2020, enveloping perhaps as much as 50 percent of the population. The Lebanese, like the Syrian and Palestinian refugees in their midst, are now experiencing food insecurity. Bartering has increased throughout the country as people desperately try to secure enough supplies to survive on a daily basis. People who lived through the civil war say the economic situation is much worse now than it was then.
A helicopter puts out a fire at the scene of an explosion at Beirut’s port on Aug. 4. STR/AFP VIA GETTY
Even if the International Monetary Fund had enough resources to help Lebanon, it is not clear who would have the authority to go to the fund or whether they would have any capacity to implement painful reforms. The state has collapsed and along with it the credibility and authority of Lebanon’s political groups and factions, including Hezbollah. The root cause of the parlous state of affairs is an old and recurring story. The country’s confessional political order that was intended to create a rough, but uneven, balance to ensure a modicum of stability was little more than a system of spoils for Maronite, Sunni, and Shiite leaders who plundered the country. Protesters rightly want to tear it all down, but in favor of what?
Vague generalities will not cut it in the contested space that Lebanon has become, where groups are armed, external actors have compelling interests, and the competition over who gets to control whatever is left of state resources is intense. Observers have often averred that it is unlikely that Lebanon would ever fall into the kind of violence that engulfed the country between 1975 and 1990. The historical memory was too great. Too much progress had been made putting the country back together. Warlordism was a thing of the past that had been tamed in the postwar political game. This is comforting on one level, but under present circumstances, Lebanon was a tinderbox for much of the summer. And then the explosion at Beirut’s port happened, throwing the country into further turmoil and leading—mercifully—to the resignation of the government.
Of course one can conjure any number of scenarios for Lebanon, but it would be naive to seriously entertain any of the positive ones. In the aftermath of the explosion, the Lebanese people have been the lone bright spot banding together to help each other and clean the streets of debris, but as time goes on and the collapse of the country means even more hardship, people will be left to themselves to find relative safety and succor. Where does anyone believe they will find it? Most likely where they have found it before: within their own faith and ethnic communities. Adding to this misery is Lebanon’s collapse in a regional context. There are any number of external and internal actors who might want to use the country’s tribulations to squeeze their enemies and rivals, Hezbollah included. Perhaps the Israelis, Saudis, Iranians, and others will exercise atypical restraint, but it seems unlikely given the incentives to pursue regional proxy fights in precisely those places where the state either does not or barely exists. The future is unknowable, but Lebanon’s general trajectory is almost assuredly profoundly and distressingly negative.
Men who fled the last area of Islamic State control wait to be questioned about their links to the terrorist group by coalition forces in Deir Ezzor, Syria, on Feb. 7, 2019. IVOR PRICKETT
At least the Lebanese have not been forced to endure what their Syrian neighbors have experienced over the last almost decade. Bashar al-Assad’s regime has become a machine of death and dispossession. Its onetime peaceful opponents who wanted the opportunity to build a better society gave way long ago to an array of militias, extremists, and outside powers waging war against Assad and each other for their own reasons—and always at the expense of Syrians. The near-total disregard for human life throughout the conflict has rendered the well-known statistics meaningless. Even so, they bear repeating even if they are unbearable: The conflict in Syria has killed an estimated 585,000 people, including tens of thousands of children. More than 12 million Syrians—a stunning 57 percent of Syria’s prewar population—have fled their homes. Among those who fled, 5.6 million now live as refugees in every condition imaginable with little chance of ever returning home.
Not long ago, the thinking in Western and Arab capitals was that Assad had prevailed, in no small measure because of Russia’s military intervention and diplomatic support, yet the war continues. In places that were once believed to be pacified, there are new protests and new regime violence. With Syria’s economy continuing to deteriorate with the collapse of Lebanon and in the absence of any possible reconstruction, Assad’s supporters have grown ornery as their expected economic rewards of victory have failed to materialize. The imposition of new U.S. sanctions through the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act—which specifically targets members of Assad’s inner circle, regime supporters, and entities that do business with them—promises to accentuate the Syrian government’s economic problems and international isolation.
A woman and child stand at the fence in the foreigners section of al-Hol detention camp in northern Syria on March 28, 2019. IVOR PRICKETT
No doubt, there will be cheers throughout the world if the Assad regime falls, but they will be fleeting. Assad’s demise would likely lead not to an end of the struggle for Syria but to a new phase in the fight. The idea that the combatants would lay down their arms and negotiate a way forward after so much bloodshed is as unrealistic as the idea—often asserted in the early days of the Syrian uprising—that it was only a matter of time before Assad fell. Whatever comes to pass, those Syrians who remain in the country will continue to be caught in the middle, forced to exist in a shattered land fought over by people whose cruelty knows no bounds, with no end to the violence in sight.
Fighters of the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord take positions during clashes with Libyan National Army forces at the As-Sawani front line in Tripoli on March 4. AMRU SALAHUDDIEN/XINHUA VIA GETTY
Libya’s demise has received far less attention than Syria’s. In 2011, when Muammar al-Qaddafi fled Tripoli, some Western analysts thought Libyans were best positioned in the region to build a democratic and prosperous future because it was, as they said, a “clean slate.” Except that it wasn’t and the country quickly fragmented.
As Libya split along geographic and tribal lines, a dizzying array of militias and extremist groups stepped into the breach, and in time two different governments claimed a mandate to lead the country. The country tipped into full-scale civil war when Gen. Khalifa Haftar sought to overthrow his Tripoli-based rivals in the spring of 2019. In this effort, the former Qaddafi loyalist had the support of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, France, and Russia, all of which harbored a confluence of concerns that converged on Haftar and his Libyan National Army.
As Libya split along geographic and tribal lines, a dizzying array of militias and extremist groups stepped into the breach.
Haftar’s march on Tripoli has been beaten back only recently with help from Turkey and Turkish-aligned Syrian militia members. Ankara’s interests in Libya are a combination of Turkish domestic politics, principle, a bid for Islamist leadership, animus toward Egypt and the UAE, and geostrategic calculation. Like their adversaries, the Turks care little about the well-being of Libyans and have sought to extend the war despite Haftar’s string of defeats and sudden willingness for negotiations. Turkish bravado may be misplaced; Haftar is weakened but not defeated. If Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan overplays his hand, he and his allies in Tripoli may confront newly galvanized opponents in the eastern part of the country.
Thus all the questions in Washington and European capitals during early summer about the prospect for war between Turkey and Egypt. The Turks demonstrated significant military capacity in helping the internationally recognized government turn almost certain defeat into potential victory. But this has roused Egyptian ire. Since 2013, Turkey has led the effort to delegitimize and undermine Sisi’s regime. Ankara welcomed the Muslim Brotherhood to Turkey after the coup that toppled Mohamed Morsi and brought Sisi to power. The two countries are on opposite sides of major conflicts in the region including in Syria, Gaza, and, of course, Libya. The Egyptians have never successfully projected military power beyond their border, but Libya is Egypt’s backyard. And with increased Turkish naval activity in the Eastern Mediterranean, including a maritime economic exclusion zone agreement with the Libyans, Egyptian security planners are no doubt alarmed. In the third week of June, Sisi declared Tripoli’s intention to retake Sirte with Turkish help a “red line.”
Last week’s deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates is the latest reminder that countries are always out for their own interests—and the weak suffer what they must.VOICE | STEVEN A. COOK
It may have been a bluff, but for all of the Egyptian military’s technical weakness in comparison to the Turkish armed forces—the second largest in NATO—the Egyptians can mobilize a lot of soldiers, armor, and F-16s against the Turks, who are far from home. Any conflict involving these two armies would further fragment Libya, perpetuating the civil conflict and setting the state for the country’s actual split. Given these circumstances, it seems that Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam was correct when, in February 2011, he warned fellow Libyans that, unlike Tunisians and Egyptians, they would fight against each other for the next 40 years, though it is unclear whether he understood how much help killing each other they would get from outsiders.
Some relief for Libyans came in the form of a cease-fire proposal from the Tripoli government in August. It was good news that the Egyptians, Emiratis, and speaker of the eastern-based House of Representatives, Aguila Saleh Issa, all welcomed it. Yet Haftar did not sign on, and his forces continue to battle near Sirte. Even if he is compelled to lay down his arms, it seems unrealistic after a decade of conflict to expect Libyans to come to some kind of durable agreement about what kind of political system they want. In the absence of such an understanding, the fragmentary pressures on Libya will continue to fuel violence. This would be bad enough, but now the interests of outside powers are fully engaged in Libya, where Russians, Turks, Qataris, Egyptians, Emiratis, French, and Italians are playing out regional power struggles that extend from the Persian Gulf to Europe’s Mediterranean shores. This is a toxic brew of issues that does not lend itself to peace and security for Libyans.
Palestinians put out a fire that broke out in a market in the Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza Strip on March 5. MOHAMMED ABED/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
It is a challenge to establish some common cause for the Middle East’s downward spiral. Lebanon is different from Libya. Iraq is nothing like the West Bank and Gaza Strip. There are no parallels to what ails Yemen or to Egypt’s problems. Yet at a level of abstraction, there are some commonalities. All of these places have contested sovereignty, contested identities, and perpetually bad governance that constitute a vicious feedback loop from which there does not seem to be an escape.
For all the problems buffeting the region, it is impossible to know exactly what will happen in the Middle East. The situation in a variety of countries seems so dire that it is hard not to imagine that additional and significant ruptures are in the offing. Yet it also seems possible that Middle Easterners will experience more of the same, allowing leaders to muddle through. That is hardly a comforting thought, however, since muddling through—or the idea of muddling through—fails to capture how dynamic the region has become. Struggles over identity, sovereignty, legitimacy, and individual as well as communal rights are entangled in ways that are remaking the region. Among a number of imaginable outcomes, further deterioration, violence, and authoritarianism seem most likely. If authoritarian stability was once a hallmark of the Middle East, the future may well be authoritarian instability.
Young men climb scaffolding to reach the upper levels of an unfinished building overlooking mass protests in Tahrir Square in Baghdad on Nov. 1, 2019. IVOR PRICKETT
In countries that are at or near collapse and where violence continues, there is no reason to believe that the combatants have reached a hurting stalemate necessary to lay down their arms. What seems plausible in Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq is the shearing off or further fragmentation of these countries. An Egyptian intervention in Libya certainly raises the prospect of institutionalizing the split between the government in Tripoli and the government in the east, both of which claim legitimacy. Yemen’s southern separatists have recently declared that they will cooperate with the internationally recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, but will they keep their promise? Given the fact that there were two Yemens for a significant portion of the 20th century, this seems a more possible outcome than a negotiated solution to the end of the multiparty wars currently raging. In Syria, Turkey is determined to carve out a sphere of influence that will preclude the emergence of a Kurdish state on its southern border, and now that the Turkish military is in Syria, it is unlikely to leave. Analysts have predicted Iraq’s split many times before, and it has not happened. That means very little, however. Hosni Mubarak’s rule was durable until the day it wasn’t. It is clear that the fragmentary pressure on Iraq, a factor that is baked into the country’s political system in unintended ways, will continue to undermine any efforts to establish political stability short of an overthrow of the order, which is itself obviously destabilizing.
When it comes to other states, it is true that life can be grim and at times brutal, but that does not mean that change will come or be quick. The national security states of the region are supposedly better and more efficient than they were a decade ago. Governments have armed themselves with the tools to engage in society-wide surveillance that diminishes the possibility that a coalition can emerge to challenge the primacy of present rulers. That does make it harder for oppositionists and activists to challenge regimes, but to focus on these groups is to be looking for politics in all the wrong places. Struggles within and among power centers are often the source of politics, rather than conflict with those pushing from below. This is why for all the attention paid to activists in Saudi jails, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been locking up members of the royal family and nonroyal elites. If politics is the competition over the control and distribution of resources, it is the people who were held at the Ritz-Carlton in November 2017 and rival branches of the royal family that are the greatest threat to the crown prince’s agenda and interests.
The mythical “street” is often responding to (or manipulated by) leaders who are engaged in struggles at the summit of the state. This is why Mohammed bin Salman has shrewdly sought to alter Saudi social mores and norms. He is building a reservoir of support from below among those young Saudis who like movies, WWE, and concerts should he confront a serious challenge to the consolidation of his rule. This is not to suggest that Saudi Arabia is stable or unstable—that is difficult to judge—but that for those Saudis hoping for positive change, if only as a result of the crown prince’s overreach, it seems quite unlikely. In this way, the Saudi leader has a certain advantage over Egypt’s Sisi, who is more directly vulnerable to the competition among those vying for power.
It is romantic to believe that the Egyptian people brought down two leaders in the span of 18 months. It was actually the work of generals who accomplished these feats while claiming—not disingenuously—a popular mandate to do so. The subsequent disdain Egyptian leaders have evinced for their own people means that they neither have nor seek support from the citizenry, rendering it easier to use batons, tear gas, and live fire to maintain control. People may rebel or there could be a(nother) coup signaling a possible rupture, but it is hard to predict when or how that would happen and what the result might be. In the meantime, as Sisi seeks to balance the competition among power centers in Egypt, he tightens his grip on Egyptians.
A convoy of trucks carrying people who had fled the last Islamic State-held area in eastern Syria drive through the desert on their way to camps farther north on Feb. 11, 2019. IVOR PRICKETT
The dystopian nature of the Middle East is not caused but is certainly greatly aided by a permissive international environment. It is not just that liberal democracy is on the defensive but that liberal democracies have concluded that human rights and democratization are not worth being on their agenda. Few people paid much attention to Yemen before the journalist Jamal Khashoggi was dismembered by Saudi agents; Syria is a problem because of the refugees it has produced affecting politics in Europe; Iraq is an afterthought; and the West left Libya to demons after everyone discovered that building democracy from the alleged clean slate there was nonsense.
It would be a mistake to take even the region’s last remaining vestiges of stability for granted. New depths of turmoil are still possible to achieve.
None of this is to suggest that Arabs are fated to live under the condition in which they find themselves forever. After all, forever is a long time. Rather, in thinking about the Middle East’s many problems, it is worth remembering that things can always still get worse. It would be a mistake to take even the region’s last remaining vestiges of stability for granted. New depths of turmoil are still possible to achieve. There is no guarantee that the region’s boundaries will remain the same or that its rulers won’t find new methods of inducing injustice and despair. When it comes to the former, external or non-Arab powers are already staking claims to parts of Arab countries—whether it is the Russians in Syria and Libya, the Turks in the same two countries, or Iran in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. And then there is the United States with its network of bases in and around the Persian Gulf.
All this confronts U.S. policymakers with the challenge of not just understanding what is happening in the region but developing a response. In this case, the best response by Washington might be none at all. The issue here isn’t the Middle East’s intractability but the evident drift in the U.S. approach to the region. If policymakers in Washington do not know what they want in the region, they risk making things worse by wading into the Middle East’s struggles. No doubt, working to ensure that Egypt and Turkey do not go to war in Libya is well within U.S. competence, but solving Libya’s internal tribulations after a decade of fracture is well beyond it. That only underscores the other reason why the United States must limit the way it approaches the Middle East—those who live in it must solve the problems of the region.
Northwest of beijing’s Forbidden City, outside the Third Ring Road, the Chinese Academy of Sciences has spent seven decades building a campus of national laboratories. Near its center is the Institute of Automation, a sleek silvery-blue building surrounded by camera-studded poles. The institute is a basic research facility. Its computer scientists inquire into artificial intelligence’s fundamental mysteries. Their more practical innovations—iris recognition, cloud-based speech synthesis—are spun off to Chinese tech giants, AI start-ups, and, in some cases, the People’s Liberation Army.
I visited the institute on a rainy morning in the summer of 2019. China’s best and brightest were still shuffling in post-commute, dressed casually in basketball shorts or yoga pants, AirPods nestled in their ears. In my pocket, I had a burner phone; in my backpack, a computer wiped free of data—standard precautions for Western journalists in China. To visit China on sensitive business is to risk being barraged with cyberattacks and malware. In 2019, Belgian officials on a trade mission noticed that their mobile data were being intercepted by pop-up antennae outside their Beijing hotel.
After clearing the institute’s security, I was told to wait in a lobby monitored by cameras. On its walls were posters of China’s most consequential postwar leaders. Mao Zedong loomed large in his characteristic four-pocket suit. He looked serene, as though satisfied with having freed China from the Western yoke. Next to him was a fuzzy black-and-white shot of Deng Xiaoping visiting the institute in his later years, after his economic reforms had set China on a course to reclaim its traditional global role as a great power.
The lobby’s most prominent poster depicted Xi Jinping in a crisp black suit. China’s current president and the general secretary of its Communist Party has taken a keen interest in the institute. Its work is part of a grand AI strategy that Xi has laid out in a series of speeches akin to those John F. Kennedy used to train America’s techno-scientific sights on the moon. Xi has said that he wants China, by year’s end, to be competitive with the world’s AI leaders, a benchmark the country has arguably already reached. And he wants China to achieve AI supremacy by 2030.
Xi’s pronouncements on AI have a sinister edge. Artificial intelligence has applications in nearly every human domain, from the instant translation of spoken language to early viral-outbreak detection. But Xi also wants to use AI’s awesome analytical powers to push China to the cutting edge of surveillance. He wants to build an all-seeing digital system of social control, patrolled by precog algorithms that identify potential dissenters in real time.
China’s government has a history of using major historical events to introduce and embed surveillance measures. In the run-up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Chinese security services achieved a new level of control over the country’s internet. During China’s coronavirus outbreak, Xi’s government leaned hard on private companies in possession of sensitive personal data. Any emergency data-sharing arrangements made behind closed doors during the pandemic could become permanent.
China already has hundreds of millions of surveillance cameras in place. Xi’s government hopes to soon achieve full video coverage of key public areas. Much of the footage collected by China’s cameras is parsed by algorithms for security threats of one kind or another. In the near future, every person who enters a public space could be identified, instantly, by AI matching them to an ocean of personal data, including their every text communication, and their body’s one-of-a-kind protein-construction schema. In time, algorithms will be able to string together data points from a broad range of sources—travel records, friends and associates, reading habits, purchases—to predict political resistance before it happens. China’s government could soon achieve an unprecedented political stranglehold on more than 1 billion people.Xi wants to use artificial intelligence to build a digital system of social control, patrolled by precog algorithms that identify dissenters in real time.
Early in the coronavirus outbreak, China’s citizens were subjected to a form of risk scoring. An algorithm assigned people a color code—green, yellow, or red—that determined their ability to take transit or enter buildings in China’s megacities. In a sophisticated digital system of social control, codes like these could be used to score a person’s perceived political pliancy as well.
A crude version of such a system is already in operation in China’s northwestern territory of Xinjiang, where more than 1 million Muslim Uighurs have been imprisoned, the largest internment of an ethnic-religious minority since the fall of the Third Reich. Once Xi perfects this system in Xinjiang, no technological limitations will prevent him from extending AI surveillance across China. He could also export it beyond the country’s borders, entrenching the power of a whole generation of autocrats.
China has recently embarked on a number of ambitious infrastructure projects abroad—megacity construction, high-speed rail networks, not to mention the country’s much-vaunted Belt and Road Initiative. But these won’t reshape history like China’s digital infrastructure, which could shift the balance of power between the individual and the state worldwide.
American policy makers from across the political spectrum are concerned about this scenario. Michael Kratsios, the former Peter Thiel acolyte whom Donald Trump picked to be the U.S. government’s chief technology officer, told me that technological leadership from democratic nations has “never been more imperative” and that “if we want to make sure that Western values are baked into the technologies of the future, we need to make sure we’re leading in those technologies.”
Despite China’s considerable strides, industry analysts expect America to retain its current AI lead for another decade at least. But this is cold comfort: China is already developing powerful new surveillance tools, and exporting them to dozens of the world’s actual and would-be autocracies. Over the next few years, those technologies will be refined and integrated into all-encompassing surveillance systems that dictators can plug and play.
The emergence of an AI-powered authoritarian bloc led by China could warp the geopolitics of this century. It could prevent billions of people, across large swaths of the globe, from ever securing any measure of political freedom. And whatever the pretensions of American policy makers, only China’s citizens can stop it. I’d come to Beijing to look for some sign that they might.
This techno-political moment has been long in the making. China has spent all but a few centuries of its 5,000-year history at the vanguard of information technology. Along with Sumer and Mesoamerica, it was one of three places where writing was independently invented, allowing information to be stored outside the human brain. In the second century a.d., the Chinese invented paper. This cheap, bindable information-storage technology allowed data—Silk Road trade records, military communiqués, correspondence among elites—to crisscross the empire on horses bred for speed by steppe nomads beyond the Great Wall. Data began to circulate even faster a few centuries later, when Tang-dynasty artisans perfected woodblock printing, a mass-information technology that helped administer a huge and growing state.
As rulers of some of the world’s largest complex social organizations, ancient Chinese emperors well understood the relationship between information flows and power, and the value of surveillance. During the 11th century, a Song-dynasty emperor realized that China’s elegant walled cities had become too numerous to be monitored from Beijing, so he deputized locals to police them. A few decades before the digital era’s dawn, Chiang Kai-shek made use of this self-policing tradition, asking citizens to watch for dissidents in their midst, so that communist rebellions could be stamped out in their infancy. When Mao took over, he arranged cities into grids, making each square its own work unit, where local spies kept “sharp eyes” out for counterrevolutionary behavior, no matter how trivial. During the initial coronavirus outbreak, Chinese social-media apps promoted hotlines where people could report those suspected of hiding symptoms.
Xi has appropriated the phrase sharp eyes, with all its historical resonances, as his chosen name for the AI-powered surveillance cameras that will soon span China. With AI, Xi can build history’s most oppressive authoritarian apparatus, without the manpower Mao needed to keep information about dissent flowing to a single, centralized node. In China’s most prominent AI start-ups—SenseTime, CloudWalk, Megvii, Hikvision, iFlytek, Meiya Pico—Xi has found willing commercial partners. And in Xinjiang’s Muslim minority, he has found his test population.
The Chinese Communist Party has long been suspicious of religion, and not just as a result of Marxist influence. Only a century and a half ago—yesterday, in the memory of a 5,000-year-old civilization—Hong Xiuquan, a quasi-Christian mystic converted by Western missionaries, launched the Taiping Rebellion, an apocalyptic 14-year campaign that may have killed more people than the First World War. Today, in China’s single-party political system, religion is an alternative source of ultimate authority, which means it must be co-opted or destroyed.
By 2009, China’s Uighurs had become weary after decades of discrimination and land confiscation. They launched mass protests and a smattering of suicide attacks against Chinese police. In 2014, Xi cracked down, directing Xinjiang’s provincial government to destroy mosques and reduce Uighur neighborhoods to rubble. More than 1 million Uighurs were disappeared into concentration camps. Many were tortured and made to perform slave labor.
Uighurs who were spared the camps now make up the most intensely surveilled population on Earth. Not all of the surveillance is digital. The Chinese government has moved thousands of Han Chinese “big brothers and sisters” into homes in Xinjiang’s ancient Silk Road cities, to monitor Uighurs’ forced assimilation to mainstream Chinese culture. They eat meals with the family, and some “big brothers” sleep in the same bed as the wives of detained Uighur men.
Meanwhile, AI-powered sensors lurk everywhere, including in Uighurs’ purses and pants pockets. According to the anthropologist Darren Byler, some Uighurs buried their mobile phones containing Islamic materials, or even froze their data cards into dumplings for safekeeping, when Xi’s campaign of cultural erasure reached full tilt. But police have since forced them to install nanny apps on their new phones. The apps use algorithms to hunt for “ideological viruses” day and night. They can scan chat logs for Quran verses, and look for Arabic script in memes and other image files.
Uighurs can’t use the usual work-arounds. Installing a VPN would likely invite an investigation, so they can’t download WhatsApp or any other prohibited encrypted-chat software. Purchasing prayer rugs online, storing digital copies of Muslim books, and downloading sermons from a favorite imam are all risky activities. If a Uighur were to use WeChat’s payment system to make a donation to a mosque, authorities might take note.
The nanny apps work in tandem with the police, who spot-check phones at checkpoints, scrolling through recent calls and texts. Even an innocent digital association—being in a group text with a recent mosque attendee, for instance—could result in detention. Staying off social media altogether is no solution, because digital inactivity itself can raise suspicions. The police are required to note when Uighurs deviate from any of their normal behavior patterns. Their database wants to know if Uighurs start leaving their home through the back door instead of the front. It wants to know if they spend less time talking to neighbors than they used to. Electricity use is monitored by an algorithm for unusual use, which could indicate an unregistered resident.
Uighurs can travel only a few blocks before encountering a checkpoint outfitted with one of Xinjiang’s hundreds of thousands of surveillance cameras. Footage from the cameras is processed by algorithms that match faces with snapshots taken by police at “health checks.” At these checks, police extract all the data they can from Uighurs’ bodies. They measure height and take a blood sample. They record voices and swab DNA. Some Uighurs have even been forced to participate in experiments that mine genetic data, to see how DNA produces distinctly Uighurlike chins and ears. Police will likely use the pandemic as a pretext to take still more data from Uighur bodies.
Uighur women are also made to endure pregnancy checks. Some are forced to have abortions, or get an IUD inserted. Others are sterilized by the state. Police are known to rip unauthorized children away from their parents, who are then detained. Such measures have reduced the birthrate in some regions of Xinjiang more than 60 percent in three years.
When Uighurs reach the edge of their neighborhood, an automated system takes note. The same system tracks them as they move through smaller checkpoints, at banks, parks, and schools. When they pump gas, the system can determine whether they are the car’s owner. At the city’s perimeter, they’re forced to exit their cars, so their face and ID card can be scanned again.
The lucky Uighurs who are able to travel abroad—many have had their passports confiscated—are advised to return quickly. If they do not, police interrogators are dispatched to the doorsteps of their relatives and friends. Not that going abroad is any kind of escape: In a chilling glimpse at how a future authoritarian bloc might function, Xi’s strongman allies—even those in Muslim-majority countries such as Egypt—have been more than happy to arrest and deport Uighurs back to the open-air prison that is Xinjiang.
Xi seems to have used Xinjiang as a laboratory to fine-tune the sensory and analytical powers of his new digital panopticon before expanding its reach across the mainland. CETC, the state-owned company that built much of Xinjiang’s surveillance system, now boasts of pilot projects in Zhejiang, Guangdong, and Shenzhen. These are meant to lay “a robust foundation for a nationwide rollout,” according to the company, and they represent only one piece of China’s coalescing mega-network of human-monitoring technology.
China is an ideal setting for an experiment in total surveillance. Its population is extremely online. The country is home to more than 1 billion mobile phones, all chock-full of sophisticated sensors. Each one logs search-engine queries, websites visited, and mobile payments, which are ubiquitous. When I used a chip-based credit card to buy coffee in Beijing’s hip Sanlitun neighborhood, people glared as if I’d written a check.
All of these data points can be time-stamped and geo-tagged. And because a new regulation requires telecom firms to scan the face of anyone who signs up for cellphone services, phones’ data can now be attached to a specific person’s face. SenseTime, which helped build Xinjiang’s surveillance state, recently bragged that its software can identify people wearing masks. Another company, Hanwang, claims that its facial-recognition technology can recognize mask wearers 95 percent of the time. China’s personal-data harvest even reaps from citizens who lack phones. Out in the countryside, villagers line up to have their faces scanned, from multiple angles, by private firms in exchange for cookware.An authoritarian state with enough processing power could feed every blip of a citizen’s neural activity into a government database.
Until recently, it was difficult to imagine how China could integrate all of these data into a single surveillance system, but no longer. In 2018, a cybersecurity activist hacked into a facial-recognition system that appeared to be connected to the government and was synthesizing a surprising combination of data streams. The system was capable of detecting Uighurs by their ethnic features, and it could tell whether people’s eyes or mouth were open, whether they were smiling, whether they had a beard, and whether they were wearing sunglasses. It logged the date, time, and serial numbers—all traceable to individual users—of Wi-Fi-enabled phones that passed within its reach. It was hosted by Alibaba and made reference to City Brain, an AI-powered software platform that China’s government has tasked the company with building.
City Brain is, as the name suggests, a kind of automated nerve center, capable of synthesizing data streams from a multitude of sensors distributed throughout an urban environment. Many of its proposed uses are benign technocratic functions. Its algorithms could, for instance, count people and cars, to help with red-light timing and subway-line planning. Data from sensor-laden trash cans could make waste pickup more timely and efficient.
But City Brain and its successor technologies will also enable new forms of integrated surveillance. Some of these will enjoy broad public support: City Brain could be trained to spot lost children, or luggage abandoned by tourists or terrorists. It could flag loiterers, or homeless people, or rioters. Anyone in any kind of danger could summon help by waving a hand in a distinctive way that would be instantly recognized by ever-vigilant computer vision. Earpiece-wearing police officers could be directed to the scene by an AI voice assistant.
City Brain would be especially useful in a pandemic. (One of Alibaba’s sister companies created the app that color-coded citizens’ disease risk, while silently sending their health and travel data to police.) As Beijing’s outbreak spread, some malls and restaurants in the city began scanning potential customers’ phones, pulling data from mobile carriers to see whether they’d recently traveled. Mobile carriers also sent municipal governments lists of people who had come to their city from Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first detected. And Chinese AI companies began making networked facial-recognition helmets for police, with built-in infrared fever detectors, capable of sending data to the government. City Brain could automate these processes, or integrate its data streams.
Even China’s most complex AI systems are still brittle. City Brain hasn’t yet fully integrated its range of surveillance capabilities, and its ancestor systems have suffered some embarrassing performance issues: In 2018, one of the government’s AI-powered cameras mistook a face on the side of a city bus for a jaywalker. But the software is getting better, and there’s no technical reason it can’t be implemented on a mass scale.
The data streams that could be fed into a City Brain–like system are essentially unlimited. In addition to footage from the 1.9 million facial-recognition cameras that the Chinese telecom firm China Tower is installing in cooperation with SenseTime, City Brain could absorb feeds from cameras fastened to lampposts and hanging above street corners. It could make use of the cameras that Chinese police hide in traffic cones, and those strapped to officers, both uniformed and plainclothes. The state could force retailers to provide data from in-store cameras, which can now detect the direction of your gaze across a shelf, and which could soon see around corners by reading shadows. Precious little public space would be unwatched.
America’s police departments have begun to avail themselves of footage from Amazon’s home-security cameras. In their more innocent applications, these cameras adorn doorbells, but many are also aimed at neighbors’ houses. China’s government could harvest footage from equivalent Chinese products. They could tap the cameras attached to ride-share cars, or the self-driving vehicles that may soon replace them: Automated vehicles will be covered in a whole host of sensors, including some that will take in information much richer than 2-D video. Data from a massive fleet of them could be stitched together, and supplemented by other City Brain streams, to produce a 3-D model of the city that’s updated second by second. Each refresh could log every human’s location within the model. Such a system would make unidentified faces a priority, perhaps by sending drone swarms to secure a positive ID.
The model’s data could be time-synced to audio from any networked device with a microphone, including smart speakers, smartwatches, and less obvious Internet of Things devices like smart mattresses, smart diapers, and smart sex toys. All of these sources could coalesce into a multitrack, location-specific audio mix that could be parsed by polyglot algorithms capable of interpreting words spoken in thousands of tongues. This mix would be useful to security services, especially in places without cameras: China’s iFlytek is perfecting a technology that can recognize individuals by their “voiceprint.”
In the decades to come, City Brain or its successor systems may even be able to read unspoken thoughts. Drones can already be controlled by helmets that sense and transmit neural signals, and researchers are now designing brain-computer interfaces that go well beyond autofill, to allow you to type just by thinking. An authoritarian state with enough processing power could force the makers of such software to feed every blip of a citizen’s neural activity into a government database. China has recently been pushing citizens to download and use a propaganda app. The government could use emotion-tracking software to monitor reactions to a political stimulus within an app. A silent, suppressed response to a meme or a clip from a Xi speech would be a meaningful data point to a precog algorithm.
All of these time-synced feeds of on-the-ground data could be supplemented by footage from drones, whose gigapixel cameras can record whole cityscapes in the kind of crystalline detail that allows for license-plate reading and gait recognition. “Spy bird” drones already swoop and circle above Chinese cities, disguised as doves. City Brain’s feeds could be synthesized with data from systems in other urban areas, to form a multidimensional, real-time account of nearly all human activity within China. Server farms across China will soon be able to hold multiple angles of high-definition footage of every moment of every Chinese person’s life.“I tell my students that I hope none of them will be involved in killer robots. They have only a short time on Earth. There are many other things they could be doing with their future.”
It’s important to stress that systems of this scope are still in development. Most of China’s personal data are not yet integrated together, even within individual companies. Nor does China’s government have a one-stop data repository, in part because of turf wars between agencies. But there are no hard political barriers to the integration of all these data, especially for the security state’s use. To the contrary, private firms are required, by formal statute, to assist China’s intelligence services.
The government might soon have a rich, auto-populating data profile for all of its 1 billion–plus citizens. Each profile would comprise millions of data points, including the person’s every appearance in surveilled space, as well as all of her communications and purchases. Her threat risk to the party’s power could constantly be updated in real time, with a more granular score than those used in China’s pilot “social credit” schemes, which already aim to give every citizen a public social-reputation score based on things like social-media connections and buying habits. Algorithms could monitor her digital data score, along with everyone else’s, continuously, without ever feeling the fatigue that hit Stasi officers working the late shift. False positives—deeming someone a threat for innocuous behavior—would be encouraged, in order to boost the system’s built-in chilling effects, so that she’d turn her sharp eyes on her own behavior, to avoid the slightest appearance of dissent.
If her risk factor fluctuated upward—whether due to some suspicious pattern in her movements, her social associations, her insufficient attention to a propaganda-consumption app, or some correlation known only to the AI—a purely automated system could limit her movement. It could prevent her from purchasing plane or train tickets. It could disallow passage through checkpoints. It could remotely commandeer “smart locks” in public or private spaces, to confine her until security forces arrived.
In recent years, a few members of the Chinese intelligentsia have sounded the warning about misused AI, most notably the computer scientist Yi Zeng and the philosopher Zhao Tingyang. In the spring of 2019, Yi published “The Beijing AI Principles,” a manifesto on AI’s potential to interfere with autonomy, dignity, privacy, and a host of other human values.
It was Yi whom I’d come to visit at Beijing’s Institute of Automation, where, in addition to his work on AI ethics, he serves as the deputy director of the Research Center for Brain-Inspired Intelligence. He retrieved me from the lobby. Yi looked young for his age, 37, with kind eyes and a solid frame slimmed down by black sweatpants and a hoodie.
On the way to Yi’s office, we passed one of his labs, where a research assistant hovered over a microscope, watching electrochemical signals flash neuron-to-neuron through mouse-brain tissue. We sat down at a long table in a conference room adjoining his office, taking in the gray, fogged-in cityscape while his assistant fetched tea.
I asked Yi how “The Beijing AI Principles” had been received. “People say, ‘This is just an official show from the Beijing government,’ ” he told me. “But this is my life’s work.”
Yi talked freely about AI’s potential misuses. He mentioned a project deployed to a select group of Chinese schools, where facial recognition was used to track not just student attendance but also whether individual students were paying attention.
“I hate that software,” Yi said. “I have to use that word: hate.”
He went on like this for a while, enumerating various unethical applications of AI. “I teach a course on the philosophy of AI,” he said. “I tell my students that I hope none of them will be involved in killer robots. They have only a short time on Earth. There are many other things they could be doing with their future.”
Yi clearly knew the academic literature on tech ethics cold. But when I asked him about the political efficacy of his work, his answers were less compelling.
“Many of us technicians have been invited to speak to the government, and even to Xi Jinping, about AI’s potential risks,” he said. “But the government is still in a learning phase, just like other governments worldwide.”
“Do you have anything stronger than that consultative process?” I asked. “Suppose there are times when the government has interests that are in conflict with your principles. What mechanism are you counting on to win out?”
“I, personally, am still in a learning phase on that problem,” Yi said.
Chinese AI start-ups aren’t nearly as bothered. Several are helping Xi develop AI for the express purpose of surveillance. The combination of China’s single-party rule and the ideological residue of central planning makes party elites powerful in every domain, especially the economy. But in the past, the connection between the government and the tech industry was discreet. Recently, the Chinese government started assigning representatives to tech firms, to augment the Communist Party cells that exist within large private companies.
Selling to the state security services is one of the fastest ways for China’s AI start-ups to turn a profit. A national telecom firm is the largest shareholder of iFlytek, China’s voice-recognition giant. Synergies abound: When police use iFlytek’s software to monitor calls, state-owned newspapers provide favorable coverage. Earlier this year, the personalized-news app Toutiao went so far as to rewrite its mission to articulate a new animating goal: aligning public opinion with the government’s wishes. Xu Li, the CEO of SenseTime, recently described the government as his company’s “largest data source.”
Whether any private data can be ensured protection in China isn’t clear, given the country’s political structure. The digital revolution has made data monopolies difficult to avoid. Even in America, which has a sophisticated tradition of antitrust enforcement, the citizenry has not yet summoned the will to force information about the many out of the hands of the powerful few. But private data monopolies are at least subject to the sovereign power of the countries where they operate. A nation-state’s data monopoly can be prevented only by its people, and only if they possess sufficient political power.
China’s people can’t use an election to rid themselves of Xi. And with no independent judiciary, the government can make an argument, however strained, that it ought to possess any information stream, so long as threats to “stability” could be detected among the data points. Or it can demand data from companies behind closed doors, as happened during the initial coronavirus outbreak. No independent press exists to leak news of these demands to.
Each time a person’s face is recognized, or her voice recorded, or her text messages intercepted, this information could be attached, instantly, to her government-ID number, police records, tax returns, property filings, and employment history. It could be cross-referenced with her medical records and DNA, of which the Chinese police boast they have the world’s largest collection.
Yi and i talked through a global scenario that has begun to worry AI ethicists and China-watchers alike. In this scenario, most AI researchers around the world come to recognize the technology’s risks to humanity, and develop strong norms around its use. All except for one country, which makes the right noises about AI ethics, but only as a cover. Meanwhile, this country builds turnkey national surveillance systems, and sells them to places where democracy is fragile or nonexistent. The world’s autocrats are usually felled by coups or mass protests, both of which require a baseline of political organization. But large-scale political organization could prove impossible in societies watched by pervasive automated surveillance.
Yi expressed worry about this scenario, but he did not name China specifically. He didn’t have to: The country is now the world’s leading seller of AI-powered surveillance equipment. In Malaysia, the government is working with Yitu, a Chinese AI start-up, to bring facial-recognition technology to Kuala Lumpur’s police as a complement to Alibaba’s City Brain platform. Chinese companies also bid to outfit every one of Singapore’s 110,000 lampposts with facial-recognition cameras.
In South Asia, the Chinese government has supplied surveillance equipment to Sri Lanka. On the old Silk Road, the Chinese company Dahua is lining the streets of Mongolia’s capital with AI-assisted surveillance cameras. Farther west, in Serbia, Huawei is helping set up a “safe-city system,” complete with facial-recognition cameras and joint patrols conducted by Serbian and Chinese police aimed at helping Chinese tourists to feel safe.
In the early aughts, the Chinese telecom titan ZTE sold Ethiopia a wireless network with built-in backdoor access for the government. In a later crackdown, dissidents were rounded up for brutal interrogations, during which they were played audio from recent phone calls they’d made. Today, Kenya, Uganda, and Mauritius are outfitting major cities with Chinese-made surveillance networks.
In Egypt, Chinese developers are looking to finance the construction of a new capital. It’s slated to run on a “smart city” platform similar to City Brain, although a vendor has not yet been named. In southern Africa, Zambia has agreed to buy more than $1 billion in telecom equipment from China, including internet-monitoring technology. China’s Hikvision, the world’s largest manufacturer of AI-enabled surveillance cameras, has an office in Johannesburg.
China uses “predatory lending to sell telecommunications equipment at a significant discount to developing countries, which then puts China in a position to control those networks and their data,” Michael Kratsios, America’s CTO, told me. When countries need to refinance the terms of their loans, China can make network access part of the deal, in the same way that its military secures base rights at foreign ports it finances. “If you give [China] unfettered access to data networks around the world, that could be a serious problem,” Kratsios said.
In 2018, CloudWalk Technology, a Guangzhou-based start-up spun out of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, inked a deal with the Zimbabwean government to set up a surveillance network. Its terms require Harare to send images of its inhabitants—a rich data set, given that Zimbabwe has absorbed migration flows from all across sub-Saharan Africa—back to CloudWalk’s Chinese offices, allowing the company to fine-tune its software’s ability to recognize dark-skinned faces, which have previously proved tricky for its algorithms.
Having set up beachheads in Asia, Europe, and Africa, China’s AI companies are now pushing into Latin America, a region the Chinese government describes as a “core economic interest.” China financed Ecuador’s $240 million purchase of a surveillance-camera system. Bolivia, too, has bought surveillance equipment with help from a loan from Beijing. Venezuela recently debuted a new national ID-card system that logs citizens’ political affiliations in a database built by ZTE. In a grim irony, for years Chinese companies hawked many of these surveillance products at a security expo in Xinjiang, the home province of the Uighurs.
If china is able to surpass America in AI, it will become a more potent geopolitical force, especially as the standard-bearer of a new authoritarian alliance.
China already has some of the world’s largest data sets to feed its AI systems, a crucial advantage for its researchers. In cavernous mega-offices in cities across the country, low-wage workers sit at long tables for long hours, transcribing audio files and outlining objects in images, to make the data generated by China’s massive population more useful. But for the country to best America’s AI ecosystem, its vast troves of data will have to be sifted through by algorithms that recognize patterns well beyond those grasped by human insight. And even executives at China’s search giant Baidu concede that the top echelon of AI talent resides in the West.
Historically, China struggled to retain elite quants, most of whom left to study in America’s peerless computer-science departments, before working at Silicon Valley’s more interesting, better-resourced companies. But that may be changing. The Trump administration has made it difficult for Chinese students to study in the United States, and those who are able to are viewed with suspicion. A leading machine-learning scientist at Google recently described visa restrictions as “one of the largest bottlenecks to our collective research productivity.”China’s ascent to AI supremacy is a menacing prospect: The country’s political structure encourages, rather than restrains, this technology’s worst uses.
Meanwhile, Chinese computer-science departments have gone all-in on AI. Three of the world’s top 10 AI universities, in terms of the volume of research they publish, are now located in China. And that’s before the country finishes building the 50 new AI research centers mandated by Xi’s “AI Innovation Action Plan for Institutions of Higher Education.” Chinese companies attracted 36 percent of global AI private-equity investment in 2017, up from just 3 percent in 2015. Talented Chinese engineers can stay home for school and work for a globally sexy homegrown company like TikTok after graduation.
China will still lag behind America in computing hardware in the near term. Just as data must be processed by algorithms to be useful, algorithms must be instantiated in physical strata—specifically, in the innards of microchips. These gossamer silicon structures are so intricate that a few missing atoms can reroute electrical pulses through the chips’ neuronlike switches. The most sophisticated chips are arguably the most complex objects yet built by humans. They’re certainly too complex to be quickly pried apart and reverse-engineered by China’s vaunted corporate-espionage artists.
Chinese firms can’t yet build the best of the best chip-fabrication rooms, which cost billions of dollars and rest on decades of compounding institutional knowledge. Nitrogen-cooled and seismically isolated, to prevent a passing truck’s rumble from ruining a microchip in vitro, these automated rooms are as much a marvel as their finished silicon wafers. And the best ones are still mostly in the United States, Western Europe, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.
America’s government is still able to limit the hardware that flows into China, a state of affairs that the Communist Party has come to resent. When the Trump administration banned the sale of microchips to ZTE in April 2018, Frank Long, an analyst who specializes in China’s AI sector, described it as a wake-up call for China on par with America’s experience of the Arab oil embargo.
But the AI revolution has dealt China a rare leapfrogging opportunity. Until recently, most chips were designed with flexible architecture that allows for many types of computing operations. But AI runs fastest on custom chips, like those Google uses for its cloud computing to instantly spot your daughter’s face in thousands of photos. (Apple performs many of these operations on the iPhone with a custom neural-engine chip.) Because everyone is making these custom chips for the first time, China isn’t as far behind: Baidu and Alibaba are building chips customized for deep learning. And in August 2019, Huawei unveiled a mobile machine-learning chip. Its design came from Cambricon, perhaps the global chip-making industry’s most valuable start-up, which was founded by Yi’s colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
By 2030, AI supremacy might be within range for China. The country will likely have the world’s largest economy, and new money to spend on AI applications for its military. It may have the most sophisticated drone swarms. It may have autonomous weapons systems that can forecast an adversary’s actions after a brief exposure to a theater of war, and make battlefield decisions much faster than human cognition allows. Its missile-detection algorithms could void America’s first-strike nuclear advantage. AI could upturn the global balance of power.
On my way out of the Institute of Automation, Yi took me on a tour of his robotics lab. In the high-ceilinged room, grad students fiddled with a giant disembodied metallic arm and a small humanoid robot wrapped in a gray exoskeleton while Yi told me about his work modeling the brain. He said that understanding the brain’s structure was the surest way to understand the nature of intelligence.
I asked Yi how the future of AI would unfold. He said he could imagine software modeled on the brain acquiring a series of abilities, one by one. He said it could achieve some semblance of self-recognition, and then slowly become aware of the past and the future. It could develop motivations and values. The final stage of its assisted evolution would come when it understood other agents as worthy of empathy.
I asked him how long this process would take.
“I think such a machine could be built by 2030,” Yi said.
Before bidding Yi farewell, I asked him to imagine things unfolding another way. “Suppose you finish your digital, high-resolution model of the brain,” I said. “And suppose it attains some rudimentary form of consciousness. And suppose, over time, you’re able to improve it, until it outperforms humans in every cognitive task, with the exception of empathy. You keep it locked down in safe mode until you achieve that last step. But then one day, the government’s security services break down your office door. They know you have this AI on your computer. They want to use it as the software for a new hardware platform, an artificial humanoid soldier. They’ve already manufactured a billion of them, and they don’t give a damn if they’re wired with empathy. They demand your password. Do you give it to them?”
“I would destroy my computer and leave,” Yi said.
“Really?” I replied.
“Yes, really,” he said. “At that point, it would be time to quit my job and go focus on robots that create art.”
If you were looking for a philosopher-king to chart an ethical developmental trajectory for AI, you could do worse than Yi. But the development path of AI will be shaped by overlapping systems of local, national, and global politics, not by a wise and benevolent philosopher-king. That’s why China’s ascent to AI supremacy is such a menacing prospect: The country’s political structure encourages, rather than restrains, this technology’s worst uses.
Even in the U.S., a democracy with constitutionally enshrined human rights, Americans are struggling mightily to prevent the emergence of a public-private surveillance state. But at least America has political structures that stand some chance of resistance. In China, AI will be restrained only according to the party’s needs.
It was nearly noon when I finally left the institute. The day’s rain was in its last hour. Yi ordered me a car and walked me to meet it, holding an umbrella over my head. I made my way to the Forbidden City, Beijing’s historic seat of imperial power. Even this short trip to the city center brought me into contact with China’s surveillance state. Before entering Tiananmen Square, both my passport and my face were scanned, an experience I was becoming numb to.
In the square itself, police holding body-size bulletproof shields jogged in single-file lines, weaving paths through throngs of tourists. The heavy police presence was a chilling reminder of the student protesters who were murdered here in 1989. China’s AI-patrolled Great Firewall was built, in part, to make sure that massacre is never discussed on its internet. To dodge algorithmic censors, Chinese activists rely on memes—Tank Man approaching a rubber ducky—to commemorate the students’ murder.
The party’s AI-powered censorship extends well beyond Tiananmen. Earlier this year, the government arrested Chinese programmers who were trying to preserve disappeared news stories about the coronavirus pandemic. Some of the articles in their database were banned because they were critical of Xi and the party. They survived only because internet users reposted them on social media, interlaced with coded language and emojis designed to evade algorithms. Work-arounds of this sort are short-lived: Xi’s domestic critics used to make fun of him with images of Winnie the Pooh, but those too are now banned in China. The party’s ability to edit history and culture, by force, will become more sweeping and precise, as China’s AI improves.
Wresting power from a government that so thoroughly controls the information environment will be difficult. It may take a million acts of civil disobedience, like the laptop-destroying scenario imagined by Yi. China’s citizens will have to stand with their students. Who can say what hardships they may endure?
China’s citizens don’t yet seem to be radicalized against surveillance. The pandemic may even make people value privacy less, as one early poll in the U.S. suggests. So far, Xi is billing the government’s response as a triumphant “people’s war,” another old phrase from Mao, referring to the mobilization of the whole population to smash an invading force. The Chinese people may well be more pliant now than they were before the virus.
But evidence suggests that China’s young people—at least some of them—resented the government’s initial secrecy about the outbreak. For all we know, some new youth movement on the mainland is biding its time, waiting for the right moment to make a play for democracy. The people of Hong Kong certainly sense the danger of this techno-political moment. The night before I arrived in China, more than 1 million protesters had poured into the island’s streets. (The free state newspaper in my Beijing hotel described them, falsely, as police supporters.) A great many held umbrellas over their heads, in solidarity with student protesters from years prior, and to keep their faces hidden. A few tore down a lamppost on the suspicion that it contained a facial-recognition camera. Xi has since tightened his grip on the region with a “national-security law,” and there is little that outnumbered Hong Kongers can do about it, at least not without help from a movement on the mainland.
During my visit to Tiananmen Square, I didn’t see any protesters. People mostly milled about peacefully, posing for selfies with the oversize portrait of Mao. They held umbrellas, but only to keep the August sun off their faces. Walking in their midst, I kept thinking about the contingency of history: The political systems that constrain a technology during its early development profoundly shape our shared global future. We have learned this from our adventures in carbon-burning. Much of the planet’s political trajectory may depend on just how dangerous China’s people imagine AI to be in the hands of centralized power. Until they secure their personal liberty, at some unimaginable cost, free people everywhere will have to hope against hope that the world’s most intelligent machines are made elsewhere.
This article appears in the September 2020 print edition with the headline “When China Sees All.”
Behind the Beirut Explosion: Seven Years of Official Neglect
Attempts to move 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate out of the city’s port became mired in Lebanon’s bureaucracy
By Dion Nissenbaum, Nazih Osseiran, Georgi Kantchev and Benoit Faucon
BEIRUT—The 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate sailed into the city nearly seven years ago. The ship’s captain at the time called it a “powder keg.”
The cargo, a chemical compound used for blasting mines and building car bombs, was seized when the ship carrying it was found unseaworthy and its owner failed to pay certain fees, according to the ship’s captain and the International Transport Workers’ Federation, a global trade union. It ended up in a warehouse as Lebanese officials, lawyers, judges and a Russian shipper bickered over what to do next.
Over the next three years, attempts to get rid of the cargo became mired in the country’s bureaucracy, according to correspondence between Lebanese officials. Port officials didn’t heed court orders to safely store the ammonium nitrate, but instead sought permission to unload the chemicals, according to court documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Other officials simply stopped responding to proposals.
At one point, the country’s Court of Urgent Matters refused to grant permission to sell or re-export the ammonium nitrate. A security division asked that the ship be moved for safety, but it remained in port. The ship’s crew was stranded on the boat, which had a leak, for months without pay.
On Tuesday, firefighters converged on Beirut’s main port to battle flames and smoke pouring from the windows of Warehouse 12, the cause of which is still unknown. As small pops echoed through the air, they worked with hammers and pliers to pry loose the steel doors that held the ammonium nitrate.
Nearly 15 minutes after the firefighters arrived, they were engulfed in one of the largest nonnuclear explosions in history. It tossed bodies, trees and cars through the air, killing more than 150 people and injuring 5,000 more, laying waste to Beirut’s port and much of its commercial district.
Arms-control experts estimate the size of the Beirut explosion was larger than some common bombs used in airstrikes, but smaller than WWII atomic weapons.
Strength of explosions, equivalency in TNT
explosion in Beirut
atomic bomb dropped
atomic bomb dropped
Sources: Jeffrey Lewis, Middlebury Insitute (TNT equivalents); U.S. Air Force (GBU-28, MOAB, Hiroshima, Nagasaki); Federation of American Scientists (W-76)
The blast was the culmination of a series of crises that have brought the country to its knees. Lebanon faces an unraveling economy, an accelerating outbreak of the coronavirus, and recurrent protests against government corruption and deepening poverty. Decades of financial mismanagement led the country to default earlier this year on billions in loans from international investors. Months of talks about a bailout with the International Monetary Fund have gone nowhere.
“What happened is a physical manifestation of the woes that Lebanon is suffering from,” said Lina Khatib, director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House, a nonpartisan London-based think tank. “Lebanon is entering one of the bleakest eras in its modern history.”
Prices on imports, the bulk of Lebanon’s goods, have soared. People are unable to pay for meat and bread. Power outages, which have long been a fact of life in Lebanon, have meant some people have had as little as two hours of reliable power each day. Many people rely on generators to keep their power going, but the bills for the fuel to keep them running 18 to 20 hours a day are rising.
Public anger is boiling over. Late Thursday, protesters and security forces clashed in downtown Beirut. Some activists carried shields and charged riot police, who responded with tear gas.
Bahaa Hariri, brother of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the eldest son of Rafiq Hariri, the former prime minister killed by a truck bomb in 2005, said it was time for the government to step down and pave the way for an independent international investigation of the blast.
“This is utter carelessness,” he said. “It’s appalling. We need to get to the truth.”
The Lebanese government said it has taken steps to assuage the public. Officials have detained 19 Beirut port officials and said that all the culprits will be held accountable. The government has ordered a freeze on the assets of seven officials, including Badri Daher, the head of Lebanon’s customs authority, and Hassan Koraytem, the Beirut port’s general manager.
Photos: Explosion in Lebanon’s Capital Sparks Death and Destruction
The blast at Beirut’s port killed at least 154 people and injured thousands in the Mediterranean city
A man surveys the ruins of Beirut’s port from the window of a house that was damaged in Tuesday’s explosion.SAM TARLING FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL1 of 13
In a response to a request for comment, Mr. Daher sent the Journal a document he had transferred to Lebanon’s Central Bank detailing his bank accounts, as part of anti-money-laundering legislation. Mr. Koraytem couldn’t be reached for comment.
Even before arriving in Lebanon, in 2013, the vessel carrying the volatile cargo had a history of detentions, poor maintenance and ownership controversies. Three months before it was held in Beirut, it had been detained for 13 days by Spanish authorities because of faulty radio and fire-safety equipment.
When Captain Boris Prokoshev took over the ship, called the Rhosus, in the fall of 2013, he found a broken diesel generator and water leakages on the deck. “It had seen better days,” he said in an interview.
“This was an old, substandard ship with poor maintenance and a substandard owner,” said Olga Ananina, a Russia-based inspector with the International Transport Workers’ Federation, who reviewed the case at the time and worked to help the Rhosus crew. “It was a big risk for such a ship to carry such a dangerous cargo.”
Thousands of one-metric-ton bags of ammonium nitrate were stored on the floor of a port warehouse in Beirut for several years before this week’s devastating explosion.
Ammonium nitrate is primarily used as fertilizer in farming. It is also used to make explosives used in mining.
Approximate percentage use of ammonium nitrate
Stored in a dry place, pure ammonium nitrate is safe.
It becomes more dangerous if it is mixed with other products or contaminated with impurities and subjected to heat:
Exposed to heat of up to 446 °F, it decomposes non-explosively, producing mainly nitrogen, water vapor and oxygen.
Exposed to higher heat, it detonates—decomposing explosively as the chemical reaction moves through the substance faster than the speed of sound—producing a large volume of gas and a shockwave.
The orange-red hue seen in the cloud that billowed over Beirut after Tuesday’s blast stemmed from ammonia and nitrogen dioxide gases also produced by the decomposition of ammonium nitrate.
Source: Compound Interest
The European Union database Equasis says the Rhosus was being managed by a Bulgarian company, whose director said that he has never owned it and suggested that the real owner must have falsified documents and used his company’s name. The Bulgarian Transport Ministry said that according to its records the last known owner was Teto Shipping.
The company is controlled by Igor Grechushkin, a Russian businessman based in Cyprus. Mr. Grechushkin didn’t return a request for comment.
After picking up its cargo in the Black Sea port of Batumi, Georgia, the ship sailed for the port of Beira, Mozambique. But Mr. Grechushkin, the Rhosus’s owner, told the captain that he had no money to fund the journey through the Suez Canal to Africa so the ship would have to pick up extra cargo in Beirut, Mr. Prokoshev said.
Fábrica de Explosivos de Moçambique, a firm that makes commercial explosives in Mozambique, said it had placed the cargo’s order for ammonium nitrate from a Georgia-based company called Savaro, but the shipment was never paid for as it wasn’t delivered.
On Thursday, Cyprus police, acting on behalf of Interpol’s Lebanon bureau, asked Mr. Grechushkin about the circumstances of the ship’s grounding, said spokesman Stelios Stylianou. He said the vessel’s owner isn’t under formal investigation in Cyprus and declined to elaborate further.
Once in Beirut, the ship began to load road vehicles to pick up the extra cash. But Lebanese authorities refused to clear it, saying that the ship wouldn’t be able to carry the heavy new load, according to the captain and Ms. Ananina, the official with the International Transport Workers’ Federation. The officials encountered other technical violations and detained the ship.
Mr. Grechushkin didn’t send replacement sailors and the crew, consisting of Russian and Ukrainian citizens, was stranded on the ship, the captain and Ms. Ananina said.
The sailors sent dozens of appeals to Lebanese and Russian officials, as well as to international maritime organizations and the Red Cross. Standing on the deck one day, the sailors held a placard in English saying “Lebaneses release us home.”
“My wife starves [because] I cannot transmit money to her,” Mr. Prokoshev wrote in a letter to the Beirut court in 2014. He said he was owed nearly $32,000 in wages. The crew still hasn’t been paid, Ms. Ananina said.
Another worry for Mr. Prokoshev was the dangerous cargo the ship was still carrying. “We were hostages, stranded for months, without pay and we had a dangerous cargo,” he said. “We’ve been living on a powder keg.”
Later that year, a Lebanese court granted permission for the crew to disembark, given the dangerous cargo, and authorities discharged the cargo to the port’s warehouses, according to a letter by lawyers for Mr. Prokoshev and the ship’s creditors.
Proposals for the cargo started soon after the ship arrived in Beirut. Chafic Merhi, the customs chief at the time, asked permission from the Court of Urgent Matters for re-export or sale of the ammonium nitrate, according to court documents.
Mr. Merhi couldn’t be reached for comment.
In June 2014, the court responded. It refused to grant permission for re-export or sale, and ordered the port authority to float the vessel and safely store the cargo.
Lebanese customs directors continued to send letters to judicial authorities seeking to get rid of the merchandise. Their proposals: export the goods, or sell to the privately owned Lebanese Explosives Company.
The court didn’t respond to subsequent requests after its 2014 ruling. The purview of safely moving and transporting the ammonium nitrate is that of Lebanon’s military and the ministry of public works.
The anti-drugs and money-laundering division asked the vessel to be moved, citing concerns for the safety of port workers, according to documents.
The vessel stayed on in the Beirut port. Mr. Prokoshev, the captain, said the ship had a hole in its forepeak, a storage compartment, which the sailors pumped periodically. When they abandoned the vessel and the cargo was moved to the warehouse, the water accumulated and it sank, he said.
Meanwhile, concern mounted over the ammonium nitrate. In a December 2017 letter, reviewed by the Journal, Mr. Daher, head of Lebanon’s customs, warned a judge of “the extreme danger that these goods remain in the warehouse under inappropriate weather conditions.” A solution should be found “in order to preserve the safety of the port and its workers,” he said.
Customs officials who tried to unlock the cargo’s impasse are now being targeted by authorities seeking to establish who is responsible for the catastrophe. On Thursday, the government ordered the freeze of the accounts held by Mr. Daher, the customs chief, and his predecessor Mr. Merhi. On Friday Mr. Merhi was arrested and placed in preliminary detention, according to a government source familiar with the investigation.
And when funds stopped flowing to many banks and companies outside America’s borders—from Japanese lenders making bets on U.S. corporate debt to Singapore traders needing U.S. dollars to pay for imports—the U.S. central bank stepped in again.
The Fed has long resisted becoming the world’s backup lender. But it shed reservations after the pandemic went global. During two critical mid-March weeks, it bought a record $450 billion in Treasurys from investors desperate to raise dollars. By April, the Fed had lent another nearly half a trillion dollars to counterparts overseas, representing most of the emergency lending it had extended to fight the coronavirus at the time.Lender of Last ResortMarket turmoil triggered by the coronaviruspandemic in March led the U.S. FederalReserve to lend nearly $450 billion to othercentral banks.Money lent by Fed to central banksSource: Federal Reserve*Includes Bank of Mexico, Swiss National Bank,Monetary Authority of Singapore, Reserve Bank ofAustralia and the central banks of Denmark andNorway..billionBank ofJapanEuropeanCentralBankBank ofEnglandBank ofKoreaOther*April 2020July0100200300400$500
The massive commitment was among the Fed’s most significant—and least noticed—expansions of power yet. It eased a global dollar shortage, helped halt a deep market selloff and continues to support global markets today. It established the Fed as global guarantor of dollar funding, cementing the U.S. currency’s role as the global financial system’s underpinning.
Just as the Fed expanded its role in the U.S. economy to an unprecedented degree during the 2008 financial maelstrom, it has in the coronavirus crisis expanded its power and influence globally.
“The Fed has vigorously embraced its role as a global lender of last resort in this episode,” said Nathan Sheets, a former Fed economist who was the Treasury Department’s top international deputy from 2014 to 2017 and now is chief economist at investment-advisory firm PGIM Fixed Income. “When the chips were down, U.S. authorities acted.”
The value of the dollar has tumbled in recent weeks against other currencies as investors grow more troubled about the economic outlook and difficulty containing the coronavirus. Still, it is trading near levels recorded before the pandemic hit this year and above its long-term average on a trade-weighted basis, said Mark Sobel, a former U.S. Treasury Department official now at the Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum, a London-based think tank. Concerns that short-term declines in the dollar are an omen that its standing as the global reserve currency faces a threat are “vastly overdone,” he said.
The Fed supplied most of the money abroad via “U.S. dollar liquidity swap lines.” In essence, it lends dollars for fixed periods to foreign central banks and in return takes in their local currencies at market exchange rates. At the loans’ end, the Fed swaps back the currencies at the original exchange rate and collects interest.
By stabilizing foreign dollar markets, the Fed’s actions likely avoided even greater disruptions to foreign economies and to global markets. Those disruptions could spill back to the U.S. economy, pushing the value of the dollar higher against other currencies and damping U.S. exports—and the economy.
The risks to the Fed are minimal given that it is dealing with the most creditworthy nations and the most advanced central banks. But there are risks that investors come to expect a safety net for dollars that might lead to riskier borrowing during good times.Global GuarantorThe Federal Reserve bank lent large sums of money abroad faster this year than during theU.S. housing downturn and global financial crisis. Fed’s outstanding currency swaps to foreigncentral banksSource: Federal Reserve*Note: Defined as usage of $50 billion or more.billionWEEKS SINCE START OF SWAP LINE USAGE*2007-20092020-20-10010203040506070800100200300400500600$700
The Fed began deploying the swap facilities on March 15. By the end of March, it had expanded them to include 14 central banks while launching a separate program for those without swap lines to borrow dollars against their holdings of Treasurys. By May’s end, the total lent out under the programs peaked at $449 billion.
The Fed’s goal is to keep financial markets functioning, and the March events had the makings of a global panic with a resulting rush for cash. The aim was to prevent investors from dumping Treasurys and other dollar-denominated assets such as U.S. stocks and corporate securities to raise cash, which would have driven prices of those assets even lower.
Fed Chairman Jerome Powell in a May 13 webcast acknowledged the Fed’s global role more explicitly than his predecessors had during the last global financial crisis. The loans let foreign central banks supply dollars cheaply to their banking systems and stopped everyone in that chain from panic-selling assets like U.S. Treasurys to raise cash, he said: “It had a very constructive effect on calming down those markets and reducing the safety premium for owning U.S. dollars.”
Andrew Hauser, the Bank of England’s top markets official, in an early June speech said those swap lines “may be the most important part of the international financial stability safety net that few have ever heard of.”
On July 29, the Fed said it would extend the temporary programs, originally scheduled to end in September, through March 2021. “The crisis and the economic fallout from the pandemic are far from over,” Mr. Powell said, “and we’ll leave them in place until we’re confident that they’re no longer needed.”
The shift has brought little of the scrutiny the Fed saw during the 2008-2009 crisis. When Mr. Powell appeared before Congress for hearings in June, lawmakers didn’t ask a single question about the huge sums the central bank made available to borrowers abroad.
The Fed’s governing charter from Congress gives it the authority to operate the swap lines, which it has done in some form since 1962, when the Fed heavily debated whether it had the authority to conduct foreign-exchange operations. Congress could revoke these authorities if it didn’t approve of how the Fed was using them.
The swaps are structured so that the Fed’s foreign counterparts bear the risk of loans going bad or currency markets moving the wrong way. A large portion of the Fed’s overseas loans have recently been swapped back as markets around the world have recovered.
The Fed’s aggressive overseas lending has injected it into the world of foreign policy: Not every country gets equal access to the Fed’s dollars. Turkey, for example, has appealed unsuccessfully for dollar loans from the Fed to support its sinking currency, according to public comments made in April by the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, David Satterfield. A representative for the Turkish central bank didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Those decisions are based on creditworthiness, but political considerations could pose a threat to the Fed’s independence, said Mr. Sheets, the former Fed economist. When the Fed rolled out the lending program during the 2008 financial crisis, central-bank officials consulted with the leadership of the Treasury and State Department to make sure any operations were consistent with broader U.S. objectives, he said.
“The Fed was keenly aware of this tension that, yes, this was monetary policy, but it was abutting some broader issues that were not typically the Fed’s area,” said Mr. Sheets. Concerns that such lending programs could suck the Fed into broader foreign policy entanglements were a “meaningful constraint” on the expansion of the swap lines, he said.
The moves have also left the world ever more tied to a single country’s economic management and central bank. Efforts have persisted for years to dilute the dollar’s central role, via the euro, then the Chinese yuan. But knowing the Fed is willing to step in has led banks, businesses and investors to flock to the U.S. currency.Bond BuildupThe central bank’s pandemic responseincluded buying large volumes of governmentdebt faster than in previous market crises.Fed holdingsSource: Federal Reserve via St. Louis Fed.trillionRECESSIONTreasurysMortgage-backed securities2003’05’10’15’200123456$7
This gives the U.S. enormous power—to punish foreign banks for violations of U.S. sanctions, for instance, or to consider options like breaking the Hong Kong dollar’s peg to the dollar, something U.S. officials considered earlier in July, The Wall Street Journal reported, to punish China for its treatment of the city, before shelving the idea.
It also has produced a familiar cycle, said Stephen Jen, chief executive of Eurizon SLJ Capital Ltd. in London and a longtime currency analyst and money manager. Investors value the dollar for its safety. But every time there is a major market stress there is a run to the currency, leading to breakdowns in the market, which forces the Fed to step in, which reinforces investors’ faith in the dollar, he said. “People have become more dependent on the dollar than any other currency,” he added.
The Fed pioneered the current version of central-bank swap lines in 2007, when rising U.S. subprime-mortgage delinquencies jolted short-term debt markets and made it hard for big European banks to borrow dollars. Initially, the Fed lent to some European banks’ U.S. subsidiaries. It later rolled out swap lines to two foreign central banks, allowing the Fed to lend dollars with less risk, and expanded them to a dozen others over 2008 and 2009.
The Fed activated some of the swaps again in 2010 and 2011, as Eurozone debt problems mounted, and set up standing facilities with five major central banks in 2013. One Fed bank president formally objected, saying that the swaps effectively let European banks borrow at lower rates than U.S. banks and that they were an inappropriate incursion into fiscal policy.
When coronavirus shutdowns hit the U.S. and Europe in March, oil prices plunged and stocks plummeted. Companies drew down bank credit lines, socking away dollars to pay workers and bills as revenue vanished. Financial markets showed alarming signs of dollar demand.
March 16, among the worst days in recent market history, brought the financial system to the brink. Stock prices plunged globally as investors scrambled to raise cash. Banks sharply increased the cost of lending dollars to each other. Foreign banks were forced to pay dearly, gumming up the flow of dollars to their customers.
In South Korea, big brokerages suddenly found themselves in need of large sums of dollars to meet margin calls, according to Tae Jong Ok, a Moody’s Investors Service analyst who covers financial institutions in the country. They had previously borrowed money to buy billions of dollars of derivatives tied to stocks in the U.S., Europe and Hong Kong. When those stocks plunged, lenders demanded they put up more cash. The scramble for dollars helped push the Korean won to its lowest level in a decade on March 19.
Japanese banks suffered, too. Many had made loans directly to U.S. borrowers. The sector also owned more than $100 billion of collateralized loan obligations—bonds backed by bundles of loans to low-rated U.S. companies—that in some cases had been bought on short-term credit and needed to be regularly refinanced. Insurers in Japan that had invested heavily in higher-yielding assets abroad also had difficulty securing dollars to fund their trades.
In Singapore, high borrowing costs affected the dollar supply to companies needing to pay off debt or import and export goods, according to bankers in the city-state. “There was a classic ‘dash for cash’ scenario,” said a representative of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, adding that dollar-market conditions became so strained there was indiscriminate asset-selling.Dash for CashForeign investors sold more than $150 billionin U.S. government bonds in March.Net change in foreign governments’ holdingsof U.S. TreasurysSource: Federal Reserve.billionFeb. 2020-75-50-250$25
Central bankers from Singapore, South Korea, Australia and elsewhere swapped tales of the carnage on a regular call that included a representative of the Fed, according to people familiar with the calls.
As the crisis snowballed, the Fed increased purchases of Treasurys from $40 billion a day on March 16 to a record $75 billion days later. It also expanded the dollar swap lines to nine other countries. By March 31, the Fed had launched a new program that let some 170 central banks borrow dollars against their holdings of U.S. Treasurys.
The rollout was faster and broader than when the Fed tentatively introduced the swap lines during the financial crisis a decade earlier. Back then, “it was improvisation,” said Adam Tooze, a Columbia University history professor who writes about financial crises and war. “Today, it seems extremely deliberate.”
As financial markets recovered, dollar borrowing costs for many banks and companies outside the U.S. fell. The Fed’s outstanding currency swaps started receding in mid-June, as a wave of transactions matured and weren’t renewed, and fell further to $107.2 billion as of July 30.
The facility that lets central banks borrow against Treasury holdings hasn’t seen much use. Analysts said its presence alone helped stop the scramble for dollars.
While the Fed’s actions during the financial crisis sparked outrage—seen to be aiding firms that caused the crisis—there have been no concerns raised publicly by U.S. lawmakers or Fed officials about the Fed’s growing global role. “The whole pandemic is a different enemy,” said William Dudley, New York Fed president from 2009 to 2018. “The political support for the Fed to be aggressive is much broader this time.”
The Fed has had little choice but to intervene, given the dollar’s global centrality. Some 88% of the $6.6 trillion in currency trades that take place on average daily involve dollars, according to the Bank for International Settlements, or BIS. The dollar is also the most commonly used currency in cross-border-trade in commodities and other goods.
In addition, low American bond yields over the past decade prompted many big investors to send dollars to emerging markets. By the end of 2019, the volume of U.S. dollar-denominated international debt securities and cross-border loans reached $22.6 trillion, up from $16.5 trillion a decade earlier, according to BIS data.Dollar DominanceThe Fed has helped cement the U.S. currency’srole as the global financial system’sunderpinning.Cross-border bank loans and internationaldebt securities, by currency.trillionU.S.dollarEuroOthers2000’05’10’15010203040$50WSJ Dollar IndexSources: Bank for International Settlements (loansand debt securities); Dow Jones Market Data (index)As of Aug. 32009’10’15’2060708090100
Discontent about the dollar’s growing dominance has percolated for years, including among U.S. allies. Mark Carney, the Bank of England’s governor at the time, took aim at the dollar’s “destabilizing” role last August in a keynote speech at an annual central-bankers gathering in Jackson Hole, Wyo.
He argued the dollar’s growing role in international trade was out of step with America’s declining share of global output and exposed developing countries to damage from changes in U.S. economic conditions. He also outlined a proposal for central banks to create their own reserve currency.
The Trump administration’s use of tariffs and sanctions has spurred more countries to seek trading arrangements that bypass the dollar, but the efforts have had little effect.
One irony of the U.S. financial crisis was that the dollar’s use overseas only increased in its aftermath. One reason was the Fed: Its liberal lending during the crisis convinced investors that whatever happened, their access to dollars was more or less assured.
A decade ago, Jonathan Kirshner, a Boston College political science and international studies professor, predicted a decline in the dollar’s international role.
Its performance has been more robust than he anticipated, he said in a recent interview: “In the absence of viable alternatives, the dollar endures as the most important currency for the world.”
Russian Oil Grab in Libya Fuels U.S.-Kremlin Tensions in Mideast
Washington threatens sanctions against Moscow allies in key energy region
Military contractors linked to the Kremlin have seized control of two of Libya’s largest oil facilities in recent weeks, heightening tensions between Russia and the U.S. over Moscow’s growing footprint in the turbulent North African nation.
Since June, armed fighters from the Wagner Group, a Russian firm with ties to the Russian government, (Mercenaries. Plausible deniability that’s thinly veiled.) have moved in to secure Libya’s largest oil field and its most important oil-exporting port, Es Sider.
The advance has helped Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar maintain a blockade of the country’s petroleum exports in defiance of U.S. pressure to restart them, according to Libyan and Western officials.
Moscow’s moves show how Libya has become a key front in a struggle between the U.S. and Russia for influence in the Middle East and access to strategic assets. The two nations have also locked horns in Syria, where Russian and American troops patrolling near oil fields in eastern Deir Ezzor province have engaged in roadside confrontations.
“The Russians are doing things that are bolder and bolder,” said Jason Pack, president of U.S.-based consulting firm Libya-Analysis LLC.
The recent Russian oil grab in Libya triggered a stern reaction by the U.S. The Treasury Department cited Russian involvement in Libya in a new round of sanctions applied in July to a Russian businessman with ties to President Vladimir Putin. The U.S. is also seeking to counter the Kremlin’s influence by threatening sanctions against their local Libyan ally, Mr. Haftar.
Russian military contractors arrived in Libya in 2019, backing Mr. Haftar’s forces as he waged war on Libya’s internationally recognized government in Tripoli. His campaign collapsed in June after being driven back by a government counterattack supported by Turkey.
Now, U.S. officials are concerned that the Russian mercenaries have shifted their focus to taking control of Libya’s oil industry. After Wagner Group gunmen moved into the Sharara oil field in the country’s south, the U.S. Embassy to Libya in June criticized what it called “an unprecedented foreign-backed campaign to undermine Libya’s energy sector and prevent the resumption of oil production” at the site.
On July 15, the U.S. Treasury expanded its sanctions on entities owned by Mr. Prigozhin, citing in part their involvement in the conflict in Libya. “Our intelligence reflects continued and unhelpful involvement by Russia and the Wagner Group,” Rear Admiral Heidi Berg, Africom’s director of intelligence, wrote on Twitter.
While the Kremlin says the private military contractors operate independently of its control, European security officials say intercepted communications show they report to Russian military intelligence in Libya. And the Russian government publicly backs the demands of Mr. Haftar, who has blocked most Libya’s oil production since January as he seeks more revenue from the central government in Tripoli for the East Libyan region he controls.
“Each of the country’s three historical provinces has the right to equal opportunities to receive income from the use of oil resources,” a spokeswoman for Russia’s foreign ministry tweeted Tuesday.
The Kremlin didn’t respond to a request for comment on the Russian fighters’ presence in Libya and the takeover of oil installations.
In another sign of Russia’s rising clout in Libya, the Kremlin on Wednesday agreed with Turkey—which backs the opposite side in the conflict—to continue joint efforts to create conditions for a lasting and sustainable cease-fire in Libya by creating a permanent, joint working group.
Wagner’s Russian mercenaries now hold sway on key export flows to Europe and assets partly owned by major Western oil companies.
Sharara is run by Spain’s Repsol SA while Es Sider is the international gateway for nearby fields partly owned by U.S. companies Hess Corp. and ConocoPhillips Co.
The companies didn’t return requests for comment.
A State Department spokeswoman said the U.S. was incensed at international interference in favor of Libya’s oil blockade. “Now is the time for all responsible parties to reject attempts to militarize the energy sector, divide Libya’s economic institutions and subjugate critical infrastructure to foreign interests,” she said.
The Defense Intelligence Agency, which reports to the Pentagon, has been investigating the deepening connections between Mr. Haftar and Russian mercenaries, U.S. officials say. The warlord’s faction is “one of the groups we keep close track of because of their association with Russian military and Russian intelligence,” one U.S. defense official said.
To counter Russian involvement in the strategic North African nation, Washington is also targeting Mr. Haftar.
A spokesman for Mr. Haftar’s forces didn’t respond to a request for comment on the situation. Mr. Haftar didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment.
While the U.S. recognizes the central government in Tripoli, some Trump administration officials previously viewed the commander as a potential ally against radical Islamists in Libya. President Trump endorsed Mr. Haftar in April 2019, discussing what the White House termed a “shared vision” with the commander during a phone call.
But U.S. officials say Washington threatened Mr. Haftar with sanctions over his refusal to reopen oil exports, a decision made under Russian influence. The warlord initially let ports reopen but changed his mind when Wagner Group forces moved to the Es Sider terminal, say Libyan and European officials.
The State Department communicated the threat of sanctions to Mr. Haftar because he was being “ridiculous and uncompromising” with oil installations in eastern Libya, said one U.S. official.
Without naming anyone, the U.S. Embassy in Libya tweeted July 13 that “those who undermine Libya’s economy and cling to military escalation will face isolation and risk of sanctions.”
U.S. officials hope sanctions could force Mr. Haftar, a U.S. citizen and one-time Central Intelligence Agency asset who used to live in exile in Virginia, to find an understanding with his Tripoli rivals and sever his ties with Russia. According to U.S. property records, Mr. Haftar owns a $185,000 ranch and a $364,000 condo in Virginia, making him vulnerable to U.S. sanctions.
See their site for footnotes and hyperlinks. Even my blog was censored.
Not a blanket endorsement of that site. It’s just an interesting article. For some reason I can’t fathom Facebook has blocked this as violating their community standards so here it is:
Where is the Ark of the Covenant? (No, Really!)
Some people will tell you that the Ark of the Covenant is lost and gone for ever. And, to be sure, over the last two thousand years, many have sought it in vain. Yet it is not so much lost as well hidden. And the place where it lies is not beyond our power to deduce. Want to know more? It’s all here. (But don’t imagine you’ll be able to turn up and see it any time soon.)
WHAT DIDN’T HAPPEN TO THE ARK?
Before we talk about where the ark is, we should begin with the related question of where it is not. For instance, some folk imagine that the Babylonians destroyed it when they sacked Jerusalem in 586 BC. This view is found as long ago as the first-century AD Apocalypse of Ezra and is mentioned among several competing talmudic views on the subject. But this is unlikely. Jeremiah speaks of the ark’s disappearance during the reign of Josiah, who died in 609 BC, more than two decades before the Babylonian conquest (Jer. 3.16; cf. 3.6).
Moreover, the ark is not listed among the holy things taken by the Babylonians, neither in Jeremiah’s lists (27.16–28.4; 52.17–23) nor in the official record (2 Kgs 25.13-17). These writers would hardly have detailed the wick-trimmers, firepans and shovels and forgotten the holy ark. Nor is it listed among the temple treasures in Babylon at Belshazzar’s feast (Dan. 5.2–3). Nor is its presence or absence noted in Ezra’s list of temple treasures restored by Cyrus (Ezra 1.7-11).
IF NOT THE BABYLONIANS, THEN WHO?
But if the Babylonians did not take the ark, what happened to it? Clearly, its absence was taken for granted even before the building of the second temple. For it is conspicuously absent from Ezekiel’s visionary restored temple (Ezek. 40–48). So we are not surprised to learn that the ancient authorities agree that no ark was seen in the second temple. And although the Books of Maccabees, which represent the view of institutional Judaism in the second century BC, make the return of the glory of God dependent on the revelation of the ark, yet no replacement was ever made (2 Macc. 2.7–8). Instead, the kohen ha-gadol sprinkled the Yom Kippur blood on the place where the ark formerly rested.
So the ark was not removed by Antiochus Epiphanes in 167 BC, nor by Pompey or Crassus in their invasions in 63 and 54 BC respectively. In fact, when Pompey entered the holy of holies to see what was unlawful for men to behold, he was amazed to find nothing at all. Nor was the ark among the treasures removed in the Roman destruction of 70 CE. Rome’s Arch of Titus shows the spoils: the golden menorah, the table of showbread, the silver trumpets. But no ark.
AN ARK IN ETHIOPIA
Ethiopians claim the ark is now in their land, in the church of St Mary of Zion in Axum. They certainly do have an ancient ark. The fourteenth-century Kebra Negast or ‘Glory of the Kings’ tells how Menelik I of Ethiopia, the son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, broke into Solomon’s temple at night with his friends, stole the ark, and left a forgery in its place.
Another scenario to explain the Ethiopian ark is that it was taken from Jerusalem by invading Shishak in 925 BC and made its way to Ethiopia with Shishak’s Cushites (2 Chr. 12.3). (The Indiana Jones movie takes a similar line, with the ark ending up in Egypt.)
Another theory is that the ark arrived in Ethiopia from the Jewish temple in Elephantine, Egypt, who received it from the Judeans before the Babylonian invasion. But these claims are contradicted by the fact that the temple kohanim and Levites would have known the true ark from a fake, that it was still in Judah in Josiah’s time, and that the Judeans would never have sent their most sacred artefact outside the Holy Land. We must conclude that the ancient Ethiopian ark is a copy, perhaps from the Elephantine temple.
And, of course, there are other views about the whereabouts of the ark. One is that the ark was stolen by Queen Athaliah and her henchmen. (But Josiah still had it two hundred years later.) Or the ark is become the remnants of a burnt-out Lemba drum, mouldering in the basement of Harare Museum. Other views involve Scotland, England, Ireland, Mexico, Japan, North America, and more.
WHAT DID HAPPEN TO THE ARK?
When we ask what really became of the ark, nothing is more striking than the Bible’s silence on the matter. How did the cynosure of Israel’s faith simply disappear so very quietly? An eloquent silence. It suggests that the ark was removed with the full knowledge of Judah’s rulers and temple authorities. If it had been otherwise, someone would surely have recorded the loss, as they did with the other artefacts, for later generations.
In fact, it rather looks like Josiah’s decree of 621 BC had more behind it than the centralization of worship. In the time of Josiah’s great-grandfather Hezekiah, around 700 BC, the prophets Micah and Isaiah had already foretold the looting and destruction of the temple by the Babylonians.[ And, in Josiah’s own time, many others – Jeremiah, Uriah ben Shemaiah, Huldah, and Zephaniah – told of a coming catastrophe that would desolate city and temple. Being so warned, Josiah and the temple authorities must have taken thought for the safety of the ark and concealed it quietly. With this, the Talmud agrees.
Surely it has been taught: When the ark was hidden, there was hidden with it the bottle containing the Manna, and that containing the sprinkling water, the staff of Aaron, with its almonds and blossoms, and the chest which the Philistines had sent as a gift to the God of Israel, as it is said: And put the jewels of gold which you return to him for a guilt-offering in a coffer by the side thereof and send it away that it may go (1 Sam. 6.8).Who hid it? Josiah hid it. (B. Yoma 52b).
WHERE DID JOSIAH HIDE IT?
It is suggestive that the final chapters of the books of Chronicles, which close the Jewish Bible, contain the last information on the ark. It has been placed ‘in the temple’ and the people are told to go up to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple (2 Chr. 35.3; 36.23). This is surely a sign to future generations of Judahites that they should go up to Jerusalem – as some have now done – and find there the ark, the reason for the temple’s existence, and rebuild the temple around it.
But if the ark remains hidden to this day in the same place where Josiah and his men hid it, where might this be?
THE ARK IN JERUSALEM
When David prepared the site for the temple he turned the mountain top into a flat surface supported by a substructure, with tunnels, chambers, and cisterns running beneath the Mount itself. A cross-section of the Mount would show it to be full of secret chambers and passageways, like one of the great pyramids.David had good reason for doing this. The temple was to be the most important building in all Israel. It was to be the repository of vast sums of money, the national treasury, the storehouse of the sacred scriptures and of Israel’s genealogical records. It was to be the stronghold of the nation’s most sacred artifacts, not least the ark.
And so, in order to be secure against any possible threat, it was necessary that the Mount should be amply supplied with hidden vaults. Over the two millennia since the temple’s destruction in AD 70, the Mount has been by turns neglected, profaned, disputed, conquered, and built upon. But no-one has never excavated it. The Byzantines, in reprisal for the Judeo-Persian attack on Christian Jerusalem in AD 614, turned the Mount to a rubbish-heap. Then, after the Muslim conquest, Caliph Abd al-Malik built a shrine exactly where the temple once stood, preserving its location to this day. But throughout the ages the passages beneath the Mount remained sealed. And so the likeliest scenario by far is that the kohanim of Josiah’s hid the ark in the tunnels beneath the Temple Mount.
A CLUE HIDDEN IN THE BIBLE
Indeed, the Bible itself implies such a thing. The books of Kings say that the poles of the ark remain in the holy place to this day. Since these books were compiled after the Babylonian destruction, and since the poles might not be separated from the ark, we must conclude that the ark and its poles remained in the holy place before, during, and after the Babylonian invasion, yet the Babylonians did not find it.
How could this be? The Hebrew concept of sacred space sees the holiness of the temple extend vertically upward into the heavens above it and downward into the earth beneath. The area directly above and below the holy of holies is as holy as the part at ground level. (This is one reason why modern Israel allows no air traffic to fly over the Mount.) The implication, then, of the poles being in the holy place to this day is that the ark is hidden deep in the Temple Mount beneath the holy of holies.
Such a scenario is confirmed by the Mishnah, which tells how the families of R. Gamliel and R. Hananiah bowed toward the wood chamber as they had a tradition that the entry to the place of the ark was in there. It then tells how a kohen, noticing an irregularity in the paving stones, went to tell others. But he died before he finished speaking. From this they deduced that this was the place of the ark’s concealment (M. Shek. 6.1).
INSIDE THE DOME OF THE ROCK
For rabbinic literature records that, inside the temple, the ark anciently rested on top of a great flat rock – the very rock summit of Mount Moriah – called the sh’tiyah or ‘Foundation’ stone, which formed the floor of the holy place.
Palestine is the centre of the world, Jerusalem the centre of Palestine, the temple the centre of Jerusalem, the Holy of Holies the centre of the temple, the ark the centre of the Holy of Holies; and before the ark was a stone called the sh’tiyah stone, the foundation stone of the world (Midrash Tanhuma, Kedoshim 10).
Today this same stone or rock gives its name to the Islamic Kubbet es Sakhra or Dome of the Rock, built over the temple’s holy of holies. Upon this rock, the ark anciently rested, the tips of its poles pressing into the sanctuary curtain, to reassure the ministering kohanim on the other side of its presence, even when hidden from view.
UNDER THE ROCK
Beneath the sh’tiyah stone is ‘the cavern’, in Arabic al-maghara, which is sometimes open to visitors, who enter by the stairs leading down behind the rock] Muslims believe that whoever prays in this place will be guaranteed a place in Paradise. But the cavern is not the result of the Rock’s wish to fly heavenward with Islam’s prophet. It is more ancient. For the hole in the rock, leading to the cavern below, was already there in the fourth century, when the anonymous Bordeaux Pilgrim saw the Jews lamenting over the ‘pierced stone’ on the Temple Mount.
Beneath the Rock, the floor of the cavern features a circular marble slab of almost two metres diameter which, when knocked, produces a hollow noise. The circular slab is said to cover another chamber, the bir el-arwah or Well of Souls, named from the noises like the sighing of imprisoned souls which emanate from below the slab.Therefore the Rock’s Muslim caretakers regard the bir with dread. The slab is not known ever to have been lifted.
In 1871, Lady Burton visited al-maghara with her audacious husband, Sir Richard Burton. She recorded, ‘My husband did his best to procure the opening of the hollow-sounding slab in the centre, but the time has not yet come.’But it is rumoured that the ark rests in the secret chambers below, undisturbed for two an a half millennia, only a stone’s fall from its original place.
WHO CONTROLS THE TEMPLE MOUNT?
Whether the ark will be seen anytime soon depends on several things, all linked with modern Middle Eastern politics.
During the six-day war of 1967, Israeli forces gained all Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount and its surrounding walls. But, ten days later, Israel’s Defence Minister, Moshe Dayan, the epitome of the secular Jew, returned the whole temple area, except for the Western Wall, to the Jordanians to ensure their acquiescence over the land taken.
This may have made Israel’s 1967 gains more secure, but it earned Dayan everlasting opprobrium in the eyes of religious Jews. The Jordanians, with the Palestinians and other Muslim nations, set up a trust, the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, to manage the Temple Mount. To this day, the Waqf controls the Mount, prohibiting Jewish prayer there, and any kind of archaeological activity. Any challenge to their authority provokes immediate retaliation in Jerusalem and beyond.
WHAT THE RABBI SAW
However, in the summer of 1981, some archaeological activity did take place without the Waqf’s consent. At that time, excavations of the tunnel running the length of the Western Wall were being carried out in accordance with Israeli authority over the Western Wall. The Rabbi of the Western Wall, Yehuda Getz, secretly opened a stone-sealed doorway, Warren’s Gate, about 150 metres into the Wall Tunnel. This disclosed the entrance to a tunnel running perpendicular to the Western Wall, directly north-east, right under the centre of the Temple Mount. It was a huge affair – six metres wide and twenty-eight metres long – carved out of the solid rock.
Getz identified it as the Tunnel of the Priests, recorded by Josephus, the Mishnah, and the Talmud, built to allow ritually-clean kohanim to enter the temple precincts without risk of defilement. Motivated by a desire to ascertain the location of the Holy of Holies and find the ark, Getz, together with Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren and their helpers, made a way through the tunnels, clearing the dirt and detritus that had fallen from shafts in the precincts above.
But, after seven weeks of excavation, Waqf guards on the Mount heard, by one of these shafts, the sound of digging. By the same shafts, they sent youths down into the tunnel. Fighting ensued, and only the appearance of the police prevented loss of life.
The Israeli government immediately sealed up the entrance to this momentous archaeological discovery with six feet of reinforced concete, in response, it was said, to UN pressure. The excitement of the excavators had been unbounded. ‘It was the greatest day of my life,’ they wrote. ‘I thank God that I lived to see it.’ Now their disappointment was without bounds.
Yet Goren announced that their excavations had allowed them to identify precisely the location of the holy of holies on the Mount above. And rumours circulated that they had discovered the whereabouts of the ark. Goren died in 1994 and Getz in 1995. But their work continues in their spiritual heirs, the Temple Institute, who are dedicated to rebuilding the temple in our time. They state:
In reality, the expression “lost” ark is not an accurate description for the Jewish people’s point of view – because we have always known exactly where it is. So the Ark is “Hidden,” and hidden quite well, but it is not lost…. This location is recorded in our sources, and today, there are those who know exactly where this chamber is. And we know that the ark is still there, undisturbed, and waiting for the day when it will be revealed.
In tacit confirmation of their claim, the Temple Institute show no sign of searching for the ark, either inside or outside Jerusalem. They have made modern replicas of all the ancient temple artefacts, but not another ark. Other Jewish authorities show the same attitude. Israel’s President, its Minister of Foreign Affairs, and a Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem have all independently appealed to the Pope for the return of the menorah. But no one has asked for the ark, even though in medieval times St John Lateran boasted both ark and menorah among its treasures.
But would not the ark have rotted away after twenty-six centuries of concealment? Perhaps not. The portable ark found in Tut-ankh-amun’s tomb, made around the same time as Moses’ ark, was well-preserved after an even longer concealment. Further, while some underground chambers of the Temple Mount were water-filled cisterns, others like al-maghara were dry and insulated from water. In addition, the Holy Land had lower rainfall over the last two millennia than it has now. The ark’s construction from dense, water-resistant acacia wood would also have favoured its survival.
The reinforced concrete that seals Warren’s Gate is surely a matter of comfort to the State of Israel. The appearing of the ark would trigger uproar, with the Waqf protesting the breach of their authority and opposing any attempt to revive Israel’s ancient cult. Surely it is better that the ark rest a little longer where it has rested these last twenty-six centuries, beyond the reach of the Waqf and the importunities of tourists, deep within the Temple Mount, beneath the Holy of Holies, until the time of its revealing.
Don Stewart’s way too humble description of himself is: “I’m a full time Christian who serves the Lord in a number of capacities.” Decades of serving the Lord in ministry is the short version. Here is his website: http://www.educatingourworld.com/ Everything is free here. Take it, download it, spread it, run it! He also does daily news update on His Channel at 10am Pacific. I wanted to share Don’s recent commentaries that he posted on his Facebook page but instead of doing share and splitting them I wanted to put them together here for ease of reading and convenience.
Don Stewart wrote:
“JOEL’S PROPHECY AND PETER’S CITING OF IT ON THE DAY OF PENTECOST (PART 1)
This is the first of two posts. Here, we will look at the specific predictions that the prophet Joel made about the “last days.”
Our next post will examine Peter’s citing of Joel’s prophecy. Let’s look at what Joel says “in context.”
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm signal on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land shake with fear, for the day of the Lord is about to come (Joel 2:1)
Then you will know that I am in Israel, that I am the Lord your God, and that there is no other; never again will my people be shamed.
And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all kinds of people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women,I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Joel 2:27-32)
In those days and at that time, when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem,I will gather all nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat (Joel 3:1-2)
From these passages we can make a number of observations.
First, the subject matter is the “day of the Lord.” This refers to the time of the end when the Lord judges the earth, returns, and sets up His Kingdom.
Second, at this time it becomes clear that the Lord is supernaturally working with the nation of Israel. In fact, Israel will never be ashamed again.
Third, “afterward” the Lord will then pour out His Spirit on all kinds of people, young and old, male and female. He specifically says “in those days.”
Fourth, along with the pouring out of the Spirit there will be supernatural wonders, geophysical miracles. The sun will be darkened and the moon will have a blood like color.
Fifth, at that specific time in the future the Lord will restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem.
Therefore, the ultimate fulfillment of these predictions of Joel are still in the future . . . Indeed, the end of the shaming for the nation of Israel, the supernatural signs that accompany this pouring out of the Spirit, and the restoring of the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem have yet to occur.
Therefore, before we look at Peter’s citing of this passage on the Day of Pentecost, it is essential that we understand the prophecy in its context.
JOEL’S PROPHECY AND PETER’S CITING OF IT ON THE DAY OF PENTECOST (PART 2) WHAT HAPPENED AT PENTECOST?
After having looked at Joel’s prophecy about the “last days” in a previous post, we will now briefly examine the words of Peter when citing Joel 2:28-32 on the Day of Pentecost.
As recorded in Acts 2, the Holy Spirit supernaturally came upon the disciples of Jesus as they were gathered together. Each of them began to speak in a language, or a dialect, which they had never before learned, proclaiming the great deeds God has done! A large crowd gathered completely baffled by what they were seeing and hearing. To explain what was taking place, Peter cited the prophet Joel.
But this is what was spoken about through the prophet Joel: ʻAnd in the last days it will be,ʼ God says, ʻthat I will pour out my Spirit on all people, and your sons and your daughters will prophesy, and your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. And I will perform wonders in the sky above and miraculous signs on the earth below, blood and fire and clouds of smoke. The sun will be changed to darkness and the moon to blood before the great and glorious day of the Lord comes. And then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be savedʼ (Acts 2:17-21).
So what exactly did Peter mean by this quotation from Joel? There are three main views that Bible-believers hold.
One interpretation maintains that Peter viewed the events at Pentecost as being literally fulfilled at that time. Therefore, Joel’s predictions, though they were originally given as God’s promises directed toward Israel, found their fulfillment instead in the Christian church.
Another view is that Peter interpreted Joel 2 as being either partially fulfilled at Pentecost, or perhaps began to be fulfilled. Ultimately, this prediction will be completely fulfilled for Israel at the time of the end.
Each of these views have their problems in that the events that are described in Acts 2 do not match what Joel predicted.
In Acts, the disciples supernaturally spoke in foreign languages which they had never learned, but Joel predicted visions and dreams occurring with the outpouring of the Spirit. Furthermore, the account in Acts says nothing about any cosmic wonders or signs taking place in the sky which Joel did indeed predict.
A third view is that Peter was not claiming the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. Rather, he was only comparing what was happening on Pentecost with what would take place in the future. Joel predicted supernatural signs would occur when the Holy Spirit would come upon Israel at the time of the end. In a similar manner, the crowd at Pentecost was seeing and hearing miraculous signs from God, namely the disciples speaking in languages that they had never before learned.
Therefore, Peter was simply reminding his Jewish audience that they should recognize that what they were seeing and hearing was a supernatural work of the Spirit also. This miracle at Pentecost set the stage for Peter to preach the resurrection of Christ to the large crowd.
Interestingly, Peter did not say that the events on Pentecost fulfilled Joel’s prophecy. What Peter said was, “but this is what was spoken about through the prophet Joel.” “This is what was spoken about” refers to the miraculous work of the Spirit of God accompanied by supernatural signs.
As we noted in our previous post, the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy will take place at the time of the end; when Israel will no longer be shamed by their enemies, and when Judah and Jerusalem will be restored. In other words, it is still in the future.
At that time, the outpouring of the Spirit will be accompanied by dreams, visions, prophesying, and supernatural signs in the heavens. None of this happened on Pentecost.
In addition, we should note that there were no supernatural dreams recorded in the New Testament after Pentecost, and the visions that were recorded were for only a select few, and those were limited to special occasions where momentous events took place.
Therefore, from the New Testament evidence, nobody should claim that supernatural dreams and visions should be the normal experience of believers today.
Much more could be said. Please feel free to comment on the specifics of this post but first make certain that you have read the previous one which summarizes the specific predictions found in Joel.”
Eric’s brief remarks: Context and location are critical.
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world.
1 John 4:1-4
Then the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea. When they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.
We have to be like the Bereans. They didn’t receive anything from anyone without running it against the Scriptures which for them was what we know today as the Old Testament. This is the example for all of us and they were commended for it.
The better we know our Bibles the less likely it is we will be deceived no matter how compelling, powerful, and emotional something may be. This isn’t about encouraging anyone to disregard anything out of hand but what we have to do is run everything by the Scriptures. If it does not match with what is already in the Bible then we need to reject it.
SEOUL—They were supposed to represent North Korea’s fighting elite. Dispatched to Korea’s demilitarized zone roughly three years ago, Roh Chol Min was a new recruit on the front lines. He sized up his fellow 46 soldiers in the unit and saw men like himself: tall, young and connected.
Mr. Roh had won the coveted position, in the late summer of 2017, owing to his sharpshooting skills and height; at 5-feet-8-inches he is unusually tall for North Korea. But when he attended his first target practice, he was stunned. Nobody else had bothered to show up. His compatriots had bribed senior officers to avoid the drill.
What Mr. Roh came to learn—and what ultimately drove him to defect to South Korea—was a distinction that separated him from his elite comrades. Unlike them, he lacked the money to buy better treatment, faster promotions, reprieve from training and even enough food to keep from going hungry. “I saw no future for myself,” he says.
North Korea’s future itself appeared hazy when leader Kim Jong Un shunned public appearances for nearly three weeks in April, and rumors swirled about his health. After he reappeared, the North blew up a jointly run inter-Korean liaison office after Kim Yo Jong, sister and confidante of Mr. Kim, expressed fury over Seoul-based defector groups sending antiregime leaflets over the border. North Korea announced it had put troops on alert and began reinstalling propaganda loudspeakers at the border that it had dismantled after a 2018 inter-Korean pledge to tone down military tensions.
Then last week, Mr. Kim suddenly declared a suspension of military action directed at South Korea. North Korea again removed the loudspeakers and has yet to conduct further actions targeting the South.
Yet Mr. Kim’s grip on power, at its most practical level, hinges on North Korea’s military, the regime’s paramount institution. Military experts, in the U.S. and Asia, have long speculated the country’s armed forces are rotting from the inside, racked by corruption and strategic decisions that funnel precious funds into nuclear weapons and missile research instead of caring for its troops.
Now a growing stream of defectors are building out the picture with gripping personal accounts of deprivation.
Roughly 33,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea over the years, including homemakers, traders and even a few diplomats. Most took routes through China. Since 1996, only 20 have defected across the heavily fortified DMZ while serving in the military, according to an internal South Korean government document reviewed by the Journal.
The Wall Street Journal spoke with Mr. Roh for more than 15 hours over the past year, in his first interview with Western media. His account, which couldn’t be independently confirmed, verifies and illuminates broader views by intelligence agencies, North Korean defectors and researchers.
“It was lawless there,” Mr. Roh, in his early 20s, says now. “If you had money, you could basically get away with anything.”
To address deterioration in its conventional military, North Korea seeks an upper hand in sheer numbers.
and surface combatants
Source: South Korea’s Defense White Paper 2018
Mr. Kim, facing Western sanctions over his nuclear program and strains posed by the coronavirus pandemic, needs unquestioned military vitality all the more now. At a Workers’ Party meeting late last year, he announced a “new strategic weapon” would be unveiled soon and encouraged his people to tighten their belts and prepare themselves for life under sanctions. In the country’s Covid-19 fight, of which Pyongyang has yet to report a single case, soldiers play a key role locking down borders and ensuring citizens abide by preventive measures.
North Korea maintains one of the world’s largest standing armies with about 1.2 million active soldiers. Pyongyang spends roughly a quarter of its gross domestic product on military expenditures, the highest ratio among 170 countries tracked by U.S. State Department estimates. In contrast, America’s defense spending represents about 3% of GDP.
Little of that money trickles down to front-line troops, to hear defectors talk. Mr. Roh, serving just across the border from South Korean and American troops, had expected the prominent DMZ role would mean plentiful food, organized leadership and focused training. Instead soldiers died from accidental discharges of weapons. Superiors stole his food. He withered to 90 pounds in a few months, eating wild mushrooms and somehow avoiding the toxic ones that killed others. The only thing widely available, he recalled, was cigarettes.
“Don’t you want a promotion?” he says a commander once asked him, while demanding a payout he couldn’t afford.
North Korean men, with few exceptions, serve for at least 10 years. They are conscripted at a young age partly to indoctrinate firm allegiance to the state. But it is a hardship that has forced some enlistees to crack.
From 2016 to 2018, six soldiers defected over the inter-Korean border. One sprinted across the border under heavy gunfire, requiring 12 liters of blood infusion while undergoing treatment by South Korean doctors, making headlines across the world. He was found to have an exceptionally long parasitic worm in his stomach. Another wore shabby boots wrapped in clothing while serving in the snow-capped mountains of eastern Korea, before making a run for it across the DMZ. Another active-duty soldier defected across the border last year.
None of the soldiers would have been informed of Mr. Kim’s recent absence if they were still serving inside North Korea, Mr. Roh says, as the twice-a-day news broadcasts don’t report on the Supreme Leader’s health status. The public didn’t learn why Mr. Kim was absent for nearly seven weeks during a 2014 ankle surgery, receiving clues only afterward when the leader emerged with a cane and a limp. “The domestic audience is kept in the dark about these things,” Mr. Roh says.
As a boy, Mr. Roh grew up in relative luxury in a rural mountain town near the Chinese border, with a television, a couch, and batteries for electricity. His grandparents were highly educated elites in Pyongyang; his grandfather even attended university with Kim Jong Il, the current leader’s father. Both his parents worked for a time but life became more difficult as the economy contracted, and often both were out of work. He has memories of his older sister selling handpicked herbs so she could feed him a potato.
He says he dreamed of joining the North Korean military—a feeling that deepened after Mr. Kim assumed the mantle of “Supreme Leader” in late 2011.
Before he landed his DMZ post, Mr. Roh was drafted into one of the many units that comprise North Korea’s 200,000-strong special forces, in large part, due to his social class. When going through a background check, Mr. Roh remembers an officer from the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces coming to see him. “You have a good foundation, comrade,” the official told him.
At his first post in the special forces, Mr. Roh’s physical limits were tested through tough military training, lack of food and proper medical care. His loyalty for Mr. Kim was reinforced by daily ideological sessions.
One “glorious” day, Mr. Roh recalled, the leader himself visited his base. Mr. Kim appeared in his luxurious black van, escorted by bodyguards. Mr. Roh says he nearly choked as he saw the leader pass by from afar. He sobbed into his flavorless bowl of dinner, overwhelmed by the general’s presence. Not daring to look at the leader directly, Mr. Roh felt his head throbbing.
Once Mr. Kim left, Mr. Roh stood with his fellow soldiers, fanatically chanting, “Long live General Kim!”
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Even a televised image of Mr. Kim inspecting a factory or farm would prompt Mr. Roh and his fellow soldiers to sit up straight, neaten their uniforms and clap in unison. Citizens are taught from a young age that North Korean leaders must hail from the “Mount Paektu bloodline” with a direct lineage to the country’s founder Kim Il Sung. It is unimaginable anyone but a Kim would rule the country, Mr. Roh says: “It is a respect you only feel for Kim family members.”
When Mr. Roh arrived at the DMZ posting after toiling through a 12-hour train ride on North Korea’s World War II-era railways, he was ordered to move bricks at a construction site of a new dining facility. An officer approached him.
“You do as I say. If I want to beat you, I beat you. If I tell you to die, you die,” he says the officer told him.
Roh Chol Min reads news and watches videos on his bed at a dormitory house shared with other North Korean defectors.Photographs by Tim Franco for The Wall Street Journal
Mr. Roh, now in his early 20s, lived alone in South Korea before settling down at the dormitory.
Mr. Roh walks the dormitory dog early in the morning. In the days before his defection, he had gone days without sleep.
Mr. Roh exercises in the backyard of the house. He says his physical limits were tested through tough military training, lack of food and proper medical care in the special forces.
Mr Roh was recruited to the front lines for his sharp shooting skills and height.
The soldiers were mobilized to move bricks day and night. Mr. Roh was only assigned to the construction project for his first three days. He didn’t get to see the cafeteria completed, as he defected after just three months at the front lines.
Corruption was rampant at the border, where men from elite backgrounds were stationed. Officers sold the rice provided to the unit at a nearby market, feeding soldiers cheaper corn porridge. The front-line soldiers, with high-ranking parents, carried around cash as bribes.
His main duty was to stand guard at a post overlooking the DMZ. Mr. Roh worked 13-hour shifts in a uniform that hardly kept him warm. The temperature dropped to nearly 40 degrees below zero. As he set out for duty every morning, his skin cracked and eyebrows frosted at every breath.
The others avoided standing in the cold, having bribed the unit’s commanders with U.S. dollars at sums of up to $150 a month. The payments bought extra food, wearing warmer clothes and making weekly phone calls to family.
Money could buy an immediate promotion and help a soldier drop out of training. Mr. Roh felt devastated. He watched as the others enjoyed extra sleep and went out to local markets to buy sweet bread. He hadn’t been able to make a single call to his family and spent most of his time at the guard post.
Inside North Korea’s front-line guard posts, posters of South Korean aircraft hung on the walls. Each of the South Korean combat planes were labeled under their photograph with their models. Pictures of South Korean soldiers in their military uniforms were posted on the wall for familiarization. Mr. Roh wondered if their lives were any different, as he shivered in the cold.
In the weeks before his defection, Mr. Roh often stood at his guard post, having gone days without sleep. Messages came through the phone in tap code as he sat inside the guard post alone. “Don’t fall asleep,” a commander signaled.
Some days Mr. Roh walked out into fields to accomplish impossible missions: to bring back 100 praying mantis eggs within two hours. The officers would sell the eggs at the marketplace, to be used in Chinese medicine. Mr. Roh trudged around the reed field with a plastic bag trying to fill the quota, from which the officers would profit.
Young soldiers like Mr. Roh studied to become members of the ruling Workers’ Party. Gaining party membership is a step up the social ladder in North Korea, a country dominated in all aspects by the ruling party. To pass the test, Mr. Roh used the little time he had to memorize military law by filling his notebook with army regulations. But within a month Mr. Roh found himself lacking the money to even buy a new notebook or a pen.
Officers pressured Mr. Roh to call his parents for money. One time, they lent him enough for a two-minute phone call home. As an officer stood next to Mr. Roh nudging him to ask for money, he couldn’t say a word about how painful life was at the front lines. His sister sent him funds to cover the phone call—the equivalent of a dollar. With the few pennies left over, he bought a notebook and a flashlight.
The border smelled of rotten animals. Mr. Roh often heard wild boars electrocuted by the fence. At other times, with his binoculars, Mr. Roh could see South Korean tourists curiously looking over into North Korea.
Mr. Roh unloads a truck at his part-time job at a wedding buffet before guests arrive.Photographs by Tim Franco for The Wall Street Journal
He prays before breakfast at the start of the work day. He sometimes skips meals now that food is plentiful.
Mr. Roh has made friends with coworkers his age. In the North Korean military, his comrades bribed officials for extra food, clothes and weekly phone calls to family.
Mr. Roh is now enrolled at a college in Seoul and works weekends at the buffet.
He says his family members in the North would have little protection from Covid-19.
In the days leading up to his decision over whether to flee, Mr. Roh says military officials accused him of stealing rice crackers—a crime he says he didn’t commit. His squad leader beat him and he was forced to endure self-criticism sessions.
One December 2017 morning, when he made the short walk to his DMZ guard post, a tantalizing—but dangerous—idea flashed in his head. Passing under a North Korean flag he refused to salute for the first time. Mr. Roh then lifted up a metal fence with a gentle nudge of his rifle butt. He crawled under. And made a run for it.
When he bolted, Mr. Roh waded through chest-high waters, rifle over his shoulder, carrying 90 bullets and two hand grenades. As Mr. Roh ran through the fog to freedom, hoping he wouldn’t step on a land mine, a propaganda slogan came to mind: “No matter the temptation, we shall protect the nation.”
The slogan, embedded in his memory from years of chanting, sent shivers down his spine as he considered the enormousness of his betrayal.
Once he safely reached the South Korean side, soldiers barked at him: “Are you a defector?” But Mr. Roh was puzzled. He had never heard the word before.
Now he reads Sherlock Holmes novels, which he finds more entertaining than the Kim hagiographies he was forced to consume. Food is now so plentiful he occasionally skips a meal. He’s developed a fondness for hot lattes.
Mr. Roh recently enrolled at a college in Seoul and works weekends at a wedding-hall buffet. As he watches online lectures from his home, feeling safe from the coronavirus, Mr. Roh worries about his family members in the North who have little protection from the pandemic. He shudders thinking of how he’d be treated as a North Korean soldier. “They would leave us to die,” Mr. Roh says. “We’re considered disposable.”
He carries around guilt about his defection—especially since he doesn’t know what happened to his family. The Kim regime often punishes family members of defectors. But Mr. Roh tries not to dwell on the unknown too much. It only causes him more pain.