The Sky May Not Be Falling, But Things In It Are

Watching the evening news lately is enough to convince more than just Chicken Little that the sky is falling. In reality, though, it’s not the sky itself that’s falling but things in it–hypersonic missiles, commercial airplanes, and even a teenager on a towering amusement park ride. Let’s take a closer look at what is coming down from above.

Hypersonic Missiles. While the war in Ukraine continues with innocent civilians in the crosshairs, Ukrainians have a well-founded fear of things falling from the sky to kill them, not to mention destroying any building standing. What a better time than a war not going your way to try out a new destructive weapon, right? Well, President Putin thought so. Russia now has the dubious distinction of having been the first country to use a hypersonic missile in combat. How proud Vladimir must be that his weapon has destroyed lives and landmarks alike.

So, what’s a hypersonic missile anyway? This type of missile travels at least five times faster than the speed of sound, or Mach 5, meaning it can travel a mile per second. Such ultra high speed makes these missiles, which can also change direction midflight, almost impossible to intercept. Exactly what humans need. A way to kill each other faster without a viable defense. What progress we’ve made, eh?

Russia’s defense minister stated his country had deployed a “Kinzhal” (Russian for “dagger”) hypersonic aeroballistic missile to destroy a Ukrainian ammunition depot and to destroy a Ukrainian fuel base. On the bright side, in these instances no people or civilian buildings were targeted. But use of a new and highly advanced weapon is unsettling. This air to surface missile in the Russian army’s arsenal, which is carried by a MiG fighter, is claimed to have a range of 1,200 miles and can achieve a speed of Mach 10.

With these speeds and great manuevering capability, the Russians’ “dagger” can strike before people on the ground are even able to spot it in the sky. So missiles may be falling from the sky in Ukraine, but only the survivors will know what hit them.

Commercial Airplanes. Reports indicate there’s never been a safer time to fly on a commercial airplane. Be that as it may, a China East Boeing 737-800 plowed into the side of a mountain on March 21st. The 132 lives lost–123 passengers and 9 crew–can take little comfort in the aviation industry’s generally good safety record.

No matter how technologically advanced we become, accidents still happen. And what an accident this recent one was. The plane plummeted from 29,000 feet, nosediving into a remote area in southern China. The impact of the crash created a 65 foot pit in the side of a mountain. Its flight data recorder (FDR, but not to be confused with America’s 32nd president) was found 130 feet from the point of impact and 5 feet underground. While a search was conducted for survivors, to no one’s surprise no one survived this massive impact.

What caused this horrendous crash? Only the black box knows for sure. What’s a black box? It’s a device in an airplane that records flight audio and data and is compulsory on all commercial flights.

Usually a black box is placed in the plane’s tail where it is more likely to survive a crash. [NOTE TO SELF: Be sure to book a seat at the back of the plane next time you fly.] These boxes are encased in strong, corrosion-resistant titanium or stainless steel and wrapped in insulation which can withstand high temperatures. They are equipped with an underwater locator beacon that emits an ultrasonic ping to aid in its location. Although called a BLACK box, the box is actually painted a bright color called international orange which makes the device easier to spot.

An investigation into the recent crash will require a review of the two black boxes that were on board the now smashed Chinese plane. The FDR kept detailed track of flight information such as speed, altitude, and position, and the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) memorialized cockpit conversation. This information will help investigators piece together what went awry with the plane, whose scattered pieces can never be put together again.

Lesson to be learned? It doesn’t matter how many flights DON’T crash if the one you’re on does. Be aware that a crash is always a possibility; the plane and all those aboard it, including you, could fall out of the sky before reaching the desired destination. And watch out below if you have planes flying above you; sometimes they don’t stay up.

Amusement Ride Passengers.

The “happiest place on earth,” Orlando, wasn’t so happy after the events of the evening of March 24th. The sky was certainly lit up that night by the lights from Icon Park on International Drive. Unfortunately, looking up at it may have allowed those on the ground at the attraction see a teen fall to his death from an amusement park ride.

Rising up into the night sky at Icon Park was the towering Orlando FreeFall drop ride. Its height of 430′ makes it taller than the Statue of Liberty; in fact, it is the tallest drop tower in the world. Unfortunately, the liberty experienced on the ride that night was an unwanted one. A fourteen year old honor student slipped loose from his safety harness and fell to the ground as the ride plummeted downward at a speed over 75 mph. Although he initially survived the impact, he later died at the hospital.

How could such a fun experience at an amusement park turn into such a tragedy? An investigation is underway to determine exactly what happened, but in the meantime, the ride is closed until further notice. That’s, of course, just as well as I doubt there are people brave (or perhaps stupid) enough to get on it now.

Initial suspicion has focused on failure to adhere to the safety guidelines for the ride’s use. The deceased teen was in town from St. Louis for a football program. Unsurprisingly, he was a big boy. Although only 14, he weighed in at around 340 pounds and stood 6’5′ tall. BUT, the operations manual stated that the maximum weight for a rider was about 286 pounds. Oops! Methinks a scale should have been placed nearby to ascertain weight of would be riders much as a height measurement is often required for young riders. It’ll all be hashed out in detail though, as attorneys have been hired and negligence has been alleged.

No one expects to see a body falling from a high ride. Along with the tragic loss of a young life, there are certainly tourists who have been traumatized from witnessing this accident. My advice is to stay away from these types of rides and “don’t look up!”

WONDER-ing Woman:

Do you consider it a technological “advance” when humans can kill each other faster and with less defensive capability? Do you worry about crashing when you take a commercial flight? Have you ever ridden a drop ride at an amusement park? If so, did you feel safe?

China’s Rare Earths Monopoly is No Game — It’s a National Security Risk

The game of monopoly involves wheeling and dealing, strategy, and winners and losers. Monopoly is fun when it is a board game, but it’s frightening when the monopoly being played involves a chokehold on the market of strategic elements by rival super power China. Let’s pass “Go” and collect some knowledge about this current risk to our country’s safety.

China is the world’s predominant supplier of rare earths. And when I say “predominant,” that equates to 85% to 95% of the global demand. Yup, I’d say that’s a monopoly. Increased demand has strained the world supply with growing concern that a shortage of rare earths may occur. Guess who that puts in the driver’s seat for controlling where its supply goes? Ding, ding, ding! China, of course.

But what exactly are “rare earths?” Rare earths are a group of seventeen chemically similar elements crucial to the manufacture of many high tech products. They are essential, nonrenewable, and irreplacable materials that power most of modern technlogy and are vital to the development of military technology.

Despite their name, rare earths are relatively abundant in the Earth’s crust. They are also often found in the same location. The challenge is that minable concentrations of rare earths are less common than for most other mineral commodities. They are also hazardous to extract. Federal environmental regulations make the extraction of rare earths very expensive. Accordingly, only one rare earth mine, located in Mountain Pass, CA, is operational here in the U.S.

The rare earth metals comprising the group of seventeen are lustrous, silvery-white, soft heavy metals. Each appears on the periodic table (look down at the bottom of the chart) and has a name you would not want to appear on a spelling test, such as Yttrium and Praseodymium.

The significance of rare earths cannot be overemphasized. They’re in almost everything technological in use today. Don’t believe me? Where are they? Here are some tech products and the rare earths utilized to produce them.

Loudspeakers and computer hard drives. Neodymium.

X-ray and MRI scan systems and TV screens. Gaoblinium. (A spelling word gem and tongue-twister.)

Catalytic converters. Cerium.

Camera and telescope lenses. Lanthanum.

Stong metals used in aircraft engines. Praseodymium.

Cell phones, cars, TV’s, and computers are among the indispensable products run with the strong internal magnets manufactured from rare earths. Modern medical devices and communication systems are entirely dependent on these resources.

And when it come to the military, the strategic importance of rare earth’s is massive,sometimes literally. Each F-35, for example, contains 920 pounds of rare earths. Precision-guided weapons, stealth technology, drones, and satellites are among the key defense tools that rely on rare earths. Given this dependence, the peril of having to rely on China to obtain these materials is frightening. The bottom line is that, to remain militarily competitive with the Asian superpower, the U.S. has to depend on a vulnerable supply chain. Yikes!

To add to the anxiety, consider this fact. Although the U.S. does have one operational mine and could possibly expand mining for rare earths in this country, it has no capability to process what is mined. One hundred percent of the output of the MP Materials mine in California is sent to Chinese processing plants.

So, not only does China produce the most rare earths, but it controls the refineries and processing plants which transform the raw ore. Since 1985, China has sytematically gained near complete control over the global supply chain. Because of China’s tightening of restrictions on its exports, some countries have begun stockpiling rare earths.

And China is clearly not afraid to use rare earths as a political weapon. In 2020, reports emerged that, in response to a U.S. defense deal with Taiwan, China was threatening to cut off the supply of rare earths to three U.S. defense manufacturers, including Lockheed Martin, the producer of F-35’s.

The U.S. government, aware of the threat of China’s monopoly, has sought to address it. The Biden administration is pushing to reduce U.S. reliance on Chinese imports of rare earths. Efforts are being made to produce more rare earth minerals here in this country. Sen. Mark Kelly (D. Ariz.), a retired U.S. Navy pilot and prior NASA astronaut, has characterized China’s hold on the rare earth market as “a national security risk.” He is now urging the Pentagon to act quickly to eliminate rare earth metals from our country’s military weapons systems.

The U.S. has been down this road before. Middle Eastern countries, not all of them friendly to the U.S., have a grip on the oil produced in their area. Threatening to cut off, or at least reduce, the supply is a powerful weapon. Now the focus is swinging to rare earths. And China recognizes the power it holds. As Deng Xiaoping noted in 1987, “The Middle East has oil. China has rare earths.” And the U.S. has a problem.

Being dependent on any other country, much less China, for materials needed for commonly used tech products and the viability of our country’s defense system is worse than going to jail, going directly to jail while playing Monopoly. A good game strategy is required now that our precarious situation has been recognized; considered action must be taken to address it. If appropriate steps are not taken, a different board game may be what we are playing–Life–our own and the very existence of our country.

WONDER-ing Woman:

Have you heard of “rare earths” before? Even if you have, were you aware their use was so prevalent in tech products today? Is the U.S. too dependent on imports from China, rare earths or not? If so, what can or should be done about the situation?

Saga of Chinese Tennis Star Serves Up Concern and Controversy

No one cares where Waldo is anymore. The new buzz phrase is “Where’s Peng Shuai?” Concern about the Chinese tennis player’s whereabouts has been a hot topic in the media since early November. After Peng Shuai posted a #MeToo accusation on social media alleging a sexual assault by a high-ranking Chinese government official, she dropped out of sight. Where was Peng Shuai? Nowhere to be found.

Unless you are a tennis buff (not raising my hand), you may not know who Peng Shuai is much less where she is. The 35 year old was the first ever Chinese tennis player to achieve a #1 ranking. Learning to play tennis at age 8, Peng mastered the game and rose to become a three-time Olympian, a #1 ranked doubles player, and the winner of Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014.

Peng’s visibility in the media skyrocketed after a social media post she made November 2nd on Weibo. The tennis star accused Zhang Gaoli, a former Chinese government official with whom she previously had a consensual relationship, of sexually assaulting her at his home in 2018. Her lengthy post stated she was forced to have sex with Zhang despite her repeated refusals as his wife stood guard at the bedroom door. Isn’t that taking the idea of a supportive spouse a tad too far?

Peng’s accusations were the first #MeToo charge ever leveled against a high-ranking Chinese government official. The alleged perpetrator served as one of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the top tier of political power in China. Now 75, Zhang left public life about three years ago.

To absolutely no one’s surprise, within minutes of Peng’s post about Zhang, it was removed from China’s heavily censored internet. The tennis player herself disappeared from the public sphere, and online conversations about what she had alleged were likewise censored in the ensuing days. The Chinese government gave no indication it was investigating these accusations. Perhaps it was too busy ramping up military operations in the South China Sea to bother with claims of wrongdoing made against a long-retired government official.

While the Chinese government seemingly ignored the situation, professional athletes and sports associations were quite concerned. A clamor arose over the plight of the missing tennis player. No one from the World Tennis Association (“WTA”) was able to reach Peng to confirm her status. Stars such as Naomi Osaka, Andy Murray, and Serena Williams spoke publicly about the need to obtain information on Peng’s location and well-being. The hashtag #whereispengshuai trended on Twitter. The women’s professional tennis tour threatened to pull out of events in China unless the safety of the Chinese star was assured.

The Chinese government pushed back on the worldwide hue and cry about Peng Shuai. It characterized concerns about her as being “maliciously hyped up” and “politicized.” But, of course, sports stars and sports associations have nothing better to do than get involved in international politics; they’d be WAY more concerned about that than the safety of a fellow player/tour member.

The situation escalated with calls to boycott the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing set to begin on February 2nd. Money talks, and the Olympic Games are BIG money. All of a sudden China’s state media released an email allegedly from Peng. This email stated her previous allegations about Zhang were false and that she was fine–just “resting at home.” In “Hamlet,” something was rotten in the state of Denmark. However, when it comes to Peng Shuai, chances are good there’s something rotten in the state of China. Why was the government disseminating this message instead of Peng Shuai herself?

As controversy and concern continued to swirl, the Chinese government then posted two videos on Saturday which appeared to show Peng at a restaurant with friends. The next day brought pictures of Peng appearing at a youth tournament in Beijing. So much for resting at home….And why would she be out at a restaurant or at a public event? Wouldn’t this be a good time to lay low to avoid poking the government bear any further after her bombshell allegations?

A 30-minute video call between Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach and Peng also took place. However, the interview produced little in the way of details and simply gave rise to more questions. Despite the interaction IOC had with Peng, the WTA is still worried about Peng’s well-being and whether she is able to communicate without censorship or coercion. Steve Simon, the WTA Chairman stated, “While it is positive to see her, it remains unclear if she is free and able to make decisions and take action on her own without coercion and external influence.”

While the Chinese government posted videos and photos of Peng in order to quell worldwide concern about her location, it has been mum on any action it has taken or will take to investigate Peng’s accusations. The U.N. Human Rights Office has called for a “fully-transparent” investigation into the tennis player’s claims. In contrast, the IOC appears to be pursuing “quiet diplomacy.” The latter certainly doesn’t want to rock the boat before the cash cow Winter Olympics have concluded.

As disturbing as this story is from a human rights perspective, at least it is different from the other news dominating the media. The alleged perpetrator lives in another country–not in the same town or even state as we do. No gun rights issues are involved. Whether or not anyone is vaccinated or has been wearing a face mask is irrelevant. While we can be thankful for a change of pace in news stories, let’s pray that this story of a human rights violation results in positive changes in a repressive country.

WONDER-ing Woman:

What role does the media play in this story–a positive or negative one? What type of future do you envision for Peng since she has made these allegations? Does it matter that Peng previously had a relationship with the alleged perpetrator if relations were forced?

Sacre’ Bleu! Broken Sub Contract Sinks U.S. And French Relations To Historic Low

Going down? That’s what subs do. And because of subs, relations between the U.S. and its oldest ally, France, have plummeted to the depths. France feels betrayed and has recalled its ambassador. Yikes! How did this long-standing alliance get torpedoed?

The story begins back in 2016 as Australia sought to replace its aging Collins-class, diesel-electric subs. Several bidders were in the competition for the contract which France, a major global weapons exporter, ultimately won over Germany and Japan. And this was quite the lucrative contract–90 billion (that’s billion with a “B”) Australian dollars. France’s majority state-owned Naval Group was selected to build twelve conventional diesel-electric subs for Australia, winning what has been dubbed “the contract of the century.”

While all that is interesting, note a conspicuous absence from the story. Uncle Sam is nowhere to be seen. Well, that is until mid-September 2021, some five years after the award of the sub contract to France. On the ides of September, the Australian government formally notified the French government it was cancelling the $90 billion contract. But wait, there’s more! To add insult to injury, in place of the cancelled contract was a new arrangement Australia had entered into with the U.S. and the U.K. to acquire nuclear-powered submarines.

In another blow to France, President Biden revealed last week that the U.S. was entering into a new security alliance with Australia and the U.K. which included the delivery of at least eight nuclear-powered subs to the Australian fleet. The alliance is an attempt to strengthen stability in the Indo-Pacific region where China has been expanding its military might and influence. France, of course, felt left out because it sees itself as a major power in that area because of its overseas territories there, such as French Polynesia, which give it an unrivaled strategic and military foothold compared to other European nations.

What’s a snubbed country country to do? Cancel the party the other countries’ representatives had been invited to, of course. French officials in Washington, D.C. promptly called off a Friday evening gala at their compound to celebrate the 240th anniversary of the Battle of the Capes. As we all clearly recall from U.S. History class (NOTE: sarcasm font in use), this battle was a decisive naval engagement during the American Revolution in which France played a major role.

Still fuming, France fanned the diplomatic crisis flames by recalling its ambassadors from both the U.S. (au revoir, Philippe Etienne!) and from Australia. French President Emanuel Macron ordered the recall so the two ambassadors could return to the home country (Viva la France!) for “consultation.” The withdrawal of the French ambassador from the U.S. marked the first time in the history of U.S./French relations that such a step has been taken.

And, of course, there’s always name-calling to be done when someone’s angry. The French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, has characterized the actions President Biden has taken in this situation as something Trump would do. Ouch! Likening Biden to Trump? Egad!

So why, five years after entering into a contract with France, did Australia suddenly ditch the French and take up with the Americans and Brits causing all this diplomatic disgruntlement? The contract cancellation will cost Australia $1.7 billion (that’s billion with a “B”), so one would assume that they have a pretty good reason for taking this step.

According to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the move was necessitated by the deteriorating strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific region, an area where China’s massive military buildup has increased in pace in recent years. Morrison concluded the capability of the conventional subs France was contracted to deliver would not meet Australia’s strategic needs; nuclear-powered subs were required instead to counter Chinese nuclear-powered vessels. I’m no military expert, but it seems common sense that you fight fire with fire. Morrison stressed he had to make the decision which was in the best interest of his country’s security.

While the French feel betrayed by this contract cancellation, the manner in which Australia went about it has also stirred anger. Apparently Australia was in secret talks for at least 18 months with the U.S. and the U.K. about a such a step. So much for French intelligence. But, in their defense, they were probably monitoring the Chinese, a perceived enemy, rather than their allies. Morrison has brushed off claims of the French being caught off guard by this news. He states he told French President Emanuel Macron in June about “very real issues about whether a conventional submarine capability” would address Australia’s strategic security needs. Just my two cents, but June was three months ago, and secret talks went on for over 18 months. What about the other 15 or so months?

In the meantime, the subs Australia has contracted for this time are not expected to be delivered until 2040. While these subs are being built in Adelaide in cooperation with the U.S. and the U.K., Australia will lease nuclear subs from the U.S. Hopefully, by the time the subs are completed in about 20 years, things will have settled down and the U.S. and France will be on better terms.

Australia’s sub decision has not gone over well with the Chinese either. They are angry Australia has opted to acquire nuclear-powered subs and is ticked off that Australia, the U.S., and the U.K. have formed an “extremely irresponsible” security alliance. No matter what a country decides to do, some other country will be upset about it. Making the Chinese happy is not tops on (or even close to being on) the U.S. to do list, but it is sad long-time ally France got the short end of the stick in the interest of Aussie national security.

As technologically advanced as weapons such as subs are today, they are only needed because of human failings. If we can make the scientific wonder of a nuclear-powered sub, why can’t we figure out how to get along with others? Think of the billions of dollars that could be saved on weapons contracts if nations could simply be civil neighbors. But then, what squabbles would the media have to highlight?

WONDER-ing Woman:

Is breaking a contract ever justified? If so, is national security a valid reason for doing so? Does France have a right to be angry by how its long-time ally the U.S. handled matters? Should the U.S. be taking steps to repair its relationship with France?

Don’t Sink Our Battleships!–China Threatens U.S. Naval Presence

Enter at your own risk, China has declared to the ships of other countries seeking passage in the South China Sea. And enter the U.S. did on Monday with the guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold navigating in waters around the Paracel Islands. China claims its military chased away the American warship. Uncle Sam retorted, “No, you didn’t.” Well, better volleys of “Yes, we did” and “No you didn’t” than volleys of ammunition.

What’s all the fuss about who gets to sail their ship where? The key part of that question is the “where.” That “where” is the South China Sea. Sure, we’ve all heard about the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, but the South China Sea wasn’t at the top of the list of water bodies discussed in any geography class I ever took. In fact, I can’t recall it ever even being mentioned.

To refresh your recollection (or perhaps clue you in), the South China Sea is located in the Western Pacific Ocean and covers approximately 1,400,000 square miles. To put this number in perspective, the sea is larger than the area of India. It is bounded on the north by China–hence the name South China Sea. Other countries bordering the sea include Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Brunei.

The South China Sea is area of immense economic, strategic, and ecological importance. One-third of the world’s maritime shipping passes through it; in fact, it is the second most used sea lane globally. Approximately $3 trillion (that’s trillion with a “T”) in goods are shipped this way each year, and it is a significant trade route for crude oil from the Persian Gulf and Africa. This sea also boasts lucrative fisheries, and huge oil and gas reserves are believed to be underneath its seabed. Additionally, the water body is is estimated to hold one-third of the world’s marine biodiversity.

Who wouldn’t want to control a major trade route rich with natural resources? Unsurprisingly, several countries have made competing territorial claims to the South China Sea. (“It’s mine!” “No, it’s mine!”) Both Taiwan and China claim almost the entire sea as their own with China using a demarcation line, the nine-dash line, assigning it approximately 90% of the disputed waterway. Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, and the Philippines take issue with China’s claim saying it contravenes their right to sovereignty and maritime rights as set forth in the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea (“UNCLOS”). Disputes among the countries bordering the South China Sea are regarded as Asia’s most potentially dangerous point of conflict.

To bolster its claim of ownership of much of the South China Sea, China began building military bases on island chains and reefs in this waterbody. Its claim and its military installations threaten offshore resources and pose a security threat to other nations bordering that waterway. But because the sea comprises much of China’s southern border, it has been a doorway for invasion of China in the past and raises security concerns for that country.

China is specifically uneasy about the presence of American forces in the South China Sea area. This concern is well founded as the U.S. has five major military bases in the Philippines and forty bases in Japan and South Korea. America’s largest naval force, the 7th Fleet, is based in Japan, and it operates in the South China Sea on a daily basis. We’d be nervous if the Chinese Navy was hovering around Hawaii, so you can see why China is on edge with the 7th Fleet hanging out on its southern border.

China’s solution has been to make excessive maritime claims to keep other countries from sailing in its backyard. It requires that it be given advance notification or that it provide approval before foreign military vessels may pass through the sea. China has even threatened Philippine aircraft and vessels in the South China Sea area. While talk is cheap, the danger is real. The United States has a 70 year old mutual defense treaty with the Philippines, so if China makes good on its threat, the Philippines could invoke the requirement that the U.S. come to its aid militarily.

International recognition of China’s expansive maritime claims does not exist. Instead, those claims were specifically rejected by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague on July 12, 2016 in the case of Philippines v. China. The decision found China had no legal or historic claim to the South China Sea as the country has asserted. China’s view of this ruling? It was a “waste of paper.” The Trump Administration likewise rejected nearly all of China’s significant maritime claims. And, are you sitting down? The Biden Administration agrees with the prior administration’s rejection of such claims. (Are pigs flying somewhere?)

Fast forward to Monday. The USS Benfold entered the waters of the Chinese-controlled Paracel Islands without receiving China’s permission to do so. (Imagine tense music playing.) The Chinese ordered them to scram. The U.S. Navy responded that it had consistently sailed unhindered in these waters and that it would continue to do so. Its presence in the South China Sea was characterized as a “freedom of navigation” operation. Of course, it was purely coincidental (wink, wink) the USS Benfold undertook this operation on the fifth anniversary of the denial of Chinese claims by the international court.

Scrapping over who controls what part of the South China Sea is not simply going to go away. That region depends heavily on ship transportation since the transportation infrastructure of the countries adjoining this sea are underdeveloped. Other areas of the world will also be affected by the resolution of the territorial seas issue since the South China Sea is a primary global trade route.

One way this simmering problem will NOT be resolved is by China playing “Battleship” (remember that fun board game?) with other countries whose military vessels ply the South China Sea. Diplomats are much better suited to resolving thorny problems without anyone getting killed than the military. At least we know diplomats won’t arrive at the negotiating table on a boat with lethal firepower. Let’s get the military off the front line of dealing with the issue of whose territory the South China Sea is and let cooler and less volatile heads resting on diplomatic shoulders try to work things out.

Just WONDER-ing:

Do you blame the Chinese for being edgy with military ships of an unfriendly superpower sailing off their southern border on a regular basis? Are the Chinese being unreasonable for claiming such a vast portion of the South China Sea? Before you read this post, were you even aware this waterway was so important and such a point of conflict?

Have Another Baby, Please–Chinese Government Now Allows Three Children Families

The ubiquitous “Made In China” stamp appears on many goods Americans purchase. But manufactured items aren’t the only things made in China — Chinese babies are produced there as well. And the Chinese government is hoping more bundles of joy will be produced in the near future as a result of the recent relaxing of birth limits. Yes, the ruling Communist party has now given its permission for Chinese couples to have three children, up from the previously allowed two.

While Americans were celebrating Memorial Day on May 31st, the Chinese government announced it was relaxing birth limits on the number of children Chinese couples may have. How benevolent of President Xi Jinping and his fellow government officials. Why was this action taken? Well, it wasn’t because Chinese officials suddenly took a shine to young children and decided it would be great to have more of them around. No, indeed. It was a very calculated call on their part.

Driving this announcement that the cap on child production would be raised to three is the rapid aging of the Chinese population which is placing a strain on both the economy and society. The government is concerned that the number of working age people is dropping too fast while the number of those over 65 is rising. What’s a government to do when there aren’t enough workers to make goods to be stamped “Made in China?” Why allow more workers to be produced!

China has a long history of sticking its nose into the bedrooms of its citizens. Restrictions on the number of children a married couple is allowed to have have been in place for years. The most restrictive limit was the one-child policy first adopted in 1979. That limit was imposed to address China’s booming population which had swelled from over 542 million to approximately 975 million over the preceding 30 years. The one-child policy was enacted out of concern the population explosion would spiral out of control and strain water and other resources. Too many Chinese babies were being made in China, so production was decreed to be downsized.

The Chinese government meant business when the one-child policy was in place. Enforcement of the limit included mandatory IUD’s for new mothers, heavy fines for exceeding the baby limit, and forced abortions. Because Chinese society favors males, couples made sure the one child they had was a boy using infanticide, abandonment, or abortion when necessary. As a result, there are millions more Chinese men than Chinese women today. Good luck for these Chinese bachelors finding wives.

After 35 years of the one-child policy, China announced it was raising the limit to two children in 2015. This move was taken to address the resulting gender imbalance from the one-child policy and the country’s aging population. Despite relaxing the limit on the number of children allowed, Chinese births continued to fall. Chinese citizens were reluctant to have more children for several reasons: the high cost of raising children in Chinese cities; the need to care for elderly parents, and the interruption to their jobs. Chinese couples simply didn’t have time for child-rearing with a six-day work week with overtime often required. “996” (working 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week) put the kibosh on having more kids. Working 9 to 5 would probably seem like a vacation to Chinese employees.

The Chinese government strictly enforced the two child limit as well. Hefty fines of 180,000 yuan ($20,840) were imposed on those daring to have more children than allowed. Guess those Chinese workers had to work seven days a week to pay off that fine.

Despite the switch to the two child policy, the number of births in China dropped every year since 2017. The country’s fertility rate was merely 1.3 in 2020, a figure insufficient to maintain the size of its population. By the end of this century, China’s population, now at 1.4 billion, is expected to decline by half a billion, allowing India to surpass China as the world’s most populous country. Will this event lead to more of our manufactured goods bearing the stamp “Made in India?”

Seems like the Chinese government is a victim of its own success. Back in the 1960’s when the average Chinese mother bore more than six children, restraining population growth was a good idea. But the Chinese are overachievers. The government has convinced its citizens that less is more, so few want to have additional children now. What’s a government to do? Other Asian countries facing declining populations, such as Japan and South Korea, have opted to offer stipends to couples who have additional children as an incentive to procreate. Yes, I can see Ma and Pa explaining to the latest addition to their family that he/she was wanted so the family coffers could be increased.

Then there’s the psychological method of convincing people to have more children. The Chinese government has cleverly used stamps for that purpose. In 2016 after the two-child policy was adopted, a stamp for the Year of the Monkey depicted two baby monkeys kissing their parent. One look at that stamp, and a Chinese couple was sure to head to the bedroom to produce baby number two, right? Perhaps foreshadowing the rise to three children being allowed, a 2019 stamp for the Year of the Pig showed two adult pigs with three happy piglets.

Whether or not they want to have additional children, many Chinese women bristle at the idea of government interference with their reproductive choices. Child-bearing limits are seen by these women as an unwelcome attempt by the powers that be to control their bodies. Just by having these thoughts, Chinese woman are clearly demonstrating their government does not control their minds.

A valid question is how far the Chinese government will go to protect its economy and world standing. If it has the power to restrict the number of children a couple has, couldn’t it also mandate the number of children to be produced? I’d like to think that bundles of joy are just that–children conceived and birthed because their parents truly desired to have them and to expand their family. Having a baby simply to make sure there are enough workers to produce goods to be stamped “Made in China” is appalling and sad.

Just WONDER-ing:

Were you aware the Chinese government has imposed limits on the number of children a couple can have? How much say should the government have in the size of a family? Should citizens be offered monetary incentives to produce children?

Bats To Blame For COVID-19 Driving Us Batty?

Forced self-isolation and social distancing due to the ongoing pandemic driving you batty? The finger of blame for our current circumstances can likely be pointed at bats. Bats? Yup, the only flying mammal in the world may be the source for COVID-19.

A coronavirus, such as COVID-19, is a zoonotic disease. “Zoonotic” is a fancy schmanzy term meaning it is caused by an animal virus picked up by humans. Scientists must determine what animal started this crazy pandemic, and bats are the prime suspect.

Previously we feared bats because they might (according to books, movies and TV) turn into vampires. No worries. Just keep a cross or some garlic handy. Unfortunately, vampires are the least of our concerns when it comes to bats. Scientists tell us bats have been linked with seven major epidemics over the past three decades. Holy health crisis, Batman! 

Bats are thought to be the natural host of the Ebola virus, rabies, SARS, and MERS. Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 is a distant relative of SARS; it shares about 80% of the same genetic sequence. Yes, criminals and bats alike can be busted by DNA. According to the scientific journal Viruses, at least 200 coronaviruses have been identified in bats. That’s a lot of viruses for such a small creature.

Researchers in China have traced COVID-19 to horseshoe bats, a common bat species in China. These bats are found in Yunnan, over 1,000 miles away from Wuhan, the initial epicenter of the pandemic. Yunnan is a region in southern China with an extensive system of caves. And even if we don’t have Ph.D.’s, we all know bats like to hang out (literally hang) in caves. 

Virologist Shi Zhengli, known as China’s “Bat Woman,” has years of experience with virus-hunting expeditions in dark and dank caves. Her data, published in the journal Nature, identified a disease in the Yunnan horseshoe bats with a genetic sequence which is 96% identical to COVID-19. Why not 100%? Apparently a virus mutates as it jumps from species to species, so scientists would not find an exact copy of the coronavirus in animals as is found in humans. A 96% match is about as close to a smoking gun, or in this case a smoking bat, as one is going to find. 

But why should we worry about what bats in China carry? The fact that the bats are in China isn’t the point; it’s the fact that bats are the carrier. Over 1,300 species of bats exist, and bats are found on every continent except Antarctica. According to the Centers for Disease Control (“CDC”), three of four emerging infectious diseases in humans come from animals, and bats contain the highest proportion of mammalian viruses likely to affect people. 

So why don’t we just eradicate bats then if they are natural reservoirs for viruses that can negatively affect humans’ public health? Alas, such action would cause unwanted repercussions because bats are essential parts of ecosystems. They control insect populations by eating them, fertilize through their guano, and assist with pollination. Who knew bats were so helpful?

Even if bats are the source of the virus which has mutated and wreaked havoc on the human world in the form of COVID-19, are the bats ultimately to blame for this outcome? A well-reasoned case can be made that humans, not bats, are the real villian.

Bats are increasingly coming into contact with humans due to deforestation and urbanization–activities carried out by, you guessed it, humans.. This contact allows the opportunity for the transmission of viruses the bats carry. Moreover, when bats are stressed, say from the loss of their natural habitat, their immune system is challenged; it is then harder for them to cope with the virus. Infections increase and viruses are excreted.

A second strike against humans is how they deal with bats. Bats are eaten as food in China, so they are captured and brought to wet markets such as the one in Wuhan. Talk about stress. Think a caged bat observing fellow bats being slaughtered for customers right in front of them won’t stress them out? They will excrete the virus which may hop to a caged animal of another species who contracts the virus. In the SARS epidemic, for example, it was determined that the virus went from horseshoe bats to civets (a catlike creature eaten in China) to humans. Yuk to eating both bats and civets!

This point is where the story takes a sinister turn. There were no bats found at the wet market in Wuhan which was the suspected source of contamination for humans. Where were the bats? Why they were hibernating in their dark, comfy caves in late December when the first outbreak was reported. But what WAS present in Wuhan was the Wuhan Institute of Virology located mere minutes away from the wildlife market. Could the virus have come from there?

The virology institute is a high security lab in Wuhan which was built right after the SARS outbreak. It contains the largest virus bank in Asia. (Not sure who’d be depositing viruses there, but they call it a bank.) The institute holds more than 1,500 strains of deadly viruses and specializes particularly in viruses carried by bats.

Scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology experimented on bats as a part of a project funded by the U.S.’s National Institutes of Health. A $3.7 million NIH grant funded the institute’s coronavirus experiment on mammals captured in Yunnan, site of the horseshoe bat caves. Part of the research included growing coronavirus in a lab and injecting it into three day old piglets. I don’t think those piglets were squealing in delight at their treatment.

As a result of the institute’s location at the initial pandemic epicenter, conspiracy theories have been put forth. According to one theory, the virus escaped from the lab. (That’s one smart and determined virus!) Virologist Shi, the lab’s deputy director, refuted that claim stating none of the genome sequences in infected patients matched the institute’s virus samples. A second theory is that China was experimenting with the virus as a biological warfare weapon. If so, they were either heartlessly testing it on their own citizens or careless in not controlling its spread. 

Regardless of whether you hold bats, humans, or both responsible for the COVID-19 outbreak, the fact is a pandemic is ongoing. Pointing a finger of blame doesn’t change the current reality. However, we don’t want the current reality to occur again in the future. Therefore, we need to get a handle on where the virus originated and how it was transmitted. Scientists are working on that as the rest of us are going batty in self-isolation and practicing social distancing. I, for one, am happy to socially distance myself from any and all bats–virus carrying or not.

Just WONDER-ing: Have you ever visited a bat cave? If so, would you do so again after reading this post? Should wet markets selling wildlife be banned either for public health or humanitarian reasons? How would you feel living next to an institute holding a bank of deadly viruses? Is it a good idea to have one located near a large population center?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not So Happy Chinese New Year Thanks To Coronavirus

On January 25, 2020, millions of Chinese probably exclaimed, “Rats!” and not  because Chinese New Year ushered in the Year of the Rat. A pall was cast over China’s biggest holiday due to a public health scare. China is facing an outbreak of a new coronavirus, 2019 Novel Coronavirus–officially dubbed 2019-nCOV. The Chinese animal of the year is apropos since rats are symbolic of the drive to survive in times of danger.

The emergence of this virus is scary because it is one that hasn’t been previously identified–hence the name “Novel” Coronavirus. Because it is new, no vaccine exists to protect against the virus. And it will take a substantial amount of time (think months) to develop one. For modern society wanting instant fixes, that amount of time is hard to swallow.

The ultimate source of this new virus is as yet undetermined. Nevertheless, it has nothing to do with Corona beer despite a surge in Internet searches for “beer virus.” The virus’ name stems from the crown-like spikes on its surface.

Many of the initial Chinese patients who fell ill had been to Huanan, a large seafood and animal market in Wuhan. The connection to the now closed market suggested an animal source for the virus. Could it have been a rat?? The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (“CDC”) believes this coronavirus first emerged from animal to people, but it is now being transmitted person to person.

Animals played a part in past coronavius health scares  because coronaviruses are zoonotic, i.e., they are transmitted between animals and people. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome {“SARS”), first recognized in 2002 also in China,.was traced back to civit cats. A less well known coronavirus outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (“MERS”), was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Point the finger of blame at camels for MERS.

The growing spread of 2019-nCOV greatly concerns health and governmental officials. The outbreak erupted in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, a megacity of 11 million people in east central China. In addition to cases in China, 2019-nCOV has now been reported in Nepal, Vietnam, Cambodia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Macao, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia, Australia, Canada, the United States, Germany, and France. Yesterday, China; tomorrow, the world.

The first U.S. 2019-nCOV case was announced January 21st. To date five cases have been confirmed by CDC, currently the only entity in the country that can diagnose it. All five patients had recently returned from–you guessed it!–Wuhan. Accordingly health screenings of incoming travelers on direct and connecting flights from Wuhan have been implemented at five major airports: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, and New York (JFK). Outgoing travelers shouldn’t feel left out. CDC has issued a travel health notice recommending all nonessential travel to Hubei Province, China be avoided. (Well, duh!) The U.S. State Department has issued a similar warning. (Copycats!) So concerned were U.S. government officials for Americans still in Wuhan, that they chartered a Boeing 767 to evacuate U.S. citizens and diplomats.

Those remaining in Wuhan and surrounding areas are basically on lock down. On January 22nd, the Chinese government cut off trains, planes, and other links to Wuhan, a severe measure for the busy New Year travel time. The lock down was steadily expanded to surrounding cities and now affects over 50 million people. Two makeshift hospitals solely for coronavirus patients are being erected. Completion of the first hospital, to have 1,000 beds, was to be accomplished by February 3rd, i.e., in SIX days.

To avoid spread of the virus, New Year celebrations were cancelled in China and other countries. But it isn’t just New Year celebrations which have been impacted by the health threat. China’s economy has taken a big hit due to cancelled trips during their busiest travel time. In Hong Kong, schools have been ordered closed until February 17th. Likewise, Hong Kong Disneyworld is closed. Apparently Disney might make your dreams come true, but it can’t protect you from the nightmare of falling victim to a dread virus.

Chinese President Xi Jinping characterized the virus’ increasing spread as a “grave” situation. With over 100 deaths so far, the grave is the outcome for some patients. Worldwide cases now exceed 4,500, so the death toll will undoubtedly rise.

To control the spread of the virus, medical experts must determine how it is transmitted. They think the virus probably spreads through tiny droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. As a result, demand for face masks for protection has skyrocketed. The incubation period for the coronavirus is 1 to 14 days, and it’s infectious during that time. So, it can be spread by someone prior to their exhibiting symptoms and knowing they have it. Forget being a poet and not knowing it, you can be a coronavirus carrier and not know it.

What if you do get 2019-nCOV? The virus causes respiratory infections and symptoms similar to the common cold. Patients with the virus experience fever, coughing, and breathing problems such as wheezing and pneumonia. At the least, having the virus is uncomfortable; at the worst, it can be fatal.

Should Americans be concerned? Some public health experts are saying  reaction to the current situation is “hysteria and panic.” They point out that, at its current rate, 2019-nCOV is less deadly than this year’s U.S. flu season. Does this mean Americans should panic about the flu season instead?

While I’m not a doctor or public health expert, I do possess common sense and would encourage people everywhere to utilize theirs. Don’t travel to Hubei Province right now. Avoid situations where you might come in contact with people who have recently traveled there. If advised by your medical professional to get a flu shot, for heaven’s sake get one. Take into account the risk of exposure when in large public gatherings including, but not limited to, Chinese New Year celebrations. Consider wearing a face mask when out in public. You may not look smashing wearing that mask, but if it protects you from a possibly fatal illness, who really cares? Be like a rat in the Year of the Rat. Do what it takes to survive!

Just WONDER-ing:

Were you aware how widespread 2019-nCOV cases are? Are you alarmed about the situation? Should you be more concerned about catching the flu or 2019-nCOV?

 

 

 

 

War Of The Wares

 

The U.S. is at war!  Fortunately, it is not a war of the worlds involving aliens invading from another planet. No, the current war is a bit less dramatic. It is a trade war between the U.S. and China, the world’s two largest economies.  While no Americans will be sent to the front lines to fight this war, the war is bound to negatively affect the bottom line of the American consumer’s  budget. So it pays to be in the know about what’s going on.

A trade war is not a conventional war. No bombs or bullets are utilized. The weapon of choice?  A tariff. Tariffs have nothing to do with the military; they are an economic weapon. To be precise, a tariff is a tax or duty to be paid on a particular class of imports or exports.

Tariffs are not a modern innovation. No, sir.  In fact, the very first act passed by Congress under our Constitution was a tariff law; this 1789 law imposed tariffs up to 50% on imported steel. In fact, tariffs were the greatest source of federal revenue until the federal income tax was established in 1913.

Be aware that we are living in historic economic times.  The U.S.’s current trade war with China is likely to eclipse the Chicken War of the 1960’s. What? You’ve never heard of the Chicken War? What kind of American history books are they writing?

In the Chicken War, France and West Germany were the U.S.’s enemy instead of China. The bad guys imposed a tariff on imports of U.S. chicken which were voluminous since Europeans considered chicken a delicacy. American chicken exporters squawked at the tax; in retaliation, the U.S. imposed a punitive tariff on light trucks (think VW vans), brandy, and other European products. .(Trade) war is hell, and the tariff on brandy was soon lifted as sober U.S. heads prevailed and took heed of the complaints of diSPIRITed U.S. imbibers unhappy about paying more for their imported spirits.

Fast forward to July 6, 2018 when the current trade war began.  The U.S. imposed 25% tariffs on $34 billion of Chinese goods in response to complaints that China steals or pressure U.S. companies to hand over technology. This move made good on a campaign promise made by Donald Trump to crack down on Chinese trade practices which have cost American jobs. Take that, Beijing!  China fired back by imposing higher tariffs on a similar amount of U.S. goods. Back at you, Washington, D.C.!

China asserts that the U.S. is being a bully and is igniting the largest trade war in economic history. But, of course, China does not want to change the economic status quo. Why not?  Because the U.S. has a $375 billion U.S. goods trade deficit with China. That’s BILLION with a “B.”  In 2016 China was the leading supplier of goods imported to the U.S.  China imports far less from the U.S. than the U.S. imports from China.  It’s top import from the U.S. by value is soybeans. (Soybeans?)

So each country has imposed higher tariffs on certain goods of the other country.  Now what?  Round 2, naturally. A possible second round of tariffs targeting a $200 billion list of thousands of Chinese products is being considered by the U.S. The first round of tariffs focused on Chinese industrial products in an effort to reduce the direct impact on the American consumer.  The new list under consideration is more extensive, containing consumer products such as vacuum cleaners and furniture. I’m no economic expert, but I’m pretty sure that China’s response will be to raise tariffs on additional U.S. goods  exported to that country.

Where will this economic madness end?  My bet’s on the U.S. coming out on top. The bad news is that our country has a gargantuan trade imbalance with China; China only imported $130 billion of U.S. goods last year, and the U.S. already has a trade deficit exceeding that amount for 2018 as of May 31st of this year. The good news is that China’s imports of U.S. goods are small enough that at some point it cannot match new U.S. tariffs. Nanny, nanny, boo, boo, Beijing!!!

In the meantime, what will happen?  Well, hang on to your hat!  Don’t have one? You better order your “Make American Great Again” cap NOW.  IncredibleGifts, which imports red hats from China and embroiders them here with that phrase, will have to raise prices if the hats end up having to be made here in the U.S. as opposed to being made in China, shipped here, tariff imposed and then embroidered in the U.S.  The cost of these hats could skyrocket from $9-$12 to $20.  That’s not great!

The mounting tension between Beijing and Washington, D.C. provides an economic summer blockbuster. Despite the possible ramifications of the trade war, the average American is hardly on the edge of his seat following the plot. Why?  Apparently red ink is less captivating that bloodshed. Perhaps all that is needed to catch John Q. Public’s attention is a catchy name for this war. But it’ll be hard to top the Chicken War. Maybe we could just refer to the situation as “America’s Got Tariffs.”

JUST WONDER-ing:  Had you ever heard of the Chicken War? Were you aware that China and the U.S. were in a trade war? To what extent do you follow economic news?

 

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