World

Papua New Guinea in dire situation due to vaccine hesitancy. General says he staged a coup to avoid civil war in Sudan. A Facebook experiment shows how the platform spreads hate speech. By Jonathan Pearlman.

China and Russia forging a partnership ‘for the new era’

Russian Navy officers aboard the corvette Gromkiy during the recent joint naval exercise with China in the Sea of Japan.
Credit: Vitaliy Ankov / Sputnik via AFP

Great power rivalry

Japan: During the Cold War, relations between Moscow and Beijing were notoriously turbulent, marked by their competing approaches to communism, capitalism and engagement with the West.

In recent years, ties have improved, especially as the two countries have united in their shared rivalry with the United States. Earlier this year, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin said relations with China had reached their “highest level in history”, as he and China’s president, Xi Jinping, celebrated their co-operation on new nuclear reactors.

Last week, the two countries further elevated their ties, conducting a week-long joint naval patrol that involved a flotilla of 10 ships circling Japan’s main island, Honshu. It was the first time the militaries of China and Russia had voyaged together through the Tsugaru Strait, a narrow stretch of water between Honshu and Hokkaido. The exercises caused alarm in Japan, whose Defense Ministry described them as “unusual”.

As Xi has overseen a more assertive China, Japan has begun considering a more offensive posture for its Self-Defense Forces, including developing the capability to strike enemy bases. Japan has also been conducting military patrols with various countries, including the US, Britain and India.

China is keen to show that it, too, has partners. Following its exercise with Russia, Rear Admiral Bai Yaoping, from the People’s Liberation Army, said the patrol demonstrated that China and Russia were developing a “partnership of co-ordination for the new era”.

But the China–Russia partnership faces obstacles. China has been expanding its economic and military ties across central Asia, which Russia regards as its area of influence. And Russia, despite benefiting from arms and energy sales to China, may grow wary as Beijing’s global clout continues to soar.

Still, surveys have found that Russians are particularly fond of China. A survey this year by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Levada Analytical Center found 74 per cent of Russians hold a positive view of China, compared with 39 per cent for the US. 

The neighbourhood

Papua New Guinea: James Marape, the prime minister of Papua New Guinea, this week appealed to his nation’s 7.4 million residents to get vaccinated as the country faces a “Covid-19 explosion”.

A surge of the Delta strain has left morgues and hospitals across the country overflowing. Less than 3 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated.

On Wednesday, Dr Gary Nou, from the National Control Centre for Covid-19, told ABC News: “Patients are lying everywhere. The situation is dire.”

PNG has among the world’s lowest rates of both testing and vaccinations. Authorities have started to accelerate the vaccine rollout but have struggled to combat widespread misinformation and vaccine hesitancy. Health workers conducting vaccination clinics have been attacked and abused.

Officials have avoided imposing a lockdown due to the economic impact and their concerns about enforcing it.

At the main hospital in Port Moresby, the capital, a mass burial was ordered this week to relieve the morgue, which was
built to hold 60 bodies but was holding more than 300.

As of Monday, PNG had recorded 28,209 cases and 335 deaths but actual numbers are believed to be much higher.

Marape said he may ask the military to recruit volunteers to assist with the pandemic response. “I encourage our citizens to know, this is no ordinary times,” he said.

Democracy in retreat

Sudan: On Monday, Sudan’s leading general, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, seized power and deposed the prime minister, weeks before he was due to give up his control of the country’s ruling council.

The coup followed recent pro-democracy protests in which tens of thousands of people demanded that Burhan proceed with a transition to democratic rule. Burhan oversees a military–civilian council that took control in 2019 after the ousting of Omar al-Bashir, a dictator who had ruled the country for almost 30 years. The country is due to hold elections in 2023.

Burhan said this week that he staged the coup to avoid a civil war and promised to appoint a new government. “Yes, we arrested ministers and politicians, but not all of them,” he said.

The military said the civilian prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, had returned home – he was initially held at Burhan’s residence – but remained under “heavy security”. Other officials remained in detention.

The takeover led to demonstrations and unrest that left at least 10 people dead. Phone and internet connections were disrupted, shops and roads were closed, and flights were cancelled. Bank workers went on strike to protest the coup, and doctors said they would limit their work in military hospitals.    

The United Nations, the US, the European Union and the African Union have all condemned the coup.

Spotlight: Facebook’s ‘polarising gore’

In 2019, a Facebook employee set up a test account to monitor the newsfeed of an Indian user who only followed pages and groups recommended from Facebook.

The experiment was conducted to assess the levels of misinformation ahead of elections in India, which has far more users – about 340 million – than any other country.

Shortly after the experiment began, violence erupted in the disputed region of Kashmir as an attack killed more than 40 Indian soldiers, prompting Prime Minister Narendra Modi to launch retaliatory strikes in Pakistan.

Suddenly, the user’s feed flooded with anti-Muslim hate speech, pro-Modi propaganda, anti-Pakistan rumours and graphic fake news items and footage that had been debunked by factcheckers.

After the experiment, the Facebook employee wrote a memo titled “An Indian Test User’s Descent into a Sea of Polarising, Nationalistic Messages”, which said the newsfeed “has become a near constant barrage of polarising nationalist content, misinformation, and violence and gore”.

“I have seen more images of dead people in the past three weeks than I have seen in my entire life total,” the employee wrote. The memo noted concerns about unmoderated content and discussed the need to improve oversight of non-English content.

This experiment emerged from documents leaked by a whistleblower, Frances Haugen, which showed that Facebook has known for years about the proliferation of hate speech in India on its platforms. The spread of hate speech and misinformation on social media has been linked to multiple deadly riots, including anti-Muslim violence last year that left 53 people dead. During the pandemic, fake content purportedly showing Muslims spreading Covid-19 – with the hashtag “Coronajihad” – has led to attacks and business boycotts.

The leaked documents showed Facebook viewed India as one of the most “at-risk countries” but spent most of its anti-misinformation funding on content in the US.

The company said in a statement to Associated Press it had “reduced the amount of hate speech that people see by half”. “We are improving enforcement,” it said.

On Monday, Facebook said the number of its global daily users had increased by 6 per cent in the past year to 1.93 billion. Revenue increased 35 per cent to $US29 billion. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 30, 2021 as "China and Russia forging a partnership ‘for the new era’".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.