Jan 11, 2019

Axios Future

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1 big thing: The new age of hostage diplomacy

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Poland's arrest of a Huawei executive on charges of spying for China escalates an already-fraught dimension of the turbulent new era of geopolitics.

  • A spate of arrests has broken out, with detentions of Americans and Canadians in China, Iran and Russia, and Chinese people jailed in Canada and now Poland. It appears to be unprecedented — political hostage-taking amid a modern trade war.
  • As we’ve reported, the tit-for-tat jailings in part suggest a new stage of hostility in the U.S.-China race for technological and economic dominance in the coming decades.
  • “The Chinese have set a very troubling precedent. You don’t like it when one of your citizens gets arrested, you nab a few folks from that country," said Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group. 

Driving the news: Poland announced today that it had arrested a man it identified only as "Weijing W.," a former diplomat in China's consulate in Gdansk. Authorities there said they also detained a former Polish security official, and charged both with spying for China, per AP.

  • Given China's actions to date, the Polish arrest seems bound to trigger a ferocious response from Beijing.
  • Already, China on Monday will begin trying Robert Schellenberg, a Canadian facing the death penalty for alleged international drug trafficking.
  • Schellenberg is one of three Canadians whom China has jailed since Dec. 1, when Canada arrested a senior Huawei official on charges of violating sanctions against Iran, reports the Globe and Mail. Huawei's chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, is out on bail now.
"It’s the first time to my knowledge that tariffs and a trade war have led to arrests/de facto hostage taking."
— Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group

Thought bubble from Bill Bishop, writer of Axios China: "There is not a big Polish population in China, and I don’t want to say anything irresponsible. But if I were a Pole in China, I would be nervous."

The practice is broader:

Wrapped up in spying and general longstanding rivalry, the Iran and Russia cases differ from the U.S.-China-Canada cases.

  • But they resemble each other in being part of how geopolitics is played now.
  • The "risk is once this becomes a tit for tat process, it provokes a downward spiral in relations that is tough to break," said Stephen Hadley, former national security adviser to George W. Bush.

Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, said President Trump had erred by publicizing when hostages have been released. "Such public attention elevates the importance of hostages and gives nefarious actors an incentive to capture Americans in order to draw attention to their demands and causes," he said.

2. Whole Foods' hermit crab strategy

In Denver. Photo: John Leyba/The Denver Post/Getty

Amazon is considering snapping up stores belonging to fallen retail giants like Sears to house its Whole Foods subsidiary.

Axios' Kaveh Waddell writes: Amazon, long the king of online retail, has been overflowing into brick-and-mortar at a frenzied pace. Now, it could expand its grocery footprint into several new states, reports Yahoo Finance's Krystal Hu.

My colleague Erica Pandey has this thought bubble: "It's an unmistakable sign of the times. The retail king of the 20th century dies out and gives away its kingdom, piece by piece, to the behemoth of the 21st century."

The big picture: More than 300 Sears and Kmart stores have closed in the last three years.

  • Many are in areas Whole Foods hasn't broken into, like Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas, West Virginia, and Vermont.
  • At an event in Dallas this week, a Whole Foods VP said the company is looking to expand: "If [the best option is] an existing center — second-generation space — that meets all of our criteria … we’ll jump all over it."

Cannibalizing shuttered retailers could help Whole Foods move away from its traditional consumer base: relatively high-spending shoppers in urban areas.

  • Whole Foods' two-year-old budget brand, called 365, could be an attractive vanguard for the company.

The other side: On Twitter, retail reporter Mitch Nolen cautions that Amazon often makes abortive overtures to down-on-their-luck chains:

Amazon is often said to be interested in the assets of bankrupt retailers, including Toys 'R Us, American Apparel, RadioShack, and now Sears. But it never bids. Whether sincere or not, Amazon is gaining access to a lot of internal data in the process.
3. What you may have missed

Photo: Hulton/Getty

Your first week back after the holiday was too much. Never mind, here are the top Future stories from this week:

1. 2018, a year when the worst did not happen: Appraising our forecasting skills

2. The thing that unites most youth: School shootings have politicized them

3. A new paradox for Mr. Disruption: Clay Christensen's takes on poverty

4. AI's accountability gap: No one to blame when things go wrong

4. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Building a mind (Henry Marsh - FT)

Just 5% of the land on Earth is still untouched (Andrew Freedman - Axios)

Russia found the back door of the U.S. grid (Rebecca Smith, Rob Barry - WSJ)

A new look at democracy, authoritarianism and science (The Economist)

The light of 600 trillion suns (Deborah Byrd - Space)

5. 1 spicy thing: Shocking new flavor for tomatoes

At the Ontario Food Terminal. Photo: Johnston/Toronto Star/Getty Images

This story is from The Download at MIT Technology Review:

Looking for perfect heat and lots of it? Gene engineers in Brazil think they might be able to create eye-watering tomatoes.

The background: Even though chili peppers and tomato plants diverged from a common ancestor millions of years ago, tomatoes still possess the genetic pathway needed to make capsaicinoids, the molecules that make chilis hot.

  • Now, Agustin Zsögön from the Federal University of Viçosa in Brazil writes in the journal Trends in Plant Science that gene-editing tools like CRISPR could turn it back on.

Tomatoes are much easier to grow than peppers, so making them hot could turn them into spice factories.

  • “Capsaicinoids are very valuable compounds; they are used in [the] weapons industry for pepper spray, they are also used for anaesthetics [and] there is some research showing that they promote weight loss,” Zsögön told the Guardian.
  • Tomatoes are not the first food that scientists have suggested could be given an unusual new twist using CRISPR. Sweeter strawberries, non-browning mushrooms, and tastier ground-cherries have all been either attempted or mooted in the past.

To get more stories like this, sign up for The Download, a daily newsletter on emerging technology from MIT Technology Review.