Jun 11, 2020

Axios World

By Dave Lawler
Dave Lawler

Welcome back to Axios World for tonight's 1,724-word (6.5-minute) journey.

  • It starts in Vietnam and ends in the U.S., with reflections from our departing global fellow.
  • Flashback: Three months ago today, the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, Italy closed bars and restaurants nationwide in a lockdown that would be replicated across Europe, and I worked my last shift at the office.

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1 big thing: The Vietnam model for beating COVID-19

Hanoi in March. Photo: Linh Pham/Getty Images

It’s hard to say which is more remarkable: that Vietnam has recorded zero COVID-19 deaths despite a population of 96 million or that the communist government expects the economy to grow by 5% this year during a massive global recession.

Why it matters: Both numbers deserve some scrutiny, but there’s no evidence a major outbreak is being covered up, and the bullishness about Vietnam’s economy is shared by the IMF and World Bank (though their growth estimates are lower). The Southeast Asian country may ultimately be the pandemic’s biggest success story.

How it happened: Vietnam shares a border and deep economic links with China, and it recorded its first case on Jan. 23.

  • It quarantined an affected region near Hanoi in mid-February and quickly scaled up an impressive contact tracing regime, knowing it lacked the resources to conduct mass testing.
  • The government distributed information about the outbreak via text message and told Vietnamese it was their patriotic duty to wash their hands and self-isolate.
  • “The steps are easy to describe but difficult to implement, yet they’ve been very successful at implementing them over and over again,” Matthew Moore, a CDC official based in Hanoi, told Reuters.

Zoom in: Vietnam is a surveillance state, where citizens are monitored online and by "standing armies of neighborhood wardens and public security officers who keep constant watch over city blocks," Bill Hayton and Tro Ly Ngheo write in Foreign Policy.

  • “The structures that control epidemics are the same ones that control public expressions of dissent," they write.
  • Hundreds of people have been fined for causing “unnecessary panic” or undermining the “national unifying cause” through their social media posts, Global Voices reports. At least three have been jailed.

The big picture: Like China, Vietnam has since the late 1980s paired political repression with economic liberalization.

  • It brought extreme poverty down from above 50% to near zero in that time, and over the last decade, it's seen the second-fastest economic growth in the world, behind China.

The pandemic has punctured most other formerly fast-growing economies in the developing world, but not Vietnam's.

  • Vietnam has had some luck, says Jacques Morisset, the World Bank’s program leader for Vietnam. Demand for its chief commodity export, rice, has only grown during the pandemic.
  • The government also started from a strong position — in sound fiscal health and with emergency funds ready to be tapped.
  • When the pandemic struck, it acted “with a combination of foresight and pragmatism” and “no sense of panic,” says Morisset.

Where things stand: Vietnam’s economy is benefiting on at least two fronts: it was one of the first in the world to reopen with few restrictions, and it was already enjoying a flood of investment as companies like Apple shifted manufacturing to hedge against overreliance on China.

  • Vietnam is also expediting some major infrastructure projects as part of its coronavirus stimulus, FT reports.
  • One sector that has been hit is tourism, which accounts for 6% of GDP. The government plans to resume flights soon, but only for countries that have had no new cases for 30 days.

The bottom line: This pandemic's success stories include authoritarian states like Vietnam as well as democracies like Australia, Germany and South Korea.

  • They're aligned not by style of governance but by early, competent action — and a bit of luck.
2. Trump targets ICC for sanctions over war crimes probe

Photo: Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images

President Trump authorized economic sanctions and travel restrictions today against workers from the International Criminal Court who are investigating American troops and intelligence officials for alleged war crimes in Afghanistan.

Why it matters: This is the ICC's first investigation of U.S. forces. The U.S. does not formally recognize the jurisdiction of the court.

  • Today's announcement was made by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Attorney General Bill Barr, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and National Security adviser Robert O'Brien.
  • They claimed Russia may be pushing the investigation, and Pompeo called the ICC a "kangaroo court." They took no questions.
  • Trump has previously pardoned U.S. service members accused of war crimes in Afghanistan.
  • The move was coordinated with Israel, which is also being investigated by the ICC, Axios contributor Barak Ravid reports.

Today's D.C. headlines:

3. Zoom's China ties face scrutiny

Zoom founder and CEO Eric Yuan rings the Nasdaq opening bell. Photo: Kena Betancur/Getty Images

Axios' Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian scooped yesterday that Zoom had shut down a paid account used by prominent U.S.-based Chinese activists to hold a commemoration of the 31st anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen Square Massacre.

  • The latest: A Zoom spokesperson confirmed Bethany's story, saying the account had been closed "to comply with local law," because the call included participants from "multiple countries" (read: China).
  • It reactivated the account after the story prompted criticism from at least two U.S. senators and the chairman of the U.K.'s Foreign Affairs Committee.

Why it matters: Zoom has skyrocketed to global prominence during the coronavirus epidemic, going from 10 million users to over 300 million in a matter of months. Its meteoric rise has brought increased scrutiny to its ties to China.

  • The company has acknowledged that much of its product development has been based in China and that some Zoom calls were accidentally routed through Chinese servers.
  • The University of Toronto's Citizen Lab said it found serious concerns over Zoom's security protocols and said the company's large workforce in China could make it "responsive to pressure from Chinese authorities."

Read the full story

4. Africa: Burundi's president dies, possibly of COVID-19

Nkurunziza at an independence day celebration in 2015. Photo: Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images

Burundi's government says President Pierre Nkurunziza, 55, died of a heart attack — though his death follows reports that he and his wife may have contracted COVID-19.

Why it matters: Burundi has reported only a few cases of the coronavirus and done little to mitigate the spread. It expelled World Health Organization officials last month, accusing them of "interference," and went ahead with elections on May 20 that were widely viewed as rigged but saw Nkurunziza's chosen successor declared the winner.

Where things stand: The government says Nkurunziza was hospitalized on Saturday after feeling unwell and that he went into cardiac arrest on Monday.

  • But observers noted that Nkurunziza's wife had reportedly been taken to Kenya days earlier for medical treatment, likely for the coronavirus.
  • Between the lines: Nkurunziza would be the first sitting world leader to die of COVID-19.

The big picture: Nkurunziza was due to step down as president in August and be named “supreme guide to patriotism," per the Economist.

  • Burundi, a country of 11 million that borders Rwanda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has seen significant democratic backsliding on Nkurunziza's watch, according to Freedom House.
  • He defied constitutional term limits in seeking a third term in 2015, but surprised some by stepping aside this time around.
  • Like in Tanzania, the government has refused to implement many restrictions, and a government spokesperson said the country would be protected by God. The ruling party held large rallies ahead of the elections.

What to watch: "The big question here is whether [Nkurunziza] died from Covid-19 (and whether authorities will admit it if he did)," says Simon Allison, Africa editor for the Mail & Guardian.

5. What I'm reading: "The Last Kings of Shanghai"

A stroll along the Bund in Shanghai, 1930. Photo: General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Multigenerational histories often fall apart somewhere along the way, but not Jonathan Kaufman’s newly published “The Last Kings of Shanghai.”

The big picture: Kaufman traces the paths of two fabulously wealthy Jewish families — the Sassoons and the Kadoories — to Shanghai, and through them the history of Shanghai, as the former colonial outpost is occupied by the Japanese and then ruled by the communists.

  • The Sassoon merchant empire began in Baghdad, shifted to India and then spread into various ventures in various countries. Most profitable of all was the opium trade into China.
  • The Sassoons became central characters in that ugly chapter of gunboat capitalism, and their influence rebounded into London society. They straddled Europe and Asia, remaining one of the world’s richest families up until World War II.
  • A distant cousin, Elly Kadoorie, traveled East from Baghdad to join the Sassoon empire, set out on his own as an investor in Hong Kong, and later established himself in Shanghai, scattering opulent hotels upon arrival.
  • The families were rivals, but they joined together in one endeavor: supporting Jewish refugees fleeing Nazism.

Worth noting: The book introduced me to Ho Feng-Shan, a heroic Chinese diplomat who went against orders to issue thousands of visas to Viennese Jews. 

6. Reflection: "What a time to be in America"

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Camille Elemia is leaving the U.S. after a year-long Fulbright fellowship — the last six weeks of which were spent at Axios — to return to the path-breaking news site Rappler, which is in the middle of a legal battle with the Philippine government.

She expected a respite from the controversies at home. That’s not what she found:

I arrived in August 2019 and witnessed the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.

  • I did not realize how polarized U.S. media was until I watched and read it daily. It sometimes felt like there were different sets of facts for the same story.

I was able to go to Mexico and the southern border several times for stories. I also went to the northern border.

  • I was struck by the difference between the two. In the north, people could fairly easily go in and out of the U.S., while in the south, concertina wires would welcome you.

After covering politics in the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte, I felt déjà vu covering Trump’s rally in Phoenix last February — their rhetoric, their behavior toward the media, and the entertainment in their rallies.

  • The only difference is that I am not banned from covering the president here, as I was during our 2019 midterm elections. It was quite ironic that I had more freedom covering a foreign president in a foreign land than in my own country.
  • I am used to hearing from our president that Rappler is fake news and that the media shouldn’t be trusted. But it was my first time, in a Trump rally, to have real people looking me in the eye while booing me and other journalists. Goosebumps.

Then the coronavirus pandemic happened. As I type this, I am stuck in the U.S. after my flight to Manila was canceled due to arrival restrictions.

Then came the recent protests against police brutality, which have echoed to Filipinos from half a world away.

  • It reflects similar problems we face back home, especially in Duterte's drug war, where a mere drug suspect can be killed at once.
  • The Trump administration's handling of the issue, however, sheds light on the U.S.’ apparent double standards in relation to human rights.
  • As America criticizes and imposes sanctions on countries violating human rights, much of the world, especially opponents, see the U.S. violating these rights on its own turf.

What a time to be in the U.S., indeed.

7. Stories we're watching

Protesting police brutality, in Nairobi. Photo: Fredrik Lerneryd/Getty Images

  1. Why Russia will keep poking America’s racial wounds
  2. China’s spy agencies are coming to Hong Kong
  3. Trump proposes toughest asylum rules yet
  4. Bolton plans to publish book over White House objections
  5. First-ever black military service chief confirmed
  6. Global cooperation needed for carbon removal
  7. NASA's 2024 moonshot may not work


"The U.S. had better hold its tongue and mind its internal affairs first if it doesn't want to experience a hair-raiser. It would be good not only for the U.S. interests but also for the easy holding of its upcoming presidential election."
— A hair-raising statement, from North Korea's Foreign Ministry
Dave Lawler

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