Wednesday. 8/7/2020

The Monocle Minute

Opinion / Hester Underhill

Foreign intelligence

For a nation to be known for its outstanding universities it has to attract students from around the world. If it pulls this off, there’s another potential win: the country gains international friends and advocates for years to come. I learnt this as an exchange student at Berlin’s Humboldt university. Not only did I improve my patchy German but I made long-lasting friendships with fellow international students and discovered new ways of learning and expressing ideas in a system that was totally different to what I had experienced growing up in the UK.

It’s crucial that universities foster these cultural exchanges. Unfortunately, this is a point on which Donald Trump differs. On Monday the US Department of Homeland Security issued a ruling prohibiting international students from returning to, or remaining in, the US if the colleges they attend adopt online-only models as part of measures taken in reaction to the coronavirus pandemic.

For those currently studying in the US, the blow – even if temporary – is devastating. “I won’t have access to any of the resources I need to work towards my PhD,” I was told by a UK-born friend, Kate Birkbeck, who returned to England when the virus hit the US. “I can’t even take a break from the PhD because it would further jeopardise my precarious visa status. So I have to perform at the same high level, in a different time zone, with no resources. This is part of a long-term push to make all sorts of immigration statuses untenable and it is very likely that that will put an end to my life in the US and in academia.”

This pandemic has repeatedly seen Trump launch opportunistic attacks on his country’s immigrant population, including restricting work visas and limiting asylum claims. This latest decision will be felt not only by students but also by the institutions they attend. The US might be home to some of the world’s leading universities, but it’s their ability to draw in academic talent from around the world that keeps them at the top of their game.

Diplomacy / North America

Safe distance

The US and Mexican presidents, Donald Trump and Andrés Manuel López Obrador, will celebrate the new Nafta trade deal in Washington today – but Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau (pictured) will be conspicuously absent. Trudeau has cited scheduling conflicts for his absence but foregoing the meeting is a smart move: López Obrador is getting hammered at home for choosing to meet with Trump during the US election campaign. Travelling to the US in the midst of its coronavirus spike would also not play well with the Canadian public. Since Trump’s election in 2016, Trudeau has been forced to walk a tightrope in both criticising and appeasing the president of Canada’s southern neighbour and primary trading partner. But with just a few months to go before the US presidential election – and with polls suggesting that Trump might be on his way out of the White House – Trudeau’s absence suggests that he no longer feels the need to smile for the cameras next to the unpopular Trump.

Technology / China

Timed out

The hugely popular social-video app TikTok is to stop offering its services in Hong Kong following the introduction of China’s new security law, which could force technology firms in the city-state to comply with Beijing’s censors. Whereas the likes of Google, Microsoft and Facebook can stand their ground and refuse to hand over user information to Chinese authorities, TikTok’s situation is complicated by the fact that its parent company, ByteDance, is based in Beijing. Despite this, TikTok has never been available in China and has maintained independence internationally – but that presents some unique challenges. “Chinese-owned companies with global audiences are having to walk a very difficult line,” Rana Mitter, director of Oxford University’s China Centre, tells Monocle. “TikTok is having to demonstrate that it is open to the whole world but that it isn’t seriously out of step with the mainland’s authoritarian leadership.” It seems that TikTok decided it was easier to cease its Hong Kong operations altogether.

Society / Sweden

Social enterprise

Sweden’s top health official, Johan Carlson, yesterday advised Swedes against making “new acquaintances” over the summer holidays. It marked an attempt to convince his compatriots to exercise self-discipline in social interactions as they return to a quasi-normal life after a pandemic lockdown that was already more lax than in most countries. His warning comes as some Swedish tourist hotspots fear that their streets and beaches will become overly packed in the coming weeks. But while warnings to respect the rules and avoid overcrowding are all well and good, Carlson’s turn of phrase feels out of line. It’s why the term “social distancing” has seemed so inappropriate from the beginning. Is there really anything wrong with meeting new people from the proper physical distance if necessary? Fresh human contact – whether with neighbours on your doorstep, across a park bench or even on a video call – should continue to be encouraged. Let’s all be mindful – but stay social.

History / Germany

One man’s treasure

What is luxury? And does your definition change depending on where you live? Since September the Leipzig Forum of Contemporary History has featured an exhibition on the differing concepts of luxury in Germany’s formerly communist east and democratic west. In May the exhibition was given a “corona update” – it now includes objects that we came to consider a luxury in times of the pandemic. A featured object from the early stages of the pandemic was, of course, a roll of toilet paper. But more recently it’s received an upgrade: a goldsmith in Köln had been attracting local attention by displaying her jewellery on a roll of toilet paper in the window of her shop since April, a nod to the strangeness of our current situation. Now her display has been acquired and will be featured in the Leipzig museum’s exhibition. It’s a fitting metaphor for all of us who learnt to cherish the “white gold” over the past few months.

M24 / Monocle on Culture

Summer round-up

We dial up some of our cultural experts to find out what we should be watching, listening to and reading this summer. Robert Bound chats to broadcaster and journalist Kate Hutchinson, writer Alex Preston and film critic Simran Hans.

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