Thursday 13 October 2022 - Monocle Minute | Monocle

Thursday. 13/10/2022

The Monocle Minute

Image: Getty Images

Opinion / James Chambers

Known unknowns

Excitement is building ahead of the 20th National Congress, a twice-a-decade meeting of the Chinese Communist Party, which begins in Beijing this weekend. The event has been eagerly anticipated as it marks the moment when China could finally relax its strict coronavirus rules.

Travel agencies are rumoured to be working on promotional campaigns while straw-clutching tourists have been spotting a few positive signs in the official tea leaves, from Xi Jinping’s trip to Central Asia in September to his appearance without a mask at the recent National Day celebrations in Beijing. If China’s leader is indeed preparing the public for a change of direction, the party’s propaganda machine will have to be creative. Xi’s commitment to “zero Covid” has remained steadfast until this week’s congress. He has repeatedly staked his reputation on an unwinnable war against a virus, even while city lockdowns and border closures have stifled the economy and caused financial hardship around the country.

Of all of the decisions of his tenure so far – from the good to the bad to the downright heinous – Xi’s fixation on zero Covid is one of the most difficult to understand and perhaps the only policy that has significantly cost him support among the Chinese public. What was he thinking? Was it hubris? Faking it until he could make it? The truth is that we will never know. Zero Covid will disappear and we will be none the wiser. With no elections in China, little independent media and no real market for political autobiographies, what Xi Jinping thinks is no clearer now than when he first assumed office a decade ago.

James Chambers is Monocle’s Asia editor.

Image: Reuters

Defence / Australia & Ukraine

Training days

With Nato’s defence chiefs holding emergency meetings in Brussels this week to discuss their response to fresh Russian strikes in Ukraine, Australia – arguably the military alliance’s most important partner member – has said that it is now prepared to weigh in too. Australia’s prime minister, Anthony Albanese, has confirmed that he is considering a request to train Ukrainian troops in Europe.

So, what should we expect from Canberra’s involvement? “Australia has been working very closely with Nato since the conflict in Afghanistan,” Karen Middleton, chief political correspondent at The Saturday Paper, told Monocle 24’s The Briefing. “The prime minister wants to make the point to the Russian Federation that its behaviour is not acceptable. But Australia will not be sending its forces into the theatre of war. Any training will be undertaken in another part of Europe.” Nonetheless, the move signals a step up in Australia’s preparedness to play an important role in the war in Ukraine.

You can hear more about Australia’s relationship with both Nato and Ukraine on Wednesday’s edition of ‘The Briefing’.

Image: Getty Images

Art / USA & Nigeria

Returns policy

Washington’s National Museum of African Art, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution, has sent 29 Benin bronzes back to Nigeria, becoming the latest organisation to return culturally precious artefacts taken by British forces. The bronzes ended up in the Smithsonian’s collection via New York’s Knoedler Gallery and more than one private collector. Nigeria’s information and culture minister, Lai Mohammed (pictured), praised the move at a repatriation ceremony on Tuesday.

The museum’s decision comes after Germany approved a restitution agreement that involved the return of two Benin bronzes. Such decisions are part of a growing movement to give looted artefacts back to countries that experienced colonial rule; the Smithsonian’s new policy on this issue authorises the repatriation of objects for ethical reasons. All of this will only add pressure on the British Museum – which houses other Benin bronzes, as well as marbles from the Parthenon – to do the same. The momentum will prove increasingly difficult to resist.

Image: Jonathan VDK

Transport / Japan

Fast track

Over the next two months the East Japan Railway Company will be testing automated trains in Tokyo. The company, also known as JR-East, is the country’s biggest rail operator and runs arterial intracity and intercity rail networks that include Shinkansen bullet trains. But it won’t be trialling its robot trains on a sleepy suburban route: instead, it will be using two commuter trains on the capital’s Yamanote line, a busy commuter circuit that calls at major stations including Harajuku, Shibuya and Shinjuku.

The only human intervention that JR-East’s driving computer needs is a press of the “go” button; the train then starts moving, controls its own speed and stops where it needs to. The operator aims to automate all of its trains on the Yamanote line by 2028. Even if the test is successful in Japan, it might be a while before some of the world’s less well-organised transit systems can function without humans.

Image: Alamy

Fashion / Italy

Love and theft

Fashion designers have long drawn inspiration from the art world. In the 1930s, Elsa Schiaparelli translated Jean Cocteau’s provocative work into jewellery; more recently, Louis Vuitton collaborated with Japanese contemporary artist Takashi Murakami. But sometimes the borrowing of ideas is less welcome. Jean Paul Gaultier’s recent collection Le Musée features Boticelli’s painting “Birth of Venus” on T-shirts and dresses; Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, where the Renaissance masterpiece is housed, is now suing the fashion house for its unauthorised commercial use.

The dispute isn’t straightforward: though the artwork is in the public domain, Italy’s Code of Cultural Heritage and Landscape requires brands to seek permission and pay a fee when referencing the country’s works of “cultural interest”. The episode highlights the ongoing debate on how freely fashion designers should be able to borrow from other works and could prompt them to credit their sources better in future.

Image: Laguna

Monocle 24 / The Urbanist

La Laguna, Mexico City

Mary Holland visits a converted factory space in a historically working-class neighbourhood of Mexico City.

Monocle Films / Turin

The new urban rowers

We wake up bright and early to meet creative director Luca Ballarini at the Circolo Canottieri Caprera, a rowing club on the banks of the river Po in Turin. We follow his slender boat and glide along the river beside charming palazzi, castles and bridges, while the rest of the city comes to life.


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