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China Academy of Art teaches students to ‘reinvent its heritage’

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This spring the usual 100,000 or so applicants vying for just 1,700 places at one of China’s most prestigious art colleges were not squeezing into vast halls for the gruelling four-day entrance exam. Instead, as a result of the Covid pandemic, the China Academy of Art hopefuls found the whole process had been moved online.

All the CAA’s courses, which include fine art, ceramics, architecture and fashion, are wildly oversubscribed and for those wishing to study jewellery, there are just 20 places on the undergraduate course and a handful for the masters degree. The jewellery course also attracts international students from around the world.

The CAA was founded in 1928, but the jewellery department is just 10 years old. Its evolution reflects a desire to rediscover and celebrate traditional Chinese culture while building a bridge to the modern world and serving a soaring consumer market.

“We want to teach students how to use traditional techniques in a contemporary way but also keep a global view on what is happening in the international scene,” says Zhenghong Wang, vice-dean of the college of crafts and head of the jewellery school at the CAA. “Chinese culture is the key point of our programme. Every class is linked with a tradition — even the basic technical classes are linked with a cultural background.”

This includes teaching the enamelling technique of cloisonné as well as metal folding — both are practised by a dwindling number of craftspeople in the country. Ms Wang is also keen to teach the jewellery-making traditions of China’s minorities in the west and south of the country.

It is a challenging undertaking, particularly given that China is “starting from zero” when it comes to building a contemporary jewellery sector. This is the opinion of Ruudt Peters, one of the Netherlands’, and Europe’s, most eminent artist-jewellers. He has a close relationship with the CAA’s jewellery studio, which he has visited many times to teach.

“In fine art there are some really intriguing artists who have found their own identity based in their Chinese roots,” he says. “In jewellery I feel there is still a missing link. Their teachers have been sent to Europe to get their training, then they come back and coach students to become good westernised jewellers.”

But Mr Peters also sees work that he much admires and even finds “heartbreaking”. He recently curated a jewellery exhibition sponsored by the CAA, and first shown in Hangzhou in 2018, called 21 Grams. It showed works by 160 jewellers, split evenly between those from the west and China. The pieces were made in response to the name of the show, which refers to the amount of weight lost by a human body at the moment of death. This was observed by a US doctor in the early 1900s and was interpreted to represent the weight of the soul. Each piece of jewellery weighed 21 grammes.

“21 Grams was a challenge and I am very happy the CAA allowed me to do it. But they were very afraid of the ghost of the soul,” says Mr Peters. “Some Chinese jewellers made strong work in the traditional way but brought it up to date. I loved those pieces. But some in China thought they were not good or relevant, only old-fashioned.”

This chasm between the old and the new that Mr Peters identifies is a legacy of the decade-long cultural revolution that began in 1966 and was an attempt by the country’s communist leader, Mao Zedong, to stamp out any vestiges of capitalism and the bourgeoisie.

“During the cultural revolution Mao eradicated all China’s heritage. Jewellery was forbidden; no one was allowed to wear it,” says Anja Eichler, a German contemporary jeweller who spent three years in China from 2011, studying and researching its contemporary jewellery scene. “Now that the country is a strong economic power it wants to reinvent its heritage and it sees a strong culture as an indicator of a developed country, although crafts are still not very well appreciated.”

For its part, the CAA jewellery studio is firm in its aims of teaching its students to reach into the past for inspiration and to teach them the skills to make their work by hand. The jewellery of the final-year students, displayed in their graduate show in June, was inspired by a field trip to the Buddhist caves of Dunhuang, in north-west China. The purpose of the trip was to study the cave paintings, which date back to the fourth century, and the local architecture.

Of those graduating students, typically almost half would continue their studies overseas, some would become teachers and a few would set up their own studio.

Pearl Lion necklace by Qian Zhongshu
Pearl Lion necklace by Qian Zhongshu

Qian Zhongshu, a graduate of the CAA, first studied sculpture there. He now runs a successful jewellery studio in Hangzhou. He became fascinated by antique jewellery, and began collecting often broken pieces with little monetary value. He used his sculpture skills to redesign and embellish them, to “give old pieces new value and meaning”.

“I aim to combine classic Chinese style with modern art. I love goldfish, butterflies, folding fans and moon-shaped fans, and I make a lot of jewellery pieces of them. They have become my signature work. I have attracted a celebrity following.”



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Emerging Markets

Brazil poised for biggest interest rate increase since 2003

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Banco Central do Brasil updates

Brazil’s central bank is expected to enact its biggest interest rate rise in almost two decades on Wednesday, with economists predicting an increase of 100 basis points to curb the risk of spiralling inflation.

Latin America’s most populous nation is witnessing a sharp acceleration in prices as its economy recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic, pinching households and putting pressure on the Banco Central do Brasil, or BCB, to act.

A weak exchange rate, buoyant worldwide demand for raw materials and rising electricity bills due to the worst drought in almost a century have all contributed to Brazilian inflation that exceeded 8 per cent in the 12 months to June, more than double the official target of 3.75 per cent for 2021.

A majority of economists polled by Reuters expect the BCB’s Selic rate will be lifted from 4.25 per cent to 5.25 per cent, which would be its fourth consecutive rise. The benchmark was at a historic low of 2 per cent until March. The decision is expected on Wednesday evening.

A full percentage point jump would represent a step up from the 75 basis point increases announced after the three previous meetings this year of the rate-setting committee, known as Copom. It would be the sharpest increase since its last 100bp rise in 2003.

As a commodities boom and pandemic-related bottlenecks in global supply chains feed an international debate about whether a return of inflation will be temporary or long-lived, central bankers in some countries are already tightening monetary policy. 

Russia, Mexico and Chile have all recently raised interest rates, while the US Federal Reserve is edging closer to a decision on slowing its massive monetary stimulus.

The BCB, which gained formal autonomy this year, is at the forefront of emerging markets pursuing an aggressive approach, said William Jackson, chief EM economist at Capital Economics.

However, he noted that Brazil’s gross domestic product was still below the level of 2014, before a deep recession struck.

“That would suggest the economy is operating below its potential and that monetary policy should be stimulative,” Jackson said. “But with the inflation threat as it is, there’s a belief that can’t continue for the time being.”

In a country that experienced runaway prices and hyperinflation only a generation ago, monetary policymakers will have to strike a balance between shielding consumers and encouraging growth.

Cristiano Oliveira, chief economist at the business lender Banco Fibra, suggested Copom should accelerate rate increases to bring estimates of future inflation closer in line with its objective.

“In 2022, the centre of the inflation target is 3.25 per cent, but inflation in the previous year should be close to 7.5 per cent. In other words, the central bank has a difficult job ahead of it, which is to reduce the inflation rate by more than 50 per cent”.

Food costs have pushed millions of people into hunger, with unemployment near a record in Brazil since data collection first began in 2012. Transport and housing have also become more expensive lately.

At the same time, low reservoir levels have affected hydroelectricity production, the South American nation’s main source of power, forcing utilities to turn on more costly thermal plants.



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Bolsonaro faces investigation over election fraud claims

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Brazilian politics updates

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s legal problems have multiplied after a court opened an investigation into his unsubstantiated warnings of voter fraud in presidential elections next year, a probe which could lead to him being disqualified from running.

The judicial inquiry comes as the far-right leader’s ratings are on the slide following accusations of his incompetent handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has claimed the lives of more than half a million Brazilians.

Rising living costs and allegations of corruption in vaccine procurement within his administration have damaged Bolsonaro’s standing further.

With political pressure building, the populist has increased attacks on the electronic voting system in recent weeks, reiterating calls for the adoption of printed paper receipts in order to avoid manipulation.

Opponents fear the former army captain is seeking to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the vote, in preparation for refusing to recognise a potential defeat. A group of 18 current and former Supreme Court justices have defended the current ballot system, which was introduced in 1996, insisting that Brazil had eliminated election fraud.

The Superior Electoral Court this week opened an administrative probe into Bolsonaro over his claims, for which he has provided no evidence. It also asked the Supreme Court to investigate whether the president had committed a crime by disseminating fake news about the voting system.

The president hit back on Tuesday. “I will not accept intimidation. I will continue to exercise my right as a citizen, to freedom of expression, criticism, to listen, and to meet, above all, the popular will,” Bolsonaro told supporters in Brasília.

The electoral court’s intervention showed the judiciary was striking back against Bolsonaro’s attacks, said Carlos Melo, a political scientist at Insper in São Paulo. “He [Bolsonaro] is harming the rules of the game, of democracy and the institutions,” he added. “It’s not different to what [Donald] Trump did, and demagogues in other countries. His intention is to question the electoral process without proof.”

Both moves by the electoral court could in theory eventually pave the way for Bolsonaro being barred from standing in the 2022 poll.

“There is a long way until this can bring actual legal consequences against the president which might affect his eligibility,” said Rogério Taffarello, a partner in criminal law at Mattos Filho and professor at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation. “[This] does not mean, of course, that the existence of such investigations cannot generate political consequences”.

The president is already the subject of a criminal investigation into whether he failed to act on warnings about alleged irregularities by public officials in negotiations over vaccine purchases. Bolsonaro and the government deny any wrongdoing.

Protesters have taken to the streets in cities over the past two months calling for the impeachment of Bolsonaro, who in polls is trailing former leftwing president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, also a likely frontrunner in next year’s election.

Bolsonaro had long promised to present evidence of cheating in elections, even claiming that the 2018 ballot he won was tampered with. Yet last week he admitted to not holding any proof, only “indications”.

Despite his falling popularity, Bolsonaro retains backing in Congress from an amorphous grouping of centre-right political parties known as the Centrão, or “Big Centre”. Analysts said for now this support appeared to be holding.

Additional reporting by Carolina Pulice



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South Korea looks to fintech as household debt balloons to $1.6tn

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South Korea Economy updates

After her family business of ferrying drunk people home was hit by closures of bars due to Covid-19 curfews and social distancing, Lee Young-mi* found herself juggling personal debts of about Won30m ($26,000).

The 56-year-old resident of Suncheon in South Korea was already struggling to pay off or refinance four credit cards, but now faces the prospect of those debts rapidly multiplying after her husband was diagnosed with cancer.

“We’ve had little income for more than a year as not many people are out drinking until late into the night,” said Lee. “Now my husband won’t be able to work at all for the next three months after his surgery.”

Lee’s story is playing out across Asia’s fourth-largest economy as self-employed workers, who make up nearly a third of the labour force, have seen their incomes reduced sharply due to coronavirus restrictions. Now, after struggling for years to keep a lid on household debts that hit a record Won1,765tn ($1.6tn) in March, Seoul is looking to fintech companies and peer-to-peer lenders for answers. 

Chart showing increase in South Korea's household debt

Among them is PeopleFund, which touts tech-based investment products backed by machine learning that allow borrowers to refinance their higher-interest loans from banks and credit card companies.

The company has loaned at least $1bn to more than 7,500 customers since it was established in 2015. Its products allow borrowers to switch their debts to fixed-rate, amortised loans at annual interest rates of about 11 per cent, a change from the riskier floating rate, interest-only loans common in South Korea. 

PeopleFund has received about Won96.7bn in financing from brokerage CLSA, and along with Lendit and 8Percent is one of the first among the country’s 250 shadow banks to win a peer-to-peer lending licence. 

“The country’s most serious household debt problem is with unsecured non-bank loans, whose pricing has been too high. We can offer more affordable loans to ordinary people unable to receive bank loans,” Joey Kim, chief executive of PeopleFund, told the Financial Times.

The proliferation of digital lenders and fintechs in South Korea, where higher-risk borrowers are often cut off from bank financing, has been encouraged by the country’s government.

“We hope that P2P lenders will help resolve the dichotomy in the credit market by increasing the access of low-income people to mid-interest loans,” said an official at the Financial Supervisory Service.

South Korea’s household debt situation has become more pressing since the onset of the pandemic, with increases in borrowing for mortgages, to cover stagnating wages and to invest in the booming stock market. South Korean households are among the world’s most heavily indebted, with the average debt equal to 171.5 per cent of annual income.

South Korea’s household debt-to-GDP ratio stood at 103.8 per cent at the end of last year, compared with an average 62.1 per cent of 43 countries surveyed by the Bank for International Settlements.

Much of the new debt has been risky. Unsecured household loans from non-bank financial institutions were Won116.9tn as of March, up 33 per cent from four years ago, according to the Bank of Korea, much of it high interest loans taken out by poorer borrowers.

Getting on top of the problem has taken on national importance. In a rare warning in June, the central bank said the combination of high asset prices and excessive borrowing risked triggering a sell-off in markets and a rapid debt deleveraging.

“If financial imbalances increase further, this could dent our mid-to-long-term economic growth prospects,” BoK governor Lee Ju-yeol said in July.

The country’s economic planners, however, are struggling to contain debt-fuelled asset bubbles without undermining South Korea’s fragile economic recovery.

The government has attempted to address the danger by tightening lending rules. Regulators in July lowered the country’s maximum legal interest rate that private lenders can charge their customers from 24 to 20 per cent.

Economists caution that rising debt levels increase South Korea’s vulnerability to an economic shock. 

They also warn that the asset quality of financial institutions could be hit by a jump in distressed loans when the BoK rolls back monetary easing, expected in the fourth quarter.

“Monetary tightening is needed to curb asset bubbles but this will increase the household debt burden, holding back consumption further,” said Park Chong-hoon, head of research at Standard Chartered in Seoul. “The government is facing a dilemma.”

For Lee Young-mi, however, the 11 per cent rate offered by the PeopleFund is still too high. “I am not sure how to pay back the debt.”

*The name has been changed



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