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Five forces that will define our post-Covid future

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Covid-19 has accelerated the world into the future. Here are five powerful forces that were at work before ­Covid-19, that intensified during the pandemic and will still affect the world in 2025, and far beyond.

First, technology. The march of computing and communications technology continues to reshape lives and the economy. Now, broadband communications, together with Zoom and similar videoconferencing software, has made it possible for a huge number of people to work from home.

By 2025, it is likely that some, possibly most, of this shift from offices will have reversed. But it will not do so completely. People will be able (and allowed) to work away from the office. Inevitably, this will not only include workers in their home countries, but workers sourced from abroad, too, usually on lower salaries. The result is likely to be a destabilising increase in what might be called “virtual immigration”.

Second, inequality. Many higher-paid office workers have been able to work from home, while most others could not. In western countries, many of those most adversely affected are also members of ethnic minorities. Meanwhile, many of the those already successful and powerful have prospered mightily.

Chart shows US job losses in Covid-19 crisis and Great Recession, by ethnicity, gender, age and education (%) showing Minorities, women, young people and the less-educated have been more likely to lose their jobs

The likelihood is that the inequalities exacerbated in the pandemic will not have reduced by 2025. The forces that have entrenched it are too powerful. Modest amelioration is the most one can expect. This, in turn, suggests that the populist politics of the recent past will continue to shape politics in 2025.

Third, indebtedness. Aggregate indebtedness has grown almost everywhere over the past four decades. Whenever crises have interrupted the private sector’s ability to borrow, governments have taken up the slack. This happened after the global financial crisis and again during Covid-19.

chart shows global debt, as a % of GDP, by sector showing debt has soared in the Covid-19 global economic crisis

The pandemic has dramatically increased borrowing by private and public sectors. According to the Institute for International Finance, the ratio of global gross debt to world output jumped from an already high 321 per cent at the end of 2019 to 362 per cent at the end of June 2020. Such a huge and sudden jump has not previously occurred in peacetime.

Fortunately, government debt is now extremely cheap, with nominal and real interest rates on the sovereign debt of high-income economies at low levels. But their debt overhangs may cripple parts of the private sector for years.

Fourth, deglobalisation. The plausible future is not that international exchange is going to die. But it is likely to become more regional and more virtual.

After the global financial crisis, trade ceased to grow faster than world output, as it had done in previous decades, but grew roughly in line with world output, instead. This slowdown was due to the exhaustion of opportunities, the absence of global trade liberalisation and rising protectionism. Covid-19 reinforced these trends. A marked result has been a desire to shift supply chains back home, or at least out of China.

The crisis is also reinforcing regionalism, notably in Asia. A noteworthy recent example has been agreement on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which brings together the 10 members of Asean with Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.

Chart shows imports from China as a % of total US imports and imports from US as a % of total Chinese imports showing US-China trade fell during the Trump presidency

Finally, political tensions. One dimension has been a decline in the credibility of liberal democracy, the rise of demagogic authoritarianism in many countries and the rising power of China’s bureaucratic despotism. Another is the rise of populism in core western countries and especially the US. While the victory of Joseph Biden represents a defeat for populism, president Donald Trump’s large share of the vote shows it has not disappeared.

The World Ahead: an FT-Nikkei special report

FT and Nikkei journalists look ahead to the next five years after a five-year alliance marked by tumultuous events, from Brexit and the Trump presidency to the coronavirus pandemic. Other articles include:

  • FT and Nikkei sectoral experts forecast what work, finance, tech, retail and energy will look like in 2025

  • Ryosuke Harada, Nikkei senior executive editor, on what the rise of China means for the rest of the world

  • A visual guide to the data shaping the 2020s and beyond

  • We asked for your predictions: a woman in the White House, yes, but no progress on climate change

Yet perhaps the most important of the geopolitical developments has been rising tension between the US and China. This is forcing countries to take sides. Again, Covid-19 has accelerated the drift apart. Mr Trump blamed China for the pandemic. Even if he is gone, many in the US share this point of view.

So where, given all this, might the world be in 2025? With luck, economies will have largely recovered from the pandemic. But most will be poorer than they would have been without it.

Yet perhaps the biggest challenge will demand a global co-operation that will not exist. Sustaining a dynamic world economy, preserving peace and managing the global commons were always going to be hard. But an era of populism and great power conflict will make this far more difficult.

We are in an era of turmoil. The pandemic has underlined this, but not created it. We need to rise to that occasion. The defeat of Donald Trump gives the world breathing space. But the challenges are huge. In 2025, many of them will still be there and, in all probability, even more so.



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Australia calls Great Barrier Reef warning politically motivated

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Australia has labelled a draft decision by the UN’s World Heritage Committee to include the Great Barrier Reef on its “in danger” list as politically motivated.

The committee, which is chaired by Tian Xuejun, China’s vice-minister for education, and selects Unesco World Heritage sites, proposed adding the world’s largest collection of coral reefs to the danger list because of the damaging impact of climate change and coastal development.

The designation could ultimately lead to the reef losing its World Heritage status, although officials said listing was intended to prompt emergency action to safeguard a living structure that stretches 2,300km along Australia’s eastern coast.

But Sussan Ley, Australia’s environment minister, said the government had been “blindsided” by the committee’s finding and alleged there was a lack of consultation and transparency. She added that Canberra would challenge the draft decision.

“When procedures are not followed, when the process is turned on its head five minutes before the draft decision is due to be published, when the assurances my officials received and indeed I did have been upended, what else can you conclude but that it is politics?” she said.

That the World Heritage Committee is chaired by a senior Chinese official has stoked suspicions in Canberra that it had been singled out over its diplomatic and trade clash with Beijing.

China-Australia relations have soured following Canberra’s call last year for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19 and Beijing’s imposition of tariffs on Australian wine and barley imports.

Ley said she and Marise Payne, Australia’s foreign minister, had already spoken with Audrey Azoulay, Unesco director-general, to complain about the draft decision.

But scientists downplayed the suggestion that the “in danger” listing was politically motivated. Three mass bleaching events in five years demonstrated the need for the government to do more to tackle climate change, they said.

“I’m seeing some press coverage saying this is all a plot by China not to buy wine, lobsters and to screw the Barrier Reef. I think that’s pretty far-fetched given that the draft decision released overnight will be voted on by 21 countries,” said Terry Hughes, professor of marine biology at James Cook University.

The controversy will heap further international pressure on Canberra, which has been pressed by the US, UK and others to commit to a national target of net-zero emissions by 2050.

In a draft decision due to be voted on next month, the committee urged Canberra to “provide clear commitments to address threats from climate change, in conformity with the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement, and allow to meet water quality targets faster”.

It noted the loss of almost one-third of shallow-water coral cover following a “bleaching” event in 2016 — a process linked to warmer than normal water that can lead to a mass die-off of coral.

The row over the “in danger” listing occurred at a difficult time for Australia’s conservative coalition, which is embroiled in internal squabbling over climate policies.

On Monday, Barnaby Joyce, a climate sceptic and supporter of coal mining, ousted Michael McCormack to become leader of the National party, the junior coalition partner to the Liberal party, and Australia’s deputy prime minister. Joyce is expected to oppose any move to commit to net zero by 2050.

Climate Capital

Where climate change meets business, markets and politics. Explore the FT’s coverage here.

Are you curious about the FT’s environmental sustainability commitments? Find out more about our science-based targets here



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The slippery slope of politicised street names

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It is confusing for taxis and Amazon delivery drivers, but in England I live in a Kent village on a street called simply “The Street”. Google Maps disconcertingly emphasises the “The” in big letters.

Surely no street name can be less political than mine. But in a much bigger conurbation, the decision by the mayor of Budapest to impose new street names in the Hungarian capital to highlight China’s human rights abuses is the latest example of the tendentious politicisation of place names around the world. 

There is no doubt about Gergely Karacsony’s purpose. By calling the streets around the site of a proposed Budapest campus of China’s Fudan University “Dalai Lama Road”, “Free Hong Kong Road” and “Uyghur Martyrs Road”, the mayor wants to embarrass Viktor Orban, the authoritarian and pro-China prime minister of Hungary.

He seems to be succeeding. In the face of public protests, Orban is now hesitating to impose the Chinese university project he previously championed to please Communist party leaders in Beijing. You can see why Karacsony did it. He is an opposition politician, and Orban has steadily undermined Hungarian democracy, limiting the scope for other forms of political action. 

But renaming streets for short-term political ends can be the start of a slippery slope. It does nothing to satisfy residents or help visitors find the place they are looking for, which are surely the main reasons for having names at all. And future mayors might change them all back again or impose their own ephemeral political views on the city nomenclature. 

Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, has undergone such a bewildering series of street name conversions since the end of French colonial rule — a reflection of sometimes violent regime changes — that avenues are often known to locals by several different names and visitors struggle to navigate the city.

When I lived in the Zambian capital Lusaka in the 1980s, one avenue was briefly renamed Saddam Hussein Boulevard after the Iraqi dictator gave a shipment of oil to the cash-strapped government of Kenneth Kaunda. Now that Saddam is dead and no longer so popular it has again been renamed, this time as Los Angeles Boulevard. But because there was already a Los Angeles Road, that too was renamed last year after national footballing hero Kalusha Bwalya.

Many political or nationalist renamings, it is true, can stand the test of time. There are countless streets and squares in France named after General Charles de Gaulle, and scarcely a substantial town in India without its MG Road in memory of Mahatma Gandhi. 

Some names, however, inevitably lose their appeal. In Madrid I bought my car from a Renault dealer in a street I was amazed to discover was still called the Calle del General Yagüe, a Francoist commander in the civil war known as the Butcher of Badajoz. The name was changed in 2017 to Calle de San Germán. 

A court has just ruled that another Madrid street, called the Calle de los Caídos de la División Azul, can retain its name because the fallen Spanish soldiers who fought for the Nazis on the eastern front might be considered victims of the war as well as perpetrators. 

But the lesson must be that there is little to be gained for mayors, governments or inhabitants if street names are changed purely for short-term political advantage, whether for celebration or denigration.

In our small village in Kent, there was not much scope for change, but change came anyway. There were always three principal roads: The Street, where the church is; Back Street, which runs parallel to it behind the village; and the main road, which joins them at the top and leads to the local towns in either direction. My first experience of the political or social motivations behind street-naming was when Back Street became Swan Lane (after a pub) and the main road was fancifully relabelled Poplar Road. 

Such cosmetic changes are innocent enough — who wants to live with an address on Back Street or the B2082? — and they have become part of the local geography. But somehow I doubt that Budapest’s Free Hong Kong Road will be called that a few years from now. 

victor.mallet@ft.com



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Western powers reignite Beijing anger after G7 and Nato warnings

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For more than six weeks, Taiwanese military officers wondered where the Chinese fighter jets had gone.

During May, only four entered the island’s air defence identification zone. In the first half of this month, there were incursions on only four days and a stretch of nine days without any activity at all. This compared to a previous pattern of as many as 20 incursions a month.

But on June 15, a day after US president Joe Biden and other Nato leaders issued a statement condemning China’s “stated ambitions and assertive behaviour”, 20 PLA fighter jets, four nuclear-capable bombers and four additional military aircraft entered Taiwan’s ADIZ. It was the largest number of planes ever dispatched by the People’s Liberation Army into the zone, with some of them also skirting around the southern tip and east coast of the island before turning back

One senior Taiwanese government official said Beijing could not restrain itself after the Nato communique — and a G7 summit statement issued just days earlier — criticised Beijing’s activities in the Taiwan Strait and its crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

“Beijing wanted to prove wrong those in the west whom they accuse of hyping a China threat theory,” the official said, referring to the reduced military activity in May and early June. “But of course they could not keep it up. Once Taiwan gets a little support, they have to react.”

Chinese analysts said Beijing had no choice but to show its resolve after the Biden administration accelerated its efforts to build a “united front” against China at the G7 and Nato summits — something President Xi Jinping’s administration had long feared but that never materialised when Donald Trump was US president.

“The G7 and Nato have been distorted into anti-China platforms,” said Victor Gao, a former Chinese diplomat now at the Center for China and Globalisation, a Beijing-backed think-tank. “There are increasingly large forces in China that believe if the US wants to single out China as its fundamental enemy, then let the US have an enemy.”

Beijing also responded to the G7’s criticism of its policies in Hong Kong with a show of force in the territory, where it recently snuffed out the only public commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre on Chinese soil. In the early hours of Thursday, police arrested senior staff at the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper for alleged “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security”.

A senior officer with the Hong Kong police force’s national security division later said the arrests were related in part to more than 30 articles published in the newspaper.

Beijing’s actions around Taiwan and in Hong Kong were matched by scathing rhetoric. Zhao Lijian, a foreign ministry spokesperson and one of China’s most outspoken diplomats, said the G7 communique “exposed the bad intentions of the US and a few other countries to create antagonism and widen differences with China”.

“The US is sick,” Zhao added. “The G7 should take its pulse and prescribe medicine for it.”

Such comments appeared to contradict recent instructions from Xi, who said last month that official propaganda should “set the right tone, be open and confident but also modest, humble and strive to create a credible, loveable and respectable image of China”.

Xi, however, also noted that China was involved in a “public opinion struggle” internationally. “Powerful anti-China forces in western society want to attack and discredit China,” Lu Shaye, China’s ambassador in Paris, said last week in a state media interview. “We must fight back to safeguard our own interests. Our sovereign security and development interests are inviolable.”

Yun Sun, a China foreign policy expert at the Stimson Center in Washington, said such rhetoric reflected growing alarm in Xi’s administration. “There is a real concern in Beijing that a united front is forming [and] includes many elements that China does not wish to see such as Taiwan, maritime security and human rights,” Sun said. “That’s why we are seeing some unusually harsh responses from Beijing on G7 and Nato.”

Hong Kong police blow out candles lit by activists to mark the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Beijing responded to G7 criticism of its policies in Hong Kong with a show of force in the territory © AP

“Germany, France and other EU countries are hesitant to confront China as [openly as] the US,” added Shi Yinhong, a professor at Renmin University in Beijing, who advises the State Council on foreign policy issues. “But they are now closer to the US when it comes to dealing with China.”

Some Chinese officials and analysts argue that while Beijing will continue to respond forcefully when criticised over Taiwan, Hong Kong or other “core interests”, this does not preclude co-operation with the US on other issues such as climate change or global tax reform.

Fu Ying, a former Chinese ambassador to the UK, said at a recent seminar that the Biden administration wanted to “prevent China from moving forward to replace the US”. But, she added, “we hope [technological and economic] competition can be managed to ensure it is on a positive track, pushing each other to seek joint development and improvement”.

Beijing “should stand firm on matters of principle but not be too distracted by anti-China hostility”, Gao said. “In the long term China will have a larger economy than the US — no one can change that. Time is on China’s side.”

Additional reporting by Xinning Liu in Beijing



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