The New New World
A movement against Western influence threatens to close off a nation that succeeded in part by welcoming new ideas.
As a student at Peking University law school in 1978, Li Keqiang kept both pockets of his jacket stuffed with handwritten paper slips. An English word was written on one side, a former classmate recalled, and the matching Chinese version was written on the other.
Mr. Li, now China’s premier, was part of China’s English-learning craze. A magazine called Learning English sold half a million subscriptions that year. In 1982, about 10 million Chinese households — almost equivalent to Chinese TV ownership at the time — watched “Follow Me,” a BBC English-learning program with lines like: “What’s your name?” “My name is Jane.”
It’s hard to exaggerate the role English has played in changing China’s social, cultural, economic and political landscape. English is almost synonymous with China’s reform and opening-up policies, which transformed an impoverished and hermetic nation into the world’s second-biggest economy.
That’s why it came as a shock to many when the education authorities in Shanghai, the most cosmopolitan city in the country, last month forbade local elementary schools to hold final exams on the English language.
Broadly, the Chinese authorities are easing the workloads of schoolchildren, amid an effort to ease the burdens on families and parents. Still, many Chinese people with an interest in English can’t help but see Shanghai’s decision as pushback against the language and against Western influence in general — and another step away from openness to the world.
Many call the phenomenon “reversing gears,” or China’s Great Leap Backward, an allusion to the disastrous industrialization campaign of the late 1950s, which resulted in the worst man-made famine in human history.
Last year, China’s education authority barred primary and junior high schools from using overseas textbooks. A government adviser recommended this year that the country’s annual college entrance examination stop testing English. New restrictions this summer on for-profit, after-school tutoring chains affected companies that have taught English for years.
Original English and translated books are discouraged at universities, too, especially in the more sensitive subjects, such as journalism and constitutional studies, according to professors who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Three of them complained that the quality of some government-authorized textbooks suffered because some authors were chosen for their seniority and party loyalty instead of their academic qualifications.
The president of prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing came under fire this summer after sending each new student a Chinese-language copy of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” He wrote in a letter that he wanted the students to learn courage and perseverance. Some social media users questioned why he would choose the work of an American author or why he didn’t encourage the students to study for China’s rise.
In some cases, Communist Party orthodoxy is replacing foreign texts. Elementary schools in Shanghai may not be conducting English tests, but a new textbook on “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism With Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” will be required reading in the city’s elementary, middle and high schools starting this month. Each student is required to take a weekly class for a semester.
The Communist Party is intensifying ideological control and nationalistic propaganda, an effort that could turn the clock back to the 1950s and 1960s, when the country was closed off to much of the world and political campaigns overrode economic growth. A nationalistic essay widely spread last week by Chinese official media cited “the barbaric and ferocious attacks that the U.S. has started to launch against China.”
Even just a few years ago, the Chinese government still emphasized learning a foreign language. “China’s foreign language education can’t be weakened. Instead, it should be strengthened,” wrote the Communist Party’s official newspaper, People’s Daily, in 2019. The article said nearly 200 million Chinese students took foreign-language classes in 2018, from elementary schools all the way to universities. The vast majority of them were learning English.
For a long time, the ability to read and speak English was considered a key to well-paying jobs, study-abroad opportunities and better access to information.
When Mr. Li studied law in Beijing in the late 1970s, the country had just emerged from the tumultuous Cultural Revolution. He and his classmates wanted to learn Western laws, but most of the books were in English, said Tao Jingzhou, Mr. Li’s college classmate and a lawyer in Beijing now. Their professors encouraged them to learn English and translate some original works into Chinese.
Mr. Li became part of a group that translated the book “The Due Process of Law,” by Lord Denning, the British jurist.
In 1980s and 1990s, young Chinese in many cities congregated at “English corners” to speak a foreign tongue to one another. Some brave ones, including the future Alibaba founder Jack Ma, struck up conversations with the few English-speaking foreign visitors to improve their conversational skills.
As the internet developed, a generation of Chinese learned English from TV series like “Friends” and “The Big Bang Theory.”
Some businesspeople struck gold by teaching English or offering instruction on how to take tests in the language. New Oriental Education and Technology, a company based in Beijing, became such a cultural phenomenon that it inspired a blockbuster film, “American Dreams in China.” The hero taught English the way many in China learned it, such as memorizing the word “ambulance” as the Chinese for “I can’t die.” (“Au bu neng si.”)
China’s top leaders used to pride themselves on their English. Former President Jiang Zemin recited Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in his 2000 interview with “60 Minutes” and told aggressive Hong Kong journalists that their questions were “too simple, sometimes naïve.” As recently as 2013, Premier Li delivered a speech partly in English in Hong Kong.
English lost some of its sheen after the 2008 financial crisis. Xi Jinping, China’s paramount leader, doesn’t appear to speak it.
Now, English has become one of the signs of suspicious foreign influence, a fear nurtured by nationalist propaganda that has only worsened in tone since the outbreak of the coronavirus. As a result, China’s links to the outside world are being severed one by one.
China’s border control authority said in August that, as part of pandemic control procedures, it would suspend issuing and renewing passports except for urgent and necessary occasions. Middle-class Chinese citizens with expired passports wonder whether they will be able to travel abroad even after the pandemic.
Some residents in the eastern city of Hangzhou who received phone calls from abroad immediately got calls from the local police, who asked whether the calls were scams. Scholars and journalists who participated in an exchange program sponsored by the Japanese Foreign Ministry were called traitors and urged to apologize in early summer.
For Chinese people trying to keep their connections abroad, it may feel like the end of an era. Share prices of New Oriental, the education giant, tanked in July after the Beijing government announced crackdowns on after-school tutoring services. The Shanghai government’s announcement drew praise online from some nationalistic quarters.
But as long as China doesn’t shut its door to the outside world, English will still be viewed by many as crucial toward unlocking success. After the Shanghai announcement, an online survey with about 40,000 responses found that about 85 percent of respondents agreed that students should continue to learn English no matter what.
Covid-19 and tensions between the two countries have hurt the flow of Chinese students into American universities. Still, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said it had issued 85,000 student visas since May.
A lawyer in Shanghai with a nationalistic bent wrote on his verified Weibo account that he would like his daughter to learn English well because English would be helpful for China’s economic growth.
“When could Chinese stop learning English?” he asked, then answered his own question: When China becomes a leader in the most advanced technologies and the world needs to follow it.
“Then,” he wrote, foreigners “can come to learn Chinese.”
Small businesses can get $2 million disaster loans, with more time to pay them back.
Small businesses seeking cash to help them weather the pandemic can now borrow up to $2 million from the federal government, after the Biden administration said on Thursday that it would lift a $500,000 cap on disaster relief loans.
Those that took smaller Economic Injury Disaster Loans will be able to apply for increases, although the Small Business Administration said it will not start approving requests for more than $500,000 until Oct. 8.
Any loans taken out this year will also come with a two-year deferral on repayments, allowing struggling businesses some time to catch up on their bills, the agency said. Loans can also now be used to refinance existing debt.
The loan program “offers a lifeline to millions of small businesses who are still being impacted by the pandemic,” Isabella Casillas Guzman, the agency’s administrator, said in a statement.
So far under the program, the Small Business Administration has made 3.8 million loans, totaling $263 billion. The amount that small companies and nonprofit organizations can borrow is based on their revenue and expenses; they are now eligible for loans equivalent to roughly two years’ of their operating costs, up to the $2 million limit.
Fearing that a flood of borrowers would quickly deplete the program, Small Business Administration officials quietly limited the size of loans to $150,000 early in the pandemic. The cap was raised to $500,000 after President Biden took office.
The low-interest loans, made directly by the government, can be repaid over a term as long as 30 years, and can be used for a wide variety of expenses — including, as of Thursday, paying off higher-interest debt or other federal loans. Businesses had previously been restricted from using the money for such refinancing.
The loan program has been a lifesaver for many business owners, but it has also been mired in shifting rules, complexity and bottlenecks. In August, the agency said it had significantly sped up processing and eliminated a backlog of loan-increase applications that had grown to more than 600,000.
But the funding left in the program could be limited: The $1 trillion infrastructure bill that the Senate passed last month seeks to pull some of it out for other purposes. The House plans to take up the bill this month.
Coinbase says the S.E.C. has threatened to sue it over a plan to pay interest.
Matthew Goldstein and
Coinbase, the largest cryptocurrency exchange in the United States, said on Wednesday that federal securities regulators were threatening to sue it over a proposed financial product that would let customers earn interest on digital asset deposits.
The company, in a regulatory filing, said the Securities and Exchange Commission notified it on Sept. 1 that its Lend product could violate securities laws. Regulators, the company said, might respond to Lend’s release by seeking a civil injunction.
The issue raised by Lend — an interest-generating service that somewhat resembles accounts traditionally offered by banks — is whether it will be engaged in trading or offering products to consumers that are considered securities, which the S.E.C. has the power to regulate.
The warning to Coinbase, which listed on the public market in April, is an indication that the S.E.C. is closely watching cryptocurrency companies — especially as they move into the territory of heavily regulated industries, such as banking. Gary Gensler, the S.E.C. chair, has said he is worried about the effects that unregulated crypto exchanges and products could have on the markets and investors.
Lend, which Coinbase announced in June, would allow customers to earn interest on cryptocurrency deposits. Specifically, customers would be able to earn interest on USD Coin, a so-called stablecoin whose value is tied to the dollar. Yields would be higher than those offered on classic bank accounts, and Coinbase would be among numerous cryptocurrency businesses entering this sector.
Coinbase executives pushed back against the S.E.C. in online postings, saying that the Lend program doesn’t qualify as a security and that the commission’s notice caught them off guard.
“The S.E.C. has repeatedly asked our industry to ‘talk to us, come in.’ We did that here,” Coinbase’s chief legal officer, Paul Grewal, said in a blog post. “But today all we know is that we can either keep Lend off the market indefinitely without knowing why or we can be sued.”
Coinbase’s chief executive, Brian Armstrong, called the S.E.C. “sketchy” in an extensive thread on Twitter and said he went to Washington in May to meet with financial regulators at many agencies. “The S.E.C. was the only regulator that refused to meet with me,” he said.
By seeking permission to act, Mr. Armstrong said, Coinbase is facing more resistance from regulators than other cryptocurrency companies that have introduced similar products.
Securities lawyers were divided over the S.E.C.’s tactics in going after Coinbase. Daniel Hawke, an attorney with Arnold & Porter and a former chief of the S.E.C.’s market abuse division, said the agency’s trying to stop a product launch “sounds aggressive.”
But some legal experts said securities regulators appeared to be taking a somewhat cautious approach in giving Coinbase a fair warning of its thoughts as opposed to simply letting the company go forward with the lending product and then suing it later.
Tyler Gellasch, a former S.E.C. official who leads the nonprofit Healthy Markets Association, said the commission recognized the importance of carefully handling a new kind of product entering the market.
“This is a very large player in the cryptocurrency place, and they are extremely cautious in bringing down a hammer,” he said.
Coinbase is not the only company running into trouble with securities regulators over crypto-based interest-generating services. Officials in five states have targeted BlockFi, a cryptocurrency business that offers high yields on holdings. Zac Prince, BlockFi’s chief executive, said that the company was complying with the law but that regulators did not fully understand its offerings.
“Ultimately, we see this as an opportunity for BlockFi to help define the regulatory environment for our ecosystem,” he wrote in a note to customers.
Shares of Coinbase fell a little more than 3 percent by the close of trading on Wednesday.
Plant-Based Foods Expand, With Consumers Hungry for More
A broad variety of options are now available in grocery aisles and on restaurant menus, and more companies are looking to get in on the action.
Vegan dishes at Chef Reina in Brisbane, Calif. Restaurants and grocery stores are responding to consumers who are moving away from eating meat.Credit…Kelsey McClellan for The New York Times
In the fall of 2018, Jenny Goldfarb suddenly had a craving for a corned beef and pastrami sandwich.
For Ms. Goldfarb — who grew up in a New York Jewish deli family — it was the classic sandwich of her youth. But her yearning came with a hitch: She is now vegan.
So she started working with wheat protein, adding beets for a “meat” color, and dipping the mixture into different brines and spices. After a couple of months, she had come up with a vegan substitute. She took her vegan corned beef from her home in the San Fernando Valley to a Los Angeles deli, which placed an order for 50 pounds. She cried tears of joy in her car.
These days, Ms. Goldfarb is shipping orders for up to 50,000 pounds of her Unreal Deli corned beef, turkey and, most recently, steak slices to grocery stores all over the country.
“We just got the green light from Publix,” Ms. Goldfarb said. “They want the retail packages, but also they want to put it in their delis.”
Riding the waves of success of soy, oat and other alternatives to milk, as well as vegan burgers made by Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, a broad variety of plant-based foods are showing up on restaurant menus and in grocery store aisles. And now more companies — from small upstarts to established brands — are looking to get in on the action.
This summer, Panda Express started putting orange chicken made with Beyond Chicken from Beyond Meat on menus at some of its U.S. locations. Pete’s Coffee is selling a vegan breakfast sandwich made with mung-bean-based Just Egg. A New York City soft-serve shop, 16 Handles, collaborated with the popular Oatly drink to create a line of vegan sweets in flavors like chocolate, chai tea and iced latte. And the Long John Silver’s seafood chain tested plant-based crab cakes and fish fillets at five locations in California and Georgia this summer.
When Eleven Madison Park, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Manhattan, reopened in June after closing more than a year ago because of the pandemic, it did so with a new, plant-based menu.
“It started with a plant-based burger, but now plant-based options are becoming available in all sorts of categories,” said Marie Molde, a dietitian and trends analyst at the research firm Datassential. “We think plant-based chicken is really going to take off.”
Restaurants and grocery stores are responding to the changing demands of consumers who are moving away from eating meat. Sales of fresh fruit in grocery stores have climbed nearly 11 percent and fresh vegetables 13 percent since 2019, according to Nielsen IQ. While only a small percentage of Americans are true vegans or vegetarians — in a 2018 Gallup poll, 5 percent said they were vegetarians — that’s not the audience these new companies and products are chasing.
Rather, they are going after the taste buds of the vegan-curious or so-called flexitarians, a much larger segment of Americans who are seeking to reduce the amount of meat they eat. Some are shying away because of animal-cruelty concerns, while others say the environment or perceived health benefits are factors. (Whether the plant-based foods, many of which are highly processed, are healthier is subject to debate.)
“This is not for vegans only — that would be too tiny of a market,” said Mary McGovern, the chief executive of New Wave Foods, whose shrimp made from seaweed and plant proteins will be on restaurant menus this fall.
Ms. McGovern sees a much broader audience of millennials, flexitarians and others interested in trying new plant-based foods. “I’ve been in the food industry for 30 years, and I’ve not seen anything like the tectonic change we’re seeing in the market now,” she said.
Just a few years ago, plant-based burgers were a novelty. These days, the Beyond Burger and the Impossible Burger appear on roughly 5 percent of the menus of all restaurants around the country, and 71 percent of Americans have tried a plant-based burger or other meat alternative, Ms. Molde said.
In grocery stores, sales of alternatives to cheese, dairy milk and fresh meat have been growing at robust double-digit rates for at least the past two years, according to Nielsen IQ. Almond, oat and other nondairy products make up 14 percent of milk sales.
Restaurants are jumping onto the bandwagon with both feet. Orders for plant-based products from large food distributors were up 20 percent in June from the same time in 2019, according to the NPD Group.
Still, appealing to flexitarians or occasional vegan consumers can be tricky. They know the taste and texture of real shrimp and turkey, and if vegan alternatives are not tasty, they won’t be back.
Megan Schmitt of Chicago shifted from vegetarian to vegan about four years ago and recalled her disappointment with the vegan cheese on the market.
“The stuff tasted like cardboard or rubber,” she said. “If you hadn’t eaten cheese in years, it would be fine, but it was not going to satisfy anybody’s taste buds that were switching back and forth from the real stuff.”
So Ms. Schmitt started fermenting a variety of nut-based concoctions, later moving to soy for her Cheeze & Thank You artisanal cheeses, including black garlic truffle fontina and dill havarti. They will be available in most Whole Foods stores in the Midwest this fall.
“I like to view my cheese as a canvas,” Ms. Schmitt said. “It’s my form of art. I want my product to be a feast for the eyes as well as the mouth.”
Reina Montenegro found herself in a similar situation. For six years she tried to create a vegan version of the Spam that she grew up eating. “Spam was the last thing I ate before I went vegan, because I knew it was something I would never eat again,” she said.
Then she heard about OmniPork Luncheon, plant-based oblong pieces that look like Spam and are produced by OmniFoods of Hong Kong. For the better part of a year, Ms. Montenegro said, she pestered executives at the company to get the product to the United States. Finally, in April, her restaurant, Chef Reina in Brisbane, Calif., which specializes in vegan Filipino comfort dishes, became one of a dozen restaurants in the United States using OmniPork products.
“Right away, we sold out of it,” Ms. Montenegro said. “The only thing that’s different with the OmniPork product is the sodium level — it’s lower than the real thing. But as far as taste and texture, it’s perfect.”
OmniFoods said last month that its vegan pork products were now available at Sprouts Farmers Market locations and that Whole Foods stores in 16 states had started selling some of its products.
Ms. Goldfarb of Unreal Deli initially planned on introducing her vegan deli meats through restaurants. By early last year, she had deals to supply a variety of restaurants, stadiums and universities. But when the pandemic hit, she quickly planned to sell in grocery stores instead.
Now Ms. Goldfarb is back in talks with a number of restaurant chains, she said.
“The vegans and vegetarians, they’ll be in your corner. The flexitarian is who we’re working to capture,” Ms. Goldfarb said. “We’re trying to speak to someone who has been eating meat their whole life but now wants to have an alternative two or three times a week.”
She also has her next vegan deli meat target in sight: ham.
El Salvador's Bitcoin Adoption Is Marred by Glitches
Ephrat Livni and
El Salvador faced a rocky transition in its adoption of Bitcoin as legal tender on Tuesday. The government’s app for facilitating transactions — its “digital wallet” — went offline temporarily, protesters took to the streets of the capital to denounce the move, and the price of Bitcoin dropped sharply, demonstrating the volatility of the cryptocurrency market.
The country is the first to use Bitcoin as an official currency, encouraging businesses and citizens to use it in everyday transactions, and the authorities struggled to smooth out glitches in the new system.
President Nayib Bukele wrote on Twitter on Tuesday morning that the digital wallet, which is called Chivo after a slang word for “cool,” would be available to Salvadorans in the United States and almost anywhere in the world. But even as large companies such as McDonald’s began accepting Bitcoin payments in El Salvador, for a time the wallet was not available to anyone, and the country slowed its rollout.
Mr. Bukele also announced on Twitter that servers were temporarily being taken offline as Chivo added capacity, and he acknowledged issues with downloads. “We prefer to correct it before reconnecting it,” he said.
When the law to adopt Bitcoin was passed in June, experts warned that it could bring instability and unnecessary risk to El Salvador’s fragile economy.
International financial regulators have also voiced legal concerns. Apart from the economic risks of Bitcoin’s volatility, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which is considering a financing deal with El Salvador, have said making Bitcoin an official currency could leave a country open to money laundering and other illicit financial activity. Bitcoin was initially designed to thwart total governmental control over money.
Many Salvadorans also appear wary of Bitcoin’s new status as an official currency alongside the U.S. dollar, which the country has relied on since 2001. On Tuesday, around 1,200 people protested in San Salvador, the capital, to oppose the adoption of cryptocurrency as well as judicial changes pushed through by Mr. Bukele’s party, the latest in a series of minor demonstrations that have erupted since the Bitcoin law was announced.
“No to Bitcoin, no to Bitcoin,” the crowd, which included judges and magistrates, chanted, holding signs with the Bitcoin logo crossed out.
“The dollar is a currency I can hold, but this — what kind of security is it going to give me?” asked Marina Pérez, a homemaker who was marching in the protest. “I’m against Bitcoin, and I’m against all the government’s measures.”
A majority of Salvadorans polled last month by La Prensa Gráfica, a newspaper, said they were against El Salvador’s adoption of Bitcoin, and nearly three-quarters said they would not accept the digital currency as payment. Only about a third of Salvadorans use the internet, and almost a quarter live below the poverty line.
“The truth is that here as the poor people that we are, we don’t understand that,” José Lopez, 81, a shoe shiner in San Salvador, said before the national Bitcoin adoption. “I’m worried.”
Cryptocurrency advocates — including El Salvador’s president — argue that adopting Bitcoin will foster financial inclusion. The majority of Salvadorans don’t have access to banking services, but most have cellphones that could, at least theoretically, allow them to join the blockchain’s alternate financial system. Mr. Bukele has said the move will also make receiving remittances from abroad faster and cheaper and will attract foreign investment.
Crypto fans abroad have cheered on El Salvador’s move, even as some worry that practical problems such as the technical glitches on Tuesday could slow adoption of Bitcoin elsewhere. Michael Saylor, the chief executive of the software intelligence firm MicroStrategy, which holds billions of dollars’ worth of Bitcoin, encouraged enthusiasts on Monday to buy $30 of the cryptocurrency “in solidarity” with Salvadorans, who have been promised that amount for downloading the national digital wallet.
To some Salvadorans, the enthusiasm feels reminiscent of the financial colonialism that the global crypto movement claims to undermine.
Spurred in part by Mr. Bukele’s announcement that El Salvador had bought 200 Bitcoins and quickly bought 200 more, the price of Bitcoin broke $52,000 on Monday before falling to around $45,000 on Tuesday. Mr. Bukele then announced that his government had bought an additional 150 Bitcoins, bringing the nation’s total to 550.
“Buying the dip,” the president said, using the lingo of crypto holders who pride themselves on being confident enough in their bets to buy falling assets. “We saved a million in printed paper.”
Brock Pierce, an American cryptocurrency entrepreneur who is chairman of the nonprofit Bitcoin Foundation, dismissed the technical challenges.
“No one had any expectation that this would be completely smooth,” Mr. Pierce said, given that there were only 90 days between the Bitcoin law’s adoption and Tuesday. He said he was speaking from a car in El Salvador that was “full of entrepreneurs” like him.
It’s rare to see a government act with the spirit of “an entrepreneurial start-up,” Mr. Pierce said, noting that the move by Mr. Bukele was drawing investment attention from businesspeople from around the world and could be good for Salvadorans without banking access. He called it a “historic” moment that would be remembered for many years to come.
Nelson Renteria contributed reporting.
In Hong Kong, Jimmy Lai's Next Digital Says It Has Been Forced to Close
Next Digital, which has published criticism of China for decades, said a crackdown had left it with no way to operate. Its main newspaper, Apple Daily, closed in June.
HONG KONG — Next Digital, a Hong Kong media company that has published vehement criticism of the Chinese government for decades, said on Sunday that it would take steps to shut down after an official crackdown had left it with no way to operate.
In a statement, the company’s board of directors called for the liquidation of the company and said that they had resigned.
“We have concluded that the best interests of shareholders, creditors, employees and other stakeholders will be served by an orderly liquidation,” it said, adding that it hoped such a move would allow payments to creditors and former staff.
The announcement was the latest in a series of blows to Hong Kong’s once freewheeling press, which has been stifled by the national security law that the mainland Chinese government imposed on the former British colony to quell dissent more than a year ago.
Next Digital’s founder and controlling shareholder, Jimmy Lai, is in jail, charged with crimes that include violating the security law. In June, Hong Kong officials froze some of the company’s bank accounts, forcing its flagship newspaper, Apple Daily, to close. Several top editors and executives at Next Digital, besides Mr. Lai, have been charged with crimes.
Apple Daily, founded in 1995, was the leading pro-democracy voice in the Hong Kong media, frequently denouncing China’s ruling Communist Party and its allies in the local government. Its aggressiveness soon made powerful enemies for Mr. Lai, who was forced to sell off a clothing chain after the paper criticized a Chinese leader in print.
Under the national security law, which China imposed after a wave of pro-democracy protests in 2019 that challenged its control of Hong Kong, Mr. Lai and his media empire quickly became a target.
Next Digital said it would have remained solvent had its bank accounts not been frozen. While it had faced advertising boycotts led by supporters of the Chinese government, Apple Daily was widely read, and it sold a million copies of its final edition. Next Digital’s stock, which was suspended from trading in June, had soared at times over the past year, as supporters of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy cause bought shares to show support for the company.
Next Digital noted that it had been forced to close before any of the cases against its senior figures had gone to trial. Its supporters have argued that the actions taken against Next Digital and its publications harm not only media freedom in the city, but also property rights and Hong Kong’s reputation as a good place to do business.
“When you abuse state power and freeze bank accounts and throw people in jail — the editor in chief, the chief executive, the founder — it smacks of a banana republic,” said Mark Clifford, an independent nonexecutive director of Next Digital. “This is not what made Hong Kong a center of international investment or the image that it prides itself in, with rule of law and protection of property rights.”
Mr. Lai is expected to be tried later this year on a fraud charge related to a sublease of the company’s headquarters, as well as charges brought under the national security law. Those charges allege that he colluded with foreign powers by funding a campaign that took out ads, in publications including The New York Times, that called for American sanctions against Hong Kong.
Mr. Lai founded the company that became Next Digital in 1990 with a single magazine. It grew to include Apple Daily, which eventually introduced an edition in Taiwan. The board’s statement said that the directors were confident that Mr. Lai would join them in thanking the company’s readers over the years.
Next Digital’s problems have compounded in recent months. Hong Kong’s financial secretary, Paul Chan, appointed an inspector to investigate the company’s financial affairs, a seldom-used power under local law. The Financial Reporting Council, Hong Kong’s auditing watchdog, opened an investigation into the company in August. And auditing firms have been refusing to work with Next Digital, raising doubts about whether it would be able to submit financial statements at the end of September as required.
With its accounts frozen, the company has been unable to pay outstanding wages to about 700 editorial employees. Some have found other jobs or started new media ventures, covering subjects like online entertainment and horse racing, but many remain unemployed. A liquidation of the company’s assets could help staff members receive some of the money they are owed.
The Hong Kong Journalists Association has distributed cash vouchers to former journalists from Next Digital publications. But the journalists have been unable to receive government funds designated for laid-off employees of bankrupt companies because Next Digital still has money in the bank, even though it cannot access it.
The company closed the Taiwan print edition of Apple Daily in May and has been in talks to sell its remaining digital operations. Other assets, including the Taiwan operations and the company’s archives, would most likely be sold once the company begins liquidation.
Lower Manhattan Rebounded After 9/11, but the Pandemic Erased the Gains
The triumphant comeback of Lower Manhattan after 2001 became a rallying cry for New York City. But its offices have emptied out, tourists are gone, and hundreds of retailers have shut down.
Matthew Haag and
The Amish Market opened in 1999 in the shadow of the World Trade Center, one of the few grocery stores and delis for residents and workers in the southernmost tip of Manhattan. Two years later, the 110-story twin towers at the complex collapsed in the Sept. 11 attacks, showering the store in fiery debris and ash.
Shuttered after the attacks, the market reopened roughly five years later in a new location a few blocks away. It joined a triumphant comeback as Lower Manhattan was reborn into one of the country’s largest business districts, a vibrant residential neighborhood and, with the addition of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, a tourist destination.
The Amish Market boomed, too, its staff doubling to 200 employees and weekly sales surging to more than $160,000.
But all that growth evaporated in a matter of days in a far different crisis that has wiped out many of Lower Manhattan’s gains since 2001.
When the coronavirus swept into New York in March 2020, the neighborhood abruptly emptied out, and revenue at the Amish Market plummeted in just one week, to $24,000 — not enough to pay rent, payroll and overhead. The store limped along until it permanently closed last September.
More than 350 retailers in Lower Manhattan have shut down over the past 18 months. New malls built after the terror attacks have had few shoppers, and landlords have sued retailers for not paying rent. Seven hotels have closed permanently, and others have yet to reopen.
Private-sector jobs have shrunk to 221,000, a smaller work force than in the months before 2001. Through the first seven months of 2021, daily ridership in the busiest subway stations in downtown reached just 6.3 million passengers, an 82 percent decrease from the same period in 2019, according to an analysis by The New York Times of subway ridership data.
More than 21 percent of Lower Manhattan’s office space is available for rent, a record high that is more than double the vacancy rate before the pandemic, according to Newmark, a real estate services company.
“When the terror attacks happened, it was just a matter of how long it would take to rebuild,” said Mike Jording, the former general manager of the Amish Market. “This is a different enemy — it’s more prolonged and worse. It’s a slow death.”
The gloom that has pervaded the downtown area for much of the past year — intensified by the rise of the Delta variant, which has hobbled the city’s recovery — evokes the days when the ruins of the towers still smoldered and some people predicted that Lower Manhattan would never recover.
No one would ever want to work or live in a high-rise building again, critics said. Within months of Sept. 11, 2001, about 4,500 of the neighborhood’s residents moved out.
But the outflow soon turned into a wave of newcomers, lured by federal financial incentives to live downtown. By 2005, the population of Lower Manhattan had grown to more than 43,000, an increase of 25 percent since 2000.
Most new arrivals were young college graduates, many of them employees at the large financial institutions that stayed downtown after the attack. They filled apartments in buildings converted from offices and patronized a growing collection of bars and restaurants in the square-mile district at the bottom of Manhattan.
Over the next two decades, Lower Manhattan was not only restored but reinvented, with at least $20 billion in public and private investments helping to transform it into a flourishing neighborhood. The recovery became an emblem of the city’s resilience.
New buildings rose, including the symbolic centerpiece, One World Trade Center, next to where the towers once stood. At 1,776 feet tall, it is the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere. Three other towers have been built on the site, as well as a memorial of cascading waterfalls and a $4 billion transportation hub linking new shopping and dining destinations beneath an architectural landmark known as the Oculus.
“Twenty years is a very long time and downtown should remember everything that happened 20 years ago,” said Peter Poulakakos, who owns several restaurants and other businesses in Lower Manhattan. “At the same time they should recognize how far they have come in the last 20 years.”
By the end of 2019, more than 253,000 people worked in private-sector jobs, surpassing the number just before the attack, according to the Alliance for Downtown New York, a business-improvement group. More than 900 companies had relocated to Lower Manhattan since 2005, including some of the city’s largest and most influential companies like Condé Nast, Morgan Stanley and Spotify.
“We love it down there,” said Tyler Morse, chief executive of MCR Hotels, whose offices are on the 86th floor of One World Trade Center. “Downtown has terrific physical attributes and great public transportation.”
Tourists flocked to the area at a level not seen before 2001, drawing 14 million visitors per year and fueling a hotel-construction boom.
But the pandemic has drained a lot of life out of Lower Manhattan.
Manveen Singh said she had no choice but to shut Tandoor Palace, her 27-year-old Indian restaurant on Fulton Street, after the pandemic took away the downtown office workers she had depended on. After the initial citywide lockdown she tried reopening, but, she said, “There was not a soul in Lower Manhattan.”
Ms. Singh fears the district will not rebound anytime soon. “If the corporates are not coming back full swing,” she said, “downtown is not coming back full swing.”
Companies continue to shed their downtown office spaces and seek tenants to take over their leases. JPMorgan Chase is trying to unload 700,000 square feet of office space on Water Street. And Advance Magazine Publishers, the media company that owns Condé Nast, withheld nearly $10 million in rent during a dispute with its landlord at One World Trade Center.
Advance started paying the rent arrears over this summer in a resolution with the landlord, the Durst Organization, which agreed to help Advance find another tenant to take over 200,000 square feet of office space it no longer wants, the companies said.
While Durst owns roughly 10 percent of One World Trade Center, it also manages and leases the building on behalf of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the principal owner. The agency collected $243 million in rent last year from its buildings at the World Trade Center site, including One World Trade Center, $58 million less than it had been anticipating.
“One World Trade Center is our home and we are proud to contribute to its legacy,” said Roger Lynch, the chief executive of Condé Nast.
Eight years ago, Barker, an advertising company, moved to 30 Broad Street, an Art Deco skyscraper that was one of the world’s tallest buildings when it opened in 1932. But none of its employees have stepped foot in the company’s two-floor penthouse in 18 months.
Yet the firm’s founder, John Barker, said he has continued to pay office rent — more than $1 million since March 2020 — as a symbol of his commitment to the neighborhood. He wants to use the offices again but does not know when that might be possible.
“This is where New York began and the mercantile hub that created a nation,” said Mr. Barker, who in 2017 moved a short walking distance from the office. “We believe in the future of Lower Manhattan unequivocally.”
Despite the tremendous challenges facing Lower Manhattan, including the rise of remote work, Carl Weisbrod, a former chairman of the New York City Planning Commission, says the area is well positioned to rebound.
Mr. Weisbrod, the founding president of the Alliance for Downtown New York, noted that efforts that started before 2001 to attract people to the neighborhood should help lift the local economy while companies postpone return-to-office plans and tourists stay away.
“We have to be careful jumping to conclusions about how much this latest crisis,” Mr. Weisbrod said, “is going to change human life and the city’s life. What we have seen throughout history is the lure of cities, the lure of density and the lure for human talent to exchange ideas in a central place.”
On the streets of Lower Manhattan, workers expressed a mix of resignation and optimism.
On a recent hot Wednesday afternoon, Irma Gibb sat on a concrete bench near the 9/11 Memorial’s south pool, missing working from her home in St. Albans, Queens, that had served as her office since March 2020. Ms. Gibb, who works in human resources for the city’s Department of Homeless Services, had just begun to come on alternating weeks into the office at 4 World Trade Center. She said there were just three people in the office, which used to have more than 250.
“It has not bounced back,” she said of the neighborhood, citing shortened hours for restaurants and “all the businesses that closed.” She especially misses the Century 21 discount department store where she used to shop before the chain filed for bankruptcy in September 2020.
Inside the shopping mall under the Oculus, foot traffic was light as indie rock played over the speakers. Brik + Clik, which opened in December, beckoned shoppers with meticulously arranged shelves of artisanal goods — from vegan cheese puffs to a detoxifying charcoal face wash.
The store’s co-founder, Hemant Chavan, said activity at the Oculus had risen this spring with the city’s reopening, the Tribeca Festival in June, more PATH and subway riders coming through, and a return of some tourists.
“We’ve had constant foot traffic,” Mr. Chavan said.
Mr. Poulakakos closed all five New York locations of Financier, a pastry shop, including two downtown. He and his partner also shut Pier A Harbor House, a restaurant near Battery Park.
But Mr. Poulakakos is already preparing to replace a Financier on Stone Street in Lower Manhattan with a cafe. Stone Street, paved with cobblestones and a destination for outdoor dining long before the pandemic made that fashionable, is showing signs of recovering its former vigor, he said.
“The idea of everything getting back to normal at the snap of your fingers is not going to happen,” he said.
During a recent visit to Lower Manhattan, Mr. Jording, the former manager at the Amish Market, noticed more people shopping, dining and walking around. But nothing like before the pandemic.
“The streets used to be packed, bumper to bumper,” he said. “If we were to open, there would not be enough business.”
Sean Piccoli contributed reporting.
TikTokers Flood Texas Abortion Site With Fake Tips
To protest Texas’ new abortion law, activists said, they pranked a website set up by the state’s largest anti-abortion group.
After a Texas law restricting abortion went into effect on Wednesday, the state’s largest anti-abortion group publicized a website that invited citizens to inform on the law’s violators.
The website, prolifewhistleblower.com, which was set up by the group Texas Right to Life, was designed to help carry out the new law. That’s because the law places enforcement not in the hands of state officials but with private citizens, who are deputized to sue anyone who performs or aids an abortion in violation of the law.
Tips about the law’s potential offenders quickly flooded into the website, which features an online form so people can anonymously submit reports of those who are illegally obtaining or facilitating abortions.
But some of the tips were a little unexpected.
Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, who was a leading proponent of the abortion law, was a violator, according to some of the tips. The fictional characters from Marvel’s Avengers were also apparently seeking abortions, the reports said. Other tips did not point to individuals but instead contained copies of the entire script to the 2007 animated film “Bee Movie.”
The reports, which were obviously bogus, were the work of activists on TikTok, programmers, and Twitter and Reddit users who said they wanted to ensnarl the site’s administrators in fabricated data.
Their digital dissent was part of a wave of reaction against the Texas law, which bans most abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy and makes the state the most restrictive in the nation in terms of access to abortion services. President Biden said Thursday that the situation “unleashes unconstitutional chaos” against women.
On TikTok, a developer with the alias Sean Black said he had developed a script that automatically generated fake reports to the prolifewhistleblower.com site. After the site tried to block him, the developer released a shortcut that allowed anyone with an iPhone or iPad to automatically create a fake report using a randomly generated Texas ZIP code.
“What if somebody very technical, very handsome, set up a bot that automatically sent the request to their website,” the developer said on TikTok. “Oh wait. It was me. I did that.”
The developer, who declined to provide his real name for fear of retaliation, said in an interview that more than 7,200 people had clicked on his script and that more than 8,450 people had clicked on the shortcut as of Thursday afternoon, based on data from Linktree, a service that helps people manage their website content. The shortcut was reported earlier by Vice.
On GitHub, a website for sharing and collaborating on software code, another programmer, Jonathan Díaz, released a script and posted a link on Thursday to a new app, Pro-Life Buster, which allowed people to automatically spam the Texas website with “bogus tips.” The developer wrote that the script was a way to push back against the law because it was “no one’s business to know about people’s abortions.”
By Thursday evening, the app showed that 1,000 new reports had been shared.
Mr. Díaz said the app existed to flood the site with authentic-looking, but fabricated, data. “The goal is to waste these people’s time and resources so that they wake up and realize this effort is not worth their time,” he said Friday.
These techniques, known as “hacktivism,” have become increasingly prevalent. Last year, TikTok teens and fans of Korean pop music inundated a rally website for former President Donald J. Trump with fake registrations — and then never showed up, leaving thousands of seats conspicuously empty. Anonymous, the loose hacking collective, has protested policies from the Vatican, the C.I.A. and others by flooding their websites with junk traffic to try to force them offline.
Kim Schwartz, a spokeswoman for Texas Right to Life, denied that the group’s website had been overwhelmed with false reports. “We knew this would happen, and we were prepared,” she said. “Activists have been trying to spam and take down the site for a week and failed.”
The most restrictive in the country. The Texas abortion law, known as Senate Bill 8, amounts to a nearly complete ban on abortion in the state. It prohibits most abortions after about six weeks of preganancy and makes no exceptions for pregnancies resulting from incest or rape.
Citizens, not the state, will enforce the law. The law effectively deputizes ordinary citizens — including those from outside Texas — allowing them to sue clinics and others who violate the law. It awards them at least $10,000 per illegal abortion if they are successful.
Patients cannot be sued. The law allows doctors, staff and even a patient’s Uber driver to become potential defendants.
The Supreme Court’s decision. The Supreme Court refused just before midnight on Wednesday to block a Texas law prohibiting most abortions, less than a day after it took effect and became the most restrictive abortion measure in the nation. The vote was 5 to 4, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joining the court’s three liberal members in dissent.
Even so, the group’s website appeared to periodically buckle on Thursday and drop under the load of reports, according to screenshots posted to Reddit and other sites. Separately late Friday, a judge in Travis County, Texas, granted a temporary restraining order against Texas Right to Life, blocking it from suing Planned Parenthood and enforcing the abortion restrictions.
To stem the flood of automated reports to its website, Texas Right to Life’s administrators have added a new version of a Captcha, a program that tries to filter real human responses from automated computer reports.
But some hacktivists persisted. One posted a screenshot on Reddit of a fake report that pointed to some of Marvel’s Avengers as abortion seekers. On Twitter, people posted screenshots of other fake tips. One user sarcastically reported that he wanted to retroactively abort his 30-year-old son who apparently wouldn’t leave the house.
Others on Twitter called for a boycott of GoDaddy, the company that hosts the Texas Right to Life tip site. They claimed the site violated GoDaddy’s rules that prohibit customers from collecting or harvesting nonpublic information about anyone without their “prior written consent.”
GoDaddy said late Thursday that it had given Texas Right to Life 24 hours to find a new hosting provider before cutting off service.
“We have informed prolifewhistleblower.com they have 24 hours to move to another provider for violating our terms of service,” Dan C. Race, a GoDaddy spokesman, said in an email.
By Friday afternoon, some people were having trouble submitting tips to the website using the form. Others reported seeing a GoDaddy firewall page instead of the profilewhistleblower.com site.
Wage gains remained strong in August as hiring slowed.
Wages continued to grow briskly in August even as hiring decelerated, a surprising development that economists said was probably driven partly by continuing demand for workers in spite of coronavirus outbreaks caused by the Delta variant.
Average hourly earnings climbed by 0.6 percent from July to August, more than the 0.3 percent that economists in a Bloomberg survey had forecast. Over the past year, they were up 4.3 percent, exceeding the expected 3.9 percent.
Percent change in earnings for non-managers since January 2019
Leisure and hospitality
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
By Ella Koeze
Solid earnings growth came in stark contrast to job gains, which slowed markedly. Employers added 235,000 workers to payrolls in August, far fewer than expected, as leisure and hospitality hiring stagnated.
Wage gains have been hard to read during the pandemic because they have been affected by what economists call “composition effects”: Virus layoffs and unusual rehiring patterns have shaken up who is working, and when higher-paid workers make up a bigger share of the pool, it can deceptively look as if average pay rates are climbing. Such quirks have been less pronounced in recent months, but changes in the labor force as the virus surged in August probably drove some of the apparent disconnect between compensation and hiring.
“A month with no net job gains in the low-paid leisure and hospitality sector will see a bigger increase in average hourly earnings than a month with more even payroll growth,” Ian Shepherdson, the chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, wrote in an research note after the release.
Pay has been climbing strongly in recent months as job openings have exceeded the number of people actively looking for work. Michael Feroli, the chief U.S. economist at J.P. Morgan, suggested that strong unmet demand for workers may have contributed to especially strong wage gains at restaurants and hotels last month — but that it wasn’t a simple story.
“It is possible that firms are having a hard time finding workers in this low-wage sector,” Mr. Feroli wrote, noting that the 1.3 percent average hourly earnings increase for leisure and hospitality employees over the past month was rapid compared to that seen in other sectors. At the same time, “aggregate hours in the sector declined for the first time this year in August, suggesting that the spread of the Delta variant may be limiting demand for labor.”
It is unclear whether the wage pressures will last as workers return to the labor market. While it is hard to gauge how much enhanced unemployment benefits discouraged workers from taking jobs, and early evidence suggests that the effect was limited, a few companies have signaled that labor supply has been improving somewhat as benefits were cut off early in some states. Plus, other trends — the end of summer and the resumption of in-person school and day care — may allow parents and other would-be workers who have been on the sidelines to return to the jobs search.
“As those states rolled off the enhanced unemployment benefits, what we did see was an initial nice pickup in applicant flow and staffing,” Jeff Owen, the chief operating officer at Dollar General, said in a recent earnings call. “The good news now is we’re seeing that across the system, and so it’s hard to discern that impact now because everything is up.”
If many people do begin to look for work in the coming months, helping the stagnating labor force participation rate to rebound, it could keep wages from rising as strongly because employers will have to compete less to attract talent.
Higher pay can feed into higher inflation, but many economists pointed out that today’s rapid wage growth is unlikely to worry the Federal Reserve — which is in charge of keeping price gains under control — when productivity seems to be improving.
If so-called “unit labor costs” remain under wraps, meaning that it isn’t costing companies too much more to hire labor to produce the same amount of output, that should prevent painfully higher wage bills for businesses that could feed into persistently higher consumer prices. Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, referred to that consideration in a footnote to a major speech last week.
“If wage increases were to move materially and persistently above the levels of productivity gains and inflation, businesses would likely pass those increases on to customers,” Mr. Powell said. “Today we see little evidence of wage increases that might threaten excessive inflation.”