Four key topics emerged in recent news around China. Here's what matters about its response to COVID-19, the global impact of its climate crises, ongoing tensions with Taiwan, and a recent report on its treatment of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities.

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Between the press of US politics, the stress of Russian war, and various global energy and climate-change crises, keeping up with China might not have been on the agenda. But this country of 1.4 billion human beings had a week of news items worth monitoring. Let’s review the top four:

COVID lockdown (again) for 21 million

With only six hours’ warning, the southwestern city of Chengdu, with a population of 21 million, was sent into lockdown after 157 new COVID-19 infections were reported. This action was taken under China’s zero-tolerance policy for the ongoing pandemic, which in the US killed 14,297 people in August: half of China’s overall total for the entire pandemic. The latest lockdown measure, which allows only one person per household outside for groceries if they haven’t tested positive in the last 24 hours, follows on the heels of similar across China this summer.

But the world has expressed concern about the impact of China’s zero-COVID policy, especially in manufacturing hubs tethered to foreign joint ventures. It remains to be seen if the hit to semiconductor supply chains will be a net win for the US, which has been engaged in economic warfare with China over related industries.

Extreme drought and its energy consequences

While drought and wildfires are familiar sights this summer, even as Pakistan endures devastating floods, China’s extreme weather conditions are notable in part for its tight control on human impact data, which is just now starting to emerge.

When an intense heatwave dried up the Yangtze River, it also depleted hydroelectric capacity. In Sichuan, one of the worst affected provinces during this months-long extreme weather, hydropower operations are at 20 percent of average capacity, which not only impacts households but also manufacturing sectors, including for raw materials like lithium and polysilicon. Ironically, these are key ingredients for many green technologies that could aid in global adaptation to climate change, whereas the country has reverted to coal to meet energy demands this past month.

Water shortages also join with foreboding forecasts around self-sufficiency in Chinese agriculture: a delicate situation with the world already enduring grain shortages due to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Taiwan and the Chinese drone

On Thursday, Taiwanese military reported shooting down a civilian drone, after warning that it would escalate to live ammunition against increasing drone activity. China has been increasing its military presence especially around the Kinmen and Matsu Islands, and even civilian craft are considered part of “grey zone” military tactics. World watchers anticipate that these bordering island chains will be the first sites of direct clashes. For now it’s difficult to ascertain the impact of Chinese encroachment (civilian or otherwise) and heightened Taiwanese response.

Chinese aircraft are not permitted over Kinmen, which Taiwan has controlled since 1949, but Taiwan officials stress a policy of countermeasures, not direct aggression, Nevertheless, after a controversial visit from US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, China upped its military activities and downplayed talk of a non-military solution to its push to “unify” with self-governed democratic Taiwan. Taiwan social media answered with calls for a stronger local response.

UN report on human rights concerns

On August 31, the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) issued a long-awaited report on human rights abuses in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The report acknowledges the use of torture against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities, along with an admissions process into “retraining” camps that is tantamount to arbitrary detention. The itemization of these and other human rights violations, which include forced labour, disappeared people, and targeted sexual violence, concludes with a list of recommendations for the Chinese government, various UN action groups, and notably the international business community.

The publication of this document was no easy matter. When UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet returned from the first such visit to China in two decades, her initial comments were diplomatic, after a trip in which she was limited in access. Thereafter, Chinese officials lobbied hard to prevent the release of a fuller investigative analysis.

As with concerns for Chinese policy around global health, agriculture, climate change, and foreign security issues, the struggle to address human rights concerns in the region relies in no small part on having, and pursuing, better intel.

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.