Hello and welcome to the intelligence on Economist Radio. I'm your host, Jason Palmer. Every weekday, we provide a fresh perspective on the events shaping your world. Soon after, the first Chinese citizens graduated from American universities in the mid 19th century, political mistrust between the countries took hold. Now the world powers are at odds once more, and China's students are again caught in the middle. And in Nigeria, there's endless appetite for wigs made of real hair, Vietnamese locks are prized for their bounce.
Mongolian ones are said to be easy to curl. We look at a curious supply chain involving Indian pilgrims, bathroom drains and the occasional goat.
First up, though. A verdict that had been long awaited in Lebanon was handed down yesterday, a UNbacked court in The Hague passed judgment on four men tried in absentia the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was killed by a truck bomb in 2005. The trial chamber, therefore, finds Salim Jamil Ayash guilty as a co perpetrator of Count One conspiracy aimed at committing a terrorist act. One defendant was found guilty while the other three were acquitted. All four are members of Hezbollah, an Islamist paramilitary group and political party.
Fifteen years ago, the assassination sent shockwaves across the Middle East and marked a turning point in Lebanese politics. There were fears that yesterday's verdict could deepen long running sectarian tensions, but many Lebanese have more pressing concerns.
Some are now calling for a sustained uprising against Lebanon's government, whose negligence they blame for last week's devastating explosion. Last week, the cabinet quit in the wake of the blast that destroyed Beirut's port. The country's politics is paralyzed while parliament haggles over a successor in a bankrupt country. Reconstruction is going to be a struggle. Today's tragedies might just overshadow those of the past.
The explosion that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, it was massive, both in its scale and in its future implications for Lebanon.
Greg Karlstrom is our Middle East correspondent based in Beirut.
His convoy had just left a cafe near the parliament building downtown. It was traveling along the Corniche, the seaside road in Beirut, when a massive truck bomb exploded. It killed twenty two people, including the former prime minister, injured more than two hundred, left the crater metres wide and would prove to be a watershed moment for Lebanon politically. That would inflame deep divides that linger to this day. How do you mean?
In what way? Was it a watershed moment?
Hariri led the country for much of the first 10 or 15 years after the end of the Lebanese civil war you oversaw. The controversial rebuilding of downtown Beirut is credited with bringing back a measure of economic stability to the country and prosperity to the country. The backdrop to his assassination, though, was the ongoing Syrian occupation of Lebanon. Syrian forces entered Lebanon during the 1970s. They were heavily involved throughout the civil war. After the end of the war, they stayed until 2005.
Hariri was a member of the anti Syrian camp in Lebanese politics after he was assassinated. Many Lebanese initially laid blame on the Syrians and on Hezbollah, the Shiite political party and militia, which is aligned with the Syrians. And so it set off enormous protests which culminated in the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon later in 2005. But it also created a schism within Lebanese politics. There were mass protests in favor of the Syrians on March 8th and against the Syrians on March 14th and the political camps in Lebanon from that point on were known as March 8th and March 14th, divided on the question of roughly whether they were pro or anti Syrian.
And that is a divide that it is not as salient today continues to be at least somewhat relevant in Lebanese politics.
And so how much did this trial play into or inflame those divisions?
The verdict in one sense, certainly a significant moment. This was a trial that took the better part of a decade to conduct cost, the better part of a billion dollars. It was something that, when it was first announced more than 10 years ago, was extremely controversial in Lebanese politics. But as the process dragged on and as the investigation was obstructed at various points by the Lebanese government, many people began to lose hope that there was ever going to be an adequate explanation or investigation of what happened.
Then the verdict that was announced confirm those fears. I think for many Lebanese, one defendant was found guilty. The other three were found not guilty. The tribunal said it had no evidence that either Hezbollah or the Syrian government were directly involved in the assassination. And so you're left with in the verdict. You're left with the idea that essentially one low level member of Hezbollah acted independently in assassinating a former prime minister, which is, of course, implausible.
So many people come away from this unsatisfied feeling like it doesn't really answer the question of who was responsible for this killing.
And there are some unfortunate echoes of the Hariri assassination in the explosion that happened on the waterfront in Beirut recently. How are things with the recovery from that? The government has resigned over a week ago.
Well, as many people expected and feared, things are paralyzed when it comes to the politics here in Lebanon. The government resigned, of course, after this catastrophic explosion that killed almost two hundred people, wounded thousands more, and was the result of stunning negligence and alleged corruption on the part of the Lebanese government, which left thousands of tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate. Sitting at the port a kilometer away from the city center, the government stepped down amidst some protests that followed the explosion.
Now, the question is, what will replace this government? Who will take over? And the immediate question is who will be the prime minister? There's a lot of haggling going on right now, and it will be certainly weeks, if not months before the political class can reach an agreement on that. In the meantime, the country falling ever further into economic misery.
And what about the situation on the ground for ordinary residents of Beirut? How goes the recovery, the rebuilding?
There have been thousands of volunteers who came with push rooms, with shovels, and they've made a remarkable amount of progress where the streets were once carpeted with broken glass, where apartments were full of debris and chunks of rock and furniture. Much of that has now been removed. The city looks somewhat better than it did two weeks ago. The next step, though, the actual reconstruction is going to be more difficult to sort of unique problems in Lebanon. One is that almost everything that is needed to rebuild has to be imported from outside and Lebanon doesn't have stockpiles of this stuff sitting around, this all has to be paid for.
Then in a Lebanese currency that is increasingly worthless, people concerned about what their insurance is going to pay for, people wondering whether it's worth rebuilding their businesses or whether they should try to cut their losses and perhaps leave the country.
And so given all that, that that Lebanese face at this moment, this verdict, these tensions that go back 15 years, this will just sort of be in the noise for them, you think? I think so.
If this verdict had come out 10 years ago, even five years ago, it might have had a real impact on the political scene here. But right now, first, it's simply been a long time. The verdict, there was no particularly dramatic moment even in the reading of this verdict. It was a six hour, very dense, very legalese affair. And people here are simply preoccupied with more pressing concerns with this monumental task of rebuilding a shattered city.
And given that it's also not in the interest of any of the political factions here in Lebanon to use the verdict to try and escalate tensions. So it's a very unsatisfying outcome for a lot of people, but it's unlikely to be one that raises tensions further.
And there's already been lots of talk of investigating the negligence behind the blast more recently. I mean, do you think there's something of an analogue in the Hariri verdict, a long investigation with a not very satisfying conclusion?
Many people here in Lebanon see an analog. They would, of course, like to see a proper investigation into this explosion that leveled half of their capital city. We've heard a number of powerful political figures in this country, including the president, Michel Aoun, who has said there's no need for an international investigation. Anyone who pushes for one is simply wasting time. Everyone in the Lebanese political system somehow culpable in this, whether it's their influence at the ports, whether it's ignoring warnings from customs officials and security agencies who urge them to get this explosive material away from a major population center.
So no one here really has an interest in doing a proper, thorough, open investigation into what happened. And many Lebanese, yes, watching the verdict come out in The Hague yesterday, are worried that they'll get exactly the same sort of inconclusive answer whenever the investigation finally finishes. Thanks very much for your time, Greg. Thank you. For more analysis like this, from our international network of correspondents subscribed to The Economist to find the best introductory offer.
Wherever you are, just go to economist dotcom slash intelligence offer. American universities are the top choice for many young people in China, but the pandemic and rising rhetoric between the two countries have made life difficult for current and potential students. Tom Cotton, a Republican senator from Arkansas, suggested the Chinese nationals should be banned from studying science and mathematics in America. If Chinese students want to come here and study Shakespeare and the Federalist Papers. That's what they need to learn from America, and they don't need to learn quantum computing and artificial intelligence from America.
That's assuming they can even get to America in the autumn. China has canceled many international flights, leaving admitted students with a difficult choice and leaving some of those already in America stranded. But this isn't the first time the Chinese students looking to study in America have become casualties of tensions between what are now the world's two biggest superpowers. Young wing is still remembered, in fact, as a statue to him at Yale University because he is the first Chinese graduate from any American university.
This happened in the middle of the 19th century.
David Rennie writes on The Economist column on Chinese affairs and is based in Beijing.
He was a very bright kid, an orphan from a small village in the south of China, spotted by American missionaries who brought him to New England. And he went to Yale and then made it his life's work to try to give other Chinese young men that stage journeymen the same opportunity that he had because he believed that the decaying imperial China could only be saved with the help of modern education and in particular, American education.
And what does that dynamic look like now in terms of Chinese students in America or coming to this summer is extremely tense for tens of thousands of Chinese families whose kids have got places at very popular American colleges. But there's a combination of covid, which currently means that Chinese people are not allowed to travel to America and then it just a general climate of suspicion. So this is a real crisis, not just for the elite of China. There's also a bunch of middle class Chinese.
They're all facing this terrible dilemma that they've got an offer from an American college, but they've no idea whether it's going to work out for their kid. But why America specifically?
Why not study elsewhere for a for a for an education?
The kind of Chinese who want to study in the West have a really clear sort of hierarchy in their minds of the kind of country that is going to make them marketable later on. And unfortunately, the US is really at the top of that. If you are the British or the Canadians or the Australians, you have to tolerate the fact that you're just not seen as quite as prestigious. So, for example, I met a basically a child of the elite.
She calls herself in English. She goes to a very elite Chinese private school in Beijing. She has offers from her top choice, New York University, but also from University College London. She also has an offer from Toronto University in Canada. But when I asked her, she was incredibly kind of ruthless about it, that she goes to Canada. There'll be so many other Chinese students that she probably won't even get to speak English. So what's the point of that?
She thinks that America is a country of immigration, that it's more open to people like her, that if she wants to stay on in America, maybe try and get a job or a green card, that America is a much better place to build a new life.
And that, in turn creates problems for the American universities that would have hosted these students are hosting these students. What are they doing about this?
They're trying a bunch of different things. So you've seen them being quite proactive. There was a very successful legal push led by Harvard and MIT and a bunch of other universities which effectively forced the Trump administration to backtrack on what had been a very, very strict change that they had announced, where Chinese students in the states whose classes were going to be online for for basically covid reasons, faced deportation if they weren't taking any physical classes. And so that was beaten back.
Other colleges you're seeing that NYU actually where has her place. They have a campus in Shanghai, a kind of satellite campus, and they're offering to take kids there. It's really a bit of a mess for for for Chinese who want to study overseas. And so you're seeing kind of questions now about will we see just a kind of sharp decline in the number of Chinese studying overseas? And, you know, that would suit the Chinese government in some ways because although they're very keen on Chinese students going in, you know, studying things like astrophysics or A.I. or really cutting edge technology, you know, kind of just rich kids, you want to go and study kind of film studies.
They would rather that money and those kids stayed in China.
And how do you see all this fitting into the broader relationship between China and America?
Well, I think it is a sign of America losing some soft power. I mean, there may well be plenty of people in America who think that actually. Why do we want all these Chinese students coming to American colleges and taking places maybe from Americans, American colleges would say, no, no, no. These Chinese students, very few of whom are on scholarships, are paying very high international fees. And if it weren't for all those hundreds of thousands of Chinese students, actually some big American universities, they wouldn't be financially viable without Chinese students these last few years.
And they're actually cross subsidizing American students. But I think there's also, you know, something pretty tragic about the idea that America no longer wants to be a beacon for Chinese students, that that idea that Chinese students might pick up respect for the West or critical thinking or open debate, that America is kind of shutting its door on that. And I think, you know, if that if that trend continues, this will be, I think, seen as a turning point where that hope that an open China, particularly if China was willing to send the children of its elite to study in the outside world, that might have an influence on liberalizing China, that that optimism is already hanging by a thread.
And I think if if the student flows dry up, then you're really seeing the worst kind of giving up on the idea that China is capable of change.
And do you think that drying up is now likely? What would the consequences be of that?
The saddest thing almost is that we've been here before. So remember Yung Wing, the first Chinese graduate from an American college back in the mid 19th century, his career trying to bridge those two countries where he wanted America to help China become more enlightened and powerful through the power of education? He himself had his heart broken by trying to bridge those two cultures. He coincided with a nativist backlash. The Chinese Exclusion Act, one of the worst laws that Congress has ever passed, basically banned all Chinese people.
He had American citizenship at that time. He lost it and ended up an illegal immigrant in the country that he loved so much in America. But the thing about history is that repeating a mistake doesn't make it any less foolish. David, thank you very much for your time. Thank you. On the streets of Lagos, Wiggs signify wealth, women with silkie human locks tumbling down their backs stroll past others with coarse synthetic threads that desire for the real stuff fuels a hair raising international trade from those who want to get rid of it, to those who will pay almost any price to get it.
There's a huge market for weeks in Lagos.
You can buy a wig with human hair from anywhere between 60 and eight hundred dollars.
Olivia Åkerlund writes about Africa for The Economist. The hair comes from everywhere, Brazillian hair is praised for its sheen and durability, Vietnamese for its bounce, Mongolian is allegedly easy to cull.
There's that large supply of human hair that that larger variety.
Well, that's how it's sold. In reality, it's quite hard to trace where it really comes from. I spoke to US Army officer who is the founder of Hanvey, which is a luxury retailer in Lagos, and she told me that it can be very difficult to find a good supplier.
I was an unsatisfied customer. I was tired of it because I just felt cheated all the time. It wouldn't be as long as I'd like it to be. Maybe it wouldn't hold a curl. It wouldn't straighten. It wouldn't look.
It wouldn't have said they're not very scrupulous standards in the industry. Or I often told me some of the things that she saw as a consumer, that she was buying hair where she wasn't happy with and it wasn't really what it pretended to be. Why is it so hard to know what you're getting, though?
So there are lots of different steps in the hair supply chain. Most of the hair that ends up in Africa comes through factories in China, and sometimes unscrupulous middlemen will bulk up the human hair with half from goats or have from horses, and then the hair can often be mislabeled. So Chinese has not particularly popular in the African market, but Peruvian hair is. And so Chinese hair might be packed into boxes claiming that it's Peruvian or Brazilian, which is also popular.
And then once the hair arrives in Nigeria, there's also opportunity for mislabeling it and pretending that it is top quality Brazilian hair when perhaps it might not really have come from Brazil, for example.
I mean, those are the desired origins, but where does all the hair actually tend to come from?
So it comes from all over the world. Quite a lot comes from China itself. A lot comes from India. Myanmar is now the fourth largest exporter of human hair. It quadrupled the volume of HERIT ships out in the past decade through a fixer in Yangon. I spoke to a hair trader who deals directly with people who cut off the head again. He said that he can tell when the economy is suffering because more women come to his shop to offer him looks.
He said that his clients get around 18 dollars for their looks, but it varies according to weight.
And then some 500 kilometres north of Yangon is a town which has been nicknamed her city, the Town of Plowboy, which used to be full of farmers who are harvesting onions and chilies. But now lots of them have turned to the hatcheries. And so you have these collectors who go from door to door, collecting and paying a small amount for people's hair, which just comes out of pluck holes and combs and hairbrushes. And they gather together and put in a sack and then people sit and untangle them, picking out the lice.
And the white has and and this is the stuff that ends up in wigs in Nigeria.
So one Wickson that I spoke to scoffed at the suggestion and she said that we call the stuff factory trash and I don't use it in my wake's. I think a lot of it does end up in the works in Nigeria because it's the sort of middle of the range here. The same week also told me that she prefers to avoid hair that comes from India because a lot of the head that comes from India is cut off. Pilgrims at temples who go to sacrifice their hair as a gesture of surrendering that goes to the God, Vishnu.
And then in turn, the temples sell the hat on. And some people in Nigeria are suspicious of this temple here. They think that it's just one lady I spoke to said that she had heard that snakes slither over the hair in the temples.
OK, so what do you do if you want to wear a wig but you don't want to wear a wig made of hair that used to belong to someone else?
So if you'd rather not use human hair wigs, then you can go fully synthetic. Only had experts tell me that the synthetic hair is not as beautiful and shiny. It's much coarser. Thanks very much for joining us, Olivia. Thank you very much for having me. Alicia. That's all for this episode of the intelligence, if you like us, give us a rating on Apple podcasts and see you back here tomorrow.