Country Reviews – Week 1

Hey there. Been a while since I wrote anything on this site. Seems to be a recurring theme that I revive it after at least a year away. So here we are.

This time, I’m brought back by a pet project I started. For posterity’s sake, here’s the announcement I posted about it on Facebook:

Working in an international newsroom for almost a year has taught me much about the world, but more so, it’s shown me how little I know. I’m learning a lot just by absorbing knowledge from the brilliant people around me, but I want to take a more active role.

So starting today, inspired by Lena Krause, I’ll be researching one country every day. I know a few hours of research will hardly make me an expert, but I hope to get a cursory sense of the countries’ cultures, histories, & politics. Each morning, I’ll post the country of the day here on fb, so if you have any advice for websites or journalists I should check out during my virtual travels, please let me know!

Today, I’m starting with the world’s most populous country – China.

I honestly had no intention of writing anything about my research. But since I started, I’ve found that talking to people about what I’ve learned has been half the fun, and it’s helped solidify the knowledge in my brain. So I figured I might as well go all the way with that approach – posting a little bit about my research online.
Here’s the plan – At the end of each week, I’ll take a day off from researching, and post the most interesting/striking/surprising facts I stumbled upon. One per country, more when I’m feeling particularly chatty (or more likely, indecisive).
This is what this week brought us:
Hefty one to start with, really. I suppose the bits I found most interesting were the 1950s-70s – after the Nationalist Kuomintang Party was driven out of power, to the Republic of China in Taiwan, and the People’s Republic of China, led by the Communist Party, began its reign. Some say their civil war never really ended, because there was no official treaty. Taiwan continues to maintain, and somewhat fight for, its independence. Beijing claims its part of their territory.
I was also fascinated by what followed the ROC’s banishment, particularly the ‘Great Leap Forward’ and following ‘Cultural Revolution.’ During the GLF, the government tried to centralize control of agriculture, to fund mass industrialisation. But the economy instead tanked during that period, marginalizing Chairman Mao, who commenced the Cultural Revolution to try and save face. During that period, old buildings and customs were destroyed, higher education all but shut down, and about 17 million urban youth were sent to work on rural farms, all in the name of purging capitalism.

None of that worked too well though, and the current constitution, adopted in 1982, integrates some capitalist values.

Researched this North African country on the fifth anniversary of its revolution, which triggered the Arab Spring across the region. I’d already read a lot about that prior to this week for work, so I focused my research mostly elsewhere. Fun facts:

        • It was a French colony until 1956, when it won its independence. That same year, it abolished sharia courts.
        • Home of the oldest minaret in the world, at hte Mosque of Uqba
        • 30% of the parliament is female

Everything in my research was happy, happy, happy. Literally. Denmark is consistently ranked one of the happiest countries in the world. It has one of the highest minimum wages globally. Least corrupt government. So I specifically looked for the dark side for balance: There’s a general lack of diversity, its citizens have the highest private debt in the world, there’s low productivity, growing income inequality, 4th largest per capita ecological footprint. Also, it’s far-right, anti-immigration People’s Party is gaining popularity. Yikes. Still seems like a nice place to visit. Copenhagen is high on my tourism list.

Something else I didn’t know – Greenland is a (generally autonomous) territory of Denmark!

Big contrast from Denmark – Niger is consistently ranked the worst place to live, according to the UN. It’s got almost every public problem you can imagine – overpopulation, food insecurity, drought, poor education, low life expectancy. Niger didn’t ban slavery until 2003, and there’s frequent violence as the ethnic Tuareg group fights for greater autonomy. Here, I had to specifically look for some light: Niger banned hunting to protect its wildlife in the early 2000s. I thought that was pretty unexpectedly sweet. And they’re working on the education problem – Some villages hold literacy classes, and citizens have to show proof of their attendance in exchange for food aid. Seems like a decent incentive.

Chile is widely regarded as the most stable South American country right now. It’s also one of the most geographically diverse – with glaciers and lakes, but also the world’s driest desert. Chile owns Easter Island, the world’s most isolated island, well known for its monolith statues. And it’s an extremely catholic country – didn’t legalize divorce until 2005, and because of the stigma associated with divorce, many couples live separately, sometimes even with new families, while they stay legally married.

World’s first muslim-majority country with a secular republic. Azerbaijan’s economy relies heavily on oil and gas; it’s rich in both resources, and that’s brought in a lot of international investment. But it’s also bogged down with human rights violations – chiefly government corruption and crackdowns on the media. There’s also a decades-long territorial dispute. The Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh wants to secede from Azerbaijan, which led to violent uprisings in the past. Today, it’s still recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but is mostly self-governed.

What interested me most about Austria was its Declaration of Neutrality after WWII. It was one of several European countries (Finland, Sweden, Ireland & Switzerland as well) to state its impartiality in the Cold War. In Austria’s case, the declaration was a prerequisite for its return to sovereignty in 1955. It specifies that Austria will not engage in any foreign alliances, nor will it allow foreign military bases on its soil. Thing is, while the latter part has held, the former has not quite. Austria has worked with NATO’s peacekeeping forces in Bosnia and UN military operations across the Middle East and Africa.

One more random fact – At least 65% of Austria’s electricity is generated via renewable energy, mostly hydropower.

Okay that’s it for now. ‘Til next week.


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