At 12, China-central and eastern Europe group faces growing pains

Vienna, Austria — Next week, China will mark the 12th anniversary of a group for central and eastern European countries it established to grow its influence in the EU. But when it does, there will be no high-level activities or celebrations to mark the group’s creation.

Since 2019, the frequency of meetings between China and central and eastern European leaders has decreased, and one after another, members have withdrawn.

Matej Simalcik, executive director at the Central European Institute of Asian Studies, told VOA Mandarin that when the China-Central and Eastern European Countries Cooperation Mechanism was launched on April 26, 2012, central and eastern European, or CEE states “were largely motivated as a reaction to the global financial crisis. Cooperation with China was seen as a means to provide new stimuli for economic growth.”

Since its inception, however, the initiative has been riddled with problems. 

“From the very beginning, agenda-setting within the format was largely dominated by the Chinese side. At the same time, CEE capitals often failed to not just promote, but also come up with their own ideas about what kind of cooperation with China would best serve their interests,” Simalcik said.

“With this, the format’s annual summits were reduced to mere talk shops, which also served Chinese domestic propaganda purposes.”

Also known as the 16+1, the group has included Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Slovenia. When Greece joined in 2019, it was renamed 17+1.

From 2013 to 2019, seven meetings were held: six in the capitals of Romania, Serbia, Latvia, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Croatia and one in Suzhou, China.

Members have not held an in-person leadership meeting since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019, and it has been three years since Chinese President Xi Jinping attended a video conference.

During that same period, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania announced their withdrawal, while China’s relations with the Czech Republic and other central and eastern European countries deteriorated.

Ja Ian Chong, associate professor of the Department of Political Science at the National University of Singapore, tells VOA’s Mandarin service that many central and eastern European states have grown more cautious — even suspicious — of Beijing and its projects, “especially after seeing Moscow’s aggression toward Ukraine and Beijing’s continuing support for Russia.”

China’s outward investment projects have started to decline and the economic incentives for cooperation are now no longer as great, Chong adds. 

China’s “transnational repression within Europe and diplomatic spats with Czechia and Lithuania that came with economic punishment further reduced appetite for cooperation with Beijing,” he said.

Simalcik said China’s sanctions of members of the European Parliament over the Xinjiang issue and its interference in central and eastern European states’ interactions with Taiwan, especially Taiwan-Czech Republic relations, have also made cooperation between the two sides more difficult.

Beijing considers Taiwan a breakaway province and has not ruled out the use of force to unify it with the mainland.

Xinjiang is a region of China where Beijing is accused of human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims. Beijing denies the accusations.  

Filip Sebok, a China researcher at the Association for International Affairs in Prague, told VOA Mandarin that much has changed since China initiated the 16+1 mechanism in 2012. 

While China could present itself at that time as a mostly economic actor, “It is now clear for most European nations, including those in CEE, that China also presents certain security and geopolitical challenges,” he said.

“At the same time, the authoritarian turn within China, human rights abuses, and the spillover of its authoritarian outreach abroad have also changed perceptions of China,” he added. 

However, cooperation between China and CEE countries has not been fruitless, Chong said.

“In essence, CEE states that are more authoritarian and have friendlier ties with Russia tend to be more positive about the cooperation with the PRC,” he said.

Sebok said if Beijing wants to win the support of CEE countries, it should meet these countries’ expectations for economic cooperation. The mismatch between expectations and results led to the decreasing profile of the China-CEE cooperation format. 

“However, we might yet see a reinvigoration of the format in some form. An important factor is the rising Chinese investment in electromobility supply chains, which we are seeing mainly in Hungary, but also in Slovakia and Poland. This might give the cooperation a new impetus,” he said.

Changes in the political situation in Europe and the United States may also create opportunities for restarting cooperation. 

Sebok said that Slovakia, after parliamentary elections in 2023 and presidential election this year, “is exhibiting signs of seeking a closer relationship with China, which might enlarge the group of China-enthusiastic countries.”

If the United States elects a new president and changes its approach to the EU, that “might also create new opportunities for China to take advantage of the uncertainty in the region and increase its influence,” he said.

The United States holds its presidential election this November.

Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.

International donors pledge more than $2.13B for Sudan

One year after Sudan’s war started, international donors pledged over $2.13 billion dollars in funding for the country at a conference in Paris. Meanwhile, the U.N. says the looming famine in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, is unprecedented, and human rights activists are calling for justice for the “coordinated” ethnic killings that continue in Darfur. Henry Wilkins reports.

German chancellor urges China to use ‘influence’ to end Ukraine war

Facing Republican revolt, House Speaker Johnson pushes ahead on US aid for Ukraine, Israel

Washington — Defiant and determined, House Speaker Mike Johnson pushed back Tuesday against mounting Republican anger over his proposed U.S. aid package for Ukraine, Israel and other allies, and rejected a call to step aside or risk a vote to oust him from office.

“I am not resigning,” Johnson said after a testy morning meeting of fellow House Republicans at the Capitol

Johnson referred to himself as a “wartime speaker” of the House and indicated in his strongest self-defense yet he would press forward with a U.S. national security aid package, a situation that would force him to rely on Democrats to help pass it, over objections from his weakened majority.

“We are simply here trying to do our jobs,” Johnson said, calling the motion to oust him “absurd … not helpful.”

Tuesday brought a definitive shift in tone from both the House Republicans and the speaker himself at a pivotal moment as the embattled leader tries, against the wishes of his majority, to marshal the votes needed to send the stalled national security aid for Israel, Ukraine and other overseas allies to passage.

Johnson appeared emboldened by his meeting late last week with Donald Trump when the Republican former president threw him a political lifeline with a nod of support after their private talk at Trump’s Mar-A-Lago resort in Florida. At his own press conference Tuesday, Johnson spoke of the importance of ensuring Trump, who is now at his criminal trial in New York, is re-elected to the White House.

Johnson also spoke over the weekend with President Joe Biden as well as other congressional leaders about the emerging U.S. aid package, which the speaker plans to move in separate votes for each section — with bills for Ukraine, Israel, the Indo-Pacific region. He spoke about it with Biden again late Monday.

It’s a complicated approach that breaks apart the Senate’s $95 billion aid package for separate votes, and then stitches it back together for the president’s signature.

The approach will require the speaker to cobble together bipartisan majorities with different factions of House Republicans and Democrats on each measure. Additionally, Johnson is preparing a fourth measure that would include various Republican-preferred national security priorities, such as a plan to seize some Russian assets in U.S. banks to help fund Ukraine and another to turn the economic aid for Ukraine into loans.

The plan is not an automatic deal-braker for Democrats in the House and Senate, with leaders refraining from comment until they see the actual text of the measure, due out later Tuesday.

House Republicans, however, were livid that Johnson will be leaving their top priority — efforts to impose more security at the U.S.-Mexico border — on the sidelines. Some predicted Johnson will not be able to push ahead with voting on the package this week, as planned..

Rep. Debbie Lesko, a Republican representing Arizona, called the morning meeting an “argument fest.”

She said Johnson was “most definitely” losing support for the plan, but he seemed undeterred in trying to move forward despite “what the majority of the Conference” of Republicans wanted.

When the speaker said the House Republicans’ priority border security bill H.R. 2 would not be considered germane to the package, Rep. Chip Roy, a Republican representing Texas and a chief sponsor, said it’s for the House to determine which provisions and amendments are relevant.

“Things are very unresolved,” Roy said.

Roy said said Republicans want “to be united. They just have to be able to figure out how to do it.”

The speaker faces a threat of ouster from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican representing Georgia and the top Trump ally who has filed a motion to vacate the speaker from office in a snap vote — much the way Republicans ousted their former speaker, Kevin McCarthy, last fall.

While Greene has not said if or when she will force the issue, and has not found much support for her plan after last year’s turmoil over McCarthy’s exit, she drew at least one key supporter Tuesday.

Rep. Thomas Massie, a Republican representing Kentucky, rose in the meeting and suggested Johnson should step aside, pointing to the example of John Boehner, an even earlier House speaker who announced an early resignation in 2015 rather than risk a vote to oust him, according to Republicans in the room.

Johnson did not respond, according to Republicans in the room, but told the lawmakers they have a “binary” choice” before them.

The speaker explained they either try to pass the package as he is proposing or risk facing a discharge petition from Democrats that would force a vote on their preferred package — the Senate approved measure. But that would leave behind the extra Republican priorities.

Biden hosts Czech leader to promote Ukraine aid amid delay in Congress

washington — President Joe Biden urged the U.S. House to immediately take up Senate-passed supplemental funding for Ukraine and Israel on Monday as he hosted Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala in the Oval Office. 

The visit came as Biden aimed to highlight the efforts other nations are making to support Ukraine. It followed the Czech government’s announcement that it is sending 1 million rounds of artillery ammunition to Ukraine, which Kyiv says is badly needed on the battlefield against Russia’s invasion. 

“As the Czech Republic remembers, Russia won’t stop at Ukraine,” Biden said. He appealed to Congress to pass the supplemental funding so the U.S. could do its part to help Ukraine. “They have to do it now,” he said. 

Fiala praised the U.S. president for his leadership in support of Ukraine, adding, “We are also doing our best.” 

He said, “In 1968 I saw Russian tanks in the streets of my town, and I don’t want to see this again.” 

Biden called the Czech Republic a “great ally” in NATO, as Fiala said his country’s decision to purchase F-35 fighter jets from the U.S. will “make our cooperation and security much stronger.” 

Fiala told reporters following his meeting with Biden that he would meet with lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Tuesday to further discuss Ukraine aid. 

“The support from U.S., the help from U.S., is very important,” Fiala said. 

German chancellor promotes fair competition, warns against overproduction during China visit

US citizen arrested in Moscow on drug charges appears in court

Moscow — A U.S. citizen arrested on drug charges in Moscow amid soaring Russia-U.S. tensions over Ukraine appeared in court on Monday.

Robert Woodland Romanov is facing charges of trafficking large amounts of illegal drugs as part of an organized group — a criminal offense punishable by up to 20 years in prison. He was remanded into custody in January, and the trial began in the Ostankino District Court in late March. A new court hearing is scheduled for next week.

In January, the U.S. State Department said it was aware of reports of the recent detention of a U.S. citizen and noted that it “has no greater priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas,” but refrained from further comment, citing privacy considerations. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow issued a similar statement at the time.

Russian media noted that the name of the accused matches that of a U.S. citizen interviewed by the popular daily Komsomolskaya Pravda in 2020.

In the interview, the man said that he was born in the Perm region in the Ural Mountains in 1991 and was adopted by an American couple when he was two. He said that he traveled to Russia to find his Russian mother and eventually met her in a TV show in Moscow.

The man told Komsomolskaya Pravda that he liked living in Russia and decided to move there. The newspaper reported that he settled in the town of Dolgoprudny just outside Moscow and was working as an English teacher at a local school.

Arrests of Americans in Russia have become increasingly common as relations between Moscow and Washington sink to Cold War lows. Washington accuses Moscow of targeting its citizens and using them as political bargaining chips, but Russian officials insist they all broke the law.

Some have been exchanged for Russians held in the U.S., while for others, the prospects of being released in a swap are less clear.

Ukrainian officials report deadly Russian shelling in eastern Ukraine 

At birthplace of Olympics, performers at flame-lighting ceremony feel a pull of ancient past

ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece — No one knows what music in ancient Greece sounded like or how dancers once moved.

Every two years, a new interpretation of the ancient performance gets a global audience. It takes place in southern Greece at a site many still consider sacred: the birthplace of the Olympic Games.

Forty-eight performers, chosen in part for their resemblance to youths in antiquity as seen in statues and other surviving artwork, will take part Tuesday in the flame-lighting ceremony for the Paris Olympics. 

Details of the 30-minute performance are fine-tuned — and kept secret — right up until a public rehearsal Monday.

The Associated Press got rare access to rehearsals that took place during weekends, mostly at an Olympic indoor cycling track in Athens. 

As riders whiz around them on the banked cycling oval, the all-volunteer Olympic performers snatch poses from ancient vases. Sequences are repeated and re-repeated under the direction of the hyper-focused head choreographer Artemis Ignatiou.

“In ancient times there was no Olympic flame ceremony,” Ignatiou said during a recent practice session.

“My inspiration comes from temple pediments, from images on vases, because there is nothing that has been preserved — no movement, no dance — from antiquity,” she said. “So basically, what we are doing is joining up those images. Everything in between comes from us.”

Ceremonies take place at Olympia every two years for the Winter and Summer Games, with the sun’s rays focused on the inside of a parabolic mirror to produce the Olympic flame and start the torch relay to the host city.

Women dressed as priestesses are at the heart of the ceremony, first held for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Leading the group is an actress who performs the role of high priestess and makes a dramatic appeal to Apollo, the ancient god of the sun, for assistance moments before the torch is lit.

Over the decades, new ingredients have been progressively added: music, choreography, new colors for the costumes, male performers known as “kouroi” and subtle style inclusions to give a nod to the culture of the Olympic host nation.

Adding complexity also has introduced controversy, inevitably amplified by social media. Criticism this year has centered on the dresses and tunics to be worn by the performers, styled to resemble ancient Greek columns. Faultfinders have called it a rude departure from the ceremony’s customary elegance.

Organizers hope the attire will create a more positive impression when witnessed at the ruins of ancient Olympia.

Counting out the sequences, Ignatiou controls the music with taps on her cell phone while keeping track of the male dancers at the velodrome working on a stop motion-like routine and women who glide past them like a slowly uncoiling spring.

Ignatiou has been involved with the ceremony for 36 years, as priestess, high priestess, assistant and then head choreographer since 2008. She takes in the criticism with composure.

She’s still moved to tears when describing the flame lighting, but defers to her dancers to describe their experience of the five-month participation at practices.

Most in their early twenties, the performers are selected from dance and drama academies with an eye on maintaining an athletic look and classic Greek aesthetic, the women with hair pulled back in neat double-braids.

Christiana Katsimpraki, a 23-year-old drama school student who is taking part at Olympia for the first time, said she wants to repay the kindness shown to her by older performers.

“Before I go to bed, when I close my eyes, I go through the whole choreography — a run through — to make sure I have all the steps memorized and that they’re in the right order,” she said. “It’s so that the next time I can come to the rehearsal, it all goes correctly and no one gets tired.”

The ceremony is performed to sparse music, and final routine modifications are made at Olympia, in part to cope with the pockmarked and uneven ground at the site.

Dancers describe the fun they have in messaging groups, the good-natured pranks played on newcomers and fun they have on the four-hour bus ride to the ancient site in southern Greece — but also the significance of the moment and the pull of the past.

“I’m in awe that we’re going there and that I’m going to be part of this whole team,” 23-year-old performer Kallia Vouidaski said. “I’m going to have this entire experience that I watched when I was little on TV. I would say, ’Oh! How cool would it be if I could do this at some point.’ And I did it.”

The flame-lighting ceremony will start at 0830 GMT Tuesday. A separate flame-handover ceremony to the Paris 2024 organizing committee will be held in Athens on April 26. 

Private California school sponsoring students from Ukraine, Afghanistan

A private high school in California has provided scholarships to three refugee students — one from Ukraine and two from Afghanistan. VOA’s Genia Dulot has the story of an American educator who has even opened her home to the two Afghans teens as they complete their studies.

AI-generated fashion models could bring more diversity to industry — or leave it with less

Chicago, Illinois — London-based model Alexsandrah has a twin, but not in the way you’d expect: Her counterpart is made of pixels instead of flesh and blood.

The virtual twin was generated by artificial intelligence and has already appeared as a stand-in for the real-life Alexsandrah in a photo shoot. Alexsandrah, who goes by her first name professionally, in turn receives credit and compensation whenever the AI version of herself gets used — just like a human model.

Alexsandrah says she and her alter-ego mirror each other “even down to the baby hairs.” And it is yet another example of how AI is transforming creative industries — and the way humans may or may not be compensated.

Proponents say the growing use of AI in fashion modeling showcases diversity in all shapes and sizes, allowing consumers to make more tailored purchase decisions that in turn reduces fashion waste from product returns. And digital modeling saves money for companies and creates opportunities for people who want to work with the technology.

But critics raise concerns that digital models may push human models — and other professionals like makeup artists and photographers — out of a job. Unsuspecting consumers could also be fooled into thinking AI models are real, and companies could claim credit for fulfilling diversity commitments without employing actual humans.

“Fashion is exclusive, with limited opportunities for people of color to break in,” said Sara Ziff, a former fashion model and founder of the Model Alliance, a nonprofit aiming to advance workers’ rights in the fashion industry. “I think the use of AI to distort racial representation and marginalize actual models of color reveals this troubling gap between the industry’s declared intentions and their real actions.”  

Women of color in particular have long faced higher barriers to entry in modeling and AI could upend some of the gains they’ve made. Data suggests that women are more likely to work in occupations in which the technology could be applied and are more at risk of displacement than men.

In March 2023, iconic denim brand Levi Strauss & Co. announced that it would be testing AI-generated models produced by Amsterdam-based company Lalaland.ai to add a wider range of body types and underrepresented demographics on its website. But after receiving widespread backlash, Levi clarified that it was not pulling back on its plans for live photo shoots, the use of live models or its commitment to working with diverse models.

“We do not see this (AI) pilot as a means to advance diversity or as a substitute for the real action that must be taken to deliver on our diversity, equity and inclusion goals and it should not have been portrayed as such,” Levi said in its statement at the time.

The company last month said that it has no plans to scale the AI program.

The Associated Press reached out to several other retailers to ask whether they use AI fashion models. Target, Kohl’s and fast-fashion giant Shein declined to comment; Temu did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, spokespeople for Nieman Marcus, H&M, Walmart and Macy’s said their respective companies do not use AI models, although Walmart clarified that “suppliers may have a different approach to photography they provide for their products, but we don’t have that information.”

Nonetheless, companies that generate AI models are finding a demand for the technology, including Lalaland.ai, which was co-founded by Michael Musandu after he was feeling frustrated by the absence of clothing models who looked like him.

“One model does not represent everyone that’s actually shopping and buying a product,” he said. “As a person of color, I felt this painfully myself.”

Musandu says his product is meant to supplement traditional photo shoots, not replace them. Instead of seeing one model, shoppers could see nine to 12 models using different size filters, which would enrich their shopping experience and help reduce product returns and fashion waste.

The technology is actually creating new jobs, since Lalaland.ai pays humans to train its algorithms, Musandu said.

And if brands “are serious about inclusion efforts, they will continue to hire these models of color,” he added.

London-based model Alexsandrah, who is Black, says her digital counterpart has helped her distinguish herself in the fashion industry. In fact, the real-life Alexsandrah has even stood in for a Black computer-generated model named Shudu, created by Cameron Wilson, a former fashion photographer turned CEO of The Diigitals, a U.K.-based digital modeling agency.

Wilson, who is white and uses they/them pronouns, designed Shudu in 2017, described on Instagram as the “The World’s First Digital Supermodel.” But critics at the time accused Wilson of cultural appropriation and digital Blackface.

Wilson took the experience as a lesson and transformed The Diigitals to make sure Shudu — who has been booked by Louis Vuitton and BMW — didn’t take away opportunities but instead opened possibilities for women of color. Alexsandrah, for instance, has modeled in-person as Shudu for Vogue Australia, and writer Ama Badu came up with Shudu’s backstory and portrays her voice for interviews.

Alexsandrah said she is “extremely proud” of her work with The Diigitals, which created her own AI twin: “It’s something that even when we are no longer here, the future generations can look back at and be like, ‘These are the pioneers.'”

But for Yve Edmond, a New York City area-based model who works with major retailers to check the fit of clothing before it’s sold to consumers, the rise of AI in fashion modeling feels more insidious.

Edmond worries modeling agencies and companies are taking advantage of models, who are generally independent contractors afforded few labor protections in the U.S., by using their photos to train AI systems without their consent or compensation.

She described one incident in which a client asked to photograph Edmond moving her arms, squatting and walking for “research” purposes. Edmond refused and later felt swindled — her modeling agency had told her she was being booked for a fitting, not to build an avatar.

“This is a complete violation,” she said. “It was really disappointing for me.”

But absent AI regulations, it’s up to companies to be transparent and ethical about deploying AI technology. And Ziff, the founder of the Model Alliance, likens the current lack of legal protections for fashion workers to “the Wild West.”

That’s why the Model Alliance is pushing for legislation like the one being considered in New York state, in which a provision of the Fashion Workers Act would require management companies and brands to obtain models’ clear written consent to create or use a model’s digital replica; specify the amount and duration of compensation, and prohibit altering or manipulating models’ digital replica without consent.

Alexsandrah says that with ethical use and the right legal regulations, AI might open up doors for more models of color like herself. She has let her clients know that she has an AI replica, and she funnels any inquires for its use through Wilson, who she describes as “somebody that I know, love, trust and is my friend.” Wilson says they make sure any compensation for Alexsandrah’s AI is comparable to what she would make in-person.

Edmond, however, is more of a purist: “We have this amazing Earth that we’re living on. And you have a person of every shade, every height, every size. Why not find that person and compensate that person?”

Polish abortion opponents march against steps to liberalize strict law  

WARSAW — Thousands of Polish opponents of abortion marched Sunday in Warsaw to protest recent steps by the new government to liberalize the predominantly Catholic nation’s strict laws and allow termination of pregnancy until the 12th week.

Many participants in the downtown march were pushing prams with children, while others were carrying white-and-red national flags or posters representing a fetus in the womb.

Poland’s Catholic Church has called for Sunday to be a day of prayer “in defense of conceived life” and has supported the march, organized by an anti-abortion movement.

“In the face of promotion of abortion in recent months, the march will be a rare occasion to show our support for the protection of human life from conception to natural death,” a federation of anti-abortion movements said in a statement.

They were referring to an ongoing public debate surrounding the steps that the 4-month-old government of Prime Minster Donald Tusk is taking to relax the strict law brought in by its conservative predecessor.

Last week, Poland’s parliament, which is dominated by the liberal and pro-European Union ruling coalition voted to approve further detailed work on four proposals to lift the near ban on abortions.

The procedure, which could take weeks or even months, is expected to be eventually rejected by conservative President Andrzej Duda, whose term runs for another year.

Last month Duda vetoed a draft law that would have made the morning-after pill available over the counter from the age of 15.

A nation of some 38 million, Poland is seeking ways to boost the birth rate, which is currently at 1.2 per woman — among the lowest in the European Union. Poland’s society is aging and shrinking, facts that the previous right-wing government used among its arguments for toughening the abortion law.

Currently, abortions are only allowed in cases of rape or incest or if the woman’s life or health is at risk. According to the Health Ministry, 161 abortions were performed in Polish hospitals in 2022. However, abortion advocates estimate that some 120,000 women in Poland have abortions each year, mostly by secretly obtaining pills from abroad.

Women attempting to abort themselves are not penalized, but anyone assisting them can face up to three years in prison. Reproductive rights advocates say the result is that doctors turn women away even in permitted cases for fear of legal consequences for themselves.

One of the four proposals being processed in parliament would decriminalize assisting a woman to have an abortion. Another one, put forward by a party whose leaders are openly Catholic, would keep a ban in most cases but would allow abortions in cases of fetal defects — a right that was eliminated by a 2020 court ruling. The two others aim to permit abortion through the 12th week.

Zelenskyy warns against Russia’s and Iran’s coordinated ‘terror’ attacks 

Germany’s Scholz arrives in China on a visit marked by trade tensions, Ukraine conflict

BEIJING — German Chancellor Olaf Scholz arrived in China on Sunday on a visit focused on the increasingly tense economic relationship between the sides and differences over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Scholz’s first destination was the industrial hub of Chongqing, where he and his delegation of ministers and business leaders were to visit a partially German-funded company and other sites in the vast city, which is a production base for China’s auto and other industries.

Scholz is also scheduled to visit the financial hub of Shanghai during his three-day visit, before traveling to the capital, Beijing, to meet with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Premier Li Qiang.

German companies such as BMW and Volkswagen are highly reliant on the Chinese market, even as Beijing’s support for Russia creates frictions with the West.

Germany’s economy has benefited from China’s demand for investment and manufactured items from cars to chemicals, but those ties have frayed amid increasing competition from Chinese companies and tightened regulations. Political interference has also been blamed for a sharp drop in foreign investment.

German companies have argued they face unfair market barriers in China and the government has pushed for a policy of “de-risking” to reduce reliance on the Chinese market and suppliers.

Despite that, China remained Germany’s top trading partner for the eighth straight year in 2023, with 254.1 billion euros ($271 billion) in goods and services exchanged between the sides, slightly more than what Germany traded with the U.S.

Chinese state broadcaster CCTV showed Scholz descending from his plane in Chonqing and leaving in a motorcade, but did not carry any comments made to the welcoming delegation.

Prior to his arrival, Scholz posted on social platform X that he had discussed the “massive” Russian air attacks on civilian energy infrastructure with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Saturday and declared that Berlin will “stand unbreakably by Ukraine’s side.”

China has refused to criticize Russian aggression. It has maintained trade relations with President Vladimir Putin’s government and aligned its foreign policy with Moscow in opposition to the U.S.-led liberal political order, while touting its authoritarian one-party system as a superior alternative.

Archeologists find frescoes of Trojan War figures in Pompeii

rome, italy — Archaeologists excavating new sites in Pompeii have uncovered a sumptuous banquet hall decorated with intricately frescoed mythological characters inspired by the Trojan War, officials said Thursday. 

The hall, which features a mosaic floor, was uncovered as part of a project to shore up the areas dividing the excavated and unexcavated parts of Pompeii, the ancient city near Naples that was destroyed in A.D. 79 when Mount Vesuvius erupted. 

The banquet hall was used for refined entertaining and features black walls, a technique that prevented the smoke from oil lamps from being seen, said Gabriel Zuchtriegel, director of the Pompeii archaeological park. 

The figures painted against that black backdrop include Helen of Troy and Apollo. Experts said the reference to mythological figures was designed to entertain guests and provide conversation starters. 

The room, which is about 15 meters (16.4 yards) long and 6 meters (6.56 yards) wide, opens onto a courtyard near a staircase leading to the first floor of the home, the park said in a press release. 

Excavations in Pompeii have recently focused on areas of the city where the middle classes and servants lived, while previous ones have concentrated on the elaborately frescoed villas of Pompeii’s upper classes. 

The excavations that yielded the new banquet hall are designed to improve the hydrogeological structure of the entire park, to make it more sustainable as the region copes with climate extremes — heavy rainfall and intense heat — that are threatening the UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Germany making it easier for people to legally change their name, gender

BERLIN — German lawmakers on Friday approved legislation that will make it easier for transgender, intersex and nonbinary people to change their name and gender in official records.

The “self-determination law,” one of several social reforms that Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s liberal-leaning coalition government pledged when it took office in late 2021, is set to take effect on November 1.

Germany, the European Union’s most populous nation, follows several other countries in making the change. Parliament’s lower house, the Bundestag, approved it by 374 votes to 251 with 11 abstentions.

The German legislation will allow adults to change their first name and legal gender at registry offices without further formalities. They will have to notify the office three months before making the change.

The existing “transsexual law,” which dates back four decades, requires individuals who want to change gender on official documents to first obtain assessments from two experts “sufficiently familiar with the particular problems of transsexualism” and then a court decision.

Since that law was drawn up, Germany’s top court has struck down other provisions that required transgender people to get divorced and sterilized, and to undergo gender-transition surgery.

“For over 40 years, the ‘transsexual law’ has caused a lot of suffering … and only because people want to be recognized as they are,” Sven Lehmann, the government’s commissioner for queer issues, told lawmakers. “And today we are finally putting an end to this.”

The new legislation focuses on individuals’ legal identities. It does not involve any revisions to Germany’s rules for gender-transition surgery.

The new rules will allow minors 14 years and older to change their name and legal gender with approval from their parents or guardians; if they don’t agree, teenagers could ask a family court to overrule them.

In the case of children younger than 14, parents or guardians would have to make registry office applications on their behalf.

After a formal change of name and gender takes effect, no further changes would be allowed for a year. The new legislation provides for operators of, for example, gyms and changing rooms for women to continue to decide who has access.

Nyke Slawik, a transgender woman elected to parliament in 2021 for the Greens, one of the governing parties, recounted her experience of going through the current system a decade ago. She said she had had enough of being asked “is that your brother’s ID?” when she had to identify herself.

“Two years, many conversations with experts and one district court process later, it was done — the name change went through, and I was nearly 2,000 euros ($2,150) poorer,” she told lawmakers. “As trans people, we repeatedly experience our dignity being made a matter for negotiation.”

The mainstream conservative opposition faulted the legislation for what it described as a lack of safeguards against abuse and a lack of protection for young people. Conservative lawmaker Susanne Hierl complained that the government is “ignoring the justified concerns of many women and girls.”

“You want to satisfy a loud but very small group and, in doing so, are dividing society,” Hierl said.

Martin Reichardt of the far-right Alternative for Germany blasted what he called “ideological nonsense.”

Justice Minister Marco Buschmann said in a statement that “there are numerous precautions against possibilities of abuse, however improbable they may be.” He insisted that the new law takes into account the interests of the whole of society and said “much less will change with this law than some say.”

Among others, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Spain already have similar legislation.

In the U.K., the Scottish parliament in 2022 passed a bill that would allow people aged 16 or older to change the gender designation on identity documents by self-declaration. That was vetoed by the British government, a decision that Scotland’s highest civil court upheld in December.

In other socially liberal reforms, Scholz’s government has legalized the possession of limited amounts of cannabis; eased the rules on gaining German citizenship and ended restrictions on holding dual citizenship; and ended a ban on doctors “advertising” abortion services. Same-sex marriage was already legalized in 2017.

Diplomat tapped as Latvia’s new FM as incumbent quits amid scandal

HELSINKI — The head of Latvia’s government tapped an experienced diplomat to become the Baltic nation’s new foreign minister after the incumbent stepped down earlier this week amid a criminal probe over alleged misuse of government funds. 

The ruling center-right New Unity party decided to back the nomination of Baiba Braze, 57, who is currently the ambassador for special tasks at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, after Prime Minister Evika Silina’s endorsement, Latvian news agency LETA reported Saturday. 

Latvian Television LTV said Braze’s candidacy will be officially announced Monday and lawmakers at the Saiema, Latvia’s 100-seat Parliament, are set to vote on a motion of confidence in her on Thursday. 

Among other posts, Braze has previously served as Latvia’s ambassador to Britain and to The Netherlands and held the post of NATO’s deputy secretary general for public diplomacy in 2020-2023. 

Krisjanis Karins, Latvia’s former top diplomat and an ex-prime minister, announced his intention to resign this month on March 28. His decision came in the wake of a criminal probe over the use of expensive private charter flights by Karins′ office during his time as prime minister between 2019-2023. 

There are no indications that Karins himself faces charges as part of the probe into the scandal that erupted last year and caused public outrage among Latvians. Silina took Latvia’s top government job in September when Karins became foreign minister of the nation of 1.9 million, a European Union and NATO member state.