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China Begins to Revive Arctic Scientific Ground Projects After Setbacks

Beijing is taking its first steps toward recovering from years of setbacks to its scientific, land-based projects in the Arctic, sending personnel to two outposts that have been vital to its policy of establishing China as a “near-Arctic” state.

China’s Arctic policy document, published in 2018, said scientific research to “explore and understand” the Arctic is the “priority and focus” of Chinese participation in Arctic affairs.

Over a 14-year period since 2004, China launched scientific projects in Arctic regions of four Western European nations — Norway, Iceland, Sweden and Finland — and sought to do the same in a fifth, Denmark’s autonomous island of Greenland.

The Biden administration, which published its own “National Strategy for the Arctic Region” in October, said those scientific projects have helped China to increase its influence in the Arctic and “exacerbated” strategic competition in a region where the U.S. has long been a major power.

The U.S. strategy document said China has “used these scientific engagements to conduct dual-use research with intelligence or military applications in the Arctic,” requiring the U.S. to respond by positioning itself to “effectively compete and manage tensions” in the region.

China’s state-run Global Times newspaper quickly responded to the U.S. strategy with an article citing Chinese analysts as saying Washington has been “politicizing” China’s activities in the Arctic. It said the analysts see the U.S. “using ‘increased competition’ as an excuse in trying to control the region after seeing its increasingly prominent economic and military value.”

As it snipes publicly at the U.S., Beijing has been less vocal about setbacks to its land-based Arctic scientific projects in recent years and its nascent moves to revive some of them.

Arctic researchers have told VOA that China recently has sent and announced plans to imminently send several people to its two most important scientific outposts in Norway and Iceland after lengthy absences of Chinese scientists from both sites. But there have been no signs of China trying to renew two other scientific projects in Sweden and Finland where national organizations told VOA that Chinese activity is set to end or has ended.

The Polar Research Institute of China (PRIC) recently registered three projects in the scientific community of Ny-Alesund in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, where it has rented and operated a Norwegian-owned building since 2004 called Yellow River Station, its first Arctic ground facility. PRIC registered the projects on Norway’s Research in Svalbard Portal.

Scientist Geir Gotaas, leader of the Ny-Alesund Program at the Norwegian Polar Institute, said Chinese personnel have been mostly absent from Yellow River Station since the start of the pandemic because of travel restrictions. He said the last Chinese researcher departed in March after a solo three-month stay at the building, which has a capacity of 37 staff and accommodated the largest foreign contingent of scientists in Ny-Alesund before the pandemic.

Gotaas said four Chinese scientists will arrive in the Norwegian mainland this week before flying to Svalbard, with three staying for a few weeks in Longyearbyen and Ny-Alesund and the fourth remaining at Yellow River Station until March to maintain instruments over winter.

“The Chinese researchers are making a first step towards a return to regular operations in Ny-Alesund,” Gotaas said.

In northern Iceland’s Karholl, six Chinese personnel, including four scientists, arrived at the China Iceland Arctic Research Observatory (CIAO) late last month after a three-year Chinese absence from the complex, according to its spokesperson, Halldor Johannsson, director of the Arctic Portal.org news organization.

Johannsson said pandemic travel restrictions had kept the Chinese personnel away from CIAO, which opened in 2018 and is jointly operated by China’s PRIC and the Icelandic Center for Research (Rannis). The recently arrived Chinese contingent has met with local scientists and community leaders and was to depart in early December, he added.

CIAO consists of a new research building and several farmhouses for accommodation and other uses. China fully funded the building’s construction but does not own anything at the site and rents the property from Icelandic nonprofit group Aurora Observatory, Johannsson said.

In northern Sweden’s Esrange Space Center, contracts enabling three Chinese scientific agencies to use four satellite dish antennas built from 2008 to 2016 will not be renewed, according to Philip Ohlsson, Swedish Space Corporation (SSC) head of communications.

SSC controls all data received from and sent to satellites by the antennas, three of which are SSC-owned while the fourth is Chinese-owned, Ohlsson wrote in a series of emails. He said Chinese personnel have visited Esrange from time to time but never have been stationed there.

“In 2018, SSC took the decision not to enter into any new contracts with Chinese customers, given the limited size of our company in relation to the complexity of the Chinese market,” Ohlsson said.

He declined to reveal when the existing contracts will end, “out of respect for our customers and the confidentiality of these contracts.”

In northern Finland’s Sodankyla Space Campus, a joint research project launched by the Finnish Meteorological Institute (FMI) and Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in 2018, ended last year when a three-year agreement expired, said Jouni Pulliainen, FMI Space and Earth Observation Center director.

CAS announced in 2018 that a joint research center for Arctic space observation and data sharing would be “constructed” in Sodankyla. But Pulliainen wrote in an email that there was no new construction at the space campus and the project mainly involved temporary visits by five Chinese researchers to Sodankyla’s existing facilities before the start of the pandemic.

Pulliainen said the outcome of the project was “not as impressive” as the Chinese side had originally expressed through state media.

“Due to changes in the world’s political situation, we were not any more so interested in deepening the cooperation activities, and we were not contacted from CAS about the renewal of the agreement,” he added.

China also never realized its 2017 proposal to build a satellite dish antenna ground station for remote sensing in the Greenlandic capital of Nuuk.

Beijing Normal University Dean Cheng Xiao held a “launch” ceremony in the Greenlandic town of Kangerlussuaq for the proposed Nuuk ground station on May 30, 2017. A group of more than 100 Chinese visitors attended the event along with two representatives of Greenlandic NGOs, but the project never won approval from the Greenlandic and Danish governments and did not proceed.

China’s foreign ministry did not respond to a VOA email asking why Beijing did not send personnel to the Norwegian and Icelandic project sites for lengthy periods, why it did not reach agreements to extend the Swedish and Finnish projects and why the Greenlandic project never got off the ground.

Marc Lanteigne, a social studies professor at the Arctic University of Norway, said China ran into local opposition for some of its projects.

“I’m thinking primarily of China’s plan to set up a research base in Greenland that was announced to great fanfare and then ran smack into Danish opposition,” Lanteigne said. Denmark, a NATO member, has been “very touchy about anything that might look like a Chinese strategic beachhead” in Greenland, he added.

Lanteigne said China’s diplomatic disputes with some European Arctic nations have undermined the progress of its other scientific projects.

“China’s relations with Sweden really have begun to sour over the past few years due to human rights issues, and that has affected the ability of Chinese researchers to set up any kind of a base in Sweden itself,” he said.

Nengye Liu, a law professor at Singapore Management University, said he expects Beijing to focus on developing its more established Arctic projects in Norway and Iceland rather than on smaller projects that ran into obstacles in other nations.

As Arctic ice melts because of climate change, China sees new opportunities for shipping, fisheries and oil and gas development in the region, Liu said.

“So all these scientific activities are meant to ensure that a major economic power like China won’t be left behind. That is why China describes itself as a ‘near-Arctic’ state,” Liu said.

VOA emailed the White House to request a National Security Council comment on what the U.S. is doing to manage tensions arising from China’s scientific projects in the Arctic but did not receive a response.

In an October forum at Washington’s Wilson Center, Devon Brennan, NSC director for maritime and Arctic security, said the U.S. is concerned that China’s exploitation of Arctic resources, such as fisheries and hydrocarbons, may diverge from what he called the rules-based international order.

But Brennan also said the U.S. recognizes that China has a “vested interest” in the region.

“While first and foremost, we will want to work with our like-minded partners and allies in the Arctic, there is room to cooperate with other non-Arctic nations for the betterment of the region,” he said.

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UNICEF Seeks $10.3 Billion for Children Affected by Climate, Humanitarian Crises 

“Today, there are more children in need of humanitarian assistance than at any other time in recent history,” according to UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell. 

Monday, UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency, launched an emergency appeal for $10.3 billion, designed to help 173 million people, including 110 million children, that the agency says have been impacted by “humanitarian crises, the enduring effects of the COVID-19 pandemic worldwide and the growing threat of climate-impacted severe weather events.” 

The agency says climate change “is also worsening the scale and intensity of emergencies,” with the last 10 years being the hottest on record. In the last 30 years, the number of climate-related disasters has tripled, UNICEF says.  

“Today, over 400 million children live in areas of high or extremely high-water vulnerability,” according to UNICEF.  

Russell said, “The devastating impacts of climate change are an ever-present threat to children” and that is why UNICEF is “prioritizing climate adaptation and resilience building as part of our humanitarian response.”   

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Work Starts on World’s Largest Radio Telescope in Australia

In a remote corner of the Western Australian outback, work has begun on the world’s largest radio telescope. Astronomers say the Square Kilometre Array will be capable of searching the stars for signals of intelligent life and listening back to the start of the universe.

It is an international scientific collaboration. 130,000 antennas and 200 satellite dishes will make up the Square Kilometre Array project, or SKA. It will comprise two giant and super sensitive telescopes at observatories in Australia and South Africa.

By listening and looking deep into space, scientists hope the project can help answer some fundamental questions: Are we alone in the universe? How did the first stars come to shine? and What exactly is “dark energy” — the mysterious phenomena that appears to be pulling the cosmos apart?

Experts have said the SKA needs to be set up far away from the disturbances of radio frequencies on earth like those from computers, cars and planes.

They have said it will be eight times more sensitive than existing telescopes and will map the sky 135 times faster.

Danny Price, a senior research fellow at the Curtin Institute of Radio Astronomy at Curtin University, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. Monday that the SKA has unprecedented astronomical power.

“It is going to be one of the most sensitive instruments that humanity has ever built,” Price said. “To put it into perspective the SKA could detect a mobile phone in the pocket of an astronaut on Mars.”

Australia, South Africa, Canada and Britain are among more than a dozen countries providing funding to the project.

A land agreement between traditional Indigenous owners, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization — the CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency and the Western Australian and federal governments has allowed construction of the international Square Kilometre Array telescope to officially start Monday.

The giant radio telescope is expected to be operational by the end of the decade.

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China Reports 2 New COVID Deaths as Some Restrictions Eased

China on Sunday reported two additional deaths from COVID-19 as some cities move cautiously to ease anti-pandemic restrictions following increasingly vocal public frustrations.

The National Health Commission said one death was reported each in the provinces of Shandong and Sichuan. No information was given about the ages of the victims or whether they had been fully vaccinated.

China, where the virus first was detected in late 2019 in the central city of Wuhan, is the last major country trying to stop transmission completely through quarantines, lockdowns and mass testing. Concerns over vaccination rates are believed to figure prominently in the ruling Communist Party’s determination to stick to its hard-line strategy.

While nine in 10 Chinese have been vaccinated, only 66% of people over 80 have gotten one shot while 40% have received a booster, according to the commission. It said 86% of people over 60 are vaccinated.

Given those figures and the fact that relatively few Chinese have been built up antibodies by being exposed to the virus, some fear millions could die if restrictions were lifted entirely.

Yet, an outpouring of public anger appears to have prompted authorities to lift some of the more onerous restrictions, even as they say the “zero-COVID” strategy — which aims to isolate every infected person — is still in place.

The demonstrations, the largest and most widely spread in decades, erupted Nov. 25 after a fire in an apartment building in the northwestern city of Urumqi killed at least 10 people. That set off angry questions online about whether firefighters or victims trying to escape were blocked by locked doors or other anti-virus controls. Authorities denied that, but the deaths became a focus of public frustration.

The country saw several days of protests across cities including Shanghai and Beijing, with protesters demanding an easing of COVID-19 curbs. Some demanded Chinese President Xi Jinping step down, an extraordinary show of public dissent in a society over which the ruling Communist Party exercises near total control.

Beijing and some other Chinese cities announced that riders can board buses and subways without a virus test for the first time in months. The requirement has led to complaints from some Beijing residents that even though the city has shut many testing stations, most public venues still require COVID-19 tests.

On Sunday, China announced another 35,775 cases from the past 24 hours, 31,607 of which were asymptomatic, bringing its total to 336,165 with 5,235 deaths.

While many have questioned the accuracy of the Chinese figures, they remain relatively low compared to the U.S. and other nations which are now relaxing controls and trying to live with the virus that has killed at least 6.6 million people worldwide and sickened almost 650 million.

China still imposes mandatory quarantine for incoming travelers even as its infection numbers are low compared to its 1.4 billion population.

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FDA Change Ushers In Cheaper, Easier-to-Get Hearing Aids

It’s now a lot easier — and cheaper — for many hard-of-hearing Americans to get help.

Hearing aids can now be sold without a prescription from a specialist. Over-the-counter, or OTC, hearing aids started hitting the market in October at prices that can be thousands of dollars lower than prescription hearing aids.

About 30 million people in the United States deal with hearing loss, according to the Food and Drug Administration. But only about 20% of those who could use a hearing aid seek help.

Here’s a closer look:

Who might be helped

The FDA approved OTC hearing aids for adults with mild-to-moderate hearing loss. That can include people who have trouble hearing phone calls or who turn up the TV volume loud enough that others complain.

It also can include people who have trouble understanding group conversations in noisy places.

OTC hearing aids aren’t intended for people with deeper hearing loss, which may include those who have trouble hearing louder noises, like power tools and cars. They also aren’t for people who lost their hearing suddenly or in just one ear, according to Sterling Sheffield, an audiologist who teaches at the University of Florida. Those people need to see a doctor.

Hearing test

Before over-the-counter, you usually needed to get your hearing tested and buy hearing aids from a specialist. That’s no longer the case.

But it can be hard for people to gauge their own hearing. You can still opt to see a specialist just for that test, which is often covered by insurance, and then buy the aids on your own. Check your coverage before making an appointment.

There also are a number of apps and questionnaires available to determine whether you need help. Some over-the-counter sellers also provide a hearing assessment or online test.

Who’s selling

Several major retailers now offer OTC hearing aids online and on store shelves.

Walgreens drugstores, for example, are selling Lexie Lumen hearing aids nationwide for $799. Walmart offers OTC hearing aids ranging from about $200 to $1,000 per pair. Its health centers will provide hearing tests.

The consumer electronics chain Best Buy has OTC hearing aids available online and in nearly 300 stores. The company also offers an online hearing assessment, and store employees are trained on the stages of hearing loss and how to fit the devices.

Overall, there are more than a dozen manufacturers making different models of OTC hearing aids.

New devices will make up most of the OTC market as it develops, Sheffield said. Some may be hearing aids that previously required a prescription, ones that are only suitable for people with mild to moderate hearing loss.

Shoppers should expect a lot of devices to enter and leave the market, said Catherine Palmer, a hearing expert at the University of Pittsburgh.

“It will be quite a while before this settles down,” she said.

What to watch for

Look for an OTC label on the box. Hearing aids approved by the FDA for sale without a prescription are required to be labeled OTC.

That will help you distinguish OTC hearing aids from cheaper devices sometimes labeled sound or hearing amplifiers — called a personal sound amplification product or PSAP. While often marketed to seniors, they are designed to make sounds louder for people with normal hearing in certain environments, like hunting. And amplifiers don’t undergo FDA review.

“People really need to read the descriptions,” said Barbara Kelley, executive director of the Hearing Loss Association of America.

And check the return policy. That’s important because people generally need a few weeks to get used to them, and make sure they work in the situations where they need them most. That may include on the phone or in noisy offices or restaurants.

Does the company selling OTC devices offer instructions or an app to assist with setup, fit and sound adjustments? A specialist could help too, but expect to pay for that office visit, which is rarely covered by insurance.

Sheffield said hearing aids are not complicated, but wearing them also is not as simple as putting on a pair of reading glasses.

“If you’ve never tried or worn hearing aids, then you might need a little bit of help,” he said.

The cost

Most OTC hearing aids will cost between $500 and $1,500 for a pair, Sheffield said. He noted that some may run up to $3,000.

And it’s not a one-time expense. They may have to be replaced every five years or so.

Hearing specialists say OTC prices could fall further as the market matures. But they already are generally cheaper than their prescription counterparts, which can run more than $5,000.

The bad news is insurance coverage of hearing aids is spotty. Some Medicare Advantage plans offer coverage of devices that need a prescription, but regular Medicare does not. There are discounts out there, including some offered by Medicare Advantage insurer UnitedHealthcare in partnership with nonprofit organization AARP.

Shoppers also can pay for the devices with money set aside in health savings accounts or flexible spending accounts.

Don’t try to save money by buying just one hearing aid. People need to have the same level of hearing in both ears so they can figure out where a sound is coming from, according to the American Academy of Audiology.

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3 Chinese Astronauts Return to Earth After 6-Month Mission

Three Chinese astronauts landed in a northern desert on Sunday after six months working to complete construction of the Tiangong station, a symbol of the country’s ambitious space program, state TV reported.

A capsule carrying commander Chen Dong and astronauts Liu Yang and Cai Xuzhe touched down at a landing site in the Gobi Desert in northern China at approximately 8:10 p.m. (1210 GMT), China Central Television reported.

Prior to departure, they overlapped for almost five days with three colleagues who arrived Wednesday on the Shenzhou-15 mission for their own six-month stay, marking the first time China had six astronauts in space at the same time. The station’s third and final module docked with the station this month.

The astronauts were carried out of the capsule by medical workers about 40 minutes after touchdown. They were all smiles, and appeared to be in good condition, waving happily at workers at the landing site.

“I am very fortunate to have witnessed the completion of the basic structure of the Chinese space station after six busy and fulfilling months in space,” said Chen, who was the first to exit the capsule. “Like meteors, we returned to the embrace of the motherland.”

Liu, another of the astronauts, said that she was moved to see relatives and her fellow compatriots.

The three astronauts were part of the Shenzhou-14 mission, which launched in June. After their arrival at Tiangong, Chen, Liu and Cai oversaw five rendezvous and dockings with various spacecraft including one carrying the third of the station’s three modules.

They also performed three spacewalks, beamed down a live science lecture from the station, and conducted a range of experiments.

The Tiangong is part of official Chinese plans for a permanent human presence in orbit.

China built its own station after it was excluded from the International Space Station, largely due to U.S. objections over the Chinese space programs’ close ties to the People’s Liberation Army, the military wing of the ruling Communist Party.

With the arrival of the Shenzhou-15 mission, the station expanded to its maximum weight of 100 tons.

Without attached spacecraft, the Chinese station weighs about 66 tons — a fraction of the International Space Station, which launched its first module in 1998 and weighs around 465 tons.

With a lifespan of 10 to 15 years, Tiangong could one day be the only space station still up and running if the International Space Station retires by around the end of the decade as expected.

China in 2003 became the third government to send an astronaut into orbit on its own after the former Soviet Union and the United States.

China has also chalked up uncrewed mission successes: Its Yutu 2 rover was the first to explore the little-known far side of the moon. Its Chang’e 5 probe also returned lunar rocks to Earth in December 2020 for the first time since the 1970s, and another Chinese rover is searching for evidence of life on Mars.

Officials are reported to be considering an eventual crewed mission to the moon, although no timeline has been offered.

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China’s Xi Unwilling to Accept Vaccines Despite Threat From Protests, US Says

Chinese leader Xi Jinping is unwilling to accept Western vaccines despite the challenges China is facing with COVID-19, and while recent protests there are not a threat to Communist Party rule, they could affect his personal standing, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said Saturday.

Although China’s daily COVID cases are near all-time highs, some cities are taking steps to loosen testing and quarantine rules after Xi’s zero-COVID policy triggered a sharp economic slowdown and public unrest.

Haines, speaking at the annual Reagan National Defense Forum in California, said that despite the social and economic impact of the virus, Xi “is unwilling to take a better vaccine from the West, and is instead relying on a vaccine in China that’s just not nearly as effective against omicron.”

“Seeing protests and the response to it is countering the narrative that he likes to put forward, which is that China is so much more effective at government,” Haines said.

“It’s, again, not something we see as being a threat to stability at this moment, or regime change or anything like that,” she said, while adding: “How it develops will be important to Xi’s standing.”

China has not approved any foreign COVID vaccines, opting for those produced domestically, which some studies have suggested are not as effective as some foreign ones. That means easing virus prevention measures could come with big risks, according to experts.

The White House said earlier in the week that China had not asked the United States for vaccines.

One U.S. official told Reuters there was “no expectation at present” that China would approve western vaccines.

“It seems fairly far-fetched that China would greenlight Western vaccines at this point. It’s a matter of national pride, and they’d have to swallow quite a bit of it if they went this route,” the official said.

Haines also said North Korea recognized that China was less likely to hold it accountable for what she said was Pyongyang’s “extraordinary” number of weapons tests this year.

Amid a record year for missile tests, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said last week his country intends to have the world’s most powerful nuclear force.

Speaking on a later panel, Admiral John Aquilino, the commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said China had no motivation to restrain any country, including North Korea, that was generating problems for the United States.

“I’d argue quite differently that it’s in their strategy to drive those problems,” Aquilino said of China.

He said China had considerable leverage to press North Korea over its weapons tests, but that he was not optimistic about Beijing “doing anything helpful to stabilize the region.”

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WHO Chief: More than 8,500 COVID Deaths Last Week 

The director-general of the World Health Organization said Friday that due to COVID-19 “more than 8,500 people lost their lives last week — which is not acceptable three years into the pandemic, when we have so many tools to prevent infections and save lives.”

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last Saturday marked the anniversary of WHO’s announcement of COVID-19’s omicron variant, which he said “has proved to be significantly more transmissible than its predecessor, delta, and continues to cause significant mortality due to the intensity of transmission.”

The WHO chief said omicron has evolved and there are now “over 500 sublineages of omicron circulating” and all of them are “highly transmissible” and “have mutations that enable them to escape built-up immunity more easily.”

While WHO believes the world is “closer to being able to say that the emergency phase of the pandemic is over,” Tedros said, “we are not there yet,” despite WHO estimates that at least 90% of the world’s population has some form of COVID immunity, due to infection of vaccination.

Tedros warned that, “Gaps in surveillance, testing, sequencing and vaccination are continuing to create the perfect conditions for a new variant of concern to emerge that could cause significant mortality.”

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