First US Moon Lander in 50 Years Goes Silent

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida — The first U.S. spacecraft to land on the moon since the Apollo astronauts fell silent Thursday, a week after breaking a leg at touchdown and tipping over near the lunar south pole.

Intuitive Machines’ lander, Odysseus, lasted longer than the company anticipated after it ended up on its side with hobbled solar power and communication.

The end came as flight controllers received one last photo from Odysseus and commanded its computer and power systems to standby. That way, the lander can wake up in another two to three weeks — if it survives the bitterly cold lunar night.

Intuitive Machines spokesman Josh Marshall said these final steps drained the lander’s batteries and put Odysseus “down for a long nap.”

“Good night, Odie. We hope to hear from you again,” the company said via X, formerly Twitter.

Before losing power, Odysseus sent back what Intuitive Machines called “a fitting farewell transmission.”

Taken just before touchdown, the picture shows the bottom of the lander on the moon’s pockmarked surface, with a tiny crescent Earth and a small sun in the background.

The lander was originally intended to last about a week on the moon.

Houston-based Intuitive Machines became the first private business to land a spacecraft on the moon without crashing when Odysseus touched down February 22. Only five countries had achieved that since the 1960s, including Japan, which made a sideways landing last month.

Odysseus carried six experiments for NASA, which paid $118 million for the ride. The first company to take part in NASA’s program for commercial lunar deliveries never made it to the moon; its lander came crashing back to Earth in January.

NASA views these private landers as scouts that will pave the way for astronauts set to arrive in another few years.

Until Odysseus, the last U.S. moon landing was by Apollo 17’s Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt in 1972.

Ukrainian YouTuber Finds Her AI Clone Selling Russian Goods on Chinese Internet

washington — Speaking Mandarin and promoting love for China, countless videos of foreign-looking women made with artificial intelligence started popping up on Chinese social media platforms around the Lunar New Year earlier this month.

The avatars in the videos are created with online images that are stolen, reproduced and repurposed so that even the women in real life recognize themselves in the videos.

Olga Loiek is one of those women. She’s a 20-year-old Ukrainian who studies cognitive science at the University of Pennsylvania. A couple of months ago, Loiek started a YouTube channel where she talks about mental health and shares her philosophies about life.

However, shortly after that, she started receiving messages from followers telling her that they had seen her on Chinese social media. There, she’s not Olga Loiek but a Russian woman who speaks Mandarin, loves China and wants to marry a Chinese man. Her name is Natasha, or Anna, or Grace, depending on the social media platform you find her on in China.

“I started translating the videos with Google Translate, and I realized that most of these accounts are talking about things like China, Russia, how good the relationship between China and Russia is,” she told VOA. “This feels very violating.”

In some videos, the avatars talk about how much they value Russia and China’s close ties. In other videos, they praise Chinese history and culture or talk about how much Russian women want to marry Chinese.

“If you marry Russian women, we will wash clothes, cook, and wash dishes for you every day,” an avatar said. “We will also give you foreign babies, as many as you want.”

Several dozen videos of Loiek’s avatar speaking Mandarin have been found on video sites Douyin and Bilibili. Most of these accounts would ask viewers to visit their online stores to buy what they say are authentic Russian goods.

Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, has labeled some of these videos as potentially AI-generated. But comments show that many believed they were looking at a real woman. One netizen wrote, “Russian beauty, Chinese people welcome you.”

Loiek said she would never say things like that, obviously, given that she’s from Ukraine, which has been at war with Russia since 2022.

She said, “This is probably used to make people, maybe people in China, feel that foreigners feel that their country is superior.”

On Bilibili, China’s biggest video site, some AI videos using Loiek’s face are marked with the logo of HeyGen, indicating that the video was generated on the company’s website.

In one tutorial on Bilibili, the demonstrator even shows how to make a short video on HeyGen with a clip of Loiek talking.

HeyGen is an AI company headquartered in Los Angeles that was launched in China in 2020. It specializes in realistic digital avatars, voice generation and video translating.

The technology developed by HeyGen was used in AI videos of Donald Trump and Taylor Swift speaking perfect Mandarin that went viral on Chinese social media in October 2023. According to Forbes, the company is now valued at $75 million.

HeyGen’s moderation policy states that users cannot generate avatars that “represent real individuals, including celebrities or public figures, without explicit consent.” The company’s official tutorial video on avatar making shows that users must submit a video of people giving consent to the use of their likeness. It’s unclear how some in China could circumvent the requirement to make videos of Loiek.

Loiek said that since she and her YouTube subscribers have sent complaints to Chinese social media companies, about a dozen of the accounts imitating her have been taken down.

VOA reached out to HeyGen and Douyin’s parent company, ByteDance, for comments but has not received a response.

The Chinese government rolled out provisions to regulate deepfakes and other “deep synthesis services” in early 2023. The law prohibits generating deepfakes without the consent of the people whose image or other information is used.

Loiek posted her story on YouTube, and it has been shared on Chinese social media. Netizens across platforms sympathized with her and called for tougher regulations on AI.

Chinese tech giants such as Baidu and Tencent are investing heavily in AI technology. One of the most hyped-up services powered by AI is digital humans.

Tencent and Xiaoice, a Chinese AI studio spun off from Microsoft, offer digital human services that can clone people and turn them into AI avatars for as little as $145.

AI avatars have also been found in online disinformation campaigns that spread pro-China and anti-U.S. narratives. In February 2023, research firm Graphika found a social media campaign promoting Beijing’s interests using realistic-looking computer-generated people in videos.

In September 2023, the U.S. State Department warned in a report, “Access to global data combined with the latest developments in artificial intelligence technology would enable the PRC [People’s Republic of China] to surgically target foreign audiences and thereby perhaps influence economic and security decisions in its favor.

As for Loiek, she does not plan to quit YouTube or stop posting.

“We need some sort of regulatory frameworks, so we can understand and we can prevent these things from happening,” she said.

Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.

Odysseus Lunar Lander Makes History, Then Tips Over

A lunar landing more than 50 years in the making is a partial success. Plus, the U.S. says Russia may launch a nuclear weapon into orbit. The Kremlin calls it spin. VOA’s Arash Arabasadi brings us The Week in Space.

Artificial Intelligence Is Game Changer for Election Interference, FBI Warns

WASHINGTON — U.S. security officials are bracing for an onslaught of fast-paced influence operations, from a wide range of adversaries, aimed at impacting the country’s coming presidential election.

FBI Director Christopher Wray issued the latest warning about attempts to meddle with American voters as they decide whom to support when they go to the polls come November, telling a meeting of security professional Thursday that technologies such as artificial intelligence are already altering the threat landscape.

“This election cycle, the U.S. will face more adversaries moving at a faster pace and enabled by new technology,” Wray said.

“Advances in generative AI [artificial intelligence], for instance, are lowering the barrier to entry, making it easier for both more and less sophisticated foreign adversaries to engage in malign influence while making foreign influence efforts by players both old and new, more realistic and more difficult to detect,” he said.

The warning echoes concerns raised earlier in the week by a top lawmaker and by the White House, both singling out Russia.

“I worry that we are less prepared for foreign intervention in our elections in 2024 than we were in 2020,” said Mark Warner, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, during a cybersecurity conference on Tuesday.

On Sunday, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told NBC’s “Meet the Press” there is “plenty of reason to be concerned.”

“There is a history here in presidential elections by the Russian Federation, by its intelligence services,” Sullivan said.

U.S. intelligence agencies concluded Russia sought to interfere in both the 2016 and 2020 elections.

But Russia has not been alone.

A declassified intelligence assessment looking at the 2022 midterm elections concluded with high to moderate confidence that Russia was joined by China and Iran in seeking to sway the outcome.

“China tacitly approved efforts to try to influence a handful of midterm races involving members of both U.S. political parties,” the report said.

“Tehran relied primarily on its intelligence services and Iran-based online influencers to conduct its covert operations,” it said. “Iran’s influence activities reflected its intent to exploit perceived social divisions and undermine confidence in U.S. democratic institutions during this election cycle.”

The United States has also alleged other adversaries, such as Cuba, Venezuela and Lebanese Hezbollah, have sought to influence elections, as have allies, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

The warnings from Wray and others are encountering pushback from some lawmakers and conservative commentators who view such statements as an attempt to resurrect what they call the “Russia hoax” — saying the narrative that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to help former President Donald Trump win is without merit.

Warner, however, dismissed that view in response to a question from VOA on the sidelines of Tuesday’s security conference. “Anyone who doesn’t think the Russian intel services have and will continue to interfere in our elections … I wonder where they’re getting their information to start with,” he said.

Wray on Thursday suggested the list of countries and other foreign groups seeking to influence U.S. voters is set to expand. “AI is most useful for what I would call kind of mediocre bad guys and making them kind of like intermediate,” he said.

“The really sophisticated adversaries are using AI more just to increase the speed and scale of their efforts,” he said. “But we are coming towards a day very soon where what I would call the experts, the most sophisticated adversaries, are going to find ways to use AI to be even more elite.”

Some private cybersecurity firms also see the danger growing.

This past September, Microsoft warned that Beijing has developed a new artificial intelligence capability that can produce “eye-catching content” more likely to go viral compared to previous Chinese influence operations.

Others agree.

“Whether it’s robocalls, whether it’s fake videos — all those things really even back to 2022, weren’t as prevalent,” Trellix CEO Bryan Palma told VOA. “You weren’t going to get any high-quality type of deepfake video.

“I think you’re going to see more and more of that as we get closer to the election,” he said.

Biden Deemed ‘Healthy, Active, Robust’ During Annual Physical Exam

washington — U.S. President Joe Biden’s is a “healthy, active, robust 81-year-old male who remains fit to successfully execute the duties of the presidency,” his physician, Dr. Kevin O’Connor, said in a statement released by the White House on Wednesday, following Biden’s annual physical examination. 

“The president feels well, and this year’s physical identified no new concerns. He continues to be fit for duty and fully executes all of his responsibilities without any exemptions or accommodations,” O’Connor said following Biden’s visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, earlier Wednesday.  

The checkup included consultations with optometry, dentistry, orthopedics, physical therapy, neurology, sleep medicine, cardiology, radiology and dermatology specialists, O’Connor said.  

It’s Biden’s third physical since taking office, amid concerns about his age as he seeks a second term.  

“They think I look too young,” Biden joked to reporters at the White House after his checkup. “There is nothing different than last year,” he said.

According to the summary, Biden is currently being treated for several conditions, including obstructive sleep apnea, gastroesophageal reflux, seasonal allergies, arthritis and sensory peripheral neuropathy of the feet. He also has atrial fibrillation with normal ventricular response, a type of asymptomatic irregularity of the heartbeat.  

His doctor pronounced his conditions as “stable and well-controlled,” with “three common prescription medications and three common over-the-counter medications.”  

The symptoms were similar to those described in Biden’s 2023 physical exam report that noted the president’s “stiff gait,” due to “a combination of significant spinal arthritis, mild post-fracture foot arthritis and a mild sensory peripheral neuropathy of the feet,” and “occasional symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux,” that made him have to clear his throat often.     

President didn’t undergo cognitive test 

Recent events have highlighted Biden’s potential age-related issues, including the president being described in a special counsel report as an “elderly man with a poor memory.”      

In pushing back on reporters’ questions about his age, Biden insisted that his “memory is fine” but shortly after mistakenly referred to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi as the president of Mexico. That and two other mistaken references to world leaders’ names in recent weeks fueled further attacks by his rivals.     

Responding to reporters’ questions during her briefing on Wednesday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden did not undergo a cognitive test as part of his physical because the president’s physician, “doesn’t believe that he needs one.” 

As president, Biden passes a cognitive test “every day,” Jean-Pierre underscored. 

A poll by the George Washington University shows 35% of respondents say Biden was in good enough physical health to serve effectively as president, and 38% said he has the mental soundness to serve effectively as president.  

This is lower that what respondents say about the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump, who is four years younger. For Trump, the numbers are 54% and 46%, respectively. 

“These figures indicate that this is a big problem for Biden,” Todd Belt, professor of politics at George Washington University, told VOA. “The campaign has changed course to attack Trump on his vulnerabilities on the mental soundness issue.” 

Biden did exactly that during an appearance on a late-night television show earlier this week, by referencing a video in which Trump appeared to forget his wife’s name.  

Americans concerned about Biden’s age

Trump was 70 when he took office in 2017, which made him the oldest American president to be inaugurated until Biden broke his record at 78 in 2021. The former president has also made blunders, including praising Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban for his leadership of Turkey, and confusing his Republican rival, Nikki Haley, with former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.   

A February ABC News/Ipsos poll conducted after the release of the special counsel report indicated concerns among 59% of Americans regarding the age and capability for a second term for both candidates, although more Americans are worried about Biden compared with Trump, said Clifford Young, president of Ipsos Public Affairs.   

“Age is an Achilles’ heel, is an anchor for Biden,” Young told VOA. “It was four years ago. Without a doubt, it will be this year.”   

Though not publicly announced in advance, the timing of Biden’s physical was anticipated, given the increasing focus on his age and health in the context of his reelection campaign ahead of the November election. 

Older US Adults Should Get Another COVID Shot, Say Health Officials

new york — Older U.S. adults should roll up their sleeves for another COVID-19 shot, even if they got a booster in the fall, U.S. health officials said Wednesday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Americans 65 and older should get another dose of the updated vaccine that became available in September — if at least four months has passed since their last shot. In making the recommendation, the agency endorsed guidance proposed by an expert advisory panel earlier in the day.

“Most COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations last year were among people 65 years and older. An additional vaccine dose can provide added protection … for those at highest risk,” CDC Director Dr. Mandy Cohen said in a statement.

The advisory panel’s decision came after a lengthy discussion about whether to say older people “may” get the shots or if they “should” do so. That reflects a debate among experts about how necessary another booster is and whether yet another recommendation would add to the public’s growing vaccine fatigue.

Some doctors say most older adults are adequately protected by the fall shot, which built on immunity derived from earlier vaccinations and exposure to the virus itself. And preliminary studies so far have shown no substantial waning in vaccine effectiveness over six months.

However, the body’s vaccine-induced defenses tend to fade over time, and that happens faster in seniors than in other adults. The committee had recommended COVID-19 booster doses for older adults in 2022 and 2023.

Virus still a threat

COVID-19 remains a danger, especially to older people and those with underlying medical conditions. There are still more than 20,000 hospitalizations and more than 2,000 deaths each week due to the coronavirus, according to the CDC. And people 65 and older have the highest hospitalization and death rates.

Some members of the advisory panel said a “should” recommendation is meant to more clearly prod doctors and pharmacists to offer the shots.

Dr. Jamie Loehr, a committee member and family doctor in Ithaca, New York, said that with the “should” recommendation, “I am trying to make it easier for providers to say, ‘Yes, we recommend this.'”

In September, the government recommended a new COVID-19 shot recipe built against a version of the coronavirus called XBB.1.5. That single-target vaccine replaced combination shots that had been targeting both the original coronavirus strain and a much earlier omicron version.

Vaccine uptake has declined

The CDC recommended the new shots for everyone 6 months and older and allowed that people with weak immune systems could get a second dose as early as two months after the first.

Most Americans haven’t listened. According to the latest CDC data, 13% of U.S. children have gotten the shots and about 22% of U.S. adults have. The vaccination rate is higher for adults 65 and older, at nearly 42%.

“In each successive vaccine, the uptake has gone down,” said Dr. David Canaday, a Case Western Reserve University infectious-diseases expert who studies COVID-19 in older people.

“People are tired of getting all these shots all the time,” said Canaday, who does not serve on the committee. “We have to be careful about over-recommending the vaccine.”

But there is a subset of Americans — those at higher danger of severe illness and death — who have been asking if another dose is permissible, said Dr. William Schaffner, a Vanderbilt University vaccines expert who serves on a committee workgroup that has been debating the booster question.

Indeed, CDC survey data suggest that group’s biggest worry about the vaccine is whether it’s effective enough.

Agency officials say that among those who got the latest version of the COVID-19 vaccine, 50% fewer will get sick after they come into contact with the virus compared with those who didn’t get the fall shot.

AI – Charting Rules of the Road

Artificial intelligence touches nearly every aspect of our digital lives, but there are few laws governing its use. In this episode of our web series about AI, VOA’s Tina Trinh looks at how lawmakers and tech developers are making rules for something that is changing nearly every day.

What Might Happen Without a Leap Day? More Than You Think

NEW YORK — Leap year. It’s a delight for the calendar and math nerds among us. So how did it all begin and why?

Have a look at some of the numbers, history and lore behind the (not quite) every four-year phenom that adds a 29th day to February.

By the numbers

The math is mind-boggling in a layperson sort of way and down to fractions of days and minutes. There’s even a leap second occasionally, but there’s no hullabaloo when that happens.

The thing to know is that leap year exists, in large part, to keep the months in sync with annual events, including equinoxes and solstices, according to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.

It’s a correction to counter the fact that Earth’s orbit isn’t precisely 365 days a year. The trip takes about six hours longer than that, NASA says.

Contrary to what some might believe, however, not every four years is a leaper. Adding a leap day every four years would make the calendar longer by more than 44 minutes, according to the National Air & Space Museum.

Later, on a calendar yet to come (we’ll get to it), it was decreed that years divisible by 100 not follow the four-year leap day rule unless they are also divisible by 400, the JPL notes. In the past 500 years, there was no leap day in 1700, 1800 and 1900, but 2000 had one. In the next 500 years, if the practice is followed, there will be no leap day in 2100, 2200, 2300 and 2500.

Still with us?

The next leap years are 2028, 2032 and 2036.

What would happen without a leap day?

Eventually, nothing good in terms of when major events fall, when farmers plant and how seasons align with the sun and the moon.

“Without the leap years, after a few hundred years we will have summer in November,” said Younas Khan, a physics instructor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “Christmas will be in summer. There will be no snow. There will be no feeling of Christmas.”

Who came up with leap year?

The short answer: It evolved.

Ancient civilizations used the cosmos to plan their lives, and there are calendars dating back to the Bronze Age. They were based on either the phases of the moon or the sun, as various calendars are today. Usually they were “lunisolar,” using both.

Now hop on over to the Roman Empire and Julius Caesar. He was dealing with major seasonal drift on calendars used in his neck of the woods. They dealt badly with drift by adding months. He was also navigating many calendars starting in many ways in the vast Roman Empire.

He introduced his Julian calendar in 46 BCE. It was purely solar and counted a year at 365.25 days, so once every four years an extra day was added. Before that, the Romans counted a year at 355 days, at least for a time.

But still, under Julius, there was drift. There were too many leap years! The solar year isn’t precisely 365.25 days! It’s 365.242 days, said Nick Eakes, an astronomy educator at the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Thomas Palaima, a classics professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said adding periods of time to a year to reflect variations in the lunar and solar cycles was done by the ancients. The Athenian calendar, he said, was used in the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries with 12 lunar months.

That didn’t work for seasonal religious rites. The drift problem led to “intercalating” an extra month periodically to realign with lunar and solar cycles, Palaima said.

The Julian calendar was 0.0078 days (11 minutes and 14 seconds) longer than the tropical year, so errors in timekeeping still gradually accumulated, according to NASA. But stability increased, Palaima said.

The Julian calendar was the model used by the Western world for hundreds of years. Enter Pope Gregory XIII, who calibrated further. His Gregorian calendar took effect in the late 16th century. It remains in use today and, clearly, isn’t perfect or there would be no need for leap year. But it was a big improvement, reducing drift to mere seconds.

Why did he step in? Well, Easter. It was coming later in the year over time, and he fretted that events related to Easter like the Pentecost might bump up against pagan festivals. The pope wanted Easter to remain in the spring.

He eliminated some extra days accumulated on the Julian calendar and tweaked the rules on leap day. It’s Pope Gregory and his advisers who came up with the really gnarly math on when there should or shouldn’t be a leap year.

“If the solar year was a perfect 365.25 then we wouldn’t have to worry about the tricky math involved,” Eakes said.

What’s the deal with leap year and marriage?

Bizarrely, leap day comes with lore about women popping the marriage question to men. It was mostly benign fun, but it came with a bite that reinforced gender roles.

There’s distant European folklore. One story places the idea of women proposing in fifth century Ireland, with St. Bridget appealing to St. Patrick to offer women the chance to ask men to marry them, according to historian Katherine Parkin in a 2012 paper in the Journal of Family History.

Nobody really knows where it all began.

In 1904, syndicated columnist Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer, aka Dorothy Dix, summed up the tradition this way: “Of course people will say … that a woman’s leap year prerogative, like most of her liberties, is merely a glittering mockery.”

The pre-Sadie Hawkins tradition, however serious or tongue-in-cheek, could have empowered women but merely perpetuated stereotypes. The proposals were to happen via postcard, but many such cards turned the tables and poked fun at women instead.

Advertising perpetuated the leap year marriage game. A 1916 ad by the American Industrial Bank and Trust Co. read thusly: “This being Leap Year day, we suggest to every girl that she propose to her father to open a savings account in her name in our own bank.”

There was no breath of independence for women due to leap day.

Should we pity the leaplings?

Being born in a leap year on a leap day certainly is a talking point. But it can be kind of a pain from a paperwork perspective. Some governments and others requiring forms to be filled out and birthdays to be stated stepped in to declare what date was used by leaplings for such things as drivers’ licenses, whether Feb. 28 or March 1.

Technology has made it far easier for leap babies to jot down their Feb. 29 milestones, though there can be glitches in terms of health systems, insurance policies and with other businesses and organizations that don’t have that date built in.

There are about 5 million people worldwide who share the leap birthday out of about 8 billion people on the planet. Shelley Dean, 23, in Seattle, Washington, chooses a rosy attitude about being a leapling. Growing up, she had normal birthday parties each year, but an extra special one when leap years rolled around. Since, as an adult, she marks that non-leap period between Feb. 28 and March 1 with a low-key “whew.”

This year is different.

“It will be the first birthday that I’m going to celebrate with my family in eight years, which is super exciting, because the last leap day I was on the other side of the country in New York for college,” she said. “It’s a very big year.”

China Users on Banned Social Platforms Need Protection, Advocates Say

washington — Rights advocates are urging international social media platforms to do more to prevent Chinese authorities from obtaining the personal information of users. The call comes after two popular Chinese social media influencers alleged on X and YouTube that police in China were investigating their followers and had called some in for questioning.

Social media platforms such as X and YouTube and thousands of websites — from The New York Times to the BBC and VOA — are blocked in China by the country’s Great Firewall. But increasingly, even as social controls tighten under the leadership of Xi Jinping, many in China are using virtual private networks to access X, YouTube and other sites for news, information and opinions not available in China.

Li Ying, who is also known online as Teacher Li, is one of the social media influencers who issued the warning on Sunday. Li came to prominence as a source of news and information following a rare display of public dissent in 2022 in China, protesting the government’s draconian zero-COVID policy. His account on X has now become a hub for news and videos provided by netizens that the Chinese government considers sensitive and censors online.

In a post on Sunday, Teacher Li said, “Currently, the public security bureau is checking my 1.6 million followers and people in the comments, one by one.”

He shared screenshots of private messages he received from followers over the past few months, some of which claimed that police had interrogated individuals, even causing one person to lose their job.

VOA could not independently verify the authenticity of the claims, but court records in China and reports by rights groups have previously documented the country’s increasing use of social media platforms banned in China to detain, prosecute and sentence individuals over comments made online.

The Chinese Embassy spokesperson in Washington, Liu Pengyu, said he was not aware of the specifics regarding the social media influencers.

“As a principle, the Chinese government manages internet-related affairs according to law and regulation,” Liu said.

Influencers warn followers

News of the crackdown on followers of social influencers comes amid a flurry of reports about China’s hacking capabilities. Last week, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned that cyberattacks on U.S. infrastructure were “at a scale greater than we’d seen before.”

A recent document dump detailed how private companies are helping China to hack foreign governments across Southeast Asia and to unmask users of foreign social media accounts.

Wang Zhi’an, a former journalist at China’s state broadcaster CCTV who has a million subscribers on X and 1.2 million followers on YouTube, says his followers have reported similar problems.

In response, both Wang and Teacher Li have urged their followers to take precautions, suggesting they unfollow their accounts, change their usernames, avoid Chinese-made phones and prepare to be questioned.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Li’s followers on X had dropped to 1.4 million. VOA reached out to Li for comment but did not receive a response as of publication.

Authorities reportedly tracking followers

Maya Wang, acting China director at Human Rights Watch, said China is putting more effort into policing platforms based outside of the country as more Chinese people move to the platforms to speak out.

She said the recent reports of authorities tracking down followers is just a part of China’s long-standing effort to restrict freedom of expression.

“I think the Chinese government is also increasingly worried about the information that is being propagated, transmitted or distributed on these foreign platforms because they have been, thanks to these individuals, very influential,” Wang said.

A recent leak of documents from I-Soon, a private contractor linked to China’s top policing agency and other parts of its government, described tools used by Chinese police to curb dissent on overseas social media, including one tool specifically created to surveil users on X.

Hackers also created tools for police to hack email inboxes and unmask anonymous users of X, the documents show. The leak revealed that officers sometimes sent requests to surveil specific individuals to I-Soon.

Wang said it is incumbent on social media companies to make sure their users stay safe.

“I would want to direct these questions to Twitter [X] to ask — are they adopting heightened measures to protect PRC [People’s Republic of China]-based users?” she said. “I think Twitter [X] needs to investigate just how exactly this kind of information is being obtained and whether or not they need to plug some loopholes.”

Yaqiu Wang, research director for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan at Freedom House, said that besides better protecting their users’ privacy, the companies should also put in more effort to combat China’s clampdown on freedom of speech.

“They should have steps actually helping out activists to protect their freedom of speech,” she said. “Big social media companies should widely disseminate information to their users, like a manual or instructions of how to protect their account.

“They need to be more transparent, so users and the public know whether government-sponsored hacking activities are going on,” she added.

VOA reached out to X, formerly known as Twitter, several times for comment but did not receive any response by the time of publication.

Xiao Yu contributed to this report.

LogOn: AI’s Newest Advance: Realistic High-Definition Video From a Few Words

The latest innovation in artificial intelligence is photorealistic video created from just a few words. Deana Mitchell has the story in this week’s episode of LogOn.

Renewal of U.S.-China Science and Tech Pact Faces Hurdles

STATE DEPARTMENT — With a science and technology agreement between the United States and People’s Republic of China due to expire Tuesday, the State Department said it is negotiating to “amend, extend, and strengthen protections within” the agreement but declined to specify if the U.S. would extend the deal.

“We are not able to provide information at this time on specific U.S. negotiating positions or on whether the agreement will be extended past its current expiration date,” a State Department spokesperson told VOA.

The Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement is a framework for U.S. governmental collaborations with China in science and technology.  

U.S. officials have said the STA provides consistent standards for government-to-government scientific cooperation between the U.S. and China.  

While the agreement supports scientific collaboration in areas that benefit the United States, U.S. officials acknowledge the challenges posed by China’s national science and technology strategies and its domestic legal framework.

Critics, including U.S. lawmakers, point out China’s restrictions on data and a lack of transparency in sharing scientific findings. Washington is also concerned about personal safety of American scientists who travel to China, as well as Beijing’s potential military application of shared research.

A report by Congressional Research Service said China’s cooperation under the agreement has not been consistent. For example, “China reportedly withheld avian influenza strains required for U.S. vaccines and in 2019, cut off U.S. access to coronavirus research, including U.S.-funded work at the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” said the CRS.

Advocates for renewing the agreement want to maintain some level of official and unofficial contacts amid strained relationship between the two countries.  

During a recent discussion hosted by the Washington-based Institute for China-America Studies (ICAS), panelists said the STA is “important symbolically” and gives confidence to researchers on both sides to deepen their engagement with counterparts.

“In the event of the agreement’s non-renewal, the mutual confidence that sustains and underpins collaboration is bound to suffer,” said ICAS in its post-event summary.

Dean Cheng, a senior advisor to the China program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said the American system is far more open, so China will typically be able to gather information regardless of whether there is an agreement.

“The STA is no guarantee that American scientists will, in fact, be able to access Chinese research, information, or scholars, whereas the Chinese side will use the STA as a means of establishing an even greater presence in the U.S.,” Cheng told VOA, adding the “strategic advantage” under the deal will likely be with the PRC.

The STA was originally signed in 1979 by then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter and then-PRC leader Deng Xiaoping. Under the agreement, the two countries cooperate in fields including agriculture, energy, space, health, environment, earth sciences and engineering, as well as educational and scholarly exchanges.

U.S.-China science and technology activity increased in November 2009 with new agreements on joint projects in electric vehicles, or EVs, renewable energy, and the creation of the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center, or CERC, a 10-year research effort between the U.S. Department of Energy and China’s Ministry of Science and Technology.

The agreement has been renewed approximately every five years since its inception, with the most recent five-year extension occurring in 2018. Last August, it received a six-month extension as officials from the two countries undertook negotiations to amend and strengthen the terms.

UN Member States Focus on Environmental Crisis at Nairobi Meeting

The U.N. Environment Assembly, known as UNEA-6, is meeting in Nairobi this week to chart solutions to the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. Juma Majanga reports from the U.N. Environment headquarters in Nairobi.

2 Exiled Chinese Bloggers Warn of Police Interrogating Their Followers

SHANGHAI — Two prominent Chinese bloggers in exile said that police were investigating their millions of followers on international social media platforms, in an escalation of Beijing’s attempts to clamp down on critical speech even outside of the country’s borders.

Former state broadcaster CCTV journalist Wang Zhi’an and artist-turned-dissident Li Ying, both Chinese citizens known for posting uncensored Chinese news, said in separate posts Sunday that police were interrogating people who followed them on social media, and urged followers to take precautions such as unfollowing their accounts, changing their usernames, avoiding Chinese-made phones and preparing to be questioned.

Li Ying, known as Teacher Li, came to prominence as a source of news about the White Paper protests, a rare moment of anti-government protests in mainland China in 2022. Teacher Li’s account on X, formerly known as Twitter, @whyyoutouzhele now posts news and videos submitted by users, which cover everything from local protests to viral videos of real-life incidents that are censored on the Chinese internet.

In a post Sunday evening, Teacher Li suggested people unfollow his account. “Currently, the public security bureau is checking my 1.6 million followers and people in the comments, one by one.”

Li shared screenshots of private messages he received from followers over the past few months, which claimed that police had interrogated individuals, and that one person had even lost their job.

As of Monday afternoon, Li had dropped down to 1.4 million followers on X.

International social media platforms like X and YouTube are blocked in China but can still be accessed with software that circumvents the country’s censorship systems.

Wang, who has a million subscribers on X and 1.2 million followers on YouTube, also told his fans to unsubscribe.

Li, Wang and the Chinese foreign ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Over the past decade, Beijing has cracked down on dissent on Chinese social media, with thousands of censors employed both at private companies and with the Chinese state.

Chinese users expressing critical opinions online have reported being called, harassed or interrogated by police, with some called in for questioning and ordered to take down certain posts or delete their accounts. In some cases, users have been detained, with some spending up to two weeks in jail and a small number sentenced to years in prison.

More recently, Beijing has extended its reach to tracking non-Chinese platforms such as Facebook, Telegram and X. A recent leak of documents from I-Soon, a private contractor linked to China’s top policing agency and other parts of its government, described tools used by Chinese police to curb dissent on overseas social media, including one tool specifically created to surveil users on X.

Hackers also created tools for police to hack email inboxes and unmask anonymous users of X, the documents show. Sometimes, officers sent requests to surveil specific individuals to I-Soon, the leak revealed.

Li said he would not stop posting even if people unfollowed, but he urged his followers to take basic digital safety precautions.

“I don’t want your life to be impacted just because you wanted to understand the real news in China,” Li said, in an additional post. “You only want to understand what’s happening, but the price is quite high

 

Private US Lunar Lander Will Stop Working Tuesday 

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A private U.S. lunar lander is expected to stop working Tuesday, its mission cut short after landing sideways near the south pole of the moon.

Intuitive Machines, the Houston company that built and flew the spacecraft, said Monday it will continue to collect data until sunlight no longer shines on the solar panels. Based on the position of Earth and the moon, officials expect that to happen Tuesday morning. That’s two to three days short of the week or so that NASA and other customers had been counting on.

The lander, named Odysseus, is the first U.S. spacecraft to land on the moon in more than 50 years, carrying experiments for NASA, the main sponsor. But it came in too fast last Thursday and the foot of one of its six legs caught on the surface, causing it to tumble over, according to company officials.

Based on photos from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter flying overhead, Odysseus landed within 1.5 kilometers of its intended target near the Malapert A crater, just 300 kilometers from the moon’s south pole.

The LRO photos from 90 kilometers up are the only ones showing the lander on the surface, but as little more than a spot in the grainy images. A camera-ejecting experiment by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, to capture images of the lander as they both descended, was called off shortly before touchdown because of a last-minute navigation issue.

According to NASA, the lander ended up in a small, degraded crater with a 12-degree slope. That’s the closest a spacecraft has ever come to the south pole, an area of interest because of suspected frozen water in the permanently shadowed craters there.

NASA, which plans to land astronauts in this region in the next few years, paid Intuitive Machines $118 million to deliver six experiments to the surface. Other customers also had items on board.

Instead of landing upright, the 4.3-meter Odysseus came down on its side, hampering communication with Earth. Some antennas were covered up by the toppled lander, and the ones still exposed ended up near the ground, resulting in spotty communications. The solar panels also ended up much closer to the surface than anticipated, less than ideal in the hilly terrain. Even under the best of circumstances, Odysseus only had a week to operate on the surface before the long lunar night set in.

Since the 1960s, only the U.S., Russia, China, India and Japan have successfully pulled off moon landings, and only the U.S. with crews. Japan’s lander ended up on the wrong side, too, just last month.

Despite its slanted landing, Intuitive Machines became the first private business to join the elite group. Another U.S. company, Astrobotic Technology, gave it a try last month, but didn’t make it to the moon because of a fuel leak.

Intuitive Machines almost failed, too. Ground teams did not turn on the switch for the lander’s navigating lasers before the Feb. 15 liftoff from Florida. The oversight was not discovered until Odysseus was circling the moon, forcing flight controllers to rely on a NASA laser-navigating device that was on board merely as an experiment.

As it turned out, NASA’s test lasers guided Odysseus to a close to bull’s-eye landing, resulting in the first moon landing by a U.S. spacecraft since the Apollo program.

Twelve Apollo astronauts walked on the moon from 1969 through 1972. While NASA went on to put an occasional satellite around the moon, the U.S. did not launch another moon-landing mission until last month. Astrobotic’s failed flight was the first under NASA’s program to promote commercial deliveries to the moon.

Both Intuitive Machines and Astrobotic hold NASA contracts for more moon landings.

Japan Moon Lander Revives After Lunar Night

Tokyo — Japan’s moon lander has produced another surprise by waking up after the two-week lunar night, the country’s space agency said Monday.

The unmanned Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) touched down last month at a wonky angle that left its solar panels facing the wrong way.

As the sun’s angle shifted, it came back to life for two days and carried out scientific observations of a crater with a high-spec camera, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said.

It went to sleep again as darkness returned and, since it was “not designed for the harsh lunar nights,” JAXA had been uncertain whether it would reawaken.

“Yesterday we sent a command, to which SLIM responded,” JAXA said on X, formerly Twitter, on Monday.

“SLIM succeeded in surviving a night on the Moon’s surface while maintaining its communication function!”

It said that communications were “terminated after a short time, as it was still lunar midday and the temperature of the communication equipment was very high.”

But it added: “Preparations are being made to resume operations when instrument temperatures have sufficiently cooled.”

SLIM, dubbed the “Moon Sniper” for its precision landing technology, touched down within its target landing zone on Jan. 20.

The feat was a win for Japan’s space program after a string of recent failures, making the nation only the fifth to achieve a “soft landing” on the moon, after the United States, the Soviet Union, China and India.

But during its descent, the craft suffered engine problems and ended up on its side, meaning the solar panels were facing west instead of up.

The latest news comes after JAXA toasted a successful blast-off for its new flagship H3 rocket on Feb. 17, making it third time lucky after years of delays and two previous failed attempts.

Countries including Russia, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates are also trying to reach the moon.

The first American spaceship to the moon since the Apollo era, the uncrewed Odysseus lander built by a private company and funded by NASA, landed near the lunar south pole on Thursday.

But its maker said the US spacecraft is probably lying sideways following its dramatic landing, even as ground controllers work to download data and surface photos from it.

Private Japanese firm ispace also attempted to land on the moon last year but the probe suffered a “hard landing” and contact was lost.

South Korea Sets Thursday Deadline for Return of Striking Doctors

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s government gave striking young doctors four days to report back to work, saying Monday that they won’t be punished if they return by the deadline but will face indictments and suspensions of medical licenses if they don’t.

About 9,000 medical interns and residents have stayed off the job since early last week to protest a government plan to increase medical school admissions by about 65%. The walkouts have severely hurt the operations of their hospitals, with numerous cancellations of surgeries and other treatments.

Government officials say adding more doctors is necessary to deal with South Korea’s rapidly aging population. The country’s current doctor-to-patient ratio is among the lowest in the developed world. 

The strikers say universities can’t handle so many new students and argue the plan would not resolve a chronic shortage of doctors in some key but low-paying areas like pediatrics and emergency departments.

Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo said during a televised briefing Monday that the government won’t seek any disciplinary action against striking doctors if they return to work by Thursday.

“We want them to return to work by the end of this month, Feb. 29. If they return to the hospitals they had left by then, we won’t hold them responsible” for any damages caused by their walkouts, Park said.

But he said those who don’t meet the deadline will be punished with a minimum three-month suspension of their medical licenses and face further legal steps such as investigations and possible indictments.

Under South Korea’s medical law, the government can issue back-to-work orders to doctors and other medical personnel when it sees grave risks to public health. Refusing to abide by such an order can bring up to three years in prison or $22,480 in fines, along with revocation of medical licenses.

There are about 13,000 medical interns and residents in South Korea, most of them working and training at 100 hospitals. They typically assist senior doctors during surgeries and deal with inpatients. They represent about 30% to 40% of total doctors at some major hospitals.

The Korea Medical Association, which represents about 140,000 doctors in South Korea, has said it supports the striking doctors, but hasn’t determined whether to join the trainee doctors’ walkouts. Senior doctors have held a series of rallies voicing opposition to the government’s plan.

Earlier this month, the government announced universities would admit 2,000 more medical students starting next year, from the current 3,058. The government says it aims to add up to 10,000 doctors by 2035. 

A public survey said about 80% of South Koreans back the government plan. Critics suspect doctors, one of the best-paid professions in South Korea, oppose the recruitment plan because they worry they would face greater competition and lower income. 

Striking doctors have said they worry doctors faced with increased competition would engage in overtreatment, burdening public medical expenses.

Tax-Free Status of Movie, Music and Games Traded Online Is on Table as WTO Nations Meet in Abu Dhabi

Geneva — Since late last century and the early days of the web, providers of digital media like Netflix and Spotify have had a free pass when it comes to international taxes on films, video games and music that are shipped across borders through the internet.

But now, a global consensus on the issue may be starting to crack.

As the World Trade Organization opens its latest biannual meeting of government ministers Monday, its longtime moratorium on duties on e-commerce products — which has been renewed almost automatically since 1998 — is coming under pressure as never before.

This week in Abu Dhabi, the WTO’s 164 member countries will take up a number of key issues: Subsidies that encourage overfishing. Reforms to make agricultural markets fairer and more eco-friendly. And efforts to revive the Geneva-based trade body’s system of resolving disputes among countries.

All of those are tall orders, but the moratorium on e-commerce duties is perhaps the matter most in play. It centers on “electronic transmissions” — music, movies, video games and the like — more than on physical goods. But the rulebook isn’t clear on the entire array of products affected.

“This is so important to millions of businesses, especially small- and medium-sized businesses,” WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said. “Some members believe that this should be extended and made permanent. Others believe … there are reasons why it should not.” 

“That’s why there’s been a debate and hopefully — because it touches on lives of many people — we hope that ministers would be able to make the appropriate decision,” she told reporters recently.

Under WTO’s rules, major decisions require consensus. The e-commerce moratorium can’t just sail through automatically. Countries must actively vote in favor for the extension to take effect.

Four proposals are on the table: Two would extend the suspension of duties. Two — separately presented by South Africa and India, two countries that have been pushing their interests hard at the WTO — would not.

Proponents say the moratorium benefits consumers by helping keep costs down and promotes the wider rollout of digital services in countries both rich and poor.

Critics say it deprives debt-burdened governments in developing countries of tax revenue, though there’s debate over just how much state coffers would stand to gain.

The WTO itself says that on average, the potential loss would be less than one-third of 1% of total government revenue.

The stakes are high. A WTO report published in December said the value of “digitally delivered services” exports grew by more than 8% from 2005 to 2022 — higher than goods exports (5.6%) and other-services exports (4.2%).

Growth has been uneven, though. Most developing countries don’t have digital networks as extensive as those in the rich world. Those countries see less need to extend the moratorium — and might reap needed tax revenue if it ends.

South Africa’s proposal, which seeks to end the moratorium, calls for the creation of a fund to receive voluntary contributions to bridge the “digital divide.” It also wants to require “leading platforms” to boost the promotion of “historically disadvantaged” small- and medium-sized enterprises.

Industry, at least in the United States, is pushing hard to extend the moratorium. In a Feb. 13 letter to Biden administration officials, nearly two dozen industry groups, including the Motion Picture Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Entertainment Software Association — a video-game industry group — urged the United States to give its “full support” to a renewal.

“Accepting anything short of a multilateral extension of the moratorium that applies to all WTO members would open the door to the introduction of new customs duties and related cross-border restrictions that would hurt U.S. workers in industries across the entire economy,” the letter said.

A collapse would deal a “major blow to the credibility and durability” of the WTO and would mark the first time that its members “changed the rules to make it substantially harder to conduct trade,” wrote the groups, which said their members include companies that combined employ over 100 million workers. 

Japan’s ‘Naked Men’ Festival Succumbs to Aging of Population

Ōshū, Japan — Steam rose as hundreds of naked men tussled over a bag of wooden talismans, performing a dramatic end to a thousand-year-old ritual in Japan that took place for the last time. 

Their passionate chants of “Jasso, joyasa” (meaning “Evil, be gone”) echoed through a cedar forest in northern Japan’s Iwate region, where the secluded Kokuseki Temple has decided to end the popular annual rite. 

Organizing the event, which draws hundreds of participants and thousands of tourists every year, has become a heavy burden for the aging local faithful, who find it hard to keep up with the rigors of the ritual.  

The “Sominsai” festival, regarded as one of the strangest festivals in Japan, is the latest tradition impacted by the country’s aging population crisis that has hit rural communities hard.  

“It is very difficult to organize a festival of this scale,” said Daigo Fujinami, a resident monk of the temple that opened in 729.  

“You can see what happened today — so many people are here and it’s all exciting. But behind the scenes, there are many rituals and so much work that have to be done,” he said.  

“I cannot be blind to the difficult reality.”  

Aging population 

More than 1 in 10 people in Japan are 80 years old or older, and almost a third of its population is older than 65, according to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2023.

The aging of Japan’s population has forced the closure of countless schools, shops and services, particularly in small or rural communities.  

Kokuseki Temple’s Sominsai festival used to take place from the seventh day of Lunar New Year to the following morning.  

But during the Covid pandemic, it was scaled down to prayer ceremonies and smaller rituals. 

The final festival was a shortened version, ending around 11 p.m., but it drew the biggest crowd in recent memory, local residents said.  

As the sun set, men in white loincloths came to the mountain temple, bathed in a creek and marched around temple’s ground. 

They clenched their fists against the chill of a winter breeze, all the while chanting “Jasso, joyasa.” 

Some held small cameras to record their experience, while dozens of television crews followed the men through the temple’s stone steps and dirt pathways. 

As the festival reached its climax, hundreds of men packed inside the wooden temple shouting, chanting and aggressively jostling over a bag of talismans. 

Changing norms

Toshiaki Kikuchi, a local resident who claimed the talismans and who helped organize the festival for years, said he hoped the ritual would return in the future.  

“Even under a different format, I hope to maintain this tradition,” he said. “There are many things that you can appreciate only if you take part.” 

Many participants and visitors voiced both sadness and understanding about the festival’s ending. 

“This is the last of this great festival that has lasted 1,000 years. I really wanted to participate in this festival,” Yasuo Nishimura, 49, a caregiver from Osaka, told AFP. 

Other temples across Japan continue to host similar festivals where men wear loincloths and bathe in freezing water or fight over talismans. 

Some festivals are adjusting their rules in line with changing demographics and social norms so that they can continue to exist — such as letting women take part in previously male-only ceremonies.  

Starting next year, Kokuseki Temple will replace the festival with prayer ceremonies and other ways to continue its spiritual practices. 

“Japan is facing a falling birthrate, aging population, and lack of young people to continue various things,” Nishimura said. “Perhaps it is difficult to continue the same way as in the past.”