Pakistan’s Finance Minister Resigns Amid Economic Crisis

Pakistan Finance Minister Asad Umar has resigned days after returning home from crucial talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on a financial bailout package to avert a national balance of payments crisis.

While formally announcing his decision to leave Thursday at a hurriedly arranged news conference in Islamabad, Umar explained that he was asked to take the energy minister position instead of finance as part of a Cabinet reorganization.

Umar acknowledged his successor would have to make “some difficult decisions” to deal with economic challenges facing Pakistan.  It is unclear who will succeed Umar.

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s eight-month-old administration has faced sustained criticism from political opponents, independent commentators and the business community over the government’s handling of the economic crisis facing the country.  Much of that criticism was leveled against Umar.

Umar returned this week from Washington, where his delegation fleshed out details of Pakistan’s next IMF bailout package that he said could be up to $8 billion.

Critics blamed the outgoing minister for taking months to finalize the IMF deal, saying the delay shattered investor confidence in Pakistan’s economy.  But speaking Thursday, Umar defended his performance.

“We have finalized the IMF agreement on much better terms than before.  I have made these decisions.  I refused to take the decisions that would have crushed the nation,” Umar said without elaborating.

He said that an IMF mission is expected to visit Islamabad later this month to work out more details “since all major issues had been settled and documented,” he said.

The long-delayed package would be Pakistan’s 13th IMF bailout since the late 1980s and comes with a worsening economic outlook for the South Asian nation of more than 200 million people.

Former finance minister Salman Shah, while commenting on Umar’s resignation, noted a lack of effective financial strategy was slowing down the economy, deterring all sorts of investments, fueling inflation and unemployment in Pakistan.

 

 

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US Trade Deficit Hits 8-Month Low on Weak Chinese Imports

The U.S. trade deficit fell to an eight-month low in February as imports from China plunged, temporarily providing a boost to President Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda and economic growth in the first quarter.

The surprise second straight monthly narrowing in the trade gap reported by the Commerce Department on Wednesday was also driven by soaring aircraft exports, which are likely to reverse after Boeing halted deliveries of its troubled 737 MAX aircraft. MAX planes have been grounded indefinitely following two deadly crashes.

Economists warned the trade deficit would remain elevated regardless of whether the United States and China struck a trade deal that was to the White House’s liking because of Americans’ insatiable appetite for cheaper imports.

Talks between Washington and China to resolve the bitter trade war have been dragging. The United States is also embroiled in conflicts with other trading partners, including the European Union, contributing to big swings in exports and imports data in recent months.

“Even if trade negotiations are resolved in such a way as to reduce the bilateral trade deficit with China, one of the Trump administration’s stated goals, this would likely divert trade flows to other countries and have little impact on the top-line U.S. trade deficit,” said Emily Mandel, an economist at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

The trade deficit tumbled 3.4% to $49.4 billion in February, the lowest level since June 2018. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the trade shortfall widening to $53.5 billion in February.

The politically sensitive goods trade deficit with China – a focus of the Trump administration’s protectionist trade policy – decreased 28.2% to $24.8 billion in February as imports from the world’s No. 2 economy plunged 20.2%. U.S. exports to China jumped 18.2% in February.

Washington last year imposed tariffs on $250 billion worth of goods imported from China, with Beijing retaliating with duties on $110 billion worth of American products. Trump has defended the duties as necessary to protect domestic manufacturers from what he says is unfair foreign competition.

Trump has delayed tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports. The White House argues that substantially reducing the trade deficit would lift annual economic growth by at least 3% on a sustainable basis, a feat that economists have said is impossible because of low productivity and population growth.

The economy grew 2.9% in 2018.

The dollar was little changed against a basket of currencies, while U.S. Treasury debt prices rose marginally.

Stocks on Wall Street fell.

Growth estimates raised

February’s smaller trade deficit suggests the economy will probably avoid a sharp slowdown in growth that had been feared at the start of the year. The goods trade deficit declined 1.7% to an eight-month low of $72.0 billion in February.

When adjusted for inflation, the overall goods trade deficit fell $1.8 billion to $81.8 billion, also the lowest since last June. Goldman Sachs raised its first quarter gross domestic product estimate by four-tenths of percentage point to a 2.1% annualized rate.

The Atlanta Federal Reserve bumped up its GDP forecast to a 2.4% pace from a 2.3% rate. The economy grew at a 2.2% rate in the fourth quarter.

“It sounds like pencils are being sharpened in order to revise up first-quarter GDP forecasts,” said Jennifer Lee, a senior economist at BMO Capital Markets in Toronto.

In February, goods exports increased 1.5% to $139.5 billion. The surge in goods exports is unlikely to be sustained given slowing global economic growth. The dollar’s strength last year means U.S.-manufactured goods are less competitive on foreign markets.

Shipments of civilian aircraft soared by $2.2 billion in February. Exports of motor vehicles and parts increased by $0.6 billion. There was a small rise in soybean exports. Economists expect soybean exports to remain moderate because of an outbreak of swine flu that has reduced demand for soybean meal in China.

In February, imports rose 0.2% to $259.1 billion.

Consumer goods imports increased by $1.6 billion in February, led by a $2.1 billion rise in imports of cellphones and other household goods.

Imports of industrial supplies and materials fell by $1.2 billion. Capital goods imports rose slightly, pointing to slower business spending on equipment.

Crude oil imports fell to 173.7 million barrels, the lowest since March 1992, from 223.1 million barrels in January. An increase in domestic production has seen the United States become less dependent on foreign oil.

“We see more potential for stronger imports in coming months, which would reestablish a trend toward wider deficits,” said Andrew Hollenhorst, an economist at Citigroup in New York.

 

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Long-Hidden Kafka Trove Within Reach After Series of Trials

A long-hidden trove of unpublished works by Franz Kafka could soon be revealed following a decade-long battle over his literary estate that has drawn comparisons to some of his surreal tales.

A district court in Zurich upheld Israeli verdicts in the case last week, ruling that several safe deposit boxes in the Swiss city could be opened and their contents shipped to Israel’s National Library.

At stake are untouched papers that could shed new light on one of literature’s darkest figures, a German-speaking Bohemian Jew from Prague whose cultural legacy has been hotly contested between Israel and Germany.

What’s in the vaults?

Though the exact content of the vaults remains unknown, experts have speculated the cache could include endings to some of Kafka’s major works, many of which were unfinished when they were published after his death.

Israel’s Supreme Court has stripped an Israeli family of its collection of Kafka’s manuscripts, which were hidden in Israeli bank vaults and in a squalid, cat-filled Tel Aviv apartment. But the Swiss ruling would complete the acquisition of nearly all his known works, after years of lengthy legal battles over their rightful owners.

Kafkaesque saga

The saga could have been penned by Kafka himself, whose name has become known as an adjective to describe absurd situations involving inscrutable legal processes. Kafka was known for his tales of everyman protagonists crushed by mysterious authorities or twisted by unknown shames. In “The Trial,” for example, a bank clerk is put through excruciating court proceedings without ever being told the charges against him.

“The absurdity of the trials is that it was over an estate that nobody knew what it contained. This will hopefully finally resolve these questions,” said Benjamin Balint, a research fellow at Jerusalem’s Van Leer Institute and the author of “Kafka’s Last Trial,” which chronicles the affair. “The legal process may be ending, but the questions of his cultural belonging and inheritance will remain with us for a very long time.”

Manuscripts not burned

Kafka bequeathed his writings to Max Brod, his longtime friend, editor and publisher, shortly before his death from tuberculosis in 1924 at the age of 40. He instructed his protege to burn it all unread.

Brod ignored his wishes and published most of what was in his possession — including the novels “The Trial,” “The Castle” and “Amerika.” Those works made the previously little-known Kafka posthumously one of the most celebrated and influential writers of the 20th century.

But Brod, who smuggled some of the manuscripts to pre-state Israel when he fled the Nazis in 1938, didn’t publish everything. Upon his death in 1968, Brod left his personal secretary, Esther Hoffe, in charge of his literary estate and instructed her to transfer the Kafka papers to an academic institution.

Instead, for the next four decades, Hoffe kept the papers stashed away and sold some of the items for hefty sums. In 1988, for instance, Hoffe auctioned off the original manuscript of “The Trial” at Sotheby’s in London. It went for $1.8 million to the German Literature Archive in Marbach, north of Stuttgart.

When Hoffe died in 2008 at age 101, she left the collection to her two daughters, Eva Hoffe and Ruth Wiesler, both Holocaust survivors like herself, who considered Brod a father figure and his archive their rightful inheritance. Both have since also passed away, leaving Wiesler’s daughters to continue fighting for the remainder of the collection.

Legitimate inheritance or cultural assets?

Jeshayah Etgar, a lawyer for the daughters, downplayed the significance of the potential findings in Zurich, saying they were likely replicas of manuscripts Hoffe had already sold. Regardless, he said the ruling was the continuation of a process in which “individual property rights were trampled without any legal justification.” He said his clients legitimately inherited the works and called the state seizure of their property “disgraceful” and “first degree robbery.”

Israel’s National Library claims Kafka’s papers as “cultural assets” that belong to the Jewish people. Toward the end of his life, Kafka considered leaving Prague and moving to pre-state Israel. He took Hebrew lessons with a Jerusalem native who eventually donated her pupil’s vocabulary notebook to the library. In recent years, the library also took possession of several other manuscripts the courts had ordered Hoffe’s descendants to turn over.

“We welcome the judgment of the court in Switzerland, which matched all the judgments entered previously by the Israeli courts,” said David Blumberg, chairman of the Israel National Library, a nonprofit and non-governmental body. “The judgment of the Swiss court completes the preparation of the National Library of Israel to accept to entire literary estate of Max Brod, which will be properly handled and will be made available to the wider public in Israel and the world.”

Other scholars question Israel’s adoption of Kafka, noting that he was conflicted about his own Judaism. The German Literature Archive, for instance, has sided with Hoffe’s heirs and aimed to purchase the collection itself, arguing the German-language writings belong in Germany. Dietmar Jaegle, an archive official, said he would not comment on the Zurich verdict as he had not yet seen it.

Balint cautioned that the contents of the hidden archive may not live up to everyone’s expectations.

“It is very unlikely we are going to discover an unknown Kafka masterpiece in there, but these are things of value,” Balint said, noting the fierce competition over any original Kafka material. “There is something about the uncanny aura of Kafka that is attracted to all this.”

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China’s Economic Growth Steady Amid Tariff Fight With US

China’s economic growth held steady in the latest quarter despite a tariff war with Washington, in a reassuring sign that Beijing’s efforts to reverse a slowdown might be gaining traction.

The world’s second-largest economy expanded by 6.4% over a year earlier in the three months ending in March, the government reported Wednesday. That matched the previous quarter for the weakest growth since 2009.

“This confirms that China’s economic growth is bottoming out and this momentum is likely to continue,” said Tai Hui of JP Morgan Asset Management in a report.

Government intervention

Communist leaders stepped up government spending last year and told banks to lend more after economic activity weakened, raising the risk of politically dangerous job losses.

Beijing’s decision to ease credit controls aimed at reining in rising debt “is starting to yield results,” Hui said.

Consumer spending, factory activity and investment all accelerated in March from the month before, the National Bureau of Statistics reported.

The economy showed “growing positive factors,” a bureau statement said.

​Recovery later this year

Forecasters expect Chinese growth to bottom out and start to recover later this year. They expected a recovery last year but pushed back that time line after President Donald Trump hiked tariffs on Chinese imports over complaints about Beijing’s technology ambitions.

The fight between the two biggest global economies has disrupted trade in goods from soybeans medical equipment, battering exporters on both sides and rattling financial markets.

The two governments say settlement talks are making progress, but penalties on billions of dollars of each other’s goods are still in place.

China’s top economic official, Premier Li Keqiang, announced an annual official growth target of 6% to 6.5% in March, down from last year’s 6.6% rate.

Li warned of “rising difficulties” in the global economy and said the ruling Communist Party plans to step up deficit spending this year to shore up growth.

Beijing’s stimulus measures have temporarily set back official plans to reduce reliance on debt and investment to support growth.

Also in March, exports rebounded from a contraction the previous month, rising 14.2% over a year earlier. Still, exports are up only 1.4% so far this year, while imports shrank 4.8% in a sign of weak Chinese domestic demand.

Auto sales fell 6.9% in March from a year ago, declining for a ninth month. But that was an improvement over the 17.5% contraction in January and February.

Tariffs’ effect long-lasting

Economists warn that even if Washington and Beijing announce a trade settlement in the next few weeks or months, it is unlikely to resolve all the irritants that have bedeviled relations for decades.

The two governments agreed Dec. 1 to postpone further penalties while they negotiate, but punitive charges already imposed on billions of dollars of goods stayed in place.

Even if they make peace, the experience of other countries suggests it can take four to five years for punitive duties to “dissipate fully,” said Jamie Thompson of Capital Economics in a report last week.

Chinese leaders warned previously any economic recovery will be “L-shaped,” meaning once the downturn bottomed out, growth would stay low.

Credit growth accelerated in March, suggesting companies are stepping up investment and production.

Total profit for China’s national-level state-owned banks, oil producers, phone carriers and other companies rose 13.1% over a year ago in the first quarter, the government reported Tuesday. Revenue rose 6.3% and investment rose 9.7%.

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Zimbabwe’s White Farmers Hopeful After Promise of Compensation

In Zimbabwe, white farmers whose land was taken by the government are cautiously hopeful about a promise from President Emmerson Mnangagwa to give them at least partial repayment. The promise came a few days before Zimbabwe celebrates 39 years of independence.

On Sunday, state media quoted President Mnangagwa promising partial compensation for white commercial farmers whose land was seized under former president Robert Mugabe and redistributed to blacks.

He said the government would pay for improvements to the land, such as buildings or dams.

Ex-farmers are now submitting requests for compensation at the offices of the Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union.

One of them is Glen Johnston, whose mother, Agnes, was displaced from her farm about 17 years ago. Since then, she has been living in Harare with her son.

Johnston says he is taking the president’s promise with caution.

“Basically, it looks like we’ve been promised that we have steps to be taken. So now, taking the steps, will we get the money at the end of the day? Obviously time will tell,” he said.

The land seizures began in 2000 with the backing of Mugabe, who said they would correct colonial imbalances. Farm production plunged, and critics blamed the seizures for the collapse of Zimbabwe’s economy.

Others blamed the collapse on targeted Western sanctions imposed in 2002, in response to alleged election rigging and human rights abuses.

Douglas Mahiya of the ruling ZANU-PF party does not think Zimbabwe should compensate white farmers, who in his view, took the country’s land at the point of a gun.

“But we are saying that we compensate for their sweat. And when that happens, then the international world must accept Zimbabwe in the global family again economically and politically,” he said.

The Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union says it has received nearly 1,000 applications for compensation, which it will submit to the government.

Ben Gilpin, the director of the union, says the possibility for compensation gives his members some hope ahead of Zimbabwe’s Independence Day this Thursday.

“I think for many people (farmers) the last 20 independence days have come and gone without such promises being hinted at, and now the promise is that this is being dealt with seriously, so we appreciate that,” he said.

Meanwhile, Mnangagwa’s government says it hopes Zimbabwe’s cold relations with the West will thaw and that the ailing economy will improve, so that Zimbabweans can fully enjoy their political independence.

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Palestinian PM Accuses US of ‘Financial War’

The new Palestinian prime minister on Tuesday accused the United States of declaring “financial war” on his people and said an American peace plan purported to be in the works will be “born dead.”

 

In his first interview with the international media since taking office over the weekend, Mohammad Shtayyeh laid out plans to get through the financial crisis he has inherited and predicted that the international community, including U.S. allies in the Arab world, would join the Palestinians in rejecting President Donald Trump’s expected peace plan.

 

“There are no partners in Palestine for Trump. There are no Arab partners for Trump and there are no European partners for Trump,” Shtayyeh said during a wide-ranging hour-long interview.

 

Shtayyeh, a British-educated economist, takes office at a difficult time for the Palestinians, with his government, the Palestinian Authority, mired in a dire financial crisis. The PA administers autonomous zones in the West Bank.

 

The Trump administration has slashed hundreds of millions of dollars of aid, including all of its support for the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees.

 

Israel has also withheld tens of millions of dollars of tax transfers to punish the Palestinians for their “martyrs’ fund,” a program that provides stipends to the families of Palestinians imprisoned or killed as a result of fighting with Israel.

 

The Israelis say the fund rewards violence, while the Palestinians say the payments are a national duty to families affected by decades of violence. Furious about the withholding, the Palestinians have in turn refused to accept partial tax transfers from Israel.

Loss of Revenue

 

Without its key sources of revenue, the Palestinian Authority has begun paying only half salaries to tens of thousands of civil servants, reduced services and increased borrowing. In a new report being released Wednesday, the World Bank said the Palestinian deficit will grow from $400 million last year to over $1 billion this year.

 

“Israel is part of the financial war that has been declared upon us by the United States. The whole system is to try to push us to surrender” and agree to an unacceptable peace proposal, Shtayyeh said. “This a financial blackmail, which we reject.”

 

Shtayyeh laid out a number of proposals for weathering the storm. He said he has imposed spending cuts by reducing perks for his Cabinet ministers.

 

He said he would seek to develop the Palestinian agricultural, economic and education sectors and seek ways to reduce the Palestinian economy’s dependence on Israel. For example, he proposed importing fuel from neighboring Jordan, instead of from Israel, and even floating a Palestinian currency. He also said the Palestinians would seek financial backing from Arab and European donors.

 

Despite the tensions with Israel and the U.S., Shtayyeh said the Palestinians remain committed to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on areas captured by Israel in the 1967 war. That includes establishing a capital in east Jerusalem, which Israel has annexed and claims as part of its eternal capital.

Netanyahu Electoral Victory

 

The two-state solution has enjoyed overwhelming international support for the past two decades. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his hard-line political allies reject Palestinian independence.

 

Netanyahu secured another term in office in elections last week and is expected to form a new coalition with religious and nationalist parties that oppose the two-state solution. On the campaign trail, Netanyahu even raised the possibility of annexing Israeli settlements in the West Bank, a step that could extinguish any remaining hopes for an independent Palestine.

 

Netanyahu has received a boost from Trump, who has given Netanyahu a number of diplomatic gifts since taking office. Trump has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the U.S. Embassy to the holy city, slashed aid to the Palestinians and shuttered the Palestinian diplomatic office in Washington.

 

In a departure from Republican and Democratic predecessors, Trump also has notably refused to endorse the two-state solution. His peace team, led by son-in-law Jared Kushner, has repeatedly pushed back the release of a peace plan it says it is preparing, and it remains unclear if or when it will be released.

 

Kushner’s team has said little about their proposal. But their limited public statements have indicated it will call for large amounts of economic investment in the Palestinians, but given no sign that it will include their demand for independence.

 

Shtayyeh said that after all of the U.S. moves in favor of Israel, particularly the recognition of Jerusalem, there is nothing left to negotiate.

 

He said any proposal that ignores key Palestinian demands will be rejected by the international community. The European Union this week reiterated its call for peace talks aimed at establishing a Palestinian state.

 

“Where are we going to have the Palestinian state?” he asked. “We are not looking for an entity. We are looking for a sovereign state.”

 

“Palestinians are not interested in economic peace. We are interested in ending occupation,” he said. “Life cannot be enjoyed under occupation.”

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Brazil Announces Financial Package to Avoid Truckers’ Strike

The government of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro announced Tuesday a financial package aimed at staving off a potential truckers’ strike.

 

Chief of Staff Onyx Lorenzoni said the Brazilian Development Bank will be providing $128 million in credit to truckers and that the Ministry of Infrastructure will spend $514 million on improving roads.

 

The announcement is part of a series of recent decisions by the administration aimed at appeasing the sector.

 

Last month Bolsonaro announced via Twitter that he would not be renewing a contract for electronic radars saying that “the vast majority of them only exist for the sole purpose of financial return for the state.” An investigation by newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo found that the radars had resulted in a 21.7% reduction in fatalities on federal roads.

 

On Thursday, Bolsonaro canceled a planned 5.7% increase in diesel prices. The decision caused shares in Brazil’s state oil company Petrobras to drop more than 13%, with many investors fearing that it could signal a more interventionist strategy by the president similar to previous governments.

 

Bolsonaro ran on a platform championing the freedom of the market and criticizing his predecessors from Brazil’s Workers’ Party for their “incompetence.”

 

His decision to cancel the announced price hike received uncommon support from impeached President Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party who Tweeted Sunday that “The management of the largest Brazilian public company cannot be subjected to the short-term logic of financial speculation.”

 

Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, told the Associated Press Tuesday that the decision by Bolsonaro to intervene on behalf of the truckers has left investors worried.

 

“From an economic perspective, the Dilma government should have been an example of what to avoid, but it is very impressive that Bolsonaro hasn’t learned from her errors,” he said.

 

The cost of fuel has been something that has long been contentious for truckers since the decision was made to peg its price to the international market. In the previous two governments, the administration had dictated the price of oil in order to control inflation. This strategy resulted in massive expenditures by the state. Following the economic recession, the ability of the government to subsidize the losses was no longer viable, and when the government floated the commodity with the international market it led to a disastrous combination of inflation during a recession.

 

A truckers’ strike last year caused a national crisis that had an estimated economic impact of $7.7 billion and led to shortages of food, medicine and petrol. Nearly 70% of all goods are transported via highway. The truckers blocked roads and refused to work until their demands for a reduction in the price of oil were answered.

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Electric Car Makers Woo Chinese Buyers with Range, Features

Automakers are showcasing electric SUVs and sedans with more driving range and luxury features at the Shanghai auto show, trying to appeal to Chinese buyers in their biggest market as Beijing slashes subsidies that have propelled demand. 

Communist leaders wanting China to lead in electric vehicles have imposed sales targets. That requires brands to pour money into creating models to compete with gasoline-powered vehicles on price, looks and performance at a time when they are struggling with a Chinese sales slump. 

General Motors, Volkswagen, China’s Geely and other brands on Tuesday displayed dozens of models, from luxury SUVs to compacts priced under $10,000, at Auto Shanghai 2019. The show, the global industry’s biggest marketing event of the year, opens to the public Saturday following a preview for reporters.

On Monday, GM unveiled Buick’s first all-electric model for China. GM says the four-door Velite 6 can travel 301 kilometers (185 miles) before the battery needs charging. 

VW showed off a concept electric SUV, the whimsically named ID. ROOMZZ, designed to travel 450 kilometers (280 miles) on one charge. Features include seats that rotate 25 degrees to create a lounge-like atmosphere. 

Communist leaders have promoted “new energy vehicles” for 15 years with subsidies to developers and buyers. That, along with support including orders to state-owned utilities to blanket China with charging stations, is helping to transform the technology into a mainstream product. 

“People’s mindset and governmental policies are more encouraging toward e-cars than in any other country,” said VW CEO Herbert Diess. 

Electric vehicles play a key role in the ruling Communist Party’s plans for government-led development of Chinese global competitors in technologies from robotics to biotech. 

Those ambitions set off Beijing’s tariff war with President Donald Trump. Washington, Europe and other trading partners complain Chinese subsidies to technology developers and pressure on foreign companies to share know-how violate its market-opening commitments. 

Electric car subsidies end next year, replaced by sales quotas. Automakers that fall short can buy credits from competitors that exceed their targets or face possible fines. 

“Most of the traditional car makers are under huge pressure to launch NEVs,” said industry analyst John Zeng of LMC Automotive. 

Last year’s Chinese sales of pure-electric and hybrid sedans and SUVs soared 60% over 2017 to 1.3 million, or half the global total. At the same time, industry revenue was squeezed by a 4.1% fall in total Chinese auto sales to 23.7 million vehicles. 

That skid that worsened this year. First-quarter sales fell 13.7% from a year ago. 

Still, China is a top market for global automakers, giving them an incentive to go along with Beijing’s electric ambitions. Total annual sales are expected eventually to reach 30 million, nearly double last year’s U.S. level of 17 million. 

Under Beijing’s new rules, automakers must earn credits for sales of electrics equal to at least 10% of purchases this year and 12% in 2020. Longer-range vehicles can earn double credits. That means some brands can fill their quota if electrics make up as little as 5% of sales. 

Also Tuesday, Nissan Motor Co. and its Chinese partner displayed the Sylphy Zero Emission, an all-electric model designed for China. Based on Nissan’s Leaf, the lower-priced Sylphy went on sale in August.

Mercedes Benz displayed its first all-electric model in China, the EQC 400 SUV. The Germany automaker says it can travel 400 kilometers (280 miles) on one charge and can go from zero to 100 kph (62 mph) in 5.2 seconds. 

Mercedes plans to release 10 electrified models worldwide, with most built in China, according to Hubertus Troska, its board member for China. 

Some Chinese rivals have been selling low-priced electrics for a decade or more. 

China’s BYD Auto, the biggest global electric brand by sales volume, unveiled three new pure-electric models last month. All promise ranges of more than 400 kilometers (280 miles) on one charge. 

Last week, Geely Auto unveiled a sedan under its new electric brand, Geometry, with an advertised range of up to 500 kilometers (320 miles) on one charge. 

Geely’s parent, Geely Holding, launched a joint venture with Mercedes parent Daimler AG in March to develop electrics under the smart brand. Geely Holding is Daimler’s biggest shareholder and also owns Sweden’s Volvo Cars. 

Beijing wants to force automakers to speed up innovation and squeeze out producers that rely too heavily on subsidies. But the technology minister acknowledged in January that China faces a difficult transition as that spending is ending. 

Keeping development on track “will be a challenge,” said Miao Wei, according to a transcript on his ministry’s website. 

The shift creates an opportunity for fledgling Chinese automakers that lag global rivals in gasoline technology. They have just 10% of the global market for gasoline-powered vehicles but account for 50% of electric sales. 

The end of subsidies should lead to dramatic changes, said Zeng of LMC Automotive. He said longer-range, feature-rich models from global majors will replace small producers that cannot survive without subsidies. 

Electric vehicles “will be much more competitive,” said Zeng. 

As the cost of batteries and other components falls, industry analysts say electrics in China could match gasoline vehicles in price and become profitable for manufacturers in less than five years. 

EVs carry a higher sticker price in China than gasoline models. But industry analysts say owners who drive at least 16,000 kilometers (10,000 miles) a year save money in the long run, because maintenance and charging cost less. 

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Heritage Site or Home? Indigenous Thais Fight for Right to Forest

Hundreds of indigenous Karen people in Thailand face evictions from a national park that authorities wish to turn into a World Heritage Site, joining millions in a similarly precarious situation as authorities worldwide push tough conservation laws.

The Kaeng Krachan is Thailand’s biggest national park, sprawled over more than 2,900 square kilometers (1,120 square miles) on the border with neighboring Myanmar.

Renowned for its diverse wildlife, it is also home to about 30 communities of ethnic Karen people, who have traditionally lived and farmed there — and is on a tentative list of world heritage sites.

The United Nations’ cultural agency (UNESCO) had referred the submission back to the Thai government in 2016, asking it to address “rights and livelihood concerns” of the Karen communities, and get their support for the nomination.

The Thai government plans to respond later this year, according to campaigners.

“The communities have not been consulted or reassured on their access to the forest,” said Kittisak Rattanakrajangsri of advocacy group Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact.

“The communities are not opposed to the heritage status,” he told Reuters. “They are just asking that they not be evicted, and that their land rights are secure — because if the park gets heritage status without that, there will be a great many more evictions.”

A spokesman for the forest department did not respond to requests for comment.

A spokesman for the U.N. human rights office (OHCHR) in Bangkok said they had recently facilitated a meeting between a rights organization working with the Karen, and Thai officials.

Worldwide, more than 250,000 people were evicted from protected areas in 15 countries from 1990 to 2014, according to Washington D.C.-based advocacy group Rights and Resources Initiative.

In India, more than 1.9 million indigenous families face evictions after their forest rights claims were rejected.

‘No legal rights’

Since Kaeng Krachan was declared a national park in 1981, hundreds of Karen — a hill tribe people thought to number about 1 million in Thailand — have been evicted, according to activists.

Last year the country’s top court ruled that about 400 who had been evicted in 2011 had no legal right over the land.

“The security of indigenous people in Thailand is so tenuous because they have no legal rights, and no recognition of their dependence on forests,” said Worawuth Tamee, an indigenous rights lawyer.

“The laws have made them encroachers,” he said. 

A 2010 Cabinet resolution had called for recognizing the Karen people’s way of life and their right to earn a livelihood the traditional way. But this has not been implemented, said

Tamee.

After the military government took charge in 2014, it vowed to “take back the forest” and increase forest cover to about 40 percent of the total surface area from about a third.

This has resulted in hundreds of reclamations from farmers and forest dwellers, according to research organization Mekong Region Land Governance.

“It is the biggest challenge facing indigenous people,” said Tamee. “Parks are not just for the enjoyment of city people and tourists. They are also the home of poor, indigenous people who have nowhere else to go.”

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Mexican President Says to Return ‘Stolen’ Wealth to the People

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said on Monday he will create a “Robin Hood” institute to return to the people the ill-gotten wealth seized from corrupt politicians and gangsters.

His administration is drawing up a bill to create an independent “Robin Hood” institute “against the corrupt” that would put confiscated goods such as real estate, jewelry and cars into the public’s hands, the president told reporters.

“Let’s quickly return everything to the people that’s been stolen,” he said at his regular morning news conference.

For example, the institute could assign seized homes to municipalities for schools, hospitals or elderly care centers, he said. Assets seized by the government tend to have been ransacked or require expensive upkeep, he noted.

He did not estimate the value of the assets, or offer details on how they would be given back to the people.

Since taking office in December, veteran leftist Lopez Obrador has rolled out a string of welfare programs for the poor and the elderly, cut salaries for top civil servants and says he is saving public money by eliminating corruption.

Lopez Obrador has shunned the often luxurious trappings of Mexico’s wealthy elites, choosing to fly coach and drive through the capital in a white Volkswagen Jetta.

Immediately upon taking office, he turned over the presidential palace to the public and put his predecessor’s official plane up for sale.

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