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.

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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.

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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.

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Athletes’ Village Handed Over to Paris Olympics Organizers  

Paris — The organizers of the Paris Olympics took possession of the newly built athletes’ village on Thursday on schedule, reinforcing growing confidence that they will be ready for the Games.

At an inauguration ceremony in northern Paris, chief organizer Tony Estanguet received a symbolic key for the complex in front of VIPs including President Emmanuel Macron.

“It’s a demonstration that we have honored our commitments,” Macron told reporters, who told workers they should be “proud” of delivering the village “on time and in budget.”

Organisers will spend the next four months fitting out the village with more than 300,000 items of furniture and decoration ahead of the first arrivals by athletes from July 18.

The site comprises around 40 different low-rise tower blocks and will include a 24-hour restaurant, an alcohol-free bar and leisure area, as well as training facilities.

The French state has contributed 646 million euros ($700 million) in public money, with the remainder from France’s biggest real estate companies which have developed different areas of the 52-hectare site.

After the Olympics and Paralympics, a third of the 2,800 apartments will be sold off to private homeowners, a third will be used for public housing, and the rest will be for rent including for students.

Each building is different, with stark differences in facade design and color.

“We wanted architectural diversity which is a feature of European towns,” Nicolas Ferrand, head of the games infrastructure group Solideo, told Macron.

Seine-Saint-Denis is the poorest and most crime-ridden area of mainland France and is the focus of public investment for the Games.

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Cricket Tournaments in Indian-Administered Kashmir Boost Local Economy

Srinagar, Indian administered Kashmir — The blanket of snow covering one of the prominent cricket grounds at the Magam neighborhood of Budgam district on the Indian side of Kashmir has melted. The ground is set to host a monthlong local cricket tournament from March 3. Hundreds of youths from various parts of the valley will compete for a $3,000 cash prize.

Cricket, originating in Britain, was historically enjoyed for fitness and leisure. It is the second most popular sport worldwide after soccer with approximately 2 billion fans and is the most commonly played game in the Himalayan region. However, the sport has now become a source of income for thousands of individuals in Kashmir amid rising unemployment.

“Every year hundreds of tournaments are organized by local people without any help from the government. Thousands of people, including players, commentators, broadcasters, umpires, etcetera make a living by being part of these tournaments,” Mushtaq War, a local cricket tournament broadcaster on social media, told VOA. “The match fee varies according to the talent of an individual ranging from $10 to $75 per game,” he added.

According to War, everyone associated with local cricket tournaments makes enough money to support their families.

“Sixty-four teams will be part of the Magam tournament,” War said. “The entire money will be circulated among the people involved in the tournament directly or indirectly,” he added.

Imtiyaz Ahmad Munshi, a member of local cricket organization Cricket Fraternity Dalgate, told VOA that funds to host local tournaments primarily come from tournament fees and sponsorships provided by local businessmen.

“Teams hailing from north, south, and central Kashmir participate in these tournaments after paying the entry fee,” Munshi said. “Local businessmen support organizers by sponsoring these events,” he said, adding that sponsors in return receive benefits such as “tax reductions for promoting sports.”

Munish alleged organizers lack support from the Jammu Kashmir Cricket Association, or JKCA, a registered Society that runs cricket in Jammu and Kashmir, and J&K Sports Council, a government body responsible for the promotion and development of sports in J&K, despite the fact that they are promoting and encouraging youngsters to participate in sports related activities.

Majid Dar, a JKCA Cricket Development official, told VOA that the cricket body of Kashmir only facilitates the events affiliated with BCCI, the governing body of Cricket in India. ‘We cannot provide any kind of facility to anyone. We have a busy schedule and besides all this we provide employment to 150 people in Jammu and Kashmir,” Dar said.

“JKCA is not visible when it comes to organizing local cricket tournaments. Moreover, J&K Sports Council charges a hefty amount from organizers to conduct cricket tournaments,” Munshi said. “We don’t refuse to pay the money but we expect the J&K Sports Council to maintain the fields at least,” he said, adding that at present even a brief drizzle renders the grounds unfit for play for several days due to “water accumulation.”

“Players and organizers have on multiple occasions contributed from their own pockets to maintain the condition of the ground,” Munshi said. “Youth expect the same level of commitment from the government,” he added.

Nuzhat Gull, secretary of the J&K Sports Council, told VOA her office collects fees from organizers of commercial tournaments, clarifying that such events do not fall under the Prime Minister’s Sports Development Scheme. The scheme is designed to enhance sports infrastructure and foster sporting activities throughout India.

“We don’t impose fees for non-commercial sporting events,” Gull told VOA. “However, for commercial cricket tournaments organizers are required to cover expenses and the department doesn’t offer exemptions in such instances,” she said.

Faisal Dar, a young cricketer from the Dalgate neighborhood of Srinagar, expressed disappointment and highlighted the disparity between the efforts of local communities and the government in actively involving youth in sports.

“Government officials often only help those they favor leaving the rest feeling ignored,” Dar said. “We would have been happier if the government built better sports facilities and helped folks like us who rely on local tournaments for a living,” he added. Gull told VOA the criticisms of the council are “all baseless,” and refused further comment.

Dar said they approached authorities many times to install high-intensity artificial light to promote night sports in Kashmir, especially in Srinagar and other major cities and towns.

“Not much has been done regarding the installation of the night lights,” Dar said. “Locals are taking on responsibilities that should be handled by the government yet the government claims credit for everything,” he added.

The people organizing local events, Dar said, have saved the lives of many individuals. He said that many athletes were depressed or were using drugs because of unemployment.

“These organizers let them play cricket again and even helped them find jobs thus allowing them a fresh beginning in life,” he said. “If this is not service to humanity, I wonder what is?” he said, adding Kashmir needs such attempts or else people will suffer a lot “physically as well as mentally.”

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Biden Issues Order Seeking to Protect American Data from Foreign Adversaries

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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Odysseus Moon Lander Likely Has 10 to 20 Hours of Battery Life Left, Company Says 

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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.

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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.

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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

 

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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.

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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.

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The Rise of Female Skateboarders in South Africa

In South Africa, skateboarding is enjoying something of a revolution. The once predominantly male pursuit is attracting more and more women. VOA’s Zaheer Cassim reports from Johannesburg.

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‘Past Lives,’ ‘American Fiction’ And ‘The Holdovers’ Are Big Winners at Independent Spirit Awards

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‘One Love’ Gets More Box Office Love, No. 1 for Second Week

Los Angeles — For a second straight week, biopic “ Bob Marley: One Love” continues to exceed expectations by claiming the No. 1 spot at the box office, overcoming two debut films and Sony’s “Madame Web” that’s still producing subpar numbers.

The Paramount film starring Kingsley Ben-Adir pulled in $13.5 million during its second week of release. The project, which was produced for about $70 million, already eclipsed that mark, grossing nearly $72 million domestically in North America.

It’s an impressive achievement for the Reinaldo Marcus Green-directed Marley’s musical biopic that’s focused on the Rastafarian legend’s story during the making of his 1977 album “Exodus” while leading up to his impactful concert in his native Jamaica.

“Some of his greatest hits came out nearly 50 years ago, but his music still resonates through this film,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for data firm Comscore.

“One Love” drew nearly $2 million more than “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu No Yaiba – To the Hashira Training” which placed No. 2. The latest installment in the Japanese anime series from Crunchyroll and Sony debuted with $11.7 million.

“Demon Slayer” scored the impressive opening number from only 1,949 locations — far less than “One Love” with 3,597 and 3,020 for “ Ordinary Angels ” — a faith-based Lionsgate film starring Hilary Swank that placed third at the box office with an estimated $6.5 million.

“There might not be any huge blockbuster films recently, but there some real gems out there for moviegoers to see,” Dergarabedian said.

All three of those films outperformed better than “Madame Web,” which has struggled to find its footing after the superhero movie flopped last week. It was thought the Spider-Man spinoff would draw strong numbers — especially with Dakota Johnson starring as the film’s lead Marvel character.

But so far, it hasn’t lived up to the hype, producing just $6 million in its second week and grossing a little more than a disappointing $35 million.

After its 10th weekend, Universal’s animated “Migration” rounded out the top five with $3 million, bringing its domestic total to $120 million. “Argylle” placed sixth with $2.8 million barely outpacing “Wonka,” which reeled in $2.5 million. Paul King’s musical starring Timothee Chalamet as a young Willy Wonka has grossed more than $214 million in 11 weeks.

The Ethan Coen-directed “Drive-Away Dolls” debuted eighth with $2.4 million ahead of “The Beekeeper” and “The Chosen” season four, a Christian series focused on Jesus Christ.

Dergarabedian called this past week a slow one. But next week, he expects it’ll pick up greatly with the highly anticipated “Dune: Part Two” making its long-waited debut, which should end the top spot reign by “One Love.”

“It’s the calm before the sandstorm,” he said.

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Comscore. Final domestic figures will be released Monday.

  1. “Bob Marley: One Love,” $13.5 million.

  2. “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu No Yaiba – To the Hashira Training,” $11.5 million.

  3. “Ordinary Angels,” $6.5 million.

  4. “Madame Web,” $6 million.

  5. “Migration,” $3 million.

  6. “Argylle,” $2.8 million.

  7. “Wonka,” $2.5 million.

  8. “Drive-Away Dolls,” $2.4 million.

  9. “The Beekeeper,” $1.9 million.

  10. “The Chosen,” Episodes 4-6, $1.7 million.

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Israel Threatens Eurovision Pull-Out if Entry Vetoed 

Jerusalem — Israel on Sunday warned that it may withdraw from this year’s Eurovision Song Contest if organizers reject the lyrics from its entry as too political.

Eden Golan and her song “October Rain” were chosen to compete in the annual competition, which is being held in May in Malmo, Sweden.

Media reports have suggested that the song, which is mostly in English with some Hebrew words, references the victims of Hamas’s October 7 attack on southern Israel.

That could mean the ballad and its 20-year-old Russian-Israeli singer fall afoul of Eurovision rules, which ban political statements.

“They were all good children, every one of them”, says a line from Golan’s song, according to the website of the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation, Kan, which published them in full.

“There is no air left to breathe. There is no place for me,” the song ends.

The European Broadcasting Union, EBU, said only that it was “currently in the process of scrutinizing the lyrics” and a final decision had yet to be taken.

“If a song is deemed unacceptable for any reason, broadcasters are then given the opportunity to submit a new song or new lyrics, as per the rules of the Contest,” it added.

Kan said it was “in dialogue” with the EBU about the country’s Eurovision offering before the March 11 entry deadline.

But it stated that the broadcaster has “no intention to replace the song.”

“Meaning, if it is not approved by the European Broadcasting Union, Israel will not be able to participate in the competition,” it added in a statement on Thursday.

Israel’s Noa Kirel placed third in last year’s competition in Liverpool, England, behind Finland’s Kaarija and Sweden’s Loreen.

Loreen’s victory takes the competition back to Sweden, 50 years after ABBA’s victory with “Waterloo.”

Israel became the first non-European country to enter Eurovision in 1973 and has since won the competition four times, most notably with transgender singer Dana International in 1998.

But its participation and hosting of the event have regularly run into controversy.

In 2019, Icelandic band Hatari, which previously challenged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to a Nordic folk wrestling match, made pro-Palestinian statements during the vote count in Tel Aviv.

Organizers also gave pop queen Madonna a ticking off after her dancers flouted political neutrality rules by wearing Israeli and Palestinian flags on their costumes.

This year’s competition comes against the backdrop of the war, sparked by Hamas’s October 7 attack which resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people in Israel, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

Militants also took about 250 hostages, with 130 still held in Gaza although 31 are believed to be dead, Israeli officials said.

Israel’s military response has killed at least 29,692 people in Gaza, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

The EBU this week rejected calls for Israel to be barred from competing altogether because of the war in the Gaza Strip and the civilian casualties.

But the potential for a ban on its entry has caused outrage, with Israel’s culture and sports minister, Miki Zohar, calling the prospect “scandalous.”

Golan’s song was “moving,” he wrote on social media, and “expresses the feelings of the people and the country these days, and is not political.”

“I call on the European Broadcasting Union to continue to act professionally and neutrally, and not to let politics affect art,” he added.

Even President Isaac Herzog waded in, saying he was “trying to help” as much as he could because of the high-profile nature of the show.

“It’s important that Israel appears,” he was quoted as saying by news outlet Ynet.

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