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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Polish abortion opponents march against steps to liberalize strict law  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Archeologists find frescoes of Trojan War figures in Pompeii

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Vatican complains after French court rules in favor of dismissed nun

ROME — The Holy See has formally protested to France after a French court ruled that a former high-ranking Vatican official was liable for what the court determined to be the wrongful dismissal of a nun from a religious order.

According to French media, the Lorient tribunal on April 3 ruled in favor of the nun, Sabine de la Valette, known at the time as Mother Marie Ferreol. She was forced to resign from her religious order, the Dominicans of the Holy Spirit, after a Vatican investigation.

In a statement Saturday, the Vatican said that it had received no notification of any such verdict, but that the ruling nevertheless represented a “grave violation” of the right to religious freedom.

The Vatican confirmed that Pope Francis had tasked Cardinal Marc Ouellet, at the time the head of the Vatican’s bishops’ office, with conducting an investigation that ended with the Holy See taking a series of canonical measures against Valette, including her expulsion after 34 years as a nun in the order.

The statement also cited potential diplomatic issues, given Ouellet’s immunity as a cardinal and official of a foreign government. The Holy See is recognized internationally as a sovereign state.

According to French Catholic daily La Croix, the Lorient court found the nun’s expulsion was without merit and ordered Ouellet, the religious order and other defendants to pay over 200,000 euros ($213,000) in material and moral damages, as well as fines. The defendants are appealing, La Croix said.

The Vatican frequently conducts such internal investigations into religious orders or dioceses, which can be sparked by complaints of financial mismanagement, sexual or other types of abuses, or governance problems. It considers the measures it takes to be exclusively internal to the life of the Catholic Church.

As a result, the Lorient court decision represented an unusual intrusion of secular justice in internal church matters, prompting the diplomatic complaint from the Holy See.

The French justice system seems increasingly willing to take on even high-ranking church officials in court, much more so than in Italy, and especially concerning allegations related to clergy sexual misconduct and cover-up.

In 2020, for example, a French appeals court threw out a lower court ruling that had convicted Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of covering up the sexual abuse of minors in his flock.

That same year, a Paris court convicted a retired Vatican ambassador to France of sexually assaulting five men in 2018 and 2019 and handed him a suspended eight-month prison sentence. The Vatican had lifted the immunity of the ambassador, Monsignor Luigi Ventura, which allowed the trial to go ahead.

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1 Dead, 10 injured in cable car accident in southern Turkey

ISTANBUL — One person died and 10 others injured Friday in the southern Turkish province of Antalya after a cable car cabin collided with a broken pole, the interior ministry said Saturday. 

Twenty-four cabins were stranded in the air at 5:23 p.m. Friday. Sixteen hours later, more than 60 people were still stranded in the remaining nine cabins in the air, the ministry said; 112 people had been rescued. 

None of the people waiting to be rescued had critical injuries or were in poor health, Disaster and Emergency Management Authority Chairman Okay Memis told reporters at the scene, adding that they aimed to complete rescue work before sunset. 

In a statement on social media platform X, the interior ministry said seven helicopters and more than 500 rescue workers were carrying out rescue efforts. 

A video released by the interior ministry showed rescue personnel tied to safety ropes climbing into cabins. 

According to the information on its website, the cable car has 36 cabins with a capacity of six people each. It takes an average of nine minutes to go uphill to the Tunektepe facility, which has panoramic views of the city of Antalya.

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Russian city calls for mass evacuations as floodwaters rise

ORENBURG, Russia — Authorities in the Russian city of Orenburg called on thousands of residents to evacuate immediately on Friday due to rapidly rising flood waters after major rivers burst their banks due to a historic deluge of melting snow.

Water was also rising sharply in another Russian region — Kurgan — and in neighboring Kazakhstan. Authorities said 100,000 people had been evacuated so far, as rapidly warming temperatures melted heavy snow and ice.

The deluge of melt water has forced more than 120,000 people from their homes in Russia’s Ural Mountains, Siberia and Kazakhstan as major rivers such as the Ural, which flows through Kazakhstan into the Caspian, overwhelmed embankments.

Regional authorities called for the mass evacuation of parts of Orenburg, a city of over half a million people about 1,200 kilometers east of Moscow.

“There’s a siren going off in the city. This is not a drill. There’s a mass evacuation in progress!” Sergei Salmin, the city’s mayor, said on the Telegram messenger app.

Russian news agencies later quoted officials in Orenburg as saying that more than 13,000 residents had been evacuated throughout the region, more than a quarter of them children.

The agency reports quoted Mayor Salmin as saying residents were turning out to help erect dykes to keep high-rise apartment blocks from being flooded. Dump trucks loaded with clay were dispatched to areas at risk.

Emergency workers said water levels in the Ural river were more than 2 meters above what they regarded as a dangerous level. Water lapped at the windows of brick and timber houses in the city, and pet dogs perched on rooftops.

Salmin called on residents to gather their documents, medicine and essential items and to abandon their homes.

Personal losses

People living in flooded homes lamented the loss of their belongings.

“Judging by the water levels, all the furniture, some household appliances and interior decorating materials are ruined,” local resident Vyacheslav told Reuters as he sat in an idling motorboat and gazed over his shoulder at his two-story brick home, partially submerged in muddy water. “It’s a colossal amount of money.”

Alexei Kudinov, Orenburg’s deputy mayor, had said earlier that over 360 houses and nearly 1,000 plots of land had been flooded overnight. He said the deluge was expected to reach its peak on Friday and start subsiding in two days’ time.

Orenburg Governor Denis Pasler told President Vladimir Putin on Thursday that 11,972 homes had been flooded and if waters rose further 19,412 more people would be in danger.

The village of Kaminskoye in the Kurgan region was also being evacuated Friday morning after the water level there rose 1.4 meters overnight, Kurgan’s regional governor Vadim Shumkov said on the Telegram messaging app.

Kaminskoye is a settlement along the Tobol river which also flows through the regional center Kurgan, a city of 300,000 people. Shumkov said a deluge could reach Kurgan in the coming days.

“We can only hope the floodplain stretches wide and the ground absorbs as much water as possible in its way,” he said, adding that a dam was being reinforced in Kurgan.

Kurgan is home to a key part of Russia’s military-industrial complex — a giant factory that produces infantry fighting vehicles for the army which are in high demand in Ukraine where the Russian military is on the offensive in some areas.

There were no reports that the factory, Kurganmashzavod, had so far been affected.

Rising water levels are also threatening southern parts of Western Siberia, the largest hydrocarbon basin in the world, and in areas near the Volga, Europe’s biggest river.

Water levels in some other Russian regions are expected to peak within the next two weeks.

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US: China strengthens Russian war machine with surging equipment sales

WASHINGTON — China has surged sales to Russia of machine tools, microelectronics and other technology that Moscow in turn is using to produce missiles, tanks, aircraft and other weaponry for use in its war against Ukraine, according to a U.S. assessment.

Two senior Biden administration officials, who discussed the sensitive findings Friday on the condition of anonymity, said that in 2023 about 90% of Russia’s microelectronics came from China. Russia has used those to make missiles, tanks and aircraft. Nearly 70% of Russia’s approximately $900 million in machine tool imports in the last quarter of 2023 came from China.

Chinese and Russian entities have also been working to jointly produce unmanned aerial vehicles inside Russia, and Chinese companies are likely providing Russia with the nitrocellulose used in the manufacture of ammunition, the officials said. China-based companies Wuhan Global Sensor Technology Company, Wuhan Tongsheng Technology Company and Hikvision are providing optical components for use in Russian tanks and armored vehicles.

The officials said that Russia has received military optics for use in tanks and armored vehicles manufactured by Chinese firms iRay Technology and North China Research Institute of Electro-Optics, and that China has been providing Russia with UAV engines and turbojet engines for cruise missiles.

Russia’s semiconductor imports from China jumped from $200 million in 2021 to over $500 million in 2022, according to Russian customs data analyzed by the Free Russia Foundation, a group that advocates for civil society development.

Beijing is also working with Russia to improve its satellite and other space-based capabilities for use in Ukraine, a development the officials say could in the longer term increase the threat Russia poses across Europe. The officials, citing downgraded intelligence findings, said the U.S. has also determined that China is providing imagery to Russia for its war on Ukraine.

The officials discussed the findings as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to travel to China this month for talks. Blinken is scheduled to travel next week to the Group of 7 foreign ministers meeting in Capri, Italy, where he’s expected to raise concerns about China’s growing indirect support for Russia as Moscow revamps its military and looks to consolidate recent gains in Ukraine.

U.S. President Joe Biden has previously raised concerns directly with Chinese President Xi Jinping about Beijing indirectly supporting Russia’s war effort.

While China has not provided direct lethal military support for Russia, it has backed it diplomatically in blaming the West for provoking Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch the war and refrained from calling it an invasion in deference to the Kremlin.

China has repeatedly said it isn’t providing Russia with arms or military assistance, although it has maintained robust economic connections with Moscow, alongside India and other countries, amid sanctions from Washington and its allies.

“The normal trade between China and Russia should not be interfered or restricted,” said Liu Pengyu, spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy in Washington. “We urge the U.S. side to refrain from disparaging and scapegoating the normal relationship between China and Russia.”

Xi met in Beijing on Tuesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who heaped praise on Xi’s leadership.

Russia’s growing economic and diplomatic isolation has made it increasingly reliant on China, its former rival for leadership of the Communist bloc during the Cold War.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who returned to Washington this week from a visit to Beijing, said she warned Chinese officials that the Biden administration was prepared to sanction Chinese banks, companies and Beijing’s leadership if they assist Russia’s armed forces with its ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

Biden issued an executive order in December giving Yellen the authority to sanction financial institutions that aided Russia’s military-industrial complex.

“We continue to be concerned about the role that any firms, including those in the PRC, are playing in Russia’s military procurement,” Yellen told reporters, using the initials for the People’s Republic of China. “I stressed that companies, including those in the PRC, must not provide material support for Russia’s war and that they will face significant consequences if they do. And I reinforced that any banks that facilitate significant transactions that channel military or dual-use goods to Russia’s defense industrial base expose themselves to the risk of U.S. sanctions.”

The United States has frequently downgraded and unveiled intelligence findings about Russia’s plans and operations over the course of the war with Ukraine, which has been fought for more than two years.

Such efforts have been focused on highlighting plans for Russian misinformation operations or to throw attention on Moscow’s difficulties in prosecuting its war against Ukraine as well as its coordination with Iran and North Korea to supply it with badly needed weaponry. Blinken last year spotlighted intelligence that showed China was considering providing arms and ammunition to Russia.

The White House believes that the public airing of the intelligence findings has led China, at least for now, to hold off on directly arming Russia. China’s economy has also been slow to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. Chinese officials could be sensitive to reaction from European capitals, which have maintained closer ties to Beijing even as the U.S.-China relationship has become more complicated.

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Italy urges Iran to show restraint over Israeli strike on consulate

ROME — Italy’s foreign affairs minister said Friday he spoke by telephone with his Iranian counterpart Friday to urge restraint amid fears of a strike on Israel from Tehran. 

Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said in a statement that he had appealed to Iran’s Hossein Amirabdollahian “for moderation.” 

“We cannot risk escalation at such an extremely volatile stage. All regional actors must show responsibility,” Tajani said. 

Tajani’s appeal came amid fears that Tehran will retaliate after an Israeli strike earlier this month on Iran’s consulate building in Syria killed seven members of its elite Revolutionary Guards.  

Israel has stepped up strikes against Iran-linked targets in Syria since the war against Hamas militants in Gaza began. 

The war began with Hamas’ unprecedented October 7 terror attack against Israel that resulted in the deaths of 1,200 people, mostly civilians, according to Israeli figures. 

Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 33,634 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry 

The U.S. White House said Friday that the threat of violence from Iran remained “real.” 

Italy, which holds the rotating G7 presidency, is set to host a meeting of foreign ministers on the Italian island of Capri next week. 

Tajani also called on Amirabdollahian “to exert a moderating influence on Iran’s allies in the region,” the statement said. 

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Argentina’s Milei supports Ukraine in its war with Russia

Javier Milei was sworn in as Argentina’s president in December 2023 on a pro-Western, anti-corruption platform. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was there for the inauguration, and this week Milei said he is considering sending aid to help Ukraine’s fight against Russia. Iryna Shynkarenko has the story, narrated by Anna Rice. VOA footage by Maxym Shulga.

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German chancellor heads to Beijing amid efforts to balance trade, geopolitical concerns

TAIPEI, TAIWAN — German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will kick off a three-day visit to China Saturday, aiming to double down on Germany’s deep economic ties with China amid rising trade tension between Beijing and the European Union. 

Making his first trip to China since his government released its first China strategy in July, stressing the need to lower economic dependence on China, Scholz will be accompanied by executives from major German companies, such as Siemens, Volkswagen, and Bayer, and three Cabinet ministers.  

Some analysts say bilateral economic relations will be the main focus of Scholz’s trip. 

“He will try to focus on the positive things in the German-China relationship and try to foster more partnership and cooperation in critical areas relevant to key German industries,” Max Zenglein, chief economist at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin, told VOA in a video interview Wednesday.

The visit comes as some key German industries see falling revenues in China. According to automobile company data reported by Reuters Wednesday, several German premium carmakers have seen China sales fall significantly in the year’s first quarter, with Mercedes-Benz and Porsche showing double-digit percentage falls in their sales in China.  

In addition, a recent report by the New York-based research firm Rhodium Group found that Germany’s automotive industry faces fierce Chinese competition, with German companies’ market share in China falling 4% since 2018. 

“The losses have come mainly from volume producer Volkswagen, which sold fewer cars in China in 2023 than it did in 2013,” the report said, adding that the market share of Volkswagen’s Chinese venture fell to the lowest point in a decade even though the overall passenger vehicle market in China grew by 5.6%. 

Instead of reevaluating their approach to the Chinese market, Rhodium Group found that some of these companies have reinvested the profits they made in China in the country “in a push to remain competitive.”  

Zenglein said Scholz will likely focus on helping some German companies that rely heavily on China to maintain their economic interests in the country during his visit. 

Scholz may feel the need to “signal to the corporate sector that he is willing to give the appropriate political flanking for their economic interests,” he told VOA. 

Other experts say some German companies are struggling to adapt to changes taking place in the Chinese market because they have become too reliant on the benefits the market offers.

“At a time when the German economy is facing pressure from multiple fronts, including the country’s need to support Ukraine and the sluggish economic performance, the German government will try to maintain a close economic and trade relationship with China in the short term so German products can keep selling to the Chinese market,” said Zhang Junhua, a senior associate at the European Institute for Asian Studies in Brussels. 

However, he said he thinks these efforts will contradict the German government’s call for companies to reduce economic dependence on China. 

“Since Germany’s economic performance remains sluggish, the government has to give in to pressure from the business sector and make compromises on executing the China Strategy, which urges German companies to de-risk from China,” Zhang told VOA by phone. 

German companies ‘swim against the international trend’

Meanwhile, the EU has launched a series of antisubsidies investigations against green energy products imported from China, including electric vehicles and wind turbines. 

EU Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said the bloc needed a more systematic approach to handle the investigations. “We need to do it before it is too late, [and] we can’t afford to see what happened on solar panels happening again on electric vehicles, wind or essential chips,” she said Tuesday, referring to China’s dominance in the European solar panel market. 

In response, the Chinese Commerce Ministry said Thursday that it resolutely opposed the EU investigations, calling them “a protectionist act that harms the level playing field in the name of fair competition.” 

“China will closely monitor the European side’s subsequent movements and reserves the right to take all necessary measures,” the ministry said in a statement.  

While Scholz’s chief economic adviser, Joerg Kukies, said Berlin supports the EU’s antisubsidy probe into Chinese electric vehicles at a think tank event in Berlin last September, Scholz told German business weekly Wirtschaftswoche in an interview the same month that he is “not convinced” about the need for the EU to impose tariffs on Chinese EVs.

“Our economic model should not be based or rely on protectionism – but on the attractiveness of our products,” Scholz said in the interview.

In Zenglein’s view, some German companies’ growing investment in China is “swimming against the international trend. “The trend is driven by capital-intensive sectors like automotive and chemical,” Zenglein said. According to the Rhodium Group report, major German carmakers such as Volkswagen and German chemical group BASF continue to increase their investments in China.

Russia, green energy industries

While bilateral economic relations will dominate the agenda of the trip, Zenglein and Zhang both said they think Scholz will still try to express German concern about China’s close partnership with Russia and their uneasiness about Chinese overcapacity in the green energy industries. 

“Germany’s concern about China’s partnership with Russia will be a main element of the discussion because Scholz has a strong opinion about this,” Zhang told VOA. “But since Germany doesn’t have effective measures to pressure Beijing, Scholz’s warning won’t have much influence on how China evaluates its partnership with Russia.” 

In Zenglein’s view, Scholz will try to “brush over” concerns about geopolitical risks quickly. “He will try not to get too hung up on the negative aspects of bilateral relations that might be counterproductive to positive developments in the bilateral economic relations,” he said.

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Analysts: US military aid to allies would give US defense industry needed boost

As the Biden administration and the US Senate look to the US House to take up a bill for aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, experts say U.S. allies are not the only ones in need of the funding boost. As VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb reports, some say the US defense industry desperately needs the boost as well.
Camera: Mary Cielak

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How Russia’s disinformation campaign seeps into US views

Washington — On a near daily basis, Scott Cullinane talks with members of Congress about Russia’s war in Ukraine. As a lobbyist for the nonprofit Razom, part of his job is to convince them of Ukraine’s need for greater U.S. support to survive.

But as lawmakers debated a $95 billion package that includes about $60 billion in aid for Ukraine, Cullinane noticed an increase in narratives alleging Ukrainian corruption. What stood out is that these were the same talking points promoted by Russian disinformation.

So, when The Washington Post published an investigation into an extensive and coordinated Russian campaign to influence U.S. public opinion to deny Ukraine the aid, Cullinane says he was not surprised.

“This problem has been festering and growing for years,” he told VOA. “I believe that Russia’s best chance for victory is not on the battlefield, but through information operations targeted on Western capitals, including Washington.”

The Post investigation is based on more than 100 documents collected by a European intelligence service.

The files exposed a Kremlin-linked campaign in which “political strategists and trolls have written thousands of fabricated news articles, social media posts and comments that promote American isolationism, stir fear over the United States’ border security and attempt to amplify U.S. economic and racial tensions,” the Post reported.

Social media

One of the main methods for spreading such disinformation is social media, according to Roman Osadchuk, a researcher at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab and an expert on propaganda and influence campaigns.

“The process begins with a Russian publication on a small website or social media account. This is then picked up by a small Russian Telegram channel, which is subsequently shared by a larger channel with more subscribers,” Osadchuk said.

From there, someone will translate the content into English and share it, for example, on X.

“This is how Russian disinformation can quickly spread within the English-speaking X community,” Osadchuk said.

In an article published April 8, The Washington Post cited Microsoft and the social media intelligence company Graphika as saying that some articles created within this operation could have been first published on sites known as doppelgangers.

Osadchuk told VOA that these are deceptive replicas of legitimate media websites. They feature fake articles and are often taken down, only to be replaced by clones with slightly different web addresses.

“Nobody would know about these sites’ existence unless they are promoted on social media platforms. However, as soon as they detect them, social media block them. So, Russians quickly replace banned sites with their clones,” he said.

Worldwide effect

In interviews with U.S. media, two influential Republicans said they believe the propaganda has influenced their base and some of their colleagues.

“It is absolutely true. We see, directly coming from Russia, attempts to mask communications that are anti-Ukraine and pro-Russia messages, some of which we even hear being uttered on the House floor,” House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Turner said in an interview with CNN.

In an interview with the U.S. news website Puck, Michael McCaul, head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said, “Russian propaganda has made its way into the U.S., unfortunately, and it’s infected a good chunk of my party’s base.”

Serhiy Kudelia, a political scientist at Baylor University, says the Kremlin messaging is effective because it plays on existing fears.

He says the disinformation seeks to reinforce already held beliefs such as the wastefulness of aid to Ukraine, or fuels existing anger and energizes opposition to sending assistance.

“When such alignment occurs, it is easier to push through disinformation and invented news stories that would be accepted as credible by a large number of people, including members of Congress, since they reinforce their prior beliefs,” Kudelia said.

“Once fabricated stories enter mainstream public debates, they become almost impossible to debunk or separate truth from lies,” he said.

The disinformation campaign is similar to ones seen in Europe. Both seek to decrease support for Ukraine, undermine public trust in their institutions and polarize society, says Jakub Kalenský, a senior analyst at Helsinki-based European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats.

Kalenský, who is deputy director of the center’s Hybrid Influence team, believes the Kremlin’s disinformation activities have a significant effect on politics worldwide.

“This is why Russia employs thousands of people for this activity. This is why they spend billions every year, because they see it works,” he said.

But Olga Belogolova, director of the Emerging Technologies Initiative at Johns Hopkins University, says that it is hard to know how effective these propaganda efforts are.

“Russian influence operations are not necessarily always designed to get people to believe anything in particular, but to get them to believe nothing at all,” she told VOA. Belogolova added that claims of the efforts being successful in swaying opinion “is not only irresponsible, it’s dangerous.”

Countermeasures needed

Last month, the U.S. Treasury Department issued sanctions on two people and two companies that it says are connected to a “foreign malign influence campaign.” They include Moscow-based Social Design Agency, its founder Ilya Gambashidze, Russia-based Group Structura LLC and its CEO Nikolai Tupikin.

The Social Design Agency and Gambashidze are believed to be involved in the campaign described in the Post article on April 8.

Kalenský advises governments on countering disinformation and says its success requires countermeasures.

These include strengthening detection and documentation of Russian disinformation campaigns, increasing awareness and resilience of audiences to the propaganda efforts, and preventing the aggressor from exploiting weaknesses of social media and societies.

“Finally, we need to impose higher costs on the information aggressors. So far, they are almost unopposed in conducting their aggression,” Kalenský said.

For Cullinane, the Russian disinformation campaign makes his job harder. He says the debate about the role the U.S. should play in the world appears to be shifting and invoking pre-World War II isolationism.

But he remains resolute. Part of his work is finding what resonates most with each lawmaker.

“Some offices focus very much on the human rights situation in Ukraine. Many members are very moved by the plight of religious communities in occupied territories of Ukraine and the persecution they face at the hands of the Russian military,” Cullinane said. “Other offices are very intrigued by the military reform and the military innovation brought about by an active war in Ukraine.”

The national security spending bill is currently awaiting approval in the House.

This story originated in VOA’s Ukraine Service.

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