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As U.S. pulls back, Beijing ramps up diplomacy
Xi, China's most powerful leader in decades, seeks to control narrative abroad, just as he does at home


GENEVA (AP) — Chinese leaders have long been sensitive about their communist country's international image. Now, they are battling back — investing in diplomacy and a courtship of hearts and minds, even as the United States follows the Trump administration's "America First" mindset.

A trade war and other frictions between the world's top economic power and the fast-growing No. 2 have exposed Washington's fears about technology, security and influence. U.S. political leaders have criticized China's government for its policies in protest-riddled Hong Kong and at detention centers in the majority Muslim Xinjiang region, and for allegedly underhanded business tactics by tech titan Huawei.

But, increasingly, China is seeking to capture the narrative—with a new assertiveness under President and Communist Party boss Xi Jinping, China's most powerful leader in decades.

"Almost overnight, we have awakened to the reality that while America slept, the Chinese Communist Party has emerged as an immediate and growing threat to our prosperity, our freedoms, and our security," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said in a speech to the National Defense University this

month. Now the Chinese even have the world's biggest diplomatic arsenal to draw from. China's diplomatic network- including embassies, consulates and other posts - has overtaken that of the United States, according to the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank. Beijing has 276 diplomatic posts worldwide, topping Washington's declining deployment by three posts, the institute found.

China's growing diplomatic presence comes as Beijing is trying to expand its international footprint in places like resource-rich Africa and the strategic South China Sea, and to compete economically with Western countries, including with its much-ballyhooed Belt and Road Initiative that seeks to expand Chinese economic clout in places like Africa and Asia.

China's campaign to increase its influence on the global stage comes as the Trump administration retreats from multilateral diplomacy. Trump has pulled the United States out of the United Nations' educational, scientific and cultural organization and the U.N.-supported Human Rights Council, and this month the U.S. squeezed the World Trade Organization's appeals court out of action. His administration has announced a U.S. pullout from the Paris climate accord and shredded multilateral trade pacts.

It's part of a broader diplomatic retrenchment that has led to the loss of nearly 200 foreign service posts at American embassies and consulates abroad.

"We've entered an era in which diplomacy matters more than ever, on an intensely competitive international landscape," said William Burns, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former deputy secretary of state who has been highly critical of Trump's foreign policy. "China realizes that and is rapidly expanding its diplomatic capacity. The U.S., by contrast, seems intent on unilateral diplomatic disarmament."

The U.S. pullback has been particularly felt in Geneva, a hub of U.N.-backed multilateralism: More than 2½ years into Trump's tenure, the U.S. finally brought in a new ambassador to U.N. institutions in Geneva only last month. Meanwhile, China's deployment has grown, complete with a months-long renovation to its WTO offices on the bucolic Geneva lakefront.

Trump's administration has initiated staffing draw downs in Afghanistan and Iraq in particular, recalling diplomats from those countries to Washington but not sending them out to other overseas missions, according to the American Foreign Service Association, the union that represents U.S. diplomats.

"This the first time that any country has had more global presence than the United States, and it's a concern," said union President Eric Rubin. "If we're going to meet the challenge of a rising China, we need to represent ourselves aggressively and with resources overseas."

In African nations like Angola, Mozambique, Tanzania and Uganda, U.S. diplomats report being outnumbered 5-to-1 by their Chinese counterparts, according to a union presentation to the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Since Trump took office in 2017, at least five small nations in Latin America and the Pacific — Panama, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands — have rejected intense U.S. lobbying and cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan in order to recognize China, which often promises them major investments of the kind that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has warned against.

And countries in Europe and elsewhere have been reluctant to heed U.S. admonitions to cut Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei out of their advanced communications networks. The U.S. says Huawei equipment is subject to intrusion by the Chinese Communist Party and has warned NATO allies that they could be stripped of intelligence cooperation with the United States if they grant the company a role in their national grids.

There was a time when China was considered a potentially benevolent rising power. Now U.S. officials complain that China has taken advantage of the trade body and isn't playing by its rules. That adds to the suspicion — even as Beijing insists that it respects and abides by the rules-based international system.

In 2019, "we have seen a change in how the rest of the world sees China," said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London. "From Xinjiang to Huawei to now Hong Kong: China is no longer seen as the rising benign giant, but it is being seen as, 'Whoops, we need to get worried about it.' "

Chinese authorities have used advertising pitches, press conferences, TV and radio interviews, social media — including on the Chinese Foreign Ministry's new Twitter account — and other messaging to promote Beijing's positions and push back against criticism.

China's Communist Party has long believed in its monopoly on truth, history and narrative at home, Tsang said. Now China is trying to export its "fake news."

Chinese diplomats have claimed that China holds no political prisoners and insist that the Xinjiang centers — which have been widely criticized for locking up Muslim Uighurs and others — were only there to provide "vocational" training and save them from religious radicalism.

Barely a day goes bywithout Chinese officials speaking out in some part of the globe: The Chinese Foreign Ministry's web site lists 67 Chinese-language pages of statements, speeches, newspaper columns and other communications by Chinese diplomats and other officials since May alone.

China's envoy in Stockholm, Gui Congyou, told Swedish tabloid Expressen that China will blacklist the Swedish culture minister for attending an award ceremony for Gui Minhai, a Chinese-born Swedish publisher based in Hong Kong who was imprisoned by China after printing books critical of the Chinese government.

The tabloid quoted the ambassador as saying that China offers "good wine for its friends, but shotguns for its enemies."

Gov. Pete Ricketts: State treasurer should have been more mindful with outreach office, advertising

LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts offered a mild rebuke, and a state lawmaker offered to toughen a state law about advertising by state constitutional officers, in the wake of revelations that State Treasurer John Murante has spent nearly $600,000 on hundreds of ads that prominently feature him.

A Sunday World-Herald story detailed how Murante had opened a state treasurer’s satellite “outreach” office in Omaha about four months ago that is virtually unknown to the public, and how he’s spent nearly $600,000 on public service ads in the past six months with a company for which he used to work.

John Murante

Ricketts, during his monthly radio call-in show Monday afternoon, said Murante should have been more mindful about the public perception of setting up an outreach office in Omaha without notice to the public and also of contracting with a former employer for the public service advertisements.

“Taxpayer money should be handled with the utmost care,” the governor said.

The $593,200 of work done by Murante’s former employer, Victory Enterprises of Davenport, Iowa, was not subject to a public bidding process. The state law that requires bids on state service contracts costing $50,000 or more doesn’t apply to constitutional officers, such as the treasurer, governor and state auditor.

Ricketts commented in response to a question raised on the call-in show by a woman identified as Ann of Lincoln.

The Republican governor said he will encourage Murante, a Republican former state senator, to ensure that members of the public know how they can make use of the Omaha office when it gets up and running.

The office, which costs nearly $60,000 a year to rent, is on the second floor of a bank building at 111 N. 181st St. and, The World-Herald learned, has been open since September. It currently houses three employees, but there is nothing on the state treasurer’s website to reveal that there is an Omaha office, and no signage on the bank building or along the street to indicate that either.

Ricketts said elected officials need to make sure they are sending the right message about taking care of state funds. With that in mind, he said, Murante should have sought bids on the TV ads, even though bids were not required under state law.

Murante did not respond to phone messages or emails left with him Monday afternoon.

But in the Sunday story, he defended his spending on the Omaha office and the TV ads as fulfilling his campaign promise to increase awareness about the services offered by the State Treasurer’s Office. The four ads begin with Murante speaking to the camera saying “Hi, I’m State Treasurer John Murante …” and one features video of his wife and child.

He said he selected Victory Enterprises because the firm had done his ads during his 2018 campaign and because he thought the company’s fees were reasonable and couldn’t be beat.

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Meanwhile, State Sen. Matt Hansen of Lincoln said he is exploring expanding a state law that prohibits state constitutional officers from running advertisements that include their name during an election year. The law was passed in 2002 amid concerns that some officeholders were using state funds to increase their name recognition for future political campaigns.

Hansen, a Democrat, said he is considering a bill to expand the prohibition against using an officeholder’s name in such advertising to all years.

“If it’s good policy in election years, that would make it good policy in nonelection years, too,” Hansen said.

Murante has said that the ads were financed through fees charged on college savings accounts and excess unclaimed property funds and that no state tax dollars were used. But the spending on ads, according to state records, is on pace to exceed past spending on ads by three- to five-fold.

Murante said the Omaha office would become “much more public” in a few weeks. The treasurer rejected suggestions that a public outreach office would be better located in a high traffic area of the city, such as Westroads Mall or the Old Market.

The Treasurer’s Office currently has a satellite office for unclaimed property in Lincoln’s busy Haymarket District. The public can walk up to a window and seek help in discovering if any unclaimed property is owed to them.

Photos: The Nebraska State Capitol through the years

UNO A.D. Trev Alberts: Value of Maverick sports should be measured in more than dollars

Trev Alberts knows that University of Nebraska at Omaha Maverick sports will never be a cash cow, but he believes the university can profit from athletics in other ways.

An income statement provided by UNO shows that in the 2018-19 budget year, the UNO athletic department needed slightly more than $6.1 million in subsidies from the university, down from $8.7 million in 2015-16.

Alberts, UNO’s athletic director, said most college sports departments require subsidies from their institutions. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln athletic department is one of the few in the country that makes a profit and shares it with the rest of the university.

Alberts, who played linebacker for the Huskers and in the NFL, said the value of Division I sports can’t be assessed in dollars. UNO sports give the campus an identity and athletes a chance to compete. Sports give students an opportunity to let off tension and to back their school, and give the community an attachment to the campus, he and others said.

He became UNO’s athletic director in 2009 and made big, controversial decisions. He eliminated UNO football and wrestling in 2011 and moved Mav sports into Division I.


UNO’s JT Gibson shoots a 3-pointer against Bethune-Cookman. The men’s basketball team has twice been one win away from the NCAA tourney.

The Mavs have had mixed success in the top division, almost qualifying in 2017 and 2019 for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. The Mavs made hockey’s Frozen Four in 2015 and won the Summit League men’s soccer title in 2017. They qualified for the NCAA baseball tournament last spring.

“It would be great if they had more financial independence,” said UNO Chancellor Jeffrey Gold. But Gold said he was proud of his athletic department and had plenty of confidence in Alberts.

Gold said it is “always a dynamic balance” between the money put into college sports and the benefits derived from them. He said backing athletics is similar to support for theater arts and music. Those activities, he said, belong in an excellent metropolitan university.

When Gold arrived six years ago, “Baxter Arena was a dream,” he said. But it has come to life with commencement ceremonies, a president’s visit, concerts and athletic events, and by hosting the U.S. Olympic Curling Trials two years ago, he said. Baxter opened in 2015.

The arena in 2018-19 received a university subsidy of $199,000, the athletic department’s documents show, down from UNO support of $1.48 million in 2015-16.

Brent Meyer, UNO’s executive associate athletic director, said Baxter “allows us to generate revenue outside of athletics” with concerts and other events.

And when performers don UNO jerseys or T-shirts, as rapper Nelly and teen musician Jojo Siwa did this year, Meyer said, that gives the school powerful social media exposure. “You can’t measure it,” he said.

Meyer said that in 2018, more than 400,000 people attended events at Baxter. They would have gone elsewhere without Baxter or wouldn’t have come to Omaha at all, Meyer said.


The puck is dropped during a UNO hockey game against Arizona State over the weekend. The Mavs reached the Frozen Four in 2015.

Dan Shipp, UNO and NU Medical Center vice chancellor for student success, said UNO has transformed itself from a commuter school to a metropolitan university. Building a vibrant campus community with university activities is important to improving graduation rates, he said. And intercollegiate sports are part of that, Shipp said.

UNO’s six-year graduation rate was 53.6% among first-time, full-time students who started in 2013, he said, up from 40.1% among those who started in 2000.

“That speaks to the culture and community that we’re working to grow at UNO,” Shipp said. Besides sports, that sense of community and better graduation rates have been built with the construction of more residence halls and facilities, and by providing support services for students, he said. UNO built its first residence halls in 1999.

UNO Faculty Senate President Matt Hale said nonacademic events present “engagement opportunities with the campus and broader Omaha community.”

Hale gave a measured view of the passion for sports. The importance placed on sports “is not in any way a UNO issue, more of a societal one, really, but I think it is always relevant to step back and ask why we glorify sports so much more highly than the sciences or the arts,” Hale said in an email.

A couple of years ago, then-NU President Hank Bounds expressed concern about how much UNO’s athletic department had to be subsidized. Among other things, Bounds said in October 2016 that overspending on team travel, equipment, supplies and sports administration “effectively wipes out the cuts that were made” by UNO athletics.

Alberts recently said the university was under budget pressure at the time because of declines in state support. “He was faced with a very difficult situation,” Alberts said of Bounds. Everyone was “counting every single penny” back then, he said.

Athletic department expenses are complicated by the fact that there are different ways to calculate them. NCAA financial reports show a higher institutional subsidy for UNO sports because those reports add tuition scholarships for athletes to the total.

A World-Herald analysis in 2017 found that student fees directed to sports plus university subsidies placed UNO in the middle of nine schools selected by the NU system as comparison schools. Those include Wichita State, Northern Iowa, Cleveland State, Arkansas-Little Rock, Northern Illinois, Portland State, Texas-San Antonio and North Carolina-Charlotte.

Discussions with a smattering of randomly selected UNO students (nine in all) generally showed a moderate level of support for Maverick sports.

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“I’d like to go, yeah,” said freshman pre-nursing student Melissa Bultez, an Omahan, “but I just don’t have time.”

Danyell Price, a sophomore in business administration from Omaha, said she’s a member of the Maverick Maniacs, a student spirit squad, and a supporter of UNO sports.

“Yes, of course,” she said. Price said she’s made it to some men’s and women’s basketball games. “Of course I do, whenever I’m free.”

And doctoral student Chris Jodis, a Georgian, said he knows from experience that sports can be good for students. His golf career at a college in California taught him how to face adversity, the value of hard work and the importance of time management, he said.

Jodis hasn’t been to any Maverick sports events but expects to see some hockey games at Baxter Arena.

Alberts and Meyer gave upbeat assessments in a recent interview about the department, its finances and Baxter Arena.

“I’m just so proud of what our little department and our staff is able to do,” Alberts said. “I could not be more proud of where we are today.”

Photos: From Omaha to the NHL's Stanley Cup playoffs

Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert wrecks on an electric scooter ... on her Christmas card

Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert’s 2019 Christmas card embraces the year’s most controversial local transportation option — electric scooters.

The card’s second panel turns a Tom Kerr-drawn Stothert upside-down while riding a scooter. She lands in a snowbank, boots to the sky, as her family watches.

The kicker, which Stothert, the card’s artist and a city staffer say the mayor helped write, says: “Grandma got run over by a scooter.”

“I haven’t ridden one,” Stothert said, laughing at a question about whether she’d ridden one in real life. “And I’m not going to, either.”

The mayor works on her Christmas card each year with Kerr, a former World-Herald artist. He said he offers her ideas, asks for hers, then sends a sketch.

They’ve made fun of snowplowing and potholes. One year, they did texting. This year, Kerr recommended recycling. She said it had to be scooters.

His first sketch looked a lot like the real thing. It had Stothert riding a scooter straight into a snowbank. He didn’t think she’d go for it. She did.

The lone change Stothert wanted was footwear. She didn’t like the “old-lady shoes” in the first drawing and suggested UGG boots.

“It was great,” Kerr said.

About 3,000 of the cards were printed and mailed, at the mayor’s cost, not the city’s, she says. Many arrived in local mailboxes of friends and connections in recent days.

Inside, the card says “Merry Christmas” from the Stotherts. She knew the drama awaiting Republican officeholders who use “Happy Holidays.”

The mayor, who has not yet taken sides on the scooters, says she has no new info about the half-year scooter pilot program that ended this fall.

The city says it is still organizing data from the pilot to share with the mayor and City Council this winter. They will decide the future of the rental devices.

People took more than 200,000 scooter rides this year in Omaha, spurring positive reactions from many riders and anger from many drivers.

“For every call I got that somebody hated it,” Stothert said, “I got another that they liked it.”

Photos: Durham Museum’s Christmas at Union Station over the years

Photos: Durham Museum's Christmas at Union Station over the years