A report released by Stockholm signaled that it would likely follow Finland’s lead in vowing to apply for NATO membership. The moves come as the Group of 7’s agricultural ministers met in Germany to discuss new ways to get Ukrainian harvests to world markets.
More than half of species could face greater extinction risk by midcentury, a new study found, as rising heat and dryness test the prickly plants’ limits.
After the Ukrainian leader’s video address to lawmakers, President Biden is expected to approve $800 million in new military aid. Ukrainian forces launched a counteroffensive as cease-fire talks between Kyiv and Moscow continued.
The announcement was a sign that Russia might be trying to de-escalate the military standoff on the Ukrainian border. Although Putin said Russia was “ready to continue on the negotiating track,” it was far from clear that the threat of war had passed.
BELGRADE, Serbia — When Covid-19 reached Eastern Europe in the spring of 2020, a Serbian journalist reported a severe shortage of masks and other protective equipment. She was swiftly arrested, thrown in a windowless cell and charged with inciting panic.
The journalist, Ana Lalic, was quickly released and even got a public apology from the government in what seemed like a small victory against old-style repression by Serbia’s authoritarian president, Aleksandar Vucic.
But Ms. Lalic was then vilified for weeks as a traitor by much of the country’s news media, which has come increasingly under the control of Mr. Vucic and his allies as Serbia adopts tactics favored by Hungary and other states now in retreat from democracy across Europe’s formerly communist eastern fringe.
“For the whole nation, I became a public enemy,” she recalled.
Serbia no longer jails or kills critical journalists, as happened under the rule of Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s. It now seeks to destroy their credibility and ensure few people see their reports.
The muting of critical voices has greatly helped Mr. Vucic — and also the country’s most well-known athlete, the tennis star Novak Djokovic, whose visa travails in Australia have been portrayed as an intolerable affront to the Serb nation. The few remaining outlets of the independent news media mostly support him but take a more balanced approach.
Across the region, from Poland in the north to Serbia in the south, Eastern Europe has become a fertile ground for new forms of censorship that mostly eschew brute force but deploy gentler yet effective tools to constrict access to critical voices and tilt public opinion — and therefore elections — in favor of those in power.
Television has become so biased in support of Mr. Vucic, according to Zoran Gavrilovic, the executive director of Birodi, an independent monitoring group, that Serbia has “become a big sociological experiment to see just how far media determines opinion and elections.”
Serbia and Hungary — countries in the vanguard of what V-Dem Institute, a Swedish research group, described last year as a “global wave of autocratization” — both hold general elections in April, votes that will test whether media control works.
A recent Birodi survey of news reports on Serbian television found that over a three-month period from September, Mr. Vucic was given more than 44 hours of coverage, 87 percent of it positive, compared with three hours for the main opposition party, 83 percent of which was negative.
Nearly all of the negative coverage of Mr. Vucic appeared on N1, an independent news channel that broadcast Ms. Lalic’s Covid-19 reports. But a bitter war for market share is playing out between the cable provider that hosts N1 — Serbian Broadband, or SBB — and the state-controlled telecommunications company, Telekom Srbija.
Telekom Srbija recently made a move that many saw as an unfair effort to make SBB less attractive to consumers when it snagged from SBB the rights to broadcast English soccer by offering to pay 700 percent more for them.
Telekom Srbija’s offer, nearly $700 million for six seasons, is an astronomical amount for a country with only seven million people — and nearly four times what a media company in Russia, a far bigger market, has agreed to pay the Premier League each season for broadcast rights.
“It is very difficult to compete if you have a competitor that does not really care about profit,” SBB’s chief executive, Milija Zekovic, said in an interview.
Telekom Srbija declined to make its executives available for comment, but in public statements, the company has described its investments in English soccer and elsewhere as driven by commercial concerns, not politics.
“Their goal is to kill SBB,” Dragan Solak, the chairman of SBB’s parent company, United Group, said in an interview in London. “In the Balkans,” he added, “you do not want to be a bleeding shark.”
Eager to stay in the game, Mr. Solak announced this month that a private investment company he controls had bought Southampton FC, an English Premier League soccer team. Broadcast rights for the league will stay with his state-controlled rival, but part of the huge sum it agreed to pay for them will now pass to Mr. Solak.
Government loyalists run Serbia’s five main free-to-air television channels, including the supposedly neutral public broadcaster, RTS. The only television outlets in Serbia that give airtime to the opposition and avoid hagiographic coverage of Mr. Vucic are Mr. Solak’s cable news channel N1, which is affiliated with CNN, and his TV Nova.
Without them, Mr. Solak said, Serbia “will be heading into the dark ages like North Korea.”
Space for critical media has been shrinking across the region, with V-Dem Institute, the Swedish research group, now ranking Serbia, Poland and Hungary among its “top 10 autocratizing countries,” citing “assaults on the judiciary and restrictions on the media and civil society.” Freedom House now classifies Serbia as “partly free.”
In each country, security forces — the primary tools for muzzling critical voices during the communist era — have been replaced in this role by state-controlled and state-dependent companies that exert often irresistible pressure on the news media.
Poland’s governing party, Law and Justice, has turned the country’s public broadcaster, TVP, into a propaganda bullhorn, while a state-run oil company has taken over a string of regional newspapers, though some national print outlets still regularly assail the government.
In December, Law and Justice pushed through legislation that would have squeezed out the only independent television news channel, the American-owned TVN24, but the Polish president, worried about alienating Washington, vetoed the bill.
Hungary has gone further, gathering hundreds of news outlets into a holding company controlled by allies of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Only one television station with national reach is critical of Mr. Orban and financially independent from his government.
Mr. Orban’s previously divided political rivals have formed a united front to fight elections in April but have been unsuccessful in shaking his stranglehold on the news media.
In Serbia, the media space for critical voices has shrunk so far, said Zoran Sekulic, the founder and editor of FoNet, an independent news agency, that “the level of control, direct and indirect, is like in the 1990s” under Mr. Milosevic, whom Mr. Vucic served as information minister.
Journalists, Mr. Sekulic added, do not get killed anymore, but the system of control endures, only “upgraded and improved” to ensure fawning coverage without brute force.
When United Group started a relatively opposition-friendly newspaper last year, it could not find a printer in Serbia willing to touch it. The newspaper is printed in neighboring Croatia and sent into Serbia.
Dragan Djilas, the leader of Serbia’s main opposition party and formerly a media executive, complained that while Mr. Vucic could talk for hours without interruption on Serbia’s main television channels, opposition politicians appeared mostly only as targets for attack. “I am like an actor in a silent movie,” he said.
N1, the only channel that sometimes lets him talk, is widely watched in Belgrade, the capital, but is blocked in many towns and cities where mayors are members of Mr. Vucic’s party. Even in Belgrade, the cable company that hosts the channel has faced trouble entering new housing projects built by property developers with close ties to the government. A huge new housing area under construction for security officials near Belgrade, for example, has refused to install SBB’s cable, the company said.
Viewers of pro-government channels “live in a parallel universe,” said Zeljko Bodrozic, the president of the Independent Journalists Association of Serbia. Channels like TV Pink, the most popular national station, which features sexually explicit reality shows and long statements by Mr. Vucic, he said, “don’t just indoctrinate, but make people stupid.”
The European Union and the United States have repeatedly rebuked Mr. Vucic over the lack of media pluralism, but, eager to keep Serbia from embracing Russia or stoking unrest in neighboring Bosnia, have not pushed hard.
This has given Mr. Vucic a largely free hand to expand the media control that Rasa Nedeljkov, the program director in Belgrade for the Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability, described as “the skeleton of his whole system.” In some ways, he added, Serbia’s space for critical media is now smaller than it was under Mr. Milosevic, who “didn’t really care about having total control” and left various regional outlets untouched.
“Vucic is now learning from this mistake by Milosevic,” Mr. Nedeljkov said. Mr. Vucic and his allies, Mr. Nedeljkov added, “are not tolerating anything that is different.”
Once powerful independent voices have gradually been co-opted. The radio station B92, which regularly criticized Mr. Milosevic during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, for example, is now owned by a supporter of Mr. Vucic and mostly parrots the government line.
Journalists and others who upset Mr. Vucic face venomous attacks by tabloid newspapers loyal to the authorities. Mr. Solak, the United Group chairman, for example, has been denounced as “Serbia’s biggest scammer,” a crook gnawing at the country “like scabies” and a traitor working for Serbia’s foreign foes.
Mr. Solak, who lives outside Serbia because of safety concerns, said he had become such a regular target for abuse that when he does not get attacked, “my friends call me and ask: What happened? Are you OK?”
MANILA — The death toll from a powerful typhoon that struck the Philippines last week is continuing to rise as rescuers reach more devastated areas, with more than 140 people now believed to have been killed, officials said on Sunday.
About half of the 142 deaths reported so far from Super Typhoon Rai were in the island province of Bohol in the central Visayas region, a tourist destination known for its diving spots and coral reefs.
The governor of Bohol, Arthur Yap, said that as of noon Sunday, the typhoon was believed to have killed 72 people in the province, a toll based on field reports from community leaders.
“It is very clear that the damage sustained by Bohol is great and all-encompassing,” Mr. Yap said. He said he had seen vast destruction of coastal communities in an aerial survey aboard a military plane.
The Philippines’ national disaster agency, which often takes time to confirm deaths reported by officials around the country, was still reporting a count of 31 deaths from the typhoon on Sunday, a toll that did not reflect the figures provided by Mr. Yap and from other areas.
The central province of Cebu and Cagayan de Oro city on the island of Mindanao were also among the worst-hit areas, and just off Mindanao, officials were trying to get aid to the island of Siargao, a popular surfing destination.
The typhoon made landfall on the island on Thursday, with gusts of up to 168 miles per hour, before tearing west across the country. Rai was classified as a super typhoon after reaching land, a designation comparable to a Category 5 hurricane in the United States.
Siargao was still cut off as of Sunday. Message boards on social media filled up with the names of people who were still unaccounted for.
The typhoon, known as Odette under the Philippines’ separate naming system, was the 15th to hit the country this year. It dumped heavy rain over large areas, and large parts of the central and southern Philippines sustained damage, with many waterways overflowing their banks.
The chairman of the Philippine Red Cross, Senator Richard Gordon, said Rai was one of the strongest storms ever known to have struck the Philippines, which endures an average of 20 typhoons a year.
“Red Cross emergency teams are reporting complete carnage in the coastal areas. Homes, hospitals, schools and community buildings have been ripped to shreds,” he said in a statement. “Our volunteers are providing urgent relief for people who have lost everything, including food, drinking water, first aid, medical care, and somewhere safe to shelter.”
The most powerful storm on record in the Philippines was Super Typhoon Haiyan, which killed about 6,500 people and caused widespread destruction in 2013.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has started an emergency appeal for nearly $22 million to finance relief and recovery efforts for an estimated 400,000 people in the Philippines affected by Rai.
In Bohol, Mr. Yap said that provincial workers were working overtime to restore power and telecommunications facilities, and that many residents did not have access to clean drinking water.
He said a Philippine Navy vessel would ship out from Manila on Monday with emergency aid for Bohol, but he appealed for more help from the national government, citing in particular the need for generators to run water refilling stations across the island.
KISANFU, Democratic Republic of Congo — Just up a red dirt road, across an expanse of tall, dew-soaked weeds, bulldozers are hollowing out a yawning new canyon that is central to the world’s urgent race against global warming.
For more than a decade, the vast expanse of untouched land was controlled by an American company. Now a Chinese mining conglomerate has bought it, and is racing to retrieve its buried treasure: millions of tons of cobalt.
At 73, Kyahile Mangi has lived here long enough to predict the path ahead. Once the blasting starts, the walls of mud-brick homes will crack. Chemicals will seep into the river where women do laundry and dishes while worrying about hippo attacks. Soon a manager from the mine will announce that everyone needs to be relocated.
“We know our ground is rich,” said Mr. Mangi, a village chief who also knows residents will share little of the mine’s wealth.
This wooded stretch of southeast Democratic Republic of Congo, called Kisanfu, holds one of the largest and purest untapped reserves of cobalt in the world.
The gray metal, typically extracted from copper deposits, has historically been of secondary interest to miners. But demand is set to explode worldwide because it is used in electric-car batteries, helping them run longer without a charge.
Outsiders discovering — and exploiting — the natural resources of this impoverished Central African country are following a tired colonial-era pattern. The United States turned to Congo for uranium to help build the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and then spent decades, and billions of dollars, seeking to protect its mining interests here.
Now, with more than two-thirds of the world’s cobalt production coming from Congo, the country is once again taking center stage as major automakers commit to battling climate change by transitioning from gasoline-burning vehicles to battery-powered ones. The new automobiles rely on a host of minerals and metals often not abundant in the United States or the oil-rich Middle East, which sustained the last energy era.
But the quest for Congo’s cobalt has demonstrated how the clean energy revolution, meant to save the planet from perilously warming temperatures in an age of enlightened self-interest, is caught in a familiar cycle of exploitation, greed and gamesmanship that often puts narrow national aspirations above all else, an investigation by The New York Times found.
The Times dispatched reporters across three continents drawn into the competition for cobalt, a relatively obscure raw material that along with lithium, nickel and graphite has gained exceptional value in a world trying to set fossil fuels aside.
More than 100 interviews and thousands of pages of documents show that the race for cobalt has set off a power struggle in Congo, a storehouse of these increasingly prized resources, and lured foreigners intent on dominating the next epoch in global energy.
In particular, a rivalry between China and the United States could have far-reaching implications for the shared goal of safeguarding the earth. At least here in Congo, China is so far winning that contest, with both the Obama and Trump administrations having stood idly by as a company backed by the Chinese government bought two of the country’s largest cobalt deposits over the past five years.
As the significance of those purchases becomes clearer, China and the United States have entered a new “Great Game” of sorts. This past week, during a visit promoting electric vehicles at a General Motors factory in Detroit, President Biden acknowledged the United States had lost some ground. “We risked losing our edge as a nation, and China and the rest of the world are catching up,” he said. “Well, we’re about to turn that around in a big, big way.”
China Molybdenum, the new owner of the Kisanfu site since late last year, bought it from Freeport-McMoRan, an American mining giant with a checkered history that five years ago was one of the largest producers of cobalt in Congo — and now has left the country entirely.
In June, just six months after the sale, the Biden administration warned that China might use its growing dominance of cobalt to disrupt the American push toward electric vehicles by squeezing out U.S. manufacturers. In response, the United States is pressing for access to cobalt supplies from allies, including Australia and Canada, according to a national security official with knowledge of the matter.
American automakers like Ford, General Motors and Tesla buy cobalt battery components from suppliers that depend in part on Chinese-owned mines in Congo. A Tesla longer-range vehicle requires about 10 pounds of cobalt, more than 400 times the amount in a cellphone.
Already, tensions over minerals and metals are rattling the electric vehicle market.
Deadly rioting in July near a port in South Africa, where much of Congo’s cobalt is exported to China and elsewhere, caused a global jump in the metal’s prices, a surge that only worsened through the rest of the year.
Last month, the mining industry’s leading forecaster said the rising cost of raw materials was likely to drive up battery costs for the first time in years, threatening to disrupt automakers’ plans to attract customers with competitively priced electric cars.
Jim Farley, Ford’s chief executive, said the mineral supply crunch needed to be confronted.
“We have to solve these things,” he said at an event in September, “and we don’t have much time.”
Automakers like Ford are spending billions of dollars to build their own battery plants in the United States, and are rushing to curb the need for newly mined cobalt by developing lithium iron phosphate substitutes or turning to recycling. As a result, a Ford spokeswoman said, “we do not see cobalt as a constraining issue.”
Increased mining and refining of cobalt by Chinese companies has helped meet the growing demand and advanced the fight against climate change. But as more electric vehicles are produced by more automakers worldwide, the International Energy Agency expects a cobalt shortage by 2030, based on an analysis of existing mines and those under construction. Other forecasters say a shortage could hit as soon as 2025.
A review by The Times of documents filed with regulatory authorities in China shows the acquisitions in Congo have followed a disciplined playbook, announced with great fanfare by Beijing in 2015, to dominate the world’s emerging clean energy economy.
As of last year, 15 of the 19 cobalt-producing mines in Congo were owned or financed by Chinese companies, according to a data analysis by The Times and Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. The biggest alternative to Chinese operators is Glencore, a Switzerland-based company that runs two of the largest cobalt mines there.
These Chinese companies have received at least $12 billion in loans and other financing from state-backed institutions, and are likely to have drawn billions more. In fact, the five biggest Chinese mining companies in Congo had lines of credit from state-backed banks that totaled $124 billion, according to the documents reviewed by The Times, even though one of them, China Molybdenum, described itself as “a pure business entity” traded on two stock exchanges.
China’s goal is to control the global supply chain from the metals in the ground to the batteries themselves, no matter where the vehicles are made. The approach, in part, echoes Henry Ford’s investments in Amazonian rubber plantations as the auto industry turned to mass production in the early 20th century.
The forested mine site at Kisanfu was just one of two major purchases in recent years by China Molybdenum. The first came in 2016, when it took control of Tenke Fungurume, a mine that on its own produces twice as much cobalt as any other country in the world. At least $1.59 billion of the $2.65 billion Tenke Fungurume price tag, financial records show, came from loans provided by Chinese state-owned banks.
As the Chinese were stepping up their focus on green energy in 2016, the soon-to-be U.S. president, Donald J. Trump, was extolling the fossil fuel industry, campaigning in West Virginia with a hard hat and shovel and falsely promising coal miners that “you’re going to be working your asses off!” After taking office, Mr. Trump would roll back requirements on American automakers intended to accelerate the transition to electric vehicles, giving the Chinese an even wider lane.
“It is pretty heartbreaking what happened here,” said Nicole Widdersheim, who worked on Africa issues for the National Security Council during the Trump administration. “Just so stupid.”
The frenzy for Congo’s cobalt has attracted an international cast of opportunists, luminaries and shadowy characters eager to benefit. At one point, it also drew in a Chinese-based private equity firm that Hunter Biden helped found and that was later scrutinized in the 2020 presidential campaign.
At the same time, Chinese companies are running into new headwinds from Congo’s government, according to documents obtained by The Times and interviews with current and former senior U.S. officials.
Congolese officials are carrying out a broad review of past mining contracts, work they are doing with financial help from the American government as part of its broader anti-corruption effort. They are examining whether companies are fulfilling their contractual obligations, including a 2008 commitment from China to deliver billions of dollars’ worth of new roads, bridges, power plants and other infrastructure.
Congo’s president, Felix Tshisekedi, in August named a commission to investigate allegations that China Molybdenum, the company that bought the two Freeport-McMoRan properties, might have cheated the Congolese government out of billions of dollars in royalty payments. The company risks being expelled from Congo.
At the Tenke Fungurume mine, there have long been problems associated with trespassers from nearby villages scavenging for cobalt. After China Molybdenum called on the government to help, Congolese troops fired on a trespasser inside the mine’s gates, killing him, as well as a second person who was shot after riots broke out in protest, witnesses and local officials told The Times.
Separately, at least a dozen employees or contractors at the mine told The Times that Chinese ownership had led to a drastic decline in safety and an increase in injuries, many of which were not reported to management. Two Congolese safety officers said workers were assaulted after they raised concerns and were offered bribes to cover up accidents.
“Things are falling apart in terms of safety,” said Alfred Kiloko Makeba, who retired last year after a decade working as a safety supervisor at the mine.
Vincent Zhou, a spokesman for China Molybdenum, rejected claims that the company had cheated the Congolese government or relaxed safety standards, saying the opposite was true, and questioned if there was an organized effort to undermine the company.
China has an idiom that goes something like: “Where there is a will to condemn, evidence will follow,” Mr. Zhou said in a written response to The Times. “Vaguely I feel that we may be caught in the gaming of greater powers.”
A Presidential Connection
African countries for years have been turning to China for help building infrastructure with loans or trades involving their natural resources — deals that analysts warn provide far more benefit to the Chinese.
A blueprint for those deals, now common across the continent, was sketched out in 2005 when Joseph Kabila walked into the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
Mr. Kabila, then just 33, was the new president of Congo after the assassination of his father, another tragic milepost on the poverty-stricken country’s road of violence and political disruption.
China was familiar territory for Mr. Kabila, who had received military training there in the late 1990s. This visit was about enlisting the help of President Hu Jintao in turning around Congo’s economy.
The United States, which had long provided economic and military assistance to Congo, was locked in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and had become increasingly uninterested in the country. Congo’s poor record on graft and human rights was also scaring away many international banks and Western investors.
Mr. Kabila’s wish list was long: He wanted new roads, schools and hospitals as part of a revival plan that, he hoped, would endear him back home to a nation exhausted and dispirited by years of conflict and corruption.
In exchange, he was prepared to offer up his country’s vast mineral wealth — unparalleled in much of the world.
In the imposing hall on Tiananmen Square, the two presidents outlined a deal that would change Central Africa’s balance of power, according to André Kapanga, a former adviser to Mr. Kabila who offered details of the meeting for the first time in an interview with The Times.
Mr. Hu explained that many people in China’s western provinces lived in deep poverty. Developing the area was a cornerstone of his domestic policy, and he needed minerals and metals to build out new industries. Congo was ready to help, Mr. Kabila assured him.
China had already acquired raw materials from Congo’s neighbor, Angola, where it offered generous financial support in exchange for oil.
But this potential deal with Mr. Kabila was more ambitious than any other, and a diplomatic drama would play out at the riverside Palais de la Nation in the capital of Kinshasa before it was sealed.
The setting was Mr. Kabila’s inauguration in 2006, after he stood before voters in a formal election and won the presidency. The Bush administration sent a delegation led by Elaine Chao, then the secretary of labor.
Mr. Kabila liked motorcycles, and she presented him with a Harley-Davidson trinket when she greeted him at a lunch. That would be the extent of their interaction, Ms. Chao believed, but members of her delegation urged her to ask for a private meeting, according to Laura Genero, an associate deputy labor secretary who was on the trip. To her surprise, Mr. Kabila complied with a meeting the next day.
Ms. Chao was so unprepared for the invitation that she had to borrow a beige pantsuit from Ms. Genero. She had packed just one work outfit.
The U.S. delegation congratulated Mr. Kabila on his democratic victory and listened as he talked about wanting to expand access to electricity across the nation. One of his aides characterized the meeting as mostly small talk.
But a similar meeting between the new president and Chinese officials played out differently, according to Mr. Kapanga, who was briefed on both the U.S. and Chinese discussions.
The Chinese used the opportunity to begin formal talks with Mr. Kabila that would result in a $6 billion agreement: China would pay for roads, hospitals, rail lines, schools and projects to expand electricity, all in exchange for access to 10 million tons of copper and more than 600,000 tons of cobalt.
The local media called it the “the deal of the century,” and while Mr. Kabila celebrated the agreement, the global financial community reacted more warily, worried Congo was taking on too much debt.
American officials marveled at the deal’s historic scale. In secret cables made public by WikiLeaks, they noted that previous Chinese investment in Congo had been “an informal, somewhat disorganized collection of Chinese businesses” that did not seriously threaten U.S. interests.
Now something much grander was in the making: “2,000 miles of roadway linking Orientale and Katanga provinces, 31 hospitals, 145 health centers, two large universities and 5,000 government housing units are pledged,” according to a cable in 2008 from the U.S. embassy in Kinshasa to members of the Central Intelligence Agency, the secretary of state and other officials.
“And that’s not all,” the cable continued.
Attracting a Phoenix
By 2015, China’s presence in Congo had become visible in numerous infrastructure projects: Soccer stadiums rose from the dust, roadways were expanded, work began on water treatment facilities.
But not all of its progress in cornering the cobalt market could be measured in brick and mortar. The Chinese ambassador at the time, Wang Tongqing, kicked off an American-style diplomatic blitz.
Mr. Wang threw out the jump ball that year at a Chinese corporate basketball tournament that drew Congolese spectators.
He gave out scholarships to Congolese students to study in China and was on hand when a Chinese organization donated plane tickets for a Congolese choir to tour his country. At one point, he offered $1 million for Ebola relief in Congo.
Mr. Wang’s activities coincided with the 2015 rollout of his country’s “Made in China 2025” policy, which detailed China’s plan to transform itself into a “manufacturing superpower” in 10 areas, including batteries for electric vehicles.
Almost instantly a tidal wave of government-backed capital poured into Chinese companies in Congo and elsewhere. Deals quickly followed.
That year, the state-owned China Nonferrous Metal Mining Group said it would partner with Congo’s state mining company, Gécamines, to develop the Deziwa site, then one of the largest copper and cobalt concessions in the country.
In 2017, Zijin Mining, a Chinese state-backed company with a slogan of “Harmony Begets Wealth,” raised almost $700 million from a sale of private shares to develop its Kolwezi mine.
Public statements about the deals signaled some of China’s ambition, but the history and scale of the effort have not been previously reported.
Corporate filings, including annual reports and bond prospectuses, examined by The Times show that the five biggest Chinese companies in Congo had been given at least $124 billion in credit lines for their global operations. All of the companies are state-owned or have significant minority stakes held by various levels of the Chinese government.
“Unlike the U.S., the Chinese government is always behind Chinese investors in Africa and more specifically in D.R.C.,” said Mr. Kapanga, the former adviser to Mr. Kabila.
The biggest deal came in April 2016, when China Molybdenum, a company whose biggest shareholders are a government-owned company and a reclusive billionaire, made its $2.65 billion offer to buy Tenke Fungurume, an American-owned mine atop one of the biggest cobalt reserves in the world.
There was one complication. Freeport-McMoRan had a Canadian partner that had the right of first offer to buy its stake. China Molybdenum’s solution was to have a Shanghai-based private equity firm buy out the partner, but even that deal relied on money from the Chinese government.
None of the $1.14 billion raised to buy the partner’s share came from private investors, company filings show. Instead, it came from Chinese state-controlled entities, including from bank loans guaranteed by China Molybdenum as well as cash brought to the deal through obscure shell companies controlled by government-owned banks, according to the filings.
The board of the private equity firm, commonly known as BHR, was dominated by Chinese members but also included three Americans: Devon Archer, a businessman who later was convicted of defrauding the Oglala Sioux tribe in a case still working through the legal system, and James Bulger, son of the former president of the Massachusetts State Senate.
Another was Hunter Biden, whose father was vice president at the time.
It is not clear if Mr. Biden, who had helped found the firm in 2013, was involved in the deal. Mr. Biden did not respond to requests for comment. A former member of the BHR board, who was not authorized to speak about internal business matters, said that none of the Americans had played a role and that the fees generated for the work had not been distributed to Mr. Biden or others. A spokesman for President Biden on Friday said he had not been made aware of his son’s connection to the sale.
How and why the firm had become involved was a mystery to the chief executive who negotiated the sale for Freeport-McMoRan’s Canadian-based partner, Lundin Mining.
“Were they a partner, their adviser or a financier? I don’t know,” said Paul Conibear, then Lundin’s chief executive.
An elaborate event under white tents in Kinshasa celebrated China’s new ownership in May 2017. Mr. Wang was there along with Chinese officials who had helped finance the purchase — and a host of Chinese government-affiliated bankers looking to make even more mining deals.
Within a few years, they would help orchestrate China Molybdenum’s purchase of Kisanfu, the huge untapped cobalt reserve, from the same American mining giant. Together the sales marked a changing of the guard in Congo as the United States abandoned its mining interests — a problem that now weighs on President Biden as he and his aides have come to realize the extent of China’s dominance in clean energy.
“The D.R.C. has a vast territory, rich natural resources and great investment potential,” Mr. Wang told the crowd. “A Chinese proverb says, ‘Build a beautiful nest to attract the phoenix.’”
‘Safety Is Just on Paper’
At first, the changes seemed almost trivial at Tenke Fungurume — a 24-hour operation that employs more than 7,000 across a landscape the size of Los Angeles marked by deep craters and dust kicked up by earth-moving vehicles.
The new Chinese managers showed up in shorts and sneakers, a shock to employees who had been required to wear steel-toed boots and safety goggles.
“We were like, ‘Oh, this is not possible,’” said Pierrot Kitobo Sambisaya, who worked as a metallurgist at the mine for a decade until 2019 and had grown accustomed to a stricter environment.
Soon, work anniversaries came and went with no recognition. Holiday parties where workers’ families were invited to tour the mine no longer took place. Dozens of janitor and driver jobs once held by Congolese citizens went to the Chinese.
That was just the start. Employees were concerned that the mine was also becoming more dangerous, according to interviews with workers in communities surrounding the mine, current and former safety inspectors, Congolese government officials and mining executives.
Workers climbed into acid tanks to conduct repairs without checking the air quality. Others drove bulldozers and other heavy equipment without training or did dangerous welding jobs without proper oversight.
Last year, a worker was sitting in his truck while it was being towed, and it flipped. The worker tried to jump to safety, but the truck landed on him and crushed him to death, according to an annual operations report from China Molybdenum.
All of it was an extreme departure from the company’s American predecessor, which had “zero tolerance” for risky activities and safety violations, according to Alfred Kiloko Makeba, the veteran safety supervisor, and 10 other current and former employees, managers and contractors.
Freeport-McMoRan, which had built the mine, had learned some hard lessons years before at its copper and gold mine in Indonesia, facing international protest over its dumping toxic mine waste into a river in the rainforest as well as violent conflicts over its operations there.
In Congo, the company had its own struggles as it moved to build Tenke Fungurume, displacing more than 1,500 residents in a haphazard process. But once the mine opened, it gained an unusual amount of respect for its commitment to worker safety, both among local officials and U.S. diplomats.
Worker safety is an issue at other industrial mines in Congo, but under Freeport, employees who violated rules were immediately disciplined or fired, safety officers said. Records examined by The Times show just one reported death among workers during the eight years Freeport-McMoRan ran the mine, although it repeatedly published accounts of near-fatal accidents as cautionary guides.
When safety inspectors discovered violations after China Molybdenum took over, they were sometimes told to overlook them, or offered bribes to do so, workers and supervisors said. And when they did try to enforce the rules, violence sometimes followed.
One safety officer said he was thrown to the ground by a worker he had called out for improperly using welding equipment. The man twisted his arm and broke his cellphone and work-issue camera.
An executive at Gécamines, the Congolese agency that is a minority shareholder in the mine, said employees had reported confrontations and safety problems to the agency’s board. Safety issues are now part of a broader review of China Molybdenum’s operations.
Mr. Zhou, the China Molybdenum spokesman, denied that any inspectors had been assaulted. The allegations, he suggested, were probably being fabricated by fired employees.
In a statement to The Times, he said the mine had “a robust occupational health and safety framework in place and continues to exercise its zero tolerance rules.” In fact, he said, “internal statistics” published in a company report this year showed that worker injuries had declined since the company took over.
But employees who said they had been repeatedly told not to report injuries believed the data was being fixed as part of a campaign to cover up rising hazards.
That suggestion, which The Times was not able to independently confirm and which China Molybdenum disputed, was crystallized for Mr. Makeba one evening last year when he received an urgent phone call. A worker at the mine had fallen from a high perch after not wearing the required safety harness, he said.
Mr. Makeba rushed to the site and was shocked to learn, he said, that the worker, who had broken his leg, had been taken to a private clinic instead of the mine’s.
Mr. Makeba said the employee told him that his supervisors had paid him to keep quiet so that it would not be reported to management, where it would show up on the company’s audited injury tally.
When Mr. Makeba alerted his own boss, he said, he was told to drop the matter.
Mr. Zhou rejected Mr. Makeba’s account, adding that “any form of cover-up in disclosures is against rules, and corporate values.”
But according to Mr. Makeba and another safety manager still working at the mine, labor conditions have become increasingly important to automakers sensitive to consumer and shareholder demands. So China Molybdenum, they said, has blocked them from reporting near fatalities and routinely ignored other injuries.
“Safety is just on paper now,” Mr. Makeba said.
Problems at Tenke Fungurume are not just limited to employees’ complaints inside the mine.
Freeport-McMoRan had struggled with trespassers who carted off bags of cobalt. Some even died when hand-dug tunnels flooded or collapsed.
With China Molybdenum in charge, the conflict became much worse.
The company, faced with thousands of newly arriving trespassers, asked the government to send soldiers to help control the situation, one executive who worked at the mine back then told The Times.
The military arrived and began patrolling Tenke Fungurume and other local mines, bulldozing depots where trespassers were selling their cobalt rocks to traders.
The troops remained for months, and the situation eventually turned deadly. A soldier at Tenke Fungurume opened fire, killing an unauthorized digger, according to an employee who told The Times he had witnessed the encounter.
Riots then erupted in the man’s home village when friends arrived carrying his body. In the melee, a protester was shot dead, according to three local officials and the mine employee.
China Molybdenum paid for the burials, they said.
Troops with AK-47s were posted outside the mine this year, along with security guards hired from a company founded by Erik Prince, the former Navy SEAL turned private security consultant.
Even as this crackdown on theft was underway, the new managers at the mine were looking for ways to cut costs while increasing production.
China Molybdenum said it had saved more than $130 million a year through its “cost and efficiency” programs. “New management revitalizes the business by bringing ‘Chinese efficiency and Chinese elements,’” the company boasts on its website.
The Rush to Expand
China Molybdenum is steadily growing its output. Last December, it snatched up Kisanfu, paying Freeport-McMoRan $550 million for what is considered one of the world’s largest untapped supplies of cobalt. The ground underneath the site contains enough cobalt, according to China Molybdenum’s estimates, to power hundreds of millions of long-range Teslas.
And then in August, China Molybdenum announced plans to spend $2.5 billion at Tenke Fungurume to double production over the next two years. When the expansion is complete, the mine will produce nearly 40,000 tons a year. Last year, the United States produced just 600 tons.
This rush to expand, however, has drawn scrutiny from top government officials in Congo, reaching all the way to Mr. Tshisekedi, the president.
Questions have surfaced over payments Tenke Fungurume’s operators may owe to Congo, dating back to when the American company controlled the mine. When new deposits are confirmed at Tenke Fungurume, the owners are required to notify Gécamines, the Congolese agency, and pay $12 for every additional ton.
The accusations have provoked a bitter dispute between Congolese officials and the mine managers, with China Molybdenum’s spokesman calling the allegations “unbelievable, wrong calculations” based on an accounting error.
Gécamines executives have discussed forcing out the management at Tenke Fungurume or even taking the mine out of China Molybdenum’s control, according to two Congolese mining executives involved in confidential discussions as well as a government official briefed on the talks.
Robert North, a New Mexico-based geologist who has helped prepare reserve estimates at the mine for Freeport and China Molybdenum, said both companies as well as Gécamines knew of large amounts of cobalt underground at the site. China Molybdenum has been cautious in declaring it, he said, until the company knows it wants to go to the expense of extracting the deeper layers.
Mr. Tshisekedi’s commission is still investigating the allegations, and the president himself recently presided over a tense, six-hour meeting with top company executives.
Separately, the Congolese government, with financial assistance from the United States, is examining numerous mining contracts to determine whether Congo has been shortchanged more broadly. While the Chinese-funded infrastructure projects got off to a flashy start, many have not been built, officials said.
During a visit to the cobalt-mining region this year, the president acknowledged that corrupt or incompetent government officials in Congo might deserve some blame for deals that have left the nation feeling shortchanged.
“Some of our compatriots had badly negotiated the mining contracts,” he said. “I’m very harsh on these investors who come to enrich themselves alone. They come with empty pockets and leave as billionaires.”
Chinese government officials insist that the relationship is still on track and that the benefits to Congo are substantial.
The countries have a “longstanding friendship, and the bilateral practical cooperation has yielded fruitful win-win results and enjoys broad prospects,” Zhao Lijian, spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at a news conference in September.
In an interview in Kinshasa, Mr. Tshisekedi said that his focus was not on which foreign power would dominate mining in Congo, but rather on how his country could share in the wealth generated by the clean energy revolution.
“We have an amazing potential for renewable energy, be it through our strategic metals or through our rivers,” he said, referring to both mining and hydroelectric power. “Our idea is, how can we put this amazing resource at the disposal of the world, but while making sure that it first benefits Congolese and it benefits Africans?”
Dionne Searcey reported from Kisanfu, Michael Forsythe from New York and Eric Lipton from Washington. Keith Bradsher contributed reporting from Shanghai.
Pfizer reported data on Friday showing that its coronavirus vaccine had a 90.7 percent efficacy rate in preventing symptomatic Covid-19 in a clinical trial of children ages 5 to 11.
The company submitted the information to the Food and Drug Administration, which was expected to release its own analysis of the data later in the day.
Children in the trial received a dose of 10 micrograms, smaller than the 30-microgram dose given to adults. The company said that the dosage was safe, and that trial participants had seen only mild side effects.
Of 2,268 children in the trial, twice as many were given the vaccine as received a placebo. Sixteen children who received the placebo got Covid-19, compared with three who received the vaccine.
The F.D.A. released the data before a meeting next week at which expert advisers to the F.D.A. will decide whether to recommend that the agency authorize the vaccine for children in this age group. Federal regulators have already made the vaccine available for those 12 and older.
If the F.D.A. authorizes the vaccine for ages 5 to 11 — a move that could help protect more than 28 million people in the United States — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will then make recommendations to the agency next month on how the shots should be administered.
According to federal data, 66 percent of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of a Covid vaccine, while 57 percent are fully vaccinated.
Ibrahim’s parents fled political turmoil in China for Afghanistan more than 50 years ago. At that time, Mao Zedong had unleashed the Cultural Revolution, and life was upended for many Uyghurs, the mostly Muslim ethnic group in Xinjiang that included Ibrahim’s parents.
Ibrahim was born in Afghanistan. But now he, too, is trying to escape the clutches of Chinese authoritarianism.
He and his family have been afraid to leave their home in Afghanistan since the Taliban, the country’s new rulers, took control last month, venturing outside only to buy essentials. “We are extremely worried and nervous,” said Ibrahim, whose full name is being withheld for his safety. “Our children are worried for our safety, so they have asked us to stay home.”
For years, Chinese officials have issued calls for leaders in Afghanistan to crack down on and deport Uyghur militants they claimed were sheltering in Afghanistan. The officials said the fighters belonged to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a separatist organization that Beijing has held responsible for a series of terrorist attacks in China since the late 1990s.
The United States removed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement from its list of terrorist groups during the Trump administration, angering Beijing. But the Taliban, in their new role as diplomats, have been eager to establish warm relations with China, meeting most recently on Thursday with Chinese officials. Many Uyghurs in Afghanistan fear they will be branded terrorists and sent to China as pawns in the Taliban’s effort to win favor and economic aid from the country.
It is unclear whether Uyghurs in Afghanistan face an immediate threat to their safety, but some say they dread the future that would await them if they were sent to Xinjiang. Since 2017, the Chinese government has locked up close to a million Uyghurs in camps and subjected those outside to constant surveillance. China says the camps are necessary to weed out extremism and to “re-educate” the Uyghurs.
Before the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, the Chinese government said it had received assurances from the insurgents that the country would not become a staging ground for terrorist attacks. Anxious Uyghurs in the country watched television footage of Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, standing side by side with leaders of the Taliban in July. Earlier this month, Mr. Wang pledged $30 million in food and other aid to the new government, as well as three million coronavirus vaccine doses; on Thursday, he said Afghanistan’s overseas assets “should not be unreasonably frozen or used as a bargaining chip to exert pressure,” obliquely referencing American control of billions of dollars belonging to the Afghan central bank.
Since the late 1990s, Beijing has succeeded in pressuring several countries to deport Uyghurs. The Uyghur Human Rights Project, an advocacy group based in Washington, has counted 395 cases of Uyghurs being sent to China since 1997. The group said in an August report that journalists and human rights organizations have documented 40 cases of detentions or renditions from Afghanistan to China, though it has verified only one of them.
Khorsid Hasan, a Uyghur retiree living in Virginia, said that after she contacted the Uyghur Human Rights Project in August, the group wrote a letter to the State Department urging American officials to address the vulnerability of Uyghurs in Afghanistan. Uyghurs in the country “fear more for their lives than ever before,” Ms. Khorsid said in an interview. “They hope to be evacuated as soon as possible.”
The rights group’s letter to the State Department warned of the grave fear that the Taliban “will now make secret agreements with China to extradite Uyghurs to the P.R.C.”
The Uyghur population in Afghanistan is estimated to be around 2,000 to 3,000. They arrived in waves, some as early as the 18th century. Many are second-generation immigrants with few links to China. Their parents joined an outflow of refugees from Xinjiang in the late 1970s, ending up in neighboring Afghanistan, where they settled and had families.
Those families are once again seeking to uproot their lives. Even though they are Afghan citizens, their identity cards show that they are either Chinese refugees or members of the ethnic group, making them easy to track should the Taliban decide to round them up.
The Taliban did not respond to requests for comment.
In the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, Mohammad, a 39-year-old Uyghur farmer whose full name has been withheld to avoid reprisals, said he was so desperate to flee Afghanistan with his young family that he contacted human traffickers to help them get into Iran. He was told that it was impossible to do with the Taliban in charge, he said.
He has also contacted exile Uyghur groups in Germany and Turkey, and organizations providing refugee assistance in the United States and Canada with no success, he said.
Well before the Taliban took control, life was difficult for Uyghurs in Afghanistan, who often faced discrimination. Ibrahim, 54, said he kept a low profile as a businessman. “We tried our best to erase our identity as Uyghurs,” he said.
He and his wife, who is also Uyghur, live with their two daughters, 28 and 20, and a 25-year-old son, who has a 1-year-old baby. He said his children were depressed and passed their days surviving on food that they had stored away before the government collapsed.
Under Taliban rule, Afghanistan has been battered by food and cash shortages. People have been unable to withdraw money from banks. Grocery prices have shot up. The Taliban have also looked to China for help avoiding a possible economic collapse.
Andrew Small, a senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund who studies China’s policy in Afghanistan, said the Taliban had not previously demonstrated an “obvious willingness” to hand over Uyghurs to the Chinese, though he believed their fears were legitimate.
Understand the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994 amid the turmoil that came after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including floggings, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as rulers.
“The lines are blurred on China’s part between who constitutes a terrorist and who constitutes someone who has simply been politically active,” Mr. Small said. “Individuals who are politically and economically connected with any activities they find problematic” are likely to be targeted, he said.
The uncertain future of Uyghurs in Afghanistan has caught the attention of Abdul Aziz Naseri, a Uyghur activist who was born in Afghanistan and now lives in Turkey. Mr. Abdul Aziz said he had compiled a list of roughly 500 Afghan Uyghurs who want to leave the country.
“They say to me: ‘Please save our future, please save our children,’” he said.
He shared the names and photographs of these people with The New York Times, but asked that their information be kept private. At least 73 people on the list appeared to be under the age of 5.
Shabnam, a 32-year-old Uyghur, her mother and two sisters managed to get out of Afghanistan last month. The women rushed to the airport in Kabul during the frenzied United States evacuation. Her sisters boarded one flight, her mother another. Shabnam said she was the last to leave.
In an interview, she described being separated from her husband while getting through the chaotic security lines at the airport. She was holding his passport and begged the security guards to deliver it to him. No one helped, she said.
Shabnam waited for her husband for four days, while the people around her at the airport encouraged her to leave.
She finally did — boarding a U.S. military plane with hundreds of other Afghans late last month. Her trip took her to Qatar, Germany and finally the United States, where she landed on Aug. 26. She is now in New Jersey and still trying to get her husband out of Afghanistan.
“I was happy that I got out of there, thank God,” Shabnam said. “I like it here. It’s safe and secure.”
Nilo Tabrizy contributed reporting.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special envoy for Afghanistan, was adamant that although the Taliban had been left out of Bonn, they should at least be included in the next step in forming a transitional government: a loya jirga, bringing together tribes, sub-tribes and other groups to determine the country’s way forward.
A few people close to the Taliban ideologically, but not part of the group, brought binders with their nominees’ resumes to a United Nations office where rising Afghan leaders were reviewing potential representatives. But some of the potential representatives were dismissed as terrorists and later detained, and one was shipped to the U.S. detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, where he spent more than six years even though he had never supported the Taliban, Mr. Rubin said.
“A number of Afghans with the Taliban offered to surrender and, when they did, we put them in prison, in Bagram and Guantánamo, and there was never any discussion if that was a good idea,” recalled Mr. Dobbins, who worked with the transitional Afghan government.
At the time, he said, “I was dismissive of the idea that the Taliban would ever be a factor in postwar Afghanistan. I thought they had been so beaten and brushed aside that they would never come back.”
Looking back, he said: “I should have known. But what we didn’t understand, didn’t pick up on for five years, was that Pakistan had abandoned the Taliban government, but had not abandoned the Taliban. That was a critical distinction. So they could re-recruit, re-fund, re-train and project themselves back into Afghanistan. That was a major missed opportunity.”
While it is not clear that a deal with the Taliban in 2001 would have been possible — or that the Taliban would have kept their word — some former diplomats say that by repeatedly shutting the door to talks, the United States may have closed off its best chance of avoiding a prolonged and extremely costly war.