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Asia Stream: COVID's new Asian onslaught

From harsh lockdowns in China to the first major wave in South Korea, Asia is grappling with an astronomical rise in COVID-19 cases -- and the implications are global.

NEW YORK -- Welcome to Nikkei Asia's podcast: Asia Stream.

Every week, Asia Stream tracks and analyzes the Indo-Pacific with a mix of expert interviews and original reporting by our correspondents from across the globe.

New episodes are recorded weekly and available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and all other major platforms, and on our YouTube channel.

This week we examine the state of the pandemic in East Asia, which has been caught in an unprecedented COVID surge from the omicron variant. In particular, China's zero-COVID strategy has faced its stiffest challenge as lockdowns in Shanghai have stoked rare civic unrest.

In this episode, Monica Hunter-Hart speaks with Nikkei data journalist Grace Li about how COVID is hitting Asia right now, Nikkei reporters CK Tan and Pak Yiu, who give us the latest from the ground in Shanghai and Hong Kong, and epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding, who breaks down the recent surge and what might happen next. Finally, Alice French returns with the Tokyo Dispatch focusing on the nuclear power debate within Asia just ahead of Earth Day.

Asia Stream is hosted by Jack Stone Truitt and produced by Monica Hunter-Hart and Nikkei Asia digital editor Wajahat S. Khan.

Related to this episode:

Nikkei Asia COVID-19 Recovery Index

How virus-free Shanghai turned into China's COVID-19 epicenter, by CK Tan

Locked-down Shanghai residents scramble to find food, by CK Tan

Asia's COVID success stories become the world's worst hot spots, by Shin Watanabe, Kotaro Hosokawa and Tomoya Onishi

China scrambles as COVID exposes cracks in Hong Kong leadership, by Pak Yiu


(Theme Music in)

JACK STONE TRUITT, HOST: Hello, and welcome to Asia Stream, where we track, report and analyze the issues and interests of the world's largest region. I am Jack Stone Truitt, reporter for Nikkei Asia here in New York City. I'm filling in for our host Waj Khan, who is out with COVID, which just so happens to be our focus this week. Today's episode: COVID's New Asian Onslaught. The global coronavirus pandemic has been a case study in different approaches to public health. For most of the pandemic East Asia has done a remarkable job of keeping the virus under control, especially in comparison to many of its counterparts in the West. But the omicron variant has changed everything. South Korea, whose COVID case numbers have averaged in the hundreds or the low thousands for most of the pandemic, saw its infections skyrocket to over half a million in just one day last month. China, which has pursued a zero-COVID strategy using extraordinary state power, is just coming down from its biggest spike in cases ever, prompting severe lockdowns in Shanghai and elsewhere, causing rare civil unrest as logistical hurdles have caused some stuck in quarantine to go hungry. And in Hong Kong, low vaccination rates and a densely packed population recently spurred one of the deadliest COVID outbreaks in the world. Today, Monica Hunter-Hart speaks with our own correspondents in Shanghai and Hong Kong as well as with epidemiologist Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding -- one of the first outside of China to sound the alarm on the virus over two years ago -- to understand the state of the pandemic in China, and what could come next there, and for the rest of the world. And we have the return of the Tokyo Dispatch, showcasing our special feature just ahead of Earth Day on the nuclear power debate within Asia. You're listening to the sound of Asia, streaming in your ear. From Nikkei Asia, this is Asia Stream.

(Theme Music out)

TRUITT: Before we begin, some exciting announcements. First of all, a reminder that Asia Stream listeners get an exclusive discount on Nikkei Asia subscriptions -- and it's a pretty good deal, actually. Type in the code ASIASTREAM, all caps, no spaces, at checkout when you visit Subscribing is the best way to get access to the full range of our top-notch reporting, and to support our work. Secondly, you may have noticed that we've been off for a few weeks, and that's because Asia Stream has been getting a face-lift! We've been working on a way to give you a better and more diverse range of content. So here's the plan: every other week, starting with this one, we'll be bringing you our classic Asia Stream content -- geopolitics, with a dose of economics. The biggest, most important stories coming out of Asia. And we'll also be doubling down on our on-the-ground reporting, working harder to bring you a rich soundscape that comes straight out of the places the stories are coming from, so that you really are getting the "sound of Asia." And then, on the opposite weeks, we'll be giving you brief, business-focused stories. Business is our specialty here at Nikkei Asia. Just this month, we took home five accolades from SABEW's "Best in Business" awards. We break crucial stories, and you deserve to hear about them. So stay tuned for our first business episode, which we'll be launching in a few weeks. So, without any further ado, here is Asia Stream correspondent Monica Hunter-Hart.

MONICA HUNTER-HART, CORRESPONDENT: Thanks, Jack. Let's start off with an overview of the current state of COVID across Asia. Nikkei measures virus trends with its COVID-19 Recovery Index, which assesses how much a given country or territory has quote-unquote "recovered" from the pandemic based on case, death, and vaccine rates; testing capacity; and social mobility, or people's ability to travel around. It's a big, ranked list. Currently we've got the UAE at the top -- a lot of Gulf countries are doing quite well, because they have relatively low cases, high vaccination rates and high mobility. Laos is at the bottom. Many places in East Asia have been slipping in the ranks lately. To walk us through the data, we're joined by Grace Li, our data reporter who's the mastermind behind the index. Grace, welcome to Asia Stream.

GRACE LI, REPORTER: Thanks, Monica.

HUNTER-HART: So, Grace, what is the index telling you about how COVID is trending in Asia right now?

LI: OK, the biggest thing we're seeing in the latest edition is that China's ranking dropped a lot -- 30 places, actually. So China was the No. 1 for the first three months when we launched the index last summer. And then its ranking dropped to the ninth in September, because other countries managed to also bring their cases down. China retained a spot in the top 10 for the following months, until March, when we started to see this massive outbreak in Shanghai. And now the country is 32nd in the latest ranking.

HUNTER-HART: Got it. That's quite a drop after China was ranked No. 1 in the world for so long.

LI: Sure. So Hong Kong ranked quite low near the bottom, because the city is still recovering from its, like, worst outbreak, which has cost nearly 9,000 lives. The social distance, distancing measures are being relaxed, so we actually expect Hong Kong's ranking to be greatly improved in the next month. As for Taiwan, another place which has stuck to a zero-COVID policy, the ranking for March was still good, No. 4, but record cases are being reported there in the past few days. And it seems to me that Taiwan is following a similar path as China and Hong Kong to experience a surge of COVID cases because of omicron.

HUNTER-HART: What about in the rest of Asia?

LI: So, um, on our index Cambodia in the best performer at No. 2. India is about a fourth of the way down, doing about as well as China. Singapore is a bit below that. South Korea is definitely the country which has reported the largest number of cases in Asia in the past few weeks. But its ranking's actually not so bad. It's vaccination really high. So that actually helps reducing the death rate. So it is the bottom half of the list, but the ranking is actually not so bad. It's the same as Malaysia and doing slightly better than Japan. Thailand ranked quite low, near the bottom. The country is in the middle of another wave, while cases in the rest of Southeast Asia are decreasing.

HUNTER-HART: Grace Li, thanks for being on Asia Stream.

LI: Thank you, Monica.

HUNTER-HART: Let's zoom in on the mainland for a bit. As of April 20, China was reporting nearly 20,000 cases a day. The peak of 26,000 cases was reached about a week earlier. 95% of new cases are still in Shanghai. The official death toll of the latest wave is quite low -- just 21 deaths have been reported, 17 in Shanghai. Some international observers are skeptical of those numbers, though; unlike many other countries, China generally doesn't count a fatality as a COVID fatality if there were also preexisting conditions involved. Shanghai has been experiencing a brutal lockdown that began at the end of March and captured the world's attention. Social media videos have been circulating appearing to show people being forcibly sealed into their homes. One shows a row of skyscrapers with residents screaming out of their windows in frustration.


HUNTER-HART: There have been food shortages in many places as the government struggled to deliver groceries to the millions of residents who weren't able to shop themselves. People who test positive are often sent away to quarantine in stark facilities with poor conditions. This week, there have been reports of local protests popping up in some places -- a rare sight in China.

(Protest chanting)

HUNTER-HART: Near the beginning of the lockdown, COVID-positive children were even separated from their parents.

(COVID-positive babies crying)

HUNTER-HART: It's a pretty grim picture, and we spoke about it with our Shanghai correspondent. CK Tan, welcome back to Asia Stream. Thanks for being with us.

CK TAN, REPORTER: Thank you.

HUNTER-HART: So, CK, tell us what life under lockdown has been like for you and for others.

TAN: Well, this is our 15th day in the home detention. I use the word "detention" because, because seriously, we are not allowed to step in, to even open the door and step outside. And because as soon as we do that, the security downstairs will, you know, will, will take action against us. But what is stressful to all of us here is the access to food, our daily necessity, because the usual channel where we buy our food, usually through the e-commerce, they all have been shut down. They're all simply not functioning anymore. the lockdown itself, it was really a shock to all of us, because no one actually expected that the city or the government would go so far in locking up the entire 25 million people. This is the biggest ever lockdown in China, you know, not, not even Wuhan, Wuhan has a population of around 10 to 11 million. Yeah. So we can say this is double the size of Wuhan. And it was really a shock. And this left many of us unprepared. So a lot of us are facing shortages of food. For those who have medical needs. Some of them they have ran out of medicine. And you know, you can imagine if you have old folks and young kids, toddlers, you know, they have various kind of medical needs or health care. But and these people have great difficulty to get to the medical attention that they need.

HUNTER-HART: Is this lockdown effective? Because we're over two weeks in, and cases in Shanghai are still rising.

TAN: Exactly. And, you know, it's, it's in everyone's, I mean, everyone is scratching their head as to why the number of cases still rising despite the lockdown. Well, the government's explanation is that there was some technical delays in the lab to process the PCR test. And therefore, we see the cases still rising.

HUNTER-HART: Hmm, OK. CK, the government has set a pretty high bar for taking buildings out of lockdown -- each building needs to have experienced zero positive cases in the previous 14 days to be allowed to open up. How do you see this going in the next month or two?

TAN: Most of us expect this lockdown to go on at least for another two weeks, which is towards the end of the month, at best. And then there were some studies by universities' research team that predicted that the whole COVID situation will be put under control sometime in early, early May. Having said that, apparently there is a competition among local governments this year to, to stamp out of COVID cases completely. In this competition, local governments are highly incentivized to ratchet up containment measures with rounds of mass testing, lockdowns and restrictive travel bans. This is, you know, to prop up their own image. Why is this so? It's because the Communist Party will have a national congress in autumn this year. And this is also a time when we have a leadership change. So a lot of local governments' leaders are eyeing for positions at this congress. And therefore, we, we expect, you know, this kind of harsh, zero-COVID strategy will probably continue for the rest of the year.

HUNTER-HART: Pandemic politics -- brought to you by the Communist Party of China. CK Tan, thank you so much for being with us, we really appreciate it.

TAN: No, not at all. Not at all.

HUNTER-HART: That conversation took place at the end of last week, but CK says that the situation today remains unchanged for him. New case numbers in Shanghai finally started to drop a few days ago. Almost half of Shanghai's population is now allowed outdoors, but CK is in the unlucky half. As of April 21, when this podcast was released, he had been under lockdown for 21 days. Now let's not leave Shanghai quite yet. It's the story of the moment, so here to discuss what the rest of the world needs to learn from Shanghai's example is Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist who leads the COVID Task Force at the New England Complex Systems Institute. He co-founded the World Health Network and is a member of the COVID-19 Mortality Committee at the World Health Organization. Dr. Feigl-Ding, welcome to Asia Stream.

ERIC FEIGL-DING, GUEST: Thank you. Happy to be here.

HUNTER-HART: Dr. Feigl-Ding, you've recently written that China is at a "breaking point" when it comes to this new BA.2 variant of omicron. What did you mean by that? Please explain to us.

FEIGL-DING: Well, I think China has been fighting really hard, much harder than it did before, against the Wuhan strain, two years ago, in trying to contain it. Now China has been pretty successful in its efforts to go with zero-COVID with its lockdown approach, and I want to make sure that people are clear that you can have zero-COVID without a lockdown, but China obviously takes them much further. And China has been basically locking down, like half a dozen, you know, like two dozen cities. But it's, Shanghai is obviously the largest city China has ever had to lock down, with 26 million people. And, you know, Shanghai is a very international city. So there's a lot of people who are eyes and ears, are watching what's happening. And I think it's the troubles in Shanghai, trying to deal with a lockdown and the logistics around the lockdown has really strained China in terms of a tipping point, as in, are people able to do the lockdown in Shanghai any much longer than what they have? And are they able to keep the cases down instead of spiraling out of control like it did in Hong Kong? Because what China really wants to do is avoid another Hong Kong disaster.

HUNTER-HART: Many of the new cases across Asia are the BA.2 variant. What can these surges in Asia teach us about this new variant?

FEIGL-DING: Well, BA.2 is, is one of the sublineages of omicron. Although personally, I think it should be another variant of concern with a new Greek letter. Because BA.1, which was the old plain-vanilla omicron that we considered first hit around November, December, January, worldwide. That one, BA.1 and BA.2 are more different from each other than the delta variant was from the original Wuhan stain. And I don't think many people appreciate that. BA.2 is much more contagious than BA.1. And hence right now, it's basically has taken over the world, delta variant's long gone. BA.1 is almost, almost gone, virtually gone. BA.2 is the dominant. And now there are subvariants of the BA.2 that's also emerged as well, and recombinations. And this is why we're in such a whack-a-mole, horrible mess right now. Because the more you like, let the virus spread worldwide, the more you're gonna see more variants that pop up, because the virus will adapt. But BA2 is the kind of the flavor of the day, but it has many daughter lineages as well, that's causing a lot of problems and and that's currently what's wreaking havoc in England, in, in South Korea, in China, and also now dominant in the U.S. as well.

HUNTER-HART: Got it. What can this teach us about vaccine strategies? China's vaccination rates don't seem to be terribly low. They're maybe not incredibly high, but they're not that bad, and yet that doesn't really seem to be enough to stop the wildfire spread there. So what exactly is going wrong with China's vaccine strategy, and what can we learn from it?

FEIGL-DING: So, first of all, China's vaccine has been using exclusively Sinovac and Sinopharm. You know, with the exception of Hong Kong. But because China really has been kind of, like, relying on its homegrown vaccines, which is Sinovac and Sinopharm are traditionally known as, among all the vaccines for COVID, kind of the weakest vaccines out there. And then China has rolled them out for the most part pretty well, except in the elderly. Because among those over the age of 80, about 50% of people in mainland China are not vaccinated with two shots. That's really scary if you think about it. You know, 50% of all 80-year-olds or older are not vaccinated with two shots or more. And again, even then, they're also not boosted well enough. China's booster rates are, they're decent, I think they're, like, around 50%. But it's still not nearly enough, it's not nearly as strong, because one thing we've learned it, not all vaccines are, are built the same. Now try to try and develop another generation of vaccines. But obviously that is playing catch-up. And that's not going to be immediately ready. So that's why China really has to shield its elderly.

HUNTER-HART: And then what about zero COVID as a strategy? Is that a viable goal at this point?

FEIGL-DING: The zero-COVID approach has worked in other cities, other than Shanghai. Shanghai, it's working, but it's just taking much longer, because the city is so much bigger. And it's, it's right now it's using this adaptive lockdown strategy where it does lockdowns by different communities. But again, you can have zero COVID without lockdowns, too, as a combination of not just vaccines, but also N95 masks, which China is not actually doing, China is mostly relying on blue surgical masks. And, you know, ventilation, disinfection, and of course mass testing, which China is doing. But I think China's population density lends itself to really difficult social distancing, really difficult upgrades for ventilation. And, and also not enough N95 masks to like to layer, the Swiss cheese approach where you have enough Swiss cheese, each, each layer may have some holes, but if you have enough layers, you can stop the virus. China needs to do more layers. But right now, if it doesn't do it in more layers, and then lockdown is probably the best approach, albeit you know, the less humanitarian approach, but it is working in many other secondary cities throughout China.

HUNTER-HART: You say it's working, but cases are still rising in some places that are under lockdown. They were rising in Shanghai until just a few days ago, despite weeks of lockdown with almost no social mobility. Do you have a sense of what's going on with that?

FEIGL-DING: Well, cases are, are actually going down in all the secondary cities. Because it's not just Shanghai that's in lockdown, many other, there's about 200 million people in various forms of lockdown in China, and the cases are under control in many other cities. It's just Shanghai has been a little bit more difficult, because of its huge, huge population density. And, and in cases, I think symptomatic cases are still kind of, like, flat. It's not down down. But total cases are, slowly, they're finding less and less total cases, including asymptomatic. So China's still, you know, turning a corner, I think but it's not over yet, for sure.

HUNTER-HART: Right. OK. Do you see any light at the end of the tunnel here?

FEIGL-DING: Yeah, I think there is a light in the tunnel, as in there's, there are new, I think tailored vaccines. Right now we're still reusing vaccines, it's the Wuhan 1.0 strain, spike protein vaccines. I think we need to tailor vaccines, tailor to the omicrons -- we may need, obviously, you know, boosters with these tailored vaccines, but there's also vaccines that we're trying to work on sterilizing immunity vaccines, where it doesn't just prevent hospitalizations like our current vaccine, but also prevent infection much better. And I think these, they're still on the horizon. Our drugs, like Paxlovid, are much more effective. It's 90% efficacy in terms of reduction of hospitalization. That is incredible. The Paxlovid is agnostic of variants. So that's really good. Obviously, we have to scale up its production. But it's, it's one of the best wonder drugs right now out there. Testing we are rolling out. We just need to get real with, that this is an airborne virus. We need ventilation, air disinfection with a combination of HEPA filters, or upper room UV or improved UV or, in the HVAC systems. And just simply opening the windows. So it is controllable if you know how. It just, unfortunately, we just kind of, like, turn a blind eye, put our heads in the sand like an ostrich and pretend that it's not airborne, whatever, it clearly is. So you know, the solution to pollution is dilution. The virus is a form of air pollution, indoor air pollution, and so to deal with that, if you don't want to wear a mask, you better have really good really, really good ventilation. And all these mitigations together, you will, you can help achieve zero COVID even without a lockdown. But the issue is the willpower and the political and economic willpower to do this. But I believe we have the solutions. We just need to implement them.

HUNTER-HART: Got it. Eric Feigl-Ding, thank you so much for coming on to Asia Stream.

FEIGL-DING: Sure. Thank you. Happy to be here.

HUNTER-HART: Alright, let's travel south from Shanghai to Hong Kong, which has been experiencing its own particularly devastating omicron wave. During the peak, last month, it had the worst COVID mortality rate in the world. Many international experts are studying Hong Kong as a cautionary tale, particularly in terms of what happens if you don't vaccinate your elderly in high enough numbers. It's also providing insight into just how bad a surge can be in a place that had had very few infections before and so built up very little natural immunity. Here to discuss the latest with us, including how COVID is impacting the upcoming chief executive election, is our correspondent in Hong Kong, Pak Yiu. Pak, thanks for being with us.

PAK YIU, REPORTER: No worries.

HUNTER-HART: Just like mainland China, Hong Kong was successfully keeping case rates extremely low for most of the pandemic, right up until the start of this year, when things exploded. I remember the stories coming out of Hong Kong during the worst of the outbreak talked about completely empty streets and bodies piling up in hospitals because morgues were overwhelmed. What is the situation like now?

YIU: So now we're at the tail end of this latest wave. Daily COVID case numbers have actually dropped down to three figures now. They were at five figures, probably a couple of weeks, two, three weeks ago. To instill some sense of confidence, especially for foreign businesses and banks, the government laid out a road map about a week ago to ease the restrictions in three phases, and hope that we can return to some sense of normalcy.

(Sound of Hong Kong's central district and Wan Chai market)

YIU: So at the moment, you know, we're starting to see the streets get busier again, a lot of the commercial districts are filled with shoppers. And, you know, we're seeing just the bustle and the energy come back.

HUNTER-HART: We're listening right now to sounds you recorded this week from Hong Kong's central district and Wan Chai market as public spaces began to come back to life. So, Pak, there have been significant competing interests relating to the way Hong Kong has dealt with COVID, right? Talk to us about that.

YIU: Hong Kong is in a very unique position. It's a city of its own. We share a border with mainland, we can't actually cross into the mainland because the borders have been closed. We're a global financial hub, a lot of, a lot of expats live in Hong Kong. We're home to all the major banks. And as the rest of the world seems to open up with, and learn to live with the virus, a lot of people in Hong Kong are of that mindset as well. And so, you know, what we're seeing is a conflict of ideologies, really, you've got the Chinese officials, and the Hong Kong government who are doubling down on COVID zero. But at the moment, there is a lot of, a lot of concern from the business sector that the COVID restrictions are really damaging confidence in Hong Kong as a global financial and business hub.

HUNTER-HART: Right. And up until maybe as recently as this month, when some easing of restrictions was announced, it seems like the Beijing zero-COVID preference has been winning out in Hong Kong's policies. My impression is that even before this latest outbreak, the restrictions were pretty harsh. Tell us what was going on then.

YIU: So before this wave, Hong Kong was actually quite an isolated city. There were, you know, strict quarantine measures that incoming travelers had to abide by it; it was 14 days, quarantine and a hotel -- a lot of people struggled to get hotel bookings. And on top of that, you were required to have a negative PCR test before you boarded a plane. A lot of these, a lot of these measures had essentially isolated Hong Kong because none of the airlines were bringing in any passengers because of these hurdles that people had to overcome in order to just get in. So, yeah, Hong Kong was, was quite, quite isolated to begin with. Locally in the city, though, you know, when, when cases were zero -- and we did have at least two months of zero COVID in Hong Kong -- things were, things were, you know, business as usual. The shops were open, people were out and about. There were still restrictions, such as, you know, mask mandates and a cap on public gatherings. But generally, everyone was a lot more relaxed, and able to enjoy their, their lives.

HUNTER-HART: So even on the mainland, we've seen some citizens resist COVID restrictions recently. But, Pak, I get the sense that severe policies have tended to be less controversial in mainland China than they have been in Hong Kong. Why is that?

YIU: That's definitely an interesting comparison. I think, you know, in Hong Kong, the locals have tended to be a lot more suspicious of the government. There's a huge trust deficit. And it's caused a lot of issues and problems as well. You know, one of them being the low vaccination rates in Hong Kong. The political situation in Hong Kong hasn't hasn't helped. You know, during the pandemic, Beijing imposed a national security law on Hong Kong, which effectively began this huge crackdown on people's rights, it eroded the freedom of expression, the freedom to protest. And that then, you know, destroyed the trust that the people had with the government or what was left of it from 2019.

HUNTER-HART: That's a great transition to talking about politics. Tell us about the election that will take place in a couple of weeks. It will determine current Chief Executive Carrie Lam's replacement, and a man named John Lee -- a former law enforcement official -- seems to be the front-runner.

YIU: Yeah, so we've got the chief executive election, on May 8, Carrie Lam has definitely has made it clear that she's not running, John Lee is definitely going to win. He's the only candidate officially running. [...] What this means for COVID, we're not entirely sure, but everyone's guess is that John Lee will follow Beijing's orders. He is, he has shown loyalty to Beijing, he's shown that he will do whatever it takes to crack down on dissent. And we should expect a tighter squeeze over, you know, Hong Kong in general.

HUNTER-HART: So what does that mean, exactly? Hong Kong for the most part has been following Beijing's orders recently. You're saying that John Lee may bring Hong Kong closer to the mainland, but at least from the perspective of an outsider, it seems like the two are already pretty dang close. What distance is left to close?

YIU: From an outside perspective, it does seem like Hong Kong, you know, Beijing has, has taken full control of Hong Kong. But we're constantly hearing from officials that there are still legal loopholes. And there's still loopholes within this, within Hong Kong that need to be fixed. One of them, you know, that I'm particularly paying attention to is the security aspects. You know, John Lee, when he was security chief and the chief secretary, he made it clear that Hong Kong needed to implement Article 23, which is an article within the Basic Law, which is Hong Kong's constitution, for the city to enact its own local security law. And there's been a lot of discussion, it's been a very contentious issue, since Hong Kong was returned to mainland China. But it does seem like it's finally happening. And, you know, what's discussed publicly is that it would probably cover areas that the national security law won't have covered, for example, treason, and espionage. We're also expecting a cybersecurity law, fake news law that will have tighter control over news organizations.

HUNTER-HART: Got it. So assuming that does continue to happen, what does that mean about the future of Hong Kong's status as a global financial hub?

YIU: So we are seeing people leave Hong Kong, but the city itself will remain very important because of its position. It is currently, you know, still a base for all the foreign major banks. The city still has a lot of capital. I think foreign direct investment, inflows and outflows ranked third and fourth, you know, according to the U.N. World investment Report. It's still a leading financial center, according to a number of indexes. And, you know, I think, in general, this is what makes Hong Kong unique. It is still a bridge between the West and mainland China. But we've also got to think about the other factors that might damage Hong Kong's status as a global financial hub. And I think that ultimately, the COVID restrictions are actually hurting the city a lot quicker than I think the political grip over Hong Kong, a lot of the chambers have put out surveys pointing to the deterioration o f Hong Kong's business conditions. You know, they're talking about difficulty in attracting talent, especially foreign talent, retaining talent. The restrictions have made Hong Kong which was a major connection point for every, every journey. And because of COVID, there's hardly any flights coming in and out of Hong Kong, and that's made it very difficult to do business.

HUNTER-HART: Got it. Pak Yiu, thanks for joining us.

YIU: Thank you.

HUNTER-HART: That was a look at what's happening with COVID on the world's largest continent, with a focus on East Asia. South Korea remained the country with the highest number of cases per capita as of April 20, with 111,000 new cases reported that day. It's followed by Bhutan. Deaths were still highest per capita in Hong Kong. Many surges in Asia seem to be past their peaks, but with new omicron variants arising, the future is far from certain. Back to you, Jack.

TRUITT: Thank you, Monica. We go now to Alice French for this week's Tokyo Dispatch just ahead of Earth Day, as Asia grapples with the debate over nuclear power and national security.

ALICE FRENCH, CONTRIBUTOR: Konnichiwa! And welcome to the Tokyo Dispatch, where I'll be sending regular updates from the narrow streets and neon lights of Tokyo, home to Nikkei HQ and hub for our East Asia coverage. April 22 marks Earth Day, the theme of which this year is 'Invest in Our Planet.' To mark the occasion, this week we dedicated our Big Story -- Nikkei Asia's longest and most in-depth weekly feature -- to Asia's power generation problem. The last 12 months have been fraught with challenges for Asia's energy industry. Strict carbon-zero targets, combined with supply chain disruptions, natural disasters and, most recently, sanctions on Russian fuel, have led to sporadic blackouts across the region -- even right here in Tokyo! This is where nuclear power comes in. Emitting 70 times less CO2 than coal, and with a green label from the European Union, nuclear power could be the answer to many countries' energy struggles. To discuss Asia's nuclear power dilemma, I caught up with Dominic Faulder, our associate editor based in Bangkok, who is lead writer of this week's Big Story. I asked him why Asia's nuclear power debate is so hot right now.

FAULDER: Well, it's continuously hot because we have this issue of climate change and global warming, which is all coming down to the use of coal and fossil fuels -- everybody knows that. Everybody knows that we're constantly missing the targets. So that burnished the credentials of nuclear as a baseload source of energy in the energy mix, particularly in Asia. It's always there, this issue, and it's come up again. Now, it's also come up against something else, which is the fallout from Chernobyl, Ukraine -- the misconduct of the Russians vis-a-vis the decommissioned reactor there. And so, at the same time, we've got a good illustration of why nuclear power has a huge downside. You know, what do you do with spent fuel, what happens when bad actors get involved?

FRENCH: Right, so which countries in Asia are moving forward the most quickly with nuclear power generation?

FAULDER: Well, China without a doubt. I mean, they've got more nuclear power stations in the pipeline than anybody else. And other people are moving at different paces. So Japan, for example, is completely reassessing its position on nuclear power. As you will recall, Fukushima basically shut down the nuclear power industry -- it went from about 25% to about under 4% of the mix. So Japan is radically rethinking. And then you've got people like the Philippines reconsidering it. I mean, the Philippines actually built a plant back in the 1980s, but they never commissioned it. And then you've got other people who are against it. So, in Taiwan they've had a referendum and they have decided that nuclear power should be phased out by 2025 completely. And that was one of the most interesting little anecdotes in the story that I came across, was this idea that it actually compromises the national security of Taiwan not to have nuclear power, because if they become dependent on liquefied natural gas imports, they become susceptible to storage problems, to typhoons and, most interestingly, to a blockade by China, so that China could undermine Taiwan.

FRENCH: So, just to sum up, what was the main takeaway from this article?

FAULDER: Well, I think it's the agony of the decision, isn't it. The balance of risk. So, you look at nuclear where it is today, fourth-generation, small modular reactors coming on board -- the technology is fantastic, the potential is enormous. And then, you have to balance that against, you know, we have the brilliance of mankind in that it can produce nuclear power, and then we have the lack of smartness in the way we go about conducting world affairs.

FRENCH: That was Dominic Faulder, speaking from Bangkok on our Earth Day special Big Story, which you can read in detail on Nikkei Asia's website:

And this has been Alice French, with the Tokyo Dispatch, for Asia Stream. Mata kondo!

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TRUITT: That's it for Asia Stream this week.

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TRUITT: As always, I encourage you to head to Nikkei Asia at for more in-depth coverage of the COVID in Asia and all things related to Asia. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share, subscribe and leave us a review -- and hopefully, a five-star rating! And a reminder that Nikkei Asia is currently offering an exclusive discount for our podcast listeners: just type in the code ASIASTREAM, all caps, no spaces, at checkout when you visit This episode was produced by Monica Hunter-Hart and Waj Khan. I'm your host, Jack Stone Truitt.

Keep an eye out for our new business spotlight feature. Until next time, stream on.

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