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Morning news brief

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is the second U.S. Cabinet official to visit Beijing in a month. On the heels of a trip by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Yellen has an agenda that includes meetings with China's new premier and other top officials who have a hand in the economy.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The last time a U.S. Treasury secretary visited China, Washington and Beijing were in a trade war. Since then, the trade relationship is even more strained. So can the U.S. and China compete while they also cooperate?

SCHMITZ: NPR's international correspondent Emily Feng has been following all of this from Taiwan. Good morning, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Good morning.

SCHMITZ: So what does Yellen hope to achieve with this trip, and what's she up against?

FENG: Well, she's up against a lot. And I'm having a little bit of deja vu, actually, because I started reporting on China for NPR in 2019. And as you mentioned, the trade war was in its most intense period at that point.

SCHMITZ: Right.

FENG: But all the issues that Yellen is up against are from that time period. And Chad P. Bown has been tracking those tariffs that were imposed during that trade war. He's a trade expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, D.C. And almost four years later, as Yellen lands in China today, he says this.

CHAD P BOWN: The U.S.-China trade relationship is basically unchanged. None of the tariffs that were imposed or that were in place as of when the - President Trump's Phase One agreement went into effect. None of those have been removed.

FENG: That's because the Biden administration chose to keep these 25% tariffs on Chinese goods coming to the U.S. and vice versa. And so Yellen faces all these old challenges. And on top of that, you have new sources of friction - for example, American export controls to prevent China from getting certain advanced semiconductor technology. And so Bown says Yellen needs to talk about not just trade imbalances now with China, but also national security concerns.

BOWN: When President Trump was conducting his trade war, it seemed to just be all about the U.S.-China economic relationship in trade. Now it's not. Now it's about geopolitical conflict, military conflict, potentially Taiwan, Hong Kong.

SCHMITZ: Wow. There are so many things that the two sides disagree on. What can the U.S. and China agree on?

FENG: Well, at least they both say they want to talk. But again, American officials are really downplaying expectations for her trip. They say that this is just to maintain contact so the two sides understand each other, even if they disagree with each other. Yellen's also in China this week to try to convince China that these export controls that China hates - the fact that U.S. companies are moving some of their supply chains away from China - this is being done to protect U.S. interests, just as China does things to protect its interests that the U.S. also doesn't like. And she's trying to convince China that this is not meant to completely decouple the two economies. And, in fact, the two countries have a lot to cooperate on - for example, combating climate change and addressing global debt.

SCHMITZ: Yeah. And do we have any idea whether she can make any headway on those objectives?

FENG: That's the question. Really, there's only so much she can do, because right now, if you're a foreign business in China, the trends are pretty worrying. China's passed these new laws that can let them sanction foreign companies. There are new data control laws that make it really hard for companies to operate even there. Add to that, there's a new counterespionage law passed this year that's so broad American businesses are genuinely concerned that their normal activities could get them accused of being spies.

SCHMITZ: Wow. NPR's Emily Feng in Taipei, thank you so much.

FENG: Thanks, Rob.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SCHMITZ: Many have tried to replace Twitter since Elon Musk took over the platform.

MARTIN: Now Mark Zuckerberg is trying to host the go-to place for online discourse. Late yesterday, Facebook's parent company, Meta, launched a service called Threads. But will it succeed?

SCHMITZ: NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn joins us to discuss. Good morning, Bobby.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rob.

SCHMITZ: So Threads sounds like a not-so-hip clothing line. But it is, in fact, another social media site. What's it like?

ALLYN: Yeah, no shocker, it feels a whole lot like Twitter. But it has some advantages over a run-of-the-mill Twitter rival in the form of data, right? Meta has a lot of this. When you download the Threads app, you can instantly port over all of your Instagram photos, your bio, all of your Instagram friends. If all of your friends on Instagram join Threads, then you could sort of keep your network that you have on Instagram.

Now, in terms of technology itself, Rob, for 2023, this is not exactly a breakthrough innovation. For a social media app, actually, this feels very 2010. But people are still joining. I think that really shows just how much frustration there is with the current state of Twitter. In its first seven hours, more than 10 million people have joined Threads, and people have already found some pretty funny names for it. Some are calling it Twinstagram (ph); others are calling it Twitter killer. So we'll see how it goes.

SCHMITZ: Twitter killer. Twitter has been around for almost two decades. Why is Mark Zuckerberg doing this now?

ALLYN: Two words - Elon Musk. Since he took over Twitter, it's been less reliable. It's been less credible. Musk's abrupt policy changes have often alienated Twitter's most loyal users. Just this past weekend, Musk capped the number of tweets non-paying users can read each day. Then he made it impossible to view tweets unless you're signed into the platform, which has now been reversed. But the damage is done for some users, Rob. Many are just fed up with Twitter. It's too chaotic and glitchy. And Musk clearly has one goal in mind - right? - and that's getting more people to pay for Twitter. But people are leaving in droves. Zuckerberg sees opportunity there. You know, backing up for some context here, Zuckerberg and Musk have long had a rivalry. And a decade ago, Zuckerberg tried to buy Twitter, but Twitter wouldn't sell. And Zuckerberg has long envied Twitter for being the public square of the internet.

SCHMITZ: You talk about rivalry. They've planned a cage match. What's happening with that?

ALLYN: Yes. They may, may not fight in a cage match. I think it's theatrics. I think there's a good chance that it won't happen at all. But photos have leaked of Elon training for this cage match. So, yes, we'll see what happens.

SCHMITZ: Let's just stop feeding into the theatrics of that. Will Threads be any different than the other attempts to replace Twitter?

ALLYN: You might know some of them by name or not - Mastodon, Bluesky, Post, the list goes on. The obvious difference here is scale. Across its apps, Meta has more than 3 billion users. Now the question is, can it recreate the culture of Twitter? That might be hard. Meta tried to copy TikTok with a service called Reels. That hasn't worked out so great. I talked to this tech analyst named Faine Greenwood about whether Meta's Threads has a shot, and she is pretty skeptical. And it's because of something she calls the terrible uncle problem.

FAINE GREENWOOD: So the terrible uncle problem is the issue that comes about when all of your relatives, your colleagues, your high school classmates are able to find you on social media.

ALLYN: Yeah. Basically everyone is on Facebook, including your terrible uncle.

SCHMITZ: Right.

ALLYN: And that is a bad thing - right? - especially for younger users who see Facebook sort of as a party they would never want to go to.

GREENWOOD: Younger people especially are turned off a platform where they feel like they have to censor what they're saying, have to modulate what they're saying if they don't want to deal with literally everybody they know commenting on their post.

SCHMITZ: Has Elon Musk responded yet to Threads?

ALLYN: Not yet. I emailed him to get a sense of how he's thinking about Meta taking a direct shot at Twitter, but I have not yet heard back.

SCHMITZ: NPR's Bobby Allyn. Bobby, thanks.

ALLYN: Thanks, Rob.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SCHMITZ: More than half of all Americans say they're at least thinking about an electric vehicle for their next car purchase.

MARTIN: But they want to know, where will they plug them in? A big sticking point is the lack of public EV chargers.

SCHMITZ: NPR's Camila Domonoske thinks about this problem a lot, even on a road trip she took last week with the secretary of energy. Camila is back from that and with us now. Hello.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Hi, Rob.

SCHMITZ: How important is the availability of fast chargers that people can find on the road?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah, it's funny because the vast majority of electric vehicle charging actually happens at people's homes or maybe their work. But psychologically, chargers on the road are really important. Americans love a road trip. Studies actually show this is the No. 1 barrier keeping people from buying electric vehicles, even ahead of sticker price.

SCHMITZ: So what's the state of America's EV charging infrastructure then?

DOMONOSKE: It's not great. So last week, like you mentioned, I was - the secretary of energy, Jennifer Granholm, went on this road trip through the South, and I was tagging along. We were traveling in electric vehicles. And I want to play you some tape from one charging stop that the secretary took in Tennessee. This is Secretary Granholm.

JENNIFER GRANHOLM: Clearly, we need more high-speed chargers.

DOMONOSKE: We were sitting in the back seat of an electric Cadillac LYRIQ and went on to talk about this federal push to incentivize chargers and green manufacturing.

GRANHOLM: It has been a blockbuster.

DOMONOSKE: But then Granholm gestured at her press secretary fanning herself.

Asking for some air conditioning here 'cause it is hot.

Her staff had actually turned off the AC to try to make the car charge faster. This was one of several charging stops where charging went much slower than it should have.

GRANHOLM: Seriously, though...

DOMONOSKE: Yeah, it's really hot.

GRANHOLM: ...It's way hot.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Can you open the door?

DOMONOSKE: So we actually interrupted the interview at this point to step outside the vehicle.

SCHMITZ: Oh, man. OK, so that doesn't sound great. And this was during a big heat wave, though, right? I mean, we covered that - a reminder of what's at stake here.

DOMONOSKE: Right. Ultimately, this is about climate change. Getting people to adopt EVs is a big part of the push to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. You do need people to be on board, right? And people are buying EVs increasingly, people like Holmesetta Green. She's from Louisville, Ky., and she was waiting in the shade by that electric vehicle charger while her Volkswagen ID.4 was charging. And she loves that car, but...

HOLMESETTA GREEN: It is kind of slow charging it up. Other than that, I wouldn't take a hundred thousand dollars for this car (laughter).

DOMONOSKE: She wouldn't sell it for a hundred thousand dollars, she says.

SCHMITZ: Wow.

DOMONOSKE: But she also says there just aren't enough chargers. And this is really the situation right now, right? The chargers aren't fast enough, they aren't reliable enough, and there simply are not enough of them.

SCHMITZ: Lots of problems. What's being done about this?

DOMONOSKE: Well, on the tech front, there are two fast-charging standards - Tesla's and everyone else's. Tesla's chargers - this is not just my opinion here, Rob, this is data.

SCHMITZ: OK.

DOMONOSKE: They are better. They're more reliable. Other companies are now embracing Tesla's charging standard, which is a brand-new, very interesting development. But the biggest thing that's happening is that there's just a push to build more of them. The federal government is spending billions of dollars on it.

SCHMITZ: Is that going to be enough?

DOMONOSKE: It really depends on who you ask, right? Car companies are going electric. The federal government could potentially speed that up. There are proposed standards that could mean two-thirds of new vehicles are electric by 2032. The big traditional automakers, their lobbying group is currently saying that's simply not feasible, that the need for more chargers is one reason why they say they need more time. Environmental groups, all electric automakers, they say the speed is doable, and they point to things like all the money that's going into chargers. Now, these federal rules are being hammered out, so, to a certain extent, this is all negotiating positions. But one thing everyone agrees on is that we're going to need more of the things.

SCHMITZ: NPR's Camila Domonoske, thank you.

DOMONOSKE: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Rob Schmitz
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
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