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Morning news brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We've heard a lot about the United States shifting its approach to China. So how does that look from China?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The divide between the world's two largest economies was on display last night. A special committee in the U.S. House of Representatives held a hearing on the threat of China. The committee was created to showcase exactly that message.

INSKEEP: About 7,000 miles away, Chinese officials were listening, and so was NPR's John Ruwitch, who's covered China for many years. Hey there, John.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So I'm imagining not a lot of people in China had access to this congressional hearing very early in the morning China time. But how closely have people been following the decline in relations with the United States over years?

RUWITCH: Yeah, that's a safe bet. This issue has not gotten a ton of coverage. But of course, China-U.S. relations get a lot of coverage in state media. It's a topic of discussion. Beijing, the state, of course, claims that Washington is to blame for it all. You know, as everywhere, there's a wide range of views, right? I've heard people quietly critical of their own government here for the foreign policy they've adopted. I've certainly had conversations with people who are convinced that the U.S. is out to thwart China. You know, then comes this hearing - right? - which showcases this popular view in the U.S. that Americans got China wrong over the decades, thinking it would become more liberal as its economy became more integrated with the world, that Beijing took advantage of that and wants to overturn the world order, the world order as we know it. And so now it's time to change our approach. Here's Mike Gallagher, the Republican from Wisconsin who chairs the committee.

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MIKE GALLAGHER: We must act with a sense of urgency. I believe our policy over the next 10 years will set the stage for the next hundred.

RUWITCH: You know, there were two protesters who disrupted the hearing, holding up signs that said China is not our enemy. That got coverage here, actually. The Global Times, which is a hawkish news outlet, covered that.

INSKEEP: Oh, very interesting. Well, we heard the chairman of that committee, as well as the top Democrat on the committee on NPR yesterday. So they have made their bipartisan case. How does the Chinese government respond?

RUWITCH: The foreign ministry spokeswoman, Mao Ning, addressed this in her daily briefing today. She said that the U.S. people and government agencies need to, quote, "abandon their ideological bias and Cold War zero-sum thinking" when it comes to China, to stop thinking of China as a threat, to stop slandering the Communist Party of China. You know, she also blasted the U.S. on another issue that's popped up yet again. There are reports this week that the Department of Energy believes, albeit with low confidence, that the COVID pandemic was likely caused by a lab leak here in China. And then FBI Director Christopher Wray repeated his belief that that's the case. Mao Ning said that the U.S. was just stirring the whole thing - all these things up for political reasons and that doing so would lower America's credibility. And she urged Americans to respect science and the facts, which is something that critics could argue China has at times fallen short on with the virus, too.

INSKEEP: I'm interested - the foreign ministry spokesperson said stop slandering the Chinese Communist Party since the U.S. officials we've talked with have emphasized that they are criticizing not China broadly, but the party that rules it. Among other things, aren't U.S. officials concerned about China's Communist Party, as they would put it, allying with Russia?

RUWITCH: Yup, they are. And in fact, the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, is in Beijing this week. He's a close ally of Vladimir Putin. You know, China also has very close relations with Belarus that have increased, have gotten deeper over the years and appear to be deepening with this meeting. Lukashenko reportedly met Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and will meet Xi Jinping. You know, China says - you know, there's been these accusations that China is considering furnishing deadly weapons to Russia, right? China calls those smears against it. China says it stands for peace, and at last, we put out this set of principles for resolving the war in Ukraine. But this visit by Lukashenko and a visit by China a couple weeks ago by Iran's president have raised some eyebrows.

INSKEEP: NPR's John Ruwitch, thanks for your insights.

RUWITCH: You're welcome.

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INSKEEP: Some other news now - Africa's largest democracy - in fact, Africa's most populous country - has a new president in waiting.

FADEL: Yeah. Election officials declared Bola Ahmed Tinubu of the ruling party the winner of Nigeria's presidential elections. It was a close election. It had delays, disorganization and sporadic violence at polling stations. And there are still questions. The opposition parties are demanding a revote and may go to court.

INSKEEP: NPR's Emmanuel Akinwotu joins us from the capital city of Nigeria, Abuja. Welcome.

EMMANUEL AKINWOTU, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's it been like there the last few days?

AKINWOTU: You know, today it's been a mixture of jubilation - his supporters, Bola Ahmed Tinubu's supporters, are out in the streets, celebrating - and also dismay and sadness with the result. There are protests currently in Abuja and elsewhere. And that's largely because of the polls and what unfolded on Saturday. I was out and going to speak to voters, going to polling stations, and quite frankly, it was a shambles around the country. The electoral commission started late. Polls opened late; in many polling stations around Nigeria, some hours late. Some actually haven't had voting now, four days later. And there were so many logistical failures. And there were also incidents of violence that marred the vote. In areas like where I was, in Lagos, I saw armed gunmen, masked, come and shoot towards us, steal a presidential ballot box - a frightening scene. And incidents like that happened in pockets of the country, which has led to a lot of frustration and led the opposition to call the elections a sham.

INSKEEP: I want to underline a couple of things that you said because, of course, there are claims of election irregularities in the United States that have proven to have no basis. But you're telling me there were polling places that never opened and that you saw someone steal a box full of ballots? Did you just tell me those two things?

AKINWOTU: Yes, absolutely. You know, on top of that, there have been some irregularities in the electoral commission's platform. And so these are some of the issues that the opposition have kind of flagged and have called for the elections to be cancelled. Nonetheless, Bola Ahmed Tinubu is now president of Nigeria.

INSKEEP: Who is he?

AKINWOTU: What a question (laughter). He's one of the most prominent, powerful politicians in Nigeria; you know, really a household name. But he's also divisive. He's a former two-term governor. He's credited by his supporters for building Lagos to what it is, you know, one of the biggest economies in Africa. He's a kingmaker who helped bring President Buhari - outgoing President Buhari to power. This time, his slogan on the campaign trail was emi lokan. That's Yoruba for, it's my turn. And now it is. But he's also derided by critics for overseeing decrepit infrastructure in Lagos, inequality, alleged control of state finances, of politics. And then bizarrely, there are so many questions around him about his true age, his health and how he made his money. You know, he said he made millions working for Deloitte as an accountant. Then it turned out to be false. He's also had many allegations, including in the U.S., where he had to forfeit $460,000 to authorities linked to heroin trafficking. So a big, divisive, powerful figure, and now the president.

INSKEEP: You said a mystery about his age. How old is he, according to him?

AKINWOTU: (Laughter) He's 70. But, you know, this is something that's been disputed. He also has had health issues, but they have been quite quiet about it. He actually went on a treadmill, recorded a video of him riding a bike at home to show that he is fit and hale and hearty, as they say in Nigerian politics.

INSKEEP: Emmanuel Akinwotu, NPR's correspondent in Abuja, Nigeria. I hope you get out and get some exercise so you can keep up with the new president.

AKINWOTU: (Laughter) Thanks, Steve.

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INSKEEP: Investigators in Greece now face the same question as safety investigators in Ohio - what caused a train crash?

FADEL: In Ohio, the wreck led to a chemical spill and evacuations. In Greece, the wreck cost many lives. A passenger train collided with a freight train, killing at least 36 people.

INSKEEP: Derek Gatopoulos, a reporter for the Associated Press, is covering this story from Athens. Welcome to the program.

DEREK GATOPOULOS: Hello there.

INSKEEP: What happened here? I'm just, as we're talking, looking on television at an overhead view of this crash. You do see two trains in the picture. How did they collide?

GATOPOULOS: Well, there was a - it was just before midnight local time on Tuesday, and there was a passenger train going from the capital, Athens, to Greece's second-largest city. And it was at a high speed, and it crashed, collided directly with a freight train heading in the opposite direction. Through some mistake, obviously, they were both on the same track even though it was a double-track line. And they hit each other just as one of the trains was exiting a tunnel under a motorway, under a highway.

INSKEEP: So you have this moment where two trains collide in the most extreme way possible - head-on. The speeds must have been tremendous.

GATOPOULOS: Yes, and especially if you combine the speeds. And the freight train was carrying very heavy cargo. It was construction material. There was steel plates and stuff used in construction. So the impact was incredible. It sent the other train basically flying up into the air, landing, twisting and catching fire. And they're still pulling out bodies from the wreckage after they've managed to lift the heavy parts of the front part of the train by crane.

INSKEEP: I'm looking at images of rail cars, a few of them that look like they're completely burned up inside and far off the track. What has the search for survivors been like?

GATOPOULOS: Well, the search for survivors has basically been in the front carriages of the passenger train and the rest are mainly injured. And the deaths have been at the front. And a lot of the people have been trapped in the wreckage. Some were pulled free alive. Some were pulled dead. But they haven't been able to get to some of the people who have died, even though they've located them, until now, when they can bring in heavy lifting and specialized equipment because before, it was more of a - the priority was to get out people alive.

INSKEEP: Mr. Gatopoulos, here in the United States, there was a freight train wreck a few weeks ago, and it has sparked a long-running debate about freight rail regulation, about railroad safety. Does this crash in Greece reflect any larger concerns that people have about their rail system?

GATOPOULOS: I think it probably will. The rail system is not very extensive in Greece. It's mainly between the two largest cities, so it's generally considered to be sort of almost a sleepy line and quite safe. So rail accidents like this are quite unusual 'cause it's just not a busy network. And I'm sure it will generate a lot of debate because the rail system has recently been privatized. So inevitably, people will be looking into whether the network and the track and the maintenance of it was run down before the - it was all sold.

INSKEEP: Derek Gatopoulos of the Associated Press in Athens, thanks so much.

GATOPOULOS: Thank you.

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INSKEEP: Here's another story we have for you this morning - Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot is out. She was knocked out in the first round of Tuesday's election, the first time in 40 years that an elected Chicago mayor lost a bid for reelection. Two challengers, Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson, were both ahead of her, and they advance from the nine-person field and will now face each other in a runoff election on April 4; which makes only one term then for Lori Lightfoot, who was the first Black woman to serve as Chicago mayor and also Chicago's first openly gay mayor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.