New top story from Time: The White Tiger Is a Complex Crime Drama with a Dazzling Performance at Its Center

Sometimes a great face is all you really need to set a movie spinning, and Ramin Bahrani’s The White Tiger, adapted from Aravind Adiga’s 2008 novel, has one: Adarsh Gourav plays Balram, the antihero of this sometimes bitterly funny, sometimes wrenching crime drama. When we first meet him, he is a slick, self-styled entrepreneur in Bangalore, a city he calls “the Silicon Valley of India.” But this wily, ambitious Balram—with his trendy clothes and neatly waxed mustache—used to be a very different Balram, a kid from a small village who saw his father work himself into an early death, funneling every rupee he made to the boy’s controlling grandmother, a formidable figure he calls granny. (In this story, there’s no room for warm matriarchal stereotypes doling out unconditional love.)

But Balram is exceptionally bright, and he’s good at school—an academic dignitary likens him to the “white tiger,” a special being who comes around just once a generation. And so, as a teenager, Balram decides to become a driver, in the hopes of leaving his village for a better life. He heads for the city and finagles his way into a job with the tyrannical landlord known as the Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar) who used to extort money from his village. Balram eventually becomes the personal driver of the Stork’s son, Ashok (played by the enormously appealing Rajkummar Rao), a progressive-minded young man who has spent time in America and has brought a raised-in-America wife, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra), home with him. Balram becomes their fawning servant not because it’s his choice but because it’s his destiny: this isn’t just the best job he can find; it’s the job he was born to do.

NETFLIX—© 2020 Netflix, Inc.Adarsh Gourav ​as ​Balram​

The White Tiger is a bitter indictment of caste-system rigidity embedded within a Scarface-like, rags-to-riches story. You want Balram to succeed even as you recoil at almost every choice he makes along the way: sometimes he’s a victim of others’ cruelty and thoughtlessness. But he also makes calculating and, worse, morally reprehensible choices. This is a complex whirl of a story, and Bahrani—the director of films like Man Push Cart and Goodbye Solo, as well as HBO’s recent Fahrenheit 451—navigates it deftly. Many of the movie’s visual signals are easy to read: you can’t fail to see the contrast between Ashok and Pinky’s large, lavish apartment in Delhi and the cockroach-infested shed Balram calls home—it’s really just a place he goes to sleep, since his work hours essentially have no limits. But the story’s emotional subtleties give it a depth that’s sometimes painful to reckon with. Ashok and Pinky are essentially kind to Balram, but they also condescend to him. This is the push-pull of the master-servant relationship, the key dynamic of the story. Balram is obsequious because he has to be, but he can’t help resenting his bosses’ pedigree and money. He’s also aware that, despite their seemingly modern ways, they see him as inferior. “Do we loathe our masters behind a facade of love,” he asks himself at one point, “or do we love them behind a façade of loathing?” His meager livelihood depends on his capacity for loyalty and subservience, but he can’t help wanting more for himself.

Read more reviews by Stephanie Zacharek

There’s poverty in every country, and in every country there are people yearning to do better for themselves. But The White Tiger—especially Gourav’s performance, marvelous in its intensity and shifting tones—captures that drive in a specific and persuasive way. Balram is a kind of genius, figuring out how to game a complex system, thousands of years old, that’s stacked against him; his opportunism is a survival mechanism. But then—most pronounced in a scene when the Stork tries to use him as a pawn in a heinous scheme—his face betrays a pure and melting guilelessness that can cut right through you. His future depends on learning how not to be a poor country kid. The White Tiger, a fiction set in the recent past, in a real place, is a compelling and extremely well crafted crime drama. But the price Balram pays for his success is a steep one, and the movie’s ending is more unsettling than it is exhilarating. It makes you feel you’ve been left with a problem you can’t solve.


New top story from Time: Big Tech’s Business Model Is a Threat to Democracy. Here’s How to Build a Fairer Digital Future

The Trump era ended in 2021 with a violent mob storming the seat of American democracy. Among the many factors behind the riot—from white supremacy to President Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric—experts largely agree that the flourishing of misinformation online played a major part. But when we look back on the 2020s, will that dark day in January be seen as a crescendo, or as an omen?

For many of the most thoughtful analysts of 21st century democracy, any answer to that question runs through the terrain of Silicon Valley. Social media has connected families across oceans, al- lowed political movements to blossom and reduced friction in many parts of our lives. It has also led to the rise of industrial-scale misinformation and hate speech, left many of us depressed or addicted, and thrust several corporations into unprecedented roles as the arbiters of our new online public square. Our relationships, the way we’re governed and the fates of businesses large and small all hinge on algorithms understood by few and accountable to even fewer.

This was made clear to many Americans in the days after the Capitol riot, when Trump was suspended from Twitter, Facebook and eventually YouTube for his role in inciting the violence. Some denounced the moves as censorship; others wondered why it had taken so long. One thing most agreed on: Silicon Valley CEOs should not be the ones making such momentous decisions.

Under President Joe Biden, tech reform will take on a new, almost existential urgency for American democracy. With the new Congress, his Administration can set the terms to regulate an industry that, since its birth amid the tech optimism of the 1990s, has produced the most powerful corporations on earth while escaping almost all oversight. “This decade is critical,” says Shoshana Zuboff, a professor emerita at Harvard Business School and the author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. “Our sense of the possible has been crippled by two decades of helplessness and resignation under the thumb of the tech giants. That is changing as we come to understand the wizard be- hind the curtain. Right now, we are eager for change.”

The global tide of public opinion is turning against the tech companies. Activists have been sounding the alarm bell for years, particularly after 2017 Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, when hate speech shared by extremists on Facebook fanned the flames of ethnic cleansing, which the platform later admitted it did not do enough to prevent. The Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2018 brought home to people that personal data they had given up so freely to Facebook could be used against them. And while the platforms say they are doing all they can to scrub misinformation, hate speech and organized violence from their sites at scale, they’re often failing. The consequences of those so-called online harms appear in the offine world, in ISIS recruitment, white-supremacist terror, vaccine skepticism and the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories like QAnon.

Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, testifying remotely during a Senate hearing on Section 230, on Oct. 28
Michael Reynolds—Pool/Getty ImagesMark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, testifying remotely during a Senate hearing on Section 230, on Oct. 28

“Social media has introduced this large-scale vulnerability into our media ecosystem,” says Joan Donovan, research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. “And they want to deal with it on a case-by-case basis rather than looking at the design of their products.” Like other experts, Donovan says the core problem with the social platforms lies in their algorithms that choose to amplify content according to the amount of “engagement” it provokes. Posts that are hateful or controversial or play into preconceived biases tend to gain more likes, comments and shares than those that are thoughtful, lengthy or nuanced.

“The platforms want people to stay on their sites as long as possible, and so there was always an incentive for content that was going to be emotionally resonant,” says Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor at the Syracuse University department of communication and rhetorical studies. “It’s not that these platforms love hate speech. It’s that their algorithms were designed to make sure people were seeing the kinds of things that were going to keep them on the site.”

The unaccountable power of the tech platforms lies not just in the algorithms that dictate what posts we see, but also in how that translates to profits. As Zuboff argues, the wealth of the Big Tech companies has come from extracting data about our behaviors and using the insights from those data to manipulate us in ways that are fundamentally incompatible with democratic values. Our emotions and behavior can now be intentionally, and secretively, manipulated by the platforms: in 2014, Facebook revealed it had conducted a study that found it could successfully make people more happy, or sad, by weighting posts differently in the News Feed. And it has long boasted that its I VOTED sticker increases voter turnout.

The business models of Facebook and Google are grounded in that manipulative power, because advertisers who want to know how people will behave will pay handsome sums to steer that behavior. But the same business model has produced personal news feeds that let anyone choose their own reality, and a shared delusion that propelled thousands of Ameri- cans toward the U.S. Capitol gates.

In the brIghter future proposed by Donovan, Phillips and others, the deplatforming of a figure like Trump would be a last resort—something that could be avoided entirely, given time, by tweaking the algorithms so as to push misinformation, hatred and violence out of the center of our political discourse and back to the fringes where it came from.

Movement is already under way to build that future. Even before Biden took office, federal and state enforcers were pursuing new antitrust cases against Facebook and Google with renewed vigor, which could result in the platforms facing massive fines or even being broken up. Still, experts say, breaking up the firms will do nothing unless fundamental safeguards are put in place to limit their business models in a way similar to how strict regulations exist for food safety and aviation, for example.

One measure touted by President Biden has been the repeal of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the federal law that protects social media companies from being sued for hosting illegal content (a provision that allowed them to scale quickly and without risk). The platforms oppose the outright repeal of Section 230, arguing that it would force them to censor more content. Experts say Biden will need to not just repeal the law but to replace it with a progressive, future-oriented version that gives social platforms the protections they need to exist but also offers built-in mechanisms to hold them to ac- count for their worst excesses.

Across the Atlantic, there is already a model that American reformers could choose to follow. In December, the E.U. and U.K. each proposed sweeping new laws that would force tech companies to make their algorithms more transparent and, eventually,

accountable to democratically elected lawmakers. A key part of the E.U.’s proposal is that large tech companies could be fined up to 6% of their annual global revenue (several billions of dollars) if they don’t open up their algorithms to public scrutiny and act swiftly to counter societal harms stemming from their business models. Crucially, however, the law would safeguard platforms from liability for hosting illegal content unless they were shown to be consistently negligent about removing it.

The architects of those laws say the U.S. should not act too hastily. “Repealing Section 230 would probably have massive unintended consequences for privacy and free speech,” says Felix Kartte, a former E.U. official who helped draft the bloc’s proposed Big Tech regulation. “Instead, U.S. lawmakers should join the E.U. in forcing tech companies to protect the rights and safety of their users and to mitigate large-scale threats to democracy. Rather than regulating content, this would imply holding Big Tech to account for the ways in which their design features curate and amplify content.” Welcoming Biden’s Inauguration as a “new dawn” on Jan. 20, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said she would like to work with the new U.S. President to write a common digital “rule book” to rein in the “unbridled power held by the big Internet giants.”

Even under Biden, one significant roadblock re-mains: the fact that business as usual is highly profitable for the Big Tech companies. Social media’s appeal is in creating community, Zuboff notes. “But Facebook’s $724 billion market capitalization doesn’t come from connecting us,” she says. “It comes from extracting from our connection.”

While tech CEOs say they welcome regulation, Silicon Valley lobbyists in Washington are frantically working to pre-empt any restrictive legislation that might affect their burgeoning wallets. (Facebook and Amazon each spent more money on federal lobbying in the first three quarters of 2020 than in the same period in any previous year, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.) “It’s really going to matter who specifically the Biden Administration listens to,” Donovan says. “If you get the platform companies’ conceptualization of the problem, it’s in- dividual pieces of content. If you get the researchers’ approach to the problem, it’s the design of the service.”

Fixes to these problems won’t happen overnight. Phillips, the Syracuse professor, offers a metaphor of the platforms as factories leaking toxic waste into our democracies. As well as plugging the leak, and regulating the factories, and maybe looking for a cleaner form of energy altogether, the process of detoxifying more than a decade’s worth of pollution will take time. Still, if democracy reasserts itself over the tech giants in the years to come, the year 2030 will be a brighter one for our humanity and our democracies.

This appears in the February 1, 2021 issue of TIME.


New top story from Time: We Need a Fundamental Reset.’ Shoshana Zuboff on Building an Internet That Lets Democracy Flourish

Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, argues the threat to our democracy won’t recede unless we address the fundamental flaws of the business model that companies like Google and Facebook have ridden to market dominance—a model built on extracting data about our behaviors, and using the insights from those data to manipulate us. Zuboff spoke to TIME on what to expect from the next 10 years.

The details of the algorithms used by big tech platforms are known to nobody outside the companies that operate them. How do you begin to regulate something like that?

We have backed ourselves into an untenable social framework, where a few giant companies own and operate the Internet. The companies are black boxes, outside of societal influence and democratic control. Their surveillance economics compel them to extract data from our lives at a massive scale. They simply claimed the right to treat our private lives as raw material for their profit. The data come from us, but they are not for us. The more they track us and engage us, the more data they gather, the better they can target, manipulate, and predict future behavior— insights that they sell to lucrative markets of business customers. Algorithms are engineered to amplify the most extreme, angry, toxic content, drawing people in to maximize data extraction.

These operations undermine human autonomy and create huge societal asymmetries of knowledge and power—a whole new dimension of inequality. We are learning the hard way about their destructive effects on society and democracy. These systems can be regulated, but the fact is that we’ve barely even tried so far. Important new legislative proposals in the E.U. and the U.K. would for the first time insist that the largest tech platforms are accountable to audit and oversight, the rule of law and the established rights of citizens. The message is that democracy is finally on the move after two decades of surveillance capitalism having all the power.

Casting your gaze forward to 2030: What do democracy, society and our social platforms look like if we embark upon a new course?

Conversations about democracy, technology and the economic dominance of surveillance capitalism are now inseparable. Looking ahead to the year 2030, I put my bet on democracy because it’s the best idea humanity has ever had, despite all of its obvious imperfections. When I wake up every morning I’m thinking about what I can do to contribute to this, so that our societies mobilize to double down on democracy.

This begins with saying out loud that the current state of affairs is intolerable. Massive commercial surveillance for the sake of a few companies is disfiguring our societies. Intolerable. My kids discuss encryption software and how to hide in their own lives from invasive tracking and data extraction. Intolerable. Our public discourse is ruled by a handful of people for the sake of their profits. We never voted for them and cannot influence them.

Intolerable. We are relegated to bystander status in our own societies. Intolerable. As citizens we begin by joining together in our communities, organizations, associations, political networks to demand an end to commercial surveillance. Our lawmakers hear from the tech lobbyists every day. They need to feel us at their backs instead. We are poised at a new beginning, and not a moment too late. If we do that, 2030 will be fundamentally different than the horrors that we’re experiencing today.

Tech platforms hold so many promises for connections across boundaries. What benefits can they still bring to the world?

Facebook entered our lives with great promise. We want to be connected. Just as a century ago we embraced the telephone, we embraced Facebook. Then surveillance capitalism was invented and the whole project turned extractive and adversarial. It’s no longer about connection, but about exploiting personal information for profit. That’s what leads to amplification of extremism and all the rest. So, let’s go back to the original promise and do it right. The boundaries between the virtual and real worlds have melted, and therefore the laws and rights that protect us must govern both.

People should have the rights to decide what becomes data and what remains private. We must have the rights to decide how those data are shared, and for what purpose. We will need new institutions and pathways so that data can be used to enhance our lives, communities, and societies. This was the original promise of the digital age, and it remains within our reach. We’ve been hijacked, but we can change the trajectory.

Instead of massive concentrations of data to manipulate our commercial and political behavior, data becomes a critical resource for people and society. We use it to enhance our cities, towns, and neighborhoods; to make sure everybody’s got food; everybody’s got a doctor and a teacher. We cure diseases and work on the climate crisis. We clear the space for new kinds of businesses that actually care about people and want to solve our problems. There’s no tweaking any of this to get us where we need to go. We need a fundamental reset.

If any of this sounds impossibly idealistic, I offer two thoughts. First, we learned in the 20th century how to tether industrial capitalism to democracy and create a more equal and prosperous society. We’ve strayed from that vision, but we are on our way back to it, now for a digital century. Second, our sense of the possible has been crippled by two decades of helplessness and resignation under the thumb of the tech giants. That too is changing as we come to understand the wizard behind the curtain. Right now, we are eager for change, and every path forward leads through democracy guided by a shared vision of a democratic digital future.


New top story from Time: How China Could Change the World By Taking Meat Off the Menu

It’s lunchtime in Shanghai’s leafy former French Concession, and every table is crammed at David Yeung’s new café and grocery, Green Common. Office workers and shoppers huddled against the January chill are wolfing down plates of katsu curry, noodles and spicy dumplings.

For Yeung, the popularity of his first outlet on the Chinese mainland is a source of considerable pride, given that its doors opened barely two weeks earlier. But he’s more pleased by its other distinction: no animal products grace the menu at all. Instead, plant-based alternative proteins, sourced from China, Korea and the U.S., are used in these traditionally meat-based dishes. “The idea is to showcase some of the best products from around the world so that people can enjoy a mind-blowing vegan meal,” says Yeung, who is also the founder of the Hong Kong plant-based protein firm OmniFoods.

The buzz around Green Common is another sign that China is on the cusp of a plant-based-protein revolution that has investors as well as diners licking their lips. China came by its love of meat only recently; in the 1960s, the average Chinese person consumed less than 5 kg of meat annually. But as in comes soared following Deng Xiaoping’s market-driven “reform and opening” of the late 1970s, consumption rose to 20 kg per capita by the late 1980s and has now reached 63 kg. Today, China consumes 28% of the world’s meat, including half of all pork.

But as in rapidly modernizing societies everywhere, today’s Chinese are embracing healthier lifestyles, not least following health crises like the coronavirus pandemic and African swine fever (ASF), which wiped out half of China’s hog herd between 2018 and 2019. China’s market for plant-based meat substitutes was estimated at $910 million in 2018—compared with $684 million in the U.S.—and is projected to grow 20% to 25% annually. KFC has begun selling plant-based chicken nuggets. Yeung’s pork substitute OmniPork is now on the menu across China at thousands of Taco Bell and Starbucks branches, where it is used to make everything from tacos to salads. Competitor Z-Rou—rou is Mandarin for meat—is offered by supermarkets, restaurants and two dozen school canteens.

The implications could be transformative not just for China but also for the world. More than any other nation, China has the ability to leverage economies of scale. It has done so many times before: some of China’s richest entrepreneurs positioned themselves at the vanguard of breakthrough technology slated to receive huge state backing, such as solar panels, mobile payments and electric vehicles. Li Hejun, dubbed the nation’s solar-panel king, rose to become China’s richest man in 2015 with a fortune worth $30 billion by riding a wave of renewable-energy subsidies that also caused prices to plummet and spurred widespread their adoption. State backing for AI unveiled in 2016 helped spawn top tech firms including TikTok parent ByteDance, the world’s most valuable unicorn, worth some $100 billion.

Could the state do the same for meatless meat? Just as international food conglomerates like Nestlé, Unilever and Cargill are plowing millions into plant-based protein, Chinese competitors are jostling for market share in anticipation of huge state contracts and government perks like tax breaks and free factory space. David Ettinger, a partner at Keller and Heckman LLP’s Shanghai office, says now is “the most exciting time” of his two decades specializing in food law: “Rather than managing things, I think China will let the industry lead.”

The largest impact may be not on the economy but on the environment. China has already pledged to see carbon emissions peak by 2030 and make the world’s worst polluter carbon-neutral by 2060. As livestock farming produces 20% to 50% of all man-made greenhouse gases, finding alternative protein sources is crucial to meeting these targets. Halving China’s animal-agriculture sector could result in a 1 billion metric-ton reduction of CO2 emissions. Crucially, state action could have real consequences—China’s authoritarian system enables it to dictate commercial priorities and consumer behavior across its 1.4 billion population. While Donald Trump disparaged global warming as “an expensive hoax,” Joe Biden has called it “an existential threat.” Whether the superpowers can work together on this issue may ultimately define whether the world can meet its emissions targets over the next decade. “You can’t do anything on climate change unless you bring China with you,” says professor Nick Bisley, dean of humanities and social sciences at Australia’s La Trobe University.

The ripple effects would be felt globally. Apart from reducing carbon emissions, water consumption and the risk of zoonotic pathogens entering the human population, switching to plant-based protein can help safeguard rain forests cleared for the cultivation of animal feed and protect people against the heart disease, cancer and diabetes associated with heavy meat consumption.

There’s still some way to go before China eagerly embraces novel proteins. The higher cost and un-familiar taste of meat substitutes may prove to be obstacles to turning plant-based protein into an everyday staple across the world’s largest population. Regulators also need to give the industry sufficient room to flourish. But entrepreneurs like Yeung say it’s getting easier to make a case to bureaucrats and consumers alike. “After the last few years, it’s no secret that meat production is infinitely risky,” he says. “Disease and extreme climate issues are sadly not going to change unless we make a change first.”

Until recently, the primary motivation for people to shun meat was concern for animal welfare. Not anymore. Today, broader concerns about the environment and health are energizing millennials and Gen Z globally to embrace flexitarian lifestyles, where animal products are purged from diets at least some of the time. As in the U.S., China’s cosmopolitan cities are leading the way. In 2008, just 5% of Hong Kongers classified themselves as vegan or flexitarian, according to a Hong Kong Vegetarian Society survey. Today, it’s 40%.

Following the coronavirus outbreak, which was first detected in China, governments and consumers around the world are more cognizant of the swelling risks posed by industrial farming and reliance on imported food. But COVID-19 wasn’t the only, or even the first, alarm bell. The ASF outbreak that decimated China’s pig population in 2019 resulted in national pork output hitting a 16-year low. In December, Japan suffered its worst avian flu outbreak on record, which led to the culling of 5 million chickens. Vince Lu, the founder of Beijing-based alternative-protein firm Zhenmeat, says the pandemic, the trade war and environmental degradation are galvanizing interest in plant-based proteins. “China urgently needs an alternative meat supply,” he says. “It’s about national security.”

Chinese consumers have turned plant-based meat alternatives into a $910 million industry and growing
Xiaopeng Yuan for TIMEChinese consumers have turned plant-based meat alternatives into a $910 million industry and growing

Signs are building that the state will put its weight behind plant-based meat. China’s government has published guidelines to cut meat consumption in half by 2030 to reduce pollution and combat obesity. In August, President Xi Jinping launched a “clean plate campaign,” calling food waste “shocking and distressing” and highlighting the need to “maintain a sense of crisis about food security” in China. For David Laris, an Australian celebrity chef and environmentalist who has had restaurants in New York, Hong Kong, Shanghai and London, “It’s just a matter of time before Xi says we’ve all got to eat less meat in a big way.”

Culturally, the Chinese are perhaps better placed to embrace plant-based protein than Americans indoctrinated by a powerful meat lobby and a founding myth built around cowboys and beef ranches. (Even so, many Americans are fast changing their eating habits; alternative milks like soy, oat and almond accounted for less than 1% of the overall U.S. market a decade ago. Now it’s 12% and growing.)

In China, by contrast, “mock meat” has been popular with Buddhists, who often do not eat meat, since the Tang dynasty, with tofu a substitute for fish and taro for shrimp. Fried dough sticks dunked in soy milk—records of which date back 1,000 years—remain a popular breakfast across the Middle Kingdom. Vegetarian restaurants are commonplace near Buddhist temples and shrines. Every Chinese supermarket stocks a dazzling array of bean curd and substitute meat products made with gluten.

This kind of familiarity is helping plant-based protein go beyond the purview of “tree huggers,” as Yeung puts it. In January, Chinese fried-chicken franchise Dicos—a KFC rival and one of China’s top three fast-food chains—swapped the real egg in all its breakfast sandwiches with an alternative derived from mung beans made by California-based Eat Just. At the BrewDog pub in Shanghai, customers quaff craft porters and pilsners over games of shuffleboard while ordering nachos and burgers from a menu that proudly offers both meat- and plant-based options. “Around 30% of sales today are plant-based,” says general manager Gabriel Wang. Eat Just CEO Josh Tetrick, who recently opened his first foreign office in Shanghai, predicts that by 2030 the majority of eggs, chicken, pork and beef consumed by urban Chinese won’t require animal ingredients. “It’s going to happen a lot faster than people realize, and Asia will lead the way,” he says.

But popularizing plant-based meat beyond China’s cities might be a greater challenge. Government guidelines promoting plant-based proteins for factory canteens and school cafeterias would play an enormous part in reducing costs and raising public awareness. Some private schools are already electing to feed students with meat alternatives; for example, Dulwich College high school in Shanghai serves weekly meals prepared with Z-Rou. But as budgets for lunches in government-run schools stand around 7 rmb ($1.08) per student, state intervention in the form of subsidies and mandatory quotas may be necessary to make plant-based options feasible across the board. Given the potential size of school contracts, this could be transformative—and also familiarize the next generation with meat alternatives. “If we want to win a customer for life, students are a great place to start,” says Z-Rou founder Frank Yao.

The fact that plant-based proteins are currently priced considerably higher than their animal equivalents is an undeniable hurdle for notoriously thrifty Chinese consumers. Yet this is expected to change as competition and scale drive down costs. Moreover, snowballing agricultural crises like avian flu and ASF can make meat prices extremely erratic. Pork prices more than doubled in China in 2019 following an ASF outbreak, making it extremely difficult for restaurateurs to both keep customers smiling and turn a profit. That plant-based proteins are largely immune to such fluctuations—and help mitigate disease outbreaks that cause spikes in meat prices—is a huge boon across the industry.

The biggest barrier to plant-based meats might be its most elemental: taste. While the industry has come on by leaps and bounds over recent years, elderly Chinese so obsessed with freshness that they trawl wet markets that sell meat and fish could prove a stumbling block to widespread adoption of processed, packaged alternatives.

That will change over generations, for sure, although now the race is on to engineer plant-based meat products specifically to Chinese tastes. Whereas the popularity of ground beef in the West makes it the obvious starting point, Chinese diners typically have far wider tastes, including meatballs for hot pot, filling for dumplings or strips of meat for stir-fries. Zhenmeat is even working on a plant-based shrimp substitute. “Right now, the technology’s not ready for plant protein to make the texture of a chunk or slice of meat,” says Zhenmeat’s Lu. “It will require investment and patience.”

Still, the technology is so undeveloped that there is endless potential to improve taste and cut costs. There are existing protein-synthesis techniques—incorporating fermentation, micro-algae and insects—used in cosmetics, biomedicine or industry processes that could potentially be repurposed for food. “We’re starting from scratch here,” says Yao of Z-Rou. “So why can’t China create brands and have a seat on the table for what the future of food is going to be?”

Albert Tseng, co-founder of impact investment firm Dao Foods, is backing 30 startups that focus on the Chinese plant-based-protein market, including established player Starfield. One venture is utilizing cell-based meat, or animal protein grown in a laboratory. Although more controversial than synthesizing meat from everyday plant materials like soy or wheat, the technology is growing fast. In 2017, China signed a $300 million deal to import cultured-meat technology from Israel. At last year’s Two Sessions annual parliament, Sun Baoguo, president of the Beijing Technology and Business University, argued cell-based meat alternatives were a matter of “strategic importance” to “guarantee China’s future meat supply.” For Tseng, “there are the talent, resources and capital in China to really build this industry.”

It’s already happening elsewhere. In November, Eat Just, the maker of Just Egg, became the first firm anywhere to receive regulatory approval for selling cultivated meat, after being given the green light in Singapore for its lab-grown chicken. With the coronavirus galvanizing anxiety over the fragility of food supply chains, the tiny city-state has set ambitious new targets to produce 30% of its food domestically by 2030. But given that less than 1% of Singapore’s 270-sq.-mi. area is agricultural land, innovations like vertical farming and cellular meat will be key. Many other governments are becoming more accepting of alternatives. “In places like China and Singapore, there’s less of a fixation about what happened yesterday and more on what makes sense for today and tomorrow,” says Tetrick.

There would be losers in a major shift toward meat alternatives. Beyond the disruption to China’s $82 billion meat market, there’s also the fact that 60% of soy grown across the world is currently shipped to China, mainly for animal feed. The success of plant-based protein may decimate crop demand and prices worldwide, upending markets and roiling politics. The question for all, says Yeung, “is do the collective wins outweigh the losses?”

Given the weight of scientific evidence, it’s growing ever harder to justify eating meat as simply a personal choice. Much like smoking in public, Yeung says, eating steak and bacon every day has collateral environmental impact that jeopardizes the future of everyone. China, like the world, is waking up to the risks of asking our planet to support 7.7 billion people as well as 677 million pigs, 1.5 billion cattle, 1 billion sheep and 23 billion chickens. “The reality is that industrial livestock farming isn’t sustainable,” says Yeung. “We don’t have a choice. We have to change.”

With reporting by Madeline Roache/London

This appears in the February 1, 2021 issue of TIME.


New top story from Time: Amsterdam Is Embracing a Radical New Economic Theory to Help Save the Environment. Could It Also Replace Capitalism?

One evening in December, after a long day working from home, Jennifer Drouin, 30, headed out to buy groceries in central Amsterdam. Once inside, she noticed new price tags. The label by the zucchini said they cost a little more than normal: 6¢ extra per kilo for their carbon footprint, 5¢ for the toll the farming takes on the land, and 4¢ to fairly pay workers. “There are all these extra costs to our daily life that normally no one would pay for, or even be aware of,” she says.

The so-called true-price initiative, operating in the store since late 2020, is one of dozens of schemes that Amsterdammers have introduced in recent months as they reassess the impact of the existing economic system. By some accounts, that system, capitalism, has its origins just a mile from the grocery store. In 1602, in a house on a narrow alley, a merchant began selling shares in the nascent Dutch East India Company. In doing so, he paved the way for the creation of the first stock exchange—and the capitalist global economy that has transformed life on earth. “Now I think we’re one of the first cities in a while to start questioning this system,” Drouin says. “Is it actually making us healthy and happy? What do we want? Is it really just economic growth?”

In April 2020, during the first wave of COVID-19, Amsterdam’s city government announced it would recover from the crisis, and avoid future ones, by embracing the theory of “doughnut economics.” Laid out by British economist Kate Raworth in a 2017 book, the theory argues that 20th century economic thinking is not equipped to deal with the 21st century reality of a planet teetering on the edge of climate breakdown. Instead of equating a growing GDP with a successful society, our goal should be to fit all of human life into what Raworth calls the “sweet spot” between the “social foundation,” where everyone has what they need to live a good life, and the “environmental ceiling.” By and large, people in rich countries are living above the environmental ceiling. Those in poorer countries often fall below the social foundation. The space in between: that’s the doughnut.

Marieke van Doorninck, deputy mayor for sustainability, is trying to make Amsterdam a “doughnut cityâ€
Judith Jockel—Guardian/eyevine/ReduxMarieke van Doorninck, deputy mayor for sustainability, is trying to make Amsterdam a “doughnut city”

Amsterdam’s ambition is to bring all 872,000 residents inside the doughnut, ensuring everyone has access to a good quality of life, but without putting more pressure on the planet than is sustainable. Guided by Raworth’s organization, the Doughnut Economics Action Lab (DEAL), the city is introducing massive infrastructure projects, employment schemes and new policies for government contracts to that end. Meanwhile, some 400 local people and organizations have set up a network called the Amsterdam Doughnut Coalition—managed by Drouin— to run their own programs at a grassroots level.

It’s the first time a major city has attempted to put doughnut theory into action on a local level, but Amsterdam is not alone. Raworth says DEAL has received an avalanche of requests from municipal leaders and others seeking to build more resilient societies in the aftermath of COVID-19. Copenhagen’s city council majority decided to follow Amsterdam’s example in June, as did the Brussels region and the small city of Dunedin, New Zealand, in September, and Nanaimo, British Columbia, in December. In the U.S., Portland, Ore., is preparing to roll out its own version of the doughnut, and Austin may be close behind. The theory has won Raworth some high-profile fans; in November, Pope Francis endorsed her “fresh thinking,” while celebrated British naturalist Sir David Attenborough dedicated a chapter to the doughnut in his latest book, A Life on Our Planet, calling it “our species’ compass for the journey” to a sustainable future.

Now, Amsterdam is grappling with what the doughnut would look like on the ground. Marieke van Doorninck, the deputy mayor for sustainability and urban planning, says the pandemic added urgency that helped the city get behind a bold new strategy. “Kate had already told us what to do. COVID showed us the way to do it,” she says. “I think in the darkest times, it’s easiest to imagine another world.”

In 1990, Raworth, now 50, arrived at Oxford University to study economics. She quickly became frustrated by the content of the lectures, she recalls over Zoom from her home office in Oxford, where she now teaches. She was learning about ideas from decades and sometimes centuries ago: supply and demand, efficiency, rationality and economic growth as the ultimate goal. “The concepts of the 20th century emerged from an era in which humanity saw itself as separated from the web of life,” Raworth says. In this worldview, she adds, environmental issues are relegated to what economists call “externalities.” “It’s just an ultimate absurdity that in the 21st century, when we know we are witnessing the death of the living world unless we utterly transform the way we live, that death of the living world is called ‘an environmental externality.’”

Almost two decades after she left university, as the world was reeling from the 2008 financial crash, Raworth struck upon an alternative to the economics she had been taught. She had gone to work in the charity sector and in 2010, sitting in the open-plan office of the antipoverty nonprofit Oxfam in Oxford, she came across a diagram. A group of scientists studying the conditions that make life on earth possible had identified nine “planetary boundaries” that would threaten humans’ ability to survive if crossed, like the acidification of the oceans. Inside these boundaries, a circle colored in green showed the safe place for humans.

But if there’s an ecological overshoot for the planet, she thought, there’s also the opposite: shortfalls creating deprivation for humanity. “Kids not in school, not getting decent health care, people facing famine in the Sahel,” she says. “And so I drew a circle within their circle, and it looked like a doughnut.”

Lon Tweeten for TIMEInner Ring: Twelve essentials of life that no one in society should be deprived of; Outer Ring: Nine ecological limits of earth’s life-­supporting systems that humanity must not collectively overshoot; Sweet Spot: The space both environmentally safe and socially just where humanity can thrive

Raworth published her theory of the doughnut as a paper in 2012 and later as a 2017 book, which has since been translated into 20 languages. The theory doesn’t lay out specific policies or goals for countries. It requires stakeholders to decide what benchmarks would bring them inside the doughnut—emission limits, for example, or an end to homelessness. The process of setting those benchmarks is the first step to becoming a doughnut economy, she says.

Raworth argues that the goal of getting “into the doughnut” should replace governments’ and economists’ pursuit of never-ending GDP growth. Not only is the primacy of GDP overinflated when we now have many other data sets to measure economic and social well-being, she says, but also, endless growth powered by natural resources and fossil fuels will inevitably push the earth beyond its limits. “When we think in terms of health, and we think of something that tries to grow endlessly within our bodies, we recognize that immediately: that would be a cancer.”

The doughnut can seem abstract, and it has attracted criticism. Some conservatives say the doughnut model can’t compete with capitalism’s proven ability to lift millions out of poverty. Some critics on the left say the doughnut’s apolitical nature means it will fail to tackle ideology and political structures that prevent climate action.

Cities offer a good opportunity to prove that the doughnut can actually work in practice. In 2019, C40, a network of 97 cities focused on climate action, asked Raworth to create reports on three of its members—Amsterdam, Philadelphia and Portland—showing how far they were from living inside the doughnut. Inspired by the process, Amsterdam decided to run with it. The city drew up a “circular strategy” combining the doughnut’s goals with the principles of a “circular economy,” which reduces, reuses and recycles materials across consumer goods, building materials and food. Policies aim to protect the environment and natural resources, reduce social exclusion and guarantee good living standards for all. Van Doorninck, the deputy mayor, says the doughnut was a revelation. “I was brought up in Thatcher times, in Reagan times, with the idea that there’s no alternative to our economic model,” she says. “Reading the doughnut was like, Eureka! There is an alternative! Economics is a social science, not a natural one. It’s invented by people, and it can be changed by people.”

The new, doughnut-shaped world Amsterdam wants to build is coming into view on the southeastern side of the city. Rising almost 15 ft. out of placid waters of Lake IJssel lies the city’s latest flagship construction project, Strandeiland (Beach Island). Part of IJburg, an archipelago of six new islands built by city contractors, Beach Island was reclaimed from the waters with sand carried by boats run on low-emission fuel. The foundations were laid using processes that don’t hurt local wildlife or expose future residents to sea-level rise. Its future neighborhood is designed to produce zero emissions and to prioritize social housing and access to nature. Beach Island embodies Amsterdam’s new priority: balance, says project manager Alfons Oude Ophuis. “Twenty years ago, everything in the city was focused on production of houses as quickly as possible. It’s still important, but now we take more time to do the right thing.”

Lianne Hulsebosch, IJburg’s sustainability adviser, says the doughnut has shaped the mindset of the team, meaning Beach Island and its future neighbor Buiteneiland are more focused on sustainability than the first stage of IJburg, completed around 2012. “It’s not that every day-to-day city project has to start with the doughnut, but the model is really part of our DNA now,” she says. “You notice in the conversations that we have with colleagues. We’re doing things that 10 years ago we wouldn’t have done because we are valuing things differently.”

The city has introduced standards for sustainability and circular use of materials for contractors in all city-owned buildings. Anyone wanting to build on Beach Island, for example, will need to provide a “materials passport” for their buildings, so whenever they are taken down, the city can reuse the parts.

On the mainland, the pandemic has inspired projects guided by the doughnut’s ethos. When the Netherlands went into lockdown in March, the city realized that thousands of residents didn’t have access to computers that would become increasingly necessary to socialize and take part in society. Rather than buy new devices—which would have been expensive and eventually contribute to the rising problem of e-waste—the city arranged collections of old and broken laptops from residents who could spare them, hired a firm to refurbish them and distributed 3,500 of them to those in need. “It’s a small thing, but to me it’s pure doughnut,” says van Doorninck.

The city says the Beach Island development will prioritize balancing the needs of humans and nature
Gemeente AmsterdamThe city says the Beach Island development will prioritize balancing the needs of humans and nature

The local government is also pushing the private sector to do its part, starting with the thriving but ecologically harmful fashion industry. Amsterdam claims to have the highest concentration of denim brands in the world, and that the average resident owns five pairs of jeans. But denim is one of the most resource-intensive fabrics in the world, with each pair of jeans requiring thousands of gallons of water and the use of polluting chemicals.

In October, textile suppliers, jeans brands and other links in the denim supply chain signed the “Denim Deal,” agreeing to work together to produce 3 billion garments that include 20% recycled materials by 2023—no small feat given the treatments the fabric undergoes and the mix of materials incorporated into a pair of jeans. The city will organize collections of old denim from Amsterdam residents and eventually create a shared repair shop for the brands, where people can get their jeans fixed rather than throwing them away. “Without that government support and the pressure on the industry, it will not change. Most companies need a push,” says Hans Bon of denim supplier Wieland Textiles.

Of course, many in the city were working on sustainability, social issues or ways to make life better in developing countries before the city embraced the doughnut. But Drouin, manager of Amsterdam’s volunteer coalition, says the concept has forced a more fundamental reckoning with the city’s way of life. “It has really changed people’s mindset, because you can see all the problems in one picture. It’s like a harsh mirror on the world that you face.”

Doughnut economIcs may be on the rise in Amsterdam, a relatively wealthy city with a famously liberal outlook, in a democratic country with a robust state. But advocates of the theory face a tough road to effectively replace capitalism. In Nanaimo, Canada, a city councillor who opposed the adoption of the model in December called it “a very left-wing philosophy which basically says that business is bad, growth is bad, development’s bad.”

In fact, the doughnut model doesn’t proscribe all economic growth or development. In her book, Raworth acknowledges that for low- and middle-income countries to climb above the doughnut’s social foundation, “significant GDP growth is very much needed.” But that economic growth needs to be viewed as a means to reach social goals within ecological limits, she says, and not as an indicator of success in itself, or a goal for rich countries. In a doughnut world, the economy would sometimes be growing and sometimes shrinking.

Still, some economists are skeptical of the idealism. In his 2018 review of Raworth’s book, Branko Milanovic, a scholar at CUNY’s Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality, says for the doughnut to take off, humans would need to “magically” become “indifferent to how well we do compared to others, and not really care about wealth and income.”

In cities that are grappling with the immediate social and economic effects of COVID-19, though, the doughnut framework is proving appealing, says Joshua Alpert, the Portland-based director of special projects at C40. “All of our mayors are working on this question: How do we rebuild our cities post-COVID? Well, the first place to start is with the doughnut.” Alpert says they have had “a lot of buy-in” from city leaders. “Because it’s framed as a first step, I think it’s been easier for mayors to say this is a natural progression that is going to help us actually move out of COVID in a much better way.”

Drouin says communities in Amsterdam also have helped drive the change. “If you start something and you can make it visible, and prove that you or your neighborhood is benefiting, then your city will wake up and say we need to support them.” In her own neighborhood, she says, residents began using parking spaces to hold dinners with their neighbors during summer, and eventually persuaded the municipality to convert many into community gardens.

Citizen-led groups focused on the doughnut that are forming in places including São Paulo, Berlin, Kuala Lumpur and California bring the potential to transform their own areas from the bottom up. “It’s powerful when you have peers inspiring peers to act: a teacher inspires another teacher, or a schoolchild inspires their class, a mayor inspires another mayor,” Raworth says. “I’m really convinced that’s the way things are going to happen if we’re going to get the transformation that we need this decade.”

COVID-19 has the potential to massively accelerate that transformation, if governments use economic-stimulus packages to favor industries that lead us toward a more sustainable economy, and phase out those that don’t. Raworth cites Milton Friedman—the diehard free-market 20th century economist—who famously said that “when [a] crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” In July, Raworth’s DEAL group published the methodology it used to produce the “city portrait” that is guiding Amsterdam’s embrace of the doughnut, making it available for any local government to use. “This is the crisis,” she says. “We’ve made sure our ideas are lying around.”

This appears in the February 1, 2021 issue of TIME.