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Displaced by War, Ukrainians Open a New Front as Entrepreneurs

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Oksana Dudyk scanned a small selection of ornamental plants lining the shelves of her new florist shop, recently opened in this city on Ukraine’s western frontier. Her eye landed on the perfect bloom for a new customer: fuchsia-colored primroses, vivid and lush, ideal for brightening an austere corner.

It was late afternoon, and the flowers were only her 10th sale of the day. But that was nothing short of a miracle for Ms. Dudyk, who started the shop with her last savings after fleeing her now-decimated hometown Mariupol under a hail of Russian rockets. Her husband, who enlisted in the Ukrainian army after the invasion, was captured by Russian forces in May and has not been heard from since.

“These flowers help me to get by,” said Ms. Dudyk, 55. A former construction engineer who before the war helped design and build schools, she said that she never imagined that she would one day sell flowers to survive. “They bring me joy, and they help customers too, by creating a positive atmosphere in this incomprehensible war.”

Ms. Dudyk is among thousands of Ukrainians who are picking up shattered lives and trying to start over, many creating small businesses that they hope will bring them and their new communities fresh purpose. Others are working jobs that are a step down from positions lost because of war, grasping lifelines to keep their families afloat.

“The Russian invasion has spurred a lot of people to pull up and start building new businesses,” said Andriy Sadovyi, the mayor of Lviv, which has become a locus for people fleeing the war-torn east. The government is encouraging this entrepreneurship by offering grants, zero-interest loans and other financial support for small businesses.

“Ukraine will remain unbroken,” he said, and a big part of that involves “ensuring that the economy develops and thrives.”

That would seem a daunting prospect as Russia prepares for new attacks in Ukraine’s east and south. Ukraine’s economy is projected to shrink by a third this year, according to the International Monetary Fund, and an estimated one-fifth of the nation’s small and medium-sized businesses have shuttered.

But many refugees who have fled war-torn areas are collectively forging a new front of economic resistance to Russia’s aggression.

The foundations are being laid by people like Serhii Stoian, 31, a former math professor who opened a tiny storefront selling coffee and fresh pastries in Lviv after fleeing a job in Bucha, the city now infamous for scenes of unarmed civilians killed by Russian soldiers. The cafe, named Kiit, after his cat who is missing in the war, struggled in its early days. But business is now so brisk that he is opening a second one in Lviv. A third is being planned for Kyiv.

“We came here with $500 in our pockets,” said Mr. Stoian, who now employs four people and works with a friend who became a business partner. “When we started, we promised to pay the landlord back in two months. We were able to pay him in just two weeks.”

Mr. Stoian had dreamed of opening his own cafe but never did, fearful of failure. As a side gig to teaching, he operated a YouTube cooking channel in Ukraine called Hungry Guy Recipes that has nearly 700,000 followers. “Life was pretty great,” he said.

He had just begun a part-time job at a bakery in Bucha, making pastries from his YouTube recipes, when the invasion brought everything to a halt.

“The bakery owner called at 5 a.m. and said, ‘We are being bombed. You have 10 minutes to join me if you want to escape,’ ” Mr. Stoian recalled. “My friend and I didn’t have time to think, because when you hear that Russia is invading, you can’t think,” he said. “I was worried about my cat, who was staying with neighbors. But we grabbed some clothes and documents and jumped into the car. And we drove like crazy.”

They wound up in Lviv, where they lived in a shelter jammed with other refugees from around the country. For three weeks, they helped women and children cross the border. But they needed paying jobs.

When Mr. Stoian saw a “for rent” sign on a tiny former souvenir shop, a light bulb went off. “We could rent that and sell coffee and pastry,” he recalled thinking. “We had no business experience. And we were a little worried because there is corruption in Ukraine. But my friend knew how to make coffee. And I could bake.”

They rented an espresso machine, and Mr. Stoian stayed up nights making fruit pies, rosemary cookies and cinnamon buns. But no customers came. Mr. Stoian began to despair. Then he erased the menu from the cafe’s chalkboard facing the sidewalk, and began to write out his dramatic tale.

“We moved here because of the war,” the message said. “We want to do what we do best: Make great coffee and pies. We believe in Ukraine. People have helped us and we want to help others.” He pledged to donate part of the shop’s proceeds toward the war effort. Military personnel were offered free coffee.

The next day, he said, there were lines of 20 to 30 people. After posting on Instagram, the cafe had up to 200 customers a day. It has been such a sensation that he has received inquiries about opening Kiit franchises.

Though buoyed by the success, he still grapples with the pain of the senseless killings of people he knew in Bucha, and the loss of his beloved cat, who his neighbors left behind as they fled from shelling. “Naming the cafe after Kiit helps me to go on,” he said.

On a recent day, he swept his eyes over the bare walls of his second Kiit cafe, the floor cluttered with construction equipment. “This is all still a gamble,” Mr. Stoian said. “And if we lose everything, that would be OK, because we started with nothing,” he said.

“But maybe we will also make it. Maybe we will be the next big success.”

For others, resilience means accepting a more awkward transition. Kirill Chaolin, 29, worked as a high-ranking trainer for air traffic controllers at Lviv’s international airport. His job was wiped out when Ukraine shut its airspace to commercial flights. In the last few months, Mr. Chaolin, who has a wife and 5-year-old daughter, has begun driving a taxi for Bolt, a rival to Uber, to get by.

“It’s hard to step down from a big job to do this,” he said, navigating through a crunch of traffic on a recent weekday. “But there is no choice: My family needs to eat.”

Scores of his former colleagues at Ukraine’s airports are doing the same, he added. “You must do whatever you need to survive.”

People like Ms. Dudyk are remaking their lives even as they struggle to surmount the war’s heavy toll.

She and her husband had been living a tranquil life in Mariupol, the port city that was one of Russia’s first strategic targets, and were about to visit Prague for vacation when the invasion started.

“We had decent salaries. A happy home,” said Ms. Dudyk, who has two children and four grandchildren. Her husband ran a window-making business and worked on the side as a beekeeper, tending 40 hives. As a construction engineer involved in significant building projects, Ms. Dudyk had a job that made her proud.

When Russia attacked, she and her father, aged 77, tried to hold out until a powerful blast ripped off the front of her house while they were sheltering inside, forcing them to flee under continued shelling toward Ukrainian-controlled territory.

Ms. Dudyk said her husband, 59, enlisted to fight the day Russia moved in, and joined Ukrainian forces inside the Azovstal steel factory. He was among 2,500 fighters taken by Russia as prisoners of war in May, and she has not heard from him since. Last month a blast at the prison camp left more than 50 dead, but Ms. Dudyk dreams that he will one day come home.

Today, home is a cramped shelter in a temporary modular town set up for Ukrainian refugees, where she lives with her father.

“I want to make the flower shop a success,” said Ms. Dudyk, who is expanding it with guidance from another refugee who once ran a nursery. If all goes well, her spartan storefront will be transformed with new shelves and more flowers.

Most of all, she wants to sell roses: “My husband always would bring me big bouquets,” she said with a smile. “But for roses, you need a refrigerator. And I don’t have the money.”

With her savings low, Ms. Dudyk has applied for a grant under the government’s program to support small and medium-sized businesses.

She takes nothing for granted. “When your country is being bombed, you realize that your life is threatened and everything can be taken away,” Ms. Dudyk said, a sunny woman whose blue eyes cloud with tears when the painful memories surface.

“You are planning for the future one moment, and in the next you lose everything. You start fighting for bare necessities — water, the ability to make a phone call to tell someone you’re still alive,” she said. “You wait for the nightmare to end, then you realize that the invasion is of such a huge scale, so what is the chance?”

As she spoke, a stream of customers filed in, and her face brightened. A deaf couple approached and gave her a hug, making the sign language symbol for tears — and then, a heart. She showed them her latest floral lineup, and they pulled out their wallets.

“I’m not a plant expert, but I know what can cheer people,” said Ms. Dudyk, who said she derives strength from a remarkable show of solidarity and support from her new Lviv neighbors. “Thanks to them,” she said, “I know I am going to make it.”

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China Says It Will Do More to Vaccinate Older People Against Covid

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Faced with growing social unrest over its tough pandemic measures, China said on Tuesday it would ramp up vaccination of its oldest citizens, a move that experts have argued is crucial if the world’s second largest economy is to ease Covid measures and reopen its economy.

Authorities will bring vaccines to people in nursing homes, go door-to-door, use mobile vaccination stations and press those who are reluctant to give a reason, according to a statement from the National Health Commission. About 90 percent of China’s total population is fully vaccinated, but among those 80 and older, the number is much lower — 65.8 percent are fully vaccinated, and only 40 percent have received a booster.

“It is necessary to speed up vaccination, especially the vaccination of the elderly,” said Xia Gang, a National Health Commission official in charge of vaccination. “I hope that elderly friends will actively complete the vaccination as soon as possible to protect the health of themselves and their families.”

The new initiative was made public ahead of a news conference with officials from China’s top health bodies on Tuesday afternoon. News of the briefing prompted rumors that authorities were considering easing testing and isolation requirements, stoking optimism in Asian financial markets that China was ready to make a bigger move away from its “zero Covid” rules. Despite no signs of a broader shift, investors appeared to be relieved that Chinese officials were making any effort.

Hong Kong’s market finished 5 percent higher, while in Shanghai and Shenzhen, stocks rose more than 2 percent.

Similar optimism fueled a rally in Chinese stocks earlier this month when investors on Wall Street made a bet that China would loosen its measures amid growing economic pain. That positive sentiment remained as China’s National Health Commission issued a flurry of small changes aimed at narrowing the scope of the country’s vast and intrusive pandemic apparatus.

But in the weeks since, it became clear that these measures would not amount to a broader shift in the “zero Covid” policy, and fears about the effect on the global economy have grown.

China faces a predicament: Its top leadership recognizes that a blanket approach to controlling the virus is taking an increasingly large economic and social toll, but leaders are worried that widespread infections will overwhelm a rickety health care system.

The pressures have become more acute in recent days, with people across China taking to the streets in a rare show of public protest against tough Covid lockdowns.

Chinese officials regularly point to the country’s vulnerable population — the old and very young — as a primary reason for why the country cannot afford to ease up.

China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, most recently called the “zero Covid” approach an “all out people’s war to stop the spread of the virus,” that has put “the people and their lives above all else.”

Joy Dong contributed to reporting from Hong Kong.

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US steps up pressure on European allies to harden China stance

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The US is pushing its European allies to take a harder stance towards Beijing as it tries to leverage its position on Ukraine to gain more support from Nato countries for its efforts to counter China in the Indo-Pacific.

According to people briefed on conversations between the US and its Nato allies, Washington has in recent weeks lobbied members of the transatlantic alliance to toughen up their language on China and to start working on concrete action to restrain Beijing.

US president Joe Biden identified countering China as his main foreign policy goal at the start of his administration, but his efforts have been complicated by the focus on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.

But with Russian president Vladimir Putin’s invasion in its 10th month, Washington was making a concerted effort to push China back up Nato’s agenda, the people said.

They said the US was trying to leverage the action it had been taking on Ukraine — including being the largest supplier of weapons and aid for Kyiv — into more concrete support for its policies in the Indo-Pacific region.

“The shift from the Americans on this has been noticeable,” said one of the people, all of whom declined to be identified given the sensitivity of the matter. “It’s really quite clear that they have decided now is the time to move on this.”

Asked about the push, a senior US official noted that Nato agreed on a new “strategic concept” in June that “addressed the systemic challenges” posed by China. “Our conversations on these issues continue,” the official added.

Referring to the 30 Nato allies endorsing the new concept at a summit in Madrid in June, a US state department official said Nato foreign ministers would “address ways to strengthen our resilience and the challenges posed by the PRC [People’s Republic of China]” at their ministerial meeting in Bucharest, Romania, this week.

“We deeply value and encourage a united European approach to China,” the official added.

Coordinating Nato members’ approaches to China is high on the list of topics to be discussed at the two-day meeting, which starts on Tuesday.

“What we have begun doing across the Nato alliance is to think about ways in which the alliance can address that challenge [from China] in concrete terms,” Julianne Smith, US ambassador to Nato, said on Monday.

“Allies [will] look to implement what they signed up to,” she added, “to move from what we call assessing the problem to addressing the problem.”

The ministers will discuss a new report on China, designed to harden the stance of the alliance, which in June identified Beijing as a “challenge” to its “interests, security and values” for the first time.

The report would address China’s military development, its efforts to exert influence on Nato members and third countries, and Beijing’s relationship with Moscow, officials said.

But many European allies are anxious the discussions might distract from what they view as the more pressing need to cement unwavering support for Ukraine.

In addition, while the EU is also assessing ways to toughen up its trade relations with China, the vast majority of Nato countries including Germany and France are reluctant to fully align their China postures with that of Washington.

“Let’s say that the United States has a certain tendency to be prescriptive, not just on China but about everything,” said a senior EU official, who suggested Europe would ultimately align closer to the US position. “Will we become, let’s say, completely isolated and in the middle between China and the United States? I don’t think so.”

While Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has forced the White House to step up its commitment to European defence, the US has made clear that this is a temporary respite from a long-term shift to countering China as its main strategic defence and security policy.

Last month, the Biden administration released its national security strategy, which made clear that China was the security priority over Russia, despite the latter’s “immediate and ongoing” threat.

Canada on Sunday announced its first Indo-Pacific strategy, outlining new spending to deal with a “disruptive” China.

Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said last week that Beijing was “not an adversary” but stressed the alliance had to respond to China’s military modernisation, collaboration with Russia and attempts to “control critical infrastructure in Europe”.

“So all of this makes it necessary for allies to address this together,” he told reporters. “And that’s exactly what we will do when we meet in Bucharest.”

Additional reporting by Felicia Schwartz in Washington

Follow Henry Foy and Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter



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Proud, Scared and Conflicted. What the China Protesters Told Me.

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They went to their first demonstrations. They chanted their first protest slogans. They had their first encounters with the police.

Then they went home, shivering in disbelief at how they had challenged the most powerful authoritarian government in the world and the most iron-fisted leader China has seen in decades.

Young Chinese are protesting the country’s harsh “zero-Covid” policy and even urging its top leader, Xi Jinping, to step down. It’s something China hasn’t seen since 1989, when the ruling Communist Party brutally cracked down on the pro-democracy demonstrators, mostly college students. No matter what happens in the days and weeks ahead, the young protesters presented a new threat to the rule of Mr. Xi, who has eliminated his political opponents and cracked down on any voice that challenges his rule.

Such public dissent was unimaginable until a few days ago. These same young people, when they mentioned Mr. Xi online, used euphemisms like “X,” “he” or “that person,” afraid to even utter the president’s name. They put up with whatever the government put them through: harsh pandemic restrictions, high unemployment rates, fewer books available to read, movies to watch and games to play.

Then something cracked.

After nearly three long years of “zero Covid,” which has turned into a political campaign for Mr. Xi, China’s future looks increasingly bleak. The economy is in its worst shape in decades. Mr. Xi’s foreign policy has antagonized many countries. His censorship policy, in addition to quashing challenges to his authority, has killed nearly all fun.

As a popular Weibo post put it, Chinese people are getting by with books published 20 years ago, music released a decade ago, travel photos from five years ago, income earned last year, frozen dumplings from a lockdown three months ago, Covid tests from yesterday, and a freshly baked Soviet joke from today.

“I think all of these have reached a tipping point,” said Miranda, a journalist in Shanghai who participated in the protest on Saturday evening. “If you don’t do anything about it, you could really explode.”

In the last few days, in interviews with more than a dozen young people who protested in Shanghai, Beijing, Nanjing, Chengdu, Guangzhou and Wuhan, I heard of a burst of pent-up anger and frustration with how the government implements “zero Covid.” But their anger and despair goes beyond that, all the way to questioning the rule of Mr. Xi.

Two of these people said that they don’t plan to have children, a new way to protest among young Chinese at a time when Beijing is encouraging more births. At least four of the protesters said that they were planning to emigrate. One of them refused to look for a job after being laid off by a video-game company in the aftermath of a government crackdown on the industry last year.

They went to the protests because they wanted to let the government know how they felt about being tested constantly, locked inside their apartments or kept away from family and friends in the Covid dragnet. And they wanted to show solidarity for fellow protesters.

They are members of a generation known as Mr. Xi’s children, the nationalistic “little pinks” who defend China on Weibo, Facebook and Twitter. The protesters represent a small percentage of Chinese in their 20s and early 30s. By standing up to the government, they defied the perception of their generation. Some older Chinese people said that the protesters made them feel more hopeful about the country’s future.

Zhang Wenmin, a former investigative journalist known under her pen name Jiang Xue, wrote on Twitter that she was moved to tears by the bravery of the protesters. “It’s hard for people who haven’t lived in China in the past three to four years to imagine how much fear these people had to overcome to take to the streets, to shout, ‘Give me liberty, or give me death,’” she wrote. “Amazing. Love you all!”

As first time marchers, most of them did not know what to expect. A Beijing protester said that she was so tense that she felt physically and emotionally exhausted the next day. More than one person told me that they needed a day to collect their thoughts before they could talk. At least three cried in our interviews.

They are proud, scared and conflicted about their experiences. They have different views about how politically explicit their slogans should be, but they all said that they found shouting the slogans cathartic.

Miranda, who has been a journalist for eight years, said that she couldn’t stop crying when she shouted with the crowd, “freedom of speech” and “freedom of press.” “It was the freest moment since I became a journalist,” she said, her voice cracking.

All the people I interviewed asked me to use only their first name, family name or English name to protect their safety. They had felt a relative safety when marching with others just days earlier, but none dared to put their name to comments that would be published.

The slogans that they recalled chanting were all over the place, illustrating the wide frustration with their lives. “End the lockdown!” “Freedom of speech!” “Give back my movies!”

Quite a few of them were taken aback by how political the Saturday protest in Shanghai turned out to be.

They were equally surprised, if not more, when more people returned on Sunday to request the release of protesters who had been detained hours earlier.

All six Shanghai protesters I spoke with thought that they were going to a vigil on Saturday evening for the 10 victims who died in a fire Thursday in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region in China’s west. In the beginning, the atmosphere was relaxed.

When someone first chanted, “No more Communist Party,” the crowd laughed, according to Serena, a college student who is spending her gap year in Shanghai. “Everyone knew it was the redline,” she said.

Then it became increasingly charged. When someone yelled, “Xi Jinping, step down!” and “C.C.P., step down!” the shouts were the loudest, according to Serena and other protesters who were also there.

In Beijing, a marketing professional in her mid-20s with the surname Wu told her fellow protesters not to shout those politically explicit slogans because that would guarantee a crackdown. Instead, she shouted slogans that urged the government to implement the rule of law and release detained Shanghai protesters.

A protester in Chengdu and one in Guangzhou, separated by 1,000 miles, both said that they were stopped from shouting slogans that other demonstrators deemed too political and were told to stick to the Covid-related demands.

For many of them, this weekend was their first brush with the police. A protester named Xiaoli in Chengdu said that she had never seen so many police in her life. After being chased by them, she said that she could hear her heart beating fast when she passed by officers on her way home.

It was clear that many protesters blame Mr. Xi for the extremely unpopular “zero-Covid” policy. A young Shanghai professional with the surname Zhang said that Mr. Xi’s norm-breaking third term, secured at last month’s party congress, spelled the end of China’s progress. “We all gave up our illusions,” he said.

He cried when he mentioned an old man’s question during this year’s Shanghai lockdown, “Why has our country come to this?” Mr. Zhang, who said that he grew up poor in a village, was grateful for the government’s assistance in his education. “I thought we would only move upward,” he added.

The young protesters are most conflicted about the impact of their actions. They felt powerless about changing the system as long as Mr. Xi and the Communist Party are in power. They believe that many people in the public supported them because the unyielding Covid rules have violated what they see as baseline norms of Chinese society. Once the government relaxes the policy, they worry, the public’s support for protests would evaporate.

At the same time, some of them argued that their protests would make the public aware of their rights.

No one knows what the protests will become — a moment in history, or a footnote. The official state media has kept quiet, though some pro-government social media bloggers have pointed fingers at “foreign forces.” Police have enhanced their presence on the streets and called or visited protesters in an attempt to intimidate them.

I asked Bruce, a Shanghai finance worker in his 20s, whether the protests meant that people have changed their view of Mr. Xi. He responded, “It was probably not because the public’s opinion of him changed, but because those who are critical of him have spoken up.”

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