STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
I'm here with an NPR team in Beijing because China is showcasing its global ambitions today, Rachel. President Xi Jinping is hosting a forum for more than 30 leaders of other nations, from the president of the Philippines to Russia's Vladimir Putin. It's a forum supporting Xi's Belt and Road Initiative, infrastructure projects across Asia to Europe and to Africa, even beyond. President Xi greeted all the leaders in a glass-walled convention center that is many blocks long.
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PRESIDENT XI JINPING: (Speaking Chinese).
INSKEEP: "We need to protect the earth where we all live," he said. And he promised projects that are both good for the environment and free of corruption.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
But what about that, Steve? Some tension in that quote because aren't a lot of the Chinese projects accused of not being good for the environment or free from corruption?
INSKEEP: Yeah, absolutely. I said that President Xi is promoting Belt and Road, but I might just as easily say defend Belt and Road. It is clear that Chinese officials know that the United States and some allies are increasingly skeptical of what China is up to, how polluting are some of these projects - coal-fired power plants, for example. And also, is China seeking power as well as money and investment here?
MARTIN: Right, OK, so tell us more. What is China up to?
INSKEEP: Well, China will say they just want to better connect the world, and they're reaching back to China's tradition of trade along the Silk Road, which went from China to Europe in - in ancient times and that they want to increase trade. Now they talk about cooperating with developing nations. Economists and experts on China say this country, whose economy has grown so massively, is dealing with what they call overcapacity. They are really able to build infrastructure. There are massive airports, massive train stations, massive highways in this country. And in some cases, in some places, they're too big. And there are too many of them.
So where do you put all those people to work building even more infrastructure? You send them overseas, maybe. The United States looks at all of this, though, and sees China loaning money to developing nations, sometimes on bad terms for bad projects, and increasing its influence there as it gains more and more control and more and more leverage over various developing nations.
MARTIN: So what does China say to that allegation, that building all this infrastructure in all these places is just a power play?
INSKEEP: Well, they insist that they're really all about cooperation and partnerships. President Xi today, in a speech to the other world leaders who came to attend, suggested that if other nations want to help finance these projects, they can. But in any case, China seems determined to lay out a lot of money. And we should remember, Rachel, it's money. And developing nations want it.
MARTIN: Right. So these projects, especially the ones that are to be built, are these really going to be any greener or less corrupt?
INSKEEP: Well, the language has certainly gotten greener. It's been noted by some that the last time there was a big forum, a couple of years ago, to discuss Belt and Road, the word green was not used a lot. It's being used constantly here this week. But really, the projects that are being built mirror China's own economy. Let's just talk about energy projects for a moment. China does a lot of wind power. China does a lot of solar panels. This is something they're very proud of doing, and they're proud of spreading those kinds of projects overseas when they're developing things.
But China also gets most of its energy from coal-fired power plants, which affect climate change, of course. And it's exporting those projects as well. And as a matter of fact, just the other day yet another Chinese-built coal plant opened in Pakistan. That's a place that needs a lot of electricity for sure. There are a lot of blackouts in Pakistan. But it is a coal-fired power plant. And that's what China knows how to do. And they're doing things that they know how to do.
MARTIN: Steve Inskeep, reporting from Beijing, China. Steve, thanks.
INSKEEP: Glad to do it.
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MARTIN: What do Americans care about most? It's the question that probably should be at the center of political life in the United States. And it's a key question to answer if you're a politician trying to decide what to focus on.
INSKEEP: NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell spent some time with Democratic Congresswoman Cheri Bustos in her Illinois district, a so-called pivot district, a swing district which went for both President Obama and for President Trump.
MARTIN: Kelsey's in the studio with me. Good morning, Kelsey.
KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: Why this particular district?
SNELL: Well, it is in northwest Illinois, kind of bordering Iowa, actually. And Cheri Bustos is an interesting character because she is going to be running the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for 2020. So she is in charge of making sure that Democrats get reelected in the House. And a big part of her strategy is defending districts like the 40 freshmen who beat Republicans in the last election. And she wants to find a way to make sure that they can speak to voters in the way that keeps them with the Democratic Party and keeps them from fleeing back to the Republicans they voted for before.
MARTIN: Right, to secure those gains and expand them. So what'd you see on your trip? What are folks talking about there?
SNELL: Well, we started the day in Moline, Ill., which is the headquarters of John Deere tractors. Now, this is...
MARTIN: Did you ride a tractor?
SNELL: I didn't get to ride a tractor, unfortunately.
MARTIN: Oh, Kelsey.
MARTIN: Next time.
SNELL: We - it also has a lot of rail and industry there. And we went to a bunch of small towns and just kind of - it's part of her regular routine to ask voters what she should be talking about when she goes back to Washington. You know, what none of them talked about was the special counsel, Robert Mueller, or the impeachment of President Trump. One by one, they went up to her and asked her about - questions about things like health care. And they wanted to know about whether or not there was going to be a new rail stop added nearby. And they talked about local issues.
So I went up, and I followed up with a number of them. And I asked, why didn't you, if you had this opportunity to talk to the person who represents you in Washington, ask about these big national issues? It's only been about a week since we saw the report from Robert Mueller. And I talked to Deirdre Mannon (ph), who runs a paratransit service that brings people who are disabled to their appointments and, you know, around town in Galesburg, Ill. And this is what she told me.
DEIRDRE MANNON: This is more important than what she says about impeachment - most definitely - because she's one vote when she's talking impeachment.
MARTIN: Such a lesson - right? - in how Washington perceives these big national questions about our democracy, the role of rule of law when, actually, it's just the same kitchen table issues that have motivated voters since the beginning of time.
SNELL: Right. I mean, and at some level it feels a little bit like we're a broken record. We've been saying for a long time that was what won Democrats the House in 2018, was talking about health care. But there was some question about whether or not things would change after the Mueller investigation started to wrap up. And it seems like so far, that's not what's happening. I asked Bustos about it. And she predicted that this was what would happen because she says this is what she hears every day.
CHERI BUSTOS: These are the kind of things that they talk about on a day-to-day basis. They are not obsessed about what Donald Trump is doing day in and day out.
SNELL: And her advice to people running in these types of districts is to stick to the issues that got you elected. Don't start talking about the big national issues when your voters really care about, you know, making sure that their needs are served.
MARTIN: Which is what Nancy Pelosi has said as well...
MARTIN: ...Trying to temper expectations of some Democrats.
SNELL: Shaping up to be the strategy for 2020.
MARTIN: All right, NPR's Kelsey Snell. Kelsey, we appreciate it.
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MARTIN: It is all over.
INSKEEP: And I have some language here, Rachel, that I feel I should be reading like a movie announcer. So let me try this.
MARTIN: Go for it, Steve.
INSKEEP: (Imitating movie announcer) After 11 years, 22 films and more heroes and villains than you can shake a magic hammer at, the current iteration of the Marvel Cinematic Universe comes to a climactic close this weekend with "Avengers: Endgame."
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ROBERT DOWNEY JR: (As Tony Stark) I know I said no more surprises, but I was really hoping to pull off one last one.
MARTIN: That was pretty good. You pulled it off. You pulled it off.
INSKEEP: Thank you very much. Thank you.
MARTIN: OK, I'm joined now in our studios by NPR's Glen Weldon. It is always a good day when Glen Weldon is in our studios to talk superheroes.
GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: Oh, thanks, Rachel.
MARTIN: So we're going to try to keep this conversation as spoiler-free as possible, right?
WELDON: Yeah, I don't want people coming after me. Let's try.
MARTIN: No, no, all right. So let's do it. This is a big movie for all kinds of reasons, including the fact that it is just a really long movie, right?
WELDON: Three hours and two minutes.
MARTIN: Three hours and change. Why?
WELDON: (Laughter) Well...
MARTIN: Why is it that long?
WELDON: OK, it's the culmination of a really long story. You've got a lot of characters to address. You've got a lot of storylines to wrap up. And some of those storylines have been going on for 11 years now. That said, let's do some service journalism here.
WELDON: It's probably best to manage a couple of things going to this film - one, your expectations and, two, your fluid intake because I went into this thing parched. And I was grateful for it because once this thing starts going, there's not a lot of places to duck out.
MARTIN: There's not a bathroom break.
WELDON: So go in chapped.
MARTIN: (Laughter). OK, is this a movie for the casual observer of the "Avengers" series - say - say, like me, who's never engaged in these movies, but maybe, hey - maybe I want to check this one out?
WELDON: It depends on how casual because if you don't know these characters, it will mean precisely nothing to you because this is what happened at the end of the last film, in "Avengers: Infinity War." You had this massive purple intergalactic despot named Thanos, who turned exactly half the population of the entire universe into dust...
WELDON: ...With a snap of his fingers, right?
WELDON: That's the big event. Now, Marvel wants us to call that the decimation. But, Rachel, you and I are not going to do that because we know that words have meanings.
MARTIN: Yes, they do.
WELDON: Decimation means one-tenth. You reduce the population by one-tenth.
WELDON: So we will call it - you and I - the Snapture (ph). And so when we meet the - the remaining Avengers coming into this film, they've just had a massive loss. And they are kind of cycling through different Kubler-Ross stages of grief. Some of them despair, rage, depression - all of it.
MARTIN: OK, that sounds very emotive.
MARTIN: But it doesn't really sound very, like, violent or like a big slug fest.
WELDON: Well, that's the thing. For the first two hours of this film, it is intensely intimate and even...
MARTIN: It's about feelings.
WELDON: ...Somber - right, right - because, again, it's about grief. Now, there are plenty of very funny moments in those first two hours, from Chris Hemsworth's Thor and Mark Ruffalo's Hulk, who both look a bit different than the last time we saw them...
WELDON: And Paul Rudd's Ant-Man, who was just as goofy and ever - as ever he was. And now, it cannot possibly be considered a spoiler to say that there is a big climactic battle here. And when it comes, it is some of the most thrilling superhero cinema I have ever seen.
WELDON: And, Rachel, I have seen a lot.
MARTIN: You have seen a lot.
WELDON: Yeah - because it's all based on how familiar we are - at least people like me are - with these characters. That's - it's all grounded in that affection. So if you see it, see it with a crowd - for the cheers, for the boos, for the sniffles.
MARTIN: Oh, sniffles.
MARTIN: There's crying.
WELDON: I saw it at a press screening, and jaded - jaded jerks like me were sniffling.
MARTIN: Crying. OK, box office - really, biggest ever?
WELDON: Probably, yeah - I mean, the last one made $258 million in its opening weekend, just - just, you know, here in the States. This one internationally could go, some analysts are saying, as big as a billion worldwide in its opening weekend.
MARTIN: You said you were sniffling during this. Is that because it - there are no movies - there are no more of these movies?
WELDON: The next "Spider-Man" film is six weeks away. So I think we're good.
MARTIN: All right, you're OK. You're OK. Who's counting? Glen Weldon is an editor on the NPR Arts Desk and a panelist on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour. Glen, thank you so much.
WELDON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.