Sunday, September 27, 2015

Google's 17, but what would life be like without it?

Today is Google's Birthday [Telegraph]. The tech giant has now been with us for 17 years and brought innovation and tools that many of us take for granted.

But what would life be like without Google?

For some the question "What would life be without Google?" is a no brainer. Life would be more awkward, more expensive and frustrating.

Of course there are the protagonists who claim Google has become too big and that its monopoly pushes out competition. Others claim the search giant has become Big Brother and is actively aiding the NSA.

Google has certainly become big, and indeed it does monopolise many people's lives. However its place in the online world has only been achieved due to the quality of products it supplies.

So can one really live without Google and is the competition really up to the job.


Let's start with search.

Once upon a time there was no such thing as Google. Even Bing had not even been conceived. People instead had to rely on the likes of the now defunct AltaVista. All too often good results were not returned and there were even old fashioned books sold and given away with useful Internet links published.

One such example is The Internet The Rough Guide. Published in 2000 it is a nearly 500 page book containing advice about the Internet, explaining the likes of email, Voip and web browsers.

This was at a time when Google had only been in existence for about 2 years. But it was beginning to become noticed. In the Rough Guide's section on search engines it refers to AltaVista, Northern Light, HotBot, Excite, GoTo, InfoSeek, Lycos, Snap and Webcrawler and notes that "not all search engines are equal".

AltaVista launched in 1995 but use waned as Google gained dominance. Yahoo bought up the company in 2003 but the search engine was eventually shut down. On June 28, 2013, Yahoo announced that AltaVista would be closed on July 8, 2013. Since that day, visits to AltaVista's home page have been redirected to Yahoo's main page. There is an irony that Yahoo was initially offered Google but the company turned down the offer [CNET].

GoTo has also faded from view having become incorporated into Yahoo's portfolio

Northern Light no longer offers NLSearch as a public news search engine and the company has moved to providing more specific needs to business users [Northern Light Group]. 

HotBot still exists however. But there will be few that head to this Lycos owned search engine.

Webcrawler is still active, though it, like many others, has changed hands and Webcrawler is now owned by Excite.

But while some of the search engines remain, albeit returning combined results from the main three - Google, Bing and Yahoo - others have fallen by the wayside altogether. Infoseek for example no longer exists in its original form since it was gobbled up by Disney. Snap has also disappeared into the ether.

'A future champ'

Google arrived at a time when the gaggle of other search engines provided varied and often useless results. Even as early as 2000 it was creating a stir and was drawing significant attention.

"Google is a promising newcomer," the 2000 Rough Guide said, referring to its "large database, an intelligent system of ranking hits by relevancy, and local cache access to pages that have disappeared."

"Check it out," the guide advised, "it looks set to become a future champ." Prophetic indeed. Nowadays people don't say "do an Internet search" they merely say "Google it".

Of course, Bing, Microsoft's answer to the search engine, and Yahoo do offer some competition, but Google remains the top search engine of choice. In certain countries Google has made less inroads, but this is often more to do with local politics. For example censorship and Internet blocks have all but pushed Google to the sidelines in China as most people are forced to use the home grown Baidu.

Google Maps

Google has moved on a long way since just offering search. Indeed search itself has been split into several categories.

Once search was just words. Now it is images, videos, news, shopping, books, flights and maps.

To take the last of these first, Google Maps is almost taken for granted now. But it was not so long ago that people relied on books. Computers changed that with things like Microsoft's Autoroute which was a stand alone mapping program covering parts of Europe. However is was finally discontinued in December 2014

While useful, Autoroute had disadvantages in that one would need to update software regularly given the building of new roads. Thus began various attempts to create online versions. Some may remember Mapquest or Multimap. Multimap was eventually bought up by Microsoft and became Bing Maps while Mapquest still exists. However Google's mapping solution has surpassed the competition despite being a relative latecomer to the party.

Indeed Google Maps is almost ubiquitous when it comes to finding one's way around the globe, even incorporating bus, train and tram timetables.

GMail & Docs

The list of products has grown exponentially. Word, a product costing in excess of $100, has been made almost redundant with Google Docs which has also incorporated spreadsheets, powerpoint presentations and other functions which were previously only available through stand alone programs.

GMail forced the competition, Yahoo and Hotmail, to change its ways both through functionality and size limits. Yahoo and Hotmail also lost their hold on the webmail market.

Of course there's no such thing as a free lunch, and Google funds its free services through analysing user data in order to target advertising, the core of its business model.

And in recent years Google has begun to make more money through the selling of Music, eBooks, Movies and Apps through platforms built into Android and its web infrastructure.

A life without Google

So where would we be if Google suddenly disappeared.

First you can say goodbye to your Android phone, at least in its current state. Android might continue, but there would be no Google sign-in and one would have to look towards new providers for app content. Gone too would be all your contacts, currently synced across all devices in one Google account.

Back to the good old days when one had to reprogramme a new phone with all those numbers once again!

The same would apply to all the other synced information stored in Google servers.

Chrome bookmarks, web history, years of Gmail messages, docs, picture back-ups, videos, purchased and saved books and music etc. They'd all be gone.

And of course there'd be no more YouTube. So no more watching endless videos of cats!

Rebuilding from scratch

After the initial shock one would have to pick oneself up and try to rebuild one's online life from scratch and find new online tools.

First off you'd need a new email account. The obvious choices would of course be Yahoo and Microsoft's Outlook - formerly Hotmail.

So far so good, though of course you'd have to rebuild your contacts list once again and install the App on your mobile device.

Loss of media

With the loss of Google many users would be without their large collection of books, music, films and TV programmes. Aside the inconvenience and financial loss, there are alternatives, though not necessarily under the same umbrella.

Apple offers a large collection of music to purchase and users may even store their own music in the cloud. However Apple charge $25 per year for 25,000 user-uploaded songs in iCloud while Google's current offering is 50,000 songs for free.

As regards books only Amazon is a serious competitor to Google Books and does have a few of the facilities such as uploading facilities, though not epubs.

When it comes to online video content there lots of providers but not all offer the ability to buy. There is Flixster which facilitates keeping a copy of a bought DVD in its online storage locker by way of tie-up with UltraViolet, and there is Amazon which offers purchase options. Sky TV also offers a DVD and cloud locker option.

However Google's offering is neater in that everything is under one roof. Furthermore the company regularly throws out a few freebies to its consumers.

Data and storage

One thing most people would miss aside of search and GMail would by Google Docs and Drive.

Microsoft of course offer some online alternatives, but Google Docs and Drive are far more intuitive. And of course there's the price one pays for all of these online services.

With 15 Gb free and 1 terabyte for a little over $100 per year Google offers the best value for online storage. What's more Google Drive works in a tree like structure so that one can simply upload folders within folders within folders. Microsoft's SkyDrive only allows files to be uploaded so folders have to be created first within the cloud.

There are certainly alternatives to most of what Google has to offer. And mankind would certainly adapt and move on without the Chocolate Factory, as it has been dubbed by some tech news outlets. But would using the Internet be as sweet. Probably not. Some have tried to live their life without it [BBC / Onedaywithoutgoogle.org / How I divorced Google], but the reach of Google is far reaching and almost impossible to avoid. 

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Friday, September 25, 2015

iPhones & Android at risk as smartphone malware increases

These past few months have raised concerns for mobile phone manufacturers and users alike. Indeed it does not seem to matter which platform one is using as hardly a week goes by when another exploit or vulnerability is publicised.

iPhone users this week found that Apple's so-called walled garden, where every app is vetted before being made publicly available on iTunes, was not enough to prevent infected apps being posted to the site.

Apple makes and distributes a suite of software development tools design to make apps for iOS and OSX. However, app developers in some countries had used fake software infected with malware. This in turn led to the distribution of malware infected apps which could pass on user data to undisclosed servers somewhere in the world.

The malware in the apps was so carefully hidden that Apple's own vetting system failed to spot it and the company only became aware after the issue was brought to their attention by Palo Alto Networks, an American network security company based in Santa Clara, California.

Rotten Apples hit by worms

Most of the apps identified in a list made available by Palo Alto Networks were Chinese apps and included the popular WeChat app which is used by millions of people in China and around the world.

What appears to have happened is that app developers in China downloaded the fake software from servers in China not related to Apple.

"In China - and in other places around the world - sometimes network speeds are very slow when downloading large files from Apple's servers," explained Palo Alto Networks in a blog post. "As the standard Xcode installer is nearly three gigabytes, some Chinese developers choose to download the package from other sources."

Indeed a simple search for 'Xcode 下载 ' on Google, and more importantly China's main search engine Baidu, offers up dozens of pages hosting the compromised version of the software.

Effects of Internet censorship

There was some indication that China's Internet restrictions may be partly to blame. The so-called Great Firewall of China which is employed to censor offensive and illegal material has another undesired effect of slowing down the Internet when it comes to opening pages beyond China's borders.

Even if a website is not blocked it must still pass through the Great Firewall's filtering system which may strip out certain web content. For example some pages may have embedded comment boards which use a Facebook log-in. Since Facebook is blocked in China these webpage elements will be stripped out before it arrives in a person's browser.

The firewall also looks for a series of banned words and terms. So even if a news website is otherwise available in China, should a page have a reference to the Dalai Lama, the Tiananmen Square Massacre or other contentious subjects, that page may be blocked. 

In fact even Chinese based websites, unless on a 'white list', may pass through filtering systems in order that the page be checked for 'illegal' content. The result is that even 'legitimate' and otherwise 'safe' websites may be extremely slow to load.

Putting customers at risk

Given downloading issues in China, app developers there sought quicker, but unsafe, alternatives. The average connection speed in cities like Beijing and Shanghai is only around 5 mbps [Source: SCMP] and so for small independent developers, with even slower connections, choosing a local source to download Xcode seemed to be a no-brainer.

But it wasn't just the small independent developers that downloaded and developed apps with the dodgy software. Even Internet giants such Tencent, which make the popular WeChat, were caught out and developed apps with the fake XcodeGhost software.

Damage control

Apple have responded by removing any infected apps from its walled garden. But much of the damage has already been done.

Many iPhone users, in China and around the world, may already have had their data compromised. Some may still be unaware of the bugs and even if they are, they may not know which apps to delete and replace with legitimate ones.

China is a place where rumours are abound on the Internet, and given the severity of the bug, even official Chinese media stepped in to alert people in China that the 'rumour' was in fact true and that users should delete or update the relevant apps.

For Apple this is a PR nightmare. Despite a proactive response, there may be some users who will lose their trust with the company. And in a country like China where mobile phone use is on the rise, this could be devastating for Apple.

China is a lucrative market for Apple, although iPhone use is still way below that of cheaper Android devices. Thus the firm will be pulling out all the stops in damage control, identifying and pulling apps from its online store [PC World / ArsTechnica].

App developers too were seeking to reassure their users. WeChat, known as Weixin in China, posted a statement on its blog saying that the latest version was risk free, but did not say how long users had been using a compromised version of the app.

"This flaw has been repaired and will not affect users who install or upgrade WeChat version 6.2.6 or greater," the statement said. The statement also claimed that there had been "no theft and leakage of users' information or money, but the WeChat team will continue to closely monitor the situation." [Bloomberg]

Anger & trust

This may be little solace for those who have used the app and had their data compromised. And there is an issue of trust since WeChat and others did not apply common sense or stringent security protocols when developing their app by using the official bonafide Apple software.

Indeed there seemed to be an angry response from Apple which said that developers "put customers at risk by downloading counterfeit software." Meanwhile Apple said they were now implementing more stringent vetting and verification systems. In a further criticism of the app developers concerned, the company said "Apple incorporates technologies like Gatekeeper expressly to prevent non-App Store and/or unsigned versions of programs, including Xcode, from being installed. Those protections had to have been deliberately disabled by the developer for something like XcodeGhost to successfully install." [Apple]

There seemed also to be anger coming from some users too. "Nice app but presently it's a security risk," one person stated in a review on the iTunes download page for WeChat, whilst also criticising "Tencent's poor management."

[BBC / Sky / Telegraph / Guardian / Techcrunch / The Australian / Reuters

Android bugs

Apple's iPhone is not the only smartphone confronted by security risks. The vulnerability of Android devices has been highlighted several times this year.

One of the most serious vulnerabilities was something dubbed Stagefright which could potentially allow a third party to gain control of a device and steal data [Android Central].

The bug allowed hackers to send a specially crafted MMS [Multimedia Messaging Service] message to the victim device and in most cases required no end-user actions upon message reception to succeed.

By default many text messaging apps, including Google's Hangouts app, automatically process video in a received MMS message so it is ready for viewing as soon as the user opens the message. Thus the attack could theoretically occur without a user being aware it had become a victim.

Whilst Google worked on a fix users were advised to turn off "Auto-retrieve MMS messages" in settings [Android Central].

The news of the exploit was concerning on a number of levels. Firstly the bug was found to exist in nearly every Android device on the planet, specifically every device above Android 2.2 Froyo. Around 0.2% of all Android devices still use Android 2.2 and the numbers using anything earlier are so negligible that there is little if any data showing the number of devices using earlier operating systems. In fact most devices will be running on Android 4.1 and above encompassing Jelly Bean, KitKat and Lollipop. In all the number of devices could exceed 1 billion [android developer dashboard].

Security updates

Google said it would update its Hangouts and Messenger apps so that they don't automatically process video messages in the background.

The bad news was that users would have to wait on the manufacturers and carriers to push out system updates.

And for older devices, updates - even related to security - may never arrive.

Google swiftly rolled out security updates for its flagship Nexus phones and tablets and announced they would release monthly security patches for devices in its Nexus range [Android Police / Android Central / Google Official Blog]. But that only covered recent models dating back to the Nexus 4 which was released in November 2012.

Those with older Nexus devices - the Nexus One, Nexus S and Galaxy Nexus - were essentially out in the cold.

The good news, however, appeared to be that despite some 900 million vulnerable phones in existence there were no reported cases of exploitation.

Fragmentation & security

There are few who doubt the advantages of the Android platform particularly concerning customisation. However, fragmentation and security is becoming a headache for Google and third party manufacturers as well as the millions of Android users around the globe.

Google Play has been criticised for its lack of security since apps were not, until relatively recently, vetted prior to being made available on the Android market place. Though, as we have seen even Apple's walled garden has not kept out all the weeds. Nonetheless, whilst Apple is often criticised for its walled garden which has delayed or even blocked the release of popular apps, the vetting that Apple applies to its iTunes store has significantly reduced iPhone users' exposure to malware.

While careful Android users might well have avoided installing malware via the Google Play store, all Android phone users appear to be vulnerable to a bug in the software known as Stagefright.

Google were of course made aware of the issue. But releasing a patch is not as simple as it sounds.

Because Android is open source, different manufacturers build upon the basic operating system, adding features some refer to as bloatware. Thus a patch designed for any of Google's Nexus flagship phones running stock Android may well conflict with the additional software running on other devices.

Even if there were no conflicts, the patch might not work and still leave security holes since Google might not be able to take into account the millions of pieces of different code running on other manufacturers' devices.

It is an issue which has highlighted the huge problems of so-called fragmentation [The Next Web].

Fragmentation and the fact that Android is open-source has created particular problems for users, app designers and of course the rolling out of security and other updates.

The issue of fragmentation used to be more an irritation to app developers and users. Apps designed for one version of Android might not work on another, and users of earlier versions of the OS were often left out in the cold. Meanwhile app developers struggled to keep up with Google's constant upgrades to the Android operating system. For example an app that once worked with KitKat might fail to work properly with Lollipop!

The issue of fragmentation as well as the fact that older devices are left without security support, has further compounded the problems surrounding the release of patches. Google might send them out to most of its Nexus devices, but the same patch may take weeks or months to arrive on other handsets via different carriers and mobile phone networks, if it ever arrives at all [Android Central].


Only days after Apple's iPhone issues came to light yet another issue surfaced that might affect a significant number of Android users.

According to reports millions of Android phones could be easily hijacked using software that was installed on them.

The malware was found packaged within an Android game called Brain Test which reports say was developed in China before being uploaded to Google Play, Google's Android app market.

Check Point researchers detected the malicious application and found it had been published twice in the Google Play Store. The research team found that it was removed from the store on August 24th after the company reached out to Google, but the app was reposted and was taken down again on September 15th. According to Google Play statistics the game was downloaded by up to 1 million users.

The security firm, Check Point, said the malware was capable of facilitating various cyber criminal goals, including installation of additional apps on the infected devices, download and run any code an attacker may want to, and possibly deploy a payload to steal user credentials [Daily Mail / IBT / V3 / VCCFTech / Register].

Increased vetting

Google claimed earlier this year that the number of malicious applications available in the Google Play Store halved this year. Adrian Ludwig, Lead Engineer for Android Security, had shared back in April that "the overall worldwide rate of Potentially Harmful Application [PHA] installs decreased by nearly 50% between Q1 and Q4 2014."

For a long time Google had been criticised for not employing vetting, as Apple does, and merely allowed anyone to make apps available. However given the rise of apps containing malware Google eventually began to scan apps that were submitted to its app store. Codenamed Bouncer, the software was intended to provide automated scanning of the Android app store for potentially malicious software without disrupting the user experience or requiring developers to go through an application approval process [Google Mobile blog]. Later in 2014 Google also rolled out scanning of apps on mobile devices in order to check apps form third-party sources as well as those from the Play store [Mashable].

However, it appears that those responsible for uploading the Brain Test app used multiple methods to evade detection by Google, including bypassing Google's "Bouncer" Android defence tool.

Android Installer Hijacking

Earlier this year Palo Alto Networks discovered that a vulnerability existed in Android that could allow an attacker to replace a legitimate app with malicious software that can collect sensitive data from a phone.

According to Palo Alto Networks the situation could only occur should a user download from a third-party site, rather than Google Play, and uncheck the install from Unknown Sources tab in the security settings.

China syndrome

Much of the risk appears to emanating from China. Brain Test is said to have come from China. Meanwhile the dodgy Xcode Ghost software used to make the malware infected apps for iPhones was distributed in China via Chinese cloud storage systems.

Some attacks have created massive problems for users. One report recently highlighted an instance where a Chinese advertising company infected and 'completely' hijacked hundreds of thousands of Android handsets with an attack which exposes a global botnet to easy hijacking and opens handsets to total compromise by any malware [The Register / FireEye].

And according to John McAffee, the man behind the well known anti-virus software, four Chinese airlines are supposedly installing spyware on the Android smartphones of passengers travelling on international flights [Softpedia / IBT].

But why trick people to installing malware when you can sell them a device with pre-installed malware as has been seen recently in parts of China [The Register / Softpedia / HackerNews].

Malware risk growing

Smartphones as we know them today have been with us less than a decade, and yet their use is almost ubiquitous. But even some of the first smartphones running on the Symbian operating system as far back as 2004 were prone to malware risks.

2004 saw the distribution of Qdial disguised as a trojanised version of the game, "Mosquitos," which would send premium rate text messages from compromised Symbian s60 platform devices. In November of that year the destructive Skulls virus was distributed through file-sharing sites and over email, and was designed to overwrite key files [History of Mobile Malware: PDF].

Such malware gained little attention, and for the most part was more an irritation than a major problem.

However, a decade on, with nearly every mobile phone user holding a smartphone in their hand, the dangers and risks from malware are far more serious.

Many people now do online banking, online shopping and conduct business on their mobile devices. And it is clear that both the major platforms, Apple's iPhone and Android, are vulnerable.

Future risks

With the introduction of Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, Android Pay and other mobile tap-to-pay tie ins with certain banks, security is all the more important.

Apple Pay which has been available in the US since October last year, began rolling out in Britain in July this year. Google started rolling out its own tap-to-pay solution, dubbed Android Pay, across the United States on 11th September. However it is still unclear when the company will roll out the service to Britain or Europe. Meanwhile Barclaycard have already rolled out its own tap-to-pay solution within an updated app allowing users to spend up to £100 [Daily Express].

All the tap-to-pay apps require NFC, or Near Field Communication chips to be built into the device. However, while Android Pay is yet to appear outside the US, Google does have an advantage that more than 40% of Android devices have NFC built in due to the fact that it became almost standard when it was released in 2011. Apple will have to rely on its users upgrading to the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus which are the only Apple devices with NFC built in [List of NFC enabled mobile devices].

There have already been concerns raised over data leakage from contactless debit and credit cards [Daily Express / This is Money]. However both Google and Apple claim that card information is not directly shared when a transaction is made with their respective systems and as is much more secure.

But with the list of more and more serious data breaches and vulnerabilities occurring, there may well be some who fear the risks are becoming too great.

Will Android users get stagefright after Stagefright and move to the 'dark side'? Will Apple fanboys discard their iPhones which have been shown to be just as vulnerable. Will smartphone users migrate to Windows Phones, which are reportedly more secure, and so far have seen no instances of malware attacks.

Google and its Android arm have a lot of work to do to beef up security and regain trust. Apple also need to take stock and be less blasé when it comes to their security. Assuming app developers have used the correct software and not checking for anomalies is almost as bad as the developers use of the dodgy software. XCodeGhost may have been a one off for Apple, or it may be just a hint at the many ghosts in the machine we might see in the future...

Google, Apple, Microsoft, the app developers and device manufacturers have a duty not only to their customers, but also to themselves and their shareholders and employees. Any big fail in trust or a significant data breach in which mobile users are shown to lose money could see these companies experience dwindling sales, lost profits, and the shedding of jobs.

It's time to wake up and smell the coffee.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Monday, September 21, 2015

Seeking harmony with China as Xi heads West

There's hardly a week goes by where China is not in the news. And this last week was no exception as China's President Xi Jinping set off for the US. Meanwhile the artist Ai Weiwei, a thorn in China's side when it comes to human rights, arrived in Britain at the opening of a retrospective exhibition at the Royal Academy.

Both individuals have attracted a large amount of media attention in the Western press, though you'd have been hard pressed to find any comment in China's media concerning the controversial artist.

Xi heads West

Even before Xi was expected to arrive in Seattle for the start of a week long visit, US media was publishing in depth analysis concerning Sino-US relations.

Issues concerning China's expansion in the South China Sea, the recent display of military might during the WWII commemorations in Beijing, and concerns over state sponsored cyber attacks were the focus of many articles.

War of words

While the US does much trade with China, and wishes to maintain a good business relationship, hacking and military concerns are rarely off the table [CNN] .

During an address at a 9/11 memorial event, President Obama weighed in over suspected Chinese cyber-attacks. "We've made very clear to the Chinese that there are certain practices that they're engaging in that we know are emanating from China and are not acceptable," Obama declared. "And we can choose to make this an area of competition — which I guarantee you we'll win if we have to — or, alternatively, we can come to an agreement in which we say, this isn't helping anybody; let's instead try to have some basic rules of the road in terms of how we operate." [Stars & Stripes]

Seeking common ground

For any such cooperation, China would have have to concede it was behind such attacks. However, China continually maintains that it is not involved in any state sponsored hacking or cyberattacks on America. Indeed it tends to fall back on the old rhetoric that China itself is a victim of such attacks, though it rarely releases any detail concerning such attacks.

The very same day in which President Obama made his comments, China's state run Xinhua news agency retorted with an article which called on the United States to stop its "groundless accusations" of cyber attacks, adding that "cybersecurity should be an area of cooperation rather than a source of frictions" [sic].  

However within days the rhetoric soften slightly with China claiming to have reached an "important consensus on cybersecurity" [Xinhua / Register].

Military expansion

Another bone that the US won't let go is China's perceived military expansion in the South China Sea and its increased military spend.

The building of islands has been the subject of particular concern for more than a year [NYT].

Meanwhile military exercises, some of which have come close to American shores have raised eyebrows in Washington [CNN].

In early September Chinese navy ships entered US territorial waters off of Alaska coming within 20 km from the coastline. But while US officials stressed the Chinese ships were doing operations "consistent with international law" there will surely have been some worries in Washington.

US officials said that under the maritime rule of "innocent passage," ships are permitted to enter territorial waters and are not challenged so long as they keep moving directly and expeditiously.

Sino-Russia ties

Nonetheless, there has been a growing number of Chinese military exercises, some of which have been held with Russia, a country with which China Xi Jinping has helped to bring closer to China [Telegraph].

In May this year Russia and China launched joint naval exercises in the Mediterranean for the first time, in the latest sign of strengthening ties between the two countries [The Diplomat / Telegraph].

The 'peacemaker'

The continued cyberattacks, military exercises, and growing military might seem to contradict Xi Jinping's overt claim that China will never seek hegemony. Indeed Xinhua even declared Xi Jinping a 'peacemaker' [Breitbart / Xinhua].

During the commemorations marking the "70th anniversary of the victory of the Chinese People's War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and the World Anti-Fascist War", Xi Jinping gave a 20 minute address in which he said China was committed to peace.

"In the interest of peace, China will remain committed to peaceful development," he said. "We Chinese love peace. No matter how much stronger it may become, China will never seek hegemony or expansion." [BBC / BBC blog / CNN /  Guardian / NYT / DNA India / Xinhua / CCTV - YouTube].

This was not quite how many in the west saw it. Indeed the Guardian referred to the parade as being more about power than peace. 

Pragmatism in face of trade

Such issues have been swept away as Xi heads towards American shores. The focus for the Chinese president is foreign trade. And as he flies West he takes with him the CEOs of 15 of his country's biggest companies, representing a combined market cap of nearly $1 trillion.

At least as far as Xi is concerned, this visit is about boosting China's slowing economy rather than patching up political differences [Australian / Washington Times / WSJ].

Amongst those following Xi's entourage will be Jack Ma, CEO of Alibaba, Ma Huateng, CEO of Tencent, Lenevo's CEO Yan Yuanqing and Li Yan Hong, CEO of China's biggest search engine Baidu in an effort perhaps to seek out new deals in the tech industry despite a turbulent history with the likes of Huawei and Google [WSJ].

These top executives represent the cream of China's technological prowess and shows how far China has come in less than a two decades.

Xi also takes his top financial representatives too including Bank of China chairman Tian Guoli, and Jiang Jianqing, Chairman of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China.

Business and industry is also strongly represented with Wanxiang Group chairman Lu Guanqiu, Pan Gang, Inner Mongolia Yili Industrial CEO, Wang Yusio, ENN Energy Chairman, Liang Haishan, Haier Group President, Ma Zehua, China COSCO Chairman, Guan Qing, China State Construction Engineering Corp President, Wan Long, CEO of the WH Group, Li Qiang, CEO of the Tianjin Pipe Corporation, and Wang Jinshu, Yuhuang Chemical Group Chairman joining him on his week long excursion.

Combined these companies have a total market value of some $987.3 billion, an indication of how important Xi sees his first state visit to the United States. "I place great importance on this visit and am looking … forward to a profound exchange of views with president Obama," Xi said last week [Guardian].

Speeches and dinners 

Xi is expected to give a policy speech at a gathering attended by dignitaries including the former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger when he arrives in Seattle's Westin Hotel in the downtown area of the city. And he is set to attend a roundtable hosted by the Paulson Institute, comprised of 15 US CEOs and 15 Chinese CEOs. Later he will reportedly visit Boeing's headquarters and tour its Everett factory which is likely to be involved in supplying China with a number of 737 aircraft [Seattle Times].

Of course the highlight of the trip will be Xi's visit to Washington where Obama will host the Chinese president at the White House [Shanghaiist]. Xi and wife, Peng Liyuan, will be attending dinner at the White House, though he is likely to be served more than just a Big Mac, a suggestion put forward by prospective Republican candidate Donald Trump last month [CNN / Washington Post].

UK also seeks deals

While the US prepares to butter up Xi Jinping, Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne was already in Beijing finalising details for Chinese investment for a new nuclear power station, the first to be built in the UK for 20 years [BBC].

The £2 billion deal marks the first investment of a China designed nuclear reactor to be built in the West [FT].

Announcing the move during a five-day visit to China, the George Osborne said the proposed plant was "essential" to ensure the lights stay on as ageing nuclear and coal plants are retired over the coming 10 years.

Osborne said the deal provided China with a "great investment opportunity" and represented just one of many projects that Britain was helping to negotiate between the two countries.

Cultural exchange

It is not just business deals that Britain seeks to broker. Britain also aims to share its culture. As George Osborne strolled the Beijing streets the British play War Horse - which tells the story of a horse, Joey, purchased by the army for service in World War One - was being played out in the city's National Theatre [China.org / BBC].

Meanwhile Neil MacGregor, director at the British museum, spoke of the importance of a new exhibition which aimed to celebrate the two countries' interconnected cultures [Telegraph].

This last week saw one of China's most important artists opening an exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. It drew a huge amount of interest and publicity, given the history surrounding the artist himself who has become known as much for his activism and his calls for human rights as he has for his art [Guardian / Telegraph].

Controversial art

That is not to say his art is not political. Nearly every piece on display at the Royal Academy is a statement on the more controversial side of China.

Amongst the exhibits is a sculpture of a surveillance camera made from marble mined from the same quarry as that which served to build Mao's mausoleum in Beijing. Then there is the less subtle depictions of Ai Weiwei's own incarceration following his detention by authorities in a piece he calls S.A.C.R.E.D - (i) Supper, (ii) Accusers, (iii) Cleansing, (iv) Ritual, (v) Entropy, and (vi) Doubt.

Other pieces focus on the tragedy of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake with one installation called Straight, comprising hundreds of reinforcing bars, taking up almost the entire space in one room [BBC]. Either side is a sobering reminder of the lives lost with the names of the many hundreds of children listed on large plaques.

Seeking harmony

Ai Weiwei points fun at the less than harmonious society he believes China to be. His installation He Xie, a collection of several hundred porcelain crabs, is a reference to an Internet meme.

The former Chinese president Hu Jintao often referred to the importance of building of a harmonious society in many of his speeches. For example during a speech at the Fortune Global Forum in Beijing on Monday 16th May 2005, Hu said, "We must focus on economic development as our central task, making development our top priority and facilitating and all-round progress in economic, political and cultural aspects and in the building of a harmonious society" [CNN].

But given many people in China saw his vision of a harmonious society as being somewhat incongruous with the suppression of dissent and the tight control on information in China, the homonym Hé Xiè [河蟹], or River Crab, was born, a word which has a similar pronunciation to Hé Xié [和谐] or Harmony. The term has since become a symbol representative of state censorship in China.


As well as making comment on Chinese politics, Ai felt it necessary to make a statement on a number of issues affecting Europe. Soon after arriving in London Ai Weiwei joined a fellow artist, Anish Kapoor, on a walk through London to highlight the plight of refugees fleeing places like Syria [Guardian].

He also made a special trip to the Ecuadorian Embassy in order to pose for a selfie with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange [TIME / Washington Post].

Ai Weiwei has not sought asylum in Britain, nor is he a refugee. But he nearly did not make it to the UK, or even out of China for his retrospective exhibition. Indeed there appeared to be some embarrassment about granting the artist a visa to visit the UK.

Authorities gave the artist only 30 days, rather than the six months he had applied for, saying he had lied about his convictions, though such convictions are a matter of debate since many regard them as illegal detentions rather an actual convictions [BBC].

Indeed there has been much speculation that the denial was more to do with another upcoming visit to Britain of someone considered more important that Ai Weiwei.

More pragmatism

Following his visit to Washington, the Chinese President Xi Jinping will stop off in London on his first visit to the British capital.

At the end of the day both the US and Britain needs China's money, while China needs trade. While issues concerning human rights have been raised, China is seen as "too economically important," so says Shaun Breslin, a China analyst, speaking to Sky News said in the wake of the announcement of the nuclear deal.

Having Ai Weiwei's exhibition in London is perhaps embarrassing enough given the timing of Xi Jinping's visit. But to have China's "most dangerous man" - as some have described Ai Weiwei - in his midst at the same time would be a little too hot to handle.

Both the US and UK have both sought a pragmatic approach to China. Gone are the days of Ping Pong politics of the 1970s [BBC]. China is now a serious player in the international game of trade, business, finance and politics. And in today's new world order the rules have changed [NYT].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Monday, September 14, 2015

China cautiously optimistic over Corbyn victory

China appears cautiously optimistic following Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the Labour leadership battle.

The left wing politician might prove to be far closer to China given his stance on a number of issues.

Corbyn, one article in a Chinese publication noted, was opposed to the "development of a US-Asia pacific strategy to promote tensions with China."

Right wing politicians were constantly engaged in "China bashing" whilst attempting to develop good business relations with China at the same time, the article said. However, the article also suggested that "left wing political forces frequently took up fake 'human rights' rhetoric of anti-China currents and had more conflictual relations with China."

While the article was written by a foreign contributor, it will have been vetted as are all articles published in China's state controlled media. And although it was only a single voice - much of China's media simply reported Corbyn's win without comment - the article does at least show that China is looking closely at Britain's political changes.

There is one aspect about Corbyn's politics which may interest China. The Communist Party of China claims to operate under the principles of Marxism-Leninism ideas and Corbyn is on the record as having said that he admired the founder of Communist ideology Karl Marx.

Speaking to the BBC political commentator Andrew Marr earlier this year, the Islington North MP said, "Marx obviously analysed what was happening in a quite brilliant way and the philosophy around Marx is fascinating." [Full interview via YouTube / on Marx via YouTube]. 

"He was essentially a fascinating figure … from whom we can learn a great deal," Corbyn said during a lengthy interview. However, he was seen by much of the media as having dodged the question [Express / Daily Mail].

Whether or not Corbyn admits his Communist sympathies, he is nonetheless seen as leaning towards the far left.

His election is thus seen as having killed off New Labour and, in the opinion of many UK papers, sent the party back to the dark ages. Indeed the Labour government of the 1970s is inextricably linked with strikes, industrial action and overspending on public services.

But while China, the far left and unions might be upbeat concerning Corbyn's leadership victory, his chances in a future general election are far from certain.

As the South China Morning Post observed Jeremy Corbyn's biggest task as Labour leader will be persuading voters that a Karl Marx fan can be prime minister.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Friday, September 11, 2015

Terror threat remains as 9/11 is remembered 14 years on

On this day 14 years ago America woke up to the scene of the World Trade Center burning after planes piloted by terrorists deliberately targeted the iconic towers.

The tragedy that befell Flights 11, 175, 77 and 93 became embedded in America's psyche and the horror of that day was etched into the memory of almost everyone. It was a day that left nearly 3,000 dead and one that changed the world forever.

Tightened airline security, growing cyber-espionage, increased NSA & GCHQ surveillance, foreign invasions and a resulting refugee crises are just some of things triggered by that fateful day.

Many have questioned the events on that day. Conduct a search for 9/11 conspiracies and one will find many different theories ranging from the accusation of US government involvement to questions over inside trading over the betting on certain stocks.

Today was marked by a new doubts being expressed by the former Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai who called the terror group al-Qaeda a myth and questioned the veracity of previous assertions that the 9/11 plots were hatch in the country [Guardian].

Whether or not there were links, 9/11 was game changer and many articles published today focus on the last 14 years and how the world has been affected [CNN].

The threat from terrorism has always been with us. But the events of 11th September 2001 raised the threat level significantly.

And of course, 9/11 and other significant dates attract particular attention.

As the anniversary approached authorities said a man had been arrested in connection with a planned bomb plot.

According to the FBI the Florida man had planned to launch an attack during the 9/11 memorial [CNN / Guardian]. It is not known what the suspect's motivations were.  However, it is clear that the threat from Islamic terrorism is much higher since 9/11.

Headlines such as "ISIL haunts 9/11 anniversary" were stamped across several news websites [USA Today]. And the threat appeared to come from possible cyber-attacks with Islamic State terrorists promising to launch such attacks to mark the anniversary.

On the fourteenth anniversary of the 9/11 terror plot, which claimed the lives of 2,977 victims, Twitter accounts claiming to be affiliated with ISIL started the #AmericaUnderHacks hashtag, according to reports from the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium [Techworm / Inquisitr / Heavy]

The threat was started by ISIL-affiliated accounts using the usernames "Islamic Cyber Army" and "Caliphate Hackers." Past alleged ISIL hacks have been carried out by the "Islamic State Hacking Division." It is unknown if there is any connection between the three. With the announcement of their newest impending alleged attack on 9/11, the Islamic Cyber Army and the Caliphate Hackers released memes and other propaganda to help advertise it.

Meanwhile there was an ironic message emanating from al-Qaeda's number one, Ayman al Zawahiri. "Al Qaeda 'declares war' on ISIS as 9/11 terror group boss blasts 'seditious' caliphate" the Daily Mirror reported.

Zawahiri accused ISIL chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of 'sedition' and said he was not the leader of all Muslims as he claimed.

One might hope that, just like the two headed snake, the two terror groups might destroy each other as they fight over their ideological ideas. But just as with the Hydra, another head may well grow in its place and the threat from fundamentalist Islamic terrorists will continue. Indeed the terror threat seemed all too clear as new figures showed that UK terror arrests for the year ending in March 2015 were at a record high [BBC].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Speculation grows over Google’s return to China

As tvnewswatch tweeted back in July [See here, here & here] Google may be planning a returning to China. New reports in several publications appear to indicate that the tech giant is negotiating with authorities there to set up a China based app store.

Reports first emerged in late July that Google had supposedly registered several domain names in China prompting some Chinese media to speculate the company was making a return.

One article pointed to the fact that several sites had been registered by Google including  registered googleplaychina.com/.cn/.com.cn (Google application market China), googleplaychinaedition.com (Google application market Chinese version), googlechinaaccount .com (Google China account), googlechinaedition.com (Google Chinese version), amongst others [Sina / China News].

Some reports in the Chinese media also alluded to the possibility that Google was also actively communicating and negotiating with domestic mobile phone manufacturersin order to facilitate the pre-installation of Google Play Store into devices.

None of them are live and simply show the page as unavailable. Nonetheless, an article published this week on The Information website suggested that Google's return to China could happen as early as October

Meanwhile the Wall Street Journal claimed that Google was already "in talks with Chinese government officials and handset makers about launching a new Android app store".

Despite the upbeat reports, any return will depend upon whether the Chinese authorities grant Google the appropriate licences.

Google ceased almost all its operations in mainland China in 2010 following cyberattacks against Gmail users and disagreements with the government over censorship of search results.

Should Google be allowed to set up shop in China, it could prove lucrative. Whilst Android is widely used there Google currently makes little if any money from the software it designed. Google Play is unavailable in China and other app stores currently compete with each other, none of which provide any revenue for Google.

Of course any app store Google is allowed to set up will undoubtedly be shaped for the Chinese market [The Verge]. Apps deemed unsuitable would be stripped from the store and it is likely that others would simply not be offered since they would not work anyway due to Internet censorship.

For example many of Google's own services are virtually unusable in China including GMail, Drive, YouTube, Picasa, Maps, and even its search engine. Other apps that would prove pointless to offer to a Chinese audience would be the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Evernote, Dropbox and Instagram as well as many news media apps including Bloomberg, the Guardian, Al Jazeera and the New York Times, all of which are currently blocked in China.

While the inability to access such sites is a major frustration for expats, for many Chinese Internet and smartphone users such blocks are of little consequence.

Many have become accustomed to the heavy handed censorship and have resigned themselves to using homegrown alternatives. Baidu is the main search engine of choice while WeChat [known as Weixin in China] is the most popular social media tool.

Even if Google enters the market it may be some while before it is able to stake a place in what is an extremely competitive market. While iTunes delivers apps and other content for Apple devices around the globe, due to Android's open source operating system there is the potential of any number of app stores setting up.

In the West however Google only has to compete with Amazon's app store. In China it is very different. After Google departed in 2010 hundreds of third-party Android app stores sprung up. That market has dwindled, but Google will have its work cut out as it competes with at least six major stores including 360 Market, Baidu-owned 91 Wireless, UCWeb, Tencent's MyApp, Xiaomi's Mi Market, and Wandoujia [The Next Web].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Friday, September 04, 2015

Picture of death wakes the world up to refugee crisis

The tragedy of war was graphically illustrated this week by the publication of a series of photographs depicting a 3-year-old boy drowned and washed up on a Turkish beach.

Aylan Kurdi came from the Syrian-Kurdish town of Kobane. He had been travelling with his father, mother and brother, 5-year-old Galip, who had attempted to make the short but dangerous crossing from Turkey to Greece.

He was just one of at least 12 Syrians who drowned attempting to reach Greece that day, a day that turned to tragedy for more than one family fleeing war.

Photos of tragedy

Newspapers around the world published some of the pictures, taken by photo-journalist Nilufer Demir of the Dogan News Agency [Washington Post]. Many held back from publishing the most graphic pictures but even the less disturbing picture of a police officer carrying away the limp body of 3-year-old Aylan was enough to awaken the conscience of many European politicians and citizens.


In an interview with one paper the photographer said she felt she had no option other to record the tragedy [Hurriyet Daily News / Washington Post].

The debate concerning whether to publish graphic photographs or even taking them in the first place has continued for many years [News Activist]. Western media in particular shy away from showing dead bodies, particularly when the victim is a westerner. And even if they do publish they are often heavily pixelated.

But the tragedy that unfurled on a Turkish beach this week was one many media outlets could not ignore. Some newspapers even went as far as showing a close-up of the limp body of the child.  

Wake-up call

The image was sickening, yes. Perhaps also an invasion of privacy. However it could be argued that many people needed to be shocked into realising the growing human tragedy that is unfolding as a result of the spread of radical Islam and the brutality of war from which many of these people are fleeing.

One amongst thousands

This is but one child. One small victim amongst the thousands that have died in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

By early August 2015, the opposition activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights [SOHR] reported the number of children killed in the conflict had risen to 11,964, while at the same time 7,719 women were also killed. And in the last few months alone more than 2,000 migrants or refugees have perished in their vain attempts to reach European shores.

Blame game

There are many arguments concerning who is to blame. There are some who will say that the Blair/Bush coalition ignited the powder keg having invaded Afghanistan and subsequently Iraq which destabilised the region and allowed groups like ISIS to develop and flourish.  The overthrow of Gaddafi has also led to an exodus of refugees fleeing a now unstable Libya.

None of these countries, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya etc were particularly pleasant prior to Western interference. But they were stable and the number of people fleeing in years past was minimal. However, after years of war and chaos it is unsurprising that so many are desperate to leave these places.

Carrying the can

Unfortunately it is Europe that is picking up the pieces and burdening the cost as thousands of refugees arrive daily. Meanwhile the US which played a major part in creating the situation which triggered these events stands idly by and makes little comment and offers no help or solution.

However some have begun to raise the issue and asked whether other countries should also do more. "When people talk about a refugee crisis and the moral obligations that implies, that is not just an obligation for Britain or for Europe. People go back to the Second World War and the huge refugee crisis that involved and of course very large number went to the United States, to Canada, to South America, to Australia and other countries," Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign secretary, told Radio 4 [Telegraph].

Opening doors

Even before this week's events refugees were being helped by people, some of them former politicians who felt it necessary to open their home. Former Hungary PM Ferenc Gyurcsány speaking to CNN's Christiane Amanpour said he has been welcoming dozens of refugees and opened his home up to the desperate influx of people escaping war torn Syria and Iraq [MSN video / CNN video].

Meanwhile the current Hungarian government has been far less welcoming and taken a hard line on the refugees, something the country's former PM Gyurcsány Ferenc said he failed to understand

The situation in Europe has been described as the biggest refugee crisis since WWII [Hindustan Times].

And one man who escaped that particular exodus over 70 years ago spoke of his experiences to CNN's Christiane Amanpour. Kindertransport survivor John Fieldsend expressed his thanks to the British for saving him but said that the UK Prime Minister David Cameron should act on Europe's refugee crisis immediately [CNN video].

Taking stock

The pitiful sight of a drowned boy was enough to push the British PM to make a U-turn. Only the day before the pictures were published PM David Cameron rejected the idea that Britain should take more refugees.

PM Cameron said he was saddened by the scenes he saw on television and said Britain would act with its "head and heart" and accept a further 4,000 refugees [BBC / BBC / CNN].

For the father of Aylan, it is a personal tragedy. He has lost his family and says he has plans to return to Syria [Guardian / CNN / Telegraph].

The photograph is tragic and shocking but it needed to be seen in order to open people's eyes to the unfurling disaster.  Many words are spoken but this picture says more than words can say. And it is one that has done more to wake up politicians to the growing refugee crisis.

No easy solutions

Europe and other countries must also recognise that there are two crises. One is a migrant crisis, and the other is a refugee crisis. Determining who are legitimate asylum seekers is difficult. Integration and affording the costs are going to prove difficult in the short and long term, but Europe and arguably the US and other countries have a responsibility if not just for humanitarian grounds.

There also needs to be a reasoned debate on how the international community deals with the continuing turmoil in Libya, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.

No-one wants yet more military action, yet some intervention may well be necessary to curtail the growth of ISIS and the continuing descending spiral of chaos that is enveloping these countries.

tvnewswatch, London, UK