Thursday, January 31, 2008

China's winter freeze affects food prices

Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers remain stuck at airports and stations across China amid worsening winter weather. Many roads too remain blocked despite the best efforts of authorities to clear routes. For the millions that are attempting to make their way home to their families it is the only chance many get after a year of working away from their loved ones. The migrant workers go to where employment is available and they can work seven days a week for as little as $4 per day. The disappointment in not being to make the journey home will be too much to bear for those who have queued for days in freezing temperatures. Although there has been some relief as trains begin to take people home, the government has appealed to the population to cancel their travel plans [CNN]. But it is a difficult decision for those who will have to wait another year before they can return home. The more well off Chinese residents may have a better chance of making the journey home as they are able to afford the air fares. But others can only afford the long train or bus journey. And with more snow forecast the prospects do not look good for the millions trying to make it home for the Lunar New Year celebrations. Whether they make it home or not, all will face higher food prices [BBC]. Communist Party official Chen Xiwen warned of a serious impact on crop production in the south of the country saying "The impact on fresh vegetables and on fruit in some places has been catastrophic".

Heavy snow is also affecting parts of the United States and Israel also saw an extremely unusual sight after snow covered much of Jerusalem [BBC]. Britain has also been hit by bad weather, but most of the snow has been confined to the north of the country [BBC]. Even Baghdad saw snowfall earlier this month, a phenomena not seen in over 50 years [BBC]. The wild and cold weather sweeping the globe [BBC] will no doubt be claimed by environmentalist as being another sign of climate change. But its far from the global warming that has been predicted; more of a global freeze!

Internet outages hit Asia and Middle East

Internet outages across North Africa, the Middle East and Asia have brought markets and businesses to a halt. Many companies are reliant on the World Wide Web and little business can be done without it. One major telecommunications provider blamed the outage, which started Wednesday, on a major undersea cable failure in the Mediterranean. India's Internet bandwidth was reduced by half forcing industry to reroute traffic to satellites and other cables through Asia. Reports say that Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain are also experiencing severe problems. But some countries were spared the chaos. Israel, Lebanon and Iraq were still able to maintain connection as many Middle East governments have backup satellite systems in case of cable failure. There are conflicting reports over what caused the failure and it is unclear when services will be restored [CNN / BBC]. It is not the first time that internet outages have been disrupted by undersea cable problems. In 2001 China was cut off for weeks after cable connections were cut. Two years later in 2003 cable problems between the US and Britain created widespread disruption to the internet [Zdnet] and in 2006 an earthquake severed cables in Asia [tvnewswatch].

Poison fear over Chinese dumplings

In Japan this week, dumplings imported from China have been recalled after they were found to contain deadly pesticides. It leaves China once again on the defensive after yet further worries over product safety. Japan currently tests around 10% of all food imports from China, twice that of those tested in the US, but it was only after people began falling sick that the product recall was announced. The company behind the manufacture of the dumplings has been named as Hebei Foodstuffs Import & Export Group. Chinese authorities said Thursday they were investigating the company that made insecticide-tainted dumplings which have made at least 10 people ill in Japan [China Post]. But China has defended its latest product to come under fire saying there were no traces of chemicals in the product. According to the China Post the product showed no traces of anything that might have caused the illnesses but further investigations would continue. In 2004, the company had to recall a batch of its meat products from Japan after the discovery of excessive amounts of escherichiacoli, which can cause diarrhea. But the company said that could have been caused by problems in storage or transportation [CNN / BBC]

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

China - more deaths as weather worsens

Trains, planes and automobiles have all been affected by heavy snow

The worst winter storm to hit China in 50 years has killed at least 50 people and more than 78 million have been affected. CCTV-9 reported only 38 killed by the bad weather, but other news reports put the death toll as high as 50. Yesterday 25 were killed when a bus plunged off an icy road near Guizhou. Premier Wen Jiabao has visited Guangzhou in Guangdong province where thousands of migrant workers, desperate to get home for the spring festival, have been stranded for several days. “I’m here to see you”, he said, “everyday more rail lines are opening and we are doing everything we can to get everyone home for the New Year celebrations”. He told reporters it was a priority to get the stranded passengers moving [Xinhua News]. He also visited power stations to see what was being done to restore power to vast regions cut off for several days. Half of Guizhou province is without electricity, though some power has been restored according to Zhang Lu of CCTV9 speaking from the capital Guiyang. The restoration of power has come at a price. Three electricians were killed yesterday after the pylon on which they were working collapsed in Hunan province. Two others had died the previous day.

Thousands of passengers remain stuck at stations attempting to travel between Guangzhou and Beijing. According to CCTV-9 some trains had departed and alleviated some of the backlog. But 24 hours after the Chinese Premier spoke to crowds CNN’s Hugh Rimington, who was reporting from Guangzhou Station, said no trains had left and up to half a million were still waiting for the non existent transport. There was anger with one traveller telling CNN that the govt had no credibility. “Officials can go home but we workers are stuck” said one irate traveller. “I feel helpless” said another passenger while others talked of having spent all their money while waiting for a train back home. As scuffles broke out some were trampled under foot, but there were no serious injuries according to reports.

Hunan province is particularly hard hit with roads impassable. One traveller said fuel and oil had run out in many places and stranded motorists were being given water and biscuits by police. Some had been stuck on the roads for 7 days and the problems have affected delivery of food supplies. A total of 17 provinces have been affected and many people Red Cross Society of China is calling for donations in order to help fund thousands that have been cut off by the bad weather. The financial losses are estimated to have cost the country in excess of ¥32 billion [$3 billion]. Across the country official figures put the numbers of people stranded at 178.6 million and have deployed half a million troops to help in clearing roads and rail lines [BBC].

Monday, January 28, 2008

China: Snow kills 24 & strands thousands

Snow in Suzhou, near Shanghai in southern China

At least 20 people have died in China as severe winter weather swept across the vast continent. There is also widespread travel chaos in the run up to the Lunar New Year. Millions of people are trying to return home for the Chinese New Year but thousands have been stuck at railway stations and airports. At least 170,000 people have been stuck at Guangzhou railway station, in the southern Guangdong province, where most trains have been cancelled. Others have been stranded because of blocked roads and some areas are reported to have run out of salt to spread on icy surfaces. Xinhua News reported that 24 people had died since the 10th of January and that nearly 80 million had been affected in 14 provinces including Anhui, Jiangxi, Hubei and Hunan. Among the deaths, 10 were killed in collapses of homes weighed down by the snow and another 10 died after falling on slippery roads. Two people drowned and two were hit by falling trees laden with heavy snow.

The heavy snow has also destroyed crops, affecting more than 4.2 million hectares of farmland. According to official sources, about 107,000 houses have collapsed and nearly 400,000 others had been damaged by the heavy snow. Direct economic losses are estimated at ¥ 22.09 billion [$3 billion]. The bad weather is also being blamed for some of the losses seen on the Shanghai composite which saw a 7% drop today [CNN / Xinhua News / BBC]

Friday, January 25, 2008

Egypt fails to halt Palestinian influx

Egypt is struggling to put an end to the border incursions by Palestinians desperate to obtain supplies after Israel closed borders and effectively cut off Gaza from the outside world a week ago. The UN had already warned of a humanitarian crisis after electricity supplies faded after fuel dried up in the region. Frustrations amongst the Palestinian people boiled over on Wednesday with many attempting to break across borders with Egypt in order to obtain fuel and food supplies [BBC]. Initially the attempts were repelled by border guards but the walls were breached with explosives and later with bulldozers. Today the trouble boiled over as Egyptian police and army attempted to stop the crowds spilling across the border [CNN]. Many came under fire not only from stones and rocks, but according to some reports, from gunfire. The efforts to hold the Palestinians back failed as militants merely punched a hole in another part of the border with mechanical diggers [BBC]. Egypt has said it would not force the Palestinians back across the border. But as tens of thousands have breached the borders the government’s patience is wearing thin. Israeli PM Ehud Olmert has said he would not let a humanitarian crisis develop. "We will not hit food supplies for children or medicines for the needy," he said "But there is no justification for demanding we allow residents of Gaza to live normal lives while shells and rockets are fired from their streets and courtyards at Sderot and other communities in the south." [BBC]. But President Hosni Mubarak said on Egyptian television, "We are doing our best to help end the Palestinians' suffering, to help end the Israeli measures of mass punishment and to return fuel, electricity supplies and humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip" [BBC].

Weather chaos in northern England

One of at least 11 lorries overturned in Yorkshire.

High winds have caused chaos across northern England, overturning lorries, downing trees and damaging buildings. A building in Wearside belonging to Northern Rock, the bank recently hit by financial troubles, had its roof ripped off. No-one was injured in that incident. On the A1 several lorries overturned causing widespread disruption [Halifax Courier]. Most of the vehicles affected were traveling through Yorkshire. One vehicle also crashed into the central reservation which police say was also weather related. Meanwhile the A66 was also closed by authorities to high sided vehicles due to the continuing high winds [BBC].

Rogue trader causes concern on markets

Jerome Kerviel who lost €4.9 billion for Societe Generale

A rogue trader in France has caused concern in European financial markets with some believing he may have contributed to the recent financial turmoil [BBC]. Jerome Kerviel lost at least €4.9 billion [$7.1 bn / £3.7 bn] at the French bank Societe Generale. French President Nicolas Sarkozy called the events at Societe Generale a "large-scale internal fraud", but added that the losses "do not affect the solidity and reliability of the French system". Speaking during a visit to India, he said the turmoil on world markets was more to do with problems in the US and particularly with the so called sub-prime market. But some fear the fraud may leave the bank open to a possible takeover. "Societe Generale will certainly lose its independence after such an operation. We will... have a redefinition of the banking world and France will be no exception," Alain Crouzat at Montsegur Finance told Le Parisien newspaper.
The CAC 40 certainly felt the biggest losses today dropping some 37 points to 4878.1. The Dax and FTSE also saw losses today but not to the extent seen earlier this week. The Dax closed at 6816.7, down 4.33 points, and the FTSE 100 closed 6.8 points down to 5869.0

A turbulent week in British politics

Peter Hain announces his resignation yesterday

The UK government has been the subject of a number of criticisms this week culminating in the resignation of Peter Hain, the Work & Pensions Secretary [BBC]. The week started with the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith saying she was scared to walk the streets of London at night by herself. The papers made much of her off the cuff comments which appeared to contradict government statements that the streets of Britain were safe. “You don’t walk in areas that you don’t know in any circumstances, and I never have in my life,” she said on Sunday [BBC].

Then came the continuing fiasco over Northern Rock. “The Prime Minister won’t tell us how much tax payers are in for, or how long they’re going to have to wait to get their money back. He’s like a used car salesman who won’t tell you the price, won’t tell you the mileage, won’t give you a warranty, he’s gone from prudence to Del Boy without even touching the ground” said David Cameron in Parliament this week. His joke backfired with some pointing out that Del Boy, a character in the popular BBC comedy Only Fools & Horse, was not a used car salesman [BBC]. The new Lib Dem leader accused the Prime Minister of being “running scared of the Conservative Party” over his decision not to nationalize the beleaguered financial institution [BBC].

Hardly a week goes by without further revelations that more sensitive data has gone missing. And this week was no exception. Defence Secretary Des Brown told Parliament that not one but three laptop computers belonging to the MoD had been stolen. Amongst the information contained were the names of 150,000 applicants who had expressed interest to join Britain’s armed forces [BBC].

Peter Hain had resigned only after police were called in to investigate the matter of undeclared funding of his bid for Deputy Leader. Although welcomed by the opposition many said it should have happened sooner. David Cameron said it was right that Peter Hain had resigned but the Prime Minister should have made an ultimatum much earlier. The opposition leader said, “The Prime Minister should have said to him weeks ago, either give a full explanation of what has happened or you have to leave the cabinet”. But the Prime Minister speaking at Davos has denied he dithered over a decision to sack Peter Hain [BBC].

The continuing problems which are haunting the Labour government have begun to affect Gordon Brown’s credibility as a Prime Minister. Speaking on This Week, the BBC political weekly, Gerry Robinson said what made Mr Brown a good chancellor did not necessarily make him a good Prime Minister and that he lacked leadership qualities. His skills as a Chancellor may not be proving their worth as the markets took a battering this week. Besides some gains since Monday’s £84 billion being wiped off the FTSE 100, it has been a turbulent week at the stock exchange.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Smoking ban hits Weatherspoon profits

Smoking bans exist across much of Europe

The smoking ban implemented in the UK in July 2007 has continued to affect takings in Britain’s pubs. JD Weatherspoon is the latest to say they’ve seen a drop in profits besides having earlier claimed the ban was unlikely to affect trade. Wetherspoon said that it remained confident that the smoking ban would benefit the pub trade in the long-term, but "the short-term effect of a decline in bar sales means that we continue to remain cautious regarding the outlook for this financial year".
Over the last 4 months the pub chain, which has 683 outlets, saw a 3.2% drop in sales compared to the same period the previous year [BBC]. Last October the company said the first four months of the ban had only seen a 1% drop in sales [BBC].

The loss in profits isn’t exclusive to the UK. Bars in France are already seeing their custom fall following the ban which came into force on 1st January. And in Beijing where authorities are attempting to impose a limited ban by the time of the Olympics there are signs of how unwelcome a ban there would be [Guardian]. The China Daily this week reported that after a smoking ban was enforced at one restaurant chain trade dropped dramatically. Sales fell by 20% at the Meizhou Dongpo, Beijing’s first smoke-free restaurant. China has over 350 million smokers, mostly men, accounting for a quarter of the entire population.
Germany is the latest to see a smoking ban. But it hasn’t come without a fight from Germany’s smokers who account for over a third of the population. Berlin has seen the country’s first ‘smoking rage’ victim and there is widespread flouting of the new laws. The smoking bans are often cited as being implemented by ‘health fascists’, but in Germany this is more than a little closer to home. Sixty seven years ago the Nazis implemented a ban on smoking in Germany. Even some of the most advanced research into the links between tobacco consumption and lung cancer was carried out under the Nazis.
Under the supervision of the Institute for Tobacco Hazards Research, the ban was imposed in every public building and public space, including air-raid shelters, with Hitler even personally intervening in 1944 to ensure it was extended to trains and buses in order to protect young female conductors. It was even pointed out that Hitler, Mussolini and Franco were all non-smokers, while the 'evil enemies' - Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin - all enjoyed a tobacco fix [Guardian].

While many Germans are forced out into the cold, others are crossing the border to Poland where a ban on smoking is yet to be made law. In the London Pub in Slubice, across the river from Frankfurt an der Oder, a group of middle-aged Germans are swigging and puffing to their hearts' content. 'It's just like in the old days,' says Dieter Neubauer, who strolled over the border after work.
Turkey has recently passed new anti-smoking laws [BBC] but there is much opposition with 40% of the population being smokers. The trend is likely to continue leaving many more smokers in the cold or remaining at home [Smoke bans worldwide / Smoking bans by country / European bans].

Monday, January 21, 2008

Global slide in stocks, FTSE falls by 5.5%

Global stock markets have tumbled amid growing fears of a recession in the US [BBC / Sky News / CNN]. London's FTSE 100 index fell 5.48% to 5,578.2 by the close today. In Paris the Cac-40 fell 6.83%, and Frankfurt's Dax dropped 7.16%. US markets are closed for Martin Luther King Day so any recovery will not be seen until tomorrow at the earliest. The drop in share values has been partially blamed on the US President's failure to control the downturn in the economy there with investors taking little comfort from emergency measures proposed by President George W Bush on Friday [CNN].

Meanwhile new proposals by the UK government to keep the beleaguered Northern Rock bank in the public sector and sell the business to a new owner. Questions in parliament were dismissive of the government proposal. The Chancellor Alistair Darling has said that the government may take temporary ownership if a buyer could not be found [BBC / Sky News]. In a statement in the UK parliament, the Chancellor said he was to convert Northern Rock's £25bn Bank of England loan into bonds before selling them to investors. The bonds would be guaranteed by the government to speed up a private sale of the troubled lender. One of the potential bidders is Sir Richard Branson who told Sky News that he had put a good bid forward. He said he had not had any detailed discussions with the Prime Minister but added that he had a “winnable package”. Part of his plan would be to re-label the financial business Virgin Bank.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Wen Brown met Hu

Gordon Brown on his first visit to China as Prime Minister has covered a wide range of topics in talks with Chinese officials. But as many UK broadcasters are keen to point out, human rights is not one of them. Sky’s report referred to 2008 as the Year of China as the British PM was welcomed by Premier Wen. Sky News concentrated not so much on the discussions of business and trade but instead focused on China’s clampdown of pro-democracy campaigners.

In a bulletin shown today Sky talked to Guo Quan of the New Democratic Party who spoke of the need for political change in China. They also talked to a former party official, Bao Tong, who has been under house arrest since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. He told Sky News that there was no freedom of speech, no freedom of the press and no freedom to vote in China.

Mr Brown said he welcomed the decision to allow western journalists into China and to travel freely but said human rights would be in a dialogue later this month. He came with businessmen and academics, according to Sky News, and will focus on the environment and expanding trade. Human rights and politics were, according to Adam Boulton, speaking Live from Beijing, likely to take a back seat.

Channel Four News reported that Britain has lagged behind other European countries in securing contract with China. “We want Britain to be the number one country of choice for investment” Gordon Brown said. The report talked of the upcoming Olympic Games saying that it was the most contentious games since the Russian Olympics in 1980.

The BBC has had sporadic coverage of Gordon Brown’s China visit. They did however conduct an interview with the Prime Minister who told the BBC trade was not just “one way” and predicted economic growth from the bilateral ties [video]. He said there would be a 50% increase in trade. He added that he was relaxed about joint ownership. But he tempered this with a trade off of selling technology to the developing country. He said China had to make a step forward with regards to climate change and added that Premier Wen recognized the issues at hand.
CCTV-9’s coverage has so far been the most extensive of all the news broadcasters. China Today spent nearly twenty minutes on the Prime Ministerial visit. Mr Brown has so far met with Hu Jintao, Wu Bangguo and Wen Jiabao. In discussions he has talked about stronger financial ties between the two countries.

Hu Jintao has said he appreciates “Britain’s adherence to the one China policy, its support of China’s efforts of peaceful reunification and its opposition of Taiwan’s bid for UN membership”. According to the extensive coverage, Gordon Brown said he welcomed Chinese companies to invest in the UK and hoped the two countries could cooperate more closely on regional and international issues and contribute to world peace.

After a welcoming ceremony in the Great Hall of the People on Friday morning, Premier Wen Jiabao sat down to discuss business issues with the British PM. “We have established a very good work and personal relationship”, Premier Wen said. “Through our joint efforts Sino-British has entered a new stage of comprehensive development” the Premier added. The two countries have signed 8 documents of trade and investment, education, energy and the environment, climate change and cooperation for the Olympics.

Prime Minister Brown talked about what he saw as the key issues. “I believe that by 2010, we will see 100 new Chinese companies investing in the United Kingdom, we will see 100 partnerships between our higher education institutes and universities and Chinese universities, we will double the number of firms listing on the London Stock Exchange and thousands of jobs will be created as a result of inward investment into Britain and trade between our two countries and we welcome the creation of the sovereign wealth fund and its potential for investing in our country” he said. Speaking at another meeting Gordon Brown said he saw China’s development “not as a threat but an opportunity”. He said China was a vast potential market for British companies.

The Prime Minister later visited Renmin University and watched a table tennis match. Whether the British leader is batting for Britain will be something that businesses at home will be looking at closely.

Capt Burkill praises crew of crashed jet

The captain of flight BA-38 which crash landed at Heathrow yesterday paid tribute to his crew for excellent teamwork. Capt. Peter Burkill said his co-pilot, John Coward, was at the controls at the time of the incident. He also thanked the passengers for their calmness in a difficult and unfamiliar situation. He wished everyone who received injuries a speedy recovery. He did not talk about what happened in the last minutes of the flight saying that the crash was now a matter of investigation by the AAIB [BBC].

Those investigations may well focus on the electronic systems on the plane. Some reports suggest a major power failure just prior to the crash. The Boeing 777 has a relatively good safety record. However it has only been in service for 14 years. There have been some incidents with the Boeing 777 but no fatalities have yet resulted. Perhaps the most concerning incident was in 2005 when there were conflicting displays of information displayed in the cockpit. The results of the investigation into that incident have yet to be completed [ but preliminary report does raise concerns.

On August 1, 2005, a Boeing 777-200, which had departed from Perth, received an EICAS (Engine Indication and Crew Alerting System) warning of low airspeed, as the plane was climbing through FL (flight level) 380. Simultaneously, the aircraft’s slip/skid indication moved full right, on the PFD (Primary Flight Display). The PFD speed tape also displayed contradictory information: that the plane was approaching both the high speed limit and the low speed (stall) limit. The aircraft, still connected to the autopilot, pitched up and climbed to approximately FL410 as the airspeed decreased from 270 kts to 158 kts. The stall warning devices also activated.
The PIC (pilot in command) "disconnected the autopilot and lowered the nose of the aircraft. The autothrottle commanded an increase in thrust which the PIC countered by manually moving the thrust levers to the idle position. The aircraft pitched up again and climbed 2,000 ft." The PIC advised ATC "that they could not maintain altitude and requested a descent and radar assistance. The crew was able to verify with ATC the aircraft speed and altitude."
The PFD indications became accurate again as they were descending through FL200. The PIC attempted to use both the left and right autopilots, but had to turn them off after each one produced undesired command responses. "There were no control difficulties experienced when the aircraft was flown manually, but the autothrottle `arm’ switches remained in the `armed’ position." [PDF].
The Boeing 777-236ER involved in Thursday’s incident has not had any previous problems itself. But investigators will also be looking at the Rolls Royce engines.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Heathrow plane crash - 13 minor injuries

A major catastrophe was averted today when flight BA-38 from Beijing crash landed at Heathrow Airport. All 152 passengers and crew evacuated from the Boeing 777 safely after the plane came to a halt at the beginning of runway 27 Left. According to eyewitnesses the aircraft flew in very low “dropping like a stone” as it crash landed just short of the runway at around 12:42 GMT. Witnesses described it skidding along the grass with wheels and debris flying in all directions. Within seconds of it having come to a halt, passengers were evacuated from the plane via emergency chutes. Airport fire services were at the scene within 2 minutes and at least 4 ambulances were dispatched to the scene. A total of 13 people received minor injuries and were taken to Hillingdon Hospital. Three are said to be Chinese nationals, seven are British and another three are of unknown origin. Latest reports suggest that the Boeing 777 suffered a major power failure just prior to the crash [BBC / Sky News / CNN]

Heathrow closed after incident

a mobile-phone image of the stricken aircraft

A British Airways plane has made an emergency landing at Heathrow and has resulted in major delays. Three people were slightly injured in the incident which occurred as BA flight 38 from Beijing came into land. Adam Boulton, Sky's correspondent, gave a live report from a plane carrying the British PM Gordon Brown who was due to take off for Beijing. The incident happened at 12:42 this afternoon and resulted in damage to the undercarraige. All passengers were safely evacuated.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Oil price drops but pump price still high

In the US, the price of fuel per US gallon averages about $3.00, but can reach as high as $3.30 [EIA]. In the UK motorists have faced high prices for years. But Britain has seen a dramatic increase in prices in recent weeks. The average price for unleaded fuel stands at £1.05.9 with diesel as high as £1.10.9 a litre. At a glance it is clear the US pay far less at the pump for fuel. However after conversion the disparity in pricing is even more apparent. A US gallon is equivalent to 3.8 litres [a standard UK gallon is more at 4.5 litres]. So a litre of fuel in the US is a little over $0.86 or £0.44 [£1=$1.96 16/01/2007]. If the US were paying the same as UK motorists the price at the forecourt would be $7.88 [£4.02 per US gallon]. Canadian motorists pay only a little more than their US counterparts with fuel averaging at £0.55 per litre. Half way round the world in China and motorists are paying about ¥3.80 per litre. This is about £0.25 or $0.12. Local economic issues are obviously one reason behind such disparity in fuel prices. The average Chinese worker earns much less than a US citizen. A wage of ¥2000 per month [£133 / $260] would be considered good in China’s building economy. So in some terms petrol is considerably higher in China than in the West, compared to an individuals spending power. But with the cost of living increasing, and with wages remaining static, this balance is shifting.

George Bush’s concern at the ever increasing price of oil prompted him to ask leaders of OPEC to do something [BBC]. Talking at a meeting with Saudi businessmen President Bush said, “High energy prices can affect economic growth because it's painful for our consumers... [and] could cause the US economy to slow down". He added: "I would hope that as Opec considers different production levels that they understand that if... one of the biggest consumers' economy suffers it means less purchases, less oil and gas sold."
Barely had the President spoken than fresh concerns shook the oil market with prices plummeting to $90 per barrel. The worry is that a possible US recession may result in an economic downturn and reduce demand for crude [BBC]. A number of analysts and oil industry experts have said that recent increases in price are down to speculative buying and geo-political fears rather than a shortage of crude. The International Energy Agency said in its monthly report on Wednesday that demand for crude oil in 2008 will be 87.8m barrel per day, which represents a 2.3% rise from 2007 levels and is slightly lower than previous estimates. It said that rising demand in China, falling oil stocks, and tensions in the oil-rich Middle East and Nigeria remain "important supportive factors" for oil prices. Opec is due to meet on 1 February to discuss output levels, and there are already some calls for production to be boosted. It is unlikely, however, that any fall in oil prices will be reflected at the pump anytime soon.
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Citroën "insults the whole Chinese nation"

A scowling Mao has caused consternation in China

When Citroën published a newspaper advertisement in Spain this week they may have thought that they were only targeting a Spanish audience. But in the age of the internet and global media, news can spread beyond cultural and political borders very fast indeed. But why would they be concerned? Surely a wider audience would increase the strength of their brand. Unfortunately for Citroën this would turn out to be a public relations disaster. So what is it that has caused so much consternation and who did Citroën offend?

China’s internet forums were buzzing after the full page advertisement hit Spanish newsstands. Many were outraged and offended that the car company should use a beloved icon of Communist China in an advertisement. Chairman Mao is still an important part of many people’s history in China and so for Citroën to use him in an attempt to sell cars was insulting to many.

The full-page advert featured the famous image of Mao Zedong that adorns Tiananmen Square. But it had been altered – his face was scrunched up in a half-baffled, half-quizzical look. Below was the caption: “At Citroën, the revolution never stops.” Given how often the image of Mao has been manipulated by Chinese artists, the marketing people obviously thought it was permissible to poke a little fun. But the Chinese people have not seen the funny side. The Global Times, a paper from the People’s Daily stable that likes to stoke nationalist sentiment, said that the advert “wantonly distorted” the image of Mao []. And no sooner than it had highlighted the issue than a firestorm of internet angst from Chinese netizens ensued [].

The carmaker, which has invested heavily in China, was attempting to promote the idea that its ‘revolution’ to innovate and develop technology would continue; whilst Mao Zedong’s revolution had stopped. Under the Biblical quotation "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's," the text talked up Citroën 's position as a car sales leader in a bombastic tone. "It's true, we are leaders, but at Citroën the revolution never stops … We are once more going to put in motion all the machinery of our technological ability, in order to repeat in 2008 the successes obtained in previous years" the advertisement read.

The Global Times described the manipulated image of Mao had been “wantonly distorted” and sparked many comments from readers. "As a Chinese, I felt greatly insulted when seeing this ad," a posting on web portal Tianya said. "It is not only insulting Chairman Mao, but the whole Chinese nation." Another comment said, "Chairman Mao is the symbol of China, and what Citroën did lacks basic respect to China".

Citroën pulled the advert and sent a letter of apology to the Global Times. “Citroën highly respects China’s representative figures and symbols,” the company said in a statement. " Citroën expresses regret for any displeasure caused by the advertisement and apologizes to all who have been hurt by it”. But for many Chinese people the apology fell on deaf ears. Another forum drew criticism of Citroën and called for a boycott of the company’s products. Spain was also singled out by some readers who had thought the country had been behind the advertisement. The fallout from this may not be as far reaching as causing a drop in sales of Citroën, but the issue does serve to highlight sensitivities between different cultures and how careful one needs to be in order not to offend [Financial Times / Reuters / BBC].

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

20 dead in Middle East chaos

Bomb blasts and air strikes have left up to 20 dead in the Middle East today. The day started with a major incursion into Gaza by Israeli troops backed up by tanks and helicopter gunships. The violence left 17 Palestinians dead, mostly members of Hamas. But amongst the dead were at least 3 civilians according to Al-Jazeera. It was the deadliest attack by Israel this year, which has seen 46 Palestinians killed in the last 15 days. The strike by Israel was in retaliation for a series of missile attacks over recent weeks by Hamas militants.

No sooner than the attacks were over than revenge was being talked about by the militants. Already there have been a few rockets fired into Israel. The fallout from the strikes is likely to leave the peace process in tatters [CNN / BBC].

Later in the afternoon a US diplomatic car was targeted in a north Beirut suburb. The unknown assassin failed to kill the two Lebanese nationals who worked at the US Embassy according to a spokesman. However three Lebanese civilians were killed by the blast [CNN / BBC / Al-Jazeera].

Amidst the Middle East chaos Condoleezza Rice visited Iraq and declared that the situation there was improving [BBC]. The Secretary of State later flew to Saudi Arabia to join President Bush who is in the middle of a tour of the Gulf States. His focus today was on Iran as he made further comment over the country’s harassment of US warships.

Speaking tonight, Condoleezza Rice said she had discussed a number of international issues with the Saudi Foreign Minister. She spoke too of the improving situation in Iraq. “The Iraqi people are finding their way to make strides toward national reconciliation” she said. Moving on to events of the day she expressed outrage with regards the bomb attack in Lebanon. However she made no mention of the incursions by Israel into Gaza which may well destroy the Annapolis peace initiative.

Live coverage of her address was carried only by Al-Jazeera. Neither CNN, BBC 24 or Sky News showed pictures from Riyadh. In general Live coverage of Bush’s Middle East tour has been extremely poor. Only CNN showed a Live clip of Air Force One taxiing as it was about to leave the US for Israel. As he landed at Tel Aviv there was no LIVE coverage at all. Some press calls were shown. Only Sky showed his visit to Galilee Live. As he left Israel, Sky brought Live pictures as did the BBC, but only Sky showed him leaving the plane as he touched down in Kuwait. Bush was soon in the UAE and then Saudi Arabia. But apart from news bulletins there was little coverage of the last leg of the President’s trip including many of his speeches. To some extent President Sarkozy of France has drawn more media attention. He visited Saudi Arabia, without his new girlfriend, to discuss arms deals and sale of civilian nuclear technology. His comments today that even Iran should be allowed to develop peaceful nuclear power may be more of concern to President Bush. The US leader today reiterated his hostile stance against the regime saying that Iran must be confronted “before it is too late”..

Sunday, January 13, 2008

China - Factory explosion kills 5

An explosion has killed at least 5 workers at a chemical plant in southern China. Two further people are missing and 33 others were injured when a blast hit the state run Yuntianhua International Chemical Industry Company in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province. Investigations have so far revealed the ignition of sulphur powder, a flammable substance with explosive vapors, caused the explosion. The factory produces sulphuric acid. The city's environment protection bureau said air quality in areas near the site of the explosion was not affected [Reuters / Xinhua].

Thursday, January 10, 2008

UK - govt boost to nuclear power

The British government has given the go ahead to build a new generation of nuclear power stations [BBC]. But whilst nuclear power would reduce carbon dioxide emissions, environmental campaigners are concerned the danger from nuclear waste management outweighs any benefit. There are also concerns over safety after 3 major accidents in the short history of nuclear power.

Britain was the first country to suffer from a nuclear accident when a fire caused a major radioactive leak at Windscale in Cumbria. The fire, which struck the atomic plant on 10th October 1957, destroyed the core and released an estimated 750 terabecquerels (TBq) (20,000 curies) of radioactive material into the surrounding environment, including Iodine-131, which is taken up in the body by the thyroid. Consequently milk and other produce from the surrounding farming areas had to be destroyed. In 1979 a partial meltdown occurred at Three Mile Island in the US, and although there was no leak of radioactivity, the cleanup was slow and costly and resulted in a protracted decline in the public popularity of nuclear power, exemplifying for many the worst fears about nuclear technology.

Those fears were realized seven years later when a major accident at a Russian nuclear power plant at Chernobyl resulted in widespread radioactive contamination and many deaths. A 2005 report prepared by the Chernobyl Forum, led by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and World Health Organization (WHO), attributed 56 direct deaths (47 accident workers, and nine children with thyroid cancer), and estimated that there may be 4,000 extra deaths due to cancer among the approximately 600,000 most highly exposed and 5,000 among the 6 million living nearby.

But aside of these high profile cases there has been over twenty significant accidents at civilian plants in the 50 year history of nuclear power [list]. Additionally there has been dozens of military accidents since the 1940s [list].
Proponents of nuclear power say that it is safer now than it has ever been. However there is still concerns over what to do with the low and high level radioactive waste resulting from nuclear power generation. The amount of High Level Waste worldwide is currently increasing by about 12,000 metric tons every year, which is the equival to about 100 double-decker busses or a two-story structure built on top of a basketball court. And the debate, as to how this waste might be dealt with, continues. With the half-life of some radioactive elements being in excess of millions of years, the problem is of great concern. Most of the isotopes produced have significantly shorter half-lives. Plutonium, 239Pu, has a half-life of 24,100 years, while at the low end of the scale Iodine-131 has a half-life of 8 days.
For many environmentalists, the damage has already been done. Since 1945, approximately 7700 kg has been released into the Earth’s atmosphere from nuclear tests.

Further resources: / / nuclear maps / nuclear maps

Iran disputes Hormuz Strait incident

Iranian footage of Sunday's incident

Iranian TV has released footage relating to Sunday’s incident in which a number of boats were said to have swarmed around US warships. The Iranian government has insisted it had not threatened the security of the coalition vessels, something that is disputed by US authorities. The footage [video], which lasts for some five minutes, aired on the international outlet of Press TV and extracts have been played on other media outlets including the BBC, CNN and Al-Jazeera. In the five minute segment one of those on board an Iranian speedboat is heard to say, “This is Iranian patrol boat to vessel 73 can you identify yourself?”. A reply is heard in which the voice identifies the vessel as “coalition vessel 73” and repeats that they are operating in international waters.

There is no mention of any of the previous threats outlined in earlier reports in which one speedboat pilot was heard to say “we are coming at you; you will explode in 3 minutes”. This footage had been ‘faked’ by the US according to Iranian authorities. Iran's Foreign Ministry Spokesman Mohammad-Ali Hosseini said the incident was a normal identification request by the Iranian side. Brigadier General Ali Fadavi, an IRGC senior official, has said that the US vessels' registration numbers had been unreadable to the Iranian guards. He added that they had only approached to read identification numbers on the ships [Press TV]. Meanwhile George Bush who is currently on a Middle East tour, has called the incident ‘dangerous’ and said that Iran threatens world peace [CNN].

UK - H5N1 found in 3 dead swans

Three swans found dead at the Abbotsbury Swannery in Dorset have been found with the deadly H5N1 bird flu. DEFRA confirmed the news shortly before 14:30 GMT today. The dead mute swans were found two days ago but the results have only just been released. The swannery is located on the Dorset coast around 15 km north-west of Weymouth [BBC]. The outbreak comes after recent reports from China that the virus was passed between father and son [BBC]. Although experts claim no mutation has yet occurred, which would make the virus ever more deadly, it certainly heightens concerns. At least 200 people have so far died from direct exposure to the H5N1 virus in the last 5 years. In Egypt the 19th victim of bird-flu was announced as it welcomed in 2008 [BBC]. But so far there is no scientific proof that human to human transmission. The bird disease was first identified in the Far East but has gradually spread worldwide with case being identified on every continent. But also of concern is the increased resilience of the virus to known treatments. The World Health Organization announced early this year that some of those who had died in Egypt had been infected with a strain of the virus that was showed moderate resistance to the antiviral drug, Tamiflu.
[Map of spread / H5N1 map]

Pakistan - Suicide blast kills 23

At least 23 people have been killed in a suicide blast which struck outside a Pakistan courthouse in Lahore. There had been a strong police presence at the courthouse in anticipation of protests by lawyers. But at 11:45 local time [06:45 GMT] a suicide bomber believed to be on a motorcycle approached a checkpoint and detonated his explosives. Most of the dead are said to be police and up to 60 others were injured in the explosion. The blast comes less than two weeks after Benazir Bhutto was targeted by a gunman and suicide bomber [CNN / BBC].

Suicide attacks have increased over the last three months, and killed more than 400 people, according to the Pakistani authorities [CNN]. At least a further 1000 individuals have been injured by the 19 attacks which are beginning to worry the international community and the IAEA over the stability of the country. Even before today’s blast the head of the International Atomic Energy Authority said he was concerned Pakistan’s nuclear weapons could fall into militants’ hands. Quoted in the Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat, Mohamed ElBaradi said he, “worried that nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of an extremist group in Pakistan or in Afghanistan". The head of the IAEA furthered his concern saying, "I fear that chaos... or an extremist regime could take root in that country [Pakistan] which has 30 to 40 warheads" [BBC].

But his comments have been dismissed by Pakistan authorities with one Foreign Office spokesman saying "Our nuclear weapons are as secure as that of any other nuclear weapon state. We therefore believe that statements expressing concern about their safety and security are unwarranted and irresponsible."

There are concerns that the turmoil in the country is likely to increase as the February 18th election nears.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Iran overshadows Bush's Mid East trip

One of the Iranian boats which threatened US warships on Sunday

President Bush today called the actions of the Iranian boats, which swarmed around US ships in the Persian Gulf, a ‘provocative act’. The incident which occurred yesterday in the Straits of Hormuz nearly provoked retaliatory fire from the US warships as the Iranian boats sent radio broadcasts. One transmission was heard to say, "I am coming at you. You will explode in a couple of minutes".

Prior to his visit to the Middle East in order to broker a peace deal between Olmert and Abba, he said “it is a dangerous situation and they should not have done it”. With new pictures released by US authorities, including some audio of the radio messages, the story gained more prominence than in yesterday’s news reports [Sky News / BBC]. In an Unrelated incident two F/A 18 jet fighters crashed in the Persian Gulf. The US military has said there was no indication of hostile fire [CNN]. The planes took of from the USS Harry S Truman which was not involved in yesterday’s incident

With regards the Middle East peace process, President Bush said it was “Important to establish a Palestinian State once the road map obligations are met” [CNN / BBC]. After his visit to Israel, the President is also set to stop by Kuwait, the UAE and Saudi Arabia to discuss, amongst other things, Iran’s influence on the Middle East. President Bush took off from the US shortly before midnight [GMT] and will land in a region which has begun to see an increase in violence. Besides Iraq which sees violence almost daily [CNN], strikes between Israel and Palestinian militants have increased in recent weeks. Lebanon has also seen a number of incidents as President Bush heads to the region. Two rockets were launched by militants from Lebanon into Israel on Tuesday [BBC]. And in a bombing south of Beirut, two UN workers were injured [BBC]. Several groups have taken the opportunity of Bush’s visit to promote their political and violent agenda. On Monday an American al-Qaeda supporter appeared by way of an internet broadcast, calling for the President to be greeted with “bombs and booby trapped vehicles”. Adam Gadahn, who is wanted by the FBI for treason, also symbolically tore up his US passport [BBC].

Monday, January 07, 2008

Iran 'taunts' US warships

Five Iranian Revolutionary Guard boats "harassed and provoked" three U.S. Navy ships early Sunday in international waters, the U.S. military said Monday. The incident has been referred to as a "significant" confrontation and nearly came to blows after it emerged that US warships were about to fire on the Iranian boats. But just before the order to fire came, the speed boats turned back. It is the first major incident between the Iranian regime and the West since several British naval personnel were captured last year.

Although the news made headlines earlier in the day, it was soon pushed to the back of the news agenda by the early evening. Channel Four News did not report on the incident in its evening broadcast. And Sky and the BBC only made passing references in their later broadcasts. However, it was the top story on CNN. Al-Jazeera placed it twelve minutes into its evening news but gave less than 30 second to the story. According to reports, five speed boats ‘swarmed’ around the American warships in the Strait of Hormuz issuing threats via radio. One read, "I am coming at you. You will explode in a couple of minutes".

But whilst the Iranian authorities dismissed the incident as ‘normal’ and ‘something that happens from time to time’, the Pentagon and the White House saw it as far more serious. A spokesman for the White House called the action ‘provocative’ and said it could ‘lead to a dangerous incident in the future’.

The BBC reported the incident to have occurred at 04:00 local time on Sunday and lasted around 20 minutes. The Pentagon has insisted that the three US vessels - identified as navy cruiser USS Port Royal, destroyer USS Hopper and frigate USS Ingraham - were in international waters. Quite what the repercussions of hostile action would have been can only be speculated. However, a recently broadcast documentary, concerning the 1983 NATO exercise Able Archer, highlighted just how misinterpreted actions could lead to nuclear war. There are differences in the way information is collected by intelligence agencies since 1983, but mistakes too still occur. The war on Iraq was built around the premise that the country possessed ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’. That intelligence proved to be false. And only recently the US intelligence community released a report that said Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons programme in 2003.

There may well be action taken by the US against the Iranian regime. But what might be precipitated by such action is something we should all be concerned about [CNN / Sky News / Al-Jazeera].

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Czech nuclear hoaxers face jail

Members of a Czech art group who hacked into television broadcasting with images of a hoax nuclear explosion have been charged and may face up to three years in jail, Dusan Ondracek, a state prosecutor in the northern town of Trutnov, has said. The six hackers are accused of tampering with equipment during a live panoramic shot of mountains last June. The six members of the Prague-based Ztohoven art group hacked into a live weather broadcast with pictures of a nuclear exposion. A flash of bright light could be seen followed by a fiery mushroom cloud on the horizon. In order to hack into the broadcast, the group is said to have climbed up a television tower near the Krkonose ("Giant Mountains") in the northern Czech Republic and connected a computer to the camera and broadcast cable [CNN / BBC / You Tube].

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Turkey - PKK targets military bus

An explosion has occurred in the city of Diyarbakird'ar in south-east Turkey [BBC / CNN]. A military coach may have been the target of the bomb which has injured at least 20 people. Begum Donmez, reporter with CNN Turk, said the blast hit a residential area which houses many military personnel. Sky News broke the story at 15:00 GMT, however CNN brought the first pictures to viewers at 15:25 GMT. The BBC finally showed some pictures at 15:56 GMT. Sky News have reported that at least 3 people died in the explosion. The bombing comes in the wake of a series of incursions by the Turkish military into northern Iraq in an attempt to dispatch PKK rebels [CNN]. The bombing itself hit an area occupied by many Kurds and authorities have been swift to accuse Kurdish militants for the blast.

UPDATE [at 16:28]: Sky News has reported at least 4 dead in the explosion with a further 52 injured.

Bhutto - killed by "laser weapon"

Benazir Bhutto may have been assassinated by a laser weapon, the Pakistan Peoples Party has told The Nation newspaper. Though not widely reported at this time, some details have emerged on news websites on the Internet. When Bhutto was admitted to Rawalpindi General Hospital shortly after the fatal attack on her on December 27, doctor Musaddiq Khan, who treated her, told a PPP leader that it was "the first time in his life" he had seen such a wound. Bhutto's wounds were not caused by bullets and she had died before reaching the hospital. A part of her brain and blood had spilled out from her head, they quoted the doctor as saying. The sources also claimed both the gunshots and the bomb blast in the attack on Bhutto "were a decoy to hide the real shooters". The paper further quoted the sources as saying that the militant leader Baitullah Mehsud and the Taliban, blamed for her assassination by the government, did not have such technology.

But some are dismissive of the idea. The claim was published in The Nation, and was "probably not" true so says Mike Nizza in the NY Times blog. He quotes John E. Pike, a weapons expert in Virginia, who has expressed major doubts about the claim in an e-mail exchange with The Lede. “It is physically possible, but completely improbable,” said Mr. Pike, who is the director of, a private group that tracks military affairs.
“The beam generator would be pretty hefty — an 18-wheeler or thereabouts — and not likely to be in the hands of any party that would do such a deed,” he said.

The news will further exacerbate an already volatile situation in the country and comes on the day that a delay in the election was announced. It will now be held on February 18th. Meanwhile Scotland Yard are to head for Pakistan in order to investigate the assassination. Whatever their verdict, some will never be satisfied with the answers [Sky News].

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Oil hits $100 per barrel

Supply and demand of oil has forced the price to $100 per barrel for the first time. Second only to the US, China has increased its reliance on oil over the last few years. In 2007 demand increased by 5.7%. They import from Venezuala, Iran and South Africa, but they are already looking at other countries to supply their increasing energy hungry economy. The underlying price should be $60 to $70 per barrel according to experts, but speculation has driven prices up. And it is at the pump where most people feel the effects. In the UK the litre price has already reached £1.08 in many places. This is around $8 per gallon, well above what US consumers pay to fill their gas-guzzling SUVs.
The increased price also affected stock markets with the Dow Jones, Nasdaq, FTSE and CAC all dropping at the end of trade today. The oil price did droop slightly by the end of the day, but the future does not look promising, both for the motorist or the world economy as a whole [CNN / BBC].

Major fire at London hospital

A major fire has broken out at one of London's top cancer hospitals. The fire broke out at the Royal Marsden Hospital in the Fulham Road in West London at around 13:25 GMT. The incident has already resulted in the evacuation of many patients but there are no reported injuries. Roads in the area have been closed causing local traffic chaos. The fire will be devastating to the NHS with the hospital treating over 40,000 patients every year. Up to 75 firefighters and 15 fire appliances are at the scene. BBC News 24 brought Live pictures to viewers at 14:15 GMT followed some 15 minutes later by Sky News.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Happy New Year 2008

London brought in the new year with a massive fireworks display. Thousands lined the streets of the Embankment to see the million pound extravaganza. Ten fireworks were released every second in a display choreographed by Frenchman Christophe Berthonneau. The display was also broadcast live on the BBC as well as BBC News 24 and Sky News and lasted more than 11 minutes. Throughout the day CNN, BBC 24 and Sky brought pictures from Auckland in New Zealand, Sydney in Australia and Moscow in Russia. But compared to previous years the coverage was light. Berlin's display was broadcast at some length on Sky and the BBC, but CNN failed in bringing live pictures of this and several other locations. Beijing was mentioned in news round-ups, though CCTV-9 did broadcast extensive gala performances. Taiwan was only briefly mentioned on Five News. New York, though broadcast live on CNN and UK news channels, failed to make today's news bulletins [BBC].

For many there will be little to celebrate. Kenya has seen hundreds killed after rigged elections brought riots to the streets of Nairobi [BBC]. In Pakistan, tensions still remain high on the streets, though much of the violence seen in previous days has subsided [BBC]. Iraq, as usual has seen a continuation of attacks with suicide blasts killing dozens over the last few days [BBC].