Thursday, September 30, 2010

China & US clash over currency issues

Yesterday the US House of Representatives backed legislation could pave the way for trade sanctions on China. The Democrat-backed bill passed by 348 to 79, and targets countries that hold down the value of their currencies. The story featured highly on Bloomberg and financial channels but most news organisations were yesterday focused on other things. The plight of Labour MP David Miliband, following his failure to secure the party leadership over his brother that dominated the schedule. A possible terror threat and a virus threat also topped the news agenda along with Bill Clinton's visit to Northern Ireland and a national strike in Spain which culminated in clashes with police.

However the importance of the United States move cannot be underestimated. The US accuses China of keeping its currency artificially low against the dollar in order to give its exports an unfair price advantage. China has begun recording increasingly larger trade surpluses again since the global recession ended last year.The US has similarly slipped back into trade deficits, despite weak growth and unemployment reaching nearly 10%.

"We cannot rely on the Chinese government to voluntarily do the right thing," a Republican sponsor of the bill, Tim Murphy said. "The expiration date for appeasement has long since passed." But the bill is not universally popular in the US and has been opposed by the US Chamber of Commerce, among others, who say it will do more harm than good to job creation and growth. Needless to say it is unpopular amongst Chinese politicians too. China has criticised any move by the US to impose increased tariffs calling it protectionist [CNN / BBC].

The World Trade Organisation this week lifted a ban on Chinese poultry exports to the US which it said was inconsistent with WTO rules. Yao Jian, spokesman of China's Ministry of Commerce (MOC), said that Chinese poultry products were safe and called for the US to conduct fair assessments and tests on the meat. The spokesman insisted that China has always maintained that WTO members should conscientiously abide by WTO rules and fight trade protectionism [CRI / WSJ].

But such claims are disputed by many observers even amongst those who oppose the bill. In addition many fear the legislation, if made law, will only make things worse and not resolve issues concerning China's currency. A former US trade representative, professor University of Maryland and strategic advisor to Mayor Brown, Susan Schwab, says the bill is "not the way to go about solving it" and that there could be a "boomerang effect". Speaking to Bloomberg she said that the bill also detracts from other issues the US has with China such as intellectual property rights, indigenous innovation and market access. There is a very real issue of China keeping the Renminbi low, Schwab says, but it could escalate tensions [Video].

Such tensions have already been raised with China issuing strong statements following the vote. "Using the yuan exchange rate issue to execute protectionism toward China will only severely damage China-U.S. trade and economic ties," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said. However she did not reveal what action China might take if increased tariffs were imposed. Meanwhile the passing of the bill has already had an effect with the yuan weakening against the dollar on Wednesday.

China may point the finger at the US and shout about protectionism, but China is one of the most protectionist major economies around, so argues Joerg Wuttke, the head of the European Chamber of Commerce in China. "There's a lot of rhetoric about protectionism from the Chinese at the moment because they are very very afraid. But they have very little leverage when it comes to talking about trade. From our perspective they buy very little from Europe," he said. 

No European company has ever been allowed to buy a major Chinese company, and a $2.5 billion (£1.75 billion) bid by Coca Cola for Huiyuan, the Chinese juice maker, was stalled by Beijing. In 2006, Chinese trade barriers cost European companies £19 billion of lost business. "German companies have tried to buy steel mills and ball-bearing factories but have failed. I hope the situation changes, but there are lots of national interests in China and I cannot see any signals of change yet," Wuttke says [Telegraph / Straits Times].

A walk around department stores and supermarkets in China reveals the clear battle faced by foreign countries. Most items on the shelves are domestically produced and where imported products are available they are very expensive. New Zealand butter is twice the price than that seen on British supermarket shelves despite having travelled less than a quarter the distance. Where foreign brands are cheaper, it is because they are manufactured within China under licence. Marlboro cigarettes, Coca Cola and McDonalds are all relatively inexpensive, but these are exceptions to the rule. And even McDonalds are forced to use Australian beef due to US beef import bans.

Meanwhile in western stores Chinese made products fill the shelves. Most clothing, toys and many electronic goods bear the made in China label, and are comparatively inexpensive. But cheap imports has come at a cost to western manufacturing and resulted in high unemployment []. 

The WTO requires countries to declare all national, state and local subsidies every two years, so that if one country's exports surge suspiciously, other countries' trade officials can easily check to see if that product is being subsidised. However, China has virtually ignored the requirement since joining the WTO. This is in direct contrast to China's insistence that WTO members should conscientiously abide by WTO rules and fight trade protectionism as iterated by China's Ministry of Commerce (MOC) spokeswoman Yao Jian this week [NYT].

Another issue which is also cited as creating unfair competition is China's stance on Internet censorship. Speaking at the tail-end of a five-day trip to China in May, European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes linked the matter to achieving a competitive environment for European companies and raised the censorship issue in a meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang in Beijing. "It is one of those issues that needs to be tackled within the WTO," she told reporters in Shanghai. "I am pushing wherever I can just to get European enterprises on a level playing field in China and the other way around."

China's government strictly monitors Internet content within the country and information deemed sensitive by the ruling Communist Party is blocked. United States Trade Representative Ron Kirk said in March that the administration of President Barack Obama was weighing the merits of taking China's censorship of Google to the WTO as an unfair barrier to trade. It is something that tech companies would welcome. Using censorship "in a manner that favours domestic Internet companies goes against basic international trade principles," Google's Nicole Wong told lawmakers earlier this year [China Digital Times / Business Week / Reuters].

Google is losing out from advertising revenue from YouTube and other services in China because the video hosting site is blocked. Yet Youku operates without hindrance, though of course it self-censors content. Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites also suffer from similar restrictions, while domestic services operate even if in a somewhat restricted manner. As well as potential advertising revenue being lost by these websites, it poses issues for companies entering China. Video hosting on a company website has to be redesigned for the Chinese market. Information feeds using Twitter and Facebook will not penetrate the Chinese market and different strategies would need to be employed. This all comes at extra cost. For large companies, this is not a major hurdle. But for smaller firms it can be daunting. In the west a company can easily set up a website using the free tools that Google and others make available. Many may not even realise their site is unavailable in China. For example when Google's website hosting service Googlepages moved to Google Sites, few users would have realised their pages would have become inaccessible in mainland China. Google's tools are available in many languages, making it easy to set up. Even where these tools are available in China, the user can only navigate in the Chinese language. This makes it doubly difficult for smaller business initiatives.

Take which is powered by Google Sites and specialises in business development in the North American market. It is also attempting to make inroads into China. But as Daniel Pilon explains, his company has also come up against the great firewall of China. "My clients in China cannot access the site even if they enter the URL," he says. "So, if I want to have my site visible in China I will have to move away from Google and do it with another software such as Intuit!" The Intuit hosted pages are currently accessible in China, but after a month's free trial it costs $4.99 per month. A small cost perhaps, but there is no guarantee that the service, like so many others, would not become blocked by Chinese censors in the future.

China joined the WTO in November 2001 and some members did voice fears about Beijing's ability to stand by its pledges. But US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick addressed the plenary session before the vote saying, "Their participation in the WTO will be a boost for us and them." Chinese officials also dismissed such concerns. "China's market is open to the outside. As long as the market is open to the outside, the more economic growth we have and the better for the world," Beijing's top trade negotiator Long Yongtu told reporters [CNN].

But China can often be seen flouting its obligations. In 2007 China stopped granting permission for American films to be shown in its cinemas in an apparent trade dispute with the United

States, according to several Hollywood executives and United States government officials [NYT]. China has repeatedly promised to co-operate in the global fight against counterfeit goods, in response to a highly critical ruling from the World Trade Organization. But intellectual property rights are still widely flouted and ignored. Whether its the famous Silk Market in Beijing which sells a wide range of fake goods or DVD stores selling counterfeit films, authorities rarely act. And some businesses are far from hidden. In Kunming in China's southern Yunnan province a shop openly sells counterfeit DVDs. Complete box sets of Star Trek containing 48 discs and bringing together 7 series of the popular science fiction TV show may be bought for as little as $40, a fifth the price of a legitimate copy. Latest Hollywood films are also on sale for a little over a dollar. The shop is far from unusual, but for the fact it is located directly next door to a police station. 

In the coming days China celebrates 61 years since the founding of modern China. However the strike across China's bows from the US House of Representatives may dampen the festivities, at least amongst those in China's politburo. China often talks of creating a harmonious society, a reason often cited as to why the Internet is so tightly controlled, filtering out undesirable content such as pornography, violence and dissent. 

According to the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, the main characteristics of a harmonious society will put people first and make all social activities beneficial to people's subsistence, enjoyment and development. "In a harmonious society, the political environment is stable, the economy is prosperous, people live in peace and work in comfort and social welfare improves." The question is whether such goals come at the cost of creating a less than harmonious world.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Zeus a greater risk to IE & Firefox users

Police have arrested nineteen people suspected of stealing millions from online bank accounts with the aid of a computer virus. The suspects are alleged to be part of a gang that has stolen at least £6m in the past three months. But while this plot may have been disrupted, a risk still exists for thousands of computer users who fail to protect themselves from hackers, fraudsters and virus attacks.

"We believe we have disrupted a highly organised criminal network, which has used sophisticated methods to siphon large amounts of cash from many innocent people's accounts, causing immense personal anxiety and significant financial harm - which of course banks have had to repay at considerable cost to the economy," Detective Chief Inspector Terry Wilson of the Metropolitan Police said. 

But he advised computer users to be vigilant and increase their guard. "Online banking customers must make sure their security systems are up to date and be alert to any unusual or additional security features requested which is at variance with their normal log-on experience. Greater public awareness and education will make it harder for personal details to be compromised and for this type of fraud to be carried out." [BBC]

The virus responsible in this case is known as ZeuS, a Trojan horse that steals banking information by keystroke logging. Zeus is spread mainly through drive-by downloads and phishing schemes. ZeuS has been around for sometime but the publicity surrounding it has only recently made major headlines [Sky News].

First identified in July 2007 when it was used to steal information from the United States Department of Transportation, it became more widespread in March 2009. In June 2009, security company Prevx discovered that ZeuS had compromised over 74,000 FTP accounts on websites of such companies as the Bank of America, NASA, Monster, ABC, Oracle, Cisco, Amazon, and BusinessWeek.

ZeuS' current botnet is estimated to include millions of compromised computers, around 3.6 million in the United States alone. As of October 28, 2009 ZeuS has sent out over 1.5 million phishing messages on Facebook and more recently LinkedIn users were targeted with attacks [ZDNet].

Such attacks have been verified on several versions of Internet Explorer and also affects Firefox, said Cisco senior security researcher Henry Stern. ZeuS may inject HTML into the pages rendered by the browser, so that its own content is displayed together, or instead of, the genuine pages from the bank's web server. Thus, it is able to ask the user to divulge more personal information, such as payment card number and PIN, one time passwords etc.

ZeuS is very difficult to detect even with up-to-date antivirus software. This is the primary reason why its malware family is considered the largest botnet on the Internet. Security experts are advising that businesses continue to offer training to users to prevent them from clicking hostile or suspicious links in emails or on the web while also keeping up with antivirus updates. Symantec, one of the leading anti-virus companies, claims its Symantec Browser Protection can prevent "some infection attempts", but it remains unclear if modern antivirus software is effective at preventing all of its variants from taking root. Even some mobile phones are now being targeted [eWeek].

While using more secure browsers like Google Chrome will help prevent some attacks it is also important to observe other security measures. One repeated measure is to use different passwords for every website registration and where possible change passwords regularly. Using mnemonic passwords can prevent some but not all attempts to violate accounts. Real words, pet names and so on are easily guessed, but mnemonic passwords are much harder to crack. An example might be Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain which gives the password ROYGBIV. This maybe made more difficult to crack by substituting numbers for certain letters, thus ROYGBIV becomes R0YGB1V. Using longer mnemonics, upper and lower case and special symbols makes for even stronger passwords, but can still be constructed for easy recall. 

It goes without saying that antivirus software should be kept up-to-date and scans are performed regularly. Paid versions are generally better but free versions of such software are better than nothing. Data on your computer should also be backed up regularly, either to the cloud, to discs or external hard-drives, or even all three. 

Of course there is no absolute security. As with driving a car there are inherent risks. Taking precautions will help and some are obligatory. Ignoring driving regulations will lead to accidents or a brush with the law and not locking your vehicle might lead to theft. Using a computer, especially connected to the Internet, poses risks too. Death might not occur by failing to observe certain advice, but failing to protect yourself from ID theft, bank fraud or data corruption may be very uncomfortable and costly. If you do become a victim of a cyberattack you are not alone. Even nation states are not immune from viruses as recent attacks in Iran show [Sky News / CNN]. This is little consolation for the damage brought by such attacks.

See also : tvnewswatch - web users still at risk from clickjacking / tvnewswatch - fake software invites attacks

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Sino-Japan ties strained over rocky isles

Over the last few weeks China and Japan have been at loggerheads over disputed islands off the coast of Taiwan. It has strained relations between the two countries. But it is only the latest in a series of disputes China has become embroiled in recent years. Issues surrounding Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan have raised temperatures in Beijing. Trade disputes have upset relations between China and the west. And of course issues of human rights and censorship have rarely gone off the boil. But as China grows in strength it is not so easy to argue with this waking dragon.

On 7 September a Chinese fishing trawler collided with two Japanese Coast Guard patrol boats in disputed waters near the islands. The collisions occurred after the Japanese Coast Guard ordered the trawler to stop fishing. After the collisions, Japanese sailors boarded the Chinese vessel and arrested the captain Zhan Qixiong. There then followed a series of strongly worded statements from China warning of "further measures" if the Chinese skipper was not released. Premier Wen Jiabao said that Japan "should take all the responsibility of possible consequences" but details of how China would react were not explicitly revealed [Xinhua]. Beijing were certainly unhappy and even called off talks scheduled for the UN summit [Xinhua]. Meanwhile on the streets of Beijing the issue rattled the nationalists. There were protests calling for the boycott of Japanese products and the Internet was alive with vitriol aimed at Japan. Although it never quite came to blows the media certainly revelled in the latest souring of relations between Japan and China. [Next Media Animation], based in Taiwan, aired a video depicted a virtual fight between a Ninja warrior and a panda [YouTube].

But what is the fuss all about? China insists the islands are theirs. "The Diaoyu Islands have been Chinese territory since the early years of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Maps printed in Japan in 1783 and 1785 that marked out the boundary of the Ryukyu Kingdom show that the Diaoyu Islands belonged to China," a statement on Xinhua said. In fact even the name is disputed. Japan refers to the uninhabited land masses as the Senkaku Islands [尖��� Senkaku Shotō], while China refers to them as the Diaoyu Islands [钓鱼台群岛 / Diàoyútái Qúndǎo]. They are also called the Pinnacle Islands on some maps. All Chinese media will refer to them as the Diaoyu Islands, but most international media refer to the small rocks by the Japanese name. 

There are about 8 small rocks making up the islands, the largest only 4.32 km2. They have been controlled and administered by Japan since 1895, but are claimed by both the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the People's Republic of China as part of Taiwan Province,Toucheng Township in Yilan County since 1971. The United States controlled the islands as part of its occupation of Okinawa from 1945 to 1972.

In what has been claimed as evidence in support of China's claim to the islands, the People's Daily reported on a Japanese map dating from 1950 which showed "that Japan's sovereignty scope and territorial waters does not include the Diaoyu Islands in the Japanese demarcation line."

It is not the first time a map has been presented as evidence however. A classified PRC government map from 1969 has been revealed which refers to the "Senkaku islands" as Japanese territory. 

Discovery and the mapping of the islands has been contended by both sides. Nonetheless Japan points to the fact that they were not inhabited until 1895 and that several months before the cession of Taiwan to Japan by the Qing Dynasty, Japan had already claimed and incorporated the islands into Japanese territory. As a result, the islands remained Japanese territory and would not be affected by the retro-cession of Taiwan in 1945. Though the islands were controlled by the United States as an occupying power between 1945 and 1972, Japan has since 1972 exercised administration over the islands. According to the Japanese government, the PRC and ROC (Taiwan) have come to claim the sovereignty since a submarine oil field was discovered near these islands. The discovery of oil that is seen by some to be behind the continued dispute over ownership [Wikipedia / Island dispute / BBC-Q&A].

In 1978 Japan established official relations with China and the two governments agreed to shelve the issue concerning the islands. But in recent years the dispute has soured. In October 2006 a group of activists from Hong Kong, the Action Committee for Defending the Diaoyu Islands, including Tsang Kin Shing and several members of the April Fifth Action, approached the islands in order to show the support for Chinese claims to the islands. However, they were stopped from landing on the islands by the Japan Coast Guard.

In 2008 two PLAAF J-10A multi-role fighters intercepted a Japanese P-3C anti-submarine and reconnaissance airplane that was flying closely above the Senkaku Islands. The two J-10 fighters were suspected of protecting Chinese nuclear submarines that were operating in that area. Later in the same year two Chinese coast guard vessels started routine patrols within 12 kilometres of the Senkaku Islands in order to declare them as Chinese territory. In October a 270 ton sport fishing vessel Lien Ho of Taiwan suffered a collision with the Japanese patrol vessel Koshiki and subsequently sank while in the disputed territorial waters claimed by Japan and Taiwan. The Taiwanese crew who were aboard the vessel claimed that the larger Japanese frigate deliberately crashed into them. In 2009 two Chinese PLAAF J-10A fighters intercepted three Japan Air Self-Defense Force F-2 fighters flying close to the Senkaku Islands, and locked their missiles onto the Japanese fighters. After a three minute stand-off, the Japanese fighters returned to Japanese air space. The Japanese government stated it was an act of provocation.

The latest spat occurred after a Chinese fishing trawler collided with two Japanese Coast Guard patrol boats in disputed waters near the islands. The collisions happened after the Japanese Coast Guard ordered the trawler to stop fishing. After the collisions, Japanese sailors boarded the Chinese vessel and arrested the captain Zhan Qixiong. It was to be the most serious diplomatic incident in the history of the islands with China blocking rare earth minerals exports to Japan and Chinese premier Wen Jiabao threatening further action if the captain of the Chinese fishing trawler was not released.

This week Japan eventually relented to demands for Zhan Qixiong's release. Earlier, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had urged the two sides to settle the issue before it had a long-term impact on the region. But even after the fisherman's release China continued to issue demands for an apology and compensation. 

"This was an action that gravely violated Chinese sovereignty and the human rights of a Chinese citizen, and the Chinese government strongly protests," said a foreign ministry statement. "It is unlawful and invalid for Japan to detain and investigate the boat captain and to take any legal measures against him." [BBC]

The issue has fallen from the main news agenda in the west, though it remains a top item across Asia. The item is top on CCTV News which refer to official statements that the detention of the fishermen was "unlawful and invalid". Japanese Premier Naoto Kan has meanwhile attempted to downplay the incident saying that Japan and China were "important neighbours" and that they needed to build ties. At the same time Japan's foreign ministry has rejected China's demand for an apology and compensation for the arrest and detention of the Chinese fishing boat captain saying such a demand was "not acceptable" [NHK]. There are no existing issues concerning the island and that both countries should work towards "a mutually and strategically beneficial relationship".

The repercussions will be long felt in the region. Beijing has cancelled talks on the oil and gas field issue located between the Senkaku Islands and Japan. Small anti-Japanese protests have been held in several cities across China, and while Chinese media has shied away from publicizing them, anti-Japanese sentiment has grown in parts of the country. China also cancelled a visit by 1,000 Japanese students to the Shanghai Expo and a concert by a top Japanese band was also shelved. The five-member pop group SMAP had been due to perform before some 80,000 fans at the Shanghai World Expo on October 9-10, but a Chinese ticket agency abruptly stopped selling the tickets on Sunday. The group's Japanese agent Johnny & Associates said, "We have decided to postpone the 'We are SMAP!' concerts in Shanghai scheduled for October 9 and 10 after assessing the current situation and taking into consideration the safety of our guests."

The disputes featured at the UN summit too. Barack Obama said it was important for ASEAN countries to resolve such issues. Obama and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations issued a joint statement affirming the importance of maritime security and law, as well as the "peaceful settlement of disputes." The ASEAN group, which includes Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, has been eager for United States to state its position on the issue, and to affirm that it will continue to extend its security umbrella. Vietnam, which may have tangled most often with China on the sovereignty issue, has been most eager for the US statement.

But such statements may unsettle relations between the US and China already at loggerheads over the value of the Chinese currency. The US has continually accused China of undervaluing the Renminbi which makes exports artificially cheap. On Friday a US House of Representatives committee approved a bill that supporters say would address the problem of jobs being lost to China. For years, US workers, businesses and farmers have been held to a competitive disadvantage because of China’s intervention to keep the price of Chinese goods to the US artificially low and of US produced goods to China artificially high,” Democratic Representative Sander Levin of Michigan, said. “The bill will help to provide meaningful relief to those who are harmed by China’s exchange-rate policy.” China has called such action protectionist and will only serve to harm US-China ties [MarketWatch / Telegraph].

This week President Barack Obama pressed China’s Premier Wen Jiabao in a two-hour meeting at the United Nations to increase the yuan’s value. But Wen rejected such proposals saying that a 20% increase in the currency would cause severe job losses and trigger social instability in China. “We cannot imagine how many Chinese factories will go bankrupt, how many Chinese workers will lose their jobs,” he said. 

Companies which do much business in China have also urged caution over raising tariffs. "Provoking tension with our trading partners doesn’t come without costs, and we should choose our battles carefully," Stephanie Lester, vice president of the Retail Industry Leaders Association, which represents Wal-Mart, said in a statement. "It makes little sense to enact harmful policies that will spark a bilateral conflict over currency with one of our largest trading partners and fastest growing markets for American exports." [Bloomberg]

China's opening up policy has brought great benefits. It has brought great wealth to China and taken millions out of poverty. It has opened many markets for international companies and there is growing free-trade between China and the world. But as China's strength grows it is also growing more confident in rattling a sabre and rejecting calls for it to play by the same rules. Protectionism, WTO rules, human rights and territorial disputes are likely to be major issues in the future as China becomes a bigger trading partner. As it strengthens its economy, it may also become a difficult giant with which to bargain.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Fear of Islam 9 years after 9/11

Nine years after terrorists flew hijacked aircraft into the iconic World Trade Center buildings in New York, the repercussions and psychological scars still remain. In the United States the terror threat level is currently Elevated [Dept of Homeland Security], indicating a significant risk of attack, while British security services retain a threat level of Severe, meaning that a terrorist attack is highly likely [Home Office].

Such concern goes beyond labels however. In Afghanistan a coalition of various countries continue to fight the War on Terror, though the phrase has dropped from favour. Despite stated aims of ending American combat operations in Iraq, the US military will still maintain a presence for some time. Names have changed but troops on the ground may still be employed in hostile action against insurgents. Of the 50,000 American military personnel who remain in Iraq, the majority are still combat troops. The major units still in Iraq will no longer be called "brigade combat teams" and instead will be called "advisory and assistance brigades." But for all intents and purposes their role will change little [Washington Post].

The violence has decreased in the last year in Iraq, but bombings still occur and the country is far from stable. In Yemen, the Sudan and other parts of the so-called Islamic world terrorist cells are springing up. Attacks are often localised, but there are fears these groups may set their sights beyond their borders.

Because so many terror cells emanate from self styled Islamic groups, there is a growing fear and suspicion of Islam. In New York, a proposal to build a mosque close to ground zero has met stiff opposition from victims and relatives of those who died on 9/11. In Florida a preacher Terry Jones announced he was to burn copies of the Qur'an in an attempt, he said, "to expose that there is an element of Islam that is very dangerous and very radical." Pastor Jones abruptly cancelled his 9/11 Qur'an burning. But the story had already received huge media coverage. A "Burn a Koran Day" banner has been taken down outside his church, but the Pastor says he has achieved his mission to raise awareness about the threat from radical Islam.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the intended Qur'an burning and similar voices came from other prominent individuals. Former British Prime Minister added his voice to those of the White House, the Vatican, the commander of international forces in Afghanistan General David Petraeus and film star Angelina Jolie. Perhaps Tony Blair, who has recently published his memoirs was concerned the practice of burning books would spread to his own book.

''I deplore the act of burning the Qur'an," Blair said in a statement, ''It is disrespectful, wrong and will be widely condemned by people of all faiths and none. In no way does this represent the view of any sensible person in the West or any other part of the world.'' [Telegraph]

President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates also urged the Reverend Terry Jones to call off the event. Jones was unrepentant and insisted he would go ahead with his action. "Jesus would not run around burning books, but I think he would burn this one," he said told broadcaster ABC. But almost at the eleventh hour he called off his plan. He said the book burning was off while he held talks over a Muslim cleric's plans to build a mosque near the site of the World Trade Centre that was destroyed in the September 11 terror attacks [Telegraph].

However, there was already rage around the Islamic world with protests and American flags being burned. At least 16 people were killed in Indian-controlled Kashmir and Afghanistan [Guardian / CNN]. Iranian students also planned to protest against the cancelled Qur'an burning on Monday, according to Iran's semi-official Fars news agency [Newsweek].

Meanwhile in France, lawmakers passed legislation banning Islamic veils including the controversial burka [BBC]. Within hours there were telephone threats resulting in the evacuation of the Eiffel Tower and the surrounding area [BBC]. Police later said it was a false alarm.

"Nothing was found," a French police officer told the AFP news agency. Within hours, the Saint-Michel train station, which was the target of a deadly attack in 1995, was also briefly evacuated following a similar threat. While the media did not associate the bomb threats to the burka ban, it is hard to dismiss it as mere coincidence.

Memorials surrounding 9/11 were low key this year, and there was not the saturation coverage seen in the few years following the 2001 terrorist attacks. But there was still some programming devoted to those terrible events. Press TV in Iran broadcast a documentary called "Zero - An Investigation into 9-11" which debated several conspiracy theories connected to the attacks. One particular episode poured scepticism on the official story behind flight 77 which crashed into the Pentagon [Video]. Such theories are not new and were discussed in L'Effroyable Imposture and Le Pentagate by French writer Thierry Meyssan.

In Britain channel FIVE, recently acquired by Express Newspapers, aired 9/11 Crime Scene Investigators, a documentary following officers from the NYPD's elite Crime Scene Unit in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. On the morning of September 11th, 2001, New York's CSU officers arrived at the twin towers just as the north tower began to collapse. Had they not been delayed en route by a flat tyre, they would most likely have been killed by the falling debris. Despite these dangers, Det Sgt Joe Blozis, who led the team, made an executive decision to suspend any crime scene investigation, and instead ordered his team to focus solely on the hunt for survivors. "My first command was to search and rescue, just help get the people out," he remembers. They also faced the biggest crime scene in history and that of the largest mass homicide in modern times.

The fact that self-styled Muslims claimed responsibility for this and other such attacks has made it all the more difficult for moderate and peace-loving Muslims. Tony Blair in his condemnation of the proposed burning of the Qur'an insisted that the violent extremists were a minority. "Those who wish to cause religious conflict are small in number but often manage to dominate the headlines. You do not have to be a Muslim to share a sense of deep concern at such a disrespectful way to treat the Holy Book of Islam," he said. The former Prime Minister, who was yesterday awarded the Liberty Medal by former US president Bill Clinton's National Constitution Center in Philadelphia for his commitment to conflict resolution, added that people should try to understand Islam rather that condemn it. "Rather than burn the Koran, I would encourage people to read it," he said.

Whether the Qur'an incites hatred or promotes peace is has been fiercely debated. One blog points to several passages which could certainly be used by extremists as justification for their violent acts. But the Bible and other religious texts often contain contradictions. Stipulations are not so strictly adhered to by most Christians or rules that sometimes ignored altogether. There have always been religious extremists and there have been those that have demonised certain faiths. Islam has, by the actions of a relative minority since 9/11, earned itself a bad reputation. As such Islamophobia has now become common diction.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Travellers evicted from Essex site

Police and bailiffs have moved in to shift travellers who had set up a permanent site on greenbelt land in Essex. The forced removal began around midday some three hours after representatives from the local council served the travellers a final notice to move off. Last month, Basildon District Council gave 28 days' notice for those living on the greenbelt site at Hovefields Drive to leave the camp.

There were only seven unauthorised pitches from the site, but the eviction is seen as a trial run for an expected mass eviction of another illegal traveller encampment at Dale Farm.

Gratton Puxon, a founder of the Gypsy Council, told the BBC, "We're very alarmed by this. We hope people will have some sympathy with families who look like being put out and have nowhere to go."

But Basildon Council said that the forced eviction was the last resort. Basildon Council leader Tony Ball said, "This action, which is supported by the courts, is the final part of a legal process which has lasted many years. I am extremely disappointed that direct action has become necessary. The council has done all it can to encourage the travellers to vacate voluntarily. However, Basildon Council has an obligation to protect its greenbelt from unauthorised development."

At around 9 am police and bailiffs began to arrive at the site and set up a holding area for the media who soon followed. There were a few harsh words exchanged between some travellers and bailiffs but there was no major confrontation. However as bailiffs from Constant and Co made a move to enter the site with a tow truck some self-styled human rights protesters blocked their way.

There then followed a few scuffles with bailiffs removing them forcibly. The manhandling of 72-year-old Ann Kobayashi created particular anger with one traveller Catherine McCann exclaiming, "she's not a dog, she's a human being" [Echo]. Two protesters were arrested by police for a breach of the peace and there was another brief stand-off when a vehicle was parked in the entrance blocking access. But within half an hour mechanical diggers had moved onto the site.

Outnumbered, and out-gunned, the travellers left of their own volition, but where they were heading remained unclear. While the eviction is seen as a victory by Basildon Council but Dale Farm may be a far more difficult operation. Millions have already been spent in legal battles and the council face further court action after travellers won an injunction at the High Court putting the demolition on hold [Telegraph].

Dale Farm is part of an Irish Traveller site on Oak Lane in Crays Hill, Essex built on a former scrap yard and housing over 1,000 people. It is the largest Irish Traveller site in the UK and has been the subject of a long running dispute as to the legality of the site. The land is owned by the travellers and has since been reclassified as green belt. The Irish Traveller community is an entirely separate ethnic group to the Romany Gypsies and the two should not be confused. Dale Farm is exclusively occupied by members of the Irish Traveller community, whose cultural roots are in the town of Rathkeale to the south of Limerick in Ireland.

Whether or not court action fails, the residents are expected to put up a bigger fight than seen at Hovefields. "Our boys are ready for them whenever the bailiffs do come. We're not just going to get up and leave – there will be an awful fight and we do not want that to happen," says Mary Ann McCarthy, a 69-year-old grandmother who has lived at Dale Farm with her family for eight years [Guardian].

One of the members of the self-styled human rights protesters has condemned the action. "Loads of people on site are not in a fit state to travel, especially as this is being done so late in the season," George Nightingale told the media, "Elderly people and children are being thrown on the roadsides just as winter is approaching with nowhere to go." He said that the operation was clearly a practice for the eviction of the bigger traveller encampment a few kilometres down the road. "Dale Farm is next under threat and it's the same bailiff company involved - they see Hovefields as a dry run for that."

Further links: Indymedia / Enquirer / Morning Star / Dale Farm blog [Pictured: traveller Catherine McCann struggles with bailiffs]

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Saturday, September 04, 2010

NZ "extraordinarily lucky" after 7.1 quake

"In some ways we were extraordinarily lucky" said Bob Parker, the Mayor of Christchurch in New Zealand, following a massive 7.1 magnitude. He wasn't referring to the town being fortunate to experience such a disaster however. Christchurch was lucky in the senseb that no deaths have yet to be reported and most injuries sustained have been relatively minor.

The earthquake, initially reported as a 7.4 but downgraded later to a 7.1 magnitude, struck some 40 km to the west of Christchurch [43.332S, 172.437E] on New Zealand's south island at 4:35 local time [16:35 UTC]. The tremor lasted more than 40 seconds and shook residents from their slumber. There was initially thought to be only minor damage the impact may be far bigger than was immediately apparent.

Many old buildings collapsed in Christchurch, leaving streets covered in bricks and rubble. Cracks appeared in some streets and many people were left homeless as police closed off the centre of the city. Others were forced to abandon their badly damaged homes. The city was without power, water and gas for hours and telephone links came under severe threat as batteries ran low on cellphone sites. Fortunately land lines and 111 emergency call lines remained intact.

Speaking later in the day the prime minister John Key said it was likely that only a "snapshot of the damage" had been seen. Already there are further problems after broken water mains caused flooding to large areas. Looting has also been reported and police have imposed a curfew. Meanwhile a state of emergency was declared.

There were further scares in New Zealand's second largest city, home to 386,000 people, after two aftershocks struck the vicinity. Both were relatively small at 5.1 on the Richter scale. Earthquakes are not unknown in New Zealand. The country experiences more than 14,000 earthquakes a year, of which only around 20 have a magnitude in excess of 5.0. 

Tonight bad weather is predicted. Gale-force winds are expected in the coming hours which may compound problems faced by the emergency services and residents.

Television and radio coverage has been criticised by some for not providing information. Dean Marshall expressed his concerns. "The radio was playing normal music. Nobody knew what to do. The co-ordination was terrible down here," he told TVNZ, "We were wondering if there was a tsunami risk which meant we needed to go up to higher ground but we heard nothing."

TV coverage has also been scant on news channels around the globe. While it is the headline story on BBC, CNN and Sky News, it is not the saturation coverage often seen following similar events elsewhere. 

As darkness fell in Christchurch a curfew was imposed from 7pm until 7am in the morning. Canterbury Police will be supported by 80 Auckland officers flying in to assist with general duties and recovery. The army has also been drafted to help with security, with much of the central business district still without power. While the curfew is mainly to protect people from falling debris, looting is also a major concern. Anyone found in the central business district would be arrested, police have said.

A full scale search and rescue effort has also been rolled-out. An Air Force Hercules has been sent to the region, with Urban Search and Rescue personnel and dogs to help in the aftermath of the earthquake. Forty two Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) personnel from Auckland and Palmerston North, along with their equipment and three dogs, were being deployed, authorities said. Two Iroquois helicopters from No. 3 Squadron at Ohakea have also been tasked to assist in Christchurch and will be used to undertake aerial reconnaissance and damage assessment as required by Civil Defence [TVNZ].

Only two people are in hospital with serious injuries, but there were hundreds of minor injuries reported. But while people came off unscathed, the city is shattered. Major roads are littered with debris and railway lines have buckled, hundreds of homes and other buildings are too dangerous for anyone to enter. It may be some time before the city is able to put things back in order and damage is already being estimated at more than $2 billion.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Hague battles on despite rumours

It has become a headline story plastered on newspapers around the world, but allegations of an improper relationship between British Foreign Secretary William Hague and Christopher Myers, a law graduate from Durham University whom he employed as a parliamentary special adviser, has made a difficult job all the more difficult. After unsubstantiated stories circulated on blogs and Twitter feeds, William Hague said he felt the only option was to release a "very personal statement" which he said was "not an easy thing to do".

The long rebuttal to the allegations that he had pursued a homosexual relationship with Mr Myers was an attempt to "put the record straight". Speaking in Germany today he refused to answer further questions and said that his work was what he wished to focus on. "The work at the foreign office will not miss a beat and will not miss a beat," he said.

But the media seem to be more interested in discussing his statement and the allegations rather than his important work for the Foreign Office. Kelvin MacKenzie, former editor of The Sun newspaper, said he was "baffled" over the content of the statement. "Why he had to bring in the miscarriages of his wife is baffling," MacKenzie told Sky News. "It's no unusual for men to share hotel rooms," he added, but said the release of the statement has "fed the beast". But despite having made a career of sensationalist news stories, MacKenzie added, "I'm hopeful it goes away".

Of course the issue is only likely to subside if dropped by the media. The rumour mill has further been fuelled by the resignation of Christopher Myers who "categorically denies" any improper relationship. The issue has also raised questions over privacy and the nature of blogging and the bloggers themselves. While many bloggers attempt to keep to the truth, and substantiate allegations, others disseminate half truths and speculation. Of course this can be true also of opinion columns published in newspapers. But the sword of truth should be a foundation of all journalism, both paid for and unpaid for, both amateur or professional [LibDemVoice / Guardian].

Paul Staines who writes under the name of Guido Fawkes has become the centre of attention in this recent storm. His website which styles itself as a "blog of parliamentary plots, rumours & conspiracy", has been described as "one of Britain's leading political blogsites" and attracts more than 100,000 readers every month. But whether it is taken seriously or not it has caused a political stir and has arguably undermined the work of the Foreign Office and sullied Britain's reputation abroad.

There is nonetheless a great deal of support being expressed for William Hague. Most callers to James O'Brian on LBC and Vanessa Feltz on the BBC expressed sympathy with both William Hague and his wife Ffion who has been dragged into the débarque. Many questioned what the allegations had to do with his ability to do the job, even if true. Others also raised the question of privacy. Meanwhile a spokesperson for the Prime Minister David Cameron reported that he offered his "full support" for the Foreign Secretary [BBC].

And the work as Foreign Secretary continues even if it receives far less attention than smear campaigns. Today William Hague was in London meeting with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. The focus of the talks hinged around peace initiatives in the Middle East. "We look to Prime Minister (Benjamin) Netanyahu and (Palestinian) President (Mahmoud) Abbas to show the perseverance, commitment and courage needed to achieve a sovereign, viable and contiguous Palestinian state living in peace and security alongside a safe and secure Israel and their other neighbours in the region," William Hague said. Last week he had been in Belgrade for talks with President Tadic and other ministers and the prospects over whether Serbia and Kosovo might one day join the European Union. "We have left absolutely the same message in Serbia," Westerwelle said, referring to the position that Belgrade should abandon its territorial claims on Kosovo, which unilaterally declared its independence in early 2008. The territorial integrity of Kosovo was now beyond any further discussion, Westerwelle said. "We are not opening this book up again."

Since taking up his role as Foreign Secretary William Hague has hardly stopped in his attempts to build ties with other nations. In May he visited Washington before heading Madrid for the EU - Latin America summit and some early conversations with a large number of fellow foreign ministers. He then stopped off in Afghanistan before heading back to London. In June he embarked on a European tour visiting Paris, Rome, Berlin and Warsaw to discuss business and then to the EU Foreign Affairs Council in Luxembourg where issues surrounding Gaza and Iran sanctions were on the table. He then enganged in talks with the Pakistan President, Prime Minister and Foreign Minister during a three day tour of the country. On his Twitter feed William Hague said it was "Important to build a long-term partnership between our nations." In July there were further visits to the Middle East and Asia including Japan, Afghanistan, Malaysia and China. In the last week he returned to Europe, stopping off in Finland for for two days of talks with Foreign Minister Alex Stubb and other members of the Finnish Government. 

William Hague has used Twitter extensively to update his more than 21,000 followers and even held Q&A sessions. But since arriving in Belgrade his Twitter feed had remained somewhat silent. There was indeed no mention of the scandal surrounding his private life, nor a tweet referring to his arrival back in London. It will be unfortunate, as well as somewhat ironic, if the British Foreign Secretary quits Twitter because of the rumours that began on the net. He has been the first high profile British politician to use the social network to keep the public informed and to engage in debate. Whatever one's politics, he has gone further than most to connect with people.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Hague statement:

"I feel it is necessary to issue this personal statement in response to press and internet speculation over the last ten days. Earlier this year a Sunday newspaper began questioning whether my marriage to Ffion was in trouble, and last week another media outlet asked whether there was a statement about our supposed separation. This seemed to be linked to equally untrue speculation surrounding the appointment of Christopher Myers as a Special Adviser. Christopher Myers has demonstrated commitment and political talent over the last eighteen months. He is easily qualified for the job he holds. Any suggestion that his appointment was due to an improper relationship between us is utterly false, as is any suggestion that I have ever been involved in a relationship with any man.

This speculation seems to stem from the fact that whilst campaigning before the election we occasionally shared twin hotel rooms. Neither of us would have done so if we had thought that it in any way meant or implied something else. In hindsight I should have given greater consideration to what might have been made of that, but this is in itself no justification for allegations of this kind, which are untrue and deeply distressing to me, to Ffion and to Christopher.

He has now told me that, as a result of the pressure on his family from the untrue and malicious allegations made about him, he does not wish to continue in his position. It is a pity that a talented individual should feel that he needs to leave his job in this way. Ffion and I believe that everyone has a right to a private life.

However, we now feel it necessary to give some background to our marriage because we have had enough of this continued and hurtful speculation about us. I have made no secret of the fact that Ffion and I would love to start a family. For many years this has been our goal. Sadly this has proved more difficult for us than for most couples. We have encountered many difficulties and suffered multiple miscarriages, and indeed are still grieving for the loss of a pregnancy this summer. We are aware that the stress of infertility can often strain a marriage, but in our case, thankfully, it has only brought us closer together.

It has been an immensely traumatic and painful experience but our marriage is strong and we will face whatever the future brings together. Several years ago one Sunday paper reported that Ffion was three months pregnant, without ever checking the story with us. This made even more difficult the fact that we had only just experienced another disappointment. We have never made this information public because of the distress it would cause to our families and would not do so now were it not for the untrue rumours circulating which repeatedly call our marriage into question. We wish everyone to know that we are very happily married.

It is very regrettable to have to make this personal statement, but we have often said to each other 'if only they knew the truth…' Well, this is the straightforward truth. I will not be making any further comment on these matters."

Twitter killed in China due to OAuth

Over the coming weeks, Twitter will be making changes that will impact how people use Twitter applications. There are over 250,000 applications built using the Twitter API. To use most applications, a user will first authorize the application to access their Twitter account, after which they can use it to read and post Tweets.

Amongst the more popular applications are desktop applications like TweetDeck, Seesmic, or EchoFon, but there are also web-based and mobile applications. Many allow what is called "basic authorisation" which allows users in countries where Twitter is blocked to still access the site and post Tweets. In China and Iran, Twitter has been used to disseminate information authorities would rather keep under wraps. And despite best efforts they have so far been unable to completely block access to the micro-blogging site.

Now it appears, Twitter is helping to lock out those in countries which operates a restrictive Internet. For sometime Twitter has begun to roll-out "OAuth", a technology that enables applications to access Twitter on the user's behalf with without asking directly for their password. Of course it is more secure, but for those stuck behind the Great Firewall of China, or similar blocks, it now prevents access altogether. It is possible that founder Jack Dorsey, Twitter CEO Evan Williams and co-founder and Creative Director Biz Stone are not even aware that new authorisation rules will affect millions of Twitter users in China, Iran and other countries. But given how Twitter has celebrated the democratisation of the web through its application, it seems to be a major oversight.

OAuth will result in applications no longer being allowed to store passwords and users may require to reauthorize them in order to allow them to continue functioning. For those in the free west, few will even blink as the change takes place. But in countries that censor the web, Twitter will now fall well and truly out of bounds unless Internet users take the plunge and pay for a VPN [Virtual Private Network] or proxy server. For some this is complicated or cost prohibitive. Even with a VPN, access may be further complicated when using mobile devices.

Censoring countries often try shut down or limit access to websites like Google, YouTube and Twitter by using sophisticated web blocking technology. The power of Twitter is that it allows all its data to be used by third parties, through a so called API. This makes it possible for everyone to build their own Twitter application. Since there are so many applications and websites that allow you to use Twitter, it is impossible for those countries to shut them all down. 

But with the roll-out of OAuth such circumvention of the firewalls will end since user information will always have to go to to give a website permission to use their account. So if is blocked in the country where access is sought there will be no way of granting access [].

Some bloggers have suggested various ways to bi-pass the new authorisation rules, but such information will be difficult to access in countries where access to the Internet is restricted. Having to go through some of the complicated procedures involved will prove too much for many users. Of course there are many people still tweeting out of China. Many are expats, who can afford to pay for a VPN which costs upwards of $55 per year. There are Chinese Twitter users too. Some use paid-for VPN, while others use software such as Puff and Freegate, which are free but often unstable.

One Twitter user in China, who goes by the name of longzaijianghu, spoke to tvnewswatch about his difficulties in accessing Twitter in recent months. "It's the problem of OAuth. But I have found Puff to be a very useful software. I can use it to scale the wall at home," he said. But he was wary about using such software elsewhere. "I don't try it in office yet because there's monitoring," he said, "A VPN will be a better choice, and the pity is I cannot access Twitter in office. I hope i can find a better solution."

tvnewswatch, London, UK