Thursday, March 29, 2012

Petrol panic top-trending subject on Twitter

Britain went mad on Wednesday evening and Thursday morning with panic buying for petrol after government ministers urged motorists to take sensible precautions and top up their tanks. The warnings came after the union Unite balloted for a strike of its tanker drivers who deliver fuel to more than 90% of Britain's forecourts.

As millions of motorists queued for petrol social networks filled with comments. Petrol and queues became the top trending subject on Twitter with many posting jokes relating to other recent news items.

"Just filled up with petrol, bought 1000 cold pasties and 10,000 stamps! This government will never bring me down!" joked one Twitter user, referring to the hikes in first class stamps and the scandal surrounding the so-called 'pasty tax row'.

"Where am I supposed to store all this petrol? The bath is already full of stamps and pasties," another quipped.

The jokes came in thick and fast, particularly over Francis Maude's suggestion of storing jerrycans of fuel. "Filled the car with petrol. Opened the door and it all came out again," one tweet read, while another said, " It may be wise to actually fill your car up with petrol though make sure your windows are closed first!"

Some were just a little cynical of the government advice, suggesting it was just a way of getting people to spend more money. "Tricking people into bulk buying stamps and petrol in the last week of a 2nd negative quarter is a great way to avoid a technical recession," one person posted. Another Twitter user sacastically suggested the advice was a good move. "Congrats to the politician who created this mass petrol panic. He might just have single handedly got us out of the recession."

While long queues were evident in many areas, this was not the situation everywhere, though some social network users wondered if the panic over petrol might encourage some to take a day off. "I wonder how many people use the excuse 'no petrol' to not go into work today," one tweet said. In fact some Twitter users were actively encouraging people to enjoy the sunny weather. "Stop buying petrol and do a bit of sunbathing instead,it's great outside," @tonyblackburn urged his followers.

There were some more serious tweets floating around on Twitter. The London Fire Brigade called on motorists not to overfill their tanks after being called to several fuel spillages at petrol station forecourts. "Drivers, please take care not to over-fill when topping up at the pumps," a much re-tweeted message read.


tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

UK govt condemned over fuel advice

The British government has urged people to take "sensible precautions" and keep a jerrycan of fuel in their garage in case a strike by fuel tanker drivers goes ahead.

But the advice has been condemned by Labour, motorist organisations and the Fire Brigade Union who have warned of panic buying and increased risks of fire.

The threat of a tanker driver strike prompted Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude to release a statement in which he urged the public to take "sensible precautions."

"People need to be aware there is a risk to fuel supplies," Maude said, before suggesting that motorists store a jerry can of fuel.

Fire Brigade Union general secretary Matt Wrack condemned the advice and said by storing fuel, the general public were risking their lives. "The general public does not properly understand the fire and explosion risk of storing fuel," he said, "Those without garages may be tempted to store fuel in the home. In the event of a fire in the house or a neighbouring property, it would be disastrous."

"There is a real danger the public will start storing fuel in inappropriate ways if the Government is encouraging panic-buying and storage. This advice is wrong and must be withdrawn."

Motoring organisations have also criticised the government calling statements from both the prime minister and his cabinet secretary "irresponsible".

An AA spokesman said, "It's the height of irresponsibility for Downing Street to give the impression that people should be panic-buying. They should be using all their efforts to get a settlement."

Meanwhile Labour branded the latest comments from Francis Maude the "height of irresponsibility part 2" and shadow minister without portfolio Michael Dugher asked, "Has Francis Maude gone mad?!"

There were no initial signs of panic at the pumps, though with many forecourts only storing around 25% of their capacity even a relatively small increase in fuel purchases could result in shortages.

While the Prime Minister David Cameron said there was no need to queue, he suggested motorists top up their tanks which could lead to problems in some areas.

Drivers with the Unite union, who supply 90% of UK forecourts, have voted to strike over terms and conditions. Although there would be at least a seven day warning the civil contingencies committee Cobra are already planning to meet to discuss plans.

In 2001 and 2005 Britain saw widespread fuel shortages after strikes by tanker drivers. Panic buying exacerbated the problem in many cases, prompting the government to ration fuel for key workers and emergency services.

With rising prices of fuel, many motorists may be cautious about filling up their tank. Prices at the turn of the millennium were a little over 70 pence per litre for unleaded petrol but have steadily risen to an all time high of £1.40 a litre. With a biting recession, motorists have reticent of filling up their tanks, adding only a few litres at a time [Sky / BBC / Telegraph / Guardian / Evening Standard].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

'Suspicious death' of Briton with links to Bo Xilai

China is being urged to reopen an investigation into the death of a British businessman who had close connections to purged Chinese official Bo Xilai. Neil Heywood died last November at a hotel in Chongqing. Police and authorities investigating the case say he died from “excessive alcohol consumption”, but now suspicions have been heightened following Bo Xilai's dismissal and possible connections with ex-police chief Wang Lijun.

At the time of Heywood's death the family was said to have been satisfied with the ruling and the businessman was cremated, and according to some reports without an autopsy having been performed. “Back at the time, the family was content with how the case was being handled and had no reason to disbelieve the police's findings," a spokesman from the British Embassy said.


But concerns have been raised after the ousting of Chongqing governor Bo Xilai with whom Heywood is said to have been close friends. Pressure from friends and family has forced the British consulate to ask the authorities to reopen the investigation into Heywood’s death, though there has not been an official response from the Chinese authorities thus far.

Some have raised the issue of Heywood’s drinking habits and claimed he was a teetotaler, though at least one person who said they knew the businessman told the BBC he drank occasionally.

A spokesman for the British Embassy refused to answer questions concerning the specifics of the case but said, “There was speculation, which was referred to us, so we passed it onto the Chinese authorities.”

The opaque nature of reporting in China and the reticence of authorities to release any official statements have only fueled rumours and speculation surrounding Bo Xilai and his associates.

Political turmoil

Bo Xilai was removed from his post as communist party boss in the city of Chongqing earlier this month because of his connection with a scandal involving Chongqing's police chief, Wang Lijun. Wang had himself been demoted and then fled to the US consulate in Chengdu. Many believe he went there to seek asylum, though the real reason remains unclear.

Rumours have also circulated that Bo Xilai and communist party official and domestic security chief  Zhou Yongkang had been plotting for a political takeover within the upper ranks of the Communist Party, those these too are unsubstantiated.

Revelations concerning Bo Xilai’s son, Bo Guagua, have also made the headlines with his lavish playboy lifestyle. There have been some media reports claiming that Neil Heywood, who was married with two children, worked as a butler for Bo Guagua. However these reports are understood to be untrue.

Nonetheless, Neil Heywood and Bo Guagua have been good friends for some years and met regularly. He is also believed to have assisted in his overseas education.

Business connections

Why Heywood was in Chongqing in November is not known. He is known to have attended business seminars in Beijing and is pictured on along with other executives in connection with the luxury car manufacturer Aston Martin.

Aston Martin has confirmed that he was a non-executive director for Beijing Martin, an Aston Martin dealership, but said he was not directly employed by the British carmaker.

A staff member at the Hualing Sifang company, where he was listed as a non-executive board member, said they added his name after discussing the possibility of helping Chinese firms to list in London, but no deals had materialised.

Heywood moved to the Beijing suburbs, where he and his Dalian wife brought up their two small children. He also had a property in London, and his background appears to be one of Home Counties affluence.

Rumours of a connection between the Wang scandal and Neil Heywood’s death first emerged in mid-February on China’s weibos, Twitter-like microblogs. Reports in papers and on micro-blogs paint a confused picture. The Wall Street Journal points to a fallout between Wang and Bo Xilai after discussing claims that Heywood was poisoned. Wang also claimed that Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, was involved in a business dispute with Heywood, according to the paper’s sources.

In other revelations reported by the Wall Street Journal, Neil Heywood had links with a company established and set up by ex-spies. Heywood is said to have been an advisor for Hakluyt, a corporate intelligence firm founded by ex-MI6 officers. It has all the makings of a spy novel, and one friend even likened Heywood to a character from one of Graham Greene's books [Telegraph].

Media reports

News concerning Bo Xilai and the associated rumours have already been heavily censored with mentions on micro-blogs being quickly deleted [CNN]. The latest revelations were also hard to find in the Chinese media with many articles discussing Neil Heywood having been removed. A search on Baidu, China’s main search engine, for 尼尔・海伍德 [Neil Heywood in Chinese characters] brought up several news articles though many links were dead. Of the few that remained online at the time of publishing, most omitted any reference to Bo Xilai and only of a connection with Wang Lijun. All the articles seemed to be a slimmed-down and plagiarized version of the Wall Street Journal article [biz.cb / 21cn / ccdyifeng cached / Sina cached].

Foreign media, of course, have not held back either in reporting the facts nor publishing the speculation and rumours surrounding the growing scandal. In Hong Kong most papers have avoided playing up the rumours and scandal, though many are less stifled in the way they can report. The Asia Times in particular discusses in some length the rumour mill, which is likely to keep churning, though with little effect for those at the top.

Some effects have already been felt however. When the Epoch Times, a newspaper founded by Falun Gong, picked up on the rumours of a coup in Beijing and splashed a big story it caused a scare in Hong Kong, where the stock market dipped, though only momentarily.

Fraught investigation

Any investigation into the death of Neil Heywood is unlikely to reveal very much. There is no body, there was no autopsy, and any CCTV footage from the hotel in which he died is unlikely to have been kept. Any witness statements may prove to be of little value, especially after four months. However the circumstances and the suspicious, if somewhat circumstantial, links to Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun do raise many questions. Just as the case of Hu Stern [tvnewswatch: Hu's been bribing who?] raised issues over how safe it was to do business in China, this case too may reopen the debate of the risks of doing business in the Middle Kingdom.

The death of a British businessman being linked to the largest political scandal in China in recent times doesn’t bode well for relations between China and the west, and especially Britain which is trying to boost trade with the second largest world economy.  [Pictured: Neil Heywood & Bo Xilai. Playing cards courtesy of MostWantedChinesePlayingCards]

[Links: BBC / Sky / Sky - video / ITV / TelegraphGuardian / FT / WSJ / Globe & Mail]

tvnewswatch, London, UK 

Monday, March 26, 2012

Rumours of coups & crashes point to unease in CPC

Rumours are flying around Chinese cyberspace claiming that an attempted military coup has been thwarted by the swift intervention of Chinese authorities in Beijing. The somewhat wild rumours are likely false but point to a probable power struggle in the central government [BBC / FT / NightWatch].

Increased security

Coming only days after Bo Xilai was ousted from his position, there are claims that a close supporter Zhou Yongkang may also have been set for the push. If true it would indicate a growing clash between economic reformers and Maoist traditionalists.

State media reported last week that 3,300 party cadres from the security apparatus would be sent to Beijing for ideological retraining. The order was highly unusual, but even more so given the report omitted to mention Zhou Yongkang, who heads the Political and Legislative Affairs Committee that is recalling the cadres.

This has created speculation that Zhou, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee and until now one of the most powerful men in China, might be pushed out from the party for his backing of Bo Xilai.

An increased security presence in central Beijing, including armed SWAT teams at some subway stations has only served to fuel the rumours. The security presence may not be that significant given the recent meetings of communist party officials in the capital.

Underlying tensions

Nonetheless Jin Zhong, a veteran political analyst based in Hong Kong, suggests that there may be some truth to the rumours only in as much that underlying tensions between economic reformers and Maoist traditionalists might be growing.

"It hasn't reached the point where you are going to hear gunshots. It is not like when China arrested the Gang of Four in 1976, but there is a very strong conflict going on," Jin told the LA Times.

Given the opaque nature of the Communist Party it is difficult to say with any certainty whether Zhou will meet the same fate of Bo Xilai. But given his loyal support to the former governor of Chongqing, Zhou will have won few friends in the CPC. However since he is due to retire at the 18th Party Congress in October, Jin doubts he will be forced out before then. "They won't touch anybody on the Standing Committee before the congress. It is too risky. They've put in a big effort trying to present a picture of stability"

Some reports are worrisome. The Mingjing News, a US-based news portal, said that Bo Xilai had been scheming with Zhou Yongkang to prevent vice president and heir apparent Xi Jinping from being confirmed as President Hu Jintao's successor. It also reported that Bo had purchased 5,000 rifles and 50,000 rounds of ammunition through the Chongqing Public Security Bureau, causing nervousness in Beijing [Want China Times].

Censoring the rumours

Such reports cannot be verified officially, and whether or not there is any basis in fact Chinese censors have been swift in removing any political gossip from the Internet [Daily Mail / Globe and Mail].

Pictures on state television of Zhou Yongkang meeting local politicians has dampened the speculation that he had been arrested, but not the discussions of how his comrade in arms Bo Xilai fell from grace with communist party officials.

The latest theories to emerge concerning Bo's purge from the party hinges on his son Bo Guagua. Educated at Harrow, Oxford and Harvard, the son of the former Chongqing politician has been described as a playboy whose antics may have, in part, led to his father's fall from grace [Daily Mail].

Contradiction of values

Bo Xilai, whose own father was a revolutionary hero and a friend of Chairman Mao, made his name by cracking down on gangs, preaching a return to egalitarian Communist principles, and by reviving the waving of red flags and the singing of Maoist anthems. But just as Mao lived a lavish lifestyle while preaching socialist values, Bo also exploited his powerful position. He was known for his love of tailored suits and Jaguar cars, and the fact that he educated his son at top schools and universities abroad all added up to a contradiction of values.

The party as a whole is trying to distance itself from such overt displays of wealth, especially as the poverty gap widens in China. The lavish lifestyles and the favouritism apparently shown towards officials and their families has brought increasing embarrassment for the CPC. Only after concerted campaigns or widespread publicity have authorities stepped in to punish crimes committed by party officials or their family members.

Li Tianyi, the 15-year-old son of a senior Chinese army general, was sent to a detention centre for a year after being convicted of assaulting a couple in the street who blocked the path of the BMW he was driving. In a notorious case in 2010, Li Qiming, the drunken son of a senior police officer in China's Hebei province, ran over and killed a university student, then told onlookers before fleeing, "My father is Li Gang." The 22-year-old was arrested and jailed for six years, but only after hundreds of thousands of angry messages were posted on Chinese micro-blogs.

Censoring complaints

Such complaints are often stifled however with government censors deleting messages posted on micro-blogs. Last week, the word Ferrari was banned from Internet search engines across China amid rumours that the son of a senior Communist Party official had been killed in a high-speed car crash in the capital. Two female passengers were said to have been seriously injured when the Ferrari 458 split in two after crashing into a bridge at 4am last Sunday [18/03/2012].

While the crash was reported in Chinese media [Beijing Evening News - Chinese] along with a photograph by reporter Yu Xiang, details have been sketchy and the identity of the driver has not been released, fueling speculation that the person behind the wheel must have been connected with someone in the government.

Such rumours cannot be substantiated, but the censorship of any mention of the crash and a failure to release details of the incident has only added to suspicions. 'Ferrari' was not the only banned term. Other words deemed out of bounds were "Shangshu" (a government official title in Imperial China), North 4th Ring Road + car accident, Baofusi + car accident, and "falali" which is the phonetic Chinese pronunciation of the word Ferrari [BBC / ABC / CMP / WSJ].

The continued censorship and control of the news, as well as the ousting of individuals seen either as a physical threat or just a mere embarrassment to the party, seems to underlie a growing sense of unease within the leadership as it nears a transition. [Pictured: Zhou Yongkang & Bo Xilai. Playing cards courtesy of MostWantedChinesePlayingCards]

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Friday, March 23, 2012

Mohammed Merah shootings a wake-up call for France

France remains on edge following the shooting of the suspect believed responsible for the shooting dead of seven people over the last few weeks. Mohammed Merah was shot dead after a siege of more than 32 hours holed up in an apartment in Toulouse. But while it has been hailed as a successful operation, there are many unanswered questions, least of all whether the self-styled al-Qaeda terrorist was acting alone.

Intelligence failures

There is growing criticism that the authorities failed to act sooner in reeling in the man who had been flagged several times and placed on a watch list.

On Thursday French officials admitted that Merah had been followed by intelligence agencies for years and that as recently as November 2011 he was questioned by France's DCRI domestic intelligence agency to explain his trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Merah is said to have been a member of a small extremist Islamist group run by his brother which security services believed was 'harmless'.

It has also emerged that Merah was arrested by US authorities in Afghanistan in 2008, apparently after being caught planting bombs for the Taliban, and sent home to France. He was also placed on the US no-fly list. French authorities however seemed less proactive.

French prime minister François Fillon attempted to explain away the authorities' inaction by saying they had no legitimate reason to detain Merah. "There was no single element allowing us to detain Mohamed Merah," Fillon told a French radio station. "We don't have the right in a country like ours to permanently monitor without judicial authorisation someone who hasn't committed an offence ... We live in a state of law."

Political fallout

However the fallout from the whole saga is likely to have dramatic implications. Security and the threat of terrorism has now been pushed to the top of the agenda as president Sarkozy continues in his bid for a second term in office at the upcoming presidential election which is little more than a month away.

Nicolas Sarkozy's election campaign has been transformed by the shootings of three soldiers, a rabbi and three children. His statesmanlike role during the crisis as a dependable crime fighter has pushed him into the lead against Socialist rival François Hollande and widened the gap between himself and the far-Right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen [Telegraph / Guardian].

However, with issues over border controls and immigration likely to feature in debates over the coming days, it is too early to tell if Sarkozy will maintain his dominant position. Both Hollande and Le Pen will exploit the recent crisis and the authorities' failure to arrest Merah sooner.

Successful operation

The operation to capture Merah was, in some ways, successful. He was brought down without any further loss of life, though several police officers were injured. However, his death will leave many wondering whether he was acting alone or if he was part of a larger terror cell.

This was certainly not '24', the American television series which followed the exploits of the fictitious Counter Terrorist Unit which sought to foil terror plots. It had taken ten days to home in on the killer since he began his shooting spree, and even after closing in on the suspect the operation did not conclude until a full 32 hours later. Having been killed, rather than taken into custody, any leads to other cells died with him.

The attacks

The first attack occurred on 11th March, when a French paratrooper, Master Sergeant Imad Ibn-Ziaten, also a French Muslim, was shot dead outside of a gym in Toulouse. The second incident occurred on 15th March, during which two uniformed soldiers, Corporal Abel Chennouf, and Private Mohamed Legouad, were killed and another seriously injured in a shopping centre in Montauban.

Media attention had been mainly confined to the French press, but when four people, including three children, were slain at the Ozar Hatorah Jewish day school on the 19th March all eyes became focused on the town of Toulouse with speculation over the motive of the killer.

Media speculation

Some had suggested that the killings were racially motivated, given the soldiers were of mixed race and that Jews were also targeted. The fact that one of the soldiers was a Muslim seemed to dispel the theory that the killer was an Islamic terrorist, though this is a fact that may not have been known to the assailant.

Within hours of the shooting at the Jewish school police closed in on the suspect and laid siege to his apartment in a small suburban street in Toulouse. In the early hours of 21st March Merah allegedly telephoned the television channel France 24, telling a journalist that he had filmed the murders and that he intended to post the footage online. At 03:00 local time [02:00 UTC], the French police tried to arrest Merah at his apartment on Sergent Vigné Street in the Côte Pavée neighbourhood. Merah shot at the police through the door, injuring three police officers. A siege then ensued with authorities attempting to talk the suspect into giving himself up.


During negotiations Merah claimed he was a member of al-Qaeda and said he had killed the soldiers in revenge for French involvement in Afghanistan and said he had attacked the Jewish school to "avenge Palestinian children".

After wearing down the suspect with explosions police stormed the flat at around 10:30 on Thursday morning. A firefight ensued with Merah apparently exiting the bathroom wearing a bulletproof jacket "shooting madly" according to French Interior Minister Claude Gueant. He then jumped from the window of the apartment and was shot in the head by a police sniper.

Well armed

Merah had been armed with an AK-47, an Uzi, several handguns and possibly grenades, according to reports. Further weapons were also found in a rented Renault Megane parked near the apartment building. In addition Merah had exchanged a Colt 45 for a mobile phone during the siege. The large arsenal of weapons will undoubtedly raise questions as to how he obtained them and what support he had.

Al Jazeera reported that one of Merah's brothers had been arrested, and that another had handed himself into custody. Their involvement is not yet clear, though it seems certain that Merah was not acting entirely alone.

Terror threat

France has perhaps only now woken up to the fact that a terror threat exists within its borders. In fact some commentators have aired their surprise that the country has not been the target of a serious terrorist attack until now. Writing in the Jerusalem Post,  Pinchas Landay says the latest incident is a wake-up call for France, and that no-one should be entirely shocked by events given the rise of anti-Semitism in the country.

But simplifying the attack to motives of anti-Semitism ignores the underlying threat argues Robert Sibley who wrote a piece in the Ottawa Citizen. He is particularly scathing of the media pundits and politicians who initially blamed a "right-wing wacko" for the killings at a Jewish school. Sibley also condemned the jump to conclusions and the apparent excusing of the killings by apportioning blame to lax immigration, even when it became clear the killer was a Muslim.

Sibley cites an article by Ed West, a journalist with the Daily Telegraph, who went so far as to assure his readers that the Toulouse shootings had nothing to do with Islam. "Islam is not to blame for the Toulouse killings," West wrote, arguing that the blame for terrorism resides with westerners whose societies don't make Muslims feel comfortable. In West's words, "It is not religion that turns some young Muslim men in the West violent, but the sense of alienation and frustration that inevitably comes from being a second-generation immigrant."

In other words, Sibley says, the West is to blame for Muslims not feeling at home, and because they don't feel at home it's understandable that they'd have to murder Jewish children and rabbis to feel better about themselves. "This is nonsense, of course, blaming the victim for his victimhood," Sibley lambasts.

Wake-up call

The Western media will no doubt double-back on such views. Instead, many are now looking at the mistakes made by the French intelligence services and whether Sarkozy's political campaign will suffer. The mistakes made must undoubtedly be established and lessons must be learned. But this incident must serve as a wake-up call not only to France but other countries who have thus far been complacent to the threat of terrorism, both home-grown or coming from abroad.

Links: Mohammed Merah - Wikipedia / 2012 Midi-Pyrénées shootings - Wikipedia / BBC / Sky / Telegraph / Daily Mail / French media: Liberation / Le Monde / La Figaro]

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Bo Xilai purge, a return to dark days of Mao

Last week Premier Wen Jiabao spoke of much needed reforms or see a return to the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, but only one day later the party chief of Chongqing, Bo Xilai, was ousted from his position. It was a move reminiscent of the infamous purges that took place in the 1960s during the Cultural Revolution and a sharp reminder that those at the top in China's government strongly guard their positions.

Political scandal

Bo Xilai's dismissal is perhaps most sensational political scandal to hit the Chinese Communist Party in recent years, and it has also shocked inhabitants of the city he administered. Many people in Chongqing regarded him as a colourful and popular politician who had brought prosperity to a Chinese backwater. But for those in the Politburo he was seen as too ambitious.

Since he began to govern the vast metropolis of Chongqing he set to cleaning out corruption as well as making vain attempts at sweeping away the heavy smog that hangs over the city.

He launched a campaign against organised crime during which hundreds of people, some of them senior city officials, were charged, convicted and jailed. He brought in a popular police chief, Wang Lijun, whose crime-fighting exploits had once inspired a TV series.

But when Bo Xilai's his campaign against corruption and his political ambitions were scuppered after his police chief mysteriously visited a US consulate in February.

"Wang Lijun incident"

The US government confirmed Wang Lijun had visited one of its consulates, but did not give any further details. Many speculated he might be seeking asylum after he had himself been removed from his post and was said to be on leave because of "stress" [BBC].

Some reports suggest Wang Lijun, who was the police chief and vice-mayor under Bo Xilai in Chongqing, visited the US consulate office in Chengdu following an apparent probe by the party into bribery allegations against him.

Wang is said to have met consul general Peter Haymond and two other US officials. He left the US mission the next day and was received by police troops and some Chongqing officials including mayor Huang Qifan. But the details still remain hidden with both Chinese and US authorities offering little information.

Calls for Unity

While there is much discussion and analysis in the western press, the subject of Bo and Wang have scrubbed from the headlines. Instead China's leadership have called on the public in Chongqing to unite behind the Communist Party.

"Unite our thinking and actions around the decision of the central leadership," said one of the front-page headlines of the Chongqing Times, which was given over to calls for conformity. "The voice of the party centre is a reassuring tonic," said another [Reuters / Telegraph]. Any discussion about Bo or Wang are being heavily censored in China with any mention on micro-blogs or blogs being quickly deleted. This post was also posted in both English and Chinese on Tianya, but was swiftly deleted.

Bo's Maoist campaign

Bo brought a revival of Mao Zedong-inspired propaganda which irked moderate officials. His Communist revolutionary-inspired "red" culture and egalitarian growth, won national attention with a crackdown on organised crime and much popular support amongst Chongqing residents.

Thousands were arrested, hundreds convicted, and 14 people executed, amongst them local officials and businessmen, and political rivals.

The Red campaign also spawned 10,000 revolutionary singing events, 8,000 "Red" story telling events, and half a million Red mottoes sent by text messages. "We are promulgating Red classics to boost the Red spirit", one official said of the campaign.

Bo's "strike black" campaign which targeted millionaires, local officials, police officers and gangsters involved in bribery, prostitution, gambling, drugs and guns was reminiscent of Mao's revolution that had also set to tackling crime in many forms. His efforts in this regard have been be lauded. By the early 1950s he had successfully stamped out drug dealing and prostitution across much of China. He also set to stamp out corruption, something that had been endemic under Chiang Kai-Shek's rule. From local administrations to central government everyone was under scrutiny, everyone but Mao himself.

But Bo, in his campaign against corruption, was perhaps getting too close for comfort for those in Beijing. Doing something to earn his own position is one thing, but by targeting his own comrades placed him in the gun sights of the Party.

Hypocrisy and contradictions

Like Mao, Bo had his own contradictions. Bo espoused Maoist slogans while sending his son, Bo Guagua [薄瓜瓜 lit. Thin Melon Melon], to be privately educated at Harrow, followed by Oxford and Harvard.

And while many people in Chongqing will see much of Bo's work to eliminate crime as laudable, his efforts were in part an attempt to elevate his own position and influence. Bo also benefited financially from his post while talking much about the growing wealth gap in China.

Power shifts

With the exit of Bo, Chinese Vice-Premier Zhang Dejiang took over the leadership in Chongqing for the time being. The party also officially announced the removal of Wang Lijun from his vice-mayor post. Meanwhile Wen Jiabao this week said the results of the investigation into the so-called "Wang Lijun incident" will be made public and "should be able to stand the test of law and history." However, he gave no time table as to when the report will be published. It remains to be seen how transparent the investigation is and if the population of Chongqing will see it a mere face saving propaganda.

Some roles in the new leadership have already been assigned with Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang taking the top two positions of President and Premier. Some reports suggest Bo will not give up in his effort to seek a post in the Politburo. His chances are slim however, and there are already strong hints as to who the other seven members are to be [The Star].

In Chinese politics it pays to follow the line and not tread on too many toes. While Bo achieved much for Chongqing, he became a threat to those in power and deviated too far from the path set out by Beijing.  [Pictured: Bo Xilai. Playing cards courtesy of MostWantedChinesePlayingCards]

[Further reports: The Star / Telegraph / Time / WSJ / FT / BBC / CNN / CNN video]

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Wen Jiabao talks of reform as his term nears end

China's premier Wen Jiabao has spoken of the need for "urgent reforms" in order to avoid the possibility of a repeat of the tragedies of the Cultural Revolution.

Speaking to reporters after the Fifth Session of the 11th National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Wen covered a wide range of subjects which he said the country's leadership needed to address in order to sustain growth.

"Critical stage"

Both economic and political reforms were necessary, Wen said. "Now reforms in China have come to a critical stage," the premier said. "Without a successful political reform, it's impossible for China to fully institute economic reform and the gains we have made in these areas may be lost, and new problems that popped up in the Chinese society will not be fundamentally resolved, and such historical tragedies as the Cultural Revolution may happen again in China."

Economic growth was the main focus of Wen's proposals. He said that China's decision to cut its economic growth target to 7.5% for 2012 was essential to sustain growth. But he appeared to acknowledge that China needed to do more to reform the leadership system of the Party and the government.

He did not outline the details of what specific changes were needed, however Wen was more forthcoming and transparent than during his opening address before party delegates earlier in the month.

Opening remarks at NPC

In his opening speech of the Fifth Session of the 11th NPC, Wen had outlined the need of reforms, but he was far more reserved than when he spoke to reporters on Wednesday this week.

In the one and a half hour speech before party delegates, when spoke of the need to reduce the income gap, improving the economy and increasing China's export trade [Xinhua].

He also spoke about China's increasing military budget [tvnewswatch: China increase military to "win local wars"]. "We will enhance the armed forces' capacity to accomplish a wide range of military tasks, the most important of which is to win local wars under information-age conditions," Wen said [BBC / CNN].

Talk to the press

But such issues were not discussed when sitting in a room packed with the world's media. Instead the outgoing Wen Jiabao talked about China's chequered past and possible moves towards greater freedom.

China generally avoids discussing its mistakes. But Wen Jiabao was open in his criticism of the Cultural Revolution and the political turmoil seen in the mid-seventies as the Gang of Four tried to seize power. "With the smashing of the "Gang of Four", our party has made a number of historical resolutions to such problems, and implemented reform and opening up," Wen declared. He also referred to the "error" of the Cultural Revolution, which he described as a "historical tragedy" [Full transcript in Chinese - Xinhua].

'Grandpa Wen'

However, much of what Wen had to say was for a foreign audience. His suggestions of political change may well fall on deaf ears within the party. The premier is often affectionately called Grandpa Wen. "A lot of older Chinese like him for his apparently nice character," a former Xinhua reporter told tvnewswatch. "But he just talks. He can't really do a lot." In fact it is likely Wen is sidelined by the party who use the 69-year-old as the friendly public face of the Communist Party of China.

Wen has appeared on CNN's GPS programme hosted by Fareed Zakaria and spoken openly about democratic change, Internet censorship and human rights [tvnewswatch: When China censored premier Wen]. But behind the apparent openness displayed by the Chinese leader, there is little or no movement for change within China's political circles.

"Gradual and orderly" reform 

When pushed at why China is slow to bring about democratic change and greater freedom, Wen often talks of "gradual and orderly" reform. Change rarely comes swiftly in China. Key to the resilience for bringing about too much change, too quickly, is China's past.

Wen Jiabao hinted at this when pointing to the turmoil seen in the wake of Mao's death and the struggle for power as the Gang of Four sought leadership. China has seen many internal struggles dating back centuries and is haunted by the spectre of disintegration.

Autocratic rule & rebellion

Autocratic rule has existed in China for at least 2,000 years, and maintaining stability and a "harmonious society" is one of the primary tasks of the current leadership.

Fear of falling into the chaos of wars that have nearly torn the country apart is the main reason why China cracks down on any form of dissent or whiff of revolt. Just as Emperor Qin ruthlessly removed every threat to the 'empire' so too does the Communist Party of China today.

China fears rebellion more than anything else. A violent popular revolt in the 1790s saw the rise of the White Lotus cult which swept across parts of the country and resulted in at least 16 million deaths. The 19th century also saw upheaval. Between 1850-1864 revolts and clashes between rival sects resulted in many more deaths, estimated to be more than all those who died in WWI. In the Taiping rebellion, initiated by Hong Xiuquan who modelled himself as the brother of Jesus Christ, at least 20 million are said to have died.

The turmoil of the Chinese Civil War, and the chaos seen throughout Mao's reign which saw many millions die, are not something China's leaders want to see again.


But while the party maintains a firm grip on power, there are muted voices that speak of change and a move towards greater democracy. China's definition of democracy is somewhat different from those in the West however. China has also tried to remain at arms length when it comes to calls for greater freedom abroad, for fear in part that a sign of support might encourage revolution at home.

But Wen moved away from the usual party line and apparently gave tacit support for the Arab Spring that has swept across the Middle East over the last 18 months.

The desire for democracy in the Middle East must be "respected and truly responded to" Wen said in response to a question concerning the Arab Spring. "I believe this trend towards democracy cannot be held back by any force" he added [BBC / Telegraph / Xinhua].

Last gasp

Wen Jiabao's comments are timely coming only days after the World Bank called on China to make changes in order to maintain growth. But they could be seen as a last gasp of a leader on his way out. "I don't think he's able to carry out any reforms as he's leaving office soon," the former Xinhua reporter told tvnewswatch.

Li Keqiang is tipped to replace Wen in the CPC reshuffle due to start later this year. Like many of China's top politicians, little is known about Li, with much of his past history having been carefully wiped from the record. According to the book China's New Leaders, Li has found himself sidelined and placed in a "passive position", likely because of accusations of liberalism [Telegraph].

Fearing Dong Luan [动乱], or turmoil, China is likely to see another set of leaders much the same as the last. In the immortal words from the Who song Won't get fooled again, "meet the new boss, same as the old boss".

tvnewswatch, London, UK 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Few changes likely when Xi Jinping takes over

Xi Jinping, China's likely next president, is set to takeover in the coming months as the country makes a significant political transition. But it remains to be seen whether a change in political leadership will change China's relations with other countries or even its domestic policies.

This year is seen as vital to China because of the leadership change. But the changes to the leadership are not transparent with all decisions being made behind closed doors.

It makes analysing the economic future all the more difficult. Nonetheless many financial analysts are watching closely at every move China is making, especially since new figures showed the country's growth slowed to 8.9%.

Last month the World Bank warned that the country faced problems if it did not make changes to its economic system, industrial regulations and social welfare [tvnewswatch: World Bank warns China on growth].

Speaking today [Tuesday 13/03/2012] on Bloomberg, George Magnus, a Senior Economic Adviser to UBS Investment Bank, reiterated the importance of making such changes, saying that "the model that catapulted China to what it is now is flawed and needed a reboot."

The new leadership will determine how China defines itself, Magnus observed, but he said he was somewhat pessimistic about any swift political change. "After the new leadership is installed it may take up to a year before stability is established within the party, so I'm not optimistic," Magnus said.

Even before the leadership transition takes place, there are already signs of worry in economic circles.

China's trade balance plunged $31.5 billion into the red in February as imports swamped exports to leave the largest deficit in at least a decade and fuel doubts about the extent to which frail foreign demand or seasonal distortion drove the drop [MSNBC].

The world's second-largest economy saw the biggest trade deficit last month in at least 22 years, the weakest January-February factory-production gain since 2009 and retail sales below the median economist estimate, according to official government data published recently [Business Week].

Meanwhile a trade war is beginning to brew between China and a number of countries concerning restrictions China has placed on the export of so-called rare earth metals, much used in modern electronics [tvnewswatch: China tightens up on rare earth production]. After a long running dispute, the US is set to file a case against China at the World Trade Organization challenging its restrictions on the much needed commodity. The European Union and Japan are also expected to support the US in its case [BBC].

But the move was not welcomed by China who, by way of an article published by Xinhua, said that the decision to bring a lawsuit against China was "likely to hurt bilateral trade ties and trigger a backlash from China instead of settling the rift."

The move adds to pressure the US is piling on China  during an election year. Obama has already called for efforts to help balance the trade deficit it has with the Asian nation and allow the Chinese currency to appreciate, something which Beijing still resists [Bloomberg].

The Xinhua article also attacks past US policy decisions and says, "Past experiences have shown that policymakers in Washington should treat such issues with more prudence, because maintaining sound China-US trade relations is in the fundamental interests of both sides."

Maintaining sound relations is of course important, but the language expressed by China seems to indicate that even with a change of leadership, the future will remain just as frosty between East and West.  [Pictured: Xi Jinping. Playing cards courtesy of MostWantedChinesePlayingCards]

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Sarkozy re-election uncertain after Gaddafi allegations

Nicholas Sarkozy's re-election looks uncertain following allegations that the former Libyan dictator contributed some €50 million to his 2007 presidential election campaign.

While the reports will be denied, the allegations will be damaging for Sarkozy who is already experiencing setbacks in his bid to be re-elected [Telegraph].

France was instrumental in helping remove Gaddafi from power, but the close relationship with the former dictator in the past may scupper the French president's bid for a second term in office.

The allegations are similar to those that emerged a year ago when Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam claimed Libya helped finance the 2007 campaign and demanded Sarkozy return the money. In an interview with Euronews, Saif al-Islam, who is currently being held in Libya after his father's defeat and death, threatened to make details of the bank transfers public after the French leader threw his weight behind opposition forces.

Now it appears that some of those details have been uncovered with the French investigative website Mediapart claiming to have seen a confidential note suggesting Gaddafi contributed up to €50 million [£42 million] to Sarkozy's election fund.

"We knew these documents existed but it is the first time we have had the details of what was in them," Mediapart journalist Fabrice Arfi told the Guardian. "And there are lots of details, including dates, places and amounts."

Mediapart claims that the money was laundered through bank accounts in Panama and Switzerland. It is alleged that a Swiss bank account was opened in the name of the sister of Jean-Francois Cope, the leader of Sarkozy's ruling UMP party, and the president's right-hand-man. The money was then allegedly distributed through an arms dealer called Ziad Takieddine, who acted as a middle man between Arab despots and French politicians.

Shortly after Sarkozy's election, Colonel Gaddafi was invited to Paris and allowed to pitch his bedouin tent in the grounds of an official French residence close to the Elysée Palace. He was described as the "Brother Leader" by the French as the relationship between the two countries softened [Daily Mail].

Latest polls put Sarkozy neck and neck with his main rival François Hollande [Euronews]. Some polls show him slightly ahead with 28.5% and Hollande at 27% while Marine le Pen, the far right candidate, trails behind with 16% [BBC].

[Pictured: The French newspaper Le Figaro dated 26th July 2007, as it reported on the reconciliation between France and Libya]

tvnewswatch, London, UK 

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Largest solar storm in 5 years heads to Earth

The largest solar storm in five years is heading toward Earth, threatening to unleash a torrent of charged particles that could disrupt power grids, GPS and airplane flights. However while the Coronal Mass Ejection, or CME, has been billed as significant, most people will likely experience little of no disruption to their daily lives.

One phenomena that could be observed were the large sun spots seen on the surface of the sun as activity rose and passed through an 11-year cycle. The flares can also result in the Northern Lights, or aurorae, being visible at lower latitudes. Those living in northern England, Canada and other northern latitudes may be lucky enough to witness the colourful spectacle.

The sun is currently in a cycle of increased sun spots, part of an 11-year cycle that is expected to peak over the next year. The magnetic field in a sunspot stores energy that is released in solar flares. These flares are intense bursts of radiation that get ejected into space and could create problems for modern radio communications.

So far there have been few signs that any disruption has bee caused, though NASA have released some dramatic shots taken by Solar Heliospheric Observatory [SOHO] probe and the Solar Dynamics Observatory [SDO].

The peak of the storm, forecast as a reaching a strong G3 rating, was expected to hit Thursday morning and will gradually diminish by Friday morning [Sky / BBC / CNN]

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Fast global broadband still a long way off

In this ever more connected world, the creation of a presence on the Internet and the speed by which an individual, company or news organisation is becoming all the more important.

By not having an Internet site companies lose potential consumers. Even those with a website can fail in their marketing strategy by ignoring SEO [Search Engine Optimisation] and using tools to increase their turnover and profitability. But even when companies are aware of the importance of online marketing, many are losing out because of poor Internet speeds.

While many cities in the world offer consumers fast broadband, those who live in more remote regions are finding themselves unable to compete because of slow connections or are cut off from the information super highway altogether.

Cities ahead of rural areas

In cities like London broadband is readily available with companies such as Virgin Media offering speeds of up to 100 Mbps. While most opt for connections of around 10 Mbps, this is a distant dream for those living further away from the capital.

Virgin's fast network extends across many parts of the country but is mainly confined to large towns and cities. BT also competes with Virgin in these areas, providing speeds of up to 40 Mbps. But step into the countryside and the small towns and villages and consumers will be lucky to get speeds of 2 Mbps, though much of the country remains in the digital dark ages with speeds under 500 kbps.

Mobile Internet

One option is to access the Internet through 3G mobile connections, though with speeds of up to 200 kbps, it is still not entirely satisfactory especially given that many networks have a limit of the amount of data that can be used [compare3gmobilebroadband].

The speeds now on offer are much better than a few years ago. In the late 1990s most people in Britain were still on dial-up connections giving little more than 46 kbps. Mobile data conections too have improved. At the turn of the millennium that maximum speed available through a mobile phone connected to a laptop was around 9.6 kbps. In 2000 Nokia released the RPM-1Q data card which gave speeds of 28 kbps, but decent connectivity did not come until data cards and dongles surfaced a few years later offering 3G speeds.

But while the mobile networks have expanded and become faster, in rural Britain fixed Internet connections are not much improved from a decade ago. Many people are still using dial-up, and even where broadband is available it can be slow [Interactive map].

Government initiatives

The government and Internet service providers say they are committed to improving the situation, but it isn't fast enough for some.

Wales has some of the lowest saturation for broadband and business owners say they are suffering because of it.  Only 33% of businesses in Wales have access to sell goods and services online compared to the UK average of 39%. It is something that the government wants to redress. Speaking at a meeting in Cardiff, Business Minister Edwina Hart said the Welsh government was working with the Internet company Google to help small businesses "access new markets".

"By working with Google on this exciting initiative, we will be helping and educating many of these small businesses to access the type of support and advice they need to access new markets and opportunities to reach new Internet customers across the UK and beyond," she said.

Google's UK managing director Dan Cobley said, "We want Welsh businesses of all sizes to understand the importance of the Internet and how easy it is to get online and contribute to the economic growth of the Welsh economy."

But even those who recognise the importance of an online presence, say there are obstacles. Kevin Sweet who sells cider and preserves from his small Welsh village speaks of constant frustration with trying to use the Internet. Even accessing email is a challenge. "It's just waiting, waiting, waiting," he says, "And time is money when you run a small business."

Edwina Hart says she is looking to the business sector to help improve broadband in rural areas, but while the need exists for companies like BT and Virgin it is simply not cost effective to roll out the infrastructure [BBC].

Rural 'not spots'

But it's not just Wales. A recent survey carried out by uSwitch showed that many places in rural England also suffered from poor connectivity. On tests carried out over the last 6 months in Northumberland many people had connctions slower than 1.6 Mbps. However the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), say the slowest connections recorded in the survey are faster than many farms, rural businesses and homes can achieve in Northumberland.

Douglas Chalmers, from the CLA said, "The slowest connection speed recorded in this survey was 1.1 Mbps, but even this is faster than many of our members can achieve. Quoting these figures simply disguises the real digital deprivation in some of our communities."

"The government encourages us to fill in tax returns online because it's more cost effective for them and schools to do homework online. These are only possible if homes and businesses have a good broadband connection." [NewsGuardian]

4G offers hope

There may be some hope as 4G networks are rolled out. Ofcom has revised proposals for its fourth-generation mobile spectrum auction, adding measures that could bring coverage to 98% of the UK. The regulator says the winning bidder will have to provide the high-speed coverage to current "not-spot" areas.

"We are proposing a significant enhancement of mobile broadband, extending 4G coverage beyond levels of existing 2G coverage, helping to serve many areas of the UK that have traditionally been underserved by network coverage," says Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards [BBC].

There are more than 3 million homes and businesses with access to speeds less than 2 Mbps according to a survey carried out 3 years ago [BBC], and things have not much improved.

With 4G allocation and bidding set for later this year, it will be some time before the new technology, which offers very high speeds of up to 100 Mbps, will be offered to consumers. It also remains to be seen whether it will be cost prohibitive for both consumers and providers. Even 3G providers charge far more than fixed line connections, and so while 4G promises better access it may be too costly for those who need it most.

Global 'not spots'

The situation in Britain is a microcosm of a worldwide situation. Beyond the UK borders the challenge to reach rural areas also exists. Even in Japan where 4G is commonplace, rural areas still have much slower Internet connectivity than cities and large towns. Larger countries are more likely to see 'not spots'. Even developed countries have large areas where Internet access is patchy at best. Australia's broadband network is mainly confined to coastal areas [map] though there are plans to improve it [BBC]. The US also has large areas where broadband Internet is unavailable [map].

Japan is still the world leader when it comes to connecting homes to a fibre-optic network and speeds can be as much as 1 Gbps. More than 13.2 million homes in Japan are linked to fibre optic broadband, followed by the United States at around 6.05 million and the People's Republic of China where some 5.96 million have fibre optic broadband access [BBC].

It is clear that 4G, if rolled out everywhere, will offer true connectivity everywhere. But given there are still dead zones for normal mobile coverage, even in developed countries, it is likely that until satellite Internet access is freely and cheaply available there will still be many 'not spots' for a long time to come.
[Broadband World Map - BBC / CNN].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Google Play unifies Apps, Books, Music & Movies

Google has brought several of its web-based offerings under one umbrella, syncing together its entertainment and applications.

Users logging into Google Music, Books, Movies or the Android Market this morning found both a new look and a new name. Under the inclusive banner 'Google Play', Google says it wants to make "your favorite music, books, movies, apps, and games" available "all in one place that's accessible from the Web and any Android device".

In essence little has changed other than the name and a prominent logo in the top left of the screen, however by bringing the services together Google evidently hopes to sell more content to consumers. But it still faces an uphill struggle since some services or content are restricted depending on where you live.

Regional restrictions

For users living in the United States there are no hurdles to jump over. Google Music, a service available since May 2011, remains accessible only to US based consumers. Those who have managed to circumvent the regional restrictions to upload music can only playback their music collection via the browser based app, and through an Android app only if they can find the apk file through a third party site, though updates will not role out to those who follow this route. Purchasing of music for anyone outside the US is restricted, and while Google claims they are looking to roll out their services beyond America's borders, there is no word as to when this might happen.

Google Books and Google Movies are available to users in Canada, the US and UK while Australians are restricted to Google Books and Japanese users have access only to Google Movies.

The vast collection of Android apps, numbering more than 450,000, are of course available everywhere though some are still restricted to certain markets. However Google does say that it wants to expand their collection of services to everyone.

Keeping it fresh

"Our long-term goal is to roll out as many different types of content as possible to people around the world, and we'll keep adding new content to keep it fresh," Google said in a blogpost published yesterday.

Just as there were a deluge of complaints over Google's all-inclusive privacy policy last week, the latest changes also brought some criticism from some users.

Lack of accessibility

The biggest complaint was the lack of accessibility, as pointed out above. While some services initially only available in the US have rolled out to other users in the world Google has been slow in making them universally accessible. While there may be practical issues, such as being able to offer vast storage capacity for billions of users if such platforms as Google Music were to be offered to everyone, the company also faces problems with local laws or restrictions.

Launched in March 2009 Google Voice still remains available only to those living in the US. Last year some users around the world were given the ability to make VoIP calls via their Gmail account through their browser and top up their account through Google Checkout. But the promise of a single Google Voice number, along with voicemail, free text messaging, call history, conference calling, call screening, blocking of unwanted calls, and voice transcription to text of voicemail messages, has yet to be seen outside the US. While Google says they are looking at rolling out to other countries they have not given a reason as to why this has yet to happen. It is likely that regulations in different countries are part of the reason why Google Voice still remains US only.

Issues concerning copyright and IP may be why Google's music, books and movie services are not widely available. Even in the US Google faced a barrage of criticism from record companies after launching its music service and even when it began selling music it failed to get support of all the major music companies. While Universal Music Group, EMI, and Sony Music Entertainment, along with other smaller labels, signed up to the deal it has failed thus far to make a deal with Warner [tvnewswatch: Google Music still US only despite revamp].

Google's book service as an online book store came to the UK some six months after launching in the US, but faces strong competition fro Amazon's Kindle platform. While its original format of a searchable database of books remains, Google is pushing its commercial enterprise more forcefully.

Today's changes to the name also brought updates to some of the associated Android apps. The Google Music and Movie app simply had a change of name but the update with Google Books brought with it the ability to have your books read to you. This is a good first attempt at voice playback of printed text, but it is somewhat like having books read by a female version of Stephen Hawkins.


The biggest complaint, aside not being able to use some of the services under Google's new umbrella, was the name. While some lauded the move to bring the services together, there was a general feeling of consternation amongst many Android users. "Unification a good idea. Play is a terrible name though! … a silly name change", one comment read on what was once called Android Market.

"Bad name. The whole 'play' thing is stupid, especially for books and apps. I don't play books, and not all my apps are games," another user wrote. In a user review concerning Google Play Books, one person gave the app only one star "because of the really stupid name and the fact it replaces Android Market with an equally stupidly named Play Store."

The cross-platform approach and unification is undoubtedly a good move, but the Play name does subtract from the seriousness of Google's vast range of products. It also remains to be seen whether everyone will be given the chance to play with them.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Monday, March 05, 2012

China increase military to "win local wars"

China's has increased its defence budget by 11.2% for 2012, pushing the country’s military expenditure to more than $100 billion. However, experts believe that the figure could be much higher since China’s nuclear expenditure is not included in the figures.

China’s defence spending has risen each year for two decades to become the world's second-biggest. But it still lags behind the US which spends more than $740 billion on defence [BBC / BBC].

The continuing build of China’s military has concerned not only regional neighbours, but also the United States which has increased its presence in the South China Sea in recent weeks [BBC].

China has long-running territorial disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan, and has also positioned hundreds of missiles for a potential attack on Taiwan, which it views as part of its territory.

China now has at least one aircraft carrier and is believed to be increasing its naval defences. In early 2011 it unveiled the J-20 [tvnewswatch: China's stealth fighter takes to the air], a stealth fighter jet which some assert was developed with the help from stolen US technology [tvnewswatch: China stole stealth fighter technology]. And in 2007 China tested a weapon which can target satellites [tvnewswatch: China tests space weapon].

However China insists its military build is purely defensive. Seeking to calm fears over the increase in military spending,  Li Zhaoxing, an official with China's parliament, said, “China is committed to the path of peaceful development and follows a national defence policy that is defensive in nature.” But there are concerns that China is preparing to assert itself more actively in the region and especially in the South China Sea.

While it has the largest standing army in the world, China is still playing catch-up both in regards to conventional and non-conventional weapons. Of particular concern is its growing nuclear capability. Recent satellite picture show new installations in the Qinghai region which appear to show DF-31/31A ICBM launchers [FAS].

The DF-31/31A missiles could target all of Russia and India from Central China though an estimated 20 silo-based DF-5As with some 50 missiles that could reach the United States according to one Senate report [PDF].

Details of China’s nuclear capability are difficult to determine however. While China is understandably reticent to reveal its fire power, the US has also reduced the specific information it publishes.

In its 2010 report [PDF] the Pentagon gave an itemisation of the different types of weapon and launch capability. But the 2011 Report [PDF] was far less transparent [FAS].

China recognised almost two decades ago that the PLA would likely be no match for US conventional forces. As such it began working on what was dubbed "unrestricted warfare" - combining multiple methods to defeat a superior opponent [BBC]. The term first appeared as the title of a book "Unrestricted Warfare : China's Master Plan to Destroy America " [WikipediaPDF / Amazon]. Written in 1999 by two colonels in the People's Liberation Army, Qiao Liang (乔良) and Wang Xiangsui (王湘穗), its primary focus was how a nation such as China could defeat a technologically superior opponent, such as the United States, through a variety of means, including, but not restricted to, economic warfare, cyber attacks, and terrorism.

The PLA has been running military projects mirroring civilian acquisition ventures. Involving dual-use technologies, the military and civilian strands are often indistinguishable. One such example is China’s move into space exploration which many experts believe is a cover for developing space weapons and missile technology.

Of great concern is the prospect of a cyberwar, something which some say China is already engaged in. In reports published yearly by the United States, China is increasingly using cyber attacks, hacking and other methods to procure technology to further its defence capabilities [tvnewswatch: China accused of aggressive spying].

While usually guarded concerning its intentions, China has hinted that it might be more aggressive in asserting its territorial claims in the future. In the opening of the National People’s Congress in Beijing today, Premier Wen Jiabao said the main task of the country's growing military was "to win local wars" [BBC / CNN].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Dozens dead as storms sweep across US

At least 27 people have died after more than 60 reported tornadoes swept across the mid-west and southern US yesterday.

One town was virtually wiped from the map as winds of up to 200 km/h tore up trees, ripped buildings from their foundations and tossed vehicles into the air. Mayor Mike Moore said the town of Marysville, some 60 km from Indiana, was "gone".

Others told a similar story. "That's the information we have, that Marysville is no longer," US Senator Dan Coats told CNN. The nearby town of Henryville was also badly damaged and where the first deaths were reported.

Pictures broadcast by the networks showed areas flattened by the storms, with houses turned to matchwood. Vehicles on highways were tossed aside by the high winds and pictures showed overturned HGVs and a school bus that had been thrown into a house.

The storms, which stretched across a vast part of the US Midwest, came only days after another system killed 13 people. Throughout the day, the National Weather Service had  warned of severe weather that included rain, hail and the likelihood of tornadoes. Hail the size of golf balls hit many areas and at one point there were over 50 tornado warnings for an area of 1.4 million square kilometres stretching across several states, home to more than 75 million people.

It was compared by some meteorologists to the Super Outbreak of tornadoes of April 1974, though that killed some 300 people, far more than the dozens killed this week. [ / RMS report - PDF]

Some fear that with the tornado season proper, still a couple of months away, the worst may be yet to come. Last years storms killed some 340 people and also brought widespread destruction [Wikipedia].

But these recent storms were bad enough for many. "It was catastrophic," one resident said, "You really don't have an understanding of it until you see it for yourself."

There were a few miracles as the winds subsided and shifted to the east coast and northern Florida. One 2-year-old girl was found safe in a field a few kilometres outside Henryville. It is not known if she came from the town or who she is, but it is hoped despite her condition, described as critical, that she'll survive [CNN].

The death toll is expected to rise as rescue workers pick through the debris that stretches across Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, and Tennessee [Fox News / CNN / BBC / Sky News].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Friday, March 02, 2012

Are China and India about to go to war?

According to a report in the Indian press, China may be planning territorial land grabs and may even do so with a "major military offensive".

Reports particularly point to the Arunachal Pradesh or Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir, areas which have been the subject of territorial disputes for decades. If China were to make any move in reclaiming what it believes belongs to the mainland, India should respond with "a strategy of quid pro quo", the report, written by an independent group of Indian analysts, suggests.

There has been a  relative calm for the last four decades between India and China, but now the two countries are once again squabbling over the long-disputed border in northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.

"Our frontiers with China have been mostly stable for some years now. However, China could assert its territorial claims (especially in the Arunachal sector or Ladakh) by the use of force," the report says.

The report, which seeks to outline a foreign and strategic policy for India in the 21st century, points particularly at the so-called Line of Actual Control which was drawn in the 1960s but which both sides still contest.

The report entitled "Non-Alignment 2.0: A Foreign and Strategic Policy for the 21st century" [PDF], was unveiled this week at a panel discussion at Hotel Ashok in which National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon and his immediate predecessors M.K. Narayanan, currently West Bengal governor, and Brajesh Mishra participated.

The publication of the report coincided with a two-day visit of Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi to India and comes at a time when China is expanding its military presence in the region.

India is concerned over China's build-up of military forces in Tibet as well as it ever growing presence in the South China Sea. The report outlines strategies to counter any Chinese offensive which includes accelerating the integration of the frontier regions and its people by speeding up and improving communication infrastructure with the mainland and to expand naval capabilities in the Indian Ocean region.

"Due to the multiplicity of the agencies involved, there is need to establish a Maritime Commission. The crucial decision we face here concerns the quantum of additional resources that we must devote to developing our maritime power."

Talks between the two nuclear powers have be luke warm at best. In January Dai Bingguo, China's top diplomat, arrived in New Delhi for a 15th round of talks concerning the border dispute and proclaimed the two countries shared a historic opportunity to forge a brighter future "hand in hand."

Writing in The Hindu, Dai said China-India relations had entered a "golden age" and that there was "enough space" for the two countries to "achieve common development".

"China and India can join hands, seize the historic opportunity, and work together to further advance our friendship and cooperation," Dai said. "Together, we will bring benefits to our two countries, two peoples and the whole mankind."

But a visit by India's defense minister to a border state claimed by China, accompanied by a fly-past by fighter jets recently stationed in the area, provoked a frosty response from China who said India should not "complicate" matters. India's defense minister, A.K. Antony, retorted that China's comments were "most unfortunate" and "really objectionable."

The heart of the tension lies in an intractable border dispute that erupted into a brief war in 1962. But tensions have not been helped by India drawing itself closer to the United States.

"Ever since the US nuclear deal in 2005, relations with China have been going through a turbulent time," said Brahma Chellaney at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. "Nothing has changed in recent months to suggest that turbulence is easing or subsiding. What we are seeing actually is that Chinese state media is taking an increasingly hard line." And tensions have increased dispite an agreement signed in 2005 [BBC].

It is difficult to determine how developed China's preparations for a possible conflict are. There is certainly an increased naval presence in the South China Sea and although it rarely goes beyond its claimed territorial waters it recently sent warships to protect shipping off the coast of Somalia. As for a military presence on the ground, such facts are difficult to establish.

However, China has certainly developed contingency plans concerning the disputed border region, whether defensive or offensive.

Some 100 km to the west of Beijing a secret military complex is located in China's Huangyangtan province [Location: 38°15'58.69″N, 105°57'8.52″E / KMZ file - Google Earth required]. That China has a military complex is in itself nothing special, but satellite pictures show that as part of the installation there is a scale model of the Aksai Chin border region, another area of dispute between the two nations and where Chinese troops passed through during the 1962 war.

The landscape is extremely accurate and built to a scale of 1:500 complete with mountains and lakes. There is much speculation about when it was built, but it is clear that it was built for the purpose of military planning.

When the installation first came to light in 2006 the Indian press approached the military for their assessment. However an Indian army dismissed the find as nothing extraordinary, saying, "Militaries are always known to simulate potential conflict zones as a standard practice," and added that there was "nothing alarming" about what he called "standard training methodologies."

However, one officer, speaking off the record. told the Indian Express the accuracy of the model was surprising. "We knew that they had some facilities for this purpose but the scale and detail is something new to us," the officer told the paper.

When contacted by Beijing correspondent for The Sydney Morning and The Age, Mary-Anne Toy, Chinese authorities dismissed any sinister motives behind the plot of land claiming the facility was used for putting tanks and their drivers through their paces and that the installation had been there for seven or eight years.

Tanks of course would be far too large for such a model landscape, and there was no mention of its obvious similarities to the Aksai Chin border region. Indeed, by admitting it had been built well after the 1962 war, it seems clear that the facility was intended to familiarise military strategists with the landscape for a future conflict [see also: tvnewswatch : mystery of Huangyangtan]

The likelihood of an armed conflict between India and China is difficult to predict. But it only needs a small miss-step for the two countries to become embroiled in more than just a war of words [Economic Times / Economic Times / Washington Post / Register]

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