Wednesday, October 31, 2007

UK - Oil refinery blast

Fire at Petroplus on Wednesday morning

An oil refinery to the east of London is the subject of a fire investigation following a massive explosion this morning. Residents near the Coryton refinery were rocked when part of the facility erupted in flames sending vast quantities of black smoke into the air. Ten fire appliances were sent to the incident, and 50 firefighters tackled the blaze which started at 11:30 GMT. The Swiss oil company Petroplus, which bought the Coryton Refinery from BP in May 2007, is responsible for loading about 700 tankers a day to meet 22% of the UK's forecourt demand. The company said fuel supplies would not be disrupted and that there were no injuries reported. [BBC Essex / Sky News - Pictures / Sky News / Basildon Ev Echo].

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Beijing Olympic ticket sales overload

Beijing's Olympic ticketing system collapsed yesterday with massive demand for tickets. It was the second round of ticket sales for the games, but the internet site received more than 200,000 applications per second and brought the website crashing down. The telephone booking centre fared little better and were jammed for hours. As a result, only 9,000 of the 1.8 million available tickets were sold. The Beijing Organizing Committee called for buyers to be patient. There is a strong suspicion that some of the hits on the website and even the telephone lines were malicious. China has been highly criticized by protest groups in recent weeks for China’s investment in Myanmar [Burma]. DoS, or denial of service attacks have long been a part of the arsenal of activists attempting to inhibit the action of organizations. If the website crashes and jammed phone-lines were part of a concerted attack by pro-Burma activists, China may have trouble selling the 7 million available tickets. Only 25% are available to overseas buyers with the bulk being made available to Chinese citizens. Overseas sales are due to start in April. Interestingly Xinhua, the state owned news agency, did not mention the problems in selling the tickets [BBC].

Official Beijing Olympic website in Chinese

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Bush in California to see fire destruction

George W Bush has visited California to see for himself the damage done by the wildfires that have swept across parts of the state over the past week. Seven counties have been declared ‘disaster areas’. Eleven people have died in the fires which have destroyed an area larger than New York City according to some reports. The state has seen one of the driest years on record and is likely to be cited as another effect of Global Warming by environmentalists. Whatever the ultimate cause, it is a disaster that is some are saying is more devastating than Hurricane Katrina which destroyed large parts of New Orleans in 2005. However, Katrina killed up to 1,800 in the storms and prevailing floods compared to the 3 deaths, including one firefighter, that have been directly connected to the California fires [CNN]. Nevertheless, the fires have caused massive devastation, with more than 1,600 buildings having been incinerated and displaced more than 1 million people. The cost of the destruction runs into millions of dollars with some estimates running as high as a billion. There is also increasing concern that some of the fires were started deliberately, and Orange County has offered a $75000 reward for information leading to the arrest of two suspected arsonists.

The fire-fighting has been extremely difficult, hampered by high seasonal winds which have fanned the flames [CNN]. Those winds have dropped significantly on Thursday and Californian Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger today tried to put a positive spin on events saying, “Everything is going really well… the key thing is, we all work together”.

Shortly after 9:30 local time [16:30 GMT] President Bush arrived at San Diego and met Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, dubbed the ‘Governator’ by CNN. They both boarded the Presidential helicopter before flying off to view from the air the scale of the devastation.

[CNN / BBC / Sky News]

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

7.1 quake hits Sumatra

A 7.1 magnitude earthquake has occurred in Sumatra. The tremor hit at 04:42 local time on Thursday [21:02 GMT]. A tsunami alert was triggered after the quake which was located at 3.909S, 101.061E, and 135 km (84 miles) west of Bengkulu. There are no reports of damage or injuries at this time [USGS]

China and US launch space missions

Chang'e heads to the Moon and Discovery heads to the ISS

China today launched its first mission to the moon with State television showing pictures of the Chang'e 1 orbiter taking off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan province in southwestern China. It comes soon after Japan succesfully put a probe into Lunar orbit [BBC / CNN]. The space probe, Chang'e 1, named after a mythical Chinese goddess who flew to the moon, will orbit Earth while technical adjustments are made, and will enter the moon's orbit by Nov. 5. India is also set to launch a probe next April. Meanwhile the US sent up its own space craft yesterday. Space Shuttle Discovery was launched on Tuesday, despite earlier concerns for the integrity of its wings [CNN]. It was a text book launch leaving Kennedy at 15:38 GMT [11:38 local time] [BBC]. Its seven-strong crew will install the "Harmony" node to the space station.
The connecting unit will provide a passageway to the European Columbus laboratory, which is set to be fitted to the orbiting outpost in December. Before they undertake this part of the mission they will check for any damage to Discovery’s heat-shield. At least 6 pieces of foam fell away from the fuel tank upon launch and has caused catastrophic damage in the past [CNN]. This week China expressed its desire to join the continuing project with [CNN]. "We hope to take part in activities related to the international space station," said Li Xueyong, a vice minister of science and technology. "If I am not mistaken, this program has 16 countries currently involved and we hope to be the 17th partner." Neither the US government or NASA have commented on the matter as yet.
[China National Space Administration / CNSA / NASA].

Monday, October 22, 2007

China - Poliburo reshuffle but Hu's still on top

The 17th CPC National Congress has ended with the appointment of 4 new members to the Politburo Standing Committee [BBC]. The politburo stands at the centre of the power base of the Chinese Government [BBC].

The new members are Xi Jingping, Li Keqiang, He Guoqiang, Zhou Yongkang [BBC]. Mr Xi and Mr Li are seen as possible contenders for the top post of President in 5 years time. Hu Jintao in the meantime has secured his role as President.

CCTV had the most extensive coverage of the CPC National Congress throughout the week. But there have been sporadic reports on Sky News, the BBC, CNN and on Channel Four which had a special report highlighting how poorer residents are being displaced to make way for new construction projects. Few get adequate compensation, and those that petition the government are often jailed, tortured and intimidated by developers and their henchmen.

Sky News described the members of the politburo as “middle aged with dyed hair” in its lunchtime report. The new postings would “mean nothing” to most Chinese, Sky News reported, “as long as they can continue to make money”. Citing the fact that the gap between rich and poor was widening, the reporter acknowledged that President Hu had vowed to tackle these problems along with the environmental damage the country faced. But the report ended on a low note; “Expect more of the same in the next five years”.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Pakistan - Blame game after deadly blasts

Less than 12 hours after a suicide bomb attack targeting former Pakistani PM Benazir Bhutto recriminations are beginning to fly. At least 136 died in the bomb blasts and over 500 were injured. She had earlier been greeted by tens of thousands who lined the streets in Karachi. The swell of the crowd was so large she had travelled less than 10 km in 6 hours. But following the two bomb blasts and reporting of bullets having been fired at her armour plated bus, the celebrations came to an abrupt and bloody end. There have been accusations that the ruling military may have been responsible. Ms Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, specifically accused Pakistani intelligence agencies of involvement.
Others point the finger of blame on people loyal to Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. He had ordered the execution of her father in 1979. "It is dignitaries of the former regime of General Zia who are today behind the extremism and the fanaticism," Ms Bhutto told Paris-Match.
Extremists had warned of possible attacks and police had given advice to Bhutto not to conduct the long procession through the streets [BBC]. Whoever was responsible for the bloody attacks, the blasts have rocked the country and further created political instability. The bombings have been cited as being in the top 10 worst terror attacks in the last 9 years by Intelcenter.

There was swift condemnation from around the world, not least from Britain and the US who had help create the conditions for Ms Bhutto to return from her self imposed exile. India and China also condemned the attacks as did the EU and UN. Meanwhile General Pervez Musharraf described the attack as "a conspiracy against democracy".
Speaking a short time ago Benazir Bhutto condemned the bombers saying that it was anti-Islamic. “No Muslim can attack a woman or innocent people”, she said. “I’m grateful to God for protecting me, and to the police who lost their lives trying to protect members of the Pakistani People’s Party,” she added, but the former PM called for an inquiry especially as to why street lights were switched off prior to the blasts. She confirmed that shots were fired at her bus following or during the explosions. Describing the carnage surround her vehicle including some fifty security guards lying dead, she said she would continue to fight for democracy in Pakistan.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Dalai Lama award - China summons US ambassador

The US ambassador has been summoned before Chinese representatives following the award to the Dalai Lama of the Congressional Gold Medal [BBC]. The Dalai Lama said he was extremely honoured by the award [CNN] and later went on to say he hoped China would enter into meaningful dialogue as to the future of Tibet. He added that he sought “meaningful autonomy” for Tibet and not full independence.
CCTV-9 covered the story briefly with less than 20 seconds given to the event. A spokesman was quoted as saying the invitation amounted to “Wanton interference” in Chinese internal affairs and added that many Chinese feelings were hurt.

The visit has come as China holds the 17th Communist Party of China National Congress [CPC News]. At the beginning of the week President Hu gave his keynote speech in which he set out plans to tackle the many problems China faces. In particular economic development dominated his address and the imbalance that this is creating. The richest 10% own 45% of wealth in China and the gap between rich and poor is becoming of increasing concern. Economic development is of great concern and is widely covered in Chinese media. China is the world’s biggest labour market and workers rights, as well as protection in the form of unions, has been discussed at the CPC National Congress.
Peter Wilson from the British Embassy speaking on CCTV-9 said it was important that everyone be treated equally with respect to the law and that corruption and illegal activity was stamped out. But besides the rhetoric of politicians and commentators, little definitive solutions have been laid down.

Education and medical care is also creating concern, especially amongst the poorer communities. But whilst statements have been made to tackle these problems, there is little sign that public grievance will be dealt with any time soon.

The coverage of the 17th CPC National Congress has been scant on western media despite hundreds of foreign journalists attending the event. More than 1000 correspondents from 55 regions around the world have attended the congress. An Associated Press reporter told CCTV-9 that China’s involvement in the 6 Party Talks [with North Korea] and recent participation in the UN Security Council demanded further understanding of the way China is governed.

Whilst plans have been proposed to reform the way China is ruled, the CPC has dismissed the possibility of the country becoming a multi-party democracy [BBC]. President Hu Jintao has acknowledged that many problems need to be addressed. In his address on Monday, President Hu said, “While recognising our achievements, we must be well aware that they still fall short of the expectations of the people” [BBC]. And many of the some 2000 delegates are upbeat in expressing their views about the future [BBC].

On the streets there are dissenting voices. But few of these protests are reported in the Chinese media and campaigners say the authorities have been arresting, abducting and intimidating activists to prevent them from staging protests [BBC].

The internet is proving invaluable to China’s dissenting voices and proving ever more difficult to control by the authorities [BBC]. But besides criticism of the way China is ruled, Communist Party membership has risen in recent years and there is still strong support from those unable to join the party [BBC]. The future for China, both in its political and economic development, is far from clear. It remains however an important and global player in trade and finance. Whether it can maintain its economic development while appeasing the population remains to be seen.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Dalai Lama visit to US angers China

Sino-US relations look set to turn sour following the awarding of a Congressional Gold medal to the Dalai Lama. Beijing has reacted angrily to the visit by the Dalai Lama who has twice visited the United States in the last 6 years. A Chinese government spokesman urged the US to “cancel the visit”, but the White House has responded saying, “We would hope that the Chinese leader would get to know the Dalai Lama as the president sees him - as a spiritual leader and someone who wants peace".
“We don’t want China to feel we are poking a stick in her eye,” White House spokewoman Dana Perino added. But Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi warned the meeting could have "an extremely serious impact" on bilateral relations. "We express our extreme dissatisfaction and strong opposition. We solemnly demand that the US side cancel the extremely wrong arrangement," Yang told reporters. He was speaking as China held its 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC).
The current Dalai Lama, said to be the 14th reincarnation of AvalokiteĊ›vara, was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1989, something the Chinese government has also criticized. The Dalai Lama has been living in exile in India since 1959 and remains the spiritual leader of millions of Buddhists around the world.

China has already reacted to the visit by cancelling a meeting connected with Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme. But if China over-reacts to the Dalai Lama’s visit, the West may boycott the Olympic Games. Already several senators and Presidential candidates have called for a boycott of the games following China’s lack of action over the crushed pro-democracy protests in Myanmar last month. 1997 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Jody Williams, told the New York Sun, “Now most definitely is the time to test if the Olympic slogan ‘One World, One Dream' applies to the people of Burma. Or those of Darfur. Or those of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Or those of Tibet. Or, in fact, if it applies to the peoples of China itself.”

Whilst no government has yet called for a boycott, several groups have independently aired their grievances. The group Students for a Free Tibet, Hollywood actor Richard Gere, Chairman of International Campaign for Tibet, and Reporters Sans Frontiers all support a boycott of the 2008 Olympics. Archbishop Emeritus Tutu, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, said that if China did not take a stance against the military rulers in Myanmar he would "join a campaign to boycott the Beijing Olympics".

At a press conference today, President Bush said he was attending the award ceremony because he admired the Dalai Lama and supported religious freedom. He added that he liked attending gold medal ceremonies. “I told President Hu that I was going to the ceremony. And I said I'm going because I want to honour this man. I have consistently told Chinese that religious freedom is in their nation's interest. I have also told them that it's in their interests to meet with the Dalai Lama and I'll say so today at the ceremony in congress. If they were to sit down with the Dalai Lama, they would find him to be a man of peace and reconciliation. My visit is not new to the Chinese Leadership, but they don’t like it of course, but I don't think it's going to severely damage relations” Mr Bush said.

[BBC / CNN / China Daily]

Turkish parliament authorises Iraqi incursions

Turkish lawmakers have approved a cross-border military offensive against Kurdish separatists in Iraq wire services have reported. Ankara has said that the operation will not immediately follow the motion, but Turkey has already massed 60,000 troops in the region. Over the weekend it shelled farms across the border [BBC].

Monday, October 15, 2007

UK - Lib Dem leader quits party

Sir Menzies Campbell has resigned as leader of the Liberal Democrat Party. The BBC broke the news shortly before 18:00 BST. Sky News later announced that a statement as regards the future of the leader was due imminently. Speculation had been rife throughout the day as to whether Sir Menzies was the right leader for the party. The decision comes shortly after Prime Minister Gordon Brown dismissed the idea of an early election. This decision along with a suggestion that the earliest date for an election would not be made until 2009 is believed to be a pivotal factor for Sir Menzies resigning his position. He is currently 66 years old and age is also considered to be a factor.

Some accused the BBC of making up the news. Lembit Opik of the Liberal Democrat party said that nothing had officially been announced. However, Simon Hughs MP announced the resignation of Sir Menzies Campbell only moments later.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Al Gore wins Peace Prize amid controversy

Al Gore along with a number of other climate change scientists has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize 2007. The author of the Inconvenient Truth said he was “honoured” to have been given the prize. But there has been a mixed reaction to the joint award. Dr Saleemul Huq, a UN Climate Change Panel expert, said Al Gore had given the Global Warming argument credibility, despite criticisms of the film.

Meanwhile Nigel Calder, writer and sceptic said, “The globe has not warmed since 1998, they don’t tell you that, do they?” Whilst at the same time plugging his book, The Chilling Stars, Mr Calder said, “Science is about debate, but climate warming has stopped”.
“I’m altogether on economising on fuel, but it’s not going to affect climate change”. However he conceded, “We need to keep on monitoring”.

Whatever the case for what may be causing a change in the climate there are signs that the world is seeing dramatic shifts in weather patterns and the loss of natural habitats of creatures such as the polar bear.
Tonight Al Gore spoke of his being given the Nobel Peace Prize. Standing in a packed conference in California, the former Presidential candidate said, “It is the most dangerous challenge we have faced” and gave several sound-bites which will no doubt be repeated in tomorrows press. There was an “Accelerated melting of the polar ice cap”, he said at the Alliance for Climate Protection meeting. The environmental campaigner said the award would help in “speeding up the change in awareness”.

“This is a planetary emergency” and “we must change the world’s conscience” he added before thanking the IPCC and the Nobel Prize Committee.

Al Gore’s award was the main headline on Sky News, which throughout the afternoon brought viewers interviews with sceptics and protagonists of the global warming debate. CNN also covered the story extensively. The BBC placed the item after the postal strikes currently disrupting deliveries of letters in the UK. It was 10 minutes into Channel Four News report before the story was covered. Their main stories were the postal strike and the continuing farming crises of Blue Tongue Disease and Foot & Mouth disease.

Al Gore joins the ranks of a number of notable figures also given the Nobal Peace Prize. President Roosevelt, Mother Teresa, former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama have all received the award for their work in promoting peace. And there has been criticism of the award being handed to Al Gore with many saying he did not deserve the prize [Channel 4 News]. Many ask what climate change has got to do with peace.

It won’t however be the first controversial award of the high profile award. There have been many exclusions as well as contentious inclusions in the past [controversies. It’s a debate that will go on and on, along with the debate on climate change.

Monday, October 08, 2007

China's forgotten child kidnap victims

Yunnan province: Children are frequently abducted

Whilst the world’s media covered the disappearance of Madeleine McCann for over three months, over 16,000 children went missing but were unreported anywhere. These children were some of the more than 70,000 children who go missing in China every year. They are stolen and provided to new parents whilst older girls are sold into the sex trade or as wives. Detective Zhu is the last resort for parents of the missing. An ex-police officer, he’s been helping search for such children for over 10 years. He says he has carried out more than 1000 rescues in Yunnan province, in southern China, alone.

Channel Four’s Dispatches investigated the growing trade in child abductions which, it claimed, China’s government doesn’t want the world to know.

Birth permits are required in China since the ‘one child policy’ was implemented and there is an 8000 ¥ fine for flouting this rule. Chen Jie’s parents owned up to breaking this law but only after their son was stolen from them. And many blame the one child policy for the kidnappings

Some parents of an illegal child face a 20,000 ¥ fine plus late immediately plus late fees of 100 ¥ per day. This is more than 5 years wages in rural areas where wages are as little as 3000 ¥ per annum. A breach of the law is commonplace and fines account for millions of Yuan in revenue for local government.

In Kunming, capital of Yunnan province, 100 parents travelled to Beijing to petition authorities. Twenty four children were reunited with their parents after a special task force was sent to investigate, but many of thos who sought help have been warned off making any further protests.

Ultra sound to determine the sex of a child is illegal and many unwanted girls are sold to traffickers. And some are willing to speak about their trade. One trafficker spoke how a child can fetch 8000 ¥ or more. “It’s supply and demand”, said Yang Li who has now given up his life of crime. “Something must be wrong in treating children as goods”, he says.

Whilst boys are much sought after, girls, especially ones in their early teens are kidnapped as fodder for the sex trade or to be married off in a China where women are now dwindling. There are now more than 120 boys for 120 girls an increase in the male population of more than 20% in the last 30 years [MSNBC].

The authorities admit the existence of a gender imbalance which was creating social problems, however the one child policy is likely to remain in force until 2010. For the parents of 5 year old Chen Jie, the search continues, but without any media spotlight.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Japan and Russia celebrate milestones in space

Selene orbits the moon and [left] Sputnik orbits the Earth [artist impression]

Japan has successfully put a satellite into orbit about the moon. The H-2A rocket launched the orbiter on the 14th September from the remote island of Tanegashima [BBC]. The mission is the first successful lunar mission from an Asian country. This claim may however be short lived. Next year China plans its own such mission and India is planning a possible manned mission in 2015 [BBC / CNN].

This week also marked another milestone in space exploration, that of the 50th anniversary of the launching of man’s first artificial satellite. Sputnik entered Earth orbit on the 9th October 1957 and at the time created mixed reactions across the globe, coming at the height of the Cold War. The American public, in particular, were extremely concerned by the launch of the Russian satellite. In some respects their fears were well founded. The technology was itself drawn by Russian efforts to build an intercontinental ballistic missile [CNN / BBC]. The event was a massive propaganda coup for the Russians and was marked this week by the unveiling of a monument to commemorate the launch. President Putin described the mission as “a truly historic event which started the space age”.

Monday, October 01, 2007

UK - 'censorship' at Burma protest

Police stop filming in Battersea Park

Hundreds of protesters took to the streets this weekend to show support for the monks and pro-democracy demonstrators in Myanmar. The demonstration in London, organised by the Burmese Democratic Movement Association, brought up to 3000 onto the streets. Publicity for the event was organised through the social profile network Facebook. Even the organisers had not expected such high numbers from a hastily planned event. The procession had to continue along the pavement due to the late planning, but police were happy for it to proceed. Marching from Trafalgar Square the protesters continued along Whitehall past Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament and finished at the Peace Pagoda in Battersea Park in South London.

But whilst the assembled crowd of Buddhist monks and demonstrators were allowed to take part in prayers and lay flowers at the Peace Pagoda, TV crews were prohibited from filming the event. Wandsworth Council disallowed the filming of the ceremonies saying that applications to film were too late to issue permits. Police were left to enforce the ban and asked film crews to desist from covering the proceedings.

The protest march was covered on Sky News, the BBC and CNN, however none of the networks were able to cover the all too important prayers and paying of respects to those who died including that of Japanese photojournalist Kenji Nagai.

Meanwhile news from Myanmar [Burma] is muted with few reports coming from the country. The army and police have all but crushed dissenting voices with CNN reporting 20,000 troops on the streets in Rangoon [Yangon]. There have been reports of small protests in Mandalay. Whilst troops patrol the streets, Ibrahim Gambari, the UN envoy arrived in the country to discuss the crisis with the military government [CNN]. He has already met with Aung San Suu Kyi and is attempting to negotiate a meeting with General Than Shwe [Sky News].

Protest marches were also seen in Manila in the Philippines and in New Delhi, India.