Thursday, September 29, 2011

Terror threat “more real than ever”

This week six men appeared in a British court accused of terror offences, three of whom are believed to have been planning a suicide attack [Guardian / Telegraph / BBC / PA]. Meanwhile in the United States an American has been charged with plotting to fly remote controlled planes packed with explosives into the Pentagon and the Capitol building in Washington [BBC / Telegraph / San Francisco Chronicle].

The plots reveal that that the threat of terrorism remains real. But while authorities are still focused in thwarting potential terror attacks, the public is becoming increasingly complacent and less vigilant. The breaking up of both terror plots was reported but failed to make the front pages it might have done only a few years ago.

And there is even a sense of complacency displayed by the courts as is was revealed this week that at least eleven foreign-born terrorists who should have been deported from Britain after finishing prison terms are still walking the streets [Telegraph / Daily Mail].

There are some who maintain the terror threat is exaggerated. Conspiracy theorists continue to assert that the US were complicit in the 9/11 attacks, a view that even some of America's enemies have aired. During a recent UN meeting in New York the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad caused consternation as he accused the United States of killing Osama bin Laden in order to help cover up the 9/11 attacks which he claims were a "big fabrication".

The US has criticised Ahmadinejad and dismissed such theories. But this week al-Qaeda joined America in warning Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against spreading September 11th conspiracy theories. "The Iranian government has professed on the tongue of its president Ahmadinejad that it does not believe that al-Qaeda was behind 9/11 but rather, the US government," an article in a recent copy of  Inspire, a magazine run by Al Qaeda's branch in Yemen, said. "So we may ask the question: why would Iran ascribe to such a ridiculous belief that stands in the face of all logic and evidence?"

Such assertions would indicate that al-Qaeda are still serious and committed in their war against the west. It would be a mistake for the west to become complacent in the light of recent events and threats [Telegraph / Daily Mail / Guardian / Globe & Mail].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Dale Farm campaigners apply for listed status

Campaigners have applied to English Heritage to obtain listed status for a scaffolding structure which stands at the entrance to Britain's largest illegal travellers' site. The structure which is festooned with protest banners and flags was erected around 2006. The campaigners claim the scaffolding structure is an "emblem of a struggle for traveller rights". English Heritage has not commented on the application.

On Wednesday it was also revealed that two Dale Farm protesters have been charged in connection with an incident at Basildon Council offices. The men, aged 22 and 29, have both been charged with using threatening words or behaviour to cause harassment alarm or distress following Tuesday's incident. They were bailed to appear at Basildon Magistrates' Court on 6th October [BBC].

While the clearance of the Dale Farm site had been due to begin on Monday September 19th it has been delayed by an injunction preventing bailiffs moving in. On Friday Basildon Council attempted to appeal the injunction, however a decision was delayed until Monday this week.

After a day of legal arguments Justice Edwards-Stuart extended the temporary injunction preventing Basildon council from clearing the site until a separate hearing examining a potential judicial review of the decision takes place on Thursday 29th September. But even if the council wins that case, it will be prevented from carrying out work on much of the site until another hearing on Monday 2nd October, which will examine the enforcement notices.

Speaking outside the court on Monday a visibly frustrated councillor Tony Ball said, "What we've seen today is the wheels of justice grinding slowly forward, but I would like to say it's been a good day for Basildon's residents and for the majority of people who support the council's stance on this issue." Directing comments to residents of Crays Hill who live close to the site he said, "The message I can give to them, is that we are getting there." [Sky News]. Local Conservative MP Mr Baron also spoke of his optimism that the site clearance would take place soon. "The judge made clear that the enforcement notices are valid - its been to the highest court in the land," Baron told the BBC, "The bottom line is, this site clearance will take place."

Residents were less than optimistic however. Breaking their silence for fear of reprisals, some said they were themselves willing to break planning regulations if the situation was not resolved soon [BBC].

On Wednesday the site was quiet with only a lone camera-shy campaigner on the front gate. In the field adjacent there was little activity with only few bailiffs patrolling the vast compound. The media presence was also much diminished with only a single satellite truck parked up.

Update: On Thursday it was reported that the bid to obtain listed status for the scaffolding structure was rejected by English Heritage [Sky News].

tvnewswatch, Basildon, Essex

Pigs on the wing

"There is no dark side of the moon, as a matter of fact it's all dark", an immortal line from Pink Floyd's 1973 album The Dark Side of the Moon. But for Floyd fans, this week has been bright and exciting with the re-release of all of the bands 14 albums along with some previously unreleased material.

EMI promoted the launch of what it calls "Why Pink Floyd...?" with another relaunch, that of Algie the pig which featured on the band's 1977 album Animals.

This pig had to be specially commissioned at the last minute since the original was found to be leaky and not airworthy some two weeks before the intended publicity event. Due to building work at Battersea Power Station, where the original album cover was shot, the pig had to be raised from the river side. This was a disappointment for some who had hoped to capture an exact recreation of the original photoshoot.

There were added difficulties for those taking pictures of the event as they were shooting directly into the sun. For the crew raising the 10 metre long inflatable pig there were problems too as they encountered fairly strong westerly winds. The pig was lowered several times throughout the day for fears it might break free. The original pig, Algie, had escaped during the 1976 photoshoot, causing air traffic over London to be halted for a time. It eventually landed in a farmers field in Chilham, Kent, some 80 km to the south-east.

The delays during Monday's publicity stunt created only frustration as onlookers waited for the pig to be raised with some gaps of up to 90 minutes. Each time the pig took to the air again there was a flurry of excitement as photographers, fans and passers-by snapped away.

The event was eclipsed only by the Labour party conference, though the Daily Telegraph made use of the iconic image to poke fun at shadow chancellor Ed Balls, depicting him as the pig over an upturned table, with scattered policy documents beneath.

There is perhaps irony here, in that the pig, and indeed the album itself had been inspired by George Orwell's Animal Farm, and where the pigs were depicted as the tyrannical leaders in a hierarchical Stalinist society.

Of course, while many of the underlying themes in Pink Floyd's music are dark, with strong political overtones, most people are drawn to the music. The re-releases promise to enthral fans with not only digitally remastered versions of all 14 albums but also an array of special DVD presentations and unreleased material.

However, the back catalogue of material does come at a price. While some fans may have a disposable income to buy the new releases, a large majority of music lovers may be resigned to listening to their old vinyl or CD releases.

The box set, consisting of all 14 albums, is set to retail at £130 [$200]. In addition there are special releases of some of the albums themselves each containing unreleased DVD recordings as well as early unreleased album mixes. It is not clear if all 14 albums will be released as separate box sets. The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here are already on sale retailing at around £88 [$137] and a 7 disc special edition of The Wall is on pre-order. But there will be few fans that will be so extravagant to buy the entire back catalogue. 

With a double dip recession looming fans will balk on spending such large sums on entertainment. In fact most Floyd fans would likely be thinking to "grab that cash with both hands and make a stash", rather than buy "a new car, caviar, four star daydream" or even Pink Floyd's digitally remastered back catalogue. Of course pigs may fly!

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Friday, September 23, 2011

Will China’s bubble burst as global economy slides?

There are rising concerns that the global economy is heading for a down-slide and that implications will be far more wide reaching than already seen since the 2008 recession.

There is a particular focus on China's economy which is beginning to show signs of a decline. This week, the International Monetary Fund scaled back its projections for GDP growth in China, and an HSBC flash purchasing managers' index projection fell below 50 for a third-consecutive month, driving markets down and feeding fears that even the world's second-largest economic engine will not be able to help drive the global economy.


"China is a kind of barometer for the world economy, so [slowing] in the Chinese economy does spell, at least in the short term, a weakening of global demand," says Li Wei, a professor of economics with Beijing's Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business. "Countries [that were] largely pulled by the Chinese demand out of the last recession, with China weakening, cannot rely on China being the locomotive for growth any longer."

The IMF has cut its forecast for China's GDP growth slightly for this year, from 9.6% to 9.5%, and lowered its 2012 forecast from 9.5% to 9%. Although the numbers are still enviable, and above the 8% policy target outlined by Chinese leaders earlier this year, the slip coincides with evidence that China's manufacturing industry is slowing [Globe & Mail].

The preliminary HSBC China manufacturing purchasing managers index fell to 49.4 in September from a final reading of 49.9 in August, HSBC Holdings PLC said Thursday this week. A reading below 50 indicates contraction from the previous month, while a reading above 50 indicates expansion. Such a decline in the PMI could reignite some concerns over a sharp economic slowdown in China, due to weakening global demand for Chinese goods and various tightening measures at home [WSJ].


Such a decline could have wide ranging and far reaching effects. The Australian dollar, which is sensitive to Chinese demand for Australian commodities, slipped after the data were released, falling below parity to the US dollar for the first time since August 8th.

Asian stocks in turmoil

Stocks of Asian companies trading in the United States also fell sharply Thursday after the preliminary report on China's manufacturing activity. The BNY Mellon ADR was down 4.22%, while the BNY Mellon China Select ADR, which focuses on Chinese companies, was down 5.1%.

Shares of some individual Chinese companies that trade in the US also fell. Solar-module maker Trina Solar Ltd. saw its stock fall by 45 cents, or 5.8 percent, to $7.30. Shares of Internet search company Baidu Inc. fell $15.33, or 11.1%, to $123 and coal producer Yanzhou Coal Mining Co. Ltd. dropped $2.73, or 11.2%, to $21.61. Inc. also fell $1.56, or 9.6%, to $14.65.

Across the Asian stock indexes there was also a strong indication of uncertainty and concern. The Japan's Nikkei 225 closed down 2.1% while South Korea's Kospi slid 2.95 and the Hong Kong's Hang Seng falling 4.9%. And in mainland China, the Shanghai Composite Index fell 2.8% to close at 2443.06 [Business Week].

The reaction in Asia was not just down to the HSBC assessment of the Chinese manufacturing industry however. This week the Federal Reserve warned of major risks to economic growth which increased concern amongst investors around the world. US stocks suffered their worst drop in a month overnight after the Fed's cautious comments [CNN], driving investors to buy the US dollar as a safe haven. And a weaker euro dragged down export-related shares, with Honda Motor leading the losses, falling 3.9% [RTT News].

While the US and European economic situation was a major factor affecting financial markets, China was a focus of many analysts. "Further indication of contraction in China's manufacturing sector is clearly not helping," Deutsche Bank analyst Colin Tan said [CNN]. 

John Higgins, senior markets economist for Capital Economics, said that the slowdown in manufacturing in China was a worry given the importance of China's role as the engine of global growth as the world came out of the 2008 recession. "There is a broad brush concern that even if the Chinese economy is not shrinking, it is slowing, and that slowing is bad news for the rest of the world," Higgins said [CNN].

But the long term effects may be even worse than some are predicting. A paper published last year points to China's economic bubble bursting with dire consequences, not only for China but for the rest of the world.

Risks of a China bubble burst

In a Symposium of Views [PDF], a report compiled by International Economy based in Washington, experts across a wide field aired their views on how such an economic decline in China might affect both China and the world.

The opinions are mixed, but there was a general consensus that such a scenario would not only affect China. Maya Bhandari, Head of Emerging Markets Analysis at Lombard Street Research, said that surrounding export hubs would be affected, with global growth hit significantly.

Tadashi Nakamae, the President of Nakamae International Economic Research, also painted a bleak picture saying that many foreign investors would be particularly hard hit. "China has created a bubble in its productive capacity that is even more dangerous than its asset price bubble. The former is the inevitable result of over- investment in capital expenditure and building an export-led economy," Nakamae says. "When capital investment is booming, say, when steel factories are being built, this itself creates extra demand for steel that cannot be sustained, especially once the factories become operational and become units of supply rather than demand. China is a typical case of a capital investment-led boom-and-bust economy."

"Expansion of investment is mainly supported by exports. Once exports start deteriorating, economic growth halts. Exports decline, as does capital investment, leading to a sharp drop in overall demand. It becomes increasingly clear that the country [China] has huge over-supply in capacity. Prices decline and a deflationary recession develops," Nakamae suggests.

And he drew analogy to past history. "Immediately after Lehman Brothers collapsed, China's nominal GDP growth rate fell from its peak of 24% in the fourth quarter of 2007 to a mere 3.6% in the first quarter of 2009. Its GDP deflator fell from 12.3% to a negative 3.7% in the same period. The Chinese government tried to deal with this by stimulating bank lending, mostly for infrastructure projects by regional governments. Banks also lent a considerable amount for speculative real estate investments. The problem with regional governments using bank lending rather than tax revenue to finance public works projects is that these do not create a return on investment. Servicing the debt is all but impossible, leaving banks holding potentially enormous bad loans on their books."

He also points to Beijing's inability to control the certain parts of the economy. "While China's asset price bubble is worth monitoring, its capital investment-led boom and bust is far more dangerous, and this looks to be already beyond the control of its central authorities," Nakamae warns. "This will have far- reaching negative effects globally, but the biggest victims will probably be foreign companies already invested in China. If the collapse is sudden, the Chinese government should guarantee the property and all other assets of foreign companies leaving China."

While Chinese authorities have accumulated vast reserves Chen Zhao, the Chief Global Strategist and Managing Editor for Global Investment Strategy at the BCA Research Group, warns that a bursting China bubble would be a "massive deflationary shock to the world economy."

Threat to Beijing

There are some who believe such a situation would also be devastating for the Chinese leadership. Marshall Goldman, a Senior Scholar at the Davis Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University, suggests that the Chinese themselves would be the most affected. "Both domestic and foreign investment in China would suffer and result in a sharp drop in production and employment. That in turn might have domestic political consequences, possibly resulting in a governmental upheaval." It is an opinion held by Gary Hufbauer, a Senior Fellow at Reginald Jones of the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

"Collapsing Chinese asset values would devastate China and many millions beyond the Middle Kingdom," Hufbauer asserts. "Hardest hit would be party leaders in Beijing. It's questionable whether the technocrats could survive a 50% drop in property values."

But he too also warns of wider affects. "Beyond China's own borders, manufacturing supply chains across Southeast Asia and commodity producers from Australia to Brazil would all take a drubbing. A new aphorism is born: China sneezes, its partners catch pneumonia."

Others might benefit

However Hufbauer speculates that some economies might benefit if China floundered. "Perhaps the biggest beneficiary would be India. Lower oil and raw material prices, openings for its manufactured exports, and a burnished reputation for growth and stability."

Ernest H Preeg, a Senior Advisor for International Trade and Finance for the Manufacturers Alliance/MAPI, also believes India would be the biggest winner. "The biggest net gainer would be India, with relatively small exports of manufactures and business services to China at risk," Preeg says. "India would emerge touted as the new  number-one high-growth emerging market, with balanced and therefore sustainable 8–10% growth, which would attract increased foreign investment, in part at Chinese expense, to reinforce its new status."

US-China ties at risk

China might also see tensions in its relationships with other countries, should its bubble burst and its economy took a serious down slide. Bowman Cutter, a Senior Fellow and Director within the Economic Policy Initiative at the Roosevelt Institute, and former Managing Director of Warburg Pincus, says the United States' relationship with China could become particularly strained. "The most important consequence of a major "China Bust" would be an almost inevitable political and economic crisis in the China-U.S. relationship," Cutter says.

But he says such a major economic and financial crisis in China would have to be on a scale such as that seen in the US since 2008. Such a crisis is "extremely unlikely" Cutter maintains.

Nonetheless, it is clear that China is beginning to feel the affects of the economic problems that are increasing in Europe, Britain and the US. Some believe that if the situation worsens China could even become hostile [Financial Sense] though such prospects again are also highly speculative.

Interconnected world

IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde today spoke of an "interconnected world" and called for countries to come together to solve the economic crisis and prevent contagion spreading from areas such as Greece and other vulnerable regions.

The G20 has vowed to tackle the economic crisis [Bloomberg] and leaders across Europe have called for action. But there seems to be little resolve nor a definitive response.

Uncertainty raises fears

Despite G20 assurances, shares once again took a battering in Friday's trading [BBC]. Negativity concerning weak global growth from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank knocked sentiment further. On Thursday, IMF head Christine Lagarde said the global economic situation was entering a "dangerous place", while World Bank president Robert Zoellick said he thought the world was in a "danger zone".

British PM David Cameron has warned any failure to act swiftly over the Eurozone's debt problems would "lengthen the shadows of uncertainty" looming over the global economy. In a speech to the Canadian parliament, Cameron called on European nations to show they had the "political will" to "do what is necessary".

"Endlessly putting off what has to be done doesn't help, in fact it makes the problem worse, lengthening the shadows of uncertainty that looms over the world economy," Cameron said. "We are not quite staring down the barrel, but the pattern is clear, the recovery out of the recession for the advanced economies will be difficult," he added [Sky].

China's economy 'still strong'

There are those who think that China, despite its fall in productivity, is still in a position to bail out ailing economies [BBC]. For its own part China remains upbeat despite the International Monetary Fund lowering its estimate for China's growth for 2011 and 2012. Data from the People's Bank of China on Wednesday suggested financial institutions' yuan positions had a net gain of 376.94 billion yuan [$59 billion] in August, 72% more than in July and the biggest increase in five months. The numbers suggested a surge in flows of speculative capital into China as investors bet on the nation's growth and prospects for gains in the yuan an article, published by Xinhua, claims.

The uncertainty and pessimism over financial markets is likely to continue for many months to come, not only in the Eurozone, Britain and the US but also China and economies further afield.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Social media wars: Google+ vs Facebook

Google+ went live for everyone this week, but getting people to adopt the new social networking site may prove difficult [ZDNet]. While the layout, design features, privacy features and relative ease of use of Google+ is excellent, it is the usual case of trying to get anyone else to use it that makes it somewhat pointless. Since Google+ is about sharing content, be that photos, links, video etc, with friends, one obviously needs some friends. But how to get some friends when they're either happier staying on Facebook, can't be bothered with opening up a Google+ account, can't see the point anyway, or are such Luddites they wouldn't know what to do with it anyway.

Getting used to Google+ is not a big deal. One posts in the same way one does with Facebook or any other social media website. However Google+ offers the facility to share that post with all your friends or just a select few. It does this by way of circles. As a user of Google+ one can add other friends to different circles. For example close friends could be dropped into the 'Friends' circle while general friends with who one may not be so close to could be placed in the 'Acquaintances' circle. There is a 'Family' circle for mum, dad, the wife etc., and of course you can make new circles for business associates, college mates or any other group one likes.

Pictures and video can be posted easily either the computer or from online folders stored in Google's Picasa Web account. Of course one may wish to move all those snaps posted on Facebook. There are two ways to do this. One is to Go through settings of the Facebook account and select the download all data option. A zip file is then sent after being compiled and the photos may then be uploaded to Google+ via Picasa web. However there is a  simple tool that can facilitate transferring all those pictures through the use of an extension which can be incorporated into Google's Chrome browser. Move2picasa simply connects to Facebook, identifies the folders containing pictures and offers to upload them to Picasa by a simple press of a button. Some 2,000 pictures took less than 2 hours on a fast cable connection. The drawback is that captions and tags will be lost, but the transfer is otherwise painless. From there one can simply add the folders to Google+ with just a few clicks, and since they are already stored in the cloud within Picasa Web, there are no upload waiting times.

But despite the ease of use, and even of transferring data, one may not be sharing your pictures or posts with anyone. Even before Google+ went live for everybody, few people took advantage of invitations sent out to them. It was the same with Google Wave. That began as invite only and there was a select few that became excited sharing invites and playing with Google's new toy. But shortly after it went live for everyone Google abandoned the project.

So where does that leave Google+? Will it flounder amongst the quagmire of other social networking sites? Has Facebook already got the upper hand?

Some people may indeed use both Facebook and Google+. Indeed there are individuals who use a multiplicity of social networking sites and online tools. Facebook remains highly popular mostly because other friends and acquaintances use it. Facebook claims to have some 750 million users. Twitter by comparison has a mere 200 million users.

Both mediums would do much better but for the fact they are censored in some parts of the world, most notably China. As such they are unable to compete for a lucrative online market. Homegrown Facebook clone Renren claimed in February this year that it had 160 million registered users though it modified that statement in April saying it had "a total of 31 million active monthly users."

Sina Weibo, China's most popular micro-blogging platform, has 140 million registered users. Both are relatively small compared to Facebook and Twitter, but the numbers are growing exponentially as more people get online in China, despite strict censorship.

That censorship has also affected Google's move into social networking. The very next day after Google+ was launched in June, China's censors blocked the site [Guardian].

However since Google's run in with Chinese authorities some 18 months ago over hacking claims and censorship, Google is more likely to be focused on markets outside the Middle Kingdom.

On a positive note it may do well if disgruntled Facebook users migrate in its direction. And this week there were many posts on the social networking site complaining about new changes to the site.

Writing in, Andrew Leonard complained that Facebook has once again decided what it thinks its users want to read. "Facebook has changed its user interface, again. Gone is the "Most Recent" button, which allowed users to see what their friends have posted in a simple, straightforward, chronological order. Now Facebook is indulging, again, in outright effrontery: employing its own secret algorithmic sauce to highlight what it considers the most important "top stories," while mixing in other recent posts far below," Leonard lambasts.

He also criticises the real-time Twitter-like stream of status updates from friends. "People don't want Facebook deciding what's most important, Facebook's suggestions were wrong, irrelevant and insulting, and why oh why oh why can't Facebook leave a good thing alone?"

He was not the only one. There are dozens of complaints across the social platform. One user wrote, "WTF??? Why can't they leave things alone. just when you get used to one layout they bloody change it!!!! NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!" and posted a picture eith the text: "Dear Facebook, your new update sucks giant balls, Sincerely your 500 million users".

For many users the changes are an intrusion, with many unwanted posts suddenly appearing in the 'news stream' of supposedly important updates. And along with the Twitter-like stream which has rolled out to some users, it has increased the clutter on the website [Economic Times / Washington Post].

"Now, News Feed will act more like your own personal newspaper," Mark Tonkelowitz, an engineering manager at Facebook, wrote on the company's blog. But many users do not want their news on Facebook. Most people use the site to connect with friends, to check out what they've been doing, see recent photos and perhaps to chat. For those interested in news there are plenty of portals where this can be obtained, from websites, Twitter, the TV and radio.

Of course, Facebook is essentially free, and some have questioned why they are complaining [ZDNet / Huffington Post]. But it does seem to matter to a lot of people. The top trending subject on Twitter this week was less to do with the news and economy, but more to do with the new look to Facebook [Twitter].

Whether the changes are enough to make people switch to Google+ or just drop the whole social networking thing altogether is debatable. Previous changes and even issues over privacy has not dented the user base of Facebook, in fact if anything the numbers of people using it has grown. However, with Google+ going live to everyone there is now a choice [Wikipedia].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Dale Farm eviction in limbo

Some local residents living close to the Dale Farm travellers' encampment believe the eviction may be constantly interrupted by court orders and legal attempts, and that the site clearance may not even take place this year.

The pessimism amongst the Cray's Hill residents, some of whom back onto the illegal site, comes after a last minute appeal to the High Court in London resulted in a judge halting the operation to clear the site at the eleventh hour.

On Monday 19th September this week it looked as though bailiffs would finally move in. In the days leading up to the proposed eviction, a huge compound had been built with fences erected, cranes moved in and portaloos set up. As the sun rose over the site hundreds of press descended on the entrance to the site, outnumbering travellers, protesters and bailiffs.

But it soon became clear that any move against the illegal site would not be swift and that many contingency plans had not been finalised. Basildon council's plans for the media were confused. They had told the press to park at a nearby golf club but the security at the site claimed they were unaware of any arrangements. It resulted in hundreds of vehicles being parked along the narrow roads leading up to the site. Even if the site clearance had begun, it would have been difficult to remove caravans due to the lanes blocked with cars, vans and satellite trucks parked up.

The first excitement was when veteran broadcaster Gloria Hunniford arrived at the site. Reporting for ITV's This Morning there was a flurry of excitement as photographers surrounded her as she walked towards the main barricade along with two burly security guards.

She joined dozens of other reporters at the front line where a representative of the travellers announced that a woman had attached herself to the barricade with a bicycle lock and that there was a danger of death should force be used to remove the obstruction to the illegal part of the site.

There then followed a long period of calm. Photographers wandered around with little to do other than to take pictures of the Essex police helicopter which circled above periodically. Some of the travellers engaged the reporters. There was little hostility, though two travellers were walking around and asking if anyone was from the Echo, a local newspaper. "Are you from the Echo?" they asked, explaining that Echo reporters were not welcome because of "all the lies they've printed". "We'll beat the s*** out of them if they come down here," one traveller said.

The long wait went on. Bored reporters played Angry Birds on their mobile phones. Some began to cook breakfast on portable stoves. Meanwhile broadcasters were doing live reports, though there was in fact very little to report. At midday a press conference was held within the compound set up by the bailiffs. Councillor Tony Ball, standing alongside local MP John Baron, insisted the site clearance would begin on Monday, but did not give a time scale.

Then came the first bit of action of the day as a group of bailiffs wearing blue tabards and yellow hardhats made their way towards the barricade at around 15:00.

Stopping just short of the entrance the bailiff used a megaphone to convey a message to the travellers. Surrounded by a throng of reporters and photographers, and heckled by protesters, many will not have heard his ultimatum.

"I have some major health and safety concerns that I wish to discuss with you," he thundered through the megaphone. "That you have deliberately blocked and are, by your actions, obstructing the emergent access road."

"In addition to that, I am concerned that the structure you have erected has the potential to put people's lives in danger, I am concerned for your well-being and the well-being of BBC's (the Basildon Borough Council not the broadcaster) agents who have been tasked to restore this land. In the interests of health and safety is there anything that I can say or do that will persuade you to remove yourselves in an orderly manner?" And with that, they turned and made their way back to the bailiff compound.

This was certainly not the ''surrender or die'' ultimatum that some might have expected. And with such a weak call to disperse, it seemed unlikely that any of those holed up behind the barricade were going to heed his call and disperse.

In Shakespeare's Henry V, he called on the French to surrender or "defy us to our worst." In the dramatic scene from scene III the king says, "How yet resolves the governor of the town? This is the latest parle we will admit; Therefore to our best mercy give yourselves; or like to men proud of destruction defy us to our worst: for, as I am a soldier, a name that in my thoughts becomes me best, If I begin the battery once again, I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur, 'till in her ashes she lie buried. The gates of mercy shall be all shut up, and the flesh'd soldier, rough and hard of heart, in liberty of bloody hand shall range with conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass, your fresh-fair virgins and your flowering infants. What is it then to me, if impious war, array'd in flames like to the prince of fiends, do, with his smirch'd complexion, all fell feats enlink'd to waste and desolation? What is't to me, when you yourselves are cause, if your pure maidens fall into the hand of hot and forcing violation? What rein can hold licentious wickedness when down the hill he holds his fierce career? We may as bootless spend our vain command upon the enraged soldiers in their spoil as send precepts to the leviathan to come ashore. Therefore, you men of Harfleur, take pity of your town and of your people, whiles yet my soldiers are in my command; Whiles yet the cool and temperate wind of grace o'erblows the filthy and contagious clouds of heady murder, spoil and villany. If not, why, in a moment look to see the blind and bloody soldier with foul hand defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters; Your fathers taken by the silver beards, and their most reverend heads dash'd to the walls, your naked infants spitted upon pikes, while the mad mothers with their howls confused do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry at Herod's bloody-hunting slaughtermen. What say you? Will you yield, and this avoid, Or, guilty in defence, be thus destroy'd?"

While such an ultimatum might have been a little strong to convey to the travellers at Dale Farm, one cannot imagine Henry V calling on the French in Harfleur to leave because of health and safety issues.

But this is 2011, and not the 15th century. Today issues of health and safety have to be recognised. And all legal options have to be exhausted. And then came the word that there would be no breach on the gates of Dale Farm after a last minute reprieve cam through from the High Court.

The news was greeted with triumphant jubilation on the travellers' side, but it was a humiliating setback for Basildon Council who have fought legal battles over 10 years to get to this point.

Councillor Tony Ball said he was  "extremely disappointed and frustrated" at the decision, but said that the council would appeal the decision. The earliest date would be Friday, and any likely decision might not be issued until the early afternoon.

Justice Edwards-Stuart had granted the injunction at London's High Court on the basis there was a realistic apprehension that the measures to be taken, while genuinely believed in by the council, "may go further" than the terms of the enforcement notices [BBC].

One stipulation made to Basildon Council was that detailed eviction notices relating to each of the 51 illegally occupied plots should be handed out to the travellers [BBC]. That has now been complied with and Basildon Council say that if it succeeds in overturning the injunction on Friday, action could recommence within hours. "I am absolutely sure when they hear our side the judge will rule in our favour," Tony Ball said on Monday.

It remains to be seen whether the court will overturn its decision and if any further legal bids may stop the clearance of Dale Farm. Meanwhile those that have already called it a day and left the site have set up camp around 100 km away in Stockwood Park in Luton [Daily Mail / Telegraph / The Sun]  

For Basildon Council, and now Luton Council, it is no so much "once more unto the breach", but once more to the court.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Temperatures rise at Dale Farm

Temperatures are rising as D-Day, or Dale Farm day as it has been dubbed, approaches. Basildon Council have already set up a control base and a media centre for the hundreds of press expected to attend on Monday when the eviction of the travellers is due to take place [BBC].

Bailiffs are set to clear some 80 illegal plots on the Dale Farm site in Essex, England. The eviction comes after 10 years of legal fights and protests. But the eviction seems likely to go ahead despite last minute appeals. Yesterday Professor Yves Cabannes, a former advisor to the united Nations on forced evictions arrived at the site and condemned the impending expulsion of men, women and children from the site [BBC]. 

He was billed as a representative from the UN, however the organisation distanced themselves from the professor. Sky's Tim Marshall clarified their position by calling them and tweeted "they say the Advisory Group opposing the eviction of travellers from Dale Farm in UK do NOT represent the UN." The UN's human settlements programme, UN-Habitat, later issued a statement saying, "The press conference held at Dale Farm is an initiative of individuals of the Advisory Group on Forced Evictions. UN-Habitat is not involved in that event." [PA]

Several travellers say they are prepared to die rather than leave the site, but others decided enough was enough. Late yesterday afternoon a large mobile home left the site, towed by a Land Rover Defender. 

So far there has been little violence seen, only loud voices of protest. However some children were throwing stones at the bailiffs who were setting up in a nearby field. There was also a sense of nervousness when one child began throwing red paint. Some cars belonging to members of the press were splashed, though it turned out to be only water based poster paint. Nonetheless it has raised concerns amongst some who believe the site could become a war zone on Monday.

Coverage in British newspapers has been extensive and national broadcasters such as Sky and the BBC have also aired reports. Monday will likely see more widespread coverage with news broadcasters expected from around the world. Channel Four in Britain is also scheduling a special programme to be air on Monday evening [Dispatches].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Monday, September 12, 2011

Memories fade ten years after 9/11

For the first time since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York the victims and relatives finally had a place to mourn and grieve following the completion of the memorial at Ground Zero. There is a waterfall where one of the twin towers stood and there are some bronze plaques each naming one of those who died.

It is not only New York who has waited so long for a permanent memorial. Relatives and friends of Britain's 67 fatalities have also waited some ten years before finally being given a memorial. One week before the tenth anniversary a sculpture dedicated to those killed during the 9/11 attacks was unveiled in Battersea Park, south London.

The 8.5 metre tall memorial has been created from three sections of the World Trade Center buildings, which were destroyed when two airliners ploughed into them on 11th September 2001. American artist Miya Ando's scupture is only temporary however since authorities are still looking for a "more suitable" location [BBC / The Sun / Daily Mail].

Miya Ando said she wanted to "give light back into the community" with her work. "'I thought it was a poetic way to express transformation," she said. "Not only are we having the piece stand upright in a gesture of resilience, but to create something serene and light."

Other memorial are less inspiring however. In Grosvenor Square in London which fronts the US Embassy a permanent memorial was unveiled in time for the 3.rd anniversary. It consists of a wooden temple-like structure which stand before a stone plaque embedded into the ground. Although it was one of the first memorials to be built it has been somewhat likened to a garden shed [Telegraph].

The plaque under which a piece of the World Trade Center is buried is more fitting. It is inscribed with part of Henry Van Dyke's poem which was read during a memorial service at Westminster Abbey in 2001. The inscription reads: "Time is too slow for those who wait. Too swift for those who fear. Too long long for those who grieve. Too short for those who rejoice. But for those who love time is not."

In towns and cities across Britain and America there are also plaques and memorials placed in honour of those who died on September 11th, 2001. A plaque in front of Romford town hall in east London remembers some 176 members of Aon, a Chicago based firm, who lost their lives. While most of the Aon staff were Americans a few were British. Amongst them was Michael Egan, 51, the Hull-born vice president of multinational insurance company AON, who is believed to have died as he helped colleagues escape from the south tower. He and his many colleagues are remembered with the words, "Forever In Our Hearts".

This and many plaques like it were unveiled within a year of the attacks. However some friends and relatives of victims of 9/11 are still waiting. Bureaucracy and red-tape has been a major stumbling block despite support from local government officials and residents. In Billericay in Essex friends and family of Michele Beale, 37, a director with London-based Risk Waters, was attending a conference at the World Trade Centre in New York on the day of the attacks. Ten years on her husband Stuart and their two children Joe and Lizzie are still waiting for permission to have a plaque placed in the town.

While only a single bunch of lilies were placed at the war memorial in Billericay town centre on Sunday in central London and at the sites of the terror attacks in the United States, hundreds gathered to pay tribute to those who died.

Television news stations carried hours of special programming throughout the day. Sky, BBC, CNN, France 24, Euronews and CCTV all relayed the memorial events live. Other broadcasters dipped in and out of the commemorations and showed documentaries marking the events of 10 years ago. Amongst the reports shown was one on Russia Today which suggest that some 90% of Afghans had little knowledge of the terror attacks with many even failing to recognise iconic photographs of the blazing twin towers.

Yesterday Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, said those responsible were "sick and deluded" and called for young people to be taught the history of the events that took place a decade ago. While the events may be clear in some people's minds there are others with little understanding of the attacks. Conspiracy theories still circulate too, something which Johnson also criticised saying he wanted a "controlled demolition" of wacky alternative explanations for the disaster.

The events of 9/11 have been accused by some as an excuse for implementing draconian laws and implementing a terror state. Broadcaster Alex Jones has been at the forefront of such theories, not only dismissing official explanations concerning the events of that day, but also saying that such atrocities are being used as an ecuse to further exercise control on what he terms a gullible public.

Whatever the truth behind the attacks, the victims and those they left behind should not be forgotten. Those who perpetrated the attacks should be condemned, but so too should those that who have dragged their heels and blocked the way to erecting monuments and plaques in a timely manner. The shame of 9/11 is that too many people have forgotten.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

China burning its bridges with Libya

China appears to be burning more bridges as it plays a very undiplomatic game with the fledgling government that is beginning to form through the National Transitional Council in Libya. On Saturday, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the head of Libya's NTC, accused China of blocking the unfreezing of assets. It was an apparent U-turn by Beijing who only two days before had agreed to the release of an initial $15 billion. The interim government desperately needs funds to begin the rebuilding of a nation that has seen significant destruction over the last 6 months, but Beijing seems to be standing in the way of allowing more money to flow. NTC spokesman Shamsiddin Abdulmolah, referring to the Chinese, said "I'm sure they are going to use their veto card to make sure that their interests here in Libya are secure." [Reuters]

It was not immediately clear what the precise complaint China has with allowing more of the some $170 billion of frozen assets to be released. China has not joined Western powers in formally recognising the NTC as the legitimate authority in Libya, though it has acknowledged its "important role" in the country following the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.

China's stance could be a belligerent and spiteful reaction to statements made recently by an official at Libyan oil company AGOCO, allied with the rebels, who told news agencies they "may have some political issues" in future dealings with China and Russia as they prepared for a return to production [tvnewswatch].

The reasoning behind his statement was due to the fact both Russia and China had failed to support the rebellion and abstained in voting for Resolution 1973 which paved the way for NATO airstrikes and a no-fly zone.

While Russia has maintained has attempted to build bridges with the NTC and the interim government, China seems to be stoking the fires. When nations from around the world met last week to discuss Libya's future Russia said it now recognized the fledgling rebel government despite its opposition to the NATO bombing campaign.

It was the first major show of support from Russia who had earlier shown some reticence. Speaking in Moscow before the meeting Russia's president, Dmitri A. Medvedev had said Russia would withhold official recognition until it appeared the rebels could unite Libya under their leadership. But on Thursday the Foreign Ministry said in a statement that "Our country established and has maintained diplomatic relations with Libya since September 4th, 1955, and has never broken them regardless of what kind of government was in power in Tripoli." [NYT]

China's position was far more vague. Speaking on Thursday last week Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said,"China attaches great importance to the important position and role of the National Transitional Council in resolving the Libya issue." But he stopped short of recognizing the NTC as the legitimate government, only that it would seek to naintain contact and improve relations. "China is ready to maintain close contact with it (the NTC) and steadily advance China-Libya relations," Ma said [Xinhua]. 

By Monday the position had changed little with China insisting it needed to see whether conditions were "ripe" before considering recognition of the National Transitional Council. "When water flows, a channel is formed," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said of China's position as regards the recognition of the NTC. "We place importance on the position and role of the NTC and are ready to maintain close communication with it in order to steadily advance relations between the two sides," she added, insisting that communication between China and the NTC was "smooth and running." [Xinhua

But China may have difficulties with any future government in Libya. China has lost friends over its failing to back NATO action, though it is common for China to abstain in such decisions at the UN. Its vetoing the release of funds will not improve matters. Further revelations over China's support for former dictator Muammar Gaddafi will further incense feelings in Libya.

Toronto's Globe and Mail revealed on Saturday that as recently as July Chinese state companies had offered "huge stockpiles" of sophisticated weapons worth at least $200 million to Colonel Gaddafi's representatives.

China immediately dismissed the accusations. "We have clarified with the relevant agencies that in July the Gaddafi government sent personnel to China without the knowledge of the Chinese government and they engaged in contact with a handful of people from the companies concerned," said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu on Monday. She also insisted that no sales took place [Chinese - fmprc].

But according to the new Libyan government the sales of arms went through. "I'm almost certain that these guns arrived and were used against our people," said Omar Hariri, head of the NTC's military committee. The transitional council also claims it has "hard evidence" such as the  weapons themselves, retrieved from the field, as well as documents of Beijing's sales, this according to the New York Times.

The documents, in Arabic, including a memo from Libyan security officials detailing a shopping trip to Beijing on July 16th, appear to show that state-controlled Chinese arms companies offered to sell $200 million worth of rocket launchers, antitank missiles, portable surface-to-air missiles designed to bring down aircraft, and other weapons and munitions.

Over the weekend, NTC spokesman Abdulrahman Busin said the council would seek accountability for the sales. And there is a lot to be accountable for since the transactions would violate Security Council Resolution 1970, which China actually voted for in February.

Writing for World Affairs Journal, author Gordon Chang suggests that China might be under the illusion that it can trade its vote on blocked funds to ensure that the new Libyan government protects Chinese interests. "If so, the tactic looks unpromising, but even if Beijing gets what it wants in the short term, any victory will come at high cost," Chang writes. "A half decade ago, Western analysts marveled at China's deft diplomacy. Even if they were right then, Beijing officials have since lost their playbook. China is digging itself in deeper with brutish tactics in Libya, just another symptom of its new brazen and belligerent foreign policy."

In an attempt to limit the damage done by the accusation China says it will tighten arms procedures. Speaking at the Foreign Ministry's daily news briefing, Jiang Yu said the government would "further strengthen management over military exports." [NYT / LA Times]

She repeatedly emphasised that no sales took place. "Chinese companies have not provided military equipment to Libya, directly or indirectly," Jiang said on Monday. But according to documents found, sales may have been conducted through a third party. According to the Globe and Mail one memo says the Chinese companies were eager to sell whatever they had ready and to make new weapons, and even suggested a ruse to circumvent sanctions by having Libya purchase through a third country. "The companies suggest that they make the contracts with either Algeria or South Africa, because those countries previously worked with China," the Globe and Mail reported.

While some members of the transitional leadership have expressed misgivings about starting diplomatic spats so early in the process of setting up a new government. There are suggestions they may continue doing business with Chinese companies in future, no matter how unsavoury Beijing's ties were with the former regime. Other members of the NTC appear less certain, suggesting that China's reluctance to endorse the NATO intervention, and the fresh revelations of secret dealings with the Gaddafi regime, could sour relations between the two countries. Speaking on Al-Jazeera, Ali Tarhouni, the interim finance minister,  said, "If indeed the Chinese government agreed to sell arms to Gadhafi only a month ago, definitely it will affect our relationship with China." [Globe and Mail]

Before the revolt in Libya began in February, China sold arms to the Gaddafi government and was a major customer for Libyan oil, buying about 3% of its annual requirements from Libya. China has not always had a comfortable relationship with the Gaddafi regime however. In recent years, the Libyan regime clashed with the Chinese on everything from the rising power's inroads into Africa to Col. Gaddafi's economic and political ties with Taiwan. However, China's need for oil helped sweeten ties between the two countries since 2008 [WSJ].

Of course, China is not the only country which has had a close relationship with the Gaddafi regime. Some western nations including Britain built stronger ties with the former dictator. This week brought accusations that Britain may have been complicit in torture with one rebel leader Abdel Hakim Belhaj claiming MI6 aided his rendition in 2004, and that he was subsequently tortured [BBC].

No nation has been squeaky clean as regards dealing with Gaddafi in the past few years, but China has much to lose in terms of securing much needed oil resources.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Google closes yet more products

Google has been one of the biggest innovators on the World Wide Web. It was the first company to bring a search engine that actually worked, brought about despite being dismissed by other companies in its early days. But from a search engine Google has constantly reinvented itself and brought new tools for millions of Internet users. While Google's search engine has survived the test of time, other projects have not fared so well. This autumn Google has decided to have a clear out and shut down several underused and antiquated services. Although some will not be missed there will be some cries of dismay as Google streamlines its online offerings.

Google has said it is to drop Aardvark, Google Desktop, Fast Flip, Google Maps API for Flash, Google Pack, Google Web Security, Image Labeler, Google Notebook, Sidewiki, and Subscribed Links which will all be shut down over the next few months.

They are the latest services to be dropped by the search engine giant which has already announced the closing down of other online applications. A year after launch Google Wave, billed at the time as the next step for email, was unceremoniously dropped from Google's portfolio. When Wave began it was available only to developers, then by invite only. But within months of it being available to everyone with a Gmail account Google announced it was to stop any further development. At present it is still accessible, though it is unclear for how much longer.

Google Health is another service being retired, though a date has been already been set for January 2012. Launched as a way for Google account holders to store health records and share them with health professionals, the service was launched in 2008. However Google has decided uptake was not significant enough to keep it going. "We've observed that Google Health is not having the broad impact that we hoped it would," Google said in a blogpost which also gave notice to PowerMeter which had been intended as a way of monitoring energy consumption from anywhere online. There some alternatives available to both PowerMeter and Google Health but it would mean setting up accounts with other enterprises.

With the demise of yet more Google services some users might be concerned over how safe their cloud data is. Google has facilitated the downloading and easy transfer to other services of user data, but it can be time consuming for those who have built up a large amount of information or files. When Google recently shut up shop on Google Video they initially offered only the facility of downloading videos stored on the service. However a backlash resulted in Google offering a simple way of transferring the content to the Google owned YouTube.

The latest selection of services to be resign to the bin will perhaps have less impact, but some will be missed. Google often blames poor user response as one of the reasons why it closes products, but the company itself could be blamed for failing to advertise the services. How many regular Internet users will have heard of Aardvark for example? The  social search service connects users live with friends or friends-of-friends who are able to answer their questions, also known as a knowledge market. Users would submit questions via the Aardvark website, email or instant messenger and Aardvark identifies and facilitates a live chat or email conversation with one or more topic experts in the asker's extended social network. While its usefulness might have been diminished by people's opting for general Google searches and Yahoo Answers the lack of publicity has obviously had an effect in the lack of take-up.

Fast Flip, launched in 2009, allowed users to flick through web content in a manner similar to a magazine. At launch, there were 39 mainly US-based news partners with Google sharing the majority of revenue from contextual adverts with its news partners. During its short life Fast Flip was praised for allowing visual, fast and serendipitous browsing of news stories, but it was also equally criticized as being a novelty, and anachronistic, as it emulated print media, had limited navigation and presented few news sources. The site is already inaccessible.

Google Maps API for Flash, Image Labeler, Google Notebook, Sidewiki, and Subscribed Links may not be missed but Google Pack and Google Desktop may be the subject of derision amongst some. As regards Google Pack many of the products contained within the package can be downloaded separately, however it did offer users a simple way of obtaining some must have applications in one easy download. Although there have been concerns over security and privacy Google Desktop provides an easy way allow text searches of a user's e-mails, computer files, music, photos, chats, Web pages viewed, and other "Google Gadgets". The executable file is still available though not for much longer.

This year also saw the end of Google's property search within its Maps, again citing lack of use. However its closure and that of other applications seems to be more about saving money or increasing profits. Of course Google claims they still want to improve search for the billions of its users and rarely mention profit. In a blogpost the company says they will continue to "devote more resources to high impact products—the ones that improve the lives of billions of people." As it does so it takes some tools away which affect many millions of others [ZDNet].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Friday, September 02, 2011

Beijing - a tale of two cities

Despite being under close scrutiny from authorities, artist Ai Weiwei, arrested earlier this year for alleged economic crimes, has begun to speak out once again. In his latest comments carried in Newsweek he describes Beijing as a city of violence.

It's not violent in the obvious sense. Street fights and pub brawls are extremely uncommon in Beijing. Although there are incidents of knife attacks and murders they are rare and certainly not on a scale seen in cities such as London or New York.

The violence Ai Weiwei talks about is of an uncaring brutal state which treats its poor as second class citizens. "Every year millions come to Beijing to build its bridges, roads, and houses. Each year they build a Beijing equal to the size of the city in 1949. They are Beijing's slaves. They squat in illegal structures, which Beijing destroys as it keeps expanding."

The migrant workers are everywhere, though few tourists may notice them. Even the poorest Beijingers and of course the beggars have been 'encouraged' to vacate areas frequented by tourists.

Tourists will arrive at a glitzy modern airport and be greeted by a fleet of shiny taxis which whisk them to their modern hotel down a fast and relatively efficient highway for the price of a couple of pints of beer in many London pubs. From the hotel room the casual visitor will see a shiny modern city, but beneath the neon lights and glittering modern architecture is a darker secret.

Ai Weiwei talks of officials who are happy to do business with foreigners while ignoring the rights of their own countrymen. Only the very rich can afford to buy in Beijing. The closer to the centre of town the more expensive it becomes and even on the outskirts the prospect of buying a home is a distant dream for many individuals, Ai says.

The strongest criticism is about human rights. "They deny us basic rights," Ai says. "You will see migrants' schools closed. You will see hospitals where they give patients stitches—and when they find the patients don't have any money, they pull the stitches out."

Such stories are indeed common, but in some respects Beijing is no different from any other city in the world. China has its army of so-called migrant workers which come to build the new modern skyscrapers. Few workers benefit other than to feed and clothe themselves, and it is unlikely any would ever afford to stay in the hotels they construct or go to drink at the bars they refurbish. But although the scale of money may be different, such disparities exist the world over. How many of those who built the 828 metre tall Burj Khalifa building in Dubai will ever visit its lavish restaurants or bars or stay in its first class hotels? How many workers at Rolls Royce ever get the chance to drive or own such a car? In all societies, economics drives a tiered hierarchy whereby workers are ultimately exploited. In the distant past workers might be unpaid and would literally be slaves. In more modern times such people are paid, but only to a level where the bosses can maintain a profit.

Ai's criticism of Beijing medical services are stark, and indeed shocking. But even in some modern democracies the poorer elements of society fair badly when it comes to health care. In the US those without health insurance often fail to receive to obtain much needed medical services. Even in Britain which has a well established free health service there are problems. Those who do not opt for private health care may often have to wait weeks or even months for vital operations. In Beijing's Puren Hospital one will be met with long queues as patients attempt to secure an appointment with a doctor. While a consultation might be free, any prescribed treatment or medicine is not. Those with money can see doctors set aside for foreigners, all of course at a fee. For foreigners such visits are relatively cheap. A consultation and ultrasound scan might cost as little as 300 RMB, about £30, and is easily obtained. But such fees are too expensive for many Chinese.

Like so many things, the criticisms that could be applied to Beijing and other places in China are relative. Beijing has been criticised over the way it has restricted car sales and even when one can drive on the road, dependent upon the licence plate number. However many cities around the world are applying greater restrictions on motorists. In London a new Low Emission Zone comes into force in January which will force owners of older diesel vehicles off the road. A so-called congestion charge, which many see as just a further tax on motorists, has been in place for many years.

Ai Weiwei says he has "no favourite place in Beijing" and "no intention of going anywhere in the city." He describes places as being simple. "You don't want to look at a person walking past because you know exactly what's on his mind. No curiosity. And no one will even argue with you."

Argue! Indeed most Chinese do seem to be passive, and it is difficult to initiate a conversation about politics or contentious issues. However, the very opposite is true in other countries, and a discussion may well lead to argument and even hostile confrontation.

There are a few things the artist does not raise, that of the air pollution and the risk of food products being adulterated with dangerous chemicals. Nor does he raise the issue over extreme censorship which invades all forms of life from TV, radio and newspapers to the Internet and even advertising.

In Beijing as in many cities, taxi drivers often provide a temperature gauge to the mood of a country. A few years back a taxi driver made the astute observation that even the rich officials and politicians could not buy themselves cleaner air.

Recently leaders were lauding the 90th anniversary of the forming of the Chinese Communist Party. Again taxi drivers appeared openly vocal in their criticism of the party. This week the Economist suggested Beijing was one of the most livable cities in the world. "The most livable city for millionaires," said Jin Hong, a Beijing taxi driver told a Financial Times reporter. [FT / CNN / Global Times]

Actually Beijing came in at being the 72nd most livable city in the world. At the top of the list were cities such as Melbourne, Sydney and Perth in Australia as well as several cities in Canada. Among other well-known cities, Hong Kong was ranked 31st. San Francisco and Singapore came in joint 51st, while London and New York were ranked 53rd and 56th respectively. Living in any city has its benefits and pitfalls. If you have money Beijing is a great place to be, though the stifling summer heat and pollution is a drawback. Hong Kong is also a vibrant place, though one's bank balance needs to be significant. London too offers much, although it's not as safe as one would like.

Ai Weiwei and the taxi driver are correct in one aspect. If you are poor then Beijing may well be uncomfortable. But the same would be true of any city.

tvnewswatch, London, UK