Monday, February 28, 2011

China: Fear of freedom prompts brutal response

A paranoid state can often be seen to overreact and even the slightest challenge will be crushed with a heavy blow. The growing calls for democracy that are sweeping around the globe, and the way in which brutal regimes are defending their positions of power is testament to this.

From Easy Rider to 1984

It is a subject discussed both in popular music, film and literature. In the 1969 film Easy Rider, the two bikers, Wyatt [Peter Fonda] and Billy [Dennis Hopper] discuss with their new found friend George Hanson [Jack Nicholson] how the concept of freedom can scare not only people, but society as a whole, and of course government.

Sitting around a fire in the dead of night George opens the debate. "You know this used to be a hell of a good country, can't understand what's gone wrong with it?"

Wyatt just looks on interested, but Billy responds, "Man, everyone's got chicken that's what happened, man. Hey, we can't even get into a, like, second-rate hotel, a second rate motel, you dig. They think we're going to cut their throats or something, man. Like, they're scared, man."

George continues, "They're not scared of you. They're scared of what you represent." Billy does not quite understand what George is saying and just quips, "All we represent to them, man, is someone who needs a haircut."

"No. What you represent to them is freedom." George continues. Defensively Billy raises his voice, "What the hell's wrong with freedom! That's what it's all about." George then explains, calmly and quietly. "Yeah, that's right. That's what it's all about. But talking it and being it, that's two different things. I mean it's really hard to be free when you're bought and sold in the market place. Don't ever tell anyone that they're not free because they'll get real busy killing and maiming to prove that they are. Oh yeah, they'll talk to you and talk to you and talk to you about individual freedom but they see a free individual it's going to scare them."

Billy is dismissive of Georges philosophical view. "Man, it don't make them running scared," he retorts. But George continues. "No, it makes them dangerous," he warns.

The George Orwell novel 1984 warns of the dangers of totalitarian rule where every citizen's movements are monitored. And musicians have repeatedly referred to the power of the state. The messages have also become more overt and pointed. In the 1960s there was a revolutionary fervour with the likes of Bob Dylan delivering vocal rants and social commentary. Even the more commercial Beatles spoke of Revolution and made tongue in cheek criticisms of the class and corporate greed in ditties like Piggies.

By the 1980s and with the advent of punk, groups were less subtle. The anarcho-punk band Crass was the harshest in its critique of authoritarian power. In the polemic album Yes Sir, I Will the band discusses many factors which affect the way in which the state controls people's lives. "The boundaries are becoming narrower as the State becomes more paranoid," they assert, adding that "Under authoritarian rule, conformity becomes the only security." In such a situation the prospect of change is difficult. "Fear is a powerful weapon against human development," the group insists.

Fear of the State

It is the fear of the state that stops any form of dissent in a country like China. Despite calls for a so-called 'Jasmine Revolution', inspired by the unrest seen across the Middle East, few in China are willing to raise their voice and complain.

On the face of it China is developing fast. Millions of people have been pulled out of poverty, and the country's growing infrastructure is a marvel. But beneath the veneer, there are undercurrents of discontent. The rich, poor divide is increasing, human rights abuses occur all too frequently, there is no freedom of the press, censorship enters into many aspects of life and corruption is rife. But there are no vocal signs of protest as any attempt to complain is quickly crushed.

The way China crushes any signs of criticism was clearly seen last Sunday following calls for a second wave of protests. The previous week's event in Beijing had been little more than a gathering of curious onlookers, undeclared protesters, a large media presence and a huge number of police who moved in to disperse the crowd. But with the prospect of another gathering, the state were far more prepared. Throughout the week the searching of keywords such as Wangfujing, protest, revolution and Jasmine have been been blocked on Chinese microblogging platforms in order to prevent any message of dissent spreading. But there was a physical show of force too to prevent the virtual world spilling into the streets of the real world. Dissidents and activists have been rounded up or put under house arrest and security in many cities across China has increased.

Crushing dissent & reporting

Walking along Wangfujing from the southern entrance there were lines of police, SWAT teams, armed police, dog patrols, special CCTV units, and dozens of plain clothed police with earpieces. Anyone appearing to be a western journalist was quickly pounced upon and asked for their credentials, and many other foreigners were also singled out, their details taken while state security filmed continuously. Inside the KFC and McDonalds, where the protests were supposed to begin, plain clothed security were spotted looking from the windows, scanning the streets while others filmed the customers eating their lunch. Many also reported the GPRS/3G signals shut-down around the area, though voice calls and SMS appeared uninterrupted [Atlantic]. 

But the real power of the state came at 14:00, when the supposed 'strolling' protest was to begin. Street cleaning vans started to drive up and down the centre of the shopping precinct, forcing people to a narrow strip of pavement on either side.

Without warning police moved in against foreign media. One group of plain clothes officers shoved and pushed a BBC cameraman. They grabbed at his camera and tried to rip it from his hands before bundling him a full 50 metres into a police van. The men, all wearing earpieces, then turned on BBC correspondent Damian Grammaticas, grabbing him by the hair and physically picking him up before throwing him into the waiting van.  They then repeatedly slammed the door on his leg, still partly hanging from the truck while a few shoppers looked on in confusion [BBC].

The BBC were not the only targets. Steve Engle of Bloomberg TV attempted to film the detention of photographer Adam J Dean [Twitter / Photoshelter] but he was himself accosted by plain clothed police. At least five men in plain clothes, who appeared to be security personnel, punched and kicked Engle in the head at around 14:45 before dragging him into a nearby store. They also took the video camera he was carrying. Engle was then taken to the police station where he made a complaint. His camera was returned with an explanation that it had been found by a passer-by [Bloomberg].

Camera teams of Germany's two public broadcasting networks also found themselves arrested. Christine Adelhardt, correspondent for ARD was amongst the group which was eventually released some 4 hours later. "We were told that there are new regulations that you can't film at certain areas without permission," Adelhardt told the German Press Agency dpa. She was made to present a written apology that she did not know about the new rules before she was released.

Meanwhile Johannes Hano, correspondent for the second German public channel ZDF, and his crew were also detained and remained in police custody. A reporter from dpa was also detained for a time [Saudi News Today / Monsters & Critics].

Other western correspondents on the receiving end of China's brutal crackdown on media reporting included a New York Times photographer and French journalist for La Vie, Jordan Pouille. Those who did not find themselves arrested were instead manhandled, questioned and escorted away from the site [CNN / Guardian / Telegraph].

Many of the journalists, photographers and cameramen who found themselves arrested were told they could not do interviews in the area because of "special circumstances". Questions about the special circumstances were ignored. All the foreign media were reportedly released, though Bloomberg cameraman Engle later sought hospital treatment for his injuries.

Some journalists and reporters decided that discretion was the better part valour. Photographer Tom Spender wrote on his blog that he "thought it too risky" to take out his camera. Not wanting to to be continually filmed by plain clothed security he and a friend sought safety in a nearby coffee shop.

In a statement, the Foreign Correspondent's Club of China said it was "appalled by the attack on one of our members [Engle] by men who appeared to be plain clothes security officers in Beijing. This video journalist was trying to do his job when he was set upon and repeatedly punched and kicked in the face by officers as part of a general crackdown in Wangfujing following calls on the Internet for a protest in this area."

Spooked, brutal & dangerous

BBC correspondent meanwhile described the operation as "brutal and totally out of proportion to the situation" and said that was evident "that China's Communist Party chiefs have been spooked by the popular protests sweeping the Middle East."

In those democratic revolutions ranks of ordinary people from developing countries have been rising against the autocracies that have monopolised power. China has many similar problems to those in the Middle East. And there are growing calls for greater freedom.

The revolts in the Middle East seem to have tapped into fears felt in China's leaders and its security apparatus. And that fear of freedom has indeed made them more dangerous. Fortunately it has yet to manifest itself in the brutality seen in 1989 during a pro-democracy movement which left hundreds dead.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Heavy policing stops Beijing protests

Chinese authorities cracked down hard to prevent protesters gathering in Beijing's Wangfujing shopping district on Sunday. Using a large police presence, some in plain clothes and some armed, people were constantly moved on and anyone spotted taking pictures was immediately set upon.

There have been many online calls to start protests calling for greater freedom in China in what has been dubbed China's "Jasmine Revolution". Censors have attempted to thwart the spread of information by banning words such as Jasmine, Revolution and even Wangfujing. Despite this the message has reached some and there have been small numbers of Chinese turning up at locations across the country.

But China does not respond well to open dissent and this was evident in the area around Wangfujing where armed police could be spotted on street corners and dog patrols paraded along the streets. Members of the media were stopped from entering the area and some were forcibly detained. At least one TV crew from Germany was arrested and many foreigners were stopped and questioned.

There were bizarre scenes as street cleaning trucks drove back and forth the main shopping precinct forcing would-be protesters and shoppers onto a narrow strip of pavement on either side. Police, some with dogs continually moved people along and eventually cleared the entire shopping area of pedestrians. All along the shopping precinct police officers could be seen checking many Chinese people for identity papers many of them indignant that they could not wander unhindered.

Information circulating on the Internet had called on citizens to gather and shout: "We want food! We want work! We want housing! We want fairness!" However there was only one vocal protest from one person refused entry into a department store. "I want to shop," he exclaimed to the police officer barring his way [Other reports: AP / Bloomberg / Monsters & Critics / Yahoo News / Washington Examiner / Tom Spender]

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Libyan unrest drives up oil price

As unrest and anti-government protests spread across the Middle East there is growing concern that the instability may affect the world's oil supply and slow economic recovery.

Of particular concern are reports that Libyan exports are being interrupted by disorder at the terminals and that major companies including Royal Dutch Shell, ENI of Italy and Repsol of Spain have been cutting output and evacuating staff.

Blocking exports

On Tuesday Libya began blocking exports though it was not immediately clear if this would affect oil exports. However more than 8% of Libya's 1.6 million barrel daily production has been shut down by the violence. This has been due to the fact that much of the unrest has been concentrated in the eastern province of Cyrenaica, home to the bulk of Libya's oil reserves.

Libya provides 2% of the world's oil supplies and although Opec powers such as Saudi Arabia and Iran may well be able to make up a shortfall, there are fears amongst traders that any spread of the growing unrest may push the price of crude through the roof.

"The world could deal with the loss of Libyan barrels, but the worry is that it won't stop at Libya," said Bill O'Grady, chief market strategist at Confluence Investment Management in St. Louis. "We don't know where this is going to end."

Crude rises

Oil rose for a fifth day in New York as violence intensified in Libya. On Tuesday Futures in New York surged 6.4% from the February 18th settlement, while London-traded Brent rose to $108 a barrel, the highest since September 2008. This year alone crude has risen sharply from $85 a barrel and some say "the sky's the limit" for oil prices and that $150 a barrel could be reached "without breaking a sweat". This would have severe implications for economic recovery, inflation and living standards worldwide.

The world economy can withstand the surge in oil prices for a short time, John Lipsky, the number 2 official at the International Monetary Fund, said on Bloomberg Television's "Inside Track" yesterday [Bloomberg]. 

Stocks fall

But it is the long-term uncertainty that is sending oil prices up and sending stock markets around the world tumbling. On Tuesday the FTSE-100 index slipped by around 1.5%, before recovering to close the day down just 0.3%. There were similar losses on the American, German and French exchanges. Markets in China and Japan also saw falls, with the earthquake in New Zealand adding to the tension.

Badly hit were the stocks of heavy users of fuel and and companies vulnerable to further cutbacks in consumer spending. Airlines in particular saw their share prices fall dramatically and oil majors also experienced a sharp drop in the value of their stocks.

"The market is very nervous over news of violence in Libya and that's driving [crude] prices. It looks like the uncertainty in the region is not going to be resolved soon," Yinxi Yu of Barclays Capital said [Independent].

Libya's oil wealth

Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi has vowed to fight the growing rebellion until his "last drop of blood" and urged his supporters to take to the streets and dispel what he called the "cockroaches" who were challenging his leadership [BBC].

Just as world markets are concerned at the flow of oil from the region, Gaddafi will also be worried about his accumulated wealth. Little is known about the Gaddafi family's personal wealth but as a country Libya earns around $30 billion in oil revenue per year. The population as a whole does not benefit however. More than 2 million people live in poverty, something that is fueling the protests especially in the oil rich regions where local people see few benefits from Libya's oil industry.

Libya invests some of its earnings into overseas concerns. It has holdings in the publisher Pearson which is tied to the Financial Times, and it has also invested heavily in Italian companies including banks and has a 7.5% stake in the Juventas football team [Bloomberg]. Much of the country's wealth is believed to be held in cash.

Future uncertain

The unrest that is sweeping across the Middle East has yet to manifest itself in Saudi Arabia or Iran, but following the regime change in Tunisia and Egypt and the tide of unrest in Yemen, Morocco and Libya, there is uncertainty as to where the revolutionary wave will end.

Stocks and oil prices are not the only victims of the pro-democracy movement seen in the last two months. Dozens died in Tunisia, Egypt and Egypt and there are reports that more than 300 have been killed in Libya thus far.

The unrest is also increasing diplomatic tensions. Libya's tradition of Cuba and Venezuala have called on what it calls imperialist interference to stop. On Tuesday China expressed concern about unrest in Libya but held back from joining other nations in condemning Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. The United Nations, United States and the European Union, as well as many other countries, have all criticized the crackdown.

China's concern

China has strong business ties with Libya and trade between the two countries grew to $6.6 billion in 2010, a rise of 27% compared with 2009. China's exports to Libya grew by 3%, while its imports from Libya grew by 42%, reflecting oil purchases. Chinese interests have been attacked by gun-wielding looters and 1,000 Chinese workers were forced to flee a construction site though Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu would only say it hoped order would soon be restored. "China is extremely concerned about the developments in Libya and hopes Libya will quickly restore social stability and normality," Ma said [Global Security].

China's Communist Party government is wary of any foreign upheavals that could reflect badly on its own authoritarian controls. It has long been suspicious of what it sees as Western-led efforts to topple governments in other countries. In the wake of the recent turmoil in Arab countries it has also heavily censored the news and any online discussion. An effort to organise a so-called Jasmine Revolution in China was predictably and quickly quashed [FT].

While perhaps concerned for any threat to its own power base, China will be more concerned at its strong business ties with countries that are becoming unstable. The volume of trade between China and Tunisia in 2001 was US$109 million and has grown significantly over the last decade []. The trade volume between China and Egypt was $6 billion in late 2009 and was expected to grow to $10 billion by 2012 [Reuters].

Yuan falls

China's yuan has also fallen victim as political instability in the Middle East drove oil prices higher. Not only will oil price hikes affect import costs it will potentially slow China's development. The country relies heavily on oil imports, around 54% of the crude oil it used in 2010, according to the China Petroleum and Chemical Industry Association. Though much of its oil comes from Angola and Iran it obtains a significant amount from Libya.

The rise in crude has had a direct effect on the yuan which slid 0.21% to 6.5803 per dollar as of 16:32 in Shanghai on Friday, according to the China Foreign Exchange Trade System. It touched 6.5654 on Monday, the strongest level since China unified official and market exchange rates at the end of 1993. The central bank set the reference rate at 6.5772, 0.1% weaker than Monday.

For China's economy, events in the Middle East are a particular concern. "Events in the Middle East may weigh on the global economy," said Frances Cheung, a senior strategist at Credit Agricole CIB in Hong Kong. "Investors are more risk averse. It's not a surprise that the People's Bank of China will be more cautious on the yuan." [Bloomberg]

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Multiple fatalities after 6.3 quake hits NZ

There are reports of multiple fatalities after a powerful 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck the city of Christchurch on New Zealand's South Island. At least 65 people had died according to New Zealand's prime minister John Key who described a scene of "utter devastation" following the earthquake which hit at 12:51 local time on Tuesday [23:51 GMT on Monday] only 10km south-east of the city.

There is widespread destruction and many buildings have collapsed. Television pictures showed cars crushed by falling debris and there are reports that two buses were buried under rubble.

The landmark cathedral was severely damaged and much of the city is without power. The central business district is believed to have been badly affected where many are believed trapped. The airport has been closed and a state of emergency has been declared. Authorities are asking residents to minimise the use of mobile phones so as to free the system for emergency services.

Mayor Bob Parker called it a "black day" for New Zealand and said there were "scenes of great confusion" as people gathered in the streets for safety. Ambulances were said to be in short supply and some casualties were being transferred to hospital by car. Although an exact figure has not been placed on the number of deaths, officials say there may be multiple fatalities.

The damage is said to be worse than after September's 7.1-magntiude quake. Two people were seriously injured by that tremor, whose epicentre was further away and deeper than Tuesday's earthquake. More than $3bn of damage was caused in the September earthquake and there have been several aftershocks since. A 4.9 magnitude tremor struck just after Christmas, but this most recent event has been the most devastating thus far.

By chance an army unit was on a training exercise in the city when Tuesday's earthquake struck. The troops were able to give immediate assistance to those trapped. However more help is required for dozens believed buried beneath buildings. Several countries have already offered aid, including New Zealand's neighbour Australia.

New Zealand experiences more than 14,000 earthquakes a year, though only around 20 have a magnitude in excess of 5.0. The last fatal earthquake was in 1968, when a 7.1-magnitude tremor killed three people on the South Island's western coast. The latest tremor looks to be the deadliest, both in terms of casualties and damage in the country's recent history [BBC / CNN / TVNZ].

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Sunday, February 20, 2011

China's Jasmine Revolution quickly quashed

A small protest took place in Beijing on Sunday, inspired in part by the demonstrations seen recently in the Middle East. It wasn't quite the 'Jasmine Revolution' as billed, but given the inability for Chinese to properly organise using social media, the fact that anything occurred at all was a miracle in itself.

Calls had been made on a few foreign based websites to gather in some 13 cities across China and protest under a unified slogan, "We want to eat, we want to work, we want housing, we should be fairly treated."

Authorities acted swiftly to prevent the message reaching a wide audience. Searches for key words like Jasmine, protest and revolution were blocked by Chinese microblogging sites and activists were rounded up or warned not to attend the gatherings.

But in Beijing and Shanghai a small number of people did turn up at the specified time. Outside McDonalds in Beijing's Wangfujing shopping precinct there was a low key police presence at first. Two special CCTV vehicles kept a watchful eye on the fastfood restaurant as shoppers passed by. Shortly before 2 pm the number of people around MdDonalds suddenly swelled. It was difficult to tell onlookers, from would-be protesters and there was a large media presence that for a time appeared to outnumber both the crowd and police.

After a few minutes, despite there being no obvious protest police began to move in and try to break up the large gathering. "Zoule, zoule, zoule," [move on..] the officers iterated over and over. However, the crowd just seemed to circulate around them. In one bizarre incident an officer became surrounded by dozens of photographers and cameramen as he tried to disperse people and he became lost in the thick of a media scrum.

The crowd formed a circle creating a large space as though to make room for some impending performance. There was none however. Instead dozens of police officers moved in and began ushering the large crowd away. Some flowers were thrown into the space and at the feet of some officers who looked up to see where they had come from. One man tried to pick some up but was immediately set upon by plain-clothed officers who dragged him away followed by a large throng of photographers.

"I had just been visiting the Forbidden City as a tourist and I passed by here and then these people took me away," the bespectacled man told reporters later. "Why would they take me away? I was just a passer-by," the man, who declined to be named, said. "What democracy is there?"

Many of those gathered outside the restaurant seemed rather bewildered of the events taking place. "What's going on?" one woman asked. "Have you not heard of the Jasmine Revolution?" a man said in response.

This was far from a revolution however. There were no placards. Few shouts of defiance, and little if any revolutionary fervor. But this was China, where protest is rarely tolerated and dissent is often severely punished.

In some ways the 'protest' did mark something rather significant. It showed that despite the threats of arrest and harassment many Chinese were beginning to stand up to authority. In the only other reported action on the streets of Shanghai three men who appeared to be in their 20s were taken to the police station near the Shanghai Peace Cinema after an altercation with police.

Two elderly people said they had attended to protest the country's corrupt legal system and police brutality. "We protest the unfairness of our legal system. They just arrest anyone indiscriminately and even beat them up," an elderly woman, angry at the government's seizure of her home in 1996, told reporters. An elderly man in the small crowd was also vocal in his complaints about the lack of freedom in China. "What human rights do these people have? None at all. We don't even have the right to walk. We don't even have the right to talk," he said [BBC / France24 / ABC / Fox / Reuters / AP]

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Friday, February 18, 2011

China berates US over Internet freedom

China has warned the US not to use calls for Internet freedom as an excuse to meddle in other countries' affairs. The The foreign ministry comments came after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced an initiative to help dissidents around the world break through government Internet controls.

But the anger from Chinese authorities went beyond words as they sort to impose further censorship, limiting what could be said and discussed about Clinton's speech. Microblog posts have been censored and searches for Clinton have been thwarted and even the state news agency deleted an earlier story on the issue.

'Dictator's dilemma'

In her second major speech on Internet technology, Hillary Clinton called for the world community to adopt common standards for Internet use. Speaking at the George Washington university on Tuesday, she criticised those countries that sought to suppress its citizens through censorship of the Internet and online filtering.

She pointed particularly to the recent Internet-fuelled protests seen in Egypt and Tunisia which toppled leaders, and said such actions showed governments could no longer choose which freedoms to grant citizens.

"We believe that governments who have erected barriers to Internet freedom - whether they're technical filters or censorship regimes or attacks on those who exercise their rights to expression and assembly online - will eventually find themselves boxed in," she said.

Clinton said China, Iran and other countries faced a "dictator's dilemma" and risked being left behind as the rest of the world embraced new technologies [Full speech - US State Dept. / BBC / NYT / WSJ]

China reacts

China was swift in its reaction to the speech. Authorities blocked searches for any reference to Clinton on microblogging sites in China and even deleted posts issues by the US Embassy on China's version of Twitter.

In China, Twitter is blocked by the Beijing government. But similar, locally operated services like Sina Corp.'s Sina Weibo and Tencent Holdings Ltd.'s Tencent Weibo have attracted tens of millions of users and are emerging as a new battleground for control of information and media. Meanwhile Chinese websites are developing creative ways to filter content on microblogs in accordance with government regulations that are less conspicuous than other censorship tools. However, China's microbloggers are continually looking for new ways to evade the censors.

The US embassy has been using microblogs and other online services as public-relations tools in China since 2009, posting information about US customs and policies, amongst other things. Following Hillary Clinton's speech US Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman posted several messages on Tencent Weibo. One remark stated that "Liberty and security are often presented as equal and opposite," and asked, "What do you think is more important, liberty or security?" Another post questioned whether other users agreed with Clinton that "freedoms to assemble and associate also apply in cyberspace."

Some of the embassy's posts were reposted by Chinese Internet users, but the posts were soon deleted by government censors including those issued by Huntsman himself. In a statement he said, "We are disappointed that some Chinese Internet sites have decided to remove discussion of Secretary Clinton's Internet Freedom speech from their websites." He went on describe the blocking of an online discussion about Internet freedom as ironic.

There was no official comment from Chinese officials though it is clear that the government were paying close attention to the US embassy's posts as it does with other online discussions.

Beijing has tried to quash the discussion of events in Egypt, where an Internet-driven uprising felled another authoritarian regime. Clinton's speech highlighted Egypt, and said that China and other governments that censor the Internet "will eventually find themselves boxed in."

None of this was mentioned in China's state media. In fact the state news agency Xinhua removed an earlier story posted on its English language page. The story entitled "China responds to U.S. gov't accusations of Internet freedom" was live for less than a few hours before it was pulled. The link now shows a message saying "Sorry, this news has been deleted".

In the story reported on China's response to Clinton's speech. "China's foreign affairs spokesman on Thursday voiced opposition to any interference of the country's domestic affairs," part of the text read. In another tract it said, "Commenting on remarks by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday concerning China's Internet censorship, Ma (Zhaoxu) said China administrates the Internet according to the law."

Of course, Ma's comments were carried in many western news reports, though much was a repeat of a statement made last year when China accused Washington of "information imperialism" following a similar speech by Clinton in the wake of the row surrounding Google's pullout from China.


China has the world's largest Internet market, with some 457 million people online, though Internet restrictions prevent them accessing many western websites. Beijing uses extensive censorship controls, often referred to as the "Great Firewall of China", to stop access to material considered subversive or pornographic. However restrictions often go further with news websites and foreign social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare being blocked.

While many Internet users try to jump over the firewall, it can be too technical or costly for some. In Internet bars users are often confronted with messages of regulations before they begin to surf. Users are told they must not produce, download, copy, search for, distribute, disseminate or by other means contents which: is contrary to the basic principles of the China's National Constitution, harmful to national unification, sovereignty and territorial integrity, reveals national secrets, harms national security, honour and interests. In addition regulations also prohibit actions which may incite national hatred, ethnic discrimination or destroys national unity.

Of course few may disregard or take little notice of such on screen messages, and many people often wish only to participate in online gaming. But there is a growing resentment amongst China's youth about the all pervasive censorship. Rock fans interviewed recently by one blog called InsideGFW gave a revealing insight into what young people thought about Internet restrictions. And those that do jump the wall see a very different world outside [Bloomberg].

Many Chinese use a VPN [Virtual Private Network] to access sites such as Facebook and Twitter, but even they acknowledge the walls will not come down soon, especially after what has been seen in Egypt. "It will be hard to allow any company outside of China so much influence," says Paul Wuh, a Hong Kong based analyst at Samsung Securities Co. Even the founder of the Great Firewall of China, Fang Binxing uses a VPN to jump the wall, though he says he uses it to determine how effective China's filtering system is [LA Times]. He defended the Great Firewall of China in an interview with the Global Times, saying that it still needed improvements. In terms of Internet freedom China has a long way to go, and it won't be easily pushed into making changes any time soon.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Protests spread across Middle East

Citizens across the Middle East have become emboldened by protests seen recently in Egypt which led to the downfall of President Hosni Mubarak. Believing they too can effect change in their own countries many have come out onto the streets to voice their anger. But as seen in the early days of protests that took place in Egypt three weeks ago, the authorities have meant peaceful protest with brutal force.

There have been demonstrations in Yemen, Bahrain and Libya and there is a wave of discontent sweeping across other Middle Eastern countries. But the protests have not been tolerated by the ruling governments. In Bahrain's Pearl Square hundreds were injured and at least four people died as police and the military moved against the crowds [BBC].

With a day of mourning and many funerals expected in the coming days the US has called for restraint. US secretary of state Hillary Clinton expressed her "deep concerns" at the shootings of demonstrators and said the United States strongly opposed the use of violence [BBC].

The demonstrations and a call for greater freedom was not only confined to east. In Libya in the north of Africa there is a growing wave of unrest. Protests started earlier this week in the second largest city of Bengazi in what has been described a "day of rage". But here too authorities have not been welcoming to the voices of discontent. Gunfire has been heard across the city and at least 10 bodies have been reported to have arrived at hospitals. Protests have spread to at least 4 other towns mostly in the east of the country where opposition to the Gaddafi regime is stronger. There are reports that Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has turned helicopter gunships on his own people as protests spread to the capital Tripoli and has he and his supporters defended the so called "Green Revolution" that started 42 years ago [BBC / Telegraph].  

In further protests across the region one person was shot dead in Yemen yesterday adding to the more than 600 who have been slaughtered since December. It is a figure that is likely to increase as calls for freedom continue and authorities resist efforts in forcing them to relinquish their grip on power [Middle East unrest; country by country - BBC].

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Man-made snow hits Beijing

Snow covered much of Beijing on Sunday and according to Xinhua, it was all due to man-made efforts. Despite there already being predictions of snow fall in the early hours of Sunday, the state news agency claimed that it was the pumping of silver iodide rockets into the sky at 37 locations around the city that brought Beijing's second bout of snow in a week.

According to Xinhua more than three thousand snow removal trucks and road sweepers were deployed to help clear the snow from roads and pavements. In some areas the snow was no deeper than 5 cm though some parts of the city were more affected than others. By midday most routes were clear and the only signs of the precipitation was the large mounds of snow swept to the sides of the road. Transport services were barely affected and Xinhua reported only 18 bus routes suspended, mostly services connecting the city center and the suburbs.

For many the snow brought great excitement with hundreds flocking to parks across the city. Jingshan Park which give panoramic views over the Forbidden City and much of Beijing was crowded with photographers and sightseers eager to see the snow covered city from a high vantage point. And nearer to the ground the nearby frozen Qianhai Lake attracted many people. Some built snow-rabbits on the ice while others engaged in snowball fights or simply jumped for joy with all the excitement.

Beijing like many areas across northern China is suffering from severe drought conditions. In many places it has not rained for more than three months. With snow reported in Hebei, Shandong, Shanxi and Sha'anxi, Jiangsu, Anhui, Zhejiang, Hunan, Beijing and Tianjin there will be some relief even if temperatures plummeted. In Beijing day time temperatures topped -1°C on Sunday dropping to as low as -14°C at night.

The outlook for the week remains uncertain although Beijing is expected to warm slightly seeing temperatures as high as 8°C by the end of the week.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Monday, February 14, 2011

Mubarak resigns but where next for Egypt?

President Hosni Mubarak resigned and stepped down as Egypt's ruler after 30 years last week following weeks of protests across the country. But despite his departure, which has been greeted with jubilation, there remains uncertainty for the future of the country. Meanwhile the revolution in Egypt is blowing seeds of discontent across the region with protest seen in several other Arab countries and elsewhere in the world.

The news of Mubarak's stepping down led to scenes of widespread jubilation across Cairo with outbursts of joy and celebration in Tahrir [Liberation] Square. Egyptians celebrated Mubarak's demise with the honking of car-horns, setting off fireworks and waving the national flag jubilantly from what appeared to be every street and neighbourhood of the capital. Similar scene were reported in other cities and towns across the country.
But there remains some cautious optimism. US President Barack Obama said that Egypt must now move to civilian and democratic rule.

This was not the end but the beginning and there were difficult days ahead, the US president added, but he was confident the people could find the answers. "The people of Egypt have spoken, their voices have been heard," Obama said. "Egypt will never be the same again...they have made it clear that nothing less than genuine democracy will carry the day." [BBC].

Media commentators also spoke of possible problems ahead. The BBC World Service reported that while there is a general trust of the Egyptian military which has assumed power until elections, there is a worry amongst some that they may themselves may not relinquish their power so easily.

"The obvious thing that is going to be concerning many people is to have some kind of a clear roadmap for the progress towards democratic elections," Al Jazeera's Jacky Rowland, reporting from Cairo, said "After all this was a revolution not only to overthrow President Mubarak, but also to remove the whole system and install it with one where people would have freedom of choice with [regards to who] who runs the country."

The transition of power was announced by the vice-president Omar Suleiman who, in a televised address Friday, said that the president was "waiving" his office and had handed over authority to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Suleiman's 50-word statement was received with a roar of approval and by the tens of thousands in Tahrir Square as well as by other pro-democracy campaigners who were attending protests across the country [Al Jazeera]

Media coverage

The fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's government was covered extensively on television around the world. This was one revolution that has been televised, broadcast on the radio and via socia-media on the Internet. And the outcome of 18 days of protest culminated in great excitement not only amongst Egypt's population but also in news reports. "This is one of those days that all of us would say we'll never forget," CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer said.

Only a week before, Blitzer's colleague Anderson Cooper cowered in a Cairo hotel room with shades drawn for a live broadcast. He like many journalists, photographers and cameramen had sought shelter after the Mubarak regime unleashed men to beat, intimidate and take into custody journalists who had entered Egypt to cover pro-democracy demonstrations.

When the announcement that Mubarak was to step down many reporters almost failed to notice. "It was so brief I thought I had missed it," said NBC News reporter Richard Engel. "Then the crowds around me began to cheer." Fox News Channel's Leland Vittert was delivering a live report from above Cairo's Tahrir Square, seemingly unaware that Suleiman had been speaking, when the crowd's eruption caught him off guard. "We're now hearing this unbelievable roar from the crowd," Vittert said. "We don't know what that's about. This is about as developing a situation as you can get. It's unbelievable what's going on in the square." Studio news anchors in New York, scanning their computers, informed Vittert as to why the crowds were suddenly so jubilant. "This is a celebration of a country that has finally stood up for itself," Vittert said later.

Many broadcast networks interrupted regular daytime programming for special reports within five minutes. NBC's Brian Williams was the only one of the top three anchors on duty (David Muir was on for Diane Sawyer for ABC; Jeff Glor for Katie Couric on CBS) and the experience showed. He was quickest to catch the historic import of the moment and the extraordinary nature of the response, pausing for 15 seconds and suggesting viewers simply listen.

Muir and Christiane Amanpour were cautious in their initial ABC reports, concentrating on questions of how the succession would work. At CBS, on-scene reporter Elizabeth Palmer noted how the day brought many uncertainties with it, but Egyptians were intent on celebrating their achievement nonetheless.

Al Jazeera's English network, little seen in the US but available on the Internet, displayed the advantage of its staffing throughout the Arab world. Al Jazeera aired pictures from Alexandria while US-based networks had nothing beyond Cairo.

Correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin struggled slightly to keep emotions in check when asked by his anchors what he felt personally about the moment. "I never thought I would live to see a day like this," Mohyeldin said.

On Fox, anchor Megyn Kelly expressed worry about some of what she was seeing, noting that many people in Israel were worried about what a new Egyptian government would mean and whether it would be an opening to power for Muslim extremists. "Rather than the negativity," commentator Alan Colmes told her, "let's support this." [AP].

Warning to others dictatorships

While Israel may be concerned as to how Egypt develops politically, leaders in other nations across the Arab world are becoming increasingly worried as to how the pro-democracy protests in Egypt might affect their own grip on power. In Tunisia Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ruled the country for 23 years before being forced out. With Hosni Mubarak ousted after nearly 30 years several other countries in the region may see calls for greater freedom.

"The only thing I want to tell you here is that the winds of change are sweeping the Middle East," Arab League chief Amre Moussa, a former Egyptian foreign minister, told CNN. "How it would move and what direction, when, where, I'm not in a position to judge very well what the extent will be. But it is, in my opinion, the winds of change have started."

In nearby Libya, Facebook pages announced peaceful demonstrations scheduled for Monday in the shadow of leader Moammar Gadhafi, who has ruled the country for almost 40 years and just a few days ago reiterated his support for Mubarak.

Across the Red Sea, thousands have protested Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled Yemen for 32 years. The protests seen there have been small and relatively peaceful, though there have been reports that clashes have occurred when undercover police have attempt to interfere.

In Jordan, King Abdullah II has already reshuffled his cabinet after calls for greater freedom. But many observers warn not to look for too many "winds of change." Jamie Rubin, a diplomat in former President Bill Clinton's State Department, pointed to sharp differences in the way Arab countries are ruled.

"What do Tunisia and Egypt have in common? The military made a decision not to intervene," Rubin said. "You have Iran, and we have enormous numbers of people on the street, not so long ago. But security services were prepared to kill them, arrest them, put them in prison. And if you go to Syria, you have a military regime that in the past has been prepared to commit mass murder. So we have to make these distinctions."

"They [Egypt] made a decision to intervene, but not with violence," Rubin said. "They made a decision to let the revolution play out and not to shore up the status quo. Their decision not to use force against the public permitted the public to break through that barrier of fear."

Fouad Ajami, a Lebanese-born scholar and expert on Middle East affairs, said that the people over the decades have begun to lose their awe and fear of their governments.

"Look at the episodes. There was a spider hole, Saddam was flushed out of the spider hole in 2003. And then came the spectacle" of his trial, Ajami said. "And so I think that many Arab governments are worried, and they should be worried. They treat their people badly. They brutalize them. They plunder the money. There's no social contract in many of these states, and I think they have every right to be worried."

"But one has to be careful where and how. I would not want, for example, for there to be a rebellion in Syria, because my worry is that the Syrian regime would commit such atrocities," he said [CNN].

Beyond the Middle East there is concern too. The uprising in Egypt has undoubtedly stunned Chinese leaders and in response Beijing has heavily censored the news coming out of Egypt adding to an already severely restricted information flow. As well as an omission of certain details, many reports showed also showed a complete disortion of the facts [New Yorker].

On face value China's leaders have little to concern themselves. The economy is booming and on Monday it was announced China had become the world's second biggest economy [BBC].

For many Chinese the country's development generates a feeling of national pride, even if not quite all are able to participate fully in China's new found wealth. But look a little deeper and this ostensibly resilient regime is afflicted by many of the same pathologies as Egypt. In China, repression, corruption, low accountability, a surprisingly narrow base of support and fast-rising inequality are all in evidence. Growth and prosperity help the CCP maintain its legitimacy, but the regime may well be aware that performance-based legitimacy is unreliable, at best. The same frustrations that drove Egyptians into the streets could be unleashed in China when its economy inevitably hits a speed bump.

China's continued economic prosperity is by no means guaranteed, and rising food price inflation is a concern, not only for the population but also the CCP. But any revolution will not happen soon.

Egypt's revolution was spawned by the so-called Facebook generation. Protesters organised using Twitter and other social networking sites to spread the message of reform and to rally people to the cause. But in China the Internet is strictly controlled. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other western based social media websites are blocked in China. And the Chinese based websites are self-censored and subject to strict government guidelines. Anyone posting contentious messages will see their blogs deleted and posts removed. There is even the risk of arrest.

In fact it is fear that prevents any seeds of discontent from growing into anything more than a quiet grumble. When Liu Xiaobo put together his Charter 08 calling for greater democracy he found himself arrested and later jailed for 11 years. In 1989 hundreds were mercilessly gunned down by the People's Liberation Army after they called for reform. Such history is itself heavily censored, but many in China are fully aware how far they can push [FT].

On the streets of Cairo there were bizarre scenes at times with some protesters holding signs written in Chinese [New Yorker]. It raised speculation that some might be urging the Chinese to call for regime change, though others suggested the messages were a sarcastic pun aimed at Mubarak's inability to understand their calls in whatever language the protesters spoke. It could also a poke at Mubarak's cosying up to the Chinese state. Of course such messages did not make it into China's state media which instead said the protests had created nothing but "havoc and instability".

However there was little sign of havoc in Cairo, only jubilation and a gradual clearing up of the mess left by thousands after 18 days of protest. Channel Four's Lindsey Hilsum sent many tweets on Saturday describing how people were cleaning up Tahrir Square some wearing signs declaring, "Yesterday I was a demonstrator, today I build Egypt". Four women with dustpans and brushes wore signs saying, "Sorry for the disturbance, today we build Egypt". By Monday most demonstrators had left Tahrir Square and although there was still some disruption to the economy as many banks stayed closed, the country is reverting to a sense of normality [BBC]. Only time will tell if the transition will bring about stability and rebuild Egypt into a country the Arab people can truly be proud of.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Setting the rules of engagement in a Cyberwar

The 47th Munich Security Conference has ended in Germany with many leaders calling for clear rules of engagement in the event of a cyberwar. But it may be many years before any real framework is finalised.

The international think tank met in Munich to work jointly in limiting the threat of cyber attacks and to determine appropriate courses of action in such events.

Proposals for adapting the Geneva and Hague conventions to provide "rules of engagement" for "cyber war" were delivered to the Munich Security Conference by American and Russian experts at the influential EastWest Institute, a New York-based think-tank.

Amongst those in attendance were UK prime minister David Cameron, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, EU president Herman Van Rompuy and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen also attended the event.

While issues surrounding transatlantic security, NATO-Russia relations, non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, and conflicts in Afghanistan and the Middle East were on the agenda, it was cyberwarfare that was the main focus of the meeting.

Many leaders believe that current laws of war, as laid down in the Geneva and Hague accords, no longer suffice when so many organisations and governments rely so heavily on their online operations. As such many say that new rules will be needed to protect civilian facilities such as hospitals and schools from being hit in future online conflicts [Telegraph / BBC].

Identifying attackers presents major new challenges in the Internet era, and while strong suspicions may exist as to who may have launched an attack, hackers have become particularly sophisticated in hiding their actual location. Clues however do exist in the code employed, though this too could be a deliberate rouse to throw an enemy off the scent.

The UK foreign secretary William Hague speaking at the conference confirmed that Britain had come under sustained and targeted attack from malware in recent months.

The attacks included a campaign to infect government computers with the Zeus Trojan by employing an e-mail that appeared to originate with the White House to an attack on the a Trident nuclear submarine defense contractor. Another e-mail attack from a hostile intelligence agency contained a PDF that could have compromised PCs used by staff had it been allowed to execute.

"Our experts were able to clear up the infection, but more sophisticated attacks such as these are becoming more common," Hague told the conference.

Such attacks concerned the foreign secretary deeply. "It [the Internet] has opened up new channels for hostile governments to probe our defences and attempt to steal our confidential information or intellectual property. It has promoted fears of future 'cyber war'." [Speech in full]

The international response to cyber attacks was "fragmented and lacks focus", Hague has said, but that Britain was offering to host an international conference later this year aimed at establishing global standards. But he has admitted there are difficulties. "Many countries do not share our view of the positive impact of the Internet, and others are actively working against us in a hostile manner."

"As liberal democracies we also have a compelling interest in supporting democratic ideals in cyberspace, and working to convince others of this vision."

Hague did not say who had initiated the recent attacks but some have speculated at least some came from China. According to the Guardian intelligence sources familiar with the incidents said he was referring to China. However the sources did not want to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the issue. It is not the first time such allegations have been labelled at China. In 2009 the Guardian, citing comments made by Director General of MI5 John Evans, reported that both Russia and China were targeting the UK [BBC / Guardian - MP3].

While China may well have been behind the attack on Google's servers in late 2009, as purported in Wikileaks cables released last year, the west too has been engaged in its own form of cyber attacks.

It was recently revealed that the US and Israel collaborated to create the "Stuxnet" worm in order to disable Iran's nuclear fuel facility, according to another leaked cable [Guardian].

Such revelations will put Britain in a difficult position as it calls for an agreement on how countries should behave in cyberspace, especially given some of the countries accused of perpetrating attacks are key allies or business partners. As previously stated, any attempt to impose rules on cyberspace may be thwarted since it is often impossible to confirm the source of hacking. Despite evidence of US, Israeli and Chinese involvement in previous attacks, they have never been decisively proved [Guardian].

But such problems have not deterred many nations calling for rules to be set. India joined the effort on Saturday with National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon asking for an international effort to examine whether the laws of armed conflict can cover organised cyber attacks as well. He was open to suggestions from some quarters to even look at the arms control approach that resulted in conventions and treaties to control the spread of nuclear weapons in the 1960s and 1970s.

Menon was among the key speakers at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday to call for a serious discussion on ways to discipline and regulate cyber space.

"In our view an effort by the international community is necessary because cyber security threats have reached the stage of undermining public confidence and of sowing distrust among nations. This could then become a recipe for disaster, leading to all kinds of troubles," Menon said.

He highlighted the manner in which the handlers facilitated the Mumbai attacks through Internet communication tools and also told the conference about how something as "apolitical and seemingly non-controversial and harmless as the Commonwealth Games was subject to 8,200 attacks on the ticketing, scoring and timing networks".

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere shared the view as he revealed that Germany faces four to five cyber attacks of different degrees daily. He highlighted one case in which someone defrauded millions from carbon credits [Indian Express].

Meanwhile China has been quiet on the issue. While its foreign minister Yang Jiechi made a keynote speech last year there was no prominent role at this year's event. Xinhua did report the event as it began but have failed to follow up with any further articles.

John Bumgarner, a research director for security technology at the US Cyber Consequences Unit, spoke to BBC's Newsnight about the kind of threats which exist. "There's things out there that right now that exist that the general public really doesn't know about - stealthy type technologies that can be embedded into systems that can run that you'll never see. Those things already exist."

And they pose a real risk Bumbarner claims. He says such exploits could turn off power grids, disrupt water supplies and manufacturing systems. The malware could even be installed into satellite navigation devices to give incorrect directions or to start fires at a pre-set time. Some of his claims have been dismissed as hysteria by some, though the cyber threat is real enough [BBC].

Last year US security expert Bruce Schneier called for governments to establish 'hotlines' between their cyber commands, much like the those between nuclear commands, to help counter cyber attacks. Writing in the Financial Times in December, he said that a hotline would "at least allow governments to talk to each other, rather than guess where an attack came from." [TechWorld]

There is evidently a clear need for rules of engagement to be set. At the Pentagon, General Keith Alexander, who heads the new US Cyber Command, conceded to Congress in November there were no clear rules of engagement clarifying what cyber activity might trigger an armed cyber response from the US. Itchy fingers on the trigger without clearly defined rules could lead to disastrous consequences.

Writing in The Atlantic, Ella Chou, a graduate student at Harvard who grew up in Hangzhou, China, says both sides need to be careful in a world with such growing threats. She refers to an article in the People's Daily warns that a "cyber war" could be used as an excuse to launch a conventional war.

"Both United States and China should be cautious not to over-exaggerate the threat from the other, and the United States could benefit from trying to understand China's cyber strategy by analyzing Beijing's own political priorities," Chou writes.

Hamadoun Touré, secretary-general of the UN-affiliated International Telecommunications Union, says a cyber-arms treaty is his main priority. "We have crossed the boundary between cyberspace and the real world," he says. Touré, who wants a code of conduct banning behaviour opposed by all countries, such as disabling of networks and data theft, says that "[Stuxnet] should serve as a wake-up call for all nations regarding the threat we all face." But he concedes that a solution may be years away [Financial Times].

[Munich Security Conference / Speeches]

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Monday, February 07, 2011

Fire destroys 1,000 year old temple in Fuzhou

A fire has virtually destroyed a 1,000 year old Buddhist temple in Fuzhou, the capital of east China's Fujian Province. Twenty one fire engines and 147 firefighters were dispatched to the scene at 03:12 early Monday and the fire was extinguished at 04:11, reports said.

Authorities say the fire engulfed the grand hall and one of the wooden chambers of the Fahai Temple in downtown Fuzhou, though they have yet to fully assess the damage caused. No one was injured in the fire.

The temple dates back to the Jin Dynasty [c. 945 AD] though parts of the temple were constructed during the Xiangfu Song period [c. 1008-1016 AD].

Although the cause of the fire has yet to be established, many Chinese Internet users have speculated it was as a result of fireworks. "Fireworks should be banned in downtown areas," many comments read on web forums. The debate over whether festive fireworks should be allowed has continued for at least two decades in China. Many large cities, including Beijing, banned fireworks in the mid 1990s, but later lifted restrictions after complaints from citizens who claimed fireworks were an "inalienable part of Chinese culture." [reports: CNTV /]

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Fighting on Thai-Cambodia border enters 4th day

Thousands of people are reported to have fled their homes on both sides of the border between Cambodia and Thailand after continued fighting that has lasted four days and left several soldiers dead.

Each country accuses the other of encroaching on its territory and of firing first. Cambodia says the Thais started shooting four days ago, but an unnamed Thai military source said it had been "a misunderstanding". However, an unnamed commander told Cambodia's PRU news agency that Thailand was to blame for the latest skirmishes. "The Thai army began shooting at us first, we are taking self- defense and retaliatory measures, now," the commander said.

Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn told reporters his country "has a clear policy that we will not invade any country". Meanwhile the
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has called for a peaceful solution, but warned that Thai soldiers would always defend Thai sovereignty if attacked.

An international court ruled in 1962 said that the Preah Vihear temple belonged to Cambodia, but the surrounding area is claimed by both sides. In 2008, Cambodia was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status for the temple, which further angered Thailand.

The most recent tension was sparked last week, when a Cambodian court sentenced two members of a Thai nationalist movement to up to eight years in prison after finding them guilty of espionage. The two were among seven Thai politicians and activists charged with illegal entry by Cambodia after crossing into a disputed border area in December.

In late January there were calls by Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva for Cambodia to remove their flag from the disputed Keo Sikha Kiri Svara temple [AsiaNewsNet]. Cambodia responded by asserting its sovereign right to the area and quoted several signed treaties including the Franco-Siam Convention of 1904 and the Treaty of 1907 which it says shows clear lines of demarcation [Press releases: PDF / PDF].

Members of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), known as the "yellow-shirts", have been staging protests in the Thai capital Bangkok, urging the government to take a tougher line over the border issue.

Artillery and machine gun fire was heard around the 11th-Century Preah Vihear temple on Monday. Cambodia says has already been damaged in the fighting. "A wing of our Preah Vihear Temple has collapsed as a direct result of the Thai artillery bombardment," a commander based near the 900-year-old temple was quoted as saying by Cambodia's Press and Quick Reaction Unit (PRU) of the Office of the Council of Ministers.

But there are also reports of deaths and casualties on both sides. The two countries' media has reported differing casualty figures though it is believed at least five people were killed in clashes over the weekend and thousands of civilians have fled the area. Two soldiers and a civilian from Cambodia are said to have been killed as well as one Thai soldier and a Thai civilian. Cambodia claimed that 32 of their soldiers had been killed, Chinese television reports said. About 15,000 villagers fled their homes and are now staying at five temporary shelters according to Thai media reports. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called on both sides to "exercise maximum restraint".

The events of the last few days have not been reported as widely in the west due to the ongoing unrest in Egypt. However the fighting has made headlines in Asia. The events topped the news agenda on China's domestic news broadcaster CCTV-4 and Xinhua also carried the story as its main headline on both its English and Chinese sites [other reports: BBC / CNN / Al Jazeera / France 24MCOT (Thai state news agency - Mass Communications Organisation of Thailand) / AKP (Agence Kampuchea Press) / NHK (Japan) / Xinhua].

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

New Year fireworks blamed for fires & pollution

As China entered the year of the rabbit, millions across the country rushed to set off fireworks to celebrate the new year. But the festivities have come at a price with countless fires reported, a rise in pollution, many injuries and even deaths.

The setting off of fireworks is a Chinese New Year holiday tradition which is said to ward off evil spirits and monsters. But in many places it has created problems.

According to figures released by the fire control bureau of the Ministry of Public Security on Sunday more than 5,945 fires had been tackled by firefighters during the 32-hour span from the beginning of Wednesday, the last day of the previous lunar year, to 8 am on Thursday.

The number of fires accounted for nearly 80% of reported incidents over the entire 7 day festival last year when a total of 7,480 fires were reported.

In Beijing, two people were killed and 223 injured between the start of Wednesday 2nd February and Thursday the 3rd. On Wednesday alone, the number of fireworks-related fires in the city was up by 178% according to the Beijing Municipal Office on Fireworks and Firecrackers.

The two people killed in Beijing, both men, died after setting off inferior quality fireworks in the early hours of Thursday, the office said. Many of the 223 who suffered injuries had wounds ranging from eye injuries to burns.

Authorities have warned people to be on the look out for cheap badly made fireworks, and there has been a widespread publicity campaign to urge the public to act responsibly when setting them off.

Many areas around the city are plastered with posters prohibiting the setting off of fireworks. However, these have been widely ignored.

Ignoring the warning has come at a high price for some. In Shenyang, capital of Northeast China's Liaoning province, a massive fire gutted a five-star hotel early on Thursday. Local officials said there were about 50 people in the hotel at the time and all were evacuated. There were no reported casualties.

Although investigations into the cause of the fire are continuing, police said the blaze was probably triggered by fireworks igniting external decorations.

The smoke issued from fireworks has also created problems with a rise in air pollution reported in many cities. On Friday, 27 of the 86 monitored cities were heavily polluted, according to figures released from the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

Only two cities, Lhasa in Southwest China's Tibet autonomous region and Zhanjiang in South China's Guangdong province, enjoyed excellent air quality.

Wei Hongming, deputy director of the environmental monitoring station in Wuhan, in Central China's Hubei province, said that fireworks were the main reason for the city's air pollution, as they released large amounts of smoke, dust and sulphur dioxide [China Daily].

Increased car usage was also blamed on reducing air quality as millions of people visited relatives and friends.

The rise in pollution levels over the last few days is unfortunate. Just before the new year began Beijing was celebrating a month of unprecedented clean air. Du Shaozhong, deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Administration, told the Guardian that January 2011 has been "the best month we've had in terms of air quality since 1998".

The newspaper reported that Beijing had experienced its first uninterrupted month of blue skies in ten years. The improved air quality was due to government restrictions on coal burning and car emissions in January, the paper said.

"In terms of environmental quality, we are on the way. We are climbing every day and trying to improve air quality," Shaozhong said

Despite his positive comments, the Independent revealed data from AirNow, CITEAIR and the American Embassy in Beijing last month, which found that Beijing's atmosphere was 'unhealthy for sensitive groups' on January 4th and 5th of this year.

There continues to be a wide discrepancy between China's own air monitoring and independent air monitoring stations. And there is a fierce debate over which is correct [].

Tweets from the US Embassy's monitoring station have shown a deterioration over the last week in the last week dropping from 'moderate' through 'unhealthy for sensitive groups' to 'unhealthy'. Their Twitter messages [@BeijingAir] stopped at 05:00 yesterday [6th February] with the last reading of 60AQI and 'moderate'. Maybe this was a politically correct move to avoid issuing contentious tweets such as seen last November when they described the Beijing air as 'Crazy Bad' [Guardian / tvnewswatch - Twitpic]. But one needed only to look out of the window on Monday to see a sharp depreciation in air quality [tvnewswatch - Twitpic].

Bizarrely even Google described the weather in Beijing rather differently. "Beijing today: 3°C | Current: Smoke | Wind: E at 4 mph.." [tvnewswatch - Twitpic].

The Guardian last week reported that Beijing was set to penalise heavy polluters by imposing a 'green tax'. However, it is unclear whether this will extend to fireworks manufacturers or those who engage in setting them off.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Mubarak to stand down in September

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak says he will stand down as leader but not until the September polls. However this has not appeased protesters who have called on him to resign immediately.

Speaking on state television, Mubarak promised constitutional reform, but said he wanted to stay until the end of his current presidential term. The announcement came as hundreds of thousands rallied once again in central Cairo. While there were no immediate reports of violence in Cairo's Tahrir Square, in Egypt's second largest city of Alexandria clashes broke out between pro-Mubarak and anti-government protesters, Al Jazeera reported.

US President Barack Obama said that Egypt's transition "must begin now" and added that the United States would be happy to offer assistance to Egypt during that process.

But Mubarak seems unwilling to go quite yet and even after stepping down insists on staying in Egypt. "This is my country. This is where I lived, I fought and defended its land, sovereignty and interests, and I will die on its soil," he said [BBC / CNN / Full transcript - CNN]

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China