Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Footwear fight

"Why It Matters" blog, Newsweek, September 18, 2007

Taiwan's ruling and opposition parties are notorious for their endless bickering, including food fights that disrupt parliament sessions. Now there's a new front in the war: footwear.

Both parties hit below the belt in the leadup to dueling political rallies last Saturday, asking supporters to conform to a dress code. Opposition Kuomintang supporters were told to sport traditional Taiwanese blue and white slippers, the better to promote a "down with the people" image. (The party's major weakness is being seen as too China-friendly and out of touch with grassroots Taiwanese, especially in the south.)

Then a wag in the ruling pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party suggested its people wear tendy "Croc" shoes, in an obscure jab at U.S. President George. W. Bush.

Supporters of a planned Taiwan referendum on joining the United Nations under the name "Taiwan" are annoyed with the U.S. for its public opposition to the plan. (A top U.S. diplomat called the planned referendum "ill-conceived and potentially quite harmful"). In Taiwan, Crocs have been called "buxi xie" -- or "Bush shoes" -- ever since the fashion-challenged U.S. president was photographed sporting a pair with socks earlier this year. The point of wearing Crocs on Saturday? Stomp on Bush.

The footwear fracas turned out to be more public-relations gimmickry than anything else. Some opposition supporters -- and the party's presidential candidate -- did sport blue-and-white slippers. And blue-and-white-clad dancers -- dubbed "la mei" or "spicy girls" -- took to the stage to whip up the crowd.

But precious few Crocs were sighted at the pro-independence party's rally to show support for joining the U.N. Why the no-show? For one thing, the DPP ultimately decided against instructing followers to symbolically stomp on Bush. "It's not necessary," said rally-goer Wong Chin-jan, "The U.S. is still our friend, so there's no need to wear Bush shoes."

Goop 1, China 0

Environmental activist Zhang Zhengxiang points at toxic algae on China's Lake Dianchi

The goop that's swallowing the world

Across the globe, toxic algae outbreaks are getting bigger, nastier and more frequent. Can anything stop the rising tide of poisonous muck?

By Jonathan Adams
Newsweek International, September 24, 2007 (original draft)

Beside a lake outside Kunming, China, environmental activist Zhang Zhengxiang jabs his finger angrily over the water. The surface shimmers a bright, fluorescent green from the toxic algae that now clogs large swathes of the high-altitude, freshwater Lake Dianchi for most of the year.

The day-glo water may be pretty from a distance. But it's the tell-tale sign of a lake that's profoundly sick. Before the early 1980s, says Zhang, this was a swimming area, and shrimp from the lake was a prized delicacy at high-end restaurants in Shanghai and Beijing. Now, the lake's shrimp are inedible, and the toxins in the algae make swimming a decidedly unpleasant experience.

Zhang yanks up his trouser leg to show the rash left on his ankles from a recent wade into the once-pristine waters. "If you go in, your skin will turn red immediately," said a disgusted Zhang.

China's breakneck economic development has resulted in the world's fastest-growing toxic algae problem. But it's hardly alone.

Red tides of algae

Across the globe, scientists and officials are scrambling to contain a rising tide of poisonous green, brown and red goop. Monster algae blooms and toxic strains are laying waste to coastal fisheries, poisoning shellfish, sickening beachgoers, driving away tourists and fouling freshwater lakes and reservoirs -- some of which are critical sources of drinking water for nearby communities. Economic losses from toxic algae have been estimated at 830 million to 1.3 billion euros per year in Europe alone.

Pollution is the primary culprit. But now, scientists say a "perfect storm" of that and other causes -- overfishing, the transport of toxic algae species in the ballasts of ocean-going vessels, freak storms and global warming -- is raising the problem to unprecedented levels.

"We have more toxic algae species out there, more fisheries resources affected and higher economic costs," said Don Anderson, a top algae expert at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. "Globally, things are getting worse."

Growth in coastal algae blooms from 1970 to 2006

From Friend to Foe

Of course, most algae is harmless. In fact, it produces much of the oxygen necessary for animal life on earth, absorbs carbon dioxide, decomposes into critical fossil fuels, and is the base of marine food chains.

"If there's no algae, there's no ocean life," explained Wang Zong-ling, an algae expert at the First Institute of Oceanography in Qingdao, China.

Some algae is naturally toxic to humans and other animals, possibly to ward off predators, guess scientists, or else as a chemical fluke.

But rapid economic growth in advanced countries in the 20th century -- and now, in booming Asian economies like China's -- have increasingly turned algae from friend to foe.

Rising human exploitation of coastal areas has led to more run-ins with naturally occurring toxic algae. Meanwhile, pollutants have greatly increased the size and frequency of high-density "blooms" in oceans and lakes. In a reversal of algae's usual role, such blooms actually suck oxygen out of the water as they're dying, killing or driving away nearby aquatic life. And as such algae blooms increase in frequency, the amount of toxic blooms -- about a quarter of the total -- soars in proportion.

Fertilizer runoff from farms, factory waste, and untreated sewage are the key ingredients for many runaway algae blooms. Nutrients in such pollution fatten blooms to previously unseen sizes. Red algae feast on nitrogen, causing massive coastal "red tides", freshwater blue-green algae munch on phosphorous. Both types can also feed on nutrients from the atmosphere, for example in dirty rain.

Perhaps the most striking proof of the link between pollution and monster algae was the dramatic decline of such blooms' size and frequency in the northwest Black Sea in the early 1990s. That happened just after the former Soviet Union halted subsidies to the area, which greatly reduced fertilizer usage.

China: goop central

Today, the link between pollution and monster blooms is most apparent in China. Rogue algae is just one symptom of the environmental price China is paying for its roaring economy. Rapid growth has meant a surge in nitrogen and phosphorous pumped into the nation's waterways, which has fed both ocean and freshwater blooms.

So-called "red tides" off the Chinese coast have become larger and more frequent in recent years, particularly in the East China Sea off Shanghai. There were 22 red tides on the Chinese coast in 1998, according to government statistics. By 2005 there were 82 -- including 38 toxic blooms --covering more than 27,000 square kilometers and causing economic losses to the tune of $9 million.

"I wouldn't be surprised if more red tide events are reported along Chinese coasts in the near future," said Zhou Mingjiang, a red algae expert at the Institute of Oceanography in Qingdao. "The problem is getting worse."

Toxic blooms on China's freshwater lakes and reservoirs are even more worrisome, since they can impact critical tapwater supplies. This summer, the worst-ever such blooms were a media focus in China, as one lake or reservoir after another fell victim to poisonous goop. In May, a blue-green algae bloom on Lake Tai caused mass panic when it contaminated the water supply of 2 million residents of the city of Wuxi, in Jiangsu Province. Huge blooms were also reported on Lake Chao, further inland. And in late July, 100,000 residents in the northeast city of Changchun went waterless when a toxic bloom appeared on a key reservoir.

But the Ground Zero of China's toxic algae problem may be Lake Dianchi, in southwest Yunnan province. The situation's so bad that the nearby city of Kunming is now forced to gets its drinking water from upstream reservoirs instead of the lake. For at least five years running Dianchi's water has rated "5" or more on a key water quality index, meaning it's completely useless.

One reason: unlike with lakes further downstream in the Yangtze river system, officials can't divert river water into Lake Dianchi to help flush out toxic algae blooms. That's because it's too high -- nearly two kilometers above sea level – and fed by small mountain springs, or rivers that are themselves polluted. Nitrogen and phosphorous pours in from all sides and accumulates, turning the lake into the equivalent of a 200-square-kilometer clogged toilet bowl.

Lake Dianchi, outside Kunming, China

Other causes: overfishing and global transport

Such pollution isn't the only cause of monster blooms. In the Baltic Sea, the overfishing of cod has thrown the food chain out of whack in a way that leaves algae -- including the toxic kind -- the big winner. Fewer cod has meant more herring and less tiny critters called copepods, which are algae's natural predator.

Add plentiful nutrients from decades of fertilizer use and untreated runoff from countries surrounding the sea, and the result is goop gone wild: The largest-ever algae blooms were recorded in July 2005 and 2006, covering almost 150,000 square kilometers. (This year wasn't as bad due to heavy rains).

In Sweden, tourism has suffered, and swimming is a no-no in many areas because the toxins in the algae burn the skin. Unlucky dogs have slurped up algae-filled Baltic seawater containing hallucinogenic neurotoxins that give them the equivalent of a canine acid trip before killing them. And the blooms have become a massive eyesore on what was once an idyllic sea view.

"It's this huge brownish thing floating on the surface," said Edna Graneli, an algae expert at the Department of Marine Sciences at the University of Kalmar in Sweden. "If Jesus walked on water, it must have been on one of these blooms."

Algae blooms, Baltic Sea

Meanwhile, toxic algae is being shuttled around the globe by weird weather and ocean-going ships, whose numbers have soared along with globalization. The recent red tides off the northeast US coast, for example, are blamed primarily on a massive 1972 storm that introduced a foreign strain of algae to the region. This year for the third summer running, those tides led to a ban on shellfish harvesting, because mussels and clams mop up toxins in algae that can sicken and even kill humans if consumed in high enough concentrations.

And scientists suspect that a strain of toxic algae only recently seen in the Mediterranean may have hitched a ride on a ship from Brazil, where a genetically identical type has also been found. That toxic algae first grabbed headlines in July 2005 in Italy. Swimming was banned along a 15 kilometer stretch of the Italian Riviera near Genoa (including the elite, yacht-packed Portofino) after 200 people sought hospital treatment for nausea, diarrhea, stomach cramps, breathing difficulties, irritated eyes and vomiting. Such was the impact that local officials initially feared a bioterrorist attack.

What's most caught scientists attention is that this algae can spread toxins in airborne water droplets over large areas. Climate change may abetting the troublesome strain through warmer, more algae-friendly temperatures in the Mediterranean.

"We are facing a new kind of problem," said Naples-based algae expert Adriana Zingone. "But we're doing our best not to spread alarm about the situation."

Mission impossible

Battling toxic algae isn't easy -- and requires expensive and in many cases coordinated, multinational efforts. For low-density toxic algae like the one now plaguing Italy, there's very little that can be done. Strict new rules on the ballast discharge of ocean-vessels will hopefully reduce the further global spread of such species, and other "bioinvaders."

But where such strains have already set up shop, avoidance may be the only option. Experts cite the US state of Florida -- where red tides have long plagued Gulf of Mexico coastal waters -- as a model in creating monitoring and warning systems to keep humans out of harm's way during toxic algae attacks. And Japan has become adept at simply moving its aquaculture when it's under threat.

South Korea has successfully protected small aquaculture sites by dumping clay pellets in the sea; algae sticks to the pellets and then sinks to the ocean floor. But that technique is controversial in the west, where environmentalists worry about the unknown long-term effects. It's only feasible for small, targeted areas -- not for battling blooms like the Baltic's that spread over thousands of square kilometers, or for larger-area industries like Chile's salmon farms. And it deals with the effects of blooms, rather than their cause.

"Algae problems aren't something you can get rid of easily," said Ma Jun, an environmental activist at the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. "There's no silver bullet."

China's learning that the hard way. For its lakes -- and places with similar high-density blooms like the Baltic Sea -- the only real solution is to tackle the problem at its root. That means curbing the amount of nitrogen-and phosphorous rich pollutants that enter the water.

View of Lake Dianchi from Xishan

But at Lake Dianchi, the challenge of doing that is evident. Some $660 million has been spent on the problem in the last decade, with measures such as curbing industrial pollutants, building sewage treatment plants, intercepting polluted water and banning detergents containing phosphorous. But the situation remains dire. One reason, say environmentalists, is that the government hasn't been willing to crack down on fertilizer use.

"We've been using too much fertilizer in agriculture," said Liu Hongliang, a retired environmental engineering expert. "[Lake algae] will become more and more serious in the coming years."

By one estimate, 40% of pollutants that continue to pour into the lake come from agricultural runoff that continues unabated. The farms on the lake's eastern shore produce massive crops of roses and other popular flowers for markets in Asia and beyond. Farmers douse fields with fertilizer to increase yield.

One elderly couple wrapping bundles of flowers at a lakeside farm told NEWSWEEK that lakewater was pumped up the lake banks to irrigate the flower fields, and then drained -- untreated -- back into the lake. Bright green algae floated in the drainage ditches dug between fields lined with plastic hutches. Such farms provide livelihoods and critical growth for the local economy -- even as they dump noxious chemicals into the nearby lake.

No easy fix

Even countries that have successful curbed pollutants haven't solved their algae problems. With the most advanced water treatment plants on earth, Sweden is a model in this area. But it can't fight the Baltic's megablooms without help from neighboring countries whose water treatment is far less stringent. Japan spent massive amounts to successfully reduce high-density blooms on the inland Seto Sea, only to see lower-density toxic algae actually become more frequent.

And stopping the flow of new pollutants into waterways doesn't clean up the accumulated gunk of decades that's already fouled many lakes and coastal areas. Experts say removing such existing nutrients from lakes is possible but exorbitant -- and removing them from coastal waters may be impossible.

"How do you empty huge ecosystems of nutrients? There's no easy answer to what can be done," said Henrik Enevoldsen, coordinator a the IOC Science and Communication Centre on Harmful Algae in Copenhagen.

In many places, there's also little urgency in tackling the algae problem -- until it affects drinking supplies, as in China. Though its impact on marine species is at times dramatic, such species usually rebound nearby: Witness the rock lobsters periodically decimated by dying red tides that suck oxygen out of water off South Africa.

Shellfish poisoning due to toxic algae strains can be life-threatening, and contaminated drinking water is linked to liver and other cancers. Still, as a health problem, toxic algae pales next to greater global threats.

Its major impacts are economic and social. Developing countries like China are increasingly dependent on freshwater lakes and reservoirs to supply drinking water to swelling populations, and on coasts for food, tourism and livelihoods.

"If coastal zones are constantly impacted by massive blooms or toxic species, then we can't exploit these resources," said Enevoldsen. "That's very problematic."

Humans are turning critical waters to goop through unchecked economic activity. Unless that's curbed, more and more will suffer the toxic fate of China's Lake Dianchi.

With Wang Zhenru in Beijing

Friday, September 14, 2007

Balancing act

Taipei's military muscle is only just enough to deter Beijing

by Jonathan Adams
"Why It Matters" blog, Newsweek, September 13, 2007

Taiwanese Rear Admiral Liu Chih-chien isn't afraid of China. "We're confident that we're stronger than they are. Our training is better," he said on the flight deck of a hand-me-down, U.S.-built destroyer churning straight toward the Chinese coast Wednesday. Later, the thundering clap of the ship's five-inch guns provided an exclamation point to his comments.

Wednesday's mission: to impress a pack of journalists with the respectable (though less than awesome) might of the Taiwanese military. For all the talk of China's rapid military rise, Taiwan still has a qualitative edge in several key areas. One is on the high seas of the Taiwan Strait, where experts say Taipei's four destroyers -- put into service only in the last couple years -- are slightly better than China's Russian-built ships. Earlier in the day, reporters watched the best of Taiwan's Air Force -- U.S.-made F-16's from an elite unit -- scramble into the skies from their base in central Taiwan. The island's crack U.S.-trained pilots are still considered better than China's.

Still, Taiwan's hardware is far from cutting-edge. Take the destroyer: it was originally earmarked for the Shah of Iran, back in the 1970s. But the Iranian Revolution changed those plans. U.S. forces used the ship themselves, then gave it a makeover and sold it plus three others to Taiwan for USD$800 million. Uncle Sam only wants to provide Taiwan with the warships it needs to keep pace with China, nothing more. Ditto for fighters -- Taipei's request to buy top-of-the-line jets has so far been met with stony silence from Washington.

That's part of Washington's delicate balancing act in the Strait. The U.S. wants Taiwan to be strong enough to deter a Chinese attack, but not so strong that it's tempted to formalize its independence, risking war. Washington is able to maintain this balance because it's now the only country willing to sell the island major weaponry. Thus Wednesday's modest display -- a flexing of Taiwan's just-barely-strong-enough military muscle.

Original site

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Weak winds of the east

China's Olympic wind woes
By Jonathan Adams
Newsweek 'Why It Matters' blog, August 16, 2007

They can make it rain in Beijing, but can they make the wind blow in Qingdao?

The answer is no -- at least judging by the opening day of the 2007 Qingdao International Regatta, a test event for the Olympic sailing races that will be held here next August. Chinese authorities have boasted of their ability to provide clear skies for the Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing next year with technology to empty rain clouds. But in this picturesque coastal city on Wednesday, six of the eight scheduled races were cancelled due to light winds.

That disappointed Chinese spectators, many of them sporting Coca-Cola paper hats and waving red People's Republic of China flags. They'd paid to watch the races from picnic benches at the impressive Olympic sailing center here. But the fact is that Qingdao's winds just aren't that strong compared to similar Western venues, particularly in August. Average August wind speeds here are about 5 meters per second -- over the minimum required for racing by international rules, but short of the ideal, 7 to 8 mps.

Which raises the question of why the northern China city was chosen to host Olympic sailing in the first place. Speaking to a small pack of foreign journalists, Qingdao Vice Mayor Zang Aimin defended the selection, saying the city's wind conditions were not bad compared to those in other Chinese cities that vied for hosting rights, such as Hong Kong, Shanghai and Dalian. But she acknowledged that wimpy winds are a challenge. "Of course, it's a problem for European and U.S. athletes," she said with a cheerful smile. "They'll have to adapt to the winds of China."

Canary in a coalmine

A dolphin's demise: another alarm bell for China's blighted environment
Jonathan Adams, Newsweek 'Why It Matters' blog, August 10, 2007

For the last few years, scientists have feared that the baiji -- a freshwater dolphin unique to China's Yangtze River -- was critically endangered. Late last year, an international team spent six weeks scouring the river for any remaining baiji. On Wednesday, they published their results: they didn't find squat, despite twice covering the dolphin's range along a 1,669-kilometer channel of the Yangtze. That means that -- barring an errant baiji here or there -- the species is, for all intents and purposes, extinct. It now represents the first global extinction of any creature exceeding 100 kilograms for more than half a century.

That fact alone is enough to depress animal-lovers. But the baiji's fate has a far larger significance. It's the latest warning sign that China’s paying an increasingly high price for its breakneck economic development. The baiji's demise was caused in part by overfishing and an increase in ship traffic on the Yangtze -- many of the dolphins got fatally entangled in nets or sliced to ribbons by ship propellers. But another cause was the pollution dumped in ever-larger quantities into the Yangtze, by factories, farms and communities.

That pollution is exacting a high toll, and not just for the baiji. In a report last month, the OECD said that up to 300 million people are drinking contaminated water in China each day, with 190 million suffering from water-related illnesses each year, and 30,000 children dying annually from diarrhea caused by befouled water. One third of China's rivers and three-quarters of its major lakes are "highly polluted."

China's government appears to be taking notice. The nation's environmental agency last month announced strict new rules on lake pollution, which include banning all projects discharging ammonia and phosphorous, the removal of all fish farms by the end of 2008 and a ban on fish ponds, vegetable fields and flower farms that use fertilizers within one kilometer of a lake.

Yet recently I’ve talked with Chinese environmental activists, and the picture they paint is far from optimistic. Government crackdowns, new regulations and promises are usually only lip service, backed up by weak enforcement, they say. Nor are courts immune to the pressures of politics and cronyism. Central government diktats are often enforced only temporarily, until Beijing's attention turns elsewhere. Then, things go back to business as usual: powerful bosses, in collusion with local government officials, keep the factories and farms churning away.

Those officials are at times out-and-out corrupt. But they also have a strong incentive to avoid measures that would slow development: GDP growth is a key yardstick by which their performance -- and so, their promotions and salary -- is measured.

Public activism could pressure local governments, but that's rare due to a culture of fear. Those who speak out publicly against local business bosses or officials are often intimidated and beaten, and are quickly abandoned by friends and family afraid of trouble.

Take Zhang Zhengxiang, 58, an environmental gadfly I met recently in Kunming. For decades now, Zhang has fought to protect his beloved Lake Dianchi from illegal logging, pollutants and mismanagement. He says his land was taken away, his wife and daughter left him, and he had to sell his house. He's been roughed up many times by thugs he says were hired by local village officials or factory owners; in May they beat him and smashed his camera when he was taking pictures of the lake.

He pulled up his shirt to show me one nasty scar on his lower back. Now, he says he's heard that local officials plan to throw him in prison next month. He's agitated, angry, and more than a little eccentric -- living proof that some of the only Chinese brave (and crazy) enough to stand up to powerful local interests are those with little left to lose.

What Zhang says openly and defiantly, other environmental activists say off the record: China's environmental crisis is rooted in a rotten culture of corruption. Local officials incentives just aren't aligned with the public interest. Grassroots authorities and courts need to be more accountable to their communities, rather than to Communist party bosses who can make or break their careers. Only a more responsive political and legal system is likely to force such officials to better protect China's blighted waters.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

English is (still) king

Forget the hype about how everyone's learning Mandarin: the dominance of English as the world's unofficial second language is growing

Jonathan Adams and Max Hirsch, Newsweek International, August 20-27, 2007

In a cramped, colorful Beijing classroom on a Sunday afternoon, Cindy Wang, age 4, is learning the English words for body parts.

"Head and shoulders, knees and toes, eyes, ears, mouth and nose," she repeats, while doing her best to touch each body part in correct order.

"Toe" is particularly tough: it sounds the same as the Mandarin word for "head," which leads to some comic confusion.

Yet the instructor at the New Oriental language school perseveres, putting Cindy and 14 other hyper Chinese preschoolers through their paces with a rapid-fire mix of vocabulary, games and drills. In the back of the room, 15 parents watch the weekly ritual intently while scrunched into kid-size chairs.

One of them is Cindy's father, Wang Ming-ju, a software developer for Sony Ericsson. "No matter which field she chooses, English will be important for her future," he says.

China's recent rise has led of late to a new conventional wisdom: that Mandarin training is a must for much of the world. Learning Chinese has certainly become faddish, with reports of well-heeled New Yorkers hiring Mandarin-speaking au pairs for their kids or sending their high-schoolers to Chinese classes.

But the truth is that interest in Chinese still pales next to the lust for English that continues to grow in Asia and elsewhere.

Consider just one fact: Beijing now guesses that more than 40 million non-native speakers are studying Mandarin worldwide. But in China alone, some 175 million people are now studying English in the formal education system. And an estimated 2 billion people will be studying the language by 2010, according to a British Council report last year.

"The impression is that 'Mandarin fever' is rampant and spreading, but a close look shows this is an exaggeration," says Stephen Krashen, a second-language acquisition expert at the University of Southern California. "The dominance of English as an international language is growing."

To be sure, Mandarin has become increasingly useful, particularly in Asian business circles. And its utility will rise as China's clout grows.

But for the time being--and the foreseeable future--English remains an essential skill for those hoping to compete in the globalized world. From Brussels to Beijing, English is now the common language spoken in multinational firms, top universities and the scientific community.

A recent survey by the San Francisco-based firm GlobalEnglish found that 91 percent of employees at multinationals in Latin America, Europe and Asia believed English was "critical" or "important" to their current positions.

And the consulting group McKinsey warned China in 2005 that less than 10 percent of its college graduates were suitable for employment at multinationals--primarily because they couldn't speak English. "Any nation that ignores English learning does so at its own peril," says James Oladejo, an expert in language acquisition at Taiwan's National Kaohsiung Normal University.

In recognition of this fact, numerous countries are now starting to teach their kids English at ever-younger ages. According to the British Council, the prevailing model is to ensure that students gain basic-English proficiency in primary school and then to use it as a language of study in secondary school.

This model is much evident in Europe; according to Eurydice (an EU unit that shares information on education), more than 90 percent of primary students in Austria and Norway study English, as do more than 80 percent in Spain. In South America, Colombia and Chile have implemented ambitious to boost English skills nationwide. And the Philippines in 2003 mandated that English be the medium of instruction for math and science beginning in third grade, and for all subjects in secondary school.

No country is ramping up its English education as much as China, which already has the world's largest number of English students.

In 2001, the country mandated that English classes start in the third grade, rather than in secondary school, as before. In big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, such instruction now begins in grade one. And Chinese parents are trying to accelerate the process by sticking their kids into English buxiban--cram schools--as early as possible.

New Oriental alone says it alone has enrolled 4 million students, including 1 million last year; in total, China's English-language training market is now estimated to be worth $2.6 billion a year and to be growing at some 12 percent annually.

Driving that growth is China's rising standard of living: ever more parents can now afford supplementary English classes for their kids. These parents feel intense social pressure to enroll their offspring in buxiban so they can keep pace with their peers.

And the long-term benefits of English acquisition are widely touted. According to New Oriental, which says it has China's largest chain of private English-teaching centers, medium proficiency in English gives a Chinese child an almost 25 percent salary boost when he or she enters the working world; advanced English provides a more than 70 percent boost.

Of course, companies like New Oriental have a vested interest in making such arguments, but many outside experts echo them. Asians who work at multinationals but speak broken English are likely to bump up against a linguistic "ceiling" and be passed up for promotions.

Chinese firms aren't the only ones cashing in on this rapidly growing industry. According to the Educational Testing Service (ETS) --the U.S.-based organization that administers the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and similar exams--Eastern European countries and Persian Gulf states like Qatar have become big new English growth markets.

But even they are dwarfed by the hot economies of Asia. In Vietnam, for example--the region's newest "tiger"--an estimated 90 percent of all foreign-language learners now study English.

China's size makes it enormously attractive, but the market there remains restricted; ETS, for example, must work with government partners to administer its tests. But the English markets in South Korea, ETS's biggest moneymaker, and Japan, its second best, are far more mature with fewer restrictions, ensuring both are very good for business.

Indeed, South Korea seems to have the world's most extreme case of "English fever." "The hunger for Western--and specifically U.S.--education in Korea seems to have no limits," says Bhaskar Pant, head of ETS's Asia-Pacific operations. Many Korean universities now require all students to pass the TOEFL in order to graduate, and many employers won't hire applicants for domestic jobs unless they're similarly qualified--even for jobs where English is not routinely used.

The result has been a surge in demand for the test: according to ETS, the number of South Korean TOEFL takers grew from about 50,000 in 2001 to some 130,000 in 2006.

To prepare for the ever more important exam, South Koreans are seeking ways to expand their English training beyond rote memorization. An entire English-only town--where all conversation and instruction will be in English--is due to open in 2010 on Cheju Island. English hagwon (cram schools) have opened for moms so they can better help their kids, and more and more South Korean families now pack their young ones off to the United States for expensive English-only summer camps.

The country also now boasts at least 10 "English villages," mock Western-style communities complete with "post offices," "pharmacies" and the like, where kids can practice their skills in everyday environments. One Korean Internet provider has even gone so far as to start offering English courses for fetuses still in the womb.

The Koreans' motivation for pursuing such programs is clear. "Chinese is seen as a regionally important language, [but] not a globally important language on par with English," says Marilyn Plumlee, the president of Korea TESOL (an organization for English language teachers). At the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, where she teaches, Plumlee says interest in Chinese has spiked, but English majors still outnumber Chinese majors by more than 2 to 1. In fact, China's rise has actually increased the desire to learn English among the country's neighbors, as they seek to maintain a competitive edge.

Take Taiwan; in 2005, it made English education compulsory starting in the third grade. Three million students now study English in Taiwan's schools, compared with roughly 1 million in 2001. And nearly 60 percent of all primary and secondary students attend a growing number of private crammers. Taiwan is also following South Korea's lead by opening an "English village"--all part of an attempt to raise Taiwan's "global IQ," says Poly Chang, an official with the King Car Education Foundation, which promotes English education."

A similar process is underway in Japan. Mandarin has surged past French and German to become the second most popular foreign language taught in the country, after English. But Chinese still ranks a distant second, and English learning is increasing. According to government statistics, in 2005 there were some 3.6 million high-school students studying English, and just 22,000 studying Chinese. And last year Tokyo created 100 "Super English High Schools," where core classes are taught exclusively in English.

Farther afield, Mandarin also trails far behind English in influence. Prominent language researcher David Graddol, the author of last year's British Council report, says that in the U.K. Chinese has started to "challenge French as the foreign language of choice." But he's skeptical it will ever weaken English's hold over the EU.

"It won't happen," says Graddol flatly. "English has become the lingua franca of Europe … it's the language of integration."

The statistics are telling: from 2002 to 2005, the numbers of German primary-school students studying English soared from 16 percent to 47 percent, and in Greece they've doubled from 44 percent to nearly 90 percent. And throughout the EU, more and more universities are now offering instruction in English to make themselves more attractive.

Of course, none of this guarantees that English's current importance will last forever. Graddol, for one, predicts that after peaking at 2 billion in 2010, the number of English students worldwide will begin to drop sharply. Eventually, other languages like Mandarin could replace it.

But the operative word is "eventually."

"Chinese will not challenge English any time soon," says David Nunan, a Hong Kong-based expert on teaching English as a second language. "English will remain the dominant global language for at least the next 50 years because of its pre-eminent position as the language of science, technology, tourism, entertainment and the media."

If study patterns are any guide, even many Chinese seem to agree with this assessment. Back at New Oriental's classroom in Beijing, Wang Ming-ju and the other parents give silent encouragement as their kids wrestle with new vocabulary.

"What do you use to listen to the radio?" the instructor asks. "Eyes?" ventures a girl named Kitty. "Foot!" insists John. After some fidgeting and murmuring, Anny finally pipes up with a tentative "Ears?"

No one said learning English would be easy. But these preschoolers, at least, have got a running start.

With Nick Hayes in London

Roam (un)free

Xu Hui (left, photo by Mark Leong), screenshot courtesy HiPiHi

China's answer to Second Life is in the works, but faces censors and other hurdles its American rival never will.

Jonathan Adams, Newsweek International, July 30, 2007

Zhao Gang surveys his nearly empty virtual world, and finds it to be good. Zhao is head of the tech team that built HiPiHi—China's answer to Second Life. With the virtual world's basic landscape complete, one of Zhao's jobs these days is to wander HiPiHi, schooling roughly 10,000 ethnic Chinese from the mainland, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore who have been specially invited into the test phase to help work out the kinks. The "residents," as they're called, roam, swim and fly around the new world. Zhao approaches two avatars for a chat. Face to face with the virtual world's Master Builder, they have an urgent question: "Can you tell us how to change our clothes?"

Thus begins the education of China's 137 million (and counting) Netizens into the ways of 3-D virtual worlds. With a launch planned for the end of the year, HiPiHi appears to be on track to becoming the first homegrown Chinese competitor to Second Life, the virtual world that's all the rage in the United States. HiPiHi's 38-year-old CEO and founder, Xu Hui, has ambitious goals: he plans to sign up 100,000 users in the first three months. Then he wants to branch out through partnerships with U.S., Japanese and other foreign firms to establish discrete virtual "continents." Ultimately, he sees a handful of virtual worlds, including HiPiHi and Second Life, linked up in one vast universe. "We're on the same road to a dream—virtual worlds are just beginning," says Xu.

Grand talk, to be sure. But the road to Xu's utopia is likely to be bumpy. Part of Second Life's appeal has been its vibrant political debate (witness the heated on-line activity during the French presidential campaign, and numerous anti-Bush placards). By contrast, HiPiHi will have to toe Beijing's authoritarian line, which forbids excessive anti-government criticism, public support for Taiwanese or Tibetan independence and any mention of the banned Falun Gong religious group.

To enforce those limits, China has one of the world's most sophisticated Internet-monitoring systems, and enlists tens of thousands of snoops to stamp out "incorrect" speech. HiPiHi will be subject to all the same prying eyes, as well as strict government rules on smut. "There will need to be some HiPiHi nannies—it can't permit a lot of the things that Second Life permits," says David Wolf, CEO of Wolf Group Asia, a Beijing-based consultancy. "It will be Second Life with Chinese characteristics."

What's more, any virtual commerce that arises in HiPiHi will be subject to Beijing's unpredictable and at times heavy-handed policymaking. HiPiHi hopes to introduce virtual currency like Second Life's Linden dollars so residents can buy and sell virtual goods. But it's unclear whether Beijing will allow that. Earlier this year the government cracked down on the abuse of QQ coins, a virtual currency that's part of Chinese Internet giant Tencent's popular online services. Speculators were trading QQ coins for real Chinese renminbi, gamblers were using them to skirt government restrictions and sex-chat workers were reportedly accepting the coins as payment. Early this year the government stepped in, banning the trade of virtual currency for real money and warning Tencent and others to crack down on abuse. "The dispute demonstrated that the Chinese government can't ignore its control of currency systems in virtual worlds," says Han Jingkui, a Qingdao-based Internet analyst.

HiPiHi will also face technological and demographic challenges. Outside major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, most users still log on at Internet cafés that don't have the cutting-edge computers needed for a satisfying virtual-world experience. And Chinese users—mostly young males used to action-packed games like World of Warcraft—may not take to HiPiHi's do-it-yourself world. "The virtual-life model hasn't been tested in China yet, and it will be a challenge for operators to get a large number of users in the beginning," says Liu Bin, a Beijing-based analyst with tech and Internet consultancy BDA. "I think this is a major problem."

A wholesome virtual world, on the other hand, might appeal to Chinese women and parents. Ironically, China's rigid controls on Internet content could actually help differentiate HiPiHi in the global market as a kinder, more family-friendly version of Second Life. It has other strong suits. Xu is a successful, well-connected businessman who was rated one of China's top 10 Internet entrepreneurs by the Chinese media in 1999. He's assembled a crack, 60-strong team of virtual engineers, political economists and marketers, and claims to have attracted interest from top-tier players in Japan and the United States. (Xu won't say who.)

The firm is winning points for its sharp special effects and building tools, which are more user-friendly than those in Second Life. "HiPiHi has decided that your average 'Zhou' in China would probably have issues with Second Life's interface, and is looking to better it," says Wolf.

Much depends on what type of user HiPiHi attracts. Netizens looking for raunchy sex will be disappointed—HiPiHi's avatars can't even strip nude. But Xu says there's still a chance for romance; indeed, it's already blossoming. One resident, "Wen Xi," the avatar of a woman from Hangzhou, apparently has several love interests—and she's built a hip, bamboo-lined virtual bungalow for entertaining pals. She's just the type of creative resident Xu and his investors hope will populate HiPiHi—but pioneers like her are scarce. Xu and Zhao have built a world. Now they can only wait to see if the Chinese will come.

Original site

Monday, September 3, 2007

Hanging out in Harbin

Zhongyang Dajie, downtown Harbin (click picture for more photos)

Beijing it ain’t. But if you don’t mind feeding chickens to big cats and bringing your own napkin to restaurants, this northern city has some unique charms.

By Jonathan Adams
Newsweek International (web), August 6, 2007

When I arrived at my hotel in Harbin at 7 in the morning, groggy from an overnight train ride from Beijing, I had to blink a few times to make sure I was seeing straight. Scores of Chinese and Russian extras in 1930s period costumes were milling in the street, which was lined with horses and buggies and vintage cars. Filming for a movie scene was underway, using the boulevard’s restored Russian and European architecture as a colorful backdrop in the early morning light.

That was as good an introduction as any to this eclectic city. In Harbin, today’s go-go Chinese consumerism jostles with an enduring Russian influence and the troubled legacy of Japanese occupation. Take the restored Orthodox Church of St. Sophia (built in 1907), one of the obligatory tourist stops—and now the home of a historical museum (on the corner of Zhaolin and Toulong Streets, admission 25 yuan, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.) Inside the church, Chinese tourists spoke in hushed tones and gazed up at the fading inside of the century-old cupola. Just down the street, thundering techno music and scantily clad promotion girls were luring shoppers into a massive consumer-electronics store packed with the latest MP3s, PDAs and cell phones.

Iced tea promotion girls, Zhongyang Dajie

That hectic hawking aside, Harbin generally has a more relaxed pace (and cleaner air) than other major Chinese cities like Beijing. Tucked away in China’s far northeastern Heilongjiang province, the city is most famous for its winter ice festival. But it’s an interesting stop in warmer seasons, too. The locals are reserved but friendly—though very little English is spoken here, so bring a Mandarin phrasebook and brush up on your thank you’s (“xie xie”).

One attraction of Harbin: the big cats. This part of China, and neighboring parts of Russia, are the homeland of the famed and feared Siberian tiger. Only a few still roam in the wild in China, but a breeding farm and tiger park outside Harbin has hundreds in captivity (Dongbeihu Linyuan, admission 60 yuan, 0451-8808-0606).

The park isn’t for animal-rights activists or the faint of heart: when I called ahead, the woman on the phone cheerfully quoted me prices for feeding a live animal to one of the hulking felines: $5.25 (U.S.) for a chicken, $13.25 for a duck, $80 for a sheep and a steep $200 for a cow (the last must be prearranged, she noted). On my visit, I peered with 10 other tourists from our van to view the mercifully short “hunt” and demise of an unlucky chicken our driver had hurled out the window. “Wild Kingdom” it wasn’t.

Boy goads Siberian tiger

History buffs should head to the Unit 731 Museum, a half-hour’s drive outside Harbin (25 Xinjiang Street, Pingfang District, 0451-6801556). There stands the ominous remains of a key Japanese germ-warfare research complex, built in 1935 after Japan’s invasion of the region. Until Japan’s surrender to the Allies in 1945, Harbin was part of the Japanese-controlled puppet state of Manchukuo. You can visit the grounds, now divided by a high-rise apartment complex (hopefully the tenants are getting a good deal on rent). Still intact are such macabre structures as the “nursing room for yellow rats,” the “frostbite laboratory” where the Japanese conducted experiments on living (Chinese) humans, and the “corpse incinerator of Beiwadi.”

The old headquarters has been converted into a creepy, dimly it museum. It details the unit’s biological-warfare experiments, which were confirmed publicly by repentant Japanese Unit 731 personnel in the 1980s. The museum claims that a total of 3,000 people were killed in the grisly trials; the Japanese called such test subjects maruta (logs of wood). Says a museum note flatly (in English): “The fascistic guilt of Japan’s No. 731 troop brooks no denial.”

Frostbite Laboratory, Unit 731 site

Despite such historical wounds, in Harbin, as elsewhere in China, Japanese youth culture is hip. Some street kids sport outfits inspired by Japanese comics; and there’s even a popular Japanese-flavored “haunted house” in the Wanda Plaza at the end of Zhongyang Dajie. For more of the locals’ idea of fun, head to nearby Stalin Park on the bank of the Songhua River. Less than two years ago a giant toxic benzene slick passed through here after a chemical plant exploded upstream—cutting off Harbin’s water supply for a few days.

But that’s ancient history. Now, children frolic on the river inside floating plastic bubbles, like waterborne hamsters. Lovers canoodle on the shaded park overlooking the river, as roller skaters zoom by. Old men draw crowds with their quickly fading water calligraphy, brushed rapidly onto the pavement. And an army of elderly women relentlessly hawk tickets for the ferries across to Sun Island park, which boasts gardens and recreational spots.

A couple tries out a water ball on Songhua River

A warm-weather stroll down Zhongyang Dajie is also a treat. The Russian and European architecture dates back to the dawn of the 20th century, and to post-Russian Revolution days when Harbin took in many White Russian émigrés who had fled the communists. These days, by late afternoon, locals begin to crowd into the festive beer gardens that serve up local “Harbin” and “Snow” lagers. Food vendors pack the gardens, offering salty snacks to go with your brew, or more substantial seafood and other skewered fare.

A high-end food option is the Modern Hotel (No. 89 Zhongyang Street, whose main entrance faces away from the street, 86-451-8461-5846 from abroad). Its third-floor restaurant is a favorite for locals’ weekend wedding banquets. For more down-home cooking, try the local specialty sha zhu cai (a soup of pig parts and congealed pig blood with cabbage) at the Da Feng Shou restaurant (just northeast of the train station, 8795-8866 or 8795-8899). Or savor the wontons at Dongfang Jiaozi Wang (Kingdom of Eastern Dumplings, 39 Zhongyang Dajie, 8465-3920).

Note: this and some other low-end Chinese restaurants have a bring-your-own-napkins policy, as a local kindly explained to me after several fruitless attempts—involving mangled Mandarin and frantic hand gestures—to get some from the waiters. Those in search of late-night fun can head to the Blues Bar, a music pub popular with locals and expats alike (No. 100 Diduan Street, 8 p.m. to 4 a.m., 8464-2704 or 8674-9777).

Like other Chinese cities, Harbin has its share of locals intent on aggressively parting tourists from their cash. Some cabbies will charge tourists double (or worse) if you don’t insist they use the meter. And at the nicer hotels, male tourists can expect a late-night call inquiring whether you’d like an in-room “massage.” But overall, Harbin is much less in-your-face than Beijing or southern boomtowns like Shenzhen—and well worth a visit for its heritage as a cosmopolitan city caught between empires.

Getting there: By air, there are direct flights to Harbin from Los Angeles and Seoul; it’s a two-hour flight from Beijing. A comfortable overnight express train from Beijing takes about nine hours and puts you in Harbin first thing in the morning.

Original site

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Tigers under threat (again)

Some in China want to reverse a ban on the tiger parts trade -- and conservationists are alarmed

By Jonathan Adams
Newsweek International, July 30, 2007

Under the blazing sun outside Harbin, in northeast China, Tiger No. 31 trots alongside a van packed with Chinese and foreign tourists. The van stops. The driver chucks a live chicken out the window. The 250-kilogram Siberian tiger pounces. Cameras snap away in morbid fascination.

It wasn't a pretty end for the chicken, to be sure.

But if a proposed lifting of a Chinese ban on the sale of tiger parts goes through, the fate of Tiger No. 31, currently a resident of this tiger park and breeding farm, may not be much better.

After he dies, his bones will be crushed up into potions for treating rheumatism. His skin will be turned into a jacket. And his penis and testicles—the original Viagra, according to some Chinese—will be slurped up in soup by an aging believer looking to give his sex life some oomph.

By some accounts, the market in tiger-driven medicine brought in more than $12 million a year before China banned the sale of tiger parts in 1993, helping to stabilize wild-tiger populations that were perilously close to extinction.

Now some Chinese officials—under fierce lobbying from tiger farmers and would-be parts peddlers—want to lift the injunction to regain that lost market.

That's alarmed conservationists, who fear that scrapping the ban could undo the progress of the last 14 years. Eric Dinerstein, chief scientist at the World Wildlife Fund, says flatly: "Lifting the ban on the tiger trade would spell the end for a number of wild-tiger populations across Asia."

On its surface, the idea of creating a regulated market for tiger parts has a certain appeal—and not just for the farmers.

Chinese officials and others note that demand for such parts persists regardless of the ban.

"It will be a waste if the resources of dead tigers aren't used for traditional medicine," said wildlife-conservation official Wang Wei.

Legalizing the trade, they argue, could actually help protect wild tigers by reducing the incentive for illegal poaching.

Free-market proponents point to the case of wild crocodiles. For the past few decades, many countries have allowed a regulated trade in captive-bred crocodile skins and other parts from farms or ranches. Even many conservationists agree this has helped save some (though not all) wild-crocodile populations from poachers.

But, they say, comparisons between crocs and tigers don't hold, in part because tigers are far more expensive to raise than crocodiles, upping the incentive to poach instead of farm.

"In India you can poison a tiger for less than a dollar," says Belinda Wright, founder of the Wildlife Protection Society of India. "Raising one in captivity will cost $3,500 to $10,000."

What's more, say conservationists (who almost unanimously supported a U.N. resolution last month against lifting the ban), tiger parts from places like India—which has the world's largest wild-tiger population—could be trafficked to China. There, buyers would have no way to distinguish illegal parts from legal ones, which means poached tigers and parts could be "laundered" as farmed ones.

"Law-enforcement controls are not in place in China to police the tiger-farm trade," says the WWF's Dinerstein.

Some inside and outside China raise another question: should the Chinese government be giving official sanction to a trade that skeptics say is based on pseudoscience?

"Tiger parts have no proven effect as drugs or medicine—they're useless," says Zu Shuxian, a retired professor of epidemiology at Anhui Medical University and an outspoken critic of traditional Chinese medicine. Zu and others argue that lifting the ban could jeopardize wild tigers in order to supply a market that's fundamentally fraudulent.

Others say the Chinese should note Russia's strategy in preserving its wild Siberian, or Amur, tigers. Only a few dozen strong 50 years ago, the population is now some 500 in the wild, thanks to huge nature reserves that were created for the tigers, a well-enforced hunting ban and "buffer areas" to separate tiger and human populations.

Conserving wild tigers "is really about proper landscape-use management and getting people to change their behavior," says Xie Yan, the Beijing-based director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's China program.

Such efforts are more likely to help wild tigers than a risky experiment in selling organs and parts whose medical benefits are questionable. Conservationists and diplomats are now appealing to the Chinese government to keep the ban in place.

The fate of Tiger No. 31—and his wild cousins—will hang on Beijing's decision.

With Jason Overdorf in New Delhi

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