Sunday, July 31, 2011

U.S., Vietnam get closer

Clinton's Visit to Vietnam Highlights Warmer Ties

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(July 23) -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton discussed military cooperation with Vietnam in Hanoi today, in the latest sign that relations between one-time bitter enemies are warming.

The two countries are forging better ties, pushed in part by mutual concerns over China's expansionism in the South China Sea, as well as a desire to expand trade and investment.

But Clinton also raised concerns about human rights in Vietnam, highlighting the sharp differences that remain between Washington and Hanoi's autocratic, communist-party-controlled state, which sharply limits dissent.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister/Foreign Minister Pham Gia Khiem
Paul J. Richards, AFP / Getty Images

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton held a news conference in Hanoi with Pham Gia Khiem, Vietnam's deputy prime minister and foreign minister.

Clinton is in Vietnam to attend the 27-nation ASEAN regional forum. She discussed defense cooperation with Vietnam, according to Bloomberg, and said Washington is prepared to take U.S.-Vietnam relations to the "next level," according to a transcript of her remarks from the State Department.

"The United States will continue to urge Vietnam to strengthen its commitment to human rights and give its people a greater say over the direction of their lives," Clinton said in Hanoi, according to The New York Times. "But our relationship is not fixed upon our differences. We have learned to see each other not as former enemies but as friends."

Some 58,000 Americans and at least 3 million Vietnamese were killed in the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975. Clinton said in Hanoi that the U.S. would also boost aid for Vietnamese still suffering effects of the widespread use of Agent Orange in that conflict, according to the Times.

Washington's ties with Hanoi were normalized in the 1990s during the presidency of the secretary of state's husband, Bill Clinton.

Wendell Minnick, Asia bureau chief for Defense News, said China's muscle-flexing in the South China Sea was helping to push the U.S. and Vietnam closer.

"There are still bumps in the road in U.S.-Vietnam relations," Minnick wrote in an e-mail. "There are still legacy issues with the older leaders of Vietnam who fought in the Vietnam War and still harbor anger at the U.S."

"But the opportunities for Vietnam greatly outnumber the negatives, and it's clear that many in the Pentagon see China's aggressive moves in the South China Sea as a plus for better ties with Vietnam," Minnick said. "The old saying still holds true: 'The enemy of my enemy is my friend.'"

Both Vietnam and the U.S. had run-ins with China in the South China Sea last year.

Vietnam was incensed when China unilaterally declared its annual fishing ban in the South China Sea, then seized Vietnamese ships and detained two dozen Vietnamese fishermen for several weeks.

Also last year, Chinese fishing vessels harassed two U.S. Navy ships on patrols in the South China Sea, nearly causing a collision.

The U.S. conducts naval and air patrols off China's coast to establish the precedent of freedom of navigation and to spy on China. Washington insists such activity is legitimate as it is conducted outside China's territorial waters, defined as waters up to 12 nautical miles from a country's shoreline, according to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

But China views its territorial waters as extending 200 miles from its coast, the extent of its "Exclusive Economic Zone." It views U.S. patrols as a violation of its territory and has demanded that all ships or planes request Beijing's permission before traversing the South China Sea.

"China's assertiveness has caused anxieties in the region," Carlyle A. Thayer, professor of politics at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra, told Bloomberg.

China claims virtually all of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea as its own, and analysts say it has recently upgraded its claim to a "core interest," putting it on par with Beijing's claims over self-ruled Taiwan and Tibet.

China's claims overlap with five other countries (see map here.) It has fought two naval skirmishes with Vietnam over those claims, in 1974 and 1988. China won both engagements and now controls the Paracels. But Vietnam still claims those islands and views China as an occupying power.

Driving tensions in the South China Sea are potentially huge but unproven oil and natural gas resources (see factsheet from the U.S. government here). Energy-thirsty China pressured U.S. oil giant ExxonMobil to withdraw from a joint oil exploration project with Vietnam in 2008 in waters also claimed by Beijing, according to the U.S. State Department.

In Hanoi today, Clinton called the resolution of territorial disputes in the South China Sea a "leading diplomatic priority," according to Bloomberg, and called for negotiations.

"The United States supports a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants for resolving the various territorial disputes without coercion," Clinton said, according to Bloomberg. "We oppose the use or threat of force by any claimant."

China has been pursuing a rapid and far-reaching military buildup with an eye toward backing up its claims and denying the U.S. Navy access to waters close to its shores.

Though still far from matching the U.S. military in overall capabilities and technology, it has been pouring money into submarines, including nuclear-armed subs, a new aircraft carrier expected to enter service in 2012 and other hardware.

China is also building up its cruise missile and short- and medium-range ballistic missile arsenal, and is believed to be developing an anti-ship ballistic missile, sometimes called a "carrier-buster," which one Washington think tank says that if deployed "could alter the strategic landscape in Asia-Pacific region and beyond."

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China hit by floods

China Reels From Deadliest Flooding in a Decade

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(July 22) -- China's deadliest flooding in a decade has officials scrambling to respond and has sparked concern about the gargantuan Three Gorges Dam and China's many overtaxed reservoirs.

Flooding, downpours and landslides have hit more than half of China's 22 provinces, and so far this year more than 700 people have been killed, with several hundred more missing.

"What's different about this rainfall is that it's very concentrated in the areas that it has hit, and it has fallen in a short period of time," Kuang Yaoqiu, a professor at the Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry, told the Los Angeles Times. "That's why in some areas and rivers the amount of rain has reached historic levels."

The scientist blamed the flooding on low sea temperatures brought by La Nina and predicted heavy rains would continue through August, the Times said.

La Nina refers to a pattern of cooler than normal waters in the Pacific Ocean that "recur every few years and can persist for as long as two years," according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fact sheet.

So far, some 110 million people have been affected by China's flooding, with 645,000 houses collapsed, shipping locks closed and waters higher than warning levels in 230 rivers and at historic highs in two dozen rivers, according to agency reports.

Damages are estimated at $21 billion, according to EastDay.

The Yangcheng Evening News reported Wednesday that one Sichuan Province stretch of the Yangtze River basin was experiencing the biggest floods in 163 years.

East Asia's typhoon season has just begun, meaning the flooding may get worse. Tropical storm Chanthu was expected to make landfall in southern China today.

Chinese media reported a water commission official forecasting another flood surge next week, but said some 350,000 people had been mobilized to patrol dikes and other water-control measures all along the Yangtze River basin.

"The situation is grave," China's State Council said Wednesday, according to EastDay.

Chinese officials are saying the controversial $24 billion Three Gorges Dam has been key in reducing casualties and damage this time around, since it gives authorities greater control over the amount and speed of water released downstream into the Yangtze River basin. The dam's construction was completed last year.

Liu Ning, vice minister of water resources, told CNN and other media that the dam successfully contained floodwater that hit at speeds of 70,000 cubic meters per second early this week, which he said was 20,000 cubic meters per second more than the 1998 flooding.

"The Three Gorges Dam is instrumental in our flood control efforts," Liu said. ""We are able to control the outward flow of floodwater as it goes downstream."

Floodwaters crested over the massive dam on Tuesday morning, showing the extent of the water rise.

Liu said China has also completed another 29 water control projects since 1998's disaster.

But some Chinese are skeptical. One viral blog post translated at Chinasmack compares media headlines from 2003 to the present, showing less and less confidence in the dam's capabilities.

"Three Gorges Dam impenetrable; can withstand a once-in-10,000-year flood," reads a headline from 2003. A headline from 2007 rolls that back to "can withstand a once-in-1,000-year flood," and by 2008 another headline cites a "once-in-100-year" flood.

The latest headline, from this year: "Yangtze Water Resources Commission: We can't put all of our hopes in the Three Gorges Dam."

An opinion piece in Southern Network quoted an unnamed Three Gorges Dam official who responded that the dam's flood control abilities hadn't changed. "The media took a different view at different times," the official said.

Original site

From kettle to kennel

Taipei dogs take to the cat walk (and treadmill)

Once likely to end up in a stew-pot, dogs have never had it so good in newly affluent Taiwan.

Global Post, July 21, 2010

TAIPEI, Taiwan — She put her finger out for a dab of purple dye, her white terrier thrown over her right shoulder.

Then, hesitatingly, she ran her finger over her dog's fuzzy tail, streaking it with color. Two nearby 20-something women looked on with glee, now and then cooing the obligatory Taiwanese response to any such situation: "Hao ke-ai-oh! (so cute!)" The Guns N' Roses tune "Sweet Child of Mine" blared from nearby speakers.

This was the booth for Pet Head, a dog-hair-dye company, and one of the most popular at this year's Pets Show Taipei. Along with dyeing products — one of this year's hot trends, as evidenced by the fierce competition at a dog-dyeing contest [3] — a convention hall was filled with all the latest innovations in pet pampering.

There were dog-massaging stations. Designer pet-toting bags and buggies, some upwards of $1,000. Cute dog clothes. Healthy treats for dogs marked "LOHAS" (for Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability, an acronym that's all the rage in wealthy Taipei). A treadmill for dogs. (Read to the end for a series of Dog vs. Treadmill video clips.) And on of the previous days, there was even yoga for dogs and a poodle wedding, according to news reports.

Nothing too extraordinary for dog-doting New Yorkers, perhaps, or for Europeans. But the pet show demonstrates how quickly and dramatically attitudes toward pets — particularly dogs — have changed in this newly-wealthy corner of Asia.

Just 10 years ago, dogs were still eaten in public restaurants and raised on farms for that purpose in Taiwan. Traditional Chinese medicine held that so-called "fragrant meat" from dogs could fortify one's health.

Now, selling dog meat is illegal, and violators can be slapped with a nearly $8,000 fine, according to Huang Ching-jung, secretary-general of Taiwan's Animal Protection Association. Eating dog is viewed by many Taiwanese as an embarrassing reminder of a poorer time, though it's still eaten on the down-low in rural, southern Taiwan, Huang said.

Instead, Taiwanese have embraced dog-owning culture with a vengeance. Dogs are brought into restaurants, fussed over in public, dressed up in ridiculous outfits and wheeled to the park in frilly custom-made buggies.

Huang chalks up the rapid change in attitude to several factors. Taiwan's education level has risen rapidly, and animal welfare groups like his have successfully campaigned for better treatment of animals, with the media's help. The island has gotten richer, meaning Taiwanese can now afford many types of meat, and can buy other medicines.

"You don't need dog meat to make you healthier, and we don't need dogs as a source of meat," said Huang. "So dogs have become our friends and companions."

Also, Taiwanese are increasingly shunning marriage and deciding not to have kids (the island has one of Asia's lowest birth rates). Raising a dog has become a substitute. "It's like having a child — it becomes family," said Huang.

Finally, there's one all-important factor: "Dogs are very cute animals," Huang said.

The pet show-goers couldn't have agreed more. They crammed into the convention center's narrow aisles, their canines (and the odd, freaked-out-looking cat) in tow — leashed, wheeled in buggies or strapped stomach-side — craning necks to see the latest trendy pet products. Scantily clad showgirls representing pet food companies whipped up the crowd's enthusiasm, though their numbers were fewer here than at Taiwan's computer trade shows [5].

One promotion girl hurled fist-sized bags of Purina Pro Plan into the crowd without warning. Two hit me in the face and neck in rapid succession — bam! thok! — as I was looking the other direction snapping photos.

At the Pet Head booth, George Ambrose said he started his trading company three years ago to distribute dog-hair-dyeing and other products in Taiwan. In the U.S., he said, dog-dyeing "is catching on," in Taiwan it's relatively new (it's also hot in China [6].) He had me sniff a bottle of the temporary dye to show it was ammonia-free.

I lurked around the demonstration table ("Is this CSI?" one young, self-conscious Taiwanese woman joked as I snapped pictures of her dog having its ears streaked green, referring to the TV show "Crime Scene Investigation" that's popular here). Other owners held up their pooches proudly in a "we're ready for our close-up" kind of way.

Down the aisle, Albert Chan was touting healthy pet food products from his company, Perfect Companion (Taiwan). They had set up a treadmill for dogs in the booth. Some dogs caught on quickly, especially if a treat was extended by hand from the front of the treadmill.

Others got distracted, or just couldn't grasp the running-in-place concept and went flying off the back of the treadmill in a blur of fur and frantically-pawing limbs.

By late afternoon, nerves at the pet show had gotten raw as people had to elbow past each other in confined walkways and fight for promotional give-aways. One lane reeked of dog poo that had been pressed and ground into the red carpeted-floor ("How stinky!" one woman moaned loudly, to no-one in particular). Pet company staff started taking their booths down.

Taiwanese women gathered with their dogs on the long sidewalk outside the convention center, as their shaggy-haired boyfriends took drags of Mild Seven cigarettes. Two guys walked their tiny mutt down the sidewalk; it kept stopping, snapping the leash taut.

"What, you still haven't finished peeing?" its owner said affectionately.

Original site

High court hijinks

A high-court scandal has Taiwan debating how to clean up its judiciary.

Global Post
July 20, 2010

TAIPEI, Taiwan — It's the stuff of a legal thriller.

A crooked politician bribes three judges and a prosecutor in order to get an "innocent" verdict. He uses female, "white glove" go-betweens to help deliver the cash, in several hush-hush underground parking lot rendezvous.

Such are the allegations in Taiwan's latest real-life legal scandal. The case has shocked the country, and cast a spotlight anew on Taiwan's judicial system — a system that's already been criticized for its handling of the high-profile corruption case [3] of former President Chen Shui-bian.

It's also more evidence of the island's growing pains [4], as it struggles to consolidate its young democracy and rule of law after four decades of the Kuomintang's corrupt, one-party rule.

Just after the news broke, a poll by the Apple Daily newspaper found that 73 percent of respondents said the case had affected their trust in the judiciary, and agreed with the statement that the judiciary wasn't impartial and that it meted out different justice to haves and have-nots.

A poll by the newspaper on Friday found that 57 percent of respondents thought that Taiwan's top justice official should resign over the scandal. (That official and the head of Taiwan's high court did resign just a couple days later.)

The scandal has commentators debating whether and how Taiwan's judiciary should be reformed. But some are concerned the proposed fixes could make things even worse.

Early on July 13, some 100 cops and prosecutors from an elite anti-corruption unit swept down on the homes and offices of three high court judges, a prosecutor and other sites. Those four have all been detained on suspicion of bribery, along with two women suspected of delivering the payola.

The case dates back to the 1990s, when local politician, later legislator Ho Chih-hui was charged with taking bribes to fast-track a land development project and skip an environmental impact assessment, according to local media. He was originally given a 19-year prison sentence, only to see the high court overturn that and rule him innocent this past May.

Ho's now on the lam, with some speculating he may have fled to mainland China.

Why did the judges accept the bribes, beyond simple greed? Some have pointed to insufficient compensation for Taiwan's judges ($3,000 to $5,600 per month, according to the Apple Daily) compared to peers in Singapore or Hong Kong. But the Judicial Reform Foundation's Lin Feng-jeng rejected that explanation, saying he didn't think hiking salaries would solve the problem.

"Judges' salaries are already higher than those of other [Taiwan] public officials," said Lin. "If you want to make a lot of money, you should become a lawyer. Being a judge should be an honor — if you choose this profession, you should respect ethics."

Lin criticized the current head of the Judicial Yuan, the Taiwan branch of government that oversees the courts, saying he had not cracked down hard enough on bad judges. He also blamed ruling party legislators from the Kuomintang, saying they had blocked passage of needed judicial reform laws and regulations.

Lin said his foundation wants quick passage of long-delayed legal reforms, including a pending "judges law," that would increase monitoring and supervision of judges and make it easier to remove bad apples. The foundation also wants to change how judges are selected, and to consider following Japan's example in allowing jury trials for some important cases (Japan started doing that last year), which would make judges less all-important.

Taiwan's system is modeled on Japan's, which is in turn modeled on Germany's civil law system, rather than the Anglo-Saxon common law system used in the United Kingdom and America. That means cases are heard by a panel of judges, not juries.

The requirement for becoming a judge in Taiwan is passing a written test, and test-takers' average age is 24, according to Lin. Those successful can hear cases after a two-year internship period — hardly a tough enough requirement, he said. Then they have lifetime tenure.

"This system tests people's memory, it doesn't test their judgment," said Lin. His foundation wants the test scrapped, a minimum age of 30 for sitting judges, for judges to be drawn from the ranks of experienced lawyers and scholars, and to make it easier to demote or fire poor judges.

But one judicial system insider took issue with some of those suggestions, saying they could simply create a new set of problems.

He's concerned that experienced lawyers may be even more prone to corruption, since Taiwan lawyers often spend time drinking with and otherwise entertaining clients in sometimes shady settings, while young test-takers for judge-ships are a "blank slate."

The insider said it was important to put things in perspective, since Taiwan had made great strides in cleaning up its judiciary. "Fifteen years ago, maybe half the judges were corrupt — the problem was very severe," he said. "Now, only a few have dirty hands."

He agreed that the current Judicial Yuan head Lai In-jaw was a softie, especially compared to his predecessor, who sidelined many bad judges in the 1990s. Since Lai took office, "no presiding judges have been probed or removed," the insider said.

He said judges' salaries were generally sufficient, although Taipei's soaring housing prices had made it difficult for younger judges on the lower end of the scale.

One reason corruption persists, he said, is that some in the older generation still hold to old-fashioned, good-old-boy network ways in which "feelings" and personal connections matter more than right or wrong. "'You are my friend, so I'll say you're innocent' — that can make the system unfair in Taiwan," the insider said.

And he had a more practical reason why some judges might be especially tempted by bribes. Some maintain "lunchtime wives" (wuqi) — high-maintenance mistresses who often "eat better" and get "better clothes and gifts" than judges' actual wives.

In corruption watchdog Transparency International's latest "corruption perception index," [5] Taiwan, ranked 37 out of 180, is far ahead of China (79) and its hopelessly corrupt southern neighbor, the Philippines (139).

But in Asia, it lags behind Singapore (ranked #3), with its famously well-compensated and clean civil service, as well as Hong Kong (12) and Japan (17).

Video with animation from Next Media Animation [6]:

Original site

China puts the squeeze on blogs

China Tightens Control of Blogs and Microblogs

AOL News

TAIPEI, Taiwan (July 16) -- China appears to have tightened restrictions over blogs and "microblogs" in the last week, underscoring Beijing authorities' jitters over the subversive potential of social media.

The Associated Press says that several bloggers had reported that their sites were down as of Thursday evening.

"I was writing a new post, and suddenly my blog couldn't open," lawyer Pu Zhiqiang told the AP on Thursday.

China tightens control of Blogs and Microblogs
Ng Han Guan, AP

Dozens of blogs by some of China's most outspoken users have been abruptly shut down while popular Twitter-like services appear to be the newest target in government efforts to control social networking.

Meanwhile, China's growing pack of Twitter clones, or "micro-blogging" sites, had service outages or displayed messages suggesting some type of network testing was under way.

Netease's "weibo" or micro-blog site went down for maintenance for several days, while those of the Sina, Sohu and Tencent services displayed "beta" tags next to their logos, according to the AP.

"The government will definitely tighten their control over microblogging, but I don't think they'll completely shut them down," popular Chinese blogger Lian Yue told NBC News. "It's hard to dig out the real reason behind this temporary shutdown, but it could be related to the change of the way information spread."

Twitter, Facebook and other Western-origin, popular social media sites are blocked for China's Internet users, now estimated to number 420 million.

However, Beijing authorities have allowed homegrown clones such as social media site to prosper, on the condition that they self-censor objectionable content in line with government rules.

Chinese authorities are playing an increasingly complex game of restricting some Internet content while promoting other kinds of online expression as part of the nation's modernization drive.

Verboten online content includes mentions of banned religious sect Falun Gong, Taiwan or Tibet independence or strong criticism of the central government that crosses an unspecified "red line." Search for such subjects typically returns an "error" message, with access to the Internet sometimes blocked for several minutes afterward.

Any attempt to organize opposition to the central authorities online is quickly quashed by an army of "net nannies" patrolling chat rooms and other sites. Social media is a particular challenge because criticism can spread in scale so quickly online.

Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at the University of California-Berkeley, told the AP that authorities can't keep up with the proliferation of new media. "Given the speed and volume of microblogging content produced in Chinese cyberspace, censors are still several steps behind at this stage," Xiao said.

Other raucous debate and discussion is given free rein, such as netizens' debate over a recent police shooting in Guangzhou, popular discontent with local party officials or so-called "human flesh search-engine" cases.

The latter refers to a mob of netizens who work together to find and post personal information about someone who has sparked their wrath, contempt or intense curiosity.

Some government units are actually promoting social media as a way to reach out to residents. A report from the Shenzhen Evening News posted to said the Pingshan Ministry of Public Security in southern China opened a microblog Thursday evening.

"We want to strengthen our communication with city residents and Web users, increasing the interaction between police and the people through more channels," an unnamed security official told journalists, according to the report.

According to another report, from the China News Service today, public security ministries in 21 cities in southern Guangdong Province had launched microblogs, and Beijing police are planning to launch a microblog too. But the fate of such sites generated by private citizens rather than government entities seems more unclear than ever.

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Killer cop stirs debate

Police Shooting Video Stirs Debate in China

AOL News

TAIPEI, Taiwan (July 14) -- A video of a plainclothes policewoman shooting dead a hostage-taker in Guangzhou has sparked sharp debate among the Chinese about how far police should go in dealing with higher crime rates.

Some are disturbed that the cop shot the hostage-taker four times, killing him, even though he appeared to have been taken out of action by the first shot and was armed only with a pair of scissors.

But others are celebrating her as a hero.

The incident highlights the ambivalence in China toward widespread, Dirty Harry-style police methods that, while at times effectively ruthless against wrongdoers, often show scant concern for human rights and sometimes compound the bloodshed.

The drama was broadcast live on Chinese TV, with the action beginning at around the 5:00 mark in the clip below.

The incident started around 8 p.m. July 6, after a botched robbery by an assailant wielding a pair of scissors, according to a report at translated at Chinasmack.

The perp stabbed his robbery victim with the scissors when he resisted, then took a young woman hostage and made his standoff on a public sidewalk just in front of a bank's ATM alcove. Cops and snipers moved in, and the standoff dragged on as the robber clutched the bleeding hostage in a headlock.

Around 9:30 p.m., a plainclothes policewoman wearing a white pantsuit and elegant scarf approached close to the hostage. She put the robber off-guard by tossing him a bottle of cola, according to Tianxue. Then she reached under her blouse and retrieved a handgun.

Seconds later, as the perp reached down to get the bottle, she charged and fired. The robber and his hostage fell backward into the ATM alcove out of view of news cameras, and it was unclear whether he was hit. The plainclothes cop is then seen in videos moving into the alcove and shooting three more times. The hostage was quickly taken away to safety, while the perp died at the scene.

Video shows the daring plainclothes officer smiling and laughing in response to a reporter who told her, "Big sister, you're so impressive," minutes after the shooting.

In a commentary on, one commentator wrote: "The story of the brave policewoman was everywhere in the media today. I have doubts. What I think is that one shot already did the job. If she wanted to be on the safe side, after one shot, shouldn't she have run forward and kicked away the robber's weapon?"

Another person posting to Tianya wrote, according to a translation at EastSouthWestNorth, "If it was possible to arrest the suspect without killing him, then he should be kept alive. His crime does not deserve death. Even if he deserves to die, it should be decided by the judiciary. The present action shows utter disregard for human life."

Such posts led to angry reactions from other netizens, who had little sympathy for the robber and applauded the policewoman. "Hostage-takers are utterly evil, and reason demands that they be shot dead," wrote one, according to Chinasmack. "Hostage-takers are not bad people? Are you the robber's partner in crime?"

But others criticized the cop for being able to laugh just minutes after shooting someone dead. "No matter what, killing someone, especially if it was the first time killing someone, and then still being able to laugh afterward ...," wrote one. "This is China, everything is possible, nothing makes sense."

"Very stimulating, very realistic, much more enjoyable than cops-and-robber films," another chipped in. "Stop arguing, go to bed and wait to watch the next killing show."

The Tianxue report said that until killing the man, the 40-something policewoman, nicknamed "Ah Xiu," had only fired her weapon at the shooting range in the course of 27 years of service.

But she had extensive experience dealing with hostage situations, the report said, and was nicknamed the "female Sherlock Holmes" by her squadron for her skills in evaluating crime scenes. She comes from a police family, the report said.

In an interview posted with the article, Ah Xiu said she seized an opportunity to move on the hostage-taker because she was the closest cop and the one he was least "on guard" against. She said the situation was "hanging by a thread" and the cops had no choice but to move in. "If we didn't use force, there was no way to guarantee the hostage's safety," she said, according to the Tianxue report.

China executes by far the most people of any nation, according to Amnesty International, with more than 1,000 put to death in 2009, compared to some 388 in Iran and 52 in the U.S. Other human rights groups have higher estimates; the exact number is a state secret. Just last week, China executed the top justice official of crime-plagued Chongqing, who had also doubled as the metropolis' top mob boss, according to reports.

Crime jumped in China in 2009, according to a report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and the Beijing Times said it was the first such spike in a decade. Guangzhou in particular has seen a rise in brazen robberies in recent years, amid a shortage of beat cops on the streets, according to another report.

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Kung-fu legislature

Kung-fu legislature

Controversial bills result in pushing, shoving, throwing things and general misbehavior on the legislative floor.

Global Post, July 10, 2010

TAIPEI, Taiwan — He looked like a crowd-surfer at a punk rock show.

Clad in a cream-colored party vest with his name stitched on the back in green and a headband around his graying hair, the pro-independence legislator bobbed in the air in front of the speaker's lectern. Shouting filled the chamber as he was pushed and pulled by a sea of clutching hands.

His fellow legislators tried to scale the speaker's platform, only to be pushed away by ruling party legislators. One pro-independence legislator tumbled ass over elbow to the floor.

Something flew through the air and struck a ruling party legislator in the face. The victim put a hand over his eye and raised his other hand like an injured soccer player asking to be taken off the field.

Welcome to Taiwan's legislature, one of the unruliest in Asia or, really, anywhere in the world. Its melees have made it onto CNN and sparked regular bouts of soul-searching here over the "loss of face" for Taiwan. But few think the chamber's likely to learn better manners anytime soon.

"The legislature is not a regular law-making platform — it's a martial arts platform," said ruling Kuomintang legislator Alex Tsai. "Especially when some legislators want to show off how much they oppose some bills."

So it went on July 8, when the legislature convened to take up the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), a controversial China-Taiwan trade deal. In a surprise move, the speaker abruptly announced that the bill would proceed directly to a second and final reading within days, skipping committee review.

That's when pro-independence legislators, from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), went bananas. They charged the speaker's lectern, attempting to block the procedure. Tsai was one of the Kuomingtang (KMT) lawmakers on "defense," swatting away climbers' arms with a mischievous, amused grin on his face.

Just minutes after the session opened, it adjourned in chaos. Two legislators went to the hospital for minor injuries.

A hive of journalists buzzed outside, swapping information. One key point in dispute: what exactly had hit the KMT legislator's face? Some said a calculator; others, a small clock.

Said one visibly excited TV reporter: "They haven't fought much recently," before scurrying away to do a stand-up report.

A KMT legislator came outside to the steps in front of the chamber to show off his battle scars to the media pack. "We regret that the DPP uses violent methods, hurting the legislature's image and Taiwan's image," one of his party-mates said.

By now, it's a ritual. Legislators from both sides admit that much of the tussling is about as "real" as U.S. professional wrestling and is mostly a show for the T.V. cameras. They prepare for battle by slipping on sneakers or other soft-soled shoes and making other wardrobe adjustments.

"I can't wear a tie — sometimes it's dangerous," said opposition DPP legislator Twu Shiing-jer, explaining that ties only give the other side something to pull on in the heat of battle.

Sometimes the fighting gets out of control though — and people do get hurt. The women fight just as much as the men, pulling each others' hair and pounding on tables.

In 2004 a food fight broke out over an arms purchase bill, with rice-and-chicken lunch boxes flying across a conference room. In 2006, a female opposition legislator snatched away a bill on closer links ith China and stuffed it in her mouth — call it "veto by chewing."

In a separate brawl, another threw her shoe at the speaker, hitting a nearby legislator instead.

Why such high emotions?

"The DPP wants to show their supporters they are heroes, fighting with the KMT," said Tsai. "They say the KMT has an alliance with China, so if they fight with the KMT, they're fighting with China. That will please supporters and get them more money and more votes."

"If there were no cameras, they wouldn't fight with us," he said.

The DPP legislator Twu didn't entirely disagree. "Taiwan's democracy is not mature yet," he said. "We're just like kids, arguing in the legislature."

He said he "worried a lot" about the effect on Taiwan's international image. But he said his party, with only 33 out of 113 seats, sometimes had to take drastic action because the majority party routinely ignored them.

"From our point of view, we never fight," said Twu. "We just try to occupy the chairman's chair, to stop illegal processes. They [the KMT] don't like to discuss — unfortunately, they don't respect the minority."

He said legislators that fight tooth-and-nail over one "hot" bill will cooperate on others, and they can get along just fine after the closing bell's rung.

Asked about China's tendency to point to Taiwan's legislative brawls as a cautionary sign of the chaos democracy can bring, Twu was dismissive.

"Everyone knows this isn't true — this is just [China] trying to cheat its people," he said. "Even an immature democracy is better than rule by just one group or man," he said, referring to the Chinese Communist Party's autocratic rule.

Twu said his party hopes to prolong the ECFA review process as long as possible, to make sure the Taiwanese people understand the stakes. It looks more likely that the public will instead be treated to a few more days of fisticuffs.

Taiwan sociologist Chiu Hei-yuan said the main reason for legislative conflict was the imbalance between the ruling and opposition party. He said Taiwan had turned the clock back to the 1980s, when a vastly outnumbered pro-democracy opposition used violent methods to make its presence known.

"The structure of Congress has returned to the period of the end of martial law, so there's no way for the two sides to compromise," said Chiu. "The KMT says, I'll just ignore your opinions. And the DPP says, I'll just fight hard. I think both sides are irrational."

Chiu recently led a team of scholars in assembling a report on legislative and media reform. He said only tweaks to the legislative electoral system would help. "The big gap between the two parties will continue if the voting system isn't changed. There won't be any way to solve the problem for a long time," he said.

Twu, not surprisingly, agreed. "We must tell the Taiwan people, if you want more stable politics, you must increase the number of DPP legislators, to make it more even."

Outside the legislative chamber, one security guard had a jaded take on the chaos. He was surprised the session had concluded so quickly, but otherwise it was all business as usual.

Told that violence in the U.S. Congress had been rare for more than 100 years, he gave a quizzical look, then asked, "How does your Congress pass bills?"

Original site

Japan PM unpopular

Japanese PM's Popularity Sags Ahead of Vote

AOL News

(July 9) -- Japan's ruling party enters elections this weekend amid falling approval ratings for its new flag-bearer, Prime Minister Naoto Kan, and concerns over his handling of the economy.

Sunday's vote concerns only the upper house of Japan's parliament, so the government, which controls the lower house, will stay in power regardless of the outcome.

But a weak showing from Kan's center-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) could slow down the government's policy agenda and leave Japan without strong leadership as it fights to get out of the economic doldrums. Kan, a former finance minister, replaced his hapless party colleague Yukio Hatoyama as prime minister on June 4.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has put repairing the country's strained finances at the center of the campaign for this Sunday's parliamentary elections. The vote is viewed as a referendum on the Democratic Party's 10 months in power.

The DPJ rode to power last year on an ambitious platform of generous social spending, but Kan has also made deficit reduction a priority since taking the helm. Many observers doubt whether he can do both.

His party is fighting to gain an outright majority in the 242-seat upper house, where it currently holds only 116 seats. Half of the chamber's seats are up for grabs in Sunday's vote. (See more details here.)

A majority would consolidate the DPJ's power and allow it to more smoothly implement its reforms. If it doesn't get that majority, the party will be forced to patch together a new ruling coalition.

Just over a month into his term, Kan's approval ratings have plunged to 43 percent from 65 percent in mid-June, according to the latest poll by Kyodo News.

Robert Dujarric, an expert on Japan's politics at Temple University's Japan campus, said Kan is hardly alone in disappointing the fickle Japanese public.

"It seems to have happened to every single prime minister since [Junichiro] Koizumi," the flashy, outspoken leader of Japan from 2001 to 2006, he said in a phone interview. "They seem to have a very short shelf life."

"There's no party that's really satisfied the needs of the electorate," Dujarric said. "There's nothing that seems to please the Japanese voter."

Kan has been hurt by his suggestion that the consumption tax should be raised from the current 5 percent to 10 percent or more over time. That move would fit into his budget-balancing goals but is politically unpopular, as it will hit the average voter's pocketbook. He then appeared to waffle on the issue after lawmakers in his own party objected, saying there would be no tax hike in the near term.

Dujarric said Japanese voters aren't convinced he and other recent, short-lived Japanese prime ministers -- Kan is the fifth in three years -- have a sound economic plan. And none of Koizumi's successors have been able to match his communication skills, making him a tough act to follow.

"Koizumi had actor-like capabilities that others haven't had," Dujarric said. "He was Reagan-esque, in a way, and others haven't been."

Kan also has to contend with the long shadow of party elder Ichiro Ozawa, a consummate political operator. Dubbed the "shadow shogun" for pulling the strings behind the scenes under the previous prime minister, he's now become something of a back-seat driver.

Kan famously told Ozawa publicly to "keep quiet" for the sake of the country, but Ozawa has of late been sniping at Kan's leadership, taking particular issue with the mooted consumption tax hike.

But Japan watcher Tobias Harris said in a recent commentary on his website that Ozawa's criticisms could actually be good for the party.

"Ozawa's behavior during the campaign could signal a new role for Ozawa as an internal critic, concerned less with vying for control of the party than with keeping the party on what he sees as the right path," Harris wrote. "It seems to me that the Kan government could live with Ozawa's moving into this role."

If the DPJ fails to get a majority, observers say it could try to cobble together a new coalition in the upper house with defectors from the rival Liberal Democratic Party, independents and the small "Your Party." That would replace its current, shaky coalition with two other small parties.

See news report from China's CCTV below:

Original site

Vitamin, or poison pill?

China-Taiwan trade deal: buyer's remorse?

July 8, 2010

Analysis: A week after historic pact, many Taiwanese worry that they did the wrong thing.

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Is it a vitamin, or a poison pill?

A week after China and Taiwan signed a landmark trade deal binding their economies closer, Taiwanese can't decide if they've been thrown an economic life-line or, as one paper put it, signed a political "suicide note." And that's the experts.

The two sides inked the Economic Cooperation Framework agreement (ECFA), on June 29 at a ceremony in Chongqing, China. The deal lowers tariffs on a range of goods. It also provides better market access for services, including banking.

All fine and good. Except this is no run-of-the-mill trade deal.

Strange to say, it was signed by two countries who don't recognize each other's existence. In fact, they're technically still in a state of hostilities. China covets self-ruled Taiwan and has some 1,300 missiles piled up across from the island as a reminder it shouldn't be naughty (i.e., make a formal, permanent break with the mainland.)

China's claim is long-standing. But instead of bellicose threats, Beijing has begun using the honey of economic enticements to catch the fly. ECFA's terms heavily favor Taiwan, with tariff reductions on 539 Taiwanese exports to China versus just 267 Chinese exports to Taiwan. In other words, it's a big, fat dollop of honey.

Now, self-ruled Taiwan is wondering whether its fragile young democracy can long endure in the sweaty economic embrace of the hulking suitor next door.

Participants in a protest against the China-Taiwan trade deal in Taipei on June 26, 2010.
(Jonathan Adams/GlobalPost)

"I think we all know why China is making so many concessions," said Taiwanese economist Ma Kai at a forum. "China thinks ECFA is a very important step toward the unification of China. Everyone in Taiwan knows that."

"If that is the political price that Taiwan has to pay to get ECFA, this price is too high for many Taiwanese to accept."

Polls suggest a majority of Taiwanese backed the trade deal [3], at about a 62 percent to 37 percent ratio in May, according to survey data compiled by the Election Study Center's Yu Ching-hsin. But only 10 percent support unification with China.

Even some of the deal's supporters have voiced anxiety about how Taiwan can fend off Beijing's political advances. And they worry about over-dependence. Already, some 35 percent of Taiwan's exports go to China; after the deal some say that percentage could rise to 45 percent or even 50 percent.

"That ratio's too high — it's dangerous," said Hwang Jen-te, an economist at National Chengchi University. "It will endanger Taiwan's economic security; we have to consider this."

The pro-independence opposition thinks Taiwan's been hornswaggled. "In economics, maybe it [ECFA] is good for giant industries, but for the political part, we lose," said opposition legislator Twu Shiing-jer. "I hope the international community will not come to see Taiwan as a part of China because we signed this."

The opposition mobilized tens of thousands of people in a march against the trade deal on June 26. It says the government is exaggerating the deal's benefits, and it wants a referendum.

The pro-independence party has posted Youtube videos warning of ECFA's effects [4]. One shows a Taiwanese applicant passed over for a job in favor of a Chinese applicant willing to accept half the salary.

Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou said he's well aware of China's unification agenda, but insists Taiwanese should stay calm and have confidence. He's pledged not to enter unification talks and not to allow Chinese workers into Taiwan.

His party, the Kuomintang, holds a large majority in the legislature and, barring an internal revolt, should push the deal through. "We are convinced that our position is strongly supported by the majority of people in Taiwan," said legislator Alex Tsai, adding that they want the legislative review done and dusted by the end of summer.

Other commentators also took a glass-half-full approach, putting the trade deal in the context of decades of troubled relations.

"For the first time in our 60-years history, the two sides, while hostile before, are talking about the institutionalization and formalization of economic relations between Taiwan and China," said Francis Kan, an expert from National Chengchi University. "This will go down in history as a turning point."

So what do normal Taiwanese think of ECFA's impact?

"It's not clear," said the owner of a neighborhood fruit stand, without looking up from his pear-peeling, as his wife cut up the fruit into white, juicy chunks. "Whatever the case, it won't
have a big effect on our business."

Original site

Tragic panda accidents

Beijing panda birth ends in tragic accident

AOL News

TAIPEI, Taiwan (July 6) --
After giving birth to twins, a panda at the Beijing Zoo accidentally crushed one of them to death, a zoo official confirmed today.

The other panda baby, utterly ignored by its mother, Ying Hua, has been moved to a panda conservation center in Sichuan Province, where it will be cared for and raised.

The drama began Friday, when first-time mother Ying Hua bore twin female cubs, according to China Daily and other media reports.

Panda, Bejing, Zoo

Ying Hua the panda, shown at the Bejing Zoo in 2008, gave birth to twin cubs but accidentally crushed one of the newborns, a zoo official said.

Ying Hua immediately began nursing the first cub she saw but paid no attention to the other.

"Mother pandas are always like that," zoo deputy president Zhang Jinguo told China Daily. "Twins are rare, and all mothers take only the first cub as their own."

As it turned out, the snubbed cub was luckier than its twin sister.

The 8-year-old Ying Hua doted on her favorite daughter like any excited new panda mom, licking her and responding immediately to her every cry for help, Taiwan's Central News Agency reported, citing a report from Beijing's Xinjing newspaper.

But less than 20 hours after the baby's birth, the mom's doting did her in.

Security camera footage showed Ying Hua, apparently responding to her cub's cry for milk, attempting to turn her body around in a tight corner of her pen around 4:45 a.m. As her head pressed up against the wall, the cub was crushed between her chin and chest, according to Zhang.

"Ying Hua was too nervous," said one unnamed zookeeper. "She didn't have any experience raising a child."

Since her daughter's death, "careless" Ying Hua has refused to eat or drink, keeps searching her enclosure fruitlessly and has clawed up the floor of the enclosure, creating an "unbearable" scene for the keepers, according to the Central News Agency.

"This kind of accident has happened at other zoos, but it's the first time at the Beijing Zoo," a keeper said.

On the bright side, Shangye Diantai reported that a panda couple at Hong Kong's Ocean Park, Le Le and Ying Ying, are expected to have a baby next year. "Protecting the panda baby will be a big challenge," the article said.

Baby pandas are born "pink, with almost no hair, and blind," and weigh 4 to 8 ounces on average, according to a fact sheet from Pandas International.

"If twins are born, usually only one survives in the wild," the fact sheet reads. "The mother will select the stronger of the cubs, and the weaker will die. It is thought that the mother cannot produce enough milk for two cubs since she does not store fat."

The current giant panda population is estimated at 1,600, with 200 bears in captivity, according to Pandas International.

Original site

Obama film opens

Movie About Obama's Childhood Opens Today

AOL News

(July 1) --
A movie based on President Barack Obama's childhood years in Indonesia opened on Indonesian screens today, depicting a young Barack in a goofy school uniform playing ping-pong, tooling around in a rickshaw, boxing bullies and then learning that "fighting isn't the solution."

"Obama Anak Menteng," or "Obama the Menteng Kid," is based on the book by the same name by Damien Dematra, who made the film with John de Rantau. Menteng is a district of Indonesia's capital city, Jakarta.

The film was made in just a month, with a rushed schedule to have it ready in time for Obama's scheduled trip to Indonesia a couple weeks ago. Obama ended up postponing that trip due to the Gulf oil spill.

A young Barack Obama, played by actor Hasan Faruq Ali, holds a miniature Statue of Liberty in the movie Obama the Menteng Kid, a film about Obama's childhood days in Indonesia.
MVP Pictures / AFP / Getty Images

A young Barack Obama, played by actor Hasan Faruq Ali, holds a miniature Statue of Liberty in "Obama the Menteng Kid," a film about Obama's childhood days in Indonesia.

The movie is a classic new-kid-on-the-block tale of mixed-race Obama trying to fit in and be accepted in his new Asian home. It's set during his years in Indonesia, 1967-1971, and is based on some 30 interviews Dematra conducted with childhood friends and others, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

"What are you actually?" one kid asks the young newcomer, in the film. "Westerner, but dark colored. Weird hair. Big nose."

Other scenes show him confronting a bully over a marble game, learning how to box and be a man from his stepfather Lolo Soetoro, and then saying tearful goodbyes.

The director said the film was about 60 percent true and 40 percent fiction, according to an interview with Time magazine.

The snarky gossip site Wonkette called the film "the Indonesian 'Karate Kid' ripoff," said it was "very, very loosely" based on Obama's years in Indonesia, and mocked the film's attempts to explain the roots of Obama's character.

"Look, that's where Obama got his karate skillz! It all makes sense now! And you see that little brown Desi Arnaz kicking those marbles? That's when Barry came up with his most vindictive idea, Obamacare."

The trailer's most sensational bits are scenes of Obama being biked to work by his effeminate nanny, a detail the director says was based on fact. A scene in the book of Obama imitating his Muslim friends at prayer in a mosque was not included in the movie version, because it was "too political," the director told Agence France-Presse.

"That scene wasn't even shot because I didn't want people to take it out of context and use it against him," Dematra said.

Twelve-year-old American actor Hasan Faruq Ali, who is also the son of a white mother and African-American father and speaks some Bahasa, played the young Obama. Scenes of Obama's old neighborhood in Jakarta were actually shot in Bandung, West Java.

Dematra knew "virtually nothing" about Obama until he hatched the idea of writing a book about him at a dinner party at the U.S. embassy in Jakarta, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

The film opened in theaters across Indonesia today after premiering Wednesday at a screening in Jakarta, and negotiations are underway for a U.S. release, the Monitor reported. See still photos and more information at the movie's official website.

Original site

P.Noy takes the helm

'P.Noy' Takes Helm in Philippines

AOL News

(June 30) -- Benigno Aquino III was sworn in as president of the Philippines today, vowing to turn the tide on corruption and poverty in this longtime Asian underachiever.

A crowd estimated at about 500,000 witnessed the swearing-in ceremony of the son of democracy icons, who rode to power on a wave of nostalgia and emotional outpouring following the death of his mother, Corazon "Cory" Aquino, nearly a year ago.

Corey led the famous 1980s "People Power" movement that ended martial law, following the murder of pro-democracy activist Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, her husband and the new president's father, in 1983.

"You are the reason why today, the suffering of the people will end," Aquino told crowds, according to The New York Times. "Here, on this day, ends the reign of a government that is indifferent to the complaints of the people."

The new president, perhaps taking a page from U.S. rap mogul P. Diddy, has changed his nickname from "Noynoy" to "P. Noy", according to "Pinoy" refers to a person of Filipino descent.

A free inaugural street party and concert followed the ceremony, featuring top Filipino stars and entertainers.

In his inaugural address, Aquino vowed to pursue justice against human-rights abusers and corrupt officials. On a lighter note, he also promised an end to noisy, red-light-running presidential motorcades that have become an irritant in metropolitan Manila and a symbol of the elitism of the Philippines' political leadership.

"No more wang-wang," he told the crowd, according to The Associated Press, using local slang for wailing sirens.

Aquino takes power after a decade of popular disillusionment over corrupt and allegedly corrupt leadership. Former President Joseph Estrada stepped down amid a corruption scandal in 2001; he was convicted of plunder and later pardoned.

Estrada's successor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, stands accused of vote-buying and left office a deeply unpopular figure. She maintains her innocence.

Aquino repeated his campaign pledge to investigate allegations against Arroyo, who was also sworn in today as a member of the Philippines' House of Representatives. That sets the stage for a showdown between Aquino's fresh government and Arroyo's powerful base of allies in Congress.

Aquino immediately swore in a cabinet and convened his first cabinet meeting, according to the Inquirer.

The 50-year-old bachelor has drawn much gossip over his love life, particularly on whether he will soon marry his girlfriend, Shalani Soledad. Then there's the question of who will assume first lady duties. His four sisters -- Ballsy, Pinky, Viel and Kris -- have said they will "take turns" helping him.

He's also drawn fire over his smoking habit. He regularly lit up on the campaign trail, and has brushed aside calls for him to quit, saying he'll need to puff away more than ever as president due to the massive stress of the job.

He told the media that U.S. President Barack Obama offered moral support on quitting during his congratulatory phone call earlier this month.

"Mr. President, I understand we have the same issue with smoking," Aquino said he told Obama, according to the AP. "He [Obama] said, 'Well I quit that already. I have quit. It's your sole problem. At the time that you decide to quit, I'll send the advice.'"

Some are skeptical that Aquino will be able to solve the Philippines' deeply rooted problems. The archipelago was rated 139 out of 180 countries on Transparency International's corruption perception index, the lowest of any major southeast Asian country.

One in four Filipinos live at or below the poverty line, according to the World Bank, and the Philippines has a per-capita income of just $1,900. As many as 11 million out of a population of 90 million have moved abroad to work, unable to find decent-paying jobs at home.

Economic power remains concentrated in the hands of a landed elite, many of them dynasties whose massive wealth and lavish, sprawling estates date to the days of Spanish colonization (1521-1898).

Aquino himself is from just such a family, and his extended family's own plantation, Hacienda Luisita, has been the subject of controversy. He himself, like his late mother before him, is widely viewed as "clean," but he will oversee a political structure in which corruption is endemic.

See a CNN "Talk Asia" interview with Aquino here.

Original site

Asia's newest flashpoint

South China Sea: Asia's newest flashpoint

Five things you need to know about one of the world's most dangerous places.

Global Post, June 27, 2010

TAIPEI, Taiwan — It's a 3.5 million-square kilometer stretch of ocean, speckled with some 200 coral atolls, some submerged or so tiny they hardly deserve to be called islands.

Welcome to the South China Sea, an obscure patch of global real estate that you're likely to hear more about in coming years.

Six Asian countries have long had competing — at times comical — claims to various islands here, sending token military forces to occupy barren rocks at great expense in the name of national pride.

What's new is China's muscle-flexing, which, if trends continue, could make the South China Sea one of Asia's most dangerous flash-points.

Fueling tensions in the sea are untapped oil and natural gas reserves, China's growing strategic interest in protecting sea lanes by which it gets some of its oil, and Beijing's desire to develop a "blue-water" navy capable of projecting power far beyond China's shores.

The U.S. is paying closer attention to the South China Sea, after China reportedly threatened U.S. energy firm ExxonMobil with retaliation if it continued oil exploration off Vietnam in waters China considers its own. And last year Chinese military vessels harassed U.S. surveillance ships in the sea.

Earlier this month, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates made what's believed to be the highest-level public U.S. remarks to date on the issue.

"The South China Sea is an area of growing concern," he said at a security forum in Singapore [3]. "This sea is not only vital to those directly bordering it, but to all nations with economic and security interests in Asia."

Gates repeated the U.S.' longstanding policy that it takes no position on conflicting sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.

But he said the U.S. believes "it is essential that stability, freedom of navigation, and free and unhindered economic development be maintained" and that "we object to any effort to intimidate U.S. corporations or those of any nation engaged in legitimate economic activity."

Here's a primer on the issue:

1) Why does America care?

The U.S. objects to any attempts to intimidate American energy companies operating in the South China Sea, which stretches from China all the way south to Indonesia. It also insists on the right of free navigation in international waters, defined, in accordance with customary international law, as any waters beyond 12 nautical miles from a nation's shoreline.

China says its sovereign territorial waters extend 200 miles from its shores, and makes a historical claim to almost all of the South China Sea, according to a backgrounder from the Heritage Foundation [4]. China also says that any ship traversing the sea should first obtain Chinese permission. It has long complained about U.S. intelligence-gathering from spy-planes and spy-ships operating off its coastline.

2) Who else claims territory in the South China Sea?

Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei also claim all or some of the South China Sea. Vietnam and China both claim the Paracels islands (known as the Xisha in Chinese), which China has controlled since a 1974 battle with Vietnam that left 18 dead. The other four countries as well as China and Vietnam also claim some or all of the Spratly Islands (known as the Nansha in Chinese) further south.

China's hold here is more tenuous; a skeleton force occupies nine speck-like islands, while Taiwan holds the largest island Itu Aba (or Taiping island, in Chinese), Vietnam holds 29 islands, the Philippines eight and Malaysia three, according to Michael Richardson, a visiting researcher at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, in a recent commentary [5]. More than 70 Vietnamese sailors died in the latest military clash in the Spratlys, with China in 1988.

3) What's new about China's behavior?

China has built up its small military presence in the Spratlys. It angered Vietnam by issuing a unilateral fishing ban in the South China Sea, then boarding and seizing Vietnamese fishing boats who did not observe that ban.

Longer-term, China is building up a massive naval base on its southern island of Hainan from which it will be able to project power into the South China Sea. The base will house China's new nuclear-armed submarines, as well as its first aircraft carrier, expected to enter service by 2012, and many other warships.

Perhaps most significantly, China has recently begun to define its claim of sovereignty over the South China Sea as a "core interest," say analysts, using new language that puts the sea on par with Beijing's claims over Taiwan and Tibet. Veteran China watcher Willy Lam calls it part of China's "red-line diplomacy."

"These red lines define China's core interests," said Lam at a recent talk in Taipei. "Now, China is increasing its core interests. The latest development is that China also considers the South China Sea as its 'core interest' — it's asking the U.S. and other countries not to interfere with its 'core interests' in the South China Sea. It's drawing red lines around the entire sea."

Wendell Minnick, Asia bureau chief for Defense News, wrote in an email that Gates' remarks in Singapore were a "surprise."

"Clearly China's decision to include the South China Sea as a 'core interest' is something unnerving," said Minnick.

Southeast Asian nations are also increasingly worried, according to Arthur Ding, a Taiwan expert on military issues who also attended the Singapore conference. He said he's heard rising concerns from southeast Asian officials, especially those from Vietnam and the Philippines, about China's growing "assertiveness."

And he highlighted Chinese general Ma Xiaotian's mention [6] of the South China Sea in a Q&A session in Singapore.

"The South China Sea had become so quiet, or at least not as much of an issue as the Taiwan Strait and the Korean peninsula," said Ding. "So this [Ma's remarks] really surprised me."

4) What are the most plausible conflict scenarios?

One worry is an incident at sea — say, a collision between a U.S. surveillance ship and a People's Liberation Army ship leading to loss of life — that could escalate due to miscalculation and lack of communication. One such incident took place in 2001 between a U.S. spy-plane and a Chinese fighter jet. The U.S. and Chinese militaries established a hotline in 2008, but China often simply refuses to pick up the phone out of pique, according to a recent Defense News report [7].

But the nations most likely to come to blows in the South China Sea may be China and Vietnam. Hanoi was incensed by Beijing's treatment of its fishing boats last year and lodged a formal protest. It continues to see the Paracels as its territory, illegally occupied by the Chinese. Anti-China nationalism runs strong in Vietnam and is easily inflamed. The two nations' militaries have twice skirmished in the South China Sea, in 1974 and 1988.

China's moves appear to have already started a regional arms race, analysts say. "Some southeast Asian nations are starting to beef up their armed forces to hedge growing Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea," wrote Ian Storey, fellow of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, in a recent commentary [8].

Defense News' Minnick said that Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam had "gotten into the submarine game," and that "there are more concerns of an underwater collision than an accidental war" in the South China Sea.

"Many of the countries now deploying submarines are not familiar with underwater rules of right of way," Minnick said. "There are clear demarcations for direction and depth that are not being followed by some of the more inexperienced countries. And then there's Chinese submarines roaming around as well. So it's getting crowded underwater."

Meanwhile, one side effect of China's new claim may be to strengthen the U.S.' budding ties with Vietnam. "The U.S. is moving closer to Vietnam, and better military-to-military relations are expected to improve this year as China rattles the saber more," said Minnick.

5) Are there any efforts to resolve South China Sea disputes?

In 2002 the concerned nations signed a "code of conduct" agreement on the South China Sea. But the deal hasn't yet been fully implemented, largely due to China, analysts say. "China perceives the South China Sea as its territory, so it thinks 'Why do I have to implement the code of conduct?'" said Ding, the Taiwanese expert.

Last year, Vietnam and Malaysia submitted their formal claims to territory in the South China Sea. China immediately protested, rendering the claims invalid, a move that further ratcheted up ill will. The issue has quieted down in recent months, but the underlying territorial disagreements are far from being resolved.

"Somehow, ways must be found to prevent emotive nationalism and militarism from upsetting the uneasy status quo in the South China Sea," wrote the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies' Richardson.

Original site

Bogus Chinese ATM

Beijing cops bust bogus ATM

AOL News

TAIPEI, Taiwan (June 25) -- Talk about a get-rich-quick scheme.

Chinese police busted a man who installed a fake ATM in Beijing in order to steal unwitting users' bank accounts and personal identification numbers, according to a Beijing TV news report translated at

The case highlights the proliferation of fraud, petty crime and fakery in today's go-go China, as millions hustle for an edge amid the country's headlong drive toward modernization.

Police arrested a 30-year-old and charged him with fraud, the report said, and removed the fake ATM for further investigation. The man, surnamed Huang, confessed to the scheme and said his machine could record users ATM card numbers and PINs.

Screenshot from showing a fake bank ATM that was draining the accounts of customers in Beijing

Chinese police arrested a man in Beijing who installed this fake ATM to access bank users' information.

The report did not say how many people the machine fooled, but noted that "customers who used this 'ATM' soon found that all their money in the bank account disappeared without a trace."

Taiwan's Apple Daily reported that a customer who tried to use the machine got an error message on the screen saying, "This ATM is temporarily out of service," only to find two days later that all 2,100 renminbi (about $300) in his account was gone. Calls to an emergency number posted on the machine reached a bank, which said it had no ATM at that location.

The Apple Daily quoted a local person who said, "Now even ATMs are fake -- there's no way to defend yourself."

But a policeman said the fake ATM was so shoddily made that any observant user should have realized it wasn't the real thing.

"As you can see, here there's some leftover glue," he told Beijing TV. "The slot where receipts are supposed to come out is actually solid inside -- it's just a metal plate glued onto the machine. And the slot where cash is supposed to come out is also sealed shut.

"The overhead security camera is just a piece of plastic, and there is no logo or name of any specific bank on the machine. Therefore, alert citizens could easily see that this is a fake ATM," he said.

The Beijing TV news report dubbed the ersatz cash-cougher a "shanzhai" ATM, using popular Chinese slang for a knockoff product. The term literally means "mountain stronghold" and was originally coined to describe ultra-cheap, imitation or generic cell phones and other gadgets, most made in small, obscure factories in southern China.

"Shanzhai" reports have filled the Chinese media and Internet, including a recent report on a man who built his own knockoff Lamborghini; China's homegrown answer to,; Kentucky Fried Chicken clones; and even fake universities.

Last year, two Taiwanese grifters were busted in Thailand for swindling mainland Chinese marks out of some 10 million baht (about $300,000) in a wide-scale ATM con. Credit card fraud is also on the rise in China, according to a recent report in the China Daily.

Original site

Whaling talks collapse

Whaling reduction talks collapse amid scandal

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(June 23) -- Talks on a resumption of commercial whaling broke down today on the third day of an international whaling meeting that's being held under a cloud of scandal and legal disputes.

Japan had hoped to cut a deal at this year's International Whaling Commission summit in Morocco that would allow it to resume commercial whaling for the first time since the mid-1980s, in exchange for trimming its controversial "research" catch in Antarctica. But it reportedly refused to promise an eventual halt to such research whaling, scuttling the deal, according to the New York Times.

A Japanese whaling ship, right, hauls a newly caught minke whale up its slipway
Adam Lau, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society / AP

A quarter-century ban on commercial whaling, one of the world's most successful preservation agreements, could crumble if conservationists cannot persuade Japan to cut back on the tradition it champions. Here, a Japanese ship hauls a whale up its slipway in the Antarctic in 2009.

The breakdown in talks mean a continuation of the status quo -- whereby Japan, Norway and Iceland conduct their controversial, unregulated hunts despite a ban on commercial whaling and heated opposition from environmentalists.

A recent British newspaper report alleging that Japan buys pro-whaling votes from small countries with cash, hotel rooms and hookers sent a frisson through this year's IWC summit.

Meanwhile, Australia, where anti-whaling sentiment runs strong, has raised the stakes in the whaling battle by filing a case against Japan at the world court in the Hague.

Commercial whaling was banned in 1986, but Norway and Iceland have continued to hunt whales under a formal objection to the ban, while Japan has continued its hunt under the guise of "scientific research," which is technically permitted by IWC rules.

Japanese consume an estimated 4,000 to 4,500 metric tons of whale meat every year, including in school lunches in some coastal fishing communities, according to the Japan Whaling Association.

In an interview with Radio Australia, Glenn Inwood, a spokesman for Japan's delegation to the whaling meeting in Morocco, said Japan was willing to cut a deal whereby it would shrink its research catch in the Antarctic in return for being allowed to resume limited commercial whaling.

"Japan is very willing to compromise," Inwood said. "It has made a number of significant concessions to the IWC to this process ... now it's time for anti-whaling countries to bring something to the table instead of digging their heels in, but they're not."

In an interview at his Tokyo office earlier this year, Konomu Kubo of the Japan Whaling Association said, "Japan supports the principle of sustainable whaling, but we do not in the least support the idea of harvesting whales whose numbers are depleted."

"We are groping for some sort of compromise," said Kubo.

He said then that it might not be "realistic" to expect a lifting of the whaling ban this year since three-quarters of the IWC's 88 members would need to support such a move. (Japan is believed to have the backing of just 38 members, according to the Times of London.)

Some scientists and researchers who strongly oppose the killing of whales are even arguing for "whale rights," with one group issuing a declaration in May, according to Al-Jazeera.

In a recent expose, London's Sunday Times reported on the favors allegedly doled out by Japan to countries in exchange for their support on whaling, saying its findings "raises serious questions about the credibility of the IWC."

The Times sent reporters posing as representatives of a fictional Swiss billionaire who opposed whaling to try to lure IWC officials to back an anti-whaling stance. The paper then recorded their responses.

Tanzania's IWC commissioner told the Times that Japan's allies on the IWC were "taken on all-expenses-paid visits to Japan where 'good girls' would be available." The Times published the following exchange:

Reporter: So you think the other countries' representatives are set up with prostitutes from Japan?

[Geoffrey] Nanyaro: Yes, you know, yeah ... It starts by saying: do you want massaging? ... It's going to be free massaging. Are you not lonely? You don't want any comfort?"

Japan has denied any wrongdoing, and says the allegations of vote-buying at the IWC are meant to discredit its position, according to the Associated Press.

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Asia embraces the cloud

Cloud computing storms Asia

But does anyone here really know what that means?

Global Post, June 19, 2010

TAIPEI, Taiwan — He spoke into the microphone quickly, in a clipped tone, as spectators in a crowded conference hall hung on his words.

His presence here was akin to that of an Olympian god, deigning to descend from the heavens (Silicon Valley) for an inspection tour of Vulcan's workshop: the Far East, where most of the world's gee-whiz tech gadgets — handsets, iPads, e-readers, netbooks — are actually made.

He was here in part to preach the latest gospel from America. He was here to preach The Cloud.

"Cloud computing will drive a massive wave of innovation in personal computing, and Taiwan is going to be at the center of that," said Google vice president for product management Sundar Pichai, speaking with the doubt-free air of a TV evangelist for the high-tech set. "That's why it's very exciting to be here. We need partners in the 'ecosystem', and the pace of innovation here is incredible."

He said his firm has made "big bets on cloud computing," and his tone said he was confident of coming up aces. "The web is going to get much more powerful, and that's the heart of cloud computing."

Yes, a typhoon of "cloud computing" hype has reached Asia. Never mind that few people here (or elsewhere) seem to understand what it means, or that the term is thrown around so carelessly.

Whatever it is, the tech elite here seems to agree it's important — and Taiwanese firms had better get the new religion, fast. Taiwan's government recently announced an ambitious plan to promote "cloud computing." South Korea's did the same late last year.

Broadly speaking, cloud computing refers to the trend of delivering software, storage and other services over the internet. That's a shift from the old PC-and-local network computing model, where documents, software and operating systems live on each individual machine, and firms maintain their own servers and tech staff.

In tech-speak, it's called moving stuff "outside the firewall."

In the brave new cloud computing world of the future, gadgets and devices will increasingly function solely as a connection to the Internet and content delivery platform. Software, storage, even operating systems will run remotely from vast data centers, or server farms.

If that future comes to pass, whoever is good at building and operating those data centers, and the customized servers that run them, stands to thrive.

At the revival-meeting-slash-cloud-computing-forum in Taipei earlier this month, Taiwanese fretted about whether they'd be able to adapt. Western participants tried to reassure them of the Good News: With The Cloud, they'd have more opportunities than ever to make gadgets for the world's eager consumers.

"You have built the finest electronics manufacturing infrastructure the world has ever known," said Tudor Brown, President of ARM Holdings, which makes the processors used in mobile gadgets like the iPhone. "Cloud computing brings opportunities for a much bigger market, as you use that infrastructure to continue to produce these products and ship them around the world."

"Your competitiveness should be increased, not decreased, by the shift to a more flexible cloud computing world," he insisted, after a round of teeth-gnashing from Taiwanese panelists over their self-defeating price wars and other shortcomings.

Like most of the fads out of Silicon Valley, "cloud computing" is a catchphrase with an uncertain shelf-life. But industry observers are surprised at its staying power to date.

"We went through Internet hype and crash a decade ago," said Frank Gillett, principal analyst at Forrester Research, in a phone interview. "Then we went through a smaller sort of excitement about 'virtualization.' And starting about two years ago, we got 'cloud fever' — and the fever has persisted longer than I thought it would. The amount of hype is kind of silly."

One of the fiercest critics of cloud hype has been Oracle's Larry Ellison, who said in a famous 2008 rant [3], "the computer industry is the only industry that's more fashion-driven than women's fashion ... I have no idea what anyone's talking about, I mean it's really just gibberish ... what the hell is cloud computing?"

Gillett says cloud computing is a mixed bag. Part of it is just using a trendy new phrase for old services -- an old-wine-in-new-bottles job that some call "cloud-washing" (one might also say "bullcloud.") Using Gmail qualifies as cloud computing. So does using Flickr, or any web-based software services.

But part of it is a genuinely new way of thinking about computing that could, over the next decade, change our relations with gadgets and Internet services, he said. Whereas now people buy a gadget — be it a smart-phone or netbook or tablet computer — and then choose what services to access with that device, in the cloud-computing future it may well be the other way around.

"The level of integration between devices and services will increase, and the decision-making sequence will be flipped on its head, from devices to services, both for individuals and companies," said Gillett.

For businesses, Gillett says cloud computing is most promising in areas like web conferencing, data warehousing and business intelligence. Firms are likely to farm out those areas rather than try to maintain expensive in-house capabilities.

So are the Taiwanese convinced? Convinced enough for the government to launch a $720 million campaign about it. Because who knows?

Those Silicon Valley preachers may turn out to be right.

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