Global News Blog
Thanks to a heads up from the local news last night, I got to watch President Barack Obama on the "Late Show with David Letterman." I figured if it was big enough to make the nightly news I should watch, but I didn't expect much more than staged jokes, dull conversation, and campaign messaging.
But after the initial chitchat ended – and President Obama had the audience on his side after cracking a joke about not wanting to see host David Letterman naked – I understood why the president went on air with the late night host. I also wondered whether it was something German Chancellor Angela Merkel should consider when running for re-election next year.
The setting is perfect: It's free television time on a national level and gives the incumbent a big platform for presenting both his ideas and his personality. I didn't expect Mr. Letterman to let Obama talk about the national debt for more than three minutes, let alone the gridlock in Congress for almost four, but that's what he did.
For Obama it was a way to reach voters who might not be interested enough in politics to follow election coverage closely but enjoy their late night talk shows. His choice of words might have been simple – referring to "two wars on a credit card" when talking about the national debt – but his message, peppered as it was with stories about his children and the White House garden, stuck.
Germany has already adopted the US debate culture, so why not appear on talk shows too? Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder tried that when he appeared on the popular evening game show "Wetten, dass...?" ("Wanna bet this...?) in 1999, but it didn't really catch on with other politicians. Last year Chancellor Merkel turned down an offer to appear on the show, which was hosted by the popular Thomas Gottschalk until the end of last season.
Maybe it's because Merkel is not quite the hip politician Obama is and likes to keep her personal life private. But even though German elections are never as personality-driven as they are in the US, the candidates still need to appeal to voters, and this is an ideal way to do that.
Take former Minister of Defense Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who stepped down in 2011 after the disclosure that he had plagiarized his doctoral thesis. Even in the middle of that controversy, he remained one of the most popular politicians in Germany, partly because he knew how to spin the headlines with well-crafted appearances, showing up in an AC/DC T-shirt at a concert or getting his picture taken at tourist hub Times Square on a trip to the US.
Even if Merkel does not want to trade personal stories with Letterman like Obama did, appearing on a carefully chosen entertainment TV show and sharing just a little bit of about her personal life while going long on economic policy and government spending could be an easy way to get the message out to the average Joe – or in this case, Otto Normalverbraucher.
Rumors are that Mr. Gottschalk is planning a comeback with a show airing on public broadcaster ARD. That could be a nice match.
The first sign of just how closely the Chinese authorities were monitoring and controlling today’s anti-Japanese demonstrations here came on my cellphone.
It was an SMS from the Beijing police. Barely had I arrived in the vicinity of the Japanese embassy, the target of a fourth day of protests over a territorial dispute, than the message popped up on my screen.
“The Beijing Public Security Bureau reminds you to please express your patriotism in a rational and orderly fashion and to follow police instructions. Thank you for your cooperation,” it read.
The Chinese government was clearly anxious that Tuesday’s demonstrations, marking the anniversary of the incident that sparked Japan’s 1931 occupation of Northeastern China, should not turn violent, as had happened over the weekend.
The protesters, mostly young men, many waving red and gold Chinese flags or portraits of Mao Zedong, were doing as they were told by organizers. Obediently they formed up in small groups and awaited their turn to march past the embassy, where they slowed down just long enough to throw bottles of water at the gates.
Any hotheads in the crowd who might have wanted to do more were dissuaded by the sight of helmeted riot police standing shoulder to shoulder along the roadside, reinforcing thousands of police officers who were making sure, megaphones in hand, that everybody kept moving. Also reinforcing the police were civilian security volunteers wearing armbands, and reinforcing them were dayglo-orange-waistcoated traffic wardens.
Then the protesters marched on down the street in glorious late summer sunshine, chanting slogans such as “Japanese dogs out of China,” or “China wake up,” and even reminding themselves, in unison, to “listen to orders.”
A block down the street they turned around, marched back down the way they had come, then turned around once more and started all over again.
“I’ve been round three times already and I won’t go home until everybody else does,” said Zhang Chong, a young clothes vendor, his cheek decorated with a Chinese flag decal.
“We didn’t lose the Diaoyu islands in Mao Zedong’s time and we will not allow them to be lost by our generation,” Mr. Zhang said, explaining why he had taken to the streets.
The worst outbreak of anti-Japanese sentiment for many years was sparked last week when the Japanese government bought three of the uninhabited islands in the East China Sea known here as the Diaoyu and in Japan as the Senkaku. China claims sovereignty over the islands, which are under Japanese control and were privately owned until last week.
The Chinese government responded by fiercely denouncing the purchase, formally specifying the geographical coordinates of the waters that it claims around the islands, sending surveillance vessels to the islands and sanctioning anti-Japanese demonstrations around the country, some of which torched Japanese-owned businesses on Saturday.
Nothing like that was to be allowed on Tuesday, it was clear. As the protesters approached the Japanese embassy, a loudspeaker mounted on a police car played them a tape loop: “The Chinese government shares the people’s feelings” a woman’s voice assured them. “The government has made it clear it will not accept any territorial infringement. But once you have expressed yourself, please move on.”
Russia has just declassified news that will shake world gem markets to their core: the discovery of a vast new diamond field containing "trillions of carats," enough to supply global markets for another 3,000 years.
They decided to keep it secret, and not to exploit it, apparently because the USSR's huge diamond operations at Mirny, in Yakutia, were already producing immense profits in what was then a tightly controlled world market.
The Soviets were also producing a range of artificial diamonds for industry, into which they had invested heavily.
The veil of secrecy was finally lifted over the weekend, and Moscow permitted scientists from the nearby Novosibirsk Institute of Geology and Mineralogy to talk about it with Russian journalists.
According to the official news agency, ITAR-Tass, the diamonds at Popigai are "twice as hard" as the usual gemstones, making them ideal for industrial and scientific uses.
The institute's director, Nikolai Pokhilenko, told the agency that news of what's in the new field could be enough to "overturn" global diamond markets.
"The resources of superhard diamonds contained in rocks of the Popigai crypto-explosion structure are, by a factor of 10, bigger than the world's all known reserves," Mr. Pokhilenko said. "We are speaking about trillions of carats. By comparison, present-day known reserves in Yakutia are estimated at 1 billion carats."
The type of stones at Popigai are known as "impact diamonds," which theoretically result when something like a meteor plows into a graphite deposit at high velocity. The Russians say most such diamonds found in the past have been "space diamonds" of extraterrestrial origin found in meteor craters. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the type of deposit needed to create impact diamonds.]
They claim the Popigai site is unique in the world, thus making Russia the monopoly proprietor of a resource that's likely to become increasingly important in high-precision scientific and industrial processes.
"The value of impact diamonds is added by their unusual abrasive features and large grain size," Pokhilenko told Tass. "This expands significantly the scope of their industrial use and makes them more valuable for industrial purposes."
Russian scientists say the news is likely to change the shape of global diamond markets, although the main customers for the super-hard gems will probably be big corporations and scientific institutes.
China sent six surveillance ships into waters near disputed islands in the East China Sea on Friday, but quickly withdrew them in a sign that Beijing does not want tensions with Japan to rise too sharply.
The civilian vessels were engaged in “the normal performance of their duty,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters. The ships withdrew soon after being ordered to leave the area by Japanese coast guards, Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported.
The sovereignty dispute has flared up again since Tuesday, when the Japanese government purchased three of the five contested islands from the Japanese family that had owned them. The uninhabited islands are known as the Diaoyu in China and as the Senkaku in Japan.
Beijing clearly had to react, if only because popular sentiment is running high on the issue in China; protestors have staged demonstrations in a number of cities, Japanese citizens have been assaulted on the streets of Shanghai, tempers are flaring in Internet posts and nationalism is rampant.
Aside from that, the islands could also be valuable; ownership of them gives rights over rich fishing grounds and a claim to potentially huge oil reserves under the nearby seabed.
Senior Chinese officials have limited themselves, however, to strong words and saber rattling. Today’s edition of the “People’s Daily,” the ruling Communist party’s official organ, carried a full page article detailing China’s recent military modernization program, for example.
On Thursday, in a thinly veiled hint at retaliatory economic steps, Chinese Vice Minister of Commerce Jiang Zengwei told a news briefing that "with Japan's so-called purchase of the islands, it will be hard to avoid negative consequences for Sino-Japanese economic and trade ties."
Behind the bluster, though, it might well be that Beijing has decided privately to accept the Japanese government’s explanation that it bought the islands to prevent further trouble.
Shintaro Ishihara, the stridently nationalist governor of Tokyo, had announced his own plan for the Tokyo municipality to buy the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. Had he done so he could have caused untold mischief, provoking the Chinese at will by starting to build, or even to settle people.
Still, the sight of a Japanese citizen selling the islands to the Japanese government, regardless of China’s insistence that they are not anybody else’s to sell, has been painful here.
The authorities have salved their national pride with gestures. Last Tuesday, China began issuing weather forecasts for the islands and their surrounding waters, after publishing baseline coordinates setting out the Chinese view of which bits of rock and water belong to Beijing.
Eventually, tensions will doubtless fade, China and Japan will quietly acknowledge that they can never resolve the issue of sovereignty, and both sides will end up doing some sort of resource-sharing deal, just as they have elsewhere in the East China Sea. But that might take a while.
Dmitri Medvedev, Russia's prime minister and former president, has departed from the official script – as he sometimes dramatically does – to call for the release of three Pussy Riot women who were sentenced last month to two years in a penal colony for committing sacrilege in Moscow's premier Orthodox cathedral.
The women have been in prison since March, and their appeal hearing is set to begin in two weeks. Mr. Medvedev called for the women to be given suspended sentences.
"This well-known group of girls have been in prison quite a long time already, and that is a very serious punishment for everything they did, regardless of the sentence…. Prolonging their prison confinement seems unproductive in this case," he added.
Medvedev's comments came just a few days after President Vladimir Putin compared Pussy Riot performances with "witches' sabbaths" and mused over how obscene their name sounds in English in an interview with the Kremlin-run RT network. Otherwise, Mr. Putin insisted he had nothing to do with the case.
On Tuesday Russian state TV aired a "documentary" film entitled "Provocateurs. Part 2" which claimed the brief "punk prayer" performed by Pussy Riot in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior last February was part of an international conspiracy financed by renegade Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who currently lives in London.
Some experts say Medvedev, who has not shone in his new role as prime minister, may be trying to refurbish his liberal credentials amid Russia's fast polarizing political landscape in hopes that he may have a political future if Putin should be forced to leave the Kremlin early.
"Medvedev can't change anything for Pussy Riot, but he's taking care to position himself as a liberal," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow.
"After all, he's a former president, head of the United Russia party, and if Putin were to go away he could step up. He's taking care with his biography, to show that he can take a stand."
During his four year presidency Medvedev frequently expressed liberal positions, while taking care not to offend Putin. For example, he urged Russian law enforcement to reopen the cases of Anna Politkovskaya and other journalists who had been murdered in the line of work and he took the side of his human rights advisers in the controversial case of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky by admitting that some official crimes had taken place leading to his still unsolved prison death.
Last month the two openly quarreled over which of them took the critical decisions after Georgia attacked the Russian protectorate of South Ossetia in August 2008, triggering a brief war that was won by Russia.
But most experts believe Medvedev is just trying to continue the "good cop, bad cop" routine he practiced with Putin during the four years of "tandem" leadership in which Medvedev was nominally president.
Most experts seem to agree that, despite talking a liberal game, Medvedev changed nothing of significance during his four years in the Kremlin and never once challenged Putin in any significant way.
"The tandem is destroyed now, and Medvedev is trying to find his new place in Putin's hierarchy of power," says Andrei Kolesnikov, opinion editor at the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
"He wants to play a role, but as prime minister he is showing himself to be completely helpless. As when he was president, he appears incapable of taking any key decision without a nod from Putin," he says.
"As for his views on Pussy Riot, it's too little, too late. No one can imagine that the Moscow appeals court will take Medvedev's view into account. It's just a statement entirely without consequences."
IN PICTURES: Russians vs. Putin
Tuesday's deadly attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that ended with the death of US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens has drawn widespread attention to an anti-Islam film that enraged rioters on the scene. As the Monitor's Dan Murphy notes, the situation is reminiscent of the riots over the Muhammad cartoons published in 2005 by Denmark's Jyllands-Posten newspaper. He writes:
In some ways, it was the beginning of an era of manufactured outrage, with a group of fringe hate-mongers in the West developing a symbiotic relationship with radical clerics across the East. The Westerners deliberately cause offense by describing Islam as a fundamentally violent religion, and all too often mobs in Muslim-majority states oblige by engaging in violence.
He correctly notes that the film's authors "cannot be blamed for the violence … that blame goes to the perpetrators." Still, some may argue that the best way to end this vicious cycle of hateful message-and-response is to stifle the message. But – putting aside the question of whether this is the best course of action – is it even a legal option? Can the US government act to stop the circulation of offensive material like this? Can someone else?
The answer in the American system of government is simple: no. Any attempt by the federal government or a US state government to silence speakers like the filmmakers – regardless of how repellant their message might be – would be a restraint on their freedom of speech and a violation of the First Amendment. Even were the government to pass a law against hate speech, the First Amendment would still trump such a law and render it unconstitutional.
But while the Bill of Rights prohibits the countenance of a hate speech law in the US, the situation is quite different in Europe. While free speech is indeed protected in Europe both by the European Union and national governments, generally speaking those protections do not extend to hate speech. Many European nations, including France, Germany, and Britain, forbid expressions of hatred against a person or group of people based on their race, religion, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, and the like. As such, much of Europe would be able to crack down on messages like the film at issue now, based on its clear anti-Muslim agenda.
There is another set of entities that could act to stymie circulation of these hate messages, and indeed are well placed to do so: the websites hosting the offensive content. The First Amendment and other free speech protections generally apply only to state actors, and have no effect on private actors like Google, for example, which owns YouTube, where clips of the offending film have been posted. Should Google or other Web hosts be so inclined, they are free to decide which content they publish and which they remove without fear of running afoul of free speech protections.
Still, web hosts are under no obligation to police their users' content, and indeed, were they to do so it could impair the ability of individuals to express themselves. Again, take YouTube: The company is the largest streaming-video host in the world. If YouTube began aggressively censoring content according to what its board or management thought was morally right, those users with different views would be left without an outlet to publish their content. And while that may be acceptable to the general public in cases of hate speech, it might not be quite so acceptable if YouTube decided that speech on a topic with larger support – say, gay marriage – ought to be censored.
Hong Kong’s highest election turnout in years yesterday showed a thriving democratic sentiment in a nation that otherwise doesn’t go to the polls.
The heavy turnout hinged on tumult surrounding a “patriotic” education plan for Hong Kong schools – seen as a proxy for Beijing propaganda – and voter desire to weigh in on the future of the pilot program, which was rejected by all but two of hundreds of schools on the island.
Yesterday’s vote showed political sophistication, analysts say, aided largely by youth, in a vote where bread-and-butter issues like housing and pay figured prominently as well.
Young Hong Kongers spurred a political protest “movement bigger than anything I’ve seen in a long time,” says Michael DeGolyer, who has long studied city politics at Hong Kong Baptist University. “You had 16-year-olds bringing their parents into politics, not the other way around.”
The patriotic education course was aimed at elementary-level students and got heavy criticism for teaching little or nothing about cataclysmic events like the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, or the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Critics branded it “brainwashing.”
Hong Kong has long harbored a distrust of mainland Beijing’s heavy-handed efforts to “make” Hong Kong a “Chinese” city, even as Hong Kong’s history, civil service, education, and business acumen make it a financial services hub with international characteristics.
After the crippling SARS outbreak in 2003 and efforts by Beijing to institute a “subversion” law that would throttle free expression, Hong Kong’s civic base has steadily mobilized, despite handicaps in the city governing structure, which favors Beijing.
For weeks ahead of the vote Sunday, ordinary people thronged the eastern business district.
In a rare move, pro-Chinese forces in Hong Kong backed down from plans to make the national education mandatory by 2015. At the 11th hour on Saturday word came the plan would be voluntary, though many Hong Kongers were suspicious it could reappear later, an old tactic.
In the scale of problems faced by China this fall, though, Hong Kong may not be at the top of the list.
Beijing’s Politburo undergoes a once-in-a-decade leadership change this fall amid recriminations and turmoil over incidents like the disappearance of Bo Xilai. Its stellar growth rate is in some decline. China is also in the middle of tension-building territory disputes in the South China Sea.
Then there is the sense of disquiet and spiritual hunger among the rank and file, according to Gerard Lemos, who has studied ordinary Chinese people in the heartland since 2007. Any kind of unrest, including that in Hong Kong, tends to trouble China’s leaders, who have long said “stability” is the chief virtue of statecraft.
The patriotic education issue appeared to push voter turnout high enough to give fractious pro-democracy forces enough seats in the legislature (27) to block pro-China forces in coming sessions.
Much credit goes to Hong Kong youth: “I could not believe the organization, the discipline shown by these kids,” Mr. DeGolyer said by phone. “They picked up after themselves, articulated what they wanted, and when they didn’t get everything, they didn’t escalate, which has been the problem in the past, but organized a different way forward. It was astonishing.”
He adds: “If Hong Kong can handle its youth unrest well, then the unrest of youth in China, which we know is growing, may bring the PRC [People's Republic of China] to come here and ask, ‘how are you doing this?’ ”
It's too bad more people don't tune into the Paralympics, because they offer really outstanding examples of human triumph – maybe more so than the heavily commercialized Olympic Games.
Take Noam Gershony, who won gold for Israel yesterday in wheelchair tennis at the London Paralympics. Mr. Gershony, an Apache helicopter pilot, was injured and his co-pilot killed when their craft collided with another helicopter during Israel's 2006 war with Lebanon. After extensive rehabilitation, he took up surfing and wheelchair tennis.
IN PICTURES: The Paralympic Games 2012
The persistence he displayed in overcoming that ordeal no doubt came in handy during the Paralympic semifinals when he found himself losing to local favorite Jamie Burdekin of Great Britain. As in life, so on the court: He rallied back after the first set to defeat Burdekin – advancing to the finals, where he bested the top-ranked player in the world, David Wagner of the US.
Gershony says he never expected to win gold at the 2012 Paralympics in London, and his modest, almost bashful smile upon wheeling up to the top of the podium said as much. Only one Israeli has ever won gold at the Olympic Games, windsurfer Gal Fridman in 2004. Gershony's gold, though captured on the less-heralded stage of the Paralympics, was much celebrated in the Israeli media this weekend.
Gone are the days of candidate Barack Obama who inspired millions of Germans when he spoke at the Victory Column in Berlin in 2008. Four years later, in the wake of the Democratic National Convention, Germany is assessing the American president more soberly.
The Berlin-based left-wing daily taz.die tagezeitung wanted to hear more of a road map from President Obama, commenting: "Barack Obama is still a good rhetorician. But he didn't have that much to say." It gave former President Bill Clinton credit for the best speech in North Carolina.
Germans, like millions of people around the globe, fell in love with the charismatic politician who took the global stage four years ago and spoke in a voice very different from that of former President Bush, with whom Europe had a tumultuous relationship. And expectations were high once again before last night's speech.
But analysis of Obama's speech occurs now in the framework of a four-year record in office. "The self-proclaimed healer of the nation and the planet became a disheartened retailer who sells political light fare," sticking to what goes down easily, wrote the Frankfurt-based Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The paper demanded more content from Obama than just asking for four more years.
Munich-based Sueddeutsche Zeitung criticized Obama for not delivering a vision for America, writing that "compared to Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton, he delivered the poorest speech – and missed out on a huge chance." He was more passionate than Mitt Romney in Tampa, Fla., last week, but that wasn't a great surprise to anyone. What was missing was a new slogan a lot of people were hoping for, the paper said.
Although Obama's speech got only average grades in Germany, the country is still rooting for him. As Spiegel Online put it in its analysis: "He was more president than campaigner." The Hamburg-based online publication argued that it could be enough simply to win against Mr. Romney in November, not blaming him for being more pragmatic in his approach: "It was a president, cornered by the Republican opposition."
"Despite all disillusion and disappointment, he still has this huge persuasive power to show why he – in contrast to his challenger Mitt Romney – is the better choice to lead a battered nation into a better future," the paper opined.
The prize for the most telling headline of all, though, goes to the Austrian daily Der Standard: "When Obama became reality."
Jerusalem has been perhaps the world’s most coveted – and contested – piece of real estate for 3,000 years. In the latest battle, the city’s status has become a point of contention between Democrats and Republicans, who are vying for the support of American Jews, an influential and well-heeled bloc of voters.
The latest furor erupted after the Democratic National Committee (DNC) released a draft copy of the party platform earlier this week that made no reference to Jerusalem as Israel's capital, which it included in its 2008 platform. The exclusion brings the party in line with White House policy on Jerusalem, but it still generated a firestorm, as well as confusion about whether it signals a policy change.
“The Obama Administration has followed the same policy towards Jerusalem that previous US administrations of both parties have done since 1967,” a DNC statement said, according to the Jewish Telegraph Agency. “As the White House said several months ago, the status of Jerusalem is an issue that should be resolved in final status negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians -- which we also said in the 2008 platform."
RELATED – Obama vs. Romney 101: Israel
At the heart of the issue is whether the US should support Israel’s claim to the city as the “eternal and undivided capital” of the Jewish people. If the US did support that claim, it would almost certainly base the US Embassy in Jerusalem, as Mitt Romney promised to do on his recent campaign visit there.
But every American administration since Israel’s founding has resisted taking that step, as have a majority of other countries.
Jewish claims to the city
Jerusalem, the seat of power for the biblical King David in roughly 1,000 BC, saw a succession of Jewish rulers until the Romans conquered the city in 70 AD and destroyed the Jewish temple.
When the United Nations approved a blueprint for a modern Israeli state in 1947, it partitioned historic Palestine between Jews and Arabs, with Jerusalem envisioned as part of an international enclave administered by trustees. Zionist leaders accepted the plan and declared independence in 1948, sparking a war with Arabs, who rejected the proposal. By the time the fighting stopped a year later, Jews were in control of west Jerusalem, while Jordan held the eastern part of the city, including the walled Old City.
When Arab aggression provoked another war in 1967, Israel fought back decisively, capturing all of east Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Sinai Peninsula in six days. Israeli leaders heralded Jerusalem as the “eternal and undivided capital” of the Jewish people. They redrew the city’s borders to include holy sites and strategic high ground but few Arabs, tripling the city’s territory and giving it a strong Jewish majority.
In 1980, Israel formally annexed East Jerusalem with the passage of the “Basic law.” This elicited a strong reaction from the United Nations. The UN Security Council passed Resolution 478 with only one abstention (from the US), declaring the Basic Law “null and void” and calling on Israel to rescind it in the interest of making peace with Palestinians.
Palestinians also lay claim to Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state. The city is considered to be the third-holiest city in Islam, home to the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque – located on the very site where the Jewish temple is believed to have been built – and long ruled by the Ottoman Empire.
Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, its support for a growing number of Jewish neighborhoods in the predominantly Arab area, and plans for new Israeli-run archeological parks in some of the most sensitive areas of the city are all seen by the international community to be prejudicing any eventual peace agreement with the Palestinians.
For this reason, most nations have kept their embassies in Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest and most prosperous city and far less controversial a location than Jerusalem. According to one tally, only two countries – Greece and Italy – have their embassies in Jerusalem proper.
If Gov. Romney were to deliver on his campaign promise to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, that would make three.