Global News Blog
Pity the poor Chinese official.
For years he has been able to get away with almost any kind of behavior, unaccountable to the public and rarely held to account by his superiors.
Suddenly, as two mid-ranking bureaucrats are discovering to their chagrin, he practically cannot even hitch up his shirt cuffs in public, let alone throw his weight around, without the public jumping on his case and possibly getting him fired.
Not because Chinese politics have changed, mind you, but because of Sina Weibo, the Twitter-like social media forum that has trained a critical public eye on people in authority across the land.
Just ask Yang Dacai. As head of Shaanxi Province’s Safety Supervision Bureau, he was called to the scene of a ghastly crash 10 days ago that had killed 36 bus passengers. For some reason, he was smiling inanely in a reporter’s photograph of the scene that went viral on Weibo, and which infuriated internauts.
Within a couple of days, he had been identified, and five photographs of him in different circumstances wearing five different luxury watches had been scoured from the Web and posted on Weibo. Where, demanded indignant citizens smelling corruption, had a civil servant earning $1,500 a month found the money to buy $40,000 worth of wristwatches?
Mr. Yang is currently under investigation by the Shaanxi provincial disciplinary body, which is looking into allegations of bribery.
Col. Fang Daguo, a political commissar with the People’s Liberation Army, is also under investigation, and has been suspended from his job to boot, because of another Internet outcry.
And in a new sign of Weibo’s power, Internet posts have inspired even the government’s official purveyor of propaganda, the Xinhua news agency, to join in the criticism.
A flight attendant on China Southern airlines posted an account last week (illustrated by photographs and retweeted by others more than 30,000 times) of how Fang had hit and gripped her hard enough to leave bruises and tear her dress when she asked him to move his luggage from the aisle before the plane took off for the southern city of Guangzhou.
Cue public outrage, and, unusually, a quick statement from Fang’s employer. Except that the statement said he had done no wrong, suggesting instead that his wife had been involved in a little pushing and shoving.
This flew in the face of eyewitness reports, and was too much even for Xinhua – normally the staunchest defender of officialdom in the land.
“Have you done a comprehensive and objective investigation?” the Xinhua bureau in Guangzhou asked in a Weibo post, challenging the official version of events. “Is what your investigation found really the same as what you published? If not, why not?”
The highest officials in government – President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao – have warned repeatedly that corruption poses the gravest threat to Communist Party rule in China, as the gap between rich and poor widens. It has made little difference.
Sometimes the new citizen-vigilantes on the Web claim a scalp: In 2008 an official in the eastern city of Nanjing was featured in an online photo wearing a fancy watch; a public outcry led to an investigation that led to an 11-year jail term for bribery.
But sometimes the old ways still win out. When Shi Junrong, a reporter for the Xi’an Evening News in northeastern China, wrote an article in June wondering about the wickedly expensive cigarettes a county official had been photographed smoking, it wasn’t the official who was suspended – it was Mr. Shi.
They work hard; and despite their country's poverty and political instability, they play hard, too. Few Afghans have benefited more from the past 10 years of post-Taliban government than children, and few stand to lose more if their nation slips back under Taliban rule after US and NATO troops depart in 2014.
IN PHOTOS Afghan girls and women embrace education
Some developments have been overwhelmingly positive, such as wider access to education. A decade after Taliban rule restricted girls' education, more than half of school-aged girls are in class, says the United Nations.
Other problems have been tougher to solve.
Afghanistan has the world's highest infant mortality rate, according to the UN, and 1 of every 4 children dies before age 5. Half a trillion dollars of military assistance and $57 billion in direct aid seem to have had little impact on the nation's economy. One in 3 Afghans lives on less than $1 a day, the UN says.
IN PHOTOS Afghan girls and women embrace education
After the last balloon fell at the Republican convention in Tampa, Fla., last night, German media delivered their verdict on the now-official Romney-Ryan ticket. Despite the fact that the convention focused on the crowning of Mitt Romney, it was really his sidekick, Paul Ryan, that grabbed German attention.
As Mr. Romney has been campaigning for years to get his shot at the White House, he is a well-known name in Germany. His big acceptance speech, however, still hit the news, given that he is the one challenging President Obama, who is still highly popular overseas.
The Munich based Sueddeutsche Zeitung gave Romney credit for a solid speech, but summed up its take with its headline: "Romney wants to take America back to the past." The weekly Die Zeit was less polite, wondering in its online election blog: "who the hell has written that speech for Romney?" It gave him only 5 out of 10 possible points for his performance.
But much of the comment was about Ryan. Germany is still trying to figure out who that 42-year-old politician with the college boy look is – and what influence he would have in a potential Romney administration.
The daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung stated what many thought: that Paul Ryan is a far better speaker than Romney. Spiegel Online comments in its editorial that Ryan is "more dangerous than Sarah Palin" because his ideas would be a declaration of war on America's social welfare. The Hamburg-based online publication showed concern that Ryan could lead the Republican party more to the right for years to come, even if team Romney-Ryan fails at winning the White House.
'Ryan is the real king'
The business paper Handelsblatt made an even stronger statement, suggesting that once in the White House, the Romney/Ryan administration could become more of a "Ryan/Romney presidency." The Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel drew a similar conclusion, saying that Ryan could become the next president in 2016 if Obama wins over Romney: "Ryan is the real king."
Concerns about Ryan's ideas aside, he is regarded as a smart politician and is given credit for at least having a plan for solving the economic crisis (even if it's not well received) – which German commentators so far don't see in the Romney campaign.
Prague’s main train station marks the site where Honza H. got his start as a man without a home in 1998. He points out that “every second bench is occupied by a homeless person.”
But now it is also the starting point of his new job. Along with eight others, he is sharing his story as a tour guide for Pragulic, a new Prague-based tourist service offering walks around the city guided by homeless people.
Deriving its name from the combination of Prague and the Czech word for streets, the service invites tourists to “Discover Prague in a different way." It was founded by graduate students Katarina Chalupkova, Tereza Jureckova, and Ondrej Klugl, who conceived the idea for the Social Impact Awards, a program to encourage students in Austria, the Czech Republic, and Romania to solve societal problems through entrepreneurship. The project won the people’s vote in the 2012 Awards.
“The tours are all based on the personal experience of the guides,” says Ms. Jureckova. “Throughout the tours they’re sharing their personal stories, along with sharing sites.”
Pragulic’s nine tours, including two night walks, have been designed by the guides themselves, all of whom are formerly homeless. “It’s still easy for them to return to homelessness, so we are trying to help prevent it,” says Jureckova.
One guide, Karim, who is now close to 40 and has been on and off the streets since he was around 17, takes tourists through the city’s famous Old Town Square and onto its heavily trodden Charles Bridge. Having spent most of his time in the city center as a prostitute, he shares some of its history along with his own.
Another guide, Karel, spent about a year in a shelter after being robbed of all his belongings upon returning to the Czech Republic after 10 years working abroad. He takes his groups to Prague’s picturesque Vysehrad, the area of the city where he grew up. Beginning the tour with a look at the Vysehrad cemetery, the final resting place of many of the country’s most renowned, and the neo-gothic church of St. Peter and Paul, he then “focuses on real life” says Jureckova, visiting some of his favorite places, including a secondhand shop, a restaurant, and one of the Czech Republic’s largest shelters, set up by the charity Nadeje, which translates to hope.
Including offerings in London, Melbourne, Utrecht, San Francisco, Belgium, and New Delhi, tours led by the homeless, former homeless or street kids are the evolution of slum tourism or “poorism” as it’s often referred to, which offers tourists a first-hand look at poverty-stricken places. One of the first slum tours, started in 1992, brings tourists inside the favelas of Rio.
Offering their guides 50 percent of the profits from each tour, Pragulic aims to help them improve their situation through both income and an opportunity to build confidence. Along with a desire to positively affect public perceptions of the homeless, the group also hopes to play a part in the progression of social business in the Czech Republic. “It’s growing, but it’s still something new here,” says Jureckova.
Rumors of Russian President Vladimir Putin's supposed vast wealth have been flying around the Internet for years, but now opposition politician Boris Nemtsov has weighed, measured, and described it in print.
In a just-released pamphlet co-authored with Solidarity activist Leonid Martynyuk, Mr. Nemtsov claims that President Putin has at his disposal 20 lavish state villas and palaces, four yachts, a fleet of more than 40 aircraft, 15 helicopters, phalanxes of cars, a collection of luxury wristwatches worth about $700,000, and an alleged personal fortune that may amount to billions of dollars.
Though Putin's official salary is just over $100,000 per year, "with a lifestyle like that, it could be compared to that of a Persian Gulf monarch," say the authors of "Life of a Galley Slave" – the title is a riff on a famous Putin quote, in which he declared that he has "toiled like a galley slave, from morning to night" in his public life.
Most of the assets enumerated in the pamphlet are actually state possessions. Like Soviet commissars of the past, Putin has extensive personal access to a vast empire of property and perks that he does not literally own. Putin has repeatedly denied holding a private fortune.
"Information on the residences and transportation of the president is absolutely open, and there is no secret about it," Kommersant quoted Mr. Peskov as saying. "It is all state property and Putin, as the elected president, uses it in accordance with the law. Moreover, he is forced to use many of these things."
But it also seems undeniable that Putin enjoys a lifestyle that would make a Soviet General Secretary blush.
Nine of Putin's state domiciles, including the lavish Konstaninov palace in St. Petersburg, have been constructed recently on his orders. By contrast with Putin's total of 20 official residences, the president of the United States has just two; even the entire British royal family has only eight state-owned residences at its disposal.
Former deputy Prime Minister Nemtsov is author or co-author of nine reports about Putin, most focusing on the corruption that pervades Russia on his watch.
In the past, he has usually managed to get his work published in Russia, even if with difficulties. This time he says that no Russian printing house would touch "Life of a Galley Slave," and a meager 5,000 rough copies were produced in private homes, as was done with the samizdat works of the Soviet era.
"None of the printing houses we previously used have agreed to produce our new project, no matter how much we offered to pay them, because they don't want trouble with the authorities," Nemtsov told the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets, Tuesday.
"Even people I am friendly with, who have their own print shops, have refused to help. This is a measure of how fast this country is changing, and what a different level of fear there is of the authorities," even compared to the recent past, he added.
Last week concluded what has been a confusing and all-consuming trial against Anders Behring Breivik in what was supposed to be a cut and dry case.
Breivik was caught on the island of Utøya with a Glock pistol, Ruger semi-automatic rifle, and an arsenal of ammunition after having killed 69 people at Labor party youth summer camp. He even confessed to the bomb attack on the government headquarters earlier that day that killed eight, and detailed his entire planning to police shortly after his capture.
By all measures, the case should have been over long ago. Instead, it dragged on for 13 months with a final verdict falling on Friday: The 33-year-old Norwegian and self-proclaimed militant nationalist was sentenced to the maximum sentence of 21 years’ permanent detention for terrorist acts.
IN PICTURES: Norway vs. Breivik
Now, there are renewed calls today for Jens Stoltenberg, Norway’s prime minister, to accept responsibility for failing to protect Norwegians from the attack and the slow police response that day.
After watching the trial for 10 weeks and listening to the debates since the attacks, one can’t help but feel something is lacking. In many ways, it is still not clear who really won.
Technically, Breivik did, at least on legal precedence. He was arguing to be judged sane so that his militant nationalist ideology would stand stronger. He attacked the Labor party targets because he faults them for allowing too many Muslim immigrants into Norway and thereby promoting the “ethnic cleansing of indigenous Norwegians.” The court ruled that he was sane and not paranoid schizophrenic as the first of two forensic psychiatric reports concluded.
He also won by getting considerable media coverage of his political ideology during the trial. Indeed, in the political manifesto he released online shortly before his killing spree, he referred to the trial as part of “the propaganda phase” of his publicity efforts. That phase is expected to continue from prison, where he plans to write a trilogy of political books in English and correspond with supporters.
He did lose on one main point: that he be found not guilty. Judge Wenche Elizabeth Arntzen rejected his argument that his planned massacre was a “pre-emptive attack” to avoid a wider civil war that would ensue as a result of the Muslim colonization of Europe. Neither Norwegian law, nor the European Court of Human Rights, gives the right to assassinate government figures for extreme political purposes, she said as part of the historic 90-page verdict.
As for the prosecution, technically they did not win because they were pressing for him to be remanded to compulsory psychiatric care. The judges instead found that Breivik was sane and legally punishable. However, how horrible is it for prosecutors to lose and see a mass murderer go to prison?
Still the case is embarrassing for the prosecution because it never really questioned the first psychiatric report that found him psychotic. Tor-Aksel Busch, Norway’s chief of public prosecutions, even had to apologize after the verdict for not having ordered a second report. Had legal counsel for the victims not pressed for a new report, Breivik could have gotten away with the crime of the century.
As for the victims, it’s a pale victory. Yes, they get to see Breivik held accountable for the murders and put an end to their 13-month ordeal. But they will still be struggling to deal with the senselessness of his car bomb attack at the government headquarters and the brutality of the executions at Utøya, where he gunned down Labor party youths in cold blood for more than one hour.
The real loser may be Prime Minister Stoltenberg and the Labor party, the target of Breivik’s attacks. Stoltenberg is currently under fire after the scathing 22 July Commission’s report earlier this month revealed that the attacks could have been prevented and lives saved by a swifter police response.
Stoltenberg today presented his strategy for implementing the 22 July Commission’s recommended changes during an extraordinary session of parliament. The hard-pressed minister apologized for the failings leading up to and during the attacks. The commission documented a failure in Norwegian preparedness that was “more comprehensive and deeper than I was prepared for,” he told parliament.
However, he failed to dissuade politicians from considering a possible call for his removal. Knut Arild Hareide, leader of the Christian Democratic Party, said it would be “irresponsible to rule out” a confidence motion against Stoltenberg in the future. The minister will next have to answer more questions when he appears before the parliament’s control and constitutional committee in coming months.
Stoltenberg will most likely survive the political year until next September’s elections as his coalition government holds a parliamentary majority, but he will be damaged. A recent poll by Ipsos MMI for Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet this week showed that more Norwegians prefer Conservative party leader Erna Solberg as prime minister over Stoltenberg 36 percent versus 25 percent.
Regardless, Breivik will spend the next 21 years in prison and possibly more. Although there are no life sentences in Norway, he will most likely remain incarcerated under a Norwegian law that allows his detention to be rolled over in five-year intervals indefinitely.
IN PICTURES: Norway vs. Breivik
Beijing apologized for the embarrassing incident on Monday, in which an unidentified man ripped the Japanese flag from the ambassador’s car amid rising tensions over disputed islands in the East China Sea.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said the government was undertaking a “serious investigation” and would guarantee foreign diplomats’ safety. That did not stop Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba from formally demanding an investigation on Tuesday, calling the incident “deplorable.”
Thousands of anti-Japanese protesters took to the streets of cities across China last weekend for the second straight week, burning Japanese flags and vandalizing Japanese restaurants and businesses.
The violence is the latest flare-up of a long-simmering row between Beijing and Tokyo over ownership of a handful of uninhabited rocky islands known here as the Diaoyu and in Japan as the Senkaku islands. The islands are surrounded by fishing grounds, and sovereignty would confer rights over nearby undersea oil and gas deposits.
The most recent war of words broke out between the two Asian neighbors a month ago, when Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda appeared to suggest that his government might seek to buy the islands from their private Japanese owner, an idea championed by maverick Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara.
That prompted a sharp response from Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, who expressed Beijing’s “strong displeasure” with what he called Mr. Noda’s “highly irresponsible” remarks.
Tensions rose further when a group of Chinese activists from Hong Kong landed on one of the disputed islands on Aug.15, the 67th anniversary of Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II.
After they had been arrested by the Japanese coast guard and expelled from Japan, a group of right wing Japanese activists landed on another of the islands to make their own point for a couple of hours, before coast guard officials persuaded them to leave.
Nationalist and anti-Japanese sentiment is strong in China, where the authorities have long encouraged it in their citizens from an early age through history books that often inflame resentment against the former invaders.
The Chinese government faces a delicate task, however, not wanting to appear soft on Japan yet anxious to keep protests from turning into expressions of dissatisfaction with the Chinese authorities themselves, or from spilling over into violence that might seriously harm relations with Tokyo.
The Japanese authorities too appear anxious not to let the dispute get out of hand. The government yesterday refused a request from the Tokyo municipality for permission to land a delegation on the islands.
With America's election day getting closer, Germans are following the tightening race between President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney with increasing enthusiasm. Four years after Mr. Obama entered the White House he is still highly popular. But could Germans' interest in Romney rise with Paul Ryan on his ticket?
Consider: Romney, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is a fiscal conservative. In a time of global economic crisis, his support for spending cuts in the federal budget could in theory prove highly popular especially with “Madame No,” the power player in the euro crisis. Meanwhile, Obama's heroic status has inevitably come down to earth overseas. A Pew Research study from June 2012 shows that global approval of the policies Obama has promoted has declined significantly since he first took office, though in Germany, 87 percent of participants still expressed confidence overall in the president.
But throughout the economic crisis, the Obama White House was encouraging Germany to support more debt-increasing stimulus packages. Germany resisted, with Mrs. Merkel arguing that decreasing the debt was the solution for regaining political authority.
“Superficially, one could argue that Romney and Merkel share the same economic interests,” says Josef Braml, Program Officer USA/Transatlantic Relations at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in Berlin.
But Romney may still face an uphill battle in winning the hearts and minds of Germans and their leader.
Romney didn’t help himself with his Europe trip earlier this month, facing criticism for the countries he chose to visit and a number of his remarks. Then there is his economic philosophy.
The German and American definitions of conservative diverge sharply. Being conservative in Germany does not automatically mean promoting deregulation. “In Germany, it is hardly imaginable to reduce the role of government in the way Romney/Ryan want to do it. The state and some regulation on the market play a bigger role in Europe,” says Mr. Braml.
Little social security
Merkel's politics are based on the social economic market, an economic model most political parties have followed since World War II. It's a compromise between social democracy and economic liberalism, combining private enterprise with government regulation to establish fair competition. “Extensive cuts in social benefits, like Paul Ryan’s proposal to privatize Medicare, are not part of her political vision,” says Henriette Rytz from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. Germans have questions about how a Romney-Ryan team would cut government spending while expanding the military budget. And experts raise concerns about more social cuts in a system that – compared to Germany – has little social security.
Moreover, whoever wins the presidential race in November is going to face a tough economic outlook for 2013. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the first half of 2013 will be difficult if currently planned spending cuts and tax hikes go into effect, with US GDP shrinking by 2.9 percent, followed by a second half growth rate of 1.9 percent.
This outlook will influence US foreign policy, Braml says. “Neither a Democrat nor a Republican will have a lot of leeway. Because of its own economic problems, the USA will try to shift much of the burden onto its allies in Europe and Asia.”
Looking at this global crisis, Merkel favors an austerity policy but also promotes a regulation of the financial sector and a financial transaction tax, something Romney would most likely not agree on.
Merkel might give a future president Romney a warm welcome as a sometime-fellow conservative, but the differences in their economic policies would not likely translate into an immediately tight-knit relationship. And at any rate, for the next year, with an election looming, Merkel's main preoccupation jibes more closely with Obama's: getting reelected.
Could the rugged Mediterranean island of Sardinia harbor the secret to a long life? Experts increasingly think so.
The island has long had a reputation for longevity, with one of the highest rates of centenarians in the world. Now that reputation has been further bolstered with the discovery of nine elderly brothers and sisters who have a combined age of 818 years.
It can surely only be a matter of time before “The Sardinian Diet” becomes the next big thing among Hollywood stars and well-heeled health enthusiasts.
All but two of the siblings live in the village of Perdasdefogu in a mountainous region of the island known as the Barbagia, which in the past was famed for banditry, feuding, and kidnapping.
Its unforgiving terrain has repelled outside invaders since pre-Roman times, ensuring a distinct gene pool that appears to have passed on longevity from generation to generation.
The Melis family ascribes its extraordinarily long lives to plenty of exercise – walking up and down precipitous slopes to feed its sheep and goats, for instance – as well as a healthy diet based around bread, cheese and pasta, all locally produced.
Family members speak particularly highly of minestrone soup, which is filling but low in fat and full of greens. The red wine they drink is unusually high in antioxidants, experts have found.
Being surrounded by around 150 children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren also keeps them young, they say.
The oldest of the siblings, Consolata, celebrated her 105th birthday today, while the “baby” of the family, Mafalda, is a comparatively sprightly 78 years old.
“In my day women had to do all the domestic work, going to the standpipe to get water and to the river to wash the clothes. My grandchildren have washing machines and vacuum cleaners so when they say 'I’m so stressed,' I just can’t understand it,” Consolata told Italy’s daily Corriere della Sera.
One of the sisters, Claudina, 99, keeps in shape by walking to and from church every day, while a brother, Adolfo, 89, still works in a bar in the village and tends vegetables in his garden.
It was a family friend who approached Guinness claiming that the Melis siblings were probably the oldest in the world.
“The Mediterranean lifestyle is always held up as being beneficial to a long, healthy life, and Italians in particular feature prominently in the list of supercentenarians and centenarians,” said Craig Glenday, editor-in-chief for Guinness World Records.
“Seven out of the 70 people alive over the age of 110 are Italian, for example, and the world's second-oldest living person is the Italy-born Dina Manfredini, who was born in Emilia-Romagna," Mr. Glenday noted, adding that Ms. Manfredini now lives in the US.
“With all longevity records, genes and lifestyle are paramount, but luck plays a big part – avoiding accidents and falls, and so on – so to have such a large number of living siblings with an average age of more than 90 years is incredibly rare.”
The secret of Sardinians’ long life is being studied by a scientific project called AKeA – an acronym for “A kent’ annos,” a traditional toast in the Sardinian language which means “May you live to 100 years.”
Scientists believe genetics play a key role in Sardinians’ longevity – the same surnames crop up again and again in the list of long-living islanders, said Luca Deiana, a professor of clinical biochemistry from the University of Sassari.
The sprawling Bagram base, or the equally large Kandahar Air Field, are attractively large targets for militants who might not have the stomach to launch a frontal assault on foreign or Afghan troops.
NATO officials today said they were unsure of the exact type of weapon fired at Bagram, which immobilized General Dempsey’s C-17 transport plane and slightly injured two American maintenance crew, but Chinese-made 107mm rockets are one of the most common used in such attacks.
The rockets can be easily set up on a rock or another firm surface and crudely aimed in the direction of its target, sometimes up to three miles away. Accuracy is mostly guesswork, which probably explains why there are comparatively few casualties despite them being a common occurrence.
Ensuring militants aren’t detected by the plethora of technology held by the US – and other foreign – militaries has become a game of cat-and-mouse.
Getting the trigger on a delay mechanism has become the most important part to avoid being caught. The omnipresent surveillance blimps, early-warning rocket detectors and, most worrying for militants, pilot-less drones circling nearby, mean that once a rocket is launched, coalition forces will usually know pretty quickly exactly where it came from.
Whoever set up the rocket would want to have already fled the area or be prepared for almost immediate retaliation by NATO forces.
But militants have started to adapt.
At a US base in the southern Afghan province of Uruzgan in 2010, the base was regularly getting hit by rockets and mortars. Every time one hit, coalition forces would scramble to the launch site, sometimes less than two miles from the base’s perimeter. Each time, they found nothing.
It led to theories on how the (presumed) man whom US soldiers dubbed “Rocket Man” and, slightly more creatively, “Elton John,” was managing to fire the rockets on delay. Perhaps he had set up a mobile phone trigger system or just a simple clock-based timer. Yet the best theory was even cheaper, and simpler: He was using a block of ice.
The block would be set up to so after it melted, the change in weight on the contraption would make two trigger wires connect and the rocket would be launched.
Whatever it was, it worked: A year later on the base, rockets were still being fired and no suspect had been caught.