Thursday, August 7, 2008

Olympic Message to Some in Beijing Is ‘Please Leave’


Li Tianchao is an itinerant worker who has spent his adult life toiling long hours, living in bleak worksite dormitories and chasing the next construction job from boomtown to boomtown. A no-nonsense, weatherworn man, he is not quick to grouse.

But as he waited for a train to take him back to his hometown north of the capital, Mr. Li, 50, could not help but feel wistful.

“The Olympics have finally come to China, and I won’t even be here,” he said, lounging on a woven plastic sack stuffed with his possessions. He glanced up at the “Participate in the Olympics, Enjoy the Fun” banner above his head and shrugged.

Like thousands of others who packed Beijing’s main train station on Thursday, Mr. Li was prompted to leave town by a lack of work and an unwritten government policy encouraging migrant workers to clear out until the dignitaries and journalists have gone home.

As the city readied itself for the pageantry and the fireworks of Friday night’s opening ceremonies, its main train station was packed with truck drivers, food vendors and factory workers whose jobs had been sacrificed to the Olympics juggernaut. The atmosphere was a mix of expectation and boredom, but also disappointment and regret.

Construction has been banned since July 20; factories with noxious emissions were closed all across the city. The scores of unfinished buildings that dot the skyline, their facades cloaked in Olympian banners, are a testament to the boom interrupted.

No one knows for sure how many of Beijing’s 17 million residents are migrants, but there are thought to be around 4 million. And no one disputes that their sweat has been essential to giving the city its stylish new mien.

He Yanjun and his wife, Pang Chunlian, said that for two years they had earned a decent living installing tiles in the homes of Beijing’s newly moneyed class. Like many workers, they slept on the job site until the house was nearly complete, then moved into another shell.

“It’s a rough life, but Beijing has been good to us,” said Mr. He, 43, who said he had abandoned the economic stagnation of rural Sichuan Province nearly a decade ago. “If you work hard here you can do well.”

When the work dried up last month, they rented an apartment and tried to stick it out. The jobs never came, and the rent was steep, so on Thursday the couple packed their cutting board, the electric cooking burner and a vase of plastic flowers and joined the throngs at the station. Their destination: Jiangxi Province, 24 hours away, where a relative said there was ample opportunity. Mr. He and Ms. Pang said they might come back next year, depending on whether Beijing’s construction revives after the Olympic Games.

“We can only hope,” Mr. He said.

Some people said they were leaving out of fear. Li Ping, a 33-year-old seamstress from Sichuan, said co-workers at her suitcase factory insisted that anyone who remained in Beijing without a residency permit would face a steep fine. She said she had scrambled to apply for the coveted document but was too late.

“I should have paid attention sooner,” she said.

Her boss, unsympathetic, docked her a month’s pay, or about $140. He told her that by skipping town, she was violating her contract, even if she had never signed one.

“I should be happy for the Olympics, but I’m angry,” she said. “These bosses can be so evil. I don’t think I will be coming back.”

A few rows away, Wang Yongsheng and his wife, Ma Ernu, sat in the waiting room’s orange plastic chairs looking dazed. Two weeks earlier, the couple had come to the capital from their home in Inner Mongolia in the hopes of finding treatment for Ms. Ma’s worsening kidney disease. The couple, retired farmers, said they could not find decent medical care back home.

But after spending all their money and being waved away from several hospitals, they realized their timing could not have been worse. “The doctors told us they were all too busy preparing for the Olympics,” said Ms. Ma, whose skin was discolored and covered with marble-size cysts. “The whole country is very distracted by the Olympics.” She smiled as if to say she understood.

Not everyone was leaving Beijing with regret. Wang Cheng and Xiao Xinyan said they were initially annoyed to find themselves suddenly unemployed. But facing a month of idleness, the couple, both 22, decided to seize the moment and get married.

Next week, a few days after they arrive home in Shandong Province, they look forward to giving a party for family and friends.

But what about missing the Olympics excitement? Mr. Wang, a construction worker, pondered, then said he was actually relieved to leave Beijing. “Besides,” he added, “we’ll get a better view by watching the Games on television.”

by NY Times.

Beijing Olympics visitors to come under widespread surveillance


The blocking of human rights websites in China leading up to the Olympics is part of an information control and surveillance network awaiting visitors that will include monitoring devices in hotels and taxis and snoops almost everywhere.

Government agents or their proxies are suspected of stepping up cyber-attacks on overseas Tibetan, human rights and press freedom groups and the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement in recent weeks. And China is spending huge sums on sophisticated surveillance systems that incorporate face recognition technology, biometrics and massive databases to help control the population.

China has installed about 300,000 cameras in Beijing under an estimated $6.5-billion, seven-year program dubbed the Grand Beijing Safeguard Sphere. Although face recognition software still can't process rapidly moving images, China hopes that it can soon electronically identify faces out of a vast crowd.

"China is trying to project a picture and a narrative about the Olympics," said Nicholas Bequelin, Hong Kong-based researcher with Human Rights Watch. "By limiting journalists, shutting down the Internet, arresting activists, it's hoping to control the message."

The world's most populous nation has legitimate concerns, as seen this week in an attack in the far western province of Xinjiang that killed 16 police officers. Few expect the security infrastructure to be even partially dismantled, a step Greece took after hosting the 2004 games.

Critics said these systems give China more advanced tools in its bid to control domestic critics, activists and media. In recent months China has recruited thousands of Beijing taxi drivers and hundreds of thousands of neighborhood busybodies to keep an eye on foreigners and its own citizens.

"Everyone feels they're entering a police state, which by the way it is, duh," said Sharon Hom, executive director of New York-based Human Rights in China. "So they've got people reporting down to the lowest neighborhood level, which is not new, overlaid by state-of-the-art technology. It's the best of the old and the new."

Another technology that raises concern involves the new identity cards China is phasing in for its 1.3 billion citizens. The cards, developed with help from Plano, Texas-based China Information Security Technology, carry radio signal devices and a chip that records not only a person's height, weight and identification number, but also health records, work history, education, travel, religion, ethnicity, reproductive history, police record, medical insurance status and even his or her landlord's phone number.

Near the Second Ring Road in downtown Beijing, Wu Naimei, 74, sat on a folding chair fanning herself. "If we see any suspicious people, we call the police and report on them," the retired subway worker said, adding that she can't define a suspicious person but knows one when she sees one. "We are happy to help protect our motherland, assist the nation and help our leaders relax."

The West might have a stronger argument in questioning China's potential for intrusive surveillance if it weren't moving rapidly in the same direction. London is believed to have the largest number of closed-circuit TV cameras of any city in the world. Many countries have seen vast troves of personal data lost or stolen. Financial records and phone calls are now routinely monitored.

The difference is that Western countries have better checks on police power, some human rights activists said, even as they expressed concern that the U.S. could soon be using technologies developed in China.

"Every country wants to avoid abuse of police power," said Xu Zhiyong, a lecturer at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications. "It's getting better in China, but we still have a ways to go."

In addition to blocking online information about corruption and human rights violations, the government is suspected of collecting information on visitors' Internet search activity.

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) said late last month that foreign-owned hotels in China were under pressure to sign contracts authorizing police to install hardware and software to monitor their guests' Internet activity. Hotel managers contacted in Beijing declined to comment.

This followed a State Department warning in March that "all hotel rooms and offices are considered to be subject to on-site or remote technical monitoring at all times." Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang quickly called the U.S. report irresponsible and denied that China employed more surveillance than normal.

In Beijing, two taxi drivers who asked not to be identified while discussing confidential matters displayed a pair of black button-sized devices just to the left of their steering wheel linked to the vehicle's navigation system. They said the devices allow a central monitoring station to listen to anything inside the taxi.

One driver said that besides listening in on passengers, officials can hear any griping he might do about the Communist Party, which could result in punishment.

The Danish women's soccer team caught two men spying on its members in September during a FIFA World Cup meet in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, Lars Berendt, the group's communication director, said in a telephone interview from their headquarters in Brondby.

Berendt said team members were in a hotel room having a tactical meeting when they noticed some movement behind what turned out to be a one-way mirror. In an adjoining room, they found two men, at least one of whom wore a hotel badge, and they held them until police arrived.

Berendt said the hotel denied any knowledge of the incident, and the International Olympic Committee and FIFA, the international governing body of soccer, said it was a matter for local authorities. Chinese police haven't commented on any investigation.

"We're not holding our breath," Berendt said.

The state-run New China News Agency quoted fans as saying the Danes were just sore losers.

Security experts say company executives attending the Olympics are being advised to bring computers that have been wiped clean and to safeguard their smart phones. In extreme cases, they are also weighing the laptop to the gram to test whether ultra-light hardware devices have been added.

But a Western security consultant for one Olympic sponsor who asked not to be identified given the sensitive nature of his work said many of these fears were overblown, and that Chinese police had better things to do than spy on every "self-important corporate executive."

Li Wei, a counter-terrorism expert with the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, a semiofficial research organization, said most Chinese surveillance was in line with that of other Olympic host nations and didn't dangerously compromise privacy.

Still, experts such as Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center and author of a recent report on Chinese surveillance, believe that China is pushing the envelope.

"With Internet controls, there are ways around," Rotenberg said. "But with surveillance technologies, you're getting into the fabric of the state."

by LA Times.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

US drug enforcement agents train Vietnamese police

Image:Dea color logo.JPG

"Stay close to the walls, and don't expose yourself," the American adviser told the Vietnamese officers as they advanced into a building, weapons drawn. The scene this week was reminiscent of a South Vietnamese Army training camp in the 1960s, but these Vietnamese officers were anti-narcotics police, and the adviser was an agent from the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). For a week and a half, a team of DEA agents and US military medics have shown 80 Vietnamese police, customs officials and border guards the American way to conduct a drug raid: planning, entry and arrest techniques, self-defence and emergency medical care.

Communist Vietnam now has close diplomatic and trade relations with the United States, its enemy during the Vietnam War, and the country's Ministry of Public Security seems happy to accept American help in fighting the narcotics trade.

"The drugs problem is an international problem," said Joe Boix, a square-jawed DEA firearms instructor from Phoenix, Arizona, who was leading the training. "It's all the same no matter where you go." Vietnam is a waypoint on international narcotics-smuggling routes and has a serious heroin problem with the number of addicts particularly high in its north-west, where heroin is smuggled in from neighbouring Laos. Inside Vietnam itself, opium poppies, once grown widely, were stamped out by the government in the 1990s, according to the UN, but Laos produces a small amount of opiates each year, and nearby Burma is the world's number two producer of heroin, after Afghanistan. In recent years, Vietnamese drug users have branched out from using heroin to ecstasy and methamphetamine although authorities said none of these synthetic drugs were produced in Vietnam. Authorities reported record drug busts, with the Cong An Nhan Dan, or People's Police, newspaper claiming police had seized 83 kilograms of heroin and 89,000 amphetamine pills so far this year.

In the past two months, six women have been arrested in Vietnamese airports smuggling heroin to or from Australia. In May, four Chinese men and an Indonesian were caught trying to cross into China with 9 tons of hashish hidden in a shipping container full of jeans. "Our main thrust is to go after the international organizations," said Jeff Wanner, the DEA's liaison officer in Hanoi. "This training is to help [the Vietnamese] deal with their internal problem, but we want to go after the bigger organizations, international in scope." The DEA office in Vietnam is not permitted to carry out hands-on operations, but Wanner said the office exchanges intelligence on drug activity with Vietnamese agencies. The training in Hanoi was very hands-on. In classrooms belonging to a firefighting academy, DEA agents ran through physical arrest exercises with Vietnamese officers, forcing "suspects" to lie on their stomachs, handcuffing them, then moving them to a squatting position and pushing them to their feet.

Captain Luu Duoc Cuong, a border guard from the northern province of Cao Bang, said the techniques were similar to Vietnamese ones but with a few differences.

"In America, once the suspect has surrendered, if he begins to resist, to be difficult or doesn't listen, you can shoot him," Cuong said. "In Vietnam, if he's surrendered but doesn't listen, you still can't shoot." In the parking lot, where a plywood mock-up of a house was constructed, Boix coached teams of Vietnamese agents in forcibly entering the house and then, one by one, clearing each room and arresting suspects. "Slice the pie!" Boix called out, using a term that refers to the way a pair of agents, standing at the corners of a door, visually divide the room inside as they scan for targets. Two agents drew their guns on a colleague role-playing a suspect, shouting in Vietnamese, while an interpreter translated for Boix's benefit: "Police! Hands up!"

A moment later, shots rang out. Paint pellets splattered on plywood walls. Some minutes later, Boix reviewed the raid with his students. "In the first incident, there were two misses in very close proximity," Boix said. "We must make every shot count, so no one is injured unnecessarily and we go home safe to our families."

"It's exciting for them to be able to actually pull the trigger and try to pretend like there are bad guys coming at them," Wanner said. "This is what we all trained for."

by DPA

NKorea facing worst food crisis since 1990s

Image:Flag of North Korea.svg

Flooding and poor harvests have caused North Korea's worst food crisis since the late 1990s and have put millions at risk, the United Nations' food agency said Wednesday. The food shortage threatens widespread malnutrition, the World Food Program said. "Millions of vulnerable North Koreans are at risk of slipping toward precarious hunger levels," Jean-Pierre de Margerie, the WFP's country director for North Korea, told a news conference. The WFP had been given permission to launch a new operation to target those most vulnerable in eight of the country's 10 provinces, or 6.4 million people, up from a current 1.2 million.

An international appeal for aid would be launched in the next two weeks. Food aid is needed to tide people over for the next three to four months until the next harvest, he said. While 400,000 metric tons of U.S. food aid have already shipped, there is an urgent need for $20 million to get through the next autumn harvest, de Margerie said. "We are running against the clock here," he said. The North has resorted to outside handouts to help feed its 23 million people since the mid-1990s when natural disasters and mismanagement devastated its centrally controlled economy. An estimated 2 million people died of hunger at the time. But outside aid has fallen this year, de Margerie said, compounded by domestic shortfalls. The amount of food given in government rations to urban dwellers has fallen in the last few months, as prices for staple goods have risen dramatically due to less internal transfers of food. Rice now costs almost three times more than it did a year ago, he said, and maize has quadrupled. But salaries for Koreans have remained stagnant.

The WFP's food security survey, the first since 2004, interviewed over 250 households in 53 counties across eight provinces, and found that people are running out of options, de Margerie said. Many are relying on relatives to supply food, or have set up gardens in their kitchens or on steep mountainous hillsides, he said. Some are scavenging for wild foods. Nearly three quarters of households have reduced their food intake. "People are starting to exhaust their coping mechanisms," he said. "That's why it's critical for us to mobilize food right now."

By HENRY SANDERSON, Associated Press

Monday, July 28, 2008

Facing a Wave of Violence, India Is Rattled

Ajit Solanki/Associated Press

Bloody water ran early Sunday outside a hospital in Ahmedabad, India, where a blast on Saturday killed husband-and-wife doctors and two sanitation workers.

Over the past several years, terrorist attacks in India have become an everyday presence in everyday places. The targets seem to have nothing in common except that they are ordinary and brazenly easy to strike.

In eastern Varanasi, a deadly explosion interrupted Hindu devotees as they lighted oil lamps to Hanuman, the monkey god, one Tuesday at dusk. In southern Hyderabad, a homemade bomb planted inside a historic mosque killed worshipers on a Friday afternoon. In Mumbai, India’s largest city, nearly 200 commuters on packed city trains died in a series of blasts.

And, in the most recent attack, 17 back-to-back explosions struck shoppers and strollers on Saturday evening in Ahmedabad in western India, and then two blasts hit the very hospitals where the wounded and their relatives rushed for help, killing 49 people and wounding more than 200.

In a country long familiar with sharply focused violence — whether sectarian or fueled by insurgencies in Kashmir in the 1990s — the impersonal nature of the latest violence is new and deeply unsettling.

“This is different, because for the first time it’s everyday, it’s utterly anonymous, it’s excessive,” said Shiv Vishvanathan, a professor of anthropology in Ahmedabad. “The familiar becomes unfamiliar,” he said. “The apple seller you meet might be carrying a bomb. It creates suspicion. It’s a perfect way to destabilize society.”

Officials have said the attacks are attempts to provoke violence between Hindus and Muslims that have not succeeded so far. Virtually none of the attacks have resulted in convictions; a suspect in the Varanasi bombings was shot and killed by the police.

Reminders of the danger are everywhere. There are metal detectors at the gates of multiplex movie theaters and commuter trains, and even at the threshold of prominent temples and mosques. Yet they have had no bearing on the far greater number of easier, more densely crowded targets.

India’s congested cities offer rich opportunities. A small bundle of explosives, hidden as they have been in lunch boxes, pressure cookers and on the backs of bicycles, can cause grievous damage. It is also why the attackers have so successfully eluded punishment.

A report last year by the National Counterterrorism Center in Washington concluded that from January 2004 to March 2007, the death toll from terrorist attacks in India was 3,674, second only to that in Iraq during the same period.

Ahmedabad, home to 3.5 million people and Gujarat’s commercial center, is no stranger to violence. In 2002, a train fire that killed several dozen Hindus led to the killing of 1,000 Muslims over several days, one of the worst outbreaks of religious violence in India’s history.

An obscure group calling itself the Indian Mujahedeen warned Saturday that an attack was about to take place “in revenge of Gujarat,” plainly referring to the 2002 killings. The statement was sent in an e-mail message, written in English, to television stations just before the first blasts.

H. P. Singh, the city’s joint police commissioner, said Sunday that some of the explosives had been strapped to bicycles in crowded streets and markets. Later in the evening, a pair of car bombs went off in front of two city hospitals. At one of them, Civil Hospital, the dead included husband-and-wife doctors and two sanitation workers.

The police said two additional bombs had been found and defused, in Ahmedabad and nearby Gandhinagar, Gujarat’s capital. On Sunday afternoon, the police found two abandoned cars in Surat, an industrial city in Gujarat, one stuffed with bomb-making chemicals and detonators, the other with live bombs. The police said they were still tracing the cars’ ownership.

On Friday, there was a series of similar low-intensity blasts in southern Bangalore, one of which killed a woman standing at a bus stop. Two months ago in Jaipur, synchronized blasts on bicycles killed 56 people; the Indian Mujahedeen sent an e-mail message claiming credit for those attacks.

On Sunday, a police official, P. P. Pandey, said “a single mind” was suspected to be behind the three latest attacks. The police said they had detained people for questioning; The Associated Press reported 30 were in custody. Officials offered no further details about who was involved in the group or a possible motivation behind the bombings.

The morning after the Ahmedabad blasts, residents of this sprawling Indian capital pointed out that while it was virtually impossible to take precautions against terrorist attacks, they had grown increasingly vigilant of the strangers around them.

Hari Om Suri, 52, stood outside a popular seafood restaurant at the Defense Colony Market, scanning the parking lot for anything that looked suspicious.

Mohan and Helen Nanjundan ordered a chicken sizzler for lunch at Moet’s, a popular restaurant, and warily eyed the bicycles parked outside. Bicycles, a poor man’s transport here, are common. “Every few months, there is another one in another city,” said Mr. Nanjundan, 52. “Sometimes we tell ourselves to stay away from dangerous places, but it’s hard to say where that is.”

“I’ve never looked at a bicycle before,” said Ms. Nanjundan, 56.

Puneet Gupta, 23, said he was trying to avoid crowded markets, but his girlfriend, Jyotsna Malhotra, 21, said she was determined not to let it get in the way of her fun. “We are not sure what is going to happen tomorrow,” she said. “Better to live today, shop, get him to spend some money on me.”

Last August, after a pair of synchronized bombs tore through an amusement park and a fast-food restaurant in Hyderabad, killing at least 40 people, an Indian newspaper called the violence “a war on the way we live.”

by NYTimes

Taiwan Typhoon Grounds Flights

Typhoon Fung Wong
Photo by: NCHMF

A typhoon struck Taiwan early Monday, closing schools and businesses and grounding domestic and international air traffic.

The storm, Typhoon Fung Wong, made landfall on the east central coast of the island just before daybreak, with winds of 105 miles per hour.

It was expected to drop up to 36 inches of rain on the central portion of Taiwan and perhaps half that much on the southern and northern extremities, including the capital, Taipei.

The typhoon hit only a week after a tropical storm killed 19 people, with six others still missing, on Taiwan.

The authorities provided sandbags on Sunday to residents of low-lying areas. Villagers were evacuated from a mountainous part of southern Kaohsiung.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Vietnam inflation hits 27 percent, trade gap widens

Adopted by the Vietminh in 1941, the "red flag with yellow star" later served as the flag of North Vietnam. It has been the flag of a united Vietnam since 1976.

Vietnam's annual inflation rate hit 27 percent in July, the government said Thursday, as rocketing food and fuel costs saddle its economy with one of Asia's toughest battles against rising prices. The figure was only a little higher than June's 26.8 percent, but the government's decision earlier this week to hike retail petrol prices more than 30 percent is thought likely to push inflation still higher. Other official data Thursday estimated Vietnam's trade deficit for the January-July period at 15 billion dollars as imports surged more than 50 percent.The figures come after the Asian Development Bank on Tuesday warned Vietnam to take decisive measures to avoid the kind of economic meltdown suffered by Thailand in 1997, which triggered the Asian financial crisis.

Vietnam was once widely hailed as Asia's next economic tiger, but has been battered by double-digit inflation, a ballooning trade gap, tumbling share prices and worries about the banking sector and its currency, the dong. In July alone, food and beverage costs rose by 44.7 percent year-on-year, while the price of the staple food rice and other grains was up 72.7 percent, the state-run General Statistics Office said in a preliminary report. Prices for housing and construction materials were up by 24.9 percent, clothing and footwear was up 10.9 percent and pharmaceuticals and health care costs rose by 9.5 percent for the month. For the first seven months of the year, the consumer prices index has risen by 21.28 percent, the figures showed. The statistics office's trade figures showed imports in the first seven months totalled 51.9 billion dollars, up 56.8 percent year-on-year. Exports rose 37.7 percent to 36.9 billion dollars. The communist nation spent 8.2 billion dollars on importing equipment and machinery, a rise of 40.3 percent.

With large oil reserves but no operating refinery, the country used 7.8 billion dollars to buy petroleum products, a rise of 90.7 percent amid record high global energy prices. Vietnam earned 6.8 billion dollars from selling crude oil, a rise of 52.2 percent against the same period last year. Footwear sales earned Vietnam 2.8 billion dollars, up by 18.4 percent. The country's export turnover from this sector might change as the European Union on Wednesday decided to end preferential tariffs for Vietnamese-made footwear and some other goods. The trade deficit for July alone stood at 700 million dollars. The government has said it has given top priority to fighting inflation and lowered its 2008 economic growth target to seven percent. According to the government website, the public sector, including 15 major state enterprises, have cut more than two billion dollars in costs from almost 3,000 projects scheduled for this year in a bid to help reduce inflation. The Asian Development Bank forecast Vietnam's economic growth would slow to 6.5 percent this year and then hit 6.8 percent in 2009, from 8.5 percent last year.