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.

China warns ExxonMobil to drop Vietnam deal

Image:Exxon Mobil Logo.svg

China has warned US oil giant ExxonMobil to drop an exploration deal in the seas off Vietnam and said the project could threaten any future mainland contracts, a Hong Kong newspaper reported Sunday. Diplomats in Washington have contacted senior figures in the world's largest oil firm to protest the deal, which they say could be a breach of Chinese sovereignty, the Sunday Morning Post reported citing unnamed sources close to the US firm. "If it was simply a legal question it would be easy," one of the sources told the newspaper. "Vietnam would probably prevail in international mediation. But it's political, too. China's concerns make the situation much more complicated for a company like Exxon... China is a very important player in the international oil industry." The dispute involves a preliminary co-operation agreement between state oil firm PetroVietnam and ExxonMobil covering exploration in the South China Sea off Vietnam's south and central coasts, the report said.

The Chinese protests are based on Beijing's historical claim to huge swathes of the South China Sea, the report said. Last year, China criticised a joint deal between Vietnam and British energy giant BP near the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, saying the area has been an "indisputable part of Chinese territory since ancient times." The report quoted Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Dung saying it needed to be "clearly asserted" that Hanoi's dealings with foreign oil partners fell entirely within Vietnam's legal rights and sovereignty. China and Vietnam -- who in 1979 fought a short border war after Vietnam expelled the Beijing-backed Khmer Rouge from Cambodia -- also fought a brief naval battle in 1988 near the Spratly Islands.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

China Begins Pulling Soldiers Out of Quake Zone

China Photos/Getty Images

Children waved to departing soldiers on Monday in Deyang, China.

Packed into trucks and buses, tens of thousands of soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army began leaving southwestern China’s earthquake zone on Monday, signaling a shift here from short-term recovery efforts to long-term reconstruction work.

The first stage of the troop departure, involving about 40,000 soldiers, came on the orders of President Hu Jintao, just over two months after the earthquake struck, according to Xinhua, the official state news agency.

In the afternoon, a long stretch of six-lane highway south of this city, in northern Sichuan Province, was lined with more than 100 green army trucks and civilian minibuses waiting to depart. Soldiers in fatigues loitered by the vehicles or slept inside. Many had the same tired, bored or far-off look of the soldiers who were bused into the chaotic quake-stricken cities in the hours after the earthquake hit on May 12.

“They did a good job and they’re very young, 18 or 19 years old, just like our children,” said Yu Tingyun, 42, a driver from north of Mianzhu who lost his only child, an 18-year-old daughter, in a school collapse during the earthquake.

The 7.9-magnitude tremor razed entire towns and villages in this mountainous swath of China, leaving nearly 70,000 people dead and 18,000 missing. China mobilized 130,000 military service members and police officers in the broadest deployment of the nation’s armed forces since a border war with Vietnam in 1979.

Soldiers were quickly deployed into the ravaged areas, many hiking into the mountains and across landslide-blocked roads. Most were untrained in rescue work, prompting criticism from some Western analysts of the People’s Liberation Army.

But many Chinese have praised the army’s work. Xinhua reported that as of Friday, the armed forces had repaired more than 9,200 miles of road, built 220,000 shelters and relocated more than 1.4 million people.

Xinhua also highlighted the martyrdom of Wu Wenbin, 26, a soldier who died on June 18 from “massive blood loss in the lungs due to overwork in quake-relief missions.”

A television documentary about the army’s rescue work has the English words “Super Warriors” in a corner of the screen. Sweeping movie theme music accompanies the footage.

At an intersection north of Mianzhu, a large billboard shows soldiers in heroic action: fording a river to reach quake survivors, carrying two babies in their arms and cradling the head of a woman drinking from a canteen.

The unit is one posted in Yunnan Province. Its nickname is Iron Army.

“The local military troops aren’t as good as the soldiers from outside,” said Huang Lianfen, 33, whose teenage nephew was killed in the same school collapse as Mr. Yu’s daughter. “The ones from outside have better machinery. After they arrived, the rescue work went very quickly. They arrived three days afterward.”

Ms. Huang said the soldiers from Beijing and Shenzhen, a booming city north of Hong Kong, seemed especially well equipped. But she had kind words for all the troops.

“The soldiers were tired,” she said. “We offered our food to them, and they didn’t even take it.”

Ms. Huang’s words echo the legends surrounding the Communist Army that Mao led to victory in the Chinese civil war. It was said that those soldiers were so well behaved they did not even take thread from the homes of villagers to mend their clothes.

“We sent a red banner to some soldiers to thank them,” Mr. Yu said of the present-day warriors. “But they refused it, saying this was their job.”

by NYTimes

2 Die in Bus Blasts in Southwest China

Associated Press
One of two buses damaged in separate explosions in Kunming, in southwest China, on Monday.
Two public buses exploded during the Monday morning rush hour in the city of Kunming, killing at least two people and injuring 14 others in what the authorities described as deliberate attacks as China is tightening security nationwide and warning of possible terrorist threats in advance of next month’s Olympic Games.

The blasts struck at 7:05 and 8:10 a.m., state media reported. Public security officials in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province in southwestern China, provided no information about whether the explosions were coordinated, nor did the authorities say whether they were the work of terrorist groups or disgruntled individuals.

By Monday afternoon, the police were still searching for suspects. Checkpoints were set up on highways, while the police were tightening security at Kunming’s airport and train terminal, according to the Web site of the provincial public security bureau. A photograph of one bus posted online showed shards from a shattered window spread across a street but also suggested that the blast had not been powerful enough to inflict catastrophic damage.

China has experienced a spate of riots and public protests as the country prepares for the Aug. 8 opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics.

In recent years, public protests have become common in China, especially in rural areas where farmers have demonstrated against illegal land seizures and official corruption. But the authorities are trying to tamp down embarrassing outbursts ahead of the Olympics and have ordered local authorities to address local grievances and block petitioners from coming to Beijing.

As many as 30,000 people rioted in Weng’an County, in Guizhou Province, in late June, in response to allegations that the local police had mishandled the investigation of the death of a teenage girl. Last week, a mob of 100 angry protesters attacked a village police station in Guangdong Province in an uprising over allegations of police malfeasance.

Last weekend, the police in a rural region of Yunnan Province killed two people after a violent clash with 500 rubber farmers. The farmers, armed with knives, injured 41 police officers and damaged several police cars in a confrontation rooted in a long-running dispute between farmers and a local rubber company, state media reported. Provincial officials are investigating the attack.

Beyond the escalating internal disturbances, the authorities are warning that foreign terrorist groups may be plotting to disrupt the Olympics. Chinese officials have singled out the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement and say they destroyed 41 training bases and arrested 82 people.

“Intelligence reports show the group has been planning to carry out terrorist attacks during the Games,” Ma Zhenchuan, director of Olympic security, told China Central Television.

Some human rights advocates say China is exaggerating the threat posed by the group to justify a broad security crackdown in Xinjiang, the restive western region that is home to the country’s Muslim Uighur population.

In Kunming, the first bus blast killed Wang Dezhi, a 30-year-old woman, while injuring 10 other people, according to the provincial public security Web site. The second explosion was 65 minutes later on a bus following the same route. In this blast, a 26-year-old man, Chen Shifei, died and four people were injured.

Witnesses on one bus told Chinese newspapers that a short man in a black shirt and gray pants boarded the bus before the explosion and sat behind the driver. After the bus stopped and then prepared to get going again, the man jumped up and yelled for the driver to let him off, the witnesses said.

Witnesses told a joint reporting team from the Yunnan Information Daily and the Southern Newspaper Group that the man had left a black leather bag on the bus. About 30 seconds later, the bus exploded. Witnesses on the second bus told Chinese journalists they had also seen a black bag.

Ms. Wang was returning with her husband to celebrate the birthday of their 5-year-old daughter. Her husband suffered minor injuries in the explosion.

With more than three million residents, Kunming is a temperate city that serves as a gateway to some of China’s most scenic areas in outlying Yunnan Province. It serves as a transportation hub to Southeast Asia and is known for its high percentage of minority communities in the province’s mountainous regions.

by NYTimes

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Western Olympic Ads Cheerlead for China

Ryan Pyle for The New York Times

An Adidas campaign showing the Chinese masses supporting top athletes was honored at an international advertising festival.

It is becoming increasingly clear which nation global corporations will be rooting for at this summer’s Olympics: China.

Or at least that’s what it looks like from advertisements here. McDonald's is running a “Cheer for China” television ad. Nike ads feature China’s star hurdler, Liu Xiang, and other Chinese athletes besting foreign competitors. Earlier this year, Pepsi even painted its familiar blue cans red for a limited edition “Go Red for China” promotion.

The campaigns for Western companies are part of an advertising blitz the likes of which this ostensibly communist nation has never seen. Ads are papered over bus shelters, projected on giant outdoor television screens and plastered on billboards. Commercials even flicker at commuters as they zoom through subway tunnels.

China, already the world’s second-largest advertising market, after the United States, is a dream for consumer product companies. “For most international brands here, China is the growth market for the next 10 years,” said Jonathan Chajet, strategic director at Interbrand, which consults on brands.

A record 63 companies have become sponsors or partners of the Beijing Olympics. Olympic-related advertising in China could reach $4 billion to $6 billion this year, according to CSM, a Beijing marketing research firm.

“You’ve never seen the Olympics in a market that has such domestic, commercial scale,” says Michael Wood, the chief executive for greater China at Leo Burnett, the global advertising agency. “When the Olympics were in Los Angeles and Atlanta, the U.S. market was already fully developed.”

The promise of selling a billion bottles of Coke to China’s 1.3 billion people is no longer a pipe dream; last year, 24 billion bottles of Coca-Cola were sold in China. KFC, a unit of Yum Brands, has more than 2,000 stores here. McDonald’s and Starbucks are ubiquitous. And Nokia, the cellphone maker, sold about 70 million phones to Chinese consumers in 2007, racking up sales of $10 billion.

Now those global brands are trying to extend their reach beyond China’s wealthiest cities. But China’s growing economic clout and increasing nationalism among its youth — as well as the newfound strength of its homegrown brands — pose challenges for foreign companies trying to woo its growing middle class.

“For most international brands, this is a double-edged sword,” said Mr. Chajet of Interbrand. “They’re premium, high-tech and status brands. But there’s rising nationalism, and the Olympics is a rallying cry for the Chinese, who are looking for a reason not to buy foreign.”

To win over Chinese consumers, Adidas, which already has more than 4,000 stores in China, has new television and print ads showing legions of everyday Chinese guiding the country’s top athletes to gold medal performances. The campaign won a top award at the Cannes Lions advertising festival in June.

Erica Kerner, director of Adidas’s Beijing Olympic Games program, said, “This is about rallying the nation.”

Gatorade, which is owned by Pepsico, has a television ad featuring Chinese athletes counting down to the year 2008. It concludes with a group of children, around age 7, at what looks like an Olympic training center, hitting table tennis balls in unison and counting down to 2012 and 2016.

A Volkswagen campaign encourages people to “honk for China”; McDonald’s ads say “I’m Lovin’ It When China Wins”; and Nike, though not an Olympic sponsor, is the official outfitter of more than 20 of China’s teams.

But these advertising ventures are not going unchallenged. The Chinese government is pushing its companies to amplify their ad messages to compete with foreign brands. Many are promoting their home-court advantage.

For example, a print advertising campaign by Anta, one of China’s biggest sportswear companies, shows a crowd of flag-waving youths gesturing like wild revolutionaries in a state of Olympic euphoria. Many of Anta’s television ads include the song lyrics “I love you, China.”

Ads by the dairy producer Yili feature young people and the tag line, “I Make China Strong!”

More than a dozen Chinese companies have paid millions each to become Olympic sponsors, including the computer maker Lenovo (the sole Chinese company among the Games’ “global sponsors”). And some companies are hinting that, like the country’s top athletes, they can go head-to-head with the best in the West.

Marketing experts say one downside to the advertising frenzy is the clutter.

In the sea of ads featuring Chinese athletes pitching products as varied as Cadillacs and traditional Chinese medicine — with endless images of the Olympic stadium — is a simple question: Whose ad was that anyway? In fact, Mr. Liu, the hurdler, is in ads for at least 16 companies, including Nike and Coke.

“The sameness of the ads is the frightening thing,” said Terry Rhoads, managing director at Zou Marketing, a sports consultancy in Shanghai. “You have to wonder about the ad agencies.”

The avalanche of Olympic television advertising is compounded by so-called ambush marketing, in which nonsponsors — often rivals of official sponsors — try to grab some Olympic glory without paying the high sponsorship fees. The proliferation of such ads is not going unchecked; China is scrutinizing the ads of nonsponsors, trying to give prime billboard space to the official sponsors.

Pepsico, for instance, is not an Olympic sponsor, but its Gatorade brand sponsors some Chinese athletes. Nike is also not a sponsor of the Games, but it has created some of the most striking television ads, encouraging Chinese athletes to “Just Do It.”

Further blurring the line between official and unofficial, some competing companies have been allowed as sponsors: three beer makers — Budweiser, Tsingtao and Yanjing — will be Olympic sponsors, authorized not by the IOC but by the Beijing Olympic committee.

With so many companies eager to market to China’s increasingly wealthy consumers, advertising agencies and China’s sports industry — which controls Olympic athletes and shares in their sponsorship dollars — have already captured lots of gold.

“There’s never been an Olympics with such a big home market,” says Dick van Motman, the chief executive of the Chinese division of DDB Worldwide, the advertising agency. For global brands to succeed, he said, that means “reinforcing your image; aligning yourself with the China dream; and aligning yourself with China entering the world stage. That’s the real game.”

by NYTimes.

Friday, July 18, 2008

China to Bar Entertainers It Deems Threat

Foreign entertainers who have taken part in activities that China deems a threat to its sovereignty will not be allowed to perform here, according to new rules posted Thursday on the Web site of the Ministry of Culture.

Associated Press Photo

Pop singer Bjork performs in Shanghai on March 2. The singer ignited criticism from Chinese fans after she declared "Tibet! Tibet!" to end a passionate performance of her song "Declare Independence" during a concert in China.

The rules say that the background credentials of performers from foreign countries, Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan will be scrutinized. “Those who used to take part in activities that harm our nation’s sovereignty are firmly not allowed to perform in China,” the rules say.

They also call for barring performers who promote ethnic hatred or “advocate obscenity or feudalism and superstition.”

The rules are the latest attempt by China to clamp down on any political dissent before the Beijing Olympics, which begin on Aug. 8. Government officials have set up security checkpoints throughout Beijing, deported some foreigners or refused to renew visas and shut down protests by grieving parents whose children died in school collapses in the May 12 earthquake.

China had promised a more open atmosphere this summer and had told the IOC that it would adhere to strict standards for human rights. Many people outside China now doubt its commitment to those pledges.

The rules on performers may have come about after an outburst in March by bjork, the popular Icelandic singer. She used a concert in Shanghai to advocate Tibetan independence. She shouted “Tibet! Tibet!” after performing “Declare Independence,” a song from her 2007 album, “Volta.” The outcry drew sharp criticism from Chinese Internet users and praise from international supporters of an independent Tibet.

The Chinese government often says the invasion of Tibet by the People’s Liberation Army in 1950 led to the overthrow of a feudal system that was kept in place by the Dalai Latma and his predecessors.

Interestingly, the new rules on entertainment also apply to performers from Hong Kong and Macao, both former European colonies now administered by China. In Taiwan, a self-governing democratic island off the coast of Fujian Province, some entertainers advocate formal independence for Taiwan and are considered dangerous by Chinese officials.

Pakistani Bear Market Has Investors Raging in the Streets

Emilio Morenatti/Associated Press

Tires burned Thursday in front of the stock exchange in Islamabad, Pakistan, as protesters vented anger over a two-week plunge in share prices. While Wall Street prices rose, Pakistani shares fell over concern about handling of the ailing economy.

Angry investors stormed out of the Karachi Stock Exchange on Thursday, hurling stones and planters at the building in protest over slumping share prices.

The benchmark index fell for the 15th consecutive trading day, the worst losing run in at least 18 years. Angry investors also protested in Lahore and Islamabad, Pakistani newspapers reported.

“I have lost my life savings in the last 15 days, and no one in the government or regulators came to help us,” said Imran Inayat, 45, a protester and a former broker in Karachi, Bloomberg News reported. He said his loss was $4,175.

Much of the protesters’ anger was directed at the new government, which is perceived as unable to fix an ailing economy plagued by runaway inflation and large budget and trade deficits.

The benchmark index on the Karachi Stock Exchange, the nation’s biggest, declined by nearly 3 percent on Thursday. Investors demanded a temporary halt to trading. When the exchange management refused to stop trading, investors went on a rampage. The index has dropped by 36 percent since reaching a record high in April.

Some of the fury was also directed at the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan, which this week removed a 1 percent daily limit on price declines. The restriction was aimed at halting a slide that has wiped out $30 billion in companies’ combined market value over three months.

“There has been some level of mismanagement by the authorities,” said Habib-ur-Rehman, a manager at Atlas Asset Management Ltd. in Karachi, according to Bloomberg. “This may be due to their misperception that they can prevent the market from falling. Investors have to learn to bear losses as they do gains.”

Volume at the stock exchange fell to the lowest in a decade. In response, regulators eased curbs on trading, including a ban on short-selling. Foreign investors have fled the exchange, according to data compiled by the central bank.

Much of the investor unease stems from the inability of the new civilian government, in power since late March, to stem the economic crisis.

Shortages of wheat, electricity and gasoline have affected all sectors of society. Blackouts have been a fixture of daily life for six months. Long lines are common at stores selling wheat, the staple food, at subsidized prices.

The government has been riven by rivalries between the leader of the major political party, Asif Ali Zardari, and the head of the coalition’s junior partner, Nawaz Sharif, over how to restore 60 judges dismissed last year by President Pervez Musharraf.

A survey of Pakistanis released Thursday by the International Republican Institute in Washington showed widespread discontent with the economy. The survey, in which 3,484 Pakistanis were interviewed between June 1 and 15, showed that 92 percent of respondents saw shortages of wheat, natural gas and electricity as a “serious problem.”

In addition, 71 percent of respondents said that inflation was a major issue, compared with only 55 percent in a similar survey in January. The survey’s margin of sampling error was plus or minus 1.7 percentage points.

by NYTimes

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Justice Is Swift for Novice Korean Jurors

Seokyong Lee for the International Herald Tribune

When Park Kwang-rual received the summons to court, he immediately started wondering what he had done wrong.

“I tried to remember, ‘Did I ever hit someone? Not repay a debt? Was someone suing me?’ ” said Mr. Park, a 41-year-old human resources manager. Only when he answered it did he realize it was a jury summons.

Jung Hae-young, 30, left her summons in a heap of junk mail and did not realize what it was until she had already missed the deadline to seek an exemption. Not sure what it was all about, and reluctant to miss a day of work, she was going to ignore it until she saw the emphatically underlined warning of a $2,000 penalty if she failed to appear.

This year, with little public preparation, South Korea took its first steps toward adopting a jury system. After about 20 mock trials in the second half of 2007, the first real one with a jury took place in February, followed by a series of others.

The change is still provisional, though. After a test period of several years, the Supreme Court is to decide which aspects of the system should be made permanent. For the time being, jurors play only an advisory role; judges are not bound to follow jurors’ opinions about verdicts and sentences.

But legal experts say that citizen participation has already had a discernible impact on the legal process. In a court system with no presumption of innocence, jury trials appear to be leading to a higher rate of acquittals, as jurors debate and question prosecutors’ assumptions.

“This is an enormous change,” said Cho Kuk, a law professor at Seoul National University. “For the first time ever, people are participating in the courtroom as the main actors.”

The introduction of jurors is part of a larger effort to transform a judicial system left over from the Japanese colonial era and the military rule that followed, when the courts were often employed as a weapon against political opponents, into one more suited to South Korea’s now vigorous democracy.

While the administration of the former president, Roh Moo-hyun, had pushed for civic involvement in the courtrooms, the public was hardly consulted in discussions among officials and academics as to what form this should take — even though the lack of public confidence in the judiciary was cited as a main reason for introducing a jury system.

For years, court proceedings here have been opaque affairs, with verdicts often the result of behind-the-scenes deals. Typically, judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers would speak for only a few minutes in open court, otherwise exchanging documents among themselves to settle a case, with no public scrutiny.

“The community formed a privileged class for themselves as if they were friars speaking only Latin,” said Park Hong-kyu, a law professor at Yeungnam University. Courts were viewed as “a professional arena only for special geniuses,” he added.

Now that is changing. And not everyone is comfortable with it.

For one thing, judges and lawyers are not used to explaining their actions to the public. Legal professionals who brief jurors can find the obligation to devote more time to the public aspects of a case a burden.

But by American standards, the pace of even the new style of South Korean justice can be breathtaking.

So far, nearly all the jury trials have been concluded within a day, from jury selection in the morning, to the lawyers’ presentations in the afternoon, to jury deliberations in the evening. The jurors, usually five to nine people, are told that if they cannot reach a unanimous verdict within an hour or so, they must consult the judge for guidance.

Judicial officials defend the fast pace by saying that interviews show that this is what jurors prefer in a country where missing a day of work is almost unthinkable.

“Most jurors said that they would rather stay on late than come back the next day,” said Kang Il-won of the Supreme Court’s judicial policy office.

But Professor Park said he believed that the rush stemmed more from the old habit of minimizing time in court. “If this becomes the practice, it could undermine justice,” he said.

At a murder trial in May here in Suwon, a one-hour drive south of Seoul, the presiding judge, Choi Jai-hyuk, stopped often to explain procedures to the jurors.

Afterward, the jurors said some of the defense lawyers and prosecutors looked bored. But when the lawyers presented their cases, they clearly took up far more time than the judges had anticipated in laying out the evidence, questioning the defendant and witnesses and delivering closing arguments.

And so it was the judges’ turn to look impatient. They began vetoing lawyers’ attempts to display more evidence. As 6 p.m. approached, they signaled that they wanted the lawyers to conclude. (An earlier murder trial with a jury in March went past 10 p.m.)

This time, Judge Choi tried to make sure that things stayed on schedule.

“Is that absolutely necessary?” he asked when the prosecutor, Yoo Chun-yeol, requested a break.

“Please wrap it up,” the judge said, as Mr. Yoo delivered his closing statement, arguing for life imprisonment. “You’re way over your allotted time.”

The hearing ended at 5:40 p.m., and the jurors began their deliberations. By 7:15 p.m., Judge Choi was stationed outside the jurors’ room, waiting to be consulted. A court official peeked in to ask if a verdict had been reached.

At 7:40 p.m., it had, and at 8:04 p.m. Judge Choi sentenced the defendant to life.

One juror, Kim Chul-hoe, 36, said the two hours of deliberation was too short. “The precedents the court gave us for reference showed very different rulings for similar murder cases,” he said. But Mr. Kim, a government bureaucrat, admitted that he would not have wanted to spend more than a day on jury duty.

For lawyers unhappy with the results of these jury trials, there remains the option of appeal to higher courts, where there are no jurors.

by NYTimes.

New Sodomy Charge for Malaysian Opposition Figure

In what seemed a reprise of one of the more unusual moments in recent Malaysian history, police officers wearing ski masks seized the country’s most prominent opposition politician, Anwar Ibrahim, on Wednesday and took him to jail on suspicion of sodomy.

Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Journalists pursued Anwar Ibrahim, in jacket, Wednesday outside a government building near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Although Mr. Anwar was freed on bail on Thursday morning, his lawyers said, his arrest was likely to add to political tensions that have grown since the governing party suffered the biggest losses in its history in an election in March.

Mr. Anwar, 61, has strongly denied the accusation of sodomy, which was made last month by a 23-year-old male aide. He called it a political fabrication by the same governing establishment that convicted him on charges of sodomy and corruption in 1998. The sodomy conviction was later overturned. Sex between males is against the law in Malaysia.

After his previous arrest, tens of thousands of supporters challenged the government in the streets.

The manner of Mr. Anwar’s arrest on Wednesday seemed intended to intimidate and to challenge the opposition as much as to enforce the law.

According to one of his lawyers, Sankara Nair, who said he witnessed the arrest, Mr. Anwar was pulled roughly from his car and driven to the police headquarters just one hour before he had promised to turn himself in.

Another of his lawyers, William Leong, said, “If it had been an ordinary investigation, then they should have allowed him to go to the police headquarters as has been agreed and they should have allowed him to make his statement.”

During his previous arrest Mr. Anwar was famously punched in the eye by a high-ranking police officer, who later apologized to him when the Federal Court set him free in 2004.

Both times, the charges were brought at a moment when Mr. Anwar was posing a serious challenge to incumbent prime ministers, first Mahatir Mohamad and now Dr. Mahathir’s successor, Abdullah Badawi.

In 1998, as deputy prime minister and finance minister, Mr. Anwar had been Dr. Mahathir’s chosen successor but had apparently pushed his own ambitions too quickly for the prime minister’s taste.

The sodomy conviction was overturned after Dr. Mahathir had left office, after Mr. Anwar had served six years in prison.

By then, Malaysian politics had moved on, with a new prime minister and new contenders for power, and most analysts said chances were slim for a revival of Mr. Anwar’s political career.

But Dr. Mahathir has turned against Mr. Abdullah, who had been his new designated successor, and the government has been seriously weakened by its disaster in the March election.

At that time, the governing Barisan Nasional coalition lost its two-thirds parliamentary majority and ceded five states to the opposition, and Mr. Anwar’s challenge gained credibility and momentum.

About 400 supporters gathered outside the police headquarters on Wednesday demanding his release, and police officers in riot gear warned the crowd to disperse or face arrest. Mr. Anwar’s supporters replied with a warning of their own.

“Why are the police trying to test the people’s patience?” said Azmin Ali, a leader of Mr. Anwar’s party, the People Justice Party. “I am giving a very strong reminder to the police, don’t provoke us.”

The government denied that politics was involved in the sodomy accusation. “The purpose of the investigations is not to fix someone but is to really help him clear his name,” said Shahrir Samad, the domestic trade minister.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Beijing Orders Pollution to Vanish

Rush-hour traffic in Beijing
Rush-hour traffic in Beijing
Mark Ralston / AFP / Getty

With less than a month to go until the start of the Beijing Olympics, the air in the Chinese capital remains gray and smoggy. While the International Olympic Committee has generally praised the city's preparation for the Games, it says that pollution remains an outstanding concern. And so as the countdown clock in Tiananmen Square winds down to zero, worries grow that the $17 billion spent on environmental cleanup won't keep the Games from being clouded by a choking haze.

But experts familiar with the city's plans for short-term pollution controls say Beijing's air should vastly improve in the final run-up to the Games. That will be good news for the country's reputation and a successful event. However, the solution is only a quick fix; once the controls are lifted, Beijing will most likely return to its smoggy norm.

At the core of the solution are government-decreed industrial and traffic crackdowns. Beijing has announced work stoppages on July 20 for construction sites, mines and chemical plants. A group of polluting factories in Beijing will be required to cut emissions by 30%. In the neighboring cities of Tianjin and Tangshan, more than 300 factories will be shuttered during the Olympics.

The biggest element of the short-term cleanup efforts will be a restriction on car traffic that begins July 20. On that day government-vehicle traffic will be ordered to cut back by 70%, and private vehicles will be permitted to drive only on alternating days. Although police cars, emergency vehicles and taxis will be exempt, the government estimates that up to 50% of Beijing's 3.3 million vehicles will be cleared from the streets. "By July 20, not only the traffic control will be at ... full scale, [but] all the other controlling measures should in place," says Zhu Tong, an environmental-science professor at Peking University. "With all these controlling measures working at the same time, I am confident that the air quality in Beijing should be significantly improved."

The optimistic projections of an air turnaround for the Olympics are based in part on the results of previous exercises in barring cars from the streets of the capital. During a Sino-African summit in 2006, vehicle restrictions were enacted that removed about 800,000 of Beijing's then 2.8 million cars. The restrictions, which were put in place for three days, were "remarkably successful" and led to a 40% drop in nitrogen oxides, according to a study conducted by researchers from Harvard University and the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute.

Another study by Chinese and German researchers found that the 2006 test also helped cut airborne particles. "There was a significant decrease," says Jost Heintzenberg, director of the Leibniz Institute for Tropospheric Research. Under this year's plan, with added restrictions to keep trucks and cars that don't meet inspection out of the city, Heintzenberg says, "I make an educated guess on a 50% visibility improvement that they can manage."

The benefits of the auto restrictions come from not just taking polluting cars off the streets. Beijing's notorious traffic jams mean that even newer, efficient cars pollute more than if they were traveling in free-flowing traffic, says Hao Jiming, a professor of environmental science at Tsinghua University. "Driver speeds will increase, especially in urban areas. The high speed makes emissions lower," Hao says. He estimates that simply removing cars will cut pollutants by 40%, and the higher speeds of the remaining vehicles will mean an additional 10% reduction in pollutants. Beijing has added subway lines and increased its number of subway cars to handle the crush on public transit during the car-restriction period. Offices and stores have also been ordered to stagger working hours, and buses to and from Olympic venues have been organized. But if the previous tests are any example, getting around town could still be tough.

One unknown will be to what extent weather helps. When the wind blows strong out of the north, Beijing's skies can clear quickly. But when there is no breeze, the city's northern and western hills can easily trap pollution. Last August a four-day car-restriction test resulted in only modest improvements, which the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau blamed on the lack of a breeze. But unlike the 2006 and 2007 tests, which ran for just three and four days, respectively, this year's limitations will have been in place for nearly three weeks when the Olympics kick off. Hao says he expects to see clearer skies within one week. "After a few days, the air quality will be improved," he says. "How many days? That depends on the weather."

But while cleaner skies will be a welcome sight for the Olympic hosts, Beijing's residents won't have long to enjoy it. The restrictions will be kept in place for the Sept. 6-17 Paralympics, then end on Sept. 20. "The measures are only a short-term fix," says Wen Bo, China director for the NGO Pacific Environment. "I think the current Beijing government couldn't have the time and energy to think of long-term solutions for fixing air pollution."

India's New Buddhists

Indian Buddhist devotees offer prayers at a Buddhist temple during the Buddha Purnima Festival in New Delhi
Indian Buddhist devotees offer prayers at a Buddhist temple during the Buddha Purnima Festival in New Delhi

Neha Mohan was 24 years old and living the new Indian dream, with a job at a New Delhi marketing firm that hitched her wagon to the country's chugging economy. And then she let it all go. "I wasn't satisfied," she says over a cappuccino in a shopping mall on the city's southern fringe. Mohan decided to ditch business and study French. With a widowed mother to support, Mohan says her family couldn't understand why she would turn her back on so much opportunity. "There was a lot of pressure," she says. But like many other urban, educated Indians, Mohan, now 29, has found strength and solace in Buddhism.

The faith that was started 2,500 years ago by a worldly, disaffected Indian prince, Siddhartha Gautama, is finding new adherents among the modern princes and princesses of the country's prosperous élite. They're facing some of the same tensions that have made Buddhist practice so popular in the U.S. and Europe. "As in America, there are all kinds of new pressures that are at work on people, all kinds of mental stress," says K.T.S. Sarao, a professor of Buddhist studies at the University of Delhi. The wealth created by India's technology boom has brought with it the realization that material comfort isn't the same thing as happiness. Caught in that tender trap, Sarao says, "People turn to meditation."

But while Buddhism in the West might carry with it a hint of the exotic, here the appeal has more to do with its simplicity and pragmatism. That's what has drawn so many New Delhi yuppies to Soka Gakkai, a lay Buddhist movement whose extensive land holdings and political influence have sometimes made it controversial in Japan, where it was founded. Soka Gakkai has had a tiny presence in India for decades. But the group has blossomed in the last eight years, growing from 5,000 to 35,000 members — 20,000 of them in New Delhi alone.

The core of the Soka Gakkai practice is the chanting of the phrase, nam ryo renge kyo — "I devote myself to the mystic law of the Lotus Sutra" — but it is otherwise stripped of mysticism or ascetic self-denial. It teaches a mix of personal affirmation, positive thinking, and the basic Buddhist principles of peace and non-violence. Saurabh Popli, a lanky, 34-year-old architect, says he found in Soka Gakkai "a philosophy that can help us navigate these incredibly complex lives that we're living." He adds, "It doesn't require me to live in the mountains. It's a pragmatic way to live my life." Sunita Mehta, 60, a non-profit executive who's been part of the group for 13 years, says she's noticed that the newer members aren't the typical spiritual seekers: many are scientists, doctors, or academics. Members chant privately, but meet regularly in each other's whitewashed apartment buildings and bougainvillea-shaded homes. They come, Mehta says, looking for a safe place to talk about their tough bosses and bad breakups. "These are not the things that you can take to the normal Hindu priest," she says.

Other established schools of Buddhist thought, like vipassana meditation and Tibetan Buddhism, are finding a newly receptive audience India as well. These new Buddhists don't convert officially; they simply take up some form of the practice, usually chanting or meditation, and often continue to observe the same holidays and family rituals they always did. That's another part of Buddhism's appeal in India, Sarao says. In a country where so much of social life revolves around religious festivals and ceremonies, Indians can enjoy the philosophical satisfactions of Buddhism without having to give up the faith they were born into. "They do not feel they're being disloyal to Hinduism in any way," he says.

Of course, that makes it difficult to know exactly how widespread Buddhist practice has become. About 1.7% of India's population, or 170 million people, were counted as Buddhist in the 2001 census, but the vast majority are the descendants of Dalits, who converted to Buddhism en masse in the 1950s as a reaction against their low status in the Hindu caste hierarchy. It was an inspiring political revolution, led by the great Dalit activist B.R. Ambedkar, but its success gave contemporary Buddhism in India the stigma of a lower-caste movement. That's changed with this recent move toward the faith among the élite. Sarao estimates that urban, affluent followers of Buddhism in India may number about 1 million.

With them, the story of Buddhism in India comes back to its beginnings. In his book An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World, author Pankaj Mishra describes the troubled times in which the Buddha appeared. Dissatisfied with lives regimented around work, he writes, people gathered to listen to a new breed of freethinking philosopher, "India's first cosmopolitan thinkers." Those disaffected seekers came together in groves and parks built near the cities of the sixth-century B.C. Gangetic Plain. But any 21st century Delhi-ite would surely recognize the tensions driving their search for spiritual clarity.

by TIME.

South Korea Recalls Envoy to Japan

Yonhap, via Associated Press

Officials in South Korea rallied on Monday against Japan’s claim to a string of islets, included in guidelines for teachers.

The government of President lee Myung-bak, which has made improving ties with Japan a major policy goal, said it was an “intolerable act” that Japan restated its territorial claim in a new guideline for junior high school teachers and textbook publishers released Monday.

“This is something we can never accept. Thus we protest strongly to the Japanese government and demand that it immediately make a correction,” said Mun Tae-young, a spokesman for the South Korean Foreign Ministry. “We will take decisive actions against any attempt to damage our territorial rights.”

Ambassador Kwon Chul-hyun will return to South Korea after making a protest to the Japanese government.

South Korea’s foreign minister, Yu Myung-hwan, summoned Ambassador Toshinori Shigeie of Japan to express Seoul’s outrage, the ministry said.

A group of senior members of President Lee’s governing Grand National Party flew by helicopter to the set of islets, called Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan. They met with a contingent of South Korean police officers stationed there and read a statement denouncing Japan.

Another group of legislators held a protest rally in front of the Japanese Embassy in central Seoul. The police increased security in the neighborhood.

Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Nobutaka Machimura, in a statement quoted by Reuters, said that South Korea was an important neighbor for Japan. “We want to avoid a situation where Japan-South Korea relations are influenced by each and every issue and I hope both sides will calmly respond,” he said, according to Reuters.

The islets lie in the body of water between the two countries, known as the Sea of Japan to the Japanese and the East Sea to the South Koreans.

The dispute over the largely uninhabited volcanic outcroppings has troubled bilateral relations for years, a testament to the instability and tension stemming from the region’s violent, early-20th-century history.

South Korea has recalled ambassadors only four times in its history — three times from Japan.

by NyTimes.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Korea, India, Vietnam Currency Interventions May Fail

South Korea, India and Vietnam will fail to halt declines in their currencies by using intervention because their economies are slowing and trade deficits widening, said Morgan Stanley, the second-biggest U.S. securities firm. Central banks in each of the countries have “repeatedly'' been buying and selling foreign-exchange this year as their currencies have weakened, Stewart Newnham, a research analyst at Morgan Stanley, wrote in a note to clients. The won, rupee and dong have all fallen at least 5 percent in 2008, threatening to quicken inflation by increasing import costs. Korea, the world's sixth-biggest holder of foreign-exchange reserves, pledged today to take “stern action'' to stabilize the won.

“Their intervention will ultimately fail,'' Hong Kong- based Newnham wrote in the note, which he confirmed by telephone today. ``The best they can hope for, in our view, is to engineer an orderly decline through a `smoothing operation.' And maybe Vietnam cannot even achieve that.'' The won has fallen 10.2 percent this year to 1,042.85 per dollar according to Seoul Money Brokerage Services Ltd. It is the second biggest loser against the dollar in the period of the 10 most-traded Asian currencies outside Japan. India's rupee has weakened 8.7 percent to 43.165 and the dong has slipped 5 percent to 16,846.50. Minister Dismissed

Korea's currency snapped two days of losses today, gaining 0.7 percent, after the Ministry of Finance and the Bank of Korea said they will use foreign-exchange reserves to stabilize the won and ``take strong necessary measures if the imbalance seems excessive.'' President Lee Myung Bak today dismissed Vice Finance Minister Choi Joong Kyung, who was in charge of currency policy, as part of a wider cabinet reshuffle. “By far, the strongest pressure is on the Vietnamese dong'' due to its limited foreign-exchange reserves, Newnham wrote. Morgan Stanley estimates Vietnam's reserves to be $27 billion, India's $302 billion, the world's fourth biggest, and South Korea's $258 billion. Vietnam will be forced to “realign'' the dong, Newnham said. Traders are pricing in an 18 percent decline in the coming year to 20,500 per dollar, according to offshore 12-month non- deliverable forwards. Accelerating inflation has pushed so-called “real rates,'' which are interest rates accounted for inflation, towards zero or negative levels because ``interest-rate stances are not sufficiently tight,'' Newnham wrote.

Korea's benchmark rate is at 5 percent and Vietnam's at 14 percent, compared with inflation of 5.5 percent and 26.8 percent respectively.

India's policy rate is at 8.5 percent, compared with its wholesale price index at 11.63 percent. “Their interest-rate and exchange-rate policies are not internally consistent for currency intervention to be regarded as credible,'' Newnham said in the note. Banks in the three countries are ``showing signs of discomfort and this could feed through into foreign-exchange weakness,'' Newnham wrote, citing high loan-to-deposit ratios, a shortage of dollars onshore and property loans.

ANZ to become locally incorporated in Vietnam

Australia and New Zealand Banking Group (ANZ), which is Australia's third biggest lender, is rapidly expanding its banking operations in Vietnam. It plans to open four new outlets in Vietnam and has received approval in principle from the government to incorporate locally, which means it will be able to offer the same type of services to customers that domestic lenders can provide.

"ANZ regards expansion in Vietnam as one of its highest priorities in Asia," says Alex Thursby, ANZ's group managing director for Asia-Pacific. "Incorporation is the natural next step in our growth strategy. The newly incorporated bank will extend ANZ’s distribution to meet the needs of Vietnam’s growing affluent population who are looking for more convenient access to bank branches, as well as products such as mortgage loans, credit cards, car loans and better savings and investments."

ANZ says it will retain its existing foreign bank branch in Hanoi. The new ANZ retail outlets will be established over the next four years in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and other cities.

"ANZ's proposed growth strategy in Vietnam represents a welcome expansion of the bilateral investment relationship and also sends a clear signal to investors that Vietnam is open for business," Australian foreign minister Stephen Smith said, according to an ANZ press release.

ANZ opened in Vietnam in 1993 and has branches in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, as well as a representative office in Can Tho Province. ANZ says it introduced the first ATM in Vietnam, completed the first project finance deal and was the first to establish a leasing business. ANZ’s interests in Vietnam include partnerships with Vietnam’s leading securities and investment banking company Saigon Securities Inc (13.9% equity stake), and with Vietnam’s leading joint stock bank Sacombank (10% equity stake).

ANZ’s new licence comes after a 15-year presence in Vietnam under a foreign bank branch licence. Permission for local incorporation of foreign banks in Vietnam follows Vietnam’s accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2007, which has encouraged the communist country to open up to foreign investments. The establishment of ANZ’s new bank in Vietnam remains subject to approval by various regulatory authorities.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

In Japan, Buddhism May Be Dying Out

The Japanese have long taken an easygoing, buffetlike approach to religion, ringing out the old year at Buddhist temples and welcoming the new year, several hours later, at Shinto shrines. Weddings hew to Shinto rituals or, just as easily, to Christian ones.

When it comes to funerals, though, the Japanese have traditionally been inflexibly Buddhist — so much so that Buddhism in Japan is often called “funeral Buddhism,” a reference to the religion’s former near-monopoly on the elaborate, and lucrative, ceremonies surrounding deaths and memorial services.

But that expression also describes a religion that, by appearing to cater more to the needs of the dead than to those of the living, is losing its standing in Japanese society.

“That’s the image of funeral Buddhism: that it doesn’t meet people’s spiritual needs,” said Ryoko Mori, the chief priest at the 700-year-old Zuikoji Temple here in northern Japan. “In Islam or Christianity, they hold sermons on spiritual matters. But in Japan nowadays, very few Buddhist priests do that.”

Mr. Mori, 48, the 21st head priest of the temple, was unsure whether it would survive into the tenure of a 22nd.

“If Japanese Buddhism doesn’t act now, it will die out,” he said. “We can’t afford to wait. We have to do something.”

Across Japan, Buddhism faces a confluence of problems, some familiar to religions in other wealthy nations, others unique to the faith here.

The lack of successors to chief priests is jeopardizing family-run temples nationwide.

While interest in Buddhism is declining in urban areas, the religion’s rural strongholds are being depopulated, with older adherents dying and birthrates remaining low.

Perhaps most significantly, Buddhism is losing its grip on the funeral industry, as more and more Japanese are turning to funeral homes or choosing not to hold funerals at all.

Over the next generation, many temples in the countryside are expected to close, taking centuries of local history with them and adding to the demographic upheaval under way in rural Japan.

Here in Oga, on a peninsula of the same name that faces the Sea of Japan in Akita Prefecture, Buddhist priests are looking at the cold math of a population and local fishing industry in decline.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that the population is about half of what it was at its peak and that all businesses have also been reduced by half,” said Giju Sakamoto, 74, the 91st head priest of Akita’s oldest temple, Chorakuji, which was founded around the year 860. “Given that reality, simply insisting that we’re a religion and have a long history — Akita’s longest, in fact — sounds like a fairy tale. It’s meaningless.

“That’s why I think this place is beyond hope,” Mr. Sakamoto said at his temple, which sits atop a promontory overlooking a seaside village.

To survive, Mr. Sakamoto has put his energies into managing a nursing home and a new temple in a growing suburb of Akita City. That temple, however, has drawn only 60 households as members since it opened a couple of years ago, far short of the 300 said to be necessary for a temple to remain financially viable.

For centuries, the average Buddhist temple, whose stewardship was handed down from father to eldest son, served a fixed membership, rarely, if ever, proselytizing. With some 300 households to cater to, the temple’s chief priest and his wife were kept fully occupied.

Not only has the number of temples in Japan been dipping — to 85,994 in 2006, from 86,586 in 2000, according to the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs — but membership at many temples has fallen.

“We have to find other jobs because the temple alone is not enough,” said Kyo Kon, 73, the head priest’s wife at Kogakuin, a temple here with 170 members. She used to work at a day care center while her husband was employed at a local land planning office.

Not far away at Doshoji, a temple whose membership has fallen to 85 elderly households, the chief priest, Jokan Takahashi, 59, was facing a problem familiar to most small family-run businesses in Japan: finding a successor.

A graveyard at a Buddhist temple in Tokyo.

His eldest son had undergone the training to become a Buddhist priest, but Mr. Takahashi was ambivalent about asking him to take over the temple.

“My son grew up knowing nothing but this world of the temple, and he told me he did not feel free,” he said, explaining that his son, now 28, was working at a company in a nearby city. “He asked me to let him be free as long as I was working, and said that he would come back and take over by the time he turned 35.

“But considering the future, pressuring a young person to take over a temple like this might be cruel,” Mr. Takahashi said, after giving visitors a tour of his temple’s most important room, an inner chamber with wooden, lockerlike cabinets where, it is said, the spirits of his members’ ancestors are kept.

On a recent morning, Mr. Mori, the priest of the 700-year-old temple, began the day with a visit to a rice farming household marking the 33rd anniversary of a grandfather’s death. Bowing before the home altar, Mr. Mori prayed and chanted sutras. Later, he repeated the rituals at another household, which was commemorating the seventh anniversary of a grandfather’s death.

Increasingly, many Japanese, especially those in urban areas, have eschewed those traditions. Many no longer belong to temples and rely instead on funeral homes when their relatives die. The funeral homes provide Buddhist priests for funerals. According to a 2007 report by the Japan Consumers’ Association, the average cost of a funeral, excluding the cemetery plot, was $21,500, of which $5,100 covered services performed by a Buddhist priest.

As recently as the mid-1980s, almost all Japanese held funerals at home or in temples, with the local Buddhist priest playing a prominent role.

But the move to funeral homes has sharply accelerated in the last decade. In 1999, 62 percent still held funerals at home or in temples, while 30 percent chose funeral homes, according to the Consumers’ Association. But in 2007, the preferences were reversed, with 28 percent selecting funerals at home or in temples, and 61 percent opting for funeral homes.

In addition, an increasing number of Japanese are deciding to have their loved ones cremated without any funeral at all, said Noriyuki Ueda, an anthropologist at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and an expert on Buddhism.

“Because of that, Buddhist priests and temples will no longer be involved in funerals,” Mr. Ueda said.

He said Japanese Buddhism had been sapped of its spiritual side in great part because it had compromised itself during World War II through its close ties with Japan’s military. After Buddhist priests had glorified fallen soldiers and given them special posthumous Buddhist names, talk of pacifism sounded hollow.

Mr. Mori, the priest here, said that after the war there was a desire for increasingly lavish funerals with prestigious Buddhist names. These names — with the highest ranks traditionally given to those who have led honorable lives — are routinely purchased now, regardless of a dead person’s conduct in life.

“Soldiers, who gave their lives for the country, were given special posthumous Buddhist names, so everybody wanted one after that, and prices went up dramatically,” Mr. Mori said. “Everyone was getting richer, so everyone wanted one.

“But that gave us a bad image,” he said, adding that the price of the top name in Akita was about $3,000 — though that was a small fraction of the price in Tokyo.

Indeed, that image is reinforced by the way the business of funerals and memorial services is conducted. Fees are not stated and are left to the family’s discretion, and the relatives generally feel an unspoken pressure to be quite generous. Money is handed over in envelopes, and receipts are not given. Temples, with their status as religious organizations, pay no taxes.

It was partly to dispel this bad image that Kazuma Hayashi, 41, a Buddhist priest without a temple of his own, said he founded a company, (obohsan means priest), three years ago in a Tokyo suburb. The company dispatches freelance Buddhist priests to funerals and other services, cutting out funeral homes and other middlemen.

Prices, which are at least a third lower than the average, are listed clearly on the company’s Web site. A 10 percent discount is available for members.

“We even give out receipts,” Mr. Hayashi said.

Mr. Hayashi argued that instead of divorcing Japanese Buddhism further from its spiritual roots, his business attracted more people with its lower prices. The highest-ranking posthumous name went for about $1,500, a rock-bottom price.

“I know that, originally, that’s not what Buddhism was about,” Mr. Hayashi said of the top name. “But it’s a brand that our customers choose. Some really want it, so that means there’s a strong desire there, and we have to respond to it.”

After apologizing for straying from Buddhism’s ideals, Mr. Hayashi said he offered his customers the highest-ranking name, albeit with a warning: “In short, that this is different from going to a shop in town and buying a handbag, you know, a Gucci bag.”

by NYTimes.

Phone Call From China Transformed ’84 Games

The call he will never forget came for Peter Ueberroth in the middle of the night on May 12, 1984, over a crackling phone line from Beijing. It carried the news he believed would determine the fate of the Olympics, not just the Games he was working to organize in Los Angeles that summer but all the ones beyond.

Courtesy of Charles Lee

Charles Lee persuaded the Chinese to defy a Soviet-led boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

At the other end of the line was Charles Lee, the man he had sent to persuade the Chinese to send their team to the Olympics for the first time. Ueberroth, the leader of the Los Angeles organizing committee, was asking China to defy a Soviet Union-led boycott that was announced four days earlier. The Soviets said the boycott would keep 100 countries away from the ’84 Games. If the Soviets succeeded, Ueberroth said flatly, “we were done.”

Salvation came when Lee called and told Ueberroth, “They’re coming.”

As the world prepares for the Beijing Games in August, that moment is all but lost in the history of the Olympics, when the winds shifted and carried the Games away from a political bludgeon in the cold war to the combination of athletic and commercial success they have become since.

Ueberroth, now 70 and the chairman of the US Olympic Committee, will lead the American team into China with a deep sense of gratitude. He believes China saved the Olympics.

“When I got the phone call that they were coming, well, it still gets to me right now,” Ueberroth said in a recent interview in his Newport Beach, Calif., office. “It changed the whole face of the Games.”

Now, no matter what political issues arise — and with China there are many: human rights, Tibet, its relationship with the government of Sudan — large-scale boycotts are no longer part of the discussion. Political statements come in smaller forms: which heads of state will attend or stay home, whether athletes will speak out about their political views. Recently, President Bush announced he would attend the opening ceremony. Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany have said they will not.

In 1984, the stakes were higher. The Soviets were recruiting countries to retaliate for the United States’ decision to stay away from the 1980 Moscow Games, a boycott that 61 other countries joined. The Soviets announced on May 8, 1984, that their team would not come to Los Angeles because of fears for their athletes’ safety, claiming they had agreements from 100 countries to do the same.

Ueberroth said he saw the list. At the top was China.

His response was to assemble a team of envoys who could appeal to officials in undecided countries and persuade them to come. Lee, a federal prosecutor in Los Angeles who is not Chinese but speaks fluent Mandarin, took a small group to China. Ueberroth asked a woman on his staff, Agnes Mura, to lead a group to Romania; she had been born there. Ueberroth went to Cuba.

“People think of the Olympics as a corporate structure,” said Bob Ctvrtlik, who played for the United States volleyball team at the ’84 Games and is now a member of the IOC. “It really is not. It relies on relationships. It relies on trust. It relies on people who can cut through cultural differences and find common ground. That was the brilliance of that program.”

Ueberroth was unable to sway Fidel Castro — he keeps a framed copy of a headline from an article in The Los Angeles Times that read, “Ueberroth Strikes Out in Cuba.” But Lee’s visit was a triumph, and Mura delivered the perhaps more stunning news later in May that tiny Romania would defy the Soviet boycott.

Mura, then 35, had escaped communist Romania when she was 19. Her job at the time was to organize volunteer translators for the Games. She said Ueberroth, learning of her background, tapped her on the shoulder one day and asked her to go to Romania. The semi-secret trip to her homeland terrified her.

After a few days of talks, with the group sequestered in a lakeside house outside Bucharest, the Romanians agreed in principle to attend the Games. With a few financial details to iron out — the Los Angeles organizing committee and the I.O.C. would each pay $60,000 to defray the Romanians’ costs — Mura called Ueberroth.

“I said, ‘Agnes, I think they’re just being nice to you,’ ” Ueberroth said. “I thought the Soviets would crush them.”

Mura said she knew the magnitude of what Romania, then a country of about 23 million, was doing.

“We were very proud,” Mura said. “In three days we had accomplished a lot. One of the biggest concerns they had was security. There had been attacks at the Olympics before and because the Soviets’ argument was they wouldn’t feel safe in the U.S., the Romanians worried that the Soviets would stage an attack on them.”

Charles Lee

The envoy Charles Lee introduced his children, Dabney, 2, left, and Alice, 4, to members of the Chinese team in 1984.

When Mura returned, Ueberroth asked her to organize an extensive envoy program with hosts for every nation, who would be responsible for the teams’ well-being during the Games. Mura slept in the Olympic Village with the Romanian team, next door to its cherished star gymnast, Nadia Comaneci.

But Lee’s visit to China, Ueberroth believed, held the Games in the balance.

Lee, now 62 and retiring as a Superior Court Judge in Los Angeles, began studying Mandarin when he was in the Navy in the late 1960s and spent two years studying in Taiwan. His wife, Miranda, was born in China and grew up in Hong Kong.

When the 1984 Games were first being organized, Ueberroth became aware of Lee when Lee’s law firm worked on the organizing committee’s bylaws. When he needed someone fluent in Mandarin as an envoy, Ueberroth remembered Lee.

Lee visited China several times in the ’70s and ’80s and was fascinated by a country that had been closed to foreigners for so long. He said they were astounded with his language skills.

“At night, most places didn’t have electricity,” Lee said. “You got to the city from the airport by this one small road. There were very few Westerners there and very, very few Westerners who spoke Chinese. So I really enjoyed talking to people.

“Back then on the tours to China they took you to factories, like a light bulb factory. At night you’d go to a magic show and that was it.”

On his trip in May 1984, Lee said, he and his group were welcomed enthusiastically by the Chinese sports ministers in Beijing. After a series of meetings, the ministers told him China would come to the Games. Lee pressed them to give him a letter he could take back to Ueberroth.

“Initially when they said, ‘We’re coming,’ they believed since they said it, there’s no need for anything in writing,” Lee said. “I just kept asking and asking. Finally they very graciously gave me the letter, which was a fantastic thing.”

No one was happier than Ueberroth.

“It was a turning point in my life,” he said.

Only 14 countries boycotted the 1984 Games, which became a financial and political success. Ueberroth remembers the huge cheer the Chinese team received at the opening ceremony — the Romanians received one as well — at Los Angeles Coliseum. Lee remembers watching the Chinese team members as they experienced their first Olympics. When a few gymnasts asked to meet some American children, Lee brought them to play with his two daughters, then 4 and 2. He still cherishes the picture of that meeting. Lee was appointed the chef de mission of the United States team for the Beijing Games, serving as the leader of the American delegation.

Two years ago, when the U.S.O.C. signed a cooperation pact with the Chinese Olympic Committee, Ueberroth presented its chairman, Liu Peng, with a torch from the ’84 Games. Those involved said it was an emotional moment for both men. Beijing’s Games will be Ueberroth’s last as chairman.

Mura, who owns an executive management training firm, said she would watch the Beijing Games with a keen understanding of their significance, with China having come full circle as host after its key role in 1984.

“I know having lived in a communist country what it’s like to open your doors,” Mura said. “I can imagine what it will be like for those young people to see the world come to their capital for a celebration.

“For the people of Beijing, it is going to give them a feeling of connectedness that they started in ’84.”

It all started with news that reached Ueberroth in the middle of the night and stays with him still.

by NYTimes.