News & Current Affairs

November 11, 2010

Location, location and how the West was won

Filed under: Politics News, Reviews — Tags: , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 8:38 pm
Union flag hoisted in Beijing

On his current visit to Beijing, UK Prime Minister David Cameron has said China will soon reclaim its position as the world’s biggest economy – a role it has held for 18 of the past 20 centuries. But how did the US, Britain and the rest of Europe interrupt this reign of supremacy? It comes down to location.

Why does the West dominate the world?

Europeans have been asking this question since the 18th Century, and Africans and Asians since the 19th. But there is still not much agreement on the answers.

People once claimed Westerners were simply biologically superior. Others have argued Western religion, culture, ethics, or institutions are uniquely excellent, or that the West has had better leaders. Others still reject all these ideas, insisting that Western domination is just an accident.

But in the last few years, a new kind of theory has gained ground.

What is the West?

image of Ian Morris Ian Morris Professor, Stanford University


Distinctive ways of life began emerging in different parts of the world 11,000 years ago, when the first farmers created more complex societies. Great civilizations grew out of the original agricultural cores (in what we now call southwest Asia, China, Pakistan, Mexico, and Peru), all of which steadily expanded as population grew.

The westernmost of the Old World’s agricultural cores, in southwest Asia, was the foundation of what we now call Western Civilization. By 500 BC, the Western core had expanded across Europe, its centre of gravity shifting to the Mediterranean cultures of Greece and Rome. By 1500 AD it had expanded still further, and its centre was shifting into Western Europe. By 1900 AD it had expanded across the oceans, and its centre was shifting to North America.

People, it suggests, are much the same all over the world. The reason why some groups stuck with hunting and gathering while others built empires and had industrial revolutions has nothing to do with genetics, beliefs, attitudes, or great men: it was simply a matter of geography.

China and India are, of course poised to pick up the baton of global superpowers, but to explain why the West rules, we have to plunge back 15,000 years to the point when the world warmed up at the end of the last ice age.

Geography then dictated that there were only a few regions on the planet where farming was possible, because only they had the kinds of climate and landscape which allowed the evolution of wild plants and animals that could potentially be domesticated.

The densest concentrations of these plants and animals lay towards the western end of Eurasia, around the headwaters of the Euphrates, Tigris, and Jordan Rivers in what we now call south-west Asia. It was therefore here, around 9000 BC, that farming began, spreading outwards across Europe.

Farming also started independently in other areas, from China to Mexico; but because plants and animals that could be domesticated were somewhat less common in these zones than in the West, the process took thousands of years longer to get going. These other zones of complex agricultural societies also expanded, but the West long retained its early lead, producing the world’s first cities, states, and empires.

But if this were all that there was to the story – that the West got an early lead and held onto it – there would be no controversy over why the West rules. In reality, when we look back across history, we see that things were more complicated. Geography determined how societies developed; but how societies developed simultaneously determined what geography meant.


The first city – 6,000 years ago in Iraq

image of Richard Miles Richard Miles Archaeologist and historian


The ancient Greeks called it Mesopotamia, the land between two rivers – Tigris and Euphrates. But it is also the land between two seas – the Mediterranean Sea and Persia Gulf. It is also the land between mountain and desert, lagoon and salt marsh. All these geographical features have to be borne in mind when considering the birthplace of the first civilisations.

Geography v history – it’s impossible to know which takes precedence. There’s no getting away from the brutal facts of nature – rivers that flood will dry up, rainfall that’s intermittent, mountains that are impassable, deserts that are hostile.

Applying this kind of analysis to Mesopotamia, where summers are hot, winters are cold and rainfall is low, I’d sum it up like this: difficult but not impossible. No garden of Eden, but no howling wilderness either.

In the earliest days of agriculture, having the right temperatures, rainfall, and topography was all-important. But as villages grew into cities, these geographical facts became less important than living on a great river like the Nile, which made irrigation possible.

As states turned into empires, being on a river began mattering less than access to a navigable sea like the Mediterranean, which was what allowed Rome to move its food, armies, and taxes around.

As the ancient world’s empires expanded further, though, they changed the meanings of geography again. The long bands of steppes from Mongolia to Hungary turned into a kind of highway along which nomads moved at will, undermining the empires themselves.

In the first five centuries AD, the Old World’s great empires – from Rome in the West to Han China in the East – all came apart; but the political changes transformed geography once again. China recreated a unified empire in the 6th Century AD, while the West never did so.

For more than a millennium, until at least 1700, China was the richest, strongest, and most inventive place on earth, and the East pulled ahead of the West.

East Asian inventors came up with one breakthrough after another. By 1300 their ships could cross the oceans and their crude guns could shoot the people on the other side. But then, in the kind of paradox that fills human history, the East’s breakthroughs changed the meaning of geography once again.

Dr Richard MilesPlease turn on JavaScript. Media requires JavaScript to play.

Richard Miles at Tell Brak – a city first excavated by Agatha Christie’s husband Max Mallowan

Western Europe – sticking out into the cold North Atlantic, far from the centres of action – had always been a backwater. But when Europeans learned of the East’s ocean-going ships and guns, their location on the Atlantic abruptly became a huge geographical plus.

Before people could cross the oceans, it had not mattered that Europe was twice as close as China to the vast, rich lands of the Americas. But now that people could cross the oceans, this became the most important geographical fact in the world.

The Atlantic, 3,000 miles across, became a kind of Goldilocks Ocean, neither too big nor too small. It was just big enough that very different kinds of goods were produced around its shores in Europe, Africa, and America; and just small enough that the ships of Shakespeare’s age could cross it quite easily.

The Pacific, by contrast, was much too big. Following the prevailing tides and winds, it was an 8,000-mile trip from China to California – just about possible 500 years ago, but too far to make trade profitable.

Geography determined that it was western Europeans, rather than the 15th Century’s finest sailors – the Chinese – who discovered, plundered, and colonised the Americas. Chinese sailors were just as daring as Spaniards; Chinese settlers just as intrepid as Britons; but Europeans, not Chinese, seized the Americas because Europeans only had to go half as far.

Europeans went on in the 17th Century to create a new market economy around the shores of the Atlantic, exploiting comparative advantages between continents. This forced European thinkers to confront new questions about how the winds and tides worked. They learned to measure and count in better ways, and cracked the codes of physics, chemistry, and biology.

As a result, Europe, not China, had a scientific revolution. Europeans, not Chinese, turned science’s insights onto society itself in the 18th Century in what we now call the Enlightenment.


Will China soon rival the US?

George Bush

Many observers think so, but not George W Bush. In an interview with the Times this week, he said that “internal problems” meant it was unlikely to rival the US any time soon. “Do I think America will remain sole superpower? I do.”

By 1800, science and the Atlantic market economy pushed western Europeans into mechanising production and tapping the power of fossil fuels. Britain had the world’s first industrial revolution, and by 1850 bestrode the world like a colossus.

But the transforming power of geography did not stop there. By 1900 the British-dominated global economy had drawn in the resources of North America, changing the meaning of geography once again. The US, until recently a rather backward periphery, became the new global core.

And still the process did not stop. In the 20th Century, the American-dominated global economy in turn drew in the resources of Asia. As container ships and jet airliners turned even the vast Pacific Ocean into a puddle, the apparently backward peripheries of Japan, then the “Asian Tigers”, and eventually China and India turned into even newer global cores.

The “rise of the East”, so shocking to so many Westerners, was entirely predictable to those who understood that geography determines how societies develop, and that how societies develop simultaneously determines what geography means.

When power and wealth shifted across the Atlantic from Europe to America in the mid-20th Century, the process was horrifyingly violent. As we move into the mid-21st century, power and wealth will shift across the Pacific from America to China.

The great challenge for the next generation is not how to stop geography from working; it is how to manage its effects without a Third World War.

Why the West Rules – For Now: The Patterns of History, and What they Reveal About the Future is published by Profile.

Send your comments

July 19, 2009

China quarantines school groups

China quarantines school groups

Four British pupils in Beijing hotel

Some of the British teenagers holed up in a hotel room in Beijing

More than 100 schoolchildren and their teachers from the UK and US have been quarantined in Beijing after eight children were found to have swine flu.

The four UK and four US children are being treated in a Beijing hospital and are said to be in a stable condition.

China has this year quarantined hundreds of foreign visitors who have shown symptoms of the H1N1 virus.

The four Britons taken ill are from London schools. A further 52 UK pupils and teachers are under quarantine.

The hospitalised pupils are year nine students, aged 13 to 14; three from the Central Foundation Boys School, Clerkenwell, and one from Parliament Hill School, Camden.

High temperatures

Meanwhile, four of the British pupils under quarantine have told the news from their hotel room they are being well looked after.

The four, who attend Clevedon School in north Somerset, are all in their late teens and are part of a group of 12 from that school, plus two teachers.

“We are quarantined in the hotel and are all currently well as we have daily temperature checks which are all good,” they said in an e-mail sent from their hotel room.

“The hotel is really nice and we have proper toilets. We hope we experience more of China as we should be out within four days.”

One of the boys, Christopher Hicks, said that they had been visiting the Great Wall of China when they were called back, because they had previously shared a bus with a pupil from another school who had tested positive for the virus.

Another pupil, Joe Robinson, said: “We’re being treated very, very well. The food’s great. We’ve got our own individual tellies.”

They also had individual rooms, he said, although they had to wear protective face masks and were not allowed outside of the quarantined zone.

More than 600 Britons are on the trip, organised by the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT), the Department for Children, Schools and Families, the British Council and Chinese organisation Hanban.

Speaking about the four UK pupils who have swine flu, the SSAT’s Katharine Carruthers said: “They are being extremely well looked after and cared for, to the extent where they’re getting pizza delivered to where they are. They are all happy and getting better.

“There are a number of children in quarantine in very comfortable conditions in a four-star hotel in Beijing, who have been in close contact with the swine flu cases.

“Everyone is in good spirits, getting involved in activities and carrying on their Chinese learning.”

The vast majority of the students are continuing their trip as normal, she said.

The BBC’s Quentin Sommerville, in Beijing, said three of the four UK children were found to have high temperatures when they arrived in Beijing earlier in the week.

They were taken straight from the airport to a hospital where it was confirmed they had the virus. A fourth classmate fell ill later.

Chinese health worker tests flight from London  9.7.09

Chinese health officials monitor passengers arriving in the country

The American children had been in contact with the UK group and four of them were also diagnosed as having the virus.

Amii van Amerongen, from London, told the news that her 15-year-old sister was one of the children under quarantine.

“She called me this morning telling me that she is confined in a hotel and she is being very brave about the whole thing. She said it was quite intimidating – they have these ‘guns’ that they point at your head which measure your temperature,” she said.

Chinese officials told the news that the children were being well looked after and they had regular contact with their families.

Simon Calder, travel editor for the UK’s Independent newspaper, told the news that many countries were using “thermal imaging” at airports to test travellers, and the UK was viewed as a high-risk area.


Have you or your family been quarantined in China? Send us your comments and stories

Sink or swim in modern China

Sink or swim in modern China

Chris Hogg heads to the small Chinese village of Zhushanxia, 200km from Shanghai, to see how lives have been shaped by the economy under communist rule, the recession and the country’s economic recovery.

A farmer sells vegetables at a wholesale market on March 22, 2005 in Hefei of Anhui Province, China

China’s economic roller-coaster has divided communities and villages into those who have sunk financially, and those who managed to swim

Huang Jiao Ling lives at the end of a long dusty road.

Mobile phone numbers are daubed all over the walls of her home and those of her neighbours.

It is like a strange kind of mathematical graffiti, but the numbers are, in fact, advertisements for people offering goods and services.

In modern China, it seems everyone has something to sell.

Huang Jiao Ling, too, is an entrepreneur. She is in her 50s, but she looks younger.

In her front garden, where others might have planted vegetables, she has built a small workshop.

Inside, the walls are unfinished and the floor uneven, but there is just about enough room for a work-bench and a handful of basic machine tools.

Churning out widgets

On the floor are cardboard boxes filled with piles of tiny metal widgets.

They are simple to make – her husband sits at the bench turning them out rapidly by hand.

Fruit seller in China

Many Chinese run their own small businesses in order to get ahead

A few feet away, his bicycle-taxi is parked just inside the front door of the house.

The machine work is a lot less tiring than pedalling passengers around, but he still keeps the bike.

It is useful, he says, to supplement their income in leaner times.

The Huangs sell the boxes of widgets to the factory where Huang Jiao Ling has a full-time job.

For a while this year they had to shut the workshop as demand dropped, but now the machines are humming again.

They have two children, because if you live in the country and your first child is a girl, you are allowed to have another one.

The girls go to very good schools, the best Huang Jiao Ling can afford.

She spends more than half her income on school fees.

“We have to think of their future,” she tells me.

“It’s a Chinese tradition. Parents always think of their children, and when the parents get old, their children will look after them. It’s the same for every generation.”

Yu Feng Guo is Huang Jiao Ling’s brother-in-law.

She is doing well for herself in China’s new modern market economy, but he has been left behind.

He used to work in a state-owned brick factory.

Different lifestyles

When the economic reforms began 30 years ago he watched as some of his co-workers left their jobs to start up their own small businesses, many of them selling prawns or fish by the side of the road.

He decided to do what he thought was the right thing, what the communist party would expect of a loyal worker in a state-owned enterprise – he stayed.

Eventually, the brick factory went bust and he was out of a job.

Rice paddy field

Agriculture provides an income for many rural Chinese

Now, dressed in a shabby khaki jacket, he works as a security guard in an open-air food market.

Those early entrepreneurs who had left his factory to try their luck in the fledgling market economy are now much richer than him and to his family this seems unfair.

“Thirty years ago everyone in the village was poor,” his son tells me.

“Now the difference in lifestyle between the rich and the poor in our village is huge.”

There is an implicit bargain in modern Chinese society between the leaders and the led.

Beijing tells its people “we will give you opportunities” – to earn more, to enjoy a better standard of living than your parents did.

But you, in return, will behave yourself.

Back on track

In Zhushanxia village quite a few cars can be seen bumping along past the fields, something you would not have seen 30 years ago.

If you have got used to having more, whether it’s a car, or a bigger house, or a more expensive school for your child, you have more to lose when times get tough.

That is why it is so important for the government to get the economy back on track.

When it first faltered, when factories started laying off workers, there was a risk that they would start to feel the government was no longer keeping to its side of the deal, so why should they?

So in Beijing, of course, there will be relief that a recovery appears to be under way.

But the next challenge for the government will be to do more to try to ensure that everyone shares the benefits.

Huang Jiao Ling is happy her workshop is busy again, but still nervous about the future.

So she, like most other Chinese, is saving as much of her income as she can.

Her brother-in-law Yu Feng Guo, has no idea how he will be able to save enough to secure a state pension on his meagre wages from his unstable job.

He and others like him will be looking to their leaders for reassurance that they will be cared for as they approach old age.

But that will costly and complicated. Fixing the economy may prove to have been the easy part.

July 11, 2009

Most of Xinjiang dead ‘Chinese’

Filed under: Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 4:29 pm

Most of Xinjiang dead ‘Chinese’

Chinese security forces line uop on a square in Urumqi, 11 July

Security forces continued to patrol Urumqi on Saturday

Some three-quarters of the victims of the violence in China’s western Xinjiang region were ethnic Han Chinese, the official death toll shows.

Of 184 people known to have died, 137 were Han Chinese, 46 were from the indigenous Uighur community and one was an ethnic Hui, local officials said.

Beijing flooded the regional capital Urumqi with security forces to stem the violence which erupted last Sunday.

Correspondents say some Uighurs believe their own death toll was much higher.

“I’ve heard that more than 100 Uighurs have died but nobody wants to talk about it in public,” one Uighur man in Urumqi who did not want to give his name told the Associated Press news agency.

Uighurs living in exile outside China have also disputed the Chinese figures. Rebiya Kadeer, the US-based head of the World Uighur Congress, said she believed about 500 people had died.

According to the Chinese death toll released by state media, 26 of the 137 Han Chinese victims were female, while all but one of the 45 Uighurs killed were male.

The single death recorded in the Hui community, which is similar to the Uighurs ethnically and religiously, was that of a male.

July 6, 2009

Scores killed in China protests

Filed under: Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 5:23 pm

Scores killed in China protests

Violence in China’s restive western region of Xinjiang has left at least 140 people dead and more than 800 people injured, state media say.

Several hundred people were arrested after a protest, in the city of Urumqi on Sunday, turned violent.

Beijing says Uighurs went on the rampage but one exiled Uighur leader says police fired on students.

The protest was reportedly prompted by a deadly fight between Uighurs and Han Chinese in southern China last month.

Our correspondent  in Shanghai says this is one of the most serious clashes between the authorities and demonstrators in China since Tiananmen Square in 1989.

‘Dark day’

Eyewitnesses said the violence started on Sunday in Urumqi after a protest of a few hundred people grew to more than 1,000.

Xinhua says the protesters carried knives, bricks and batons, smashed cars and stores, and fought with security forces.

Wu Nong, news director for the Xinjiang government, said more than 260 vehicles were attacked and more than 200 shops and houses damaged.

Most of the violence is reported to have taken place in the city centre, around Renmin (People’s) Square, Jiefang and Xinhua South Roads and the Bazaar.

The police presence was reported to be heavy on Monday.

Adam Grode, an American studying in Urumqi, told Associated Press: “There are soldiers everywhere, police are at all the corners. Traffic has completely stopped.”

UIGHURS AND XINJIANG
Uighurs are ethnically Turkic Muslims
They make up about 45% of the region’s population. 40% are Han Chinese
China re-established control in 1949 after crushing short-lived state of East Turkestan
Since then, large-scale immigration of Han Chinese
Uighurs fear erosion of traditional culture
Sporadic violence since 1991
Attack on 4 Aug 2008 near Kashgar kills 16 Chinese policemen

A witness in the Xinjiang city of Kashgar told AP there was a protest there on Monday of about 300 people but there were no clashes with police.

It is still unclear who died in Urumqi and why so many were killed.

The Xinjiang government blamed separatist Uighurs based abroad for orchestrating attacks on ethnic Han Chinese.

But Uighur groups insisted their protest was peaceful and had fallen victim to state violence, with police firing indiscriminately on protesters in Urumqi.

Dolkun Isa, a spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) in Munich, disputed the official figures, saying the protest was 10,000 strong and that 600 people were killed.

He rejected reports on Xinhua that it had instigated the protests.

Xinhua had quoted the Xinjiang government as blaming WUC leader Rebiya Kadeer for “masterminding” the violence.

But Mr Isa said the WUC had called on Friday only for protests at Chinese embassies around the world.

Pedestrians pass a burned out car in Urumqi, 6 July

More than 260 vehicles were destroyed in Urumqi, officials said

Alim Seytoff, the vice-president of another Uighur group – the US-based Uighur American Association – condemned the “heavy-handed” actions of the security forces.

“We ask the international community to condemn China’s killing of innocent Uighurs. This is a very dark day in the history of the Uighur people,” he said.

When asked about the rioting, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that all governments must protect freedom of speech and “the life and safety of civilian populations”.

A spokesman for UK PM Gordon Brown said Britain was urging “restraint on all sides”.

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano said he had raised the issue of human rights with visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao in Rome.

Internet blocks

The Uighurs in Urumqi were reportedly angry over an ethnic clash last month in the city of Shaoguan in southern Guangdong province.

A man there was said to have posted a message on a local website claiming six boys from Xinjiang had “raped two innocent girls”.

September 19, 2008

China tainted milk scandal widens

China tainted milk scandal widens

Baby treated in Hefei, in eastern China's Anhui province

Four infants have died and more than 6,000 are sick

The scandal of tainted dairy products in China has widened, with liquid milk now found to be contaminated.

Inspectors found that 10% of liquid milk taken from three dairies was tainted with melamine.

The scandal first came to light in milk powder that killed four infants and sickened more than 6,000 others.

Suppliers are believed to have added melamine, a banned chemical normally used in plastics, to diluted milk to make it appear higher in protein.

Public trust

China’s quality watchdog, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, tested liquid milk from three dairies.

Baby treated in China

Its website said 10% of the milk from the country’s two largest – Mengniu Dairy Group and Yili Industrial Group – contained up to 8.4 milligrams of melamine per kg.

Products from Shanghai-based Bright Dairy were also contaminated, it said.

The watchdog said it would “strictly find out the reason for adding the melamine and severely punish those who are responsible”.

All the batches that tested positive were being recalled, it said.

However, officials insisted most milk was safe to drink – in an attempt to rebuild public trust in dairy products.

It is not being suggested that anyone has fallen ill from drinking liquid milk contaminated with melamine.

But he says people are extremely angry to learn that more and more products have been found to be unsafe.

One 31-year-old man queuing at Sanlu offices in Shijiazhuang to get a reimbursement for medical exam payments for his baby told Associated Press news agency: “If such a big company is having problems, then I really don’t know who to trust.”

Arrests

The scandal broke last week after the Sanlu Group said it had sold melamine-laced milk powder.

Of those children made sick, more than 150 are said to have acute kidney failure.

Chinese police have arrested 18 people in connection with the scandal.

Sanlu plant in Shijiazhuang, Hebei

The scandal broke at the Sanlu Group

Twelve were arrested in the province of Hebei on Thursday on suspicion of being involved in the supply of tainted milk.

Hebei is home to the headquarters of Sanlu.

The State Council – China’s cabinet – has held a meeting to discuss the issue.

China’s official news agency Xinhua says that the council has decided to reform the dairy industry.

It says that the tainted milk powder incident “reflected chaotic industry conditions, as well as loopholes in the supervision and management of the industry”.

On Thursday, Hong Kong recalled dairy products made by the Yili group after tests found milk, ice-cream and yogurt contaminated with melamine.

China’s ability to police its food production industries has long been under question.

Health scares and fatalities in recent years have ranged from the contamination of seafood to toothpaste and, last year, to pet food exported to the US.


Are you in China? What is your reaction to the news that liquid milk has also been contaminated? Tell us your concerns

September 18, 2008

China arrests 12 in milk scandal

China arrests 12 in milk scandal

A child receiving treatment for developing kidney stones after consuming tainted milk formula sleeps in hospital in Wuhan, Hubei province, on Wednesday

Parents are queuing up for health checks on their babies

Police in China have arrested 12 more people in the scandal over contaminated milk powder, which has killed three babies and sickened thousands.

The new arrests bring the total number of people detained to 18, police in the north-eastern province of Hebei said.

Nationwide checks on milk powder are continuing, and police have confiscated more than 200kg (440lb) of melamine.

The additive is blamed for causing severe renal problems and kidney stones in babies across the country.

Of those arrested, six allegedly sold melamine, while the rest are accused of selling contaminated milk.

Suppliers to the dairy companies are believed to have added the banned chemical, normally used in plastics, to watered-down milk to make it appear higher in protein.

Widening crisis

Premier Wen Jiabao held a special cabinet meeting on Wednesday to address the baby milk crisis.

The State Council, or cabinet, admitted that regulations had failed to improve food standards.

“The Sanlu infant milk powder incident reflects chaos in the dairy products market and loopholes in supervision and administration which has not been vigorous,” it said.

Chinese parents who can afford it have been buying imported milk powder, with some in southern China crossing into Hong Kong to stock up on foreign brands.

Anger spreads

The milk scandal has sparked widespread anger among Chinese mothers, many of whom are reliant on cheap baby formula to feed their infants.

Hospital in Shenyang, northeast China

It has also raised questions about China’s ability to police its food production industries after a series of health scares – and fatalities – in recent years.

These have ranged from the contamination of seafood to toothpaste and, last year, to pet food exported to the United States.

Thousands of inspectors are checking milk production plants and selling stations across the country.

Parents are lining up for health checks on their babies.

They are also expressing anger at why Sanlu, the company first found to have sold contaminated milk, took so long to make the problem public.

At least 6,244 babies have been made ill by the milk powder, and three have died, but those numbers are predicted to rise.

Tests have shown that 69 batches of formula from 22 companies contained the banned substance.

Two of the companies involved have exported their products to Bangladesh, Yemen, Gabon, Burundi, and Burma, although it is not clear if contaminated batches are involved.

One mother told him that she was angry with both the milk producers and with what she called the “useless” quality inspection departments.

September 17, 2008

Chinese to tighten dairy testing

Chinese to tighten dairy testing

Baby treated at hospital in Xian

Babies affected developed urinary problems, including kidney stones

China says it will launch nationwide testing of all dairy products following the deaths of three babies from contaminated milk formula.

More than 6,200 babies have fallen ill after drinking milk tainted with the toxic chemical melamine, officials say.

Tests have shown that 69 batches of formula from 22 companies contained the banned substance.

The Chinese government has described the dairy market as “chaotic” and said its supervision is flawed.

Two of the companies involved have exported their products to Bangladesh, Yemen, Gabon, Burundi, and Burma, although it is not clear if contaminated batches are involved.

Kidney failure

The third fatality occurred in the eastern province of Zhejiang, Health Minister Chen Zhu said. The two earlier deaths had been reported in Gansu province.

More than 1,000 children were still in hospital, Mr Chen said, of whom more than 150 were suffering acute kidney failure.

He said all affected infants would receive free medical care.

In response, Li Changjiang, head of China’s quality control watchdog, said 5,000 inspectors would be dispatched nationwide to monitor companies and begin testing for melamine in all dairy products, he said.

It is believed that the melamine, which is used in the production of plastics, was added to the fresh milk to make it appear to have a higher protein content.

In a statement, the Chinese cabinet said the incident reflected “chaotic industry conditions and loopholes in the supervision and management of the industry”, state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

“It is necessary to learn lessons, properly deal with the incident, improve the inspection and supervision system and strengthen the management of the dairy industry,” it said.

Companies caught up in the scandal include the giant milk company Mengniu Dairy.

It says it is recalling three batches of formula made in January, after government tests found melamine in its product.

The dairy has also suspended trading of its shares on the Hong Kong stock exchange.

Bosses fired

The company at the heart of the scandal, the Sanlu Group, has fired its chairwoman and its general manager, the Xinhua agency said.

Chinese Health Minister Chen Zhu said all the seriously ill children had become ill after drinking Sanlu powered milk.

Correspondents say that melamine appears to have been added at milk collection stations, before being passed on to Sanlu.

Four officials linked to agriculture and quality control in Hebei province, where the Sanlu group is based, have been sacked, Xinhua reported.

Hospital in Shenyang, northeast China

Parent’s anger over milk scandal

The agency also said six people had been arrested in connection with the scandal and 22 were still being questioned.

Those arrested include two villagers charged with selling melamine and adding it to milk sold to the Sanlu Group.

An owner of a private food additive shop who allegedly sold the chemical to milk dealers was also arrested, as well as two milk sellers who admitted selling the tainted product, Xinhua said. Details of the sixth arrest were not given.

Sanlu made the information about the contamination of its products public last week after its New Zealand stakeholder, Fonterra – a global supplier of dairy ingredients – informed the New Zealand government, which then told the Chinese government.

Mr Li, head of the quality control watchdog, said two companies – Yashili and Suncare – exported milk powder and they were recalling their products.

On Wednesday, Bangladesh said food and commerce officials would meet this weekend to determine whether tainted products had entered the country.

Mr Li also said that melamine had also been found in a yogurt ice bar made by Yili, one of China’s biggest dairy producers, and sold in Hong Kong.

The brand has now been recalled by the Hong Kong supermarket chain Wellcome.

Confidence undermined

Mr Li said tests for melamine had not been made before, because it was banned from food products.

China is keen to try to reassure parents that it is in control of what is happening.

This scandal has undermined confidence in food safety in China and many parents are worried about what they will feed their babies, he adds.

Analysts say the incident is an embarrassing failure for China’s product safety system, which was revamped after a spate of international recalls and warnings last year over a range of goods.


Are you in China? Have you been affected by this story? send us your comments

September 15, 2008

Insight: Who runs Russia?

Insight: Who runs Russia?

Vladimir Putin (L) and Dmitri Medvedev

Vladimir Putin (L) and Dmitri Medvedev must agree policy decisions

Getting to the bottom of the shadowy depths of Kremlin decision-making is tricky. Machiavellian power struggles, dark paranoia of security chiefs and long fingers of corruption can turn seemingly rational and transparent explanations inside out.

But even public signals are instructive, and in the wake of the Georgia crisis, Russia’s leadership is taking stock and has several messages for the West.

The first key question about Russia is – who is really in charge?

The standard answer is President Medvedev as Commander in Chief. He, and only he, ordered Russian troops across the border to hit back when Georgia attacked on South Ossetia.

But presidential power is now the tip of an iceberg. What murky currents swirl beneath the surface is less clear.

Dmitry Medvedev says he was caught unawares and admits his relative inexperience.

“I was on holiday on the Volga when the defence minister called,” he said at a conference of the so-called ‘Valdai Club’ of foreign academics and journalists who specialize in Russia.

“I’ll never forget that night, knowing the consequences there would be when I gave the order to return fire… especially when I’d only been president for 95 days,” he said.

But what about Russia’s ex-president, now his prime minister, who was also at the conference?

“However much authority I have, whoever I may be talking to, none of the troops or tanks would have moved an inch until President Medvedev’s order,” was Vladimir Putin’s attempt to deny his own importance when we asked about his role, thereby indicating that his clout and involvement were considerable.

Bridget Kendall
1998 to present: BBC diplomatic correspondent
1994-98: Washington correspondent
1989-94: Moscow correspondent

What is more, at the outset of the crisis, when Mr Putin was in Beijing for the opening of the Olympic Games, he was already thinking about Russia moving swiftly to recognize the two enclaves at the heart of the crisis.

He had taken the time, he told us, to inform the Chinese leadership that Russia would understand if Beijing chose not to react.

Double act

It begs the question – who is really driving policy, the president or the prime minister?

The choreography and timing of our audiences with both were instructive.

A pair of three-hour meetings, two elegant luncheon settings, two declarative statements for Russian TV cameras at the start, and even two carefully informal blue suits with matching ties.

All to signal, perhaps, that their status is equal – a dual leadership exercising power in tandem.

I never thought I’d need to use harsh rhetoric when I began this job. But there are some moments as president when you are left with no choice
Russian President, Dmitri Medvedev

Indeed one senior government official made a point of emphasizing the duality, constantly referring to them in the same breath.

Policy decisions had to be cleared with both, he said. And what was wrong with that? A double act surely strengthened, not muddled governance, requiring a green light from two instead of one.

We met Mr Putin first. Almost the entire discussion was devoted to foreign policy.

He was burning to give his point of view. He seemed supremely confident, engaged and in charge. His anger at the way he felt Russia had been treated in recent years blazed through, as though it was his own personal animosity which is now firing and fuelling current policy.

It was hard to remember he was no longer president.

Economic policy, supposedly at the heart of his new job as prime minister, came up sporadically and he admitted he is still mastering his new brief.

When he did comment directly on Dmitry Medvedev, the impression he left was curious.

Mr Putin seemed to want to play up the differences between them, as though suggesting a “good cop, bad cop” routine.

He described himself as “conservative” and with an uncharacteristic flash of self-deprecation admitted his penchant for blunt speaking was sometimes a liability.

Whereas he described Dmitry Medvedev as bright, young and highly educated, with modern and – he stressed this twice – liberal views.

“He’s a good lad,” said Mr Putin a touch condescendingly, as though recommending his young protege to a would-be employer for a new job.

The aim, it seemed, was to send a signal to the West that Dmitry Medvedev is indeed more flexible and reformist than Putin himself – and was forced to act tough because the crisis left him no option.

Moral high ground

So the US and its allies should understand they had made a big mistake by allowing this conflict to happen – and they would make an even bigger mistake unless they made the compromises Russia now wants.

When we met Dmitry Medvedev he underscored the point.

“I never thought I’d need to use harsh rhetoric when I began this job. But there are some moments as president when you are left with no choice,” he said.

“I very much don’t want the Caucasus crisis to destroy Russian co-operation with Europe and the United States,” he elaborated, and suggested he felt frustrated at his new role of “President of War”.

He’s a good politician, I think I have a better opinion of George than most Americans
Vladimir Putin on George W Bush

“A whole month has been lost on this war… I’d rather have been doing other things,” he said. “Yesterday when I met the defence and finance ministers, instead of talking about car and tractor production, we had to discuss where to deploy the Russian army. Priorities have had to change.”

So what, then, at this juncture does Russia want from the West?

The first message is that the Russian government is in no mood to compromise.

It insists it occupies the moral high ground in this crisis and sees no reason to give way.

This was tantamount to Russia’s 9/11, President Dmitry Medvedev declared to us, a defining moment in national policy and in relations with the outside world.

That conviction was echoed from top to bottom in our discussions with government officials, mainstream academics and journalists, all of them insisting Russia had no choice but to respond militarily and take South Ossetia and Abkhazia under its wing.

Any suspicion that Russia cunningly laid a trap that Georgia rashly walked into was dismissed as an outrageous lie.

The idea that by deploying troops deep inside Georgia and unilaterally recognising the two disputed enclaves’ independence Russia had gone too far was rejected out of hand.

The suggestion that by invading Georgian territory, and asserting its right to redraw the map, Russia made itself look like a bully, was also thrown out.

Instead President Saakashvili was blamed for triggering the conflict.

The United States had nudged him into it and rashly armed and trained his men while Europeans had looked the other way.

Any Western criticism to the contrary was hypocritical, given interventions in Kosovo and Iraq, and yet another example of anti-Russian hysteria and unfair stereotyping, based on prejudices left over from the Cold War.

Red line

Curiously both Mr Putin and President Medvedev were carefully respectful when it came to President Bush.

“He’s a good politician, I think I have a better opinion of George than most Americans,” said Mr Putin, at the same time complaining that he had twice tried to get the US president to intervene.

Instead it was Vice-President Cheney and the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, with their Soviet expertise, who were targeted as villains, suspected of fueling anti-Russian sentiment in the US administration and egging Georgia on.

“We need to get rid of stereotypes. The US president has too many Sovietologists in his entourage,” observed Dmitry Medvedev caustically.

A Russian tank crosses a main route in Georgia

Russia is keen to avoid accusations of annexing Georgian territory

The second message that came through clearly was that Russia’s “red line” – any move to extend Nato to Russia’s borders by seeking to incorporate Georgia or Ukraine – still stands.

What Russia really wants is a new discussion on European security arrangements to replace Nato with something else entirely.

But short of that, attempts by the United States or Nato to rearm Georgia or to extend formal invitations to either Georgia or Ukraine to join the alliance seem likely to prompt a furious Russian response.

“Russia has zones that are part of its interests. For the West to deny it is pointless and even dangerous,” said President Medvedev.

“It’s unjust, it’s humiliating, and we’ve had enough. It’s something we are no longer prepared to endure,” he said. “You have a very clear choice here. Let there be no doubt about it.”

What exactly Russia would do to try to prevent this further Nato enlargement was left unclear.

“We’ll do all we can to make sure it doesn’t happen,” said Mr Putin carefully, talking about Ukraine.

Although on Georgia he noted Russian tanks had been within 15 kilometres of Tbilisi and could have taken the capital in four hours.

Economic concerns

So the hints of a threat, but not exactly – and that is interesting. Because the third message that came through was that Russia would like to think a major East-West confrontation can still be avoided.

There may well be powerful forces in Russia’s military and security elite, ultra nationalists who would like to see their country retreat from global integration and rely once more on internal resources – economic and military – as in Soviet days, to reclaim influence geographically and show the outside world Russia’s might can no longer be ignored.

Roubles being sorted at the Goznak mint in Moscow

Russia’s stock market value has fallen by 50% since May this year

But diplomatic and economic isolation does not seem to be what the Kremlin leadership currently wants to embrace.

The haste with which both Mr Putin and Mr Medvedev shrugged off the notion that Russia might have to pay a price for this crisis was telling.

They denied that the loss of nearly 50% of Russia’s stock market value from its all time high in May had much to do with the Georgia crisis.

A far more likely cause, they argued – with some justification, given what is happening on Wall Street – was the impact of global financial instability.

In comparison to many other countries, they insisted, Russia’s economy was in good shape – signs of capital flight were temporary. Foreign investors would be back. Russia’s energy resources were needed by everyone and it had weathered economic storms before.

The fact only Nicaragua had joined Russia in recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia was also dismissed as unimportant, even if the glaring lack of overt diplomatic support for Russia’s actions appears to be a sensitive point.

When the leader of South Ossetia told us he intended to follow up independence by amalgamating his tiny republic with North Ossetia and becoming part of the Russian Federation, he was hurriedly slapped down. Within hours he had issued a retraction.

Outright annexation by Russia of what is, after all, legally speaking Georgian territory is an accusation Moscow seems anxious to avoid.

Yes, Russia wants to claim that the ball is now firmly in the court of the US and its allies – that it is up to them, not Russia, to decide how this geopolitical crisis plays out.

But behind all the moral outrage, I felt there was also a nervousness, a worry that if Russia’s bluff is called and further tensions with the West ensue, it might force a stand-off from which neither side could back down.

“There is a chill in the air and a loss of trust,” said Dmitry Medvedev, “but I don’t think this is a corner turn that will lead to a long confrontation. This is not what we want. And it’s not what you want either.”

September 13, 2008

Blogger’s detention sparks fears

Blogger’s detention sparks fears

Malaysiakini)

Raja Petra’s website was temporarily closed before his arrest

Late on Tuesday night, I spoke to Raja Petra Kamarudin. We were supposed to meet face-to-face earlier in the day, but Malaysia’s most vociferous anti-government campaigner could not make it. He was in hiding.

Three days later, he was detained.

The ostensible reason for the blogger’s arrest was that he published a blasphemous article about Islam on his website, Malaysia Today. In the predominantly Muslim country, such an offense can carry a jail sentence.

But several weeks ago, the campaigner had also made allegations against one of Malaysia’s most powerful men, Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Mr Petra suggested the minister may have been involved in the 2007 murder of a Mongolian model. Mr Najib denied any involvement.

Shortly afterwards, the government ordered internet service providers to block access to Malaysia Today. The ban was lifted the day before Mr Petra was arrested.

Internet crackdown?

As Malaysia strives to keep pace with Asia’s fastest-growing economies, the internet is flourishing: Kuala Lumpur offers citywide wireless access and high-speed connections are being rolled out across the country.

The influence of online news sites and bloggers – who are often critical of the government – is growing exponentially.

Anwar Ibrahim – the charismatic opposition leader being touted as a future prime minister despite being mired in decade-old sodomy allegations – has detailed every stage of his political rehabilitation on his own website: anwaribrahimblog.com.

Although there is tight regulation of traditional media in Malaysia, with newspapers requiring an annual licence from the government to publish, there have been no such restrictions online. So far.

But Mr Petra’s arrest is being seen by some as evidence that the online free-for-all is about to end. Within hours of his detention, an ethnic Chinese journalist was reportedly arrested. A wider crackdown is feared.

Racial harmony

During our interview on Tuesday, Mr Petra told me he wanted “to be available to help in the dissemination of information that is going to be greatly required” for the next 10 days.

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim at a press conference in Permatang Pauh (25/08/2008)

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim updates a regular blog

The period he was referring to is crucial for the government: Malaysia’s resurgent opposition has promised to bring down the administration of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi by 16 September – the date of Malaysia’s anniversary.

It is an ambitious, and perhaps overly-optimistic, pledge. But the opposition has been gathering momentum since it made historic gains in March’s general election.

The government, meanwhile, is embroiled in internal fighting, some of which is due to the growing influence of independent websites like Malaysia Today.

The government remains adamant there is no crackdown. Just days before Mr Petra’s arrest, Home Minister Syed Hamid told me the temporary closure of Malaysia Today was merely a “cautious” step.

He emphasized the government had to maintain stability and peace among the Malay, Chinese and Indian communities that make up modern day Malaysia.

But fears are growing among some that there is going to be a repeat of a famous clampdown the government ordered 20 years ago.

Two further arrests have been made overnight. An opposition politician and a journalist who works for a Chinese language newspaper have both been detained under the internal security act.

Backs to the firewall?

Mr Petra has rejected the implication Malaysia Today sowed discord, arguing that the site’s main theme was one of racial harmony.

I think the Pandora’s box has opened… The government is going back on its word
Raja Petra

“What Syed Hamid is accusing us of, it is them who are doing it, not us,” he told me during our interview.

“I think the Pandora’s box has opened. The government started off by guaranteeing freedom of the internet – no censorship, no restrictions. Now the government is going back on its word.”

Jeff Ooi, a blogger and opposition MP, said the government’s temporary closure of Malaysia Today was an infringement of Malaysia’s cyber laws, and hinted it could be the start of something more sinister.

“I do not know whether Malaysia is following the footsteps of China,” he said, referring to the firewall that blocks access to sites deemed inappropriate by the Communist authorities in Beijing.

“If that is the case, then Malaysia is regressing.”

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