News & Current Affairs

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”.

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July 1, 2009

Iran ‘disqualifies’ EU from talks

Filed under: Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 6:09 pm

Iran ‘disqualifies’ EU from talks

13 June

Britain has denied allegations of involvement in the Iranian riots

The EU is no longer qualified to take part in talks on Iran’s nuclear programme, Iran’s military chief says.

Maj Gen Hassan Firouzabadi, Iran’s chief of staff, accused the EU of “interference” in riots which followed June’s disputed presidential elections.

The EU has for the past few years been involved in talks to try to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

EU states, meanwhile, are considering withdrawing their ambassadors from Iran in a growing diplomatic row.

External pressure

Britain has proposed the step, after Iran detained nine of its embassy staff in Tehran last week. Eight have since been released.

The diplomatic correspondent says the diplomatic signalling seems to have had an effect, and EU governments will now be looking for the remaining detained staff member to be released.

He adds that the problem more generally is that any external pressure tends to be used by the Iranian government to bolster its own narrative of outside interference.

In the wake of mass street protests against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s relection, Iran’s Basij militia has called for the defeated opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi to be prosecuted.

‘Nine offences’

The semi-official Fars news agency said the militia – a volunteer force of Islamic government loyalists – had accused Mr Mousavi of nine offences, including propaganda against the state, and complicity in disrupting national security.

It is our historic responsibility to continue our complaint and make efforts not to give up the rights of the people
Mir Hossein Mousavi
Iranian presidential candidate

In a letter to the chief prosecutor, the militia said Mr Mousavi had been involved in the street protests, in which about 17 protesters and a number of militia members were killed.

The Iranian presidential elections, held on 12 June, returned President Ahmadinejad to power for a second term in office.

But the opposition disputed the result, saying the vote had been rigged.

Both Mr Mousavi, and another defeated opposition candidate Mehdi Karoubi, have issued statements on their websites describing any government led by President Ahmadinejad as “illegitimate”.

Mr Mousavi wrote: “It is our historic responsibility to continue our complaint, and make efforts not to give up the rights of the people.”

And he called for the release of the “children of the revolution” – a reference to the hundreds of reformist figures detained during the unrest.

‘Hostility’

In his statement, reported by Fars, army chief of staff Gen Firouzabadi accused some EU members of supporting the riots, and demonstrating their hostility to the Iranian people.

The EU has yet to comment, but earlier urged Iran to avoid conflict with the international community.

Previously, Iran had aimed its allegations at Britain in particular and at the weekend detained the local employees of its embassy. Five were released on Monday, and a further three on Wednesday.

Iran says it is enriching uranium for power plants, but some Western countries suspect it plans to build nuclear weapons.

Three EU countries – Britain, France and Germany – have led negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme, along with the United States, Russia and China.

‘Non-negotiable’

At their last talks, they offered Iran a package of incentives if it would stop its nuclear activities.

But Iran insists that its right to enrich uranium is non-negotiable.

In a separate development, officials in Tehran said President Ahmadinejad had cancelled his trip to an African Union summit in Libya.

Mr Ahmadinejad’s office did not give any reason for the decision.

January 24, 2009

Obama lifts ban on abortion funds

Obama lifts ban on abortion funds

US President Barack Obama has lifted a ban on federal funding for foreign family planning agencies that promote or give information about abortion.

The US is one of the biggest supporters of family planning programmes globally, but former president George W Bush blocked funds for abortion services.

Powerful anti-abortion groups in the US have criticised the lifting of the ban.

But aid agencies welcomed the move, saying it would promote women’s health, especially in developing countries.

A White House spokesman said Mr Obama signed the executive order without asking for coverage by the media late on Friday afternoon.

The issue of abortion services remains controversial in the US, pitting pro-life conservative groups against more liberal, pro-choice Americans who back a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion.

This may be why President Obama signed the order with so little fanfare.

Highly contentious

Organisations that had pressed Mr Obama to make the abortion-ban change were jubilant.

They called the funding ban the “gag rule” because it cuts funds to groups that advocate or lobby for the lifting of abortion restrictions.

The Planned Parenthood Federation of America hailed the president for “lifting the stranglehold on women’s health across the globe with the stroke of a pen.”

“No longer will health care providers be forced to choose between receiving family planning funding and restricting the health care services they provide to women,” the organization said in a statement.

But anti-abortion groups were quick to criticise the reversal of the funding ban.

“President Obama not long ago told the American people that he would support policies to reduce abortions, but today he is effectively guaranteeing more abortions by funding groups that promote abortion as a method of population control,” said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee.

A 1973 decision by the US Supreme Court legalised abortion.

A Gallup poll conducted last year showed that 54% of Americans think abortion should be allowed under certain circumstances, 28% believe it should be legal under any circumstances, while 17% back a total ban.

See-saw issue

The policy has become a see-saw issue between Republican and Democratic administrations.

Former President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, repealed the policy when he took office in 1993 and George W Bush reinstated it in 2001.

The ruling is also known as the Mexico City Policy, because it was first introduced at a UN conference there in 1984 by former Republican President Ronald Reagan.

In a move related to the lifting of the abortion rule, Mr Obama is also expected to restore funding to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) in the next budget, the AP news agency reported.

The Bush administration contended that the fund’s work in China supported a Chinese family planning policy of coercive abortion and involuntary sterilisation, claims the UNFPA has vehemently denied.

In a separate move earlier on Friday, US regulators cleared the way for the world’s first study on human embryonic stem cell therapy.

While the decision of the US Food and Drug Administration is independent of White House control, Mr Obama is widely expected to adopt a more pragmatic and science-oriented approach to stem cell research.

January 12, 2009

China aims to silence reform call

China aims to silence reform call

Shoppers in Chinese city of Shanghai

China’s economy has liberalised, but its political system has not

Chinese lawyers, dissidents and academics who signed a document calling for political reform are being harassed by the authorities.

Signatories to the Charter 08 document have been detained, questioned by the police and put under pressure at work.

The charter calls for a radical overhaul of China’s political system by introducing elections, a new constitution and an independent judiciary.

Despite 30 years of economic reforms, China’s political system has hardly changed in that time.

And the authorities’ reaction to this latest call for reform suggests the country’s leaders still have no appetite for political reforms.

House arrest

Charter 08 was published last month on the 60th anniversary of the promulgation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

December also marked three decades since China began reforms that have transformed the economy and the country’s fortunes.

But even before the document was published, the police started visiting some of the 300 or so original signatories.

Writer and dissident Liu Xiaobo is believed to be under a form of house arrest at an undisclosed location in Beijing.

CHARTER 08
New constitution
Legislative democracy
Judicial independence
Freedom to assemble

The authorities have yet to state publicly why the 53-year-old has been detained.

He is believed to be the only signatory being held by the police, but others have experienced other kinds of harassment.

Police went to journalist Li Datong’s work unit to look for him. He was not there, but now he knows the authorities are watching him.

Shanghai lawyer Zheng Enchong has been taken in for questioning four times since the document was published.

Speaking out

Li Boguang, another lawyer, was invited to meet with a Chinese security official at a Beijing coffee shop, where for more than an hour he had to explain why he had added his name to the charter.

“The official didn’t say anything. He just listened to my reason and then left. This is how they operate,” he said.

I am willing to pay any price for this
Xu Youyu, Charter 08 signatory

China usually metes out severe treatment to anyone who criticises the system, but Mr Li said he still thinks it was right to sign the charter.

“Change requires ordinary citizens, particularly intellectuals, to speak out. This will slowly influence the government,” he said.

Another signatory, academic Xu Youyu, experienced a different kind of pressure.

Mr Xu, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, was told by his boss that signing the document broke Chinese laws.

“I told him that was nonsense. That’s absolutely not the case,” the expert in Western philosophy told us.

Liu Xiaobo (file image courtesy of Reporters Without Borders)

Liu Xiaobo is in detention at an undisclosed location

He was then asked to retract his signature, which he refused to do. “I am willing to pay any price for this,” he added – even going to prison.

Mr Xu has also been told that he will not now be allowed to write the forward to the book of a colleague.

“The publishers received an order from the centre saying that everybody who signed their name to the charter had lost their qualification to publish any article or any book,” he said.

The document that appears to be causing so much concern among senior Chinese leaders is one of the most important published in several years.

It was based on Charter 77, which in 1977 called for respect for human and civil rights in what was then Czechoslovakia.

Property rights

Charter 08 says the Chinese government’s approach to modernisation has been “disastrous”.

It “deprives humans of their rights, corrodes human nature, and destroys human dignity,” the document says.

It calls for a political system that guarantees human rights, freedom of expression and protection for private property.

It has also stirred interest abroad. Several Nobel laureates, among others, have written to Chinese President Hu Jintao asking him to release Liu Xiaobo.

China’s leaders are saying little about Charter 08 – or the detention of Mr Liu.

But President Hu made it clear in a speech to mark the 30th anniversary of the country’s reforms that China would not adopt Western-style democracy.

Willy Lam, of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said China’s leaders are nervous about calls for political change.

This nervousness has increased with the country’s economic problems, which could create a restless population receptive to calls for political change.

Mr Liu’s detention is a case of “killing the chicken to scare the monkey”, according to Mr Lam.

This is a Chinese idiom that suggests making an example of one person to keep others in line.

September 27, 2008

Chinese astronaut walks in space

Chinese astronaut walks in space

A Chinese astronaut has become the first in his country’s history to take a walk in space.

In an operation broadcast live on national TV, fighter pilot Zhai Zhigang emerged from the capsule orbiting the Earth to wave a Chinese flag.

Mr Zhai, 42, stayed outside the capsule for 15 minutes while his two fellow astronauts stayed in the spacecraft.

The exercise is seen as key to China’s ambition to build an orbiting station in the next few years.

Mr Zhai began the manoeuvre just after 1630 Beijing Time (0830 GMT) on Saturday, and completed it about 15 minutes later.

“I’m feeling quite well. I greet the Chinese people and the people of the world,” he said as he climbed out of the Shenzhou VII capsule.

His colleague, Liu Boming, also briefly got his head out of the capsule to hand him the flag.

Mr Zhai wore a Chinese-made spacesuit thought to have cost between £5m and £20m ($10m-$40m) for the space walk.

The “yuhangyuan” (astronaut) was tethered to the capsule with an umbilical cable.

Mr Zhai retrieved an externally mounted experiment.

The third yuhangyuan on the mission is Jing Haipeng.

Leap

The Shenzhou VII capsule soared into orbit on a Long March II-F rocket from Jiuquan spaceport in north-west China on 25 September.

1958: Base for spaceflights built at Jiuquan, in Gobi desert
April 1970: China launches its first satellite into space
1990-2002: Shenzhou I-IV are launched to develop systems
Oct 2003: The first manned space mission launches on Shenzhou V
Oct 2005: The Shenzhou VI mission takes two men into space
Oct 2007: Chang’e-1 orbiter sent on unmanned mission to the Moon

The rocket put the Shenzhou capsule in a near-circular orbit more than 300km above the Earth.

Earlier, Zhang Jianqi, one of the chief engineers for China’s space programme, said keeping three men in the spacecraft, and then sending one outside, would be a “big test”.

“This is a big technological leap,” he told state-run news agency Xinhua.

“The risks are quite high. Sending up three astronauts is a jump both in quantity and quality.”

The ship is to release a 40kg (90lb) satellite which will circle the orbiter and beam back images to mission control.

At the end of the mission, the Shenzhou re-entry capsule will target a landing in north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

China became only the third nation after the United States and Russia to independently put a man in space when Yang Liwei, another fighter pilot, went into orbit on the Shenzhou V mission in October 2003.

Two years later, Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng completed a five-day flight on Shenzhou VI.

According to the Associated Press news agency, Xinhua posted an article on its website prior to the lift-off that was written as if Shenzhou VII had already been launched into space.

The article reportedly carried a date of 27 September and came complete with a dialogue between the astronauts.

Chinese media report that this latest mission is the “most critical step” in the country’s “three-step” space programme.

These stages are: sending a human into orbit, docking spacecraft together to form a small laboratory and, ultimately, building a large space station.

The Shenzhou VIII and IX missions are expected to help set up a space laboratory complex in 2010.

China launched an unmanned Moon probe last year about one month after rival Japan blasted its own lunar orbiter into space.
SHENZHOU VII SPACECRAFT

1. Forward orbital module – crew live and work in this section, which contains scientific equipment. In future missions, this module may remain in orbit as part of a Chinese space station
2. Re-entry capsule – contains seats for three crew
3. Propulsion module – contains spacecraft’s power unit and liquid fuel rocket system
4. Solar panels – spacecraft carries one pair of solar panels
5. Spacewalk – One yuhangyuan (astronaut) exits the orbital module on a tether. Another crew member stands just inside to assist in case of an emergency

September 26, 2008

China astronauts braced for walk

China astronauts braced for walk

The spacecraft is now in a stable, circular orbit

China’s three astronauts have spent their first day in orbit preparing for the mission’s spacewalk.

A 42-year-old fighter pilot, Zhai Zhigang, is due to carry out the 20-minute manoeuvre at 1630 Beijing Time (0830 GMT) on Saturday.

It will be the first time Chinese yuhangyuan (astronauts) have ventured outside their spacecraft.

Their Shenzhou VII capsule soared into orbit on a Long March II-F rocket from Jiuquan spaceport in north-west China.

The rocket put the Shenzhou capsule in a near-circular orbit more than 300km above the Earth.

Mr Zhai is joined on the mission by two other “yuhangyuan” – Liu Boming and Jing Haipeng.

The astronauts have been training in a water tank

Zhang Jianqi, one of the chief engineers for China’s space programme, said keeping three men in the spacecraft, and then sending one outside, would be a “big test”.

“This is a big technological leap,” he told state-run news agency Xinhua.

“The risks are quite high. Sending up three astronauts is a jump both in quantity and quality.”

When Mr Zhai carries out his extra-vehicular activity (EVA), he is expected to wear a Chinese-made spacesuit thought to have cost between £5m and £20m ($10m-$40m).

1958: Base for spaceflights built at Jiuquan, in Gobi desert
April 1970: China launches its first satellite into space
1990-2002: Shenzhou I-IV are launched to develop systems
Oct 2003: The first manned space mission launches on Shenzhou V
Oct 2005: The Shenzhou VI mission takes two men into space
Oct 2007: Chang’e-1 orbiter sent on unmanned mission to the Moon

The yuhanguan will be tethered to the capsule with a cable that provides him with life support and a communications link with the spacecraft.

His back-up, Mr Liu, will monitor the activity, presumably to reel the spacewalker back inside if there is an emergency.

Mr Zhai will retrieve an externally mounted experiment and oversee the release of a satellite.

During their 68 hours in orbit, the astronauts will be able to enjoy an unprecedented choice of food. The menu includes spicy chicken with peanuts, shrimps and dry fruits.

“We have tried to make them taste like stir-fried dishes they have on Earth,” Chen Bin, who is in charge of food for the astronauts, told state-run news agency Xinhua.

At the end of the mission, the Shenzhou re-entry capsule will target a landing in north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

China became only the third nation after the United States and Russia to independently put a man in space when Yang Liwei, another fighter pilot, went into orbit on the Shenzhou V mission in October 2003.

Two years later, Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng completed a five-day flight on Shenzhou VI.

According to the Associated Press, Xinhua posted an article on its website prior to the lift-off that was written as if Shenzhou VII had already been launched into space.

The article reportedly carried a date of 27 September and came complete with a dialogue between the astronauts.

Chinese media report that this latest mission is the “most critical step” in the country’s “three-step” space programme.

These stages are: sending a human into orbit, docking spacecraft together to form a small laboratory and, ultimately, building a large space station.

The Shenzhou VIII and IX missions are expected to help set up a space laboratory complex in 2010.

China launched an unmanned Moon probe last year about one month after rival Japan blasted its own lunar orbiter into space.

September 22, 2008

‘Thousands ill’ due to China milk

‘Thousands ill’ due to China milk

Nearly 13,000 children in China have been hospitalized due to tainted Chinese milk powder, officials say.

China’s health ministry said 104 out of 12,892 babies showed serious symptoms.

Four infants have died after drinking the milk of the Sanlu Group containing the industrial chemical melamine, which could cause urinary problems.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, a toddler has been diagnosed with a kidney stone after drinking the powder – the first such case outside mainland China.

A number of Asian and African countries have now banned Chinese dairy imports following the scandal.

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

Premier’s pledge

At a regular news briefing in Beijing, officials from the Chinese health ministry said 12,892 infants were currently being treated in hospitals around the country.

Chinese customers queue to return suspect milk powder brands purchased at a supermarket in Hefei, Anhui province on 19/09/08

Chinese and Hong Kong authorities have recalled tainted products

They said that 1,579 babies had been treated and discharged, adding that hospitals had checked nearly 40,000 baby patients.

Meanwhile, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said that the authorities were doing everything possible to “prevent this happening again, not just with milk products, but with all foods”.

In Hong Kong, a three-year-old girl was diagnosed with a kidney stone after drinking Chinese milk powder, the government said.

It said the toddler, who had drunk China’s Yili milk every day for 15 months, had not developed kidney disease and had been discharged from hospital.

Melamine was first found in baby milk powder made by the Sanlu Group. In total, melamine has been found in products made by 22 companies, including Yili.

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

The additive is blamed for causing severe renal problems and kidney stones.


Are you in China? Have you used the tainted milk powder? Are you affected by the issues in this story? Send us your comments

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

Japan minister quits in rice row

Japan minister quits in rice row

Seiichi Ota. File photo.

Mr Ota only took over his portfolio in August this year

Japan’s farm minister, Seiichi Ota, has tendered his resignation because of a food scandal involving tainted rice.

Mr Ota’s ministry has admitted it was told in January 2007 that a food company was distributing rice tainted with pesticide.

Mr Ota had earlier said he saw no need to make “too much of a fuss over it”.

It has since emerged that the rice, destined for industrial uses, was resold as a food product and served to the elderly.

The rice has been found to be tainted with pesticides and mould, and was known to be unfit for human consumption.

No-one has been reported as ill as a result of eating the rice; a government official said this was because the density of contaminants was low.

“I met Prime Minister [Yasuo] Fukuda and told him my decision to resign, considering the seriousness of the tainted rice problem for the society,” Mr Ota said.

Japanese broadcaster NHK said his resignation had been accepted.

Japan faces general elections soon, possibly as early as next month.

Contamination spreads

As information trickled out, it became clear that the bad rice was sold to more than 300 firms, including brewers, food ingredient wholesalers and sweet makers.

A government report released this week showed that the rice was imported from China, Vietnam and elsewhere, and intended for use in the making of glue and other industrial products.

Instead, the Osaka-based Mikasa Foods company sold the rice on to firms which used it for making foods that have been distributed to hospitals and care homes.

Young people have also been affected as the bad rice was used in making some snacks sold in convenience stores, and in school lunches.

Japanese media reported that police said on Wednesday that the president of one of the small companies that had bought the rice from Mikasa Foods, had committed suicide by hanging himself.

When Mr Ota’s ministry first heard of the tainted rice entering the food chain, he said it was unable to uncover any wrongdoing.

Mr Ota only took over the portfolio in August this year.

The minister has come under fire after admitting his ministry “overlooked” the illegal distribution of rice unfit for human consumption.

Our correspondent says Mr Ota is known for his slips of the tongue, such as his expressed confidence that no-one would die from eating tainted rice and that no fuss was necessary.

The senior bureaucrat at the agriculture ministry had already resigned.

September 18, 2008

Jews lose hold on Antwerp diamond trade

Jews lose hold on Antwerp diamond trade

There used to be tens of thousands of diamond cutters in the Belgian port of Antwerp. Now there are only a few hundred.

A Jewish diamond cutter in Antwerp

Traditional methods are coming under threat from globalisation

It is within the city’s Jewish community that most of the jobs have been lost – particularly among the Hasidic Jews who adhere strictly to religious laws.

Out of about 2,000 Hasidic families in Antwerp, 1,000 are now headed by a man who has no job.

Unemployment of 50% would cause great hardship among any group of people. But for Hasidic Jews it brings special problems.

Women do not usually work – they raise large families, with nine children on average – and the children are often given private religious education.

Jobs move abroad

In fact, diamonds still make a lot of money in Antwerp – but it is shared among a small elite.

Setting up as an independent dealer has become almost impossible.

But Alan Majerczyk, a director of the Antwerp Diamond Bourse, denies there is any prejudice against any particular group.

“It’s a multi-racial environment and we all get along well – it’s an example to the outside world,” he says.

“Like any other industry, we couldn’t afford to pay the heavy labor costs in Europe, so the polishing moved to India and China, but at a certain stage the goods come back. Antwerp gets 80% of all the rough trade and 50% of the polished diamonds.”

Africa, too, has taken some of Antwerp’s jobs. Nations where diamonds are mined, like Botswana, now insist the lucrative cutting process is also done within the country.

The use of lasers to cut the diamonds has also reduced the number of jobs.

Most of the Jews who work in the diamond trade are self-employed, which allows them to observe the Sabbath and religious holidays.

Nowadays, though, the industry is increasingly dominated by huge businesses like de Beers, which made nearly $500m (£280m) profit last year.

Some of the Jewish men who have been left without work are now starting to retrain in other professions.

Sam Friedman believes it is vital for men from his Hasidic community to gain new skills, and so he offers them night classes in accounting, languages and computers.

“Training and education are very important for the Hasidic people to get a job, because in the Jewish schools they only learn about Jewish law and Jewish history but not about general things,” he says.

“So it’s very important after religious school to train some more so that you can find a job.”

Cultural clash

Even among other Orthodox, non-Hasidic Jews, there is a major debate over education.

Tradition-minded parents often do not let their children go to university, partly for fear that its secular environment will taint their religious beliefs.

Marcel Engelstein is a successful businessman in Antwerp who believes the changes in the diamond industry present an opportunity for positive change.

Alan Majerczyk, a director of the Antwerp Diamond Bourse

Alan Majerczyk says Antwerp still has a future in diamonds

“We have here a community connected to Israel – which has developed a lot of hi-tech businesses. We can use our brain power to bring the companies here,” says Mr Engelstein.

“The Hasidic and Orthodox people are using their brains all the time when they are learning the Talmud [religious law and history].

“So it’s very easy to teach them new things. They need a bit of guidance and a bit of will power, of course, but I think we can really get them to do that.”

Some people already have learned new skills – like Daniel Verner, a young man who is making a name for himself locally as an architect.

His father used to work in diamonds and his brothers still do. But he decided to go to university and then set up his own business.

“Twenty years ago people would proclaim you crazy for not going into diamonds, and today it’s just the opposite,” he says.

“When people try to look for jobs outside diamonds they gain respect, because everybody knows the situation is much more difficult today than it was back then.”

Mr Verner believes that loosening the links between the Jewish community and the diamond trade will transform the society.

“Everybody is going to have a different life, different schedules and different interests, so even when we talk together it’s going to be on different subjects. For sure it’s going to change,” he says.

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