News & Current Affairs

September 14, 2008

NZ firm warned of China milk risk

NZ firm warned of China milk risk

Babies suffering kidney stones possibly related to defective baby formula in hospital in Lanzhou, Gansu province, on 9 September

Babies have been suffering kidney stones – rare in young children

A Chinese firm accused of selling milk powder that has made babies unwell was warned in August over the safety of its product, its partner and co-owner says.

New Zealand-based dairy giant Fonterra said it had urged China’s Sanlu Group to recall the tainted powder six weeks before Sanlu took adequate action.

The Fonterra farmers’ co-operative owns a 43% stake in Sanlu.

More than 400 babies in China have been taken ill after using milk contaminated with the industrial chemical, melamine.

Melamine is used to make plastics and is banned from food. Ingesting it can lead to the development of kidney stones.

At least one child has reportedly died in China as a result of using the contaminated milk, which the firm recalled from sale on Thursday.

‘Severe punishment’

In a statement released on Sunday, Fonterra said it had urged Sanlu’s board to recall the milk powder as soon as it learnt of the contamination – on 2 August.

“From the day that we were advised of the product contamination issue in August, Fonterra called for a full public recall of all affected product and we have continued to push for this all along,” the statement said.

Chinese officials have complained that they were only alerted last Monday of the dangers posed by the milk. They said Sanlu’s customers had been complaining about the milk since March.

China’s Health Minister, Gao Qiang, said on Saturday that Sanlu “should shoulder major responsibility for this”.

He said those responsible for the contamination “would be dealt with severely”. Nineteen arrests have so far been made over the scandal, Chinese authorities say.

Some of the tainted milk had been sent to Taiwan but none had been sold to other foreign markets, Mr Gao said.

Melamine has been used by Chinese suppliers of animal feed components to make them appear to have more protein.

It was linked to the formation of kidney stones and kidney failure in pets in the United States last year, leading to thousands of deaths and illnesses.

A fake milk powder scandal in 2004 killed at least 13 babies in China’s eastern province of Anhui.

Investigators found that the milk given to these babies had no nutritional value, and the resulting scandal triggered widespread investigations into food safety.

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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.”

Arrests’ after China landslide

Arrests’ after China landslide

Family members grieve for one of the victims on 12 September 2008

Devastated relatives are now burying their dead

More than a dozen mine officials have been arrested, Chinese state media have reported, after a landslide engulfed a village, killing at least 178 people.

The local Communist Party head has been sacked over Monday’s incident in Shanxi province, news agency Xinhua said.

Thousands of rescue workers are combing through the debris in Taoshi, in which hundreds more victims may be buried.

Frequent mining accidents in China are blamed on lax safety standards and ageing infrastructure.

More than 3,000 rescue workers are at the site, near the city of Linfen, recovering bodies from the debris with the help of 160 diggers, Xinhua reported.

But hopes of finding any more survivors are fading four days on from the accident. It is not known how many people are still missing.

Rescuers have already covered about 90% of the area, Xinhua said.

‘Grave accident’

Earlier in the week, government officials were quoted as saying hundreds of people could be dead, but they later denied such statements.

Thirteen officials from the Tashan Mining Co, which ran the illegal iron ore operation, have now been arrested, Xinhua reported.

Map

In addition, the head of the local Communist Party and other senior local officials were dismissed, the agency said.

“It is the most grave accident that involves the largest death toll so far this year,” said Wang Jun, director of the State Administration of Work Safety.

“The rising accidents disclose local governments’ poor supervision on work safety. Those responsible must be dealt with seriously.”

The torrent of sludge buried the village of 1,000 people, including a market that was packed with people attending a fair, the China Daily newspaper reported.

Witnesses said that the mud appeared to be more than 20ft (6m) deep in some places.

State media said that the mining reservoir was decommissioned in the 1980s, but had recently been put back into use after a new owner took over the mine.

The mine’s safety certificate was revoked in 2006, it said.

Analysts say the disaster highlights China’s failure to enforce safety standards at its notoriously dangerous mines, and also the unsound state of many of its bridges, dams and other ageing infrastructure.

September 5, 2008

Envoys meet for North Korea talks

Envoys meet for North Korea talks

A file photo from February 2008 of a US inspector studying disabled nuclear equipment at Yongbyon plant in North Korea

A sticking point in talks has been how to verify North Korea’s disarmament

Negotiators from the US, South Korea and Japan are to meet in Beijing to discuss the deadlock over North Korea’s nuclear program.

The talks follow initial moves by North Korea to reverse steps to dismantle its nuclear plant at Yongbyon.

North Korea accuses the US of failing to meet its obligations under a six-nation aid-for-disarmament deal.

This week it began moving some disassembled parts out of storage and back to the Yongbyon reactor.

“We need to break the deadlock at an early date,” South Korean negotiator Kim Sook said as he left for Beijing.

“It is an important moment in which North Korea should resume the disablement measures and enter the six-way talks process.”

Stand-off with US

North Korea agreed in February 2007 to give up its nuclear ambitions in return for aid and diplomatic concessions.

Foreign camera crews prepare to film the demolition of the cooling tower at the Yongbyon nuclear plant in North Korea on 27 June

In June it handed over long-awaited details of its nuclear facilities. In return, it expected the US to remove it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

But the US wants North Korea to agree to a process of verifying the information – something the two sides have so far failed to do.

Last week North Korea announced it had halted disabling work at its Yongbyon nuclear reactor. Officials from countries negotiating with North Korea now say that it is moving some equipment out of storage and back to the plant.

Envoys from the US, Japan and South Korea will hold a hastily-arranged meeting later on Friday. A Chinese negotiator will join the talks on Saturday.

“There is no information on whether North Korean officials will come to Beijing,” the South Korean envoy said.

Probe delay

In a separate development, North Korea has announced that it will delay a fresh probe into the abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s to train spies.

In 2002, it admitted that it had kidnapped 13 Japanese citizens. Five have been returned and Pyongyang says the other eight died.

But Japan insists that North Korea abducted more people than it acknowledges, and wants more proof of the eight deaths.

North Korea said it would hold off on the probe until it established the policies of the new Japanese leader.

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda announced his resignation earlier this week and the current favorite to replace him is the ruling party secretary-general, Taro Aso.

A well-known hawk, he has called for a tougher line towards North Korea – something that will worry the communist state.

August 23, 2008

Face transplant ‘double success’

Face transplant ‘double success’

The Lancet

This man had been attacked by a bear

Successful results from two more face transplants will speed progress towards similar operations in other countries, say experts.

The Lancet journal reported operations involving a bear attack victim in China, and a French patient with a massive facial tumour had taken place.

The Chinese patient was given not just the lip, nose, skin and muscle from a donor, but even some facial bone.

Specialists in London are working towards the UK’s first transplant.

Frenchwoman Isabel Dinoire became the world’s first face transplant patient in 2005 after being savaged by a pet dog. She described the results of the operation as a “miracle”.

The latest operations were just as complex, but involved different challenges for French and Chinese surgeons.

Face transplantation has moved from ethical debate to surgical reality
French transplantation team

The first operation took place in April 2006. The patient was a farmer from a remote village in Yunnan province in China, who had been attacked by a bear 18 months earlier, leaving a huge section of tissue missing from the right side of his face.

The operation, at Xijing Hospital in Xi’an City, used the face of a 25-year-old man who had died in a traffic accident.

Despite immune-suppressing treatment, the patient had to battle his body’s attempt to reject the new tissue on three occasions.

His doctors said they now believed that face transplantation was a viable long-term option.

The second operation, carried out in Paris in January 2007, involved a 29-year-old man disfigured by a neurofibroma, a massive tumour growing on his facial nerves.

Its removal was timed to coincide with a face transplant, and a year later, doctors again declared the operation a success.

The patient told them that previously he had been considered a “monster”, but now felt like an anonymous person in the crowd.

The procedure, they said, had moved “from ethical debate to surgical reality”.

Moving forward

In the UK, surgeons at the Royal Free Hospital in London are making preparations to carry out the operation if the right combination of patient and donor becomes available.

Professor Iain Hutchison, a consultant oral and maxillofacial surgeon at Barts and the London Hospital, and founder of the “Saving Faces” charity, said that the twin successes would offer more encouragement for surgical teams considering carrying out their own operations.

He said: “This takes a step forward in two ways – firstly the use of bone as well as skin – and next is carrying out this operation on someone with a benign tumour.

“There will always be limitations to this – the main one would be a societal constraint – a lack of suitable donors.

“However, there is certainly demand for this, with the major area being for people with facial burns.”

Roger Green, president of the British Association of Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons, said: “This particular surgery is a way of giving back a life to a patient who has been horribly scarred by burns, trauma or a tumour.

“However, we must acknowledge the long-term medical risks, such as transplant rejection and the need for life-long medication, associated with the procedure. There is also the potential of psychological impact following such a transplant.”

August 20, 2008

Mao’s successor Hua Guofeng dies

Mao’s successor Hua Guofeng dies

Hua Guofeng

Hua Guofeng succeeded Mao Zedong in 1976

Hua Guofeng, who succeeded Mao Zedong as chairman of China’s Communist Party, has died, state media is reporting.

Xinhua news agency said 87-year-old Hua died in the Chinese capital after suffering from an unspecified illness.

Hua took over as chairman after Mao’s death in 1976 and was in power at the end of the Cultural Revolution.

But Hua was himself quickly pushed aside by radical reformer Deng Xiaoping. His period as chairman ended formally in 1981.

However, unlike former leaders who were purged and exiled to remote villages, Hua remained in Beijing and on the party’s Central Committee.

Loyal lieutenant

“Because of an illness that could not be cured, Hua died on 20 August at 1250 in Beijing, at the age of 87,” the official Xinhua news agency said in a brief report.

Chairman Hua, left, in November 1976 with his deputy, Yeh Chien-ying

Chairman Hua (here, left, in late 1976) was soon pushed out by Deng Xiaoping

Born to a poor family in 1921, Hua became a guerrilla fighter aged 15 in Mao’s Communist movement in the civil war against Chiang Kai-shek’s ruling Nationalists.

After the 1949 revolution, he served in provincial government and party posts, reportedly catching Mao’s eye as early as 1954.

He was named to the Central Committee in 1969, and party secretary of Mao’s home province Hunan the following year. He later succeeded Zhou Enlai as prime minister, before becoming party chairman on Mao’s death.

Gang of Four

It was under Hua’s chairmanship that members of the so-called Gang of Four – including Mao’s widow Jiang Qing – were arrested.

They had been blamed for the excesses that accompanied the decade-long Cultural Revolution.

But whether Hua was instrumental in ordering their arrests is unclear.

Mao was said to have told Hua on his deathbed: “With you in charge my heart is at ease.”

But Deng Xiaoping was already manoeuvring to replace him, and Hua was effectively stripped of his powers in 1978, before formally losing the chairmanship in 1981.

August 15, 2008

British protester held in Beijing

British protester held in Beijing

The Free Tibet banner

The banner was unfurled on a building next to an Olympic promotion

A British man has been held by police in China after unfurling a pro-Tibet banner on a building in Beijing.

Philip Kirk, 24, of St Albans, Herts, and Australian-Canadian Nicole Rycroft, 41, scaled the Central Television building to make their protest.

The pair, from the group Students for a Free Tibet, and three other supporting protesters were detained on Friday.

Han Shan, spokesman for the campaign group, said the banner read “Free Tibet” in English and Chinese.

Kate Woznow, also from the group, said the protest happened at the headquarters of the state-owned China Central Television building in east Beijing.

She said Mr Kirk and Ms Rycroft were detained after climbing up part of the building to reveal the banner.

Previous protests

Last week, two other British pro-Tibet protesters, Lucy Fairbrother, 23, from Cambridge, and Iain Thom, 24, from Edinburgh, were deported after scaling a 120ft-high (36.5m) lighting pole and unfurling banners reading “One World, One Dream, Free Tibet” and “Tibet will be free”.

The activists said the action had been worth it – but their job was not done and there would be more protests during the games.

We are in touch with the Chinese authorities and we are seeking further details
British embassy spokesman

Eight demonstrators from Students for a Free Tibet were also detained on Wednesday after staging a demonstration.

Wang Wenjie, of the Beijing Public Security Bureau, said he did not have any information about the latest protest.

A spokesman for the British embassy in Beijing said: “We are in touch with the Chinese authorities and we are seeking further details.”

Officials expect Mr Kirk to be deported some time on Friday.

Meanwhile, spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Qin Gang, warned activists on Wednesday to obey the law in China, which does not allow unauthorized protests.

He said: “No matter Chinese citizens or foreigners, in China if you want to have processions or demonstrations, you should abide by Chinese laws and regulations.”

August 14, 2008

Murdered couple in ‘scam’ probe

Murdered couple in ‘scam’ probe

Xi Zhou and her boyfriend Zhen Xing Yang

Xi Zhou and her boyfriend Zhen Xing Yang studied at Newcastle University

A Chinese couple murdered in Newcastle may have been involved in a range of internet scams, including betting and providing false visas, police said.

Zhen Xing Yang and girlfriend Xi Zhou died after a “frenzied” knife attack at a flat in Newcastle’s West End.

Detectives revealed information on a seized computer and three mobile phones showed the pair may also have arranged forged professional qualifications.

The 25-year-old Newcastle University graduates, were found dead on 9 August.

Det Supt Steve Wade, leading the murder investigation, said: “A possible motive for the killings is beginning to emerge concerning the lifestyle of Xi Zhou and Zhen Xing Yang.

“Community intelligence supported by the examination of computer equipment and mobile call data has shown that both of the victims have been involved in fraudulent activity which has angered and upset a number of people.

Televised matches

“We are currently investigating this as a possible motive for the killings.”

One line of inquiry involves claims Mr Zhen recruited spectators online to send live updates from UK football matches.

It is claimed syndicates in China, where matches are televised a minute behind, could take advantage of this.

Information passed to Northumbria Police includes details of adverts placed on UK-based Mandarin-language websites, recruiting people to watch football matches around the world.

One reads: “It is a very simple job, any student who is interested, please contact Zhen Xing Yang.”

An ad posted under the name CICI-UK, his girlfriend’s nickname, on the powerapple website last October, reads: “Work: Watch football games and send live information to people.

“Requirement: Basic understanding of football rules, no professional background needed, advantage if you have a car.

“Location: Sheffield, London, Blackpool, Portsmouth, York, Hull and many other places.”

Similar adverts requested live information from the Mexican League.

CCTV of Xi Zhou in street

Xi Zhou was caught on CCTV travelling home from work

The couple were found dead in separate bedrooms at the downstairs flat by friends on the afternoon on 9 August.

Police said Mr Zhen was “assaulted for more than an hour” before being stabbed. They believe passers-by may have heard his screams.

A post-mortem examination revealed he suffered extensive bruising to his arms before he died.

Examinations also showed Miss Xi may have been asphyxiated as well as stabbed during the attack.

The body of a cat, which had been drowned and hidden in a washing bowl underneath the bathroom sink, was probably killed by the couple’s murderer, said police.

An offender profiler has been brought in to help establish a motive for the killings.

Police have also released CCTV images taken as Miss Xi traveled home from work at the Wagamama restaurant in Newcastle last Thursday afternoon.

Police have not been able to find any occupation for Mr Zhen since he completed his degree in September 2006.

A Northumbria Police spokesman said: “We continue to look into the lifestyle of both victims and internet websites form part of this investigation.

“We cannot comment further at this stage.”

Protests still unwelcome in Beijing

Protests still unwelcome in Beijing

Courtesy BBC

China has set aside three parks during the Olympics, to allow people to demonstrate. But, as the BBC’s Michael Bristow finds out, the parks are empty and those who apply for permission to protest are even finding themselves arrested.

Model of the Capitol building in Washington DC, Shijie Park

Shijie Park is full of tourists admiring model buildings rather than protesters

Just before the Olympic Games began, officials said ordinary Chinese people would be able to apply for permission to vent their feelings.

But several would-be demonstrators appear to have been detained by the authorities after trying to apply for that permission.

This is just one way in which China is attempting to restrict embarrassing protests during the Olympic Games.

“The protest application process clearly isn’t about giving people greater freedom of expression, but making it easier for the police to suppress it,” said Sophie Richardson, from Human Rights Watch.

One of those detained is Zhang Wei, who was held after applying to stage a protest about her family’s forced eviction from their courtyard home.

map

Her son, Mi Yu, said she was initially supposed to be held for just three days for “disturbing social order”, but that that had now been extended to 30 days.

Ms Zhang, forced to move to make way for redevelopment in Beijing’s Qianmen district, made several protest applications.

“She went every two or three days after seeing a report about the parks. But the police did not give their approval,” Mr Mi said.

His mother was taken away last week. The family have not heard from her since.

Many obstacles

Another activist held after making a protest application was Ji Sizun, who was detained on Monday, according to Human Rights Watch.

The 58-year-old, from Fujian province, wanted to call for greater participation by ordinary people in the political process.

Citing witnesses, the rights group said Mr Ji was taken away shortly after entering a Beijing police station to ask about his application.

This application process is a taxing one. Would-be protesters even have to tell police what posters and slogans they intend to use.

There have been reports of others who have been prevented from staging protests in the designated areas.

Some have just had their applications turned down, one was sent back to her home province and yet others have been stopped from travelling to Beijing.

Confusion

The parks designated as protest zones – Shijie, Zizhuyuan and Ritan – do not seem to have been inundated with protesters.

Free Tibet

There has been the occasional protest by pro-Tibet campaigners

At Shijie (“World”) Park on Wednesday one worker said there had not been a single demonstration since the Olympics began.

Potential protesters might have been put off by the police car and van parked directly outside the main entrance of the park, which houses large models of famous world sites.

No one seemed to know where a protest could be held, even if Beijing’s Public Security Bureau gave its approval.

“I don’t know anything about that,” said a ticket collector when asked where protesters could express their opinions.

It was a similar story at Ritan Park, where there seems to have been no protests either.

Dissuading people from protesting is just one tactic being used by China’s security forces to prevent demonstrations.

Beijing’s streets are full of police, other security personnel and volunteers, wearing red armbands, on the lookout for trouble.

Eight pro-Tibet demonstrators from Students for a Free Tibet were quickly detained on Wednesday after staging a protest.

Some well-known Chinese activists have also been told to keep a low profile during the Olympics. The friend of one said she had decided to leave the city during the Olympics to avoid trouble.

August 12, 2008

Le Pen sells party HQ to Chinese

Le Pen sells party HQ to Chinese

Jean-Marie Le Pen

The National Front party headquarters was dubbed The Cruiseliner

France’s anti-immigrant party, the National Front, is selling its  headquarters to a Chinese university, according to the party leader.

Jean-Marie Le Pen has confirmed that the party base has been purchased by a Shanghai university.

Mr Le Pen, 79, has campaigned to become president several times under the slogan “Keep France for the French”.

But his party faces growing financial difficulties. It has already sold its bullet-proof car on Ebay.

The party has a total debt of some 9m euros ($13.4m; £7m), according to French newspaper Le Monde, partly due to a poor showing in the 2007 legislative elections which meant it had to cover its own campaign costs.

Language school

“A formal sale offer has been signed with a university in Shanghai,” the National Front’s press service said, quoted by AFP.

The unnamed Chinese higher education institution has reportedly paid between 12 and 15m euros ($18 – 22m; £9.4m – 11.7m) for the sprawling mansion in the western Paris suburb of Saint Cloud, known as The Cruiseliner.

The university is reportedly considering turning the building into a French language school.

The building, thought to be the party’s biggest asset, was inherited from a millionaire supporter in the 1970s.

The organization has already had some bank accounts frozen after disagreements with creditors.

Right-wing firebrand Mr Le Pen startled Europe by reaching the second round of the 2002 presidential election. In 2007, he achieved some 10% of votes in the presidential race.

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