News & Current Affairs

September 7, 2008

Fireworks, spectacle open Beijing Paralympics

Fireworks, spectacle open Beijing Paralympics

BEIJING, China (AP) — The Paralympic Games opened in Beijing on Saturday with a burst of fireworks as China welcomed another chance to cement its role as a global player to an international audience.

Fireworks at Beijing's National Stadium greet the opening of the 2008 Paralympics.

Fireworks at Beijing’s National Stadium greet the opening of the 2008 Paralympics.

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Thousands of cheerleaders and dancers in puffy, rainbow-colored suits performed a dance routine in the center of the field at the National Stadium before athletes from 148 countries were introduced. The crowd cheered and waved flags as China’s Communist Party leaders and foreign dignitaries looked on.

The guest list included Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, German President Horst Koehler and South Korean Prime Minister Han Seung-soo.

Earlier Saturday, they shook hands and posed for photos with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the Great Hall of the People, the seat of China’s legislature in the heart of Beijing. Hu gave a brief speech and toasted the games.

“Caring for the disabled is an important symbol for social civilization and progress,” Hu said before raising his glass.

“China’s people and government have always attached great importance to the cause of the disabled,” he said in remarks televised on state television. “We insist on putting people first, carrying forward a humanitarian spirit and advocating equality and opposing discrimination.”

Opening just two weeks after the Beijing Olympics ended, the Paralympics are designed to be a parallel games for athletes with a wide range of physical disabilities. The 10-day competition begins Sunday.

Some 4,000-plus athletes will use many of the same Olympic venues, with 148 countries represented and 472 medal events contested — 170 more than the Olympics.

Hosting the Olympics and the Paralympics is a source of national pride for China and a way to showcase the country on the international stage. The Aug. 8-24 Olympics was overshadowed at times by human rights and censorship disputes surrounding the event.

China is keen to use the Paralympics to underscore what is says it has done for the country’s 83 million disabled citizens.

The official Xinhua News Agency said Beijing used much of its US$100 million budget for the Paralympics to improve handicapped facilities in competition venues, airports, the public traffic system, hotels, hospitals and tourist attractions like the Great Wall and the Forbidden City.

An editorial on the front page of the ruling Communist Party’s People Daily newspaper hailed the games as a “stage for the world’s handicapped people to realize their dreams.”

“Remarkable progress has been made in basic living standards, medicare, education and employment for the disabled,” the editorial said, “and the preparation for the Beijing Paralympics … recorded fresh achievement made by China in promoting the cause for the disabled.”

But the country has also had a contentious history with dealing with its disabled population.

The government has long advocated sterilizing mentally handicapped people. In the early 1990s, a draft law was presented to the legislature to reduce the number of disabled through abortion and sterilization, a move that unleashed international criticism.

In 1994, China ratified a law calling for the abortion of fetuses carrying hereditary diseases and restrictions on marriages among people suffering mental problems or contagious diseases.

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More recently, Beijing Olympic organizers issued an apology in June for clumsy stereotypes used to describe disabled athletes in an English-language manual compiled for thousands of volunteers.

One section described the physically disabled as “isolated, unsocial and introspective; they usually do not volunteer to contact people. They can be stubborn and controlling.

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August 30, 2008

Energy-hungry Europe warms to Norway

Energy-hungry Europe warms to Norway

Amid frantic newspaper headlines about the possibility of a new Cold War, more and more governments around Europe are talking about their need for “energy security”.

What most of them actually mean is that they are not sure whether or not to trust the Russians.

A gas platform off the coast of Norway

Norway remains one of only two major fossil fuel exporters in Europe

There are only two big exporters of fossil fuels in Europe: Russia and Norway, so the choice – for countries without energy reserves of their own or fast depleting them – is limited.

And, undiplomatic as it is to admit it, the Norwegians stand to do very well out of the current political situation.

Officially, a healthy and productive competition exists between the two countries who share a border well above the Arctic Circle.

“We are also partners,” says Norway’s Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, “because both Russia and Norway have an interest in the development of the European oil and gas market.

“And we welcome them into the market, because the market will be bigger if there are several suppliers.”

Mr Stoltenberg was speaking at the opening of an international conference about offshore energy in Stavanger, southern Norway.

Transparency

And, alongside the reassurances to his Russian neighbours, he did hint at his country’s trump card, when asked why the rest of Europe should take Norway as its energy supplier of choice.

Norway's Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg

Norway offers a reliable energy supply and a stable democracy

“We are a reliable supplier. And we have proved that over many years. And we have a very transparent, open energy sector.”

The head of the conference, ONS Director Kjell Ursin-Smith, was prepared to go even further.

“The situation is very interesting for Norway, of course. We are looked upon as a stable nation, whereas Russia still has a tainted reputation in that respect. So I think we will try to prove that we are a stable producer of oil and gas for Europe.”

The proof of the UK’s commitment to Norway as a gas provider of the future is a massive new pipeline – the biggest engineering project of its kind in the world – known as Ormen Lange.

The pipeline, whose name means “giant serpent” in old Norse will stretch from the Norwegian North Sea fields to Easington on the East Yorkshire coast.

Further afield

Some 745 miles of steel tubing have been painstaking laid up and down the canyons of the seabed, designed to deliver about 20% of the UK’s domestic gas needs for the next 50 years. It came on stream late last year.

The Ukraine issue sent a shiver down the European energy spine and Georgia is a recent episode which will focus a lot of minds.
Malcolm Wicks, UK energy minister

The days when Britain could rely on its own reserves to be self-sufficient in oil and gas are long gone – with a current annual depletion rate of about 8% a year – so there is no choice but to look abroad.

Britain has always made a virtue of its lack of political interference in the energy market, preferring to make deciding on a supplier a matter of pure economics and stress the need for “diversity of supply”.

But things might be changing.

“We’re aware of what’s going on now”, says the UK Energy Minister, Malcolm Wicks.

He still stresses the need to source from more than one country, more than one route.

High stakes

But, he adds, referring to the incident in 2006 when Russia turned off gas supplies to its neighbor in order to force higher prices: “The Ukraine issue sent a shiver down the European energy spine and Georgia is a recent episode which will focus a lot of minds.

Map

“I think we have to be – how can I put it? – streetwise, when it comes to issues around energy security. Norway is a great partner to have. It’s a very sophisticated democracy with a great record when it comes to human rights. So the new pipeline is a good piece of democratic politics.”

The proportion of its energy western Europe has to import is likely to rise to about 70% in the coming decades, so the market is guaranteed and the stakes are high.

It remains to be seen whether the big two suppliers – Norway and Russia – will clash or co-operate when it comes to developing what is a potential El Dorado of the North – vast swathes of Arctic territory, largely in the Barents Sea, which new technology is opening up to oil and gas exploitation for the first time.

The disputes have already begun as to who owns what territory. Vast amounts of money are to be made.

Norway has known great wealth for nearly 40 years now, mostly thanks to its fossil fuel resources.

Russia, with an average per capita income still about a tenth the size of that of its tiny Scandinavian neighbor, has not.

And in these days of ‘new’ Russia rediscovering its confidence, reasserting its power in the world, observers of geo-politics can almost certainly expect fireworks.

August 9, 2008

Protest attempt at Olympic event

Protest attempt at Olympic event

Christina Chen and another protester tries to display Tibetan flag at the equestrian event in Hong Kong

Security staff moved in as soon as the pair tried to display the Tibetan flag

A student who tried to unveil a Tibetan flag during the first day of Olympic competition has been removed by officials from an equestrian event.

Christina Chan tried to display the flag, hidden under a Canadian flag, at the dressage in Hong Kong.

She was asked to leave, but refused to do so, and was later removed from the arena with a second protester.

The Games opened in Beijing on Friday with a spectacular display of fireworks, music and dancing.

Some 10,000 performers took part in the ceremony, watched on TV by an estimated one billion people, before athletes paraded around the national stadium.

Security was tight in the capital, and three US activists were arrested after holding a pro-Tibet protest.

House rules

Ms Chan sat in the front row of the dressage arena in the Sha Tin district of Hong Kong, when the first full day of the Games got under way.

Christina Chan is removed from the equestrian event in Hong Kong

Christina Chan refused to leave and was later removed

She was holding a Tibetan flag concealed under a Canadian flag, and when she and another protester tried to display it, several security officials covered her with a blue cloth.

She was asked to leave, but refused to do so, and was later carried out of the venue.

“She was sort of disturbing other spectators around her, which is against the house rules,” equestrian event spokesman Mark Pinkstone said.

Ms Chan had also protested during the Hong Kong leg of the Olympic torch relay in May.

China bans the Tibetan flag from events under rules which prevent the display of flags of countries not competing in the Games.

Anti-government riots broke out in the Tibetan capital Lhasa and elsewhere in China in March.

Pro-Tibet groups say there have been many arrests and beatings in the security crackdown which followed.

August 8, 2008

Beijing Olympics ceremony begins

Beijing Olympics ceremony begins

Opening ceremony, Beijing, 08/08

The ceremony is attempting to tell the story of China’s history

The opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics has begun with a spectacular display of dancing, music and fireworks at a packed national stadium.

Some 10,000 performers are taking part in the festivities, being watched on TV by an estimated one billion people.

The city’s main airport has been closed for the ceremony, amid heightened security in the capital.

The build-up to the event has been dominated by worries over pollution and criticism of China’s rights record.

Earlier, President Hu Jintao said: “The historic moment we have awaited is arriving.”

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