News & Current Affairs

July 19, 2009

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.

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July 15, 2009

Breaking silence on Gaza abuses

Filed under: Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 6:15 pm

Breaking silence on Gaza abuses

Destroyed house in Gaza

Soldiers are quoted saying they opened fire at any “suspect places”

A human rights group founded by Israeli veterans has collected what it says are damning testimonies from soldiers who took part in the offensive in January against Hamas fighters in Gaza. \

Standing by the ruins of his home in Gaza, Majdi Abed Rabbo explained how Israeli troops had used him as a human shield.

“The Israeli soldiers handcuffed me and pointed the gun at my neck,” he said. “They controlled every step.”

In this manner, Mr Abed Rabbo said, he was forced to go in ahead of Israeli soldiers as they cleared houses containing Palestinian gunmen.

This same incident was described by one of the Israeli soldiers who spoke to Breaking the Silence.

Majdi Abed Rabbo

Israel’s military is now looking into Majdi Abed Rabbo’s claims

“A Palestinian neighbour is brought in,” he says. “It was procedure. The soldier places his gun barrel on the civilian’s shoulder.”

If true, that was a clear breach of the international laws of war – which say soldiers have a duty of care to non-combatants – and of Israeli law.

The Israeli Supreme Court outlawed the so-called “neighbour policy”, of using Palestinians to shield advancing troops, in 2005.

Until now, the Israeli army always had a ready answer to allegations that war crimes were committed during its offensive in Gaza.

Such claims were, they said, Palestinian propaganda.

Now, though, the accusations of abuse are being made by Israeli soldiers.

Testimonies collected

The common thread in the almost 30 testimonies collected by Breaking the Silence is that orders were given to prevent Israeli casualties, whatever the cost in Palestinian lives.

Writing the report’s introduction, the Israeli lawyer Michael Sfard says: “All the witnesses agreed that they received a particular order repeatedly, in a way that did not leave much room for doubt, to do everything, everything, so that they – the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) soldiers – would not be harmed.

“The soldiers tell in their testimonies how this unwritten message, which came from brigade, battalion, and company commanders in morale-building conversations before entering Gaza, translated into zero patience for the life of enemy civilians.”

Israeli troops return from Gaza 19.1.09

Israel denies its soldiers broke the laws of war

The lawyer adds: “Violations of the laws of war are liable to be war crimes.”

Here are just a few quotes which give a flavour of the soldiers’ testimony. The accumulation of detail is convincing and, in the eyes of Israel’s critics, damning.

“Things are happening in his battalion of which he (the commander) has no idea. There are people who deserve to go to jail…

“When your company commander and battalion commander tell you, ‘Go on, fire!’ the soldiers will not hold back. They are waiting for this day, the fun of shooting and feeling all that power in your hands…

“Fire power was insane. We went in and the booms were just mad. The minute we got to our starting line, we simply began to fire at suspect places. You see a house, a window, shoot at the window. You don’t see a terrorist there? Fire at the window. In urban warfare, anyone is your enemy. No innocents.”

Israeli military spokeswoman Lt Col Avital Leibovich dismissed the testimonies as anonymous hearsay, designed to embarrass the army rather than lead to serious investigations.

She questioned why Breaking the Silence had not handed over its findings earlier, before the media were informed.

“We are investigating many of the requests from NGOs and other groups,” she said. “But when you have a report that is based on hearsay, with no facts whatsoever, we can’t do anything with it.”

In the past, says the Israeli military, some allegations of wrong-doing in Gaza have turned out to be second or third-hand accounts, the result of soldiers recycling rumours in the battalion rather than describing what they themselves witnessed.

Credible record

But Breaking the Silence has a long – and to many, credible – record of getting soldiers to talk about experiences which might not reflect well on the Army.

The group is funded by the British, Dutch and Spanish governments, as well as the EU.

It says the testimony is anonymous because of orders to Israeli soldiers not to speak out publicly.

Some of the collected testimony is highly specific.

In the case of Majdi Abed Rabbo, the Israeli military police have now opened an investigation, lending at least some credibility to the soldier who said the “neighbour policy” was in widespread use.

The military maintains it went to extraordinary lengths to ensure civilians were not harmed in Gaza.

The soldiers’ testimony does describe in detail how leaflets were distributed in areas they were about to enter – warning people to leave.

But it is what happened after that, says Breaking the Silence, which calls into question the morality of the Israeli army’s actions.

September 24, 2008

Is English law related to Muslim law?

Is English law related to Muslim law?

Old Bailey

One of the mainstays of English justice

 

In London’s historic “Inns of Court”, barristers practise law in the shadow of the distinctive medieval Temple Church. But does English law really owe a debt to Muslim law?

For some scholars, a historical connection to Islam is a “missing link” that explains why English common law is so different from classical Roman legal systems that hold sway across much of the rest of Europe.

It’s a controversial idea. Common law has inspired legal systems across the world. What’s more, calls for the UK to accommodate Islamic Sharia law have caused public outcry.

The first port of call when looking for an eastern link in the common law is London’s Inns of Court.

 

“You are now leaving London, and entering Jerusalem,” says Robin Griffith-Jones, the Master of the Temple Church, as he walks around its spectacular rotunda.

The church stands in the heart of the legal district and was built by the Knights Templar, the fierce order of monks-turned-warriors who fought Muslim armies in the Crusades.

London’s historic legal district, with its professional class of independent lawyers, has parallels with the way medieval Islamic law was organised.

In Sunni Islam there were four great schools of legal theory, which were often housed in “madrassas” around mosques. Scholars debated each other on obscure points of law, in much the same way as English barristers do.

There is a theory that the Templars modelled the Inns of Court on Muslim ideas. But Mr Griffith-Jones suggests it is pretty unlikely the Templars imported the madrassa system to England. They were suppressed after 1314 – yet lawyers only started congregating in the Inns of Court after the 1360s.

Perpetual endowment

This doesn’t necessarily rule out the Templars’ role altogether. Medieval Muslim centres of learning were governed under a special legal device called the “waqf” under which trustees guaranteed their independence.

In an oak-panelled room in Oxford, historian Dr Paul Brand explains the significance of the 1264 statute that Walter De Merton used to establish Merton College. He was a businessman with connections to the Knights Templar.

Graves in Temple Church

The Templar link to Islamic law seems unlikely

The original 1264 document that established Merton has parallels with the waqf because it is a “perpetual endowment” – a system where trustees keep the college running through the ages. It’s been used as a template across the Western world.

Dr Brand says many branches of Western learning, from mathematics to philosophy, owe a debt of gratitude to Islamic influence.

Advanced Arabic texts were translated into European languages in the Middle Ages. But there’s no record of Islamic legal texts being among those influencing English lawyers.

And Dr Brand pointed out the Knights Templar were, after all, crusaders. They wanted to fight Muslims, not to learn from them, and they were rarely close enough to observe their institutions at work.

But the fact remains that England in the Middle Ages had very distinct legal principles, like jury trial and the notion that “possession is nine tenths of the law”. And there was one other place in Europe that had similar legal principles on the books in the 12th Century.

Jury trial

From the end of the 9th to the middle of the 11th Century, Sicily had Muslim rulers. Many Sicilians were Muslims and followed the Maliki school of legal thought in Sunni Islam.

Maliki law has certain provisions which resemble English legal principles, such as jury trial and land possession. Sicily represented a gateway into western Europe for Islamic ideas but it’s unclear how these ideas are meant to have travelled to England.

Norman barons first invaded Sicily in 1061 – five years before William the Conqueror invaded England. The Norman leaders in Sicily went on to develop close cultural affinities with the Arabs, and these Normans were blood relations of Henry II, the English king credited with founding the common law.

But does that mean medieval England somehow adopted Muslim legal ideas?

Merton College

Merton College was founded on principles similar to Islamic law

There is no definitive proof, because very few documents survive from the period. All we have is the stories of people like Thomas Brown – an Englishman who was part of the Sicilian government, where he was known in Arabic as “Qaid Brun”.

He later returned to England and worked for the king during the period when common law came into being.

There is proof he brought Islamic knowledge back to England, especially in mathematics. But no particular proof he brought legal concepts.

There are clear parallels between Islamic legal history and English law, but unless new historical evidence comes to light, the link remains unproven.

 


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September 16, 2008

Roma poverty a major issue for EU

Roma poverty a major issue for EU

The European Union’s freedom of movement laws mean Eastern Europe’s large population of Roma (Gypsies) is now spreading west.

Roma family in Hungary

Roma make up around 10% of the population in Eastern Europe

The effect of this influx on national economies, as well as the deep poverty of the EU’s Roma, are high on the agenda as the first summit on Roma integration within the EU begins in Brussels.

Italy and Spain have received the most Roma, mainly from Romania, Bulgaria and Slovakia, where they make up more than 10% of the population.

Italy has witnessed the most serious effects – murders blamed on Roma, and revenge attacks by vigilante groups, followed by controversial government attempts to fingerprint Roma immigrants.

In Hungary, there is tension between Roma and non-Roma, after the lynching of a teacher by a Roma mob in one village, and attacks on a lorry driver and his family in another – both after road traffic accidents involving Roma children.

The creation of a “Hungarian Guard”, by far-right groups who arrive in villages after such incidents, is fueling fears of an explosion.

Integration key

“I don’t really know how the EU could help,” said Andras Ujlaky, head of the Chance for Children Foundation in Hungary.

“But perhaps they could start by pressurizing national governments to implement their own declared policies in housing, employment and education.”

Hungarian customs trainee Jozsef Nagy
There weren’t many opportunities… This was the chance for me!
Jozsef Nagy
Trainee customs officer

In Hungary, an earlier policy to give money to schools for the mentally disabled, to which a disproportionate number of Roma were sent, was abandoned when it was realized that it encouraged segregation.

Now funds are focused on mainstream schools which accept more Roma – though they impose limits of 25% Roma in a class.

There has been a wave of school closures in recent years in Hungary, as population figures fall.

That cuts both ways for the Roma. When Roma ghetto schools close, and the children are redistributed among schools with an ethnic Hungarian majority, it helps integration efforts.

The town of Hodmezovasarhely in south-eastern Hungary has been a pioneer, with five out of 11 primary schools closed last year alone.

But in far-flung villages with a majority Roma population, Roma and non-Roma parents alike are upset when local schools close and children are bussed off each day to towns.

The links between the parents and the schools are broken.

An alternative policy, supported by opposition parties, would be to improve the facilities and standard of teaching in existing schools.

Police drive

In eastern Hungary poverty is so endemic – with the Roma blamed for widespread petty theft – that the head of the Hungarian Poultry Board recently complained that people are no longer raising hens in several counties.

One new initiative for Roma integration in Budapest is being run by Gyorgy Makula, a policeman of Roma origin.

Hungarian police officer Gyorgy Makula (left) and some Roma boys

Officer Gyorgy Makula (left) hopes to help Roma boys out of the ghetto

Giant placards will be placed at strategic points around Budapest, to try to encourage more Roma to consider a police career.

Data protection laws make it impossible to measure how many Roma police there are in Hungary, but Gyorgy Makula estimates no more than 200, in a police force of 38,000.

“We should show to the Hungarian people, to the majority, among them the police staff, that there are really excellent people in this community who have been working for the police, who are not criminals of course.

“So we would like to change the mind of the people,” said Capt Makula.

At the Police High School, on Szecsenyi Hill overlooking Budapest, Jozsef Nagy, a third-year trainee customs officer, says he always wanted to join one of the law enforcement agencies.

“There weren’t many opportunities in our village to get somewhere in life. This was the chance for me!” he said.

Bending rules

One obstacle to increasing Roma numbers in the police is the fact that fewer than 10% of Roma students complete secondary school in Hungary.

A new idea is to bend the rules – to let them begin police training, and take their school-leaving exams inside the police academy.

In Csorog, a village less than an hour’s drive north of Budapest, with a large Roma population, the idea of more Roma policemen goes down well.

“I can foresee some problems,” said Zoltan Lakatos, a dustman, “if a policeman was forced to arrest one of his own relatives. But on the whole it’s a good idea. I think it would help.”

But his son, Zoli, 15, cannot imagine himself in uniform, planning a career steeped in Roma tradition.

“I’ve already decided,” he said. “I’m going to be a dancer. I’m going to teach Gypsy dance.”

September 8, 2008

Israeli PM ‘should be indicted’

Israeli PM ‘should be indicted’

Israeli PM Ehud Olmert (03/08)

Mr Olmert has been PM since he succeeded Ariel Sharon in March 2006

Israeli police have formally recommended to prosecutors that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert be indicted in a corruption investigation.

The decision about whether to indict Mr Olmert now rests with Attorney General Meni Mazuz.

Mr Olmert has already announced that he will resign later this month because of the multiple corruption investigations he is facing.

He has consistently denied all the accusations against him.

The ruling Kadima party is to hold a leadership vote on 17 September.

EHUD OLMERT’S POLITICAL LIFE
1993: Begins 10-year stint as mayor of Jerusalem
2005: Leaves right-wing Likud party with former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to form Kadima
2006: Takes over as leader when Ariel Sharon suffers a stroke
2007: Helps re-launch Israeli-Palestinian peace talks after seven-year hiatus
2008: Announces plans to resign

The police said they had evidence showing Mr Olmert allegedly accepted tens of thousands of dollars in bribes from American businessman Morris Talansky.

Mr Olmert is also accused of filing duplicate claims to government agencies for travel expenses.

The accusations date back to his time as mayor of Jerusalem and minister of trade and industry before he became prime minister in 2006.

Mr Olmert’s lawyers said the police recommendation to indict the prime minister was meaningless.

“The only person authorized by the law to decide whether to indict a prime minister is the attorney general. He has the authority and he bears the responsibility over the issue,” his lawyers said in a statement.

Mr Mazuz is expected to make his decision in the next few weeks.

August 14, 2008

Russia begins Georgia handover

Russia begins Georgia handover

Russian soldier near Gori, 13 August 2008

Russia insists its troops remain in Georgia for security purposes only

Russian troops have begun handing over control of the area around the town of Gori to Georgian security forces.

But a Russian general in the area said Moscow’s troops would remain nearby for several days to remove weaponry and help restore law and order in Gori.

Overnight the US secretary of state urged Moscow to meet its own pledge to pull troops out of Georgia altogether.

Georgia attacked the rebel region of South Ossetia from Gori a week ago and the town has remained a key flash point.

Russian troops occupied the town after they pushed Georgian forces out of South Ossetia, sparking a mass retreat from the city by Georgian troops and civilians.

Gori has also come under air attack, with reports of Russian planes bombing the town after Moscow declared an end to its military operation on Tuesday.

And Russia’s continued deployment of troops in Gori raised concerns that the Kremlin would not make a quick withdrawal from Georgian territory, despite agreeing to a European peace plan.

Safety ‘improved’

Moscow insists that the purpose of its continuing presence in Georgia proper is to hand over security to the Georgian police and to remove abandoned weapons and ammunition.

In Gori, I saw lorries full of bodies being delivered to the hostpial every day. So many people have died, why is the government lying?

Local residents reported feeling safe and secure on Wednesday night, our correspondent says, with Russian troops clearly in charge of the town.

The Russian general co-ordinating the return of Georgian police and security forces to Gori urged residents – many of whom left town as the Georgian army retreated on Monday – to return to their homes and re-open their shops, our correspondent adds.

Russian troops were allowing armed Georgian police back into the town, and would not leave until order is restored, Gen Vyacheslav Borisov said.

US steadfast

The Georgian government says that 175 people, mainly civilians, were killed during the conflict with Russia and South Ossetian separatist forces.

Russia, which says that 74 of its troops were killed, reports that more than 2,000 people died in South Ossetia, the vast majority civilians allegedly killed in the Georgian attack.

While none of the casualty figures have been verified independently, the UN refugee agency estimates that some 100,000 people have been displaced by the fighting, both from South Ossetia and Georgia proper.

Both sides have accused each other of committing atrocities during the conflict, although little conclusive evidence has been found.

Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, said on Wednesday night Russia faced international “isolation” if it refused to respect the truce, brokered by French and current EU President Nicolas Sarkozy.

She spoke hours after Russian tanks were seen moving out of Gori on the main road to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. Amid widespread concern the armored column eventually turned off the main road and troops began work to destroy or disable Georgian army bases.

“We expect all Russian forces that entered Georgia in recent days to withdraw from that country,” Ms Rice said later in Washington, before leaving on a diplomatic mission to France and Georgia.

There was, she said, a “very strong, growing sense that Russia is not behaving like the kind of international partner that it has said that it wants to be”.

And the US special envoy to the region, Matthew Bryza, told the BBC that the outbreak of violence in the Caucasus strengthened Georgia’s case to join the Nato alliance.

“Russia, a country with 30 times the population [of Georgia] decided to roll into its much smaller neighbour and tried to roll over it. It failed to roll over Georgia, but it would never have even thought of doing this if Georgia were already a member of Nato,” he said.

Map of region

August 8, 2008

Potter star used to crack crime

Potter star used to crack crime

Robbie Coltrane poster

The poster has been distributed around the local area

A wanted poster featuring Robbie Coltrane is being used by police in New Zealand to try to catch a teenage burglar who resembles the actor.

Detectives stressed the Cracker and Harry Potter star is not suspected of any crimes, but said the thief looks like a 16-year-old version of him.

The poster has been distributed to homes in the Christchurch area of the South Island.

New Zealand law bans the publication of pictures of juvenile criminals.

Below the heading ‘Wanted’ is the picture of Coltrane, underneath which are the words ‘Active burglar in this neighbourhood’.

Bicycle burglar

The text below explains that the photo is of Coltrane and continues: “Robbie Coltrane is not the burglar but imagine him aged 16 with lank greasy hair and you have the picture.

“He is 16-years-old, lives locally, travels by bicycle and burgles houses in your street.

“He will break windows to gain entry and ransack the property targeting electronic items, cash and jewellery.”

It explains the reason for the use of the Scottish star, who the New Zealand police describe as English.

“Because of the Children and Young Persons Act 1989 Police cannot show you a picture of the 16-year-old burglar operating in your neighbourhood,” it states.

Residents reportedly welcomed the leaflets and praised the ingenuity of the police. Coltrane was unavailable for comment.

August 6, 2008

Arctic Map shows dispute hotspots

Arctic Map shows dispute hotspots

VIEW THE MAP
Durham University)
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British scientists say they have drawn up the first detailed map to show areas in the Arctic that could become embroiled in future border disputes.

A team from Durham University compiled the outline of potential hotspots by basing the design on historical and ongoing arguments over ownership.

Russian scientists caused outrage last year when they planted their national flag on the seabed at the North Pole.

The UK researchers hope the map will inform politicians and policy makers.

“Its primary purpose is to inform discussions and debates because, frankly, there has been a lot of rubbish about who can claim (sovereignty) over what,” explained Martin Pratt, director of the university’s International Boundaries Research Unit (IBRU).

“To be honest, most of the other maps that I have seen in the media have been very simple,” he added.

“We have attempted to show all known claims; agreed boundaries and one thing that has not appeared on any other maps, which is the number of areas that could be claimed by Canada, Denmark and the US.”

Energy security is driving interest, as is the fact that Arctic ice is melting more and more during the summer
Martin Pratt,
Durham University

The team used specialist software to construct the nations’ boundaries, and identify what areas could be the source of future disputes.

“All coastal states have rights over the resources up to 200 nautical miles from their coastline,” Mr Pratt said. “So, we used specialist geographical software to ‘buffer’ the claims out accurately.”

The researchers also took into account the fact that some nations were able to extend their claims to 350 nautical miles as a result of their landmasses extending into the sea.

Back on the agenda

The issue of defining national boundaries in the Arctic was brought into sharp relief last summer when a team of Russian explorers used their submarine to plant their country’s flag on the seabed at the North Pole.

A number of politicians from the nations with borders within the Arctic, including Canada’s foreign minister, saw it as Moscow furthering its claim to territory within the region.

Mr Pratt said a number of factors were driving territorial claims back on to the political agenda.

“Energy security is driving interest, as is the fact that Arctic ice is melting more and more during the summer,” he told BBC News. “This is allowing greater exploration of the Arctic seabed.”

Data released by the US Geological Survey last month showed that the frozen region contained an estimated 90 billion barrels of untapped oil.

Mr Pratt added that the nations surrounding the Arctic also only had a limited amount of time to outline their claims.

“If they don’t define it within the timeframe set out by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, then it becomes part of what is known as ‘The Area’, which is administered by the International Seabed Authority on behalf of humanity as a whole.”

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