What is it this summer with East Asia and contested islands? June and July saw the resumption of a longstanding dispute involving China and a handful of Southeast Asian countries over the Spratly Islands, in the South China Sea.
Now, it's Japan and South Korea who are feuding. Yesterday, South Korea barred entry to three Japanese lawmakers who flew into Seoul to travel to the Liancourt Rocks, a chain of volcanic islets between the two countries under dispute since the end of World War II. The politicians, all members of the Japanese diet, had announced their trip in late July, a month after Korean Air routed a test flight of a new aircraft over the island chain. Japan responded at the time by instituting a one-month boycott of Korean Air flights among its diplomats, and the latest trip had been intended as a means to reassert Japanese sovereignty over the islands.
Provocations over the Liancourt Rocks dispute are a fairly regular gesture from South Korean and Japanese politicians looking to curry favor among nationalists at home. But South Korea's posturing also attracts support from a surprising source: North Korea. Kim Jong-Il's regime tends to echo its neighbors to the south when the Liancourt Rocks dispute crops up, according to the Diplomat.
This time was no different. On July 20, a characteristically thundering commentary on Uriminzokkiri, North Korea's official website, condemned Japan for its latest plans to infringe upon Korean sovereignty. South Korea's Yonhap News Agency translates from the statement:
"We are determined to take 1,000 times our people's revenge for Japan's reactionary moves, which, far from apologizing or compensating for the immeasurable unhappiness and pain inflicted upon our people, only scheme to take away our land....
"The entire people must unite to resolutely crush the scheme to seize Dokdo, in order that the Japanese reactionaries may never again set sight on our land. This is our generation's demand and the call of the people."
The lawmakers' actual visit occasioned a reiteration of the North Korean stance from the Secretariat of the Committee for the Peaceful Unification of Korea. The committee also takes a swipe at South Korea's "passive approach" in resolving the dispute. Once again, from Yonhap:
"The Japanese reactionaries' recent moves are serious issues not to be tolerated by the Korean nation as they revealed once again their ambition to seize Ullung Island and Tok Islets, inalienable parts of the territory of Korea. ...
"It is due to the present South Korean ruling forces' servile attitude toward Japan ... that the Japanese reactionaries are set to visit the Tok Islets like their own land."
Also going down in the annals of uncharacteristic recent behavior from North Korea: After allowing the establishment of an AP bureau in Pyongyang earlier this year, the North Korean government allowed two AP photographers unusually wide access to tour both Pyongyang and the North Korean countryside, albeit with minders. The Atlantic has culled the best of their photos here and they're worth a look.
Chinese media agency Xinhua reports that Foxconn, China's largest private-sector employer, is angling to replace more than 80 percent of its workforce over the next three years with robots.
The announcement comes a year after a string of employee suicides drew attention to poor working conditions at the company, which produces gadgets for Apple, Nokia, and Motorola, among others. At the time, management responded with a hodgepodge of measures, some to actually appease its workers (granting them pay raises and access to counselors), and some to just get them to, you know, stop killing themselves (forcing them to sign a pledge not to commit suicide and installing suicide nets on buildings to catch those who jump). But a report released this May by a Hong Kong-based labor watchdog suggests that working conditions remain worrisome.
Employee discontent aside, Foxconn's announcement appears more a response to the changing environment for Chinese manufacturers who look to produce cheap goods for export. Rising wages have made this model increasingly less sustainable. Foxconn reported a net loss of $218.3 million last year and has seen revenues decline 8 percent since 2009.
The company's location exacerbates its financial predicament. Half of its workforce operates out of its factories in the affluent region surrounding the southeastern Chinese city of Shenzhen, whose liberal business environment made it a major hub for Chinese manufacturing during the 1980s and 1990s. But the same success that first brought companies like Foxconn to Shenzhen has driven up wages and forced many manufacturers to relocate inland, closer to the homes of the migrant workers who make up the bulk of China's low-wage workforce.
Even moves inland can only work for so long. Chinese finance magazine Caixin says that, in the wake of the Foxconn suicides, almost every provincial government has legislated minimum wage increases over the last year. In the first quarter of 2011 alone, says Caixin, hikes in 13 provinces averaged more than 20 percent. Meanwhile, a May 5 report from Boston Consulting Group predicts that net labor costs in China and the United States will converge sometime around 2015.
If this is the end of the line for one million humans at Foxconn, the company probably could have done a better job breaking the news to its employees. The Xinhua report says that company chairman Terry Gou announced the measure last night at a workers' dance party. I'll bet the party petered out pretty soon after that.
Guenter Nooke told the daily Frankfurter Rundschau it was clear that "this catastrophe is also man-made".
"In the case of Ethiopia there is a suspicion that the large-scale land purchases by foreign companies, or states such as China which want to carry out industrial agriculture there, are very attractive for a small (African) elite," he said.
"It would be of more use to the broader population if the government focused its efforts on building up its own farming system."
He said that the Chinese investments were focused on farming for export which he said can lead to "major social conflicts in Africa when small farmers have their land und thus their livelihoods taken away."
Today, a written statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry vehemently denied the allegations. "China has never had plans to buy land overseas, and China has never purchased land in Africa," the statement said, adding that Nooke's claims stemmed from "ulterior motives." The Foreign Ministry also announced today that it would provide $14 million in emergency food assistance to the Horn of Africa.
Beijing's protestations aside, Chinese investment in African farmland has ratcheted up significantly in recent years, as the government seeks to quell concerns about long-term food security. One estimate puts the number of Chinese farm workers in Africa at 1 million. Meanwhile, the Atlantic quotes a June 2009 report in the Chinese weekly Economic Observer that describes how Beijing "was planning to rent and buy land abroad" to deal with "increasing pressure on food security."
That said, it's worth noting that China is far from the only foreign investor with major land holdings in Africa today. Private and public investors from India, the United States, and the petrostates of the Middle East, to name a few, have taken their piece of the African land grab, which brought 15 to 20 million hectares of the continent under foreign investment between 2006 and mid-2009. By way of comparison, that's equal to the size of all the farmland in France. If Nooke is right about the connection between foreign investment and famine, seems like there's plenty of blame to go around.
Oli Scarff/Getty Images
With just five days remaining for Congress and the White House to agree on a deal to solve the U.S. debt limit crisis, it's not just Americans who are frustrated and concerned about the prospects of a government default.
The most strident commentary on the crisis has come from China -- no surprise, since Beijing's long-standing affinity for U.S. treasury bonds has made it the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt. An editorial cartoon in China Daily today shows snowballing U.S. debts threatening to crush the rest of the world. A column from state news agency Xinhua yesterday had harsh words for the leaders in Washington:
When countries across the world hold breath watching the debt negotiations between the Democrats and Republicans in Washington, they are once again "kidnapped" by U.S. domestic politics.
As the Aug. 2 deadline approaches for Washington to raise its borrowing limit and avoid a catastrophic debt default, deeply divided U.S. politicians remain stubbornly engaged in what is widely seen as a game of chicken.
Given the United States' status as the world's largest economy and the issuer of the dominant international reserve currency, such political brinkmanship in Washington is dangerously irresponsible, for it risks, among other consequences, strangling the still fragile economic recovery of not only the United States but also the world as a whole.
Meanwhile, a number of European outlets have lambasted the Tea Party for its role in the crisis. Der Spiegel's Washington correspondent, Gregor Peter Schmitz, excoriates the G.O.P.'s libertarian wing:
Democracy depends on compromise and the American government depends on all branches working together. The Tea Party movement shuns both, preferring instead to drive the state into bankruptcy. On principle.
At the Guardian, editorial cartoonist Steve Bell takes the attack even further, comparing Tea Party members to Nazis. But Spain's El Pais is thankfully more measured, assailing both Republicans and Democrats for their "accumulated rigidity" and "mutual distrust," but also singling out Tea Party fundamentalism for "diminishing ... the possibility of reasonable arguments."
Over in France, Les Echos investigates whether credit rating agencies Moody's, Standard & Poor's, and Fitch are more kind to the United States than toward European countries. The paper cites multiple European officials who suspect the agencies of being "very sensitive to criticism targeting them in the U.S. and of turning a blind eye to such criticism here in Europe." (translation provided by France24).
The Tehran Times, a pro-government Iranian daily, uses the debt crisis to criticize U.S. military intervention in the region. In a brief and somewhat rambling column, University of Tehran professor Ebrahim Motaqi illuminates what's behind the troubled Treasury:
Perhaps one of the main reasons for this situation is the huge cost of U.S. involvement in regional and international military conflicts. ...
Since 2001 the mounting expenditures of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have created a huge threat for U.S. national security which resulted in the devastating economic recession of 2008. Accordingly, in the current situation, the U.S. economy is gripped with stagnation. In fact, the current U.S. budget deficit is a direct result of such a process which began with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
On the subject of defense spending, it's worth noting a Congressional Budget Office report released on Wednesday about competing budget plans proposed by Republican Congressional leader Rep. John Boehner and his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Harry Reid. The report said that Reid's plan would save almost three times the amount that Boehner's would, mostly because Reid's version includes more than $1 trillion in savings from the drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan -- although a closer look at the math suggests that the $1 trillion figure is deeply misleading.
That said, even under CBO projections, neither plan appears to have enough savings to fully offset the debt ceiling increase needed to secure U.S. finances through 2013. Some crisis, indeed.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Do you like the news? Do you like rap music? Then how about news … in the form of rap music!
That's the airtight logic behind RIA Novosti's Rap Info, which features rappers delivering the news in Russian. Among its fans is none other than Russian president Dmitri Medvedev himself. Russia Today reported last month on Medvedev's visit to the RIA Novosti studios:
Medvedev was impressed by the multimedia capabilities. However, he was even more interested in RIA's new project: Rap Info. Within the framework of the project, musicians "recite" news in the rap musical style. Some recent stories include a report about a "flasher" on producer Nikita Mikhalkov's car and the trial of former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky. And while the president laughed out loud to the rap about Mikhalkov, the "recital" about Khodorkovsky (in which authors included Medvedev's words from the press conference in Skolkovo, during which he said that the ex-head of Yukos "is not a threat" to society) only brought a simple smile.
"That's a good idea," noted Medvedev, after hearing the entire production. "We need to hold press conferences in the rap style. I'll think about what can be recorded in this format."
"Perhaps the budget address?", suggested one of the agency's staff members, referring to the president's scheduled address next week.
"Yes, that would be great!", agreed Medvedev. "The most boring topic you could imagine."
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
The furor over the Saturday night train crash last weekend in eastern China that killed at least 39 people and injured at least 192 has left the Chinese government scrambling to control public reaction. But its efforts may be doing the ruling Communist party more harm than good. Here's a roundup of some of the most interesting bits coming out about the crash:
Official reports from earlier this week said the crash was caused by a lightning strike. Today, however, the state-affiliated Xinhua News Agency is reporting testimony from the head of the Shanghai Railway Bureau at a meeting of the central government's State Council saying that the blame lies with design flaws in the railway's signaling system. The revelation confirms questions aired publicly by a number of Chinese railway experts wondering why safety mechanisms didn't kick in after the lightning strike to avert disaster (Caixin, Wall Street Journal).
Meanwhile, five days after the crash, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao finally made a public appearance today in Wenzhou to address the disaster. He blamed his earlier absence on an illness, which knocked him out of action for the last eleven days. His explanation didn't sit well with a number of users of the popular Chinese microblogging site, Weibo, who circulated official press photos showing Wen up and about with visiting state leaders between July 18 and July 24. But the confusion may boil down to a simple reporting error; the original Xinhua report appears to have misquoted Wen in saying that he had been in the hospital, while the premier said only that he was sick and in bed.
Whatever the reason for Wen's absence, his appearance means that the central government is taking seriously the crash -- and not a moment too soon. The Ministry of Railways (MOR) has come under fire from citizens, journalists, and even fellow government officials for its handling of the crisis. At a press conference on Monday, MOR spokesman Wang Yongping elicited howls from journalists with his efforts to explain why initial state reports about the cleanup were proven false (see item #13). Meanwhile, stories from the Wenzhou City News and the Beijing News describe how Wenzhou officials clashed with MOR officials over cleanup at the crash site. One local security official told the City News how he disobeyed orders on Sunday afternoon to bury the trains (translation by China-watching blog Shanghaiist):
Yes, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is a man's man, and it's driving the ladies crazy, if two pro-Putin stunts from the last week are any guide. The first came from Putin's Army, a group of young, female Putin supporters who formed on VKontakte, Russia's version of Facebook. They released a professionally-made video calling on "young, smart, and beautiful" girls to tear off their shirts and back a Putin campaign for the presidency. (After all, how else would you show your support? Elections?) But they may have been one-upped by a similar group called I Really Do Like Putin, who staged a bikini car wash in downtown Moscow. The women gave free car washes for Russian-made cars to show their support for Russia's domestic car industry.
Russia Today presents the footage, followed by an attempt at banter from the anchors that almost upstages the car wash footage:
With elections a year away in Russia, the campaign wing of Putin's establishment are relying on an unorthodox PR strategy to rebrand the party and win more (non-rigged) votes. Posters up now in central Moscow depict President Dmitri Medvedev as an armor-clad superhero, spoofing the new movie Captain America by calling Medvedev "Captain Russia: First Ruler." But it's not clear who's behind the Putin's Army video. Though speculation abounds, Putin has not declared his candidacy for the presidency yet, and Kremlin authorities have strongly denied involvement.
Of course, if women tearing off their shirts doesn't work, there's always Putin's chest. What a stud.
DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty Images
Beachgoers in China looking to kick back at the shores of the country's beer capital might want to think twice. An algae bloom off the eastern coast of Qingdao, in Shandong Province, has covered 7,400 square miles and counting, according to Xinhua News Agency, and researchers expect to see part of it wash ashore in the next few days.
Whatever does make it ashore from the bloom will add to a 75,000 square foot patch already coating Qingdao's beachside waters. But the residents of Qingdao are used to these algae invasions. Blooms have become something of a summer tradition in Qingdao's Yellow Sea since they first emerged in 2007. The 2008 bloom forced the government to deploy thousands of soldiers and locals to clear the waters in time for the sailing competitions being held at Qingdao as part of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
What's behind the outbreaks over the past few years? Bao Xianwen of the Ocean University of China, located in Qingdao, told Taiwan's China Post earlier this month, "We don't know where [the algae] originated and why it's suddenly growing so rapidly. It must have something to do with the change in the environment, but we are not scientifically sure of the reasons." But Western outlets like the New York Times and the BBC who covered the blooms in 2008 blamed that year's algae explosion on agricultural and industrial run-off.
Though the bloom hasn't sat well with many of Qingdao's beachgoers, some intrepid swimmers are taking a different tack. ""We have not been disturbed by the green algae. I swim here as usual," 32-year-old local swimmer Zhao Xiaowei told the China Post. Li Li, a preschooler from inland Hebei Province, told China Daily he didn't mind it either: "I like the green 'grass.' It feels so soft."
STR/AFP/Getty Images; STR/AFP/Getty Images; ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images
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