Monday, March 31, 2008

From pig-jackings to rice rustling

Not since The Hamburglar do I recall such delicious larceny.
I previously noted the soaring price of rice, which shot up by over 30% late last week, and have also introduced the shocking surge in 'pig-jackings' in China where pork has become an increasingly expensive commodity.
Now, The Guardian reports, Asian farmers must beware of rice rustlers. These sneaky grain thieves tip-toe into paddy fields by night and make of with a bag of carbs which will probably have increased in value by the time they make it home to count the grains.
I would crack some class of joke about The Hamburglar's Asian cousin, but this is serious stuff.
In the wake of Egypt's decision not to export its rice, Cambodia has followed suit and Vietnam is cutting exports by 20%. India, Pakistan and China are also hoarding their stock as the global rice market becomes ever more paranoid.
The impact could be immense. The World Food Programme says the hundreds of millions of people living on $1 a day spend 70% of their income on food. If prices double, that simply means they have to eat less.
Restaurants in the Philippines are already considering serving half portions.
People are protesting on the streets of Jakarta and Thai officials are fearing similar unrest.
Beijing is, as usual, saying very little, but the prospect of protests will become very real if the price hikes are passed on by supermarkets this week.
Gripped by a genuine food shortage, people in Asia must be puzzled by the use of the word 'crisis' to describe the current credit crunch that so upsets Wall Street.
If I may (rather inappropriately) invoke Crocodile Dundee: "That's not a THAT'S a crisis!"

Politician Gives Entire Salary to Poor

Warning: This might make politicians across the world feel a little uneasy.
The President of South Korea is to donate his entire salary for the next five years to the underprivileged.
And it's not his first time he's done such a thing. When he was mayor of Seoul from 2002 to 2004, Lee Myung-Bak donated his pay cheque to the children of street cleaners and firefighters.
Irish readers might recall that last autumn our Government tied themselves in knots trying to justify their hefty pay rises at a time when belt-tightening was on the horizon.
In the interest of fairness, it must be noted that Korea's President isn't just a goody-two-shoes determined to show up less charitable politicians - he's a millionaire.
He is the former CEO of a construction company and is considerably wealthier than the average politician (the exceptions being New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg and the leaders of OPEC nations).
But hang on! There's a better example of ordinary parliamentarians foregoing pay increases. In February, the Labour-led Australian Government announced a self-imposed pay freeze while calling on industry to cool the inflation-stoking salaries of senior management.
Call it a gimmick; call it mere symbolism, they led by example.
With a new round of Social Partnership talks in the offing, could Irish TDs agree to a similar gesture?
If things get tight, I'm sure somebody will give them a 'dig out'...

'Coming to you LIVE from just a few minutes ago...'

China has redefined live television.
The arrival of the Olympic torch to Tiananmen Square - under heavy security - was beamed into Chinese homes this lunchtime by state broadcaster CCTV.
In the corner was a word suggesting that the images we were watching were being transmitted as fast as cables could carry them, directly from Beijing's central landmark: "LIVE"
However, it seems China is uncomfortable with the traditional definition of the live broadcast. AFP reports that the images were transmitted after a one-minute delay, presumably so any unsavory images, like those that interrupted the lighting of the torch in Greece, would not be inflicted on its audience.
Tiananmen's vast square was emptied of traffic, tourists and local residents, to ensure nobody could protest about human rights, or Tibet, or Taiwan, or Darfur, or the price of pigs (see previous postings).
The chances of a security breach looked pretty slim. But is this what we can expect during the 2008 Olympic Games? Delayed transmission? The 100m sprint will have finished before we even see the athletes in the blocks.
That's it. I'm officially outraged. I'm heading down to Tiananmen to protest - in real time.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Corrupt politician sentenced to death

Bribery, favours for real estate developers, political corruption, hundreds of thousands of Euro worth of cash and property. It's a familiar tale.
But for former Beijing politician, Zhou Liangluo, the punishment for lining his own pockets while helping contractors land major development projects will be death.
Zhou accepted cash and a villa with a total value of around €1.4 million while serving as former head of Beijing's Haidian district. He shrugged off the sentence saying he would not appeal because the punishment was 'nothing unexpected'. He is one of 102 bureau head-level officials charged with corruption and bribery in Beijing in the past five years.
Now I'm not in favour of having the Taoiseach taken out and shot but...Bertie Ahern (pictured) might reflect on how things are done in China and be glad he lives in a nation so tolerant of politicians' financial irregularities.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The price of rice

'Call Uncle Ben, we're running out of rice!'
Oh that it were so simple.
The Financial Times is reporting that the price of rice jumped by 30% to an all-time high at the end of this week.
The reason? Global price stocks are at their lowest since 1976 - when the world's population was considerably smaller. On Thursday, Egypt, a leading exporter, imposed a ban on selling rice abroad in a bid to contain soaring local prices.
Rice is the staple diet for 2.5 billion people, mostly in Asia. As noted yesterday, even people not inclined to social protest will take to the streets if they've nothing to eat. You could get thrown in jail, but at least you might get a square meal there from time to time.
It's not beyond the realms of possibility that food security could replace the scramble for oil as the source of underlying tensions between nations in the coming decades.
It could bring new meaning to the term 'food fight'. (Sorry)

Friday, March 28, 2008

Why Chinese inflation is bad news for us, them....and pigs

Who cares about Chinese inflation? Well, I do. But not just because I happen to live in Beijing and bread is becoming a luxury product.
The Consumer Price Index hit a 12-year high of 8.7 last month. Stop yawning. This matters.
It's not just that the cost of living for 1.3 billion people is rising so fast that it could undo some of the dramatic improvements to living standards seen since China's economy took off - although that would be a decent enough reason to worry.
Inflation was one of the key drivers behind the unrest that spilled over into protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Instability in China means instability for the global economy, which would be unwelcome to say the least.
But, if you want a selfish reason to worry about it, think of the impact it would have if all the cheap Chinese goods currently lapped up by Europeans and Americans - clothes, electronics, household stuff - became significantly more expensive. With the Chinese seeking higher wages to keep up with inflation, the cost of exports will rise.
And as if that weren't enough...think of the poor swines. ["Oh won't somebody please think of the pigs!"] Pork prices are rocketing which means millions cannot afford a staple feature of China's typical diet.
All of this has bred a new form of crime: pig-jacking! Yep, that's right. According to Newsweek, people are kidnapping live little piggies en route to market, such is the soaring value of pig meat.
Remember though, we live in a global market so if the price of bread and pork soars here in China, it'll lead to further hikes in the West.
Better get those breakfast rolls while they're going...

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Chinese hit back at 'media bias'

The China Daily is reporting that Chinese nationals living overseas are launching campaigns to highlight what they perceive as Western media bias. The West, they say, is distorting the Tibet situation to hurt China.
As well as a letter-writing campaign in Britain aimed at stopping Gordon Brown from meeting the Dalai Lama, new websites and forums have sprung up seeking to turn the spotlight on instances where the media has gotten it wrong.
Among them is which gives several examples of how websites in the US, Britain, Germany and France have mistakenly identified Nepalese and Indian police as Chinese military. They also provide original photographs which they say were cropped in order to put the worst possible spin on the situation in Tibet.
Interesting stuff. Have a look. It's written in terrible English but I won't hold that against them given how poor my Mandarin is.
Of course, if China would let journalists and international observers into Tibet to see what's happening, they wouldn't face so much ignorance from the media which are forced to write stories about something they can't see.
Bringing a small, hand-picked group of journalists to Tibet to meet Chinese victims of Tibetan rebel violence doesn't count as press freedom.
More about that visit, see here

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Chinese authorities unblock BBC News website

Without warning or explanation, the BBC News website is today visible in China for the first time since I arrived last summer.
The Chinese government never comments on decisions to censor, block or unblock media so there is no way of knowing why BBC is now accessible or how long it will last.
In the past, sites like Blogspot and Flickr have all been unblocked for periods of varying length, only to be back on the blacklist days or weeks later. YouTube has a habit of disappearing from time to time, and The Guardian was among the many foreign websites shut out during the height of recent unrest in Tibet.
Let's hope BBC News remains accessible and that it continues to call it as it sees it when it comes to China.
Better still, maybe Wikipedia, Flickr and the millions of blogs currently off limits will soon be visible inside the People's Republic. We may cross our fingers rather than hold our breath.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Be nice to China - they'll own you soon

China has about $1.3 trillion dollars in foreign-exchange reserves under its mattress and it's not afraid to use them.
It adds more than $1 million to that pot every day and its Sovereign Wealth Fund is shopping around the globe for stuff to buy. They have enough cash to buy up all the banks in the US, but enough sense not to.
Also in the business of buying up chunks of foreign banks and infrastructure are the UAE, Singapore, Saudi Arabia and...Norway. The latter has a hefty pension fund fueled by off-shore oil which it may be willing to gamble on the turbulent seas of the global economy.
For now though, just memorise that list of countries and remember that they'll probably own a portion of your posterior by the end of the decade.

On buying stuff in Beijing

Walk into a modern shopping mall in China and it looks like any other.
The shopping centres are mostly new, they are swish and they sell branded goods - many of which aren't even fake. Amazing.
But it is very different to what I'm used to. And the biggest difference is that they have no interest in making the customer's experience easy and efficient. Oh no. The primary function of businesses in Beijing often seems to be employing as many people as possible.
Rather than designing a streamlined, direct way to give people what the want and make sure they leave feeling good about their purchase, they like to prolong the process.
This week I found myself having to buy something (batteries, as it happens) and, not for the first time, had to jump through hoops just to give them my cash.
First up, I had to decide on which batteries I wanted. In this, I was assisted by four young staff who had been standing around until I approached the counter.
They tried to talk me into cheapo batteries but I forked out and extra two Yuan for a brand that might last a little longer than twenty minutes.
Once I'd made my choice, the four staff members realised that none of them had a key to the glass unit protecting the batteries and a manager was required. Two managers arrived on the scene and, fair play to them, they found the key, put it in the lock and turned it - but not without reigniting the earlier debate over which batteries I should buy.
Okay, that was a rigmarole but I was ready to leave. But when I took out the cash nobody would take it. Instead, they insisted on writing up a very detailed docket which had to be signed by a sales assistant under the supervision of, well, as many colleagues as possible.
I went directed towards the far side of the shop where two bored-looking cashiers were sitting idly. I gathered that I was to bring my receipt to the idlers but the team of sales reps were holding my batteries hostage until I had paid.
At the cash desk, both members of staff got involved in the transaction, with one of them taking the lead as a highly officious air descended on the pair of them. I'd think they were work-proud pros if I hadn't seen them yawning 30 seconds earlier.
The receipt was signed and stamped in triplicate, before each page was separated before being loosely stuck back together with the aid of a watery sponge. And so I was sent back to the sales team, who inspected the docket, put a copy in their drawer and returned a receipt to me with the batteries. Exhausting.
The batteries cost 12 Yuan (about €1.20) I can't imagine how long it must take to buy a car or a computer. Or many of them it must take to change a light bulb.

Power struggles in China

Batteries in China are a bit shit.
I've never gotten more than a day or two out of the AA batteries needed to power my digital camera. Granted, the camera may be heavy on the juice but this problem never seemed like such a big problem before.
I usually find myself with pockets full of batteries - some new, some old - any time I go out to take a lot of photos. So often I've bought batteries which were rooted out of the bottom of the bag, or taken from an open pack, by a shop assistant.
Sigh. The Duracell Bunny would last ten minutes in Beijing.
[End of rant]

Did Reporters Without Borders Go Too Far?

I'm a little conflicted about yesterday's protest by members of Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
If you missed it, members of the press freedom group made a very public protest during the torch-lighting ceremony in Greece which officially kicks of the countdown to the Beijing Olympics.
In a truly shocking security lapse, one member managed to get behind a Chinese official as he addressed the small crowd.
China's state broadcaster seemed intent on illustrating their heavy-handed approach to censorship by dropping its live coverage of the event when the protest began.
RSF have plenty to complain about when it comes to press freedom in China and I'm fully on board with their fundamental point that journalism supports transparency and protects human rights.
The fact that China has booted journalists out of Tibet is a prime example of how conditional Beijing's supposedly new-found openness is. The fact that the RSF website is permanently blacklisted and that my internet connection dropped when I searched for information about yesterday's protest is another.
But is it really the job of journalists to storm the stage during an official function?
They surely obtained access thanks to their press passes. Next time, authorities will be a lot more careful when it comes to vetting journalists.
RSF is right to raise all the issues it raises. But its action yesterday may not help.
For one thing, it goes against the notion that journalists are independent observers. It also gives ammunition to the paranoia of authoritarian regimes who like to paint foreign journalists as spies.
Journalism plays and important role in improving the plight of the powerless. So does human rights activism.
But journalists should leave the grand gestures to activists - and vice versa.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Is energy rationing the future?

I've a feeling I'm not going to like the future very much.
The Beijing authorities have just decided the heat should be switched off in government-owned offices and apartment buildings across the city.
The last few days have been chillier than recent weeks, but the government likes to turn on the heating in the middle of November and turn it off in the middle of March. This typically blunt policy aimed at curbing energy use doesn't care how cold my toes are of an evening.
It's currently nine degrees Celsius outside (and inside, probably) and it'll be just four degrees on Friday, but that's not cold enough to warrant a blast of central heating, according to the Mandarin mandarins.
But is this something we'll all have to get used to?
With oil prices soaring and reserves set to dry up (eventually), restrictions on energy use may become a reality across the globe.
That might seem like the work of a Nanny State to those in the 'free' world. But while in Australia last month I was struck by how strictly water conservation rules are applied.
The government decides who can water their plants and when; and anyone selfish enough to break the hose pipe ban can expect to be 'dobbed in' by their ever-vigilant neighbours.
Diktats from government officials? Spying neighours? Sounds like liberal democracies are ready to adopt the Chinese model: The government knows best.
Right. I'm off to boil an inefficient kettle for the hot water bottle...

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Guardian and Youtube hit by media blackout

The Guardian, Youtube, and The Globe and Mail are just some of the big-name websites to have incurred the wrath of Chinese censors this week.
Web users are greeted by the all-too-familiar sight of the above message if they attempt to log on to Youtube, while restrictions on BBC News online and Wikipedia remain.
Even some Wikipedia proxies have been targeted, proving that the censorship capability of China's propaganda department is becoming increasingly sophisticated.
As trouble flairs in Tibet, the government has tightened its grip on the internet in a maniacal bid to prevent Chinese people learning what's going on in Lhasa. Journalists have also been kicked out of the Tibetan capital and several rings of checkpoints have put in place as security is ramped up.
State media in Beijing are blaming the violence on the 'Dalai clique', branding as 'another huge lie', the Dalia Lama's statement that he does not seek Tibetan independence.
Monks, according to Chinese media, were lacerating themselves to make it look like the authorities had been heavy handed. In fact, says Beijing, the police have been a picture of restraint.
The problem remains that if the media are banned from entering the region and reports on the issue are censored, there's no way of knowing who to believe.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Happy St Patrick's Day from Beijing

Poor ol' Paddy had to pose for hundreds of photos with Chinese girls - none of whom had any idea who he was. Patience of a saint.

Chinese authorities nervous about parade

Maybe the Chinese were right to be uneasy about plans to hold Beijing's first St Patrick's Day parade. Even I felt a little uncomfortable about all the diddly-aye music and the jigging girls with their hair in ringlets in the middle of China's capital.
Public gatherings have never been encouraged here and the prospect of a mass procession down the city's main pedestrianised shopping street - Wangfujing Lu - caused a minor panic among officials.
The Irish embassy was warned that there should be no more than 200 people at the first annual green fest, but in the end, there were several times this number. There must have been at least 200 young, frowning police officers rushing around trying to impose some kind of order on proceedings.
In the end, our Minister of European Affairs, Dick Roche, led what must have been the briefest march in the history of Paddy's Day parades. [Surely he should have been in Brussels or seat of the current EU Presidency, Llubljana.]
The short procession strolled about 150 yards from The Foreign Langauges Bookstore to the Oriental Plaza, before doing a loop, retracing its steps and calling it a day.
I found myself escaping through the human cordon where I took many a pic of our 'European' Minister smiling gamely while talking through gritted teeth.
I couldn't very well skip back out of the parade at that stage, so I joined the lads from Christian Brothers College, Cork, and acted the langer so nobody suspected a thing.
The lads from Cork must have been pleased to hear they'd be spending a week in the heart of 'The People's Republic', although some were surely surprised to find that didn't mean St Patrick's Street.
Just because the parade was kept short, didn't mean that the festivities would be curtailed. There was Oirish dancing and trad music blaring out of speakers as bemused Chinese shoppers wondered how their Sunday shopping spree had been hijacked by girls in velvet emerald dresses and boisterous lads in leprechaun hats.
Meanwhile, things were a little different on the streets of Tibet where Lhasa was under lockdown. But we won't ruin our fun by mentioning such awkward political issues - or so said Minister Roche when quizzed by RTE...

Sunday, March 16, 2008

All is 'calm' in Tibet

Chinese State TV is reporting that all is 'calm' in Tibet after violence on Friday.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world media seems to think the place is in chaos with over 100 people dead, according to CNN.
However, stories about Tibet on CNN, Reuters, MSNBC and other internet sites are blocked at the moment.
On CNN, half the homepage is invisible, presumably because it mentions Tibet in the headline.
The connection drops when you try to access their Video section. Same story with Reuters. It's fine unless you click on stories about Tibetan violence.
If there really are to be protests about Tibet, Taiwan, Darfur and Lord knows what else at the Olympics, we can expect a total media blackout.

He's lovin' it!

I've just been watching a rater bizarre kids TV game show (there was nothing but 'good news' on CCTV9).
It featured dozens of children dressed in McDonald's t-shirts throwing balls into boxes marked with McD's giant golden arch.
The presenters were holding McDonald's clipboards and the studio was decorated in the company's logo.
In a country preparing for the Olympics, it's ironic that this period will more likely be recorded as China's transformation to a fast-food nation than for its sporting prowess.
Is it any wonder that people are flocking to McDonalds and KFC when Beijing's sporting heroes can be seen on billboards advertising deep fried chicken sandwiches and Coke?
110m hurdler, Liu Xiang, is one of China's best hopes of Olympic glory this year but his reputation was dented following his sponsorship by a tobacco firm.
Olympic medalists don't smoke. But they don't eat Big Macs either - so why is there no outcry over the blatant marketing ploys by fast food companies? Given how tightly China controls the media (see above), regulating junk food advertising to children is something they could do without facing the old 'Nanny State' criticism.
The rate of obesity in China has increased by 97% in 10 years, according to a government report.
The British Medical Journal says that about one fifth of the one billion overweight or obese people in the world are Chinese. As they rapidly catch up with the West on the economic front, they seem to be following in our footsteps when it comes to calorie intake.
Surveys of school children showed that the prevalence of overweight and obesity in children aged 7-18 years increased 28 times and obesity increased four times between 1985 and 2000. Boys are worst affected and things have surely gotten worse since then.
However, since I arrived in Beijing last summer, free outdoor gyms have been springing up across the city. The public loves them - especially older people.
But if kids are staying in watching TV screens covered in McDonald's logos, Beijing might be a good place to open a Big 'n' Tall. Or a stomach stapling clinic. Or a Weight Watchers.
I haven't got it all figure out just yet, but I know there's a business opportunity here somewhere...