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China Seeks To Turn Entertainers Into Moral Models

By Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

BEIJING — Imagine if, after arresting a wave of celebrities on drug charges, American government officials pressed the heads of major Hollywood studios, A-list actors, record-label chiefs and chart-topping singers to sign promises that they would stay away from vices like drugs, pornography and gambling.

Simultaneously, substance-abusing performers found their films shut out of cinemas, forcing producers into hasty reshoots and re-edits. And news media began running editorials criticizing top directors for failing to inform on associates they had seen smoking pot or taking Ecstasy.

This is no fanciful figment: With China developing a hearty appetite for marijuana, methamphetamine and other illicit substances, Chinese authorities are training their crosshairs squarely on stars — even as they look to celebrities as front-line soldiers in the nation’s nascent war on drugs.

As of June, China had listed more than 3 million people on a roll of drug users, up from 1.8 million in 2011, according to Liang Ran, a drug-control official in the Ministry of Justice.

Millions more fly below the radar of police, and China’s National Narcotics Control Commission estimates the number of drug users to be more than 14 million, roughly 1 percent of the population. In 2014, authorities seized 69 tons of illicit drugs, arrested nearly 890,000 people on possession-type charges and almost 170,000 more on charges related to production and trafficking.

Among the celebrities who have been arrested on drug charges in the past 18 months are Jackie Chan’s son, Jaycee, and his fellow actor friend Kai Ko; the pop singer Yin Xiangjie; and actor Wang Xuebing, who had a major role in Black Coal, Thin Ice, which took top honors at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival.

Yin and Chan spent months in jail; Ko delivered a tearful public apology but nevertheless found himself cut out of films including Monster Hunt, a partially animated family film that after hurried reshoots became the top-grossing Chinese movie of all time. Wang’s drama, A Fool, abruptly had its May release date scrapped and arrived in theaters only in November with some of the supporting actor’s scenes trimmed.

But in a one-party system where even today’s Communist Party leaders maintain that art should “serve the state,” authorities are not merely setting out to punish stars who break the law. They also seek, in a time of rapidly loosening social mores, to turn entertainers into moral models — and even model informants.

The campaign has caught even the most respected celebrities flat-footed. Last month, after Yin was arrested, the state-run New China News Agency interviewed director Zhang Yimou and about a dozen major stars about their attitudes on celebrity drug use.

“I have seen many actors using marijuana together during their breaks … . It’s terrible that artists are involved in pornography, gambling and drugs,” said Zhang, who has directed such films as Hero and Raise the Red Lantern, and is in production on the big-budget The Great Wall starring Matt Damon.

“This trend is unhealthy for the industry. Many people tried to persuade me to try Ecstasy, and even told me, ‘This is the origin of inspiration,’” Zhang said.

But rather than winning praise for his propriety, Zhang was pummeled in the state-run press for failing to report the lawbreakers to police.

“Instead of protecting his actors, he was appeasing and shielding them. This will only make these movies stars more addicted to drugs,” said Eastday, a Shanghai-based news outlet. “If Zhang considered it disloyal to report his friends to the police, he has made a serious mistake, sacrificing the greater good for the sake of his self-interest.”

The Southern Metropolis Daily wrote a similar commentary headlined “Real love is informing on friends to police,” while the Global Times, a nationalist tabloid closely affiliated with the Communist Party, ran a cartoon of a sad-looking star shooting up with a hypodermic needle as Zhang watched from around a corner.

“The government wants celebrities to actively shoulder more responsibility” for spreading anti-drug messages, said Pi Yijun, an adviser to the Beijing Narcotics Control Commission. “Although celebrities are a small percentage of China’s overall drug users, they are an indicator of the trend. If more celebrities are taking drugs then so are more ordinary people.”

China, Pi said, is still much less permissive about drug use than America. And censors ensure that drug use very rarely figures in popular Chinese entertainment. A Chinese TV program along the lines of Breaking Bad would almost certainly never be approved by authorities — though the American show about a meth-cooking high school science teacher is available online in China and is popular.

“Even President Obama has acknowledged he smoked pot,” Pi said.

By pressuring people like Zhang shoes to be informants, some observers say, Chinese authorities are walking a thin line that can erode social trust and sow a culture of fear, discontent, secrecy and creative conservatism. That could undermine China’s efforts to develop a world-class entertainment industry, which officials see as a key to advancing its cultural and economic influence.

“This is the perfect ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation. If (Zhang) told, he might be called a rat; if not, then he’d be accused of dereliction of duty,” said Ying Zhu, a scholar of the Chinese entertainment industry at the City University of New York. “The nanny state and the media/Internet vigilantes need to be mindful of the consequences of ratting out friends, colleagues, and neighbors and families … . There is a chilling price to be paid for turning people against each other while looking over one’s own shoulders.”

“Ethically,” Pi said, “Zhang should report drug users, but in Chinese culture, it’s hard to put righteousness above friends and family.”

Authorities, he added, might have more success in making it commercially risky for stars to use (or silently condone) drugs. That’s why Chinese officials are pressing measures to discourage bad behavior.

This fall, the China Alliance of Radio, Film and Television — a state-sanctioned umbrella group of official industry organizations — formed an ethics committee that it said could order individuals or organizations who violate its norms to issue public apologies. It could also disqualify them from awards, or blacklist them from the industry.

Last month, the group held a forum in Beijing, touting the fact that 50 of its member organizations had signed on to its “pledge on professional ethics and self-discipline.” (In addition to shunning drugs, the pledge also obligates signatories to “protect the leadership of the Communist Party.”

Actress Fan Bingbing, who has crossed over into Hollywood productions including X-Men: Days of Future Past and Iron Man 3 said at the forum, “A good actor must be a good person first.”

(Nicole Liu and Yingzhi Yang of The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.)

©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: A participant waves a Chinese Communist Party flag as he waits backstage before his performance at a line dancing competition in Kunming, Yunnan province January 31, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer 

 

China Prepares To Rank Its Citizens On ‘Social Credit’

By Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

BEIJING — Internet users in America voiced outrage this fall over the imminent launch of a Yelp-style app intended to let anyone post public reviews of their friends, acquaintances and yes, enemies — with no opt-out option.

The outbursts prompted the creators of the app, Peeple, to reconsider. But in China, government authorities are hard at work devising their own e-database to rate each and every one of the nation’s 1.3 billion citizens by 2020 using metrics including whether they pay their bills on time, plagiarize schoolwork, break traffic laws or adhere to birth control regulations. And there’s no opt-out option.

Proponents of the so-called Social Credit System say it will help China overcome a multitude of societal ills for which it has gained international ignominy — from food and drug safety scandals to flagrant corruption, counterfeiting, tax evasion, academic cheating and even public defecation.

The goals for the project are nothing if not lofty: “carrying forward sincerity and traditional virtues,” “encouraging trust,” “raising the overall competitiveness of the country,” and last but not least, “stimulating … the progress of civilization,” according to a lengthy brief published by China’s State Council, or Cabinet.

But some fear that marrying FICO-style credit scores with school, employment, criminal and other records will create the ultimate Orwellian instrument of social control in a one-party state that in recent years has shown less and less tolerance for critical voices.

“The Chinese government already has a back door into everything on your phone and on the Internet, so this isn’t exactly a new way to control people’s lives,” said Hu Jia, a well-known political activist who has been imprisoned and held under house arrest for his activism around issues including the Tiananmen Square massacre, AIDS and environmental protection.

“What’s new is that Chinese authorities can systematically analyze all this data … and China doesn’t have an Edward Snowden to focus the public’s attention on these privacy issues,” Hu said.

Increased use of big data by central authorities, drawing on information from banks, mobile phone companies and e-commerce firms such as Alibaba, could in theory improve governance by serving as a check on corrupt officials who have long been able to do as they please.

Between individuals, sharing scores may help give strangers confidence to do business — or even go on a date. And in some ways, Chinese authorities’ desire to incentivize moral or healthy behaviors through data mining may be no different, some observers note, than American insurance companies giving discounts to customers who upload digital proof from their Fitbits that they exercise regularly.

“A lot of data capture is there to overcome horrible problems of bad government — ranging from pollution and food security to corruption in education and badly delivered healthcare,” said Rogier Creemers, a scholar of China and technology at the University of Oxford. While acknowledging that there could be rampant opportunities for the state to abuse such data, he added, “the idea that the Communist Party wants to legitimize its rule by pleasing the people is (also) basic politics.”

Hu, however, says the increasing ability of authorities to tap technology to know more and more details about citizens is increasingly giving life in China a “Truman Show”-like quality.

“My friends and I joke that we are no longer in a police state,” Hu said, “but a police empire.”

Although many details remain unclear, the Social Credit System will essentially be a 21st-century update of China’s long-standing secret personnel file system.

For decades, the government kept these files, called dang’an, on hundreds of millions of urban residents, logging their performance at school and work, but also at times recording information that might raise questions about their political leanings, such as whether they had “foreign friends” or read certain books. Cadres could consult these files when hiring new workers and granting benefits, but no one was supposed to see his or her own file, which was typically housed in one’s state-assigned work unit.

With the rise of private enterprises and increasing mobility, the file system’s central role in the Communist Party’s web of social control has broken down over the last quarter-century. Many people who have migrated to cities like Beijing say their files remained in their hometowns; some from rural areas say they never had one to begin with.

For urban residents registering for social security benefits, or seeking to have a baby under China’s strict family-planning regulations, the dang’an remains a fact of life. Perhaps that’s why the idea of the state keeping secret files on them — on paper or in a computerized system — doesn’t provoke overwhelming concern.

Wang Xiao, 19, recently was at a file management office in Beijing’s Dongcheng district; he needed to pay into his Social Security-style insurance fund and have the payment registered into his dang’an.

“I’m not curious to open my file,” he said. “I don’t think there is anything bad in it. … I got the highest grade in my class so I’m not worried.”

Chen Chao, a 34-year-old vendor also waiting in line, agreed. “If you didn’t commit a crime, why do you need to look at your file?” he asked, adding that he’s looking forward to an e-system. “An electric file will be more convenient for me. I believe the workers here have professional ethics, so they won’t leak my information.”

Still, he said, he’s cautious about his financial data and doesn’t use a credit card, or online payment systems like Alibaba’s Alipay. “My only electronic card is my social security card,” he said.

While Chen may avoid many modern conveniences, hundreds of millions of other Chinese have happily adapted. That’s allowed companies like Alibaba to harness copious amounts of personal data to develop credit scores — which Chinese authorities envision incorporating into a Social Credit Score.

Using data on its customers’ payment history, net worth, network of friends and associates, educational and professional history and consumption habits, Alibaba now assigns customers credit scores ranging from 350 to 950, with a rating over 700 considered excellent.

Alibaba encourages customers to share those scores — users can even add them to their online dating profiles to boost their appeal to potential mates. And the company has started to offer customers with scores above 750 perks such as rental car or hotel room bookings without a cash deposit. The company’s cooperation with government is clear from offers such as a recent promotion that allowed top scorers access to an express security screening lane at Beijing’s main airport.

“I just opened the app, showed my score, they took down my name and phone number and I breezed through in five minutes,” said Yolanda Liu, 30, who works for a state-owned sports organization. “China needs a credit system so that people like me who are responsible can get more benefits.”

Anne Stevenson-Yang, co-founder of J Capital Research in Beijing, said Chinese financial and Internet companies are all but certain to cooperate with government efforts to tap into their databases on consumers, because they need government licenses to operate. How Chinese authorities ultimately will use all that information, though, remains to be seen.

It’s conceivable, she said, that the state may soon use credit scores and histories to determine whether an applicant for a government job or university position is sufficiently modest in their tastes — driving a Chinese-made Geely, for example, and not a Jaguar, living in a 1,000-square foot apartment and not a luxury villa.

“Do they own too much, trade too much, do they own things that are considered too luxurious?” she said. “These are all standards that have been appropriately directed at cadres (in the past) and we can expect the government will want to do that in the future.”

Ultimately, said Stevenson-Yang, whether China can carry off a comprehensive government-run Social Credit System may help answer one of the fundamental questions about the country’s political and economic future: Can China have a modern, dynamic, capitalist economy while simultaneously maintaining tight political control under a single-party system? And can cloud computing, data mining and other such tools help make that hybrid system a reality “or is it something fundamentally in contradiction to a open economy?”

The jury, she believes, is still out. “But certainly the hope of the Communist Party is that the systems of control with which they are most comfortable can be brought into modern economy — with only a few compromises for economic scale and growth.”

(Tommy Yang, Nicole Liu and Yingzhi Yang in the Los Angeles Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.)

©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: A sign in Beijing’s main airport reminds Chinese to be civilized travelers, saying they “represent China’s image” when they go overseas. The Social Credit System is designed to incentivize better behavior and punish poor behavior across a range of dimensions, from school to work to travel to driving. (Julie Makinen/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Brouhaha Over Bank Reflects Shifting Power Dynamic Between US, China

By Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

BEIJING — For years, U.S. officials have chafed at what they contend is Chinese freeloading on the world stage. While the United States has spilled blood and spent a fortune on vexing challenges such as Islamic extremism and African epidemics, China, the muttering goes, hangs back or even swoops in on Washington’s coattails to capitalize economically.

“They are free riders and have been free riders for the last 30 years, and it’s worked well for them,” President Barack Obama said of China in an interview last summer with The New York Times. “No one ever expects them to do anything.”

So when China, now the world’s second-largest economy behind the U.S., proposed in 2013 to establish a new bank to provide loans to fund infrastructure projects in developing Asian countries and invited other countries to participate, it might have sounded like just the kind of stepping up Washington had in mind.

But the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank would also be a challenger of sorts to U.S.-led institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Asian Development Bank (which is led by the U.S. and Japan). American officials sought to dissuade allies from taking part in the AIIB.

Publicly, U.S. authorities expressed concerns that a China-led development bank might not adhere to sufficiently high standards of transparency or environmental requirements. But many observers suspected such stated misgivings masked more fundamental U.S. worries about China eroding America’s pre-eminence on a global scale.

When the deadline for applying to be a founding bank member passed this week, China had notched 46 applications — including U.S. allies: Britain, Australia, France, Italy, Germany, and South Korea. Japan was nearly alone in refusing to break ranks with Washington.

Beijing, not surprisingly, has been crowing about it. “The soaring participation has been seen as evidence of China’s growing international sway,” the state-run Xinhua News Agency said in a news report. “If there is one message to glean from the number of applicants, it is that the world has sensibly voted for a more inclusive, balanced, and mutually beneficial international economic order.”

The Global Times, a nationalistic newspaper affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party, said in an editorial that the success in signing up so many partners “has pushed China toward becoming a ‘real major power.'” Founding the AIIB is a “big achievement for China,” it added, while taking oblique note of carping from unnamed quarters. “The greater the good deed is, the more trouble it will attract. The more a country does, the more it will be criticized.”

Appearing increasingly isolated, the Obama administration has come in for a drubbing for its handling of the affair. In a commentary for The Washington Post, Daniel W. Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University and a fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank, pointedly characterized the situation with an expletive suggesting a complete blunder.

The perception of sour grapes only grew when anonymous White House sources were quoted elsewhere griping about London’s “constant accommodation” of China.

Fundamentally, I do see it as a mismanagement of American diplomacy,” said Steve Tsang, head of the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. “Yet at the same time, I don’t see it as huge victory for Chinese diplomacy.”

“If the U.S. had just acted like they didn’t care so much, it wouldn’t have been a big deal,” Tsang added. “The allies breaking rank with the U.S. is not so much about thinking that the U.S. is less important; it’s just that China is increasing in importance….When dealing with a rising power like China, there’s no real alternative to engagement; non-engagement won’t get you very far.”

Seeking to calm the waters, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, who visited China early this week, said Tuesday in speech in San Francisco that America was “ready to welcome” the AIIB as long as it “complements” organizations like the IMF and the World Bank.

Xu Bin, a professor of economics and finance at the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai, said the bank is an attractive proposition for China for many reasons.

The country, he noted, now has extensive experience in infrastructure projects like building airports and railways, but its own economy is slowing and its industries have excess capacity. So assisting projects in other countries is helpful for Chinese companies going abroad.

At the same time, China has hefty foreign reserves that make establishing AIIB feasible, and its leaders want to internationalize the country’s currency, the renminbi, giving it more clout globally. And in areas like the South China Sea, where China’s oil exploration efforts and work to expand the land mass of contested islands have upset neighbors including Vietnam and the Philippines, the AIIB could be a means of smoothing relations.

In time, Xu predicted, the U.S. and Japan will join in. “I’m sure sooner or later the U.S. and Japan will participate, it’s just a question of how long. Only by participating can you influence it,” he said.

China’s open call for other countries to join the AIIB did pose some delicate political questions for authorities in Beijing. Longtime ally North Korea reportedly sought to join, the NK News website reported, but was rejected because the tightly controlled Communist state lacks a functional banking system.

Taiwan, meanwhile, apparently will have its application welcomed, even though Beijing does not acknowledge that the self-ruled island off its southeast coast is a separate country. China normally asks that other countries and international agencies reject any position or agreement that implies Taiwan has statehood.

Since taking office in 2008, Taiwan’s president, Ma Ying-jeou, has pushed for trade agreements with other governments and participation in regional bodies that offer tariff cuts or other advantages to its export sector. Otherwise, the government fears, Taiwan will lose out to exporter rivals such as Japan and South Korea.

But Ma’s opponents worry that too-close economic ties with China will let Beijing erode the island’s self-rule. Small protests involving several dozen demonstrators broke out in Taipei this week when Taiwan said it intended to apply for AIIB membership.

Xu, of the China Europe International Business School, said he believed Taiwan’s participation would help it integrate more deeply with other Asian economies. For China, Xu said, the AIIB is a vehicle through which President Xi Jinping and other leaders in Beijing may be able to foster better relations across a wide swath of Asia.

“This is a breakthrough point for Xi Jinping,” said Xu. “China is emerging as a superpower in Asia, and many countries are afraid. Through this (AIIB), China can demonstrate it’s helpful and valuable, and not a threat.”

But Lew, the U.S. Treasury secretary, said Washington was still waiting to see how China would use its leading role in the AIIB to shape the region.

“With China’s economic growth and emerging focus on driving international development,” he said in San Francisco, “there is considerable interest in how China will integrate into the framework for international economic relations sustained since World War II, how it will use its new influence, and what ideas and ideals it will promote.”

Photo: David Dennis via Flickr

Mother Pleads With Islamic State; Deadline For Killing Hostages Passes

By Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

BEIJING — As the mother of one of two Japanese men held by Islamic State militants begged for his release Friday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration said Britain and Australia had agreed to help try to secure the hostages’ freedom.

In a video released this week, the militants threatened to kill journalist Kenji Goto and his friend Haruna Yukawa unless Japan paid $200 million by midafternoon Friday Japan time.

The deadline passed Friday afternoon in Asia with no word of the men’s fate.

Friday evening, Yoshihide Suga, chief Cabinet secretary, said: “Our government is still in a difficult situation but we are using every effort to get the two Japanese hostages released.

“We have been approaching heads of tribes and representatives of religious organizations for help.”

Suga acknowledged that the government hasn’t been able to check if the two hostages are safe.

Hours before the deadline, Goto’s mother, Junko Ishido, appeared at a news conference Friday morning in Tokyo and said her son was “not an enemy of Islamic State” and had been “fair in his reporting about the war.”

Ishido tearfully described her son as a kindhearted person who “wanted to save children’s lives in war zones.” Citing Japan’s post-World War II pacifist constitution, she noted that the nation has not been at war for 70 years and has had an amicable relationship with Islamic countries.

Such pleas have in the past failed to move Islamic State militants, with the fighters beheading at least five foreigners, including aid workers and journalists from the United States and Britain.

The militants issued the demand for $200 million after Abe, visiting the Middle East last weekend, pledged that amount in nonmilitary aid for nations affected by Islamic State expansion in Syria and neighboring Iraq.

Abe has pledged to make “all possible efforts” to secure the release of the men but has vowed not to pay a ransom.

“Such an act of blackmailing through holding the innocent lives as hostage is utterly impermissible, and we feel strong indignation,” Japan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement after the video was released. “We strongly urge the group not to harm the two Japanese nationals and to release them immediately.”

The hostage crisis poses a challenge for Abe’s government, which has been looking to revise Japan’s postwar restrictions to permit a wider range of military activities. Though the funding package he proposed for the Middle East was for nonmilitary spending, the ransom demand from Islamic State could be cited by opponents of Abe’s plans as an example of the kinds of difficulties Japan might face if it goes ahead with plans to export weapons and act with more latitude to assist allies, including the United States, militarily.

Japanese national broadcaster NHK said Abe had conferred with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott for assistance in dealing with the hostage situation. The Foreign Ministry also said Japan had reached out to Iran for help.

Japan has very few adherents of the Islamic faith, but one group, the Japan Muslim Assn., issued a statement on Friday expressing deep concern about the hostages and stressing that Islam strictly prohibits the killing of innocent people, and that such acts cannot be tolerated.

AFP Photo

U.S. Envoy: North Korea Not ‘Serious’ About Restarting Nuclear Talks

By Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

BEIJING — The new U.S. special representative for North Korea policy poured cold water Friday on recent reports that Kim Jong Un’s regime was ready to resume long-stalled international talks on ending the country’s nuclear program.

Visiting Moscow in November, Choe Ryong Hae, special envoy of the North Korean leader, delivered a letter from Kim to President Vladimir Putin that offered to restart the six-party nuclear negotiations that have been suspended for five years, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at the time.

“I have seen reports of the North Korean official’s statements in Moscow,” the American envoy, Sung Kim, said Friday in Beijing as he wrapped up a round of consultations in Asia that included talks in Tokyo, Seoul and the Chinese capital.

“Frankly it’s hard to take that seriously. I think we still need to see more concrete indications from the North Koreans,” said Kim, who previously served as U.S. ambassador to South Korea and became special envoy last month. “At this point, we don’t even know if the North Koreans have any interest in returning to some serious negotiations.”

Kim Jong Un’s reported offer to restart the talks was said to be “without conditions” but in accordance with a 2005 declaration of objectives. That declaration included a promise by Pyongyang to abandon all nuclear programs and adhere to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in exchange for energy and other assistance and assurances from Washington that the U.S. had no plans to attack North Korea.

North Korea conducted nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013 in violation of the nonproliferation treaty, which it hasn’t signed, as well as the 2005 declaration.

The six-party talks — among North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia, Japan and the United States — were halted in 2009.

In November, analysts at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies reported recent activity at North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center that they said could signal an effort by North Korea to extract weapons-grade plutonium from spent fuel rods.

Asked what kind of “concrete indications” the U.S. was seeking, Kim, the American envoy, said: “Very generally speaking, it would be hard for us to negotiate with the North Koreans while they continue to carry out nuclear activities, activities that are clearly banned” under the nonproliferation treaty and Pyongyang’s commitments in 2005.

Kim said the U.S. was willing to talk directly to Pyongyang to get the six-party process restarted but that North Korea has shown no interest in a bilateral dialogue, even though the country recently released several Americans who had been held captive there. James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence, traveled to Pyongyang to secure their release, and his visit marked a rare visit by a sitting high-level American official to North Korea. However, the North Korean leader did not meet Clapper.

“Unfortunately we have not seen any indication that with the release of American citizens there has been any change in North Korean attitudes or approach to the nuclear issue,” Kim said. “We have indicated very clearly … that we would welcome an opportunity to talk to them directly on the important question of how we can resume serious negotiations toward denuclearization. So far they have indicated no interest in doing so.”

Although the six-party talks have yielded no lasting progress in getting Pyongyang to give up its nuclear activities, Kim said the U.S. continued to believe the six-party process provides “the most viable forum” for addressing the situation, though he added: “I’m not suggesting that this time is different.”

Kim said there was no specific timetable for possible resumption of talks.

Asked about whether North Korea may have been behind the recent computer hacking at Sony Pictures, which is set to release the comedy film The Interview, which centers on an assassination plot against Kim Jong Un, the American envoy referred reporters to law enforcement officials.

However, he encouraged Pyongyang — which has praised the hackers — to focus on “important” things, rather than a fictional film.

“If they work with us … many good things can happen for North Korea. Many good things that would help improve the livelihood of North Korean people, help improve the human rights situation in North Korea. I would encourage the North Korean leadership to focus on those important aspects, rather than this movie.”

AFP Photo

Los Angeles Mayor Proposes L.A. Climate Change Summit Of U.S., China Mayors

By Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

BEIJING — Following up on last week’s U.S.-China climate change agreement, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said Friday he would invite leaders of Chinese and American cities to a summit in Los Angeles next year to kick-start efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions in both countries.

Wrapping up the China leg of a 12-day Asia trade mission that is also scheduled to take him to Japan and South Korea, Garcetti, a member of President Barack Obama’s climate change task force, said he has already discussed the idea with the White House, a number of his American counterparts and the mayors of Chinese cities including Shenzhen and Shanghai and received an enthusiastic response.

“Given the president’s agreement, I think me being here this week was perfect timing,” Garcetti said in Beijing after addressing a “clean tech” business matchmaking event. “If I hadn’t been here, the (mayor’s gathering) could have landed anywhere, but I think L.A. is well-positioned.”

Obama last week committed the U.S. to cutting net greenhouse gas emissions at least 26 percent by 2025. Chinese leader Xi Jinping, meanwhile, announced an accelerated time frame for capping carbon emissions and increasing China’s use of nuclear, wind and solar energy.

“They’ve made the agreement but the details weren’t worked out, so I think they are looking for someone to lead on this,” Garcetti said. Limiting carbon emissions is really about controlling emissions in cities, he added, and given Los Angeles’ track record in tackling its smog problem, “it’s kind of a no-brainer to do (the summit) in L.A. … Cities are the source of the problem and must be the solution.”

Timing and other details of the proposed gathering have yet to be discussed.

The environment was a core part of Garcetti’s China trip; in Shenzhen, the mayor joined in a ribbon-cutting for the new China headquarters of SaveSorb, an L.A.-based company that produces a natural absorbent for oil, paint and fuel spills. In Beijing, the mayor delivered a speech on urbanization and sustainability at the Stanford Center at Peking University.

Courting tourists was also high on the agenda. Los Angeles welcomed 570,000 Chinese visitors last year, making it the top U.S. destination for Chinese tourists. Garcetti says he aims to raise that to 1 million annually within a few years.

Five Los Angeles medical centers — UCLA, Keck Hospital of USC, Cedars-Sinai, City of Hope and Children’s Hospital — are hoping to persuade some Chinese tourists to seek health exams and other services in Southern California. The hospitals have launched a partnership with China Southern Airlines, with the carrier offering itineraries that combine full-day health scans at the L.A. medical centers with visits to sites such as the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

“A lot of Chinese media asked me: Is this for plastic surgery? Because you’re in Hollywood,” Garcetti laughed.

Photo: Ben Amstutz via Flickr

China To Try Uighur Professor On Charges Of Separatism

By Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times

BEIJING — A Beijing economics professor who has persistently questioned China’s policies toward ethnic minorities is heading to trial Wednesday on charges of separatism.

Ilham Tohti, 44, was detained in January. A scholar at Beijing’s Minzu University, he founded a website aimed at promoting understanding between China’s Han majority and ethnic Uighurs, a Muslim minority concentrated in China’s far western province of Xinjiang.

Relations between the two groups have become increasingly strained in recent years, with Uighurs complaining of economic discrimination and cultural and religious restrictions that they say amounts to repression. Authorities, meanwhile, have blamed a series of attacks — including a mass stabbing at a train station and the explosion of a jeep in Tiananmen Square — on Uighur separatists, extremists, and terrorists.

Public disclosure of evidence in such terrorism cases, however, has been minimal and highly regulated by the government, which is keen to prevent any independent reporting on such incidents or questioning of the official version of events. Tohti’s efforts to point out inconsistencies in the government’s accounts of such incidents may have contributed to the decision to detain him.

Although Tohti has said publicly that he does not support separatism or independence for Xinjiang, Tohti’s decision to post online a survey of Uighurs’ attitudes on the issue of independence also may have upset authorities.

Tohti has denied the charges. He faces up to life in prison if found guilty, and Chinese courts have an extremely high conviction rate. Several of Tohti’s students were questioned, strip-searched, and detained in January as well; it is unclear if they will soon face trial as well.

Tohti, a recipient of the 2014 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, was supposed to take up a position as a visiting scholar at Indiana University in early 2013.

However, he was detained at Beijing’s airport and denied permission to leave China. His daughter was taken into custody along with him but was eventually freed and permitted to depart for Indiana alone. He returned to his work until he was taken into custody again this year.

Tohti’s wife and two young sons live in Beijing.

On Tuesday, two lawyers for Tohti said that they had been able to meet with their client in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, where the trial is to be held. Why the trial is taking place in Urumqi is unclear, since Tohti lives and works in Beijing.

Attorney Li Fangping said by phone from Urumqi that authorities had presented the defense team with 128 articles as evidence — pieces that Tohti had written, translated, or posted, in addition to interviews that he had granted to foreign media outlets. Although Li said there was no way that the articles constitute proof that Tohti is guilty of separatism, he said Tohti was “not so hopeful about the result” of the trial.

On Monday, Li added, prosecutors had presented new evidence, including videos of Tohti teaching in the classroom. “I haven’t had time yet to watch all of them,” Li said.

Liu Xiaoyuan, another lawyer for Tohti, said the professor was in decent spirits but had suffered some physical decline while in jail. After a quarrel with other inmates about their continuous smoking, Tohti in August was put into ankle shackles, Liu said by phone Tuesday.

Li said he expected the trial to last no more than two days. Tohti, he said, wanted to “thank the outside world for its concern.” Li said Tohti told his daughter and others that no matter what the outcome of the trial, it was important to live without harboring hatred.

In accepting the PEN award on her father’s behalf this spring, Jewher Tohti said he had “used only one weapon in his struggle for the basic rights of the Uighurs of Xinjiang: words. Spoken, written, distributed, and posted — this is all that he has ever had at his disposal, and all that he has ever needed. And this is what China finds so threatening.”

AFP Photo/Philippe Lopez

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Freed Human Rights Lawyer’s Family Wants China To Let Him Travel To United States

By Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times

BEIJING — It was the phone call that 11-year-old Peter Gao of Sunnyvale had been awaiting for years: The chance to reconnect with his dad and tell him about geography, science, and other subjects he had been studying in school across the ocean. Most of all, he wanted to converse in his native tongue with his father, a Chinese human rights lawyer imprisoned in China on subversion charges.

“I had been telling him, when you get to talk to dad, you can work on your Chinese together,” said Peter’s mother, Geng He, who found asylum in the United States with her son and daughter five years ago.

Finally, in early August, Gao Zhisheng was released, and father and son were at long last able to hear each other’s voices. The discussion, though, turned out to be very one-sided.

“My son was talking nonstop, but my husband wasn’t saying very much,” said Geng, who’s not sure whether Gao, 50, was in too much pain to converse or simply was having trouble remembering how.

During more than 2 1/2 years in prison, and in unofficial detention for many months before that, Gao was kept in a room without sunlight and guards were told not to speak to him, Geng said. He lost about 50 pounds and developed dental problems.

But how to convey that to a now very Americanized child? Said Geng: “When Peter got off the phone, he told me: ‘Dad’s Mandarin is not very good.'”

Since fleeing with the children to Thailand in 2009 and eventually arriving in the United States, Geng has built a new life in the Bay Area as a clerical worker at a computer company. Peter is now in middle school and daughter Grace is in college.

Geng has received financial help from friends and moral support from her church, but many neighbors and acquaintances know nothing about her family’s situation. “Most people just think I’m one of those regular Chinese immigrants,” she said.

For years, though, Geng has campaigned to bring the family together again.

During Gao’s imprisonment, she flew repeatedly to Washington, testifying before congressional panels in the hope that lawmakers, and ultimately President Barack Obama, would pressure Chinese authorities to free her husband. But he received no early reprieve.

She also wrote newspaper op-eds and took to Twitter. Last week, she was back in Washington, speaking at the National Press Club and meeting with elected officials.

Having served his full sentence, Gao is now under virtual house arrest at the home of Geng’s sister in Urumqi, the capital of China’s far western Xinjiang province. Like others convicted of inciting subversion, Gao is subject to a one-year supplemental sentence barring him from giving interviews or publishing anything, inside or outside China, that might “damage the reputation or interests of the state.”

He must receive approval to travel outside Urumqi and in effect has no freedom of association, speech, or demonstration.

“Police told him he could not go to Beijing,” said Geng, who now speaks to him by phone a few times a week and is desperate to get him proper medical attention, which she believes is available only in the Chinese capital or abroad. “They took away his ID card so he can’t buy a plane ticket. And my sister is under severe pressure.”

China’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to a query about whether Gao would be allowed to leave China for medical treatment.

Those who have tried to help Gao or contact him have been warned off. Li Xiongbing, an attorney who tried to appeal the case in 2012, was told he could not go to Urumqi after Gao’s release from prison.

“There was no reason given,” Li said. “When they want to restrict individual citizens, they don’t need to cite any legal procedures.”

Asked whether authorities made any specific threats, Li said no, but he’s aware of the kind of repercussions Gao faced when Chinese officials became disenchanted with his work.

The self-taught Gao passed the bar exam in 1995. In 2001, he was named one of the top 10 lawyers in China by the Ministry of Justice’s Legal Daily.

He took medical malpractice and land confiscation cases, which meant challenging the government. Over time, he became bolder, representing underground churches and members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, who said they were tortured for participating in the banned sect, which China has branded an “evil cult.”

Eventually, Gao’s practice was shut down. Security officers moved in next door to monitor the family. In 2006, he was convicted of inciting subversion, and while in custody, he said, he was subjected to electric shock and other forms of torture, allegations Chinese authorities have denied.

In 2011, while his family was in California, he was arrested again and ordered to serve the remaining two years and eight months of his original five-year sentence.

Gao in recent days has been able to have a dental check in Urumqi, but according to Geng, the dentist said the city lacks the proper equipment to deal with his problems. Asked whether Gao also needs mental health care, Geng said, “If we can’t even get his teeth fixed, a psychologist seems like a luxury.”

Geng, her legal advocates and rights groups are calling on the Chinese government to allow Gao travel to the United States for medical treatment. But with U.S.-China relations under severe strain and a November meeting between Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping looming, it’s unclear whether Washington is willing to press such a highly sensitive subject with Beijing.

“We hope the State Department and White House will take action. Without direct White House involvement … there’s just no way Gao will be allowed to come to the United States,” said Jared Genser, Geng’s pro bono attorney and founder of the nonprofit Freedom Now.

Tommy Yang of The Times‘ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

AFP Photo/Ng Han Guan

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Michael Brown Shooting In Ferguson Has A Global Audience

By Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times

BEIJING — Amnesty International has sent monitors to the scene. Palestinians are tweeting advice on how to cope with tear gas. Tibetan monks have showed up to offer prayers. Russian officials, Iran’s official news agency, and China’s state-run media are offering lectures on human rights abuses.

What started as a small-town police shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old black man in suburban St. Louis has quickly become an international incident.

As the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., stretches into a second week, scenes of cops in military-like vehicles clashing with protesters are being beamed around the world. A global audience is watching the events with shock and sympathy — but also a sense of superiority and schadenfreude.

For countries that are often on the receiving end of human-rights lectures from Washington, the situation in Ferguson, Mo. — the violence, the race troubles and arrests of American journalists — has presented an irresistible opportunity to turn the tables and accuse the United States of hypocrisy.

“The Ferguson incident once again demonstrates that even in a country that has for years tried to play the role of an international human rights judge and defender, there is still much room for improvement at home,” China’s state-run New China News Agency said in a commentary published Monday, just hours before Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon ordered National Guard troops into the city. “Obviously, what the United States needs to do is to concentrate on solving its own problems rather than always pointing fingers at others.”

But Chinese media haven’t been devoting as extensive coverage to the Ferguson unrest as have their counterparts in Russia, where the story been featured prominently on TV news.

Russian officials have taken an even more strident tone — perhaps not surprising, given the toxic atmosphere between Moscow and Washington of late. Taking note of the unrest in Ferguson, the Foreign Ministry urged “our American partners to pay more attention to restoring order in their own country before imposing their dubious experience on other nations.”

The United States “has positioned itself as a ‘bastion of human rights’ and is actively engaged in ‘export of democracy’ on a systematic basis,” but “serious violations of basic human rights and barbaric practices thrive” in the country, Moscow said in remarks Friday responding to a U.S. report to a United Nations committee on racial discrimination.

In Iran on Monday, Ferguson was top news, even overshadowing a magnitude 6.2 earthquake that injured dozens. The Islamic Republic News Agency, the government’s official news service, commented that “violence has become institutionalized in the U.S. in recent years, but since President Obama, the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner, came to the White House, the violence has intensified, and now it has erupted against blacks in Ferguson.”

Even in tiny countries such as Sri Lanka, which doesn’t have particularly strained ties with the United States the Ferguson situation has become a cudgel to hit back at Washington.

Taking umbrage over a U.S. security warning to Americans on Aug. 8 in connection with an increase in protests and anti-American sentiment in Sri Lanka, the island nation’s Daily News opined: “For the U.S. to issue a travel warning for Sri Lanka does seem odd at a time when there are race riots in Missouri.”

“The world is concerned about gun violence and its toll in the U.S., and even though the U.S. president says he is concerned as well, he has not been able to do anything about its epidemic prevalence,” the paper said.

Scenes of tear gas, Molotov cocktails, and flash grenades in Ferguson have surprised many in Egypt, the Palestinian territories and other places where such violence is more common.

A popular blogger in Cairo, who writes under the pseudonym The Big Pharaoh, tweeted a picture from Ferguson and commented: “Nope, this is not Egypt or Turkey. This is in the USA.”

Mariam Barghouti, a university student and blogger in the West Bank city of Ramallah, has tweeted out tips for reporters and others in Ferguson who face tear gas from police.

“Remember to not touch your face when tear-gassed or put water on it. Instead use milk or coke!” she wrote last week.

After taking the highly unusual step of sending human rights monitors to Ferguson, London-based Amnesty International on Sunday called for state and federal probes into Brown’s death, as well as the tactics of Ferguson police. Atop the group’s U.S. website, its “Stand With Ferguson” campaign gets equal billing with its “Gaza Crisis” and “Panic in Iraq” briefings.

“Amnesty International has a long and tested history of monitoring and investigating police conduct, not just in foreign countries, but right here at home in the United States,” Amnesty USA executive director Steven W. Hawkins said in a statement. “Our delegation traveled to Missouri to let the authorities in Ferguson know that the world is watching.”

AFP Photo/Michael B. Thomas

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As Japan Marks WWII Surrender, Abe Avoids Controversial Shrine

By Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times

Two Japanese Cabinet members and a group of lawmakers marked the 69th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II on Friday by visiting a Tokyo shrine that China and South Korea regard as a totem to Japan’s militarist past. But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — whose last trip to the site sparked a downturn in Japan’s relations with Beijing and Seoul — stayed away.

Abe’s decision to refrain from joining the visit could be interpreted as a bid to avoid stoking further tensions with China ahead of a possible one-on-one meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in November, when Beijing will host an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum of regional leaders.

Abe instead attended a ceremony at a Tokyo sports arena along with Emperor Akihito, Empress Michiko, and thousands of relatives of Japan’s war dead.

On Aug. 15, 1945, following the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Akihito’s father, Emperor Hirohito, announced Tokyo’s surrender on the radio. It the first time the Japanese public had ever heard the voice of the emperor, who until then was treated as a divinity.

“Here, before the souls of those who fell on the battlefields thinking of their homeland and concerned about their families, as well as the souls of those who perished amidst the destruction of the war, and those who lost their lives in remote foreign countries … I offer my heartfelt prayers for the repose of their souls,” Abe said.

“The peace and prosperity that we now enjoy have been built upon the precious sacrifices of the war dead. … Today is a day on which we renew that pledge toward peace,” he added. “We will carve out the future of this country … facing history with humility and engraving its lessons deeply into our hearts. We will make contributions to lasting world peace.”

Japanese politicians’ pilgrimages to Tokyo’s Yasukuni shrine have long been a sore point with China and South Korea. Among the nearly 2.5 million war dead memorialized at the site are more than 1,000 designated war criminals, and Beijing and Seoul say the visits by officials indicate a lack of full contrition for Japan’s wartime brutality and occupation.

Yoshitaka Shindo, Japan’s internal affairs minister, and Keiji Furuya, chairman of Japan’s National Public Safety Commission, were the Cabinet members who visited Yasukuni on Friday.

Although Abe avoided the shrine, he did send a ritual offering, a move that drew predictable denunciations from the foreign ministries of China and South Korea.

South Korea “cannot but deplore” Abe’s offering and the visits by the Cabinet members and lawmakers, the Foreign Ministry in Seoul said in a statement.

“Japanese politicians should be aware that only when they renounce historical revisionist moves and demonstrate genuine remorse through action, will the relations between (South Korea) and Japan move stably forward as wished by the peoples of the two countries,” the statement added.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying echoed that criticism, saying the visits “once again demonstrate the Japanese government’s wrongful attitude toward historical issues.”

“The core of all the issues surrounding the Yasukuni shrine is whether the Japanese government can adopt a correct understanding of and attitude toward its history of aggression, whether it can respect the feelings of the people in the victimized Asian countries,” she said. “We solemnly urge the Japanese side to … win back the trust of its Asian neighbors and the international community with concrete actions.”

Abe, who became Japan’s prime minister in 2012, has yet to hold a one-on-one summit with either Xi or South Korean President Park Geun-hye, both of whom took office in early 2013.

Park, however, has met Xi several times, most recently hosting him at a summit in Seoul this summer.

The warming relations between Seoul and Beijing and simultaneous cooling of Tokyo-Seoul ties has troubled Washington. U.S. officials want strong relations between South Korea and Japan, two of its closest Asian allies, as China’s economic and military might increase.

In addition to the shrine visits, relations among Japan, South Korea, and China have been strained by territorial disputes and Abe’s push to revise Japan’s pacifist postwar constitution.

Abe has said he wants to give Japan’s self-defense forces more latitude to come to the aid of allies under attack and that the move is not an attempt to “remilitarize” the country as some critics have charged.

The bid to revise Japan’s constitution comes as China’s military capabilities are growing and Beijing has made increasingly assertive maritime claims, irking neighbors including Vietnam and the Philippines.

But Abe has slowed down his timeline for pushing forward with the revisions, as his administration is facing growing opposition at home over issues ranging from the constitutional changes to economic policy. A recent opinion poll showed the Cabinet’s approval rating dropped 1.1 percentage point in August to just 43.5 percent.

AFP Photo/Yoshikazu Tsuno

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Panda Triplets Born In China; 2-Week-Old Trio Called Extremely Rare

By Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times

BEIJING — Among panda-lovers, it doesn’t take much to set off pandemonium. Tuesday was a banner day for admirers of the rare black-and-white mammals as a zoo in southern China announced that one of its charges had given birth to a set of triplets — which the facility billed as the only surviving trio of pandas in the world.

The cubs were born to mother Juxiao in the early morning hours of July 29 at the Chimelong wildlife park in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, China’s state-run media said.

Photos of the pink and sparsely-furred cubs released Tuesday showed the triplets in an incubator, two apparently sleeping but one sitting up. Another photo showed one of the cubs being cradled by Juxiao, whose name translates as “chrysanthemum smile.”

Infant pandas have a notoriously high mortality rate, and while Chimelong called the triplets a “miracle,” experts said it was too soon for the cubs to be declared out of the woods.

External genitalia does not develop until pandas are several months old, and the cubs were not identified as male or female.

Apparently, they have not been given names yet, either. According to the National Zoo in Washington, which currently hosts a pair of breeding pandas and one cub, it is traditional to name giant panda cubs when they are 100 days old.

Pandas are notoriously poor breeders. As few as 1,600 giant pandas remain in central China’s mountain forests. About 375 pandas live in zoos and breeding centers around the world.

In China’s artificial breeding program, it is common to use sperm from more than one male to artificially inseminate a female in order to increase the chances of fertilization and viable embryos.

Photo: Xinhua/ZUMA Wire/MCT/Liu Dawei

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Government Takeover, ‘Overhaul’ Of Malaysia Airlines Planned

By Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times

BEIJING — Saying Malaysia Airlines needs a “complete overhaul” following two devastating air disasters, the Malaysian government’s strategic investment fund on Friday proposed buying out the approximately 30 percent of the carrier’s shares it does not own and delisting it as a publicly traded company.

“The proposed restructuring will critically require all parties to work closely together to undertake what will be a complete overhaul of the national carrier on all relevant aspects of … the airline’s operations, business model, finances, human capital, and regulatory environment,” the fund, Khazanah Nasional Berhad, said in a statement.

“Nothing less will be required in order to revive our national airline to be profitable as a commercial entity and to serve its function as a critical national development entity.”

Khazanah said it was offering more than $400 million for the stock it does not hold, paying shareholders a 12.5 percent premium over Thursday’s closing price.

Trading of the airline’s shares was suspended Friday in Kuala Lumpur, but no immediate changes to the airline’s operations were announced. The airline has about 360 flights per day to 60 destinations, with a capacity for about 50,000 passengers.

Even before the disappearance of Flight 370 in March and the downing of Flight 17 over strife-torn Ukraine last month, the carrier had been losing money, and the twin losses severely exacerbated its financial problems and its stock has plunged.

Khazanah’s managers said the proposed delisting of Malaysia Airlines shares represented “the first stage” of the restructuring program and that the fund was in the final stages of completing the overall restructuring proposal. More detailed plans are expected to be released at the end of August, pending approvals from government regulators and the Ministry of Finance.

Flight 370 vanished en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people aboard, and five months later, no wreckage from the Boeing 777 has yet been found.

Vessels from Australia, Malaysia, and China are continuing to survey a swath of the southern Indian Ocean floor in preparation for a deep-sea search, which is expected to begin in September.

Meanwhile, efforts to recover evidence and remains from the Flight 17 crash site in eastern Ukraine remain incomplete as fighting in the area between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces is continuing.

All 298 people aboard the Boeing 777 died when the aircraft bound from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur went down on July 17; so far, about 228 coffins have been returned to the Netherlands. The majority of those on board were Dutch.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte this week said the search was being suspended as conditions in the area had become too dangerous.

AFP Photo/Manan Vatsyayana

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China and Japan Ramp Up Rhetoric As Relations Worsen

By Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times

BEIJING — The last exhibit room at the Chinese People’s Anti-Japanese War Memorial Hall in west Beijing opens with a panel proclaiming: “Chinese and Japanese People Should Be Friends Forever.” But in recent months, curators at the museum dedicated to Japan’s 1931-45 occupation of the mainland have tacked on an awkward postscript that highlights just how unfriendly things have gotten between the two governments lately.

One new panel denounces Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s December 2013 trip to a shrine that honors Japan’s combat dead, including some senior war criminals. Another poster highlights China’s recent declaration of two new national days of commemoration related to Japan’s World War II invasion, known here as the Anti-Japanese War.

On the way out, visitors can buy postcards at the nation’s “first Anti-Japanese War post office,” which opened Friday. On Monday, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the museum and gave a high-profile address commemorating the 77th anniversary of a 1937 battle that’s considered the start to the full-scale war between the two countries.

The amended exhibits and Xi’s speech are part of an increasingly intense effort by Chinese authorities to remind citizens at home and the world at large of Tokyo’s wartime brutality as the two nations spar over territory and jockey for power and influence in Asia.

Japan contends that it has made amends and that an increasingly assertive China is overreacting to its efforts to become a more “normal country” after seven decades of pacifism.

China, though, is warning against what it sees as renewed Japanese efforts to downplay its wartime history and even remilitarize; Japan last week “reinterpreted” its pacifist post-World War II Constitution to allow its military to help defend the U.S. and other allies.

The battle over history has come as China’s economy has surpassed Japan’s to become No. 2 in the world and as Beijing has gotten involved in increasingly testy territorial disputes with neighbors including the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as Japan.

“History is history, and facts are facts. Nobody can change history and facts,” Xi declared Monday at the museum before an audience of 1,000, his words carried live by state-run television, a relatively rare occurrence in China. “Anyone who wants to deny, distort or beautify the history of the invasion will definitely not find agreement from the people of China or the rest of the world.”

Last week, Xi took a similar message to South Koreans in the hope of strengthening Beijing’s ties with Seoul, a longtime U.S. ally.

In public remarks, he sought to emphasize how China and South Korea had been victimized by Japan’s 20th century aggression, and he told the speaker of parliament that “China and South Korea have similar experience in history and shared interest on the issue of history related to Japan.”

He even suggested joint events with South Korea next year to commemorate the 70th anniversary of both countries’ liberation from Japan in 1945.

That proposal follows a request by China last month to UNESCO, the U.N. cultural organization, to register the 1937 Nanjing massacre and the “comfort women” compelled to work in Japanese military brothels in its “Memory of the World” documentary program. China has also invited foreign reporters on trips to Nanjing in the hope that they’ll write about wartime atrocities in the city.

“This is a new strategy,” Lye Liang Fook, assistant director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore, said of China’s publicity campaign. “It has both a bilateral and a regional dimension.”

Japan isn’t taking China’s PR offensive lying down. “Attempts to take up history in vain and make it an international issue will not contribute at all to building peace and cooperation in the region,” Japan’s chief Cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, said at a news conference after Xi’s remarks in Seoul.

This week, Abe embarked on some regional diplomacy of his own, visiting Australia, where he was to sign a deal for the two nations to jointly develop submarine technology. On the trip, he told a newspaper that his “door is always open for dialogue” with China.

But that small overture was quickly overshadowed by a fresh dust-up: Abe’s foreign minister complained that a Chinese newspaper had recently printed a graphic with a headline saying, “Japan wants a war again.” The map in the Chongqing Youth News showed mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the cities where the U.S. dropped atomic bombs in 1945.

Some in Japan are worried that Tokyo isn’t doing enough to counter Beijing’s increasingly large megaphone. The Yomiuri Shimbun, one of Japan’s largest newspapers, published a report last week noting that China has poured billions of dollars into the global expansion of its state-run media network, including CCTV and the China Daily newspaper, and that Japan spends a fraction of that on overseas programming for national broadcaster NHK.

Although Japan and China are increasingly airing their differences before a global audience, insecurities on the domestic front also may play a significant role in explaining why the two sides cannot seem to heal old wounds.

“Both societies are somewhat brittle now. The Japanese still are feeling that their economy is not yet out of the woods; there’s kind of a crisis of confidence and they’re being overshadowed by China,” Morrison said. “I think there is a strong feeling that they need to stand up for their own interests, and that’s behind the kinds of stances that have been taken on collective defense … and the (shrine) visit and other things that have really annoyed the Chinese.”

On the Chinese side, a tough stance on Japan might help Xi increase his stature within the military ranks and among a segment of society that’s strongly nationalistic and very vocal online, Morrison said.

“There’s also a good deal of social tension and there’s also the ethnic violence that we’re starting to see more and more evidence of,” he said, with minority Uighurs stepping up terrorist attacks.

For decades, the economies of Japan and China have been closely linked, providing ballast for more stormy political relations. Japanese investment was a significant factor in China’s transformation from a centrally planned agrarian state to the world’s factory floor.

But the two economies appear to be de-linking to some degree. Japan’s trade with China fell 6.5 percent to $312 billion in 2013, down for the second consecutive year. And Japanese investments in China have dropped as companies look increasingly to Southeast Asia.

Nevertheless, a number of Chinese said they believed the downturn in relations was not a permanent shift.

Bill Xiong, 21, a college student majoring in chemistry, was visiting the museum Monday and recalled growing up watching Japanese cartoons and reading Japanese comics. “On the grass-roots level there’s still a strong connection, but on a national level, it’s hard right now,” he said.

Li Yunzhen, 80, who fled Shanghai during the war, said she came to the museum hoping to buy some stamps for her collection.

“Since Abe took office, he hasn’t done anything good; he’s just holding fast to his nationalist ideas,” she said. “But I think most people in Japan don’t want war again, and it’s the same for China. I think it will get better after Abe leaves office.”

Photo: Akasped via Flickr

Hong Kong Braces For Protests As Vote Fuels Pro-Democracy Movement

By Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times

HONG KONG — Nearly 800,000 people voted in a nonbinding Hong Kong referendum aimed at agitating for greater democracy, organizers said early Monday, and the semi-autonomous Chinese city was bracing for hundreds of thousands of people to march through the streets Tuesday to continue pressing their cause.

The 10-day vote in the former British territory — conducted online, via mobile phones, and in person — asked residents to cast ballots for one of three mechanisms for directly electing the city’s chief executive. About 787,000 people — more than 10 percent of the city’s population — participated, organizers said. Mainland authorities have denounced the balloting as illegal.

Under the “One Country, Two Systems” framework governing the city’s return to Chinese rule in 1997, direct voting for the chief executive is to begin in 2017. Rules for the election have not been hammered out yet between Hong Kong officials and mainland authorities, but organizers of the referendum fear that the guidelines for the vote will be written so as to allow leaders in Beijing to screen out any potentially objectionable candidates.

All three proposals on the ballot called for some means of allowing Hong Kong residents to directly nominate candidates for the city’s top job. In addition, voters were asked whether the local legislature should veto any proposal that “cannot satisfy international standards allowing genuine choices by electors.” More than 87 percent of voters said yes.

China’s State Council, or Cabinet, on Monday released a statement rebuking the referendum, calling it “illegal and invalid,” adding that those who organized the referendum were pursuing “self-interests through breaching the rule of law, disturbing Hong Kong’s social order, and holding back the progress of universal suffrage.”

“Our standpoint is firm that the position of chief executive must be shouldered by one who loves both the country and Hong Kong,” the statement added, reiterating Beijing’s position that it may rule out any candidate it believes does not “love” China.

Since 1997, protest rallies have been held annually on July 1 in Hong Kong. Generally pro-democratic in nature, their emphasis has shifted from year to year. In 2003, an estimated half-million Hong Kong residents turned out to march after proposed anti-subversion legislation sparked heated debate among locals. After the massive turnout, the proposal was shelved indefinitely. Last year’s July 1 rally attracted about 93,000 participants, according to estimates from the University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Program.

This month’s 10-day referendum, organized by a group called Occupy Central with Peace and Love, has sparked fierce denunciations from Beijing authorities as well as from some business groups in Hong Kong. The voting website came under fierce cyber-attacks, and media outlets that expressed support for the vote experienced similar assaults.

Occupy Central leaders have proposed staging sit-ins and other forms of nonviolent civil disobedience at some unspecified date in the future in Hong Kong’s main financial district if the election rules fall short of what they call “international standards.”

Some businesses have expressed alarm at the possibility that the city’s financial hub could be paralyzed by such a protest. Last week, the local offices of the so-called big-four accounting firms took out ads in Hong Kong newspapers, saying they were concerned that Occupy Central “would have a negative and long-lasting impact on the rule of law, the society, and the economy of Hong Kong. We hope that the disagreements could be resolved through negotiation and dialogue instead.” On Monday, some employees of the companies took out advertisements of their own, saying they disagreed with their bosses’ ads.

Although Occupy Central leaders have not designated any particular time yet for a civil disobedience campaign, concern is growing that some supporters of the movement are preparing to launch such activities imminently.

On Monday, local broadcaster RTHK reported that two student groups that have been active in the Occupy Central referendum planned to stage overnight “rehearsal” sit-ins from Tuesday evening to Wednesday morning to put pressure on authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong to accept the results of the 10-day vote.

“We believe we need a more progressive act to push the government to recognize our voice and our suggestion, and only through an act of civil disobedience could really propel or change the mind of the government,” secretary-general of the Federation of Students, Alex Chow, told RTHK.

Photo via WikiCommons

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4 Charged In Deadly Knife Attack At China Train Station

By Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times

BEIJING — Four suspects in the deadly March 1 mass knifing at a train station in southern China have been formally charged with terrorist activities and other crimes, authorities in the city of Kunming said Monday. No date for a trial was announced, but state-run media said prosecutors would hand the case to Kunming Intermediate People’s Court “soon.”

The bloody Saturday night assault left 33 people dead, including four suspects who were shot to death by police in front of the station. One suspected attacker, a woman, was injured and detained. More than 140 people were injured in the incident.

Three men — identified as Yisikandaer Aihaiti, Tuerhong Tuoheniyazi, and Yushan Maimaiti — were charged with organizing and leading a terrorist group, organizing and planning a terrorist attack, and committing intentional homicide. A woman, apparently the female suspect captured at the scene, was charged with actively participating in a terrorist organization and intentional homicide. She was identified as Patiguli Tohti.

Shortly after the attack, authorities named the ringleader as Abdurehim Kurban, but never specified whether he was among those killed or detained. No mention of him was included in Monday’s announcement.

No other suspects had been identified publicly until now, and it was not clear exactly when or where the three men charged Monday had been detained.

Flags of “East Turkestan separatist forces” were found at the Kunming train station, officials have said. East Turkestan is another name for Xinjiang, a northwestern Chinese province populated largely by a Turkic-speaking, Muslim minority called Uighurs, who have clashed with Han Chinese. Based on the names released by authorities Monday, the four suspects appear to be Uighurs.
China has seen an upsurge in terrorist attacks in the last nine months, both in Xinjiang and beyond the province’s borders.

Last October in Tiananmen Square, a group of Uighurs plowed a jeep into a crowd of tourists in front of the Forbidden City, killing two people before the vehicle erupted in flames. All three occupants of the vehicle died at the scene.

In recent months, several attacks have been carried out in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, including a bombing at a train station and an assault on a morning market that left 43 dead.

In response to the violence, government officials have launched a strike-hard campaign. Authorities have been offering large rewards to the public for tips on suspicious activities and have held several mass sentencings of convicted terrorists on sports fields and in stadiums. Anti-terror drills have been held in multiple provinces, and anti-terror patrols have been launched in Beijing.

Officials say many of the recent attacks have been carried out by locals who watched terrorism-related videos and read other materials posted online by foreign jihadists. In response, they have launched a campaign to wipe the Chinese Internet of any such materials.

This month, authorities announced death sentences for 13 convicted terrorists.

Many Uighurs complain of discrimination at the hands of Han Chinese businessmen and officials, and say that certain government policies — such as barring minors from entering mosques — are effectively wiping out Uighur traditions and beliefs.

Monday’s announcement about the Kunming suspects offered no details on the possible specific motives for the attack. “All the facts regarding to the four suspects’ crimes are clear and all the evidence is solid and sufficient,” authorities declared.

AFP Photo / Mark Ralston

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U.S. Envoy Max Baucus To China: More Business Ties, Less Cyber-Theft

By Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times

BEIJING — In his first public address on the U.S.-China relationship since taking up the post of U.S. ambassador, Max Baucus said Wednesday that “the U.S. welcomes China’s rise” and that his priorities include pushing for a bilateral investment treaty and increasing cooperation on environmental issues.

But the former Montana senator briefly rapped Beijing on the knuckles over concerns including human rights, cyber-theft of U.S. companies’ trade secrets, and the blocking of American tech firms from the Chinese market.

“Trade and investment have come to be the foundation, the ballast, of the U.S.-China relationship, providing great stability,” said Baucus, speaking to a luncheon hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce and other business groups in Beijing. Developing trust on issues like business and the environment, he said, would serve as a basis for addressing other matters where the two nations disagree.

Baucus, 72, took over the ambassador’s post from Gary Locke this spring and has spent the last several months settling into the job and traveling to a number of Chinese cities. Already, though, he’s found the U.S.-China relationship encountering rocky shoals.

Baucus has kept a low profile as a number of issues between Beijing and U.S. allies in the region have flared up, including World War II-era grievances and territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Beijing has also reacted strongly to the U.S. indictment of five Chinese army officers in May on charges of hacking into American companies and stealing commercial secrets.

Baucus is stepping off the sidelines as Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew and Secretary of State John Kerry prepare to travel to Beijing in July for the sixth round of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue with their Chinese counterparts.

The new ambassador encouraged China to push forward with economic reforms and asserted that a bilateral investment treaty could have as many benefits for China today as the nation’s accession to the World Trade Organization did in 2001.

Though WTO membership opened China to a significant degree, Beijing continues to restrict foreign investment in numerous sectors of the economy, barring foreign entities from owning more than 50 percent of ventures in areas including automobiles and agriculture. A bilateral investment treaty that reduces such barriers is a high priority for many U.S. companies — particularly service providers — doing business in China, though American labor groups and others have concerns.

Advocates say such a treaty would also improve U.S. firms’ ability to protect their technology in China because they would not be forced to share as much with Chinese partners.

The United States already has such investment treaties with about 40 other smaller countries, but any such deal between the world’s top two economies would have a significantly larger impact.

Baucus devoted a notable portion of his remarks Wednesday to environmental concerns, including pollution and climate change. He recounted that when first lady Michelle Obama visited China this spring, she encountered a young boy — named Max, coincidentally — who told her he liked living in Beijing except for one thing: the dirty air.

“You obviously don’t have to look very far … to see that Max has a point,” Baucus said. He urged Chinese leaders to follow President Obama’s recent pledge to cut emissions from U.S. power plants and said Americans could help China learn from the U.S. experience cleaning up its pollution problems several decades ago.

Baucus briefly brought up some recent points of tension in the bilateral relationship, noting that China has recently arrested a number of “moderate voices” who have been advocating for issues such as ethnic minorities’ rights and good governance.

“We strongly believe that individual advocates play an important role in developing a civil society,” Baucus said. Playing to a top concern of Chinese leaders — the fear of unrest — he added that “protecting basic rights such as freedom of expression enhances social stability.”

He reiterated U.S. concerns over cyber-theft of trade secrets by “state actors” in China. “We wouldn’t sit idly by while a crime is committed in the real world, so why should we do it when it happens in cyberspace?” he said. “We will continue to use diplomatic and legal means to make clear that this type of behavior must stop.”

And he briefly alluded to China’s continued blockages of companies such as Facebook and Twitter, and its recent enhanced restrictions on Google access within the mainland. Locking such companies out of China’s market will hurt both of us, he said.

“Despite our differences, we have no choice but to keep talking, to work our way through these tough challenges,” Baucus said. “It’s at moments like these that more, not less, dialogue is needed.”

©afp.com / Saul Loeb