SHANGHAI, May 19 -- China’s notoriously lax local government officials and polluting companies are finding creative ways to fudge their environmental responsibilities and outsmart Beijing’s pollution inspectors, despite stern warnings and tough penalties.
Recent audit reports covering the past two years released by the environment ministry showed its inspectors were frequently presented with fake data and fabricated documents, as local officials – sometimes working in league with companies – have devised multiple ways to cheat and cover up their lack of action. Local governments have been under pressure to meet environmental protection targets since Chinese President Xi Jinping made it one of his top three policy pledges in late 2017. The performance of leading local officials is now partly assessed by how good a job they have done in cleaning up China’s much depleted environment. According to the reports released this month by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, pollution inspectors have found evidence in a number of city environmental protection bureaus of made-up meeting notes and even instructions to local companies to forge materials. Cao Liping, director of the ministry’s ecology and environment law enforcement department, said many of the cases uncovered were the result of officials failing to act in a timely manner. “In some places, local officials didn’t really do the rectification work. When the inspections began, they realised they didn’t have enough time, so they made up material,” he said.
China still facing uphill struggle in fight against pollution
’While some officials are covering up their inaction, others are actively corrupt. According to Guangzhou’s Southern Weekend, since 2012 there have been 63 cases involving 118 people in the environment protection system involved in corruption. In the southwest province of Sichuan, 32 current and former employees of Suining city’s environmental protection bureau were found to be corrupt, raking in illicit income of 6.32 million yuan (US$900,000).
The party committee of Bozhou district in Zunyi, Guizhou province in southern China, was found to have fabricated notes for 10 meetings – part of the work requirement under the new environmental targets – in a bid to cheat the inspectors. The case was flagged by the environment ministry in a notice issued on May 10, which said party officials in Bozhou lacked “political consciousness … the nature of this case is very severe”.
Watering down results
Environmental officials in Shizuishan, in the northwest region of Ningxia, tried to improve their results in December 2017 by ordering sanitation workers to spray the building of the local environmental protection bureau with an anti-smog water cannon. The intention was to lower the amount of pollutant particles registered by the building’s monitoring equipment.
The scheme may have gone undetected if the weather had been warmer but the next day a telltale layer of ice covered the building and the chief and deputy chief of the environmental station in the city’s Dawokou district were later penalised for influencing the monitoring results.
SAN FRANCISCO, May 18 -- A California cafe is brewing up what it calls the world's most expensive coffee — at $75 a cup.
Klatch Coffee is serving the exclusive brew, the Elida Natural Geisha 803, at its branches in Southern California and San Francisco. The 803 in the coffee's name refers to the record-breaking $803 per pound the beans sold for at a recent auction after winning the Best of Panama coffee competition, said Bo Thiara, co-owner of the Klatch branch in San Francisco. He calls the annual competition the coffee world's equivalent of the Oscars. Only 100 pounds (45 kilograms) of the beans were available for purchase, and most went to Japan, China and Taiwan, Thiara said. Klatch secured 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms) and is the only chain in North America to have it. The coffee's high quality and limited supply set off a bidding war that determined its astronomical price, topping last year's winning beans that sold for $601 per pound, Thiara said.
Klatch describes the coffee as a rare variety of Arabica from Panama that has a floral, tea-like flavor with hints of jasmine and berries. The 10 pounds of beans will produce about 80 cups of coffee, Thiara said. A few lucky coffee lovers got to try free samples Wednesday at the San Francisco branch, where promotional signs are on display advertising, "World's Most Expensive Coffee." One of them was San Francisco resident Lauren Svensson, who said it was "very different" from any coffee she'd ever tasted. "My mind was a little blown about the fact that a$75 cup of coffee even exists," she said, "but it was shockingly good." Her friend, Charlie Sinhaseni, also gave his free sample a positive review.
"When I first looked at it, I thought it would be hyper pretentious, and I would think of all the different notes for the coffee, but I was too busy enjoying it," he said.
TEL AVIV, May 19 -- Duncan Laurence of the Netherlands has won Eurovision 2019 contest with his song "Arcade," receiving 492 points, the presenters declared at the final which is taking place overnight into Sunday in Tel Aviv.
Mahmood from Italy won the second place (465 points), and Russian performer Sergey Lazarev won the third place (369 points) with his song "Scream" after the viewers’ voting and the jury voting. Duncan Laurence was the bookmakers’ favorite, who said his victory was more than 40% probable. So, the bookmakers guessed Eurovision’s result for the first time in four years. There were no visual effects in Laurence’s performance. He performed his song at the piano. Representatives for 26 countries met at the contest’s final. The sum of points received from the viewers’ voting and the jury voting determined the winner. The Belarusian jury were barred from the voting due to the dissemination of information about the voting results.
ADEN, Yemen, May 18 -- Yemen's security forces managed to capture one of the most prominent al-Qaida leaders during an anti-terrorism operation launched on Saturday in the country's southwestern province of Taiz.
"An elite anti-terrorism security operation managed to capture one of the most dangerous al-Qaida leaders named Bilal Ali Wafi who is wanted as a global terrorist," officer Abdul-Basit Baher said. He added that the anti-terrorism security troops raided an old house in the western countryside of Taiz province and succeeded in capturing Wafi who refused to surrender himself and attempted to use children and women as human shields. A security member was injured during the shooting that erupted while attempting to capture Wafi in his hometown village, he added. Yemeni security authorities previously accused Wafi of masterminding a series of attacks and assassinations against the country's security and government officials. Wafi was operating as a prominent member of the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and participated in a terrorist attack in 2012 against a military parade in capital Sanaa, killing more than 100 soldiers and injuring nearly 300 others, Yemeni authorities said.
In October 2017, the United States and other Gulf countries designated 11 Yemenis including Wafi as terrorists who were wanted by security authorities. The Yemen-based al-Qaida branch AQAP, which mostly operates in eastern and southern provinces, has been responsible for many attacks against security forces in the country. The provinces of Abyan and Shabwa, former main strongholds of AQAP, have also been the scene of sporadic attacks or heavy clashes between the United Arab Emirates-backed security forces and al-Qaida militants from time to time. The AQAP, seen by the U.S. as the global terror network's most dangerous branch, has exploited years of deadly conflicts between Yemen's government and Houthi rebels to expand its presence, especially in the southern and southeastern provinces. Enditem
PARIS, May 18 -- France's Yellow Vest protesters are taking to the streets for the 27th weekend in a row. A major protest is set to take place in Paris.
Tens of thousands have marched in the streets of France every Saturday since November 2018, for a variety of grievances ranging from taxes on fuel to income inequality. In addition to protesting in France, the Yellow Vests have been spotted in other parts of Europe.
TOKYO, May 18 -- U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday delayed tariffs on cars and auto parts imports for up to six months and directed U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to negotiate deals with Japan and the European Union to address what his administration perceives as a national security threat.
If agreements are not reached within 180 days, Trump "will determine whether and what further action needs to be taken," the White House said. The administration appears poised to use the threat of auto tariffs to pressure Japan and European countries into making concessions -- possibly by seeking export restraints or quotas, which, however, would be in violation of World Trade Organization rules -- in respective trade negotiations. Trump made the announcement ahead of a planned meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on May 27 in Tokyo at which bilateral trade is likely to be a major focus. In a proclamation setting a six-month window for talks, Trump said he directed Lighthizer to negotiate deals "to address the threatened impairment of the national security with respect to imported automobiles and certain automobile parts from the European Union, Japan and any other country the Trade Representative deems appropriate."
Lighthizer will "update me on the progress of such negotiations within 180 days," the president said.
It is not clear, however, what the "further action" mentioned by the White House would entail.
Trump and Abe have come to an understanding that the United States will refrain from imposing tariffs on automobile imports from Japan while negotiations are under way.
The two governments launched negotiations for a bilateral trade agreement last month.
Earlier Friday, Japanese economic revitalization minister Toshimitsu Motegi said in Tokyo that Lighthizer had confirmed the United States will not push Japan to restrain its automobile exports as part of a bilateral trade deal. Citing a draft executive order, Bloomberg news agency reported Wednesday that Trump will give Japan and the European Union 180 days to "limit or restrict" exports of automobiles and auto parts to the United States in return for delaying auto tariffs. Trump has threatened to impose additional tariffs of up to 25 percent on imported cars and parts. If he follows through, the new duties would significantly impact major car exporters such as Japan and Germany.
The president regards automobiles as a symbol of the trade imbalance with Japan because automobiles and auto parts accounted for about 75 percent of the U.S. trade deficit as of 2017. On Friday, Trump said a Commerce Department investigation has concluded that "automobiles and certain automobile parts are being imported into the United States in such quantities and under such circumstances as to threaten to impair the national security of the United States." The department also found these imports are "weakening our internal economy," and decried "protected foreign markets, like those in the European Union and Japan."
The department said "automotive research and development is "critical to national security," and that "the U.S. defense industrial base depends on the American-owned automotive sector for the development of technologies that are essential to maintaining our military superiority." American automakers and dealers, as well as U.S. business organizations, disputed Trump's claim that car and auto parts imports pose a threat to U.S. national security. "Cars are not a national security threat," said the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade association representing 12 U.S. and foreign automakers including General Motors Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. "We are deeply concerned that the administration continues to consider imposing auto tariffs," the group said in a statement. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said Trump's claim "is a misuse of the administration's trade authorities," and that "the continued threat of tariffs on cars and auto parts only creates more uncertainty weakening our economy." The American International Automobile Dealers Association said that if Trump slaps 25 percent tariffs on imported cars and auto parts, he will be responsible for "a drastic tax increase on American consumers." Such action could result in a loss of 2 million vehicle sales and jeopardize up to 700,000 American jobs, it said.
TOKYO, May 18 -- Reports released by a global union federation on Wednesday demanded better conditions for laborers working on the construction of Tokyo Games facilities after several "alarming" alleged labor violations were uncovered.
The report from the Building and Wood Workers' International titled "The Dark Side of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics" is based on interviews with construction workers and documents how low pay, overwork and poor access to grievance mechanisms are creating a "culture of fear" among crews at Olympic projects. The BWI, headquartered in Geneva, is seeking an end to "dangerous patterns of overwork," citing the example of construction workers at the National Stadium and Olympic Village who reported being required to work up to 26 and 28 consecutive days, respectively. "The Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics was Japan's opportunity to address some of the long-running gaps within the construction industry in Japan, however, these problems have just got worse," BWI General Secretary Ambet Yuson said. "Wages remain low, dangerous overwork is common, and workers have limited access to recourse to address their issues," Yuson said.
According to the report, the Japanese construction sector is currently facing an "acute labor shortage," with 4.3 positions vacant for every construction worker. At the same time, an increase in construction activity has been driven by Japan's hosting of the 2019 Rugby World Cup and 2020 Games, as well as ongoing reconstruction efforts in Fukushima. Among the findings, one case at the National Stadium was highlighted for being particularly grievous. The report cited a complaint about a worker's injury being rejected because it had been brought by the union and not the injured party. The alleged rejection "constitutes a serious violation of the right to be represented, a core component of the right to freedom of association," the federation said in the report. The BWI sent a delegation to Tokyo last September to meet with key decision-makers and investigate the "conditions faced by workers in the construction of Tokyo 2020 Olympic facilities." Their findings were further substantiated by interviews conducted in February by BWI and its Japanese affiliate, the National Federation of Construction Workers' Unions, with workers involved in the construction of the National Stadium and Olympic Village. The report was sent Tuesday to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic organizing committee, the Tokyo metropolitan government and the Japanese Sports Council -- groups responsible for the construction of Olympic facilities. The 2020 organizing committee said Tuesday evening the report is "under review." Through their "Global Sports Campaign for Decent Work and Beyond," the BWI has been examining large-scale international sporting events for over 10 years to "improve working conditions and ensure safety and health for workers building all projects related to mega-sporting events."
BRUSSELS, MAY 18 -- European Finance Ministers meeting in Brussels on Friday dropped Aruba, Barbados and Bermuda from its tax-haven blacklist.
The list, now down to 12 countries and territories, was established in December 2017 following a series of scandals, including Panama Papers and LuxLeaks, that prompted the EU to step up its action against tax fraud by multinationals and wealthy individuals. It aims to prevent tax evasion and promote fiscal transparency, fiscal equity and international standards against tax-base erosion and profit transfers.The Finance Ministers noted that Barbados had committed to address the EU’s concerns by replacing its “harmful” preferential regimes with a measure of like effect, while Aruba and Bermuda had now fulfilled their commitments, the finance ministers noted.
Barbados and Bermuda have been shifted to the grey list of countries that have made enough commitments, while Aruba has been completely removed from both black and grey lists. The remaining 12 names on the blacklist are: American Samoa, Belize, Dominica, Fiji, Guam, Marshall Islands, Oman, Samoa, Trinidad and Tobago, United Arab Emirates, U.S. Virgin Islands and Vanuatu.
LONDON, May 18 -- Britain’s Brexit crisis moves, with each passing week, ever higher up the fiasco index. If it were not so grave for the future of one Europe’s major democracies and economies it would be comical.
This week’s chapter — the collapse of the government’s six-week attempt to find a compromise with the Labour opposition — was entirely predictable. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was unprepared to let go of his demand for a post-Brexit customs union, even though that is what is offered, albeit temporarily, in the withdrawal treaty that prime minister Theresa May has negotiated with Brussels, and that, inexplicably, Labour has consistently voted down. Every step of the way, Mr Corbyn and most of his MPs have grasped each and every opportunity to put party interest above that of the country. In doing so they have shown their contempt for the many Labour-held constituencies that voted leave in the 2016 referendum. For her part, Ms May is right to blame the failure of the cross-party talks in part on her government’s inability to see a common Labour position on the UK’s exit from the EU: Does it want to deliver Brexit — the promise in its 2017 election manifesto — or hold a second referendum which could kill it?
Profound divisions in the Conservative Party also limited the government’s scope for compromise on a withdrawal agreement that, in any event, cannot be amended because Brussels has refused to have a word of it changed. It cannot, without the EU’s approval, offer improved exit terms, and the party’s hardline leavers would not have accepted any compromise that included a second referendum, known euphemistically as a people’s vote, as the 2016 poll was nothing of the sort. It is difficult to underestimate the contempt in which Ms May is held not only by a sizeable chunk of the Conservative Party in the House of Commons but also by leave-voting Tory activists. They have forced the PM to give advance notice of her resignation, giving Mr Corbyn another wound at which to gnaw. How, he asks — with tears in his eyes and hand on heart — could Labour agree a common policy with the government, only for it to be torn up by a Tory prime minister who actually understood Brexit and was capable of getting the job done? He doesn’t do sincerity that well. As many predicted, the talks were a waste of time. Britain and its neighbours are back where they were months ago. Brussels waits and watches, and Leo Varadkar’s Government must lift the sofa cushions to find €50m to part-fund an aid package for the Brexit-related losses being suffered by cattle farmers.
Next up is another problem for Ms May: An election in which British voters normally take scant interest but which paradoxically is now of enormous interest because, firstly, it should not be happening, and secondly it will give the country — and its four nations — the chance to return a verdict on the farce so far. With the Conservatives and Labour having mounted campaigns that so far can be viewed only with the aid of a telescope, and the Brexit Party surging ahead in polls, it’s likely to be seen — certainly in England as distinct from the rest of the UK — as a second referendum. If the pro-Brexit vote holds, the issue goes back to a House of Commons still being dominated by remain-inclined MPs and incapable of producing a majority for any way forward. A general election, with the Conservatives under a new leader and Labour offering a clear policy, now looks inevitable sooner — much sooner — rather than later.
MOSCOW, May 17 -- Russia is not planning to withdraw from the Council of Europe, it remains committed to financial obligations, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told a ministerial session of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers.
"We are not seeking to quit the Council of Europe," he said, dismissing attempts to spread rumors about that. "We are not reneging on any of our commitments, including financial ones," the Russian diplomat told the 129th ministerial session on Friday. The text of his speech has been uploaded to the website of the Russian Foreign Ministry. The foreign minister also gave high marks to the Council of Europe’s contribution to the development of the Russian national law, reforms of the judicial system, penitentiary system and the settlement of many other humanitarian matters. "We are interested in continuing our activity in the Council of Europe on the basis of rules of international law, goals and principles of the UN Charter that must be interpreted and applied consistently," the minister added.
Russia and the Council of Europe
In April 2014, Russia’s delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) was stripped of its key rights, including the right to vote, over the situation in Ukraine and Crimea’s reunification with Russia. The issue of restoring the rights of the Russian delegation was raised at PACE twice throughout 2015 but sanctions remained in place. In response, Russia suspended its participation in PACE’s activities. The country did not apply for confirmation of its rights in 2016-2018. Moscow suggested PACE’s regulations be amended to ensure that no one could strip lawmakers of their rights except their voters. Secretary General of the Council of Europe Thorbjorn Jagland said on October 10 that Russia’s membership in the organization’s Committee of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly might be suspended starting from June 2019 due to non-payment of monetary contributions. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in response that Moscow would quit the Council of Europe if opposing member states called for expelling Russia.
In January 2019, the two houses of the Russian parliament issued statements, pointing out there were no reasons for Russia to return to PACE in 2019. In addition, the State Duma upheld the move to suspend the payment of the country’s contribution. On April 10, PACE members adopted a resolution on the role and mission of the Assembly, which, in part, mentions the need to maintain Russia’s Council of Europe membership and calls on Moscow to form a delegation to PACE and pay membership dues. The resolution says that PACE’s sanctions against the Russian delegation following Crimea’s reunification with Russia and the country’s subsequent decision to terminate participation in the Assembly’s activities caused discord within the organization.