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.
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."
TAIPEI, May 17 -- Taiwan's parliament has legalized same-sex marriage in a landmark vote that made the self-ruled island the first in Asia to adopt such legislation.
The lawmakers comfortably passed a law on Friday, allowing same-sex couples to form "exclusive permanent unions" and a second clause that would let them apply for a "marriage registration" with government agencies. The vote is a major victory for the island's LGBT community who have campaigned for years to have similar of equal marriage rights as heterosexual couples and places the island at the vanguard of Asia's burgeoning gay rights movement. In recent months conservatives had mobilized to rid the law of any reference to marriage, instead putting forward rival bills that offered something closer to limited same-sex unions. But those bills struggled to receive enough votes. Hundreds of gay rights supporters on Friday gathered despite heavy rain near the parliament building in the capital, Taipei, as legislators were set to vote on a series of bills that could offer same-sex couples similar legal protections for marriage as heterosexuals. The vote came after Taiwan's top court ruled that not allowing same-sex couples to marry violates the constitution. Judges gave the government until May 24 this year to make the changes or see marriage equality enacted automatically. But they gave no guidance on how to do that.
BANGKOK, May 17 -- A former deputy police spokeswoman could come under scrutiny by both the Royal Thai Police and the Medical Council of Thailand after suggesting on social media that Thai women can give birth in the United States using a legal loophole to obtain US nationality.
Pol Lt-General Withoon Nitiwarangkul, director of Police General Hospital, where Pol Lt Colonel Dr Anchulee (Teerawongpaisan) Phetcharat – colloquially known as Dr Air – serves in the Department of of Psychiatry and Drug Dependence, said on Friday he had instructed public relations officials at the hospital to look into the matter. Their findings would determine whether Anchulee violating any rule, he said, and if so, would lead to an official probe. Withoon stressed that there was no fact-finding or disciplinary probe underway as yet. Medical Council secretary-general Dr Itthiporn Khanacharoen said his agency was checking whether Anchulee’s “personal post” online had breached medical professional ethics. Anchulee, who gave birth to a son earlier this month, drew criticism after posting a photo of herself pregnant on May 14 with a message inscribed on her belly in Thai. The caption invited interested mothers-to-be to give birth in the US to secure a better future and good opportunities for their child. It said they could get free counseling from a private-sector service.
Anchulee deleted the post in the wake of numerous negative comments, including some questioning whether abuse of the claimed legal loophole was fair to American taxpayers. The US constitution deems anyone born in the country an American citizen. Thousands of foreigners go there every year to give birth and thus gain for their children US citizenship and the privileges it offers, including free primary and secondary education. US citizens can also apply for permission for their parents, spouses and children under 21 who live abroad to relocate to the US. The Centre for Migration Studies puts the figure at 36,000 foreign women giving birth in the US each year, with many coming from China, Taiwan, South Korea, Nigeria, Turkey, Russia, Brazil and Mexico. The administrator of the US-based Facebook page “CSI LA” criticised Anchulee’s post.
“I don’t know if Dr Air knows she is breaking US law by posting such an invitation to pregnant women to give birth in the US,” it said. “US Immigration Police have been suppressing gangs for such ‘birth tourism’. Many Chinese agents were arrested and jailed. How can Dr Air [do this, since she serves] as a police officer and a doctor? Is it for financial gain, a commission fee from the private sector?”
BANGKOK, May 17 -- Ford Thailand today announced the expansion of its Ranger lineup, adding six new variants and giving customers an even wider range of options to complement their work and lifestyles.
The six new Ranger variants fit across the lineup, including one Wildtrak, one XLT, and four XL and XL+. Customers now have a choice of 26 different Ranger variants in Thailand, including the off-road, high-performance Ranger Raptor. “The expansion of our Ranger lineup further strengthens our offering in Thailand, and helps ensure that our Ranger customers are able to choose a model that perfectly complements their work, or their lifestyle, and often times both,” said Wichit Wongwatthanakan, managing director of Ford Thailand.
LOS ANGELES, May 15 -- Authorities in mainland China have blocked Wikipedia, its owner said on Wednesday.
“In April, the Wikimedia Foundation determined that Wikipedia was no longer accessible in China,” Samantha Lien, spokeswoman for the foundation, which owns the online encyclopaedia, said. “After closely analysing our internal traffic reports, we can confirm Wikipedia is blocked across all language versions,” Lien said. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media sites have long been blocked in mainland China, as have individual Wikipedia articles about sensitive issues, like the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square and the Himalayan region of Tibet. Suspicion of a total block on Wikipedia surfaced in late April when some Chinese internet users took to social media to complain the site was no longer accessible. Tests run by GreatFire.org, an organisation that tracks internet censorship in China, showed the site had not been accessible from within mainland China since April 23.
BANGKOK, May 15 -- Vietnam has become awash with Chinese investment in the last decade as businesses from its northern neighbour spread their wings abroad in a push for new markets.
Capital inflows from mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau stood at US$700 million in 2011, but by last year had topped US$2.4 billion. Proponents say the money has been invaluable in providing jobs and pulling up industrial, labour and regulatory standards. But critics argue Chinese projects exploit cheap labour and minerals, while polluting the environment and landing the locals in debt. Either way, China looks there to stay. The Asian giant is now the fifth biggest investor in Vietnam behind Japan, South Korea and Singapore, and the sectors attracting cash are increasingly varied. However, experts say Vietnam will need further regulatory reforms, better education and a push to move up the value chain to make future investments pay off and limit the environmental impact of low-cost manufacturing.
Cheap labour has traditionally been the pull at a time when labour costs in China rise. A Vietnamese worker costs on average between US$300 and US$350, about half the figure to the north. Foreign firms have brought more advanced technologies and management models, and have helped promote Vietnamese exports, 70 per cent of which are produced by overseas enterprises. They have also helped pull up standards at government ministries and agencies.
Over 2,000 government officials and representatives in such fields as culture, education and tourism from around 50 Asian and other invited nations are expected to participate in the event, which continues through August.
China has positioned the conference as a "key diplomatic event" to move ahead its "Belt and Road" cross-border infrastructure initiative, foreign affairs experts say. Under the Belt and Road blueprint, Beijing has sought to expand infrastructure networks in Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa to achieve its goal of connecting countries along the ancient Silk Road trade routes more closely. Political leaders from Asian and European nations, including Sri Lanka and Greece, are visiting Beijing for the conference.