East Asia Theater

China: dissident escapes house arrest, releases YouTube statement

Blind human rights activist Chen Guangcheng on April 27 succeeded in escaping from house arrest, under which had been held since September 2010 at his hometown in a rural area of China's Shandong province. From an unknown location, he issued a YouTube appeal to Premier Wen Jiabao, making three demands: that authorities investigate and punish those responsible for threats and violence against his family; that the security of his family be ensured; and a general crackdown on corruption.

Ominous Cold War nostalgia in South China Sea

It's hard to imagine it could come to a shooting war in this age of economic interpenetration, but both sides are sure acting like they're itching for one. Weeks after Obama announced what the media have dubbed the Pentagon's "return to Asia" (we call it a New Cold War with China), Russia and China team up for joint naval maneuvers in the Yellow Sea, northern inlet of the East China Sea. (See map.) Simultaneously, the US and Philippine navies hold their own joint exercises in the South China Sea, a drill dubbed "Balikatan," meaning"shoulder-to-shoulder" in the Tagalog language. Both dills involve multiple warships and thousands of troops. The Sino-Russian drill is being carried out under the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional body established after the Soviet collapse to counter-balance the US presence in Asia and the Pacific.

China: housing activist sentenced to prison

A Beijing court on April 10 sentenced Chinese housing activist and lawyer Ni Yulan to two years and eight months in prison on charges of fraud and "inciting a disturbance" in Beijing. Ni's husband, Dong Jiqin, was also sentenced to two years in prison on similar charges. Ni and her husband had assisted victims of government land seizures, including those displaced by the Beijing Olympics project, prior to their arrest in August 2011. Amnesty International called for Ni and her husband's immediate release, saying that that charges are false and meant to punish Yulan for her activist work. Ni has been confined to a wheelchair since 2002, when prison guards beat her severely while she was serving one of two prior prison sentences. In poor health, lying on a stretcher and relying on an oxygen machine, Ni pleaded not guilty at her trial in December. Although a court spokesperson indicated the trial was open to the public, foreign journalists and diplomats were barred from the proceedings.

China: Bo Xilai purge and the World Bank

Did you happen to notice this one? Just before last month's notorious purge of Bo Xilai, the populist Chinese Communist Party chief in Chongqing, World Bank President Robert Zoellick lectured the People's Republic that its economic model is "unsustainable," and it is in danger of falling into a so-called "middle-income trap" if it fails to reform. "This is not the time just for muddling through," Zoellick said at a late February Bejing conference. "It's time to get ahead of events and to adapt to major changes in the world and national economies." At the conference, the World Bank submitted a hefty report making policy recommendations—of course with special criticism for the state sector. (LAT, Feb. 27) Further details on the report are provided by the NY Times Economix blog March 5, via the Trade Reform website:

Japan to be nuclear-free by April

Japan's last nuclear power plant will close in April as reactors are shut for safety checks. Chugoku Electric Power Co. (CEPCO) shut the No. 2 reactor at its Shimane nuclear station Jan. 25, leaving only 6.4% of Japan’s 48,960 megawatts of nuclear capacity on-line. The No. 5 unit at Kashiwazaki Kariwa station, run by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) was idled on Jan. 25. The remaining three reactors there are due to go off-line for regular checks during the next three months. The No. 5 reactor at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in Niigata prefecture was also suspended for scheduled checkups, leaving only one out of a total of 17 reactors run by TEPCO in service. All 17 reactors will go offline by the end of March. Among Japan's 54 commercial reactors, only two others are currently in operation—the No. 3 reactor at the Tomari plant in Hokkaido, the No. 3 reactor at the Takahama plant in Fukui prefecture (Chūbu region).

Japan: radioactive Fukushima gravel used in construction materials

Japanese industry minister Yukio Edano on Jan. 20 promised the mayor of a city where gravel apparently contaminated in the Fukushima nuclear disaster was used for building material that he will instruct Tokyo Electric Power Co. to pay compensation for related damage. Radioactive gravel is believed to be responsible for high radiation readings in a new apartment complex in Nihonmatsu, Fukushima prefecture. The contamination was first discovered when dosimeter readings of children in the city revealed that a high school student had been exposed to 1.62 millisieverts in a span of three months—well above the government's annual 1 millisievert safety limit. Investigations traced the radiation back to the student’s three-story apartment building, where officials detected radioactive cesium inside the concrete. The gravel used in the cement came from a quarry in Namie, a town within the 12-mile evacuation zone instated in the wake of the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant last March. Investigators found that some 5,200 metric tons of gravel from Namie was likely shipped to over 200 companies, making its way into apartment buildings, schools, bridges, and possibly temporary homes for Fukushima evacuees. A dozen families live in the tainted Nihonmatsu apartment complex, which was built six months ago. (Kyodo, Jan. 20; ABC News, Jan. 16; Mainichi Daily News Jan. 6)

China lunar ambitions another signal of new cold war

The Chinese government's new white paper outlining its plans for the next five years in space mentions not only launching new orbiting laboratories, and manned mission to dock with its current orbiting lab, the Tiangong-1—but also actually placing a human being on the Moon, although it does not give a projected date for this goal. China has already successfully launched two lunar orbiters in 2007 and 2010. For its next phase, China plans to put rovers on the Moon to collect samples by 2016. A new launch center is under construction in Hainan, and upgrades are underway at the three existing launch sites in Jiuquan (Gansu province), Xichang (Sichuan) and Taiyuan (Shanxi). The white paper also outlines ambitions for 24-hour continuous, high-resolution surveillance of the Earth—which if realized, would put China on a level with the United States in this field. The white paper emphasizes that the People's Republic "opposes weaponization or any arms race in outer space." (Sapa-AFP, Jan. 7; Forbes, Dec. 30; Xinhua, NYT, Dec. 29)

Next: North Korean Spring?

North Korea's leadership is moving efficiently to portray Kim Jong-un, chosen heir of his late father, as the country's unchallenged ruler, with state TV repeatedly broadcasting images of senior military leaders pledging fealty to the son. The military is on alert amid a choreographed spectacle of thousands of mourners filling the cold streets of Pyongyang. The border with China—North Korea's only real link to the outside world—has been sealed. While the order for the military alert was officially issued by Kim Jong-un, it is expected that the top generals will actually rule as a sort of regency in the transition period. (Kim Jong-il himself, selected as Kim Il-sung's successor in the 1970s, did not officially assume power until three years after the death of his father in 1994. Kim Jong-il's leadership saw the most difficult times in North Korea since the Korean War, with a great famine known in the North as the "arduous march" claiming perhaps 2 million lives in the mid-1990s.) Some observers point to Kim Jong-un's uncle Jang Song-thaek as a "technocrat" who will wield real power in the transition—and perhaps seek to open the country. Inevitably drawing a comparison to Deng Xiaoping, it is pointed out he was purged in 2004 only to be restored to the ruling elite 18 months later—and to become the key figure in the de facto caretaker government after Kim Jong-il first suffered a serious stroke in August 2008. (NYT, NYT, WSJ, Dec. 21; National Post, Dec. 20; Korea Policy Institute, Dec. 19)

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