Chinese sports regime under pressure to go easier on future Olympians

As China faces a disappointing third place in the Rio Olympics, young athletes say they want a more relaxed approach in notoriously gruelling sports vocational schools.

Beijing (dpa) – Winning her first Olympic gold medal was a huge relief to 15-year-old diver Ren Qian. That’s because she’s been training since age 3.

Ren clinched the 10-metre platform competition on Thursday, becoming one of the youngest medalists at Rio and bringing joy to a country bracing for a disappointing medal tally in the Summer Games.

China hasn’t finished below second in the medal standing since 2004, but is currently trailing behind both the US and Britain.

Born in 2001, Ren started training at age 3 in gymnastics at the Chengdu Children Sports School in southwest China. At 6 years old, she transferred to diving then joined Sichuan’s provincial team in 2012.

“I performed well today. I didn’t think too much. I cannot be nervous,” the composed and soft-spoken teenager told reporters.

Her triumph comes amid on-going controversy about what lengths Chinese sports authorities have taken to produce a large number of Olympic champions since rejoining the Olympics in 1980 after the Cultural Revolution.

There are around 2,200 dedicated sports schools in the country that train about 95 percent of Olympians, according to Chinese media reports. This number of schools appears to be significantly down from the 3,687 schools reported by the government in 1990.

Children are usually recruited from normal school or community sports teams and begin intensive training at around 6 years old. Critics say state-backed vocational schools leave so little time for academic curriculum that students have limited prospects.

Even if they make it to professional levels, by 2009 there were 4,343 unemployed former athletes with thousands more estimated to have joined their ranks since then, according to the state-run Phoenix Television.

China Sports Daily estimates 80 percent of retired athletes suffer from unemployment, poverty or chronic health problems related to overtraining.

Photographs of children crying or straining through exercises in sports school gyms have gone viral recently, sparking concern among both international observers and Chinese citizens about the cost of Olympic glory.

Facing declining enrollment, specialist sports schools are taking more steps to ensure young athletes have wider options and avoid injury, a leading coach told dpa.

“For young athletes, you don’t train them like adults because their hearts and body systems are still developing,” said Wang Shizhong, a graduate of Beijing Sports University and coach of 32 years who had guided stars including long-distance runner Wang Junxia.

“It’s also important that they enjoy their event, because that will determine whether they will be tough enough to keep training,” Wang added.

Yet many talented young athletes are choosing to not go down this path.

“I won’t do it. I’ve trained seriously before and it was way too tiring,” Zheng Ying, a former top-level junior soccer player in northeast Dalian province, told dpa.

“We spent every day with our coaches at the training centre. I thought that the coaches must have been more miserable than we were,” the 17-year-old said.

“If there were many different kinds of opportunities I might consider pursuing professional soccer, but going to sports schools means that there is only one road available,” said Chen Shuoshuo, 18, Zheng’s former teammate.

It seems the wider public is shifting away from obsession over gold medals, too.

Popular Olympic swimmer Fu Yuanhui did not aspire to become a professional athlete when she first started out. Her parents sent her to a sports school because they thought swimming would help reduce her asthma attacks.

Earlier this month, Fu won the hearts of millions in China and around the world with her goofy sense of humour and enthusiasm upon finding out that she qualified for the finals of the women’s 100-metre backstroke.

“I used all my mystic energy!” the 20-year-old exclaimed to a reporter. “I was so fast! I’m very satisfied,” she said.


Pipe Dreams: Major Chinese cities can’t seem to figure out basic drainage and flood prevention

Quartz – As major Chinese cities were submerged this summer during some of the worst floods to hit China in history, the irony of the fact that the 600-year-old Forbidden City remained free of flooding thanks to its well-designed ancient drainage system did not go unnoticed.

This year’s floods have left at least 1,000 people dead (link in Chinese) or missing since June. With about 150,000 homes destroyed, 21,000 square miles of cropland wiped out, and tens of thousands of people displaced, this flood season has been the nation’s second-costliest on record—and more rain is forecast in coming weeks.

Horrified citizens have turned to social media to post photos of children’s bodies floating in brown floodwater in protest against officials they accuse of failing to take basic precautions and underreporting the death toll.

Though summer floods are common in some parts of China, the government blames El Niño weather patterns for bringing torrential rains that flooded more than half the country, including typically drier areas in the north. Scores of people were also injured in mudslides, building collapses, and flood-related accidents during the general chaos(see: escaped alligators). In the northern Hebei province, police reportedly suppressed street demonstrations by furious villagers.

Meanwhile, other places in Asia—including Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong—experienced similar weather, yet saw zero or few casualties. Urban planning experts say much of the death and destruction could have been avoided in mainland China if government funds allocated years ago to update drainage systems nationwide had actually been used to lay out new pipes. Instead, various government departments in municipalities across the country have failed to move past bureaucratic hurdles. Drainage renewal work has yet to begin in many places.

“In China, networks of drainage pipes tend to be very low quality—most meet only 1980s standards. And once pipes have been built underground, they need regular maintenance and cleaning. Because of lack of maintenance, many outdated pipes are operating at less than half their original capability,” said Ma Renhai, an expert in city planning and water services at Shanghai-based Intelligence Technology, a water industry research and development firm that has worked in some of the country’s biggest cities.

Bureaucracy is another huge obstacle. In Wuhan, for example, which suffered heavy floods last month, the municipal government said it spent less than a third (link in Chinese) of the 13 billion yuan ($2 billion) pledged in 2013 to update the city’s drainage system, following rapid urbanization and the loss of natural reservoirs such as wetlands.

“It’s a management problem. A lot of government departments need to work together. But the leadership did not give clear instructions when distributing funds, so all these different departments have to spend time going through [bureaucratic processes] to gain approval before they can implement projects,” Ma added.

“I just want to know how that [money] was spent,” said an open letter (link in Chinese, cached version) from a Wuhan university student named Wang Xinyu that went viral. “Three years have passed, but there has been no solution,” Wang wrote.

The push to invest heavily to update the country’s drainage pipes was first raised by president Xi Jinping in 2013, with the central government subsequently investing 20 billion yuan ($3 billion) to jumpstart pilot reforms in 16 cities.

China’s premier Li Keqiang told government leaders in August last year that more infrastructure spending is needed to construct modern drainage pipes, which would have the added bonus of boosting the nation’s slowing economy.

It’s not unusual for infrastructure in developing countries to lag behind rapidly growing cities’ needs, said Kean Fan Lim, an economic geographer at the University of Nottingham in the UK who is researching economic policy experimentation in Chinese cities.

“What is unique to China is the difficulties of implementing an integrated approach to improving these services in spite of the efforts of the central government,” Lim said. “It is important to understand the highly territorialized nature of governance within and between cities.” A fixation on short-term, GDP-oriented approaches in local governments is also to blame, he added.

Meanwhile, authorities have made heavy-handed attempts to put a positive spin on the floods. State media reporting has focused almost exclusively on coverage of disaster relief, with government censors removing critical social media posts.

State media attracted ridicule for sending out a tweet inviting the public to write to premier Li’s office with suggestions. The tweet acknowledged that “construction of underground pipelines in China is seriously lagging” and “it is necessary to speed up the construction of urban underground infrastructure.”

View image on TwitterChinese-speaking Twitter users were quick to point out that nothing resembling the tweet was shared on state media accounts directed at domestic audiences (Twitter is blocked in China), suggesting that the call-out was a hollow public relations exercise.

Beijing-based reporter Chris Beam said last week that he and a colleague were offered a bribe to axe their story in the New York Times after they visited one of the villages in Hebei where floods had wreaked havoc. A person claiming to be a friend of the Party leader featured in the article called them to offer “compensation for their losses” if they didn’t run the story, Beam told Quartz.

Despite all the challenges in China, quick upgrades to key infrastructure shouldn’t be impossible. In 2012, the mayor of Beijing resigned after the heaviest rain in over 60 years caused flash floods in the city that killed at least 77 people and stranded thousands. Citizens at the time also accused officials of underestimating the death toll and failing to update drainage systems before the deluge.

This year, Beijing mayor Wang Anshun vowed to “learn the lesson of the July 21 flood.”

To the credit of capital officials, many pipelines in Beijing have been upgraded since 2012. Flash floods from recent rainstorms caused plane and train delays, but no casualties were reported.


The judicial system: Suppress and support

The Communist Party cracks down on political activists, even as it eases up on some less sensitive legal cases 

The Economist – A HUMAN-RIGHTS lawyer and three activists have been found guilty of “subverting state power” in a series of trials in the northern city of Tianjin. With resonances of the show trials of China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, they are the latest part of a crackdown on Western ideas and social and political activism that began in earnest after Xi Jinping became Communist Party chief in 2012.

The past year has been particularly intense for lawyers and activists, starting last July when 250 of them were detained by police. The four convicted between August 2nd and 5th were accused of being part of a foreign-backed, anti-party conspiracy and confessed their “crimes” in video footage.

Yet the crackdown on rights lawyers and political activists is not the whole story. It comes as incremental judicial reforms are taking place for less sensitive cases at a local level which mean that some citizens are making modest progress seeking redress through the courts. These two contradictory dynamics—old-style, top-down political pressure alongside some bottom-up legal empowerment—are part of the party’s carrot-and-stick approach to maintaining stability. While no one expects significant change at the top, the big question is how much impact the local level reforms can have.

The four men who stood trial last week included Zhou Shifeng, former director of a Beijing law firm famous for defending activists such as Ai Weiwei, an artist, and intellectuals such as Ilham Tohti, an economist who spoke up for the Uighur ethnic group. Mr Zhou was jailed for seven years.

His family members, and those of the other defendants, were not allowed to attend the trials. Police blocked foreign journalists from entering the courthouse and official media reports discredited the men ahead of their sentencing. International observers condemned the proceedings in Tianjin as a travesty of justice. On August 1st, Wang Yu, another prominent human-rights lawyer, was said to have been released from jail. In a televised confession she proclaimed that “foreign forces” were to blame for inciting her law firm to undermine the Chinese government. “I won’t be used by them anymore,” she said. Over a dozen lawyers and activists are still being held, according to Amnesty International. They could be tried at any time.

Stay out of politics

On less sensitive cases, however, popular anger has pushed the judicial system to try to be more accountable. China’s most senior legal figure, Zhou Qiang, appointed president of the Supreme People’s Court in 2013, is widely believed to want to use judicial reform to stop people taking their anger onto the streets—an increasingly widespread phenomenon. In the past, Chinese courts would arbitrarily reject sensitive cases. Many still do. But new rules brought in last year now oblige them to hear all cases that fulfil basic standards, even if they then throw them out. In the first month after the regulations came into effect, there was a 30% jump in the number of cases accepted.

In China’s first same-sex marriage case, a gay couple went to court in April in the southern city of Changsha to sue the local civil affairs bureau for the right to marry. The judge dismissed the couple’s case within minutes and they lost their final appeal two months later, but legal reformers saw the case as progress because it was at least heard in a courtroom.

In the past year, the number of cases accepted by courts relating to the rights of socially marginalised groups has surged, even though few have won. They include a lesbian student suing the education ministry for textbooks calling homosexuality a disorder; the country’s first transgender employment discrimination case; and dozens of food-safety and environmental-protection suits that challenged large companies. In a landmark victory in April, a court in the south-western province of Guizhou ruled that a local education bureau must pay a school teacher compensation after he lost his job for testing HIV-positive. China has no specific laws against employment discrimination and the case was reportedly the first of its kind.

Stanley Lubman, an American legal scholar, says the ability to sue government agencies is important and the increased pursuit of such cases reflects a greater legal consciousness among citizens. Two other things are contributing to the changes. One is progressive legislation, such as recent new laws to protect the environment and punish domestic violence; these have widened the space for litigation. A pilot reform launched last year even encouraged state prosecutors to pursue public-interest suits.

The other is social media. Sun Wenlin, a 27-year-old IT worker who is half of the gay couple in Changsha, is optimistic in spite of losing his case. “Homosexuality is taboo and we thought no one would care. But our case generated a lot of discussion on the internet. We had sympathetic coverage even in state-owned media,” he says. Mr Sun now gives workshops around the country to teach others how to file similar lawsuits, hoping to change the belief among cynical Chinese that the law is just a tool of oppression. “China is clearly changing, but slowly,” he says.

Yet the courts are still under the thumb of the Communist Party. Officials approve the hearing of many cases and sometimes determine the verdict and sentence, too. There is no way for plaintiffs to know whether a case will cause them trouble or not. Jerome Cohen of New York University says the focus of Mr Xi’s presidency is on expanding central control. The party defines sovereignty and national security broadly in order to keep control over sensitive issues, says Susan Finder, an expert on China’s legal system.

Long way to go

It will take a lot more effort to educate the broader public on their legal rights and to train enough legal officials. Judges, especially those in lower courts, are poorly paid and have little formal legal training. Many have been jailed for taking bribes. This generates deep resentment, and is the reason why thousands of petitioners journey to Beijing each year to complain to the central government rather than bother using the local courts.

Now many judges are leaving the profession, citing low pay and high pressure. The caseload of all levels of courts went up significantly following the recent reforms, while changes to judicial procedure in 2014 had already declared that judges should bear “lifetime responsibility for case quality”. A former judge in Beijing, now earning much more as a commercial lawyer, says that reforms have made things better for lawyers, who have more confidence in the system, but worse for judges, who find their ability to benefit from their position more limited.

Experts say reforms are trying hard to reduce corruption at local levels, not least to limit the damage it does to the party’s reputation nationally. But the possibility of any kind of institutional, independent checks and balances is still a long way off. On July 22nd a Beijing court gave no reason for rejecting a lawsuit filed by Yanhuang Chunqiu, an outspoken liberal journal, over the demotion of the journal’s chief editor and the firing of its publisher. It is a measure of how ossified the overall system remains that some of the small changes in local cases are greeted with such optimism.

Pro-democracy protesters hold a banner during a protest urging for the release of jailed Chinese democracy activist Liu Xiaobo and political prisoners, outside the Chinese liaison office in Hong Kong October 11, 2010. The Nobel Peace Prize for Liu showed the West cannot stomach the idea of China's rise, state-run newspapers said on Monday, adding to the government's furious condemnation of the award. He was jailed after authoring Charter 08 - a manifesto signed by thousands seeking greater civil rights. He is serving his sentence at Jinzhou prison in Liaoning province.  REUTERS/Tyrone Siu (CHINA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST MEDIA)

China sentences first activist connected to rights lawyer crackdown

Beijing (dpa) – A court in northern China’s city of Tianjin found a legal activist guilty of “subverting state power” on Tuesday, in the first known trial following the arrests of hundreds of human rights lawyers and activists.

The No 2 Intermediate People’s Court of Tianjin sentenced Zhai Yanmin, a resident of Beijing, to three years in prison with a four-year reprieve.

The court was told that Zhai, together with three others – Hu Shigen, Zhou Shifeng and Li Heping – plotted to subvert state power and had “established a systematic ideology, method and steps to achieve it,” the official Xinhua news agency reported.

Zhai, 55, pled guilty and decided not to appeal, according to Xinhua.

Zhai’s was the first of four cases expected to be heard during the four-day trial starting Tuesday.

Chinese authorities had barred foreign media from entering the court house and directed foreign reporters to a nearby hotel where a transcription of proceedings was being shown on a screen, according to news reports.

The South China Morning Post and three other Hong Kong-based media outlets were allowed to cover the trials, according to the Post.

“There isn’t a single procedure that could be considered in line with international standards on fair trial. Even Zhai’s wife wasn’t informed about the trial and was not allowed to attend it,” said Amnesty International China researcher Patrick Poon.

“We are not sure why Zhai is given this rather lenient sentence. It might suggest that he was under tremendous pressure by the authorities during his detention. However, he’s still under four years of deprivation of his political rights, which actually means that he will be silenced for four years,” Poon added.

On Monday, a video of an alleged confession by lawyer Wang Yu was published on the websites of two Hong Kong media outlets in which she said “foreign forces” were instilling ideas of democracy among her colleagues and using their law firm to undermine the central government.

Yu, a lawyer at the Fengrui law firm in Beijing, which defendsm prominent dissidents such as Uighur economist Ilham Tohti, was among those rounded up last June.

Her lawyer, Wen Donghai, told dpa he has not been able to reach Yu or her family members.

Since last summer, more than 300 rights lawyers and activists from across China have been detained or summoned by police, according to the Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group.

Of those detained, the majority have been released, but 16 lawyers and activists are still being held, with three recently indicted on the serious charge of “subverting state power,” Amnesty International told dpa.


Chinese families of MH370 victims protest decision to suspend search

Beijing (dpa) – Chinese families with loved ones who went missing aboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 protested in Beijing on Friday after authorities announced the search for the plane would be suspended.

Transportation ministers for Malaysia, Australia and China said last week the operation would be set aside once an ongoing search of a part of the southern Indian Ocean is complete – a decision that enraged relatives.

“My son is inside the plane. How can such a big plane disintegrate? I know that the plane is intact and leaders are breaking their promises to keep looking until they find answers,” said Li Er You, 59, speaking outside the gates of China’s Foreign Ministry in Beijing.

The Beijing-bound MH370, with 239 people aboard, disappeared on March 8, 2014 nearly an hour after it took off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

About two dozen relatives stood silently holding protest signs outside the Foreign Ministry, before meeting with officials to submit their letter of complaint.

Zhang, a mother whose young daughter went missing on the plane, broke down into tears while holding a sign that said the governments needed to fulfill their promises to the world.

“We are very sad and angry about the joint decision made by the three countries. We see no plan for the future on how to continue to search for the truth … We want to know who should be responsible,” the letter said.

Australian Transport Minister Darren Chester had said that it is not viable to continue the search after the current area is completed, so long as there is no new information on the aircraft’s whereabouts.

“This decision was not taken lightly nor without sadness, and I want to emphasize that our work is continuing in analyzing data, inspecting debris and considering all new information,” he said.

So far, only pieces of debris from MH370 have been discovered, in South Africa, Mozambique, Mauritius and Reunion Island. Searchers have yet to find the main wreckage.


‘Dozens’ dead in Hebei floods as protesters accuse government of failing to tell residents of dam opening

Beijing (HKFP) – Video clips and photos shared on Chinese social media sites on Saturday show police facing off with residents in China’s northern Hebei province amid protests over floods. Villagers in Xingtai, Hebei, claim they were not informed about a reservoir opening upriver and dozens of children and elderly have died from flooding caused by dam water.

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According to the state mouthpiece People’s Daily, 9 people are confirmed dead and 11 people are missing in 12 villages in Xingtai municipality.

The report did not mention a reservoir opening and attributed the disaster to record rainfall from July 18 to July 21.

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However, a notice on the official Nanhe County police Weibo account on July 19 said a reservoir in Haoqiao town in Xingtai would be opened at 3am on July 20.

xingtai flood

“Please inform your friends and relatives… a reservoir spillway is expected to start at 3:00 am. In order to ensure lives and property of the masses is not threatened, police and village cadres please complete evacuation work before 12:00.”

Click to view. Warning: Graphic images.

It is unclear whether village officials and police warned or evacuated villagers following the release of the police statement. The police statement did not give a reason for why the reservoir would be opened.

The Weibo post had received only 21 shares and 21 comments as of Saturday morning.

Residents face police in Xingtai,

Netizens speculate the reservoir was opened to release floodwater.

Protests had begun on Friday, according to social media posts. Unconfirmed reports of police beating demonstrators have also been circulated.

The official Xinhua news agency reported on Saturday that torrential rain and floods have left 72 people dead and 78 missing.

Several articles on Weibo and the chat app WeChat on the flooding in Xingtai that were available early Saturday have since been removed.

LISTEN: My report for ABC Radio National 


Why is China getting involved in Afghan peace talks?

Beijing (IRIN) – During German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent visit to China, the two countries agreed to jointly fund a disaster response centre in Afghanistan. It was just the latest sign of China’s increasingly prominent role in that country, which also includes trying to jump-start peace talks with the Taliban.

Germany has been a key US ally ever since the ouster of the Taliban 15 years ago, sending troops, as well as being one of the top aid donors. Germany’s intensifying interest in a stable Afghanistan is understandable as it has recently become a destination for record numbers of Afghan asylum seekers. But what is China’s goal?

Historically, China has favoured a non-interventionist approach overseas, while being accused of providing loans with no regard for the human rights situation in a given country. Beijing generally steers clear of messy negotiations between warring parties, but in the case of Afghanistan, it has stepped into the fray, joining the Quadrilateral Coordination Group, which was set up to negotiate with the Taliban and also includes the US, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

Experts cite a mix of economic, political, and especially security concerns that account for China’s interest in Afghanistan. They say China could be a key player in future peace talks because of its close relationship with Pakistan, a country that Afghanistan accuses of harbouring and even supporting Taliban leaders.

“So far, Afghans feel that China is as sincere as it can be, given its long history of friendship with Pakistan,” said Omar Samad, a former Afghan government advisor who has also served as ambassador to Canada and France.

The Pakistan question

To many Afghans, the roots of their country’s problems stretch across the border to Taliban strongholds in the frontier areas, and even further, into the halls of Pakistan’s military and intelligence headquarters.

The Taliban leadership is known as the Quetta Shura after the city in Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province where it’s been based since its ouster in 2001. When a US drone strike killed Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour in May, he was travelling by road in that province. The role of Pakistan’s intelligence and security agencies in the organisation of the Taliban and their takeover of Afghanistan in the 1990s has been well documented by journalists and authors such as Ahmad Rashid.

Pakistan’s involvement in any peace talks is key, and that would require a “shift” in policy that Afghanistan cannot initiate on its own, Samad said.

“An answer has to be sought in collaboration, within an alliance with the US, other Western countries, other relevant and influential countries – including China,” he said.

A new “Great Game”?

So why is China getting into what Samad refered to as a “new ‘Great Game’” (a reference to the machinations between the British and Russian empires that played out in Afghanistan at the turn of the century)? What does China stand to gain through its involvement in the nascent peace talks?

“It is only natural for us to care about the stability and security of Afghanistan,” was the official response to IRIN’s question at a Foreign Affairs Ministry briefing in Beijing.

“As a friendly and close neighbour of Afghanistan, China sincerely hopes that the Afghan people can live in peace, stability, and security, and benefit from the country’s development,” said Hua Chunying, the ministry spokesperson.

While there’s no reason to doubt the goodwill of the Chinese government, others say there is a bit more to it.

When IRIN asked about links between militant groups in Afghanistan and western China, Hua Chunying did not answer and the question was stricken from the official transcript of the briefing.

There is a militant Islamist separatist movement in China’s western region of Xinjiang, which is home to the Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uighur minority. The region borders Afghanistan, and Uighurs have reportedly fought and been captured there.

Those security concerns are at the forefront of China’s increasingly muscular stance on Afghanistan, said Barnett Rubin, an Afghanistan scholar at New York University and former special advisor to the US and the UN.

He pointed to: “Uighur separatists receiving military training and experience with Afghan and Pakistani militant groups, and the need for closer cooperation with the Afghan government.”

The US decision to scale down its military presence and NATO’s withdrawal have also pushed China to take a greater role in attempting to stabilise Afghanistan, said Du Youkang, a former diplomat to Pakistan who is now director at Fudan University’s Center for South Asian Studies.

There are also economic and political incentives. China’s Silk Road Economic Belt strategy, for example, aims to develop infrastructure that will help connect Eurasian economies, allowing China better access to new markets.

“China will not be able to implement these plans without peace and security in the region,” noted Rubin.

China’s quandary

The Quadrilateral Coordination Group is so far only discussing a roadmap to peace talks, and even that process has been off to a sputtering start. In April, a Taliban delegation in Pakistan said it was ready to meet with officials. The Afghans refused to take part, and accused Pakistan of refusing to use its influence over the Taliban to push for peace.

As a close ally of Pakistan and a supportive partner to Afghanistan, China could be the one country to bring them together. That would involve leaning on Pakistan to be an honest broker between Afghanistan and the Taliban. But will China play its hand?

“China’s best role would be to bridge the gap between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which would include some kind of pressure on and security assurance for Pakistan,” said Rubin. “But Pakistan is practically China’s only ally and it is essential to Chinese security and economic planning, so thus far I see little sign that China will do so.”

In any regard, the process will be a long one, so China’s role may have time to evolve.

In the immediate term, Afghanistan is facing a political crisis, warned Samad. Factions within the Government of National Unity, which was formed to stave off civil conflict after disputed elections, are squabbling over reforms meant to decentralise power.

Afghanistan’s military is fighting hard to hold off insurgents, including the Taliban and the so-called Islamic State, without the support of the 130,000 foreign soldiers that were stationed there at the peak of the NATO mission. The economy has also collapsed in the wake of their departure.

Given the political, economic, and security situation playing out right now, the Taliban has little incentive to talk, and rather more to take advantage of the chaos. The Afghan government is also so consumed by its multiple crises that it is in no position to push for negotiations.

“Peace talks are on the backburner right now,” said Samad. “How can you engage in any type of peace process when you have so many balls up in the air?”

Ariunaa Zinameder, 54, and her family inside their traditional home, called a ger, in the province of Bayanghongor, Mongolia, February 23, 2016. The family subsists on 36 dollars  worth of food stamps a month and is part of Mongolia's increasing number of impoverished. PHOTO/JOANNA CHIU

Foreign investors “scared off” by Mongolian economic crisis

Mongolia was the world’s fastest-growing economy in 2013. Foreign businesses have since fled the country in droves, and foreign direct investment has plummeted. What’s behind Mongolia’s swift change in fortune?

Ulan Bator, Mongolia (dpa) – Inside a cramped traditional tent dwelling called a ger, a formerly nomadic family sleeps and cooks around a coal stove in the polluted provincial capital of Bayankhongor.

They have relied on the eldest son’s military income since 2000, when a summer drought followed by a harsh winter in the central plains of Mongolia wiped out their herd of goats.

“We didn’t know how to live. We turned to ninja mining but did not find any gold,” said the mother Ariunaa Zinameder, 54, referring to the practice of digging small, unauthorized mines for gold.

Since then, the family of eight has subsisted on 36 dollars worth of food stamps a month. They are part of Mongolia’s increasing number of impoverished, who have not benefited from the country’s resource wealth amid a steep drop in global commodity prices, stalled mining projects and domestic political disputes.

Mongolia was the world’s fastest-growing economy just a few years ago. Foreign direct investment fueled the boom, peaking at around 5 billion dollars in 2011, before dropping to nearly zero last year.

Unemployment in Mongolia reached nearly 12 per cent this year, compared to 5 per cent in 2012. Gross domestic product (GDP) growth slowed last year to 2.3 per cent, the weakest pace since 2009. Analysts now forecast GDP to grow at just 0.8 per cent in 2016.

Marcel Venhofen, executive director of the German-Mongolian Business Association in Ulan Bator, said it is rare for foreign companies to maintain offices in Mongolia.

“Many have kept strong ties with local contacts, but the market here is too small and a lot of companies prefer to fly in and out to do business. [German chemical company] BASF pulled out of production here after the decline of the mining boom,” Venhofen told dpa.

Following a two-year dispute with the government, international mining company Rio Tinto finally gave approval in May for a 5.3-billion-dollar expansion of the Oyu Tolgoi copper mine in Mongolia. But experts say that will do little to improve the overall economic situation.

Some see Mongolia’s lackluster foreign trade as a failure in its “third neighbour policy” to improve relations with other countries to balance out the powerful influence of Russia and China.

As a country with a population of 3 million that depends on mineral resources, some Mongolians have an uneasy attitude toward interest from foreign investors.

“A lot of investors’ thinking is that Mongolia is resource-rich and we have projects ready to hand out to foreign partners. But most of the projects are controlled by the private sector. This makes it harder [for the government] to encourage cooperation,” said Sanjaasuren Oyun, a prominent politician and leader of the Civil Will Party.

“In order to expand our economy, we have to export, but unlike other resource-rich countries such as Canada and Australia, we lack a track record in the mining sector and have messed up with bad decision making,” Oyun told dpa.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that Mongolia was focused on developing exploitation of coal deposits during the past few years. That backfired because of factors including climate change mitigation and China’s lowered demand for coal, according to experts.

“Mongolia, like every other resource economy, might have prepared more diligently for the world commodity price downturn. Not only was the Mongolian government unprepared, it exacerbated it by policy decisions that scared foreign investment off,” said Julian Dierkes, Mongolia expert at the University of British Columbia.

Dierkes cited a series of decisions before 2012 by the then-governing Mongolian People’s Party to regulate foreign investment that was seen as inhospitable to investors.

Prime Minister Chimed Saikhanbileg of the Mongolian Democratic Party came to power last year promising to revive the economy through foreign investment in the mining sector.

Saikhanbileg’s party is expected to lose the parliamentary elections on June 29, since voters have seen no improvement in the economy. Relatively high rates of inflation over the last few years have combined with the decline of Mongolia’s currency, the tugrik, leading to rising unemployment and poverty, Dierkes noted.

As for Mongolia’s deposits of rare earths, it would take “five years or more to develop rare-earth extraction,” according to Stefan Hanselmann, program director of the Integrated Mineral Resource Initiative.

The country currently extracts rare-earth minerals from four larger mines, which are used as components in the manufacture of high-tech products including aircraft engines, hybrid cars and telescope lenses.

“On a world scale, however, these deposits are not regarded as very significant ones,” said Harald Elsner, economics geologist for Germany’s Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources.

Photo: Joanna Chiu, dpa

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang look on on Monday as a series of economic and diplomatic agreements are signed. Merkel used her three-day visit to assure China that Germany was in its court as China tries to bolster its global trading ties. dpa/Rainer Jensen

Merkel meets human rights lawyers on visit to China

By Joanna Chiu, Kristina Dunz and Andreas Landwehr, dpa

Beijing (dpa) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel met human rights lawyers, an artist, a writer and other civil society representatives in Beijing late Monday after holding government consultations focused on trade during her three-day visit to China.

German government spokesman Steffen Seibert declined to comment on what was discussed at the meeting, which had been kept secret until the last minute.

In the past, the Chinese secret service had prevented regime critics from taking part in meetings with German government officials.

The German chancellor had earlier been welcomed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing after consultations on trade worries over a glut of Chinese steel exports.

Xi welcomed Merkel for talks and a state dinner at the end of the second leg of her three-day visit to China, which will conclude on Tuesday with a trip to a BMW auto plant in the north-eastern city of Shenyang.

Her Sino-German government consultations with Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang – the fourth during Merkel’s tenure – focused on an ongoing trade conflict over Europe’s refusal to classify China as a market economy.

“We remember our pledge,” Merkel said at a press conference Monday, referring to protocols where China would be considered for classification as a market economy 15 years after its accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001.

The EU accuses China of exacerbating an overproduction crisis in the global steel market with unfairly cheap exports and subsidies that are allowing its manufacturers to grow despite the lack of demand.

Market economy status would relax some of the anti-dumping regulations currently applicable to China’s exports.

“China has fulfilled its obligations when it entered the WTO. Now it’s others’ turn to fulfil their obligations,” Li told reporters.

The official Xinhua news agency said in a commentary last week that the European Union’s refusal to fulfil its obligations this year could force China to resort to litigation, and “the worst scenario could be an all-out trade war between the two economies.”

Merkel also waded in on China’s territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Both delegations acknowledged that the disputes should be resolved peacefully. China has overlapping claims with neighbours including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan.

The two delegations – which on the German side included Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier – signed 24 agreements worth a total of 2.73 billion euros (3.1 billion dollars) on Monday.

The agreements included cooperation on disaster reduction, development aid, environmental protection, education, health, sustainable agriculture and new mobile networks, as well as in the rail, air and automotive industries.

Merkel’s visit comes amid an ongoing crackdown on the country’s human rights activists and lawyers.

China’s legislature in April passed a controversial law that places foreign non-governmental groups under the direct supervision of security authorities.

Since last summer, more than 300 rights lawyers and activists from across China have been detained, summoned by police or have disappeared, according to the Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group.

“It is always important that our companies and also our cooperation projects have a safe rule-based environment,” Merkel said at the opening of talks Monday morning.

“The dialogue on rule by law as well as the human rights dialogue are of great importance,” she said. “Many legal areas are affected, including for consumers and public institutions.”


When disaster strikes, should China do more?

IRIN News – Sixty-two Chinese rescuers and six sniffer dogs were the first global team on the ground in Nepal the day after a massive earthquake devastated the country just over a year ago.

The quick deployment was a sign of China’s growing role in emergencies, but critics say its humanitarian contributions are still paltry compared to its economic and diplomatic clout. With the world’s second-largest economy and largest standing army, China’s contributions do not match official pronouncements about its growing international role.

“We are trying to play a bigger role in the existing international order,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at a press conference in March.

“The world is so big and faces so many problems; the international community wishes to hear China’s voices and see China’s solutions, and China cannot be absent,” he told reporters.

But the figures belie such statements.

China contributed only $54 million in humanitarian aid in 2014, according to Development Initiatives, which analysed data from sources including the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the UN, and the International Monetary Fund. In contrast, the United States contributed $5.9 billion, while Britain gave $2.3 billion, and Saudi Arabia $755 million.

The UN’s Financial Tracking Service, which documents global humanitarian aid flows, shows that China’s contribution fell in 2015 to a mere $37 million.

(The above figures are for humanitarian aid only, and do not include grants and loans aimed at development goals.)

Even China’s own statistics underscore the relatively low importance it places on foreign aid.

According to a 2014 white paper on foreign aid – including development as well as humanitarian funding – China’s average ratio of aid budget to gross national income was about 0.07 percent in the period from 2010 to 2012.

That’s much lower than the average 0.3 percent given annually by the 29 countries making up the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee, which include the Group of 7 advanced economies as well as smaller countries including Slovenia, Greece, and the Czech Republic.

In a recent commentary, the UK-based Overseas Development Institute said: “With greater power comes greater responsibility and China should step up its contributions to international humanitarian assistance to an amount at least remotely worthy of its GDP.”

The Ministry of Commerce, which administers Beijing’s humanitarian aid, has not responded to IRIN’s requests for comment and further information.

Politically motivated?

Observers have also noted that China’s aid often seems motivated at least in part by political goals.

“In terms of commitments overseas, it seems highly tactical,” said Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese studies and director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London.

He cited South Sudan, which gained independence in 2011 from Sudan, a long-time Chinese ally. China suddenly found itself in the awkward position of having invested heavily in oilfields that were now part of an independent South Sudan, while having provided support to the Khartoum government throughout the war, including supplying weapons.

China sent peacekeepers to join the UN mission in South Sudan, and contributed other humanitarian aid.

“We also saw this in Costa Rica in 2007 when China agreed to buy $300 million in bonds and give $130 million in aid to secure Costa Rica’s diplomatic recognition of Beijing instead of Taipei,” Brown said.

Learning curve

Some experts say it will take time for China to build up its humanitarian activities overseas. But as one of the most natural disaster-stricken countries in the world, China has the potential to contribute its considerable experience to disaster relief.

For example, when the worst earthquake in 30 years struck southwestern Sichuan Province in 2008, international agencies played only a small role and China’s response was widely praised. The government immediately launched a massive effort, which included deploying troops to rescue people buried in rubble, deliver aid and organise evacuations.

But critics also point out that China’s “draconian laws” stymie independent humanitarian efforts from Chinese NGOs.

SEE: Activist arrest puts foreign NGOs in China on edge

“China might be a great power now, but it has to learn how to behave like one, especially in the area of humanitarian aid,” said Xu Guoqi, professor of Chinese history and international relations at the University of Hong Kong.

Xu said China has very few NGOs relative to its population, and they are still figuring out how to function within China as well as abroad.

A former Chinese NGO worker, who requested anonymity and whose organisation recently shut down after losing access to international donors, told IRIN: “Many Chinese NGOs have relied on foreign funding, as local philanthropy is still underdeveloped. Now that the government is clamping down harder on civil society, NGOs are thinking about how to survive, not how to expand overseas.”

Inequality undermines charity

Despite rapid economic growth, private donations have not yet taken off.

“Even with so many newly rich people, charity-giving is still not widely spread as in many Western countries,” said Xu.

On Weibo, a popular Chinese website similar to Twitter, most discussions of China’s humanitarian aid are critical of the leadership for giving money to other countries when commenters felt the funds should be used assisting its own citizens.

China’s income inequality is among the world’s worst. The country’s Gini coefficient for income was 0.49 in 2012, according to a recent Peking University report, where a number above 0.40 represents severe income inequality.

“Some members of the public will think, ‘there are so many poor areas of China – why should [Chinese] give foreign aid?’ But this is changing,” a staff member of the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation told IRIN.

Since 2003, this Beijing-based NGO, which enjoys government support, has carried out disaster relief operations in countries including Indonesia, Haiti, the US, Myanmar, Nepal, and Ecuador with expenditure totaling around $13.7 million.

The CFPA staffer said the idea of charity could be catching on, judging by recent fundraising efforts.

“For example, many individuals gave contributions of more than 1,000 yuan ($150) for Nepal earthquake relief, and within 24 hours of fundraising to fight against the Ebola virus we raised 1.21 million yuan ($182,747) from the public,” she said.

(With additional reporting by Jennifer Rigby in Nepal)