After a remarkably fast performance in the women’s 400-meter individual medley, gold medal winner Ye Shiwen generated controversy. NBC’s Chris Jansing reports.
Carlos Barria / Reuters
A demonstrator smashes a car window during a protest against an industrial waste pipeline under construction in front of the local government building in Qidong, Jiangsu Province on Saturday.
QIDONG, China -- Angry demonstrators occupied a government office in eastern China on Saturday, destroying computers and overturning cars in a violent protest against an industrial waste pipeline they said would poison their coastal waters.
Hours later, the mayor of the city where the pipeline was to have originated said the project was being cancelled, Reuters reported.
The demonstration was the latest in a string of protests sparked by fears of environmental degradation and highlights the social tensions the government in Beijing faces as it approaches a leadership transition this year.
Thousands of protesters marched through the coastal city of Qidong, roughly one hour north of Shanghai by car, shouting slogans against the planned pipeline that would empty waste from a paper factory in nearby Nantong into the sea.
Demonstrators rejected the government's stand that waste from the factory would not pollute the coastal waters.
"The government says the waste will not pollute the sea, but if that's true, then why don't they dump it into Yangtze River?" said Lu Shuai, a 25-year-old protester who works in logistics.
China's 7.6 percent growth rate is the lowest in three years – but the country's economic problems appear more dire than the latest numbers indicate. Some believe the government will counter the downturn with a massive stimulus package, a strategy that has left China's local banks saddled with bad debt in the past. NBC's Ian Williams reports from Beijing.
"It is because if they dump it into the river, it will have an impact on people in Shanghai and people in Shanghai will oppose it."
The state-run Global Times newspaper quoted local residents who said the sewage discharge from the pipeline was expected to be as much as 150,000 tons per day, according to the AFP news agency.
Cars overturned, cops beaten
Several protesters entered the city government's main building and were seen smashing computers, overturning desks and throwing documents out the windows to loud cheers from the crowd.
An AFP photographer described the scene, saying demonstrators seized bottles of liquor and wine from the offices, along with cartons of cigarettes -- all of which Chinese officials frequently receive as bribes.
Reuters witnessed five cars and one minibus being overturned. Over 1,000 police -- some paramilitary -- guarded the city government office compound in lines.
At least two police officers were dragged into the crowd at the government office and punched and beaten enough to make them bleed.
According to the AFP, searches including "Qidong" on China's popular microblogging site Sina Weibo were blocked Saturday. Sina Weibo has over 250 million subscribers.
Earlier posts on Weibo and on Twitter indicated that the protesters had stripped the clothes off the local party secretary, but these reports could not be immediately verified.
On Friday, in an effort to stave off the protest, the Qidong city government announced it would suspend the project for further research.
But many protesters said on Saturday that postponement was not enough.
Carlos Barria / Reuters
A police car lies overturned as protesters occupy a government building during a protest against an industrial waste pipeline under construction in Qidong, Jiangsu Province on Saturday.
"If the government really wanted to stop this project, they should have done it right from the beginning. At this point they are too late," said Xi Feng, a 17-year-old protester.
Local officials took steps to ward off the demonstration and residents received text messages and letters warning that any public demonstration would be illegal.
The reversal came Saturday afternoon, when Nantong Mayor Zhang Guohua announced in a statement that the city would terminate the project proposed by a Japanese-owned paper factory in its jurisdiction.
Environmental worries have stoked calls for expanded rights for citizens and greater consultation in the tightly controlled one-party state.
The outpouring of public anger is emblematic of the rising discontent facing Chinese leaders, who are obsessed with maintaining stability and struggling to balance growth with rising public anger over environmental threats.
The protest followed similar demonstrations against projects the Sichuan town of Shifang earlier this month and in the cities of Dalian in the northeast and Haimen in southern Guangdong province in the past year.
In Shifang, the government halted construction of a copper refinery following protests by residents that it would poison them. It also freed most of the people who were detained after a clash with police.
The leadership has vowed to clean up China's skies and waterways and increasingly tried to appear responsive to complaints about pollution. But environmental disputes pit citizens against local officials whose aim is to lure fresh investment and revenue into their areas.
Fen Jianmei was seven months pregnant when she was forcibly taken to hospital and her child aborted, because she and her husband couldn't afford the fine imposed in China when couples have a second child. NBC's Angus Walker reports from the Shanxi Province, China.
NBC News researcher Tianzhou Ye, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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Gu Kailai is the wife of China's former Chongqing Municipality Communist Party Secretary, Bo Xilai.
Updated at 12:25 p.m. ET: BEIJING -- The wife of ousted Chinese politician Bo Xilai and a family aide have been charged with the murder of a British businessman, the government said Thursday, pushing ahead a case at the center of a messy political scandal that exposed divisions in the country's leadership.
The official Xinhua News Agency reported that the prosecutor's indictment said Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, had a falling out with Briton Neil Heywood over money and worried that it would threaten her and their son's safety. Gu and the aide, Zhang Xiaojun, are alleged to have poisoned Heywood together, the report said. Heywood's death in November was attributed initially to a heart attack or excessive drinking.
"The facts of the two defendants' crime are clear, and the evidence is irrefutable and substantial. Therefore, the two defendants should be charged with intentional homicide," Xinhua said.
It did not give a date for the trial, but a family lawyer told Reuters it was likely to take place on August 7-8.
Thursday's brief report is the first official news that the case against Gu is proceeding since the announcement three months ago that she and Zhang were being investigated and that Bo was being suspended from the powerful Politburo for unspecified discipline violations. The Xinhua report did not mention Bo's case or a separate party investigation into Bo.
Prosecutors have interrogated Bo and Zhang and have "heard the opinions" of their defense lawyers, Xinhua said.
The scandal has exposed the bare-knuckled infighting that the secretive leadership prefers to hide and affirmed an already skeptical public's dim view about corrupt dealings in the party.
Disappeared from public view
Since Bo was dismissed in March, he and his wife Gu, formerly a powerful lawyer, have disappeared from public view and have not responded publicly to the accusations against them.
The charges were filed in the eastern city of Hefei, Xinhua said Thursday. It did not say when exactly the indictment was issued or when the crime occurred and why the case is being prosecuted in Hefei and not in Chongqing, the city Bo ran as Communist party secretary and where the couple lived.
But according to Si Weijiang, a prominent lawyer in China who is followed by 170,000 people on his microblog, Hefei, in eastern China's Anhui Province, was selected due to its political reliability.
Wang Shengjun, who is the chief justice of China's Supreme People’s Court, is from Anhui and the province has, according to Si, built a reputation of being politically reliable and harsh on defendants.
"The case being filed at Hefei, will set Chief Justice Wang's mind at ease," Si wrote Thursday.
In another post, Si noted the intense political ramifications of this case.
"This is a political case. No accidents is success. So it [the court] must be a place that can be trusted," he wrote.
But Fang Hong, a Chongqing resident featured in a piece by NBC News in May, hailed the prosecution move as a "vindication of my criticism" of Bo's rule.
"They tried to destroy the rule of law so as to make it convenient for them to murder people, and now they will get what they deserve," he told NBC News.
"This case is being handled according to the law," he said, adding that "some people with limited understanding wrongly think it is a political striuggle, but it is not. ... What the law says is what they will get."
China.org.cn via Reuters, file
British businessman Neil Heywood, who died in November 2011, was a long-time friend of Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai.
Political ascent stopped
Thursday's announcement comes months before the ruling Communist Party unveils a new top leadership.
Before his ouster, Bo was one of China's most powerful and charismatic politicians. The son of a revolutionary veteran, Bo was seen as a leading candidate for a position in the Politburo Standing Committee, the highest ranks of power, when a younger group of leaders is installed later this year.
On his rise, Bo led high-profile campaigns to bust organized crime and to promote communist culture. In doing so, however, his administration ran roughshod over civil liberties, angered some leaders and alienated others with his publicity seeking.
The removal of Bo has triggered rifts and uncertainty, disrupting the Communist Party's usually secretive and carefully choreographed process of settling on a new central leadership in the run up to its 18th congress.
Left-wing supporters of the charismatic Bo have defended him as the instigator of a much-needed new path for China, and many of them see him as the blameless victim of a plot.
The 18th Party Congress, scheduled to be held late this year, will appoint that leadership. President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao will then step down from their government posts at the National People's Congress in early 2013, when Vice President Xi Jinping is likely to succeed Hu as president.
Growing credibility gap
Analysts here agree that the legal steps announced Thursday are part of the authorities' effort to dispose of the case and remove a major distraction before the once-in-a-decade leadership succession later this year.
However, this week has been a week of disruptions that have kept government propaganda officials and censors busy.
Besides the ongoing saga of Bo, Beijing this past weekend dealt with the worst flooding in nearly six decades. Just as news of Gu’s charges came out, word also broke that the death count from the flooding, which previously had stood at 37, had been bumped up to at least 77. Many Beijing residents had been highly dubious of earlier government estimates of the death toll, highlighting the party's credibility gap.
The news also came on the eve of the 2012 Olympics in London, where China hopes again to top the tables in gold medals.
Still, the government was not taking any chances: the comments section on the official Weibo account of popular Chinese state newspaper, People's Daily, was turned off for the post regarding Gu's murder charges.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
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A powerful typhoon swept through Hong Kong, pounding the region with heavy rain and strong wind. NBC's Ed Flanagan reports.
By Ed Flanagan, NBC News
BEIJING – Hong Kong battened down the hatches Monday and rode out the strongest typhoon to hit the city in 13 years.
For the first time since 1999, Hong Kong raised its Signal 10 typhoon warning – the highest on the city’s weather observatory scale – for several hours Monday evening as typhoon Vicente pounded the region with gale force winds said to have reached speeds as high as 101 miles per hour.
Hong Kong authorities reported 129 people were injured by the typhoon, with as many as 30 of the injuries caused by flying debris scooped up by the high winds. Seven incidents of flooding were reported in Hong Kong’s New Territories region.
Meanwhile, Beijing suffered through a 10-hour downpour over the weekend that dumped 6.7 inches of rain in parts of the city and as much as 18 inches in the worst hit parts on the outskirts of Beijing in what is being called the worst flooding to hit the Chinese capital in six decades.
The subsequent severe flooding killed at least 37 people in the country's capital and affected nearly two million people, sparking millions of angry messages and complaints on China’s Twitter-like service, Weibo, in recent days. Users posted countless home videos and pictures of cars struggling through wheel-deep water, waterfalls cascading down into Beijing's subway entrances and cars being swept away by the currents.
The differing level of destruction between the two cities provoked outrage at Beijing’s government, with critics asking why the city’s infrastructure failed to buffer the storm.
The brewing storm sent office workers scrambling home as they hurried to avoid a partial public transportation suspension in the lead-up to the storm. Non-essential government offices were also closed early Monday and port and airport authorities shut down operations until the storm passed.
During the worst of the storm in the early hours of Tuesday morning, the BBC reported that 60 flights were cancelled, an additional 60 more delayed and 16 diverted.
By Tuesday 8 a.m. local time, the Hong Kong Observatory reported a weakened Typhoon Vicente was heading away from Hong Kong, allowing public transportation and flights from Hong Kong International Airport to resume. Trade on Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index also resumed earlier Tuesday.
The typhoon is reportedly creeping its way into China’s Guangdong province, where weather experts were warning that Vicente could still dump as much as 12 inches of rain in affected areas.
The typhoon comes as China is experiencing serious weather disturbances throughout the country. Near China’s central metropolis of Chongqing, heavy rains have caused flooding and brought the Three Gorges Dam – the world’s largest hydropower dam – perilously close to its largest flood peak this year.
Critics pound government’s response to Beijing storm
While Hong Kong seemed to weather the storm, nearly every aspect of the government’s response to the Beijing flooding has been criticized by the public, with much of the anger being directed at the shoddy drainage system. Netizens have also been quick to complain about the Beijing municipal government’s lack of preparedness for dealing with the disaster and the city’s failures in weather forecasting and deploying a good storm-warning service.
Beijing officials are saying that economic losses from the storm will surpass $1.5 billion dollars. But the PR hit to the city’s vaunted new infrastructure just four years after its coming out party during the summer Olympics has been far more costly -- especially considering the relatively minor damage suffered by Hong Kong from a major typhoon.
Public outrage over Beijing deaths
“Hong Kong just experienced the biggest typhoon in 13 years, but there are only seven reports of flooding, one report of landslide and no one died,” wrote one angry poster on Weibo comparing the Hong Kong typhoon with Beijing’s flooding. “The media effectively announced the alert, and reported the complaints of its citizens…The whole society functions under the normal rhythm.”
“The rainfall in Beijing and the typhoon in Hong Kong,” stated another irate poster. “Two completely different systems are shown in the same mirror.”
Sensitive to the great public outcry, Weibo began censoring overly critical posts on the subject of the Beijing floods. Citing alleged directives from the Beijing Municipal Committee Department of Propaganda, the China Digital Times posted reputed orders from the department that called for “public opinion guidance concerning yesterday’s rainstorms” in the form of state-run media shifting the focus of its news stories away from issues like the failure of the city’s drainage system to features that “emphasize the power of human compassion over the elements.”
On the edge of the Gobi desert, Beijing has not always had to deal with large rainstorms like Hong Kong, which is regularly in the season path of typhoons in the South China Seas area. Still, with more heavy rains expected later this week, local officials here will certainly be feeling the heat to keep the city largely dry throughout the rest of this rainy season.
NBC News’ Tianzhou Ye contributed to this report.
People lined up outside Beijing's Apple store for their chance to buy the latest iPad. NBC's Ed Flanagan reports.
BEIJING – This time, Apple and its devoted Chinese customers weren’t taking any chances.
Wary of a repeat of the iPhone 4S debacle in China in January, when Apple’s release led to scuffles and even an egging of its flagship Beijing store by angry hordes after it was forced to cancel sales due to the crowds, Apple’s managers here put their heads together and came up with a new strategy for dealing with the crowds.
They came up with a reservation style of ordering already in use in other countries like the United States. However, this time they decided to institute the reservation system as the only way to purchase the latest iPad, which features a sharper display and better camera than previous versions, for its China debut.
Around 50 customers quietly lined up outside the store in Beijing Friday morning, staring intently inside the store as an almost equal number of jovial blue-uniformed employees clapped, sang and danced in the minutes before opening.
It was a far cry from the sheer bedlam unleashed earlier this year when the iPhone 4S went on sale. On that day, many in the crowd were scalpers who local media said hired scores of people to line up with them to purchase the precious phones to be sold in other Chinese cities for a higher rate.
‘It shouldn’t take too long to learn how to use’
First in line to purchase the new iPad in Beijing on Friday was Ye Huafei, a 34-year-old software engineer who arrived at the store just two hours before opening. Forced to purchase this new iPad after his iPad2 had been poached by his mother to watch TV dramas, Ye elected to arrive early to pick up his new iPad so he could bring it to work and show it off to his colleagues.
“It feels great to be first,” said Ye. “The scene here is fantastic.”
Apple’s new product releases tend to attract a younger, status-conscious crowd in China. But mixed in the opening throng of customers was Mr. Wu, an older customer who coyly put his age at “under 65.”
Wu owns an iPhone 4S, but decided to upgrade to an iPad because he is getting older and his eyes have been getting tired looking at the small screen.
With new iPad in hand, the first thing Wu did was walk over to a nearby counter where an Apple employee was offering hour-long lessons to new customers on how to use their new tablets.
Fresh from class, Wu excitedly showed us what he had learned.
“It shouldn’t take too long to learn how to use, I have a strong base,” he said happily. “I have an iPhone 4S and I know how to use that very well.”
He will need to learn quickly. With his purchase, Wu became the first member of his extended family to use an iPad.
One thing he did not take long to discover was the free WiFi at the Apple store. With no Internet connection at home, Wu decided to save money by not purchasing a 3G-capable iPad and bought a wifi-capable tablet instead.
Pointing to the Apple store behind him, Wu said, “I’ll just come here. My home is very close…I spent the money, so I should enjoy the product and the service.”
The ‘it’ product
Like in much of the rest of the world, Apple’s phones and tablets have become the “it” product to own in China, which is now Apple’s second-largest market after the United States. But with just five official Apple stores in the country, even a robust gray market for Apple products cannot always keep up with demand, especially in the days immediately following a high-profile release.
Apple was forced to delay the mainland release of the latest iteration of the iPad due to a lawsuit brought by a company claiming to own the iPad trademark in China. So the company had time to experiment with the new reservation system in Hong Kong for its iPad debut last March and found it effective in dealing with scalpers and the crush that has followed previous product launches.
Since the Cupertino, Calif., company settled the trademark issue for a reported $60 million earlier this month, mainland Chinese customers were invited yesterday to start registering to purchase the iPad at a special website created by the tech giant. Upon filling out the online form, customers were given a designated time to pick up their new iPads.
On Thursday morning, NBC News attempted to log onto the website when it opened at 9 a.m. but the usual crowd of customers apparently crashed the site. The site was up and running again within the hour.
Questions about whether news of the change in policy had gotten out to the public and to poachers were answered early Friday morning when the plaza outside the Apple store in Beijing was mostly empty.
Reports from the other four Apple-owned stores also showed smooth sales.
Jason Lee / Reuters
China's President Hu Jintao (right) shakes hands with South Africa's President Jacob Zuma during the opening ceremony of the Fifth Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing on Thursday.
BEIJING -- Chinese President Hu Jintao on Thursday pledged African governments $20 billion in credit over the next three years and called for more China-Africa coordination international affairs to defend against the "bullying" of richer powers.
Hu made the lending pledge during the opening ceremony of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing. The credit line is double the amount offered in 2009 at the last forum held in Egypt.
Hu promised more Chinese help for African countries in building agricultural technology centers, training medical and other personnel, and digging wells to expand access to clean water. China will encourage investment and assistance in infrastructure that facilitates trade within Africa, he said.
China has emerged as Africa's main trading partner and a major source of investment for infrastructure, pouring billions of dollars into roads and developing the energy sector across the continent.
But the loans could add to discomfort in the West, which criticizes China for overlooking human rights abuses in its business dealings with Africa, especially in Beijing's desire to feed its booming resource-hungry economy.
Hu brushed off such concerns in his speech at the Great Hall of the People, attended by leaders including South African President Jacob Zuma and Equatorial Guinea's Teodoro Obiang Nguema, a man widely condemned by rights groups as one of the world's most corrupt leaders.
"China wholeheartedly and sincerely supports African countries to choose their own development path, and will wholeheartedly and sincerely support them to raise their development ability," Hu said.
China will "continue to steadfastly stand together with the African people, and will forever be a good friend, a good partner and a good brother", he added at the summit held every three years since 2000.
Sudan's president, who is accused by an international court of war crimes, is visiting China, one of the biggest investors in his country. The visit comes just days before the oil-rich south of Sudan declares its independence. NBC's Adrienne Mong reports.
Hu also pledged to "continue to expand aid to Africa, so that the benefits of development can be realized by the African people." He did not provide an amount.
Hu said the new loans would support infrastructure, agriculture, manufacturing and development of small and medium-sized businesses in Africa.
Critics say China supports African governments with dubious human rights records as a means to get access to resources.
The EU has rejected what they call China's "checkbook" approach to doing business with Africa, saying it would continue to demand good governance and the transparent use of funds from its trading partners.
Such criticism draws rebukes from China that the West still views Africa as though it were a colony. Many African countries say they appreciate China's no-strings approach to aid.
"Africa's past economic experience with Europe dictates a need to be cautious when entering into partnerships with other countries," Zuma told the forum.
"We are particularly pleased that in our relationship with China we are equals and that agreements entered into are for mutual gain," Zuma added.
"We certainly are convinced that China's intention is different to that of Europe, which to date continues to intend to influence African countries for their sole benefit."
China's friendship with Africa dates back to the 1950s, when Beijing backed liberation movements in the continent fighting to throw off Western colonial rule.
Growing trade links
Chinese state-owned firms in Africa also face criticism for using imported labor to build government-financed projects like roads and hospitals, while pumping out raw resources and processing them in China, leaving little for local economies.
"Certainly quite a number of us are thinking we need to move into more value addition," South African's Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies told Reuters.
"We need to export mineral products in a more processed form ... We need to bite this bullet very seriously."
Trade has jumped in the past decade, driven by Chinese hunger for resources to power its economic boom and African demand for cheap Chinese products.
China's trade with Africa reached $166.3 billion in 2011, according to Chinese statistics. In the past decade, African exports to China rose to $93.2 billion from $5.6 billion.
Industrial and Commercial Bank of China 601398.SS, for example, the world's most valuable lender, has invested more than $7 billion in various projects across the continent.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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North Korea's new leader Kim Jong Un has been appointed the Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army – further consolidating his power in the reclusive country. NBC News' Ed Flanagan reports from Beijing.
BEIJING –"We've decided to award the title of Marshal to Kim Jong Un, Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army," the Korean TV anchor said in a special newscast Wednesday.
While the announcement that Kim Jong Un had been formally tapped as the top commander of the Korean People’s Army was considered a foregone conclusion around the world, the move crosses the t’s and dots the i’s crucial to the young leader’s bid to cement his control over the reclusive nation.
Conferred on Tuesday, but announced Wednesday, the title officially consolidates Kim’s control of the major organs of power in North Korea.
In April, Kim was tapped as head of the Worker’s Party of Korea and First Chairman of the National Defense Commission. Those appointments came in the run up to a grand military parade and failed rocket launch that commemorated the 100th anniversary of the birth of the founder of the nation, and his grandfather, Kim Il Sung.
Krt / Reuters
North Korea leader Kim Jong Un inspects an armoured vehicle in this undated still image taken from video at an unknown location in North Korea released by North Korean state TV KRT on January 8, 2012.
But the title of “Marshal” conveyed on Kim gives the leader previously known as “The Young General” the highest rank in North Korea’s armed forces and final say over the most powerful body in the country: the 1.2 million strong Korean People’s Army.
Kim’s elevation wasn’t without losers. In the days leading up to the announcement, Kim is said to have orchestrated the purging of top general, Ri Yong-ho, who was previously Vice-Marshal of the army.
A relative unknown officer, Hyon Yong-chol, was chosen to replace Ri, leading to speculation that the move was made so Kim could more easily tap military resources without having to work through the elder, respected Ri.
Kim Kwang Hyon / AP
North Korean soldiers dance in the streets of Pyongyang on Wednesday after North Korea announced that leader Kim Jong Un was granted the title of marshal, a move that cements his status at the top of the authoritarian nation's military.
"I think North Korea's power elite group needed to control the military's reckless and provocative actions because Kim Jong Un can't implement any economic policies under such circumstances,” said Lee Seung-yeol, a senior research fellow at Ewha Institute of Unification Studies. ”It was seen as a necessary choice to sack Ri Yong-ho, who led the military's hardline policies for the last three years, to control the military."
Korean state press reported that Ri was being relieved due to illness, but according to Daniel Pinkston, North East Asia deputy project director for the International Crisis Group, sickness is not typically a motivator for North Korean generals to step down.
"An undefined health problem, I think that's very unlikely, it's not how they deal with it in North Korea,” Pinkston told a group of journalists in Seoul. “There are a number of officials, or cases of officials, who still stay in their positions despite very poor health or terminal illnesses, that's not how they deal with it."
Since taking over for his father, Kim Jong Il, following his death in December, the younger Kim, said to be in his twenties, has apparently been quietly working to consolidate his power in North Korea. The leadership in Pyongyang, older and once fiercely loyal to the elder Kim, have rallied around Kim Jong Un, banking on the stability provided by his hereditary succession.
On the surface, Kim appears to be making a slight departure from the cold, rigid control his father wielded over the DPRK. Just half a year since his elevation to power, Kim has spoken publically far more than the elder Kim ever did.
Even the news of Kim’s promotion was preceded by an earlier statement that an “important announcement” was going to be made, a rarity during the previous Kim’s reign. The pre-alert lead to concerns over what the announcement might entail and sent South Korea’s stock market down 1.5 percent, halting three previous days of gains in the market.
In addition, recent pictures of Kim glad-handing with military officers, attending events with a mysterious young woman rumored to be his sister or wife and even taking in a concert employing dancing Disney-like characters, have brought speculation that the young leader is quietly allowing some liberalization to occur.
Not so, said Pinkston.
"As far as people speculating about Yong-ho being sacked and this being a sign of moving in a direction of reform and liberalization, I don't see that being the case,” he said.
With this further consolidation of power at the cost of one of his father’s close military advisers, Kim is seemingly swinging the pendulum in the other direction, showing that just like his father, the young marshal plans to rule through his army.
Over 1,000 volunteers worked together to break the Guinness World Record for 'human mattress dominoes.' NBC News Ed Flanagan reports from Beijing.
BEIJING – It may have been all talk of hard landings and poor economic numbers last week in most of China, but volunteers in Shanghai over the weekend found themselves on softer ground.
This past Saturday, 1,001 volunteers in Shanghai came together at an unused section of a shopping mall in an attempt to break the Guinness World Record for “human mattress dominoes.” The idea was to have people and mattresses line up and fall on top of each other like, well, dominoes.
Rules of the event were simple: each participant must touch the person behind them and there needed to be a consecutive chain of toppling mattresses.
Wielding a radio with one hand and clutching his vertical mattress with the other, the first participant called out “Starting!” before leaning back into his mattress onto another volunteer.
That kicked off a wave of mattresses falling that took 10 minutes to finish. Cheers erupted from onlookers and the fallen as the last volunteer collapsed on his mattress, officially crushing the previous record held by La Quinta Inns & Suites in the United States, which in February of this year mobilized 850 of its employees in New Orleans to break the world record.
All of the participants in Shanghai this weekend were given $6.30, a souvenir shirt and a certificate of participation.
“We need good teamwork,” said one of the volunteers. “All the participants from the first to the last, must act like one person… that is dominoes.”
Gathering 1,000 people for the spectacle took a great deal of organization, said Cheng Dong, an authenticator from Guinness World Records. As well as… bravery?
“Our volunteers were all very brave. No one dodged when the 2-meter-high (6.56ft) mattress fell onto them,” he said.
Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images file
Chinese newlyweds pose for wedding photographs near to the Thames Town Church in Thames Town on November 19, 2010 in Songjiang, China.
SHANGHAI, China -- It can take two or three hours to drive from bustling Shanghai to the sleepy streets of Thames Town, a new housing development built in the style of an English village complete with quaint pubs, red telephone boxes and statues of Harry Potter and James Bond. There's even an Anglican Church, though not a functioning one.
All that's missing are the people.
Thames Town was completed in 2006, cost a billion dollars to build, and was designed as home for 10,000 people. But shops and restaurants are boarded up, their doors chained.
Thames Town is one of the more bizarre examples of the madness of a construction frenzy and real estate bubble that has left the country with an estimated sixty four million empty homes. It was fuelled by easy money and rapidly rising prices.
Some economists see it as the biggest property bubble of all time - entire ghost cities built on speculation.
"Empty roads, empty buildings, empty neighborhoods, empty cities - all over China," says Gillem Tulloch, Managing Director of Forensic Asia, who has traced the spread of the ghosts using Google Earth.
When I last visited his Hong Kong office, we sat in front of a big computer screen on which he zoomed in on city after city, row upon row of empty apartment blocks, lining deserted roads. All have what look like government buildings, museums and universities - the amenities of modern cities, but few cars or people to be seen.
By China's own estimate, there are twenty new cities being built each year. One recent housing development was designed to look like a village in Austria.
And it isn't just homes that lie empty: In the southern city of Dongguan, the New South China Mall, once touted as the world's largest, has been ninety nine per cent empty since it opened in in 2005 – although gondolas are still at hand to offer visitors a cruise down its Venetian-style canals.
More recently, property prices have started to fall after the government took belated measures to end speculation. In some places, construction has slowed or ground to a halt. Construction equipment companies are struggling and there are reports of construction workers being laid off.
The problem for the Chinese government is that construction is a major component of GDP. Wasteful and mad though it may seem to outsiders, it has helped pump up growth figures, particularly after the 2008 financial crises, when the Chinese government injected into the economy a stimulus worth nearly US$700 billion. Much of that money went straight to those ghost towns.
Local government has come to rely on rising land prices for its funding, and local authorities have run up huge property-related debts. Nobody quite knows how exposed China's banks might be.
This is the background against which today's GDP figures should be seen. A lot of economists think the figures are pretty dodgy, and don't properly reflect the reality on the ground, but it’s still a significant slowdown by Chinese standards. And it poses a big dilemma for the government.
More savvy ministers know that property represents a dangerous bubble, and wants prices to fall further. They also know that the Chinese economy needs changing - re-balancing in economist-speak - away from wasteful construction projects and exports and today's domestic demand. That will also do a big favor to the world economy.
But with growth dipping below the psychologically important eight per cent level, and the communist party credibility on the line, there'll be a real temptation to open the financial taps again to boost the growth figures. The main impact of that will be to keep Gillen Tulloch busy as he looks at yet more ghost towns, delaying the day of reckoning for China’s economy.
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China's 7.6 percent growth rate is the lowest in three years – but the country's economic problems appear more dire than the latest numbers indicate. Some believe the government will counter the downturn with a massive stimulus package, a strategy that has left China's local banks saddled with bad debt in the past. NBC's Ian William reports from Beijing.
BEIJING – China's economy grew at its weakest pace in three years, the government reported Friday.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics, Gross Domestic Product grew at a 7.6 percent rate in the second quarter of 2012, down from a 8.1 percent pace in the first quarter and marking the sixth consecutive quarter of slowing growth on the mainland dating back to 2009.
The data were in line with official government projections for the quarter although they serve as another reminder that China's economy is slowing faster than the government had hoped.
China is under enormous pressure from abroad and at home to maintain steady economic growth. Amid worrying economic numbers out of the European Union and the United States, China is increasingly viewed as one of the few motors strong enough to power the global economy through this financial turmoil.
Meanwhile, here on the mainland, the ruling Communist Party has seemingly staked its legitimacy to an unspoken pact with its citizens: give up some social freedoms for continued economic prosperity.
This relationship was probably best manifested at the end of 2008 when global trade ground to a halt and the country hemorrhaged nearly 20 million jobs. Beijing responded with a 4 trillion yuan ($635 billion) stimulus program that opened up lending from Chinese state banks.
The move helped kick off growth across the country as local governments went on a construction frenzy from new ports and airports to ambitious housing developments.
But the free-wheeling loan binge – often to state-owned enterprises with opaque accounting practices – may have helped foster the environment for today’s economic slowdown by providing a potential crush of bad loans that might very well brutalize the economy.
“In 2008, the big problem was external, a slowdown in exports.”Chovanec told NBC News, “This year the problem is internal. It's bad debt, and the burden the bad debt is placing on the economy.”
With the government having to prepare to potentially step in and fill the holes in the national balance caused by bad debt, there is simply less money available in Beijing’s coffers to propel the economy out of its current doldrums.
“In many ways, they've pinned themselves to a corner,” says Chovanec, “They had this big stimulus over the past three years that kept China's GDP growth higher compared to the rest of the world, in the face of the global slowdown… But that caused twin problems of rising inflation and bad debt.”
“Particularly with bad debt right now - that problem's coming home.”
Believe the numbers
In addition, although the GDP shows a growth rate that would be the envy of any developed economy right now, there is growing cynicism over the veracity of the official economic figures being released by Beijing.
“There's a lot more skepticism today about Chinese official numbers, and I think it's reflective of the fact that you've got a very clear and very serious slowdown taking place in China,” says Chovanec, who noted that while figures show extraordinary high rates of private sector investment and profit gains this year, the numbers simply don’t jibe with what he’s seen in the field.
Nowhere is this disconnect more apparent than in China’s housing and construction industry.
A mere 75 miles away from Beijing resides the foundations for one of the grand-scale property developments that have been the hallmark of the boom times here in China. Conceived in 2004, Jing Jin City derived its name from the ambitions of its developers who envisioned constructing a city between the capital Beijing and the important nearby port town of Tianjin that would attract rich investors with business in both cities.
Touted by the developers as the biggest villa development in China, Jing Jin City was a $3 billion investment designed to eventually become home for half a million people. Really a satellite city of Tianjin, the city government there had aspirations of Jing Jin eventually becoming a new Manhattan.
However, as credit has dried up and speculators have now shown reluctance to sink money into risk property developments, Jing Jin City is effectively a ghost town, a surreal mixture of luxury homes that would look natural in any tony suburb in the United States and the ghostly skeletons of those only partly-built.
Surrounded by farmland, Jing Jin City’s wild underbrush and small lakes on the outskirts have become a popular place to water and feed the dairy cows from a nearby dairy.
“I haven’t seen many people around here,” said one farmer who was tending to his cows this week outside one unfinished construction phase, “I guess people think it's too far away from the cities.”
With a primary Chinese engine of economic growth via construction in trouble, those economic woes spill over into the over 40 industries that are tied to the property industry.
As a result, local governments are said to be facing increased pressure to cook their books in order to offer a rosier view of the economic environment in their regions.
That this doctoring of economic figures may be occurring is not a surprise in China where economists and even senior Communist Party officials –mostly famously the expected future Prime Minister, Le Keqiang – have long believed that the provincial economic numbers are unreliable.
However, the New York Times last month reported that many of the economic indicators that economists and the Chinese government rely on to determine GDP growth – electricity usage, coal stocks, freight movement, etc. – may also be altered by local governments.
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BEIJING -- Wanted dead or alive: two Chinese piranhas.
News that piranhas, which are native to the South American waters of the Amazon, have come to the Chinese city of Liuzhou, has compelled local authorities to offer a $150 reward to anyone who can land one of the fish, any way they can.
Amateur fishermen have flocked to the city, in the southern autonomous region of Guangxi, to take part in the hunt. Issued fishing poles and doled out portions of meat for bait, these sport fishermen have been warmly encouraged to perch up on the banks of the Liujiang River to take a stab at hooking the beasts.
Dozens of experienced local fishermen have also been hired by the city government and relevant departments to trawl the river – normally forbidden by city ordinance – in a dragnet that has run systematically through the river.
Though the piranhas are not native to the region, ancient Chinese fishing techniques have been employed to hook the foreign invaders. Fishermen in Liuzhou were using banzeng, a system in which a net baited with one and a half pounds of pork is suspended from a series of bamboo poles and alternatively lowered 11 inches into the water and raised every 10 minutes.
Local media noted that the fishermen operating the four banzeng were operating them on 24-hour watches, dutifully fighting what some Chinese microbloggers have dubbed "the people's war against the piranha."
Bitten while bathing his dog
It all started earlier this week when Chinese state media reported that two men in Liuzhou were badly bitten by piranhas as they enjoyed the warm waters of the Liujiang River.
Zhang Kaibo was swimming and washing his dog in the river when at least three red-belly piranhas attacked him. Zhang managed to catch one of the piranhas with a net after he and his dog leaped out of the water – but not before Zhang was badly bitten on his hand, requiring stitches.
The local fisheries department held an emergency meeting and came up with a rash of policies, including the bounty, to hunt down the piranhas still at large.
‘Intensive fish hunt’
NBC News attempted to contact the local city fisheries department on Thursday, but was told breathlessly that the entire department had gone down to the river to participate in the hunt.
An official who requested anonymity later contacted NBC News and said that despite days of intense fishing, none of the remaining piranhas has been caught.
"The latest development is that we will suspend our intensive fish hunt at 6 p.m. tomorrow," the official told NBC.
"[The hunt] has been a serious disturbance to the ecological system here since we are catching a huge number of carnivorous fish every day and the cost is also very high," the official said.
Exotic fish owners to blame?
The official blamed local exotic fish owners who had been unaware of how expensive it costs to maintain carnivorous fish like piranhas for their presence in the Liujiang River.
"I can only speculate that these were kept as ornamental fish and the hosts were probably intimidated by their appetites and released them," the official said.
Earlier this week, Zhou Quan, a spokesman for the Liuzhou government told the China Daily newspaper that, "residents in this city have no need to worry about piranhas in the Liu River." Zhou cited the fact that the fish cannot survive in water cooler than 59 degrees Fahrenheit, making it likely that the piranhas would freeze once the cooler winter months arrived.
That assessment was shared by Wang Songjin, Senior Officer for the World Wildlife Fund’s China Marine Program.
"In China there are some nasty stories of invasive species,” said Wang, "but I don’t actually think piranhas should be the species we should be most concerned about."
Wang noted that while laws and regulations exist that restrict the import of invasive species into China, they can sometimes be loosely enforced, especially when it involves financially lucrative animals. In the case of piranhas, Wang noted that in his investigations, fish markets around China were selling common types of piranhas for up to $160 per fish.
"With species that can bring in a lot of money, the controls can be rather loose," Wang said.
Still, the intense fish-hunt has generated interest throughout the country and especially on China's websphere. On Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service, many netizens were getting a good chuckle at the fat bounties placed on the heads of these two fish.
"When you work 30 days and only get 10,000 yuan [$1,568] a month … fishing in Liuzhou for 1,000 [yuan] a fish is like heaven!"wrote one user.
Another Weibo user had another solution for dealing with the piranha threat: "Just ask some medical expert to declare piranha organs as beneficial to human health. ... That should put them into extinction soon enough."
NBC News’ Tianzhou Ye contributed to this report.
Correction: July 13, 2012
This version corrects an earlier currency miscalculation. 10,000 yuan equals $1,568.
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BEIJING – Workers around the world sometimes get a little extra cash for jobs with tough occupational hazards, but what do you give an airplane cabin crew that successfully thwarts a hijack attempt?
In China, quite a bit.
Hainan Airlines, the parent company of Tianjin Airlines, gave two onboard security officers and the chief flight attendant a cool million yuan each ($157,000), houses said to be worth 3 million yuan each ($470,000) and brand new Audi cars.
Other crew members involved in foiling the hijacking were awarded a half million yuan ($80,000) each and apartments said to be worth 2 million yuan ($315,000) per person.
In addition to that windfall, the provincial government in Hainan, where the airline is based, awarded all the crew members half a million yuan ($80,000).
Details have slowly emerged about the incident, with state media reporting that six people tried to hijack the flight 10 minutes after it took off from the Hotan, a city in the northwestern province of Xinjiang, headed to the regional capital, Urumqi. The hijackers reportedly disassembled a pair of crutches into metal rods and attempted to rush the cockpit.
The region, home to the Uighur ethnic minority, is known for its separatist movement, so the alleged hijackers were quickly labeled terrorists by the Chinese media.
After the violence broke out, the reports said, passengers, cabin crew and air security fought back, subduing the hijackers while the pilots turned back and landed safely back at Hotan. The two air police officers were seriously injured during the attempted hijack, while the head flight attendant and seven passengers suffered minor injuries.
Two of the hijackers wounded during the attack died of their injuries, according to news reports.
The announcement of the hefty awards generated a lot of buzz on China’s Twitter-like service, Weibo, mostly congratulating the crew for their bravery and service to the 100 passengers onboard. However, some of the comments questioned the large financial prizes to the crew.
“It's necessary to give them [the crew] rewards, but isn't it too much?” wrote one commenter. “If they want to give rewards, shouldn't those passengers on the plane be given more?”
Others took a similar tack with a healthy dose of sarcasm.
“Hainan Airlines is really rich! Next time I will also fly Hainan planes and hope to have the same good luck!” wrote another.
“In the future I will take more flights in Xinjiang – it’s much more reliable than the lottery,” another chimed in.
Unusually, Chinese state media has given the hijacking, dubbed the “6.29 Hijacking,” more coverage than previous cases involving ethnic unrest, with many details about the incident and warm articles emerging about the heroic crew.
Meanwhile, the government has responded to the incident by tightening flying restrictions in the region. Last week, the government announced new security measures that requires handicapped passengers in wheelchairs or passengers on crutches to show a hospital-issued certification, and passengers flying from the heavily Uighur city of Kashgar are now required to check in crutches and wheelchairs.
NBC News’ Horace Lu contributed to this report
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Local residents gather in front of a municipal government building in Shifang county, Sichuan province, in this handout picture taken Monday.
Updated at 10:52 a.m. ET: While Shifang city government officials have announced that construction on the refinery will be halted, some residents have continued to protest in the streets to demand the release of some protesters detained during the protests including an unknown number of college students from a nearby aviation academy.
BEIJING -- Construction of a copper factory in central China has been halted, an official said Tuesday, after days of angry protests over fears of pollution culminated in clashes that saw riot police fire stun grenades and tear gas to break up a crowd of thousands.
Residents of the town of Shifang, Sichuan province, have been slowly gathering around a local city government office since Saturday, the day after a foundation-laying ceremony put on by Sichuan Hongda – a conglomerate specializing in minerals, real estate and finance – to celebrate the first phase of construction on the $1.64 billion proposed molybdenum-copper alloy refinery nearby.
When -- or now if -- completed, the refinery could generate an estimated $8 billion a year.
According to local Sichuan newspaper reports, the protest started with around a dozen people, but by Sunday it had grown as fellow residents and high school students joined them.
By Monday, there was a crowd of thousands, a police officer on duty there told the Chinese newspaper, Global Times. However, the South China Morning Post reported the figure was in the tens of thousands.
By early Monday afternoon, tensions had escalated and protesters attempted to occupy the city government offices, forcing their way past police inside where they reportedly threw bricks through windows and destroyed offices there. Riot police were brought in to restore order, firing tear gas and stun grenades to break up the crowd.
Some 13 injuries were initially reported by official state media, but witnesses on the ground reported far more wounded.
As of late Tuesday afternoon, protesters were reportedly still on the streets of Shifang, effectively locked in a standoff.
Local government officials were facing pressure from provincial-level and central government leaders to stifle social unrest.
'No longer suitable for living'
A protester surnamed Wang told NBC News that their numbers had thinned out as the city boosted its police presence.
“The two sides are just standing, facing each other,” Wang said. “There are a lot of police and the roads are blocked.”
“Yesterday, the protesters were all concentrated in front of the government building,” said another protester who requested anonymity. “But today, the police have blocked all the roads around the government building so people cannot concentrate in one area and are scattered everywhere… I am not sure how many people there are, but fewer than yesterday."
Asked what he would do if construction went ahead on the refinery, the man responded, “As far as I’m concerned, I have settled here, but this place will be no longer suitable for living.”
“If my economic situation and other conditions meet, I will definitely move away," he added.
Concerns over the pollution created by the alloy refineries that dot China’s resource-rich regions have grown in recent years as China’s economy develops and its people become better educated about the effects of industrial waste on human health.
“I think in general smelters are heavily polluting facilities no matter what, they smelt,” said Ma Tianjie, a Greenpeace campaigner in China specializing in heavy metal waste. “We have seen a lot of cases with heavy metal smelters where there is substantial release of all kinds of toxic pollutants.”
Those pollutants are released into the air through smoke and into the nearby area's ground and water supplies through the highly toxic slag waste that is a byproduct of a refinery’s production phase. Arsenic, an element that can cause severe kidney and liver problems in humans, is often found in worrying levels in this slag.
As these health concerns have become increasingly more public, so too has opposition to these refineries in urban areas.
While companies and local governments have up until now been largely able to duck growing NIMBY-ism in urban centers around China, officials here are increasingly finding themselves accountable for the environmental legacy of these lucrative, but highly polluting industries.
A legacy that Ma warns can stay with a population for a long time. “Generally the smelters will leave a quite heavy legacy to the local community” he warned, “even decades after the facilities leave.”
The mass public protest in Shifang has for now, had its desired effect: Late Tuesday afternoon, Shifang’s local Communist Party chief, Li Chengjin, announced through the government’s Weibo microblog feed that the government was halting construction of the refinery and would no longer allow it to go ahead.
“It’s definitely a piece of good news that construction is being halted, this is absolutely what we wanted,” said Wang upon hearing the news of the government’s decision to halt construction.
However, similar recent cases suggest that such success could just be temporary. Last summer, thousands of residents of the northeastern port city of Dalian took to the streets to protest a chemical factory after a dike broke following a storm, potentially exposing the city to the threat of a toxic spill.
Local officials were successful in keeping the crowd peaceful and eventually broke up the protests when they emphatically pledged to halt production at the factory and have it moved out of the city.
But production resumed soon after, though local officials there have stressed since then that the factory was still slated to be moved.
NBC News’ Horace Lu contributed to this report.
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