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November 24, 2008
Chinese factory closures exaggerated by media


A shoe factory in Dongguan, China.

While the Chinese export sector still expands, growth is down — from 9 percent in October compared to 26 percent in September of last year.

With thousands of workers now unemployed, Chinese workers head inland as factories close.

David Levy is an American who moved to China over 20 years ago. He writes about the Chinese landscape at “China Manufacturing Leadership.” Levy discusses the impact of factory closures on day-to-day life in southern Dongguan — home to the world’s largest shopping mall — which may not be as severe as media reports have indicated.

Dongguan factory closures: the view from street level

To read the press on plant closures in Dongguan, you would think that the city has become a sort of ghost town, with hordes of traumatically unemployed  workers roving  the streets like a pack of zombies  (the un-severanced) seeking their last month’s paycheck from long gone bosses.

Now, I work here in Dongguan, and I drive through various parts of industrial Dongguan and Shenzhen everyday.  I have friends and suppliers throughout the manufacturing districts of these cities with whom I discuss the current situation.   Besides what I read in the newspapers, I see no evidence of significant plant closings in my daily life.  Nor do my friends and suppliers.  The district-level government people I sometimes talk to cite closures of only very small firms, which they say were undercapitalized to begin with.  Some factories are still hiring workers, as evidenced by “help wanted” posters placed out on the street.

The press reports show impressive numbers of closings, but give details about a very few of the more spectacular situations; factories like Smart Union (in Zhang Mu Tou) or WeiXu (in Chang’An)  who’s closures disgorged  thousands of disgruntled workers into the streets, protesting and eventually getting paid off by the local district Government (and some, reportedly, getting beaten up by the police)

What I do see and hear about, and what we all know is true, is that business is down for almost everyone these days and that many  workers are either being  laid off or sent on extended vacation in response to drastically decreased order levels.

I don’t know how many factories have closed.  I suspect the situation is not nearly as dire as we read about in the western press, and that for the most part it is confined to those small, undercapitalized factories which did not play a significant part in the local economy.

That’s the view from street level.

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The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user clayirving under a Creative Commons license.

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November 24, 2008
Mongolia revitalizes sullied mining industry

A coal mine in Mongolia.

As the world searches for natural resources, focus centers on Mongolia, which is rich in silver, copper, gold, molybdenum and coal.

The economic crisis may provide an impetus for the Mongolian government to more actively invest in its mining industry. Foreign companies like Vancouver-based Entree and multinational group Rio Tinto are exploring the country’s mineral-rich regions.

Mineral development was a contentious issue in Mongolia’s recent election.

Rebecca Darling, the director of natural resources and development programs at The Asia Foundation in Mongolia, writes at the “In Asia” blog that Mongolia must substantially reform the mining industry, as years of mismanagement and poor business practices have left Mongolians wary. She provides a case study of one domestic company that has revamped its mining practices and set an example for Mongolian and international companies alike.

In Mongolia: A new mining legacy

In the northwest corner of central Mongolia’s Tov province, 80% of the land in Ugumuur town has been licensed to 18 Mongolian, Russian and Chinese miners. Activity hums dusk to dawn.

Ugumuur is a boom-town but like many towns in Mongolia, it is deeply scarred by a legacy of poor mining practices in the 1990s. Citizens have been divorced from land-use decision-making, they observe environmental damage and often imported labor crowded them out of the local mining market. These are sore points with locals, who, according to one, say that they would support mining if “we are engaged and employed, and if companies reclaim land when extraction is completed.” These concerns are voiced by communities in Khentii, Hovsgol and other provinces across Mongolia.

For mining to develop, Mongolia must shed its legacy of poor practices, and some domestic companies are helping with this. One, Monpolimet, is adopting an array of best practices that will be stoked when Australian, Canadian and other foreign firms begin operations and help reinforce positive trends in corporate social responsibility.

Monpolimet is among the top 10 Mongolian miners and has committed to engagement and social responsibility in Ugummur. The company has adopted reclamation practices that increasingly conform to best practices, including reseeding with endemic plants, and engaging citizens. The company also contributes to a community fund that supports training for student water-quality monitors.

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The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Wolfiewolf under a Creative Commons license.

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November 20, 2008
Putin goes by many terms and titles

A banner for presidential elections shows Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, proclaiming “Together, we will be victorious!”

On Friday, Russian lawmakers voted to extend the presidential term from four to six years. The bill, proposed by President Dmitry Medvedev, faces one more reading before becoming law, and has led to suspicions that Prime Minister Vladmir Putin will reclaim the presidency.

In compliance with constitutional requirements, Putin stepped down as president earlier this year. He appointed Medvedev, who has been called his “puppet.” If Putin returns to the presidential seat, he could serve a total of 20 years in the position.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondent Brian Whitmore writes at “The Power Vertical” blog about another possible job title for Putin — speaker of the State Duma — and explores the politician’s consolidation of power under various job titles.

Prime Minister. President. Speaker. Does It Really Matter?

Another day, another round of speculation about a new job for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

When President Dmitry Medvedev submitted legislation to the State Duma last week proposing extending the presidential term from four years to six, it sent the Moscow punditocracy abuzz with anticipation that Putin was gearing up for a return to the Kremlin.

This week, however, the talk is all about Putin getting himself named speaker of the State Duma.

Prime Minister. President. Speaker. But does it really matter?

brief story in today’s “The Moscow Times” by Nabi Abdullaev had an interesting little nugget suggesting that it doesn’t. Putin is planning to continue his tradition of holding a televised question-and-answer session with ordinary citizens via video link early next year. It will be Putin’s seventh such session, and his first since leaving the presidency.

Abdullaev quoted an unidentified senior official from the ruling Unified Russia party as saying that with the broadcast, Putin “will act more in the role of party leader than prime minister.”

It has become abundantly clear that Putin will continue to be Russia’s true ruler. But the true source of his power will not be a state post like president, speaker, or prime minister. This is mere window-dressing.

Putin’s real power will stem from Unified Russia and its sprawling system of nomenklatura that encompasses not just the federal parliament and government, but also regional legislatures, local governments, and the commercial elite. The road to success in business, politics or academia in Russia today runs through the party’s Byzantine labyrinth.

This is how pre-perestroika Soviet leaders ruled from Stalin to Chernenko. And it is how we can expect Putin to rule as well.

It is probably just a matter of time before the party’s general-secretary formally moves his office to the Kremlin.

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The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

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November 18, 2008
Uruguayan president vetoes abortion bill

President Tabaré Vázquez vetoed a bill that would have legalized abortion in Uruguay. Photo: Presidencia de la Republica Oriental del Uruguay

President Tabaré Vázquez used his veto pen to stop a bill that would have legalized abortion in Uruguay, keeping the procedure illegal.

Uruguay has been secular for much of its history, unlike many other Latin American nations. The bill had passed in the Uruguayan House and Senate, but parliament did not gain the three-fifths support necessary to override Vázquez ‘s veto. The president, a doctor, cited “the reality of the existence of human life in the gestation period” in his explanation for the veto.

Benjamin Gedan is a Fulbright research scholar living in Montevideo and studying the Uruguayan media. He writes at his blog, “Small State,” about the ongoing Uruguayan abortion debate.

In secular Uruguay, abortion still a criminal act

At first glance, the decision by Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez to veto legislation legalizing abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy is surprising. After all, the president’s own party, the Frente Amplio, promoted the legislation in both the House and Senate. The very fact that abortion is illegal in Uruguay, by far the most secular country in Latin America, seems out of place. For example, in Mexico, where the Catholic Church is far more influential, the capital city legalized abortion in April 2007.

But what seems clear is that Uruguayans are far more comfortable skipping out on church on Sunday than accepting abortion. A recent poll by Interconsult found that only 57 percent of Uruguayans support the legalization of abortion, the BBC reported.

In a statement, Vázquez framed his objections in secular terms: “Los derechos son la ética de la democracia, la vida de todos es el bien primero por el que deben velar los gobiernos democráticos” (“Legal rights are the ethics of democracy, and human life is the primary object that democratic governments should value”). But as my Fulbright colleague and guest-blogger Todd Martinez has observed, Uruguayans, though hardly churchgoers, are not exactly atheists either. Read Todd’s take on the abortion debate here.

I’ve heard that Vázquez may ultimately come out in favor of a referendum on the abortion issue, or simply leave the issue to the next president. If the Frente Amplio wins the presidency for the second time and keeps control of Congress, Uruguay may very well end up with an abortion law that matches its global image. For now, however, women who have an abortion and the doctors who help them still face prison, and abortion is only allowed in cases of rape or if the life of the mother is in danger.

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The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

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November 17, 2008
Filipino slums expand as population explodes

Slums in Manila, Philippines.

The United Nations predicts that 2 billion people worldwide will live in slums by 2030 — largely in Asia and Africa. Exacerbated by population growth and declining resources, Asia is currently home to over half of the global slum population (581 million people).

Chris Pablo is an operations officer in the World Bank infrastructure team in Manila — where the population has soared — and writes in the “East Asia & Pacific on the Rise” blog about helping to deal with slums. In the Philippines, about 20 million people live in slums.

Empowering the poor: Helping urban slums to help themselves

In a country where half of the population lives in urban areas, one would expect colonies of slums (arguably called “informal settlements”) strewn across almost every town with high population densities. The picture is not a far cry from reality, at least in the context of the Philippines, perhaps the fastest urbanizing country in Asia. But even if the country has seen incredible growth over the years, there is hope things can turn around — and the feeling is not baseless.

I started working on slum upgrading five years ago in several cities across the major island groups of the Philippines. The challenges may differ from one village to another, but seldom do I get the feeling of hopelessness in the slum communities. Most know the root of the problem — lack of the skills and education needed for gainful employment. They strive to bring their kids to school to address a long-term solution to the problem of poverty. For now, though, near-term solutions are necessary to alleviate poor living conditions of the urban poor.

The poor need to be empowered, and solutions have to be designed by them. And they do participate. Community organization, a difficult yet key element to successful slum upgrading, is often successfully carried out, with communities taking mostly the lead. In places where there is collective sense of purpose and willingness to be helped, the likelihood of successful community upgrading is greater. Several places where successful slum upgrading projects have been introduced are indeed anchored on programs of strong community organizing.

Dealing with slums has often been regarded as controversial, making local leaders reluctant to do much. Still, more and more city mayors are seriously implementing community upgrading programs. The city of Marikina in metro Manila has committed to making the city slum free by 2010, and it is close to achieving this objective. Naga city is carrying out a long-term housing program that is built around community-based mortgage scheme. The coastal city of San Fernando, La Union, continues to move villages in high-risk areas to resettlements with better services.

To read more, see the original post.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user KarlMarx under a Creative Commons license.

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November 14, 2008
Sarkozy thinks global, should look local


French President Nicolas Sarkozy stands with other European leaders at a press conference about the global economy in January 2008.

Nicolas Sarkozy is one of many world leaders who will play a role at the G20 summit on the global financial crisis this weekend. The French president has called for a more internationally coordinated response to the crisis.

Patrice de Beer is a former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde and writes at OpenDemocracy about Sarkozy’s desire to play a larger role on the world stage. He argues that the French leader is bound to discover that all politics is local.

Nicolas Sarkozy: world leader, local problem

France’s president is a man who relishes crises. As he hops from one to another, from the Russian invasion of Georgia to the financial hurricane, Nicolas Sarkozy thrives in the self-image of “crisis-manager-in-chief” – and strives to make others perceive the halo. It helps that he can – at least until the last day of 2008 – include the “presidency” of the European Union in his portfolio.

The characteristic image of “Sarko” is of a figure popping up, rushing onto or off his plane, seizing an initiative or propelling himself to the frontline and frontpage. There is hardly a European or global issue where the president does not want to interpolate himself (and if it is just too intractable or time-consuming – as in the Democratic Republic of Congo – he can deploy his foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner). And indeed, the bigger the issue the larger the claim. It is no wonder that Sarko now presents himself as a great friend of president-elect Barack Obama, drawing on the capital he gained when he hosted the United States’s next leader at the Elysée palace during the election campaign (while disdaining to find time to welcome Obama’s Republican rival, John McCain).

To achieve this pre-eminence and sustain the profile that accompanies it, he is shameless in borrowing ideas from other leaders (such as Britain’s prime minister Gordon Brown on financial reforms), overshadowing once-friendly rivals (such as Germany and its chancellor Angela Merkel), or pushing himself into the limelight (such as claiming credit for convincing Moscow to sign a ceasefire with Georgia, and Washington over the convening of the G20 summit on 15 November 2008).

[…]But if Nicolas Sarkozy knocks repeatedly at the world’s door, his restlessness extends too to an impatient desire to find urgent solutions (and often merely populist non-solutions) to the many domestic concerns that have come under his voracious inspection. Among the near-limitless reform agenda, the very institutional map of France itself has been redrawn several times even since May 2007. The national structures of the judiciary, military, universities and health services have been shaken to the core – in part to revamp overlapping and often obsolete networks, but also in part to save money in a country Sarkozy himself has called “broke”.

To read more, see the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Foreign and Commonwealth Office under a Creative Commons license.

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November 13, 2008
Six months later, Myanmar recovering from cyclone


Myanmar received humanitarian aid following the cyclone.


Cyclone Nargis over Myanmar in May. Death toll estimates are still undetermined, but may be as high as 130,000 people.

Last May, Cyclone Nargis ripped through Myanmar (formerly Burma), killing almost 85,000 people and leaving 50,000 missing.

Initially, foreign aid was blocked by the military junta. Six months later, the United Nations has raised half of the $484 million it seeks in relief money, and fundraising is increasing. But relief efforts are far from over, and survivors are struggling to make a living.

A blogger for the Asia Foundation’s “In Asia” blog writes from Myanmar about reconstruction efforts and the plight of the country’s people.

From Burma: Six Months After Cyclone Nargis

There is a phrase I hear over and over as I travel around the Irrawaddy delta in Burma (also known as Myanmar): “We have nothing left.”

Six months ago, Cyclone Nargis made landfall in this region and roared across the flat and vulnerable lands of the delta, bringing with it a massive storm surge of sea water. The wind and the water combined into a fatal and catastrophic force that wiped entire villages off the map. People drowned. Houses were demolished by the storm. Personal possessions washed away. Farms animals were killed. Fishing boats sank or were smashed to pieces in the waves. Survivors in the worst-hit areas were left with nothing.

How does one go about restarting life after losing your family, your home, your job, and all your possessions? In Burma, it is probably far harder than in many other places.  Immediately after the cyclone, reports came out that Burma’s ruling military regime was preventing international aid workers from entering the country, and restricting the movement of those already working inside the country. It took three long weeks of diplomatic negotiations before the regime began to ease restraints on the international community’s efforts to launch an emergency operation. Excruciatingly slowly, aid agencies were granted access to affected areas.

I have been spending a lot of  time here, and, today, six long months since the cyclone hit,  the region is still in dire need of help.

In one village south of the delta town of Mawlamyinegyun, a man showed me a black-and-white passport photo of his wife – she was killed during the cyclone, along with their four children. He used to run a noodle stall and, even if he had the equipment or the money to invest in starting again, no one in the village has the spare cash to buy a bowl of noodles. He now lives in a shack constructed from donated tarpaulin and wood that he salvaged out of the debris left behind by the cyclone. Inside the tiny shack there is just enough space for one person to lie down on the split-bamboo floor. The man’s few belongings are all things that have been given to him by aid organizations – a few plastic buckets and cooking pots, a flashlight, a blanket. The only thing he has from his life before the cyclone is the stamp-sized photograph of his deceased wife.

To read more, see the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr users Azmil77 and TZA under a Creative Commons license.

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November 11, 2008
Pakistan’s media reports with little accountability


Pakistan’s media has grown in recent years.

Pakistan’s media sector has grown in the past few years, with the government citing its increased deregulation as a reason for the expansion despite accusations of censorship. However, the press has come under fire for slanted or misinformed coverage.

Aziz Akhmad writes at the “All Things Pakistan” blog about the Pakistani media’s inaccuracy and lack of accountability.

Who will keep our media honest?

While I am writing this, a young, attractive woman appears on the TV screen, on a Pakistani channel, her head partially covered in a headscarf and her wide eyes dyed in kohl. She looks into the camera, with her and delivers the following message in Urdu to promote her own talk show:

”Khabar woh jo sachi, tabsara who jo khara, tajzia who jo haqeeqat ke qareeb-tar …” Roughly translated it would be: We present news that is true and views that are sound and based on facts …

How one wishes this were true!

While the number of newspapers and news channels in Pakistan has vastly increased, as has their reach, thanks to the Internet and satellite communication, sadly, however, the quality of their reporting and commentary has not.

For example, a widely read columnist, writing for a leading Urdu daily, made the revelation that President Bush had recently threatened the US Congress with martial law if it did not approve the $700 billion bailout package for American banks that Bush had proposed in an effort to overcome the current financial crisis. Not only that, the columnist added, the troops were deployed in several American cities to make the threat real.

Actually, when I read this, I looked out of the window of my apartment, in New York, where I presently live, to see if there were any troops on the streets. The only people I could see, in uniform, were the police and postal workers, doing their routine beats. And this is how it has been for as long as I can remember.

Since no one questioned the columnist’s claim, he repeated it a few days later, on a TV talk show. Surprisingly, neither the host of the show nor any of the participants in the program challenged the claim.

To read more, see the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Muhammad Adnan Asim under a Creative Commons license.

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November 7, 2008
Historic elections not “only in America”

Michelle Bachelet, the president of Chile.

Barack Obama’s historic election as the 44th president of the U.S. on Nov. 4 has received international attention from citizens and news media alike.

Here in the U.S., commentators have stated that his victory could happen “only in America.”

Obama himself stated in his 2004 address to the Democratic National Convention that “in no other country on earth is my story even possible.”

Greg Weeks is an associate professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and blogs at Two Weeks Notice, where he takes issue with such a characterization of Barack Obama’s victory and details what he believes are progressive elections in Latin America.

“Only” in America?

As I’ve watched and listened to U.S. media commentary, especially after the election, something has nagged at me. This has indeed been an historic election, but in the United States we try to claim that we are the first to have historic elections. It can happen, we say, “only in America.” I don’t have links, but heard it from both Chris Matthews and Chris Wallace–if you google “obama only in america,” you can get a feel for how broad the sentiment is.

In Latin America, I think of Evo Morales’ impressively large victory in Bolivia in 2005, followed shortly by Michelle Bachelet’s in Chile (remember that the U.S. has not yet elected a woman, unlike many other countries). What of Alberto Fujimori’s 1990 election in Peru (will we see an Asian elected president of the United States?)? Or if we look at class, rather than race, there is no doubt that Lula’s election in Brazil changed history–imagine an uneducated union activist running for president here.

It is truly remarkable that our president-elect is African American, and it says a lot about the progress being made in this country. But let us savor it without pretending that we’re the only ones who have made such progress.

See the original post.

For more, read an article from The Economist about the phenomenon of American exceptionalism.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Fotograma! under a Creative Commons license.

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November 6, 2008
Drug-fighting Mexican leader killed in plane crash


AUDIO: Sara Miller Llana of The Christian Science Monitor speaks from Mexico about the controversy surrounding the Nov. 4 plane crash.

A soldier patrols the zone where a plane crashed, killing Mexican government secretary Juan Camilo Mouriño.

A plane crash in the Lomas de Chapultepec neighborhood of Mexico City killed Juan Camilo Mouriño, the country’s second most powerful official and a prominent figure in Mexico’s battle against drug cartels.

Mouriño’s death has led to suspicions of foul play and though officials say the crash was apparently an accident, an investigation is planned.

Richard Grabman is an American author living in Mexico. He writes at “The Mex Files” blog about the implications of the plane crash and how the death will impact the Mexican political scene.

Juan Camilo Mouriño, Secretarío de Gobernacion, killed

Like most U.S. citizens abroad I was following the U.S. election returns all night, and was out all day. It’s only now — at one in the morning — that I can sit down and write about what is likely to be a more dramatic and immediate change in the political landscape — here — than the overwhelming victory of Barack Obama.

At just past 7 P.M. (Mexico City time), a Lear Jet, carrying nine persons, including former deputy chief Federal Prosecutor José Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, who had resigned after complaints about his ineffectiveness as a “drug warrior” but stayed in the government as an official with the Public Security Secretariat and Secretarío de Gobernacion, Juan Camilo Mouriño, fell out of the sky, crashing into Lomas de Chapultepec, at the Periferico Miguel Aleman — near the monument to the oil expropriation, and killed all on board.

The Federal District Prosecutors’ Office has already opened an investigation.

This is a huge issue, with both national security, political and international implications. Mouriño, who was only 37 years old, but was the second most powerful figure in the Mexican executive branch. Secretaria de Gobernacion has no real equivalent in English. His title is sometimes translated as “Interior Mininster” or “Home Secretary” but the closest U.S. counterpart would be the Secretary of Homeland Security … as well as Director of National Security, and the closest thing Mexico has to a Vice-President.

His selection last March, as a replacement for President Calderon’s original Secretaria de Gobernacion, Francisco Ramírez Acuña, was highly controversial. Ramírez was widely despised even in his own party for his alleged ties to narcotics dealers, and accused of being AWOL — or at least negligent — in the anti-narco war, on top of his tolerance of human rights abuse during his tenure as Governor of Jalisco. Mouriño, though seen as a young, fresh face came with his own baggage. As a dual Spanish-Mexican national, there were lingering questions about his constitutional qualifications for the position (the Secretaria de Gobernacion is the acting President if the President dies or is unable to perform his duties until Congress elects an interim President. Mouriño was born in Spain, and Mexico — like the United States — requires Presidents to be “natural born citizens”).

In addition, Mouriño’s own ties to companies with contracts with PEMEX , and his family business’ dealings with PEMEX, have been under investigation in the Chamber of Deputies. AND… Mouriño was the point-man on the anti-narcotics crusade.  And, as head of internal security, Mouriño was responsible for the recent scandal that involved federal agents spying and wiretapping opposition legislatators, and for attempts to tie all domestic dissent to narcotics dealers.  As the national security chief,  Mouriño collaborated closely with his United States and other nation’s counterparts in anti-terrorist and criminal prosecution issues.

It’s going to be impossible NOT to speculate on the narcotics angle… but given that among Mouriño’s political activities during his short tenure was his attempt to “sell” PEMEX de-nationalization, the location of the crashsite is either an odd coincidence, or a very weird ironic statement.

To read more, see the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Frecuenciaspopulares under a Creative Commons license.

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