Το Άλλο Πρόσωπο της Κίνας...


Η άλλη Κίνα... Η Μητροπολιτική!!!

I had another few moments in China this week that left me amazed and slack-jawed.

The first came in the city of Nanping, inland from Fuzhou in coastal Fujian province. I wandered into the hotel gift shop and saw an array of stuffed animals -- pheasants, an eagle, a badger or wolverine, a marten and a sharp-fanged thing that looked like a lesser panda. I was told it was a local bear.

Then I set my eyes on these stuffed creatures. They are about eight or nine inches tall. The markings on the back make them look sort of chipmunk-y. But they have cloven hooves and otherwise look like mini-deer. The clerk had no idea what they were called.

It reminded me of the time I went to the Beijing Zoo and saw an animal I had neither seen before nor ever heard of. It looked like a dog-goat combination. It was either from Central Asia, or a mutant creation of a bioengineering lab.

I later looked on the internet and wondered if these creatures might be something called a "Mouse deer" endemic to Southeast Asia. Anyone know?

Now here’s another curiosity. On our way to Fuzhou yesterday, the woman conductor (conductress?!) in the train began to shout loudly. I turned to look, listened for a few seconds and realized she was selling insole cushions for shoes and also socks. Many passengers looked rapt at her spiel. She described the socks as long-lasting, then did a neat trick trying to tear them apart. Obviously, they were indestructible. A passenger enthusiastically chimed in that he’d bought a pair before and they were great. I wondered if he were part of the sales team. Then he said the socks don’t xi han, or “suck sweat.” I immediately decided they must be 100 percent polyester and went back to my book.


More fireworks with the Vatican

Any hope that China and the Vatican might soon heal their rift are vanishing.

And while Pope Benedict XVI tours Turkey this week, you can bet he's keeping an eye cocked on China.

China is about to allow the ordination of a new Catholic bishop without the blessing of the Holy See, the third time this year it is defying the Vatican.

For half a century, China has said it can name its own Catholic bishops. The Vatican considers such an act heresy and threatens excommunication.

So a lot will be at stake this Thursday at 8 a.m. in a small diocese in Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, when the vicar general, Wang Renlei, will be ordained as a bishop.

There certainly must be frictions in Beijing over this. Diplomats at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would love to strike up relations with the Vatican after a 55-year hiatus. After all, Taiwan’s only ally in all of Europe is the Vatican. It has no diplomatic relations with any other European nation.

That means Taiwanese President Chen Shuibian has to jump through all sorts of diplomatic hoops if he wants to transit through Europe on any foreign trip.

Blocking any move on the diplomatic front, though, is the Patriotic Catholic Association, an entity that exists only to run the Catholic church of China, a task the Vatican is more than happy to do. If relations with the Vatican were renewed with a stroke of the diplomatic pen, a lot of jobs and bureaucracy at the association would vanish.

According to an Italian news site, the Patriotic Catholic Association "is trying to ordain dozens of bishops without the approval of the Holy See, for the purpose of destroying all the work of reconciliation carried out so far between the Chinese Church and the Pope."

Most bishops in China have quietly sought reconciliation with the Vatican.

Rise of Cosmopolitan Shanghai

I’m reading a wonderful book, a highly readable account of life in Shanghai in the early part of the 19th Century. I can hardly put the book down. It’s called Carl Crow – A Tough Old China Hand, and I thoroughly recommend it.

Crow, a Missouri native, was an adventurer, newspaper proprietor and groundbreaking advertising man in Shanghai from 1911 until the late 1930s.

Crow’s firm was partly responsible for coming up with the “sexy modern girls” that adorned the cigarette and face cream ads that went up around China.

In the 1930s, he wrote the book 400 Million Customers, setting off a rush into China’s market, not unlike what is happening again today.

I find Crow’s story, and the description of Shanghai, really compelling. Perhaps it is because Crow was once a reporter for United Press, the precursor of UPI. So was I. Or because he once worked for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, which also happens to be one of the papers in the McClatchy chain that supplies my paycheck.

But at the same time, the book only underscores the differences with modern China. I happen to be visiting Nanping, a small city in Fujian province where my grandparents lived from 1922 to 1926 as Methodist missionaries. As I look at old photos of the raging Min River that was the main transportation route, and hear stories of the pestilence, war lords and other plagues of the era, I can’t help but think how much greater an endeavor it was to live half way around the globe then compared to now. You’ll read more in an upcoming article about what kind of impact early missionaries, like my grandparents, have left on modern China.

Hong Kong University Press, by the way, publishes the Crow book, and its author is Paul French, a modern-day marketing analyst in Shanghai

More from the auto show


I constantly check out the types of cars I see on Chinese roads. Yet I found myself staring at some of the stands of domestic automakers at the Beijing auto show, seeing models completely new to me.

Some of these automakers will not only survive, they will thrive. They may even become global household names. But which ones? Others will flame out.

One of the ones that came close to fizzling is Jiangling Motors Corp., maker of the Landwind SUV you see in the above photo. The company tried to export abroad way too soon, learning an abject lesson. Last year, a Belgian importer got exclusive rights to the company’s Landwind SUV.

It sold about 100 of them in the Netherlands. Then, word of an independent crash test in Germany came out. The Landwind SUV, a large vehicle, utterly failed in the area of passenger cabin protection, scoring zero out of five. Even airbags were deemed useless in protecting passengers in the collapsed cabin. After publicity about the tests broke, sales stopped overnight.

Then there are others, like Chery and Geely. We have an American friend with a Chery QQ and she loves it. It’s economical and fairly comfortable inside. I rode in the backseat for two hours once and had no problem.

Some brands I’ve hardly heard of, in part because China’s auto market is not really national. Hondas and Toyotas do particularly well in Guangzhou, near factories there, while VWs sell heavily around Shanghai, where many are produced. I had never heard of the brand in the photo below, Huang Hai, or Yellow Sea.


Lastly, check out this Roewe auto below. I don't have the details at my fingertips, but I recall that one of the big Shanghai automakers, maybe SAIC, obtained designs for the British Rover sedan but than did not win a bid to actually manufacture it. So it did the next best thing: It produced this knockoff, and the name is pronounced almost like "Rover" in Chinese. I was in Shanghai last month, and Roewe advertising was strung everywhere. By the way, the finishing looked top-notch to my untrained eye.


Two steps ahead...

Welcome to the club of big boys! Chinese engineering companies are snatching ever bigger projects overseas.

I was speaking last night with a European executive who helped arrange a recent deal – the world’s largest road project in Algeria. It’s a $7 billion project, and the China Railway Construction Corporation is part of the consortium that won the bid earlier this year.

The Chinese consortium beat out huge U.S., Japanese and German firms to clinch the contract for a 330-mile (528 kilometer) stretch of the Algerian East-West Highway.

Chinese contractors are all over Africa, of course. In Algeria, one Chinese company just finished construction of a terminal at the Houari Boumedienne airport in the capital.

On China’s African ventures, here’s what Chinese Commerce Minister Bo Xilai said earlier this month during a Sino-African forum in Beijing:

“In the past 5 years, Chinese enterprises undertook contracts of more that 6,000 kilometers highway construction, over 3,400 kilometers railway construction and reconstruction, establishment of 7 power stations with total generating electricity capacity of 3.4 million kilowatts. The reconstruction of Nigerian railways, Imboulou Hydropower Station of Congo, natural gas pipeline of Libya, telecom network construction of Angola and newly established roadway project of Algeria build up a bridge connecting China and Africa.”

... and one step back

But there are setbacks in China’s rise.

A major Chinese satellite has failed barely 10 days after launch. The SinoSat-2 direct-to-home satellite was to transmit signals directly to 100 million people in rural areas with no access to cable.

It was a domestically made satellite. According to press reports and an outside monitor, the satellite’s solar power panel failed to unfold Nov. 7 after it reached orbit, dooming it.

“SinoSat-2 can no longer send any signals; it's gone out of operation,” an engineer at Sino Satellite Communication, the company that operates the satellite, told the South China Morning Post.

The Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy said an “abnormality” in operation was detected nine days after the satellite was sent into orbit from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in Sichuan province.

The center said China could lose $12.7 billion of potential revenue over the next five years if the satellite indeed fails.

London in 1952? Or Beijing now?


The smog is bad this morning in Beijing. These are views from the 14th floor balcony of my office looking across Beijing's principal avenue.

To the southeast, I can see the twin LG towers across Jianguomen Wai Street and the street lights on the corner, but not much further.

To the southeast, everything fades out into murkiness after about a block, where the Friendship Store is located.

Actually, the smog seems to me to have improved somewhat this year. We had quite a pleasant autumn.

But there's no denying that days like today are terrible. I sometimes click here to see what actual pollution levels are. But if you look, note that authorities don't want to tell you how bad it is if levels arise above 500, which is dangerous to your health. The figures are updated once a day.

Sometimes it can be really bad in the morning, then a wind picks up and blows off the smog, leaving the afternoon lovely.

When we first arrived here three years ago, my throat was scratchy for the first four or five months. Now, I think I'm used to it. It doesn't bother me at all. Scary.


Space launches and the Olympics

Here’s what to expect in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games: China will link its growing prowess in space with its success at the Games.

Here’s the chronology. In 2007, as excitement builds around the Games, China will launch an unmanned lunar orbit and give it major national press coverage.

Then in 2008, some time before the Games begin, China’s space agency will carry out a manned space walk, a huge achievement that will certainly increase national pride.

A gentleman closely involved in aspects of space promotion laid out the plans for me this evening, on condition of anonymity.

“China is branding itself as an innovation country, and space is the reflection of that,” he said. He noted that China’s leaders are already using the space program successfully in casting themselves as the architects of China’s rise.

“Every time a rocket goes up, the president (Hu Jintao) is at the launch site and the premier (Wen Jiabao) is in Beijing at the control center,” he said.

The manned space walk, he said, will “be around the same time at the Olympics opening” and the leaders “will create an association in people’s minds” about the two events.

Selling to China's gentry



Beijingautoshow_047 As you can see from the post below, China's annual auto show is opening. And not a single global luxury automaker stayed home.

They are all here. You can see the photos I took at different stands. Maserati is here, and Ferrari, too. The Lotus stand drew a good crowd.

Many people were snapping pictures of every little automotive detail at the Rolls Royce exhibit, seen below. Porsche is also here.



Making luxury cars in China


Beijingautoshow_012 The annual auto show in China is one of the major automotive exhibits in the world today, up there with Detroit, Frankfurt and Tokyo. It opened to journalists this morning, and I went to hear what some global auto executives had to say.

You can see Dieter Zetsche, the Daimler Chrysler chairman, in the photo above, posing with an opera singer who descended from a luxury Maybach sedan.

Zetsche, like other global execs, was busy pointing how many of their models are now produced or assembled in China.

The company’s Mercedes Benz E-class sedans are now manufactured here.

“We built a state-of-the-art plant together with our partners in Beijing,” Zetsche said, adding that he sees the premium auto market growing threefold in China in the next three years.

Earlier, Tom LaSorda, Chrysler’s chief executive, told a small group of us that his company began assembling local versions of the Chrysler 300 C luxury sedan last week.

Lasorda also said Chrysler will decide “by the end of the year” whether to go with Chinese manufacturer Chery Automotive or another unnamed non-U.S. manufacturer to produce a lower-cost car, rather than producing itself in the U.S. market.

That’s another sign of the huge pressure on U.S. automotive companies. One reporter asked LaSorda if he’ll feel a lot of pressure to come up with a turn-around plan before a Daimler Chrysler board meeting in late December.

He chuckled. “I don’t need to wait for the fourth quarter to feel pressure. I feel pressure every day,” he said. Other executives around the table laughed nervously.


The old is out, the 'new old' is in

Heritage7 Heritage8

The above pictures are from Shanhaiguan, a former garrison city in Hebei Province near the eastern terminus of the Great Wall. The first photo is taken atop the Great Wall near the East Gate, which leads into the old walled city. Looks new, doesn't it? The second photo shows a little walkway under a not-yet-renovated part of the walled city.

Like numerous other places in China, Shanhaiguan is undergoing massive redevelopment based on its imperial heritage. If you want to learn more about whether this mammoth $330 million plan is good or bad, click here to read my story.

In more shameless touting, click here to read how China is finally sharing bird flu virus samples with foreign researchers, and here to find how Japan wants China to shoulder more of the financial burden for the United Nations. Also, there is an article about the recent Sino-African summit and one about the richest man in China. This one is about the Shanghai pension fund scandal.

My favorite recent article was about the travails of the large ethnic Korean population in Japan. Did you know there are schools in Japan where children are taught to adore Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, the founder of North Korea and his son, the current leader?

Chinese vendors far and wide

Chinese merchants are traveling farther and farther around the globe.

I just stumbled across this Spanish-language blog about Chinese merchants arriving in Santiago, the Chilean capital, and setting up shop in the Alonso de Ovalle Shopping Center.

I’ll translate a little:

“The shopping center in San Diego is now replete with stands selling Hello Kitty, cosmic cats, shoes of all kinds of colors and unusual designs,” it says. “Wherever you walk, you hear unintelligible language from people with oriental features who only know how to say the size and price (in Spanish).”

“How much is this handkerchief?” a woman looking through clothing asked an oriental vendor. Faced with such a ‘complex question,’ the Chinese woman could only pull out a calculator and punch in 2,500.”

“Even though the globalized world appears to be without borders, there is a language barrier in dealing with these people because none can handle Spanish, which makes the relationship a little anxious between clientele and vendor.”

Certainly it’s ethnocentric. I can’t help but put the shoe on the other foot and think of the bravery of Chinese merchants traveling to regions so far away and trying to make a living without understanding the language. My hat is off to them.

Blocking of Wikipedia lifted

Sometimes authorities in China squeeze with one hand and caress with the other.

In the last few days, they've relaxed their grip on the internet in a notable fashion: They've stopped blocking online access to the Chinese-language version of Wikipedia, the user-generated encyclopedia.

Last month, they unblocked access to the English version as well.

For an interesting commentary on why China may have made the U-turn, click here. It is commentary from Andrew Lih, the former Columbia University professor who first reported the lifting of the censorship.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Chinese users are already flocking to the site.

China began blocking both Chinese- and English-language Wikipedia in October 2005. Social commentarists complained that the ban hindered the ability of Chinese intellectuals to put a Chinese perspective in Wikipedia articles, which are written by users.

The yin and yang of trains

Sedanchair China: Like it, or don't, or both at the same time.

It happens to me all the time in China.

Usually on the same day, I’ll experience a sensation of how well China is doing in some aspect. Then within an hour or two, something else occurs giving me the opposite feeling.

This afternoon, my assistant and I were returning by train from Qinhuangdao, a coastal city on the Bohai Sea. I commented to her how pleasant and clean the train was. We had “soft seats” in the most expensive car – which means we paid about $8 for a three-hour journey. The train had high ceilings, big windows, bucket seats and a table for my computer. It was as nice as any train I’ve taken in Japan, or the U.S.

Between cars, touch panels lit by modern-looking diodes opened and closed the doors.

I remarked how pleasant the train was. She joked that I should offer to pay more for my ticket if I liked it so much.

But the satisfied feeling disappeared when I went to the bathroom, which also was relatively modern. I looked down to discover the toilet was a straight pipe down to the track below. Uggh! No processing of waste. Just dump it along the rails across the countryside.

Pre-summit conflicts

President Bush and other leaders from around the world are departing for the APEC summit this coming weekend in Hanoi.

And almost like clockwork, strange frictions are arising around Asia.

First, China’s ambassador to New Delhi, with particularly poor timing, declared Monday that China believes the whole of India’s Arunachal Pradesh state belongs to China. The region is 90,000 square kilometers, or 34,750 square miles.

Sino-Indian border frictions date back to a brief war in the early 1960s, and this remark set back recent improvements in the relationship. India reacted with alarm.

President Hu Jintao of China will visit India Nov. 20, as soon as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit wraps up in Hanoi. His reception will be cordial but I imagine the Indians will want an explanation.

The second incident involves the revelation that a Chinese diesel-powered attack submarine was spotted near Okinawa lurking within torpedo range of the USS Kitty Hawk, an aircraft carrier of the U.S. Seventh Fleet.

The Oct. 26 encounter was first reported by the Washington Times newspaper and confirmed by Adm. William J. Fallon, chief of U.S. military forces in the region.

This is what Fallon told a news conference in Kuala Lumpur Tuesday:

“The fact that you have military units that would operate in close proximity to each other offers the potential for events that would not be what we would like to see -- the potential for miscalculation. Now it turns out that the aircraft carrier and its escorting ships were out doing some exercises. I am told they were not engaged in anti-submarine exercises, so they were not looking for submarines. But if they had been, and this Chinese submarine happened to come in the middle of this, then this could well have escalated into something that was very unforeseen.”

There is a third bit of news that tosses a wrench in U.S.-Vietnamese relations.

The House of Representatives on Monday rejected legislation to normalize trade relations with Vietnam, just days before Bush is to arrive in Hanoi. The vote went down 228 votes against to 161 votes for. The opposition surprised Republicans, who were hoping to hand Bush a victory before his trip.

Maybe all this is coincidental. But it gives Asia Pacific leaders some things to talk about.

Tom Friedman on China's smog

I was at a talk this evening by the New York Times foreign affairs columnist, Thomas Friedman, author of The World Is Flat, and his anecdote about arriving in China’s capital drew chuckles:

“I was really struck in landing in Beijing this morning – I came from Shanghai. We landed, and it was just comical. The stewardess said, the flight attendant said, ‘Welcome to Beijing. The temperature is . . . 37 degrees Fahrenheit, and it’s a clear day.”

The audience laughed, aware of the heavy smog in Beijing today.

“You could not even see the terminal,” Friedman noted.

Those of us who live in Beijing know there is collective delusion going on about pollution here. Authorities readily blame bad air days on smoke or mist or suspended dust particles. Rarely do they admit that it's all of that and more, adding up to choking smog.

Friedman had quite a bit to say about China’s environmental problems. I’ll transcribe some of it, beating Friedman to the ideas in his next column in an irony he might enjoy. His column only appears twice a week, while this blog is immediate.

“Every time I come to China, it strikes me that people here speak with greater ease and breathe with greater difficulty. I think China is rapidly approaching the point where the environment, and the degradation and the pollution will become a real constraint on its growth.”

The constraints may be felt with little warning, he said.

“You know, if you jump out of an airplane at 30,000 feet, you can actually feel like you’re flying for about five minutes until you have this really brief encounter with the ground. And that’s true with growth as well. You can grow at 10 percent a year for 30 straight years and think you can fly. The thing about Mother Nature . . . is that Mother Nature always bats last. Never think you can fool Mother Nature.

What strikes Friedman about China’s leadership “is the degree to which they have no clue what is required to make Red China a green China. And if Red China doesn’t become green China, this is not going to scale because if you do this much damage to your environment, taking people from a dollar a day to 10 dollars a day per capita income, and you want for them to do it for 20 more years . . . this place is going to be a moonscape.”

Let's flock to Tibet!

The rush to Tibet is on.

In early July, the first rail link to Tibet was inaugurated. As a result, Chinese tourist throngs are arriving.

According to the state Xinhua news agency, Tibet has seen a 31.8 percent rise in tourist arrivals this year.

A total of 2.25 million tourists went to Tibet in the first 10 months of the year, 93.5 percent of them Chinese tourists traveling domestically.

Before the advent of the train, tourists could only visit Tibet by air or via an arduous land journey.

So the predictions that the railway would lead Han Chinese to flood into Tibet appear to be turning into reality.

Some Tibetans worry that their cultural identity will become further diluted as more Han Chinese arrive _ and settle _ in their homeland.

By the way, my sister-in-law just went to Tibet last month on the new train and highly recommended taking Diamox if you go. She bought it over the counter in Beijing, although it is generally a prescription medication. You begin taking Diamox two days before the train journey to Tibet and keep taking it twice a day until you've been at high altitude for at least 48 hours. I don't mean to be pushing drugs but Diamox is the common pharmaceutical for increasing respiration and allowing adequate oxygen absorption during sleep.

As someone who has made the flight at least a dozen times from Lima, Peru, which is at sea level, to La Paz, Bolivia, which has the highest commercial airport in the world at more than 4,000 meters above sea level, I can attest to the shock of arriving at high altitude.

I once walked out of the La Paz airport, hopped in a taxi and made the journey into the city without realizing that I had forgotten to pick up my suitcase. That's what oxygen deprivation can do to you.

I also remember waking up in hotel rooms in La Paz in the middle of the night, my heart pounding and a sudden sensation that I couldn't breath fast enough gripping my body. Not even coca tea could alleviate that sensation.

One other thing: Don't eat much at altitude. And don't drink alcohol unless you want that pounding in your head to worsen. Click here for more high-altitude tips.

Election jitters in Taiwan

Most of the world's eyes are on election results in the United States but Taiwan is fretting about a different election . . . in Nicaragua.

Daniel Ortega, the former Sandinista revolutionary leader, looks like he'll be taking the reins of Nicaragua again, reliving his 1979-1990 rule. Ortega has made no secret of his indication to drop diplomatic recognition of Taiwan and renew relations with China.

It would be a major blow to Taiwan, which has only 24 diplomatic allies in the world.

Nicaragua is in the heart of Central America, the only region that supports Taiwan in a bloc. If Nicaragua topples, the other countries of Central America may not stay in Taiwan's camp much longer, especially if China starts waving around fistfuls of cash.

Taiwan issued a carefully worded statement today, quoting the foreign minister as saying, "We hope the two countries can maintain friendly ties."

I wouldn't count on it. Ortega's government recognized China in 1985, and when Violeta Chamorro won office in 1990, ending Sandinista rule, she switched to Taiwan and sent her eldest son, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, there as ambassador.

The last time I was in Managua was in the summer of 2004. I was astounded by all the Taiwanese money that had poured into the country. Taiwan built a vast presidential palace in the former Revolutionary Plaza in Managua, and helped finance a number of other projects. It even reportedly paid for 115 Nicaraguan troops to deploy to Iraq in 2003.

Ortega has ideological reasons, though, for wanting to ally with China, and I'm sure China will reward him handsomely.

Transparency in government

When it comes to Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, China views itself as the very big and wise elder brother. It offers a lot of free, unsolicited advice.

But it can't hold a stick to those places in terms of good governance, according to the latest annual survey from Transparency International, the Berlin-based group that ranks nations on corruption.

China came in tied at 70th place this year. Hong Kong ranked 15, Macau 26 and Taiwan 34, all perceived as far less corrupt than the mainland.

Among the countries above China in the listings are Bhutan (32), Botswana (37), Malaysia (44), Namibia (55), Bulgaria (57) and Colombia (59).

China can take heart, though, that in 2005 it was tied for 78th place, so it's climbing.

China and sex

It’s not uncommon to wake up in China and see racy matter in the newspaper or on a government-run website that you’d never see in a U.S. newspaper.

One of the ways China may be changing the fastest is in its usage of sexual content in advertising and in media. One local wag refers to Xinhua, the state-run news agency, as Skin-hua because of its habit of putting cheesecake photos on its website, obviously to draw traffic.

Another tactic is to run a fairly tame story on changing sexual norms and slap a photo on there with other aims. A headline in today’s China Daily website drew my attention to a convention in Guangzhou on a three-day “sex culture expo.” Curious, I clicked. (Don’t click yourself if you aren’t willing to see what Chinese newspaper readers see all the time. The content on the site may be what appears in a British tabloid but not a family-run U.S. newspaper.)

On the face of it, China still seems rather prudish. After all, it’s only a couple of decades since everyone, men and women, covered up in woolens or cotton suits.

But prostitution is everywhere. I can’t count the times I’ve received late-night phone calls in a hotel room in the provinces and hear the following simple sentence barked in my ear: “Wanna massage?” Often, the hotels that offer such services are actually owned and run by government entities. The rake-off seems to be a particular perk of certain cadres.

In-your-face sexual advertising is also getting more common. Even big multinationals, like McDonald’s and Haagen Dazs, have Chinese-language advertising now with suggestive content. McDonald’s ads indicate eating beef is good for virility. Haagen Dazs also came under criticism. Click here to see one story.

Elephants and zebras in Beijing


Beijing has gone safari. You would not believe the number of billboards and banners around the city to celebrate a two-day China-Africa summit now wrapping up.

In just a brief drive around the eastern part of the city I counted at least two dozen huge billboards. Around the whole city, the number must be in the hundreds. The cost is rather extraordinary. I presume the billboards were commandeered for the publicity campaign.

The media here says it is the biggest diplomatic event since 1949, and observing the resources spent on this thing it does not surprise me. I’ve seen President Bush come and go, and numerous European heads of state arrive. But nothing matches the display of pomp and pageantry for this summit for 40 or so African heads of state.

One can’t watch it without thinking that it is a stage rehearsal for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, and by my reading authorities are showing that they can stiff-arm any problem that might arise. The transit police have gotten really stern. They are everywhere, posted up and down every major thoroughfare. Beijing drivers, normally chaotic and ill-behaved, are now behaving meekly.

Taiwan Strait troubles may loom

Times keep getting harder for Taiwanese leader Chen Shui-bian and his family, and that could lead him to roil the Taiwan Straits.

On Friday, prosecutors said they would file corruption charges against Chen’s wife in an ongoing probe into misuse of about $450,000 from a special budget.

This case has been simmering for four months, and has led to large-scale street protests in Taiwan calling for Chen’s removal. Chen still has 20 months left in his four-year second term.

Chen's son-in-law was indicted in June for alleged insider trading.

Faced with the turmoil, Chen has been making noises in recent days about pushing ahead with his pro-independence agenda. That could help him rally his supporters. But it would undoubtedly worsen tensions with mainland China, and strain ties with Washington.

Where are all the cars?

Some are calling it a 2008 Olympic Games traffic rehearsal, and so far, so good.

For days, those of us living in Beijing have been hearing warnings that traffic would be a nightmare about now. Some 48 heads of state and delegations from Africa are visiting Nov. 3-6 for a summit meeting. That means the airport thoroughfare is sealed off.

Other roads are also restricted to official caravans or diplomatic vehicles.

Given the usual gridlock around here, I’d been imagining the worst. We packed off a friend to the airport on a shuttle bus this morning, fearing a drive on back roads to the airport might take two or three hours each way.

But it seems all the warnings have scared drivers off the roads. Traffic is lighter than usual. Normally, Beijing has two million private cars on the roads, and a total of three million motor vehicles. But the government has issued a six-day ban on the 490,000 cars from government agencies. So right there, it’s 15 percent less traffic. Moreover, another 250,000 drivers are heeding calls to stay off the roads and ease congestion.

Now, if only the African leaders would stick around for longer…

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