Today: Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Sep 28, 2011

LA TIMES - China's Forbidden City can't keep out thieves or scandals, Sep 28, 2011

Forbidden City in Beijing

A sign for an exhibit of Art Deco cases in the Forbidden City. A thief confessed to taking nine items and said he escaped by scaling a 26-foot wall, according to state media. (Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times / September 28, 2011)

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On the night of May 8, a pint-size thief broke into an exhibit hall in the Forbidden City and made off with $1.5 million worth of gold-and-jewel-encrusted boxes, breaching a vaunted fortress designed to protect the long-ago emperors of China from barbarian invaders.

Shi Bokui, 28, a migrant worker with a sixth-grade education was caught three days later. Not the brightest of criminals, he'd left fingerprints on a glass display case and then went to an Internet cafe nearby and registered under his own name. Most of the loot, which was on loan from a Hong Kong museum, was recovered.

Restoring the reputation of the Forbidden City, the 180-acre compound that was home to China's emperors for 500 years, is proving more difficult.

"The Forbidden City is a symbol of China," said Jia Yinghua, a historian who has worked in the compound staging exhibits about the imperial family. "If anybody steals from there, the foundation of the nation is shaken."

The burglary is only the latest in a string of recent scandals that have brought ignominy to one of China's foremost attractions. In July, one of its researchers accidentally broke a 1,000-year-old porcelain dish during a botched scientific test and others were accused of submerging a Qing dynasty wooden screen in water.

More than 100 rare books from the imperial library, many of them from the 19th century, have vanished. And corrupt employees working the admissions gates were captured on videotape pocketing the entry fees ($9 per head) from tour groups, and then got caught paying hush money to a blackmailer who threatened to blow the whistle.

Shortly after the May break-in, popular television host Rui Chenggang revealed in a blog that the Forbidden City was trying to open a private club for the super-rich with membership fees starting at $150,000. That rankled socialist sensibilities, especially given that the palace had been off-limits to the public until the abdication of the last emperor, Puyi, in 1911. The Palace Museum, as the compound is now officially called, blamed its commercial partner, Forbidden City Palace Cultural Development Co., operator of the gift shops and snack bars.

The walled city has 980 buildings in a geometric layout, many with poetic names like the Hall of Supreme Harmony and the Studio of Exhaustion from the Diligent Reign. Almost everything is painted a dusty hue of vermilion, and there is an air of faded grandeur about the place, with tall grass growing through cracks in the vast stone courtyards and yellow tile roofs.

Still, the Palace Museum is the most popular tourist attraction in China, with 8 million visitors a year, most of them Chinese. The modern capital of Beijing is laid out around its walls.

In many ways, the Forbidden City is the psychic heart of the nation; it is at the intersection of imaginary north-south and east-west axes that ancient geomancers thought marked the center of China, hence the world, with the optimal feng shui. It is no coincidence that the Communist Party chose to rule from the adjacent Zhongnanhai compound that hugs its western walls — today the true forbidden city.

NY TIMES - Fearing Change, Syria’s Christians Back Assad, Sep 28, 2011

SAYDNAYA, Syria — Abu Elias sat beneath the towering stairs leading from the Convent of Our Lady of Saydnaya, a church high up in the mountains outside Damascus, where Christians have worshiped for 1,400 years. “We are all scared of what will come next,” he said, turning to a man seated beside him, Robert, an Iraqi refugee who escaped the sectarian strife in his homeland.

Louai Beshara/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Syrians supporting President Bashar al-Assad waved flags and portraits of Mr. Assad during a rally in Damascus two weeks ago.

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In 2007, Christian and Muslim religious leaders posed with Mr. Assad on Christmas at a church outside Damascus.

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“He fled Iraq and came here,” said Abu Elias, looking at his friend, who arrived just a year earlier. “Soon, we might find ourselves doing the same.”

Syria plunges deeper into unrest by the day. On Tuesday, government troops attacked the rebellious town of Rastan with tanks and machine guns, wounding at least 20 people. With the chaos growing, Christians visiting Saydnaya on a recent Sunday said they feared that a change of power could usher in a tyranny of the Sunni Muslim majority, depriving them of the semblance of protection the Assad family has provided for four decades.

Syria’s Christian minority is sizable, about 10 percent of the population, though some here say the share is actually lower these days. Though their sentiments are by no means monolithic — Christians are represented in the opposition, and loyalty to the government is often driven more by fear than fervor — the group’s fear helps explain how PresidentBashar al-Assad has held on to segments of his constituency, in spite of a brutal crackdown aimed at crushing a popular uprising.

For many Syrian Christians, Mr. Assad remains predictable in a region where unpredictability has driven their brethren from war-racked places like Iraq and Lebanon, and where others have felt threatened in postrevolutionary Egypt.

They fear that in the event the president falls, they may be subjected to reprisals at the hands of a conservative Sunni leadership for what it sees as Christian support of the Assad family. They worry that the struggle to dislodge Mr. Assad could turn into a civil war, unleashing sectarian bloodshed in a country where minorities, ethnic and religious, have found a way to coexist for the most part.

The anxiety is so deep that many ignore the opposition’s counterpoint: The government has actually made those divisions worse as part of a strategy to ensure the rule of the Assad family, which itself springs from a Muslim minority, the Alawites.

NZ HERALD - Japan plane's near upside down flip, Sep 28, 2011

Inside ANA's new Dreamliner. The Japanese carrier suffered a near miss last month when a flight from Okinawa nose-dived 1900 metres in 30 seconds and almost flipped over. Photo / AP

Inside ANA's new Dreamliner. The Japanese carrier suffered a near miss last month when a flight from Okinawa nose-dived 1900 metres in 30 seconds and almost flipped over. Photo / AP

A Japanese plane narrowly avoided disaster earlier this month when it plunged over the Pacific, almost turning upside down, the transport ministry said.

The All Nippon Airways (ANA) flight, with 117 passengers and crew on board, dived 1900 metres in 30 seconds in the incident off the southern Shizuoka district on September 6.

The manoeuvre happened when the co-pilot, in trying to unlock the cockpit door for the captain who was returning from the toilet, mistook a command button for the cockpit door lock switch nearby.

The plane, which took off from Naha on Okinawa island in the south, later managed to touch down at Tokyo's Haneda airport safely.

THE GUARDIAN - Aid agency withdrew Pakistan staff after CIA fake vaccination scheme, Sep 28, 2011

Bin Laden's Abbottabad compound
The compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was killed after the CIA ran a fake vaccination programme in the town. Photograph: Akhtar Soomro/Reuters

Fears that a fake CIA vaccination scheme created to hunt Osama bin Laden has compromised the operations of aid agencies in Pakistan have intensified after it emerged that a major NGO was forced to evacuate its staff following warnings about their security.

Save the Children flew eight expatriate aid workers out of Pakistan in late July after receiving a warning from US officials at the Peshawar consulate. Two senior local staff were moved into five-star hotels in Islamabad.

Western and Pakistani officials say there were fears that Save the Children staff could be picked up by Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) over alleged links to Dr Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani doctor at the heart of the covert CIA vaccination scheme that helped locate Bin Laden.

Save the Children vehemently denies any links to the CIA scheme, which the Guardian first reported in July, and said it was the victim of a broader crackdown on aid agencies in Pakistan caused by CIA tactics.

"Dr Afridi never worked for Save the Children and his alleged activities were not in any way connected with us. We did not have a vaccination programme in Abbottabad," said a spokeswoman, Ishbel Matheson, in London.

CNN News - White House, experts dismiss Iran naval threat to U.S. coast, Sep 28, 2011

Iranian clerics in front of the Jamran, Iran's first domestically built warship, during naval maneuvers in the Gulf in 2009.
Iranian clerics in front of the Jamran, Iran's first domestically built warship, during naval maneuvers in the Gulf in 2009.
  • NEW: The White House says it doesn't take the Iranian claim seriously
  • A Pentagon spokesman questions Iran's naval capability
  • Miltiary experts say Iran is incapable of deploying ships off the U.S. coast
  • State-run news agency says there will be a "powerful presence" near U.S. borders

(CNN) -- The White House on Wednesday dismissed an Iranian threat to deploy warships near the U.S. coast, and military experts said Iran lacks the naval capability to do so.

Overnight Tuesday, Iranian state news quoted a commander as saying his country plans to have a "powerful presence" near the U.S. border.

In response, White House spokesman Jay Carney said that "we don't take these statements seriously, given that they do not reflect at all Iran's naval capabilities."

Pentagon spokesman George Little echoed Carney's point, saying Iran has the right to send vessels into international waters, but "whether they can truly project naval power beyond the region is another question."

"I wouldn't read too much into what came out of Iran today," Little said, adding: "I think what is said and what is actually done can be two different things."

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