- In China, public anger over secrecy on environment
- Falklands votes in sovereignty referendum rejected by Argentina
- Incidents make Jews wary, 75 years after Hitler annexed Austria
Posted: 09 Mar 2013 07:43 PM PST
BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) - When China's environment ministry told attorney Dong Zhengwei he couldn't have access to two-year old data about soil pollution because it was a "state secret", it added to mounting public outrage over the worsening environment.
Microbloggers, state media and even delegates to this week's session of the National People's Congress, the largely rubber-stamp parliament, were already critical of the government for poor air and water quality. Now they are also expressing disquiet over the scarcity of information about the environment available to them.
For incoming President Xi Jinping, who formally takes over towards the end of the parliament session, the two-pronged challenge is to find the balance between growth and further degradation of the environment, and also to decide whether to level with citizens just how bad the problem is.
"The significance of this event goes far beyond just environmental protection," said Dong, in an interview with Reuters. "It concerns the problem China has had for many years - the issue of government transparency. (They) shouldn't use 'state secrets' as a shield when they're not in the right."
The environment has already been one of one of the most frequently raised issues at the annual parliament session and China's authoritarian government has admitted it has a problem.
"Our country, in a very short time over the past 30 years, has achieved brilliant economic achievements," Xin Chunying, vice-director of the NPC standing committee's working group on the legal system, told reporters on Saturday.
"But at the same time, we have paid a heavy price with the environment. This price must stop, it has to be reduced, we must say â€˜no' to the status quo."
China does not usually allow public scrutiny of governance, particularly on sensitive issues such as corruption and security. But public anger over the environment may force authorities to accommodate the public in small ways.
"In other areas it is still dangerous," said Gary Liu, a professor at the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai. "But pollution is a relatively safe area, because people have enough justification to fight against the government and they can easily get enough public support because everybody is in the same country, breathes the same air."
A choking smog in Beijing in January, far above hazardous levels, has been one of the most dramatic signs of China's environmental problems, but Dong is convinced that soil pollution is the country's "silent killer."
About 40 percent of China's agricultural land is irrigated with underground water, of which 90 percent is polluted, according to Liu Xin, a food and health expert and a member of an advisory body to parliament, who was quoted in the Southern Metropolitan Daily.
Citing "state secrets", the environment ministry last month denied a request from Dong for information on data on soil samples that was collected in a national survey that started in 2006 and ended in 2010.
The decision was perplexing to Dong, since he had been given signals that authorities would be accommodating on environmental issues.
He said after filing more than 10 lawsuits against other government departments in 2008, officials from the legislative affairs office of the State Council, or cabinet, pleaded with him to stop suing those agencies and "sue the environment ministry on the basis of the public's interest".
The government has caved in to public pressure for access to environmental information before. In early 2012, amid growing public outrage about air quality in the capital city, Beijing began announcing publicly the amount of tiny pollution particles in the air that measure 2.5 micrometres or less in diameter.
"Before the release of PM 2.5, there was controversy, some people thought that releasing the information on air quality may lead to panic in the society," Yan Chengzhong, a Shanghai delegate, said on the sidelines of the parliament session, according to the Wen Wei Po newspaper.
"But the facts proved this is not the case. 'Being unaware' would only cause people to panic."
And just last month, the government acknowledged for the first time that pollution had given rise to "cancer villages", admitting that cancer rates in villages near factories and polluted rivers were far higher than they should be.
But examples of the environment ministry's shortcomings abound.
Pan Zhizhong, a resident in Panguanying village in north-eastern Hebei province, has led his village of 1,900 people in protesting against the construction of an incinerator plant since 2009.
When Pan sued the Hebei Department of Environmental Protection in 2011, he was given access to the environmental impact assessment that the environment ministry claimed it had done in the village. Pan discovered that the assessment, carried out by the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences, had names of people who had left the village two decades previously and even a person who had been dead for two years - all "expressing favour" for the project.
Pan surveyed 100 people in his village, showing them the purported environmental impact study. The majority of them gave him written statements that declared: "I've never seen this form," according to documents seen by Reuters.
A PRICE TO PAY
Sometimes, challenging the government comes at a cost.
Chen Yuqian, 60, a farmer from the town of Pailian in eastern Zhejiang province, said he has been beaten up five times in his decade-long fight against soil and water pollution --beatings for which he blames local officials.
On February 20, Chen issued a challenge on Weibo, China's version of Twitter, daring officials from the local environment protection bureau to swim in a stretch of polluted river. He offered 300,000 yuan ($48,200) as a reward.
Four days later, dozens of men, carrying sticks and rocks, charged into his home and started smashing things, Chen said.
"They are trying to scare me so that I don't petition anymore, so that I don't report on the pollution anymore," Chen said.
Xu Shuifa, the Communist Party secretary of the district that governs Chen's village, told Reuters by telephone that he had no links to the attackers and said the attack was linked to a land dispute Chen has with three of his neighbours.
Back in Beijing, Dong, the attorney, said he had filed an appeal with the environment ministry for the soil survey data and expected a decision within two months. He said he would go to court if he was denied.
(Additional reporting by Hui Li and Beijing Newsroom in BEIJING and John Ruwitch in SHANGHAI, Editing by Bill Powell and Raju Gopalakrishnan)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 09 Mar 2013 07:10 PM PST
STANLEY, Falkland Islands (Reuters) - Residents of the Falkland Islands vote on Sunday in a sovereignty referendum aimed at countering Argentina's increasingly assertive claim over the British-ruled territory.
Diplomatic tension between Britain and Argentina has flared up more than three decades since they went to war over the South Atlantic archipelago, and that has unsettled some of the roughly 2,500 islanders.
With patriotic feelings running high, Falklands-born and long-term residents will cast ballots in the two-day referendum in which they will be asked whether they want to stay a British Overseas Territory.
Officials are expected to announce the result at about 8 p.m. (2300 GMT) after polls close on Monday.
A near-unanimous "yes" vote is likely, prompting Argentina to dismiss the referendum as a meaningless publicity stunt. A high turnout is expected, however, as islanders embrace it as a chance to make their voices heard.
"We hope the undecideds, or the uninformeds, or those countries that might otherwise be prepared to give the nod to Argentina's sovereignty claim might have pause for thought after the referendum," said John Fowler, deputy editor of the islands' weekly newspaper, the Penguin News.
"This is an attempt to say 'hang on a minute, there's another side to the story'."
In the low-key capital of Stanley, referendum posters bearing the Falklands flag and the slogan "Our Islands, Our Choice" adorn front windows. The post office has produced a line of official stamps to mark the occasion.
Some islanders are the descendants of British settlers who arrived eight or nine generations ago and the Falklands retain an unmistakably British character despite a sizeable community of immigrants from Chile and Saint Helena.
Residents say fiery remarks by Argentine President Cristina Fernandez and her foreign minister, Hector Timerman, have fuelled patriotic sentiment on the islands, which lie nearly 8,000 miles (12,700 km) from London and just a 75-minute flight away from southern Argentina.
Tensions have risen with the discovery of commercially viable oil resources in the Falklands basin and Fernandez's persistent demands for Britain to hold sovereignty talks over the Malvinas, as the islands are called in Spanish.
London says it will only agree to negotiations if the islanders want them, which they show no sign of doing.
Timerman said last month the referendum had the "spirit of a public-relations campaign" and the foreign ministry accused Britain of pursuing "irresponsible initiatives in bad faith."
"This new British attempt to manipulate the Malvinas issue through a vote by the population that it implanted is forcefully rejected by Argentina," a ministry statement said, citing Latin American support for Argentina's position.
MOMENTS OF DETENTE
Argentina has claimed the islands since 1833, saying it inherited them from the Spanish on independence and that Britain expelled an Argentine population.
The sovereignty claim is a constant in Argentine foreign policy, but there have been moments of detente since former dictator Leopoldo Galtieri sent troops to land in the Falklands in April 1982, drawing a swift response from former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
A 10-week war, which killed about 650 Argentines and 255 Britons and ended when Argentina surrendered, is widely remembered in Argentina as a humiliating mistake by the brutal and discredited dictatorship ruling at the time.
No one in Argentina advocates another effort to take the islands by force, but some analysts say the current tough strategy may prove counterproductive by antagonizing islanders.
"Until Argentina is able to persuade the Falkland Islanders to accept some form of Argentine sovereignty over the islands, Argentina's efforts to reclaim them will be an exercise in futility," said Mark Jones, chair of political science at Houston-based Rice University.
In the islands, where plans for oil production to start in 2017 could further boost the flourishing local economy, most residents are determined to maintain the status quo.
"Our best-case scenario is for them to drop their claim and realize that we are a people, we are a country and we do exist," said Gavin Short, one of the Falklands assembly's eight elected members.
Asked if he thought that might happen, he said: "Not in my lifetime."
(Additional reporting by Magali Cervantes in Stanley; and Helen Popper in Buenos Aires; Writing by Helen Popper; Editing by David Brunnstrom)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 09 Mar 2013 06:28 PM PST
VIENNA (Reuters) - Marina Plistiev, a Kyrgyzstan-born Jew, has lived in Vienna for 34 years but still doesn't like to take public transport.
She recalls the day in 1986 as a teenager when she and her four-year-old brother, whom she'd collected from school with a fever, were told to get off a tram for having the wrong tickets, and nobody stuck up for them, apparently because they were Jews.
"With me (now), you don't see I'm Jewish but with my children you see that they're Jews. They get funny looks," she told Reuters at Kosherland, the grocery store that she and her husband started 13 years ago.
While Austria is one of the world's wealthiest, most law-abiding and stable democracies, the anti-Semitism that Plistiev senses quietly lingers in a nation that was once a enthusiastic executor of Nazi Germany's Holocaust against Jews.
After decades of airbrushing it out of history, Austria has come a long way in acknowledging its Nazi past, and the 75th anniversary on Tuesday of its annexation by Hitler's Third Reich will be the occasion for various soul-searching ceremonies.
But Jewish leaders who fought hard to win restitution after World War Two are on guard against a rising trend in anti-Semitic incidents, occasionally condemned by Austrian political leaders but seen more generally as a regrettable fact of life.
Austrian Jews have grown more vigilant as hooligans have verbally abused a rabbi, Austria's popular far-right party chief posted a cartoon widely seen as suggestively anti-Semitic, and a debate has opened on the legality of infant male circumcision.
A new poll timed to coincide with the anniversary found that three of five Austrians want a "strong man" to lead the country and two out of five think things were not all bad under Adolf Hitler. That was more than in previous surveys.
The history of Vienna - once home to Jewish luminaries of 20th-century culture such as Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Arnold Schoenberg, but later Adolf Eichmann's testing ground for what would become the "Final Solution" that led to genocide of 6 million Jews - means its Jews are always on the alert.
HOLOCAUST PERFECTED IN VIENNA
"Vienna was a very important place for the fate of all European Jews because the automated driving out of Jews was perfected here," Joachim Riedl, author of several books on Jewish history and Vienna, said at a recent lecture.
Other incidents further afield have heightened concerns. A radical Islamist gunman killed four Jews in France before being shot dead, Hungary's far-right leader called for a list of prominent Jews to be drawn up help protect national security, and Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated in Austria's eastern neighbour.
Seeking to avoid being forever branded as the country that welcomed absorption by the Third Reich and refused to atone for it, Austria has made gestures to underline its disowning of both the Nazi past and previous manifestations of anti-Semitism.
Last year, Vienna renamed part of the elegant Ringstrasse boulevard circling the inner city that had been named after Karl Lueger, the mayor who modernised Vienna in the 19th century but became popular for his anti-Semitic rhetoric.
"We cannot choose our history," said parliament president Barbara Prammer. "We must bear this responsibility."
Rabbi Andrew Baker of the American Jewish Congress advocacy group has seen a marked change since a 1991 poll that he helped design found that most Austrians thought it was time to put the memories of the Holocaust behind them.
"There was still a social anti-Semitism that kind of defied embarrassment," he said. "The Austrians have come a long way since then, but they had a long way to go."
Today's Austrian Jewish community of 15,000 is diverse, formed mainly of post-war immigrants from eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
"This city is something very remarkable. It has a great Jewish history and a great Jewish community, but they have little to do with one another," said Israeli-born writer and historian Doron Rabinovici, who has lived in Vienna since 1964.
SHOES TOO BIG
"This community is living in shoes that are too big for it," said Rabinovici, best known in English for his book "Eichmann's Jews: The Jewish Administration of Holocaust Vienna 1938-1945".
Before the 1938 annexation, the "Anschluss", Austria's Jewish population was 195,000, the same size as present-day Linz, a provincial capital not far from Hitler's birthplace.
Two-thirds of them were driven out in the "Aryanisation" programme immediately following the Anschluss and all but about 2,000 left behind were killed in concentration camps. Today's Austrian Jewish community is almost entirely in Vienna.
"The most terrible thing was not the way hundreds of thousands of Austrians celebrated Hitler's arrival, but the enthusiasm with which they dispossessed the Jews," recalled Ari Rath, a Holocaust survivor who fled Vienna at the age of 13.
Rath, who went on to become the long-time editor of the Jerusalem Post, was back in the city of his birth speaking to a group of schoolchildren about his experiences, as part of a parliament-sponsored education project.
"We went from being people to non-persons overnight," he said in fluent German, a language he suppressed for decades.
"It's a different Austria now, but you cannot forget it took until 41 years after the war ... before Austrians began seriously to confront the Nazi past of this country."
He was referring to the so-called Waldheim Affair of the mid-1980s, in which President Kurt Waldheim was outed as having hidden his knowledge of German atrocities during his wartime past as a Nazi military officer. The case triggered a long-suppressed international debate about Austria's history.
Austrians, many of whom had wanted a union with Germany, maintained for decades that their country was Hitler's first victim, ignoring the fact that huge, cheering crowds had greeted Hitler in March 1938 with flowers, Nazi flags and salutes.
Within days of March 12, tens of thousands of Jews and dissenters were under arrest, imprisoned or packed off to concentration camps. Jews were shut out of jobs and schools, forced to wear yellow badges, and had their property confiscated.
DEMANDING, NOT BEGGING
Ariel Muzicant served as president of Austria's official Jewish organisation, the IKG, from 1998 until last year.
As a young activist during the Waldheim affair, he was key in persuading the IKG to break with its low profile and tackle the backlash of anti-Jewish feeling that the affair unleashed.
"I did not just go and beg. I told them: 'These are our rights as a Jewish community. These are our demands.' I wasn't what you would call a very silent, docile president," he said.
Muzicant's drive led to the restitution of Jewish property, laws to recognise Jewish institutions and customs, and the rebuilding or new construction of schools and synagogues.
Things are not perfect, he said, but they could be a lot worse. "Vienna is one of the most beautiful places in the world. If you're not Jewish, there's no better place to live."
Muzicant's successor at the IKG's helm, Oskar Deutsch, has a less confrontational approach. "You don't want to escalate it," he said. "But it's a short way from words to deeds."
The IKG says the number of anti-Semitic incidents in Austria of which it knows doubled last year to 135.
More common than overt attacks in Austria, where strict laws ban Nazi symbolism and parties, are appeals to shared prejudices through remarks or actions that go mostly unchallenged.
The anti-foreigner Freedom Party of Heinz-Christian Strache, who posted the disputed cartoon, consistently scores above 20 percent in opinion polls and has a chance of joining a coalition government after elections this year.
Still, many Viennese Jews freely stroll through the streets in Orthodox garb, especially in districts such as Leopoldstadt, the former Jewish ghetto where many Jews live again today.
The IKG, while condemning anti-Jewish actions anywhere, is hoping to take advantage of the comparatively favourable position of Jews in Austria to boost its depleted population.
It is working with the government to bring at least 150 Jewish families a year into the country, and has already helped some 20 families from neighbouring Hungary.
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
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