- How Chinese officials 'like' banned Facebook
- Ferry tragedy undermines South Korea economic 'miracle'
- N. Korea reports 'unimaginable' construction accident
Posted: 17 May 2014 10:06 PM PDT
Beijing (AFP) - China's Communist authorities ban their own people from accessing major global social media sites including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and more. But when it comes to self-promotion they are increasingly keen users themselves.
The official news agency Xinhua, the Communist Party's official mouthpiece the People's Daily, and state broadcaster CCTV all have Twitter accounts, as do a host of city and provincial authorities.
When the city of Hangzhou, renowned for its lakes and canals, looked to raise its international profile it turned to Facebook, the world's most-popular social network.
China's Internet users, who now number 618 million, have been blocked from using it since 2009.
But the city's "Modern Marco Polo" competition -- akin to Australia's "best job in the world" contests -- involves no fewer than six Facebook apps.
The winner, to be announced Tuesday, will receive 40,000 euros ($55,000) and a two-week trip to Hangzhou, in exchange for promoting the city on Facebook and Twitter for a year.
Michael Cavanaugh, a consultant for British-based PR Agency One, which has been promoting the contest, told AFP increasing official use of such sites was "inevitable". But he declined to say how the winner was expected to post to them from within China.
- Great Firewall of China -
China's Communist authorities maintain a tight grip on expression -- both on- and off-line -- fearful of any dissent that could spiral into a challenge to one-party rule.
Some Chinese Internet users and businesses use VPNs, or virtual private networks, to bypass the vast censorship apparatus known as the Great Firewall, and state-run media often use foreign bureaux to accomplish the same goal.
Hangzhou itself used a digital agency in Hong Kong, where Facebook is not blocked, to administer its contest -- an increasing trend by cities and provinces within China's borders.
The social media giant is actively seeking business in the country.
"We want to help tourism agencies in China tell the rest of the world about the fabulous things in China that are really not that well-understood," Vaughan Smith, Facebook's vice president of corporate development, told a Beijing audience last month.
Facebook is reportedly in talks to open a sales office in the Chinese capital, and in recent weeks the company has quietly posted Beijing-based job openings on its website, including one for a client solutions manager to "focus on planning, implementing, and optimising advertising campaign spending for the world's top-tier advertisers".
Its executives are making increasingly frequent appearances at high-profile events in China, and the company's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg drew international headlines last September when she met the head of China's State Council Information Office, which oversees propaganda efforts.
Google also seeks advertisers in China and has three offices on the mainland, but pulled out its servers in 2010 in a row about censorship.
Twitter, which is a prominent advocate for free speech online, has shown few signs of interest in setting up in China, although the company's CEO Dick Costolo met Shanghai government officials during his first China visit in March.
Facebook representatives declined interview requests about the company's China business.
Duncan Clark, chairman of Beijing-based tech consultancy BDA, said Chinese local authorities had huge budgets and their tourism advertisements were probably lucrative for the multi-billion-dollar firm.
However, Facebook was unlikely to see them as a way of gaining access to Chinese users, Clark said.
"There's kind of a common-sense, logical middle ground where Facebook and China will agree to trade with each other," he told AFP. "This is business sense. I wouldn't expect that to change."
- Netizens: 'discriminatory' -
Other promotions include the "Rebirth of the Terracotta Warrior" Facebook contest launched last month by Shaanxi province, home to the tomb of China's first emperor Qin Shihuang.
A "Chengdu Pambassador" campaign gave contestants a chance to become a "guest panda keeper" at the southwestern city's giant panda base through a series of Facebook activities.
But critics of Chinese censorship say such schemes give Beijing a soft-power boost through sleight-of-hand.
A co-founder of anti-censorship website GreatFire.org who uses the pseudonym Charlie Smith told AFP: "I think the average Western netizen doesn't put two and two together and realise actually, these websites are blocked in China.
"That helps China, for sure, because it gives this impression that Facebook is actually open and free for the people who don't know that it isn't," he added.
The double standards have not escaped the notice of Chinese web users.
The Shaanxi provincial government announced the opening of its tourist board's Facebook, YouTube and Twitter accounts in a posting on Weibo -- a Chinese version of Twitter -- in February.
Several users angrily responded that they were unable to open the links, the Southern Metropolis Daily reported.
"We're not advocating that domestic tourists visit these pages," a provincial government representative told the paper, drawing even greater fury.
"This way of thinking is discriminatory against Chinese people," wrote one online commentator. "It shows a lack of understanding of the basic rules of tourism promotion. It's very stupid and quite laughable." - AFP
Posted: 17 May 2014 08:57 PM PDT
SEOUL: South Korea's ferry disaster has had a profound psychological impact on Asia's fourth-largest economy, shaking public confidence in the very foundations of the country's "miracle" development model.
The most tangible economic impact has been on domestic demand, as the mood of national grief at the loss of so many lives - most of them schoolchildren - has manifested itself in collective consumer abstinence.
In the month since the 6,825-tonne Sewol capsized with 476 people on board, a self-imposed moratorium on leisure-time spending has been in effect.
On an institutional level, spring festivals were cancelled, corporate entertainment events and retreats indefinitely postponed and music, sports and other cultural events either scrapped or significantly toned down.
On a personal level, many ordinary South Koreans simply stopped dining, drinking and shopping in their usual numbers.
"First of all, public confidence has been hammered," said Chun Sang-Jin, a sociology professor at Seoul's Sogang University.
"On top of that there's a collective sense of grief and guilt that just doesn't sit with drinking, cracking jokes and merry-making," Chun said.
According to data compiled by market researcher FnGuide, South Korean brokerage houses have cut second-quarter earnings outlooks for companies in the telecoms, food and retail sectors.
Credit card companies have reported a drop in transactions of up to 10 percent, while small businesses, shops and restaurants are all feeling the pinch.
Spending boost, easy loans
The government, which has faced a public backlash in the wake of the Sewol tragedy, has already announced a number of measures, including front-loading this year's budget.
In a bid to boost domestic demand the share of the annual budget to be spent in the first six months of the year has been increased from 55 to 57 percent - meaning an extra 7.6 billion dollars in spending by the end of June.
"A slump in consumption following the Sewol disaster... could dampen a hard-won economic recovery," Finance Minister Hyun Oh-Seok said, promising "pre-emptive" measures to mitigate the fallout.
Low-interest loans were announced for small and medium-sized businesses involved in tourism, transportation and accommodation.
The export and manufacturing sectors are dominant in South Korea, so a dip in the domestic consumer market has a limited impact in terms of the overall economy.
But a protracted slump would have a significant social and political impact.
"There is certainly a worry about just how long this might go on for," said Shin Hoon, policy director of the Korea Foods Industry Association.
So far, 284 people have been confirmed dead in the disaster, but 20 remain unaccounted for and the operation to recover all bodies from the submerged vessel continues - more than one month after it sank.
South Koreans are not easily knocked off kilter, having spent decades living with a volatile, unpredictable neighbour in North Korea.
While the international community buckles with concern over every North Korean provocation, people in the South have become so inured to the constant threat that they tend to shrug it off.
The country has suffered disasters in the past, including a 1995 department store collapse that claimed more than 500 lives and a 2003 subway fire that killed 192.
But the Sewol tragedy has wounded the national psyche in a way that those events did not.
The unprecedented number of children among the dead is a huge factor, with the final death toll expected to include 250 students - all from the same high school.
Then there is the increasing evidence that the disaster was wholly man-made: the result of cut corners, regulatory violations, poor safety training and a woeful lack of oversight - all, or nearly all, attributable to a desire to maximise profits.
Modern South Korea still has deep Confucian routes which, while stressing filial piety and obedience, also insist on parents - and by extension the state - earning that obedience by acting as "ever-watchful and loving guardians".
A collective guilt
The sense that this Confucian contract was broken may partly explain why national grief over the Sewol has largely been expressed in terms of guilt, apology and remorse, as well as anger.
"We are sorry" reads the giant banner erected above a temporary memorial to the Sewol victims outside Seoul City Hall.
"It was a collective trauma, and there is a collective guilt," said Hwang Sang-Min, a psychology professor at Yonsei University. "And I'm not sure there is anyone who commands the respect or leadership to say 'now let's move on'," Hwang said.
And even when the corner is turned, the legacy of the disaster looks set to endure in the questions it has raised over the formula for South Korea's extraordinary economic success.
The rapid transformation from dictatorship to vibrant democracy and war-torn, impoverished backwater to Asia's fourth-largest economy is a source of great national pride.
But maybe, some are now asking, the unfettered growth came at too high a price, as safety standards were sidelined and regulations ignored in the blind rush for development.
"The Sewol tragedy has called into question all our great achievements ... (and) it feels like the country may never be the same again," the novelist Kim Young-Ha wrote in an op-ed piece for the New York Times.
"We are awash in self-reflection. Has all of our progress been a facade? Are we, in fact, an advanced country?" -AFP
Posted: 17 May 2014 08:51 PM PDT
SEOUL: North Korea's state media reported Sunday an "unimaginable" accident at an apartment construction site in Pyongyang, which had resulted in an unspecified number of casualties.
South Korean officials said the incident involved the collapse of a 23-storey apartment building, which already had close to 100 families in residence.
It is extremely rare for North Kora to report negative news of this type, and the despatch from the official KCNA news agency included equally rare apologies from top officials.
KCNA said the accident had occurred last Tuesday and was the result of "irresponsible" supervision by officials in charge of the construction.
An "intensive" emergency rescue effort had been carried out to rescue survivors and treat the wounded, it said.
The KCNA did not provide a death toll or elaborate on the cause of the collapse, but said it had left Pyongyang citizens "greatly shocked".
The agency carried lengthy public apologies by senior officials including the Minister of People's Security, Choe Pu-Il.
"(Choe) repented of himself, saying that he failed to find out factors that can put at risk the lives and properties of the people and to take thorough-going measures, thereby causing an unimaginable accident," it said.
Kim 'up all night, feeling painful'
A South Korean official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Seoul was aware of the incident which involved the collapse of a 23-storey apartment complex.
"It is common in North Korea that people move into a new apartment building before construction officially ends," the official told AFP.
The official said 92 families were believed to be living in the collapsed building, and the final death toll was likely to be "considerable".
The North's leader Kim Jong-Un "sat up all night, feeling painful" after being told about the accident, according to a senior Pyongyang official quoted by the KCNA.
The young leader "instructed leading officials of the party, state and the army to rush to the scene, putting aside all other affairs and command the rescue operation," Kim Su-Gil, chief secretary of the city committee of the ruling Workers' Party, said in his public apology.
All Pyongyang citizens were "sharing sorrow" with the bereaved families and victims, the official said, calling all to "overcome sorrow with courage".
About 2.5 million people - mostly political elites including senior party members or those with privileged background - are believed to live in Pyongyang.
Pyongyang residents are known to enjoy better access to electricity, food, goods and other services than those living elsewhere in the impoverished and isolated country.
The secretive nation has rarely made public the details - especially death tolls - of major accidents.
But in one exceptional case, the North announced in April 2004 a massive train explosion in the northwestern county of Ryongchon had left 154 - including dozens of schoolchildren - dead and some 1,300 injured.
The accident - caused by damaged electric wires - devastated many nearby towns, prompting Pyongyang to make a rare plea for help from the international community.
The North is under layers of UN sanctions imposed after its disputed nuclear and missile tests, and suffers chronic shortages in food to fuel and medical supplies. -AFP
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