Monthly Archives: October 2009

Qian Xuesen, Rocket Scientist, Dies

But for a twist of history, Qian Xuesen, whose death at age 98 was announced Saturday, might be being remembered as another immigrant rocket scientist who had made a significant contribution to America’s space technology rather than as the father of China’s space program.

After graduating form Jiao Tong University in 1934, Qian studied on a scholarship at at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and later the California Institute of Technology where he obtained a doctorate in 1939. He would be at Caltech for two decades, helping to set up the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and ultimately becoming Goddard Professor. He was regarded as one of the leading rocket scientists in America and had worked on the Manhattan Project to develop an atomic bomb in World War II, but when he applied for U.S. citizenship in the 1950s he fell victim to the McCarthyite anti-communist fever sweeping America at the time and was deported, returning to China in 1955.

Working for the defense ministry, he set up China’s first missile and rocket research institute. His subsequent research helped lead to the successful explosion of China’s first atomic bomb in 1964, to its first man-made satellite in 1970 and to its first manned spacecraft in 2003. (Xinhua‘s obituary.) History’s mischief is the law of unintended consequences.

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Geely Looks Set To Buy Ford’s Volvo

Greely has emerged as the preferred bidder for Ford Motor’s Volvo car business as Detroit’s old-line car makers continue to consolidate. Ford bought Volvo in 1999 for $6.5 billion when its strategy was to acquire a stable of premium marques. No indication yet of what price Hangzhou-based Greely might pay — $2 billion is being batted around as likely — but, as with Tengzhong Heavy’s bid for GM’s Hummer, Geely will probably need an investment partner to supply the necessary capital, or an accommodating bank. No word either on when the ‘detailed and focused’ negotiations will be concluded but disentangling Volvo from Ford will be more complex than the sale of Land Rover/Jaguar to Tata Motors because Volvo does a lot of the safety work across Ford’s lines.

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Drought In Southeast Worsens

No relief to the drought in the southeast. Xinhua reports that approaching half a million people in Jiangxi face drinking water shortages. Nine rivers in the province are said to be at their lowest record levels. Attempts to create artificial rain have failed and the hot, dry weather expected to last into mid-November.

Global Warming Weather MapThe drought-causing hot, dry weather could be a harbinger of things to come. More such extreme weather is one of the highlighted risks to China on a new global warming weather map produced by the U.K.’s Met Office ahead of the Copenhagen climate conference. The Met Office says there is also an increased risk of tropical cyclones striking the country’s coasts. Crop yields, particularly for cereals, are also expected to decline once temperatures rise by more than 3℃. This would be particularly serious on the wheat- and soy-growing North China Plain.

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Filed under Environment, Politics & Society

Natural Gas In Chongqing, Or Hot Air?

Given China’s rush to secure energy resources overseas there would be a certain irony to finding a massive natural gas field in its own back yard. Yet that is what may — or may not — have happened.  Chengdu Commercial News quotes a local official saying a Sinopec official had told him that the company has found the largest natural gas field in Asia in Chongqing. That came as news to Sinopec officials in Beijing, who told Bloomberg that the company is checking the report. PetroChina operates China’s largest confirmed gas field, the Sulige field in Inner Mongolia with proven gas reserves of 534 billion cubic meters. The next largest is Sinopec’s Puguang field in Sichuan, which has  verified reserves of 356 billion cubic meters.

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No Progress In Rio 4 Case

Kevin Rudd, Australia’s prime minister, seems to have to no change out of his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao when the two discussed the case of Stern Hu and three of his Rio Tinto colleagues who were detained by Chinese authorities in July on suspicion of stealing state secrets. Speaking on the sidelines of the ASEAN meeting in Thailand, Rudd said only that the case, which has strained relations between Canberra and Beijing, continued to be the subject of “intense and continuing discussion” between the two countries’ foreign ministries. Deciphering the diplomatic body language, those discussions aren’t making much progress. The four were  formally arrested in August on charges of stealing commercial secrets, but not on the more serious one of stealing state secrets.

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Drought Persists In South and East China

The hot dry weather in the south and east is causing drought to linger in both regions. Xinhua reports low reservoir levels in Guangdong where rainfall in the first ten months of this year has been 14% below normal. Water levels are also low in neighboring Jiangxi to the east after a month without rain and in southeastern Fujian the situation seems worse with reservoirs dry and more than 110,000 people left short of water. Meanwhile in Shandong, on the eastern edge of the arid North China Plain, 330,000 hectares of cropland are reported drought-stricken with no break to the dry spell in sight.

The bigger picture is that the slow desertification of the North China Plain is not being reversed quickly enough. Artificial rain-making is only ever an emergency response. The grand plan to divert the waters of three rivers to the region will take years to come to fruition, and may have unintended environmental consequences of its own, just switching part of the problem elsewhere. Demand for water has to be tackled as well as supply. That not only means switching to low-water irrigation methods on farms across China’s wheat-growing heartland but also stepping up conservation efforts in the big cities at the eastern end of the plain. It is the rapid growth of places like Beijing and Tianjin that have been a primary reason that the water table has fallen so far and so fast over the past 20 years. Producing water-conservation technology would also make useful work for idle hands in the export factories of the south.

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More Talk About An East Asian Community

More wind in the sails of the creation of an East Asian Community, but turbulent wind. The idea is being much discussed at the ASEAN heads of government meeting in the Thai resort of Hua Hin, at which China, Japan and South Korea are in attendance. Japan’s new prime minister Yukio Hatoyama was pushing the idea hard but also calling for an albeit undefined role for the U.S. China was making nice to Japan, which is now being nicer to it under Hatoyama, but there was no disguising the fact that Japan wants the U.S. involved as a counterweight to China’s influence in the region, much the same reason China doesn’t. ASEAN was talking about creating an EAC by 2015, a date Hatoyama would be happy to latch on to. Beijing will doubtless be equally happy to wait it out. Xinhua‘s report from Hua Hin noted that the creation of an EAC “is a long-term objective of East Asian cooperation”. The community will coalesce as a trading block long before it does as a political union.

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Filed under China-Koreas, Politics & Society

Monetary Policy As Asset-Bubble Management

China is still lending its way towards its 8% growth target for the year. Third-quarter growth has come in at 8.9%, with the National Bureau of Statistics (via Xinhua) pointing up strong fixed-asset investment and rising domestic demand offsetting the drop in exports. The economy expanded by 7.7% over the first nine months. M2, the broadest measure of money supply, rose 29.3%  in the first nine months. The banking system has turned on a fire hose of new loans, a record 8.65 trillion yuan ($1.3 trillion), which has pushed up fixed-asset investment by 33.4% in the first three quarters. A lot of that liquidity has flowed into stock, property and commodity markets. How measured the People’s Bank of China is in turning down its fire hose will determine how smooth an exit the economy makes from its stimulus program. As for all central banks, finding an acceptable mix of financial stability, growth and inflation as the global economy recovers from recession depends, in essence, on managing asset bubbles.

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Disappeared Uighurs

This Bystander recalls visiting the central bank in Buenos Aires a couple of years back and noticing a small plaque in the entrance in memory of  bank staff who had ‘disappeared’ during the years of the military dictatorship in Argentina. They were political dissidents, picked up by the authorities often in the dead of night, whose eventual and anonymous fate was to be dropped from an aircraft into the watery grave of the River Plate. Our memory of this was refreshed by a report on the BBC of some 40 Uighurs arrested after July’s riots in Urumqi of which nothing further has been heard. They have not been brought to summary trial. Nor have their families been notified of their fate. Human Rights Watch, which produced the number, says it is only the tip of the iceberg.

This is unusual. China usually follows its judicial procedures, arbitrary as they may seem to those parts of the outside world that do not see the judicial system as part of the administration of state power.

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U.S. Supreme Court To Hear Gitmo Uighurs Case

The U.S. Supreme Court is to rule on whether the remaining Uighurs at the U.S.’s Guantanamo Bay detention camp can be released in the U.S. when no other country can be found to take them. Twenty-two Uighurs were captured as enemy combatants in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2002 but were cleared for release in 2004. Beijing wants them all back but Washington has been looking for third party countries to take them. It is concerned that the Uighurs run a risk of persecution if returned to China as Beijing considers them militant separatists, a concern that the recent death sentences following July’s deadly rights in Urumqi have done nothing to diminish. However, only nine have found recipient countries. Palau has said it will take 12 of the 13 remaining, but the Uighurs don’t want to go there. The Supreme Court is not likely to hear the case until January, giving the Obama administration a little more breathing space to find other countries willing to take the Uighurs. But if the court rules that the Uighurs should be released into the U.S. it will bring another U.S-China tension point to a head.

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