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Hong Kong faces ‘selection not election’ of China’s favoured candidate

On Sunday, 1,994 people will choose a new chief executive on behalf of Hong Kongs nearly 4 million voters but Beijings anointed one is far from popular

Every newly elected leader of Hong Kong takes the oath of office in front of Chinas president, below a giant red national flag of China, and the slightly smaller banner of the city.

It is a tightly scripted event designed to shield Chinese officials from the embarrassment of dissenting voices.

In Hong Kong politics, formality is everything, and many say the election for the citys next leader which happens on Sunday will indeed be a formality.

Most expect Beijings preferred candidate to be anointed despite her rival being by far the more popular choice.

The race for the top job, officially known as the chief executive, is largely between two retired civil servants. Carrie Lam was the deputy to the present chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, and is supported by the Chinese government. John Tsang, a former financial secretary, consistently polls ahead of her by a wide margin.

A third candidate is also running, retired judge Woo Kwok-hing, who is neither popular nor politically connected in Beijing.

However, only 1,094 people are able to cast a ballot, far less than the citys 3.8 million registered voters. Those who have a say include all 70 members of the citys legislature and some district politicians, business groups, professional unions, pop stars, priests and professors.

This is entirely controlled by the Beijing government, its a selection, not an election, says Nathan Law, a pro-democracy legislator swept into office in the wake of 2014 street protests agitating for more open elections.

If Carrie Lam wins, it will be hard for her to govern Hong Kong because she doesnt have the support from ordinary people.

The idea that Sundays vote is indeed a selection, not an election is a mantra repeated across the political spectrum, with many dismayed that citizens in the former British colony have no say in who runs the city.

The Basic Law, Hong Kongs mini constitution, explicitly states: The ultimate aim is the selection of the chief executive by universal suffrage. A political change package pushed by Beijing in 2014 would have allowed a one person, one vote system, but candidates would first need to be approved by a committee.

That pre-screening was criticised by pro-democracy activists, eventually erupting into 79 days of street protests that consumed the city.

I dont see much of a difference, comparing Lam to CY Leung, said Law, one of the leaders of those protests. Shes also responsible for the failure of political reform and the impression she has given during the campaign is that she will be a hardliner.

Law, who as a legislator is able to vote, plans to submit a blank ballot in protest against Beijings outsized influence in the decision and the small circle nature of the election.

From
From left, John Tsang, Carrie Lam, and Woo Kwok-hing greet each other before a televised debate. Photograph: Vincent Yu/AP

In the weeks leading up to the vote, the city hardly feels gripped by a battle for hearts and minds. There are no mass political rallies, with much of the electioneering done in closed-door meetings with special interest groups and only a sprinkling of subdued political advertisements around the city.

Most Hong Kongers have not been debating the candidates over dinner or pints at the pub, and many are resigned to the fact their opinion has no effect on who wins. I dont see the point in even holding an election, the whole thing has already been decided by China, said Lam Ho-wai, a 26-year-old real estate agent.

Hong Kongs youth are the main drivers behind dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs. As property prices skyrocket and job opportunities become scarce, more and more young people blame politicians they see as serving only Beijing. This has dovetailed with a rise in a Hong Kong identity many see as separate from China.

Its important to China to have a chief executive who could somehow draw the younger generation closer to the central government, says Michael Tien, a pro-establishment legislator. I believe John Tsang will be much more effective in dealing with the youth problem compared to Carrie Lam, and Im surprised and disappointed that the central government feels its not that important.

In December, Tien was approached by someone very close to Beijing and encouraged to support Lam for the top job, he said.

Hong Kongs chief executive office has never been without scandal. Tung Chee-hwa, the first ethnically Chinese person to run the city, resigned in the wake of mass protests against proposed national security legislation and the Sars outbreak. Donald Tsang, who succeeded Tung, was convicted of corruption last month.

In many ways its a thankless job, and in the highly polarised world of Hong Kong politics, every misstep is a tempest in a teacup.

But no matter who wins, observers say little will change in terms of political culture. The big picture will remain the same, says Matthew Wong, a politics professor at Hong Kong University. Beijing has matters firmly in hand and theres little Hong Kong people can do to change that.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/24/hong-kong-selection-not-election-china-favoured-candidate


Put us on the map, please: China’s smaller cities go wild for starchitecture

From mountain-shaped apartment blocks to the centre of braised chicken reinventing itself as Solar Valley, Chinas second (and third) tier cities are hiring big-name architects to get them noticed

From egg-shaped concert halls to skyscrapers reminiscent of big pairs of pants, Chinas top cities are famously full of curious monuments to architectural ambition. But as land prices in the main metropolises have shot into the stratosphere, developers have been scrambling to buy up plots in the countrys second and third-tier cities, spawning a new generation of delirious plans in the provinces. President Xi Jinping may have issued a directive last year outlawing oversized, xenocentric, weird buildings, but many of these schemes were already well under way; his diktat has proved to be no obstacle to mayoral hubris yet.

From Harbin City of Music to Dezhou Solar Valley, provincial capitals are branding themselves as themed enclaves of culture and industry to attract inward investment, and commissioning scores of bold buildings to match. Even where there is no demand, city bureaucrats are relentlessly selling off land for development, hawking plots as the primary form of income accounting for 80% of municipal revenues in some cases. In the last two months alone, 50 Chinese cities received a total of 453bn yuan (54bn) from land auctions , a 73% increase on last year, and its the provincial capitals that are leading the way.

At the same time, Xis national culture drive has seen countless museums, concert halls and opera houses spring up across the country, often used as sweeteners for land deals, conceived as the jewels at the centre of glistening mixed-used visions (that sometimes never arrive). Culture, said Xi, is the prerequisite of the great renaissance of the Chinese people, but it has also proved to be a powerful lubricant for ever more real estate speculation even if the production of content to fill these great halls cant quite keep up with the insatiable building boom.
From mountain-shaped apartment blocks to cavernous libraries, heres a glimpse of whats emerging in the regions.

Fake Hills, Beihai

Fake
A render of how the Fake Hills would look. Illustration: MAD architects

Forming an 800 metre-long cliff-face along the coast of the southern port city of Beihai, the Fake Hills housing block is the work of Ma Yansong, Chinas homegrown conjuror of sinuous, globular forms whose practice is appropriately named MAD. Having studied at Yale and worked with Zaha Hadid in London, where he nourished his penchant for blobs, Ma has spent the last decade dreaming up improbable mountain-shaped megastructures across the country.

The
Less scenic mountain and more lumpen collision of colossal cruise-liners The first phase of construction on Fake Hills has been completed. Photograph: MAD

As it rises and falls, the undulating roofline of Fake Hills forms terraces for badminton and tennis courts, as well as a garden and swimming pool. Sadly the overall effect is less scenic mountain range than a lumpen collision of colossal cruise-liners.

Greenland Tower, Chengdu

Greenland
Greenland Tower, Chengdu. The building harks back to the crystalline dreams of early 20th-century German architect Bruno Taut. Illustration: Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill Architecture

A crystalline spire rising 468 metres above the 18 million-strong metropolis of Chengdu, the Greenland Tower will be the tallest building in southwestern China, standing as a sharply chiselled monument to the countrys (and by some counts the worlds) largest property developer, Greenland Holdings. It is designed by Chicago-based Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill, architects of Dubais Burj Khalifa, who say the faceted shaft is a reference to the unique ice mountain topography of the region. It harks back to the crystalline dreams of early 20th-century German architect Bruno Taut, who imagined a dazzling glass city crown to celebrate socialism and agriculture; whether Sichuans farmers will be welcomed into the penthouse sky garden remains to be seen.

Sun-Moon mansion, Dezhou

The
A rival to Silicon Valley the Sun-Moon mansion of Solar Valley, Dezhou. Photograph: Alamy

Once known as a centre of braised chicken production, the city of Dezhou in the north-eastern province of Shandong now brands itself as Solar Valley, a renewable energy centre intended to rival Californias Silicon Valley. At its heart is the Sun-Moon mansion, a vast fan-shaped office building powered by an arc of solar panels on its roof. It is the brainchild of Huang Ming, aka Chinas sun king, an oil industry engineer turned solar energy tycoon who heads the Himin Solar Energy Group, the worlds biggest producer of solar water heaters as well as purveyor of sun-warmed toilet seats and solar-powered Tibetan prayer wheels.

Harbin Opera House

The
Harbin Opera House, with the St Petersburg of the east in the background. Photograph: View Pictures/Rex/Shutterstock

Nicknamed the St Petersburg of the east, the far northern city of Harbin has long had a thriving cultural scene as a gateway to Russia and beyond. In the 1920s, fashions from Paris and Moscow arrived here before they reached Shanghai, and it was home to the countrys first symphony orchestra, made up of mostly Russian musicians.

Inside
Inside Harbin Opera House. Photograph: View Pictures/Rex/Shutterstock

Declared city of music in 2010, Harbin has recently pumped millions into a gleaming new concert hall by Arata Isozaki, a gargantuan neo-classical conservatory and an 80,000 sq metre whipped meringue of an opera house by MAD. Shaped like a pair of snowy dunes, up which visitors can climb on snaking paths, the building contains a sinuous timber-lined auditorium designed as an eroded block of wood.

Tianjin Binhai library

Tianjin
Tianjin Binhai library. Illustration: MVRDV

Due to open this summer in the sprawling port city of Tianjin, this space-age library by Dutch architects MVRDV is imagined as a gaping cave of books, carved out from within an oblong glass block. The shelves form a terraced landscape of seating, wrapping around a giant mirrored sphere auditorium that nestles in the middle of the space like a pearl in an oyster.

The
Inside the space-age Tianjin Binhai library. Illustration: MVRDV

Along with a new theatre, congress centre and a science and technology museum by Bernard Tschumi, the building forms part of a new cultural quarter for the city, itself being swallowed into the planned Beijing-Tianjin mega-region population 130 million, thats more than Japan.

Huaguoyuan Towers, Guiyang

Huaguoyuan
Arups twin towers are almost complete. Illustration: LWK & Partners

Nowhere in China is the disparity between economic reality and architectural ambition more stark than in Guiyang, capital of rural Guizhou, the poorest province in the country, which has the fifth most skyscraper plans of any Chinese city. The twin 335-metre towers of the Huaguoyuan development, by Arup, are now almost complete, standing as the centrepiece of a new mixed-use office, retail and entertainment complex, while SOM is busy conjuring the even higher Cultural Plaza Tower, a 521-metre glass spear that will soar above a new riverfront world of shopping malls and theatres. It has the glitz and gloss of any other Chinese citys new central business district, but as Knight Franks David Ji points out: It will be hard for a city like Guiyang to find quality tenants to fill the space.

Yubei agricultural park, Chongqing

Will
Will Alsops Yubei agricultural park. Illustration: Will Alsop

Architectural funster Will Alsop may finally have found his calling in the supercharged furnace of Chinas second-tier cities booming leisure economy, crafting a number of fantastical dreamworlds from his new satellite studio in Chongqing where he is busy building a new cultural quarter around his own office, with a restaurant, bar and distillery. He is also plotting an enormous agricultural leisure park in Yubei, 20 miles north of the city, designed to cater to the new middle classes nascent appreciation of the countryside, a place hitherto associated with peasants and poverty. The rolling landscape will be dotted with cocoon-like treehouses, a flower-shaped hotel and a big lake covered by an LED-screen canopy, so visitors can enjoy projected blue skies despite the smog.

Zendai Himalayas centre, Nanjing

A
A limestone mountain range : Zendai Himalayas Centre, Nanjing. Illustration: www.i-mad.com

Erupting across six city blocks like a limestone mountain range, the Zendai Himalayas Centre will be Mas most literal interpretation yet of his philosophy of fusing architecture and nature. Taking inspiration from the traditional style of shanshui landscape brush painting (literally meaning mountain-water), the 560,000 sq metre complex is designed to look as if it has been eroded by millennia of wind and water, not thrown up overnight by an army of migrant labourers. Once again, Ma appears to be forgetting that elegant feathery brushstrokes dont often translate well into lumps of glass and steel. It is one of many such green-fingered schemes in Nanjing, including Stefano Boeris vertical forest towers and the Sifang art park, where Steven Holl, SANAA, David Adjaye and others have built pavilions in a rolling landscape as another decoy for a luxury real estate project.

Huawei campus, Dongguan

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/mar/18/real-estate-revolution-unstoppable-building-boom-china


All under one roof: how malls and cities are becoming indistinguishable

Suburban malls may be a dying breed, but in cities from New York to Hong Kong, new malls are thriving by seamlessly blending into the urban fabric

We didnt expect to see stores, says Yulia, as her husband browses for shoes in one of the shops lining the Oculus, the new focus of New Yorks World Trade Center.

Visiting from Ukraine and on their way to the 9/11 memorial, they were beckoned by the Oculuss unusual architecture: from the outside, the Santiago Calatrava-designed ribbed structure reminds you of a bird or a dinosaur skeleton; inside, it is teaming with tourists taking pictures with selfie sticks.

But the Oculus, named after the eyelike opening at the apex that lets in light, is more than a piece of striking architecture. It exists as a mall, with more than a hundred stores, and as a hub connecting office buildings in Brookfield Place and One World Trade Center with 11 subway lines and Path trains, serving 50,000 commuters every day. Thats a lot of eyeballs on shopfronts.

The mall company Westfield, of course, hopes that the tourists and transit users will stray to the stores. The New New York Place to Be, reads the malls tagline. Shop. Eat. Drink. Play. All under one magnificent roof.

Oculus was Westfields $1.4bn bet that New York, a city known for its love of the street, could also have a successful mall. And judging from the crowds, it counters the narrative that the mall is dead, like those thousands of empty suburban malls dotting the American landscape, ghostboxes decaying on cracked asphalt parking lots.

Boxpark
Boxpark turned shipping containers into an urban mall that merges directly with the London street. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

Michael Sorkin, professor of architecture at City College of New York, points out that Westfield is an example of a kind of global urbanism. The Westfield mall is virtually indistinguishable from Dubai duty-free, he says, pointing out that the same generic multinational shops are now to be found not just in malls, but on the streets of cities. The effect is compromising and imperial a real estate formula.

Certainly, the Westfield World Trade Center seems to demonstrate that it is not the mall that is declining, but suburbia. The mall, meanwhile, is becoming urban.

In fact, a new breed of shopping centre is integrating so seamlessly into its urban surroundings that it can be difficult to draw any line between city and mall whatsoever. Londons Boxpark, Las Vegass Downtown Container Park and Miamis Brickell City Centre are examples of mall-like environments that try to weave into the street life of a city.

Across the Pacific Ocean from the Oculus, developers in China are experimenting even more radically, with new mall configurations catering to the rapid rise of domestic consumerism and quickly evolving tastes.

Sino
Sino Ocean Taikoo Li in Chengdu, China, an outdoor mall with streets. Photograph: Oval Partnership

In the early 2000s, when enclosed malls were the standard, architect Chris Law of the Oval Partnership proposed an open city concept for San Li Tun, an area in Beijings central business district. He proposed to inject the big box with a heavy dose of public space. He says people had a common reaction to his plan: You guys are crazy.

Instead of laying out asphalt parking lots, Law wanted sidewalks and trees that would cool and shade pedestrian outdoor space. He designed the shops and restaurants around two distinct plazas one brimming with an interactive water feature and a massive screen to televise events, the other for quietly reading a book over a cappuccino.

Rather than designing the whole complex himself, he created a masterplan with an urban design framework for other architects to fill in, making it appear as if the complex grew organically just like cities do, Law says.

As a result, the mall has the look of a modern village complete with irregular facades and zigzagging alleyways. It became a large success, not least for being a pedestrian respite in a city of cars.

The developer then tasked Law to design another outdoor retail development in Chengdu near an ancient temple. Law respectfully designed structures with timber portal frames to match the cultural heritage, laying out the stores and restaurants along intimate, tree-lined lanes. He added a hotel, serviced apartments and an office tower to create a mixed-use district centred around intricate public space.

Modern
An escalator gives the game away at this outdoor retail space in Chengdu, China. Photograph: HeZhenHuan

As innovative as his projects may be, we simply continued the urban pattern that has been around for hundreds of years, Law says. He mentions medieval cities such as Sienna, or those depicted on the Qingming scroll, where shops and food stalls lined thriving public space.

It raises the question: was the enclosed, suburban mall, located far from the city centre, a discontinuity? An invention for the age of cheap fossil fuel?

They certainly waste energy. The typical big box is thick and fat, says Ali Malkawi, professor of architectural technology at Harvard University and founder of the Harvard Center for Green Buildings and Cities. In contrast, the outdoor retail village typically has a smaller ecological footprint. Thin structures allow for the possibility of natural ventilation and daylighting, and hence can be more energy-efficient, Malkawi says.

Malls first appeared in suburbs in the 1950s, when reducing energy was not a priority, says Malkawi, and they were only accessible by car. The more you move shopping away from where people live, the more you increase transportations impact on the environment, he says. (The transport sector accounts for nearly a quarter of all energy-related CO2 emissions.)

Architect Friedrich Ludewig of the firm Acme takes the idea a step futher. Knowing that the point to shopping in stores is to offer something physical that is interesting, otherwise we can do it all online, he designed a suburban mall extension in Melbourne around a town square, with a public library at its centre, not an anchor store.

Suburban
Offer something physical or we can all do it online … Friedrich Ludewig, whose suburban mall in Melbourne is designed around a town square with a public library (pictured) at its heart. Photograph: Acme

Customers prefer to be outside and to feel less artificial, Ludewig says of what is, in fact, an outdoor mall. His company has taken steps to create a seamless urban feel. There are guidelines for storefronts, including about colour, to ensure the visual coherence of the public space and avoid screaming yellow storefronts. When there are lots of people shouting, he said, you cant hear anyone.

He also thinks about the right ratio between landscaping and paving of the open spaces, and makes an effort to think about the city planning of how the space is used throughout the day. We spend a lot of time thinking: what does it feel like at Wednesday morning 11am?, when there are not a lot of shoppers around. He also argues that outdoor malls save money by having open spaces and buildings that are naturally ventilated rather than air-conditioned.

Above all, however, he says: It shouldnt feel like something is wrong. He describes a feeling akin to what is known as the uncanny valley: the hypothesis that when human replicas appear almost (but not quite) real, they trigger disgust and revulsion because they seem unhealthy.

Langham
Langham Place, like many Hong Kong malls, is deliberately placed to capture natural pedestrian flows. Photograph: Alamy

The city of Hong Kong solves this issue by going one step further it weaves malls into the very urban fabric.

The city counts more than 300 shopping centres. Most do not perch on asphalt parking lots, but on subway stations and underneath skyscrapers. Hong Kongs transit provider is also a real estate developer, and has capitalised on the value created by its subway stops: it sandwiches malls between stations and skyscrapers, establishing pedestrian streams that irrigate the shopfronts.

Tens of thousands of people often work, live and play in a single megastructure, without ever having to leave. And the mall is deliberately placed on the intersection of all pedestrian flows, between entry points into the structure and the residential, office, and transit functions. These malls are, by design, impossible to miss.

Langham Place, for instance, is a 59-storey complex in Hong Kong that includes retail, a five-star hotel and class-A office space. It is connected to the subway with its own tunnel and pulls in an estimated 100,000 people per day.

My whole life is here, says Katniss. She works in the buildings office, where she also shops, eats her meals and watches movies. Even on her daysoff, she enjoys going on dates in the malls soaring atrium, and drinking coffee near the huge escalator.

This expresscalator whisks people up four storeys in a matter of seconds. To get shoppers back down, the Jerde Partnership designed an ingenious retail-lined downward spiral path, shaped like a corkscrew. Langham Places retail portion alone measures 15 storeys, which is a skyscraper in its own right a vertical mall.

On both sides of the Pacific, the mall is not dead. It has simply transformed into an integrated part of cities themselves.

For Sorkin, that comes with a risk. While the idea of the shopping mall becoming urban has a certain appeal, the net effect is to turn the city into a shopping mall.

Stefan Als books include Mall City: Hong Kongs Dreamworlds of Consumption and The Strip: Las Vegas and the Architecture of the American Dream

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/mar/16/malls-cities-become-one-and-same


Fukushima disaster evacuees told to return to abandoned homes

People who fled after March 2011 nuclear meltdown face losing housing subsidies if they do not go back, despite radiation fears

Thousands of people who fled the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant six years ago have been told they must return to their homes or lose housing subsidies, despite lingering concerns over radiation in their former neighbourhoods.

The instruction, condemned by campaigners as a violation of the evacuees right to live in a safe environment, will affect an estimated 27,000 people who were not living inside the mandatory evacuation zone imposed after Fukushima became the scene of the worst nuclear accident in Japanese history.

The meltdown in three reactors occurred after a magnitude-9 earthquake on 11 March 2011 triggered a powerful tsunami that killed almost 19,000 people along Japans north-east coast and knocked out the plants backup cooling system.

As a voluntary evacuee, Noriko Matsumoto is among those who will have their subsidies withdrawn at the end of this month, forcing them to make a near-impossible choice: move back to homes they believe are unsafe, or face financial hardship as they struggle on living in nuclear limbo.

Many of the other evacuees I know are in the same position, Matsumoto said at the launch of Unequal Impact, a Greenpeace Japan report on human rights abuses affecting women and children among the 160,000 people who initially fled from areas near the plant. As of last month, almost 80,000 were still displaced.

Matsumoto said: They would still have to contend with high radiation if they returned, but the government is forcing them to go back by withdrawing housing assistance thats tantamount to a crime.

At the time of the incident, Matsumoto was living with her husband and their two daughters in the city of Koriyama, 43 miles (70km) west of the stricken facility, well outside the area where tens of thousands of people were ordered to leave.

Matsumoto initially stayed put, but three months later, with her youngest daughter, then aged 12, having nosebleeds, stomach ache and diarrhoea, she left her husband behind and took their children to Kanagawa prefecture, more than 150 miles south of Fukushima.

She said: The government is playing down the effects of radiation exposure Yet people who dont return to places like Koriyama after this month will be left to fend for themselves. They will become internally displaced people. We feel like weve been abandoned by our government.

Many of the people who left their homes of their own volition after the triple meltdown were mothers and their young children, who experts say face greater risks to their health from prolonged exposure to relatively low levels of radiation.

The voluntary evacuations have forced families to live apart, while parents struggle to earn enough money to fund their new accommodation and keep up mortgage payments on their abandoned homes.

Kazuko Ito, a lawyer and the secretary general of Tokyo-based NGO Human Rights Now, said: The government has a responsibility to protect the human rights of evacuees, but it doesnt not recognise this obligation. Instead, it downplays the health impact of the accident, especially the dangers associated with long-term radiation exposure.

In an arrangement repeated among thousands of other Fukushima families, Matsumotos husband decided to stay in Koriyama, a city of 330,000 people that was never subject to an evacuation order, and run their restaurant, rather than risk becoming unemployed by joining his wife and children in Kanagawa. The high cost of travel means the family gets together once every two months.

The housing subsidy for households of two or more people from Matsumotos neighbourhood is typically 90,000 yen (640) a month, according to local officials, who say some households will receive smaller sums after the subsidy is withdrawn.

Matsumoto said: The nuclear accident is to blame for this situation, yet its been turned around to make it look like its our fault, like we are being selfish.

Residents who were not living in the mandatory evacuation zone when they fled have been campaigning to retain housing subsidies, in a challenge to the authorities attempts to convince more evacuees that some neighbourhoods have been properly decontaminated.

Campaigners have called on the government to declare Fukushima neighbourhoods unfit for human habitation unless atmospheric radiation is brought to below one millisievert (mSv) a year, the maximum public exposure limit recommended by the International Commission on Radiological Protection.

While 1 mSv a year remains the governments long-term target, it is encouraging people to return to areas where radiation levels are below 20 mSv a year, an annual exposure limit that, internationally, applies to nuclear power plant workers.

Matsumoto said the unprecedented decontamination effort in Fukushima had brought radiation levels in and around her home to below government-set limits, but insisted that children were still at risk from hotspots in places such as parks and forests. Those areas have not been decontaminated, she said. Its true that atmospheric radiation has been lowered, but thats not the case on the ground and in the soil.

At the end of this month, evacuation orders will be lifted in four more towns and villages near Fukushima Daiichi, with only those closest to the plant, where radiation is more than 50 mSv a year, still off-limits.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/10/japan-fukushima-nuclear-disaster-evacuees-forced-return-home-radiation


Chinese billionaire Xiao Jianhua ‘abducted’ from Hong Kong hotel

The reported disappearance of the financier, who has ties to Xi Jinpings family, will ring alarm bells in the former British colony

A billionaire with links to the family of Xi Jinping was reportedly taken from his apartment in the Four Seasons in Hong Kong by Chinese police and taken to the mainland.

Xiao Jianhua, one of Chinas richest men, is currently in police custody on the mainland, the Financial Times and New York Times reported. He may be assisting with a graft investigation, part of the Chinese presidents sweeping campaign that critics say is more about consolidating power than tackling corruption.

If Chinese police were involved in Xiaos abduction from Hong Kong, it would appear to violate the former British colonys mini-constitution, which only permits the Hong Kong police to operate in the territory.

Xiao was born in China, is a Canadian citizen and holds a diplomatic passport from Antigua and Barbuda, reports said. He was living in a luxury apartment at the Four Seasons but a group of plain clothes Chinese security agents allegedly escorted him from the hotel across the border to the mainland, reports said. There was so sign of a struggle on CCTV footage taken at the hotel.

Xiao denied he had been abducted in two posts on his companys social media account, but by Wednesday both had been deleted.

Regarding the reports on me in recent days, I have to say that I, Xiao Jianhua, have been recovering from an illness outside the country, he said in one of the posts. He said he had not been abducted, according to the statement that was quoted in Chinese state media.

But Hong Kong police said Xiao crossed into China through one of the citys land border crossings on 27 January, contradicting Xiaos claim he was receiving medical treatment abroad.

An unknown person took out a full-page advert on the front of a Hong Kong newspaper to reprint the now-deleted statements claiming to be from Xiao and signed by him.

Benjamin Haas (@haasbenjamin)

Advert on front page of Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao prints statement claiming to be from Xiao Jianhua, was deleted from company’s WeChat pic.twitter.com/zMfe0yQGBi

February 1, 2017

In another statement, he denied doing anything to harm Chinas ruling Communist party or working with any opposing forces or organisations.

Hong Kong police received a request for assistance on 28 January, but Xiaos relatives attempted to withdraw the case a day later, the police said in a statement.

The police investigation continues and we have asked relevant mainland departments to assist with following up on the situation of the victim in the mainland, the statement said, without directly naming Xiao.

The case comes about a year after five Hong Kong-based booksellers that published salacious tales of Chinas leadership were detained by Chinese security forces.

Two of the men were spirited across borders without any formal extradition, one from his vacation home in Thailand and another off the streets of Hong Kong is a fashion similar to Xiao.

The booksellers case unsettled many in the city, which has a separate legal system and greater freedom compared to China under an agreement known as one country, two systems, while Xiaos disappearance is sure to stoke fears Hong kong is losing its autonomy.

Xiao controls Tomorrow Group, a holding company with stakes in real-estate, insurance, coal and cement firms and his wealth is estimated to be about 40 billion yuan (4.6 billion), according to wealth tracker Hurun Report.

In 2014 he admitted to the New York Times he helped the family of president Xi dispose of assets but they didnt make any extra profits through their family clout.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/feb/01/chinese-billionaire-xiao-jianhua-abducted-from-hong-kong-hotel-reports


Wang Jianlin: does China’s richest man have a plan to take over Hollywood?

The Chinese real estate billionaire is storming into the film industry, but his ties to the Communist party have some suspecting a bid for cultural influence

Chinas richest man, Wang Jianlin, didnt mince words in a major address to Hollywood on Monday. Hollywood, which is famous for its storytelling, apparently is not as good as it used to be in telling stories, he said, citing the industrys obsession with sequels and remakes.

Those sequels might have worked before, but Chinese audiences are more sophisticated now. If you want to participate in the growing Chinese market, you must improve film quality.

To those familiar with Wang, the chairman of the Dalian Wanda Group, a sprawling real estate company attempting to transform itself into a global entertainment brand, the forceful tone didnt come as a surprise.

Since acquiring AMC Entertainment, the second-largest cinema chain in the US, for $2.6bn in 2012, Wang, who is worth an estimated $32.5bn and has ties to the communist Chinese government, has been aggressively staking his claim on the industry. So far, hes snapped up Europes biggest cinema group, Odeon and UCI, purchased the US production house Legendary Entertainment (the company behind the Dark Knight trilogy and Jurassic World), and boasted that he intends to soon buy one of the six major US studios. Currently, Wang is said to in preliminary talks to purchase Dick Clark Productions, producer of the Golden Globe Awards, American Music Awards and Billboard Music Awards.

Following introductions from Cheryl Boone Isaacs, president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and the Los Angeles mayor, Eric Garcetti (he referred to Wang his friend), Wang launched into his companys plans to offer a 40% production rebate for foreign and local films and television shows at his huge new film studio in eastern China (expected to cost $8.2bn and open in 2017). This metropolis will actually increase opportunities for Hollywood, Wang said. This is an opportunity for Hollywood, not competition for Hollywood.

Wangs takeover of Hollywood, however, has attracted a fair share of scrutiny from US lawmakers concerned that he is providing the Chinese government a platform to promote communist ideologies.

Expanding Chinas cultural influence and cultural soft power around the world is a goal of the party, says Michael Forsythe, a Hong Kong-based New York Times journalist who has spent years investigating the billionaires business dealings. I dont think anybody would dispute that. And he is certainly doing that. Its pretty clear that is what he is doing.

Forsythe claims Wang, who has been a member of the Communist party since 1976, was quick to react to a meeting of top party leaders in October 2011, which focused on ways to boost the countrys cultural soft power overseas. Just a few months later, Wang closed the deal to buy AMC Entertainment.

Last month, 16 US congressmen signed a letter to encourage greater scrutiny of Chinese investment in American industry, citing Wandas investments in AMC and Legendary Entertainment. In the letter, John Culberson, the chairman of the House subcommittee on commerce, justice, science and related agencies, asks assistant attorney general John Carlin to consider changes to the Foreign Agents Registration Act that would allow US authorities to monitor Wandas acquisitions more closely citing Wangs close relationship with the Chinese government and Communist party. The affiliation has profound implications for American media, the letter reads.

The letter and editorial arrived months after Richard Berman, a lawyer and public relations executive, launched a campaign called China Owns Us, which paid for a billboard on in the heart of Hollywood that reads: Chinas Red Puppet: AMC Theaters. The groups underlying concern, per its mission statement, is that Chinas investments in the United States coincide with the promotion of pro-China propaganda at Americas expense.

Not everyone is buying into the fear stoked by the backlash to Wangs move into Hollywood. Adam Minter, who serves as an Asia-based columnist at Bloomberg View, argues that Wang has no business case in exporting Communist dogma to Hollywood.

Unless you can give me a business case for why Wanda would do this, it just seems to me bringing propaganda to the US that doesnt sell in China is about as good a business model as bringing spoiled food to the US that wouldnt sell in China, says Minter. Chinese people arent interested in it and neither are Americans.

To prove his point, Minter points to The Mermaid, Chinas biggest ever film. The blockbuster is a wholly original comic fantasy with no propagandistic undertones. And although Beginning of a Great Revival: The Founding of a Party, a retelling of how Chinas first communists banded together to change a country humiliated by foreign powers, performed well in China in 2011, reports allege that cinemas were ordered to secretly inflate their sales, ensuring the propagandist epic was a hit.

Wang
Wang Jianlin: If you want to profit from what is destined to become the [worlds] largest film market, you will have to understand the Chinese audience. Photograph: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Stanley Rosen, a USC political science professor and China expert, agrees, noting that if Wang were to attempt to put overt communist ideology in US films, Americans would react negatively. That would hurt the studios, he says. If Wang were to own another major studio, hes smart enough to know that economics is important, and so hes not going to damage his brand.

A more valid concern, argues Bill Bishop, publisher of the Sinocism China newsletter, is the self-censorship cropping up in Hollywood products to appease Chinas notoriously strict censor board. Its a view even shared by Wang, who told CNN that any change to Hollywood content was a result of US studios adding local elements to court the Chinese film market and not the other way around.

Films ranging from Transformers: Age of Extinction to Oscar-winner Gravity have pandered to China, or featured huge amounts of Chinese product placement. In 2011, the Hollywood studio MGM went so far as to change the Chinese villains into North Korean ones in its Red Dawn remake. This year, Marvel is rumored to have changed the ethnicity of a Tibetan character in forthcoming superhero epic Doctor Strange, by casting British actor Tilda Swinton in the part of the Ancient One, to avoid upsetting China.

Studios appear willing to go to extraordinary lengths to keep local authorities happy and avoid the damaging withdrawal of a Chinese theatrical release date in a country that only allows 34 international films to screen in cinemas each year.

Its subtle and insidious, Bishop says of the popular trend. Whats getting taken out of movies [to appease China], what actors arent being given roles? There are so many changes being made to movies.

Look at the case of Warcraft, Legendarys $160m blockbuster based on the popular video game, which made only $47.2m in US during its entire theatrical run, but racked up a whopping $156m in its first five days in China. The reason: China is estimated to be home to about half of the worlds World of Warcraft players, making interest among Chinese gamers a given. The films China tally helped set a record for the biggest disparity between domestic and foreign receipts, leading to industry rumors that a planned sequel might forego a US release altogether, to open only in China.

If you want to profit from what is destined to become the [worlds] largest film market, you will have to understand the Chinese audience, Wang stressed to Hollywood in his closing remarks. Some politicians in the US are demanding for films to be politically independent, but such a view is against the common sense of business. That is why my point is that business is business. We better not make it political.

The China effect in five blockbusters

Transformers:
Transformers: Age of Extinction Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

Now You See Me 2 (2016)

The franchises new director, Jon M Chu, cast the Taiwanese star Jay Chou (who is largely unknown in the US) in the sequel, and filmed a significant portion of the film in the Chinese region of Macau. Chu told Vulture these decisions werent on his part a conscious effort to appeal to Chinese audiences, but admitted Lionsgate was no doubt pleased by his choices. Tellingly, the magic caper scored a record opening day in China for the studio.

Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

Michael Bays sequel, made in conjunction with Chinas official state broadcaster and a company that specializes in deals between Hollywood studios and Chinese investors, not only features rampant product placement (the Hollywood Reporter described the film as the shopping channel for the new middle class, and the rich, in China) it also goes to great pains to depict the Chinese government as benevolent. Members of US government agencies are meanwhile portrayed as indecisive and corrupt.

Iron Man 3 (2013)

The Chinese cut of the Marvel blockbuster ran four minutes longer to include a positive propaganda spin for Gu Li Duo, a popular milk drink brand that prior to Iron Man 3s arrival had come under fire after batches were found to contain mercury. Iron Mans nemesis in the film, the Mandarin, was changed from a Chinese-born villain to a man of mysterious origin played by the British actor Ben Kingsley.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

Chinese star Li Bingbing was added to the ensemble to cater to her large fanbase, while half an hour of action took place in Hong Kong. A Chinese boyband also makes an extended cameo.

World War Z (2013)

The writers of the zombie apocalypse epic changed the origin of the virus from China in Max Brookss book to Russia in the Brad Pitt-led film.

Additional reporting by Tom Phillips

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/oct/19/wang-jianlin-chinas-richest-man-hollywood


Chinese people see US as ‘top threat’ to their country, poll shows

Pew survey finds most suspect US of seeking to keep China from reaching an equal level of power but majority of young people see US positively

Chinese people believe the United States is the top threat facing their country, a new poll shows, with most suspecting the worlds number one economy of trying to prevent China from becoming an equal power.

A survey by the Washington-based Pew Research Center revealed 45% of Chinese people consider US power and influence to be a major threat more than economic instability (35%), climate change (34%) and Islamic State (15%).

However, half of the 3,154 respondents in the survey had a favourable opinion of the US including 60% of those aged between 18 and 34.

The news comes as Beijing and Washington are at loggerheads over Chinas territorial claims in the South China Sea, with the US urging China to adhere to the rule of law and Beijing accusing the Americans of interference.

The vast majority of Chinese people (75%) believe their own country plays a more important role in world affairs than a decade ago, compared with only 21% of Americans, 23% of Europeans and 68% of Indians.

However, this confidence in Chinas international stature contrasts with a growing sense of unease among many, the survey showed, with about three-quarters of respondents saying their way of life needs to be protected against foreign influence up from 64% in 2002.

Despite Chinas increasing diplomatic influence, 56% of Chinese people said they wanted their leaders to focus on the countrys own challenges, such as official corruption, which most said was a problem.

Growing inequality is also a concern, with 37% describing the gap between rich and poor as a very big problem.

Other worries include: food safety (74%), the countrys choking air pollution (70%) and rising prices (74%), as many Chinese people struggle to get a foothold in the real estate market.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/05/china-us-power-top-threat-survey


Malaysian PM Najib key figure in 1MDB corruption scandal, alleges cabinet minister

Communications director for ruling coalition says PM is Malaysian Official 1 named in US Justice Department lawsuit

A Malaysian cabinet minister has said Prime Minister Najib Razak was the mysterious unnamed official who the US Justice Department said took part in rampant looting of state funds.

The comment follows widespread suspicions that Najib was Malaysian Official 1 mentioned in a Justice Department lawsuit filed in July.

The lawsuit part of US moves to seize more than $1bn in allegedly ill-gotten assets repeatedly alleged the official was someone conspiring to divert vast sums from state investment fund 1MDB.

Najib, who launched a crackdown last year to contain the spiralling scandal, has so far not commented on the identity of the unnamed official.

But in an interview with the BBC that aired late on Thursday, Abdul Rahman Dahlan, the minister of urban wellbeing, housing and local government, said it was Najib.

Its obvious that the so-called Malaysian Official 1 referred to by the US Justice Department is our prime minister, he said in a subsequent clarifying statement.

Rahman Dahlan, who also is communications director for Najibs ruling coalition, did not address whether Najib committed wrongdoing. But he insisted Najib was not a target of the US lawsuit.

His comments, however, will add fuel to persistent calls for Najib to step down.

Tens of thousands of people paralysed the capital, Kuala Lumpur, in August 2015 with two days of protest over the scandal.

Last weekend, several hundred protesters demonstrated, demanding Malaysian Official 1 be identified and arrested.

Najib, however, has shut down Malaysian investigations, clamped down on media reporting of the affair, and purged critics from his ruling party.

1MDB, or 1Malaysia Development Berhad, was launched by Najib in 2009 and closely overseen by him.

Allegations of a vast international scheme of embezzlement and money-laundering involving billions of dollars of 1MDB money began to emerge two years ago.

In its scathing lawsuit, the US Justice Department detailed how Malaysian Official 1, family members, and close associates diverted billions from the now-stricken fund.

Najib and 1MDB deny any wrongdoing.

The Justice Department has moved to seize assets including real estate in Beverly Hills, New York and London, artworks by Monet and Van Gogh, and a Bombardier jet that it alleges were purchased with money stolen from 1MDB.

The reason behind the remarks of Rahman Dahlan, a staunch defender of Najib, was not immediately clear.

But the news dominated headlines in Malaysia, and was a top-trending Twitter topic in the country on Friday.

Senior opposition figure Lim Kit Siang said Najib must immediately submit to justice to avoid further harming Malaysias image.

The prime minister …. [must] purge and cleanse Malaysias reputation as a global kleptocracy, he said in a statement.

Analysts warned the scandal could harm foreign investment in Malaysia.

Political experts see no sign yet that Najib will be ousted before the next elections, due by mid-2018, due to his long-ruling coalitions firm control.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/sep/02/malaysian-pm-najib-key-figure-1mdb-corruption-scandal-alleges-cabinet-minister


US officials target $1bn of assets as part of fraud investigation into 1MDB fund

Justice department traces money from Malaysian economic development fund to real estate in Beverly Hills, $200m in artwork and The Wolf of Wall Street

The US justice department has moved to seize more than $1bn of assets allegedly acquired using funds misappropriated from the Malaysian economic development fund 1MDB, according to court papers filed on Wednesday.

The news follows a months-long international FBI probe, as well as five separate investigations around the world, and mark a step up in the investigation into up to $6bn that was allegedly skimmed from the sovereign fund and allegedly used to support the lavish lifestyles of several men connected to the Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak.

The US attorney general, Loretta Lynch, said the funds defrauded from the Malaysian people were used to pay for luxury real estate in the US and Europe, gambling expenses in Las Vegas casinos, a London interior designer, more than $200m in artwork by artists including Van Gogh and Monet, and the production of films including the Oscar-nominated The Wolf of Wall Street.

Unfortunately and tragically, a number of corrupt officials treated this public trust as a personal bank account, Lynch said at a news conference in Washington.

The seizures targeted by investigators include property, art drawings and a Claude Monet painting, a private jet and other assets purchased with money allegedly misappropriated from the fund.

The civil action and asset seizures represent the largest single action ever brought by the justice departments kleptocracy asset initiative, Lynch said.

The operation is being led by the initiative, which was set up in 2010, and will demonstrate Washingtons determination to curb the movement of illegal funds.

The Department of Justice will not allow the American financial system to be used as a conduit for corruption, Lynch said.

With this action, we are seeking to forfeit and recover funds that were intended to grow the Malaysian economy and support the Malaysian people. Instead, they were stolen, laundered through American financial institutions and used to enrich a few officials and their associates. Corrupt officials around the world should make no mistake that we will be relentless in our efforts to deny them the proceeds of their crimes.

The complaint, filed in California, alleges that funds diverted from 1MDB were used for the personal benefit of public officials and their relatives and associates.

The US attorney Eileen Decker said the case marked the justice departments determination to send a message that we will not allow the United States to become a playground for the corrupt, a platform for money laundering or a place to hide and invest stolen riches.

Among the assets the government is seeking are royalties from The Wolf of Wall Street, homes in Beverly Hills, a penthouse in the Time Warner building in Manhattan and a Vincent van Gogh drawing, according to the filing. They total more than $1bn, the justice department said in a statement.

Additionally, prosecutors in at least four countries Singapore, Switzerland, Luxembourg and the US are looking into money flows from the investment vehicle, formally called 1Malaysia Development Berhad, which was established for national development.

Among the questions asked by investigators is whether politically connected individuals in Kuala Lumpur benefited financially from the fund, whose advisory board was headed by Razak, the Malaysian prime minister.

The actions could also affect the USs relationship with Malaysia, as the investigations named figures including Riza Aziz, a film producer and stepson of the prime minister; Low Taek Jho often called Jho Low a young, high profile Malaysian financier; and Khadem al-Qubaisi, a former Abu Dhabi managing director of a sovereign-wealth fund.

Aziz runs the Hollywood production company Red Granite Pictures, which funded and produced the 2013 Leonardo DiCaprio hit The Wolf of Wall Street. In a letter to the Guardian earlier this year, the company denied there was anything improper in its dealings.

Liquidation begins

Figures allegedly connected to the 1MDB case have started liquidating assets. In February, Jho Low, 34, auctioned off artworks by Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso and Jean-Michel Basquiat at Sothebys, picking up steep losses on two of the pieces that were purchased from the auctioneer in 2013 and 2014.

All three works had been pledged as part of the collateral for a loan of about $100m from Sothebys Financial Services, Bloomberg reported.

Low, who has told newspapers that he provided informal consulting to 1MDB, has claimed he didnt break any laws and wasnt being investigated.

Over the past year, Low has kept a low profile a contrast to the heady days when he was known for throwing lavish parties with Paris Hilton and appearing on the red carpet with the singer Alicia Keys. Low is also reported to own stakes in hotels and a music publishing business.

Asset seizures will be the fruit of at least six global investigations into 1MDB. Investigators believe that as much as $6bn of the $13bn of debt raised by the fund went missing.

The 1MDB affair has stretched from Malaysia to Singapore, Abu Dhabi, Switzerland, the Caribbean, Hong Kong and the US. The suspected fraud occurred in three phases in which money was laundered through bank accounts in Singapore, Switzerland, Luxembourg and the US, the government said in the court filing.

In 2009, after 1MDB was set up to pursue development projects, officials of 1MDB and others, under the pretense of investing in a joint venture between 1MDB and a Saudi oil company, transferred more than $1bn to a Swiss bank account.
In 2012, 1MDB officials and others diverted proceeds raised through two separate bond offerings arranged by Goldman Sachs Group Inc, according to the justice department.

More than 40% of the proceeds, or $1.4bn, were transferred to a Swiss bank account belonging to a British Virgin Islands entity. More than $1bn was diverted from another bond offering arranged by Goldman Sachs in 2013.

Earlier this year, the companys south-east Asia chairman, Tim Leissner, took a leave of absence after questions were raised about the fund, and an unauthorized letter of reference to another bank on behalf of Jho Low that implied he had vetted Low and done business with him directly.

The Journal reported seeing bank transfer documents showing that hundreds of millions of dollars were diverted into the prime ministers own bank accounts in Malaysia ahead of key elections.

Razaks family has been entangled in various alleged links to 1MDB funds, alongside a separate donation scandal that has caused more than a year of political tension in Malaysia.

Razak and Malaysias attorney general have said the money in his bank accounts was a gift from the Saudi royal family and most was later returned. The 1MDB fund denies wrongdoing and says it is ready to cooperate with any investigation.

Critical questions still unanswered

How 1MDB funds reached the US has yet to be clarified. Investigators are looking into an Abu Dhabi business partner of 1MDB who may have moved the money through a British Virgin Islands company, which then sent it to a company owned and controlled by Aziz.

Aziz allegedly used some of the money to buy properties that are named in the US criminal complaint and may imminently be subject to seizure. They include a 7,700 sq ft, $33.5m duplex in the Park Laurel condominium tower overlooking New Yorks Central Park and an 11,000 sq ft walled mansion in Beverly Hills.

There has never been anything inappropriate about any of Red Granite Pictures or Riza Azizs business activities, a spokesman for Azizs film company told the Journal. What they have done and will continue to do is develop and produce successful and acclaimed movies that have generated more than $825m in worldwide box-office revenues.

Meanwhile, 1MDB has said it has never invested in or transferred funds to Red Granite Pictures, whether directly or via intermediaries. Any statement to the contrary is false.

Still, for a time, the young Malaysian investors lived large. Three months after shooting on The Wolf of Wall Street began, Red Granite gave a birthday gift to DiCaprio: the Oscar statuette given to Marlon Brando for best actor in On the Waterfront, which cost about $600,000.

On New Years Eve 2012, revellers celebrated the arrival of 2013 in Australia and then flew to Las Vegas on a rented jetliner in time to celebrate it again. The party was reported to have included the two Malaysians, Aziz and Low, DiCaprio and his Wolf of Wall Street co-star Jonah Hill, and the actor and singer Jamie Foxx.

Six months after the movies release, DiCaprio, Aziz and Low attended the World Cup in Brazil and spent time on a Saudi-owned, 482ft yacht.

The alleged scandal came to public notice last year, when the Sarawak Report, a UK-based site run by a former BBC journalist, published a series of what it said were internal emails between 1MDB and the Saudi energy company PetroSaudi.

The emails, the Sarawak Report said, showed that $700m involved in a deal between 1MDB and PetroSaudi was sent to a bank account belonging to a company controlled by Low.

The Guardian has been unable to contact Low regarding the allegations against him. He has consistently denied any wrongdoing, with his lawyers calling allegations that he benefited from the fund false, materially misleading and categorically denied.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/20/us-justice-department-1mdb-fund-seizure-fraud-investigation


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