Australia's Myer to sell online from China: reports

SYDNEY, December  4, 2010 (AFP) - Australia's largest department store chain Myer will open an online business based in China in a bid to lure Australian customers with the promise of zero taxes on their goods, reports said Saturday.

Myer, which floated on the Australian stock exchange 12 months ago, said it would start up the Chinese site and ship goods from a warehouse in southern Shenzhen in a bid to dodge Australia's 10 percent goods and services tax (GST).

"We will take jobs offshore and we will ship product out of China through our Internet site," Myer chief Bernie Brookes said, according to Fairfax newspapers. "It's a bloody shame."

Brookes said the push aimed to give Myer a more "level playing field" with online shopping outlets, which are exempt from GST on purchases worth less than 1,000 dollars. Major retailers have been lobbying Canberra to change the law.

Australian shops are struggling to compete as the local dollar hovers near parity with the greenback, giving customers better value for money at offshore-based Internet sites.

Canberra said it was "considering the concerns of retailers... particularly in light of the high Australian dollar," which closed Friday at 97.72 US cents, two months after breaching parity with the US dollar for the first time in its 27-year free-floating history.

Singapore merger 'unequivocally' good for Australia: ASX

SYDNEY, December  4, 2010 (AFP) - Australia's stock exchange chief lauded a proposed multi-billion-dollar merger with Singapore's bourse Saturday, saying the nation was "indebted" to Asia and should seek greater regional integration.

Robert Elstone, chief executive of the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX), said the 8.3-billion-US-dollar merger was a "natural competitive and regulatory evolution of Australia's capital markets" as power shifted to Asia.

The bid, announced in October, sparked a strong political backlash in Canberra, where key independent lawmakers questioned Singapore's human rights and democracy record and argued that the deal would disadvantage Australia.

Elstone said the ASX would "in the near future" release information to counter the criticism and show how the proposed merger "advances Australia's national interest."

"As a nation we are indebted to the strength of Asia's industrialising economies and their appetite for our resources -- factors that helped us avoid the worst effects of the global financial crisis," Elstone wrote in The Australian newspaper.

"Yet, despite talk of becoming more integrated with the pan-Asian economy, a transaction to achieve this causes parts of the community to raise the spectre of loss of national sovereignty, without understanding the protection afforded by the existing regulatory framework or the competitive forces that threaten to marginalise ASX if parochialism prevails."

 Elstone said the merger would increase the size and diversity of options for investors and reduce costs for listed companies -- "an outcome unequivocally in the national interest."

"The need for additional scale and regional relevance makes ASX's participation in exchange consolidation a mandatory, not an elective, matter for all of its stakeholders, and not just its shareholders," he wrote.

Though it would be the "first major regional exchange group in the Asian time zone", Elstone "emphatically" rejected concerns that governance and regulation of the market would shift to Singapore.

"The Australian operations of the merged group will remain under Australian law and regulated by Australian authorities," he said.

The move, scheduled to be completed in mid-2011, aims to create the world's fifth-biggest exchange with a market capitalisation of about 12.3 billion US dollars as a regional trading hub to rival Hong Kong.

The deal will be reviewed by Australia's securities, foreign investment and competition watchdogs, as well as the central bank, and must be approved by Treasurer Wayne Swan, who has promised "extensive regulatory consideration".

Australia's parliament -- where Prime Minister Julia Gillard holds just a one-vote majority in the lower house -- will then have to pass a bill that would allow ownership of more than 15 percent of the ASX.

Malaysia cuts fuel, sugar subsidy to trim deficit

KUALA LUMPUR, December  4, 2010 (AFP) - Malaysia has cut subsidies for fuel and sugar, a report said Saturday, in a bid to reduce its budget deficit by saving the government 1.18 billion ringgit (376 million dollars).

The cuts will have an immediate affect, with fuel prices by five sen (1.6 cents) to 1.90 ringgit a litre for gasoline and 1.80 ringgit for diesel. Liquefied petroleum gas will rise five sen to 1.90 ringgit a kilogram.

Sugar price will be hiked by 20 sen to 2.10 ringgit a kilogramme, in a move also seen as promoting healthier lifestyles.

It is the second time in five months that the prices for these two key commodities were raised, and the increases come into effect as oil prices rose to their highest level in more than two years.

New York's main contract, light sweet crude for January, gained 1.19 dollars to close at 89.19 dollars a barrel, its highest point since October 9, 2008.

Idris Jala, minister in the prime minister's department, described the price increase as "minimal" and that it would result in a total savings of 1.18 billion ringgit.

"I believe people will be able to accept it," he was quoted as saying by the Star newspaper, adding that the savings would be used for infrastructure development.

Wan Suhaimi Saidi, an economist with Kenanga Investment Bank, told AFP Saturday that a cut in the subsidy will reduce the government's operating expenditure as it aims to lower the budget deficit, he said.

The government is eyeing a robust economic growth of up to 7.0 percent percent for 2010, after the economy contracted 1.7 percent last year.

Analysts had previously said that price hikes of essential items will make voters unhappy and they may punish the ruling coalition in the polls.

The opposition scored unprecedented gains in elections in 2008 which saw it claim five states and a third of parliamentary seats. The next election is not officially due until 2013 but pundits say it could be held early next year.

Google bid to buy Groupon fails: report

WASHINGTON, December  4, 2010 (AFP) - Online discount shopping site Groupon has rejected a multi-billion-dollar takeover bid by Internet search giant Google, the Chicago Tribune reported Friday.

The Tribune cited sources close to the matter as saying the Chicago-based startup decided to remain independent. Google was believed to be offering more than five billion dollars for Groupon.

Groupon, founded in 2008, offers discounts to its more than 12 million members on retail goods and services, offering one localized deal a day.

Acquiring Groupon would have played into Google's efforts to localize and personalize Internet searches and services, particularly when it comes to connecting customers with merchants.

Groupon reportedly spurned a two-billion-dollar buyout offer from faded Internet star Yahoo! earlier this year.


Singapore in tough environmental balancing act

SINGAPORE, December  3, 2010 (AFP) - Singapore prides itself on being a clean and green city but a booming economy and a high-consumption lifestyle have made it one of the world's biggest carbon polluters per person.

As a major United Nations summit is being held in Mexico to find ways of curbing the carbon emissions blamed for global warming, Singapore's environmental balancing act poses challenging questions for the rest of Asia and the world.

Singapore's green credentials are in many ways very strong and it is establishing itself as a regional renewable energy hub.

Yet, if all Asians emulated Singaporeans' modern and often luxurious lifestyles, greenhouse gas emissions would spike alarmingly.

"If everyone in the world enjoyed the same level of consumption as the average Singaporean, we would need three planets to meet the demands placed on our resources," World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) spokesman Chris Chaplin said.

Singapore was last month listed by the British global risk advisory firm Maplecroft as the world's seventh largest carbon dioxide (CO2) emitter relative to its population size.

Ahead of it were only the United Arab Emirates, Australia, the United States, Canada, the Netherlands and Saudi Arabia.

Maplecroft's index was calculated by evaluating annual CO2 emissions from energy use, emissions per capita and cumulative emissions of a country over more than a century -- 1900 to 2006.

"The lack of 'clean' energy sources coupled with the growth in Singapore's economy and the increasing use of cars as well as electronic appliances such as air-conditioners contribute to Singapore's emissions," Maplecroft said in a statement to AFP.

Despite a punishing auto levy and road charges, the number of motor vehicles on its roads reached 925,518 in 2009, up more than 27 percent in five years, with private cars making up 60 percent of the total, official figures show.

In a separate list, the WWF ranked Singapore 21st in the world in terms of ecological footprint, or the demand for resources per person, ahead of such countries as Germany, France and Britain.

WWF's calculation covered not only emissions -- the biggest component of humanity's carbon footprint -- but also demand placed by people on arable land, fishing grounds, forest and grazing land worldwide.

Singapore authorities insist, however, that that the country has had no choice but to rely on imported fossil fuel to power its rapid industrialisation.

The trade-reliant economy, valued at 200 billion US dollars in 2009, is tipped to expand by a massive 15 percent this year.

With a land area smaller than that of New York City, Singapore has no space among its five million citizens for wind farms, while it is devoid of hydro and geothermal power sources.

"We are dependent on fossil fuels because our small size severely limits our ability to switch to alternative energies," the National Environment Agency (NEA) said in a statement to AFP.

It said Maplecroft's index neither reflected Singapore's efforts to reduce its carbon emissions nor took into account its unique circumstances.

"As a small city-state, the use of per capita emissions inflates our carbon emissions," it said, noting that overall, Singapore accounts for less than 0.2 percent of global emissions.

Nevertheless, the government said it was committed to the fight against climate change and was taking steps to reduce the growth of its emissions, including switching from oil to natural gas to produce electricity.

Singapore is investing heavily in clean energy technologies -- it has allocated 770 million dollars to develop innovative energy solutions -- and is building a liquefied natural gas terminal that will be ready by 2013.

This will allow access to gas sources beyond neighbouring Indonesia and Malaysia.

It is also pushing its people to do more recycling, doubling its already expansive rail network by 2020 and testing electric vehicles for commercial use.

In another positive move, Singapore has offered itself as a "living laboratory" where global energy firms can develop and test new technologies before mass production.

Norway's Renewable Energy Corp (REC) opened one of the world's biggest solar technology manufacturing facilities in Singapore in November, a project costing nearly two billion dollars.

Vestas, a Danish manufacturer of wind turbines, already has a global research and development centre in the city-state.

"Singapore has been very wise in the way they are approaching this," REC's chief executive Ole Enger said. "They have made Singapore a global hub for renewable energy."

Star Wars studio goes from apprentice to master in Singapore

SINGAPORE, December  3, 2010 (AFP) - As an 11-year-old boy, Steven Ong dreamt of being a fighter pilot in the Singapore Air Force and emulating the heroic exploits of Tom Cruise's character in the 1986 action flick "Top Gun."

Twenty-four years on, the bald, bespectacled Singaporean still isn't quite Pete "Maverick" Mitchell but he does soar imaginary skies with Robert Downey Jr. as the star dispatches super villains as the Marvel superhero Iron Man.

As lead digital artist of Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) Singapore -- part of "Star Wars" movie legend George Lucas' empire -- Ong is responsible for inserting special effects into clients' movies like "Iron Man 2".

"This sequence, we actually did quite a lot of the shots," Ong proudly told AFP at his studio, gesturing to a battle scene featuring the hero and his sidekick War Machine fending off enemy droids.

Ong, who studied computer graphics at a Singapore polytechnic, had to move to the United States when he started his career 10 years ago because the special-effects work he craved was not being done by any company at home.

Today, Singapore serves as a production centre for multi million-dollar Hollywood franchises, next-generation video games and animated television series thanks to Lucas, the man behind "Star Wars" and other blockbusters.

Lucasfilm set up a facility in Singapore in 2005 with a staff of almost 40 to produce content for the animated TV series "Star Wars: The Clone Wars".

But like a Jedi warrior, it has grown from apprentice to master in its own right, doing work for non-Lucas productions on top of house titles.

The only Lucasfilm entity outside the US, it now boasts 430 employees, two-thirds of them from Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries, and will move from rented premises to a high-tech building of its own by 2012.

"The initial intention was to develop here only animation, that's why the studio was originally named Lucasfilm Animation Singapore," said general manager Xavier Nicolas.

"But as we went along, things went pretty well and we decided also to start activities around visual effects to support ILM and later even games, so we opened additional production divisions here."

Staff work for four entities: special effects division ILM Singapore, video games developer Lucasarts Singapore, and individual sections for feature films and television animation under Lucasfilm Animation Singapore.

They are currently housed in a studio near Changi Airport which is chock-full of Star Wars memorabilia, including life-size figures of Anakin Skywalker and Yoda at its entrance.

The studio announced last month it will be breaking ground on an eight-storey purpose-built facility occupying 38,000 square metres (409,000 square feet) next year.

The building will house a data centre, a 100-seat theatre and retail outlets, all testaments to Lucasfilm Singapore's success, Nicolas said.

The studio is also looking to hire more than 100 additional employees next year as part of its expansion plans.

Josh Robinson, lead asset artist for the Clone Wars animated series, said the multi-disciplinary nature of its Singapore-based artists, animators and engineers proved to be an advantage over the more specialised talents of US-based teams.

"Here we're able to have a team of artists that do all texturing, all modelling, and all blend shapes for all characters," he said.

Lucas himself is so confident in the Singapore team that he is planning to produce his next feature film entirely in the studio.

Details are top-secret except for the fact that it will be a totally new property instead of being another "Star Wars" derivative.

 "What we're trying to do doesn't look like everything that has been done before," general manager Nicolas said.

Aside from Lucas' personal project, the firm is also working with "Pirates of the Caribbean" director Gore Verbinski on "Rango", a fully-animated film about a chameleon forced to live his dreams of being a swashbuckling hero in a bandit-infested cowboy town.

The film will be released in 2011, with "Pirates" lead Johnny Depp voicing the main character.

Ong, the Singaporean digital artist, said he was currently working on "Pirates 4" after wrapping up work on "Rango", while his colleagues were busy with the third installment of the "Transformers" franchise.

Both films are also due for worldwide release next year.

Ong has no regrets about missing out on a fighter career because of his imperfect eyesight.
"I might not even get to blow things up being a pilot," Ong said. "But I get to with my job now!"

China vows to tighten monetary policy in 2011

BEIJING, December  3, 2010 (AFP) - China pledged Friday to tighten monetary policy next year -- a sign that new interest rate hikes are imminent, analysts say, as the world's second-largest economy steps up its battle against inflation.

The ruling Communist party's politburo decided to shift its stance from "relatively loose" to "prudent" at a meeting chaired by President Hu Jintao, the Xinhua news agency reported.

The politburo said it should "implement an active fiscal policy and a prudent monetary policy, to increase the focus, flexibility and effectiveness of macro-economic adjustments," the report said.

"We must clearly see that the functioning of China's economy is facing some prominent contradictions and problems, the environment for development is more complicated and our task is arduous," Xinhua quoted Hu as saying.

"We must be more active in dealing with the relationship between stable economic growth, adjusting the economic structure and managing forecasted inflation," he said in a separate meeting after the politburo gathering.

A senior official at China's central bank last week warned that inflationary pressures were building because of flows of capital into the country and expectations of a revaluation of the yuan.

The nation's consumer price index rose 4.4 percent year-on-year in October, well above the government's full-year target of three percent, with the prices of 18 types of vegetable increasing more than 60 percent.

Analysts said the government's announcement signalled a new phase in the country's efforts to curb spiralling prices.

"It's a very clear signal that the rate hikes are imminent. We're forecasting one by the end of the year and another three in 2011," Brian Jackson, a senior strategist at the Royal Bank of Canada, told AFP.

"The rates are too low given inflation. They've only moved rates by 25 basis points since the start of 2009 so this looks increasingly inappropriate for the current situation."

State media has previously reported the Communist leadership was to adopt a "prudent" monetary policy compared with the expansionary stance adopted over the past two years to combat the impact of the global financial crisis.

Beijing unveiled a four-trillion-yuan (586-billion-dollar) stimulus package in the wake of the crisis and opened the credit valves, which led to the volume of new loans nearly doubling to 9.6 trillion yuan in 2009.

These loans were mainly used to increase investments and caused a boom in property prices. Policymakers now fear a damaging bubble in the real estate sector and a potential new crop of bad debts.

Ever fearful of inflation's historical potential to spark unrest in China, Beijing has ordered a range of steps to ensure adequate supplies of key goods and offer financial help to the most needy.

The central bank hiked interest rates in October for the first time in nearly three years.

Last month, Beijing raised the amount of money that lenders must keep in reserve for the fifth time this year.

"We've already seen the beginning of a tight monetary policy, with reserve requirement hikes and interest rate hikes," Stephen Green, an analyst at Standard Chartered in Shanghai, told AFP.

"We think there's more to come," Green said, predicting a rate increase could come "anytime in the next few weeks".

WikiLeaks' site back with new address after six hours

PARIS, December  3, 2010 (AFP) - The whistleblower website WikiLeaks was back on line Friday with a new Swiss address -- wikileaks.ch -- six hours after its previous domain name -- wikileaks.org -- was shut down.

"WikiLeaks moves to Switzerland," the group declared on Twitter, although an Internet trace of the new domain name suggested that the site itself is still hosted in Sweden and in France.

Webusers accessing the wikileaks.ch address are directed to a page under the URL -- which gives them access to the former site, including a massive trove of leaked US diplomatic traffic.

The original wikileaks.org domain was taken offline at 0300 GMT Friday by its American domain name system provider, EveryDNS.net, following reports of massive cyber attacks on the site.

"The interference at issue arises from the fact that wikileaks.org has become the target of multiple distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks," EveryDNS.net said in a statement.

Classic DDoS attacks occur when legions of "zombie" computers, normally machines infected with viruses, are commanded to simultaneously visit a website, overwhelming servers or knocking them offline completely.

The latest techological setback for the whistleblower site came after Amazon booted it from its computer servers on Wednesday following pressure from US politicians, prompting the site to move to a French server.

"Free speech the land of the free -- fine, our dollars are now spent to employ people in Europe," WikiLeaks said. "If Amazon are so uncomfortable with the First Amendment, they should get out of the business of selling books."

On Sunday, WikiLeaks began publishing the first batch of more than 250,000 US diplomatic cables, many of them classified as "secret", that the website is believed to have obtained from a disaffected US soldier.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said last month that he was considering requesting asylum in Switzerland and basing the whistleblowing website in the fiercely neutral Alpine country.

"That is a real possiblity," Assange said when asked whether he and the website might relocate, adding that Switzerland, and perhaps Iceland, were the only Western countries that his outfit feels safe in.

Assange told the TSR television that Wikileaks was examining the possibility of creating a foundation that would allow it operate out of Switzerland, and confirmed he might apply for asylum.

Malaysia's Anwar says likey to be suspended from parliament

KUALA LUMPUR, December  3, 2010 (AFP) - Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said Friday he was likely to be suspended from parliament, after a disciplinary probe against him refused to hear his defence.

The government in April urged action against Anwar after he criticised its "One Malaysia" national unity slogan, saying it had been copied from the "One Israel" political alliance of former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak in 1999.

Muslim-majority Malaysia has no diplomatic relations with Israel and is a supporter of a Palestinian state.

"They charged me, they should hear me," Anwar told a news conference, after two opposition parliamentarians sitting on the disciplinary committee withdrew, saying the committee had made its decision without hearing Anwar's testimony.

The opposition leader said he had been prepared to give evidence but could now only wait for the decision, which he said will "most likely be suspension".

Anwar, a former deputy prime minister who was sacked and jailed a decade ago on sex and corruption charges seen as politically motivated, is currently on trial over new allegations of illicit relations with a young male aide.

"All these attacks against me, it's not coincidental, we can see that there is a concerted attempt at denying me my right to be heard as the leader of the opposition," he said.

Sivarasa Rasiah, one of the pair who quit the disciplinary committee in protest, said the refusal to hear Anwar's defence was "outrageous".

"The committee's decision has far-reaching implications on freedom of speech in parliament as it means that those charged do not have a right to be heard; this goes against natural justice," he said.

Parliament speaker Pandikar Amin Mulia, head of the disciplinary committee, confirmed a decision had been made but did not say when it would be presented to parliament.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who came to power last year, has been trying to reach out to Chinese and Indian minorities -- who deserted the government in the last national polls -- under the "One Malaysia" initiative.

Japan, US launch biggest ever joint military exercise

TOKYO, December  3, 2010 (AFP) - Japan and the United States launched their biggest ever joint military exercise Friday in a strident display of firepower just days after a US and South Korean show of force to pressure Pyongyang.

The "Keen Sword" drills feature tens of thousands of military personnel from both sides and mark the 50th anniversary of the Japanese-US alliance, Japanese defence ministry officials said. They will continue until December 10.

The drill was planned before North Korea's deadly artillery barrage of a South Korean island last week but comes just days after the United States and South Korea conducted smaller exercises aimed at deterring a belligerent Pyongyang.

The Pacific allies are for the first time being joined by South Korean military observers, in a bid by Tokyo to demonstrate solidarity among the three countries at a time of high tension in the region.

The massive exercise features around 44,000 military personnel, 60 warships and 400 aircraft from both sides in a drill off Japan's southern islands, close to the coast of South Korea and in the Sea of Japan (East Sea).

The US nuclear-powered George Washington aircraft carrier, which also took part in the US-South Korean exercises, joined Japan's Aegis missile-equipped destroyers and F-15 jet fighters as heavy wind and rain lashed the first day.

The joint drills will be much bigger than a naval exercise staged by Washington and Seoul this week after Pyongyang stunned the world with an artillery strike on a South Korean border island that killed four.

Japan, which relies heavily on the United States for its security under its pacifist constitution, has been on high alert since the attack.

China's newly assertive posture on territorial issues this year has also been a cause for concern for Tokyo and other Asian nations, in a region where Washington is seen as an important counterbalance.

The manoeuvres include integrated air and missile defence, base security, close air support, live-fire training, maritime defence and search and rescue.

The inclusion of South Korean observers follows Japan's sending of observers to take part in joint US-South Korean military exercises in July, held after the sinking of the Cheonan, a 1,200-tonne South Korean naval vessel.

An international investigation blamed North Korea for the sinking, which left 46 South Korean sailors dead.

Beijing has hit back at the military manoeuvres, which it sees as taking place in its backyard, saying to talk with the nuclear-armed regime was better than to "brandish weapons".

China has come under pressure to come down hard on the regime of Kim Jong-Il, who this year twice visited the powerful neighbour, which has given Kim's impoverished country a lifeline of food, energy and diplomatic cover.

Washington, Tokyo and Seoul have snubbed Beijing's proposal for six-way crisis talks that would also include Moscow and Pyongyang -- instead scheduling their own three-way foreign ministers' talks in Washington next Monday.

China complained it was being unfairly criticised for urging dialogue, and suggested talks with the North would be more helpful than military exercises, as South Korea also readied for new live-fire drills next week.

Google ramps up fight against online piracy

SAN FRANCISCO, December  3, 2010 (AFP) - Google on Thursday unveiled new tactics to thwart "bad apples" that post or share pirated material on the Internet.

"As the web has grown, we have seen a growing number of issues relating to infringing content," Google general counsel Kent Walker said in a blog post.

"Along with this new wave of creators come some bad apples who use the Internet to infringe copyright."

Google, which owns popular video-sharing website YouTube, is improving the process by which owners of digital content alert it to the unauthorized posting of copyrighted material.

The California-based Internet giant is aiming to reduce the time it takes to follow-through on "take-down" notices to within 24 hours.

Google is also modifying its feature that automatically completes search queries to leave out terms commonly associated with piracy.

Google already prohibits ads from its AdSense program from being featured on pages with pirated content and will begin to kick abusers out of the program, Walker said.

Legitimate content, such as previews of films, was to be given priority in results. The anti-piracy enhancements will be rolled out in coming months.

"These changes build on our continuing efforts, such as Content ID, to give rights holders choice and control over the use of their content," Walker said.

"We look forward to further refining and improving our processes in ways that help both rights holders and users."

Google alters algorithm to combat abusive sellers

WASHINGTON, December  2, 2010 (AFP) - Google is tweaking its algorithms after an  online eyeglass merchant managed to get his site listed at the top of search rankings by being deliberately rude to customers and sparking complaints.

In a blog post entitled "Being bad to your customers is bad for business," Google's Amit Singhal said the change was made after an article in The New York Times drew the Internet search giant's attention to the problem.

According to the Times story, the owner of DecorMyEyes.com boosted his site's prominence in search rankings by generating negative reviews from customers.

The prominent placement of the site in search rankings generated more business, according to the owner of DecorMyEyes.

"Even though our initial analysis pointed to this being an edge case and not a widespread problem in our search results, we immediately convened a team that looked carefully at the issue," Singhal said.

"We developed an algorithmic solution which detects the merchant from the Times article along with hundreds of other merchants that, in our opinion, provide an extremely poor user experience," Singhal said. "The solution is already live."

"I am here to tell you that being bad is, and hopefully will always be, bad for business in Google's search results," Singhal added.

Google declined to provide details of the changes to its algorithms so as not to provide information to people who may attempt to game their ranking on the search engine.


Chinese artist Ai Weiwei blocked from leaving China

BEIJING, December  2, 2010 (AFP) - Chinese artist Ai Weiwei said he was prevented from leaving the country Thursday just 30 minutes before boarding a plane to South Korea, ahead of next week's Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.

Ai, 53, one of China's most famous and controversial artists, had cleared customs and was waiting for his plane at Beijing airport when two border control policemen came over and told him he could not leave.

"They showed me a note from the Public Security Bureau, which said my leaving China could harm national security," he told AFP by phone, adding he thought police had been alerted by Twitter feeds saying he had cleared customs.

Ai said he believed the restriction was linked to the Nobel ceremony due to take place on December 10 in Oslo -- a sensitive event for China after jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the peace prize.

Scores of activists and lawyers have been prevented from leaving China in recent weeks in what is widely seen as a crackdown linked to the prize, which has angered the government.

Liu, who is serving 11 years for subversion after co-authoring a petition calling for democratic reform, and members of his family are not expected to be able to attend the ceremony. His wife, Liu Xia, is currently under house arrest.

Ai, who is also an outspoken critic of the country's Communist leaders, was going to South Korea, and was then due to travel to Germany, Ukraine and Denmark. He said he never had plans to go to Oslo.

"I asked them how long these restrictions would last but they couldn't tell me," he said.

This is not the first time that the artist has landed in hot water. Last month, he was put under brief house arrest to prevent him from attending an event at his Shanghai studio set for demolition.

He also said he was detained and beaten by police who blocked him from testifying on the behalf of quake activist Tan Zuoren in the southwestern province of Sichuan last year. Tan was later handed a five-year jail term.

Chinese army must deal with cyberwarfare: state media

BEIJING, December  2, 2010 (AFP) - China's army should seriously consider how to deal with cyberwarfare amid severe threats to online and information security, state media said Thursday, days after authorities detained hundreds of hackers.

"The spread of information is developing at an unprecedented rate... bringing severe challenges to information and Internet security," the state-run People's Liberation Army Daily reported.

"Military commanders must seriously consider how to deal with the issue of cyberwarfare."

The comments come just days after Chinese authorities said they had detained more than 460 suspected hackers and closed a number of websites that teach people how to hack, warning that cyberattacks were rampant across the nation.

According to a notice on the Ministry of Public Security's website posted on Tuesday, police had cracked a total of 180 hacking cases within China, which has the world's largest online population of at least 420 million users.

"Currently the situation regarding cyberattacks in China is still extremely grim, and hacking attacks domestically are still widespread," the ministry said in the notice.

However at least one of the websites that authorities said had been closed down was still accessible on Thursday under a different domain name.

The ministry was not available for comment.

The cases were all within China and no mention was made of any foreign cyberattacks, amid increasing accusations of organised computer hacking originating from the Asian nation.

The accusations came to the fore again this week when whistleblower site WikiLeaks released secret US diplomatic files alleging hackers backed by the Chinese state had attacked the computers of Google and Western governments.

Earlier this year, Google waged a high-profile spat with Beijing over government censorship and cyberattacks against it and more than 20 other companies. The US web giant eventually reduced its presence in China.

Taiwan to retire one in four generals

TAIPEI, December  2, 2010 (AFP) - Taiwan's Defence Minister Kao Hua-chu said Thursday that one in four generals and admirals will be retired over the next four years as the island cuts the size of its armed forces.

A total of 101 senior officers at the level of general will be retired by the end of 2014, cutting the number to 291, Kao told parliament.

Under the plan, the total number of servicemen also will be reduced to 215,000, down from the present 235,000, as Taiwan recruits more professional soldiers to replace its conscripts.

At present, all men aged over 20 are required to spend a year in the armed forces.

Taiwan's relatively large army is a legacy of decades of tensions with China, which regards the island as part of its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.

Ties between Taiwan and China, which split at the end of a civil war in 1949, have improved dramatically since Beijing-friendly Ma Ying-jeou was elected president in 2008 on a promise to boost trade and tourism.

But tensions remain, and the most prominent symbol of the lingering hostility is the more than Chinese 1,600 missiles aimed at the island.

Taiwan has said that despite the planned cut in troop numbers, its defence capability will not suffer, as it aims to make up for the smaller force with a renewed emphasis on military efficiency.

China, which has 2.3 million soldiers, has engaged in recent years in a similar programme to creater a leaner, meaner war machine.

President Ma has repeatedly called on Washington to supply the island with sufficient defensive weapons, among them the advanced F-16C/D jet, to allow Taipei to have more bargaining chips while dealing with Beijing.

Wal-Mart targets low-income consumers in China: report

BEIJING, December  2, 2010 (AFP) - Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, has launched a no-frills store format in China targeting low-income and rural consumers, a report said Thursday.

The US chain has opened a "compact hypermarket" in the eastern province of Jiangxi that is expected to be the first of a series of stores using a bare-bones model developed in Latin America, the Financial Times said.

Compared with the retailer's larger outlets, the new stores will be smaller and have basic decoration such as cement floors and brick walls, the report said, citing the chief executive of Wal-Mart's international business.

"It is going to help us reach more people... not only in urban markets but also reaching people in rural areas," Doug McMillon was quoted as saying.

The new compact hypermarket in Zhangshu city is just over 3,437 square metres (37,000 square feet) and opened under the Trustmart banner last month.

McMillon said the return on investment in the compact format was equal to supermarkets that are more than twice the size.

"But the cost of operating it is less, so the (prices) are less," he said.

Wal-Mart currently has 189 outlets in China, according to its website.

The retailer's third-quarter sales in China soared 15.2 percent from a year earlier, the report said. Global sales in 14 countries outside the United States rose 9.3 percent in the same period, while US sales rose 1.4 percent.

After pink train coaches, Malaysia launches women-only buses

KUALA LUMPUR, December  2, 2010 (AFP) - Women-only transport has been stepped up a gear in Malaysia, it was reported Thursday, after the launch of female-only buses to help counter sexual harassment.

The buses follow ladies-only pink train carriages on the transport system to give the Muslim majority country's females the option of travelling separately from men.

Bus company RapidKL, a state-owned firm, started the special service for its female passengers on Wednesday on seven routes in the Malaysian capital during peak hours, the New Straits Times newspaper reported.

"This is based on feedback received from our customers, especially females, who shared with us their discomfort during peak-hour travels," the firm's chief operating officer Mohamed Hazland Mohamed Hussain said.

The official did not say whether the firm has received any sexual harassment complaints.

"I will feel safer, not because I do not trust men, but for someone my age, it's hard to fight for space during peak hours," Poovan Kaur, 63, told the paper.

In April, the Malaysian Railway launched pink women-only train coaches.

The northern Terengganu state has reportedly said it was aiming to establish a waterfall site exclusively for women to picnic and bathe, in a bid to attract Middle Eastern tourists to holiday there.

Another northern state, Kelantan has also enacted laws that require separate queues for men and women in shops. The rules are not strictly enforced.

More than 60 percent of Malaysia's 28 million population are Muslim Malays, and the population includes large ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.

Taiwan former leader meets son as jail looms

TUCHENG, December  2, 2010 (AFP) - Taiwan ex-president Chen Shui-bian had an emotional meeting with his son Thursday as he awaited his transfer from a detention centre to the jail where he will serve a 19-year graft conviction.

While the island's disgraced former leader met with his son, Chen Chih-chung, dozens of supporters gathered outside the Tucheng Detention Centre on the outskirts of Taipei, protesting his innocence.

"A-Bian isn't guilty!" the crowd chanted, affectionately referring to Chen by his nickname.

Some also held up placards claiming that Taiwan is an independent country, in support of Chen's lifelong political project, the creation of an island republic formally separate from China.

"He was very much worried about the health of my mother," Chen's son said after emerging from the meeting with his father.

Chen Shui-bian's wheelchair-bound wife Wu Shu-chen has also been sentenced to 19 years in jail for corruption, but it remains unclear if she will actually serve the sentence, given her frail health.

Chen Chih-chung himself is embarking on a political career after he was elected at the weekend to the city council in Kaohsiung, Taiwan's second-largest weekend and a bastion of anti-China feelings.

The Supreme Court last month sentenced Chen and his wife to 19 years in prison on two bribery charges in the first final verdict of a string of corruption cases implicating them.

Chen, who has been detained since late 2008, says his prosecution is a vendetta carried out by the island's current administration in retaliation for his pro-independence stance during his 2000-2008 term.

Reports have indicated that Chen will soon be moved to a regular prison, where he will be allowed fewer visitors than at the detention centre, while he may also have to share a cell with another inmate.

The High Court and the detention centre told AFP they could not say when Chen might be transferred.

China's Baidu expands as Google contracts - Feature

BEIJING, December  2, 2010 (AFP) - The name of the search engine "Baidu" means "hundreds of times", and comes from an ancient Chinese verse often cited today to refer to the continuous search for one's dreams.

The name could not be more apt for a company that dominates Chinese-language Web searches and has enjoyed a dream year in which it widened its already big lead over US-based Google in the world's largest online market.

The year did not start out that way.

As 2010 dawned, Baidu watched as its closest competitor steadily expanded its share of the market in China.

But then came Google's high-profile spat with China's government over censorship and allegations of cyberattacks that caused the global Internet giant to reduce its presence.

Now, Baidu is the dominant search engine amongst the country's estimated 420 million Internet users, such as Gao Yang.

The self-confessed web fanatic spends five hours a day online and says he simply could not survive without Baidu.

"It is convenient -- you can search for anything," the 27-year-old entertainment industry worker said as he surfed the web in the dim light of an Internet cafe in Beijing.

Nearly all his friends are similarly hooked on Baidu, an allegiance born of the company's savvy exploitation of Chinese tastes.

"I'm not familiar with Google or other search engines," Gao said as he hacked an evil creature to death in the popular Internet game World of Warcraft.

But critics say another factor has helped cement Baidu's lead -- its willingness to abide by the huge Chinese system of state Internet censorship that has been dubbed "the Great Firewall of China."

The blocking of content deemed by the ruling Communist Party to be a political threat is something Baidu does not deny.

"We do have an aggressive and extensive system to comply with regulations," Baidu spokesman Kaiser Kuo told AFP. "We simply are required to do that, to have that in place. There is really no getting around it.

"It's a way of protecting yourself from unpleasant consequences of failing to do that.

"As to whether we are enjoying any kind of favour because of that, I think you need to only look at the way that some government-owned media have treated Baidu in recent years to realise that we do not play on a tilted playing field against our competitors.

"We are as badly beaten on sometimes as anyone else."

Baidu was founded by Robin Li in 2000 with a staff of only 10 and is now the world's fourth-largest Internet company. It has grown its market share from 64 percent earlier in the year to 73 percent, as Google's share shrivelled.

Meanwhile, Google had a 31 percent share in the first quarter of this year, declining to just over 21 percent, according to Internet research firm Analysys International.

Baidu is now looking to build on its successes by diversifying its offerings in the world's largest Internet market and by going global.

"Search is a very highly competitive game. For a user to leave us and go to somebody else, it's just one click," Kuo said.

"So we have to continue to offer better products to keep them with us."

The company's driving force is Li, a State University of New York graduate who created Baidu in Beijing at the age of 31 after quitting as an engineer at US web search pioneer Infoseek.

Li was already on a par with Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin from the start as he was formulating a similar search function called RankDex -- which became the backbone of Baidu -- just as they were creating Google.

Li also later made crucial decisions such as rejecting a 1.6-billion-dollar Google takeover bid before Baidu's Nasdaq listing in 2005.

The company's market capitalisation is now worth 38 billion dollars.

Baidu has stayed tops with a focus on Chinese needs and tastes in its searches. It drove traffic in its early days largely through an MP3 search that provided links to free but often pirated pop music downloads.

With the threat once posed by Google waning, Baidu's net profit more than doubled in each of the past two quarters as advertisers deserted the US rival.

But Baidu must stay nimble to meet the challenges of upstart Chinese search engines eager to fill the Google gap, analysts say.

"Competition for distribution networks and (advertising) resellers is more intense than before," said Li Zhi, a Beijing-based analyst with Analysys.

China Mobile, the world's largest mobile phone operator, has signed an agreement with state-run Xinhua news agency to launch a search engine.

Meanwhile, popular Chinese portal Sohu has tied up with e-commerce giant Alibaba in a bid to expand its search engine unit Sogou.

Another challenge could come from authorities worried over Baidu's increasing dominance, said Duncan Clark, chairman of research firm BDA China.

"The concern is if consumers' interests are not protected over privacy or the advertisers feel that they are squeezed," he said.

"Sometimes having a strong global competitor is the best thing for you."

Kuo said Baidu has identified cooperation and diversification as its future.

This year, it launched an e-shopping mall with Japanese web retailer Rakuten, a video website called Qiyi, and unveiled a platform allowing users to run games, videos, and other applications on Baidu.com.

Baidu has offered a Japanese-language search engine for two years and Li wants it to become a household name in half the world's countries in 10 years.

But BDA's Clark was sceptical over such goals, citing cultural barriers and inexperience abroad.
"Organically I don't see how they can (expand overseas), unless there is some technology shift and they become a leader," he said.

"Most non-Chinese speakers, they don't even know how to say Baidu."

Japan, US to conduct massive military drill from Friday

TOKYO, December  2, 2010 (AFP) - Japan will demonstrate its ties with the United States in huge joint military drills, just days after a US and South Korean show of force amid tensions on the Korean peninsula, officials said Thursday.

The previously announced "Keen Sword" drills, which were planned before North Korea's artillery barrage of a South Korean island last week, will take place from Friday to December 10, a defence ministry spokeswoman confirmed.

"It turns out to be good timing to show the bond between Japan and the United States," a senior ministry official told the Yomiuri Shimbun daily, with the drill following US-South Korea exercises that ended Wednesday.

Around 34,000 Japanese Self-Defence Force personnel with 40 warships and 250 aircraft will join more than 10,000 US personnel with 20 warships and 150 aircraft in the drill, defence officials said.

The biggest US-Japanese drill since 2007 will take place in Japanese waters off its southern islands, close to the southern coast of South Korea, officials said.

The joint manoeuvres will be much bigger than a naval exercise by Washington and Seoul this week in a show of force after Pyongyang stunned the world with the deadly artillery strike on a South Korean border island.

Japan has been on high alert since the attack, with Prime Minister Naoto Kan instructing his ministers to stay in Tokyo during the US-South Korea drill in the Yellow Sea to prepare for any emergencies.

Japan relies heavily on the United States for its security as under its pacifist constitution, its military is not allowed to attack enemy territories.

"This training between Japan and the United States has been a routine, recurring event for many years," a US Air Force statement said, adding that the exercise was to "improve the interoperability" of US and Japanese forces.

Following Pyongyang's November 23 attack on Yeonpyeong island, which killed four people, China has proposed that the six nations involved in long-stalled North Korean denuclearisation talks hold an emergency meeting on the crisis.

But instead the United States, Japan and South Korea have agreed to hold their own talks in Washington on December 6 in an apparent snub to China. The other members of the six-party process are China, North Korea and Russia.

Motorola mobile division expects first quarter loss

NEW YORK, December  2, 2010 (AFP) - US handset maker Motorola said Wednesday it expects to ring up another loss in its mobile phone division next quarter.

"We expect a loss in mobile devices in Q1," Motorola co-chief executive Sanjay Jha told financial analysts, although he said he expected it would be "significantly improved from a year ago."

As for the current quarter, Jha said it is "proceeding quite well."

Motorola's mobile phone division reported a 20-percent increase in revenue to two billion dollars last quarter and an operating loss of 43 million dollars compared with an operating loss of 216 million dollars a year ago.

Motorola Mobility, the mobile phone division, is to be spun off from the rest of the company on January 4.

Motorola Mobility will focus on the media, mobility, Internet and computing markets while Motorola Solutions will target next-generation communications solutions to government, public safety and enterprise customers.

Jha said tablet computers such as Apple's popular iPad will present "a very important growth opportunity for us."

"There's a race to the bottom for some players," he said. "You will not see us participate in this race to the bottom."

Jha said investment in building the Motorola brand in Europe was not a priority right now. "I'm slowly building my base in Europe," he said. "I need to get to a much better position financially before I contemplate that."

Motorola enjoyed success with its popular Razr phone launched in 2005 but has been losing ground since to Apple, Canada's Research in Motion, maker of the Blackberry, and other major cell phone manufacturers.

Jha has been counting on smartphones running Android to help turn around the company's flagging fortunes and Motorola has launched around two dozen Android-based devices this year.

China says 2010 pollution goal met, efficiency on track

BEIJING, December  1, 2010 (AFP) - China has met its 2010 target to cut emissions of key pollutants and is on track to meet its energy efficiency goal, state media on Wednesday quoted the country's top climate change official as saying.

The comments come as negotiators from around the world were meeting in the Mexican resort city of Cancun for a new round of UN climate talks aimed at reviving the process that derailed at last year's summit in Copenhagen.

China last week acknowledged that it had become the world's biggest emitter of the greenhouse gases that are blamed for climate change and global warming -- surpassing the United States, though not in terms of emissions per capita.

China's efforts to improve energy efficiency allowed for savings of 490 million tonnes of coal and prevented carbon dioxide emissions totalling 1.13 billion tonnes in 2006-2009, the People's Daily reported.

The "total quantity of emissions of major pollutants has fallen by 10 percent," the newspaper, the mouthpiece of the ruling Communist party, quoted top climate official Xie Zhenhua as saying.

This achievement "gives China the image of a major, responsible country," said Xie, vice director of the National Development and Reform Commission -- China's top economic planning agency.

China has sought to reduce energy consumption per unit of gross domestic product -- so-called carbon intensity -- by 20 percent by year's end from 2005 levels and by by 40-45 percent by 2020.

Xie said the country had nearly reached that goal in the 2006-2010 period, with the amount of energy consumed per 10,000 yuan (1,500 dollars) of GDP falling from the equivalent of 1.22 tonnes of coal to one tonne.

But it has repeatedly refused to agree to firm emissions cuts, citing its lower emissions per capita as compared with developed nations, which it says should bear the brunt of global efforts to combat climate change.


Google in crosshairs of the wary and watchful

SAN FRANCISCO, December  1, 2010 (AFP) - Google's unabashed ascension to the Internet search throne has caused some to doubt the sincerity of its "Don't be evil" motto and made it a prime target for market watchdogs.

The latest headache for the firm came Tuesday when European Union officials announced an antitrust probe into accusations by rivals that the Silicon Valley giant was rigging the online search market.

Smaller companies accused Google of "unfavorable treatment" of their services in both unpaid and sponsored search results, the crucial listings that make the Web navigable.

EU competition authorities are also probing whether Google's own services -- including YouTube video, book-scanning project or telephony -- are getting "preferential placement" when users punch in search queries, some of which may lead to consumer spending.

"It's insane," SearchEngineLand.com editor-in-chief Danny Sullivan wrote of the accusations in a post at the website.

"If you step back from the rhetoric, the political jockeying, the concerns that Google is just too big so let's use any argument to stop it -- if you logically think about this argument from a user perspective -- it makes no sense," Sullivan said.

Google's job is to direct people to websites with the information they seek, not to route traffic to other online search engines, he argued.

What does make sense, according to analyst Rob Enderle of Enderle Group in Silicon Valley, is that Google is paying a price with regulators and the public for behaving as though it can do what it wants and get away with it.

"Arrogance is what is getting them on the map with the governments," Enderle said of Google. "It is the arrogance that gets people looking at them like they are doing something wrong."

Google's drive to make the entire world's information available on the Internet ran it afoul of authors and publishers of books it craved for an online digital library. A settlement to that clash is still in the works.

Google sparked concerns about privacy by sending out camera-equipped vehicles to snap pictures to augment its online mapping service.

That controversy catapulted to concerns about law-breaking after it was revealed that "Street View" vehicles inadvertently snatched data from open wireless Internet networks while gathering images.

Doubts about Google's priorities have been fed by seemingly cavalier comments by its chief executive Eric Schmidt, according to Enderle.

The result has been an impression that Google has drifted from a path of righteousness to behaving badly, and that makes them a ripe political target.

"When a firm gets as much money as Google has as quickly, they don't get the maturity and the result is they get into trouble," Enderle said. "The reality is money doesn't protect you from everything."

Google's plan to form an alliance with Yahoo! was abandoned after US antitrust regulators expressed concerns.

Google's recent purchase of mobile device advertising firm AdMob underwent intense scrutiny by US regulators. A deciding factor in the deal being cleared was likely Apple's acquisition of a rival mobile ad business.

Google's effort to buy ITA Software, which specializes in online searches for airfares, is being opposed by a Fair Search alliance of businesses that fear it will have unfair influence on the airline travel industry.

The EU probe "underscores why the FairSearch.org coalition is urging the Justice Department to challenge Google's proposed acquisition of ITA Software to protect consumers and competition in the online travel market," said Tom Barnett, a lawyer at travel website Expedia.

Google faces government regulators hardened and honed by years of battle with former top technology world whipping boy Microsoft, according to Enderle.

Microsoft, in turn, learned from its own experience how to sic regulators on Google, the analyst said.

"Microsoft had to build this huge antitrust machine," Enderle said. "When that died down, what did you think they were going to do except create holy hell for the people who went at them?"

Google has become a "litigation magnet" also in part because its business depends largely on providing people access to content that it doesn't own, according to the analyst.

Google senior vice president of product management Susan Wojcicki and vice president of engineering Udi Manber on Tuesday posted an online message defending the fairness and transparency of the firm's search service.

"We've always focused on putting the user first by providing the best possible answers as quickly as possible," they said.

"Given our success and the disruptive nature of our business, it's entirely understandable that we've caused unease among other companies and caught the attention of regulators."

WikiLeaks says it is under new cyber attack: Twitter feed

STOCKHOLM, November 30, 2010 (AFP) - WikiLeaks said in a Twitter message Tuesday that it was under a new cyber attack after a similar incident at the weekend just before the website began releasing secret US diplomatic cables.

"We are currently under another DDoS attack," WikiLeaks said on its official Twitter feed.

DDoS stands for distributed denial of service. Classic DDoS attacks occur when legions of "zombie" computers, normally machines infected with viruses, are commanded to simultaneously visit a website.

Such a massive onslaught can overwhelm servers, slowing service or knocking it offline completely.

A later message on the WikiLeaks twitter said "DDoS attack now exceeding 10 Gigabits a second."
On Sunday, just as it began the release of some 250,000 US embassy cables, WikiLeaks said on Twitter the website had come under a DDoS cyber attack.

But it insisted El Pais, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, The Guardian and the New York Times would go ahead with the publication of the first of such documents even if the WikiLeaks website was down.

WikiLeaks later circumvented the attack by creating a sub-website -- http://cablegate.wikileaks.org -- as its main website -- http://wikileaks.org -- became inaccessible after the attack.
As of 1600 GMT on Monday, both websites were still online.

Cablegate leaks divide opinion on freedom of information - Focus

PARIS, November 30, 2010 (AFP) - WikiLeaks' mass exposure of US diplomatic cables has divided liberal intellectual opinion between supporters of total government transparency and those who see a threat to democratic rule.

While the world's press has splashed the revelations across its front pages even some journalists have begun to wonder whether too much exposure is a good thing in an era of instant global electronic communication.

"Much, but not all state information should be public," argued the Financial Times, in a leader. "In order for states to conduct their affairs effectively, and ensure the security of their citizens, some secrets must remain."

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange defended previous leaks of US military reports from Iraq and Afghanistan by declaring he was "trying to stop two wars" -- but some fear his latest stunt could provoke new ones.

News that Arab leaders and Israel are pushing for US air strikes on Iran and that China is rethinking its protection of North Korea's erratic regime has increased tensions in two of the world's most dangerous flashpoints.

And some fear that if diplomats can no longer be confident that they can exchange frank views in private, then it will be harder for capitals to resolve disputes without inflaming public opinion or angering rival players.

"In a world criss-crossed by violent conflict, a state can not permanently operate under the constant gaze of opinion," warned Laurent Joffrin, editor of France's left-wing Liberation daily, a champion of media freedoms.

The stolen cables were downloaded from a supposedly secure US government network that was set up in the wake of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 in order to allow analysts to rapidly share and compare information.

Some have expressed concern that diplomatic and intelligence agencies will retreat inside their shells and fail to prevent future attacks if clues are scattered across different, more tightly-controlled networks.

During previous WikiLeaks revelations, the group was also accused of putting the lives of US informants and locally recruited agents at risk.

Such concerns even motivated groups more usually associated with campaigning for openness and press freedom to criticise the all-or-nothing character of an operation that exposed tens of thousands of documents.

This time round, however, there has been praise for the professional investigation run by the five newspapers which got first sight of the files -- the New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, El Pais and Der Spiegel.

Rather than splashing a quarter of a million cables unmediated onto the public domain, reporters from the dailies pored over them for weeks, seeking stories of public interest and evaluating the risks of exposure.

"We're more or less satisfied with WikiLeaks' evolution," said the head of independent press watchdog Reporters Without Borders, Jean-Francois Julliard.

"We like this partnership with the newspapers and this work to put things in context, verify the information and draw lessons from it," he said.

Others are less convinced and fear the leaks will erode the bonds of trust between rival capitals without really advancing the cause of open government, especially in the democratic world.

"There's demagogy and a naive faith in thinking that radical transparency will help us reach another democratic level," French political scientist Philippe Braud told AFP, branding the publication an elite parlour game.

"The enlightened few learned very little and the others still think we're hiding everything from them, which can only feed anti-democratic instincts," he said, arguing it is normal to allow leaders special rights and duties.

And, at a time when social networking sites can expose a citizen's private life at the touch of a button, some see in the WikiLeaks exposure another sign of how the Internet itself can erode freedoms.

"There's no reason that democratic checks and balances have to take the form of a sort of electronic 'Big Brother,'" complained former French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine in a newspaper op-ed.

Singapore airline accepts US price fixing fine

WASHINGTON, November 30, 2010 (AFP) - Singapore Airlines Cargo has agreed to pay a 48-million-dollar criminal fine for its role in a vast price fixing scam, the US Justice Department said Tuesday.

The airline has also pleaded guilty to fixing cargo rates on shipments to and from the United States between 2002 and 2006.

The Singaporean airline is just the latest in a series of companies to admit guilt as a result of a wide-ranging US probe.

"Under the plea agreement, which is subject to court approval, Singapore Airlines Cargo has also agreed to cooperate with the department's ongoing antitrust investigation," the Justice Department said.

A total of 20 airlines and 17 executives have now been charged in the Justice Department's investigation, which has also raked in 1.7 billion dollars in fines.

Online users in China unable to access WikiLeaks website

BEIJING, November 30, 2010 (AFP) - Internet users in China were unable to access the WikiLeaks website on Tuesday after hundreds of thousands of secret US diplomatic cables were published on the site, some involving Beijing.

Attempts to open the website in Beijing and Shanghai were met with a message saying the page could not be displayed. The site could however be viewed using a proxy server that bypasses the nation's huge censorship system.

Dubbed the Great Firewall of China, this system aggressively blocks sites or snuffs out Internet content and commentary on topics considered sensitive, such as China's human rights record and criticisms of the government.

The leaked documents contain allegations that China may have turned a blind eye to illicit North Korean missile parts exports and that the top Chinese leadership was behind cyberattacks on web search giant Google and US targets.

China's foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei on Tuesday urged the United States to act on the issue, but refused to comment on individual leaks involving Beijing.

"We hope the US side will properly handle relevant issues," he said when asked about the leaks.
"We don't want to see any disturbance to China-US relations," he added during a regular press briefing.

In one cable, Chinese officials are quoted as calling the erratic North Korean regime -- China's close ally -- a spoiled child and saying Beijing would be wiling to accept a reunited Korea.

Top US diplomat Hillary Clinton on Monday accused WikiLeaks of an "attack" on the world as key American allies were left red-faced by the embarrassing revelations in the vast trove of leaked memos.

Other countries have since followed suit, with Japan describing the leaks as "criminal" and saying governments alone have the right to decide on the release of sensitive documents.

Google close to buying Groupon: reports

WASHINGTON, November 30, 2010 (AFP) - Internet search giant Google is close to a deal to buy online discount shopping site Groupon for as much as six billion dollars, The New York Times and a leading technology blog reported.

The Times, citing "people with direct knowledge of the matter," said that an agreement could be struck as soon as this week, although it cautioned that the talks could still fall apart.

The Dow Jones-owned blog All Things Digital, citing "sources close to the situation," said Google has offered 5.3 billion dollars for Groupon, in what would be its largest acquisition ever.

Google purchased display advertising company DoubleClick for 3.1 billion dollars in 2007 and mobile advertising network AdMob for 750 million dollars earlier this year.

Google is presently seeking to acquire ITA Software, a flight information software company, for 700 million dollars, but the deal has not yet received the green light from US antitrust authorities.

A Google purchase of Groupon would also likely come in for scrutiny.

European Union competition watchdogs on Tuesday formally opened an antitrust probe into Google after rivals accused the Silicon Valley giant of rigging the online search market.

The Chicago-based Groupon, founded in 2008, offers discounts to its more than 12 million members on retail goods and services, offering one localized deal a day.

All Things Digital said a Google acquisition of Groupon would "move the search giant instantly to the top spot in local commerce online and give it huge troves of data about consumer buying habits and merchant information across the globe."

The Times said Internet portal Yahoo! was also interested in purchasing Groupon but its offer of two billion dollars was rejected as too low.

Tuesday's key new WikiLeaks revelations - Points

PARIS, November 30, 2010 (AFP) - The activist website WikiLeaks continued to publish a series of stolen US State Department cables on Tuesday, embarrassing Washington and riling foreign governments exposed in the documents.

In each case the source is a State Department memo, most of them records of encounters with foreign officials, obtained by WikiLeaks and published on the group's website: cablegate.wikileaks.org.

The United States has condemned the leaks as a criminal act but has not disputed the authenticity of the published transcripts, which have been chosen for publication by reporters from major world dailies.

The leaks began on Sunday and have already covered several major diplomatic crises, in particular the nuclear stand-off with Iran and allegations of US spying on the UN. The following are the latest major revelations:


China is exasperated with North Korea and some in Beijing feel their erratic neighbour is losing strategic value and will one day reunite with South Korea.

Last year, the Chinese ambassador to Kazakhstan, Cheng Guoping, told a US envoy that Beijing regards North Korea's nuclear programme as "very troublesome."

The ambassador "said China hopes for peaceful reunification in the long-term, but he expects the two countries to remain separate in the short-term."


Kuwait's interior minister told a US ambassador his country did not want Kuwaiti terror suspects held in Guantanamo Bay to return.

The exchange between Sheikh Jaber Khaled al-Sabah and the US envoy to Kuwait, which took place in February last year.

"If they are rotten, they are rotten and the best thing to do is get rid of them," the minister said.
"You picked them up in Afghanistan: You should drop them off in Afghanistan, in the middle of the war zone."


Saudi King Abdullah proposed implanting Guantanamo detainees with electronic chips to monitor their movements after their release.

"I've just thought of something," Abdullah blurted during a March 2009 meeting with White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan.

The king proposed the prisoners be implanted with electronic microchips so that after their release they can be tracked "with Bluetooth" technology.


Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak advised the United States in 2008 to "forget" about democracy in Iraq and allow a dictator to take over.

Mubarak made the comments during talks with visiting US congressmen to whom he also admitted that he was "terrified" by the possibility of a nuclear Iran.

Now that they had troops in mainly Shiite Iraq, American troops should not withdraw because that would only serve to strengthen Shiite Iran next door.

"You cannot leave," he said. "Strengthen the armed forces, relax your hold, and then you will have a coup. Then we will have a dictator, but a fair one.

"Forget democracy, the Iraqis by their nature are too tough."


Afghan President Hamid Karzai has ordered the release of numerous dangerous criminals and drug traffickers detained by US-led coalition forces.

American officials repeatedly rebuked the president and Afghan attorney general Muhammad Ishaq Alko for authorising the release of detainees.

In an August 2009 cable, American officials said that since 2007, 150 of the 629 detainees transferred to Afghan custody had been released without trial.

It said Karzai had pardoned five border policemen in April 2009 who were caught with 124 kilograms (273 pounds) of heroin in their police vehicle.


Britain's Prince Charles "does not command the same respect" as Queen Elizabeth II, said Amitav Banerji, Commonwealth political affairs director.

According to a US political officer in London, in June 2009, Banerji said the 54-nation organisation wants to persuade Charles to play a greater role.


US mission in Taiwan braces for possible WikiLeaks release

TAIPEI, November 30, 2010 (AFP) - The United States' de facto embassy in Taiwan condemned WikiLeaks Tuesday ahead of the possible release of thousands of documents laying bare the US relationship with the contested island.

WikiLeaks says it has obtained 3,456 cables originating from the American Institute in Taiwan, the body authorised by Washington to handle civil contacts with Taipei after it switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing in 1979.

It was unclear whether these would be released as part of a series of disclosures of confidential US diplomatic communications that have already left diplomats around the world red-faced.

"We condemn the unauthorised disclosure of classified documents," AIT spokesman Christopher Kavanagh told AFP.

Taiwanese legislator Lin Yu-fang warned that he feared the documents, if released, "may cause misunderstanding and even negative impacts on bilateral ties".

The documents from AIT include 136 classified as "secret", 1,425 "confidential" and the rest "unclassified", WikiLeaks said in a listing on its website.

The United States remains the leading arms supplier to Taiwan despite a lack of diplomatic ties.
Taiwan and China split in 1949 at the end of a civil war, but Beijing still sees the island as part of its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.

Asian ministers say no to coordinated control on 'hot money'

KUALA LUMPUR, November 30, 2010 (AFP) - Southeast Asian finance ministers said Tuesday there was no need to coordinate on the massive inflow of foreign capital into the region, which has raised fears of destabilising economies.

The "hot money" has nudged most Asian currencies higher, making their exports more expensive on the global market as the US allows the dollar to weaken and China keeps a tight rein on the yuan.

Ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting in Kuala Lumpur said a region-wide structure to tackle the speculative cash was not necessary at the moment.

"The issue is quite peculiar in respective countries," Malaysia's Second Finance Minister Ahmad Husni Mohamad Hanadzlah told a joint news conference at the end of the one-day meeting.

"At this juncture within ASEAN, we don't see it as not manageable," said the minister in comments echoed by his counterpart from the Philippines.

"Right now there is no need for that coordinated structure. Within ASEAN, we allow the markets to determine our exchange rates at this point, we don't see that as an issue," Philippine Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima said.

The influx of funds has also led to steep gains in stocks and property prices, fuelling fears of inflation and speculative bubbles that could burst if the money exits in haste.

It prompted individual central banks to act to cool down their markets, including Thailand which moved to stem capital inflows after a 10 percent jump in the value of the baht over the past year, by slapping a tax on foreigners investing in bonds.

"Hot money" refers to short-term speculative funds that move speedily across borders in search of quick gains, and is criticised for adding to instability in global financial markets.

ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan said Southeast Asian countries were rather "puzzled" with the influx of funds and struggled to gauge the impact from the monetary stimulus policies taken by the United States.

"I think we are not quite sure what we are dealing with," he said.

"In 1997 (the financial crisis), it was the hedge fund that comes in to speculate on our currencies. This time it is a government policy that pump the money into the system."

"While not coordinating, we are certainly looking at the issue with a great deal of interest," the ASEAN chief told the news conference.

Hammered by the financial turmoil that began in 2008, the United States, Japan and Europe are moving to weaken or cap their currencies in a bid to make their exports more competitive in the global market.

But because growth in the developed world is anaemic and unemployment high, a large chunk of the money is heading to emerging markets, including in Asia, where it stands to gain better yields.

According to the Washington-based Institute of International Finance (IIF), net private capital flows to emerging economies are projected to reach 825 billion dollars this year, or more than two billion dollars a day, up from 581 billion dollars in 2009.

ASEAN comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Singapore slams WikiLeaks action as 'damaging'

SINGAPORE, November 30, 2010 (AFP) - Singapore on Tuesday denounced WikiLeak's decision to release secret US diplomatic cables as "damaging" as it joined global criticism over the whistle-blowing website.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs "expressed deep concerns about the damaging  action of WikiLeaks," a ministry spokesman said in response to media queries.

"It is critical to protect the confidentiality of diplomatic and official correspondence, which is why Singapore has the Officials Secret Act."

He said the "selective release of documents, especially when taken out of context, will only serve to sow confusion and fail to provide a complete picture of the important issues that were being discussed amongst leaders in   the strictest of confidentiality."

In one of the cables from Singapore, the country's founding father Lee Kuan Yew called North Koreans "psychopathic" and leader Kim Jong-Il a "flabby old chap" who craved public adulation.

The document detailed a conversation between elder statesman Lee and US deputy secretary of state James B. Steinberg in May last year in which North Korea was among the topics they discussed.

Lee told Steinberg he would be surprised if the North Koreans agreed to give up their nuclear weapons, according to the cable.

"They are psychopathic types, with a 'flabby old chap' for a leader who prances around stadiums seeking adulation," said the document, classified as secret.

China urges US action over WikiLeaks revelations

WASHINGTON, November 30, 2010 (AFP) - China on Tuesday urged the US to "properly handle" fallout from a slew of leaked cables that revealed that Beijing, long seen as North Korea's protector, would accept a reunited Korean peninsula.

"We hope the US side will properly handle relevant issues," foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said as WikiLeaks made the latest batch of secret cables public amid heightened tensions between Pyongyang and Seoul.

"We don't want to see any disturbance to China-US relations," Hong added, after leaks showed that China turned a blind eye to North Korean missile parts exports and that the top Chinese leadership was behind cyberattacks on Google.

The leaked cables have left diplomats worldwide red-faced and drew the ire of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who called their release an "attack" on the US and the world.

The cables quoted diplomats as saying that China increasingly doubts its own influence over Pyongyang and that Beijing considers the "spoiled child" regime's nuclear programme to be "very troublesome."

The memos became public a week after North Korea shelled a South Korean border island, killing four people and sending tensions soaring.

Allegations from the 250,000 cables include that Iran's supreme leader has cancer and will die "within months" and that Saudi King Abdullah urged the US to attack Iran and "cut off the head of the snake" over its nuclear programme.

"We are taking aggressive steps to hold responsible those who stole this information," Clinton said.

The flood of leaked US diplomatic cables -- most of which date from between 2007 and February 2010 -- has revealed secret details and indiscreet asides on some of the world's most tense international issues.

WikiLeaks gave the cables to journalists from five Western publications several weeks ago, and they are being released on the Internet in stages.

WikiLeaks creator Julian Assange described the mass of documentation as a "diplomatic history of the United States" covering "every major issue."

In an interview with Forbes magazine, Assange said WikiLeaks next big document dump will target "a big US bank" early next year.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs fired back, calling WikiLeaks and others who leak documents "criminals, first and foremost."

He added, however, that he did not believe the release "impacts our ability to conduct a foreign policy that moves our interests forward."

US Attorney General Eric Holder said there was an "ongoing criminal investigation" of the leaks and vowed to pursue Assange, an Australian believed to be living in Europe, if he is found to have violated US law.

Despite a last-minute cyber attack claimed by a private computer hacker, WikiLeaks on Sunday began publishing 251,287 cables -- 15,652 of which are classified "secret" -- on http://cablegate.wikileaks.org.

US officials had raced to contain the fallout last week by warning more than a dozen governments but refused to negotiate with WikiLeaks.

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said Tuesday that Arab countries should not fall into the whistleblower's "trap" after memos suggested Gulf states wanted a US military strike on the Islamic republic.

"This is a very suspicious plot. They have planted some Western and US crimes in them to present them as credible," Mehmanparast said.

But "the enemies of the Islamic world are pursuing a project of Iranophobia and disunity. This project only protects the interests of the Zionist regime and its supporters," he said, referring to Israel.

US officials have not confirmed the source of the leaks, but suspicion has fallen on Bradley Manning, a former army intelligence analyst arrested after the release of a video showing air strikes that killed reporters in Iraq.

WikiLeaks argues that its first two document dumps -- nearly 500,000 US military reports from 2004 to 2009 -- shed light on abuses in Afghanistan and Iraq, and denies any individual has been harmed by its disclosures.

Malaysia announces new investments, energy incentives

Malaysia announces new investments, energy incentives

KUALA LUMPUR, November 30, 2010 (AFP) - Malaysian premier Najib Razak Tuesday announced 8.2 billion ringgit (2.59 billion dollars) worth of investments in the country and incentives to open up marginal oil and gas fields.

Najib announced the latest in a slew of investments which are part of the government's Economic Transformation Programme (ETP), aimed at creating 3.3 million jobs and pushing the country towards developed-nation status by 2020.

"These developments, new projects and foreign investment clearly demonstrate that our programme to transform Malaysia's economy is working," Najib said.

"The bright future for the country that we have promised is far from a pipe dream."

He said the investments would include 3.0 billion ringgit over the next two years to create the Tanjong Agas oil and gas logistics industrial park in the central state of Pahang -- intended to be a regional oil and gas hub.

Najib said state power firm Tenaga Nasional would also be investing 4.0 billion ringgit in reinforcing infrastructure and building two new hydro power plants in Terengganu and Perak, with a coal power plant also to be built in Perak.

He said the cabinet had already agreed to amend the Petroleum Income Tax Act to provide oil and gas companies with additional incentives to develop more than 10 hard-to-reach oil fields in the country and stimulate domestic exploration to overcome a projected 1.0 to 2.0 percent drop in production.

Najib said the incentives, for which he will seek an official endorsement from parliament, could lead to petroleum-generated revenues of 50 billion ringgit for the country over the next 20 years.

Under the ETP, created in consultation with the private sector, 12 key sectors have been identified including oil, gas and energy, financial services and a plan to revitalise Kuala Lumpur.

Critics have argued that previously ambitious plans have crumbled at the implementation stage as would-be investors are often deterred by the preferential treatment for government-linked companies.

Malaysia also has a decades-long positive-discrimination policy for its majority Muslim Malays, seen as hampering competition.

US hails historic Taiwan-China trade pact

TAIPEI, November 30, 2010 (AFP) - The United States on Tuesday said a sweeping trade agreement signed by Taiwan and China earlier this year would help bring peace and stability to the region.

The remarks by Raymond Burghardt, chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan that handles civil contacts between the US and Taipei in the absence of official ties, come amid raised tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

"The signing of the cross-Strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) this past summer in Chongqing accelerates the positive trend of furthering regional peace," he told the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei.

"We certainly welcome the increased trade and people-to-people ties that will necessarily result from this agreement."

Regional peace was rattled last Tuesday when North last week shelled a South Korean border island, killing four people and wounding 18 in the first bombardment of a civilian area in the South since the Korean war.

The landmark ECFA, which was signed in June, has been widely characterised as the boldest step yet towards reconciliation between the former rivals, who split at the end of a civil war in 1949.

Taiwan's ruling Kuomintang party has hailed the agreement, saying it will bolster the island's economy, but the anti-China Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and its allies claim it will undermine its de facto independence.

Earlier Tuesday DPP chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen said she feared more Taiwan people may lose their jobs and wealth distribution could become more uneven as the ECFA leads to the lowering of tariffs between the two sides.

Taiwan and its giant neighbour are still technically at war and Beijing has refused to renounce the use of force against the island despite the fact it has governed itself for more than six decades.

But ties between Taipei and Beijing have improved markedly since Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang swept to power in 2008, pledging to beef up trade links and allowing in more Chinese tourists.

Singapore's Lee calls N.Koreans 'psychopathic': WikiLeaks

SINGAPORE, November 30, 2010 (AFP) - Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew called North Koreans "psychopathic" and leader Kim Jong-Il a "flabby old chap" who craved public worship, a US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks said.

In the document detailing a conversation between Lee and US deputy secretary of state James B. Steinberg in May last year, Singapore's elder statesman said he would be surprised if the North Koreans agreed to give up their nuclear weapons.

"They are psychopathic types, with a 'flabby old chap' for a leader who prances around stadiums seeking adulation," said the document, classified as secret.

Singapore's first prime minister who now holds the title of minister mentor in the cabinet compared the plight of North Koreans to his experiences living through the Japanese occupation of his country during World War II.

"MM Lee noted that he had learned from living through three and a half years of Japanese occupation in Singapore that people will obey authorities who can deny them food, clothing and medicine," the leaked document read.

Nuclear-armed North Korea might also give up its "first-strike capacity" but would keep its atomic weapons "in case the USG (US government) decides to seek a regime change," the cable read.

Lee also said he believed that Japan may "go nuclear" in response to North Korea's actions.

Lee told Steinberg that China would prefer a nuclear-armed North Korea than a North Korea that has collapsed because it sees the country as a buffer state.

"If China has to choose, Beijing sees a North Korea with nuclear weapons as less bad for China than a North Korea that has collapsed," Lee said, according to the account.

If North Korea failed, South Korea "would take over in the North and China would face a US presence at its border," the cable said of Lee's views.

Chinese micro-blog re-emerges after shutdown

BEIJING, November 30, 2010 (AFP) - An early Chinese clone of micro-blog site Twitter that was shut down by authorities last year amid fears it was fanning unrest in the country's restive west has re-emerged.

Fanfou, which is widely believed to have been the first Chinese provider of such micro-blogging services, was restored last Thursday, the Beijing Evening Post reported.

Fanfou had more than one million users before it was forced to go offline in July last year during a government crackdown on social networking after deadly riots in Urumqi, capital of the northwestern Xinjiang region.

Beijing claimed the unrest, the worst ethnic violence in China in decades, which officials said left nearly 200 people killed and 1,700 injured, was organised through the web and mobile phone messages.

Chinese government censors also blocked US-based Twitter around that time. It remains inaccessible in China.

Bill Bishop, who blogs on China's Internet, said it was unclear why Fanfou would be allowed to restart now.

"I would assume they would have had to do a lot of lobbying" to reassure government censors that their services will not be too controversial, said Bishop.

Fanfou's website crashed last week as large numbers of visitors tried to log on, the Beijing Evening Post said on Sunday, but users can still see the site via their mobile phones.

Wang Xing, founder of Fanfou, attributed troubles with the website to technical problems, the report said.

It made no mention of why the site was shut down last year or why it was back up again.

China has a huge online censorship system that aggressively blocks sites or snuffs out Internet content and commentary on topics considered sensitive, such as China's human rights record and criticisms of the government.

US shuts down 82 counterfeit goods, music sites

WASHINGTON, November 29, 2010 (AFP) - US authorities announced Monday the shutdown of 82 websites selling mostly Chinese-made counterfeit goods, including golf clubs, Walt Disney movies, handbags and other items.

The court-ordered seizure of the online retailers' domain names was the second phase of a crackdown dubbed "Operation in Our Sites" that began in June with the closure of nine websites offering pirated copies of movies.

"The sale of counterfeit US brands on the Internet steals the creative work of others, costs our economy jobs and revenue and can threaten the health and safety of American consumers," said John Morton, director of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security.

"We are dedicated to protecting the jobs, the income and the tax revenue that disappear when counterfeit goods are trafficked."

The ICE director told a press conference here that most of the websites were based in China and shipped products made in China to the United States.

The sites targeted over the past few days include burberryoutletshop.com, cheapscarfshop.com, dvdcollectionsale.com, handbagcom.com, mydreamwatches.com, rapgodfathers.com, sunglasses-mall.com, torrent-finder.com and usaoutlets.net.

The online retailers offered sports equipment, shoes, handbags, athletic apparel, sunglasses and other items as well as illegal copies of copyrighted DVD boxed sets, music and software.

A visitor to the sites Monday is met with a message reading: "This site has been seized by ICE -- Homeland Security Investigations, pursuant to a seizure warrant issued by a United States District Court."

It informs visitors that copyright infringement is a federal crime carrying a penalty of five years in prison and a 250,000-dollar fine, while trafficking in counterfeit goods carries a 10-year sentence and a two million dollar fine.

"By seizing these domain names, we have disrupted the sale of thousands of counterfeit items, while also cutting off funds to those willing to exploit the ingenuity of others for their own personal gain," US Attorney General Eric Holder said.

Holder noted the crackdown coincides with "Cyber Monday," the busiest online shopping day of the year in the United States, and "anyone attempting to access one of these websites using its domain name will no longer be able to make a purchase."

As part of the investigation, US agents purchased goods from the sites to determine whether they were counterfeit and obtained seizure orders for the domain names from US magistrate judges, US officials said.

An ICE spokeswoman confirmed the shutdown of the websites to AFP over the weekend but declined to provide any details about the operation.