2011/01/29

World concern mounts over Egypt crisis

PARIS, January 29, 2011 (AFP) - World leaders voiced mounting fears Saturday as the death toll rose from protests in Egypt against President Hosni Mubarak, calling for restraint on both sides and urging Cairo to heed cries for reform.

European Union head Herman Van Rompuy said he was "deeply troubled by the spiral of violence leading to a situation which makes dialogue even more difficult."

"The respect for fundamental human rights... as well as social inclusion are constituent elements of democracy which the Egyptian people, and in particular the young, are striving for," he said.

"History has shown that dialogue can also lead to change if a conducive environment is built, without the use of force or a military crackdown."

Van Rompuy called for an end to violence, the release of all those arrested or under house arrest for political reasons and the launch of necessary reforms.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said: "We remain deeply concerned about the level of violence we have witnessed over the past few days."

"We call on the government to exercise restraint and on the Egyptian people to pursue their legitimate grievances peacefully.

"President Mubarak spoke last night of his commitment to take new steps towards greater democracy and freedom for the citizens. We call on him now to listen urgently to the aspirations expressed by the Egyptian people.

"He must seize this moment to make these reforms real and visible and to base them on the universal values that are the right of people in all countries.

"We are working with our EU partners and other allies on the latest developments to deliver a clear coordinated message about our expectations of President Mubarak and in particular the need for him to take responsibility to deliver change," Hague added.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon told journalists: "What we are saying to the Egyptian government is that it must listen to the demands."

"The violence must stop, dialogue must start and there must be signs that the reforms that President Mubarak has promised are begun," he said.

"The people must have hope of progressing on the path of democracy and freedom," Fillon added.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan also urged Egyptian authorities to quickly start listening to the demands of the people in order to calm popular unrest.

"Currently the society of Egypt is in an unstable situation and President Mubarak has announced his intention to reform.

"I hope the government will start dialogue with many people immediately to get the full support and participation of the people and hope it can immediately restore political stability and peaceful civil life in Egypt," Kan said at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

US President Barack Obama urged Mubarak late Friday not to use violence and to take "concrete" steps towards political reforms, saying he must turn "a moment of volatility" into "a moment of promise."

His 30-minute phone call came after Washington warned that aid to Egypt worth two billion dollars was at stake.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told his Cairo counterpart Ahmed Abul Gheit that "the Egyptian leadership and all of society (should) display a high degree of national responsibility and do everything necessary to stabilise the situation and guarantee civil peace," a statement from his ministry said.

African Union Commission head Jean Ping said on the eve of a summit of the pan-African body in Addis Ababa that the situation in Egypt in the wake of the overthrow of Tunisia's president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was "worrying."

Elsewhere in the Arab world Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah expressed his support for Mubarak and slammed those "tampering with Egypt's security and stability... in the name of freedom of expression," Riyadh's state news agency SPA said.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas also telephoned Mubarak "and affirmed his solidarity with Egypt and his commitment to its security and stability," his office said.

Sudan Facebook group calls for Sunday protests

KHARTOUM, January 29, 2011 (AFP) - Thousands of people have joined a Facebook group calling for anti-government protests across Sudan on Sunday, the day preliminary results are due out on the vote on southern independence.

Entitled "January 30, a word to the Sudanese youth," the Facebook site shows an angry protestor holding an Arabic placard that reads: "A better Sudan."

The call comes after Egypt's April 6 Facebook group set up by young Egyptian activists three years ago helped bring tens of thousands onto the streets this week for anti-regime rallies that have rocked the country.

With more than 10,000 followers so far, the Sudanese site calls for peaceful demonstrations in Khartoum and other Sudanese cities at 11:00 am (0800 GMT) to demand an end to "injustice and humiliation."

"We will come out to protest the high cost of living, corruption, nepotism, unemployment and all the practices of the regime, including striking women... that are contrary to the most basic laws of Islam and humanity, and violate the rights of minorities," the Facebook site says.

"We will go out to prove to the whole world that the people... will not remain silent in the face of persistent injustice and humiliation," it adds.

A source at the Popular Congress Party of Islamist opposition leader Hassan al-Turabi refused to comment on the planned protest. Other opposition parties could not be reached to say whether they would participate.

Just last week, Turabi was arrested shortly after saying that a Tunisia-style revolt, which ousted veteran strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali earlier this month, was likely in north Sudan.

Nationwide protests in neighbouring Egypt forced embattled President Hosni Mubarak to announce in a televised address to the nation early on Saturday that he had sacked the government and would pursue economic and political reforms.

Widespread economic and political discontent has provoked street protests in north Sudan in recent weeks, although they have been sporadic, with the army keeping tight control in the capital.

The preliminary results for Sudan's January 9-15 referendum on independence for the south, to be announced on Sunday in the southern capital Juba, are expected to deliver a landslide for secesson, which would split Africa's largest country in two in July.

US urges restraint, calls for reform in Egypt

WASHINGTON, January 29, 2011 (AFP) - The United States on Saturday again called for reform and restraint in Egypt as tens of thousands took to the streets demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.

"With protesters still on the streets of Egypt, we remain concerned about the potential for violence and again urge restraint on all sides," US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley wrote on Twitter.

"The people of Egypt no longer accept the status quo. They are looking to their government for a meaningful process to foster real reform," he wrote in a second message on the micro-blogging service.

Tens of thousands of Egyptians snubbed Mubarak's promised reforms and marched for a fifth day on Saturday.

Fresh riots erupted in several cities, including in Cairo and the Sinai town of Rafah, bringing the death toll from the nationwide protests to at least 51 since Tuesday.

The Egyptian government resigned on Saturday as Mubarak had promised, and the president was due to appoint a new cabinet after stating firmly that he had no intention of stepping down.

But Washington showed little satisfaction with the move.

"The Egyptian government can't reshuffle the deck and then stand pat. President Mubarak's words pledging reform must be followed by action," Crowley said in a third Twitter message.

US President Barack Obama has called on Egyptian authorities not to use violence against the political protests, and drove home his message in a 30-minute phone call to Mubarak.

Mubarak been a stalwart US ally throughout his 30-year reign, and Egypt annually receives 1.3 billion dollars in US military aid.

Top cleric urges 'blind, deaf, dumb' Mubarak to go

DUBAI, January 29, 2011 (AFP) - The Arab world's influential cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi on Saturday urged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down for the good of the country, as his ouster was the only solution to Egypt's crisis.

The Sunni Muslim cleric, who holds Egyptian and Qatari nationalities, also encouraged Egyptians to keep up their peaceful protests demanding an end to Mubarak's three-decade rule, in an interview with Al-Jazeera television.

"President Mubarak ... I advise you to depart from Egypt ... There is no other solution to this problem but for Mubarak to go," Qaradawi said, accusing the veteran leader of having turned "blind, deaf and dumb."

The cleric, spiritual leader of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and longtime resident of Qatar, heads the International Union for Muslim Scholars.

"There is no staying longer, Mubarak, I advise you (to learn) the lesson of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali," he said, referring to Tunisia's deposed president who fled to Saudi Arabia.

"Go Mubarak, have mercy on this people and leave so as not to increase the destruction of Egypt," he added.

He told Egyptians to "continue their uprising" but cautioned against any "attack on state institutions." The uprising "must come through peaceful means," Qaradawi said.

The cleric unnerved Arab leaders earlier this month by sanctioning the popular revolt in Tunisia and hinting other governments in the region had starved and robbed their people.

Famous in the Middle East for his at times controversial fatwas, or religious edicts, the octogenarian Qaradawi has celebrity status in the Arab world thanks to his religious broadcasts on Al-Jazeera television.

He has in the past defended "violence carried out by certain Muslims."

The West accuses the cleric of supporting "terrorism" because he sanctioned Palestinian suicide attacks in Israel. Britain and the United States have refused to grant him entry visas.

"Some violence is legitimate in the eyes of both religion and law, such as resistance to the occupation in Palestine, Lebanon or in Iraq," Qaradawi said last September.

"We call for peace because our religion orders it, but if war is imposed on us we will take it to our hearts."

Mubarak's grip seen faltering as streets defy him

CAIRO, January 29, 2011 (AFP) - Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak may want to keep his grip on power, but his prospects appeared grim on Saturday after a televised address failed to dent the determination of street protestors.

Neither the promise of a new government nor a call on the army to uphold a curfew appeared to have any chance at making an impact on the streets at this stage.

Thousands of Egyptians flooded the streets again on Saturday, the fifth day of continuous protests, which have mutated into a mass revolt rivalling the uprisings that overthrew Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali earlier this month.

Silent and invisible since the start on Tuesday of the most serious challenge to his regime, the 82-year-old ruler made his first public appearance in a televised address overnight.

While his subjects were busy ripping up his portrait, booing his name and demanding his departure, Mubarak gave no sign of stepping down and handing over the reins of power, which have been locked in his iron grip since 1981.

He simply promised democratic reforms, a recurrent pledge punctuating previous statements, and announced a change in government, without giving any names.

Mubarak omitted to say whether he sought a sixth mandate in the upcoming presidential elections, which are scheduled next September, and also kept mum on the ambitions of his son, Gamal, a regular target of anti-regime jeers.

In the apparent political void, a top Arab cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi called on Mubarak to relinquish power.

He told Al-Jazeera television in an interview that there was no answer to the crisis without Mubarak going, and also called on Egyptians to continue peaceful protests.

Top dissident Mohamed ElBaradei, the former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), who had returned to Egypt hoping to lead a "transition," removed his gloves off on Saturday in a direct blow at the leader.

"(Mubarak) must go," he told the network channel France 24.

ElBaradei, a 2005 Nobel-laureate, threw his weight behind the popular protest movement, launched by pro-democracy youths and militants who were very active online before hitting the streets.

"Even if Hosni Mubarak stayed, even if his health allowed it, it seems difficult for him to run for another term. Surely he himself must understand that," a Western diplomat in Cairo told AFP.

Gamal stands less chance than his father. Cables from the American embassy unveiled by WikiLeaks described him as a man of great ambition but devoid of support in the population or the army, in which he never served.

The army, a central pillar of power, adopted a neutral stance between the streets and ruling officials. Since the end of monarchic rule in 1952, every president, including Mubarak, a former air force chief, came from its ranks.

Meanwhile, Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Sami Enan cut short his visit to the United States and returned to Egypt midday on Saturday.

Washington made the army's restraint a decisive criterion for its future dealings with the Egyptian government, a faithful and strategic partner in the region, annually receiving $1.3 billion in US military assistance.

In the past, Mubarak has said he will hold onto power "until his last breath." But his advanced age and delicate health have triggered countless speculation on a successor.

In March 2010, he had a gall bladder operation and a benign tumor removed from the small intestine. But the surgeries did not prevent the octogenarian from resuming his political activities.

Egypt in revolt as Mubarak stands fast

CAIRO, January 29, 2011 (AFP) - Tens of thousands of Egyptians snubbed Hosni Mubarak's promised reforms and took their deadly revolt to the streets for a fifth day on Saturday, with dissident Mohamed ElBaradei vowing to press the embattled president until he goes.

Fresh riots erupted in several cities, including in Cairo where three people were killed,, and an enraged mob killed three police in the Sinai town of Rafah, bringing the death toll from the nationwide protests to at least 51 since Tuesday.

State television said Mubarak went into crisis talks late afternoon.

"President Mubarak is now holding an important meeting with officials at the presidency," TV reported.

And looting broke out in the capital after the widely hated police appear to have faded from the scene, prompting the army to call on citizens to defend themselves.

Tens of thousands of angry citizens streamed into central Cairo's Tahrir Square, one of the focal points for street battles that have raged around Egypt, chanting: "Mubarak out!" as troops looked on.

"We came here to say we don't want you (Mubarak) at all; we want you out of the country," lawyer Mohammed Osama, 25, told AFP as the army announced that a night-time curfew would be enforced and extended in key cities.

However, as the new 4:00 pm-8:00 curfew went into effect on Saturday, tens of thousands in Cairo paid no heed.

The curfew also extends to Alexandria and Suez.

As Mubarak stood his ground, influential Arab cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi called on him to quit, telling Al-Jazeera television he should "leave Egypt," as the "only solution to the problem."

"Leave Mubarak. Have pity on the people and get lost before the destruction spreads in Egypt," said Qaradawi, an Egyptian-born theologian and president of the International Union of Muslim Scholars.

And the banned Muslim Brotherhood, the most well-organised opposition group in the country, called for a peaceful transfer of power through a transitional cabinet.

The government resigned on Saturday, a measure Mubarak promised overnight, and the president was due to appoint a new cabinet after stating firmly that he had no intention of stepping down.

And steel magnate Ahmed Ezz, widely seen as a linchpin of a corrupt regime, resigned from the ruling National Democratic Party, where he was a senior member, state television reported.

Protesters have been demanding not only Mubarak's departure but an end to endemic state corruption and police brutality that have become systematic under the president's 30-year rule.

One key thing people will be watching is whether widely hated Interior Minister Habib al-Adly, who has been in office since 1997 and who is responsible for the security apparatus, will keep his job.

They have dismissed the 82-year-old's vague promises of reform as too little, too late.

Nobel Laureate ElBaradei, who has said he would be prepared to lead an eventual transition if asked, said he would join the street protests on Saturday to tell Mubarak he "must go."

"President Mubarak did not understand the message of the Egyptian people," ElBaradei told France 24 television. "His speech was totally disappointing. The protests will continue with even more intensity until the Mubarak regime falls."

The army, unlike the repressive police, is widely respected in Egypt, and its appearance on the streets was generally welcomed.

Despite the curfew, shops and offices were looted overnight, and with a thin police presence, the army called "on the Egyptian people to protect the nation, Egypt, and themselves."

That appeared to be an admission that the troops, deployed by Mubarak on Thursday, are unable to control the situation on their own.

Earlier on Saturday, young Egyptians had already formed a human chain to protect the Cairo Museum, which is located in Tahrir Square and which houses the famous Tutankhamun mask and other priceless antiquities.

And efforts were underway around the capital to organise neighbourhood watch committees.

Elsewhere, clashes erupted in the key port city of Ismailiya, northeast of the capital, where thousands of workers fought running battles with police.

In Alexandria, hundreds of people camped out by the main mosque in the centre of the Mediterranean city vowing to protest again, with several police stations still burning amid sporadic looting.

As in Cairo, tanks were deployed and the police were absent. Civilians directed traffic and conducted clean-up efforts.

In Tahrir Square, thousands chanted: "Those who love Egypt, don't destroy it."

Despite the ongoing protests, two Cairo mobile phone networks came back on line on Saturday, a day after all Egyptian operators were told to cut services.

But Internet access appeared still to be cut by late afternoon, with the inability to use microblogging sites such as Twitter or social networking sites such as Facebook affecting activists' coordination of their activities.

US President Barack Obama called on the Egyptian authorities not to use violence against the political protests, driving home his message in a 30-minute phone call with Mubarak.

He urged Mubarak to take "concrete" steps towards political reforms, saying he must turn "a moment of volatility" into "a moment of promise."

Washington has toughened its line on a key Middle Eastern ally, warning Egypt it would review billions of dollars in aid based on the behaviour of its security forces.

Egypt is one of the world's largest recipients of US aid, receiving $1.3 billion annually in military assistance alone.

In London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Mubarak "spoke last night of his commitment to take new steps towards greater democracy and freedom for the citizens. We call on him now to listen urgently to the aspirations expressed by the Egyptian people.

"He must seize this moment to make these reforms real and visible and to base them on the universal values that are the right of people in all countries."

The demonstrations, inspired by events in Tunisia, are the largest in Egypt in the three decades of Mubarak's rule, sending shock waves across the region.

At least 1,500 civilians and 1,000 police have been injured since Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the outside world was reacting nervously to events in Egypt.

Travel agencies postponed departures for popular tourist destination on Saturday, as capitals issued new warnings to their citizens to avoid visiting the country.

On Friday, stocks fell in New York where the perception of growing instability in the Middle East overshadowed a strong US GDP report.

On Saturday, the Saudi stock market, the Arab world's largest, dropped 6.43 percent on the soaring tensions in Egypt.

And the Cairo exchange, which was due due to start a new week of trading on Sunday after losing at least 10 percent this week, said it will remain closed for the day along with the nation's banks.

Top Arab cleric tells Mubarak to go for Egypt sake

DUBAI, January 29, 2011 (AFP) - The Arab world's influential cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi on Saturday urged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down for the good of the country, as his ouster was the only solution to Egypt's crisis.

The widely respected Sunni Muslim cleric who holds Egyptian and Qatari nationalities, also encouraged Egyptians to keep up peaceful protests, in an interview with Al-Jazeera television.

"President Mubarak ... I advise you to depart from Egypt ... There is no other solution to this problem but for Mubarak to go," Qaradawi said.

The cleric, a resident of Qatar who has a popular programme on Al-Jazeera to advise on Islamic laws, heads the International Union for Muslim Scholars. He is considered one of the world's top Sunni preachers.

"Go Mubarak, have mercy on this people and leave so as not to increase the destruction of Egypt," he added.

"There is no staying longer, Mubarak, I advise you (to learn) the lesson of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali," he said, referring to Tunisia's deposed president who fled to Saudi Arabia.

Qaradawi, a spiritual leader of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, has in the past defended "violence carried out by certain Muslims."

"Some violence is legitimate in the eyes of both religion and law, such as resistance to the occupation in Palestine, Lebanon or in Iraq," Qaradawi said last September.

"We call for peace because our religion orders it, but if war is imposed on us we will take it to our hearts."

Egypt's authorities must talk to population: Japan PM

DAVOS, January 29, 2011 (AFP) - Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan on Saturday urged Egyptian authorities to quickly start listening to the demands of the people in order to calm popular unrest.

"Egypt is a country playing an important role for peace and stablity in the Middle East and entire Africa, and we appreciate that," Kan told political and economic leaders gathered at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

"Currently the society of Egypt is in an unstable situation and President Mubarak has announced his intention to reform.

"I hope the government will start dialogue with many people immediately to get the full support and participation of the people and hope it can immediately restore political stability and peaceful civil life in Egypt."

China micro-blogging sites censor 'Egypt'

BEIJING, January 29, 2011 (AFP) - The word "Egypt" was censored Saturday by several micro-blogging sites in China, where the ruling Communist Party is wary of issues of political reform, demands for democracy and disturbances to public order, including overseas.

On the sina.com and sohu.com sites, the Chinese equivalents of Twitter, which is censored in China, a query with the word "Egypt" returned the response: "According to the laws in force, the results of your search cannot be given."

The Chinese official media, including Xinhua news agency and CCTV, however mentioned the deadly protests in Egypt against the regime of President Hosni Mubarak.

Thousands of demonstrators poured onto Cairo's streets Saturday, demanding Mubarak stand down the day after the veteran leader ordered the army to tackle the protests.

Censorship is widespread in China to prevent any criticism of the government or mention of the issue of human rights.

The web is purged of politically sensitive material and Beijing closely monitors the 450 million Chinese Internet users to avoid organised dissent and prevent them drawing inspiration from abroad.

US media sound discordant note on US-Egypt ties

WASHINGTON, January 29, 2011 (AFP) - US media sounded a discordant note on  Saturday, with some newspapers calling for a reevaluation of US-Egyptian relations after violent protests in Egyptian cities and others advocating caution.

Currently, US military aid to Egypt equals $1.3 billion annually, most of which is spent on modernizing weapons systems, according to a Congressional Research Service report.

"Rather than calling on an intransigent ruler to implement 'reforms,' the administration should be attempting to prepare for the peaceful implementation of the opposition platform," The Washington Post said in an editorial.

The paper said the US government should be reaching out to former UN nuclear official Mohamed ElBaradei - who Friday was reported to be under house arrest - and other mainstream opposition leaders.

"And it should be telling the Egyptian army, with no qualification, that the violent suppression of the uprising will rupture its relationship with the United States," The Post opined.

But The Los Angeles Times said that Egypt and its President Hosni Mubarak are strong US allies in a region rife with anti-Americanism.

"By signing a peace treaty with Israel, the late President Anwar Sadat reduced dramatically the possibility of a major Arab-Israeli war, and Egypt under Mubarak continues to play a broker's role in the pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace," The Los Angeles Times said.

"No one expects the United States to advocate regime change," the paper said. "Nor is it likely to condition the more than $1 billion in economic and military aid it sends to Egypt each year on political reform (though that is a course we would support)."

Meanwhile, a prominent Middle East expert, quoted by The New York Times, warned the downfall of Mubarak could pave the way for Islamist radicals eager to increase their clout in Egypt.

"If we don't back Mubarak and the regime falls, and the Muslim Brotherhood takes control of Egypt and breaks the peace treaty with Israel, then it could have dramatic negative ramifications for American interests in the Middle East," Martin Indyk, a Middle East peace negotiator during the Bill Clinton administration, told The Times.

Unrest across the Arab world

CAIRO, January 28, 2011 (AFP) - The uprising in Tunisia, which led to the ouster of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on January 14, has had a ripple effect across the Arab world:

EGYPT

January 25 sees the start of unprecedented demonstrations against the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, who has been in power since 1981. The protests are preceded by several people setting themselves on fire.

On Friday nationwide anti-regime protests come to a head after weekly prayers. Riot police fire tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse tens of thousands of protesters in Cairo, while in the canal city of Suez a protester is killed and in the port city of Alexandria protesters set fire to the governorate building.

At least eight people have been killed -- six demonstrators and two police officers -- hundreds injured and some 1,000 arrested in the unrest.

ALGERIA

Early in January five days of violent protests against high prices result in five people dead and more than 800 injured. The government calms the protest by ordering a cut in basic food prices and pledges to continue subsidising wheat, milk and electricity. On January 22 riot police break up a banned pro-democracy rally, leaving around 20 injured. Two lethal self-immolations and seven more such attempted suicides have been reported in Algeria since January 14.

JORDAN

Thousands of Jordanians take to the streets of Amman and other cities on January 14 in protest at soaring commodity prices, unemployment and poverty, calling for the sacking of the government.

On January 16 more than 3,000 Jordanian trade unionists, Islamists and leftists stage a sit-in outside parliament to protest against the government's economic policies. On January 21 more than 5,000 people rally after weekly prayers in Amman and other cities.

On Friday thousands of Jordanians demonstrate peacefully in Amman and other cities after weekly prayers.

SUDAN

A 25-year-old Sudanese man who set himself on fire in a suburb of Khartoum dies from his injuries on Wednesday. Widespread economic and political discontent in north Sudan has led to sporadic protests in recent weeks.

OMAN

Some 200 Omanis protest on January 17 against high prices and corruption, a rare phenomenon in the Gulf Arab monarchy.

MAURITANIA

Yacoub Ould Dahoud dies on January 22 after setting himself on fire in an anti-government protest because he is "unhappy with the political situation in the country and angry with the government."

MOROCCO

Three Moroccan men set themselves on fire on January 21 and another follows suit on Tuesday.

YEMEN

Police disperse hundreds of protesters chanting pro-Tunisia slogans at Sanaa University on January 18.

On Thursday thousands of people stage a mass protest calling on President Ali Abdullah Saleh to quit after being in power since 1978.

Saleh's ruling General People's Congress organises four simultaneous counter-demonstrations attended by thousands of government supporters.

There are four self-immolations in Yemen, one of which proves fatal.

2011/01/28

Malaysia cracks down on 'husbands for hire'

KUALA LUMPUR, January 28, 2011 (AFP) - Malaysian authorities said Friday they have taken action against "husbands for hire", local men who marry foreign women for money, allowing them to stay in the country and work illegally.

The "husbands", often impoverished middle-aged men including rubber-tappers and fishermen, agree to the fake marriages to allow the women to obtain a one-year permit to remain in Malaysia, an immigration official said.

"We have arrested some women working in entertainment outlets and they would tell us that they are here on a social visit pass," Mohamad Shukri Nawi, immigration director from northern Perak state, told AFP.

Newspaper reports said the women, who are mostly from Vietnam and China, worked in nightclubs but Shukri would not say whether they were engaged in illegal activities such as prostitution.

"When their husband comes forward for the investigation, we get suspicious as to why there is such a huge age gap and how they can afford to pay the agents because marrying foreign women is costly," he said.

"It is after the investigation that these husbands admitted it was a marriage of convenience for them and they actually live separately with the 'wife'."

Shukri said that the women caught in the sham marriages would be deported but that no action would be taken against the Malaysian "husbands" as there is no law to deal with the issue.

Nokia in maps tie-up with China's Sina, Tencent

BEIJING, January 28, 2011 (AFP) - Nokia on Friday announced a deal with Chinese Internet firms Sina and Tencent to let phone users upload their location to social networks together with tips on local services via Nokia's map service.

Subscribers to Sina's microblog and Tencent's QQ instant-messaging service will be able to share their location on the social networking sites using their Nokia Internet-connected mobile phones, Nokia said in a statement following the signing of the deal.

The new offering, which will allow users to upload information about local restaurants, shops and movie theatres, will be available through Nokia's Ovi Map service in the first quarter of 2011.

"This collaboration with Sina and Tencent marks a significant milestone," said Phil Kemp, vice president of Nokia Services.

"More than 250 million people are using a Nokia device in China and with this partnership we can help people share their location with their friends and communities through Ovi Maps on their favourite social network."

Nokia did not disclose the financial terms of the deal.

Home-grown social networking sites have flourished in China in the absence of foreign competitors Facebook and Twitter, which have been banned by the government.

Beijing blocks web content that it deems politically sensitive in a vast system dubbed the "Great Firewall of China".

Friday's announcement boosted the Hong Kong-listed shares of Tencent, which had the  biggest gains of the day, rising 1.8 percent to HK$203.40 ($26.11), Dow Jones Newswires reported.

Antitrust fines hit Singapore Airlines profit

SINGAPORE, January 28, 2011 (AFP) - Antitrust fines imposed by the United States, European Union and South Korea dented Singapore Airlines' third-quarter net profit, which fell 29 percent, the carrier said Friday.

Soaring jet fuel prices also dampened earnings, it said.

Net profit in the October-December quarter was Sg$288.3 million ($225.30 million), down from Sg$403.7 million a year earlier, SIA said in a statement.

Revenues rose 12 percent to Sg$3.84 billion dollars.

SIA said it had set aside Sg$199 million during the quarter for the hefty antitrust fines imposed by the United States, the European Union and South Korea on its subsidiary SIA Cargo.

SIA Cargo was punished for its part in a cartel involving several international carriers which reportedly engaged in price-fixing.

SIA Cargo was fined $48 million by the United States, 74.8 million euros by the European Commission and 3.l billion won ($2.78 million) by the South Korean Fair Trade Commission.

The airline said while it had accepted the US fine under a plea offer made by the US Department of Justice, it had filed appeals against the fines imposed by the European Commission and the South Korean Fair Trade Commission.

Jet fuel prices, which are at two-year highs, also crimped earnings as fuel remains the company's biggest expense, SIA said.

Shukor Yusof, an aviation analyst with Standard and Poor's Equity Research, said SIA turned in a stellar performance despite the fines.

"It's another respectable performance by SIA, all things being equal," he told AFP, adding that net profit of Sg$288 million was something "most other airlines would die for."

SIA said advance passenger bookings for its final financial quarter ending March were tapering off.

"As airlines including SIA continue to inject capacity, advance passenger bookings for the final quarter of the 2010-2011 financial year are levelling off," it said.

For air cargo, the Asia-Pacific region will continue to lead due to uncertainties in European markets.

"Growth for airfreight is expected to continue for the rest of the financial year, albeit at a slower rate," the airline said.

SIA shares closed unchanged at Sg$15.04 Friday before the earnings report was released.

From Facebook to street: Egypt's April 6 protest group

CAIRO, January 28, 2011 (AFP) - The April 6 Facebook group set up by young Egyptians to protest at high prices in 2008 this week brought tens of thousands onto the streets for anti-regime rallies despite draconian restrictions.

The movement, whose calls to protest are also spread via micro-blogging site Twitter and photo-sharing site Flickr, was created to protest against the cost of living during a strike in the Nile Delta industrial town of Mahalla el-Kobra.

Its name comes from an initial call for a nationwide day of protest on April 6, 2008. Today the Facebook group has more than 80,000 followers, with many more on Twitter, and its demands have evolved.

It now calls for political reform and democracy, targeting particularly veteran President Hosni Mubarak's monolithic National Democratic Party.

Members are generally well-educated, and officially the group is not politically affiliated.

Nevertheless, the group last year endorsed the reform demands of leading dissident and former UN nuclear chief Mohamed ElBaradei, and it has also coordinated with the Keffaya opposition movement, in action since 2004.

The group has also expressed support for the banned Muslim Brotherhood movement and criticised the detention of the Islamist group's leaders.

Its leaders have been repeatedly arrested, and the authorities have struggled to censor its presence on the Internet.

On Friday, with mass protests erupting nationwide after noon prayers, the authorities took the drastic measure of cutting much Internet and mobile phone access around Egypt in an attempt to thwart the rising tide of protest.

Unperturbed, one of April 6's founders, Israa Abd el Fatah, said: "We've already announced the meeting places. So we've done it, we no longer need means of communication."

Abd el Fatah insists that she is as unbowed as the movement's demands are unwavering.

"We want the regime to go," Abd el Fatah told AFP. "We've been asking for reforms for 30 years and the regime has never answered or paid attention to our demands."

"We will not stop until the definitive departure of the Egyptian regime.

"It won't just be tomorrow, but the day after and the day after that also. We won't stop, we won't go home," she said.

The nationwide demonstrations, inspired by the "Jasmine Revolution" in Tunisia, have swelled into the largest uprising in three decades, sending shock waves across the region.

Seven people have been killed -- at least five protesters and two policemen -- and more than 100 have been injured.

A security official told AFP that around 1,000 people had been arrested since the protests began.

"We've already lost six martyrs and their blood is very dear to us so we're ready to make sacrifices," said Abd el Fatah. "Freedom has its price -- we're not afraid to pay it and we're able to do it."

China star beats Oprah with five mln microblog fans

BEIJING, January 28, 2011 (AFP) - Actress Yao Chen on Friday became the first Chinese microblogger with five million followers, even more than US mega-celeb Oprah Winfrey -- underlining the rapid growth of the platform in China.

Yao, a popular television actress, is the most-followed person on the microblog service of Chinese portal Sina, which is far and away China's leader, claiming more than 50 million users.

On Friday the number of people following Yao's musings on life and celebrity ticked past five million, prompting Sina to issue a statement declaring her the "Queen of the microblog".

Earlier in the week, she passed Winfrey's number of Twitter followers. The US talk show diva had 4,953,914 followers as of Friday, according to Twitter.

Winfrey is at 10th place on the list of most-followed people on Twitter, which is officially blocked in China but accessible via proxy server.

Yao, 31, passed five million on Friday afternoon and just three hours later she had added 10,000 more.

Sina's statement attributed Yao's microblog popularity to her candid and self-effacing postings on her life.

China's government blocked Twitter in 2009 after authorities alleged social-networking services were being used to fan ethnic violence in mainly Muslim northwestern China.

China's aggressive censors block a range of high-profile foreign Internet services and websites including YouTube, Facebook and others.

However, since the blocking of Twitter, several Chinese clones led by Sina have filled the void and drawn an enthusiastic following from China's huge population of web users, the world's largest at 457 million.

Users have seized on micro-blogging as a new avenue for mass expression in a country whose Internet and other media are tightly controlled by a wary Communist Party.

But experts say micro-blogging services exercise self-policing of sensitive topics such as human rights to avoid being shut down.

Sina said in November its microblog service had 50 million registered users after just 14 months of operation -- up from 10 million in April.

The number of Twitter users is estimated at more than 200 million.

The most-followed person on Twitter is pop icon Lady Gaga with 7.8 million, while US President Barack Obama is back in fourth with 6.4 million.

The rest of the Twitter top ten is populated by US entertainment personalities such as teen pop idol Justin Bieber at number two, singer Britney Spears at number three, and actor Ashton Kutcher at number five.

Curbs lifted on Romania diplomat in Singapore death case

BUCHAREST, January 28, 2011 (AFP) - A Romanian diplomat charged with manslaughter following a hit-and-run car accident in Singapore can travel outside Bucharest, after a court lifted the restriction, his lawyer said Friday.

"The Bucharest court has accepted our request to allow Silviu Ionescu to travel outside of Bucharest," Cristian Ene told AFP.

"Thus, his right to work is observed," he added, stressing that Ionescu is a financial adviser.

Ene said that Ionescu continued to be banned from leaving the country. He also has to attend all court hearings and go to the police whenever he was summoned.

Ionescu, a former charge d'affaires in Singapore, has been charged with manslaughter, causing physical injuries and making false statements after a fatal car accident in December 2009 in Singapore.

The diplomat is alleged to have hit three pedestrians while driving a car belonging to the Romanian mission.

One of them, a 30-year-old Malaysian national, suffered brain damage and died on Christmas Day. Ionescu is also alleged to have fled the scene.

However he denies he was the driver and says the car was stolen.

After being held for seven months in preventive custody in Romania, Ionescu was released from detention in November pending his trial.

AFP to boost Internet presence

PARIS, January 28, 2011 (AFP) - Agence France-Presse (AFP) plans to build up its brand image by boosting its Internet presence with a news website and on platforms such as the iPad, its chief executive Emmanuel Hoog said.

"Our brand needs to develop using growth models such as the iPad, the iPhone or the Internet" in order to be able to compete with AFP's two main rivals, Associated Press and Thomson Reuters, he told reporters.

Hoog said he and AFP administrators would in the coming weeks form a working group to examine how to develop the agency's presence on the web.

AFP's strategy for the next decade includes tripling its video output within the next two years from its current output of a thousand videos a month in seven languages.

Developing the Arabic language service is another priority.

"AFP occupies 55 percent of the Arab-language press market," said Hoog, adding that he hoped to increase the current output of 200 Arabic news stories a day.

The fast-growing Indian and Brazilian media markets are also a key area for AFP, he said.

AFP has 2,900 staff and freelance correspondents around the world. It covers the world 24 hours a day in six languages, delivering the news in video, text, photographs and multimedia products.

US funded Egyptian pro-democracy movement: cables

OSLO, January 28, 2011 (AFP) - The United States has pumped tens of millions of dollars into pro-democracy organisations in Egypt to the dismay of beleaguered President Hosni Mubarak, according to diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks and published by a Norwegian paper Friday.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) planned to dedicate 66.5 million dollars in 2008 and 75 million in 2009 to Egyptian programmes promoting democracy and good governance, according to a leaked cable from the US embassy in Cairo dated December 6, 2007.

"President Mubarak is deeply skeptical of the US role in democracy promotion," reads another embassy cable dated October 9, 2007, published by Norway's paper of reference Aftenposten on its website.

"Nonetheless, (US government) programs are helping to establish democratic institutions and strengthen individual voices for change in Egypt," that cable adds.

According to Aftenposten, which has laid its hands on all of the more than 250,000 classified US diplomatic cables leaked to WikiLeaks, the United States has thus directly contributed to "building up the forces that oppose the President" Mubarak.

Egypt has since Tuesday been rocked by massive protests against Mubarak's 30-year rule.

The second diplomatic cable published by Aftenposten says the money spent by the US for democracy promotion was aimed both at programmes run by the Egyptian government itself and by Egyptian and US NGOs working in the field.

Egyptian Minister of International Cooperation Fayza Aboulnaga had sent a letter to the embassy requesting that USAID stop financing 10 of the organisations "on the grounds that (they) have not been properly registered as NGOs" according to a third cable dated February 28, 2008.

Generally considered Mubarak's designated successor, his son Gamal is also described in a fourth cable, dated October 20, 2008, as "irritable about direct US democracy and governance funding of Egyptian NGO's."

Beaten BBC reporter says Cairo police target foreign press

PARIS, January 28, 2011 (AFP) - A BBC reporter said he was badly beaten by Cairo police who he accused of targeting foreign journalists covering anti-government protests in the Egyptian capital.

"They were targeting journalists deliberately," said Assad Sawey, who sported a bloodied bandage on his head as he spoke to BBC World television in Cairo.

"They took my camera away and when they arrested me they started beating me up with steel bars... like the ones used here for slaughtering animals," he said.

"They used electric bars to electrify me," he said.

Sawey said that several foreign journalists covering the same demonstration in central Cairo were also arrested: "They were all loaded onto trucks and were removed to somewhere unknown."

It was not clear if these were four French journalists arrested Friday in the city. They were held for about an hour before being released.

An AFP photographer said Cairo police confiscated his camera's memory card that contained pictures of protestors confronting security forces.

Protests demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak spread across Cairo after Friday prayers, AFP reporters said, as nationwide demonstrations entered their fourth day.

Outspoken Chinese columnist 'forced to quit'

BEIJING, January 28, 2011 (AFP) - A prominent Chinese columnist known for questioning the government line said Friday he was forced out of one of China's most outspoken media groups as authorities tighten controls on expression.

Chang Ping said in an angry posting on his microblog that he was forced to resign from the Southern Media Group after refusing to tone down his writing.

"I cannot commit to that, so I have been forced to resign," he said, adding "I despise and protest" the throttling of free expression.

China's Communist Party government has tightened its grip on dissidents and the media since the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to jailed dissident writer Liu Xiaobo in October.

Dissidents have been placed under house arrest or other restrictions or ordered to keep quiet, rights groups say, following the Nobel announcement, which prompted a deeply embarrassed Beijing to lash out over the prize.

Human rights websites have also published government directives issued earlier this month ordering the nation's media to downplay controversial issues in 2011 and maintain a pro-government tone in their reporting.

Chang was a columnist and former top editor for the Southern Media Group, which is based in the southern province of Guangdong and puts out a range of publications known for some of the most daring reporting in China.

He was reportedly previously sacked from his editing post after he wrote columns on violent anti-government riots in Tibetan regions in 2008 that questioned the government portrayal of the unrest as "sabotage" instigated by the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.

Chang, who has since continued to write columns about hot-button issues such as corruption and the lack of political reform and has maintained a blog, said there was no single trigger for his firing.

"There is no particular reason. The only thing I did wrong was to persist in writing commentaries," he said.

Officials at the Southern Media Group who declined to be named told AFP that Chang's contract had expired and his departure was "normal." They declined further comment.

China insists it allows press freedom but in fact the media are tightly controlled or self-censor to avoid government shutdowns.

The government has recently indicated mounting concern over key controversial issues such as corruption, illegal seizures of land from commoners and other ills blamed for frequent angry public protests.

The media directive issued this month by the government restricted coverage of such issues and Premier Wen Jiabao this week made a rare visit to an office that handles public complaints, vowing the government would address those and other public concerns.

Kim Jong-Il opposed succession: eldest son

TOKYO, January 28, 2011 (AFP) - North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il was against a third-generation succession of power but named his youngest son as the next leader to ensure national stability, his eldest son told a Japanese newspaper.

In a rare interview published Friday, Kim Jong-Nam, who has lived abroad for years after apparently falling out of favour with his father, also called on his half-brother, the heir apparent Kim Jong-Un, to improve North Koreans' lives.

"Hereditary succession did not happen even under Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong," the 39-year-old told the Tokyo Shimbun in a 90-minute interview conducted earlier this month in southern China.

"(Hereditary succession) does not fit socialism and my father was against it," he said in comments translated into Japanese.

"I understand that it was done in order to stabilise the framework of the nation," he said. "Instability of North Korea will lead to instability of the surrounding region."

Kim Jong-Il, 68, is seen as setting up the transfer of power to his third son Jong-Un, who is believed to be 27 and who accompanied his father on about one-fifth of his excursions last year.

In September Jong-Un was made a four-star general and given senior posts in the ruling Workers' Party. Since then, he has been frequently listed or pictured accompanying his father.

North Korea's leader, who is said to be in poor health, himself took over in the impoverished nation from his father and founding president Kim Il-Sung after his death in 1994, in the communist world's only family succession.

Jong-Nam, who occasionally grants short interviews to Japanese press, reiterated that he had no interest in politics or succeeding to power in North Korea.

He has previously told other Japanese media that he was personally opposed to a dynastic succession in North Korea.

Jong-Nam said his "heart aches" when hearing about the harsh living conditions suffered by poverty-hit North Koreans. "I cannot believe people's lives are improving," he said.

"The currency redenomination (in 2009) was a failure. North Korea should pay attention to reform and openness. If it continues like this, it cannot become an economic power.

"What the North desires the most is the normalisation of ties with the US and settlement of peace on the Korean peninsula."

Taiwan president goes on Facebook

TAIPEI, January 28, 2011 (AFP) - Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou unveiled his Facebook page on Friday, following other leaders around the world who use the social networking site to reach out to the public.

"Hello Web surfers, I am Ma Ying-jeou and my Facebook site opens today. I am a little nervous and excited. I can get in touch with many of you through this channel," Ma said in a video greeting posted on his Facebook page.

"Many governments and leaders in the world have their own micro-blogs and I should not miss out the big trend... I hope to share my experiences and feelings with Taiwanese people on my Facebook."

Initial responses appeared positive, with more than 3,000 people saying they liked Ma's Facebook page within hours of it going on-line.

Observers say Ma went on Facebook in preparation for next year's presidential election, as more and more politicians on the Internet-savvy island have started to appeal to voters via blogs and social networking sites.

Ma, who won a landslide victory in 2008 on a Beijing-friendly platform, is widely expected to run for a second and final four-year term in 2012.

LinkedIn announces IPO

SAN FRANCISCO, January 27, 2011 (AFP) - Career-oriented social network LinkedIn on Thursday registered with US regulators to have an initial public offering of stock.

The Mountain View, California-based startup filed paperwork with the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) saying that it planned to raise money expand its operations.

"We believe we are transforming the way people work by connecting talent with opportunity at massive scale," LinkedIn said in the SEC filing.

"Our goal is to provide a global platform capable of mapping every professional's experience, skills and other relevant professional data to his or her professional graph, including connections with colleagues and business contacts."

The number of shares to be offered and the price range had not been determined, LinkedIn said in a press release posted at its website.

LinkedIn described itself in the filing as the world's largest professional network on the Internet with more than 90 million members in more than 200 countries.

LinkedIn members cultivate and manage career or business networks in the online community.
The startup made a net profit of $10 million on net revenue of $161 million in the first nine months of 2010, according to the LinkedIn filing with the SEC.

Microsoft net profit slips despite record 2Q revenue

SAN FRANCISCO, January 27, 2011 (AFP) - Microsoft on Thursday reported its net profit slipped despite record-high revenue in the last quarter on sales of computers and Kinect controllers for Xbox 360 consoles.

The US technology titan made $6.63 billion in net profit on $19.95 billion in revenue in the quarter ending December 31.

Net profit for the quarter was slightly below the $6.66 billion the firm made in the same period a year earlier even though revenue climbed nearly a billion dollars.

"We are enthusiastic about the consumer response to our holiday lineup of products, including the launch of Kinect," said Microsoft chief financial officer Peter Klein.

"The pace of business spending, combined with strong consumer demand, led to another quarter of operating margin expansion and solid earnings per share growth."

Microsoft sold more than eight million gesture-sensing Kinect controllers for Xbox 360 videogame consoles in the 60 days after it hit the market in November, chief executive Steve Ballmer said early this month.

Kinect lets people control on-screen action with body movements or spoken commands and is priced at $150.

A 55 percent growth in revenue at Microsoft's entertainment and devices division was credited with helping boost the amount of money the company took in during the quarter.

Microsoft said that Windows 7 has become the fastest selling operating system in the company's history and now runs more than 20 percent of personal computers connected to the Internet.

Highlights in the recently-ended quarter included the launch of Windows Phone 7 software in 30 countries, and the completion of a deal to use Microsoft's Bing engine to power search at Yahoo! websites.

Microsoft said that its shift to offering software as services in the Internet "cloud" continued to gain momentum in the quarter, with film studio Pixar Animation being among the companies using its Azure platform.

"Business demand for our productivity and infrastructure products and cloud solutions is strong," said Microsoft chief operating officer Kevin Turner.

Microsoft beat Wall Street expectations for the quarter, but its stock slid slightly less than a percent to $28.63 in trading that followed release of the earnings figures.

China to launch property tax on trial basis

BEIJING, January 27, 2011 (AFP) - China said Thursday it would start imposing property taxes on homes in some cities on a trial basis, in the government's latest move to try to cool the red-hot real-estate market.

The State Council, China's cabinet, approved the trial but said the tax levy method would be decided by the governments of the provinces where the cities are located, the official Xinhua news agency said. It gave no more details.

A statement posted on the finance ministry's website said the tax would help "adjust income distribution and promote social equality."

"People's living standards have hugely improved, but the income gap is also widening.... Property tax is one important method to adjust income and wealth distribution, and levying property taxes helps reduce the wealth gap," it said.

It added the tax would help "rational" home-buying.

The trial is the latest in a range of measures taken by the government to curb spiralling property prices, as polls have shown the difficulty in affording housing has become the top consumer fear.

On Wednesday, the government raised the minimum down payment for second homes to 60 percent of the property's value and ordered authorities to rein in real estate prices.

The central bank has also raised interest rates twice since October, and has increased the amount of money banks must keep in reserve in a bid to curb lending.

But despite these policies, property prices in China's major cities have continued to increase, posting their fourth straight month-on-month rise in December as sales picked up pace.

The statement did not mention which cities would trial the tax, but Xinhua said Shanghai was one of them and had already set the tax rate at 0.4 to 0.6%. The southwestern municipality of Chongqing is also one of the trial locations.

According to a report on popular web portal sina.com, authorities in Chongqing have set the tax rate at between 0.5 and 1.2%.

Chongqing mayor Huang Qifan estimates revenue from the tax will reach 200 million yuan ($30.4 million) and will be used to build public housing, the report said.

The finance ministry said that if conditions were right, the property tax would be expanded to the rest of the country.

Chinese rabbit cartoon blocked after skewering govt



BEIJING, January 27, 2011 (AFP) - A blood-soaked cartoon that marks the Year of the Rabbit by portraying a bunny revolt against brutal tiger overlords has proven an online hit, with its thinly veiled stab at China's communist rulers.

The "South Park"-style video by animator Wang Bo, in which the persecuted rabbits overthrow the tigers, went viral on video-sharing sites in recent days thanks to its gruesome depiction of a number of recent scandals.
It was unavailable on websites Thursday, apparently deleted by skittish government censors.

Bo's cartoon begins with baby rabbits who die horribly from drinking "Sanlu" milk. Sanlu is the now-defunct Chinese dairy giant that was at the centre of a huge scandal in 2008 over tainted milk.

The milk was blamed for killing six infants and sickening 300,000 others.
In the online video, rabbit parents are then savagely beaten by tiger thugs when they complain, or are cruelly run over by cars and killed.

The latter scenario is an obvious reference to two recent notorious cases.

In one, the son of a police official in northern China accused of striking and killing a pedestrian in October while driving drunk was tried this week. He reportedly tried to escape arrest at the scene by invoking his father's name.

In another, a village chief was crushed by a truck last month. Villagers allege he was killed by local officials to silence his complaints about his land being seized by authorities.

The bunnies in the video are a reference to the Chinese Year of the Rabbit, which begins on February 3, while 2010 was the Year of the Tiger.

After an orgy of violence as the bunnies rise up en masse, the video ends with a character saying: "It will really be an interesting year."

China operates a huge system of online censorship that deletes content considered a threat to the primacy of the ruling Communist Party.

But the video remains available abroad on YouTube -- which is blocked in China -- at www.youtube.com/watch?v=rnw5BvxSDmM&feature=player_embedded.

China's leaders are scrambling to contain public anger over a range of hot-button issues such as official abuses and the rising costs of food and housing.

This week, Premier Wen Jiabao paid an unprecedented visit to an office in Beijing where members of the public can petition the government over their grievances.

Wen pledged the government would go all-out to address public concerns, but Human Rights Watch dismissed his appearance as a political charade.

2011/01/27

New outcry over charges in China hit-and-run

BEIJING, January 27, 2011 (AFP) - Chinese web users were up in arms Thursday over the trial of a man accused of attempting to exploit his father's senior police ranking to flee a fatal road accident, calling the charges too light.

The case of Li Qiming went viral on the Internet in China after he was accused of fatally striking a female pedestrian while driving drunk in the northern city of Baoding in October. He was 22 at the time of the incident.

After the accident, he reportedly dared bystanders to take action against him, shouting "My father is Li Gang!", referring to the deputy director of the public security bureau in the district where the incident took place.

The case stoked outrage among web users as the latest example of government officials and their relatives abusing their positions, just as the leadership in Beijing is trying to quell public anger over a range of issues.

Li has been charged with "causing death through traffic offences" by the court in Baoding, located in Hebei province. Chinese media reports have said the charge could bring a sentence of between three and seven years.

"This is extremely brazen!" said a posting commenting on the charges on the Twitter-like service of online portal Sina.com, which claims tens of millions of users in China.

"It is yet another outrage against public opinion."

Another said: "China's legal system could not be any more distant from the common people. They exist only to protect the rich and powerful.

"We have no way to speak out. Who will look after our hopes and dreams?"

Li admitted in court during his one-day trial on Wednesday to causing the death of one of the two women he struck, state media reports said. However, another report said he claimed he was unaware that he struck anybody.

Court officials and a lawyer for the family of the deceased said a verdict would be announced at a later date, giving no further details.

The state-run Global Times newspaper quoted unnamed sources as saying more than 500 people had gathered outside the courthouse as the trial was being heard.

The victim, a university student, had been roller-skating on her campus with a friend when Li's car struck them both. The other woman suffered a broken leg but survived.

Family members of the victim in the Li case were reportedly told to stop talking about it after they received compensation of 460,000 yuan ($70,000).

China's leaders are scrambling to contain public anger over a range of hot-button issues such as official abuses and the rising cost of food and housing.

Premier Wen Jiabao paid an unprecedented visit this week to an office in Beijing where citizens petition the government over perceived injustices and other grievances.

Wen pledged the government would go all-out to address difficulties faced by the public.

Underlining the official fears over possible unrest, a popular cartoon that marks the Year of the Rabbit by portraying a bloody revolt by a population of bunnies was unavailable on Chinese websites Thursday, apparently deleted by censors.

The video by animator Wang Bo went viral on Chinese video-sharing sites recently thanks to its blood-soaked depiction of a number of recent scandals that have angered China's public, including the Li case.

Sony unveils new 'NGP' portable PlayStation

TOKYO, January 27, 2011 (AFP) - Japanese entertainment giant Sony on Thursday unveiled a portable touchscreen PlayStation as it looks to launch a challenge to Nintendo and Apple in the highly competitive mobile gaming market.

Sony's "Next Generation Portable" PlayStation boasts 3G mobile connectivity and wifi, allowing users to download games and other content, Sony said at a news conference in Tokyo.

The NGP features a five-inch OLED touchscreen that can be viewed from multiple angles, a GPS receiver, a motion sensor and a rear panel touchpad to control certain actions, as well as conventional navigation buttons and a joystick.

Sony's move comes as smartphones and tablet computers led by Apple's iPhone and iPad take a growing share of the market for portable gaming devices.

The PSP Go, launched in November 2009, already features software downloads through a wireless connection, allowing players to also browse the Internet, watch movies, play music and read books and comics.

Chinese fugitive briefly a web sensation

SHANGHAI, January 27, 2011 (AFP) - A microblog purportedly set up by a longtime Chinese fugitive attracted more than 10,000 followers within hours before it was shut down, state media reported Thursday.

A Sina.com microblog in the name of Lai Changxing, a property investor who is accused of smuggling goods worth billions of dollars into China before he fled in 1999, was set up early Wednesday, the Global Times newspaper reported.

"In Vancouver" was the only posting on the Twitter-like microblog before the account -- marked with a "V" sign to indicate its user's identity was authentic -- was shut down by noon, the report said.

However, within seven hours it had already attracted 13,000 followers, the report said.
AFP saw no trace of the account on the site on Thursday.

Lai, 53, fled to Canada after he was accused of smuggling $8 billion-worth of oil, cars and cigarettes from overseas into the eastern city of Xiamen between 1996 and 1999, the report said.

China asked the Canadian government to extradite Lai in 2000, but no extradition treaty exists between the two nations, the report said.

For an account to obtain verified status on Sina.com, the user has to be well-known and use their real name. Applicants must provide evidence to confirm their identity along with a mobile phone number or e-mail address.

A Sina.com official declined to say whether proper verification procedure was followed in this case or why the account was removed, the report said.

Twitter, the world's best-known microblogging service, is blocked by China's web censors, but several closely monitored Chinese services have risen as alternatives.

China White Rabbit sweets hop into Lunar New Year

SHANGHAI, January 27, 2011 (AFP) - The makers of China's White Rabbit sweets -- hit hard by a massive tainted milk scandal in 2008 -- hope the beloved brand will make the leap into the 21st century in the coming Year of the Rabbit.

As the rabbit is the star of the Chinese lunar calendar only once every 12 years, 2011 will be the start of an ambitious period for the milk-flavoured "creamy candies", a senior executive at Guan Sheng Yuan Group said.

The sweets, first made in Shanghai in 1943, will be promoted in a pioneering overseas ad campaign and featured in a Chinese animated film tie-in. The company also plans to more than double production and widen its offerings.

"Every year we rank as the number one milk candy in China, so we are always positive about the growth outlook," group general manager Lan Xue told AFP.

"Throughout its history, White Rabbit has always been just a soft candy, but now we're promoting new products like White Rabbit hard candy and bubble gum."

The confectioner has moved on from a trying 2008, when it halted sales in China and 50 other countries after the sweets were found to contain melamine -- an industrial chemical illegally added to Chinese dairy products to make their protein content seem higher.

The scandal bankrupted Sanlu, once one of China's largest milk firms, after six infants died and nearly 300,000 fell ill -- but White Rabbit survived.

The sweets, which contain 45 percent milk powder, were relaunched in China a month later with "melamine-free" labels and banners in stores reading "a healthy White Rabbit is jumping back into a big market".

State-controlled Guan Sheng Yuan does not release specific financial figures, but Lan said White Rabbit sales rose 20 percent on-year in 2010 and net profit climbed 18 percent.

James Roy, a senior analyst at China Market Research Group in Shanghai, said Guan Sheng Yuan's plans for White Rabbit showed it was moving in the right direction.

"I think a way for a very traditional brand like White Rabbit to regain trust from customers would be to modernise the image somewhat," Wolf told AFP.

"I think it makes sense for them not to shy away and be very low-profile but take the brand in a new direction. It is something that is very difficult to bounce back from fully once you get tarred with that image."

White Rabbit's storied history is due in part to the edible rice paper wrapper that envelopes the sweets, fascinating children in China and around the world and helping to make it one of the country's most recognised brands.

The sweets were presented as a state gift to US president Richard Nixon in 1972.

The company's Year of the Rabbit campaign starts with the third animated "Pleasant Goat and Big Bad Wolf" film, a hit children's series that opens in mainland cinemas next week to coincide with the Chinese New Year holiday.

The mascot for White Rabbit's new lollipop line is a character in the film, Lan said.

Guan Sheng Yuan will launch its first-ever White Rabbit ads in Singapore and other markets with large ethnic Chinese populations to "remind them of home", Lan said. Previously, only distributors promoted the brand overseas.

The confectioner will also step up promotions in rural China, where incomes are rising fast and the number of supermarkets is growing with them, the executive said.

"In the Year of the Rabbit, we will place more White Rabbit promotional displays in supermarkets and food shops than ever," he added.

White Rabbit's makers also broke ground last month on a new Shanghai factory to replace its 1950s facilities. The plant will push up production of the sweet by 2.5 times the current level once it is completed in 2012.

Chinese tycoon hands out cash in Taiwan

TAIPEI, January 27, 2011 (AFP) - China's most famous philanthropist on Thursday started handing out cash on the first day of a controversial trip to Taiwan that has sparked criticism and protests from anti-China groups.

Chen Guangbiao, who made his fortune recycling construction materials, handed three traditional "red envelopes" containing a total of Tw$70,000 ($2,300) to a woman who had been waiting for him at his hotel in Taipei.

"I've never counted so many banknotes. I don't know what to do. I will use the money to take care of my 88-year-old mother," the woman told reporters, her voice cracking with emotion.

Chen, who is well-known in China for his flamboyant style of charity, held up a wad of Tw$2,000 notes spread out in a fan shape, surrounded by a crowd of photographers and cameramen.

Chen, leading a group of businessmen from China, arrived in an airport outside Taipei late Wednesday where he was greeted by some anti-China protesters holding a banner reading "Welcome to the group of hypocrites".

"I will deliver every penny that I've promised... and I hope to come every year," the tycoon told reporters at the airport.

Chen has said that he planned to give away more than $15 million to the poor in Taiwan, in a high-profile gesture suggestive of a shift in relative wealth between China and Taiwan.

He was scheduled to travel to the central county of Hsinchu later Thursday where he would give red envelopes each containing Tw$10,000 to about 300 under-privileged families, officials said.

The visit came at a time of easing tensions between China and Taiwan, although Beijing has sworn to retake the island ever since the two sides split in 1949 after a civil war.

Taiwan is five times wealthier than China in terms of gross domestic product per capita, even though the mainland's economy is more than 10 times larger than its neighbour's.

Carrefour says sorry for deceptive pricing in China

BEIJING, January 27, 2011 (AFP) - French retailer Carrefour has apologised after 11 of its stores in China were caught overcharging customers for products such as cotton underwear and tea leaves, state media said Thursday.

Carrefour "sincerely apologises" and offered to refund customers five times the difference between the price charged and that on the label, the China Daily said, citing a statement from the company.

Officials at Carrefour did not respond to repeated AFP requests for a reaction.

A nationwide investigation also busted three Wal-Mart stores for deceiving customers over the price of goods but the US retail giant made no admissions of guilt in a statement sent to AFP on Thursday.

Wal-Mart said it would continue to "conduct thorough investigations of cases relating to pricing issues" and during the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday would further strengthen "the supervision of commodity pricing".

Local authorities have been ordered to fine the Carrefour and Wal-Mart stores for deceptive pricing practices and confiscate their "illegal income", the National Development and Reform Commission said on its website Wednesday.

Fines will be five times the amount confiscated, or up to 500,000 yuan ($76,000) if the amount cannot be calculated, the statement said.

The commission, China's top economic planner, also urged authorities to step up price investigations ahead of the Lunar New Year, which falls on February 3, and punish serious offenders with fines and licence suspension.

Retail spending usually soars for the most important holiday of the year as people splash out on food and gifts for families and friends.

The crackdown comes as Beijing tries to curb inflation, which rose 4.6 percent on year in December, down from a two-year high of 5.1 percent in November.

But analysts expect consumer prices to increase at a faster pace this month due to cold weather and the holiday season.

NY Times details rocky relationship with WikiLeaks

WASHINGTON, January 26, 2011 (AFP) - WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange resembles a character from a detective novel and is "elusive, manipulative and volatile," the executive editor of The New York Times says in an upcoming book.

"Open Secrets: WikiLeaks, War and American Diplomacy," a digital book featuring an introduction by Times executive editor Bill Keller and contributions from other Times reporters goes on sale Monday.

The Times described the e-book, which will cost $5.99 and be sold through online bookstores from Amazon, Apple and others, as the "definitive chronicle of the WikiLeaks documents' release and the controversy that ensued."

In his introduction, excerpts of which were posted online by the Times, Keller traces the start of the tumultuous relationship between the newspaper and Assange, the Australian-born founder of WikiLeaks.

Keller said it was Alan Rusbridger, editor of Britain's The Guardian, who convinced Assange in June last year to involve the Times in publication of the secret US military documents on Afghanistan and Iraq obtained by WikiLeaks.

"The adventure that ensued over the next six months combined the cloak-and-dagger intrigue of handling a vast secret archive with the more mundane feat of sorting, searching and understanding a mountain of data.

"As if that were not complicated enough, the project also entailed a source who was elusive, manipulative and volatile," he said, and "government officials who sometimes seemed as if they couldn't decide whether they wanted to engage us or arrest us."

Keller said Assange never revealed the source of the secret US documents, although the Times editor said he suspected they came from a disillusioned US Army private, Bradley Manning, who is now under arrest.

He said the Times considered Assange a "source" -- one who "acted like a fugitive, changing crash pads, email addresses and cellphones frequently" -- and the newspaper "was never asked to sign anything or to pay anything."

"We regarded Assange throughout as a source, not as a partner or collaborator, but he was a man who clearly had his own agenda," he said.

Keller said the reporters who worked with Assange on the documents came to think of him as "smart and well-educated, extremely adept technologically but arrogant, thin-skinned, conspiratorial and oddly credulous."

"Assange was openly contemptuous of the American government and certain that he was a hunted man," Keller said.

He said the Times "felt an enormous moral and ethical obligation to use the (WikiLeaks) material responsibly," and he took WikiLeaks to task for not doing so with the release of the first documents from Afghanistan.

"From the beginning, we agreed that in our articles and in any documents we published from the secret archive, we would excise material that could put lives at risk," he said.

The Times redacted many names and "edited out any details that might reveal ongoing intelligence-gathering operations, military tactics or locations of material that could be used to fashion terrorist weapons," he said.

"WikiLeaks's first data dump, the publication of the Afghanistan War Logs, included the names of scores of Afghans that the Times and other news organizations had carefully purged from our own coverage," he said. "I anticipate, with dread, the day we learn that someone identified in those documents has been killed."

Over time, the relationship with Assange went "from wary to hostile," Keller said, adding that the WikiLeaks founder particularly disliked a Times profile of Manning and one about himself.

"I came to think of Julian Assange as a character from a Stieg Larsson thriller -- a man who could figure either as hero or villain in one of the megaselling Swedish novels that mix hacker counterculture, high-level conspiracy and sex as both recreation and violation," Keller said.

Keller said Assange decided to cut the Times out of the release of the stash of US diplomatic cables but the Guardian turned them over anyway.

Ahead of the release, the Times held a meeting at the State Department with "unsmiling" officials from the White House, State Department, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, FBI and Pentagon, he said.

Daily conference calls were subsequently arranged, he said, and the Times "relayed the government's concerns, and our own decisions regarding them, to the other news outlets."

Keller also said he would oppose any attempt to prosecute Assange on First Amendment grounds.

"While I do not regard Assange as a partner, and I would hesitate to describe what WikiLeaks does as journalism, it is chilling to contemplate the possible government prosecution of WikiLeaks for making secrets public," he said.

Within hours of going online, Keller's article drew condemnation from WikiLeaks.

"NYTimes does another self-serving smear. Facts wrong, top to bottom. Dark day for US journalism," WikiLeaks said in a Twitter message.

Mobile apps downloads forecast to double in 2011

WASHINGTON, January 26, 2011 (AFP) - More than 17 billion mobile applications will be downloaded from online stores this year, more than double the number of the mini-programs downloaded last year, research firm Gartner said Wednesday.

Gartner said worldwide mobile application store downloads were forecast to reach 17.7 billion this year, a 117 percent increase from the estimated 8.2 billion downloads in 2010.

Worldwide mobile application store revenue is projected to exceed $15.1 billion this year, up from $5.2 billion this year, Gartner said.

It said the revenue figures include purchases of applications, popularly known as apps, by end users and the advertising revenue generated by the programs for their developers.

Gartner said it expected free downloads to account for 81 percent of total mobile application store downloads in 2011.

By the end of 2014, over 185 billion apps will have been downloaded from mobile applications stores, it said.

The Gartner forecast came just a few days after Apple announced that its App Store had hit 10 billion downloads.

The App Store, which was launched in 2008, offers more than 300,000 free and paid apps for Apple's popular iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch.

The success of Apple's App Store has spawned rivals Blackberry, Google, the developer of the Android mobile operating system, Nokia, and others to launch their own online app stores.

"Application stores have become a highly visible and potentially lucrative part of the smartphone 'ecosystem,' largely due to Apple's App Store," said Stephanie Baghdassarian, research director at Gartner.

Baghdassarian said the "app frenzy" was not just a fad.

"We do not think so," Baghdassarian said in a statement. "We strongly believe there is a sizable opportunity for application stores in the future."

Carolina Milanesi, research vice president at Gartner, said Apple's App Store was expected to retain its lead for the forseeable future.

"We estimate that Apple's App Store drove close to nine application downloads out of 10 in 2010 and will remain the single best-selling store across our forecast period (through 2014), although to a lesser extent, as other stores manage to gain momentum," Milanesi said.

Medvedev says WikiLeaks 'positive', 'healthy'

DAVOS, January 26, 2011 (AFP) - Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev said Wednesday he thought the release of leaked US diplomatic cables by the WikiLeaks website could have a positive effect on international diplomacy.

Brandishing his iPad, the tech-friendly Medvedev said modern communications had linked people in such a way that "no very serious secret can be guaranteed immune from being disclosed today."

"At the end of the day, I believe this WikiLeaks story should make the spirit of international relations healthier even if, in itself, this was an illegal activity," he added.

"The impact of the story for international relations is quite positive."

In November, WikiLeaks began publishing some 250,000 leaked US cables from 1966 to February 2010, revealing what it calls "the contradictions between the USA's public persona and what it says behind closed doors."

Some of the revelations have embarrassed Washington, and the White House has called those behind the leaks "criminals". Other red-faced leaders have also expressed their indignation after being criticised in the documents.

Medvedev, however, said that he had not been shocked by any revelations concerning Russia.

"From my perspective, from what I read concerning Russia from the materials which found their way to WikiLeaks, there has been nothing new to me in it," he said, smiling.

"I got the sense that most assessments that found their way to WikiLeaks concerning Russia were taken from the general political sites on the Internet."

According to a recent leaked cable from the US embassy in Moscow cited by Germany's Spiegel magazine, US diplomats believe Russian gas giant Gazprom is "badly organised, politically driven and corrupt."

"Perhaps it concerns some, but not us, we are tough guys," said a beaming Medvedev.

Facebook tightens user security

SAN FRANCISCO, January 26, 2011 (AFP) - Facebook on Wednesday announced heightened privacy controls for members of the world's largest online social network.

The security enhancements came on the heels of a hacker posting a bogus message on the public fan page of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg suggesting that the website pursue social good instead of business profit.

The release of improved tools for protecting the content of users' profiles was tied to an international Data Privacy Day this week, according to Facebook.

"A key part of controlling information has always been protecting it from security threats like viruses, malware and hackers," Facebook's Jake Brill said in a blog post.

New security features being rolled out included the availability of one-time passwords that US Facebook members could use at shared computers in places such as cafes, airports or hotels where keystrokes might be saved on machines.

Sending a mobile phone text message reading "otp" to 32665 will result in a Facebook user getting a response containing a password that works only once and expires in 20 minutes.

The mobile phones must be registered in Facebook users' accounts to get disposable passwords.

Facebook will also let members remotely check whether they are still logged onto the service at other computers and then sign-off from afar.

"In the unlikely event that someone accesses your account without your permission, you can also shut down the unauthorized login before resetting your password and taking other steps to secure your account and computer," Brill said.

Facebook on Wednesday said a software "bug" let a hacker impersonate chief executive Zuckerberg in a comment posted to his public fan page at the website.

The bogus update posted late Monday suggested that Facebook turn to its users instead of banks for money and got "liked" by more than 1,800 members of the social network before it was erased.

Facebook founder Zuckerberg's fan page hacked

SAN FRANCISCO, January 26, 2011 (AFP) - Facebook on Wednesday said a software "bug" let a hacker impersonate the social network's founder Mark Zuckerberg in a comment posted to his public fan page at the website.

The bogus update posted late Monday suggested that Facebook turn to its users instead of banks for money and got "liked" by more than 1,800 members of the social network before it was erased.

"A bug enabled status postings by unauthorized people on a handful of public pages," a Facebook spokesperson said in an email reply to an AFP inquiry. "The bug has been fixed."

Pictures of the hacked page could be found at technology news blog TechCrunch and other online venues.

The message, complete with typos, left on the page read:

"Let the hacking begin: If facebook needs money, instead of going to the banks, why doesn't Facebook let its users invest in Facebook in a social way? Why not transform Facebook into a 'social business' the way Nobel Price winner Muhammad Yunus described it? http://bit.ly/fs6rT3 What do you think?"

It was signed "#hackercup2011," an apparent reference to an international computer programming competition being held by Facebook.

The link directed users to a Wikipedia page about social business.

Yunus was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for helping people break out of poverty with the help of micro-loans.

New media blocked in Egypt as protesters find new tool

CAIRO, January 26, 2011 (AFP) - The protest movement in Egypt has mobilised the young and the middle classes using the Internet and social networks in a challenge to the authorities that has seen both Twitter and Swedish video-streaming site Bambuser blocked.

Mobile phones too were unable to get a signal on Tuesday in Tahrir Square in the centre of the capital Cairo, which has been a rallying point for thousands of protesters.

Pro-democracy activists countered on Wednesday by disseminating technical advice to overcome these obstacles to enable the mobilisation to continue.

Twitter said in a terse "tweet" that it was blocked in Egypt starting about 1600 GMT on Tuesday and that the interruption had derailed Twitter.com as well as applications linked to the service.

Bambuser, a website which provides live streaming of videos from mobile phones and webcams and is very popular in Egypt, was blocked from 1200 GMT on Tuesday, company chief executive Hans Eriksson told AFP in an email.

Herdict.org, a project of the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard University in the United States, said it had received a "handful of reports" from users across different Internet service providers in Egypt that they had been unable to reach Twitter.

"From what we've heard from contacts on the ground, Egyptians are still utilising the Twitter service via SMS and third-party apps," a spokeswoman said.

As with the month-long protests in Tunisia which led to the overthrow of veteran strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali earlier this month, Facebook and Twitter have emerged as important tools for the Egyptian movement in organising demonstrations and rallying opposition to the regime.

"What happened in Egypt was almost entirely organised on Facebook," political blogger Issander al-Amrani said.

"Young protesters have formulated their grievances while demonstrating."

Spearheading the protests, the "April 6 Movement" launched a Facebook poll a few days before the demonstrations asking: "Will you rally on January 25?"

Nearly 90,000 indicated they would, leading a few days later to the biggest anti-regime protests in President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule.

Under a decades-old state of emergency, only officially sanctioned gatherings are legal in Egypt and police have routinely cracked down on unauthorised rallies in the past.

Founded in 2008, the "April 6 Movement" is a group of pro-democracy activists who work primarily on the Internet. It claims tens of thousands of members, mainly well-educated youngsters looking for a modern and open method of self-expression.

Internet usage in Egypt has increased rapidly in recent years, with some 23 million of a population of more than 80 million regular or casual web-users by the end of 2010, an increase of 45 percent in a year.

Mobile telephony is also booming, with 65 million subscribers, up 23 percent year on year according to official statistics.

Much of Egypt's traditional opposition, both secular and Islamist, has been caught off guard by the success of the young web users in bringing large crowds on to the streets of towns across the country.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the most powerful opposition force which is banned but tolerated by the regime within certain bounds, gave no explicit backing to the protest calls although it said that some of its members might take part.

But Amr al-Choubaki, an analyst with the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said the magnitude of the protests of the past two days was likely to mobilise broader swathes of the population in the days to come.

"The unexpected scale of the protests is due to several factors, including the political roadblocks erected by a regime in place for 30 years," Choubaki said.

"The revolution in Tunisia of course, has been an inspiration."

Google buys SayNow, fflick

WASHINGTON, January 26, 2011 (AFP) - SayNow, a California startup that connects celebrities with their fans with voice products, has been purchased by Google.

Technology blog TechCrunch reported meanwhile that the Internet search giant has also acquired fflick, a service founded by four former Digg employees that mines Twitter for movie recommendations and positive and negative reactions.

The purchase price for SayNow was not available while TechCrunch said Google was buying fflick for around $10 million.

There was no confirmation from fflick that it had been bought by Google but SayNow, which is based in Palo Alto and was founded in 2005, said in a blog post Tuesday it was "thrilled to announce that we have been acquired by Google."

"Through the Web, smartphones, and even land lines, our products brought communities together through the power of voice," SayNow said.

"And as Google has some of the best voice products in the world, we believe combining forces with the Google Voice team will let us innovate in new and unexplored areas," it said.

SayNow claims more than 15 million users and thousands of celebrities for its products and platforms.

One aplication, SayNow Broadcast, lets brands and celebrities send and receive voice messages and chat one-on-one or in groups with fans.

2011/01/26

China needs to shift from exports to protect growth

DAVOS, January 26, 2011 (AFP) - After its extraordinary 30-year surge in export-driven growth, China needs a new round of reform as it shifts from life as an emerging giant to that of an established developed power.

Business leaders, politicians and academics gathered in Davos for the annual World Economic Forum remain in awe of China's economic miracle, but see clouds on the eastern horizon as Beijing adapts to life as a global power.

A manufacturing economy that once relied on endless cheap labour now has an ageing population, and China's success has created global trade imbalances that have undermined its customers' economies and trading currencies.

The former outsider is now seen as sharing responsibility to help preserve global stability -- which, in the eyes of its Western rivals and partners, means allowing its currency to rise and boosting domestic demand.

Faced with inflation and a possible asset bubble, Chinese business leaders -- as last year, a major presence in Davos -- broadly agree with the need for greater currency flexibility and a greater reliance on domestic demand.

But they also warn the West not to push their leaders to change too fast, fearful of a repeat of the crises that brought Japan's rise to a halt 20 years ago and shattered the South East Asian "Tiger economies" in 1997.

In particular, there should be no attempt to rush China into making the renminbi fully convertible or to allow it to appreciate too fast.

"It cannot happen very quickly, but now I feel the Chinese government is in a way trying to make it happen in the next few years," Wang Boming, economist and editor of China's Caijing business magazine, told AFP.

"Every year, the appreciation process is going to accelerate," said Boming, one of the pioneers of China's early stock markets.

"It's about your financial system. If you manage your financial system in a effective way, I really doubt it can damage us. Chinese regulators, in a very gradual process, have to get used to this.

"It takes time, but somehow I see light at the end of the tunnel, it's probably in five years," he told AFP.

Earlier, at a well attended off-the-record seminar, senior Chinese entrepreneurs and academics broadly agreed, and suggested that after China's economic revolution it was time for social and political change.

They said they see China eventually dropping its famous "one child" policy, as the elderly population finds it harder to staff the country's huge manufacturing plants, a take steps to boost domestic demand.

Better health care and more grandchildren could persuade the Chinese to spend more of their savings, and a more innovative industry could provide opportunity for the country's vast population of highly-qualified graduates.

"China can't rely on an export growth model," former Chinese deputy central bank chief Zhu Min told a Davos panel, noting how other Asian countries reliant on exports were hit after the 2008 crisis.

"Until you have been hit badly, you won't see the changes," he said.

Business leaders on the off-the-record panel said China had begun moving away from a pure role as the manufacturer of Western, Japanese and Korean designed goods, towards developing respected brands of its own.

And they boasted its highly-educated workforce -- the product, they joked, of a generation of pushy and ambitious "Tiger Mothers" -- were branching into software applications for consumer platforms such as the iPad.