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Shanghai stampede reveals gleaming China's hidden weakness
by Staff Writers
Shanghai (AFP) Jan 02, 2015

China replaces head of state news agency Xinhua
Beijing (AFP) Jan 02, 2015 - China has appointed a top official of the ruling party's propaganda department as president of the Xinhua news agency, the key mouthpiece of the Communist state.

The appointment of Cai Mingzhao, a vice director of the propaganda department, is the latest of several replacements in the party's key information and media agencies over the past year.

Cai, 59, replaced Li Congjun, who turned 65 in October and reached the age limit for ministerial-level posts, the agency said in a statement on Wednesday.

Cai is "politically sober and firm, keeps an appropriate grasp in guiding public opinion and conscientiously aligns himself with the party's central committee", the statement quoted Pan Ligang, a deputy head of the party's Organisation Department, as saying.

Cai was previously head of the information office of the State Council, China's cabinet.

He worked for Xinhua for 23 years from 1978, reports said, first as a journalist and later promoted to managerial level.

On Sunday, Luo Shugang, a vice director of the Propaganda Department, took over from Cai Wu as culture minister.

In April, Yang Zhenwu was appointed the new president of the People's Daily, the party's flagship newspaper.

Xinhua was founded in 1931 and started using its current name in 1937. It is headquartered in Beijing and has more than 180 outlets overseas, according to the agency's website.

The agency has a virtual monopoly on the distribution of information for the Chinese domestic market.

China assistant foreign minister sacked amid graft probe
Beijing (AFP) Jan 02, 2015 - A Chinese assistant foreign minister has been dismissed from his post and placed under investigation, Beijing said Friday, amid a much-publicised anti-corruption campaign.

Zhang Kunsheng, one of four officials with the title, was "suspected of violating discipline", the foreign ministry said in a brief post on its website, using a phrase often employed as a euphemism for corruption.

It was not clear who was conducting the investigation or exactly what Zhang was alleged to have done.

Zhang previously made headlines for giving a US diplomat a public dressing-down in 2012 over Washington's criticism of a Chinese military garrison in the South China Sea.

"We urge the US side to correct its mistaken ways, respect China's sovereignty and territorial integrity," Zhang told the US embassy's then-deputy chief of mission Robert Wang.

Zhang's rise up the ranks of China's foreign ministry, which he joined in the 1980s, coincided with the growth of Beijing's diplomatic influence alongside its booming economy.

His official globetrotting has in recent years encompassed events in Brazil, the Netherlands and the US, according to the foreign ministry.

The ministry's website showed that Zhang's role as head of the ministry's protocol department, which oversees diplomatic ceremonies, has been temporarily taken up by ministry spokesman Qin Gang.

Zhang's dismissal comes as China's President Xi Jinping presses a much-publicised anti-graft campaign, which has snared several high-profile politicians.

It also follows the mysterious disappearance of China's ambassador to Iceland amid reports he had allegedly spied for Japan.

A Chinese state-run newspaper urged Beijing to say whether envoy Ma Jisheng was a spy after he left Iceland mysteriously in January 2014, with Beijing only telling Reykjavik that he was unable to return for "personal reasons".

China's embassy website at the time contained a link titled "CV of Ambassador", but the resulting page was blank. Beijing has refused to comment on Ma's status.

Dozens of deaths from a crush in Shanghai highlight China's enduring vulnerabilities even as the country races ahead economically, commentators say, with authorities' management outpaced by new buildings and advanced transport.

A New Year's Eve celebration on Shanghai's signature waterfront Bund turned deadly, killing 36 people, most of them young women, in a city that hosted the World Expo in 2010 and where the stock market went up more than 50 percent last year.

Shanghai has been at the forefront of China's decades of rapid development and now boasts the world's second-tallest building and its first commercially operated magnetic levitation -- or maglev -- train, part of the biggest high-speed rail network on earth.

It is the location of China's first free trade zone and has stated intentions of becoming an "international city" and a global centre for finance, trade and shipping, echoing its history before the Communists took power in 1949.

But despite those major achievements and tall ambitions, residents question how police nevertheless failed to control the crowds that led to the New Year crush, which also injured 49.

Chinese police are not accustomed to handling spontaneous large groups in a country where the Communist authorities normally keep strict control of major gatherings.

A comment by a police officer that fewer personnel were dispatched to the Bund for New Year than China's National Day celebration last year has stoked the controversy.

"I believe this is a major case of negligence by government safety agencies," said a microblog poster using the handle Shenshan Laohan 96886. "Because they made this wrong judgement call, didn't take measures at the scene, it led to the tragedy."

Police have said through state media that a more-than-normal 700 officers in the area responded quickly to the incident, despite witnesses saying emergency vehicles had trouble gaining access due to the crowds.

In an unusually critical commentary, China's own official news agency Xinhua said the Shanghai stampede was a "wake-up call" over the push for economic growth at the expense of people.

"The world's second-largest economy is still a developing country which has fragile social management," it said.

- 'No stranger to incidents' -

"Similar incidents causing heavy casualties are rare in developed countries," it added, citing mine disasters and industrial accidents as other symbols of the hazards of rapid growth.

But while China was "working on achieving its dream of rejuvenation", Xinhua said, it was "no stranger to such incidents".

The country's coal mines are among the world's most dangerous, while factory accidents often occur as owners evade regulations or bribe officials to ignore safety violations.

"Improving people's lives should become a yardstick against which national development is measured," Xinhua said. "There is no development worth people's lives."

The Shanghai crush was centred on a wide stairway linking a raised riverfront promenade with a plaza below, part of a major urban reconstruction project in the 1990s that transformed the Bund, which began as a muddy towpath in the 19th century.

The changes expanded the area, moved traffic underground and created a tourist attraction.

Peter Hibbard, author of the history "The Bund Shanghai: China Faces West", praised the creation of the public space and said it had "caught people's imagination as a place to go".

But he added: "The Bund never had the capability of accommodating so many people before."

The Bund is now packed with high-end restaurants and expensive boutiques, and Shanghai residents have traditionally flocked there to celebrate New Year, with nearly 300,000 packing the area last New Year's Eve.

More recently, the district government has staged official celebrations, and this year's "countdown" included a light show, performances and fireworks.

But the crush highlighted a mismatch between the city's growth and its public services.

Shanghai's official population is 24 million, but the number of unregistered migrant workers -- who, despite being encouraged to move to cities are shut out of social services such as healthcare and education -- boost the total.

"There's a management issue," said Andy Xie, an independent economist and a Shanghai native. "There are social issues about all of these people flocking to the city."

"It's not easy to manage Shanghai... There's nothing like this elsewhere in the world."

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