China linguist's 109th birthday wish: democracy


Born when a Qing dynasty emperor was on the throne, the man who helped invent the Pinyin system used for writing Chinese worldwide turned 109 on Tuesday. But Zhou Youguang's outspoken support for democracy means his works are still censored by the ruling Communist party.

"After 30 years of economic reform, China still needs to take the path of democracy," Zhou told AFP in an interview, his wrinkled face topped with a patch of white hair. "It's the only path. I have always believed that."

Zhou is commonly known as the "father of Pinyin", a system for transliterating Chinese characters into the Roman alphabet introduced in the 1950s and now used by hundreds of millions of language learners in China, as well as abroad.

But in his cramped third-floor apartment in Beijing, where dog-eared books -- including dozens by Zhou himself -- line the walls, the writer was modest about his achievements.

"I don't have any feeling of pride. I don't think I've achieved very much," he said, speaking lucidly but slowly and with obvious effort. "My birthday is of no importance at all."

Born to an aristocratic family in 1906, Zhou experienced the last years of the Qing dynasty and its revolutionary overthrow, before studying at elite universities in Shanghai and Japan.

When Japan launched a full-scale invasion of China in 1937, Zhou moved with his wife and two children to the central city of Chongqing, where he endured constant air raids but made contacts with leaders in the then comparatively weak Communist party.

After Japan's defeat he avoided China's civil war between the Communists and Nationalists by going to work for a Chinese bank on Wall Street, twice meeting Albert Einstein while visiting friends at Princeton.

But following the Communist victory in 1949, Zhou returned home to teach economics and became a close associate of the party's number two, Zhou Enlai.

"I came back for two reasons: because I thought the country had been liberated, and had a new hope. Also, because my mother was in China," he wrote in a 2012 autobiography.

He was attracted to Mao Zedong's Communists because "at that time they promoted themselves as democrats", he wrote.


An amateur linguist who had taught himself some Esperanto, Zhou was assigned in 1955 to co-chair a committee tasked with increasing literacy by reforming the Chinese language.

He eventually backed a system based on one developed in the Soviet Union, using Roman letters to represent pronunciation alongside marks to indicate tone.

The proposal, named Pinyin -- "putting together sounds" -- is used in schools across China and has been instrumental in boosting the country's literacy rate from around 20 percent in the 1950s to more than 90 percent today.

Though systems for transcribing Mandarin into the Roman alphabet already existed -- including Wade-Giles, produced by two British diplomats in the 19th century -- Pinyin is regarded as simpler.

"With Chinese characters, you can't tell the pronunciation just by looking. So Pinyin was useful in teaching," said Luo Weidong, a professor at Beijing Language and Culture University. "Pinyin made a big contribution to the literacy movement in China."

In recent decades, Pinyin has become key to the easy creation of Chinese characters on computers.

But Zhou's contributions did not save him from the chaos of Mao's decade-long Cultural Revolution from 1966, during which intellectuals were persecuted.

Zhou, then in his 60s, was sent to work at a labour camp in faraway Ningxia for more than two years, separated from his wife and son.

"I had never slept on an earth bed before," he wrote of the experience, adding: "When you encounter difficulties, you need to be optimistic. The pessimists tend to die."

He has described the two decades from 1960 to 1980 as "wasted", adding: "In all honesty I haven't got anything good to say about Mao Zedong."

He has a higher opinion of Mao's successor Deng Xiaoping, who launched market-style reforms which helped transform China into the world's second-largest economy.

But since retiring aged 85, Zhou has written dozens of books arguing that Deng's reforms are insufficient without political change.

"Chinese people becoming rich isn't important," he said. "Human progress is ultimately progress towards democracy."


Zhou, probably China's oldest dissenter, marked his birthday with friends and family, enjoying dishes including braised sea cucumber and a date and mushroom soup, his editor Ye Fang said.

Sleeping takes up an increasing proportion of his time as his health flags, but he is still a voracious reader. Confucius and Socrates remain his favourite thinkers.

Age appears to have been no barrier to a harsh crackdown against critics of the party overseen by China's current President Xi Jinping.

Scores of journalists, lawyers and academics have been arrested and dozens jailed, among them 71-year-old journalist Gao Yu, tried last year for leaking state secrets, and writer Tie Liu, 81, detained since September.

Zhou's books have also come under more intense scrutiny, with topics which could be tackled just a few years ago now taboo.

Censors demanded that his latest book, due out next month, be purged of some references to anti-intellectual movements, as well as a 1950s famine which killed tens of millions as a result of Mao's "Great Leap Forward".

"The restrictions on publishing have got tighter. No one knows if it's a short-term thing, or a long-term change," said Ye.

Sitting beneath peeling paint in his flat, Zhou said the leader was not the issue.

"I don't think it's a problem of individuals," he said. "It's a problem with the system. We don't have freedom of speech in China."

AFP, photo by

Cartoonist Lars Vilks in first public appearance since Copenhagen attacks PDF Print E-mail
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Monday, 16 March 2015 18:30


Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks on Saturday made his first public appearance in Copenhagen after surviving an attack last month in the Danish capital, local media reported.

The 68-year-old cartoonist, who whipped up an outcry across the Muslim world with his 2007 sketch of the Prophet Mohammed as a dog, had lived in a secret location since the February 14 attempt on his life.

A Dane of Palestinian origin had fired a series of shots at a Copenhagen cultural centre that was hosting a debate on free speech attended by the cartoonist, killing a filmmaker.

The gunman later shot dead a Jewish man outside a synagogue before he was killed by police.

On Saturday, Vilks emerged in public to receive a prize awarded by a Danish association promoting free speech called Trykkefrihedsselskabet.

The ceremony was held under tight police surveillance at the Christianborg Castle, which also houses the parliament and other Danish institutions, Danish news agency Ritzau reported.


Last Updated on Monday, 16 March 2015 18:32
Eurozone economy gaining traction as survey near 4-year high PDF Print E-mail
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Wednesday, 25 March 2015 19:55



The 19-country eurozone economy appears to be gaining momentum as a closely-watched survey found business activity at a near four-year high in March.

In its monthly survey, financial information company Markit says its purchasing managers' index for the region rose to 54.1 points in March from 53.3 in February. That puts the index at its highest level since May 2011. Anything above 50 indicates expansion.

Markit says the upturn was largely fueled by new orders and that the improvement was broad-based across sectors. The survey found Germany, the currency bloc's biggest economy, doing particularly well and France improving.


Last Updated on Wednesday, 25 March 2015 19:59
London's National Gallery bans selfie sticks PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 29 March 2015 12:31



London's National Gallery has banned selfie sticks, it said Wednesday, following the lead of museums around the world alarmed by the possible hazards to visitors and artworks.

"Due to the recent popularity of selfie sticks, the National Gallery preferred to take precautionary measures," a spokeswoman told AFP.

Selfie sticks, the hugely popular extending rods onto which a smartphone or camera can be fitted to provide a better angle for a self-portrait, are classed as tripods under the National Gallery's rules.

"Photography is allowed for personal, non-commercial purposes in the National Gallery," the institution said in a statement.

"However there are a few exceptions in order to protect paintings, copyright of loans, individual privacy and the overall visitor experience.

"Therefore the use of flash and tripods is not permitted."



Last Updated on Sunday, 29 March 2015 12:33
Lawmakers urge Britain to re-arm in response to Russia PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 29 March 2015 12:34



Britain must urgently rebuild defence capabilities abandoned after the Cold War to face growing global threats, including from Russia, a committee of lawmakers warned on Tuesday.

The Commons Defence Committee, which examines the spending and policy of the defence ministry, said nuclear capacity, tanks, warships and aircraft were needed to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"The world is more dangerous and unstable than at any time since the end of the Cold War," the report said, referring to Russia's annexation of Crimea and seizure of territory by Islamic State and Boko Haram militants.

"But the UK's current defence assumptions are not sufficient for this changed environment... The UK must rebuild its conventional capacities eroded since the Cold War."

The report comes as a truce between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian forces was tested in east Ukraine, in a conflict that has damaged relations between Russia and the West and has claimed 6,000 lives since April.

The committee said it would be necessary for Britain to stick to its NATO commitment to spend two percent of GDP on defence, but that this would "not be sufficient".

"It is vital to rethink the fundamental assumptions of our defence planning, if we are to help arrest the descent into chaos, which threatens to spread from the Western Mediterranean to the Black Sea," the report said.



Last Updated on Sunday, 29 March 2015 12:38
Britain to create world's biggest protected marine reserve PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 29 March 2015 12:39



Britain said it intended to create what will be the world's biggest fully-protected marine reserve, covering an area nearly the size of France and Germany put together in the Pacific Ocean.

The reserve will be based around the remote Pitcairn Islands archipelago, a British overseas territory that is inhabited by descendants of the sailors who staged a famous mutiny on the Bounty ship in 1789.

"The government intends to proceed with designation of a MPA (Marine Protected Area) around Pitcairn," read the budget unveiled by finance minister George Osborne in parliament.

But the government said a final deal would depend on agreements for satellite monitoring of the vast area, preventing ports from landing illegal fish catches and naval patrols.


The Pew Charitable Trusts, the US charity that has led the campaign for the reserve, said the area would cover 834,334 square kilometres (322,138 square miles).

It is home to at least 1,249 species of marine mammals, seabirds and fish and includes the world's deepest known living plant -- a species of encrusting coralline algae found at a depth of 382 metres.

"The new reserve protects some of the most near-pristine ocean habitat on Earth," Pew said in a statement.

In 2013, Pew, National Geographic and the local elected body on the remote archipelago, the Pitcairn Island Council, submitted a proposal for the creation of the reserve.

"The Pitcairn Islands Marine Reserve will build a refuge of untouched ocean to protect and conserve a wealth of marine life," said Matt Rand, director of Pew's Global Ocean Legacy project.

Pitcairn was settled in 1789 by mutineers from the British naval ship the Bounty, who famously set their captain William Bligh adrift in the South Pacific.

Many of the families of the mutineers moved from Pitcairn, a five-square-kilometre island midway between New Zealand and Chile, to the larger Norfolk Island in 1856.



Last Updated on Sunday, 29 March 2015 12:41
Women are key in tackling disaster: UN officials PDF Print E-mail
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Monday, 16 March 2015 18:28


Women are far more exposed to disasters than men given their frontline roles in the home and in healthcare, the UN says, arguing that improving gender equality is key to saving lives.

Globally, women and children are up to 14 times more likely than men to die in a disaster, according to UN Population Fund account executive Lamar Dawson.

"Women are more exposed to disasters," United Nations Development Programme Administrator Helen Clark told AFP on the sidelines of a once-in-a-decade UN conference on disaster risk reduction in Japan.

"There is a range of reasons," said Clark, a former New Zealand Prime Minister. "They may be trapped at home, they may be caring for sick or disabled family members, young children.

"In some societies where these disasters hit, the culture may be that the woman doesn't leave the home. So if she can't leave the home how can she escape?"

Clark was speaking as aid agencies and governments scrambled to get help to Vanuatu, where dozens are feared dead after the Pacific nation was raked by a huge cyclone on Friday.

A state of emergency was put in place over the weekend amid reports entire villages had been "blown away".

The calamity in the Pacific gave greater resonance to the Sendai meeting, which runs until Wednesday, where Clark said policymakers must work on improving the lot of women.

"The issues will (be) how we make sure that women are fully engaged, and (the conference should) argue for women's empowerment and full equality, because why should they suffer?" she said.

"It's a huge issue" and has to "be integrated in the Sendai outcome".

- Caring for families -

Remi Sogunro, who represents the United Nations Population Fund in Liberia, said women bore the brunt not only of natural disasters like that unfolding in Vanuatu, but in human catastrophes like the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

"Women are caregivers at home, and when their... families are sick, they take care of them," he said.

Around 25,000 people are known to have been infected with Ebola since the latest outbreak began in December 2013. Around 10,000 of them have died.

In Liberia, one of the worst-hit countries, thousands of people were infected including 300 health workers, said Sogunro.

"Half of (the health workers) died. Most of them are nurses, some of them are midwives, a few of them are senior medical doctors. Many of these were women," he said.

"The women were trying to help the country to stop the Ebola virus and they died in the course of duty. So you can see why it's really very important to talk about women in the Ebola forefront," he said.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that even in developed countries like Japan, much more needed to be done to get women more involved in reducing the impact of disasters.


Last Updated on Monday, 16 March 2015 18:29
Islamic State group claims deadly attack on Tunis museum PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 19 March 2015 21:51



The Islamic State jihadist group claimed responsibility Thursday for an attack on foreign tourists at Tunisia's national museum that killed 21 people, as the security forces swooped on suspects.

The authorities said they had identified the two dead gunmen behind Wednesday's assault, which prompted calls for a show of national unity against extremism in the birthplace of the Arab Spring.

In an audio message posted online, IS said that "two knights from the Islamic State... heavily armed with automatic weapons and grenades, targeted the Bardo Museum."

It threatened more attacks, saying: "What you have seen is only the start."

Trade unions and other civil society groups called for a silent demonstration outside the Tunis museum where the attack killed 20 foreigners and at least one Tunisian.

"The security forces were able to arrest four people directly linked to the (terrorist) operation and five suspected of having ties to the cell," the president's office said in a statement.

Authorities say as many as 3,000 Tunisians have gone to Iraq, Syria and Libya to fight in jihadist ranks, including with IS, raising fears of battle-hardened militants returning home to plot attacks.

The presidency said soldiers would be deployed to beef up security in major cities following the museum assault.

But "we are not under siege", a presidential source said.

As international outrage grew over the worst post-revolution attack in the cradle of the Arab Spring, President Beji Caid Essebsi vowed to fight extremists "without mercy to our last breath".

The leader of the Islamist opposition party Ennahda, Rached Ghannouchi, said he was convinced that "the Tunisian people will stay united in the face of barbarity".

- Appeals for unity -

The media also called for solidarity, with newspaper La Presse appealing for "total unity and a sense of responsibility shared by all".

Panic had broken out as gunmen in military uniforms opened fire at visitors as they got off a bus and then chased them inside the museum.

The dead included three Japanese, two Spaniards, a Colombian, an Australian, a British woman, a Belgian woman, two French, a Pole and an Italian, Health Minister Said Aidi said.

He said a policeman was also killed but did not mention a second Tunisian victim initially reported by the authorities.

Dozens more people were wounded in the assault, in a massive blow to Tunisia's heavily tourism-dependent economy.

At least two major cruise ship operators suspended stopovers in Tunis following the attack.

After cowering in fear in the museum during the night, two Spanish tourists were discovered alive and well, officials said.

In a show of defiance, the government said the National Bardo Museum would reopen early next week.

Prime Minister Habib Essid named the two gunmen killed by security forces as Yassine Abidi and Hatem Khachnaoui.

He said Abidi was known to the police.

Tunisia has seen an upsurge in Islamist extremism since the 2011 revolution that ousted longtime strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and sparked the Arab Spring uprisings around the region.

The museum assailants were "probably" Tunisian, the interior ministry said.

Nine of the slain tourists were from the MSC Spendida cruise ship, whose owners said a special psychologist unit had been set up for passengers.

MSC Cruises and Italian operator Costa Crociere said they would divert cruise ships which had been due to berth in Tunis.

- Attack sparks outrage -

The attack appeared to be the worst on foreigners in Tunisia since an Al-Qaeda suicide bombing of a synagogue killed 21 people on the island of Djerba in 2002.

It was also the first time civilians have been targeted since the revolution.


Last Updated on Thursday, 19 March 2015 21:53
Plague-era skeletons bring history back to life in London PDF Print E-mail
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Tuesday, 24 March 2015 21:23


London office workers are coming face-to-face with the history hidden beneath their feet, as 3,000 skeletons dating back to the 16th century are dug up to make way for a new railway line.

Between the glass and steel towers of the City of London financial district lies the Bedlam burial ground, the final resting place for thousands of people who died between 1569 and 1738.

As archaeologists carefully brush soil off the bones, bankers, lawyers and other professionals take time out from hitting deadlines and sealing deals to wonder about the area's past residents, who had to contend with plague, civil war and the Great Fire of London.

"I would have walked along this street so many times in years gone by -- walking on all this history," said Mark Bugeja, 48, who works at a management consultancy.

"There are probably a lot of sad stories about the people who were there. Probably a lot of them needn't have died by today's standards."

The Bedlam burial ground -- built on land bought from the nearby Bethlem psychiatric hospital, known as Bedlam -- was used as a graveyard for people who died during the Great Plague of London in 1665-66.

Londoners who could not afford a church burial, criminals and members of non-conformist religious movements were also buried there.

From 2018, the burial site will host the new ticket hall at Liverpool Street station for Crossrail, an east-west rail link scything its way across the city.

- 'A respectful process' -

Before construction starts, archaeologists have a couple of months to excavate the skeletons.

As well as piecing together a microcosm of old London, they also hope that DNA from people who died of outbreaks of plague can be tested by researchers for clues about how to fight the disease.

A register published on the Crossrail website featuring 5,000 of the 20,000 people buried at the site helps piece together who the dead were.

James Lawson, a sketch maker buried in 1584, is said to have "died of thys new disease", thought to be the plague.



Last Updated on Tuesday, 24 March 2015 21:28
Feces contains gold worth millions PDF Print E-mail
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Tuesday, 24 March 2015 21:28



Human feces contains gold and other precious metals that could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, experts say.

Now the trick is how to retrieve them -- a potential windfall that could also help save the planet.

"The gold we found was at the level of a minimal mineral deposit," said Kathleen Smith, of the US Geological Survey, after her team discovered metals such as platinum, silver and gold in treated waste.

A recent study by another group of experts in the field found that waste from one million Americans could contain as much as $13 million worth of metals.

Finding a way to extract the metals could help the environment by cutting down on the need for mining and reducing unwanted release of metals into the environment.

"If you can get rid of some of the nuisance metals that currently limit how much of these biosolids we can use on fields and forests, and at the same time recover valuable metals and other elements, that's a win-win," said Smith.

"There are metals everywhere -- in your hair care products, detergents, even nanoparticles that are put in socks to prevent bad odors."

More than seven million tons of biosolids come out of US wastewater facilities each year: about half is used as fertilizer on fields and in forests and the other half is incinerated or sent to landfills.


Last Updated on Tuesday, 24 March 2015 21:31
Gun drills and discipline at S.Africa anti-poaching school PDF Print E-mail
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Wednesday, 25 March 2015 20:08



Gripping a semi-automatic rifle in his muscular right hand, anti-poaching instructor Simon Rood berates his students for not taking their gun lessons seriously.

"The problem with you is you don't want to grasp what we're trying to teach you," says Rood, an imposing man with a buzz cut and a Glock pistol on his belt.

"This thing is like your wife, you will treat it with respect," he stresses. "If you do not treat a firearm with respect, you can't be a ranger."

The students, a group of 19 dressed in forest-green fatigues with black military boots, nod their heads to show they understand.

Rood is one of a handful of entrepreneurs in South Africa specialising in producing armed anti-poaching rangers who patrol public and private nature reserves protecting rhinos.

"Unfortunately it's the kind of business where you have to fight fire with fire," said the 50-year-old owner of Nkwe Wildlife and Security Services.




"We've got armed 'terrorists' coming through our border with weapons to shoot our national heritage."

According to the South African government, a record 1,215 rhinos were poached in the country last year, fuelled by the booming demand in East Asia for their horns which have supposed medicinal qualities. Estimates vary but some say rhino horn can fetch up to $65,000 on the Asian black market.

Supported by international crime syndicates, poachers -- many of them based in neighbouring Mozambique -- are killing rhinos with increasingly sophisticated weapons and tactics.

"If you look at Kruger National Park -- South Africa's largest wilderness area -- they're coming across poachers carrying heavy calibre rifles or fully automatic military weapons," said Kevin Bewick, the Durban-based head of the Anti-Poaching Intelligence Group of Southern Africa, a non-profit organisation.

"The danger is very real."



Last Updated on Wednesday, 25 March 2015 20:12
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