Archive for the ‘Hong Kong’ Category

Indian Navy Destroys Pirate ‘Mother Ship’ in Battle Near Somalia

November 19, 2008

NEW DELHI —  An Indian naval vessel sank a suspected pirate “mother ship” Wednesday in the Gulf of Aden and chased two attack boats into the night, officials said, yet more violence in the lawless seas where brigands are becoming bolder and more violent.

Separate bands of pirates also seized a Thai ship with 16 crew members and an Iranian cargo vessel with a crew of 25 in the Gulf of Aden, where Somalia-based pirates appear to be attacking ships at will, said Noel Choong of the International Maritime Bureau’s piracy reporting center in Malaysia.

In this Nov. 11, 2008 file photo made available by Indian Navy, ... 
In this Nov. 11, 2008 file photo made available by Indian Navy, Indian warship INS Tabar, right, escorts the MV Jag Arnav ship to safety after rescuing it from a hijack attempt by Somali pirates. The Indian navy says the INS Tabar dedicated to fighting pirates has successfully fought off an attempted pirate attack in the Gulf of Aden, sparking explosions and a fire on the suspected pirate ship late Tuesday, Nov. 18.(AP Photo/Indian Navy, HO, File)

“It’s getting out of control,” Choong said.

A multicoalition naval force has increased patrols in the region, and scored a rare success Tuesday when the Indian warship, operating off the coast of Oman, stopped a ship similar to a pirate vessel mentioned in numerous piracy bulletins. The Indian navy said the pirates fired on the INS Tabar after the officers asked it to stop to be searched.

INS Tabar transfers a man to another ship at sea.

“Pirates were seen roaming on the upper deck of this vessel with guns and rocket propelled grenade launchers,” said a statement from the Indian navy. Indian forces fired back, sparking fires and a series of onboard blasts — possibly due to exploding ammunition — and destroying the ship.

Above: Somali pirates

INS Tabar, a multipurpose frontline warship, seen in Mumbai ...

Above: Indian Navy warship Tabar  

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Pirates seize another ship in Gulf of Aden on Tuesday

November 18, 2008

A Hong Kong cargo ship loaded with 36,000 tonnes of wheat bound for Iran was hijacked on Tuesday by pirates in the Gulf of Aden, near the Yemeni coast.

The latest example of piracy came as a Saudi supertanker, seized by pirates on Monday and laden with an estimated 2m barrels of oil, was confirmed to be anchored off the coast of Somalia.

By Andrew England in Cairo and Robert Wright in London and Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington
FT, London
Vela International, owner of the oil tanker called Sirus Star, said on Tuesday that they had established contact with the pirates and were seeking to ensure the safety of the 25-man crew.

The pirates seized control of the tanker on Saturday, 450 nautical miles south-east of the Kenyan Indian Ocean port of Mombasa. The attack marked a significant escalation in the scope of banditry in the region.

It is estimated that the tanker was holding more than a quarter of the daily exports from Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter. The oil would have been worth about $100m (€79m, £66.5m) at Monday’s market price but is probably of little interest to the pirates.

Meanwhile, the official Xinhua agency, citing China’s maritime search and rescue centre, said that a Hong Kong cargo ship called Delight with 25 crew members bound for Bandar Abbas port in Iran had been hijacked in the Gulf of Aden.

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Investors cheer China’s stimulus package

November 10, 2008

Investors welcomed China‘s multibillion dollar stimulus package but analysts said Monday that Beijing must ensure companies get access to more credit to sustain its effectiveness.

A man walks past buildings on the city skyline in Shanghai, ... 
A man walks past buildings on the city skyline in Shanghai, China, Tuesday Oct. 21, 2008. In the foreground is the Shanghai World Financial Center, and at left the Jinmao Tower. China’s economy expanded by just 9 percent in the third quarter, its most sluggish pace in five years.(AP Photo/Greg Baker)

Stock markets in Japan, Hong Kong and mainland China soared following Sunday’s announcement of the 4 trillion yuan, or $586 billion, package as China joined moves by governments around the world to cushion the blow of the global slowdown.

By JOE McDONALD, AP Business Writer

The package calls for higher government spending on roads, airports and other infrastructure and bigger subsidies to the poor and farmers. It promises more lending for rural projects, smaller companies and consumers but gives no details.

The plan represents another drastic step away from lending curbs and other anti-inflation measures that Beijing imposed over the past three years but has been rolling back since mid-2008 as government alarm about slowing economic growth mounts.

“It is clear that aggressive fiscal stimulus is necessary to jump start the economy at a time of sharply deteriorating outlook and sentiment,” said UBS Securities economist Tao Wang in a report to clients.

Still, “given the importance of bank financing in China … increasing bank lending would be critical to sustain corporate investment needs,” he said.

The plan follows an unexpectedly sharp slowdown in economic growth that has raised the prospect of job losses and unrest. China’s economic growth fell to 9 percent in the third quarter, its lowest level in five years, and analysts expect export growth to fall as low as zero in coming months as global demand weakens.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown welcomed China’s move and said he looked forward to discussion of coordinating policy at a Washington meeting this week of leaders from the Group of 20 major economies. Chinese President Hu Jintao is due to attend.

Also Monday, the government said China’s wholesale inflation eased in October, which gives authorities more leeway to stimulate the economy without the threat that they might ignite new price rises. Producer prices rose 6.6 percent in October from the year-earlier period, down from August’s 12-year high of 10.1 percent.

Alarmed at falling growth, the government switched its official goal in mid-2008 from a single focus on fighting inflation to a dual target of ensuring fast economic expansion while also containing price rises. It has cut interest rates three times in recent weeks and lifted limits on how much each Chinese bank can lend.

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Vietnam to Tighten Environmental Monitoring After Fining, Suspending Operations of Company

October 15, 2008

By Nguyen Dieu Tu Uyen

Oct. 15 (Bloomberg) — Vietnam will tighten surveillance of companies’ production after suspending operations of Vedan Vietnam Co. a Hong Kong-invested monosodium glutamate maker, on environmental faults, the government’s Web site said.

“Given the lessons learned from Vedan’s environmental violations, which caused serious consequences, the Prime Minister requested heads of ministries and provinces not to lose control of environmental protection,” the statement said. “We must make sure the next generations don’t pay for this.”

Foreign-investment commitments to Vietnam increased almost fivefold in the first nine months, leading to increased monitoring of factories’ activities in rural areas.

The government earlier this month suspended Vedan’s operations and ordered the company to pay 127.3 billion dong ($7.7 million) by Nov. 6 for improperly discharging effluent and chemicals into a river. Vedan’s Vietnam unit accounted for half of Hong Kong-based Vedan International Holdings Ltd.’s revenue last year, according to Bloomberg data.

The government will use the money paid by Vedan to clean up the Thi Vai river in southern Vietnam, according to today’s statement. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung also asked ministries to tighten environmental-protection regulations if necessary, the statement said.

Miwon Vietnam Co., a unit of Seoul-based Daesang Holdings Co., was inspected by environmental-protection authorities this month, Vietnam News Agency reported Oct. 8. The monosodium- glutamate maker is based in the northern province of Phu Tho.

Local authorities have proposed the government suspend the operations of Miwon’s drainage system, which was found to be releasing untreated waste water into a river near Hanoi, the report said. The inspection came after complaints from local residents about health problems and signs of air and water pollution in the area around the factory, VNA said.

Asian, International Stocks Slip as Global Recession Fears Rise

October 15, 2008

By Kevin Plumberg

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Most Asian stock markets fell 1-3 percent while gold rose on Wednesday on investor worries of lower corporate earnings in a weakening global economy, even as money markets continued to heal gradually.

Major European share markets were expected to open as much as 2 percent down , according to financial bookmakers, after the FTSEurofirst 300 index rose nearly 14 percent in the last two days.

A stock trader negotiates in the iBovespa future index pit in ... 
A stock trader negotiates in the iBovespa future index pit in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Across the world, leading central banks have slashed interest rates in a coordinated effort to bring calm to global financial markets, amid dire warnings of economic pain ahead.(AFP/Mauricio Lima)

Oil prices were not far from a 12-month low hit on Friday while the yen and U.S. Treasuries climbed, reflecting fears the damage that the financial crisis inflicted on the global economy is still working its way through the system.

Quarterly reports have begun to trickle in, with JPMorgan Chase & Co and Merrill Lynch set to post their results this week. Investors will be focused on the outlook and whether most expectations for a rebound in 2009 will have to be reined in.

“While the financial system crisis appears to be heading in a positive direction, the economy appears to be increasingly bad, and this is raising worries about company earnings. We still don’t know how much these might be hit,” said Hiroaki Osakabe, a fund manager at Chibagin Asset Management in Tokyo.

The MSCI index of Asia-Pacific stocks outside of Japan fell 2.2 percent and is down 12.5 percent so far in October.

Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index…

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China issues blanket recall on dairy; Hong Kong toddler sick

October 14, 2008

(AP) China’s store shelves are being cleared of all milk and milk powder more than a month old, a huge recall that marks the latest government effort to restore consumer confidence after four babies died from drinking milk tainted with an industrial chemical.

A Chinese lab technician collects milk products suspected of ... 
A Chinese lab technician collects milk products suspected of being tainted for testing at a laboratory in Wuhan, central China in late September. China’s largest soft drinks maker, Wahaha, has said it is interested in buying the dairy company.(AFP/File)

In Hong Kong, authorities announced that another child has developed kidney stones after consuming contaminated products, bringing to eight the number of children in the territory sickened by Chinese dairy products.

All of mainland China’s milk powder and liquid milk produced before Sept. 14 was ordered pulled off the shelves to be tested by manufacturers, the official Xinhua news agency said.

“Regardless of the brand or the batch, they must be taken off shelves, their sale must be stopped,” Xinhua said, citing a notice issued by six government ministries and administrations.

It was the first time the government has issued a blanket recall of products since the tainted milk scandal began.

Yi Yongsheng holds his daughter Yi Xuan, right, as he speaks ...
Yi Yongsheng holds his daughter Yi Xuan, right, as he speaks about the death of his infant son, at their Xinxing home in China’s northern Gansu province, Sunday, Oct. 12, 2008. The death of Yi’s son from kidney failure was one of four China’s government has reported so far in a tainted milk scandal. Thousands of children were sickened after eating milk powder laced with the industrial chemical melamine.(AP Photo/Greg Baker)

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U.S. Investing $250 Billion in Banks: Financial ‘Bailout’ Continues to Intill Hope

October 14, 2008

By Mark Landler
The New York Times

WASHINGTON — The Treasury Department, in its boldest move yet, is expected to announce a plan on Tuesday to invest up to $250 billion in banks, according to officials. The United States is also expected to guarantee new debt issued by banks for three years — a measure meant to encourage the banks to resume lending to one another and to customers, officials said.

A euro coin and one US dollar bill. The dollar has dipped against ... 

And the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation will offer an unlimited guarantee on bank deposits in accounts that do not bear interest — typically those of businesses — bringing the United States in line with several European countries, which have adopted such blanket guarantees.

The Dow Jones industrial average gained 936 points, or 11 percent, the largest single-day gain in the American stock market since the 1930s. The surge stretched around the globe: in Paris and Frankfurt, stocks had their biggest one-day gains ever, responding to news of similar multibillion-dollar rescue packages by the French and German governments.

Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. outlined the plan to nine of the nation’s leading bankers at an afternoon meeting, officials said. He essentially told the participants that they would have to accept government investment for the good of the American financial system.

Of the $250 billion, which will come from the $700 billion bailout approved by Congress, half is to be injected into nine big banks, including Citigroup, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase, officials said. The other half is to go to smaller banks and thrifts. The investments will be structured so that the government can benefit from a rebound in the banks’ fortunes.

President Bush plans to announce….

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Asian Markets Soar On Signs of Renewed Hope

By JEREMIAH MARQUEZ, AP Business Writer 18 minutes ago

HONG KONG – Asian markets soared for a second day Tuesday, led by a record 14 percent jump in Tokyo, after Wall Street rallied from its worst week ever on optimism that government rescue efforts will heal the crippled global financial system.

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A businessman walks past an electonic board showing the Hang ...
A businessman walks past an electonic board showing the Hang Seng Index. Global stock markets staged spectacular gains Monday as governments pumped hundreds of billions of dollars into banks crippled by the credit crunch, coaxing newly confident investors to buy shares.(AFP/Mike Clarke)

A South Korean woman passes a foreign exchange facility in Seoul. ... 
A South Korean woman passes a foreign exchange facility in Seoul.(AFP/File/Jung Yeon-Je)

Poisoned Milk Scandal Sours China’s Soft Power

October 9, 2008

By Willy Lam

China’s formidable state machinery was able to stage the largest Olympics in history and to have a “Taikonaut” perform a 20-minute spacewalk last week. Yet the world-scale scandal emanating from contaminated milk products has exposed the worsening malaise in the country’s political and administrative structure.

As of early October, four children died and more than 60,000 children were sickened after having consumed milk powder tainted with melamine, an illegal chemical used by farmers to fake the protein content of their milk. Not only rich countries such as the United States and Britain, but also Asian and African nations ranging from Singapore and Vietnam to Gabon and Ghana, have banned Chinese made dairy goods and a wide range of biscuits and candies made with Chinese ingredients.

A dairy farmer leads her cow to a milking station in Shelawusu ...
A dairy farmer leads her cow to a milking station in Shelawusu village in Inner Mongolia region of China on October 7. China published Thursday a new number of children hospitalised after drinking tainted milk, more than tripling the official figure to nearly 47,000.(AFP/Peter Parks)

More than a dozen big-name manufacturers within China’s $20 billion dairy industry – as well as the country’s food safety regulatory system – have been found guilty of either conniving in the use of the chemical or failing to spot the malpractice, according to reports.

The milk powder scandal has dealt a severe blow to the “made in China” brand even as the growth of China’s exports – the most important driver of the Chinese economy – has been slowed by economic downturn in its major markets.

More significantly, China’s export of tainted milk products – which has come on the heels of contaminated cosmetics and pet food as well as dangerous toys and furniture – has severely damaged the goodwill and “soft power” that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has tried to gain through multi-billion dollar “prestige-engineering projects” such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai World Expo.

In an emotional meeting with the parents of children who had fallen sick after imbibing tainted milk, Premier Wen Jiabao said he felt “very guilty” about the poisoned milk, adding “I sincerely apologize to all of you.”

While appearing at the United Nations General Assembly as well as the World Economic Forum (WEF), Wen assured the international community of Beijing’s ability to fix the problem. Referring to the milk disaster, Wen said at the WEF last weekend: “This issue is not over yet, but please be assured that we will soon unveil plans to boost the food industry. My government and I will lead our people through this hard journey.”

While Wen has a well-deserved reputation as a “premier who puts people first”, his words may not sound that convincing. Only weeks after the Beijing Olympics, China has witnessed man-made disasters of gargantuan proportions.

More than 250 residents in Xiangfen County, Shanxi province, perished in a mudslide in early September. The accident was triggered by the collapse of the retaining wall of an illegal mining dump containing tons of liquid iron ore waste. In nearby Henan province, 37 miners were killed in an accident in Dengfeng County. The cause of the disaster was again lax regulations and poor inspection. Then came the fire in Wu Wang Nightclub, an illegal, unlicensed outfit in Shenzhen, the boomtown just across the border from Hong Kong. Forty-three revelers, including five day-trippers from Hong Kong, perished.

Farmers pour fresh milk onto the ground at a milk collection ... 
Farmers pour fresh milk onto the ground at a milk collection station in Wuhan. Farmers in this large milk-producing region of north China said governmental safety measures taken in the wake of a tainted milk scandal that shocked the world had been rigorous, but apparent flaws remained.(AFP/File)

Even assuming that party and government authorities are really serious this time, they face an uphill battle in eradicating unscrupulous and malfeasant manufacturers and businessmen in China. A key reason behind the recent spate of scandals is that particularly in the provinces and cities, entrepreneurs and regional officials enjoy cozy relationships. And this is not solely because large corporations are major tax contributors.

Sanlu Dairy Co, the epicenter of the milk scandal, contributed 330 million yuan (US$48.5 million) of taxes to the municipal government of Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, last year. Many companies invite local officials to become “silent partners” in their corporations – in return for “protection” rendered by the powers-that-be.

Former Sanlu chairman Tian Wenhua, for example, is said to be on “comradely terms” with Shijiazhuang officials. It is perhaps for this reason that Tian was given the honorary position of deputy to the provincial people’s congress. Similarly, the Wu Wang Nightclub in Shenzhen has been operating without a license for more than a year. This could only have been possible due to what Chinese call a “protective umbrella” proffered by well-placed officials in the city.

Despite the “serve the people” credo of the Hu-Wen administration, supervision over food and industrial safety remains lax and ridden with loopholes. Last year, the former director of the State Food and Drug Administration, Zheng Xiaoyu, was executed for taking bribes from pharmaceutical firms whose shady products were responsible for the deaths of at least 10 consumers.
A Chinese baby drinks coconut milk mixed with water instead ... 
A Chinese baby drinks coconut milk mixed with water instead of baby formula in Shanghai. China insisted it is being open about the impact of milk tainted with the toxic chemical melamine, but declined to make public the latest data on how many children had fallen ill.(AFP/Mark Ralston)

The issue of fake or tainted milk powder is not new. In 2004, at least 12 infants died after taking in baby formula with no nutritional value. The General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (GAQSIQ), which is responsible for checking milk and related merchandise, has been aware of the illegal use of melamine for a long time. Just last year, Chinese-made pet food was banned in the United States because it contained high dosages of melamine.

Inexplicably, the GAQSIQ has in the past couple of years awarded dairy giants Sanlu, Meng Niu, and Yili – whose products were found to be tainted with the chemical – the coveted “famous brand” designation. This status meant their products were exempted from routine inspection by quality-control watchdogs.

The muddleheaded nature of the Chinese bureaucracy is also evident from rescue operations mounted by the State Council (or cabinet) in the wake of major disasters. The modus operandi of choice is setting up a multi-departmental “emergency leading group” to find out the causes of the mishaps and to recommend remedial measures. Thus, soon after the milk powder fiasco broke in early September, Beijing established a leading group consisting of cadre from seven state units – the Health Ministry, the GAQSIQ, State Administration of Industry and Commerce, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Public Security, the State Food and Drug Administration, and the provincial government of Hebei.

This so-called inter-departmental approach to problem-solving has also been used by the Wen cabinet to tackle illegal land-zoning practices, real-estate speculation and other malpractices in the regions. For example, the State Council in early September sent a work group consisting of cadre from several ministries to check on illegal education charges levied by different provinces. These units included the National Development and Reform Commission, the Education Ministry, the Ministry of Supervision, the Ministry of Finance, the National Audit Administration and the National Press and Publication Administration.

The simultaneous involvement of several departments reflects the fact that the line of responsibility is not clear; no one single ministry seems to be in charge of matters ranging from food safety and education to housing and land use.

Quite a number of observers believe that the root of bureaucratic malaise lies in an outdated, non-transparent political structure.

Hu Xingdou, a reformist professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology, thinks that Beijing must take bold steps to overhaul governance. “Every time there is an incident, the relevant department takes medicine to cure the headache. That only fixes the problem, not the system,” he indicated. “Now is the time to transform the way of thinking, to repair the system.”

The basic structural shortcoming is excessive concentration of power in the party. Thanks to the CCP’s near-monopoly of most political and economic resources, there are no meaningful checks and balances within the system. Institutions that could provide some oversight over party and government authorities – for example, the legislature, the courts or the media – are tightly controlled by CCP apparatchiks.

Compounding this endemic malaise is the long-standing tradition – subscribed to by leaders from Chairman Mao to President Hu – of regarding “upright rulers” as more important than good systems. For generations, the CCP has been trying to nurture “virtuous and competent” cadre for leadership posts rather than designing systems with built-in checks and balances.

The imperative about propagating saintly fumuguan (“parents-like officials”) harks back to the Confucian ideal of a benevolent mandarin. Mao wanted all cadres to emulate the legendary Lei Feng, the incorruptible, ultra-altruistic model proletariat. Speaking on the recent spate of horrendous industrial and food-safety incidents, Hu said late last month in the People’s Daily that this was due to the fact that “some cadres lack a consciousness about their [proper] goals, knowledge about the overall political requirements, a [proper] estimation of future dangers, and a sense of responsibility.” The party chief urged senior officials nationwide to “resolutely uphold [the ideal] that the CCP is based on public service, that administration is for the sake of the people … and that cadres must always bear in mind the safety and well-being of the masses”.

An important achievement in personnel reform under the Hu-Wen leadership is the concept of “cadre responsibility”, whereby senior officials have to take political responsibility for serious “mass incidents”. Thus, a number of cadre either resigned or were fired in the wake of the milk powder scandal. They included the GAQSIQ director Li Changjiang and the Party Secretary and the Mayor of Shijiazhuang, respectively Wu Xianguo and Ji Chuntang. In mid-September, Shanxi Governor Meng Xuenong and Vice-Governor Zhang Jianmin were sacked due to the mudslide incident. In Henan, the Party Secretary of Dengfeng County, Zhang Xuejun, received a severe reprimand while Mayor Wu Fumin was forced to step down.

However, the fate of these disgraced cadre has raised a number of questions about whether the CCP leadership has followed fair and judicious principles in meting out punishment. If the governor of Shanxi was sacked for the sorry state of his provinces’ mines, why has Hebei Governor Hu Chunhua escaped censure for the milk powder scandal?

There is also the question of whether the party chief – or the governor or major – of a province or city should shoulder responsibility for lapses. The fall of both the party chiefs and mayors of Shijiazhuang and Dengfeng seems to indicate that senior members of both the party and government should take the rap. However, in the case of Shanxi, only the governor and the vice-governor – but not the more senior-ranked party secretary of the province, Zhang Baoshun – took the fall.

One explanation is that Hubei’s Hu, 45, and Shanxi’s Zhang, 58, have been spared because of their closeness to President Hu. In particular, Hu Chunhua, who, like the president, is a former head of the Communist Youth League, is regarded as a possible “core” of China’s sixth-generation leadership. The Hu-Wen leadership’s apparent failure to come up with a laudable cadre responsibility regime is one more illustration of deep-seated woes in the political structure.

Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation. He is the author of five books on China, including the recently published Chinese Politics in the Hu Jintao Era: New Leaders, New Challenges.

China milk scandal hits Japan firm, Taiwan victims

September 26, 2008

By ANITA CHANG, Associated Press Writer

BEIJING — China’s tainted milk scandal continues to expand beyond its borders as three Taiwanese children and a mother are sick with kidney stones, a Japanese confectioner’s cookies are found to be contaminated and the European Union joins other countries in banning imports of baby food containing Chinese milk.

Liu Yi-lien, health chief of the Ilan County government in eastern Taiwan, says the two 3-year-old girls and a one-year-old boy all have been traveling frequently between Taiwan and China with their parents. One of the children’s mothers also has kidney stones.

If a link is established between these kidney problems and melamine-tainted milk, they would be the first such cases diagnosed outside of China or its territories of Hong Kong and Macau since the contaminated milk scandal erupted this month.

However, the infants may have been consuming formula purchased in China, not Taiwan.

Liu said they all consumed Chinese milk, but that more tests were need to establish a link to their kidney stones.

Four children in China have died from consuming the products contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine and more than 50,000 have been sickened.

Five other children have become ill as a result of using melamine-tainted products in the Chinese territories of Hong Kong and Macau.

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Chinese Cardinal At Good Friday Rites

March 22, 2008

By John Phillips
The Washington Times
March 22, 2008

The Vatican yesterday was accused of currying favor with China by “censoring” the Easter reflections for last night’s solemn Good Friday service at the Colosseum that Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong wrote at the request of Pope Benedict XVI.
Pope Benedict XVI holds a wooden cross before the faithful during ... 
Pope Benedict XVI holds a wooden cross before the faithful during the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) procession celebrated by the pontiff, at the ancient Colosseum in Rome, on Friday, March 21, 2008. Pope Benedict XVI recalled the martyrdom of early Christians thrown to hungry lions in the Colosseum as he presided over the Good Friday Way of the Cross procession at the ancient arena in a tradition which this year was dedicated to religious freedom.(AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

But many commentators insist the choice of the outspoken Shanghai-born bishop for the task reflects the full support he is getting from the pontiff.

The pope asked Cardinal Zen, 76, to write the reflections, or special prayers, for the Way of the Cross ceremony yesterday, which was beamed on live satellite television to millions of Christians around the world.

Benedict presided over the ceremony but did not carry the cross as planned, the Associated Press reported.

He stood sheltered from pelting rain under a canopy.

At the end of the procession, Italian Cardinal Camillo Ruini handed Benedict the lightweight cross. The pope gripped it briefly and then blessed the crowd.

Plans were for the pope to carry the cross for the final minutes of the procession.

But Vatican officials said that because of the storm, it was decided that Benedict, who turns 81 next month, should stay dry under the canopy.

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