Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi shook hands at the conclusion of the first summit of East Asian leaders in Kuala Lumpur mid-December. This was followed by another charm offensive as Beijing made a "solemn promise" that its rapid rise was not a military or economic threat to the world, releasing a 32-page policy paper in support. Called "China's Peaceful Development Road," the paper stressed that China is a peace-loving nation whose economic development is good for the world.
The positive vibes didn't last long. Reports emerged that Japan's Shanghai-based consul-general Nobuyuki Sugimoto, who killed himself in May 2004, left suicide notes saying he had been blackmailed over a relationship with a karaoke club hostess. Japanese media accused Chinese intelligence services of pressuring the diplomat to disclose classified reports and information on Japanese encryption systems.
The Japanese Foreign Ministry rejected a statement from the Chinese Embassy in Japan blaming the suicide on job stress, saying, "We assume that there were regrettable actions taken by local Chinese security personnel." Beijing was unequivocal in its response: "This is completely out of ulterior motives and we express our strong indignation at the vile behavior of the Japanese government, which deliberately smears China's image."
Meanwhile, relations across the Taiwan Straits were no less tense. Responding to Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian's tough-talking New Year speech, Beijing said: "Anyone who makes enemies with his own nation and compatriots is bound to eat his own bitter fruit."
But things did not end there as Beijing announced, in a blaze of publicity, it was going to "gift" two pandas to Taiwan. Outraged at not being consulted, Taipei denounced the gesture as "disrespectful," describing it as an act of "pro-unification political warfare."
4th, 5th bird flu deaths
The World Health Organization announced in January China's fourth and fifth bird flu deaths, a day after it emerged a 6 year-old boy in Hunan province had become the country's eighth human case. A 10-year-old female student from Guangxi province in the south and a 35-year-old male self-employed vendor from Jiangxi province in the east died December from disease complications, the WHO said. The two earlier fatalities were women. The WHO has said the likelihood of the H5N1 virus mutating into a more dangerous form increases with every new human infection and so China is using illustrated playing cards to teach people about the dangers of the virus. In a move expected to help experts track the virus and analyze genetic changes, a draft agreement was signed with the WHO to share bird-flu samples. However, a prominent US virologist said recent outbreaks in poultry were probably caused by China using insufficient or substandard poultry vaccine. Twenty-eight outbreaks of the virus were reported in the last three months of 2005.
WTO word war
Commerce Minister Bo Xilai told the Hong Kong World Trade Organization meeting China was ready to make a mark in framing global trade rules to achieve benefits for developing countries. But these ambitions were undermined by US Trade Representative Rob Portman's annual report to Congress which said China was falling short on its WTO commitments regarding economic transparency and tackling copyright violations. Bo responded, citing sharp tariff reductions and import increases since acceding to the WTO in 2001 as evidence China had "diligently implemented" its commitments. However, this did not stop the European Commission getting tough on car imports, calling on China to open its market further to European manufacturers or face a legal challenge at the WTO.
Kim pays secret visit
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was reported by South Korean media to have traveled to China by secret train on January 10, but Chinese officials refused to confirm or deny reports. Meanwhile, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Kong Quan told state media DPRK nuclear talks were facing a "difficult situation," after Pyongyang issued a statement on January 9 saying it saw no point in returning to six-party negotiations because of US sanctions on its firms. US chief negotiator Christopher Hill visited China December 12 to discuss the talks. The US embassy declined to comment on whether the visit was related to Kim's alleged clandestine trip.
Beijing less livable: survey
Despite polishing itself for the 2008 Olympics, Beijing fell off the list of China's 10 most livable cities, dropping to 15th place in a Horizon Group survey. Increasing traffic, rising housing prices and heavy pollution were blamed for the city's fall from third place in 2004. Dalian, in northeast Liaoning province, came first, followed by Xiamen in Fujian province, and Mianyang in Sichuan province. Shanghai ranked seventh.
Call for shootings inquiry
Human Rights Watch supported an open letter from more than 50 Chinese intellectuals calling for an independent and transparent investigation into the December 6 killing of protestors in Dongzhou village, Guangdong province. Chinese authorities admitted three people were killed when police fired on villagers protesting inadequate compensation for land taken for a power plant, but villagers claimed as many as 20 were dead and 40 missing. Police sealed off the village following the incident. Officials initially claimed the violence was started by villagers in "a serious violation of the law" but have since detained the police commander who was at the scene. His blunders have been blamed for the "mistaken deaths and accidental injuries." It was the first known shooting of public protestors since the June 1989 massacre of democracy advocates in Tiananmen Square.
Starbucks wins name rights
In a landmark intellectual property ruling, US coffee house company Starbucks was awarded US$60,000 as a Shanghai court ruled the Xingbake coffee chain was guilty of copyright infringement. Xingbake, whose name is Chinese for Starbucks, opened in 2003 using a similar green and white logo design. More importantly, the decision grants Starbucks long sought-after trademark protection in China, which will aid its expansion plans. It aims to open 15,000 outlets outside the US, and China is expected to be its largest overseas market.
HIV out of control
A top Aids official at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention said China was lacking the financial and human resources required to combat HIV/Aids infections. Growing infection rates among intravenous drug addicts and sex workers was fuelling a new wave of HIV cases, particularly in Yunnan, Xinjiang, Hunan, Guangxi and Guangdong, Wu Zunyou told the Financial Times. Intravenous drug use and sex account for 97% of new cases. In a New Year message to China, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said urgent efforts were needed to fight the spread of HIV. Beijing has pledged to spend about US$185 million annually on HIV prevention in 2006 and 2007, almost double the US$98.7 million allocated in 2005.
Journalists go on strike
Beijing News staff went on strike at the end of December on hearing that outspoken chief editor Yang Bin would be replaced by a number of deputies from the parent publication, Guangming Daily. In the first strike on such a large scale in the mainland media, the objectors claimed Guangming Daily was a party mouthpiece and the takeover meant the effective death of the outspoken newspaper. A report by the Committee to Protect Journalists claimed China had imprisoned 32 journalists in 2005, making it the world's leading jailer of journalists for the seventh consecutive year. But there was good news for Chinese reporter Jiang Weiping who was released after serving five years of a six-year sentence for revealing state secretes. The release has been linked to President Hu Jintao's upcoming visit to the US.
Landmark pollution ruling
Baotou city's water supplier won US$285,000 from two companies and an irrigation bureau responsible for a 50-kilometer slick in the Yellow River. It disrupted water supplies to the Mongolian city for more than four days in 2004. The award, which was decided after three months of mediation by a regional high court, was the first polluters have been forced to pay for damaging the Yellow River. Meanwhile, the slick created by November's chemical spill into the Songhua River in Jilin province reached the Russian city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur last month. Despite a large drop in the contamination levels, fish from the river were still declared inedible.
Transparency website a hit
China's new government portal website became the world's second most popular such site within 24 hours of its launch last month. The website, intended to improve transparency, promote innovation in government administration and boost efficiency in public services, was beaten to top spot by the Canadian government's offering. Chinese citizens will soon be able to report corruption online through a website to be launched by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.