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Letter from America No. 2

Posted by Helen Friday, January 06, 2006

When I called my colleague this morning (well, afternoon for him) to discuss whether there was any news at all on the other side of the pond from me, he informed me that the biggest news was Charles Kennedy admitting to problems with alcohol. That stands somewhere between dog bites man and gardener plants daffodil bulbs in the autumn as a newswworthy story.

I told him that it had not hit the American papers and news channels. I was wrong. The New York Times devoted a whole paragraph with a picture of the lad, conscientiously explaining who he was and why anybody should care about his drinking habits. (Actually, no, they did not explain that. I am none the wiser.)

The NYT also managed to inject its usual note into the biggest domestic story: the death of the 12 miners in Sago, West Virginia. While other newspapers and news channels concentrated on the notes several of the men left behind for their families and on the possible law suits, the editorial of the "newspaper of opinion" brought the story round to Bush. Somehow or other he had to be made responsible for the disaster, even though the mine in question had been in trouble repeatedly for longer than Dubya has been president.

Where there's a will, there's a way.

"But in accounting for the deaths, inspectors should look as well into the budget cutbacks and staff attrition thathave marked the Bush administration's management of its own ranks in the Mine Safety and Health Administration. The latest budget imposes a $4.9 million cut for the safety agency, according to Congressional critics who estimate that the agency has suffered a reduction of 170 positions in the past five years."
This may or may not be accurate, though it would sound more reliable if the figures had been researched by the newspaper's staff instead of relying on Congressional critics. On the other hand, the owners of the mine, waiting for the law suits with some trepidation might be quite pleased to slough off responsibility.

Meanwhile, there was a far larger mine disaster in China, in which well over 100 people were killed. It is estimated that over 5,000 miners are killed in that country annually, despite the safety campaigns run by the government.

The Chinese government has ordered the closure of 5,290 mines for being unsafe. There is little confidence that this will actually happen. As several newspapers reported here, mines closed down by the government tend to be reopened illegally as soon as the inspectors leave town.

One way or another, China is in the news here, though not as much as Sharon and, therefore, Israel or Iraq but more so than the travails of the Lib-Dims or the Boy-King of the Conservative Party who might as well not exist as far as the American media is concerned. (And who can blame them?)

There are news of party officials who double as businessmen being imprisoned for fraud and bribery. Then there is the news that Microsoft has become the latest internet company to aid the Chinese government in its never-ending fight against the blogosphere.

Micrososft MSN Spaces closed down on December 30 a blog run by the journalist Zhao Jing under the pen name Michael Anti. Blogs, as we have written before, are gaining an ever greater importance in China. Chinese IT IT consultancy Analysys estimates that by the third quarter of 2005 there were 33.4 million registered blog accounts in China.

Most of these tend to be personal but an ever larger number are political, as was Mr Zhao's whose final crime was the acerbic description of the government-mandated shake-up at the more liberal Beijing News. His average of 7,000 visitors daily (sigh!) peaked at 15,000 when he was writing about the newspaper and what was happening to its journalists.

Western companies, on the whole, have been so keen to get into the Chinese market that they have gone along with the Chinese government's demands, even if that meant helping one of the most oppressive systems in the world to prevent free speech. Their argument is that by going into China, they help to modernize that country, which much be a good thing. And freedom? Well, who needs it, anyway? Not Bill Gates, one of Time Magazine's persons of the year. No wonder they passed on the US marines.

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