December 23, 2012
China Takes Chilling Look at Security in Its Schools
By EDWARD WONG
BEIJING — The attacker’s first young target, a girl with a pink backpack, falls at the school gates as she tries to race away. She gets up, but stumbles again inside the gates as the man slashes at her with a meat cleaver. Two minutes later, dozens of students race out of the gates as the man rampages through the school, eventually wounding 23 children.
Perhaps most shocking is what the video of the attack 10 days ago shows about the school’s first line of defense: several children waving broomsticks try to block the man’s progress. Minutes later, local adults who had rushed into the building, also wielding brooms, chase the man from the school.
Such details were not in the immediate coverage of the attack, at the Chenpeng Village Primary School in Guangshan County, Henan Province, and the video was not released until days later.
The rampage came on Dec. 14, the same day a heavily armed 20-year-old man killed his mother and then opened fire at a school in Newtown, Conn., killing 20 first graders, 6 adults and then himself. Official Chinese news organizations had much more coverage of the Newtown massacre than of the Henan attack, and there was an outpouring of sympathy for the American tragedy as well as commentary drawing inevitable comparisons. Many Chinese Internet users pondered how many students at the Chenpeng school might have been killed if China had gun control laws as loose as those in the United States.
But now the Chinese video, circulating here on television and the Internet, has refocused attention on the Chenpeng attack, especially on security measures at the school and on local officials’ efforts to squelch coverage. Fury has been building because such rampages have recurred over the last three years, with intruders slashing at schoolchildren with knives and axes, including one who attacked with a hammer and then set himself on fire. Each case set off fear among parents across the country as well as criticism of government officials for not doing enough to protect children; each time, officials guaranteed schools would be secure. The video made blatant the gap between the official promises and reality.
“Did the government not say that no strangers can get into schools?” wrote one Internet user, Xia Ling, on a microblog. “Did the government not say that every school has security guards? Liars! You will eventually all face karma someday.”
Details were slow to filter out. Last Monday, the Internet operation of People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, ran a report from a journalist who had traveled to Guangshan County. The article on the Web site, which is separate from the editorial operations of the print edition, said that even though school employees had asserted that a security guard was on the premises at the time, the attacker somehow managed to get to the third floor.
The same report said officials in Guangshan County appeared to be trying to cover up the attack. It said that the county propaganda office released details of the attack the day it occurred, but that someone later ordered the news removed from the county Web site. Officials canceled a news conference scheduled for the next day.
Reached by telephone, a county propaganda official told the reporter: “It takes time to check if the man with the knife has a mental disease. It’s pointless to discuss it. I need to eat first!”
The reporter found a deputy director of the education office playing a video game; that official refused to provide any answers. School officials and a village official also declined to discuss the attack. But the reporter unearthed the fact that two teenagers had been fatally stabbed in attacks in 2011 and last month at a high school across the street from the county education office.
On Tuesday, Xinhua, the state news agency, reported that six officials, including two school principals, had been fired.
Some other reports offered sketchy details about the arrested suspect, Min Yongjun, 36. Beijing News reported Wednesday that he felt deeply ashamed of his epilepsy. An article by Xinhua said Mr. Min believed in the ancient Mayan doomsday prophecy about the world ending on Dec. 21, implying that had somehow affected his behavior. Ouyang Mingguang, a deputy director of the Guangshan police, told Chinese reporters that Mr. Min had first attacked an elderly woman, Xiang Jiaying, and then decided that “he might as well just stab some students since he had already killed a person.” (Ms. Xiang was hospitalized but not fatally injured.)
The abiding question of why was asked by one person in charge of the official microblog of People’s Daily. “School killings happen over and over again, and murderers who have mental diseases are not the minority,” the person wrote. “Has any of the self-examination brought us any changes? These schoolchildren just started their lives; why is it that criminals always attack innocent children?”
Some commentators said the attackers feel they have been wronged by society. “Chinese society is full of anger and rage,” Murong Xuecun, a best-selling novelist and popular online commentator, said in a telephone interview. “Everybody has anger. Everybody has hate. Those who have been treated unfairly harm those who are even more vulnerable. It must be noted that every society has its share of sociopaths. But for China to have so many is no doubt abnormal.”
Mr. Murong said the only way to alleviate that was to establish a fair legal system and to “achieve real justice in society, so that the people won’t be mired in despair.”
Other critics blame the lack of proper mental health care in China; at least one man who carried out fatal attacks on schoolchildren in 2010 had exhibited clear signs of schizophrenia, but had not been given proper treatment.
On Friday, the English edition of Global Times, a populist newspaper, published an op-ed by a Chinese writer based in New York that looked at some of the same issues in the context of the Newtown massacre. The writer, Rong Xiaoqing, said the mental health system in the United States also had its shortcomings when dealing with potential killers, since they cannot easily be distinguished from other members of society.
“In the U.S., psychologists and psychiatrists have long followed specific criteria to screen for mental illness,” she wrote. “But the mercurial and mysterious human mind isn’t always that easy to categorize.”
Shi Da and Patrick Zuo contributed research.
December 24, 2012
Envoy to Syria Meets With President Assad
By KAREEM FAHIM and HWAIDA SAAD
BEIRUT, Lebanon — The international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria on Monday and said he had presented “steps” to de-escalate the war, which he described as “still a reason for worry.”
“We hope that all sides will work toward a solution, as the Syrian people want,” Mr. Brahimi said afterward in brief comments to reporters, according to the Reuters news agency.
Mr. Brahimi did not give any details of a specific proposal, but a member of Syria’s political opposition who said he had spoken with Mr. Brahimi’s aides said he was advocating a plan for a negotiated solution first proposed in June. The opposition member, Mohamed Sarmini, said the proposal would temporarily leave Mr. Assad in power while curbing his authority and creating a transitional government — an arrangement that the opposition has so far been unwilling to accept.
“It does not meet the demands of the revolution,” Mr. Sarmini said.
After the meeting, the official Syrian state news agency said Mr. Assad “stressed the Syrian government’s keenness” to pursue efforts that “preserve the sovereignty and independence of the homeland.”
Mr. Brahimi arrived in Damascus on Sunday as residents of the town of Halfaya, in west-central Syria, reported that dozens of people had been killed when a Syrian warplane dropped bombs on a bakery.
The attack, and the number of casualties, could not be immediately confirmed. A local activist said he ran to the bakery soon after he heard a warplane followed by explosions and the sound of ambulances. “There were bodies everywhere,” said the activist, who gave his name as Samer.
Photographs he took after the attack showed bodies in a heap on a bloody sidewalk outside a low-slung building, which was damaged but still standing. Amateur video of what the activists said was the aftermath of the attack showed a man sitting near a motorcycle, his arm twisted around his back, struggling to stand as people around him screamed. Roughly a dozen people could be seen on the ground, covered in dirt or debris from the building; some were wounded, and several appeared to be dead. Armed men wearing camouflage outfits were helping to move the bodies, which were placed on truck beds.
The reasons for the attack were unclear, but activists speculated that it was a government response to the arrival of rebel fighters in Halfaya. The rebels occupied the town last week after embarking on a broad offensive to seize territory around the city of Hama, where the government has kept tight control after suppressing protests in the city last year. In several days of fighting, civilians have been caught between the warring sides, a volatile development in a part of the country where members of Syria’s many sects live among one another in neighboring villages.
Human rights groups have accused the government of indiscriminate attacks on or near bakeries in the past, especially in the northern city of Aleppo. In a three-week period in the summer, Human Rights Watch documented 10 separate bombings on bakeries in the city.
Mr. Brahimi’s visit was likely to increase speculation about a deal to remove Mr. Assad from power. The talk has grown as rebel forces have claimed gains near government strongholds.
Russia, one of Syria’s most reliable allies, has recently sent signals that it is distancing itself from the Syrian president. On Saturday, the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said several countries in the region had offered Mr. Assad asylum, but he added that Moscow would not mediate on their behalf.
It was the third visit to Syria by Mr. Brahimi since he assumed his post in August, and it occurred as fighting grew worse in the eastern and southern suburbs of Damascus, where rebel commanders say they are trying to establish staging grounds for attacks on the capital.
West-central Syria has become the latest front in the war, with the rebels attacking government checkpoints and other positions in an effort to disrupt the military’s supply lines and to push south from opposition strongholds in northern Syria. The offensive has led to growing fears for civilians in the area.
On Friday, a group of rebel fighters posted a video in which they threatened to shell Christian villages unless residents forced government loyalists to leave. Local church leaders have pleaded for peace and an end to sectarian strife.
Before the bombing on Sunday, Halfaya had been repeatedly shelled from loyalist positions in a nearby village, activists said.
In some photographs that Samer, the activist, said he took at the bakery, one fighter, with his hands resting on his head, stared in shock at the bodies around him. Another carried body parts. Bystanders searched for survivors under the rubble. Another man picked up a piece of bread lying next to someone’s slippers.
In other amateur video apparently shot in a hospital, doctors tended to bleeding men lying on the floor, a teenage boy slumped against a wall and a woman lay on her side on a gurney. Antigovernment groups said 60 to 90 people were killed, but the toll was impossible to confirm. The bakery was one of three in the city, activists said. When word spread on Sunday that a flour shipment from Turkey had come in, people began lining up around noon, waiting for bread after a stretch of days when the bakeries had been idled.
After the bombings, rebel fighters released a statement vowing revenge.
Hala Droubi contributed reporting from Jidda, Saudi Arabia.
December 23, 2012
Egypt Opposition Gears Up After Constitution Passes
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK and MAYY EL SHEIKH
CAIRO — Egyptians approved an Islamist-backed constitution, state news media said Sunday, and the headlines made clear that the political brawl about it has only begun.
“The People Sided With Democracy,” the flagship state newspaper, Al Ahram, declared in a headline.
“Wholesale Violations,” the largest independent daily, Al Masry Al Youm, said.
Passage of the constitution begins what its supporters call the first experiment in Islamist democracy, and its results will be watched across the Arab world. Its approval is a victory for President Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, who had sought to suspend temporarily the authority of the Egyptian courts in order to prevent rulings that he feared might block the referendum.
But a backlash against Mr. Morsi and his Islamist allies over their authoritarian tactics has led to new pressure to rebut charges that they intend to exploit loopholes in the charter in order to move Egypt toward theocracy.
In a news conference on Sunday, opposition leaders called the charter illegitimate and vowed to use any peaceful means available to prevent it from being carried out. “This is a constitution that lacks the most important prerequisite for a constitution: consensus,” said Hamdeen Sabahi, a leftist and former presidential candidate. “This means we can’t build our future based on this text at all.”
Mr. Sabahi and other political leaders accused the Islamists of manipulating religious faith to rally support for the constitution in an effort to increase their own power and to “support capitalist interests.” The opposition also vowed to carry the momentum from the fight against the charter into the parliamentary elections.
“We will confirm to them that deceiving in the name of religion is done once and for all,” the main opposition coalition, the National Salvation Front, said in a statement.
Amr Hamzawy, a political scientist and liberal political leader, said the size of the vote against the constitution was a measure of the opposition’s growing clout. “We have a majority that isn’t big, and a minority that isn’t small. This means there is an evident division in society,” he said, adding, “We feel we’ve made a major achievement.”
About 64 percent of voters in the two-part referendum approved the new charter, Egyptian state media reported Sunday, citing preliminary results. About 57 percent voted yes in last weekend’s first phase, which included Cairo, where a sizable majority voted no. In the more rural precincts that voted on Saturday, more than 70 percent voted yes, outlining Egypt’s cultural divide.
The turnout in both rounds remained low, at just over 30 percent of eligible voters, according to the preliminary figures. A referendum on a plan for the transition after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak drew about 41 percent of eligible voters.
The opposition leaders argued that violations of voting procedures had compromised the results, and they demanded that the election authorities rule on those allegations before issuing official results, which are expected Monday.
But the ballots were cast into transparent boxes and counted on the spot under the supervision of independent monitors, reducing opportunities for fraud. The fact that the constitution was approved by 4.5 million votes — out of 16.2 million cast — suggested that rigging the results would have required systematic fraud.
International experts said the constitution does not significantly alter the role of religion in Egyptian law. But it raises the stakes in future contests over who will interpret it. Although the new charter preserves an article from the old constitution declaring that the principles of Islamic law are a main source of legislation, it adds a new article, No. 219, which broadly defines those principles as the established schools of Sunni Muslim scholarship. Independent scholars have said that whether the new provisions make a difference will depend on who controls their application.
Zaid al-Ali, a researcher at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, an intergovernmental organization, said the constitution’s principal defects were not about religion. The biggest problem, he said, is that it protects the Egyptian military from legal and parliamentary oversight, engraving its autonomy in the constitution. Leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood had said privately for months that they were willing to provide the military such constitutional protections in order to ease the transition of power from the generals who assumed control from Mr. Mubarak.
A second problem, Mr. Ali said, is the failure to decentralize decision-making. While most of the world has shifted power closer to the local level, he said, the Arab states have resisted out of a fear that they might be divided up as they were under colonial rule. “Because of the centralization in the Arab region, as soon as you step out of the capital you are in different universe,” Mr. Ali said. “It is an ineffectual way to meet people’s needs, and services aren’t delivered.”
Sectarian animosities continued to surround the vote. The Coptic Church pulled its representatives from the constitutional assembly in a dispute over the provisions about Islamic law in jurisprudence, and before the vote many Christians said it was axiomatic that everyone of their faith would vote against the charter.
Opposition leaders charged Sunday that Islamists had intimidated Christians or blocked their access to the polls in some precincts. But the accusations could not be confirmed.
Also on Sunday, a small group of President Morsi’s Islamist supporters continued a sit-in outside the constitutional court, still determined to discourage it from any ruling that might interfere with the referendum before the results are official.
December 23, 2012
Buying Back Greek Debt Rewarded Hedge Funds
By LANDON THOMAS Jr.
LONDON — Last month, the European Commission’s top economic official in Brussels, Olli Rehn, received an intriguing e-mail.
Greece, under pressure from its European creditors, wanted to retire some of its debt by buying back its bonds at a deep discount to their face value. A senior executive at Deutsche Bank proposed that Europe take a tough negotiating stance toward private hedge funds that had bought Greek bonds. He urged officials to use a legal mechanism that would force the funds to sell at a lower price than they might voluntarily accept.
The move was “perfectly legal” and would not “upset the markets,” the executive, Hakan Wohlin, argued. And by forcing private investors to sell low — for 28 to 30 cents on the euro, instead of the 34 to 35 cents many hedge funds were aiming for — Greece could achieve significant debt reduction at a reasonable cost.
But in this latest showdown with private investors over Greece’s debt, Europe blinked first.
With litigious hedge funds and global finance’s most powerful lobbying group warning of a market crisis, European officials rejected the hard-line approach.
When the results were tallied on Dec. 12, Greece had reached its target of buying back enough bonds at a discount to retire 21 billion euros, or about $27 billion, of its debt. The bigger winners, though, were hedge funds, which pocketed higher profits than many had expected, in yet another Greek bailout financed by European taxpayers.
To some experts, this latest chapter in the long-running Greek drama is another reminder of how private investors have outmaneuvered European officials at various stages of the debt crisis. And they caution that each time it happens, future debt workouts in the euro zone will become even more costly.
“I just don’t understand why they did this,” said Mitu Gulati, a sovereign debt specialist at Duke University School of Law, who argues that Europe could have saved up to 2 billion euros. “This would have been an easy transaction to do, and still the hedge funds would have come out with a hefty profit.”
Opportunistic hedge funds have profited handsomely from the euro zone crisis, be it by speculating in Greek bonds or by buying up the senior debt of failed Spanish banks. They have successfully bet that Europe, ever fearful of Greek-style contagion, will prefer taxpayer-financed bailouts to forcing concessions from the private sector.
In Greece this year, so-called vulture funds like Dart Management were paid back in full after refusing to take the losses that most other private bondholders grudgingly accepted as part of the 100 billion euro Greek bailout that Athens and Europe agreed to in March.
The big winners this time, according to bankers and investors, were American and European hedge funds like Greylock Capital, Fir Tree, Brevan Howard and Third Point, all of which snapped up Greek debt last summer as warnings grew that Greece might leave the euro and default on its debt. Many have booked gains of 100 percent or higher.
They largely have the financial lobby to thank — in particular the Institute of International Finance, which is based in Washington and represents the interests of more than 450 banks, hedge funds and other financial institutions around the world. The institute played on fears in Brussels, Rome and Madrid that a hard-line approach to the hedge funds would create another round of market chaos.
The warning was blunt: If Athens set off legal mechanisms in the bond contracts known as collective action clauses, forcing bondholders to accept lower prices, investors would stop buying the bonds of struggling European countries. That would be bad news for Spain and Italy — to say nothing of Portugal and Ireland when they return to global bond markets in 2013.
Countering this pro-hedge-fund argument was a small circle of bankers, lawyers and policy advocates, the most prominent of whom was Mr. Wohlin, the Deutsche Bank executive who sent the e-mail. Another was Adam Lerrick, a former investment banker now affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute.
They argued that collective action clauses have a legitimate function: to help near-bankrupt countries reach debt restructuring agreements with a majority of their bondholders, with a minimum of legal fuss from investors holding out for a better deal. All euro zone countries that issue debt next year will have such clauses in their bond contracts, and proponents say there is scant evidence that they cause market turmoil.
“If you use these features within the rules, they should not cause any disruption,” said Jeromin Zettelmeyer, a sovereign debt specialist at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
Mr. Wohlin, who was the lead financial adviser to Greece in the buyback, said he was not authorized to discuss communications with clients. That includes his e-mail to Mr. Rehn, the European Commission’s senior economic official, parts of which were reviewed by The New York Times.
He said that while he strongly believed that using collective action clauses in a buyback could achieve maximum debt reduction, such an effort would have required a financial commitment that Europe was not willing to make.
“The price Greece paid was a very fair one,” Mr. Wohlin said. “And kudos should go to the official sector, which executed a deal that was fair for the taxpayer and did not upset the market.”
For collective action clauses to kick in, two-thirds of investors must agree to the offer price, and European officials say there was no certainty that this would have happened. A buyback was only going to work if enough investors holding Greek bonds could be persuaded to sell — and in the early summer, when it looked as if a Greek default and departure from the euro zone might be imminent, that prospect seemed ludicrous.
But when Greek bonds trading on the open market hit a low of 12 to 13 cents on the euro over the summer, some investors started to ignore the doomsaying on Greece and scoop up the country’s debt on the cheap.
Among those investors was one of Citigroup’s in-house hedge funds, which piled into Greece even as the bank’s lead economist, Willem H. Buiter, was estimating a 90 percent probability of Greece leaving the euro.
By the fall, Greek bonds had become one of Europe’s most popular high-risk bets. But as demand sent the price soaring to 25 cents on the euro, some money managers began to worry about how they might leave their positions.
At the same time, it was becoming clear to Greece’s official European creditors that the country would miss debt-reduction targets set in its March bailout program. A quick solution was needed.
But there was a problem. Seventy-five percent of Greece’s debt was now owed to European governments, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank — none of which would accept a loss.
So attention turned to the 62 billion euros of debt held by the private sector.
The conditions for a buyback seemed propitious: the debt was trading at a 75 percent discount, there was a pool of holders ready to sell and, most crucially, the bonds were blessed with collective action clauses expertly tailored by Lee C. Buchheit of Cleary Gottlieb, the foremost legal authority on how to reel recalcitrant bond investors into a restructuring deal.
In the face of stiff opposition, Germany embraced the concept. In his e-mail to Mr. Rehn, Mr. Wohlin of Deutsche Bank argued that there was nothing to fear in using collective action clauses.
On the contrary, he wrote, such clauses are used in most debt restructuring exercises, and investors “would expect Greece to use it.”
To some degree, Mr. Wohlin was right. As the hedge funds’ bond stakes grew, their lawyers prepared arguments to counter the strategy.
Also swinging into action was Charles H. Dallara, the departing managing director of the Institute of International Finance, the investors’ lobbying group. Mr. Dallara flew to Athens in mid-November to tell the government that invoking the clauses would be disastrous for Greece and the euro zone. He also made calls to, as he put it, “the highest levels in Europe.”
His warnings resonated.
There would be no use of collective action clauses, and bankers were told to fashion a voluntary plan. As word seeped out that the exchange would be a friendly one, hedge funds pressed their advantage.
“I won’t even answer the phone for anything less than 35 cents,” one large holder said in late November.
On Dec. 3, the terms of the buyback were announced.
To the market’s pleasant surprise, instead of the average price of 28 cents agreed to earlier, the offer was made at an average price of around 33 cents.
One week later, the deal was done.
12/24/2012 11:44 AM
A Dose of Its Own Medicine: Schäuble's Secret Austerity Plan for Germany
By Christian Reiermann and Michael Sauga
The German government and opposition are pledging higher benefits for pensioners, families and the long-term unemployed ahead of elections next year, but Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble is secretly planning cutbacks to prepare for a weakening economy and possible fallout from the euro crisis.
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has an inimitable way of misleading his listeners with a torrent of obfuscating words. When asked if the Greek bailout would cost more money, he responded: "Not necessarily," adding that there was merely "a greater financial requirement on the timeline."
It could soon be a similar story with yet another gem from Schäuble's repertoire of quotations. "Germany is clearly a gainer from the euro," as the minister likes to say. But if what his team has been writing over the past few weeks is true, Germans will soon find that their presumed winnings have transformed into losses.The government in Berlin is living in a dual reality. Strategists in the center-right coaliton parties are planning to enhance benefits for families, pensioners and the long-term unemployed in a bid to woo voters in the upcoming elections.
By contrast, due to the economic slowdown, experts in Schäuble's ministry are anticipating an entirely different scenario: The next government -- no matter who will be chancellor and which parties will be in power -- won't be able to boost spending. Instead, it will have to impose rigorous spending restraint.
According to the recommendations made by Schäuble's team, in order to brace itself for the consequences of the euro crisis, Germany will have to drastically increase taxes and make painful cuts in social services over the coming years.
These ideas don't fit with the current political climate in Germany, which has been characterized for months by a passionate debate about how additional money could be used to combat poverty among the elderly and improve life for low-wage earners. Schäuble nevertheless feels that his experts' forecasts are realistic. He has expressly approved their proposals and ordered them to continue to work on the cost-cutting program. At the same time, he has ordered strict secrecy to avoid any adverse effects on his party's campaigns for the upcoming state election in Lower Saxony in January and the general election in the fall of 2013.
The Germans face a bitter déjà vu. It was only 10 years ago that then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and his conservative challenger Edmund Stoiber fought an election campaign that was primarily focused on social justice. After Schröder's victory, it became clear that Germany was strapped for cash. Subsequently, the chancellor introduced his radical -- and widely unpopular -- "Agenda 2010" reforms of the labor market and welfare system. This time, Schäuble's team has calculated that even deeper cuts may be needed.
Historic Cuts Looming
What the Finance Ministry officials have listed under the seemingly innocuous title "Medium-Term Budget Goals of the Federal Government" is nothing less than the most comprehensive austerity program in postwar German history. In order to avoid forcing the government to incur additional debt, the officials are scrutinizing subsidies, entitlements and welfare benefits worth tens of billions of euros.
There are also plans to raise taxes. Finance Ministry officials propose increasing the reduced VAT rate of 7 percent -- which currently applies to such items as food, books and streetcars tickets -- to the regular VAT rate of 19 percent. This alone would allow the state to collect an extra €23 billion ($30 billion) every year.
Schäuble's team wants to slash €10 billion from the federal government's contributions to the German health fund, which currently helps to stabilize premiums in the statutory health insurance system. At the same time, they know that Germany's statutory insurers will require more money over the coming years as the population's life expectancy increases. This has led them to consider introducing a surcharge on income tax to support the system. The experts call this a "health solidarity tax."
The plan also calls for state pension funds to do their part. At the same time, Schäuble intends to counteract the expected labor shortage. Since the baby boomer generation of the 50s and 60s will go into retirement in the future, Germans will be expected to work longer. The ministry envisages the retirement age remaining at 67, but the retirement benefit period will have "to be linked to life expectancy." In other words, the older Germans get, the longer they will have to work -- if need be, beyond the age of 67.
Measures to Discourage Early Retirement
In order to achieve this goal, Schäuble's team wants to make early retirement even less attractive. "Inappropriate incentives for early retirement have to be removed," they write, and they have come up with proposals for achieving this. Until now, retirees who leave the workforce before they reach the statutory retirement age have had to accept a 3.6 percent reduction in their pension payments for each year. In the future, this would be 6.7 percent.
Widows and widowers would also have to tighten their belts. Currently, the surviving spouse receives 55 percent of the deceased spouse's pension. The idea is to significantly reduce this level in the future. This initiative would annually save billions of euros for the state pension fund.
Finance Ministry officials see additional cutbacks in social services as unavoidable if the state is to spend more money in other areas, for example, on repairing roads and improving the education system. These investments would "entail stronger limitations on consumptive expenditure," as it says in the draft paper.
The proposals from Schäuble's ministry serve to tighten a regulation that has only been enshrined in the German constitution for the past few years: the so-called debt brake, which calls for the German federal government to "maintain a nearly balanced budget" starting in 2016.
The government will still be able to take out loans to some extent. In 2016, for instance, it will be allowed to borrow some €10 billion. However, Schäuble and his staff say that Germany should not completely exhaust this scope for borrowing. They want a safety buffer. "It is absolutely necessary to maintain sufficient distance to the constitutional limit during budget planning to prepare for unexpected structural expenditure and revenue developments," it says in the paper. The experts also note that they intend to safeguard the national budget against a series of risks.
One of the examples that they cite is "a sharp economic downturn." If the economy collapses, as it did in the wake of the financial crisis in 2009, experience has shown that public coffers come under considerable pressure. Tax revenues decline while expenditures, such as for the unemployed, massively increase.
This can have a devastating impact on state finances. Following the most recent recession, government debt soared from 65 to nearly 83 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Schäuble's experts say that the country cannot withstand another similar increase in public debt and conclude that it's time to take appropriate countermeasures.
Bank Bailouts, Euro Crisis Pose Budget Risks
To make matters worse, Finance Ministry officials say that it's also possible that Berlin will have to absorb the costs of its bank bailouts. At the height of the financial crisis, the German government supported ailing financial institutions such as Hypo Real Estate, Commerzbank and WestLB with capital injections and guarantees amounting to nearly €180 billion. Large quantities of toxic assets were transferred to so-called "bad banks."
But it's questionable whether these banks will ever be able to completely pay back this money. If that is the case, the federal government will have to waive its claims and permanently absorb the debt.
Schäuble's team foresees the possibility of a similar development with the euro rescue. Indeed, "irrevocable ESM payment defaults" is one of the reasons they list for their contingency plans. Behind the bureaucratic jargon lies the concern that Germany -- despite the government's solemn statements to the contrary -- will have to pay for the euro rescue.
Germany is currently supporting the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) to the tune of at least €190 billion. A portion of these guarantees and loans could actually be lost if Greece's government creditors forgive some of the country's debt. The losses to German public coffers could then easily amount to tens of billions of euros.
Consequently, Finance Ministry officials contend that the government will have to make cutbacks elsewhere in the future. Now, in a scenario that euroskeptics have long been warning about, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's government has finally admitted, for the first time, that to balance out the impact of the monetary crisis it will have to reduce expenditure for pensioners and people taking early retirement.
Germany Didn't Impose Austerity On Itself
The paper by the Finance Ministry officials contains a further admission. The next finance minister will have to make up for what Schäuble has failed to accomplish. Merkel's most important minister forced half of Europe to submit to austerity measures while the Germans were spending money hand over fist at home.
The current center-right coalition of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) ignored the opposition's warnings and pushed through a costly childcare allowance that pays mothers who stay home €150 per child per month. Starting in mid-2014, over €1 billion per year will be budgeted for this expense. Public coffers are also missing €1.8 billion every year because the FDP managed to push through a bill eliminating a €10-per-quarter copay charge for visiting the doctor or dentist, payable since 2004 by people in the statutory -- meaning non-private -- health insurance system. But perhaps the most blatant example of overgenerous public spending during the coalition's current term was the tax reduction for hotel owners, which costs the government roughly €1 billion a year. The political process that preceded each jump in spending was always the same. Schäuble grumbled audibly, but ultimately agreed.
No wonder the opposition now accuses him of having failed. "The increased revenues from the economic recovery were not completely used to reduce deficit spending," says SPD finance expert Carsten Schneider. "This government demands harsh austerity measures from other European countries," he argues, "while it lavishly spends its own tax revenues."
Schäuble's team apparently has a similar view of the situation -- and even the boss himself has recently changed his tune. Schäuble says that he wants to run again in the next election, and he could even see himself serving another term as finance minister.
And, in keeping with his style, he is carefully preparing the Germans for hard times with his signature inscrutable Schäuble-speak: "We cannot allow ourselves to believe that the current positive situation is automatically secured for the future," he says. He goes on to say that sound public finances are "not a notion created by stubborn finance ministers, but rather the prerequisite for prosperity and social security." In plain language: Germany is going to start subjecting itself to some iron fiscal discipline.
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
12/24/2012 11:33 AM
Who Is François Hollande?: Crisis Will Reveal French President's True Contours
By Mathieu von Rohr in Paris
Is French President François Hollande a reformer or a leftist? He's a man who enjoys his role as France's leader, but many voters are asking themselves who it is they elected. He's a staunch opponent of Angela Merkel's austerity measures and has made combatting them a priority. His true political agenda may only become apparent through the euro crisis.
François Hollande has been speaking for two hours and 37 minutes, from his place at the podium in the grand ballroom of the Elysée Palace. This is the French president's first press conference since taking office, and he hasn't yet even broken a sweat.
The whole thing is like something out of a play: The newly elected king stands in his palace addressing his people, backed by heavy red curtains, with golden chandeliers and tapestries above his head. To his right, the government's 39 ministers sit silently; in front of him are 400 journalists. It's a peculiar ritual, and one that is broadcast on French TV in its entirety.
Hollande evokes the economic situation in France in a dramatic tone and reports a laundry list of measures he is either considering or has already implemented. Then he answers the journalists' questions, all delivered in a deferential tone and some of them equally as flowery as the president's answers. At one point Hollande says, "And now I will answer another question no one has asked." He's allowed to do that.
This is a fascinating moment for two reasons. For one thing, it shows how France's presidential democracy works. Hollande's press conference is not really a press conference, but rather a symbolic performance that demonstrates the president's authority.
In this moment, everything else disappears: The media's dogged attacks, the accusations that the president has been idle in the face of the financial crisis and his administration "amateurish." Even recent polls, in which two-thirds of the French population described themselves as dissatisfied, seem far away.
For another thing, this moment says a great deal about François Hollande, a man who, every time you think you've understood him, reveals another side of himself.
There are many different images of François Hollande and many of them contradict each other. There's the pudgy jokester who headed France's Socialist Party, then the slimmed-down candidate who transformed himself over the course of his election campaign from a bore to a fiery speaker.
Hollande outdid Nicolas Sarkozy in aggressiveness and eloquence during the presidential debate, yet he also spent his first months in office seemingly paralyzed, stuck somewhere in between his party's different ideological factions. He's also the man who came off as a helpless observer in the jealous drama that played out very publicly between his current partner and his former one, Valérie Trierweiler and Ségolène Royal.
There's the Hollande whose party knows him as a Social Democrat and a pragmatist, and there's the man who not only promised during his campaign to reduce retirement age for some French workers back down to 60 and to increase taxes on income above €1 million ($1.3 million) to 75 percent, but also actually implemented those changes once he was in office.
These many sides of Hollande mean it isn't easy to know which one of them will govern France in the coming years. And although the French have been familiar with Hollande for decades, many find themselves wondering who exactly they have elected: A reformer? A traditional Socialist? Or someone who will do nothing but hesitate?
The biggest question of all is: Who is François Hollande?
Even those who have known him the longest find it hard to answer this question. One of Hollande's oldest friends, Bernard Poignant, who is mayor of Quimper, says, "I feel the same way about him, he has this mysterious side. He's always been that way." Hollande's domestic partner, Valérie Trierweiler, told author Laurent Binet during the election campaign, "Even I don't know."
The one thing all his friends can agree on is that Hollande is a man who has been underestimated throughout his life.
He was a faithful Socialist Party member for decades, without ever managing to reach the party's upper echelons or serve as a member of the government. Fellow party members mocked him with names such as "Flanby" -- a type of pudding -- and "Marshmallow" and "Strawberry."
His bid for his party's candidacy garnered him the additional nickname "Monsieur trois pour cent" -- no one believed he could win. When his party did indeed select him as its presidential candidate, the mockery began again, as Hollande spent the first weeks of his candidacy driving around the country, clumsy and aimless.
But this man with something of the accountant in him changed over the course of his campaign. He began as someone inconspicuous and sometimes inept, but by the end there was a presidential air about him. Over the months leading up to the election, Hollande grew into something larger than life, took to styling himself the successor to François Mitterrand -- and landed himself an electoral victory.
Sarkozy's advisor Alain Minc said shortly before the election, "We all underestimated this guy. Either we were mistaken, or he's truly changed."
A Reckoning with Sarkozy
Hollande's win was, of course, a reckoning with Nicolas Sarkozy, who managed to make himself the Fifth Republic's most unpopular president during his own term in office. Hollande's voting in was also Sarkozy's voting out, with the country electing Hollande by a narrow margin in large part because he seemed to better fit the image of a dignified ruler than the hyperactive Napoleon that Sarkozy had been -- and not because Hollande presented a particularly credible economic program.
What stood out about Hollande as a candidate was his faculty for empathy. On the campaign trail, he showed a keen understanding of what people wanted to hear. Addressing factory workers about to be laid off in the northern French city of Montataire, Hollande declared, "I'm here. But coming here is easy. The important thing is to come back!" The men with the skeptical expressions nodded.
Just a few hours later, sitting at a café in Amiens with a group of French high school students who had the big questions of their futures on their minds, the presidential candidate told them he knew that at their age, what they wanted was to get their own lives off the ground. "You want autonomy. I understand," he said, and the young, future voters nodded.
This ability to always say the right thing at the right moment was a characteristic of Hollande's during his 11 years as head of the Socialist Party as well, when he was known as the "man of synthesis." When Hollande met with representatives of the party's notoriously divisive factions, he allowed them all to express their opinions, then concluded the meeting with a few summarizing sentences that reflected the beliefs of everyone present, but without giving away his own position on the issues.
A Country in Need of Restructuring
This led some to believe Hollande would be a president always searching for compromise. It was just as possible, though, that he would be the type of president more likely to mediate between others' positions than to present a position of his own -- a dangerous thing at a time when the country needs change and strong leadership.
Unemployment in France is over 10 percent, national debt is 90 percent of gross domestic product, the economy is barely growing and public spending is at 57 percent of GDP. This is very much a country in need of restructuring.
During his presidential campaign, Hollande often made it sound as if he could reform the country effortlessly, talking of "renewal" rather than of the painful measures that would be necessary to achieve it. Many of his campaign promises gave the impression that there was money available, just waiting to be given out.
Here, perhaps, lies the greatest dilemma of Hollande's presidency: He was elected as a leader who must inevitably disappoint his country, breaking promises and forcing France to face tough conditions. But doing so is not in his nature. Hollande wants to be liked. The fact that he doesn't like disappointing people is one of his most obvious traits.
As a result, the first thing Hollande did at the beginning of his term was nothing at all.
Hollande Views Germany's Merkel as Ideological Opponent
During those first months, it sometimes seemed as if Hollande hadn't realized yet that he was now holding power, as if he still saw himself as the party leader who had to mediate between his party's various factions and make each group feel its opinions were important. This is a president who has a hard time explaining what he plans to do about the financial crisis, and he seems to have an even harder time actually taking action on the issue.
Only at the European level does he take an active role, seeking out confrontation from the very start with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom he sees as an ideological opponent and whose austerity policies he views as a grave mistake. Hollande considers working against "austerity in Europe" his most important task. Unlike Merkel, he is certain it is impossible to create growth this way. Battling the German chancellor seems to be something he enjoys, and it also appears to be a battle he truly believes in.
Back home in France, he's commissioned a number of reports, including one from Louis Gallois, former head of the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS), on how to "improve competitiveness." And instead of making cuts to France's government, which is as bloated as a soufflé, Hollande's Socialist Party has increased taxes on businesses and private households by €20 billion, taking them right up to the pain threshold.
When it emerged in October that Gallois' recommendation was to relieve employers of €40 billion worth of contributions to social spending, the Socialist Party's left wing was quick to announce its opposition to the plan. Socialist politicians and advisors made their voices heard in the country's newspapers, expressing their belief that all France's economic woes could be solved through the traditional left-wing method of pumping more money into the economy. The president and his administration were then quick to distance themselves from the report they themselves had commissioned, and which had not yet even been published.
Open Spirit or Lack of Direction?
This struggle surrounding Gallois' report is typical of the those that seem to occur constantly around Hollande.
The French president surrounds himself with members of the classical Left, for example his minister for "Industrial Renewal," populist Arnaud Montebourg. When Montebourg heard French carmaker PSA had decided to close its Peugeot factory outside Paris, the minister reacted with a rant against the company and a demand for the government to intervene.
On the other side of the equation, one of the president's closest advisors is former Rothschild banker Emmanuel Macron, who is said to have responded to Hollande's budget law imposing a 75 percent tax on the country's highest earners with a memo that read, "That's like Cuba but without the sun."
It's impossible to predict which of these people Hollande will listen to, or when and why. The president doesn't want to pin himself down to a single course of action, which can be interpreted either as a sign of his open spirit -- or a lack of direction. No one can say for sure whether or not Hollande has opinions of his own.
All this makes Hollande's press conference in mid-November, held half a year into his term in office, particularly important. The president needs to show who's boss, and he needs to illuminate the way ahead. As if intended as deliberately ironic commentary, the evening before the press conference a jury of French journalists awarded Hollande a "Prize for Niceness in Politics."
'Decline Need Not Be Our Fate'
Yet as he has so often done after being written off, the next day Hollande pulls off a masterful performance. Standing in the ballroom of the Elysée Palace, he points out again and again that he is the president -- not that there could be any doubt, given the regal setting. This is a man pulling out all the stops, and selecting a format for doing so that would be unthinkable in almost any other Western democracy: an hours-long television production.
Hollande presents the situation in France more brutally than he has ever done before. He speaks in a grave tone, his gaze serious. He cries, "Decline need not be our fate!"
Some commentators, seized by exuberance, compare this day to another seminal political moment: the West German Social Democratic Party's convention in Bad Godesberg in 1959, at which Germany's left-wing first accepted the idea of a market economy. The analogy lies in the fact that at the press conference Hollande uses the phrase "social democracy," generally a banned term among France's Left. This is the first time Hollande has given something that could be described as a "blood, sweat and tears" speech.
Hollande likes being president -- that's easy to see as he addresses the room -- just as he liked being a candidate. He enjoys exercising the powers of his office, especially in front of an audience. And once the serious, initial portion of the event is over, he displays a cheerfulness and a playfulness with words that seem almost too lighthearted for the seriousness of the situation. The constant smile that he restrains only with difficulty is simply part of Hollande.
But a careful listener at this press conference described as a "turning point" in Hollande's presidency can tell this is still the same Hollande. Although he sounds very much the centrist, in the next breath the president is defending the classical left-wing economic policy that says demand must be stimulated. It remains unclear whether France will truly comply in 2013 with the Maastricht criteria, which stipulate a maximum of 3 percent new indebtedness.
But Hollande has now clad himself in regal robes in front of an entire nation, and that is the impression of him that remains: the Hollande who seems able to rise above party affiliation, the Hollande who has recognized the seriousness of the situation.
The coming years will show whether he is up to the task of handling that situation. The crisis will show who François Hollande really is.
Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
Debt crisis: Europe survives the year
21 December 2012
El País Madrid
The year 2012 seemed pretty dangerous for the eurozone and the whole of the EU. But the worst did not come to pass, especially since Angela Merkel made concessions, which allowed Mario Draghi, President of the ECB to intervene. However, in 2013, Europeans will still have to remain vigilant.
José Ignacio Torreblanca
“Forget the Mayan calendar: it's in Berlin where Cassandra will be vindicated or refuted.” So concluded my final column of last year. It seemed like a forecast, but it was not, as it allowed two completely opposite finales.
Nor did it reveal anything that we did not already know, because we had been aware for some time that all roads led to Berlin (although with a stopover on the way in Frankfurt, headquarters of the European Central Bank). If recalling it is worth anything, it serves to remind us how close we were to the abyss and so helps us understand where we are now.
Throughout 2011, a lethal combination of hesitation, prejudices, myopia, lack of leadership, divisions between countries and a maddening slowness managed to turn a deep economic crisis into an existential crisis that put the survival of the euro in question. In extremis, the European Central Bank flooded the market with liquidity, which eased the problem temporarily but did not solve it.
True, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, aware of the gravity of the crisis, had publicly acknowledged in November (2011) that “if the euro falls, Europe falls”. However, her deeds fell far short of convincing anyone of her determination to take that rhetoric to its logical conclusion. This explains why, in the first half of this year, some traders stopped speculating about the financial survival of the euro and started to make preparations for its collapse.
Doing whatever it takes
The perception that the financial markets were beginning to redenominate debts calculated in euros to debts into national currencies, thereby foreshadowing the day after its collapse, was the red line that drive the ECB to act and, at the same time, the argument that the German government needed to overcome the resistance of those in Germany who still believed that Spain and Italy would have to survive on their own or leave the euro.
With his resounding statement in July affirming his intent “to do whatever it takes and, believe me, it will be enough,” to which he added in September a debt purchase programme that brought credibility to that declaration, Mario Draghi has earned the well-deserved title of Man of the Year. And rightly so, because from that moment on any financial trader who decided to speculate on the collapse of the currency knew that that would be a losing position from the start.
But, as is sometimes said, behind every great man there is always a woman (hidden, or a surprise?). In this case, Chancellor Merkel, who after having dragged her feet for months and even having fed the scepticism in her own country with unfortunate statements about southern Europe, she decided to confront the German Bundesbank, which voted against these measures and to ignore the hardliners in her own party who were reluctant to accept any kind of commitment to public or private debt (bank debt), and to accept, in the first place, the bailout of Spanish banks and ECB intervention to relieve the pressure on the risk premium on Spanish and Italian bonds and, in the second place, to start talking about a banking union. And so, between June and September 2012, the euro was saved. That's the year's good news.
Not out of the woods yet
The bad news is that although the euro has been saved, and the eurozone countries as well – not to mention the fact that a Greek exit, which after months of speculation, now seems extremely remote – what lies ahead remains extremely complicated.
As demonstrated by what happened to the plans for a banking union, which were reduced, held up and cut into pieces over successive summits. European policy – if one overlooks the great uncertainty – has gone back to its normal course.
And so the exasperation at the lethargy, the myopia and lack of political courage returns. If we all know at this point what needs to be done, it is tough to explain why it is not being done. And meanwhile, the Angela Merkel who took the lead for a few days was again reverting to the narrowness that marks the national agenda, dominated by elections, reminding us that butterflies spend most of the time in a dull and ugly chrysalis and for only a very small part of their lives astonish us with their flight and their colours.
Still in the desert
The year 2013 will be a year of transition in which two contradictions will dominate: on the one hand, the feeling of having left the abyss behind us, which is visible in the lowering of the risk premium and the decision of the Spanish government not to ask for a bailout; but on the other, the impossibility of denying that the adjustment policies are still not working and there will be no external stimuli to let us grow and create jobs.
We are still alive, but in the desert, and with very little water.
Angela Merkel guiding Europeans out of the desert
December 23, 2012
In a Land of Austerity, Christmas Is Reinvented as a Season of Thrift
By RAPHAEL MINDER
MADRID — This is the season when barren stone plazas and broad sidewalks here fill with Christmas markets peddling sweets, candles, holiday decorations and crafts. But alongside the festive stalls this year, another kind of market has sprung up in response to Spain’s hard times.
They are the “mercadillos,” or little markets, where the entrepreneurial-minded have found a niche by gathering and selling the unsold stock of more established retailers whose sales have plummeted, or unwanted clothing and other items from people in need of cash.
Buyers and sellers rely heavily on Facebook and other social networking sites to promote the improvised exchanges, which have transformed the way Spaniards shop for the holidays.
For the hard-pressed, the markets are a bargain hunters’ paradise, and for the jobless, they offer an economic lifeline and a chance to recast their fortunes.
Cristina Aresti and Sofía Bourne had never thought about working in fashion until they lost their jobs, joining the more than 25 percent of Spaniards who are unemployed. But this month they opened Abo Cool Market, a pop-up shop that sold secondhand women’s clothing over six days inside a Madrid furniture store.
The two women said they had intended to limit their sales to 500 items. But given the avalanche of offers from people wanting to sell off their wardrobes, they ended up selecting 800 pieces of clothing, with a combined retail value of more than $59,000.
“We just couldn’t believe how many people now want to sell clothing that they had hardly worn,” Ms. Bourne said. Among the most expensive items on sale — a totem of more prosperous times — was an unworn Gucci silk dress that still bore its original sales tag. It was on sale for $650, about a quarter of the original price.
Ms. Aresti and Ms. Bourne will keep 35 percent of their sales receipts; the rest will go to the women who supplied the clothing. The original owners then have the choice of either retrieving unsold items or donating them to charity groups.
Many of the people running this year’s mercadillos had little or no experience in retail sales. Ms. Bourne was laid off by a real estate company; Ms. Aresti lost her job as director of a company that organizes business conferences.
“I don’t yet know whether my future really lies in fashion,” Ms. Aresti said, “but there comes a point in such a hopeless job market when you’ve at least got to try to reinvent yourself.”
Even merchants with long experience in retail or fashion are borrowing some of the practices of the little markets as a way to lure customers.
“Store sales have been plummeting, so you need to go out of your way to make it fun and worthwhile for people to still do some shopping this Christmas,” said Cristina Terrón, a fashion stylist whose mercadillo sold some clothing she had initially selected for television and movie productions. “Something that started out of economic necessity is now also turning into a fashion.”
On average, Spanish households are set to spend $790 to $920 on Christmas shopping this year, down as much as 38 percent from 2007, before the onset of the economic crisis, according to a study published this month by Esade, a Spanish business school.
Jaime Castelló, a marketing professor and one of the authors of the study, said the crisis was not only reducing spending, but also speeding up changes in consumer habits.
About 70 percent of Spanish households said they would search online before buying any Christmas gifts, and 25 percent said they would not even step into a department store, according to the study. The mercadillos, Mr. Castelló suggested, were “another alternative in this crisis to the traditional buying channels.”
Ana María Menoyo Delgado, 26, said she had “lots of fun” searching the Christmas mercadillo Web sites as she worked her way through her holiday shopping list. At Abo Cool’s market, with her mother’s help, she ended up with two designer hand bags, a skirt and a coat, spending a total of $659.
While bargain hunting is part of the attraction, several buyers said they simply preferred the mercadillos to department stores.
“I can’t stand anymore walking into a conventional luxury store where you are likely to be welcomed by a pretty and young but utterly grumpy sales attendant,” Irene Trigueros, a commodities trader, said as she tried on a pair of secondhand sunglasses.
Some of the mercadillos have even been held in bars. “Having a cocktail while trying on some nice clothing seems to me a perfect way to end the day,” said Alberto Martínez, owner of the 1862 Dry Bar, who allowed his basement to become a mercadillo for three days this month.
Mr. Martínez did not charge any rent, but some of the larger mercadillos add to their revenue by renting out booths in their spaces to smaller sellers, normally for $200 to $400 a weekend.
In Alcobendas, on the outskirts of Madrid, a warehouse was transformed into La Galería del 32, a market that sold, among other things, wine, ham, sculpture, jewelry and handbags. The warehouse used to store electronics equipment and other goods until about three years ago, when the demand for storage space dried up as retail sales slumped.
“This kind of event is a great way for those who exhibit to attract more shoppers, while we earn something from renting the space rather than allowing it to stand empty,” said Leticia Martínez Rubio, one of the organizers.
A charity foundation, the Fundacíon Dar, also took part in the weekend event, encouraging shoppers to bring toys that the foundation would distribute to underprivileged children in the Madrid area.
“Beside having a successful weekend sale, I think it’s also important to keep some of the Christmas spirit,” Ms. Martínez Rubio said.
December 23, 2012
For the Holidays, Hong Kong Decks Its Skyscrapers in Lights
By BETTINA WASSENER
HONG KONG — For the past few weeks, Santa Claus, looking cheerful and surrounded by twinkling stars and ornaments, has been dancing on the sides of skyscrapers.
The images, rendered in tens of thousands of lights across Hong Kong, are varied: in one part of town, Santa is riding a dolphin; not far away, giant beribboned parcels decorate the exterior of another building, blinking gently many floors above ground.
Chinese culture adores lights, and the Hong Kong skyline has some of the biggest, brashest and most colorful in the world, year-round. Shop fronts, signposts, entire buildings are lit up — some with undulating and flickering effects — as the sun sets each evening, enveloping the entire city in an orange glow.
But this time of year, the spectacle ratchets up several notches. Out come vast, multicolored, complex designs that span many floors and make the Rockefeller Center in New York and Oxford Street in London pale by comparison. Frolicking reindeer, bobble-hatted snowmen, enormous Christmas trees adorn dozens of buildings, sometimes to startling effect.
The man behind many of these images is Terence Wong, who trained as an electrician and once did stage lighting work for theaters. Thirty years ago, Mr. Wong was asked by a Hong Kong property developer to add a bit of seasonal pizazz to a new complex of office buildings in Tsim Sha Tui East, an area that was then off the beaten track. He has not looked back.
“It is my passion,” Mr. Wong, 54, said in an interview in his office, which is filled with files and lighting accessories. “I never want to stop.”
The first job involved simple stars suspended from the tops of buildings. Over the years, Mr. Wong has made the displays ever more complex, as he and his workers have learned how to affix strings of light bulbs to the glass facades of buildings using window-cleaning platforms.
The displays, Mr. Wong said, typically cost anywhere between 20,000 and 100,000 Hong Kong dollars, or about $2,600 to $13,000, depending on the size and intricacy of the image. But for many building owners, sprucing up exteriors is as much a part of the holiday season as tree lights are for operators of shopping centers or private citizens in Western cultures.
Downturns in the economy, Mr. Wong said, do not prompt building owners to hold back on this expenditure. When an epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, hit Hong Kong in 2003, causing tourism to evaporate and the economy to buckle, building owners actually spent more on the displays, Mr. Wong said.
Likewise, spending this year has not changed, even though the Hong Kong economy, hit by the global downturn and slower growth in China, is expected to have grown just 1.2 percent in 2012. That is down from 4.9 percent last year and 6.8 percent the year before that. The displays are typical of the resilience in consumer spending in Hong Kong, where unemployment remains low — 3.4 percent, according to the latest government figures.
Light displays are deeply ingrained in Chinese folk culture. Lanterns have been objects of artistic expression and status symbols for centuries, as have the elaborate fireworks displays that feature in major celebrations to this day. In the same vein, prominent buildings are brightly lit all over China at night, often changing colors every few seconds, while light shows are a popular form of public entertainment.
In Hong Kong, various factors have given the phenomenon an extra intensity. Unlike cities on the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong has sizable Christian and Western communities, so Christmas and Jan. 1 join the Lunar New Year as important festivals.
Then there is the sheer commercialism of Hong Kong, which derives a large part of its wealth from millions of Chinese tourists. “For every mainland Chinese who visits Singapore or New York today, there are 20 or more who go to Hong Kong,” Donna Kwok, an economist at HSBC, said in a research report this month. By 2015, these visitors are expected to spend 55 billion dollars, equivalent to one-third of Hong Kong’s gross domestic product, she added.
Attractions like the city’s nightly light-and-laser show, which involves more than 40 buildings and is organized by the Hong Kong tourism board, are an important draw, and visitors flock in their thousands to see it each evening.
The holiday bonanza of decorative lights on buildings lasts about three months. Once Christmas and the Western calendar New Year are over, the displays are changed to focus on the Lunar New Year celebrations, which mark the high point of the Chinese calendar and fall in January or February. “Merry X-mas” wishes are replaced with Chinese characters wishing good luck and wealth for the coming year. Santa Clauses morph into Chinese money gods. Symbols of fortune and happiness replace stars and snowflakes.
Mr. Wong’s illuminations started going up in late November and will stay up until a week or two after the start of the Year of the Snake, on Feb. 10.
Mr. Wong, however, stays busy year-round, looking after the manufacture of the strings of light bulbs and other equipment he needs and preparing the designs for the next season. He never recycles old images, he said, but designs three new proposals for each decoration job that Shun Sze Lighting, the company he founded in 1976, bids for.
Given that Shun Sze does about two dozen buildings per year, that is a lot of drawings — but Mr. Wong does not seem to mind.
“Every day, I think about Christmas — all year,” he beamed. “Santa Claus is coming — every day!”
Joanne Lam contributed reporting.
Mayan temple damaged in tourist ‘apocalypse’ frenzy
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, December 23, 2012 16:20 EST
Tourists flocking to Guatemala for “end of the world” parties have damaged an ancient stone temple at Tikal, the largest archeological site and urban center of the Mayan civilization.
“Sadly, many tourists climbed Temple II and caused damage,” said Osvaldo Gomez, a technical adviser at the site, which is located some 550 kilometers (340 miles) north of Guatemala City.
“We are fine with the celebration, but (the tourists) should be more aware because this is a (UNESCO) World Heritage Site,” he told local media.
Gomez did not specify what was done, although he did say it was forbidden to climb the stairs at the site and indicated that the damage was irreparable.
Temple II, which is about 38 meters (125 feet) high and faces the central Tikal plaza, is one of the site’s best known structures.
Friday marked the end of an era that lasted 5,200 years, according to the Mayan “Long Count” calendar. Some believed the date also marked the end of the world as foretold by Mayan hieroglyphs.
More than 7,000 people visited Tikal on Friday to see native Mayan priests hold a colorful ceremony and light fires as the sun emerged to mark the new era.
Critics complained that the event was really for tourists and had little to do with the Mayans. About 42 percent of Guatemala’s 14.3 million residents are native Mayans, and most live in poverty and endure discrimination.
The ancient Mayans reached their peak of power in Central America between the years 250 and 900 AD.
UNESCO declared Tikal a World Heritage Site in 1979.
12/24/2012 02:27 PM
'Straight Out of a Western Film': European Bison Return to Wild in Germany
By Marco Evers
For the first time since the 18th century, the European bison is returning to Germany to live in the wild. The wisent, as it is also known, has been brought to the country by a famous prince. Although the creatures' survival is uncertain, the project has already attracted considerable attention.
With nothing but spruce trees for entire square kilometers at a time, this managed forest isn't exactly what you would call a wilderness. Nevertheless, the forest, together with its ponds and meadows, provides shelter to many a rare species.
In the forest surrounding the town of Bad Berleburg, on the southern edge of North Rhine-Westphalia in western Germany, the lynx stalks its prey through the underbrush, the black stork breeds in the spring and the kingfisher engages in courtship rituals. And almost every day, even in rain or snow, and on Sundays, the aristocratic owner drives around in an SUV.
Wearing boots and work clothing, and always carrying a chainsaw on board, the nobleman keeps an eye on things on his estate. "It's part of it," says Prince Richard of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg, 78, one of the most important forest owners in Germany. "People who own factories also have to go there every day," he explains.
Inspecting the forest is no trivial matter. The estate extends across many of the hills of the Rothaar Mountains, and usually as far as the eye can see. It measures about 13,000 hectares (32,124 acres, or 50 square miles), or roughly half the land area of Manhattan. On this particular day, the inspection wasn't entirely without incident, as is often the case.
"There was a spruce tree lying across the path," Prince Richard later reports at Bad Berleburg Castle, where his family has resided for more than 750 years. The SUV also slipped down an embankment and got stuck in the snow. "Shit," says His Highness. "And I didn't have any mobile phone reception, either."
But the afternoon was more successful. "I saw two female wild boars with 16 piglets," says the prince. Keeping an eye on his animals out in the forest is his hobby, he says. They include about 300 wild sheep, 400 red deer, 600 wild boar and so many roe deer that his seven foresters have concluded they are no longer countable.
The prince's daily trips into the forest are about to get a little more interesting.
Germany's First Wild Bison Since 1746
Since he hit upon the idea almost a decade ago, Prince Richard has been at the center of Germany's most interesting experiment in species conservation. Now the project, which receives about €1.5 million ($2 million) in government subsidies, is about to enter its critical phase.
The state Environment Ministry in Düsseldorf issued its approval shortly before Christmas, and over the next few days several men will drive into the forest and remove the fence around an acclimation enclosure in place since 2010. When that happens, a herd of eight European bison, or wisent, will be free to roam in the woods. It consists of an enormous bull, five cows and two calves.
But it will be some time before they have explored the expanse of the entire forest. Like most of the wild game, the wisents are fed grass silage at this time of the year, which makes them somewhat lethargic. They will be more interested in feeding before enjoying their newfound freedom.
Nevertheless, this is the first time since 1746 that wisent will roam unchecked through a German forest. Europe's largest land animal was eradicated in Spain and France centuries ago. The species lived on in Eastern Europe, until a poacher killed the last specimen in the Caucasus in 1927.
It would have spelled the end of this close relative of the American bison, which is roughly the same size, if it hadn't been for the few animals that survived in zoos. They had already attracted the attention of conservationists in the 1920s. All of the roughly 3,000 wisents alive today are the descendants of only about a dozen original animals.
Now the soon-to-be-free bison are grazing in the prince's forest, surrounded by spruce trees. They are quiet, muscular, brown and massive animals. Egnar, the thick-necked bull with a massive chest, occasionally head-butts the other wisents to remind them who is in charge. As innocuous as this behavior may seem, it isn't entirely without hazard for the others. In one instance, he ripped open a young bull's peritoneum with his horns, killing the animal.
The notion of freedom for the European bison sounds terrific, but it also raises questions. Wild, giant animals, up to two meters (about 6.5 feet) tall and weighing up to a ton, roaming through the forest without fences or supervision? The animals will do as they please and eat what they want. And they'll roam wherever the leader takes them, even it happens to be along a major road or through the nearest village.
What will happen to hikers along the famous Rothaarsteig trail, which runs through the forest, when they suddenly find themselves face to face with one of these ancient bulls? And what will happen to forestry workers? Will the prince remain indulgent when the wisent starts peeling the bark from his young spruce trees? And can the animals, all born in captivity, even survive in the wild?
Germany is the first country west of Poland where the wisent will live in the wild once again. And whether the experiment is a success or a failure, it will certainly set an example.
A March Through German Bureaucracy
Johannes Röhl, 54, takes a laid-back approach to the future -- like a military commander who knows that his army is extremely well equipped. Röhl, always dressed in green, is a "forestry director in private service." He is the modern-day equivalent of an estate manager: the prince's right-hand man and, as such, the manager of his forest and of the wisent.
When the prince told him about his brilliant idea in 2003, Röhl thought to himself: "Is this an obsession?" But he read up on the subject, made some phone calls and did his research. Then he told his boss: "It'll work," to which the prince responded: "Then do it."
Thus armed with the succinct decree of a prince, the bison's march through the German bureaucracy began. A few national parks in Germany could also have initiated a wisent release into the wild, especially as species conservation is their original raison d'être. The Eifel Mountains National Park in western Germany once considered a giant enclosure, but opposition to the idea quickly killed the plan. Sometimes having only a small number of decision-makers is a good thing.
"We are a commercial forestry operation," says Röhl in his office, where the walls are decorated with the antlers of bucks he shot, and where Ginny, his hunting dog, is lying in her basket. "With this project, we want to show that we can be active in species conservation while simultaneously running a forestry operation, one that supports the prince's family, the castle and 70 employees." It does wonders for the reputation of a commercial private forestry operation, says Röhl. "After all, we're commonly viewed as plantation owners."
A Town Warms to the Idea
When Bernd Fuhrmann became the mayor of Bad Berleburg, a city of 20,000 people, he promptly paid a visit to the prince. On that evening in the castle, in late 2004, Fuhrmann, 47, was also told about the plan. He was perplexed. "Bison, now aren't they the ones you see in Westerns?" he thought to himself. "It wasn't the sort of project that I would have welcomed right away."
But he eventually warmed to the idea. Since the demise of the German health spa industry, Bad Berleburg has seen a decline in visitors, bars, jobs and residents. Not much grows there, aside from trees. The soil is poor and it rains a lot. It was clear to Fuhrmann that what the city needed was "something with charisma." Why not the European bison?
The ancestors of the town's residents were once the subjects of the prince's ancestors, and now they also proved to be compliant. "They didn't say much here in the area," says Prince Richard, "but they did over there." He's talking about the land beyond his estate, where people live to whom the prince refers as the "Köllschem" or "Cologne types." And they, typically enough, were completely opposed to the idea.
From the perspective of local residents, the ridge of the Rothaar Mountains divides the world into two halves. On the Bad Berleburg side is an area known as the Wittgensteiner Land, where the people are staunchly Protestant and speak an Upper Hessian dialect, and the economy is ailing. On the other side is the High Sauerland region, which has a growing tourism industry and a deeply Catholic population that speaks a Low German dialect similar to the dialect spoken in Cologne, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) to the west. For centuries, the two neighboring populations have been about as partial to each other as the residents of Cologne and Düsseldorf (neighboring Rhineland cities that are notorious for their antagonism towards each other), which is to say that the wisent was being released between two somewhat antagonistic fronts.
'People Were on the Verge of Fistfights'
The forestry director and the mayor embarked on a few peace missions to the Köllsche region, but their efforts were in vain. Tourists would be afraid to go into the forest, the opponents grumbled, adding that wisent bulls would mount dairy cows and father wisent and dairy cattle hybrids, and the herds would severely damage the forest with their hooves. Tempers were running so high that "people were on the verge of fistfights," says Röhl. He almost gave up.
The wisent supporters also encountered official skepticism. The state Environment Ministry in Düsseldorf eventually put together a list of 60 questions to study the potential dangers posed by the wisents. It took scientists from four universities more than four years to come up with the answers.
A forestry economist from the University of Göttingen examined whether forest owners could expect to see feeding damage. The answer was no. Wisents consume large amounts of raspberries, stinging nettles and grasses, but they rarely touch young spruce and beech trees. "The damage will be almost undetectable," says Röhl, especially as the herd will initially be limited to 25 head.
The ruminants will probably even be a little useful, because they keep ecologically valuable areas, along streams, for example, free of undergrowth -- a task currently being performed by forest workers.
Philip Schmitz, 32, a doctoral candidate at the University of Siegen, addressed the issue of how dangerous wisents are for people. To that end, he sent volunteers to approach the animals once a month while he observed from a distance, wearing camouflage and equipped with binoculars and a camera.
The volunteers approached the beasts on foot or with mountain bikes, alone and in groups, accompanied by barking dogs or creeping along the ground like wildlife photographers. "There was never a dangerous incident," says Schmitz. The wisents, which are flight animals, bolted by the time humans had come within 40 meters (around 130 feet) of them.
There has never been an attack in Poland's Bialowieza National Park, near the country's border to Belarus, where about 450 wisents now live in the wild. "You have to have respect for the animals, of course," says Röhl. "If the wisent wants to kill you, he can do it." But the same thing applies to deer and wild boar, he points out.
Another scientist studied wisent feces, in which he found the eggs of dung beetles, which haven't been seen in German forests in centuries. That's because the type of dung beetle native to the area requires large piles of dung, of the sort that no other animal in the forest produces. "The wisent isn't showing up alone," says Röhl.
Will Wisent Attract Tourists?
Social scientists interviewed hikers to determine whether they felt drawn to or deterred by wisents. The majority said that a forest with wisents living in it is more exciting than without wisents. But that is precisely the problem.
Many hikers hoping to spot a wisent in the wild are likely to be disappointed. Once they have been successfully released into the wild, the animals will probably be so timid that people will rarely encounter them. If the wisent becomes Bad Berleburg's main attraction, it'll be an invisible one, which isn't good for business.
But local officials promptly came up with a solution. Along the Rothaarsteig hiking trail, there is a viewing enclosure the size of 10 medium-sized Ikea stores in an open area of forest land cleared by the violent windstorm Kyrill, which struck Germany in 2007 and toppled more than 40 million trees. There are six additional wisents living in the enclosure; the animals are curious about people and show themselves readily. Since it opened in September, the "Wisent Wilderness" has attracted more than 10,000 paying visitors. Some of the revenues will benefit the animals' free brethren in the forest.
It is a freedom with limits, however. The wisents of Bad Berleburg will never become a truly wild herd, because their numbers are too small. They only stand a chance of surviving if human beings intervene carefully in their lives.
As soon as his offspring are sexually mature, Egnar, the bull, will have to leave the herd. Another bull will take his place and remain with the herd until his offspring are mature. Rigorous family planning is necessary, because inbreeding will result if fresh genes are not introduced to the gene pool.
Wanda Olech of the Warsaw University of Life Sciences decides which male is to be brought into the German herd. She is familiar with all wisents, because she manages the studbook. Her objective is to select a bull that is as unrelated as possible to the cows in the Rothaar Mountains.
The two leaders of the herd have also been fitted with a GPS transmitter. Using a relatively non-interventional method that dispenses with fences and dogs, Röhl and his team intend to limit the animals' territory to roughly 40 square kilometers, or about a third of the estate. The winter feeding area is supposed to serve as their actual home, and Prince Richard, at any rate, is convinced that the plan will work. "They're incredibly lazy animals," he says.
The GPS signal will also help guide the prince's hunting parties, along with the drivers and dogs, into areas where none of the marksmen will be tempted to shoot one of the animals. The prince himself has solemnly pledged never to kill a wisent.
In the USA...
December 22, 2012
One Nation Under God?
By MOLLY WORTHEN
THIS week millions of “Chreasters” — Americans who attend church only on Christmas and Easter — will crowd into pews to sing carols and renew their vague relationship with the Christian God. This year, there may be fewer Chreasters than ever. A growing number of “nones” live in our midst: those who say they have no religious affiliation at all. An October Pew Research Center poll revealed that they now account for 20 percent of the population, up from 16 percent in 2008.
Avoiding church does not excuse Americans from marking the birth of Jesus, however. Most of us have no choice but to stay home from work or school — and if you complain about this glaring exception to the separation between church and state, you must be a scrooge with no heart for tradition. Christmas has been a federal holiday for 142 years.
Yet Christianity’s preferential place in our culture and civil law came under fire this year, and not simply because more Americans reject institutional religion. The Obama administration subtly worked to expand the scope of protected civil rights to include access to legal marriage and birth control. Catholic bishops and evangelical activists declared that Washington was running roughshod over religious liberty and abandoning the country’s founding values, while their opponents accused them of imposing one set of religious prejudices on an increasingly pluralistic population. The Christian consensus that long governed our public square is disintegrating. American secularism is at a crossroads.
The narrative on the right is this: Once upon a time, Americans honored the Lord, and he commissioned their nation to welcome all faiths while commanding them to uphold Christian values. But in recent decades, the Supreme Court ruled against prayer in public schools, and legalized abortion, while politicians declared “war on Christmas” and kowtowed to the “homosexual lobby.” Conservative activists insist that they protest these developments not to defend special privileges for Christianity, but to respect the founders’ desire for universal religious liberty — rooted, they say, in the Christian tradition.
The controversial activist David Barton has devoted his career to popularizing this “forgotten history” through lectures, books and home-school curriculums. Mr. Barton insists that “biblical Christianity in America produced many of the cherished traditions still enjoyed today,” including “protection for religious toleration and the rights of conscience.”
Bryan Fischer, spokesman for the American Family Association, told me that he saw the “nones” as proof that “the foundations of our culture are crumbling.” The Pew poll, he said, “is one of the signs.” A couple of weeks after we spoke, he told a radio audience that God did not protect the children killed in the Newtown, Conn., massacre because of the Supreme Court decisions banning prayer and Bible reading in public schools. “God is not going to go where he is not wanted,” Mr. Fischer said.
How accurate is this story of decline into godlessness? Is America, supposedly God’s last bastion in the Western world, rejecting faith and endangering religious liberty?
The truth is that “nones” are nothing new. Religion has been a feature of human society since Neanderthal times, but so has religious indifference. Our illusions of the past as a golden age of faith tend to cloud our assessment of today’s religious landscape. We think of atheism and religious apathy as uniquely modern spiritual options, ideas that Voltaire and Hume devised in a coffee house one rainy afternoon sometime in the 18th century. Before the Enlightenment, legend has it, peasants hurried to church every week and princes bowed and scraped before priests.
Historians have yet to unearth Pew studies from the 13th century, but it is safe to say that we frequently overestimate medieval piety. Ordinary people often skipped church and had a feeble grasp of basic Christian dogma. Many priests barely understood the Latin they chanted — and many parishes lacked any priest at all. Bishops complained about towns that used their cathedrals mainly as indoor markets or granaries. Lest Protestants blame this irreverence on Catholic corruption, the evidence suggests that it continued after Martin Luther nailed his theses to the Wittenberg church door. In 1584, census takers in Antwerp discovered that the city had a larger proportion of “nones” than 21st-century America: a full third of residents claimed no religious affiliation.
When conservative activists claim that America stands apart from godless Europe, they are not entirely wrong. The colonies were relatively unchurched, but European visitors to the early republic marveled at Americans’ fervent piety. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1840 that the absence of an established state church nurtured a society in which “Christian sects are infinitely diversified and perpetually modified; but Christianity itself is a fact so irresistibly established that no one undertakes either to attack or to defend it.”
De Tocqueville visited during a wave of religious revival, but he underestimated the degree to which some Americans held Christianity at arm’s length: the “infidel” Abraham Lincoln declined to join a church, and his wife invited spiritualists to hold séances in the White House.
Nevertheless, America’s rates of church affiliation have long been higher than those of Europe — perhaps because of the First Amendment, which permitted a religious “free market” that encouraged innovation and competition between spiritual entrepreneurs. Yet membership, as every exasperated parson knows, is not the same as showing up on Sunday morning. Rates of church attendance have never been as sterling as the Christian Right’s fable of national decline suggests. Before the Civil War, regular attendance probably never exceeded 30 percent, rising to a high of 40 percent around 1965 and declining to under 30 percent in recent years — even as 77 percent still identify as Christians and 69 percent say they are “very” or “moderately” religious, according to a 2012 Gallup survey.
We know, then, that the good old days were not so good after all, even in God’s New Israel. Today’s spiritual independents are not unprecedented. What is new is their increasing visibility. “I like the fact that we’re getting more ‘nones’ because it helps Christians realize that they’re different,” Stanley Hauerwas, a Protestant theologian at Duke Divinity School, said when I asked for his thoughts on the Pew poll. “That’s a crucial development. America produces people that say, ‘I believe Jesus is Lord, but that’s just my personal opinion.’ ”
The temple of “my personal opinion” may be the real “established church” in modern America. Three decades ago, one “none” named Sheila Larson told the sociologist Robert Bellah and his collaborators that she called her faith “Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.” Americans are drifting out of the grip of institutionalized religion, just as they are drifting from institutional authority in general.
THIS trend, made famous by books like Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone,” has encouraged both the theological mushiness of those who say they are “spiritual, not religious” as well as the unfiltered fury that has come to characterize both ends of the political spectrum. “It seems like we live in a Manichaean universe, with vitriolic extremes,” said Kathryn Lofton, associate professor of American studies and religious studies at Yale. “That’s not unrelated to the lack of tempering authority. ‘Religious authority’ is no longer clergy in the pulpit saying ‘Vote for Eisenhower,’ but forwarded URL links or gossip exchanges in chat rooms. There is no referee.”
For a very long time, Protestant leaders were those referees. If individual impiety flourished in centuries past, churches still wielded significant control over civic culture: the symbols, standards and sexual mores that most of the populace respected in public, if not always in private. Today, more and more Americans openly accept extramarital sex, homosexuality and other outrages to traditional Christian morality. They question the Protestant civil religion that has undergirded our common life for so long.
The idea of Protestant civil religion sounds strange in a country that prides itself on secularism and religious tolerance. However, America’s religious free market has never been entirely free. The founding fathers prized freedom of conscience, but they did not intend to purge society of Protestant influence (they had deep suspicions of Catholicism). Most believed that churches helped to restrain the excesses of mob democracy. Since then, theology has shaped American laws regarding marriage, public oaths and the bounds of free speech. For most of our history, the loudest defenders of the separation of church and state were not rogue atheists, but Protestants worried about Catholics seeking financing for parochial schools or scheming their way into public office to take orders only from mitered masters in Rome.
Activists on both the left and the right tend to forget this irony of the First Amendment: it has been as much a weapon of religious oppression as a safeguard for liberty. In the 19th and early 20th century, when public school teachers read from a Protestant translation of the Bible in class, many Americans saw benign reinforcement of American values. If Catholic parents complained, officials told them that their Roman dogma was their own private concern. The underlying logic here was not religious neutrality.
The Protestant bias of the American public sphere has mellowed over time, but it still depends on “Christian secularism,” said Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, a political scientist at Northwestern University. This is a “political stance” premised on a “chiefly Protestant notion of religion understood as private assent to a set of propositional beliefs,” she told me. Other traditions, such as Judaism and Islam and to some degree Catholicism, do not frame faith in such rationalist terms, or accept the same distinction between internal conviction and public argument. The very idea that it is possible to cordon off personal religious beliefs from a secular town square depends on Protestant assumptions about what counts as “religion,” even if we now mask these sectarian foundations with labels like “Judeo-Christian.”
Conservative Christian activists hold those sectarian foundations more dearly than they admit, and they are challenging the Obama administration’s efforts to frame access to contraception and same-sex marriage as civil rights immune to the veto of “private” conscience. Alan Sears, president of the legal advocacy organization Alliance Defending Freedom, sees an unprecedented threat to religious liberty in the harsh fines facing employers who refuse to cover contraception in their insurance programs. “It is a death penalty. It is a radical change,” he told me. “It’s one thing when you’re debating about public space, but it’s another when you say, if you don’t surrender your conscience, you’re out of business.”
Barry Lynn, the director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (an organization that until 1972 was named, tellingly, Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State), sees things differently. He worries about what might happen if an unpredictable Supreme Court agrees to hear conservative Christians’ challenges to the contraception mandate, or their pleas for exemptions for charities that accept federal grants but discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring. “The court could create something vastly more dangerous than corporate free speech: a ‘corporate conscience’ claim,” Mr. Lynn, a lawyer and an ordained minister, told me. “These cases could become as significant for the redefinition of religious liberty as Roe v. Wade was a rearticulation of the right to privacy.”
These legal efforts are less an attempt to redefine religious liberty than a campaign to preserve Christians’ historic right to police the boundary between secular principles and religious beliefs. Only now that conservative Christians have less control over organs of public power, they cannot rely on the political process. Now that the “nones” are declaring themselves, and more Americans — including many Christians — see birth control as a medical necessity rather than a sin, Mr. Sears sees a stark course of action for the Catholic and evangelical business owners he represents: “Litigation is all that our clients have.” Their problem, however, is more fundamental than legal precedent. Their problem is that America’s Christian consensus is fragmenting. We are left groping for something far messier: an evolving, this-worldly, compromise.
Molly Worthen is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
NRA issues point-blank ‘no’ on gun control
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, December 23, 2012 13:44 EST
The NRA, the most powerful gun lobby in the United States, ruled out any support Sunday for greater regulation of firearms or ammunition magazines after the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre.
Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, said planned legislation to outlaw military-style assault weapons and large-capacity magazines was “phony” and would not work.
He repeated the NRA’s call to place an armed guard in every school and argued that prosecuting criminals and fixing the mental health system, rather than gun control, were the solutions to America’s mass shooting epidemic.
On December 14, a disturbed local man, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, killed his mother in their Newtown, Connecticut home before embarking on a horrific spree at a local elementary school.
He burst into Sandy Hook elementary and shot dead 20 six- and seven-year old children and six adults with a military-style assault rifle before taking his own life with a handgun as police closed in.
The bloodshed reopened a national debate on gun laws.
President Barack Obama said he would support a new bill to ban assault rifles and put Vice President Joe Biden in charge of a panel looking at a wide range of other measures, from school security to mental health.
Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein has pledged to table a bill on January 3 that would ban at least 100 military-style semi-automatic assault weapons, and would curb the transfer, importation and the possession of such arms.
“I think that is a phony piece of legislation, and I do not believe it will pass for this reason,” LaPierre told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “It is all built on lies that have been found out.”
“We don’t think it works and we’re not going to support it,” he said.
The NRA points to the fact that the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, when 12 kids and a teacher were gunned down by two senior students, occurred despite similar legislation being in force at the time.
“I don’t think it will (work). I keep saying it, and you just won’t accept it: it’s not going to work, it hasn’t worked. Dianne Feinstein had her (previous) ban and Columbine occurred,” LaPierre said.
America has suffered an epidemic of gun violence over the last three decades including 62 mass shooting incidents since 1982. The vast majority of weapons used have been semi-automatic weapons obtained legally by the killers.
There were an estimated 310 million non-military firearms in the United States in 2009, roughly one per citizen, and people in America are 20 times more likely to be killed by a gun than someone in another developed country.
The NRA has been in the crosshairs since the Sandy Hook massacre and took the unusual step on Friday of holding a press conference and speaking out on the tragedy.
But rather than come out in support of limited gun control measures, the lobby — which retains a powerful influence over politicians, especially from rural districts where gun owners are the norm — demanded that armed police be deployed to every school in the country.
LaPierre reaffirmed that position on Sunday and launched a fierce defense of gun owners’ rights, which he portrayed as being imperiled by rich folk in cities, elite politicians and a hysterical media.
“The average guy in the country values his freedom, doesn’t believe the fact that he can own a gun is part of the problem and doesn’t like the media and all these high-profile politicians blaming him,” he said.
December 23, 2012
Search for Way Through Fiscal Impasse Turns to the Senate
By JONATHAN WEISMAN
WASHINGTON — With little more than a week for lawmakers to avert huge tax increases and spending cuts, attention is turning from the gridlocked House to the Senate, where some Republicans on Sunday endorsed President Obama’s call for a partial deal to insulate most Americans from the tax increases but defer a resolution on spending.
Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Johnny Isakson of Georgia, both Republicans, implored Senate leaders to reach an accommodation with Mr. Obama when Congress returns on Thursday, even if that meant that taxes would go up for those with high incomes and that spending cuts would be put off.
Mrs. Hutchison, appearing on the CBS program “Face the Nation,” said the tax cuts signed into law by President George W. Bush should be extended “at a reasonable salary level.”
“We can’t let taxes go up on working people in this country,” she said, backing Mr. Obama’s calls for a stripped-down temporary measure. “It is going to be a patch because, in four days, we can’t solve everything.”
Speaker John A. Boehner’s failed attempt on Thursday to attract enough Republican support in the House for legislation that would have prevented tax increases on income below $1 million left little chance for a “grand bargain” on deficit reduction.
It also shifted the action to the Senate as the last hope to stop more than half a trillion dollars in tax increases and across-the-board spending cuts from kicking in on Jan. 1. The president urged senators to take up legislation extending the Bush-era tax cuts on income under $250,000 and preventing the expiration of unemployment benefits, while delaying the defense and domestic spending cuts to allow negotiations on a deficit deal continue.
“The fact that the House Republicans spent a week wasting time we didn’t have has greatly exacerbated the problem,” said Dan Pfeiffer, Mr. Obama’s communications director.
The hope is that the less polarized Senate will be different from the House. It is run by Democrats and includes several Republicans who are openly backing a deal.
“The president’s statement is right,” Mr. Isakson said Sunday on the ABC program “This Week.” “No one wants taxes to go up on the middle class. I don’t want them to go up on anybody, but I’m not in the majority in the United States Senate, and he’s the president of the United States.”
“The truth of the matter is, if we do fall off the cliff after the president is inaugurated, he’ll come back, propose just what he proposed yesterday in leaving Washington, and we’ll end up adopting it,” Mr. Isakson continued. “But why should we put the markets in such turmoil and the people in such misunderstanding or lack of confidence? Why not go ahead and act now?”
Democratic leaders say they will move forward on legislation this week only if Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, can assure them that it will not be filibustered and that once it is passed Mr. Boehner will bring it to a vote in the House.
Mr. McConnell has played the role of Congressional deal closer before. Last year, he engineered a way to raise the nation’s statutory borrowing limit that satisfied Republicans and Democrats alike. He also threw his weight behind an extension of the expiring two-percentage-point cut in the payroll tax, even after House Republicans tried to block it.
But in this case, neither he nor the junior members of his leadership have given any indication that they will intervene.
“It’s hard to overstate how little is going on,” said a senior Democratic leadership aide in the Senate, indicating what most lawmakers say in private: the country is likely to miss the Jan. 1 deadline.
Investors are anticipating a turbulent week in the markets if the White House and Congress continue their standoff. Last Friday, the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index fell nearly 1 percent as pessimism mounted over the prospect of any deal being reached.
Republican leaders in both chambers of Congress appear stymied by a conservative wing that will not tolerate a vote on legislation that even tacitly allows taxes to rise. Don Stewart, a spokesman for Mr. McConnell, said the minority leader could not declare by fiat that a bill could be presented for a simple majority vote with no threat of a filibuster. That would require the consent of every Republican, and Mr. Stewart gave no indication that Mr. McConnell would seek it.
Asked if Republicans might filibuster the president’s backup plan, Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, a member of the Republican leadership, said on “Fox News Sunday”: “I just don’t think this is going to solve the problems — it actually doesn’t solve the problems. We have a spending problem in this country.”
Besides, Mr. Stewart said, Democrats have yet to detail the legislation they want a vote on. The Senate passed legislation in July to extend expiring income tax rates on income under $250,000, but divided Democrats could not agree on a new level for the estate tax, which is also scheduled to rise in January, nor did they include a provision to stave off $100 billion in across-the-board cuts to defense and domestic programs next year.
Mr. Obama, speaking to reporters Friday, left critical details out of his description of the plan he wants Congress to pass. Although he favors allowing the estate tax rate of 35 percent on inheritances over $5 million to rise to 45 percent on estate values over $3.5 million, for example, he did not say how such taxes should be treated as part of his stopgap fiscal plan. If nothing is done, the estate tax will jump to the Clinton-era level, 55 percent, on estate values over $1 million.
Nor did the president say what he wanted to do about expired business tax provisions, like the research and development tax credit, which is scheduled to disappear on Jan. 1. He gave no instructions about a long-delayed law that, absent Congressional action this week, would sharply cut reimbursements for physicians treating Medicare patients, starting next month.
“What is it, exactly, that we’re supposed to respond to or work with?” Mr. Stewart said. Referring to the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, Mr. Stewart continued: “Reid is the majority leader. Maybe for once he could propose something that he actually thinks could pass.”
The impending cuts were set in motion last year when the Budget Control Act ended an impasse over raising the nation’s borrowing limit with a deal designed to hurt both parties if they did not strike an agreement later on. A committee came up with at least $1.2 trillion in cuts over 10 years that would come automatically, half to national security and half to domestic programs.
The measure that Mr. Obama and Democratic leaders are considering would contain all the provisions of a tax bill that the Senate passed in July, according to a Democrat familiar with the discussions. That bill included an adjustment to the alternative minimum tax — a parallel income tax that is designed to make sure the affluent do not escape taxation but that is increasingly hitting the middle class — as well as several tax credits for middle- and low-income workers that are also due to expire.
Both Mr. Boehner and Mr. McConnell are dealing with rising pressure from the right. The conservative Web site Breitbart.com stoked passions in conservative circles when it reported that a handful of Republicans were considering a challenge to Mr. Boehner’s speakership when the House votes on Jan. 3 to elect a speaker for the 113th Congress. Boehner critics took to Twitter to keep up the pressure on him not to return to negotiations with Mr. Obama.
With Mr. McConnell’s own re-election bid coming in 2014, Democrats are worried that he will do nothing to shift the anger onto himself — especially if the speaker has no intention of bringing a Senate-passed fiscal bill to the floor before the end of the year.
“The ball is not moving along,” said Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee.
Jackie Calmes contributed reporting from Washington, and Nathaniel Popper from New York.
December 23, 2012
A TV Voice Rang True in Clamor of Shooting
By DAVID CARR
On the day of the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., reporters were struggling and failing to get their arms around a story too horrible to fathom. At our house, we stared at the incremental television coverage and came to realize that no one really knew anything.
Then, late in the evening, a reporter came on CBS in New York. He knew the number of casualties, the type of weapon used, and that the mother of the shooter was dead inside her home.
“Who is this guy?” I asked my wife.
John Miller isn’t a psychic or a genius. He’s a senior correspondent for CBS News who had spent the afternoon working his sources while helping anchor the network’s special coverage. Mr. Miller, hired a little over a year ago by CBS, became a constant figure in the coverage in the days that followed, bringing a rare level of seriousness to a story that seemed to bring out the worst in television news.
Low rated and often an also-ran, CBS News benefited greatly from Mr. Miller’s work, which helped it become the first network to break into programming with news of the shooting and the first to report the level of carnage.
Like many of his colleagues, he made some mistakes — “I was first with the wrong name” he pointed out ruefully — but everything he said on the air was based on actual reporting, not meaningless stand-ups at the scene that are full of drama but no information.
If Mr. Miller, 54, seemed to know what happened inside Sandy Hook Elementary School as soon as the police officials did, that’s because not that long ago, he was one of them.
A police reporter in New York for 20 years for various television stations, he was hired by William Bratton, New York’s police commissioner, in 1994 as a deputy commissioner. He went back to reporting at ABC in 1995 and became co-anchor of “20/20,” where he interviewed Osama bin Laden. He wrote a book on the Sept. 11 attacks and then went back to work for Mr. Bratton in 2003, this time in Los Angeles as head of the counterterrorism and criminal intelligence bureau, along with the major crimes division.
Mr. Miller went on to the F.B.I. and the office of the director of national intelligence, where he worked as deputy director of the analysis division. But he found himself thinking about a return to reporting after Bin Laden was killed.
“My wife said to me, ‘Let me get this straight, you are going to leave a good, safe job in government and wander around New York in the worst economy in years looking for a job as a reporter? That’s your plan?’ ” he said.
It was. He talked to Jeff Fager, chairman of CBS News and executive producer of “60 Minutes.”
“He is the definition of a pure reporter,” Mr. Fager said, “a really great fit with what we are trying to do here. On the big stories, we don’t want packages, we don’t do graphics, we want information. I could listen to John Miller report a story all day.”
Journalists are taught to be suspect of those who have gone through the revolving door, but Mr. Miller’s trip through that door left him uniquely suited for the Newtown story. He had run major investigations, supervised big crime scenes and handled the information flow for others.
“The information is coming in raw and in real time,” he explained in a phone call. “Forgive my grammar, but you have to filter into three questions: ‘What do we know, what do we don’t know, and when do we expect to know more?’ Everything is preliminary, everything can change, but you can’t just wait. You have to think through what you know and explain that.”
Mr. Miller said that when he was called to the anchor desk on Friday morning he protested, saying he should just report at his desk. But he ended up on the set with a laptop and a phone, working both when he wasn’t on the air.
“When I first heard a number for victims, I thought it was wrong because it was so high,” said Mr. Miller, who worked on the 1999 Columbine shooting while at ABC. “And then word came from people I knew that we should prepare ourselves for the worst.”
“These people aren’t my sources, they are my friends,” he said. “If they couldn’t tell me, they told me who could.”
Mr. Miller said he benefited enormously because he understood law enforcement hierarchy and was aware of the kinds of pressure brought to bear on the officials at the scene.
“There is no one in law enforcement who won’t take John’s call,” Mr. Bratton said. “He’s careful and he knows his way around all aspects of law enforcement, which makes it easy to trust him and talk to him.”
There is another factor that explains Mr. Miller’s success. He is a newsie by birth. His father, John J. Miller, was a syndicated gossip columnist for a variety of New York newspapers, and he often brought his son along on stories.
“I’ve been going to crime scenes since I was 9 years old,” Mr. Miller said. “It would not be unusual for me to see Sammy Davis Jr. at the Copacabana on Friday night and then be at the scene of a murder in Washington Square on Saturday night.”
Mr. Miller’s credentials are further burnished by the fact that the Mafia boss Frank Costello was his godfather.
By the time he was 14 he was getting his own assignments at Channel 5 News. He would skip gym at Montclair High in New Jersey and hop a bus to the station’s headquarters in New York. While reporters were busy finishing editing, he would be sent out on late-breaking stories to do interviews. He covered collapsed buildings, murders and perp walks, and had his own N.Y.P.D. press pass saying “John Miller is entitled to cross police and fire lines wherever formed.”
“It was like a golden ticket to the night,” he said.
Since he got back in the racket, Mr. Miller has been a frequent face on “CBS This Morning,” often talking about crime, national security and terrorism with Charlie Rose.
“He is wired in a way that few reporters are and has a manner that puts people at ease,” Mr. Rose said. “John knows where the story is and how to go to it.”
Mr. Miller says that it’s not always whispered backgrounders from police pals that offer insight.
“Sometimes I just go quiet and watch the live feed,” he said. “Because I have been in the command post, I know what I am looking at.”
Still, when a major crime occurs, it creates a bit of conflict.
“When something big is going on and I am covering it,” he said, “I always really wish I was on the other side of the yellow tape, right in the middle of it.”
Edward Kennedy Jr. considers run for U.S. Senate seat held by John Kerry
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, December 24, 2012 7:40 EST
A son of late political icon Edward Kennedy is considering a run for the US senate seat in Massachusetts – the same state his late father represented as a popular US lawmaker for nearly five decades, US media reported Sunday.
Edward Kennedy Jr, 51, commonly referred to as “Teddy,” is giving serious consideration to running for the US Senate seat that John Kerry will vacate if he is confirmed as secretary of state, according to Kennedy’s brother, former US representative Patrick Kennedy.
“It’s not something he took lightly when he was approached about running,” Patrick Kennedy told The Boston Globe.
“He got the message that he should seriously look at it,” he said.
If Kennedy decides to run, he will be the latest member of America’s foremost political dynasty to seek elective office.
Teddy Kennedy, who heads a financial firm and is a leading advocate for disability rights, currently resides in Connecticut but owns a house at the Kennedy family compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.
He reportedly has reached out to family members, friends, and some prominent Democrats, while weighing the decision to take the plunge into elective politics, after reportedly being urged to run by leading Democrats.
If Kennedy runs, he is likely to face outgoing Republican Senator Scott Brown, who last month was defeated in his bid to be re-elected to the seat left vacant when his Edward Kennedy Sr died in 2009.
Scarcely six weeks after Democratic consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren defeated Brown in the November 2012 election, President Barack Obama announced that he would tap senior the senior Massachusetts Senator John Kerry to be his secretary of state, creating the expected Senate opening for which Kennedy and Brown could vie.
India announces gang-rape inquiry
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, December 26, 2012 7:34 EST
India’s government ordered a special inquiry Wednesday into the gang-rape of a student which sparked mass protests, as police announced the arrest of 10 men over another multiple sex assault.
While a wave of angry protests over the December 16 assault on the student in New Delhi subsided, news of a Christmas Eve gang-rape in rural Tamil Nadu again shone the spotlight on the frightening levels of violence against women.
The victim of the attack in Delhi is still fighting for her life while a policeman who was attacked during subsequent protests died of his injuries on Tuesday.
Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, who is also the government’s top spokesman, said that a retired judge, Usha Mehra, had agreed to head a commission of inquiry.
The inquiry would “identify the lapses if any on the part of the police, or another authority or person that contributed to the occurrence, and fix responsibility for the lapses or negligence”, he said after a cabinet meeting.
The victim of the Delhi gang-rape remains in a critical condition in hospital after suffering terrible injuries during her assault on a bus, which began when she and a male companion were picked up after a night out at the cinema.
Police and prosecutors say six men, who were drunk and were joy-riding in an off-duty bus with tinted windows, took turns in raping the student before throwing her off the vehicle.
During her assault, the victim suffered serious intestinal injuries from being beaten with an iron rod.
All six alleged attackers have now been arrested and remanded in custody.
Official figures show that 228,650 of the total 256,329 violent crimes recorded last year were against women, with the number of rapes in the capital rising 17 percent to 661 this year.
Thousands of people have taken to the streets since December 16 to demonstrate both against the levels of violence and also the notoriously slow criminal justice system.
Stung by criticism, the government has said it will consider introducing the death penalty for the worst attacks and promised to speed up the trial system.
In the attack in Tamil Nadu, 10 men overpowered the male companion of a 20-year-old woman in the Cuddalore district on Christmas Eve and then took turns to rape her for two hours.
“The victim had gone to the bank of a river with her boyfriend on Monday evening when the couple was attacked,” district police chief A. Radhika told AFP by telephone from Cuddalore.
“We arrested the 10 suspects on Tuesday and charged them with rape and also booked them under (tribal protection) laws because she was a tribal,” Radhika said.
The officer said the woman was in stable condition in hospital under “basic medical treatment.”
Egypt’s Morsi signs disputed constitution into law
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, December 26, 2012 7:45 EST
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has signed into law a new constitution voted in despite weeks of opposition protests, but on Wednesday he was left facing an economic crisis and international disquiet over his rule.
The Islamist-dominated senate convened on Wednesday to swear in 90 new members appointed by Morsi. It was expected to draft a law for legislative elections for the dissolved lower house that have to be held by the end of February.
The National Salvation Front opposition coalition said it would vie for seats in the parliament, which has powers under the new charter that could hamper Morsi’s ability to govern.
“We will work together to enter the election,” Front spokesman Khaled Dawoud said.
He also said the coalition would legally contest the referendum, which it claims was riddled by fraud. Its supporters had demonstrated since late November against the document, with some clashes with pro-Morsi supporters turning bloody.
The national electoral commission said late Tuesday that 64 percent of voters in the two-round referendum backed the new constitution. Turnout was 33 percent it said.
Morsi immediately afterwards signed into law the charter, which had been written up by his Islamist allies.
Christians and liberals boycotted the process in protest at changes they saw as weakening human rights, especially those of women, and possibly paving the way for the introduction of a form of fundamentalist Islamic law.
The United States, which gives $1.3 billion a year to Egypt’s influential military, called on Morsi to work to “bridge divisions” with the largely secular opposition.
“We have consistently supported the principle that democracy requires much more than simple majority rule,” acting State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said in a statement.
“We hope all sides will re-commit themselves to condemn and prevent violence,” he said.
The political crisis has taken a heavy toll on Egypt’s economy.
The state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper reported there was “Fear in the Egyptian street” after rating agency Standard and Poor’s downgraded Egypt’s long-term credit rating one notch to ‘B-’.
It said reported that the government has restricted travellers from leaving or entering the country with more than 10,000 dollars.
Mona Mansour, chief economist at CI Capital, said a crucial $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan that had been scheduled for this or next month might be postponed until the new parliament is established in March.
The social volatility was seen as making difficulties for Morsi to meet financial reforms, such as tax hikes and subsidy cuts, the IMF was thought to have demanded in return for the loan.
“You need to comfort the public that it’s not going to affect their pockets,” Mansour said.
But she dismissed the possibility of the opposition in parliament scuppering the loan.
Essam al-Erian, the deputy head of the Brotherhood’s political arm, said the constitution’s adoption and upcoming elections would help solve the country’s economic decline.
“Every country has a crisis. But crises end, and we are now on the right path,” he said.
In its report on Monday, Standard and Poor’s said it saw expected political tensions to remain “elevated” amid the deepening intractability of the political rivals.
December 25, 2012
City in North Is Captured, Syrian Rebels Announce
By KAREEM FAHIM
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Rebel fighters in Syria said they had taken control of a strategic town on the Turkish border on Tuesday, and the international envoy to Syria said in Damascus that he had yet to receive any response from President Bashar al-Assad to proposals he delivered to halt the country’s deepening war.
During an hourlong meeting with domestic dissidents, the envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, declined to discuss the substance of any proposals, according to Hassan Abdel Azim, one of six people who attended the meeting. The envoy said only that “he discussed offers proposed by regional, international and opposition figures,” Mr. Abdel Azim said.
“There was no reply on behalf of Assad,” he added.
Some Syrian opposition members, citing meetings with Mr. Brahimi before he traveled to Damascus on Sunday, said they had expected him to push a plan that would keep Mr. Assad in power temporarily while stripping him of much of his authority. Some also had expected Mr. Brahimi to tell the Syrian president that he was running out of time to make a deal to leave the country safely, along with senior members of his government.
The prospects for a breakthrough seemed dim. Many opposition figures have said they would oppose any deal that would allow Mr. Assad to remain in power. A senior member of Mr. Assad’s Baath Party said Tuesday in Damascus that it was unlikely that the president would accept any offer that curbed his power and prevented him from running in future elections.
Regarding international proposals for a unity government of current officials and members of the opposition, the party member said that Mr. Assad “will accept a national coalition government, but under his command.”
The party member said the only hope for a deal would require Russia and the United States to agree on its outlines, and for Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia to press rebel groups they support to stop fighting.
Mr. Brahimi’s visit to Damascus was not announced beforehand, reflecting security concerns as the fighting draws nearer to the seat of the government’s power. In the last week, emboldened rebel groups have pushed aggressively to capture territory in the capital’s suburbs and near the city of Hama, in west-central Syria.
Heavy fighting was reported Tuesday in the eastern suburbs of Damascus and north of Hama, where government forces and rebels have been fighting each other from neighboring villages. In a statement on Tuesday, the Syrian state news agency said the army was “inflicting heavy losses” on armed groups in the area.
In northwestern Syria, rebels said they had wrested control of the town of Harem, on the border with Turkey, after months of fighting. In October, a Reuters photographer traveled with the rebels as they came under attack from government warplanes and snipers. The photographer witnessed ferocious street battles and scenes of brutality, including what appeared to be at least one summary execution of a government loyalist by armed rebels.
Amateur video posted on the Internet on Tuesday showed rebel fighters strolling through a medieval citadel in the town, gazing up at its stone arches. Government fighters, who had used the fortress as a base, had apparently departed in a hurry, leaving their bedding, pots and pans, a boot, and a helmet behind.
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, and an employee of The New York Times from Damascus, Syria.
26 December 2012 - 04H27
Assad inner circle takes hard line in Syria conflict
AFP - The Syrian vice president's criticism of leader Bashar al-Assad has highlighted the cracks in the regime's highest ranks, pitting supporters of compromise against the president's hardline inner circle.
Assad's closest aides believe the regime should keep fighting and that they can still win a war against rebels which has left more than 44,000 dead in almost two years.
"Power has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of just a few people in Assad's clan, which has grown autistic and seems to have chosen to just keep going," Paris-based expert Karim Bitar told AFP.
Assad's circle includes his brother Maher, 44, who heads the army's elite Fourth Division and his wife Asma, an analyst told AFP on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
The group also includes Assad's notorious businessmen uncle Mohammed Makhluf, 80, cousin Rami Makhluf, 43, and Damascus security chief, Hazem Makhluf, 41.
Like Assad, all are members of the minority Alawite community, except his wife, who is a Sunni Muslim.
Presidential affairs minister since 2009, Mansur Azzam, 52, and former Al-Jazeera journalist Luna al-Shibl are also close to Assad. Both are members of the Druze community.
Alawite Hussam Sukkar, a security advisor to the president, is also key, as are two Sunni veterans: National Security director Ali Mamluk and Political Security chief Rostom Ghazali.
"This is the group that takes the decisions," the analyst said. "Bashar, who runs the show, only listens to people who owe him, for the most part, for their rise."
But several high-level officials, members of the state apparatus and part of the army command, understand -- like Vice President Faruq al-Sharaa -- "that neither the rebels nor the army can secure an all-out victory," said Bitar.
"As such, they are hoping for a negotiated solution, which would prevent them all being swept away should Assad fall,."
In an interview published in a pro-Damascus Lebanese daily, Sharaa, who for 22 years served as foreign minister, said he favours a negotiated solution to the conflict, rather than the president's strategy of crushing the revolt militarily.
Assad "does not hide his desire to press on militarily until the final victory (and he believes that) after this, political dialogue will actually still be possible," Sharaa told Beirut-based Al-Akhbar.
Experts say that out of those who share Sharaa's views, two women stand out.
One of them is Buthaina Shaaban, a 59-year-old Alawite who was close to Assad's father Hafez, and worked as his translator before becoming minister of expatriate affairs. In 2008, Shaaban became Bashar al-Assad's advisor.
The other is Najah al-Attar, a 79-year-old Sunni, who was minister of culture from 1976 to 2000, and was then appointed vice president along with Sharaa in 2006.
"It seems this group has been totally excluded from decision-making, because they think the war should end with no winner or loser," said a former minister who took a distance from the regime when the revolt broke out in March 2011.
Assad's clique, the minister added on condition of anonymity, "treats them like cowards."
The journalist who interviewed the vice president for Al-Akhbar said "Sharaa is not in the decision-making circle, and communicates infrequently with the president."
On Sunday, Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi played down Sharaa's assessment. "It is one opinion among 23 million opinions in Syria, which is a state led by institutions and leaders who will give the final opinion," he said.
After 50 years in power, differences have emerged even among Alawites, as young members of this offshoot of Shiite Islam are killed daily in battle.