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From the comments thread: Green energy

by Sam Roggeveen

Two reader comments I'd like to flag in response to my piece highlighting new research by the Brookings Institution's Charles Frank, written up in The Economist, which suggests renewable energy is still way too expensive to take over from coal, oil and gas.

Here's OfKember:

The basic inadequacy of Frank's analysis is that it takes no account of the amount of emission reduction needed from the power sector over time. Sure, it's cheapest in the short term to switch to gas if you want to go from high- to low-carbon power production (and how is that news?), but by 2050 we need to be approaching a zero-carbon power supply (see the IEA's recent Energy Technology Perspectives report) . Either the new gas plant gets CCS (ed. note: carbon capture and storage) or it has to be replaced before the end of its operating life, either of which rather messes with his comparative costs. (Interestingly he dismisses the prospect of widespread storage by saying the technologiy isn't competitive without subsidies yet - well yes, but it seems odd to suppose it will stay that way for the next forty years.)

Chris Williams wrote:

I am surprised The Interpreter is seduced by The Economist's rubbery economics. In comparative economics of energy, TE's analysis sureptitiously excludes a range of coal power externalities that current debates have exposed as being the 'true' costs of coal power, and which ought to be allocated in any cost-benefit analysis. While economists are about it, they could also declare all the subsidies that coal mining, transportation and generation have been allocated over the years to develop the industry's critical mass. Sure, they are sunk costs now. On a level playing field, however, the renewable energies are not being permitted similar startup costs to reach critical mass, whether these be by government subsidy or by a customer levy which reduces over time.

By mimicking a British magazine, The Interpreter does Australian industry and science a disservice. CSIRO has just developed solar technology that heats water-under-pressure, which was previously a barrier to large-scale solar power plants. China's mainstream media has picked up this breakthrough, but both Australian media and The Economist are notably silent on this significant Australian achievement. It's time for The Interpreter to give credit where it is due. Good on you, CSIRO, keep up the energy breakthroughs so that, one day, Australia may become a technology leader rather than a laggard.


Indonesian corruption watchdog could gum policy works

by Peter McCawley

What should be done about corruption in developing countries? Stephen Grenville discussed this issue in commenting on the recent work of the Indonesian Corruption Eradication Commission (universally known in Indonesia as the KPK or the Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi).

It is important to note that the problem of corruption is hardly ignored in developing countries. In Indonesia, corruption has been at the top of the public policy agenda for decades. Indeed few topics attract more local attention than corruption. When a 'big fish' politician or official is caught by the KPK, it is headline news. TV programs cover the prosecution of leading politicians or officials in vivid detail.

And the KPK has caught some big fish. The recent arrest and subsequent sentencing of Ratu Atut Chosiyah attracted enormous press attention. Ratu Atut had been a high-profile governor of the province of Banten, just to the west of Jakarta. She and her family had built up an extraordinary political dynasty complete with extensive business links across Banten. But recently the KPK moved in on Ratu Atut. She didn't last long once the KPK focused on her and her family, and she is now in jail.

The KPK has caught quite a few other big fish lately too. So the problem of corruption is widely recognised in Indonesia, and institutions such as the KPK are landing some heavy blows.

But Stephen Grenville points to two worrying problems with this aggressive approach. The first is that unless there are reasonable checks and balances on the powers of corruption commissions, gross injustices can occur. The second is that if officials come to live in fear of aggressive anti-corruption campaigns, the bureaucracy will choke up because everybody will avoid taking decisions.

An example of the first problem appears to be recent suggestions that the Vice President of Indonesia, Dr Boediono, might be prosecuted by the KPK for decisions taken by Indonesia's central bank, Bank Indonesia, in 2008 when Dr Boediono was governor.

There are pros and cons to the decisions taken by Bank Indonesia in the midst of a banking crisis at the time. However, these were typical policy decisions that central banks all around the world are expected to take in the midst of a crisis. Yet for several years the KPK has been hounding Bank Indonesia officials for their decisions about monetary policy. KPK has put one senior executive of Bank Indonesia in jail. It seems quite remarkable. But the KPK has the bit between the teeth. The latest indications are that it is quite possible that the KPK will soon focus on Dr Boediono. If so, it will be a gross injustice committed against one of Indonesia's outstanding leaders (disclosure: Dr Boediono is a friend).

The second problem – that the Indonesian bureaucracy will choke up for fear of witch hunts – is just as serious. While the aggressive role of the KPK is to be welcomed, if the result is that bureaucrats all over Indonesia run for cover then government across the nation will clog up. If an attempted prosecution of Dr Boediono were to lead to reluctance on the part of the central bank to take difficult decisions in the midst of a financial crisis, then the consequences for economic management in Indonesia would be serious indeed.

Photo by Flickr user F Mira.


Myanmar: Media freedom and the 'Unity Journal' case

by Rhys Thompson

The 'Unity Journal' case in Myanmar has been cited as an example of media freedom under threat and as proof that reforms are slowing down. The case began with an article published in Unity Journal in early 2014, which claimed that a named defence facility was really a chemical weapons factory. The Government denied the report, claiming the accusations were baseless and highlighting that it relied only on comments from 'locals'.

Officials also reportedly confiscated unsold copies, and arrested and charged the journalists as well as the journal's CEO, citing violations of national security. Following a trial, the group was found guilty of violating the Official Secrets Act of 1923 for trespassing and taking photographs inside a defence facility without permission. In July, they were sentenced to 10 years imprisonment with hard labour.

On The Interpreter, Andrew Selth put the chemical weapons claims in perspective, and Irrawaddy also took a closer look. Many criticised the Government's initial response and the journalists' sentences. Commentaries ranging from Amnesty International to the New York Times condemned the Government response, while some seemed seem to suggest that the quality or accuracy of the story was less relevant than the outcome of the case.

However, the quality and accuracy of the article is relevant, as is the legality of the journalists' behaviour. Critical assessment of this case and the article has generally been neglected in favour of portraying the journalists as victims who were merely 'doing their jobs'. But this is not entirely accurate.

Although the 'chemical weapons' claim was on the Journal's front page and in the article's heading, there were few references to it in the article itself. However, the article did discuss other sensitive issues including alleged land confiscation, and included descriptions and photographs of the site and its (military) personnel, including claims of presence of 'Chinese' workers. Any of these were likely to annoy or embarrass the Government.

The article gained significant international attention and has been described as 'investigative reporting', suggesting it was a well-researched and evidence-backed piece. It wasn't.

The article's sourcing was hazy and questionable. It provided no supporting evidence, especially for the central allegation, despite one of the journalists claiming he had such evidence. The article also lacked a clear focus, dedicating paragraphs to irrelevant information (such as the origins of bricks used at the site and its water and electricity sources). The concluding paragraphs were straight-up opinion.

One Myanmar journalist and political analyst criticised Unity Journal's journalistic ethics for publishing the article, citing the lack of credible evidence, irrelevant information and potentially misleading use of photographs. Bertil Lintner eloquently described the article as 'a crap report' that 'was poorly researched'.

Others in Myanmar understood that the journalists were probably in the wrong. For example, the secretary of the Interim Press Council suggested the Government should forgive the journalists' mistakes, since 'some media people are not professional' and are inexperienced, while U Thiha Saw of the Myanmar Journalists association said that journalists had a duty to maintain ethical standards and strive for accuracy.

It may not be palatable for some, but we need to recognise these faults when using this case in claims about media freedom in Myanmar.

Even if the journalists' claims were accurate, the article did nothing to support or prove this. Conversely, the Government didn't help its cause by initially seizing unsold copies. This made critical assessment, which may have worked in the Government's favour, much harder.

The guilty verdict also shouldn't be surprising. The journalists admitted committing the offences. In an interview shortly after publication, the CEO separately admitted that his staff entered the facility. The legal defence against trespassing (arguing that the facility did not have 'No Entry' signs) was weak, as the journalists admitted knowing it was a defence facility and wrote that locals had been warned about trespassing. As journalists, they would know even without reading the Official Secrets Act or having signage in place that defence sites have restricted access.

The guilty verdict was not surprising, but the sentence of 10 years imprisonment with hard labour was, even if the Official Secrets Act allowed for up to 14 years. While journalists who trespass on military facilities in other countries are also likely to be arrested and charged, their sentences are not likely to be so severe. Moreover, since the Unity staff who were charged each played different roles, and therefore had different degrees of involvement, it doesn't seem fitting that they all received the same sentence. 

The sentence supports a view that the Government was using this case to punish the journalists and send a message to the local media, which is hard to dispute. During the trial, the prosecution reportedly submitted a list of 40 witnesses for what appeared to be a straightforward case. It sent a clear message about how the Government viewed, and would treat, national security issues. Specifically, it served as a warning that the Ministry of Defence and its facilities were off limits.

While there are numerous cases involving official interference with the media that deserve scrutiny, this case is relatively straightforward: The journalists wrote an article of questionable quality whose main claims they did not (and perhaps could not) support, they broke the law while doing so and they were punished for it.

Recent news that an appeal was granted will be welcomed. If successful, it may result in a lighter sentence while still allowing the Government to punish the journalists and send its message. An amnesty is also a future possibility for political leaders.

For now, this is likely of little reassurance to the journalists and their families. But the case serves as a lesson about the importance of journalistic diligence and the standards journalists are supposed to follow. It should also send a message that freedom of the press does not mean journalists are free from their responsibilities, including in complying with local laws and reporting accurately.


China links: Zhou Yongkang, Ethiopia, Japan, climate change, KFC, and more

by Dirk van der Kley

  • Fairfax's former China correspondent John Garnaut tweets about the detention of Zhou Yongkang:

China has four categories of bilateral ties according to levels of friendship: a "relationship of friendship and cooperation" with Russia and other countries; "normal ties" with France, Germany and other countries; the "new type of great power relationship" with the United States; and finally, a "relationship of rivalry," which describes current ties with Japan. 


China's Zhou Yongkang under investigation: What it means

by Vaughan Winterbottom

Yesterday was International Tiger Day, and Chinese President Xi Jinping marked the occasion by hauling in the biggest kill of his 'Tigers and Flies' anti-graft campaign yet: Zhou Yongkang (pictured). Zhou is a retired member of China's most powerful committee and former head of the country's security apparatus. 

The innocuously worded announcement on Zhou's fate came from China's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection last night. He is 'under investigation' on 'suspicion of grave disciplinary violations,' which means he'll almost certainly be jailed for corruption.

Zhou is the highest-ranking member of the Communist Party to be brought down on corruption charges since 1949.

President Xi has said from the start that no Communist Party cadre is off limits when it comes to corruption investigations. This proves it. 

But Zhou's real crimes were likely his association with Bo Xilai and carving out an oil industry and security fiefdom that rivaled the power base built by President Xi on his way up. In this sense, Zhou's downfall is more reminiscent of a Mao-era purge. Many would say it is a purge, the target of which is all and sundry associated with former President Jiang Zemin. 

We'll know soon enough. If Xi's anti-graft drive is an honest attempt by a man who views himself as clean to root out the corruption that pervades the Party, we'd expect the intensity of the campaign to continue. If it wanes, then Zhou was likely the top target of a purge from the start. 

For now, Xi is all powerful. With Zhou, rival princeling Bo and powerful ex-General Xu Caihou (and the military) all brought to heel, the President would seem to have little to gain from expanding the tiger net.

Other big names have been suggested. Malcolm Moore at The Telegraph quotes sources that Wen Jiabao could be next. The former Prime Minister has been on the corruption radar since The New York Times reported in October 2012 that Wen's family had amassed billions during his time in office. The Telegraph also records a connection between Wen's son and Zhou Yongkang's son, Zhou Bin, who was reported as under arrest for dodgy business dealings minutes after news of his father's fate yesterday. 

Writing for the Jamestown Foundation earlier this month, Willy Lam suggests that Xi's 'purge' may now turn to the Communist Youth League and intimate associates of former President Hu Jintao. Lam points to the tightening noose around the neck of Ling Jihua, a close Hu ally. Ling's brother was arrested in June and his brother-in-law was detained in mid-July.

But the downfall of the Communist Youth League didn't start with Xi, and Ling also had a Zhou Yongkang connection. After Ling's son killed himself at the wheel of his Ferrari in March 2012, Jiang Jiemin, the former Chairman of the China National Petroleum Corporation and a Zhou protege, arranged a payment of millions of Yuan to silence the family of a female victim and a surviving passenger. The payment was made at the behest of Zhou, according to Reuters. Jiang was brought down in September last year and investigators have questioned him about the payment.

At present, the CCP's factional rivalries have been smashed. There would seem little incentive — and a lot of disincentives — to go after a names bigger than Zhou. Proceedings against Bo Xilai and ex-General Gu Junshan, whose patron was Xu Caihou, were initiated under the Hu-Wen team, which could suggest some degree of continuity between the administrations. Equally, however, those proceedings could have been an early indication of the power Xi was amassing behind the scenes as the transition took place. 

On an optimistic note, Zhou's fall may be good news for the Chinese economy. Xi likely needed Zhou in the dock to push through promised economic reforms. Powerful interest groups — such as the petroleum industry, atop which sat Zhou's confidants — had stymied reform under the weaker Hu-Wen administration. With Zhou out of the way, Xi may be free to enact the economic reforms pledged at last year's Third Plenum.

Photo by REUTERS/Jason Lee.


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