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Friday Asia Update: Top Five Stories for the Week of April 12, 2013

by Guest Blogger for Elizabeth C. Economy
Japan's Interchange Association Chairman Mitsuo Ohashi (L) shakes hand with Taiwan's Association of East Asian Relations Chairman Liao Liao-yi during the fishery agreement signing ceremony in Taipei on April 10, 2013. Japan's Interchange Association Chairman Mitsuo Ohashi (L) shakes hand with Taiwan's Association of East Asian Relations Chairman Liao Liao-yi during the fishery agreement signing ceremony in Taipei on April 10, 2013. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters)

Sharone Tobias and Will Piekos look at the top five stories in Asia this week.

  1. China’s economy seems a little shakier. A surge in bad-credit loans within the country has China trying to clean up liquidity without slowing growth. China’s plethora of bad loans and unsustainable levels of debt has led Fitch to downgrade China’s yuan-dominated debt from AA- to A+. It is the first time since 1999 that China’s sovereign credit rating was cut. Part of the reasoning for the downgrade was low average incomes, poor standards of governance, and a rapid expansion of credit. Read more »

Domestic Health Challenges and Global Health Governance: The Cases of China and India

by Yanzhong Huang
China's President Hu Jintao shakes hands with Indian's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. China's President Hu Jintao shakes hands with Indian's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (B Mathur/Courtesy Reuters).

It’s been a busy week for global health. With the Indian Supreme Court’s landmark decision to dismiss Novartis AG’s attempt to patent its cancer drug Glivec, the doors for low-cost generic drugs will remain open. At the same time in China, as it’s been covered by me and my colleague Laurie Garrett,  the rise  of  a deadly new bird flu strain has already infected nine people, three of whom have died, in Southeast China. Both developments have tremendous implications for global governance for health. Read more »

The Rise of a Deadly New Strain of Bird Flu: Has China Handled This Properly So Far?

by Yanzhong Huang
Health workers pack dead chicken at a wholesale poultry market in Hong Kong December 21, 2011. Health workers pack dead chicken at a wholesale poultry market in Hong Kong December 21, 2011 (Siu Chiu/Courtesy Reuters).

China has long been perceived as the epicenter of major infectious disease outbreaks. The 2003 SARS crisis was the most recent and notable example. However, over the past months, China has been caught up in a series of public health-related crises, including air pollution in Beijing and dead pigs in Shanghai. So when reports came out over the weekend that a new lethal strain of bird flu, H7N9, was identified in China, it should not be a surprise to anyone. Read more »

Dead Pigs in Shanghai: Failing Food Safety Regulations

by Yanzhong Huang
A villager cuts meat from a dead pig in the Zhulin village of Jiaxing March 12, 2013. A villager cuts meat from a dead pig in the Zhulin village of Jiaxing March 12, 2013. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters)

Last week, thousands of dead pigs were discovered floating in the Huangpu River, which supplies drinking water to Shanghai’s 23 million residents. As of Tuesday evening, sanitation workers have retrieved nearly 6,000 carcasses from the river. The municipal authorities insist that the city’s water supply has not been contaminated, but they did admit that the dead pigs have tested positive for the PCV virus (which causes a sometimes fatal pig disease) as well as other pathogens, including foot and mouth disease (FMD), swine fever, hog cholera, and blue-ear pig disease. Initial investigations have also identified Jiaxing, a city in the neighboring Zhejiang province, as the origin of the dead pigs. Read more »

Poison Air, Dead Pigs, and Cancer Rice: The Reform China Really Needs

by Elizabeth C. Economy
Cleaning workers retrieve the carcasses of pigs from a branch of Huangpu River in Shanghai on March 10, 2013. Cleaning workers retrieve the carcasses of pigs from a branch of Huangpu River in Shanghai on March 10, 2013. (Stringer China/Courtesy Reuters)

The bad news doesn’t stop coming. First, Beijing residents learned that breathing their air on a daily basis was akin to living in a smoking lounge. Then Guangdong residents learned that Hunan rice sold in their province in 2009 was contaminated with cadmium, which is carcinogenic and can cause severe pain in joints and the spine. And just this past weekend, Shanghai residents watched more than three thousand diseased pigs float down part of the city’s Huangpu River. Read more »

Choking to Death: Health Consequences of Air Pollution in China

by Yanzhong Huang
Chinese commuters make their way in heavy smog in Beijing Chinese commuters make their way in heavy smog in Beijing (Reinhard Krause/Courtesy Reuters).

In the past few months, I wrote about the food the Chinese eat, and, more recently, Liz Economy wrote about the water the Chinese drink. But the air that the Chinese breathe is now a major concern. As the nearly 3,000 delegates of the National People’s Congress (NPC) arrive in Beijing to attend the yearly event to formally endorse nominees for key government leadership posts and important national policies, it would be hard for them to ignore the poor air quality in the country’s capital. Last Thursday morning, readings near Tiananmen Square measured the concentration of PM2.5—fine particles in the air that are smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter and are considered dangerous because they tend to penetrate the gas exchange regions of the lungs—at 469 micrograms per cubic meter, which corresponds to a U.S. EPA Air Quality Index reading of 479 (the scale stops at 500). Anything above 301 is considered “hazardous” in that it can cause “serious aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly,” and there is a “serious risk of respiratory effects in general population.” The PM2.5 levels in other famously polluted cities pale in comparison to those in Beijing; for instance, the highest PM2.5 level in a 24-period recorded in Los Angeles was 43 micrograms per cubic meter. Read more »

Ten Years after SARS: Five Myths to Unravel

by Yanzhong Huang
Observers look out of windows as "patients" walk past during a SARS outbreak drill in Hong Kong November 19, 2004. (Bobby Yip/Courtesy Reuters) Observers look out of windows as "patients" walk past during a SARS outbreak drill in Hong Kong November 19, 2004. (Bobby Yip/Courtesy Reuters)

Last week, I was in Beijing for an international conference while the city experienced record levels of air pollution. I had a feeling of déjà vu as I saw people wearing face masks. Ten years ago, at the height of the SARS epidemic, a sea of people in white masks—most of them scared migrant workers and university students—flocked to train and bus stations and airports in the hope of fleeing the city. Then, face masks were a symbol of the fear of a deadly and seemingly omnipresent virus that was responsible for 349 deaths and over 5,300 infections in China alone. As the first severe infectious disease to emerge in the twenty-first century, SARS caused the most serious socio-political crisis for the Chinese leadership since the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. Read more »

Presidential Inbox: Integrating Global Health Into the Pivot Strategy

by Yanzhong Huang
U.S. President Obama is followed by his staff as he leaves the Plenary session of the 21st ASEAN and East Asia summit in Phnom Penh (Damir Sagolj/Courtesy Reuters). U.S. President Obama is followed by his staff as he leaves the Plenary session of the 21st ASEAN and East Asia summit in Phnom Penh (Damir Sagolj/Courtesy Reuters).

Mr. President, as you begin your second term, you and your Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping both face the challenge of building a mature and mutually beneficial bilateral relationship.  There is no need to belabor the strategic importance of the Sino-American relations for the United States.  Indeed, one may argue that it is precisely the strategic dynamics driven by China’s rise that led to your critical decision to pivot to Asia. Read more »

Getting at the Heart of China’s Public Health Crisis

by Elizabeth C. Economy
A nurse gives an infected patient medicine as she lies in her bed at the HIV/AIDS ward of Beijing YouAn Hospital on December 1, 2011. A nurse gives an infected patient medicine as she lies in her bed at the HIV/AIDS ward of Beijing YouAn Hospital on December 1, 2011. (David Gray/Reuters)

Trying to wrap one’s arms around China today is a significant challenge. It is a global power with a growing economy, rising military, and expanding diplomatic reach. Yet there continues to be a gnawing sense in and outside China that all is not quite right. Whether it is the 180,000 protests annually, the growing flight of capital and people to the West, or the potentially ruinous impact of corruption on the Communist Party’s legitimacy, uncertainty about China and its future is much greater than the country’s impressive global standing might suggest. Read more »

Why Is It in China’s Interest to Promote Health Security in Southeast Asia?

by Yanzhong Huang
Dead ducks are hung at a farm in the outskirts of Phnom Penh December 17, 2008. Cambodia began culling poultry near its capital on Wednesday, officials said, five days after a young man from the area was confirmed with H5N1 bird flu by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the government (Chor Sokunthea/Courtesy Reuters). Dead ducks are hung at a farm in the outskirts of Phnom Penh December 17, 2008. Cambodia began culling poultry near its capital on Wednesday, officials said, five days after a young man from the area was confirmed with H5N1 bird flu by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the government (Chor Sokunthea/Courtesy Reuters).

If there is a buzzword one needs to know to understand U.S. foreign policy toward Asia in 2013, it is “rebalancing,” or in the words of President Obama “pivoting.” Rebalancing is of course not solely about military redeployment. Indeed, a critical element of the U.S. rebalancing strategy in the region is to nurture partnerships with countries and international institutions to address common threats in areas such as regional health security. Read more »