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UK wants global deal to stop financing coal projects

UK wants global deal to stop financing coal projects

15-May-2021 Intellasia |
Reuters |
5:02 AM

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Britain wants to broker a global agreement to stop the cross-border financing of coal projects when it hosts a major climate conference in November, a senior government minister said on Friday.

Alok Sharma, the minister in charge of preparations for the United Nations COP26 summit in Glasgow, said significant action was needed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, a threshold scientists say can prevent the worst impacts of climate change.

“If we are serious about 1.5 degrees, Glasgow must be the COP that consigns coal to history,” Sharma said in extracts of a speech he is due to deliver later on Friday.

“We are working directly with governments, and through international organisations, to end international coal financing. This is a personal priority,” he added.

Britain currently generates 2 percent of its electricity from coal, down from 40 percent in 2020, and it plans to completely phase out coal as a power source by 2024.

But environmental campaigners say British financial institutions play a major role in funding coal mines and coal-fired power stations elsewhere in the world.

Coal remains widely used for electricity and other industrial purposes in China, where President Xi Jinping has said he expects carbon emissions to continue rising until 2030.

British prime minister Boris Johnson has committed to lower the country’s greenhouse gas emissions to 78 percent of their level in 1990 by 2035, and to cut net emissions to zero by 2050.

And last month the United States, the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter after China, said it would seek to halve its emissions from their 2005 level by 2030.

https://www.reuters.com/business/sustainable-business/uk-wants-global-deal-stop-financing-coal-projects-2021-05-13/

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Anti-monopoly fine pushes Alibaba to first operating loss as public company

Anti-monopoly fine pushes Alibaba to first operating loss as public company

15-May-2021 Intellasia |
South China Morning Post |
5:02 AM

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China’s top e-commerce platform Alibaba Group Holding Ltd (9988.HK), on Thursday posted its first quarterly operating loss since going public in 2014 due to a record anti-monopoly fine by the country’s market regulator.

Its US-listed shares fell nearly 3 percent in choppy trading, even as the company forecast strong 2022 revenue, betting that the pandemic-driven shift to online shopping will remain resilient.

The outlook, however, was overshadowed by a regulatory crackdown in China that led to the suspension of a $37 billion IPO of its affiliate Ant Group and a $2.8 billion fine in April for anti-competitive business practices. read more

The fine led to a 7.66 billion yuan ($1.19 billion)operating loss in the fourth quarter ended March 31.

“The Penalty Decision motivated us to reflect on the relationship between a platform economy and society, as well as our social responsibilities and commitments,” Chief Executive Daniel Zhang said in an earnings call.

Alibaba forecast annual revenue of 930 billion yuan ($144.12 billion) for the year ending March 2022, above expectation of 928.25 billion yuan.

Core commerce revenue rose 72 percent to 161.37 billion yuan in the fourth quarter. But growth at its cloud computing unit slowed to 37 percent to 16.8 billion yuan from 58 percent a year earlier, its weakest since at least 2016.

Alibaba said it was due to a top customer with a “siseable presence outside of China” ending its business for “non-product related reasons.”

Overall revenue rose to 187.4 billion yuan in the fourth quarter, topping a Refinitiv forecast of 180.41 billion yuan.

Alibaba’s US listed shares have fallen more than 30 percent since hitting a record high in late October when its founder Jack Ma delivered a speech in Shanghai criticising China’s financial regulators.

The sinking share price reflects investor anxiety over regulation, said Brock Silvers, chief investment officer at Hong Kong-based Adamas Asset Management.

“The company has faced rogue waves of regulatory risk, which now threaten the entire tech sector.”

($1 = 6.4545 Chinese yuan renminbi)

https://www.reuters.com/technology/alibaba-beats-quarterly-revenue-expectation-2021-05-13/

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US says condemns political use of vaccines after China-Taiwan tussle

US says condemns political use of vaccines after China-Taiwan tussle

15-May-2021 Intellasia |
Reuters |
5:02 AM

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The United States stands with Honduras and condemns the “cynical use” of COVID-19 vaccines for political purposes, the State Department said, after Taiwan blasted China for seeking to use vaccines to make diplomatic inroads with one of Taipei’s allies.

Honduras, among a small number of Latin American countries to maintain diplomatic ties with Taiwan, has said it was considering opening an office in China in a bid to acquire much needed COVID-19 shots, prompting Taipei to criticise Beijing for pushing a vaccine-for-recognition deal. read more

Several Latin American nations are receiving Chinese vaccines, but countries such as Honduras and Guatemala that have built ties with democratic Taiwan which Beijing considers a breakaway province are not. read more

“We condemn the cynical use of potentially life-saving medical assistance to advance the narrow political agendas of certain donors,” a State Department spokesman told Reuters without mentioning China when asked about the situation involving Honduras.

“Taiwan’s relationships with countries in the region, including Honduras, reinforce the hemisphere’s democratic values and support sustainable development,” the spokesman said, adding that the United States “stands with Honduras as it confronts these challenging times.”

China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying responded at a daily news conference in Beijing on Friday, accusing the United States of double standards and of hoarding vaccines while not assisting other countries.

Taiwan has complained that China is applying similar pressure to Paraguay, one of just 15 countries that formally recognise the self-governed island over Beijing.

China, Russia, and the United States have sought to deepen ties around the world and further their countries’ geopolitical clout through so-called “vaccine diplomacy”.

The Chinese government, which has been exporting millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines mainly to developing countries, has repeatedly denied that it uses them to gain diplomatic advantage. read more

Beijing has been gradually whittling away at Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, which has alarmed Washington, nervous about an increased Chinese presence in Latin America and the Pacific where those allies are concentrated.

The United States earlier this month backed calls from emerging countries led by India and South Africa to temporarily lift patent protection for COVID-19 vaccines in the race to distribute more doses globally.

https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/us-condemns-political-use-vaccines-after-china-taiwan-tussle-2021-05-13/

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US Secretary of State says China ‘criminalises religious expression’ as report on religious freedom is released

US Secretary of State says China ‘criminalises religious expression’ as report on religious freedom is released

15-May-2021 Intellasia |
South China Morning Post |
5:02 AM

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The US State Department released its annual report on the state of religious freedom around the world on Wednesday, slamming Beijing for suppressing Christians, Uygur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists and sanctioning a senior Communist Party official.

In releasing the 2020 Report on International Religious Freedom, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Chinese Communist Party official Yu Hui, the former director of a Chengdu office aimed at suppressing “heretical religions”, would be denied entry to the United States, along with his immediate family.

“He is designated for his involvement in gross violations of human rights, namely the arbitrary detention of Falun Gong practitioners for their spiritual beliefs,” said Blinken, referring to the exercise and meditation group founded in 1992 and banned in China as an “evil cult” in 1999.

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“We will continue to consider all appropriate tools to promote accountability for those responsible for human rights violations and abuses in China,” Blinken added.

The 2,400-page survey examined religious tolerance in some 200 countries and territories. China accounted for the largest section, and the State Department cited persistent reports of Chinese human rights violations, including torture, physical abuse, arrests, detention, forced indoctrination of Communist Party ideology and deaths in custody of religious believers.

“China broadly criminalises religious expression and continues to commit crimes against humanity and genocide against Muslim Uygurs and members of other religious and ethnic minority groups,” Blinken told reporters.

Separately, John Kerry, the US special envoy on climate, told Congress on Wednesday that the Biden administration was considering whether to impose sanctions on solar panels and other products made in Xinjiang believed to have been made using Uygur forced labour.

China only recognises five official religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism. And in theory, to hold worship services, religious groups must register and belong to one of five state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations”, though many unofficial groups operate without approval.

The report found that the Chinese government “continued its 2019-2024 campaign of ‘Sinicisation’ to bring all religious doctrine and practice in line with CCP doctrine, including by requiring clergy of all faiths to attend political indoctrination sessions, monitoring religious services, preapproving sermons, and altering religious texts”.

Washington designated China in 1999 a “country of particular interest” a term to express concern over its suppression of religious beliefs and it has remained on the list ever since. In 2020, it was one of 10 nations so designated, along with others including Iran, Myanmar, Russia, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia.

“One might say they are charter members of the country-of-particular-concern club,” Daniel Nadel, director of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, said in an interview.

While the Biden administration in its first four months has often sought to draw a sharp line between itself and the often-mercurial Trump administration on policy and tone, the report suggested a strong continuity on religion.

On issues of religious expression, Nadel said, there was virtually no daylight between Republicans and Democrats on their view of China or broader concerns.

“Religious freedom has been an unbelievably bipartisan effort,” he said. “Our relationship with China will be competitive where it should be, collaborative where it can be and adversarial where it must be.

“And unfortunately when it comes to issues of fundamental freedoms, there is no path but an adversarial approach.”

According to the State Council, China’s cabinet, the county of 1.4 billion has more than 200 million religious adherents international civic groups estimate it is nearly double that figure and around 5,500 religious groups.

The US estimates that Buddhists make up around 18.2 per cent, Christians 5.1 per cent, Muslims 1.8 per cent, followers of folk religions 21.9 per cent and atheists some 52.2 per cent of the population. Hindus, Taoists and Jews make up less than one per cent.

The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment on the report. But Beijing has frequently condemned the US for what it terms its meddling, hypocrisy and attempts to impose its human rights standards on the rest of the world.

In March, Beijing released an 18-page report analysing the US human rights record that cited racial injustice, gun violence and the US response to the pandemic. The United States “has always considered itself an exception and superior” and “sees itself as “the so-called ‘city upon a hill’ and ‘beacon of democracy’”, it said.

Nadel said that the US welcomes scrutiny and is hardly perfect, adding that it has a series of institutions including rule of law, a free media, an independent judiciary and periodic elections “so you can vote the bums out” when officials fall short.

“None of these checks are available to the vast majority of Chinese people,” he said. “They are simply subjects of their government, rather than participants in their government.”

The State Department report said that religious groups in Hong Kong were divided about how the national security law Beijing imposed on the city last summer would affect worship. In 2020, religious freedom remained unchanged, the groups reportedly said, “although they expressed concerns about possible future encroachment by PRC authorities”.

The State Department cited a huge gap between Chinese religious freedoms and the wide latitude Chinese officials have to limit worship to “normal religious activities” without defining “normal”.

In the Tibetan region, it said, reports persist of “forced disappearances, arrests, torture, physical abuse, and prolonged detentions without trial of individuals due to their religious practices”.

And in Xinjiang, it added, Uygurs were subject to political indoctrination, torture, physical and psychological abuse, forced sterilisation, sexual abuse and forced labour, among other practices, due to their religion and ethnicity.

“There’s no question that the PRC government is among the worst abusers of religious freedom in the entire world,” Nadel said.

https://sg.news.yahoo.com/us-secretary-state-says-china-222313938.html

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Danone to return most of Chinese divestment proceeds to shareholders

Danone to return most of Chinese divestment proceeds to shareholders

15-May-2021 Intellasia |
Reuters |
5:02 AM

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French food group Danone (DANO.PA) on Thursday said that most of the proceeds from a $2 billion divestment of its stake in China Mengniu Dairy Company (2319.HK) will be returned to shareholders through a share buyback programme, it said on Thursday.

Danone, under pressure from investment funds over its shareholder returns, on Wednesday said it would sell its 9.8 percent stake in Chine Mengniu Dairy.

“The transaction resulted in total gross proceeds of 15.4 billion Hong Kong dollars, representing about 1.6 billion euros ($1.94 billion). The settlement of the transaction will take place on May 17,” Danone said.

Shares in the French company, the brands of which include Actimel yoghurt and Evian water, fell 0.6 percent in early trading, outperforming a 1.8 percent decline for the CAC 40 (.FCHI) index in Paris.

Former Danone boss Emmanuel Faber was ousted as chair and CEO this year after clashes with some board members over strategy and calls from activist funds for him to resign over the group’s lacklustre returns compared with some rivals.

French paper Les Echos this week reported that Antoine de Saint-Affrique was frontrunner to become Danone’s new CEO. Danone declined to comment on that report.

($1 = 0.8266 euros)

https://www.reuters.com/world/china/danone-return-most-chinese-divestment-proceeds-shareholders-2021-05-13/

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Record fine drags e-commerce giant Alibaba to rare loss

Record fine drags e-commerce giant Alibaba to rare loss

15-May-2021 Intellasia |
AFP |
5:02 AM

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Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group said Thursday it fell to a $1.17 billion operational loss in its latest financial quarter due to a record fine levied by the government for anti-competitive practises.

The Hangzhou-based company was fined 18.2 billion yuan ($2.78 billion) last month, as part of a push by regulators to rein in dominant digital platforms that have achieved unprecedented influence over the daily lives of hundreds of millions of Chinese consumers.

Alibaba said however that its business continued to post solid growth and that without the hole blown in its finances by the fine, it would have achieved an operating profit of $1.6 billion in the January-March period, up 48 percent.

Alibaba, Tencent, JD.com and other big tech players became hugely profitable on growing Chinese digital lifestyles, plus government restrictions on major US competitors in the domestic market.

But concern has risen over their influence in China, where tech-savvy consumers use them to communicate, shop, pay bills, book taxis, take out loans and a range of other daily tasks.

Alibaba has faced particular scrutiny after billionaire co-founder Jack Ma publicly criticised Chinese regulators in October for reining in a push into online lending, wealth management and insurance products by Alibaba’s online payments arm Ant Group.

The government said it imposed the fine over Alibaba’s practise of forbidding merchants who wish to sell their wares on its popular online marketplaces from simultaneously offering them on rival e-commerce sites, saying the company had “abused its dominant position in the market.”

Concern over Big Tech

Alibaba officials subsequently vowed to make operational adjustments to address the criticisms but have shrugged off any business impact.

In its Thursday earnings announcement, Alibaba said little about the affair, focusing instead on its otherwise solid business performance.

It said that in the full fiscal year ending March 31 its revenues grew 41 percent, though full-year operating profit was flat due to the fine.

In a statement accompanying the earnings, CEO Daniel Zhang said Alibaba would continue to “support our merchants and invest into new businesses and key strategic areas.”

The Alibaba fine was a record and nearly three times the almost $1 billion levied by China against Qualcomm in 2015, Bloomberg said.

Even before the fine, the regulatory crackdown had cost Ma and Ant Group dearly.

A planned record-shattering $35 billion Hong Kong-Shanghai IPO by Ant Group, which would have added to Ma’s already massive wealth, was abruptly shelved.

Ma subsequently disappeared from public view for weeks, and Ant Group was ordered by regulators to return to its roots as an online payment services provider.

The government crackdown has weighed on Alibaba shares as well as those of other major Chinese tech players amid fears that they also might face further fines and restrictions.

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year that Alibaba was also being pushed to shed wide-ranging media assets, including a potential sale of Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post.

The Chinese government moves echo global concern over the increasing clout of Big Tech that has Facebook, Google and others also facing scrutiny at home and abroad.

https://sg.news.yahoo.com/record-fine-drags-e-commerce-114623953.html

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Alibaba posts first quarterly loss in nine years after $2.8 billion antitrust fine, spoiling the sales surge on consumer recovery

Alibaba posts first quarterly loss in nine years after $2.8 billion antitrust fine, spoiling the sales surge on consumer recovery

15-May-2021 Intellasia |
South China Morning Post |
5:02 AM

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Alibaba Group Holding Limited swung to a loss in its final quarter after swallowing a record fine by China’s antitrust regulators, but reported sales that surpassed forecasts as retail consumption in its home market grew with China’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

The company reported a loss of 7.65 billion yuan (US$1.185 billion), after accounting for 18.2 billion yuan in fines to the State Administration for Market Regulation (SAMR). Sales jumped 64 per cent to 187.4 billion yuan for the three months ended March, in line with analysts’ estimates.

Full-year revenue rose 41 per cent to 717.3 billion yuan. The company, which owns this newspaper, had projected full-year revenue to jump 82 per cent to a record 930 billion yuan, as consumption in its home market mostly recovered from the coronavirus pandemic. The strong results propelled Hangzhou-based Alibaba, which operates e-payment services, cloud computing and the world’s largest online shopping platforms, to its most profitable year since its establishment 21 years ago in the apartment of former English teacher Jack Ma.

“Revenue was ahead, with customer management revenue broadly in line with expectations, but a larger-than-expected step-up in investment led to a material adjusted Ebita [earnings before interest, taxes, and amortisation] miss,” Atlantic Equities analyst James Cordwell told Bloomberg. Cordwell has an overweight rating on Alibaba.

Alibaba chair and chief executive Daniel Zhang Yong was keen to play up growth in consumers amid the pandemic.

“We have gone through all kinds of challenges, including Covid-19, fierce competition, as well as the anti-monopoly investigation,” Zhang said in an earnings call with analysts, noting that the company reached the milestone of one billion annual active customers. “We plan to invest all of our incremental profits in the coming year into core strategic areas such as technology innovation, support for merchants to lower their operating costs, user acquisition and experience enhancement.”

The stronger-than-expected financial earnings show how one of China’s largest home-grown technology companies has managed to emerge from nearly half a year of regulatory scrutiny by SAMR, which began last Christmas Eve and ended in a record fine on April 10. The company, which earned a fourth-quarter profit of 3.2 billion yuan in the previous financial year, said it would pay the penalty out of its financial reserves.

Active consumers on the company’s e-commerce retail platforms rose 41 per cent in Alibaba’s last financial year to 811 million users, beating the 788.4 million customers at Pinduoduo, and helping to bolster the annual gross merchandise volume (GMV) to a record $1.2 trillion. The company aims to grow its customer base to surpass 1 billion by the end of this financial year.

Alibaba is China’s largest provider of cloud computing services, competing with Amazon, Microsoft and Tencent Holdings. The division’s revenue grew 50 per cent last year to 60.12 billion yuan, driven by customers in the internet, public sector and financial industries, with the quarter’s growth increasing 37 per cent to 16.76 billion, Alibaba said.

Alibaba “remains committed to investment in globalisation and the enterprise internet, which could drive long-term revenue and earnings growth, ” Huatai Securities wrote in a research report.

Alibaba’s shares have fallen by about a third since its record in late October, just before China’s regulators abruptly halted the $35 billion initial public offering (IPO) by its Ant Group affiliate. Since then, the company had been under a cloud of antitrust investigations, with official probes kicking off on Christmas Eve and culminating in the fine on Alibaba last month.

In a sign that the worst may be over, Ant Group the world’s largest fintech company by value before its IPO was pulled had its financial license renewed today by the People’s Bank of China. Alibaba’s founder Ma, the controlling shareholder of Ant Group, made a rare public appearance three days earlier at Alibaba’s campus in Hangzhou during the company’s family day. Ma retired as Alibaba’s chair in 2019 on his 55th birthday.

“The penalty decision [by SAMR] has motivated us to reflect on the relationship between the platform economy and society, ” said Zhang, who took over from Ma, on the company’s earnings call. “As well as our social responsibilities and commitments we believe that the self reflection and adjustments we’ve made, will help us better serve our community of consumers, merchants and our partners into the future.”

Zhang acknowledged on the call that the SAMR penalty had resulted in an operating loss for the quarter, the first in Alibaba’s history as a public company.

“The increase in revenue came mainly from Alibaba’s existing channels and platforms, but it is facing fierce competition now from the likes of Pinduoduo and JD.com,” said Li Chengdong, chief executive of e-commerce consultancy Dolphin Think Tank. “It could lose its edge easily. Besides, the showdown over the anti-monopoly investigation is not over yet, so there’s still uncertainty.”

Alibaba’s share price has dropped 8 per cent since the start of the year, closing at HK$213.2 in Hong Kong on Thursday before the latest quarterly results were announced. Alibaba’s US-listed shares were down about 3 per cent at $213.3 in early New York trading on Thursday.

https://www.scmp.com/tech/big-tech/article/3133384/alibaba-swings-fourth-quarter-loss-after-swallowing-us28 billion

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China’s SMIC raises revenue expectations following strong Q1 as chip shortage boosts demand

China’s SMIC raises revenue expectations following strong Q1 as chip shortage boosts demand

15-May-2021 Intellasia |
South China Morning Post |
5:02 AM

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China’s Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp (SMIC) (0981.HK) said on Friday that demand for chips exceeds supply, and raised its expectations for sales for the first half of the year.

“Our current capacity could not fulfill customer needs, and products in every market segment faced shortages,” Zhao Haijun, co-chief executive of SMIC, said in a company earnings call.

SMIC reported sales of $1.1 billion in Q1 2021, a year-on-year increase of 22%, and gross profit reached $250 million, a 7.1 percent increase.

The company said it expected revenue of $2.4 billion for the first half of the year, which it called “higher than expected.”

Shares in the company rose as much as 4.4 percent in Hong Kong.

Speaking with investors and analysts, Zhao said the company was working to rapidly expand capacity, with some facilities moving ahead of schedule.

He added that demand for internet-of-things related chips, such as WiFi modules and micro-controller units, remained in tight supply across the industry.

Backed in part by state funding, SMIC is a key player in China’s efforts to boost its domestic semiconductor manufacturing capabilities.

In March, the company announced it would invest $2.35 billion with the government of Shenzhen to build a new fabrication plant capable of producing 40,000 wafers per month.

Last year, the Trump administration placed sanctions on the company that curbed US equipment makers from supplying it.

In an earnings call, Zhao said these restrictions have created uncertainties for its capacity expansion plans. However, Zhao added, the company remains in communication with relevant governments and has seen “lots of progress.’

https://www.reuters.com/technology/chinas-smic-raises-revenue-expectations-following-strong-q1-chip-shortage-boosts-2021-05-14/

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Chinese Premier Li Keqiang offers more support for research

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang offers more support for research

15-May-2021 Intellasia |
South China Morning Post |
5:02 AM

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Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has called for the country to foster an environment that respects science and cherishes talent, while improving the education system and allowing greater autonomy for research teams.

“Talent training should focus on basic skills to lay a solid foundation of fundamental knowledge and theories,” he said at a meeting in Beijing to discuss a government allowance system for academics, scientists and researchers.

“We will increase support for basic and long-term research that [will] require long-standing commitments.

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“For the economy and society to develop, it takes a good business environment and circumstances conducive to growth and achievement of talent,” he said.

The allowance system has been around for about 30 years and provides funding and honorary titles to outstanding professionals from fields such as medicine, engineering and economics. Li said the honours had encouraged people to contribute to the country’s growth.

Several recipients of such honours and funds were at the meeting to provide their ideas on how China should improve its research capabilities and promote international exchanges.

In March, China unveiled its plans to become a global leader by 2035 by emphasising growth through quality rather than quantity. This will include becoming an “engine for innovation” and raising average incomes to levels found in developed countries.

In an article published on the East Asia Forum website on Sunday, former United States assistant secretary of defence Chas Freeman said Beijing was “not breaking stride” in its push for technological development.

“China has many problems, but it has its act together and appears on top of them,” he said.

“It is investing 8 per cent more each year in education. China already accounts for a quarter of the world’s STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] workforce. Its science investment is almost on par with that of the United States and rising at an annual rate of 10 per cent as America’s falls.”

Beijing has sought to play down its state-backed recruitment drive known as the Thousand Talents Plan that was set up in 2008 to attract overseas Chinese students and academics particularly those in the science and technology field.

In 2018, the US National Intelligence Council, a branch of the Pentagon, described the scheme as an effort “to facilitate the legal and illicit transfer of US technology, intellectual property and know-how” to China.

https://sg.news.yahoo.com/chinese-premier-li-keqiang-offers-092931089.html

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China prepares to land first rover on Mars and reveal fresh geological insights

China prepares to land first rover on Mars and reveal fresh geological insights

15-May-2021 Intellasia |
Nature |
5:02 AM

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Five rovers have successfully explored the surface of Mars, but by next week it could be six. China’s Tianwen-1 spacecraft, currently in orbit around the Red Planet, is preparing to drop a lander and rover completing the most perilous stage of its ten-month mission.

It is China’s first mission to Mars, and if successful it will make the nation only the third after Russia and the United States to have landed a spacecraft on the planet. The mission “is a big leap for China because they are doing in a single go what NASA took decades to do,” says Roberto Orosei, a planetary scientist at the Institute of Radioastronomy of Bologna in Italy.

The China National Space Administration (CNSA) is remaining tight-lipped about exactly when its rover, named Zhurong after a Chinese mythological god of fire will touch down.

If it succeeds, it will join several other active missions at Mars. NASA’s Perseverance rover, which arrived on 18 February, is several hundred kilometres away from the possible landing site, while NASA’s Curiosity rover has been poking around the planet since 2012. Several spacecraft are also circling Mars, including the United Arab Emirates’ Hope orbiter, which also arrived in February. “The more the merrier on Mars,” says David Flannery, an astrobiologist at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia.

Researchers say that the engineering feat of getting there has taken precedence over science in China’s first tour of Mars, but the mission could still reveal new geological information. They are especially excited about the possible detection of permafrost in Utopia Planitia, the region in the northern hemisphere of Mars where Zhurong will land (see ‘Landing site’).

Biggest test yet

Tianwen-1 includes an orbiter, a lander and a rover making it the first mission to send all three elements to the planet. The spacecraft departed Earth in July 2020 and arrived at Mars in February 2021, but the landing will be the biggest test yet of China’s nascent deep-space exploration capabilities.

The rover could arrive within days, but the CNSA has revealed few details. And scientists in China involved with the mission did not respond to Nature’s requests for interviews before the landing; other researchers say the reason for this is likely to be the high risk of failure.

Landing on Mars is notoriously difficult, not least because engineers back on Earth have no control over it in real time, and must leave pre-programmed instructions to play out. Many missions have been lost, or have crashed on arrival.

In 1997, NASA’s Mars Pathfinder sent its first rover, named Sojourner, to a rocky region of the planet. “We didn’t get a lot of amazing science from that mission, but it paved the way for much more capable autonomous rovers, and now we are reaping the benefits of those missions,” says Flannery, who is working on Perseverance, NASA’s fifth Mars rover.

What to expect

On landing day, the orbiter will release the lander and rover, which will hurtle towards the surface, protected by a heat shield. As the probe closes in on Mars, it will release a parachute to slow its progress, and then use rocket boosters to brake and hover above the ground while a laser-guided system assesses the area for obstacles such as boulders before landing.

A few days later, the six-wheeled solar-powered rover will trundle off the lander to explore for at least three months but it could survive for years, as NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers did.

Utopia Planitia, the designated landing area, is a wide, flat expanse in a vast, feature-less basin that formed when a smaller object smashed into Mars some billions of years ago.

The basin’s surface is mostly covered in volcanic material, which could have been modified by more-recent processes, such as the repeated freezing and thawing of ice. Orosei says that studies of the region from Mars’s orbit suggest that a layer of permafrost could be hiding just below the surface.

In 1975, NASA’s Viking 2 mission also landed on Utopia Planitia, but further north of where Zhurong is scheduled to touch down. “It’s a good place to try a first landing,” explains Flannery. The low altitude, clear terrain and potential for finding ice in the subsurface also means that future missions might be able to collect samples there, and that the region could make a good landing site for crewed missions, he says.

To the west of Zhurong’s landing region, Perseverance is prowling Jezero Crater, and could even get a glimpse of the new visitor if it lands within 200 kilometres and at night, says Flannery.

Measuring Mars

Zhurong is kitted with six instruments for exploring the Martian environment (see ‘Zhurong’). Two cameras are fitted on a mast to take images of nearby rocks while stationary, which will be used to plan the journeys it takes. A multispectral camera placed between these two navigation imagers will reveal the minerals present in these rocks.

Like Perseverance, Zhurong has ground-penetrating radar. As it winds its way across the basin, this will reveal geological processes that led to the formation of the regions it travels through. With luck, Zhurong might detect the thin horizon that marks any permafrost, says Orosei. Knowing how deep this lies and its general characteristics could offer insights into more recent climate changes on Mars, and reveal the fate of ancient water that could have once soaked the surface, he says.

If the team is really fortunate, they might even find some very ancient rocks, which might offer a window into Earth’s own history, where most similar evidence has been destroyed by plate tectonics, says Joseph Michalski, a planetary scientist at The University of Hong Kong.

Zhurong’s spectrometer includes a laser-based technology that can zap rocks to study their makeup. It will also be the first rover equipped with a magnetometer to measure the magnetic field in its vicinity. The instrument could provide insights into how Mars lost its strong magnetic field, an event that transformed the planet into a cold, dry place, uninviting to life.

Orbital insights

From orbit, Tianwen-1 will communicate Zhurong’s insights to Earth. But the orbiter will also make its own scientific contributions with its seven instruments, including cameras, ground-penetrating radar, and a spectrometer.

A magnetometer and particle analysers will study the boundary between the higher Martian atmosphere and solar winds to better understand how its magnetic field operates today. Combined with data from other orbiters studying the planet’s upper atmosphere, it will offer researchers, “a much better picture of what goes on around Mars,” says Orosei.

A successful Mars landing could usher in more advanced Chinese missions, including a planned sample-return by 2030.

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-01301-7

Category: China

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