TIME China

China’s Economy Registers Weakest Economic Growth in 24 Years

CHINA-STOCKS
A stock investor gestures as he checks share prices at a securities firm in Fuyang, China, on Jan. 19, 2015 AFP/Getty Images

Beijing said the country’s economic performance in 2014 was the “new normal”

China’s economy expanded by just 7.4% in 2014, undercutting earlier official forecasts and registering the Asian superpower’s weakest economic growth in 24 years, according to data released by the National Bureau of Statistics on Tuesday.

Late last year, authorities released official forecasts putting growth in 2014 at 7.5%. Tuesday’s revelation marked the first time in 16 years that the country’s economic performance missed the government’s annual target. However, authorities have largely tried to paper over the misstep.

“China has entered a new normal of economic growth,” Li Baodong, a Vice Foreign Minister, told reporters on Friday, according to Agence France-Presse. “That is to say we are going through structural adjustment and the structural adjustment is progressing steadily.”

Yet experts were not so quick to downplay China’s soaring debt, weak and volatile real estate market and plummeting domestic demand.

“Among all the problems, the biggest one is low domestic demand and the other is overcapacity. And when the global economy is not great, exporting is affected,” Chenggang Xu, a professor in economic development at the University of Hong Kong, tells TIME. “In the near future, we’ll see it slowdown further.”

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has predicted additional cooling of the world’s most populous nation’s economy in 2015, and suggested that growth would drop well below 7%, reverberating in markets across the region.

Despite efforts by Beijing to reduce vulnerabilities from recent rapid credit and investment growth, this looming slump “is affecting the rest of Asia,” said the IMF report on Tuesday.

The release of China’s economic data for 2014 coincided with revised predictions on global economic growth from the IMF. On Tuesday, the institution ratcheted down expectations for the world’s economy in 2015, forecasting that growth this year would hover around 3.5%, down from their initial estimate of 3.8%.

TIME contraception

Pope Francis Tells Catholics That They Shouldn’t Be Breeding ‘Like Rabbits’

After hopping around Asia, the Pontiff condemns artificial contraception

Pope Francis used his return journey from Asia to insist that the Catholic Church’s prohibition on artificial contraception does not necessitate followers bearing an enormous brood of children.

“Some think, excuse me if I use the word, that in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits — but no,” the 78-year-old Argentine told reporters while flying from the Philippines back to Rome, reports Reuters.

Francis spoke of meeting a Filipina woman who had risked her life to give birth to seven children, and revealed that he scolded her for her “irresponsibility.” He has developed a reputation for using plain, colloquial language to get his points across.

But despite garnering praise as a liberal reformer, Francis continues to condemn artificial birth-control methods, criticizing the Philippines’ recent legislation to make contraceptives more easily available to the public. He called these laws “ideological colonization,” claiming they conflict with traditional family values. (Advocates insist birth control empowers women and guards against sexually transmitted diseases.)

Francis explained that there are church-approved natural contraceptive methods that can prevent Catholics from having too many children. These consist primarily of abstinence while a woman is fertile.

[Reuters]

TIME Asia

Pope’s Trip to Sri Lanka and the Philippines: 5 Things to Know

(VATICAN CITY) — Pope Francis embarks on his second Asian pilgrimage this week, visiting Sri Lanka and the Philippines exactly 20 years after St. John Paul II’s record-making visit to two countries with wildly disparate Catholic populations. Francis will make headlines of his own, drawing millions of faithful in the Philippines and treading uncharted political waters following Sri Lanka’s remarkable electoral upset last week.

New Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, who capitalized on former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s unpopularity among the island nation’s ethnic and religious minorities, will be on hand to welcome Francis when he arrives in the capital, Colombo, on Tuesday.

Francis will be bringing a message of reconciliation between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority and interfaith harmony after Sri Lanka’s quarter-century civil war ended in 2009 with the army’s violent crushing of the Tamil Tiger rebels.

It isn’t known whether Francis will weigh in on Sri Lanka’s refusal to cooperate with a U.N. investigation into alleged war crimes in the final stages of the war. A 2011 U.N. report said up to 40,000 ethnic Tamil civilians may have been killed during the offensive, and accused both sides of committing serious human rights violations.

Here are five things to look for during Francis’ trip, split between two days in Sri Lanka and three in the Philippines:

___

TAMIL TRAVELS

Significantly, Francis will travel to the Tamil region of northern Sri Lanka to pray at a Christian shrine and meet with Tamil faithful. The Our Lady of Madhu shrine is revered by both Sinhalese and Tamil Catholics, providing the perfect backdrop for the pope to encourage reconciliation in a part of Sri Lanka that was devastated by the war.

“It’s a very strong gesture,” said the Rev. Bernardo Cervellera, whose Vatican-affiliated missionary news agency AsiaNews covers the Catholic Church in Asia closely. “He is going to this area where John Paul couldn’t go because of the war.”

The Catholic Church considers itself uniquely poised to be a force for unity in Sri Lanka because it counts both Sinhalese and Tamils as members. They worship together, with liturgies often alternating between the two languages, said the Rev. Prasad Harshan, a Sri Lankan doctoral student at Rome’s Pontifical Holy Cross University.

“He’s making an extra effort to go to these areas, and to see these victims,” he said. “That will be a wonderful sign of solidarity.”

Francis’ canonization Wednesday of Sri Lanka’s first saint, the Rev. Giuseppe Vaz, is another sign of unity: The 17th century missionary is credited with having revived the Catholic faith in the country amid persecution by Dutch colonial rulers, ministering to both Sinhalese and Tamil faithful.

___

BUDDHIST FUNDAMENTALISM

When John Paul visited Sri Lanka in 1995, he too tried to bring a message of tolerance, but was met with a boycott by the island nation’s Buddhist leaders, who constitute 70 percent of the population. (Hindus represent some 13 percent, Muslims 10 percent and Catholics about 7 percent, according to Vatican figures).

Buddhist representatives had been expected to attend an interfaith meeting, but none showed up to protest John Paul’s criticism of the Buddhist doctrine of salvation.

Buddhist fundamentalism has only grown in the ensuing 20 years, with hard-line Buddhists waging a violent campaign against Muslims.

But two moderate Buddhist representatives are scheduled to greet Francis during an interfaith meeting on the first day of his visit.

“I don’t know if during other occasions or places there might be discordant voices from fundamentalists,” said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi. “We’ll have to see.”

Francis has denounced the rise of religious fundamentalism in Sri Lanka and the extremists who promote a “false sense of national unity based on a single religious identity.”

During a meeting with visiting Sri Lankan bishops last May, Francis said the local church must continue to seek “partners in peace and interlocutors in dialogue” despite violence and intimidation from religious extremists.

___

SECURITY CONCERNS

As with any papal trip, security will be tight in both Sri Lanka and the Philippines, even for a pope who relishes plunging into crowds and driving around in open-topped cars rather than bullet-proof popemobiles.

But the concerns on the Philippine leg of the trip are not without merit, given current tensions with Islamic extremists and the rather checkered history of papal visits to Asia’s largest Roman Catholic country.

When Pope Paul VI arrived in Manila in 1970 for the first-ever papal visit, he was immediately rushed by a would-be assassin dressed as a priest who stabbed him in the gut and neck. The wounds were superficial and the attacker wrestled to the ground, but blood was drawn.

This past October, the two blood-stained vests Paul wore that day were selected as the relics used during his Vatican beatification ceremony.

A week before St. John Paul II visited the Philippines in January 1995, Filipino authorities said they discovered a plot by Muslim extremists to kill the pontiff after they were led by an accidental fire to a terrorist hideout in a Manila apartment building, where they found bomb-making chemicals, his picture, maps showing routes where he would pass and a tailor’s receipt for a priest cassock.

Authorities later blamed the plot on Ramzi Yousef, who was convicted of masterminding the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

___

CROWD CONTROL

That said, John Paul’s 1995 visit was perhaps more noteworthy for having set a papal milestone that no pope has since met: An estimated 5 million people turned out for John Paul’s final Mass, filling Manila’s Rizal Park and spreading out for miles in every direction.

The boulevards were so jammed that John Paul was forced to arrive at the Mass by helicopter — over an hour late — because his motorcade simply couldn’t reach the altar.

The Philippines, with a population of 100 million, is about 81 percent Catholic.

The Rev. Gregory Gaston, rector of the Pontifical Filipino College, said he expected that the wildly popular Francis might surpass John Paul’s record, noting that local leaders have given workers time off so they can attend his key events, which include a Mass on Jan. 18 in the same Rizal Park as John Paul’s historic finale.

“Now the concern isn’t from terrorists, but from the people — because the people love the pope so much, there’s the chance they might mob him!” Gaston said, laughing.

___

ENVIRONMENT

Francis is expected to focus his remarks in the Philippines on issues related to families: Each day he’ll meet with families young and old, including ones separated by members who have left home to find work overseas. But another issue he’s expected to raise, at least fleetingly, is the environment.

Filipino bishops have made environmental concerns a top priority, and Francis will visit survivors of Typhoon Haiyan, which the government has held up as an example of the extreme weather patterns that may be the result of climate change.

Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said Francis doesn’t have a dedicated speech to the environment, but that “we can expect some references.”

Ever since he was installed as the first pope named for the nature-loving St. Francis of Assisi, Francis has called for greater attention to caring for God’s creation.

Speculation has been mounting about how far Francis will take that call in his forthcoming encyclical on ecology: Environmentalists hope that the document, expected sometime this spring, will help jump-start stalled international efforts to curb climate change.

But those who reject scientific findings that climate change is man-made are already condemning the pope for taking up the issue at all.

Maureen Mullarkey of First Things, a conservative U.S. Catholic journal, wrote in a recent blog post that Francis is “imprudent” and “sullies his office by using demagogic formulations to bully the populace into reflexive climate action with no more substantive guide than theologized propaganda.”

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Associated Press writer Rachel Zoll in New York contributed to this report.

TIME Japan

Japan’s PM Abe to Express Remorse on 70th Anniversary of WWII Surrender

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, and his Cabinet members visit the Ise shrine in Ise, in central Japan, on Jan. 5, 2015 Jiji Press—AFP/Getty

The 60-year-old vowed to emphasize Japan's efforts toward future world peace

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will express remorse for his country’s role in World War II in a statement on the 70th anniversary of his nation’s surrender in August.

“I would like to write of Japan’s remorse over the war, its postwar history as a pacifist nation and how it will contribute to the Asia-Pacific region and the world,” Abe said at a press conference on Monday, reports Kyodo news agency.

Japan’s relations with South Korea and China have long been deeply impacted by the country’s attitude toward its wartime actions. The East Asian neighbors will pay particularly close attention to whether Abe will uphold his predecessor Tomiichi Murayama’s 1995 apology for the “tremendous damage and suffering” Japan caused to people across Asia during the Pacific war.

Asked about Murayama’s statement, Abe said that he “has and will uphold statements issued by past administrations.”

[Kyodo]

TIME Aviation

Witness the Tragic Aftermath of AirAsia Flight 8501

Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency confirmed Tuesday that searchers had discovered debris from the missing AirAsia Flight QZ 8501 and the bodies of 40 passengers in the Java Sea. The Singapore-bound plane disappeared on Sunday with 162 people on board

TIME Religion

Dalai Lama Says He Would Rather Be the Last Than See Someone Stupid Take His Place

Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama prays during Ganden Ngachoe, the death anniversary of 14th Century Tibetan Saint-Scholar Lama Tsongkhapa, in New Delhi, India, Dec. 16, 2014.
Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama prays during Ganden Ngachoe, the death anniversary of 14th Century Tibetan Saint-Scholar Lama Tsongkhapa, in New Delhi, India, Dec. 16, 2014. Tsering Topgyal—AP

Buddhists believe that the next Dalai Lama is born when the current one dies

The Dalai Lama has conceded that the title may die with him and that it is “up to the Tibetan people” to decide whether someone follows him. In a BBC interview on Tuesday night, the 79-year-old leader said: “The Dalai Lama institution will cease one day. These man-made institutions will cease.”

“There is no guarantee that some stupid Dalai Lama won’t come next, who will disgrace himself or herself. That would be very sad. So, much better that a centuries-old tradition should cease at the time of a quite popular Dalai Lama,” he said.

The 14th Dalai Lama, whose real name is Tenzin Gyatso, is the longest serving leader and has held the title since he was 15 years old. Each Dalai Lama is thought to be reincarnated in the body of a male child identified by Buddhist priests in Tibet.

A winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, the current Dalai Lama has been in exile in India ever since an attempted uprising in Tibet in 1959. He now supports a “middle way” with China, hoping for autonomy but not independence for Tibet.

[BBC]

Read next: TIME’s Exclusive With the Dalai Lama on Pot, Facebook and the Pope

TIME Wealth

Jack Ma Is the Richest Person in Asia

Alibaba CEO Jack Ma during an interview, in New York City on March 12, 2009.
Alibaba CEO Jack Ma during an interview in New York City on March 12, 2009 Chip East—Reuters

There are no surprises here, really

Jack Ma is Asia’s wealthiest billionaire.

Ma, the founder of China’s e-commerce juggernaut Alibaba, as well as a runner-up for TIME’s Person of the Year, is worth $28.6 billion, according to Bloomberg Billionaires Index. The 50-year-old is worth about $300 million more than Hong Kong real-estate-and-ports tycoon Li Ka-shing, who had been Asia’s richest person since April 5, 2012.

About half of Ma’s fortune comes from his 6.3% stake of Alibaba. The Hangzhou-based company is larger than Amazon.com and worth about $259 billion.

[Bloomberg]

TIME Thailand

Thai Children Break World Record for Dressing as Christmas Elves

Students gather to break the Guinness World Record for the largest gathering of Christmas elves outside a shopping mall in Bangkok on Nov. 25, 2014 Chaiwat Subprasom—Reuters

Largest gathering ever of Santa's little helpers near Bangkok

Santa’s little helpers are getting busy in Thailand’s capital Bangkok.

On Tuesday, 1,792 children dressed in matching red, green and white hats and T-shirts and pointy plastic ears to break the Guinness World Record for the largest Christmas elves gathering, Reuters reports.

The previous record was set when 1,110 little elves got together in Wetherby, England.

“I’m happy to have helped break the world record and steal the title from England,” said 11-year-old Theerathep Noonkao, who attended the event in his wheelchair.

While predominantly Buddhist, Thailand breaks out the holiday sheen every year, as shops and hotels widely decorate for Christmas.

[Reuters]

TIME Asia

More Barricades Come Down at Hong Kong Democracy Protests

City bailiffs encounter no major opposition

Hong Kong bailiffs dismantled barricades at a major intersection in the Mong Kok protest area on Tuesday.

The site, on the teeming Kowloon peninsula, is one of three urban locations that have been occupied for almost two months by protesters demanding free elections for this city of 7.2 million.

Workers in white hard hats started taking down barricades at the intersection of Nathan Road and Argyle Street on Tuesday morning. Many activists did not resist but simply retreated with their tents and belongings to the main part of the site, which stretches for several blocks down Nathan Road and remains untouched. However, scuffles also broke out, pepper spray was used and about a dozen protesters were arrested for obstructing the bailiffs in their work, including Liberal Hong Kong politician Leung “Long hair” Kwok-Hung.

One-way traffic has now resumed on Argyle Street, but protesters and onlookers have spilled into adjoining roads. Police presence remains high in the area, with officers warning people to leave. Further clearance operations are expected in the coming days.

This morning’s action was taken in order to enforce a civil injunction granted to a bus company and two taxi companies, who successfully argued in court that the barricades at the intersection were obstructing their business.

Similar legal means were used last week to force the removal of some barricades at the fringes of the main protest site in the Admiralty district of Hong Kong Island.

Critics of the authorities say the reliance on private litigation to restore order is a sign of the government’s weakness.

“I think this is a political problem that the government is not solving with politics,” said a 50-year-old retiree, who only identified himself by his surname Lim.

Unique among Hong Kong’s three protest sites, Mong Kok is not just a commercial area but a high-density residential neighborhood as well.

Currently dozens, perhaps hundreds, of colorful tents still festoon both sides of Nathan Road, completely blocking the main thoroughfare through the district. Protesters have set up a study area, makeshift library, supply tents, first-aid posts and even an elaborate altar to the martial deity Guan Yu.

Many of the area’s mostly blue-collar residents have complained bitterly about the disruption the protest is causing to their daily lives, generating heated arguments and scuffles with the protesters on a daily basis. The area is thus seen as the “front line” of the Hong Kong protests and attracts a more radical brand of demonstrator than the other protest zones, as well as their more vociferous opponents.

For these reasons, any attempt to clear the Mong Kok site completely could easily spill over into clashes.

On Oct. 17, police cleared the site in the morning, only for thousands of supporters to reclaim it after nightfall. That night, and ones before that, were marred with scattered violence.

“If they remove this roadblock, we will come back soon,” said a nurse who identified himself as Siu at the protest site in Mong Kok.

While recent polls have shown that a majority of the city’s residents now think that the occupations should end, it appears that large numbers of protesters have no intention of withdrawing.

With reporting by Helen Regan and David Stout / Hong Kong

TIME China

China Is Building an Island Large Enough for an Airstrip in Disputed Waters

The reclaimed land mass is situated among the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, claimed by five Southeast Asian nations

China appears to be building an island large enough to carry an airstrip in a disputed part of the South China Sea.

Satellite imagery shows a narrow land mass and harbor area taking shape over the previously submerged Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands, claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan, reports IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly.

This is the fourth such Chinese project in the archipelago, located between the Philippines and Vietnam, and by far the largest.

Tensions have run high in the South China Sea for decades, but especially since the recent discovery of oil-and-gas deposits in the region. Earlier this summer, China and Vietnam came at loggerheads over the Chinese deployment of an oil rig in contested waters.

If China does build an airstrip on Fiery Cross Reef, it would put Beijing on a par with Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam who all have such capability in the Spratlys.

“It appears that’s what they’re working toward,” U.S. military spokesman Lieut. Colonel Jeffrey Pool told Agence France-Presse. “We urge China to stop its land-reclamation program, and engage in diplomatic initiatives to encourage all sides to restrain themselves in these sorts of activities.”

Fiery Cross Reef was previously only equipped with a concrete platform, operated by China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy. The platform hosts a garrison, a pier, air-defense guns, antifrogmen defenses, communications equipment and a greenhouse, and may soon be connected to the new island.

The dredgers currently at work on the reef are also creating a harbor that appears big enough to receive tankers and major surface combatant vessels.

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