TIME

The Insanely Huge and Complex Exercise Known as the Indian Elections Begins on April 7

BJP Delhi president Harsh Vardhan launches a rally promoting Narendra Modi as the prime-ministerial candidate at the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections at the BJP office in New Delhi on March 4, 2014 Hindustan Times / Getty Images

900,000 polling stations, 814 million voters: Welcome to the world's largest democracy

India’s Election Commission has announced that the nation’s much anticipated general elections will begin in a little over four weeks on April 7.

Voters in the world’s largest democracy will go to the polls to elect members of the next Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of Parliament, in nine phases from April 7 to May 12. Votes will be counted on May 16.

The polls will be held across India on April 7, 9, 10, 12, 17, 24, 30, May 7 and 12. (Here’s a voting map.) Several states will hold their legislative elections during the same period. One of those could be the capital region of New Delhi, which recently came under President’s rule after its chief minister stepped down from office.

With approximately 814 million eligible voters, India’s elections are a vast and complicated exercise. At over 900,000 polling stations around the country, voters will choose lawmakers from the incumbent Congress Party, which has led India’s ruling coalition since 2004, the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, the new anticorruption Aam Aadmi Party and a variety of small but powerful regional parties.

For the first time in general elections, voters will also have the choice to record their displeasure with all the candidates, with the introduction of the “none of the above” option on the ballot.

TIME Gay Rights

Thailand’s Intolerance of Its Own LGBT Community Will Surprise You

Two men kiss among straight couples participating in a longest continuous kiss competition in Pattaya, Thailand, in Feb. 2012 Damir Sagolj / Reuters

The Land of Smiles is a gay-friendly playground of brazen lady boys and sexual license, right? Well, not quite

The water surface ripples, then stirs into a frenzy of feeding catfish. Arisa Thanommek and Pacharee Hungsabut dip their fingers into a bag of pellets and toss two more handfuls into the artificial lake at which they like to spend their weekends.

“We knew people would react when we got married,” says Arisa, thinking of the hurtful slurs that arrived when pictures of the two women’s wedding were published in May. “But it was horrible when strangers wrote that our families should be ashamed.”

Thailand likes to project itself as an oasis of tolerance in a continent where roughly half of the countries outlaw homosexuality. It is one of only seven Asian signatories of the U.N.’s declaration of LGBT rights, and its tourism authority reaches out to gay travelers with websites like this, boasting that “Thailand embraces all lifestyles.”

The country could also become the first Asian country to introduce a same-sex-partnership law. Many gay and lesbian couples already arrange symbolic ceremonies but “if everything goes our way,” legal unions “could happen within six months,” says Anjana Suvarnananda, founder of leading LGBT-rights organization Anjaree Foundation, which is behind the legislative campaign.

Yet as Arisa and Pacharee — and many in the LGBT community — have discovered, much of this tolerance is a facade. After all, it wasn’t until 2002 that the Thai government stopped classifying homosexuality as an illness. It took four more years before the military and some conservative colleges permitted LGBT people to join their ranks. Even more alarmingly, hostility toward the LGBT community can take horribly violent forms.

In 2012, a 14-year-old girl reported to police that her father had been raping her for four years because she was hanging out with “toms,” the Thai word for lesbians who dress and act like men. Eight months earlier, a tom was murdered by her girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend. The killing was commissioned by the girlfriend’s mother. In between those two cases, another tom had been bludgeoned to death, yet another raped and murdered, and a third had been strangled, slashed in the face with a machete and dumped into an irrigation channel.

In total, 15 lesbians were murdered from 2006 to 2012, according to a report put together by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). The number of lesbians who’ve been attacked since, or the number of gay and transgender people that have been assaulted or killed, is difficult to say. Thai law doesn’t include the designation “hate crime,” and the government has dismissed the cases reported by IGLHRC as “crimes of passion,” or “love gone sour.”

“Sometimes law enforcement is less interested when a gay or lesbian person is killed — they may think that it’s a case of jealousy,” says Tairjing Siripanich, the commissioner in charge of LGBT issues at Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC)

Systemic discrimination is evident. A collaborative UNESCO, Plan International and Mahidol University study from November found that a third of 2,000 surveyed LGBT students had been physically harassed, a fourth sexually. Only a minority had previously told anyone about the bullying, even though it had caused many of them to be depressed and 7% to attempt suicide.

“The Human Rights Commission needs to be more proactive and visibilize violence and denounce stigma,” says IGLHRC regional program coordinator Grace Poore. “And local NGOs need to press the government to eradicate violence against LGBT people.”

“In Thailand, we always smile and save face, but we close our eyes to all bullies out there,” says Kaona Saowakun, a trans man whose struggle to come to terms with society and his gender identity has been dogged by petty discrimination. When he was barred from taking exams at his university in trousers, he filed a complaint to the NHRC and was able to force the university to amend its rules. But then the university began requiring everyone who wanted to be exempt from the dress codes to file an application ahead of every new semester.

The LGBT people who do well in Thailand tend to keep their sexual orientation hidden. “If Thailand had been really tolerant, people would come out. But they don’t,” says Douglas Sanders, a Canadian professor emeritus specializing in Asian LGBT issues. “No prominent celebrity or political figure has come out, so there are no role models.”

Those who openly express their sexual orientation risk being lumped together with the country’s ubiquitous “lady boys,” who doubtless titillate many a foreign visitor but occupy an often ridiculed role in local society. And while pride parades and other public displays of LGBT culture are visible in tourist havens such as Phuket and Pattaya, the situation is very different elsewhere. A parade in the northern city of Chiang Mai in 2009 stirred such hostility that it had to be canceled. As paradegoers were preparing to march, a local political group surrounded the compound where they had gathered, yelling insults through megaphones and pummeling the building with fruit and rocks.

“To avoid clashes and attacks we decided not to come out,” says Anjana. Pride parades haven’t taken place since then in either Chiang Mai or Bangkok.

Still, the activist of 28 years finds that some progress is being made — along with compromises. The proposed same-sex-marriage legislation doesn’t include custody for children and raises the age limit to 20 years from 17 in the cases of same-sex unions, but at least it is being considered.

“Before, some gay and lesbian people felt threatened by those of us who started speaking openly about it, they felt that they were losing the quiet little space they already had for themselves in the society,” she says. “People are more aware of their rights now. They show their affection more openly, and increasingly come out to their parents.”

Arisa and Pacharee were lucky to have their parents’ blessing for their wedding. Now they long for a time when they can also get legal recognition. “I want to be able to take care of [Pacharee] if something happens to her,” says Arisa, who is currently not allowed to sign off on medical operations for her wife.

Their May ceremony did lead to more than public indignation, though. Today, they have a loyal Facebook following of over 23,000. “Most of our fans are teenagers who are afraid to come out,” Arisa says. “We try to be good role models for them. We are never afraid of holding hands or kissing in public.”

TIME China

China’s Premier Says He’ll Go to War on the Country’s Terrible Smog

China's Premier Li Keqiang delivers the government work report during the opening ceremony of the National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing Mar. 5, 2014 Jason Lee / Reuters

His statement is the highest-level acknowledgement yet of the enormous challenges China faces

At the opening of China’s National People’s Congress on Wednesday, Premier Li Keqiang said that the country will “declare war” on its appalling pollution.

Li described the issue of smog as “nature’s red-light warning against inefficient and blind development,” and said that efforts would focus on reducing hazardous particulate indicators PM 2.5 and PM 10.

“This is an acknowledgement at the highest level that there is a crisis,” Craig Hart, an expert on Chinese environmental policy and associate professor at China’s Renmin University, told Reuters.

Measures will include cutting outdated steel production capacity by 27 million tonnes this year, cement production by 42 million tonnes and the shutting down of 50,000 small coal-fired furnaces. Apart from curbing smog, Li also said that Beijing would aim to tackle the country’s severe water and soil pollution.

[Reuters]

TIME Crimea

The Standoff at Belbek: Inside the First Clash of the Second Crimean War

Unarmed Ukrainian soldiers approach Russian positions on the perimeter of the contested Belbek air force base in Crimea to press demands to return to their positions there and conduct joint patrols, March 4, 2014.
Unarmed Ukrainian soldiers approach Russian positions on the perimeter of the contested Belbek air force base in Crimea to press demands to return to their positions there and conduct joint patrols, March 4, 2014. Yuri Kozyrev / NOOR for TIME

After he decided Russian ultimatums to surrender were a bluff, Ukrainian base commander Yuli Mamchur played a mind game of his own by marching to a Russian-occupied airfield while carrying a Soviet flag in a gambit the Russian troops wouldn't open fire

The Ukrainian troops kept the bonfires burning all night on Monday, kicking stones into the embers and waiting for the sun to rise over the Belbek air force base in southern Ukraine. Five days had passed since the start of the siege against them and the strain on the troops was starting to show. The previous day, the Russian forces surrounding their base had issued another ultimatum – surrender your weapons that night and sign an oath of allegiance to Russia or face an assault by 5:00 a.m. The commanders had refused. Some of the troops had defected. The rest stood around the garrison, smoking cigarettes and twitching when the logs popped in the fires. They only understood that the Russians had been bluffing when the roosters started to crow.

The next bluff came soon after, and it marked a turning point in the week-old conflict that has brought Russia and Ukraine to the edge of a fratricidal war. Just before morning reveille, Colonel Yuli Mamchur, the base commander, got word from one of his lieutenants that the Russian officer in charge of the siege, a lieutenant colonel of the special forces who only identified himself as Dima, had called again. His terms were the same, only the deadline was different – surrender by 4:00 pm on Tuesday or the Russians would cut off the power and the gas lines to the base. “What they’re trying to do is make us snap,” Mamchur told TIME. “It’s a mind game.” He decided to call Dima back. Without consulting his ranking officers, Mamchur told the Russian officer that the men under his command – Ukraine’s 204th Tactical Aviation Brigade – was about to march on the Belbek air field that the Russians had occupied. Then he hung up the phone.

The plan he had was reckless if not suicidal. He wanted his men to leave their Kalashnikovs at the base, get into formation and march behind him into the Russian checkpoint about a kilometer up the road. Practically all of them volunteered, but he left half his men behind to guard the base and took the other half with him in a column. He intended to answer the Russian ultimatums with his own psychological attack. His men would be unarmed, and leading their column would be a flagman with a Soviet relic – the banner of the 62nd Fighter Aviation Regiment that had been based in Belbek during World War II. Any soldier born in the Soviet Union would have heard the stories of its legendary pilots, the ones who had taken on the Nazi Luftwaffe in 1941 then went on to guard the skies above the Yalta Conference in 1945. Mamchur reckoned that no soldier with any respect for the heroes of the Soviet Union would shoot at a column carrying that banner.

He guessed right. As he approached the Russian checkpoint with his men trailing behind, three troops came forward and raised the barrels of their assault rifles. They ordered Mamchur to stop, and when he refused, they began firing bursts into the air, one after another, screaming that they would shoot to kill. They were the first shots fired since the Russian occupation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula began last week, so at the sound of the gunfire, the column wobbled. Some of the men ducked but they all kept marching. Only when Mamchur was a few paces from the Russian troops with a Kalashnikov pointed directly at his face did he order his men to stop.

What followed was a stand-off lasting well into the afternoon. Mumchar put forward a simple demand. “It is our duty to the constitution of Ukraine to guard this base,” he said. The Russians could remain in control, as no one had the fire power to evict them. But the Ukrainians insisted on taking their positions beside the fighter jets and radar stations of their occupied base. The Russians asked for two hours to consult with their commanding officers, and the Ukrainian brigade began to wait in the middle of the road. All around them, in the bushes of the surrounding fields, Russian snipers and machine gunners had taken up positions, training their sights directly at the Ukrainians.

Not long before noon, many of their cell phones began to ring. Colonel Viktor Kukharchenko, the deputy commander of the Belbek base, got a call from an old friend from the Russian army, Colonel Maxim Obidnik, and turned on the speaker phone so that the assembled journalists and troops could have a listen. “Putin’s on TV,” said a frantic voice on the other end of the receiver. “He’s ordered his troops to pull back.”

In his residence outside Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin was just then giving a press conference, his first appearance before the media since Russian troops began taking control of Crimea five days earlier. Amid his rambling and self-contradictory statements – Putin denied, for one thing, that any Russian forces were occupying Crimea – the Russian commander-in-chief ordered the troops playing war games near Ukraine’s eastern border to go back to their bases. That did not mean the occupation of Crimea was over, but it was a clear deescalation of the conflict. Without troops massed in western Russia, it was a lot less likely that Putin would follow up the occupation of Crimea with an invasion of eastern Ukraine.

“You’re heroes!” shouted the voice on the line to Colonel Kukharchenko. “You made Putin back down!” That most likely wasn’t true. No one can say what made Putin back away from his preparations to invade Ukraine’s eastern provinces. But as the officers of the Belbek base stood there on that road, it felt to many of them like they had just defeated a nuclear superpower with nothing but an old, red banner. In some ways the upset made a lot of sense. That banner symbolized all the insanity of conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

“The only soldiers who’ve ever fired in anger on this base were the Germans,” says Major Vladislav Kardash, a deputy squadron commander at Belbek. “Now we have Russians shooting their weapons here to scare Ukrainians. It’s lunacy. Putin’s gone completely paranoid. He’s lost his mind.” Since the occupation of Crimea began, Kardash says his friends in the Russian Black Sea fleet, which lies within marching distance of the Ukrainian base at Belbek, had stopped taking his phone calls. None of the men at the Ukrainian base are happy, he says, with the new government that came to power in Kiev after last month’s revolution. The nationalists involved in that uprising worried the men of Belbek just as much as they worry the Russians. But because the Ukrainian air force must take its orders from the newly appointed Minister of Defense, says Kardash, “my own Russian friends call me a traitor, a fascist.”

Still, at the end of the standoff on Tuesday, the Russians agreed to grant Mamchur and his men a concession. They allowed a group of ten Ukrainian troops to take up positions in the occupied base, a symbolic gesture but a crucial one in a conflict that has so far seen considerable bluster and intimidation from the side of the Russians. Before dusk, Mamchur decided to turn his men around and march back toward their garrison. When he arrived he learned that the Russian forces had not made good on their threat to shut off the power and gas. But that didn’t make him feel like much of a winner. He was still besieged, outgunned and outnumbered, facing charges of treason in Kiev if he abandoned his base and winning enemies among the new pro-Russian leaders of Crimea if he stood his ground. “I’m still between two fires,” he said Wednesday evening. But at least he had won a moral victory, even if a military one still looks a long way off.

TIME europe

Can the E.U. Punish Russia for Crimea Invasion?

Belbek Ukraine March 04 2014Russian soldiers control Belbek airfield in CrimeaIn a graphic illustration of the standoff and its potential hazards, Russian troops on Tuesday fired warning shots in the air as approximately 200 unarmed Ukrainian soldiers approached Russian positions on the perimeter of the contested Belbek airfield in Crimea to press demands to return to their positions there and conduct joint patrols.
Russian soldiers at the contested Belbek airfield in Crimea on March 4, 2014 Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME

While the U.S. has been outspoken about Russia's incursion into the Ukraine, the E.U. has been somewhat quieter as it has more to lose

Russia’s power play in Crimea has left the European Union in a quandary. Officials in Brussels are scrambling to respond to the acts of aggression from its largest neighbor and third biggest trading partner. European leaders across the region have voiced concern over Russia’s Ukraine strategy, but when it comes to what the repercussions will be for its maneuvers, the message has been far from consistent. Much-mooted sanctions, which E.U. rules require unanimous agreement before imposing them, look unlikely with the bloc’s leading economy, Germany, wary of such measures.

Speaking ahead of an emergency meeting of E.U. foreign ministers on March 3, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier cautioned Europe against responding to Moscow’s provocations with provocations of its own. “Diplomacy is not a sign of weakness but is more needed than ever to prevent us from being drawn into the abyss of a military escalation,” said Steinmeier. But even conflict-averse Germany shows signs of reaching the end of its tether: German paper Bild reported on Monday that German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly questioned if Putin “was still in touch with reality” on a call with President Obama.

So far the E.U.’s most overt response to Russia’s actions in Crimea has been a communiqué on Monday in which it demanded the “immediate withdrawal” of Russian forces to their bases. “In the absence of de-escalating steps by Russia,” the E.U. Council suggested it would discuss the possibility of suspending bilateral talks on visa matters and “further targeted measures.” It did not expand of what these further targeted measures may be, but in effect set a deadline for Russia to change its strategy ahead of a meeting in Brussels on Wednesday. On Tuesday Putin appeared to downplay tensions by saying there would be no war with Ukraine, but did not rule out any options for military intervention in the future.

The 28-member bloc has worked on building close ties with Russia over two decades. Russia is the E.U.’s third largest trading partner, while the bloc is Russia’s first largest trading partner. Germany, the E.U.’s leading economy, is the biggest importer of Russian gas and is Russia’s third-largest trade partner on its own.

Given the complexity of European ties with Russia, its response to the crisis has been more muted than the more confrontational statements of U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. “The Americans are far away,” noted a top Germany diplomat, speaking anonymously to Reuters, “They have a lot less to lose from an escalation of this crisis.” The U.K. too has been careful to consider its own interests with Russia, despite its Foreign Minister William Hague warning Russia “there will be consequences” for its actions in Ukraine. The government faced criticism when on Monday an official document on possible responses to Russia was photographed; it reportedly included a suggestion that London would not close its financial doors to Russians given the scale of Russian assets and investment already tied up in Britain’s capital.

To further complicate the situation, the E.U., many of whose member states rely heavily on Russian oil and gas, is due to discuss the future of the continent’s energy policy later this month. With limited options on the table to immediately diversify Europe’s energy sources, the E.U. will likely continue to need access to cheap Russian fossil fuels. Yet there are some countries that have been willing to stand up to Russia despite their reliance on its energy, says Jana Kobzova, a Russia and Eastern Europe expert at the think tank European Council on Foreign Relations. “From Poland to Slovakia to the Baltic states, these are countries who are heavily dependent on Russia and who might be hurt if Russia cuts the gas supplies to the Ukraine, but they are still calling for a tough response,” says Kobzova. The idea of targeted sanctions and asset freezes of those close to Putin is also another strong option the E.U. could use to deter Russia, says Kobzova.

As the crisis continues, what is becoming increasingly obvious is that all sides have much to lose in the standoff. While individual E.U. member countries may have built up significant economic ties with Russia, Moscow is also gambling with ties to one of its most important markets. An estimated 75% of foreign direct investment stocks in Russia are from E.U. member states. If the E.U. chooses to leverage its influence there, it could be a gamble that works to its favor. As Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans suggested on Monday, “The consequences [of an escalation] will be bad for everyone, but for Russia they will be far worse than for the E.U.”

TIME U.K.

Sean Connery Wants Scottish Independence

Sean Connery in 2009 in Nassau, Bahamaas. Gustavo Caballero—Getty Images

The former James Bond star comes out in support of secession from the United Kingdom

Former James Bond star Sean Connery has come out with a resounding “ay” in favor of Scottish independence.

Though Connery no longer lives in Scotland, he says that Scottish independence from the United Kingdom could spur artistic and creative growth in his home country, as well as boost the film industry there.

“There is no more creative an act than creating a new nation,” Connery wrote in an opinion piece published in British magazine the New Statesman on Tuesday, six months ahead of a Scottish referendum on independence. “A Yes vote in September will capture the attention of the world.”

The former agent 007 and longtime supporter of independence expressed appreciation for his homeland’s burgeoning interest in its roots and the Gaelic language, and said Scotland should strive to to strengthen its cultural identity by voting for independence.

“As a Scot and as someone with a lifelong love for both Scotland and the arts, I believe the opportunity of independence is too good to miss,” said Connery.

But the Scottish public may need more persuasion before it decides to split from the United Kingdom. A recent Ipsos MORI poll found that 55 percent plan to vote ‘no’ in September’s referendum.

TIME South Africa

Pistorius Trial Halted After TV Network Shows Picture Of Witness

Oscar Pistorius
Double-amputee Olympian, Oscar Pistorius, looks on as he appears in the magistrates court in Pretoria, South Africa, Tuesday, June 4, 2013. Themba Hadebe—AP

Violating judge's order of privacy for those testifying

Oscar Pistorius’s murder trial was briefly halted Tuesday after reports that a South African television station broadcasted a photograph of key witness neighbor Michelle Burger, violating her request for privacy.

A judge ruled last week that all witnesses in the Olympian double-amputee’s murder trial had a right to privacy from media scrutiny, NBC reports. But South African TV station eNCA broadcast an image of Burger taken from the website of the university where she teaches, saying that the image was publicly available and therefore did not violate the judge’s order.

Judge Thokozile Masipa then said that no photographs of any witness of any source should be broadcast, and that the media should “behave.” eNCA later apologized:

Burger testified that she heard screaming coming from the home where Pistorius killed his girlfriend, model Riva Steenkamp, before shots rang out. Defense attorneys attempted to cast doubt on Michelle Burger’s highly emotional testimony, saying her account was too similar to her husband’s statement, CNN reports. Burger explained that the testimony was similar because both she and her husband heard the same thing. “I’m as honest as I can be to the court,” she said.

Pistorius has admitted he shot and killed Steenkamp on Valentines Day 2013, but pleaded not guilty because he says he thought he was shooting an intruder. Pistorius says he shot into the bathroom thinking his girlfriend was in bed, and only later realized he had shot Steenkamp. Court documents show that Pistorius raced out of bed on his stumps, without his prosthetic legs, and shot into the bathroom after hearing a noise. “It filled me with horror and fear of an intruder or intruders being inside the toilet,” he said. “I thought he or they must have entered through the unprotected window. As I did not have my prosthetic legs on and felt extremely vulnerable, I knew I had to protect Reeva and myself.”

Burger testified Monday that she heard a woman screaming before the gunshots. “Something terrible was happening at that house,” she said. Her testimony supports the prosecution’s argument that Pistorius intentionally shot Steenkamp as the result of an intense argument.

[CNN]

TIME South Africa

How Oscar Pistorius Went From Track Star To Accused Murderer

The double-amputee athlete is accused of murdering his girlfriend. Just last year, the paralympian was celebrated as a hero. How did things go so wrong?

+ READ ARTICLE

Paraolympian Oscar Pistorius was celebrated as a hero—dubbed “South Africa’s Bladerunner” he became the first double-amputee sprinter to compete at the Olympics, in London in 2012. Everything changed though on Valentine’s Day last year when police found his girlfriend’s lifeless body at his house in an upscale gated community in Pretoria, South Africa.

Moments before, Pistorius said, he had pointed his 9 mm pistol toward an upstairs toilet room and fired four bullets through the locked door, fearing that intruders had entered the house.

He has said he fired the shots in order to protect himself and his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp. “It filled me with horror and fear of an intruder or intruders being inside the toilet. I thought he or they must have entered through the unprotected window,” Pistorius said. “As I did not have my prosthetic legs on and felt extremely vulnerable, I knew I had to protect Reeva and myself.”

But prosecutors are painting a different picture and have charged him with murder. They say the pair had an argument and that Steenkamp locked herself in the bathroom. Prosecutors are seeking a life sentence for Pistorius. Should the athlete be convicted of murder, he would have to serve at least 25 years in prison before being eligible for parole.

How did the high-profile athlete, once lauded for being so talented that he competed not only in the Paralympics but against able-bodied runners in the Olympics, become a defendant accused of murder?

Watch the video above for more.

MORE: TIME’s Oscar Pistorius cover story.

TIME China

Russian Intervention in Crimea Puts China in Awkward Spot

U.N.
U.N. China Ambassador Liu Jieyi speaks during a U.N. Security Council meeting on the Ukraine, Monday, March 3, 2014 at U.N. headquarters. Bebeto Matthews—AP

Moscow and Beijing have for years defended the sovereignty of nations. Now, with Russian troops deployed in Ukraine, China has had to tow a very tricky line.

Here’s a conundrum for Chinese students of foreign policy. Imagine a country that Beijing supports, with a simpatico leader and a shared communist history. Now imagine that friendly ally deploys soldiers to another nation, contravening one of China’s most cherished international-relations maxims: Don’t meddle in other countries’ internal affairs. Confusing, right? So what should China do about Russian soldiers intervening in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula?

Muddle through, appears to be China’s delicate diplomatic solution. On March 3, China’s permanent representative to the United Nations Liu Jieyi offered up this clarifying gem on the unfolding crisis in Crimea. “There are reasons,” Liu said, “for why the situation in Ukraine is what it is today.” The comment was deemed important enough to be quoted in the China Daily, the nation’s English-language mouthpiece. Reasons, indeed.

A day before, just after Russia voted to allow its armed forces into Ukraine, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang had also shared his views. “There are reasons,” Qin said, “for why the situation in Ukraine is what it is today.” Sound familiar?

It got worse. The same day as when the Chinese UN representative was speaking of situations in Ukraine, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman added yet another intriguing thought into the mix. “There are reasons for today’s situation in Ukraine,” he said, moving the position of the word “today” slightly in his incisive analysis. A China Daily story covering Qin’s latest statement noted that “China’s stance on the current situation in Ukraine is objective, just, fair and peaceful.”

Asked to further comment on Russia’s military intervention, Qin added that:

“China upholds its own diplomatic principles and the basic codes for international relations, which have also been implied on the Ukraine issue. Meanwhile, we have also taken the historical and contemporary factors of the Ukraine issue into consideration.”

What exactly has been implied? What are the factors that need to be taken into consideration? Qin did not elaborate.

Of course, this expert ambiguity didn’t stop the Russian Foreign Ministry from stating that China and Russia had “broadly coinciding points of view” over Moscow’s actions in Ukraine. Certainly, articles in China’s state media, a good gauge of official opinion, seemed to champion the Russian perspective. On March 4, after Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke near Moscow, Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, ran an article entitled “Putin calls Ukraine events coup, defends Russian position.” The Chinese story did little to question Putin’s stance.

China and Russia haven’t always been chums. There was that nasty Sino-Soviet split, which stole decades from a budding socialist brotherhood. (The split was fully mended in 1989 when Mikhail Gorbachev visited Beijing, shortly before the Tiananmen massacre.) But recent years have seen a thaw in relations, and the two nations have acted in lockstep over major foreign-policy stumbling blocks like Syria. The first overseas trip China’s President Xi Jinping’s took as national leader was to Russia. As a member of the UN Security Council, China could help shield Russia from international opprobrium.

Meanwhile, the Global Times, a patriotic Beijing-based daily, used the opportunity of the unfolding crisis in Ukraine to criticize a common punching bag: the U.S., which it described in a March 3 editorial as having turned into a “doormat.” Putin, by contrast, was praised for bringing “back the past glory of Russia.” That’s just what Xi, China’s proud leader, wants to do at home.

TIME Travel

Now You Can Graffiti the Great Wall of China

The Mutianyu section of the Great Wall Fabio Achilli—Flickr

You won't even get in trouble for it!

Graffiti is an ancient practice—just check out all the scandalous wall scratches in Pompeii. But adding new graffiti to ancient objects is generally frowned upon, at least until now. The Chinese government is turning a section of the Great Wall of China into a graffiti playground, allowing visitors to leave their marks in the millennia-old structure.

The graffiti section will organized at Mutianyu, a relatively uncrowded section of the Great Wall outside of central Beijing. Archaeologists who are suddenly terrified at the prospect of thousands of tourists carving up a world heritage site, worry not—much of Mutianyu is actually a reconstructed version of the Great Wall rather than the real thing.

Where ancient sections of the wall are sand-colored and worn, Mutianyu is dark grey, clean-cut, and solid. It’s also far easier to walk on. Though the sprawling construction is still impressive, it’s definitely not authentic, and it might even be improved by a little touch of humanity.

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