TIME Science

This Eerie Hole Opened Up at the ‘End of the World’

Crater appeared on the Yamal peninsula in northern Russia

Helicopters spotted this mysterious hole in northern Russia on Tuesday and scientists are on their way to investigate the scene, reports the Siberian Times.

The hole—estimated to be over 250ft wide—is located in the Yamal peninsula, a region affectionately meaning the “end of the world.” One scientist speculates that global warming in conjunction with natural gas lines may have caused the yawning cavity in the earth.

Anna Kurchatova from Siberia’s Sub-Arctic Scientific Research Centre believes the crater was a result of an explosion when a mixture of water, salt and natural gas exploded underground. Global warming, she claims, has caused the permafrost in Siberia to melt at an accelerated rate, placing stress on the natural gas reserves.

Yamal authorities are visiting the hole along with two scientists from the Centre for the Study of the Arctic and one from the Cryosphere Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

[Siberian Times]

 

TIME russia

Moscow Subway Workers Detained after Deadly Derailment

Track supervisor and assistant accused of faulty installation of a track switch

After a catastrophic train crash in Moscow at peak rush hour time, Russian authorities have detained a track supervisor and his assistant for allegedly helping cause Tuesday’s crash, in which at least 22 people died.

The pair installed a rail switch that was apparently unable to withstand the stresses of the busiest track on the line. Passengers had complained of rattling cars on the stretch of rail on which the crash took place, but Moscow Metro brushed away these concerns.

The mayor of Moscow declared Wednesday a day of mourning for the victims of the crash.

TIME Syria

Report: Pentagon Plans Combat Training for Syrian Rebels

Free Syrian Army fighters help a fellow fighter wounded after what they said was clashes with forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in Morek in Hama province
Reuters Free Syrian Army fighters help a fellow fighter wounded after what they said was clashes with forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in the town of Morek in Hama province, Syria on May 22, 2014.

But critics say the U.S. plan to train a 2,300-man force would not significantly shape the conflict

The Pentagon has drawn up plans to train a small group of Syrian rebels opposed to the regime of President Bashar Assad in an effort to influence the bloody civil war that has engulfed the country since 2011, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Citing anonymous sources, the Journal reported that defense officials told key congressional committees at closed-door briefings last week that preliminary military estimates call for training a 2,300-man force over an 18-month period.

The fighters would be vetted to ensure they are ideological moderates and not Islamic extremists, who have flocked to the country to fight against Assad’s Shi’ite-aligned forces.

The training would not begin until next year and would require congressional approval.

The plan, which would cost up to $500 million, would also provide military equipment to a pool of additional fighters. Training could be completed in Saudi Arabia, The United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Turkey, or Jordan, although officials said Jordan has said it fears retribution from the regime of President Bashar Assad and doesn’t want a training program within the country’s borders.

Some Pentagon officials and other critics inside the administration have said President Barack Obama is moving too slowly to aid the moderate Syrian opposition, whose support has dwindled as Assad has gained the upper hand.

“We’re losing ground every day,” Aiad Koudsi, deputy prime minister of the opposition Syrian interim-government, told the Journal. He said the U.S. was moving “very slowly, resulting in undercutting the moderate Free Syrian Army.”

The Obama administration has supplied Syrian rebels with nonlethal aid, including communications equipment and other items, but has hesitated to supply rebels with weapons out of fear they will fall into the hands of extremists.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in April that 150,000 people have been killed in Syria’s Civil War, Reuters reported.

[WSJ]

TIME United Kingdom

UK Police Arrest 660 Suspected Pedophiles

Arrests follow a string of pedophilia scandals in the country

UK police have arrested 660 alleged pedophiles following a six-month investigation. The suspects include doctors, teachers, scout leaders, care workers and former police officers.

The UK’s National Crime Agency said Wednesday that the operation occurred across the UK and involved 45 separate police forces. The agency estimated that over 400 children have been protected as a result.

The operation, which was kept secret until the arrests were made, involved targeting those accessing pedophilic images online. A total of 39 of those arrested were registered sex offenders though the vast majority was unknown to the police. Those who have been charged are accused of a range of crimes, from possessing indecent images of children to serious sexual abuse.

“This is the first time the UK has had the capability to coordinate a single targeted operation of this nature. Over the past six months we have seen unprecedented levels of cooperation to deliver this result,” said the agency’s deputy director general, Phil Gormley.

This spate of arrests follows a string of pedophilia scandals that have dogged the UK. Last week, allegations were made that politicians in the 1980s repeatedly abused vulnerable children.

This news was given greater credence amidst the UK’s ongoing police inquiry, Operation Yewtree, into the abuse of children by high-profile celebrities. Many of the alleged assaults happened decades ago.

TIME Egypt

Egypt: 7 Jailed for Life for Public Sexual Assaults

Egyptian men sentenced to life in prison for sexual assaults on women during a number of public rallies in Cairo's iconic Tahrir Square, attend their trial at a court in Cairo, July 16, 2014.
Aly Hazza—El Shorouk/AP Egyptian men sentenced to life in prison for sexual assaults on women during a number of public rallies in Cairo's iconic Tahrir Square, attend their trial at a court in Cairo, July 16, 2014.

Three of the men received multiple life sentences as Egypt's new government cracks down on sex offenders

Correction appended 9:25am ET

A court in Egypt has sentenced seven men to life in prison for committing sexual assaults during protests in Tahrir Square, the Associated Press reports.

Three of the men received multiple life sentences for taking part in different assaults. These are the first heavy sentences against sexual abusers since Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, vowed to toughen penalties in June.

The sentences stem from four separate incidents of sexual assault, including one that occurred during celebrations for Sisi’s inauguration.

This last assault may refer to an incident during the June 8 celebrations, when a video emerged showing a young woman being stripped naked and beaten by a crowd in Tahrir Square.

The timing of the brutal attack was particularly embarrassing given Sisi’s election promise to end the frequent assaults occurring in Tahrir Square.

The president vowed during his campaign to “restore the sense of shame” to sexual abusers. Before Sisi’s inauguration, the interim president Adly Mansour said physical and verbal sexual harassment was punishable by six-month to five-year prison sentences.

Egypt’s long-standing problems with sexual assault came into focus following the 2011 uprisings which ousted former president Hosni Mubarak. Though women protested shoulder to shoulder with men they were persistently subjected to sexual assaults during the mass protests in Tahrir Square. CBS News journalist Lara Logan was among the victims of assault in 2011.

The original version of this story, based on an Associated Press report, misstated the number of men sentenced. It was 7.

[AP]

TIME Thailand

And Then There Was the College Lecturer Who Gave Out Grades in Return for 7-Eleven Coupons

Inside A 7-Eleven Store Ahead Of CP All Pcl Full-Year Results
Dario Pignatelli—Bloomberg/Getty Images A customer exits a 7-Eleven convenience store, operated by CP All Pcl, in Bangkok, Thailand, on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014.

“She might have thought it was ordinary practice,” said her boss

A university lecturer in Thailand has been caught offering top grades in exchange for 7-Eleven coupons, or stamps, redeemable at the convenience store chain for small gifts or discounts.

When a class at Kalasin Rajabhat University, in northeast Thailand, complained to the lecturer about the selling of test scores, she rebuked them, and someone in class filmed her doing so.

From the conversation, it appears that 25 coupons earned a one-grade bump, with one student shelling out 400 coupons for an A+, reports the Bangkok Post.

“Khanittha got 17 points in psychology class. She gave me stamps,” the teacher says on the video. “Then, I gave her A+. Do you think you got that grade by your own brain?”

Thailand boasts some 7,000 7-Elevens nationwide — the third-largest presence for the chain after Japan and the U.S.

On Tuesday, the Council of Rajabhat University Presidents of Thailand — known by its unfortunate acronym CRUPT — ordered an investigation.

“Teachers should never exploit their students for any purpose,” said CRUPT president Niwat Klin-Ngam.

Despite suspending the lecturer, who worked for the university’s pre-school education department, acting Kalasin Rajabhat University rector Nopporn Kosirayothin said there may be extenuating circumstances.

“She might have thought it was ordinary practice,” he said. “Judging from what I heard, some lecturers at other places also exchange grades for some beer.”

[Bangkok Post]

TIME Hong Kong

Hong Kong, China’s Freest City, Grapples With Political Reform

HONG KONG-CHINA-DEMOCRACY
Philippe Lopez—AFP/Getty Images Demonstrators rally against the Occupy Central movement to show their support to the Hong Kong government in Hong Kong on July 15, 2014. Hong Kong's government has unveiled its vision for electoral reform as public pressure for democracy grows and activists pledge to take over the city if their demands are not met

An official, 100-plus-page report to Beijing on Hong Kong's political development is unlikely to satisfy the city's increasingly frustrated democracy activists, but Hong Kongers are beginning to tire of confrontation

Two weeks ago, tens of thousands of Hong Kongers — perhaps even hundreds of thousands, depending on whose estimates you believe — marched for the right to nominate candidates for the city’s top job. Civil nomination, as it’s locally known, would make Hong Kong the only place on Chinese soil with such a free and open manner of choosing its leader.

On Tuesday, they were flatly told by their current leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (or “C.Y.,” in the Cantonese fashion for abbreviation), that future Chief Executives would not be elected that way. Instead, there would be incremental changes of the existing system, under which candidates are put forward by a nominating committee and then voted on by an electoral college (which presently consists of just 1,200 establishment types but could be expanded). This method of doing things, Leung said, represented “mainstream opinion” in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s democratic camp was livid. “We’re pretty disappointed — we’re pretty angry,” Johnson Yeung, an activist with the Civil Human Rights Front, which organizes the annual July 1 protest march, told TIME on Tuesday night. “The Chief Executive is telling lies about the majority of society. The majority of people support civil nomination.”

Leung was speaking on the release of the findings, which will be submitted to Beijing, of a five-month public consultation on the city’s constitutional development. The process was made up of town-hall meetings — between nervous officials and often fractious members of the public — and a review of written submissions from individuals and groups, of which nearly 125,000 were received. As a view-gathering exercise, it was undeniably thorough and when Leung says that it has “truthfully collected views of the people of Hong Kong,” he isn’t just politicking.

At the same time, reformists claim — also with some justification — that their voices deserve more prominence. Besides the support for civil nomination expressed on the July 1 march, they also point to an unofficial, civil-society-backed referendum in June in which nearly 800,000 people voted on their preferred methods of choosing their leader, with civil nomination being involved in each of those methods. Leung only indirectly referred to the march and the referendum in his report — referring to views other than those that have been officially gathered is a rookie political error when dealing with Beijing, and yet they remain glaring lacunae in the eyes of many.

The truth about what Hong Kong people want is, of course, more nuanced. There can be little doubt that Hong Kong’s well educated, sophisticated and forward-looking population would like as much say as possible in determining how the territory is governed. But at the same time, the number of those who have the appetite for a protracted political confrontation with Beijing must be very few. And confrontation it will be, for the simple fact that civil nomination is not permitted under Hong Kong’s miniconstitution, known as the Basic Law, which came into effect when Britain returned sovereignty of Hong Kong to China in 1997. Say what you like about China, but it is a scrupulous observer of formal agreements.

Hong Kongers — sober, decent, pragmatic and hardworking — are mostly not the sort of people who gravitate to the barricades and the streets. Neither do they need to be made aware of the political realities of having China as a sovereign power, for the simple fact that postwar Hong Kong has only ever existed with China’s permission. In the 1960s, the local joke was that Mao Zedong could send the British packing with a mere phone call.

With that vast, brooding power lying just over the Kowloon hills, tiny Hong Kong’s style has always been to play China cleverly — to push where it can (in matters such as education and national-security legislation, where it has won important battles) and to back off where it cannot. When establishment figures talk of having, as Chief Executive, “a person who loves the country and loves Hong Kong” it is coded speech, referring to somebody who is a master of that game and who is not like, say, Leung Kwok-hung (no relation to C.Y. Leung) — a radical legislator who hurls objects around the debating chamber and who once set fire to the Chinese flag. The election of somebody like Leung Kwok-hung to the position of Chief Executive would be the only excuse Beijing needs to employ repressive machinery far beyond anything Hong Kongers have imagined. The threat of the Occupy Central movement to bring Hong Kong’s financial district to a standstill if its demands for civil nomination are not met will also play beautifully into Beijing’s hands.

A compromise is being offered. Within the constitutional report’s prose are certain suggestions that, while subtle, would mark unprecedented concessions on China’s part, should the National People’s Congress approve them. Namely, C.Y. Leung calls for some amendments to the structure of the controversial nomination committee, which vets potential candidates for the Chief Executive election, that may render it a more democratic grouping.

“I see that as a concession. I see that as a position that allows for a democrat to get through to the election,” says David Zweig, a professor of social science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “General public nomination — it’s not going to happen. It can’t comply with the Basic Law.”

And that, in the end, is the peculiar agony of Hong Kong — to be a city of politically mature individuals that was simply handed back from one sovereign power to another, without any consultation, unable to determine its fate. Today, it is culturally, legally, historically and linguistically distinct from the rest of China, but it will never be able to parlay that into greater autonomy than what it presently enjoys. It will always be a subject territory.

It turns out that many Hong Kong people only want to get on with their busy metropolitan lives and are O.K. with that. They do not want to choose between democracy or death, and that political realism is itself an important milestone. In that sense, when C.Y. Leung said, “Today is a historical moment in the constitutional development of Hong Kong, we will be able to leave our differences behind in a rational and pragmatic way,” he was absolutely right.

With reporting by P. Nash Jenkins / Hong Kong

TIME Vietnam

China Removes Contentious Oil Rig From Waters Claimed by Vietnam

Chinese Coast Guard vessel passes near the Chinese oil rig Haiyang Shi You 981 in the South China Sea
Reuters A Chinese coast-guard vessel passes near the Chinese oil rig Haiyang Shiyou 981 in the South China Sea, about 210 km (130 miles) from the coast of Vietnam on June 13, 2014.

But as its deployment led to fierce anti-Chinese rioting across Vietnam, don’t except Hanoi and Beijing to rekindle their once fraternal ties anytime soon

The rig is finally gone, but unlikely to be long forgotten.

On Tuesday, the state-backed China Oilfield Services Limited said the billion-dollar platform, which had been drilling in the heart of highly contested waters claimed by Vietnam, had “precisely extracted the related geological data as planned” and was being redeployed to sea blocks off China’s Hainan Island.

The Vietnamese coast guard confirmed the platform was being towed out of the disputed waters south of the Paracel Islands, claimed by Vietnam but occupied by the Chinese, late Tuesday night.

Since early May, the Haiyang Shiyou 981 rig had been anchored in waters that Vietnam claims fall well within its exclusive economic zone. Hanoi responded to the unannounced arrival by allowing the public to hold the first large-scale demonstrations in recent memory.

However, smoldering nationalist anger exploded into deadly bouts of rioting at industrial parks in the suburbs of Ho Chi Minh City and in central Vietnam’s Ha Tinh province in mid-May.

Factories were razed, several Chinese workers were killed and relations between the neighbors deteriorated to their lowest ebb since diplomatic ties were renewed in the early 1990s.

Beijing remained unmoved by Hanoi’s objections, despite continued protests from the highest levels of government.

“The relations are certainly damaged and the outlook is not encouraging, particularly as China has indicated it has plans to send out more oil rigs to disputed waters and has made provocative statements with respect to its plans in the Spratly chain,” Jonathan D. London, a professor and Vietnamese scholar at Hong Kong’s City University, tells TIME.

Tensions remain high. A study released by the Pew Research Center on Monday reported that 84% of the Vietnamese polled said they were concerned that conflict could erupt with their northern neighbor.

Professor Bruce Jacobs, an Asia expert at Australia’s Monash University, says the deployment of Haiyang Shiyou 981 must be viewed within the context of Beijing’s brazen maneuvers to consolidate its long-held, albeit highly disputed, grandiose maritime claims across the Asia-Pacific. “The oil rig was just part of that,” he says.

With China unrepentant, the U.S. has attempted to use the episode to strengthen relations with its Asian partnerships and position itself as an arbitrator in the Pacific.

Last week Michael Fuchs, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Strategy and Multilateral Affairs, called on all states claiming a stake in the South China Sea “to clarify and agree to voluntarily freeze certain actions and activities that escalate disputes and cause instability.”

In response, Beijing accused the U.S. of unsolicited meddling.

“We hope that countries outside the region can stay neutral, distinguish right from wrong and truly respect the joint efforts made by regional countries for peace and stability of the region,” said Hong Lei, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, on Tuesday.

TIME Asia

China’s Economy Continues to Defy Gravity. That May Not Be a Good Thing

A container truck drives past the container area at the Yangshan Deep Water Port,  part of the newly announced Shanghai Free Trade Zone, south of Shanghai
Carlos Barria—Reuters A container truck drives past the container area at the Yangshan Deep Water Port, part of the Shanghai Free-Trade Zone, on Sept. 26, 2013

China announced better-than-expected growth over the second quarter. Despite optimistic official figures, there's plenty to worry about in the world's second largest economy

China announced its GDP figures for the second quarter on Wednesday and — surprise, surprise — they were better than expected. Growth clocked in at 7.5% — which just so happens to be the government’s official target. The statistics will likely give a boost to sentiment globally. Investors have been worried that a slowing China would hit the entire world economy. More buoyant Chinese growth will probably calm those jitters.

Yet China is also something of a puzzle. Somehow the economy continues to power through all sorts of issues that should be slowing it down. The all-important property sector, which accounts for some 16% of its GDP, is undergoing a major downturn. For most of the year, the government has tried to control dangerous levels of debt in the economy and clamp down on “shadow banking,” which encompasses alternative financial networks and lending practices. Tighter credit should translate into slower growth. Beijing is also supposedly on a mission to streamline bloated industries like steel by eliminating excess capacity, which, though healthy for the future prospects of the economy, should also act as a drag on short-term growth. So should President Xi Jinping’s ongoing anticorruption campaign, which in theory should be disrupting policymaking and creating uncertainty.

So how is China defying gravity once again? There is always the perennial suspicion that the numbers are inflated. Capital Economics looks at statistics that aren’t as easily manipulated as GDP, such as freight shipments and electricity output, to gauge the economy’s performance, and figures GDP has probably been expanding more like 6% in recent quarters. But economists are crediting the latest growth rate to government stimulus, carefully targeted at infrastructure and public housing, both investments the economy still needs.

This is a smart move. The Chinese government has ample ability to keep growth humming while it attempts to implement more substantial reforms. However, the reliance on stimulus also raises doubts about what might be ahead. Some economists see growth “bottoming out” and a revival continuing through the rest of the year. Others believe continued headwinds, especially the struggles of the property sector, are too strong for the government to counter — without even greater largesse. That might be on its way. New loans made in June were the highest in five years, according to research from Barclays, which suggests that the government is loosening up credit once again.

That begs the most important question facing China’s economy right now: Will Beijing sacrifice reform for growth? So far, China’s leaders have controlled their usual urge to pump up growth rates, an indication they realize the dangers lurking in the economy. Since the 2008 financial crisis, debt in China has risen to dizzying heights. A recent report from Standard & Poor’s calculated that China’s corporate sector has more debt outstanding than any other in the world. Combined with tremendous excess capacity, a risky increase in shadow banking and signs of a property bubble, the Chinese economy is rampant with problems that threaten its future. Some economists believe Beijing needs to address these ills and resist efforts to use credit and other stimulus to rev up growth — or else face a possible financial crisis.

Yet the reforms necessary to fix these problems are coming very slowly. Beijing has pledged to undertake a bold slate of measures — to liberalize interest rates and other prices, improve the performance of bloated state-owned enterprises, open protected markets to competition, strengthen the financial sector and allow private enterprise greater sway in the economy. All of these steps, if implemented, would make the Chinese economy healthier and more advanced. But so far, only the most minor of experiments have started, such as the approval of a handful of small private banks and the opening of a free-trade zone in Shanghai to tinker with more open capital flows. Even more, once the greater reforms fall into place (if they ever do), it could take years before they have an impact on the economy.

There are two ways of looking at what’s going on. One is that China’s policymakers are wisely going slow on potentially painful reforms while the economy works out some of its messiest problems in an environment of relatively stable growth. The other, less optimistic, view is that the problems rotting away at the Chinese economy are so complex and entrenched that policymakers are prioritizing continuing growth over tough reforms. In that scenario, China’s broken-down growth model will be kept alive with debt and government spending, while the fundamental change necessary to take China to the next level stalls.

I continue to be afraid of the latter. And with China the world’s second largest economy, we all should be too.

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