Monthly Archives: August 2019

New faces to sit at China’s top table

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THE stakes are so high in Thursday’s leadership transition that many Chinese analysts are framing it in terms of the rise and fall of dynasties, amid accumulating social, political and economic stresses.
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After a year of scandals and rising public cynicism, the administration of General Secretary Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao begin the handover to a new team led by their deputies, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, at 2pm Melbourne time.

The identities of another five, or perhaps seven, leaders in the Politburo Standing Committee – the inner sanctum of power – will be gleaned by the order in which they walk on stage at the Great Hall of the People.

Analysts, including global investors from Sydney to New York, will be looking for the names of two key potential reformers, Li Yuanchao and Wang Yang, as they gauge the likelihood that the party can deal with growing challenges to the way it dominates political and economic life.

They will also be watching whether Mr Hu hangs on to his post as chairman of the Central Military Commission, as did his irrepressible 86-year-old predecessor, Jiang Zemin.

Mr Hu’s complete retirement might indicate the ascendancy of factional rivals led by Mr Jiang, analysts say.

Alternatively, it could suggest Mr Hu has begun to institutionalise the winner-takes-all norms of elite combat that have governed Chinese politics for two millennia.

”A lot of Chinese think of political development in terms of the dynastic cycle,” said Feng Chongyi, a political scientist at the University of Technology, Sydney. ”The Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang leadership is the last opportunity for the party to start a transition to constitutional democracy to break away from the dynastic cycle.”

Dr Feng, an insider and activist, has ceased paying his party membership fees but is yet to have his membership formally revoked.

China watchers, analysts and pro-democracy advocates are fiercely debating whether Mr Xi is at heart a reformer or a stalwart product of the ruling party system.

Some contend that Mr Xi will bide his time and consolidate his power before embarking on a bold political restructuring of the country’s Communist-run political system. Others see an inherently cautious operator who has no interest, and certainly no power, to dramatically reform the system.

At most, they say, he might offer token reforms to stave off dissent and maintain the party’s ironclad grip on power.

About the only one in Beijing who has not offered a view of any kind is Mr Xi. Keeping with protocol, he has said little during the past months or years that would reveal even the slimmest hint of his intentions. His public speeches have largely been typical jargon laced with Communist fare, urging the party to maintain ”purity”.

Mr Xi’s silence on political reform has made the portly 59-year-old a veritable walking Rorschach test, allowing observers to project onto him whatever views they choose, or perhaps hope, to see.

”Compared to Hu Jintao, Xi is more like a reformer,” said Mao Yushi, an economist, offering one commonly heard sentiment. ”China is a country under dictatorship, but the new leadership group, I don’t think, will take active measures to change the situation. It’s too difficult.”

Li Datong, a journalist and reform advocate who was fired from his editor’s job at China Youth Daily for pushing against official censorship, said he believed Mr Xi realised the imperative for reform but might be hamstrung by a Communist Party that is fearful of losing its power.

”The CPC is facing an unprecedented crisis of credibility, which is fatal for them,” Li said.

”The party has already lost its credibility because of the long time of one-party dictatorship. The regime will collapse like the last few years of [the] Qing Dynasty if the new leaders don’t catch this chance to reform.” With NEW YORK TIMES

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Prince Charles uses website to set the story straight

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PRINCE Charles doesn’t order seven boiled eggs for breakfast in order to choose the one he likes best, his office said in a statement designed to dispel myths about the heir to the British throne.
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The claim was made by BBC television presenter Jeremy Paxman in a 2006 book. The website of the Prince of Wales was updated to dismiss that assertion and other commonly held views about the prince and his family.

”Does the Prince of Wales have seven boiled eggs cooked for his breakfast but only eat one, as claimed in Jeremy Paxman’s book On Monarchy?” reads one entry on the site. ”No, he doesn’t and never has done, at breakfast or any other time.”

As the Queen celebrated 60 years on the throne this year, courtiers are gradually managing the process of succession. The prince celebrated his 64th birthday yesterday. Charles has a reputation for eccentricity. In 1994 he was mocked in the press for revealing he talks to plants.

He has been a critic of some modern architecture and criticised traditional science in a 1996 speech that said it had assumed a ”tyranny” over ”our understanding of the world”.

The website also explains why, despite his environmental interests, he is driven in a Bentley and owns a classic Aston Martin that Prince William used on his wedding day last year.

”The prince does not own or choose to drive around in a Bentley,” it says. ”The car is required for some engagements for security reasons” and is owned by London’s Metropolitan Police.

It points out that the prince’s cars have been converted to run on biodiesel or bioethanol.

The website also denies that Charles advocates dangerous and untested medical therapies, saying that he favours a ”wider, preventative approach to health care by addressing the underlying social, lifestyle and environmental causes”.

It also poses the question: ”Does the prince dislike all modern architecture?” It answers: ”No. The prince has been the patron of several contemporary architects, and has provided training to young architects through his charity, the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community.” BLOOMBERG

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Testing the boundaries

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Mark Taylor, Michael Slater, Greg Chapell and Richie Benaud.THE absence of Tony Greig was conspicuous as Channel Nine began its 36th year broadcasting Australian cricket last week. Along with Richie Benaud, Ian Chappell and Bill Lawry, Greig is synonymous with Nine’s coverage of the nation’s summer sporting pastime.
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For hundreds of thousands of Australians, those four are no less than the soundtrack to summer, their idiosyncrasies and catchcries aurally documenting the game’s triumphs and disappointments.

This week Greig, who is battling lung cancer, began chemotherapy. When the group gathered at the Gabba in Brisbane for the first Test in the blockbuster Australia-South Africa series – the second Test starts on November 22 in Adelaide – the inimitable Greig was sorely missed.

Former Australian opening batsman Michael Slater, who along with former teammates Mark Taylor and Ian Healy form the ”younger” core of Nine’s on-air cricket team, sent him a text message: ”It’s not the same without you, Greigy.”

”The challenge in front of him is very sad,” Slater says.

Late on Friday afternoon, Nine crossed to Greig’s Sydney home. The 66-year-old, who has revelled in his on-air role as devil’s advocate since he relocated for Kerry Packer’s World Series Cup in the late 1970s, was plainly emotional.

He pledged to fight his cancer. After the cross aired, he teared up, pointedly telling his colleagues off-camera: ”It’ll come one day that you don’t go to the cricket, so don’t ever take it for granted.”

Choking up, host Mark Nicholas excused himself from his commentary duties for a minute. Not that the day in the box was morbid. As Healy says, these men simply get on with it.

”Hard is never a word we use around here,” he said. ”We just move on. That’s how we’ve been trained. It’s really different without his presence … He’s the most global out of all of us in his game knowledge.”

The next day, Nine’s head of sport, Steve Crawley, summed it up best.

”That’s the family thing with this group,” Crawley said. ”Greigy is not a softie. He is a big, tough bastard. But yesterday him [choking up] was a big insight into the feeling of cricket in this joint.”

That feeling may be about to be tested further. Nine’s seven-year agreement to cover the Australian national cricket team’s home games, worth about $300 million, ends at the conclusion of the summer. There is a sense that Cricket Australia, having watched sports such as Australian football and rugby league accumulate billion-dollar broadcast deals, is after its own profound payday.

”I’m hoping we’re here doing this again next year,” Taylor says. ”But I know that no one has an absolute right to broadcast the game forever.” On the second day of the Brisbane Test, November 10, rain fell on the pitch. Eventually, play would be called off. Yet Nine’s storied team remained busy in the stands, awaiting play to resume.

Nicholas spoke with network statisticians in the box. Chappell sat at a desk writing a newspaper column. Benaud was perched at his laptop, mulling over statistics. Taylor was busy entering a fishing competition online. Healy was introduced to a group of Nine sponsors touring the boxy Gabba studio.

An hour later, as they queued with production staff at bain-maries for a lunch of roast beef, baked potatoes and salad, the banter flowed freely. When asked individually, all concede talk of future broadcast rights is prevalent among the group.

”We keep asking each other when a deal is going to be done,” Slater says. ”At the moment, there’s no news.”

Of course, a few months ago, Howzat!, a dramatised telling of the story behind former Nine boss Packer’s takeover of World Series Cricket – and the commercial broadcast rights for the game locally – encapsulated the relationship between the game and the Nine Network.

To the outsider, the two appear intrinsically attached. Rugby league is the pillar around which Nine’s winter sports coverage is built; cricket is the summer schedule bedrock. As recently as a few months ago, it seemed unthinkable Nine could lose the cricket.

Sources say a decision will be made in early January.

”We have a great relationship with Cricket Australia,” Crawley says. ”We’re confident. It’s part of our DNA. That sounds like a cliche, but it’s true. Our original commentators are still working on the team. One’s 82. Another’s deep into his 70s. Without being arrogant, I don’t know if anyone can do the cricket as well as us. I don’t think they could.”

Either way, changes are ahead. Although next summer’s mouth-watering Australia-England Ashes Test match series is a massive drawcard (and guaranteed ratings hit), just as crucial will be the rights to the sport’s new growth centre, Twenty20 (T20).

Chappell, who as the captain of the rebel Aussie side portrayed in Howzat! has an almost four-decade relationship with Nine and the Packers, is a voice of dissent when it comes to Howzat!.

While happy with actor Clayton Watson’s portrayal of him, he is critical of the dramatisation of the story. He was incensed, for instance, by the depiction of former teammate David Hookes and felt Packer was ”hard done by”.

”There was another side to Kerry,” Chappell says. ”He wasn’t the only one dropping F-bombs.”

Chappell is indicative of Nine’s crossroad with its cricket coverage. Five-day Test match cricket, the most prestigious and pure form of the game, but also arguably its toughest sell, has been outshone by the hyperactive T20s.

When Nine began broadcasting T20 in 2006, it split up its commentary team. The old firm of Chappell, Benaud and Lawry were left out in favour of younger, exuberant talent such as James Brayshaw. Removing Chappell and co from T20s was difficult for Nine.

”It was,” Crawley says. ”They’re competitors. When you tell someone like that they can’t do something, they don’t like that. They might be respectful, but you know those decisions burn. But that’s the sort of people we want to be working with.”

For his part, Chappell remains diplomatic. ”They made the decision, so you learn to live with it,” he says.

For the first 25 years or so of Nine’s coverage, Benaud was the onscreen leader. He would host the coverage from an inside studio. Chappell would lead the team’s captain out for the coin toss. And Greig would deliver a pitch report.

However, the shift to Nicholas as host has coincided with a shift in style. There’s more filmed outside, for instance. ”We are living the game more,” Taylor says. ”The technology and the broadcast have evolved massively.”

The generation gap in the box is pronounced. Lawry is said to watch every ball of play intently. Like Chappell, whose wife complains when she watches sport with him at home that he commentates too much on the couch, Lawry instinctively calls the action whether on or off camera.

In contrast, during Shane Warne’s breaks while commentating at Nine, he was said to sit on his laptop playing poker.

”The older fellas were never coached,” Healy says. ”They just went and played, whereas we had coaches and the younger players now expect feedback. If the older guys thought they had a good day, it was a good day.

”Now, players want to know why it was a good day and how you went. Television traditionally doesn’t really tell you what it wants or how you’re going. Feedback is not big in TV. They just react to the public. You have to find your own niche.”

Crawley is consistently looking at younger former players to join the team. As well as Warne, Adam Gilchrist has featured sporadically in recent years and Glenn McGrath was in the box this week in Brisbane.

Is McGrath auditioning? ”Yes, it’s an audition both ways,” Crawley says. ”Because he doesn’t know if he wants to do it and he needs a taste of it. I think in years to come, Michael Clarke is ready-made for this. Whether he wants to do it or whether he is as good as we think he will be is another thing.” It’s not only the voices that have been tested. Producer Brad McNamara, a former player for New South Wales, sits at the back of the box during games and spends his winters working on improvements for the broadcast, more of which can be expected at the Melbourne Boxing Day Test.

”Boxing Day is the marquee day of the summer,” McNamara says. ”We’ll bring out our best silverware for that one. We do hold back stuff for that. We try not to bombard the viewers with all the new things at once.”

Not everything runs smoothly. The ”spider cam”, which hangs above the heads of players and is connected with wires set between the stadium light towers, was out of action on Friday in Brisbane due to jostling over player enmities.

However, by Monday afternoon, Nine was broadcasting spectacular overhead views of the players. In Adelaide, McNamara will introduce ”augmented reality”, which will take the commentators from the studio and insert them as a 3D figure in graphics or historical footage. Despite all this, the cricket on Nine is not yet shown in high-definition. ”We do shoot everything in HD and it’s actually downgraded to go to air,” Crawley says.

”We do not have the spectrum to show it as yet. The government won’t let you. We don’t understand exactly why that is … Our trucks are all HD. It’s a political thing and the same for every other free-to-air sports broadcaster. But it’s not forever. In the goodness of time, HD will be out there.”

Crawley and Healy defend the team against charges they lack punch in their call. Healy says the group discusses criticisms from the outside. ”If we see it, we talk about it and we think about it,” he says. ”We have a fair idea as to whether we know it’s fair or if the journalist is biased.”

For former players, a spot on Nine’s commentary team gives them nearly everything they miss about their playing career. They still spend their summers on the road, travelling in a team environment. The thrill of camaraderie remains.

”And you’re out of your comfort zone,” Healy says, ”so you still get nervous. Live television is a sphere where you can look very foolish very quickly.” Slater, who joined Nine in 2006 after a working for Channel 4 in Britain, admits joining Benaud’s team was intimidating.

”It was a great honour, but it took a while to feel comfortable,” he says. ”I was worried most when I started about what the guys in the room listening would think about my commentary and if it was acceptable to their standard.”

After 12 years with Nine, Taylor notes that occasionally after he has made an on-air statement, Benaud will glance intently at him sideways. ”Sometimes I don’t know if it’s a good glance or not,” he says.

When Benaud’s role will end, if ever, is impossible to say. Crawley notes drily that Benaud’s mother lived to 104.

”Richie can be sitting here in the box or at home in Coogee and he’s still the captain,” Crawley says. ”But let’s face it, it is coming to an end. We can’t keep going and going with what we’ve got. A lot of people when they get old can’t change. But there’s a reason these guys can still do this at their age. They adapt. And that’s why they have been able to move with the times.”

The second Test, in Adelaide, begins at 10.30am on Thursday, November 22, on Channel Nine.Future of cricket is no safe bet

ANOTHER challenge facing cricket, aside from future TV rights, is the question of match-fixing and betting corruption surrounding teams such as Pakistan.

”There’s a huge cloud,” Ian Chappell says. ”It’s the issue that can bring the game down. The public won’t watch something they think is rigged.”

Ian Healy says the image of cricket as a quaint ”gentleman’s game” has been altered by illegal gaming scandals. ”We’re much more likely to think that a sport is tarnished now,” he says. ”The spectre of gambling has been exposed. For cricket, the gentlemen’s game tag was probably always unfair.

”In 1994, the corruption was so brazen, they approached two Aussies. Lots of former players had bookmaker connections and many loved the punt, so you wonder how long it was going on.”

For networks such as Nine, the sponsorship money offered by betting agencies comes at the risk of polarising viewers.

”It’s a real dilemma for any sport,” Chappell says. ”There is huge money coming in but there is also a huge problem with [potential corruption]. This is not unique to cricket. It’s a big issue for all sport.”


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Absurdity in the suburbs

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Sam Simmons (right) is the brains behind Problems, a confronting new concept coming to the ABC.AT A pub in Sydney recently, Sam Simmons watched a woman defecate on stage.
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”She put on a Philip Glass track, rolled out a tarpaulin and dakked herself,” says the popular comedian and Triple J presenter. ”The whole audience was going, ‘No, oh no, she’s not actually going to do this.’ And then she started having a shit.”

Simmons bites into his bacon sandwich and continues. ”I also saw Nick Sun, one of our best comedians, perform in that pub. He wanted to point out the racial stereotype that all Asian men have small penises, so he stood behind a curtain and said, ‘You can all come and have a look – but you have to line up and look one at a time.’ So everyone formed this long queue.”

All this talk of defecation and penises as performance art is not merely an aside. ”That stuff is important and it needs to happen,” Simmons says. ”It’s a reversal of the banality we see on television.”

Hence his new sketch show Problems, airing Wednesday nights on ABC1. As the creator and star of the series, Simmons is bringing his brand of absurdist humour to the masses. But don’t be fooled by the term ”sketch comedy” – or the prime-time slot on Aunty.

”The first episode is really f—ing out there,” he says. ”It’s anarchic, subversive and dark. Lazy journalists are going to say, ‘It’s like The Mighty Boosh,’ but it’s nothing like the f—ing Mighty Boosh. That’s what they’ll write, though, because we can’t get our head around absurdism in this country.”

Nothing invigorates Simmons like good comedy.

His eyes flash and his voice gets louder. Problems is his baby, and he’s damned proud of it.

Each episode focuses on a seemingly trivial annoyance: a lost Christmas decoration; favourite childhood foods that don’t taste as good as they used to; looking for ice-cream on a hot day.

”It’s not really about searching for ice-cream, though; it’s about searching for something else,” he says. ”But there’s no Scrubs-style message at the end; no ‘I learnt that I could be a good person’ crap.”

The cast of 10 includes established comics such as Lawrence Mooney and Anthony Morgan, and rising stars Claudia O’Doherty and David Quirk. The show is set in the suburbs (it’s filmed in Melbourne’s Bundoora) but it is not another parody of middle Australia.

”We’re not pointing and laughing at anyone,” Simmons says. ”In fact, we show what the suburbs really look like and the people who really populate them, not just the usual white-bread portrayal.” One thing’s for sure: there will be no ”What’s the deal with …?”-type riffing in front of a microphone.

”Those T-shirt philosophers – those twentysomething dudes standing there telling me how it is – I don’t f—ing care!” he says. ”They know the rhythm of how a joke should go but there’s no risk.

”I don’t know if I’m just an ageist Gen Xer, but where’s the anarchy in Gen Y? They’re so conservative; they don’t say anything risky because they want to get on this or that panel show. It’s just bullshit.”

Needless to say, panel shows hold no appeal. ”Being a talking head is just not my thing,” he says. ”I don’t think I’m educated or smart enough to make comments about Syria. Comics feel it’s their right to be able to do that, but I don’t. There are too many comedians on telly with opinions and it just annoys me.”

Could the play-it-safe mentality be heightened by social media? Many of Simmons’ peers, after all, have been subjected to intense online hate campaigns – often for the mildest of supposed infractions. ”I think we, as Australians, are just bored,” he says emphatically. ”There really is something not right with our culture. We’re boxed into the suburbs, into little f—ing fences, we don’t talk to our neighbours, and we’re all too scared to say the ‘wrong’ thing.”

Born in Melbourne, Simmons spent his childhood in Perth and his teenage years in the Adelaide suburb of Hallett Cove.

”It was a rough area but it was great,” he says. ”Adelaide had the most impact on me. The place where you sprout your pubes is the one you remember the most.”

He adores Melbourne but now lives in Sydney, partly because he believes its creative community is more daring.

”Melbourne is wonderful, but it is up its own art-hole. There are great comedy rooms in both cities, but Sydney is a bit less self-conscious. You’ve got these anarchic kids doing weird shit on stage – literally. That’s f—ing cool, and that’s why I live there.”

Problems starts Wednesday, November 21 at 9pm on ABC1.

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Hopes rise for retail recovery

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DEEP cuts in interest rates appear to be finally gaining traction with consumers, raising hopes of a long-awaited retail recovery in the crucial run-up to Christmas.
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Shoppers are feeling more confident than at any point since April last year, according to Westpac’s index of consumer sentiment, which jumped by a surprising 5.2 per cent this month.

The rise, which comes amid the continuing malaise in the retail industry, suggests the 1 percentage point reduction in official interest rates this year has lifted households’ spirits, and could point to stronger spending over summer.

With the property and sharemarkets also showing tentative signs of life recently, some analysts predict better times ahead for the ailing retail industry.

”I think retail is going to get some support at Christmas from the fact that interest rates are lower and there has been employment growth in the last few months,” the chief economist at HSBC, Paul Bloxham, said.

While the sector was unlikely to return to the boom era it enjoyed before the global financial crisis, Mr Bloxham argued lower rates were also stimulating a recovery in housing, after back-to-back rises in building approvals.

”When people build houses they need to start filling them up with things, and those durable goods are bought from retailers,” he said.

The chief executive of retail conglomerate Wesfarmers, Richard Goyder, also said its flagship businesses Coles, Target and Bunnings, had experienced growth during the

first quarter. ”We are hopeful of a positive trading outcome in the retail businesses during the important Christmas period,” Mr Goyder said. The lift in sentiment comes after a bleak couple of years for discretionary retailers, with the collapse of consumer confidence, coupled with historically high savings, decimated sales and crunched earnings.

But despite the improvement, business confidence and the labour market remain soft. This was underlined by Australian Bureau of Statistics figures that showed wage growth slowed to 0.7 per cent in the September quarter, from 1 per cent.

JPMorgan economist Ben Jarman said he was sceptical of the lift in sentiment, which could be overshadowed by continuing pessimism among businesses, which appear reluctant to hire more staff.

”I don’t think a few months of better consumer data is going to cause the retail sector to turn around,” he said. In a further sign of slowing in the resources boom, wage growth in mining was just 0.5 per cent, the second-slowest after finance, where wages rose 0.5 per cent.

Retailers such as the leading stores Myer and David Jones have been forced to rub out their profit forecasts and replace them with more subdued outlooks.

Harvey Norman posted a 32 per cent dive in its full-year net profit for 2011-12 as price deflation, especially in the TV category, saw revenue slide and margins shrink. JB Hi-Fi, once a market darling, posted a 5 per cent drop in its full-year net profit.

But in November, 56.2 per cent of those surveyed felt it was a good time to buy major household items, the highest proportion since September 2011.

The share of households who felt their finances had improved compared with a year ago, 26 per cent, was the highest since August 2010.

Investor attention will now turn to the imminent release of first-quarter sales performances from Myer and David Jones, with the department store owners to shed more light on their expectations for the crucial Christmas trading period.

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