FLAT EARTH

Money talks in Chinese whispers

I don't want to be the pooper at Bill Clinton's victory party, but remember Wang Dan? He was one of the Chinese student leaders whose courage enraptured the world seven years ago. Last week the Chinese authorities put him away for 11 years for such crimes as writing for foreign publications, and I couldn't help but remember the following:

"I would say [to China] if you want to continue most-favoured-nation status for your government-owned industries as well as your private ones, observe human rights in the future, open your society, recognise the legitimacy of those kids who were carrying the Statue of Liberty in the pro-democracy Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989."

That was Bill Clinton, during the presidential TV debates in 1992. Earlier in the campaign he had accused George Bush of "coddling" the "butchers of Beijing". Since then, of course, he has had to renew China's trading privileges. There is simply too much money at stake. The White House expressed "deep concern" last week, but Warren Christopher will still be going to Peking later this month.

What caught my eye, though, was the State Department's comment that isolating China would not have a positive effect on human rights. Here is Bush in the same debate in 1992: "Communist China has made progress on human rights issues, although not enough. But humiliating them is not the way you make the kind of progress we are getting. Governor Clinton's philosophy is isolate them. You isolate China and turn them inward, and then we've made a tremendous mistake. I'm not going to do it."

Bad case of DTs

People who subscribe to the myth of German efficiency have never had anything to do with the recently-privatised telephone monopoly, Deutsche Telekom, whose record of obstruction and ineptitude outdid anything even BT was capable of in its state-owned days.

But the new market-driven German telecoms chaps have learned one thing: how to squash the competition. In the usual frenzy of image-overhauling, 40,000 old yellow telephone booths are being replaced with pink and grey ones, and a couple of enterprising eastern Germans (one appropriately named Rainer) had the idea of converting the surplus booths into shower stalls. They sold two for more than pounds 1,600 each, but have now been told they can't have any more.

Why not? Because, says DT, people might try to make calls from them. "It would be problematic if someone wanted to make an emergency call and ran into the booth that was actually a shower," said a spokesman.

Open and shut

Perhaps it is a legacy of the days when a small country was at the heart of a great empire ... somehow this analysis sounds familiar ... but Portugal is notorious for its red tape.

The Portuguese are used to endless queues at law courts, hospitals and government offices, dealing with a bureaucracy whose capacity for obfuscation and foot-dragging would try the patience of a Byzantine under-secretary. The ruling Socialists, however, are committed to more open government, and have introduced a number of reforms simplifying things like buying a house or setting up a company. Part of their drive to get the country moving was to declare an "Anti-Bureaucracy Day".

You can guess the rest. Journalists who rang up the relevant ministry in search of a quote were asked: "What do you want to know?" When they explained, they were told: "Send a fax with your questions." The phone was then put down.

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