February 7, 2008 6:36 pm

Under fire for not taking enough fire

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Berlin is on the spot, again, over Afghanistan. Germany has about 3,200 peacekeepers in the war-torn country, but the US and others think chancellor Angela Merkel is not pulling her weight.

They complain that most of the Germans are in the relatively peaceful north – far from the battles with the Taliban in the south. Robert Gates, US defence secretary, last week sent a sharply worded letter to Germany, saying it should join the fighting and boost its troops. Berlin was not amused, arguing it was doing lots for Afghanistan’s economic reconstruction, and that there was little German public support (as little as 14 per cent) for a greater role.

But the idea has some supporters. Step forward ex-foreign minister Joschka Fischer, who says Germany will have to send more combat soldiers – or be blamed for Nato’s failure. “Politicians in Berlin know that they can really only say ‘yes’ to sending forces to southern Afghanistan,” he wrote. They continue saying “no” to avoid the political heat at home, he argued.

His comments might make life difficult for his successor, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, when he meets Gates at an international security conference in Munich this weekend. Causing trouble has long been Fischer’s role. Still, it’s funny how politicians only get round to saying such things after leaving office.

Wal-Mart’s heart

When China celebrates lunar new year, many countries will send messages of goodwill to the resurgent nation. This year, with the country still reeling from the worst winter weather in 50 years, the messages have also been accompanied by aid for disaster relief.

Singapore and Japan each gave about $500,000, while Malaysia went one better, donating $1m. Mongolia sent $43,000. Against all that, the $150,000 pledged by the US might seem a bit stingy.

But American largesse comes in many forms. Perhaps the biggest donation has come from that most maligned of corporations, Wal-Mart.

On top of donating food and water in hard-hit areas, the company has announced a $1m donation of its own to the Chinese Red Cross. Given that Wal-Mart is investing like crazy to build new stores in China, this is good PR for the group. But there is another reason why it makes sense for Wal-Mart to get involved.

The underlying drama of the new year cold freeze has been the fate of all those migrant worker families – the parents are stuck in their freezing and, in some cases, powerless villages; their 20-something kids cannot get home and have been forced to stay in factory dormitories for the duration of the holidays.

It is a fair guess that many of those hundreds of thousands of migrant workers will spend most of their working lives making things that will be sold in Wal-Mart stores.

To your wealth

In recent years congratulatory mobile phone text messages have become as much a part of China’s lunar new year celebrations as tucking into traditional fare, setting off firecrackers and distributing red envelopes of cash to children.

Last year 15bn short messages were sent during the seven-day Spring Festival holiday, an average of more than 30 per mobile phone. That number is set to soar this year as companies and government departments increasingly get in on the act.

Beijing’s Communist party chiefs have already texted citizens the compliments of the season – appending a reminder to obey fireworks regulations.

But for an example of how to cover multiple bases with one message, it would be hard to beat Bank of China’s new year text to journalists.

The message opens conventionally, hailing hacks for their “long-standing concern and support” – but BoC earns extra points for also extending a “Well done!” to “those journalist friends still labouring on the front line of reporting on the cold weather disaster in our motherland’s southern areas”. Indeed, BoC’s concerns for humble scribes is clearly unbounded: “In the new year, we hope every journalist friend will be happy and successful; will enjoy more pleasure in their daily life and score even greater achievements at work,” it says.

But the finishing touch to this texting masterclass is a final big-picture line, putting bankers’ and journalists’ efforts in proper context.

“We wish for the Beijing Olympics to be a complete success,” it says. “We hope that our motherland will be even stronger and richer!”

Stimulus plan

Ask a group of average Japanese how they’ve enjoyed the country’s six-year economic expansion and you are likely to receive a common, grumpy reply: they haven’t. Wages are stagnant in spite of record corporate profits and for many it feels as though the gloom-and-doom 1990s never ended.

Yet recent data from the police suggest that at least some people have money to spare. Last year authorities in Tokyo alone collected Y2.8bn in misplaced bank notes, all turned in by the city’s hyper-honest residents.

They found the cash lying loose on the street, in shops and – no doubt – in bars, left by the drunk and forgetful. The haul was up 9 per cent and was the biggest since the go-go 1980s. Nationwide data were unavailable but might have explained the disconnect: big cities such as Tokyo are indeed getting richer while the rest of the country lags behind.

Tokyo’s metropolitan government will keep any found cash that isn’t claimed by its owners but Observer has another suggestion: spread it among the have-not regions whose residents can ill afford to lose the stuff on the street.

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