The true home of skiing?
Apr 28, 2017 (WiC 363)

The Chinese lay claim to inventing almost everything – from football to golf – so it will come as no surprise that skiing is the latest to enter the list. The New York Times ran an extensive report this week about a cave painting in Xinjiang Autonomous Region that depicts five hunters on skis. According to Chinese archaeologists the painting dates back more than 10,000 years, or more than 2,000 years before the next earliest ski artefact on record.

The US newspaper says international academia is slowly coming round to the idea that skis originated in this part of the Altai Mountains, rather than in Scandinavia as previously thought. Historian Shan Zhaojian has led the work on the cave painting and he thinks recognition of Altai’s skiing history will get greater prominence as the 2022 Winter Olympics approaches, which China will host. Shan hopes a new skiing museum will be funded in the Chinese region, to press home China’s contribution to Alpine sports.

However, the New York Times article points out that there is some controversy as to whether it is the country’s dominant ethnic group, the Han Chinese that are featured in the cave painting. Kazakh minorities in the nearby village of Khom say the Han never skied and that it was their own ancestors who are in the painting. To this day the Khom’s Kazakhs still handmake their own wooden skis and cover them in horsehair. Other skiers in the area – Mongolians and Tuwas – are also ethnic minorities. But determining which racial group was being depicted 10,000 years ago can hardly be considered a definitive exercise. “There is no consensus that any of the ethnic groups of the Altai can stake a claim as the rightful heirs of the painted skiers – thousands of years of conquest, including when the region came under the rule of the Qing Dynasty in the mid-1700s, have left such a determination all but impossible,” surmises the paper.

No longer a pipe dream
Apr 21, 2017 (WiC 362)

Myanmar has a track record when it comes to transporting essential supplies to China. Famously the Burma Road was built between Lashio (in Myanmar) and Kunming (in southwest China) in 1938, covering 1,154km. For the next four years it supplied Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek with military and other essential materiel, offering a lifeline as his retreating forces fought against Japanese troops (which were busy occupying China’s eastern seaboard). It was owing to the strategic importance of the Burma Road that Japan’s army invaded the country in 1942.

This past week a signing ceremony in Beijing signalled the strategic importance of Myanmar’s location once again. The heads of state of both governments watched as a new agreement was signed for the operation of the Sino-Myanmar Crude Oil Pipeline. The oil link had been tested as far back as 2014 but later disputes saw its commercial opening delayed and the crucial final 2.5km remain unbuilt. According to the South China Morning Post, the breakthrough came more recently when the Myanmar government agreed to lower transit fees through the pipeline. That permitted the Chinese and Myanmar sections of the oil link to be connected this month.

The opening of this key piece of cross-border infrastructure will be welcome news for President Xi Jinping and his Belt and Road blueprint. The pipeline will have capacity to transport 22 million tonnes of crude annually to China from the Middle East and Africa, with tankers no longer having to navigate the Strait of Malacca and pass through the South China Sea. Bypassing the Strait is viewed by security strategists as vital – that’s because that sea lane is a chokepoint that could be used by an adversarial navy to block oil imports from the Middle East.

In more purely economic terms, Chinese state media reports that the pipeline will alleviate shortages of oil in southwestern China. To this end the oil major CNPC has constructed a refinery in Kunming capable of processing 13 million tonnes of crude per year and says it will become operational once the pipeline starts to pump the required volumes. That will be soon: last Sunday a Suezmax tanker arrived at the pipeline’s starting point in Myanmar and began discharging its cargo of 140,000 tonnes of oil. Xinhua said this formally inaugurated the project – which is China’s biggest investment in its neighbour.

The Financial Times points out none of this has been without controversy on both sides of the border. In Myanmar there have been protests about land grabs – and potential oil leaks – along the pipeline’s route and in Kunming residents have demonstrated against the refinery and the pollution that it will generate. The SCMP says there are also concerns that the pipeline may have to halt operations if armed conflict flares up between ethnic groups in northern Myanmar. Last November three such militias attacked police stations and government offices in Muse and Kutkai, temporarily halting Sino-Burmese cross-border trade.

Upwardly mobile?
Apr 7, 2017 (WiC 361)

Huawei’s pursuit of its global rivals is hotting up and the Shenzhen firm is forecast by most analysts to take top spot in smartphone sales within three years.

But the push into phones is weighing down profits. Revenues were up just under a third to Rmb522 billion ($75.69 billion) in 2016. Earnings were flat, up 0.4% to Rmb37 billion, the smallest growth in five years.

Huawei says the slowdown is due to increases in spending at its consumer division, where it shipped 139 million smartphones last year. Now third in sales after Apple and Samsung, it has been investing in higher-specification models and spending more on marketing and distribution. About 56% of its revenues came from its traditional networking business last year, but the proportion has been declining as sales of smartphones increase. Yet even as it chases down its international rivals, Huawei has come under attack in its home market, losing top position to Oppo (see WiC358).

The declining margins have been prompting tough talk from Ren Zhengfei, Huawei’s hard-charging founder, who penned a memo to staff last month telling them not to slack off or the company would “fall apart”. “Huawei will not pay for those that don’t work hard,” he warned.