News from China, the Czech Republic and Colombia

Tuesday's World Events   —   Posted on January 10, 2012

CHINA – Beijing Launches Its Own GPS

BEIJING | China has begun operating a homegrown satellite-navigation service that is designed to provide an alternative to the U.S. Global Positioning System and, according to defense experts, could help the Chinese military identify, track and strike U.S. ships in the region in the event of armed conflict.

The Beidou Navigation Satellite System started providing initial positioning, navigation and timing services to China and its “surrounding areas” [at the end of December], Ran Chengqi, a spokesman for the system, told a news conference.

He said China had so far launched 10 satellites for the Beidou system, including one this month, and planned to put six more in orbit in 2012 to enhance the system’s accuracy and expand its service to cover most of the Asian-Pacific region.

Beidou isn’t believed to be as accurate as the U.S. GPS. Nonetheless, it could be used in conjunction with [China’s] Yaogan remote-sensing satellites and older imaging satellites to support tactical military operations.

…Beidou – which is the Mandarin term for the Big Dipper constellation – is run by China Aerospace Science & Technology Corp., one of the main state-owned contractors for the Chinese space program, which is largely controlled by the Chinese military.

China began building an experimental precursor to Beidou in 2000 with the goal of creating its own global system – called Compass – with 35 satellites, by 2020. The only other operational global system apart from GPS is Russia’s Glonass, although the European Union’s Galileo system is set to be completed by 2020.

Military experts see Beidou as part of China’s efforts over the past 15 years to develop capabilities designed to deny or hinder U.S. naval access to waters around its shores in case Washington tries to intervene in a conflict – over Taiwan, for example, which Beijing sees as a rebel province.

THE CZECH REPUBLIC – Havel, leader of “Velvet Revolution,” dies

PRAGUE—Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright and dissident who led his country’s Velvet Revolution against communism before becoming its president and, later, a global campaigner for human rights, political freedom and the environment, died on Sunday, December 18. He was 75 years old.

Jailed twice for his anti-government activism in the 1970s and 1980s by then-Czechoslovakia’s leaders, Mr. Havel became the face of the opposition in 1989, helping turn a student uprising into the endgame for the country’s Soviet-backed regime. He was elected president by parliament that December.

A soft-spoken and pensive man, Mr. Havel was twice elected president of the Czech Republic after it separated from Slovakia in the peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993, and he oversaw his country’s transition to democracy and its reintegration with the West.

Much of his two terms were cast as a struggle for the soul of democratic reforms against right-wing economist Vaclav Klaus, who eventually replaced Havel as president in 2003.

When Klaus was prime minister, Havel launched a stinging attack against him, which many thought was a step too far. His popularity had declined steeply when he finally left office.

But human rights stayed high on his agenda, as did anxiety about the environment and the pursuit of moral values in the globalizing world, and he was nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize.

“He was a great and well-deserving man and will be greatly missed. May he rest in peace,” said Polish dissident leader Lech Walesa, himself a Nobel laureate. “He certainly deserved a Nobel Peace Prize, but in this world not everything is just. He was above all a theoretician who fought with the word and pen.”

Havel repeatedly irked Chinese communists by hosting the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, most recently this month. He also met Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize on Havel’s nomination.

“I spent a few years in prison, but perhaps I would be there three times as long if … not for international solidarity,” Havel said at a seminar on Myanmar in late 2007.

COLOMBIA – Medellin slum gets giant outdoor escalator

People use the new escalators located in the middle of an outdoors urban zone in Medellin, Colombia.

Officials in Colombia’s second-largest city on Monday have inaugurated a giant, outdoor escalator for residents of one of its poorest slums. 

For generations, the 12,000 residents of Medellin’s tough Comuna 13, which clings to the side of a steep hillside, have had to climb hundreds of large steps authorities say is the same as going up a 28-story building.

Now they can ride an escalator, in what the mayor of Medellin said is the first massive, outdoor public escalator for use by residents of a poor area.

“It turned out very well,” said Mayor Alonso Salazar.

Mr. Salazar said officials from Rio de Janeiro plan to visit the Colombian city to see if such an escalator would work in that city’s favelas, which also cling precariously to hillsides.

Comuna 13 residents came out to celebrate and study the $6.7 million escalator which officials say will shorten the 35-minute hike on foot up the hillside to six minutes. Use of the escalator is free.

“This is a dream come true,” homemaker Olga Holguin told RCN television.

Cesar Hernandez, head of projects for Medellin, said the electric stairway is divided into six sections and has a length of 1,260 feet. An escalator goes up and a second goes down. Authorities plan to build a covering for inclement whether.

Mr. Salazar described Comuna 13 as the city’s district that has “suffered the greatest urban violence … but lately this has been receding and we hope this social package will help it move forward.”

(The news briefs above are from wire reports and staff reports posted at on Dec. 28 and Dec. 19, YahooNews on Dec. 18 and London’s Daily Telegraph on Dec. 27.)


CHINA:  China's Beidou (GPS) System:

  • Beidou, like the U.S.'s GPS system, will provide free civilian services - for both Chinese and foreign users - that can be used in conjunction with commercially developed applications to help navigate private cars, monitor commercial trucks and ships and assist during natural disasters. It has the added advantage of supporting SMS messages.
  • The system is designed partly to give Chinese companies a larger share of the satellite-navigation-system market in China, which is currently dominated by GPS and which the [Chinese government's] state-run Xinhua news agency said was valued at $7.9 billion by May 2011, compared with $630 million in 2003.
  • The system will also give the Chinese military an alternative to GPS, which was developed by the Pentagon and is still controlled by the U.S. government. The U.S. could, in theory, disable or deny access to the system by others in the event of a conflict, although it says it never has done so in the past. GPS is thought to be widely used by the Chinese military, according to defense experts.
  • The South China Sea is another potential flashpoint as tensions have been rising this year between China and neighboring countries that also claim territorial waters there. Beijing has repeatedly accused the U.S. of meddling in the issue and has warned it to cease surveillance operations in the area.
  • This year, China has passed several milestones in developing military technology that could be used in these areas: It conducted the first test flight of a stealth fighter prototype in January and began sea trials of its first aircraft carrier in August.
  • China also confirmed for the first time that it was developing an anti-ship ballistic missile that the Pentagon says may already be basically operational and eventually capable of hitting a moving aircraft carrier up to 1,700 miles  from China's shores.
  • Beidou could be used in conjunction with other satellites, drones and related technology to help track U.S. ships, position its own submarines and other vessels, and guide anti-ship ballistic missiles toward their targets, according to military experts.
  • It also gives China a significant tactical advantage over neighbors with which it has territorial disputes, including India, which is developing its own regional satellite navigation system but doesn't expect to complete it for several years.
  • China still lags behind the U.S in terms of how long, and how accurately, it can monitor any part of the globe from space: GPS, which was launched for civilian use in 1995, now consists of 30 satellites and can be accurate to within less than 10 meters, or 33 feet, although the U.S. military has access to more precise readings.
  • Mr. Ran said Beidou was accurate to within 25 meters and would reduce that to 10 meters by the end of next year. The Chinese military may also have access to more accurate data, but because China has fewer satellites, it can't monitor the same spot for as long as the U.S.  (from



Vaclav Havel

  • Born in 1936, the son of a rich building contractor, Havel was denied a good education after the Communists seized power in 1948 and stripped the family of its wealth.
  • Despite having no higher degree, he began writing literary criticism in 1955.
  • The first of his absurdist plays, whose characters often struggled to communicate in the empty language of communist-era rhetoric, debuted in 1963 in a more liberal era that was crushed by tanks in the 1968 Soviet-led invasion.
  • Havel's plays then disappeared in censors' vaults, and the author was forced into menial jobs such as rolling beer barrels. (from

Velvet Revolution:

  • On November 17, 1989 riot police suppressed a peaceful student demonstration in Prague. That event sparked a series of popular demonstrations from November 19 to late December. By November 20 the number of peaceful protesters assembled in Prague had swollen from 200,000 the previous day to an estimated 500,000. A two-hour general strike, involving all citizens of Czechoslovakia, was held on November 27.
  • With the collapse of other Warsaw Pact governments and increasing street protests, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia announced on November 28 that it would relinquish power and dismantle the single-party state. Barbed wire and other obstructions were removed from the border with West Germany and Austria in early December. On December 10, President Gustáv Husák appointed the first largely non-communist government in Czechoslovakia since 1948, and resigned. Alexander Dubček was elected speaker of the federal parliament on December 28 and Václav Havel the President of Czechoslovakia on December 29, 1989.
  • In June 1990, Czechoslovakia held its first democratic elections since 1946.
  • The term Velvet Revolution was coined by Rita Klímová, the dissidents' English translator who later became the new non-Communist regime's ambassador to the United States. The term was used internationally to describe the revolution, although the Czech side also used the term internally. After the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993, Slovakia used the term Gentle Revolution, the term that Slovaks used for the revolution from the beginning. The Czech Republic continues to refer to the event as the Velvet Revolution. (from wikipedia)