Smoke and mirrors behind campaign

May 31 was World No-Tobacco Day, which never fails to attract plenty of publicity in China, the world’s largest smoking nation. China, as many people who live here can attest, is a smokers’ paradise. You can spark up anywhere at any time without much retribution.

Bans are symbolically introduced and meekly enforced. Officially, Beijing has had a ban on smoking in restaurants and other public places since last year. The signs are up, but the rates of smoking are anything but down.

I couldn’t help but find it odd then when I saw these photos in China Daily showing children getting on board the No-Tobacco bandwagon. After all, what better way to encourage kids not to smoke than dressing them up as cute cigarettes?

The slogans are admirable, but one can’t help but think it’s almost a subversive way to recruit the next generation of smokers by burning the image into their minds at an early age and associating cancer sticks with fun and merriment for the camera.

This, of course, without mentioning the tobacco industry in China is am exclusive State monopoly.



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Pressing on to Hangzhou

After descending Huangshan, I headed back to Mr. Hu’s restaurant-inn for lunch. His wife whipped up a delicious eggplant with fried rice that hit the spot. They then let me shower and relax in a room with a television at a discount rate to kill a couple of hours waiting for the bus to my next stop: Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province.

The bus ride was pleasant. I had the rear window seat next to some girls. I drifted off to some podcasts only to wake up to find the girl next to me had whipped out a tiny furball dog I thought was a toy, until it blinked at me with its small black eyes.

The Anhui countryside was dotted by paddy fields. It was a scene familiar to the Cambodian ruralside. Farmers with darkened skin from years toiling under the sun plowing fields with water buffalos. Anhui is one of China’s poorest provinces. It hasn’t enjoyed the economic boom of neighboring Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces, which feed off the glow from China’s economic powerhouse Shanghai. Rather, it is a hostage to nature. Frequent floods to the north and rugged mountains make for mediocre crops even at bumper harvest.

But a peculiar sighting amid the rice paddyfields were tiny houses, each donning giant solar power panels – no doubt of government subsidy.

The bus pulled into Hangzhou about 6.30pm. It’s towering buildings signaled greater economic prosperity. No farmers here. After hailing a motorbike taxi and haggling a great deal, I made my way to a youth hostel situated a stone’s throw from the city’s famous West Lake (西湖). I checked into a male dorm of six bunks, the other five occupied by polite but shy Chinese backpackers.

I went for a walk and found an Irish bar nearby, appropriately called the Shamrock Pub. It was decked out in arbitrary vintage Guinness posters with friendly Chinese bar staff. I picked up the manager’s accent dripped in er hua, suggesting he was a northerner. It turned out he was a Beijinger, who affectionately, though somewhat embarrassingly, told his coworkers I was a fellow Beijinger. He told me in Chinese he’d been in Hangzhou for three years, and was engaged to a northeastern girl.

The next morning I rented a bike a set off around the West Lake. This was no small feat. Hangzhou is a great city to explore and easy enough to navigate with its giant lake – you’ve only got to follow the causeways around it. But you can expect to take a fair whack out of your day.

There are remnants of poets from past dynasties. No one is more famous perhaps than Bai Juyi (白居易). This Tang Dynasty poet is revered as the author of nearly 3,000 poems, dipped in social responsibility and historical satire.

Passing the wide causeways on two wheels would be equally well appreciated by a lazy stroll. There are plenty of benches to perch on and just watch the lake; boats rowing visitors from one side to another, and graceful willows bowing to the water’s surface.

The highlight for me was General Yue Fei’s mausoleum. This guy commanded the southern Song armies to a series of victories against northern invaders during the 12th century. His reward? His execution along with his son at the willing of treacherous premier Qin Hui. I shared the mausoleum that day with a group of tourists no doubt from one of China’s 50-odd ethnic minorities clad appropriately, along with a nostalgic revolutionary dressed in a dark green military and bearing a disturbingly strong resemblance to Chairman Mao.

From the mausoleum I took a cab driven by a middle-aged woman kind enough to put down her knitting to take me in. She was great. She asked me where I wanted to go and I asked her to take me somewhere good for buying presents of the silk variety. “Look at my skin,” she cooed in a sweet Hangzhou accent. “See how soft it is? I sleep with a silk pillow. I’ll take you to a good place.” It turned out to be the China Silk Museum. We made a brief stopover at the China Tea Museum beforehand where, after several discerning tastes, I picked up an expensive but rich 100 gram pouch of Hangzhou’s famed longjing (龙井) or “dragon well” tea. This won’t be quaffed at work, strictly for guests at home after dinner.

The Silk Museum was sadly little more than a cool, clean market flogging expensive, albeit fine quality, wares. I passed and headed to the Leifeng Pagoda (雷峰塔). Built in 977 AD, its modern makeover is less than subtle with an escalator leading to its grand, renovated entrance. History buffs can take heart that Buddhist scriptures written on silk were found just a decade ago during renovations. Once inside, you can take an elevator to the top for impressive panoramic views of the lake and city.

After the pagoda I planned the leg of my journey at the railway station ticket booking office: 429 kilometers over half of the next day northwest to Nanjing.

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Heading to Huangshan

With a 12-day consecutive stint of work finished for the NPC, CPPCC sessions, I found myself with a welcome week holiday. You don’t come this far across the world to while away the time in a Beijing high-rise apartment. Having said that, I’ve spent my share of leisurely days perched on the sofa watching pirate DVDs in underwear with cheap, cold Tsingtao beers.

Anyway, I set myself a mission: East China. I had no idea where I wanted to go other than to start at Anhui Province’s fabled Huangshan (黄山), translated as yellow mountain. After that, I had no idea how I would get back via whatever route to Beijing.

I enjoy traveling solo. Certainly, there are times when you’re atop a mountain summit watching the sun set or sitting down eating local chow when you wish you had your better half or a mate, but there’s an unbridaled freedom that comes with buying a train ticket and not knowing where you will sleep or who you will meet when it’s time to get off.

About 11am I set off from Beijing South Station bound for Tunxi, the nearest station to Huangshan. The next 20-odd hours were spent on a hard sleeper in a berth of six bunks. China train travel is glorious, not merely because of the fact that there is so much to pass through in such a vast country. Cities populated in the millions warrant a mere dot on the map, but in each of these cities are farmers, school children, families, and a rich myriad of people making up China’s diverse demographics. In Australia, you can drive hundreds of kilometers without so much as seeing a soul. If you’re lucky on a roadtrip outback, you might spot a mob of kangaroos or the odd lone semitrailer on an otherwise desolate highway.

The China train food pyramid can be broken into four groups. Resting at the top is instant noodles. Most trains have a reliable fountain of boiling water situated in carriages, allowing for a bland if not reliable meal. Next in the pyramid are vegetables. It’s not uncommon to see people chomping into tomatoes like apples, or women gnawing into cucumbers. The latter is especially practical, given the high content of water. Sliding down comes animal parts, most notably chicken feet. The girl aside from my bunk pulled out a giant chicken foot from her rucksack about two hours’ into the trip. This was a sight. The foot itself was huge. It must have earlier belonged to a fowl standing at least three feet high. Finally, the last staple are sunflower seeds better known as guazi (瓜子儿 in the Beijing dialect). I had a solid Tupperware full dutifully prepared by the girlfriend beforehand to keep me tied over for the trip.

The train pulled into Tunxi in the early morning hours after the day it left Beijing. I boarded a bus bound to Huangshan from the station (about an hour and a half). It was a weekday, but nevertheless people still packed on the bus bound for the sacred mountain.

The town we arrived at was Tangkou. It was unremarkable, save for being the base town of the mountain. It was here I met a diminutive, yet remarkable man. He was Mr. Hu. I read about him in the Lonely Planet book. He had a common stature among south Chinese people; short, tanned with big round chestnut eyes. But uncommonly, he spoke near-perfect English. He and his wife ran a restaurant-inn in Tangkou and he had quite the international reputation.

I got in the car with him and two other tourists, namely Nicolas from France and his Japanese girlfriend Sachiko. Both were charming, friendly people and we would later climb Huangshan together. Mr. Hu handed me a weathered exercise book filled page-to-page with testimonials in a dozen different languages showering him in praise as an honest, friendly person to know in Tangkou. It was a well-deserved reputation.

LOCK IT IN: Padlocks engraved with lovers' names.

Nicolas, Sachiko and myself leisurely set off to conquer Huangshan just after lunch. It was a gruelling, though stunningly beautiful climb. Jutting granite peaks struck out at impressive angles. Cherry blossoms bloomed against a backdrop of waterfalls and turquoise-blue lakes. Bridges crossing the mountain’s streams were brandished with padlocks, each inscribed with lovers’ names to represent their unity.

STEEP STAIRS: It's a long way to the summit.

The climb itself was 7.5 kilometers. We ascended via the east. It was steep going the entire way to the summit, but what countless and breathtaking views. The air was clean and crisp. Squirrels darted through the scrub on the sound of a crunched leaf. Bird calls echoed in the vast, rural skyline only interrupted by the “huh-hoh-huh-hoh” of rhythmic shanties chanted by porters laden with shoulder poles carrying up everything from gas bottles to fresh laundry to the summit’s hotels.

Along the way we met some a group of young Shanghairen. They all worked together and were on a company trip. Chinese descending the mountain would pass with murmurs of laowai (老外) or “foreigner”, but more memorable was the old man who greeted me with wai guo peng you(外国朋友) or “foreign friend”.

About three hours into the climb the temperature dropped sharply. Snow and ice caked the worn granite stairs, making for tricky navigating. But the view from White Goose Peak (白鹅峰) was well worth the ache to the knees and calves.

At the summit, I checked into the cheapest accommodation I could find. I met some Chinese backpackers who had space in a tent and we camped out on a basketball court that looked strangely out of place, but made for a scenic game of hoops. The night was cold, but it was better than paying exorbitant rates at shonky hotels whose claim to fame was, surprisingly, billeting the likes of China’s former leaders Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin.

PEAK VIEW: On the summit.

Just shy of 6:00am I was out of bed and made the brisk walk to “Beginning to Believe Point”. Despite it’s cheesy name, it was nothing short of stunning. It provided a better understanding of why the mountain was such a hub for inspiration to poets and artists centuries before the surge of tourism post-1990s.

SHOULDERING THE LOAD: Porters have a tough gig.

Needless to say, the climb down was much easier.

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A salt and battery

It’s been a little over two weeks since Japan was rocked by its worst-ever earthquake and the devastating tsunami that followed. There have been inevitable murmurings in China’s blogosphere from sadistic netizens calling it baoying(报应) or karma for Japan’s atrocities during World War II, but thankfully these have been few and far between. More gratifying has been the influx of Chinese comments praising the Japanese for their orderly and thoughtful reaction to the disaster.

To really understand how different the countries react to disaster, you only need to look at China’s panic salt buying spree to supposedly protect against nuclear contamination. Supermarket shelves were cleared in a matter of minutes across Beijing. The mother of my girlfriend Xiaojing, who runs a small convenience stall on the rural outskirts of Beijing, saw months’ supplies of salt snapped up before noon the day of the panic spread. One woman allegedly stocked up on five years’ worth of salt – never mind that you would need to consume just shy of a kilo a salt daily to prevent against radioactivity, by which measure you would more than likely die from sodium poisoning.

SALT SPREE: Shoppers in Beijing strip supermarkets of salt.

The scenes of shoppers pushing and shoving to get their hands on salt is all too familiar in the world’s most populous country, where subway commuters routinely cut lines and stick out elbows to board carriages in rush-hour. It’s all about survival of the fittest and first in, first serve.

The irony worth pointing out is that the virtue of China’s stereotypical communist model is control over the masses. Here, you had hysteria and panic yet in democratic Japan, where there is a much greater flow of ideas and freedom, there was control and order.

Salt fever was spiked by a guy who posted rumors online spruiking the white additives’ anti-radioactivity properties. Predictably, he was shown on television news bulletins handcuffed in a prison jumpsuit, head bowed before police. You won’t hear from him for a while, now he’s going to prison.

These trends of panic buying are nothing new. When I first came to China, the mainland was gripped by fears of the A/H1-N1 virus. Shoppers hoarded markets to collect every clove of garlic they could find to boost their immunity.

Compare this to Japan, where, let’s remember, the disaster actually took place. Food, drinking water and fuel supplies were all but cut off for four or five days after the quake struck. There was minimal panic and public looting was not even a remotely likely outcome.

Aside from wanting to fill their thyroids with iodine, Chinese shoppers snapped up salt because they worried it would not be available due to a cut off of sea-salt supplies. Less than 1 percent of salt sold in China comes from evaporated seawater.

It’s wrong to blame people for behaving like this when information is so scarce about the scale and hazards of a potential nuclear meltdown. It’s only naturally to take every precaution advised, no matter how suspicious the source. Better safe than sorry. Panic is fueled when there is a lack of information or access to the media.

The media has to take their share of the blame, too. Nothing sells news better than fear preying on public ignorance, especially for a disaster like a nuclear meltdown and the potential impact of mankind.

WHITE GOLD: Panic buying is nothing new in China.

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Chinese media coverage of Japan’s quake

It had all the makings of a “where-were-you-when-this-hit” moment.

Live pictures of tsunamis pounding the coast. Boats tossed around like helpless corks in harbors. A powerful slide of debris blanketing farms at breakneck speed. Japan, no stranger to seismic suffering, had been hit by its biggest-ever earthquake.

It was all over the newsroom’s monitors as I came in to start my shift. Everyone was glued to CNN. CCTV-4 responded quickly. The young woman anchoring did a fine job, ad-libbing the live pictures as a studio expert of some description gave rolling commentary. They also ran a live feed from Japan’s state broadcaster NHK, complete with a news ticker in Japanese, no doubt aware that viewers could interpret some of the language’s common usage of Chinese characters.

ALL SHOOK UP: CCTV News coverage of Japan's quake.

CCTV’s English channel was a little slower off the mark, still showing a rebroadcast documentary an hour after the quake hit. Then, it too picked up NHK’s live feed from the broadcaster’s English channel. CCTV scrambled to get in touch with its Japanese correspondent, Terrence Terashima, as well as an American stringer, Dan Sloan, in Tokyo. Put on the spot with breaking news still unfolding, both provided sound accounts of what was happening and, admirably, resisted over-selling the story by speculating on the final scale of devastation.

CCTV News later followed suit with its Chinese language counterparts by having the Japanese language NHK feed translated. By a stroke of luck, there was a Chinese staff member who understood Japanese, but who’s English was limited. The solution? Translate the Japanese broadcast to Chinese, then have a Chinese writer translate the Chinese to English live on air. It wasn’t seamless and there were inevitable moments of dead air, but it was effective given the circumstances.

Of course, vision is the most effective means of communication in this day and age of 21st century media. NHK, for its part, was excellent. Their English channel provided powerful pictures of the quake’s aftermath, including fires at oil refineries and wild seas pounding the northeast coast. The most harrowing vision came from a camera crew aboard a helicopter that showed residents in houses waving towels to get their attention for help. What can you do? Rescue efforts are best left to the professionals. Plus, in such a cramped helicopter, how do you pick the select few to save, even if you could carry out the rescue safely?

China is no stranger to earthquakes. Disasters including 2008 in Sichuan, 2010 in Qinghai and, much more recently, this week in Yunnan have, unfortunately, put it in good stead to cope with relief operations. Hopefully, as it did in New Zealand and Haiti, China can lend a hand to its Asian neighbor in its hour of need.

China’s reporting of natural disasters or unrest beyond its borders inevitably involves updates on the safety of Chinese nationals. I know this is the role of a national broadcaster and, indeed, a key interest for a large proportion of its Chinese viewers. But it can sometimes skew values and priorities. What makes any the nationality of any victim more important than another? Thankfully, the focus of coverage on Japan’s quake victims was on their condition, not their passports.

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Empress Wu Zetian

Yesterday (March 8th) was International Women’s Day – an occasion I can never remember holding much significance in Australia, but carries considerable more clout in Asia. When I was teaching at the Provincial Teacher Training College in Cambodia, we marked the day by holding an assembly and requiring all the male students to bestow gifts on their female counterparts. In China, the girls at work were all treated to chocolates.

So, in tribute to International Women’s Day I thought I’d write a post on China’s first, last and only ruling Empress, Wu Zetian (武则天). This blog won’t be all about 2011 in China. Now and again, I’d like to delve into the rich nuggets of China’s 5,000-year-old history. I should add that I’m an avid listener of the China History Podcast – essential listening for anyone interested in China’s history. It’s done by the amicable Laszlo Montgomery, who’s Chicago drawl and conversational tone breathes new life into China’s annals of history. I’m referencing him because the days of passing off other’s work as my own were for university (apologies to any past lecturers who might be reading this).

Wu Zetian (625-705AD) lived a relatively long life of 81. She ruled during the infancy of the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD), universally considered China’s golden period.

GIRL POWER: China's sole ruling Empress, Wu Zetian

There are varying historical perceptions of her rule. She was either a vile creature or a great reformer, who reigned over time of great peace and advanced women’s rights in a Confucian society. Confucius as a philosopher stated that:

“Women and people of low birth are very hard to deal with. If you are friendly with them, they get out of hand, and if you keep your distance, they resent it.”

Wu Zetian was born Wu Zhao near, in modern-China, Shanxi’s provincial capital Taiyuan. Her father was an official close to the Tang Dynasty founder, Gao Zu. She enjoyed an aristocratic upbringing rare for girls of her time, reading Chinese classics, and studying calligraphy and music.

She became an imperial concubine at 13, one of about 120 concubines to Emperor Taizong (唐太宗).

TANG EMPEROR: Wu served as teen concubine to Emperor Taizong.

She soon became his favorite concubine. But she also had eyes for his son, Li Zhi (李治).

Emperor Taizong died in 649, ironically after consuming some kind of elixir of life that killed him. Wu, now 25, is sent to a Buddhist convent, where she shaves her long, beautiful hair and prepares to live out her days as a nun.

By this time the son of the late Emperor Taizong, Li Zhi, is at the throne. He has adopted the royal name Gaozong (高宗). His wife, Empress Wang (王皇后), beckons Wu to return from the convent and into the imperial palace as concubine. For Wu Zetian, this is welcome news. After all, she had being eyeing Gaozong since he was a Crown Prince. Now, he was in power.

Wu soon becomes the Emperor’s favorite concubine, giving birth to the sons he wanted. As mother of the future emperor of China, she grew in power. Despite her deeds of recalling Wu from convent life to the imperial court, Empress Wang falls on hard times at the hands of the power-hungry concubine.

This is where the story turns into a soap opera. Wu bores a daughter for Gaozong. One account is that she strangled the newborn infant to frame Empress Wang of murder. The other account is that the jealous and childless Empress killed the baby. Whatever the case, Gaozong takes Wu’s side. Empress Wang, no doubt regretting ever re-introducing Wu to the court, lives out her days as a lowly maid servant.

At the stage, Wu begins adopting a bigger role in power politics. Her noble upbringing and tenure as a teenage concubine taught her a great deal about imperial affairs. This was knowledge Emperor Gaozong was happy to have at his disposal. But it also gave rise to a growing base of enemies among strict Confucian officials, who believed the woman’s place was at home and not in meddling with such important affairs. Wu knew her enemies well, and her inevitable rise to power would later see these same officials meet a grisly end by drowning in a vat of wine after having their limbs cut off. Ouch.

STROKE OF LUCK: Wu Zetian took power amid Emperor Gaozong's ailing health.

In 660 at the age of 32, Gaozong suffers a series of crippling strokes that leave him incapacitated for his remaining 23 years. The Empress Wu seizes the opportunity to run administrative duties of the court, a position equal to the emperor. Her husband’s eventual death in 683 sees her outflank her eldest sons and moved her youngest and weakest into power. But Wu, now pushing 60 years old, was still pulling the strings and effectively ruled, telling him what to do.

But Wu was a tough mother to have. She killed her eldest son, deposed another, and another lived under house arrest before becoming Emperor.

In 690, Wu’s youngest son removed himself from office, and she was declared Empress. She lowered taxes and allowed farmers to keep and sell more of their produce for their own profit. She changed the imperial exam system in 669, so it was open to all and not just aristocracy. This created a shift in government being controlled by scholars, instead of those with imperial heritage.

But her greatest legacy was progress in gender equality. This included allowing women to be financially independent with their own wealth in their own name, pushing for women to educated in philosophy and politics. Women also weren’t required to bind their feet. Despite her ruthless, Machiavellian rise, she carried out beneficial reforms under strong leadership.

In 705, she was pressured to give up the throne in favor of her third son. She died late in that year and was buried at the Qianling (乾陵) Mausoleum just northwest of Xi’an in Shanxi Province. Her tomb to this day remains unexcavated.

FINAL RESTING PLACE: Wu Zetian's burial site in Shanxi Province.

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China’s top legislature explained

Political season has officially started. China’s top law-making body, better known as the National People’s Congress or NPC, is in session.

I’ve never been good at understanding the mechanisms of politics, be it in Australia, the US or any other country. China’s political system is particularly mind-baffling. But here’s my best shot at breaking it down.

Cynical expats in China will tell you the whole gathering is little more than a glorified rubber-stamp legislature, more show than go. China’s state media will skirt around using the word “democracy”, but sell it as an all-inclusive forum that lays the blueprints for progress through an open exchange of ideas and voices. The truth is somewhere in between. It’s wrong to dismiss the gathering as a PR circus, but it’s equally ill-informed to believe China’s leadership isn’t keeping its fingers on the pulse of its people, particularly regarding socio-economic progress.

IN SESSION: The CPC's biggest gathering is at the NPC and CPPCC. See?

The NPC includes more than 2,000 deputies (like Members of Parliament) who are elected at different levels from the backwater provinces to the top law-making body. The higher they are, the more likely they are to be appointed by standing members. The lower they are, the more likely they are to be elected in village committee elections. This is China’s “grassroots democracy”, as trumpeted in the state media. The village chief is essentially elected by his constituents – farmer Wang, shopkeeper Liu, etc.

The NPC’s tenure is five years. In a nutshell, the 2011 session is the third annual plenary session of the 11th NPC (since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949). When each NPC is formed, they put out a five-year mandate. It’s basically a list of goals they hope to achieve for the country over the period – think typically Politburospeak like “improving people’s livelihoods, sustained economic growth”.

China is coping with economic hurdles like rising inflation and mapping out its development for 2011, the start of its 12th Five-Year Plan and the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China (CPC).

PREMIER OBJECTIVES: Wen Jiabao's NPC work report focused on the economy.

Last week, Premier Wen Jiabao delivered his annual “work report” to the NPC. It was China’s equivalent of the US State of the Union Address.  In it, Wen stressed China  “still faces an extremely complex situation for development this year”.

“The world economy will continue to recover slowly, but the foundation for recovery is not solid. We need to correctly strike a balance between maintaining steady yet rapid economic development, restructuring the economy and managing inflation expectations, pay more attention to maintaining overall price stability, and prevent large economic fluctuations.”

 Here are some key numbers to come out of the NPC session:


  • 7% – China’s target to increase its gross domestic product (GDP) over the next five years.
  • 4% – the optimal peak for the consumer price index (CPI), a major gauge for inflation. In January 2011, this mark hit 4. percent while food prices surged 10.3 percent.


  • Over 9 million – the number of jobs China wants to create in urban areas to keep the registered unemployment rate at 4.6 percent or lower. NPC delegates are also concerned about plugging a shortage of workers in the lifeblood sector of China’s labor, manufacturing.


  • 16% – further reduction of energy intensity by 2015. This is good news for the environment, as China gradually moves to wean itself off its dirty, deadly, yet domestically rich coal reserves. It also could usher in closer clean energy cooperation with the European Union that, like China, has a growing dependence on gas from Russia to meet its energy needs.


  • 12.7% – the increase to China’s military spending in 2011. The renewed double-digit hike has caused some panic internationally, especially among China’s neighbors and the West wary of the PLA’s ever-growing firepower. NPC spokesman Li Zhaoxing insisted the budget hike “doesn’t threaten any country” – a carefully worded phrase given Taiwan’s political status. But he also pointed out China’s defense spending is “relatively low” as a percentage of GDP. US military spending is still six times greater than China. Granted, the US is involved in more wars and has more bases overseas than any other country. Still, it puts things into perspective.

    FRONT LINE: China's military spending overshadowed other key numbers.

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