Beijing Scene, Volume 5, Issue 1, March 12 - 25


Out With the Old
China is to demolish thousands of historic Beijing houses this year to give the capital an improved, modern image and make room for more cars.

More than 600 acres of rundown housing is to be destroyed, starting with that which impedes traffic, fire-fighting units or generally creates an inconvenience, Xinhua reports. Some of the buildings are little more than shacks or unauthorized extensions. But others line the old sometimes centuries-old alleyways (hutongs) that give the center of Beijing a unique, almost rural atmosphere.

Senior architects and academics have argued that at least some hutongs can be restored and rebuilt as modern homes, preserving village-like communities built up over hundreds of years. The narrow streets slow down Beijing's 1.4 million cars, a fleet that grew by 140,000 last year alone. Other recent major projects include Western-style shopping streets at Wangfujing, Chao-yangmen and Chongwenmen. Houses 150 years old around the outer edge of the Forbidden City moat were recently razed to open up views of the palace and help clean up the moat's waters. A few hutong districts are to be preserved for tourists, but staff at Hutong Tours fear that preserved examples may not be enough. The city is losing its charm, says Miss Huang, the firm's deputy manager. Perhaps in 10 or more years no foreigners will come to Beijing because we have nothing very Chinese left to see.

Left at the Altar
Chinese and Japanese archaeologists have excavated a 6,000-year-old altar, believed to be the oldest ever found in China, the official Xinhua News Agency reports. The 2,200-square-foot altar, in the shape of an ellipse, was found near Dongting Lake in Hunan province, central China. Nearby, archaeologists found some 40 pits containing bones of people believed to have been offered as human sacrifices, the report says. He Jiejun, director of the Hunan Archaeological Research Society, says the altar apparently was used for community activities over a 300-year period.

Herbal Viagra
The makers of Viagra, the best-selling impotence drug, say they are checking to see whether a Chinese herbal drug that uses the same name is violating their trademark.

Pfizer spokesman Andy McCormick says it is clear the Chinese herb is not the same product as Viagra, but the company is checking its legal options. The privately run herbal drug firm Shenyang Pharon Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd. in northeastern Shenyang city launched its drug Weige Kaitai the same name in Chinese as Viagra this week. We think that maybe this is a trademark infringement of the actual name. We are going to look at that, McCormick says.

McCormick says Pfizer is conducting safety and efficacy trials of Viagra in China. We will be filing with the authorities later this year, he says. McCormick says it is important to point out that Viagra, known generically as sildenafil, is a tried and tested drug, while the Chinese product is an herbal medicine. Our efficacy and safety are well known and well documented, he says.

He says 54 countries have now approved Viagra, which was launched last year. It is available in 40, and seven million prescriptions worldwide have been written for the drug. Viagra is popularly known in China and Hong Kong as Weige. In Taiwan, Viagra is registered under the Chinese name Wei Er Gang, literally meaning fierce and strong. A packet of eight capsules of Weige Kaitai sells for ¥95 (US$11), while the diamond-shaped blue pill manufactured by Pfizer fetches US$48 per capsule on the Chinese black market.

Buy Local
China's central bank has ordered giant national banks to get out of small-town markets to make room for the development of local banks, the Shanghai Securities News reports. Comments to the domestic press by People's Bank of China officials reveal changed economic roles for different classes of commercial banks, all of which are state-owned.

From here on, small cities' own banks and financial institutions must be steadily built up for local economic development and to provide financial services to small- and medium-sized enterprises, officials are quoted as saying. National commercial banks must limit their business to large cities and support large state enterprises, they say.

They should make market space for the local financial institutions by properly closing or combining their institutions, they say, signaling a pull-out of national banks from local markets. The article says at the end of last year there were 88 city-based commercial banks, more than 3,200 urban credit cooperatives and more than 44,000 rural credit cooperatives in China. Total capital for all of these amounted to 2.1 trillion (US$253 billion). But China's four largest national banks had more than four times that amount 9.5 trillion (US$1.14 trillion), according to central bank figures.

The big four, in order of size, are Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, the Bank of China, China Construction Bank and the Agricultural Bank of China. The new emphasis on building up local banks is part of recent policy moves to stimulate small- and medium-sized enterprises to help soak up tens of millions laid off by a restructuring of China's inefficient state sector. Analysts say China is studying recent years' experience in the United States, where smaller firms have created some 80 percent of the new jobs that have dramatically lowered U.S. unemployment. The big banks saddled with massive bad debts from years of policy lending to loss-making state firms often see lending to small-scale firms as too risky, as they lack guarantees or collateral.

Microsoft Wins One
A Beijing court has ordered two Chinese firms to pay a total of US$100,000 in compensation to Microsoft Corp. for having used its software without authorization, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reports. Despite the relatively small damages ordered paid by the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate Court, the ruling may set a precedent for other software piracy cases in China, where most computers operate on pirated software. Beijing Haisida Science and Technology Development Co. and Min'an Investment Consulting Co. were found guilty of copyright infringement, Xinhua reports.

Both companies failed to meet a deadline to file an appeal. Although the case was Microsoft's first piracy case in China, the software giant has teamed up with Chinese authorities in trying to catch computer retailers using pirated software in their products. China and the United States went to the brink of a trade war before reaching agreements in 1995 and 1996 to stamp out piracy. The U.S. government has since lauded China's efforts to close down factories producing pirated software, films, compact discs and computer discs. Business Software Alliance, a group that combats piracy, estimates unlicensed software costs makers US$1.5 billion in China each year.

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