Saving Privat(izing) Ryan: Mitt Romney selects a running mate

By Glenn Altschuler, Cornell University

On Saturday, August 11, “before the press and just about everyone else” was notified, the Mitt Romney campaign used a mobile phone app to inform supporters that Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan would be the Republican candidate for vice president.

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Romney’s choice is significant. No vice presidential candidate has been a deciding factor in an American election since Lyndon Johnson carried Texas for John F. Kennedy in 1960. Since then the operative principle for Republicans and Democrats in selecting a VP has been the political equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath for physicians: Do No Harm. Romney was widely expected to make a “safe” choice—of former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty or Rob Portman, U.S. Senator from Ohio. Instead, he has, uncharacteristically, rolled the dice.

The forty-two year old Ryan is an experienced, articulate and influential legislator, a vigorous campaigner, and the darling of conservative Republicans and Tea Party activists. A key factor in his selection is his ability to energise the party’s base, which has been less than enthusiastic about Governor Romney, a former Massachusetts moderate. Ryan’s supporters suggest as well that he will help the GOP win the 10 Electoral votes of his home state, which has been carried by the Democrats in every presidential election since the 1980s.

But Ryan’s presence on the ticket also gives President Obama an opportunity to change the conversation from the fragile, and some say faltering, economy, to a federal spending plan, authored by Ryan, that Newt Gingrich (of all people) called “right wing social engineering.” First introduced in 2010 and known variously as The Path to Prosperity and The Roadmap, the Ryan budget proposes radical changes in the role of government in promoting and protecting the welfare of American citizens – and an attack on Social Security and Medicare, two of the most popular programs in the United States.

In its current version (which passed the House of Representatives with support from all but four Republicans and died in the Democrat-controlled Senate), the Ryan budget would cut $6 trillion in discretionary spending over ten years, reducing the deficit to about 3 percent of Gross Domestic Product by fiscal year 2014, three years ahead of the White House plan. Favorable to the wealthiest Americans in virtually every provision (Ryan has signed the “no tax” pledge of lobbyist Grover Norquist, who famously aims to shrink the federal government until it’s small enough to be drowned in a bathtub) it collapses individual income tax brackets into two rates— 10% and 25% —and promises to clear out “the burdensome tangle of loopholes that distort economic activity,” without identifying any specific loophole. And it cuts corporate tax rates ten points to 25 percent while eliminating (as yet unnamed) exemptions.

Unlike a previous iteration of his plan, Ryan would not now privatise Social Security. But Democrats will surely remind voters of his earlier views — and will ask Governor Romney if he agrees with them. The latest Roadmap does phase out Medicare, a government guarantee of health care for senior citizens, in favor of vouchers, which would be used by individuals to pay for private insurance premiums – but which, according to critics, will not pay the full freight.

The Roadmap is not popular with voters. When Ryan discussed it at town hall meetings in his home state, he was shouted down. Fearing dire consequences at the ballot box, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer characterized the Ryan Plan, which weighed in at 73 pages with 37 footnotes, as perhaps “the most annotated suicide note in history.” Until recently, Romney, who has endorsed The Roadmap, kept his distance from it.

He will not now be able to do so. And so, the selection of Ryan will make it far more difficult for Republicans to carry Florida, a must-win state with many senior citizens – and 29 Electoral votes.

As Democrats assert that, by jumping on Ryan’s Express, Romney has demonstrated that he is a hostage to Tea Party extremists, they may also take note of Ryan’s record during the presidency of George W. Bush, when he voted for sweeping tax cuts, a costly prescription-drug entitlement for Medicare, two wars, and the multibillion-dollar bank-bailout legislation known as TARP, and in so doing, helped add $5 trillion to the national debt. Ryan now claims that the experience made him miserable. The GOP faithful will give him the benefit of the doubt, but mainstream voters may be less forgiving.

Whether Ryan’s presence on the ticket proves a boost or a bust, it could inject a substantive discussion of the issues into what hitherto has been a dispiritingly vicious contest. Congressman Ryan could save both Romney’s campaign and his own efforts to privatize the economy. He could also sink them both.

Glenn Altschuler does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

How ethical are hymen restorations?

Because they have had pre-marital sex and risk being ostracised by their family; because they are victims of rape; or because they “want to achieve a sense of a clean slate”.

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These are just some of the reasons why some women are asking cosmetic surgeons like Dr Les Blackstock to restore their hymens.

“I’ve done women from most cultures and most religions; I’ve done women who have been victims of rape, I’ve done women who have no sexual interest, they’ve been returning to be a nun,” he tells SBS’s Insight.

“They want to very much achieve a sense of a clean slate.”

Hymen restoration is the surgical repair of the hymen. There are no hard data on hymenoplasty rates in Australia, but surgeons say there is a steady demand for the procedure in Australia.

CULTURAL DEMANDS

In some cultures, having gynaecologists ‘inspect’ hymens is not uncommon. Sydney-based gynaecologist Dr Wafa Samen often issues doctor’s certificates in English and in Arabic certifying that a hymen is intact.

“Culturally and religiously, it is important to preserve the virginity and that applies to woman and men,” says Dr Samen.

In cultures that place a high value on virginity there may be serious consequences for the woman and her family if her hymen is not intact, including being outcast from the community, beatings, mutilations and honour killings.

“One of my standard questions when I interview the woman is: will they be at physical risk?” says Dr Blackstock. “Because in some the cultures the women have told me that they may be physically harmed and there have been deaths reported for lack of virginity.”

He adds: “I know that my hymens have passed inspection in Australia and overseas and not been detected.”

 

WATCH: The audience receives mystery packages. Can you guess what they are?

ETHICAL DILEMMAS

Surgeons are faced with a moral dilemma: on one hand, they can help women avoid social and mental consquences through hymen reconstruction. On the other hand, performing such an unnecessary surgical procedure might contribute to persisting gender inequality.

One paper published in the International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics writes:

“Gynecologists may oppose hymen reconstruction on grounds that it is deceptive, not medically required, or that the requirement of evidence of virginity discriminates against women and the procedure supports holding them to higher standards of virtue than are required of men.”

However, the paper also writes that gynaecologists “may justify the procedure” if the hymen reconstruction preserves “mental and social wellbeing”, especially if the woman faces violence or death.

So what happens when a gynaecologist, who certifies intact hymens, like Dr Samen, detects a restored hymen?

“As a doctor I should keep the confidentiality of the patient,” she tells Insight.

What do you think about hymen reconstructions? How do you define virginity? Watch the Insight discussion on virginity tonight at 8.30PM on SBS ONE. The program will also be streamed live here.

Join the discussion by using the #insightsbs hashtag on Twitter or by commenting on Insight’s Facebook page.

 

WATCH A PREVIEW

Srebrenica: Massacre victims reburied

Bosnians buried 520 victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, with the two alleged masterminds of the slaughter finally on trial for genocide.

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About 30,000 people gathered at a special memorial centre in Potocari, just outside Srebrenica, for the mass funeral on the 17th anniversary of the worst single atrocity on European soil since World War II.

After speeches and the Muslim prayer for the dead, people began hoisting the simple coffins covered in green cloth to carry them to the freshly dug graves. Clouds of red dust rose over the vast cemetery as relatives covered the caskets with earth under the sweltering afternoon sun.

Mujo Salihovic, 30, had come to bury his father and one of his brothers — his other brother was already among the 5,137 victims already laid to rest there.

“I haven’t told my mother that they will be buried today. She is sick and still believes they will return,” he said tearfully.

“If I tell her, it would kill her. I cannot lose her, she is all that I have left”.

It is the first anniversary being commemorated since the massacre’s alleged architects, Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic and political leader Radovan Karadzic, went on trial before the UN war crimes court.

In all, around 8,000 Muslim men and boys were slaughtered by Bosnian Serb troops who overran the UN protected enclave on July 11, 1995, in the only episode of the 1992-95 Bosnian war to have been ruled a genocide by international courts.

US President Barack Obama in a statement slammed moves to downplay the scale of the massacre in a clear swipe at Serbia’s new President Tomislav Nikolic, who said last month that the killings in Srebrenica constituted “grave war crimes” but not genocide.

“The United States rejects efforts to distort the scope of this atrocity, rationalise the motivations behind it, blame the victims, and deny the indisputable fact that it was genocide,” he said.

Holocaust-survivor and US rabbi Arthur Schneier, who spoke at the commemoration, condemned the massacre and also the international silence in the face of grave injustice that allowed it to happen, drawing a comparison with events in Syria.

“Silence is not a solution; it merely encourages the perpetrators and ultimately it pays a heavy price in blood,” he said.

“It is a lesson that the world must learn again today as we witness the massacres being perpetrated by the regime in Syria against its own people. It is time again for humanity to say with one clear voice: these crimes must end,” he urged.

Many survivors and relatives in Srebrenica said Wednesday the trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague are too little, too late.

“It hurts me to watch broadcasts of the trials… it does not comfort me. (Karadzic and Mladic) plead not guilty, they say this was not genocide,” Muniba Cakar, who buried her husband, said bitterly.

“It should be enough to come here and see the thousands of graves. If that is not proof, we should give up,” the 63-year-old said, gesturing at the thousands of simple white headstones around her.

The trial of Mladic, who commanded the attack on Srebrenica, resumed in The Hague this week with the first prosecution witnesses testifying, a little over a year since his arrest in Serbia after nearly 16 years on the run.

Karadzic is due to start presenting his defence in October. His trial opened in 2009 after he evaded justice for 13 years.

Both men have pleaded not guilty to genocide charges for masterminding the massacre and all other charges against them over the Bosnian war that left around 100,000 people dead.

So far 38 former Bosnian Serb military or police officials have been convicted, including some for genocide, for their role in the Srebrenica killings, both by the ICTY and Bosnia’s own war crimes court.

In the past 17 years, the remains of 6,800 victims have been identified, but the search goes on as excavations of mass graves continue.

Are 457 visa-holders being exploited?

Over 93,000 overseas skilled workers are currently living and working in Australia on 457 temporary visas.

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(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

Many come with their families to enjoy the sunshine and relaxed lifestyle, with hopes of one day securing permanent residency.

But for some the 457 visa scheme results in exploitation.

Organisations that support workers are calling for the program to be reformed to put a stop abuses by some unscrupulous employers.

Twenty per cent more 457 visas were issued to overseas skilled workers in the first two months of this financial year compared to the same period a year ago.

The 457 visa scheme allows employers to sponsor qualified overseas workers to fill nominated positions for up to four-years, if the vacancy cannot be filled locally.

Increased demand for workers in the health care and social assistance industry, along with the construction sector, is currently driving-up the number of 457 visa applications.

Businesses that sponsor overseas workers have numerous obligations, many aimed at protecting the employee from exploitation.

For example, sponsors must show they are providing overseas workers with the same terms and conditions of employment as their Australian co-workers, and grant workplace inspectors access to payroll records and sponsored workers.

They must also ensure overseas workers are only employed in their nominated position.

‘INSUFFICIENT COMPLIANCE CHECKS’

But Jobwatch, an employment rights legal centre in Victoria, says insufficient compliance checks mean some 457 sponsors are getting away with exploitation.

For Walter, an experienced restaurant manager from Italy, being granted a 457 visa marked the start of a stressful period in his professional life.

He was granted a visa on the basis he would be employed as a restaurant manager.

But his sponsor ultimately forced him to work in a less senior role, and threatened to have him deported if he did not do the 50-plus hours a week demanded of him.

“The job described was that I had to be the restaurant manager of that place. I had to make a roster, I had to deal with the suppliers, deal with the customers, like running the place actually. Instead after the first week he completely changed his mind. He doesn’t give me the power to manage the place. Actually I was just a waiter, no more, no less.”

At one point Walter was made to work three weeks without a day off.

He says he felt like a slave.

“It’s even a little bit of my fault, because I don’t really know how the law works in Australia. Instead he told me alot of fake things about oh if you don’t follow me I can cancel your visa, I can kick you out from the country, when he couldn’t.”

Walter says he had nothing in writing from the Immigration Department to refer to when he found himself in urgent need of guidance.

Visits to the Immigration Department, and time spent scouring its website, did not help him fully understand his rights, or the obligations of his employer.

“The problem with the office it sometimes depends on the tellers. And for the same question the different tellers give you different answers. So this is a little bit confusing for me. The major part of the information I found out from other people like me with the same 457 visa. They have the same visa as me, the same problem as me. For me it was pretty difficult to go on the site and find information. Because it is not easy to find. I found a lot of information for the employer, not for me.”

CALLS FOR TRAINING ON WORKPLACE RIGHTS

JobWatch warns that lack of understanding of workplace rights could lead to people being used as cheap and disposable labour.

Executive director Zana Bytheway says 457 visa holders should get some training on their workplace rights as soon as they arrive in Australia.

“Not only in English, but also I believe in their native language. And also where do they go in order to enquire? It’s one thing to get some form of education, but it is only when you are in the process, and in the actual moment that you need to know where do you need to go for some assistance. And that’s really important.”

Immigration lawyer Emma Mackey says 457 sponsors are really struggling with their obligations.

She says the areas they most frequently fall-down in are meeting training requirements, notifying the Immigration Department of changes, and monitoring wages to ensure they track current Australian market rates.

“Larger organisations have dedicated people on staff who can manage their programs and their obligations and they are also much more reputationally focused than smaller organisations. So I think in the main large organisations are managing their obligations well. The medium sized organisations I see a difference in who within the organisation is responsible for the there is a company secretary or some person with a risk management focus is managing the program rather then some human resources of financial officer in the company. I think it is the small organisations that really struggle because they are the owner or managers wears lots of hats, and it is those organisations that need the most external assistance in meeting their sponsorship obligations.”

Emma Mackey says the Immigration Department needs to make more information available to employers about their obligations via its website and seminars.

“I understand that is a big job given the size of the country. But these obligations are complex and employers do need assistance in coming to terms with what they need to do in administering the 457 visa program.”

Jobwatch’s Zana Bytheway fears some employers are using the 457 visa scheme to recruit what she calls “compliant labour”, workers who will accept sub-standard conditions or under-payment because they hope one day to attain permanent residency.

“In 2009 there were some changes made with the view of preventing the exploitation. But I still think that we still have a long way to go. One of the first things that we really need to do is – I think the current monitoring and compliance system actually needs to be improved. Why employers are allowed to exploit workers in this way is because of this inadequate monitoring and compliance.”

The Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) currently has 61 officers in sponsor monitoring roles, including 37 inspectors.

Where a sponsor is found to have breached its obligations it can be barred from the 457 program.

It may also be ordered by a court to pay a fine of up to $33,000 for each failure.

Earlier this year, DIAC for the first time took an employer to court for breaching its 457 sponsorship obligations.

The small business in Victoria was found to have failed to pay a migrant worker equivalent terms and conditions, and keep records of wages paid.

It was fined $35,000, and ordered to pay court costs of around $11,000.

However, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union says the fact less than four per cent of sponsors received visits from inspectors last financial year demonstrates a lack of interest both in the department, and higher-up in the federal government, in checking that 457 workers are not being ripped-off.

‘SLUGGISH RESPONSE’

National Construction Division Secretary Dave Noonan says the union has repeatedly raised with DIAC specific examples of 457 visa holder being exploited by their employers, but has seen a sluggish response.

“One experience that we had is that we made a complaint about a resources construction project where we had been advised that a number of workers from China were being paid less that the market rate, which they are entitled to. After several months of continually raising the matter with the department and indeed the relevant minister, DIAC finally sent an officer up to that site. The individual officer did not contact any of the people who were able to provide information that we provided. When he contacted the company we understand the workers were selected by the company as a sample of workers that the officer spoke to and the company provided an interpreter. In those circumstances there is no way that any worker is going to make a complaint. And it points to he fact that DIAC has been incompetent and unwilling to properly look after workers who are here on 457 and other temporary work visas.”

Zana Bytheway from Jobwatch says unions can offer stressed out workers useful advice and invaluable support.

But she says often 457 visa holders do not belong to them.

“Often in terms of the calls that we receive the visa holder actually didn’t know that they could join a union. Or alternatively where they have wanted to they have been told I suppose in no uncertain terms that that is not the path that they should take. So that is another level of protection that they have been denied.”

The CFMEU’s criticism of the 457 visa program has led some employers to suggest the union is xenophobic, or racist.

Dave Noonan rejects the claim.

“What’s happened in Australia’s immigration policy is that there has been a stealthy shift from the sort of permanent migration schemes which characterised the period after the Second World War to guest labour schemes which are only designed to suit employers. And we think Australia’s migration scheme ought to act to benefit the interests of all Australian citizens and residents, not just the interests of a few employers.”

457 workers who quit their jobs or lose them have 28-days to find an alternative sponsor and apply for another visa, or leave the country.

Zana Bytheway says this is not enough time.

“In that time they have to find a new sponsor employer who has to undertake all the steps of becoming a sponsor, that is time consuming and creates enormous amounts of pressure, and dare I say it is fairly unlikely. The 28-days is incredibly restricted. It should be extended. Some commentators have said that it should be extended to 3-months at least. My argument is that it should be even longer, to say 6-months.”

Zana Bytheway also argues that the 28-day time limit should be suspended whenever a 457-visa holder has filed a claim against a former employer.

“Because if they have been unfairly dismissed or there has been a general protection claim then they are entitled, as we all are, to the full protection of the law.”

The CFMEU is also in favour of extending the 28-day deadline.

But, immigration lawyer Emma Mackey is not.

“The difficulty might be if you are working in an area that is depressed in an economic sense, and that’s the reason why you have lost your job then it may be difficult to find another employer in that time. But the 457 visa is only meant to be a temporary visa that is used to fill skills shortages and government policy is very clear on this that if you don’t fall into one of those categories and you aren’t going to make an application for permanent residency that that’s a good time to be heading back to your home country.”

For Chris, a 457 visa holder from Germany, life in Australia is everything he hoped it would be.

Cricket, rugby, the outdoor lifestyle.

But the 45-year-old, who works in the international transportation and logistics industry, says the conditions attached to his visa make him overly dependent on his employer for his life in Australia.

It’s a situation he feels the company turns to its advantage.

“Well I have to be entirely grateful that they sponsored me for the visa, that they made it possible for me to come here. So I have very limited ways of being controversial or talking back because I know I am at their mercy. I cannot just go across the street and pick another employer. Well let me put it this way, if you walk through our office at 7:30 at night you will find four people there. And the four of us have one thing in common we are all on a visa. And we work probably the most hours in the building and that is not a co-incidence.”

Like many migrants Chris worries about his family back home, and what he would do if a loved one suddenly fell sick.

While his instinct may be to drop everything and return home, a clause in his contract gives him cause to pause.

Quitting his job could leave him liable to pay tens-of-thousands of dollars to his employer.

“The company stipulates in the contract that they had certain expenses to bring me over here. So those expenses they would like to have back, or at least partially back, if I would for some reason leave the company within the first 36-months of my tenure here. So I am wondering if I get a phone call from my family in Germany to say my mother had a stroke or something, if I have to leave the company can technically ask for money to pay back the cost of coming here. So I have a feeling that the risk for me moving to Australia is not shared equally.”

Lawyer Emma Mackey says having contributed to the cost of relocating a migrant, some 457 visa sponsors can be left feeling angry and frustrated when the worker quits, especially if it is to move to a new job.

She says some sponsors have told her they would like to see the scheme changed so workers who resign are required to leave the country.

“Having sponsored an employee and brought them from overseas, and invested time in training there is really no way that the employer can tie the employee to the sponsor. And so they might be in a position where they have invested significant money in bringing a worker to Australia and his or her family and getting them settled and then they resign and move to another sponsor and that employer is left with no way of recouping costs. So that is a significant issue under the present system for alot of employers.”

Before packing-up their lives and moving to Australia, Emma Mackey says would-be migrants would do well to fully research what they are getting themselves into.

She warns they bear some of the responsibility if life in Australia does not live up to their expectations.

“I do find that surprising that you would be prepared to uproot yourself and your family and move some significant distance to a new country and yet not be prepared to make some investment in ascertaining if it is a good option for you. A registered migration agent is a very important part of any organisation involved in the visa process. And for individuals as well. You need to understand what can and can’t be done. Because there is alot of talk among visa holders about what their friends did and how their friends did it. And often there are reasons why that would not work for you. And if you are not taking advice then you can end up as a visa holder very disappointed with the outcome you ultimately receive.”

Team will overcome Jackson NBL loss: coach

Losing a marquee player like Cedric Jackson is disappointing but nothing the New Zealand Breakers say they haven’t dealt with before.

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The MVP of the National Basketball League tweeted on Friday that he wouldn’t be returning for a third season for the Auckland franchise, who have won the past three NBL titles.

Jackson was clearly the best point guard in the NBL, regularly standing out with his speed, penetration, vision and outstanding defence.

But Breakers head coach Dean Vickerman says the club will deal with his departure the same way they dealt with that of previous stars Kirk Penney and Gary Wilkinson.

“When Kirk left, people said we would struggle – we won the championship. When Gary left, people said we would struggle – we won another championship,” Vickerman said.

“We are already working with our contacts to find another very good player … I am confident in our systems and our reputation that we will be successful in that search.”

Jackson has been playing in the Summer League in the United States while seeking a NBA contract but he’s more likely to find a spot with a European club in the next season.

Breakers general manager Richard Clarke says the club has planned for Jackson’s possible departure.

“Obviously we would love for Cedric to have returned for another season or two but, after his stellar performances in helping us win two championships, he was always going to be in demand.

“Initially, he is chasing his dream of returning to the NBA but the opportunities and money in Europe are beyond us and beyond the Australian NBL at this point. We have had our scouts looking for possible replacements for some time and will continue with that process.”

Turkey strikes back after Syrian shelling

Turkey bombarded Syrian army positions afresh in response to what Turkish officials said was a new shell strike on a border town, just hours after UN chief Ban Ki-moon warned of the dangers.

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Ban said there was a growing risk that the conflict in Syria, now in its 19th month, could spill over into neighbouring Turkey and Lebanon, and called for an end to foreign arming of either side.

Syrian troops launched a major assault against remaining rebel districts of Homs province in a bid to finally clear the central region of resistance, and kept up its bombardment of rebel-held neighbourhoods of second city Aleppo, just 50 kilometres (30 miles) from the Turkish border.

The Syrian shell struck in the Altinozu district of Turkey’s Hatay province, at the western end of the two countries’ border, a Turkish official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

He said troops had been under orders to respond to all cross-border fire since shelling from the Syrian side killed five Turkish civilians, including a mother and her three children, last Wednesday.

“The Turkish military retaliates immediately after every single Syrian shell,” the official said. “We have anti-aircraft batteries pounding Syrian targets.”

Hatay governor Celalettin Lekesiz said earlier that six shells fired from the Syrian side had struck Turkish soil during the day.

“All of them landed in rural areas,” he said.

The Turkish parliament on Thursday gave the government the green light to use military force against Syria if necessary.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul said that was not a mandate for war but on Monday said he remained in constant contact with military commanders to ensure an appropriate response.

“Whatever is necessary is being done as you already see, and will continue to be done,” Gul said.

The UN Security Council on Thursday strongly condemned cross-border attacks by Syria and called for restraint between the two neighbours.

On Monday, Ban warned: “The escalation of the conflict along the Syrian-Turkish border and the impact of the crisis on Lebanon are extremely dangerous.

“I am deeply concerned by the continued flow of arms to both the Syrian government and opposition forces. I urge again those countries providing arms to stop doing so,” he added.

The Syrian government accuses Turkey and Gulf states Qatar and Saudi Arabia of backing the rebels. The Syrian opposition charges that Damascus is receiving support from its regional ally Iran.

The new cross-border fire came amid a war of words between Damascus and Ankara over a call by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu for President Bashar al-Assad to step down immediately to make way for a transitional government.

Syria accused Davutoglu of having made a “political and diplomatic gaffe” by suggesting that Assad hand the reins of power to Vice President Faruq al-Shara, the leading Sunni Muslim in the minority Alawite-dominated regime.

“We’re not in the days of the Ottoman Empire any more,” Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi said.

“I advise the Turkish government to give up (power) in favour of personalities who are acceptable to the Turkish people,” he fired back.

Inside Syria, at least 65 people were killed on Monday as fighting raged between troops and rebels in Aleppo in the north, in Homs in the centre and in Daraa in the south, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

“The army is in the midst of trying to cleanse the last rebel districts of the city of Homs,” a Syrian army commander said, adding that troops were also poised to assault the nearby town of Qusayr.

Qusayr-based activist Hadi al-Abdallah told AFP via the Internet: “The situation here is bad. The shelling is very, very violent.”

The Khaldiyeh and Old City neighbourhoods of Homs have been in rebel hands — and under a total army siege — for more than four months, according to activists and monitoring groups.

Nearby Qusayr has been under siege since late last year.

In Aleppo, the northern metropolis of some 1.7 million people, the army renewed its bombardment of rebel districts in the east and north, the Syrian Observatory said.

One resident of a northern district who gave his name only as Abdullah told AFP that he had moved his wife and five children to a safer area and only returned to his home once every few days to check on it.

“I admit I’m afraid,” he said.

Comment: Super intelligent machines aren’t to be feared

By Tony Prescott, University of Sheffield

Fear of machines becoming smarter than humans is a standard part of popular culture.

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In films like iRobot and Terminator, humans are usurped. Throughout history we can trace stories about humankind overreaching through a desire to understand and copy ourselves, from Ancient Greek mythology to Milton’s Paradise Lost and Shelley’s Frankenstein. Today’s Prometheans are supposedly scientists working on artificial intelligence (AI), who run the risk of creating machines intelligent enough to supercede us.

But this is no mere convention of dystopian science fiction, worries such as these are expressed by academics too. A recent review by Luke Muehlhauser, Executive Director of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, suggests that “the default outcome from advanced AI is human extinction”. If this is true, we definitely have cause for concern.

Muehlhauser and others are worried we will reach a point in the future where AI will surpass human intelligence – a moment often referred to as the “singularity”. Once the singularity is reached, so-called “runaway AI” might continue to improve itself at an accelerating rate, leaving human intelligence far behind.

It may seem that our foot is on the path to destruction, but this sense of foreboding is based on a particular assumption about how we should compare AI to human intelligence. Human intelligence is usually thought of as the raw brain-power of the average individual. The human brain evolved to its current capacity around 100,000 years ago. It has not changed much since then and is unlikely to improve any time soon. Based on this comparison, it seems plausible that AI could surpass us in many respects in the near future.

But other comparisons might be more appropriate and more informative. For instance, perhaps we should be comparing AI with the collective intelligence of humanity. After all, as an entity, AI can stretch across multiple machines. Likewise, the human race amounts to much more than the sum of its parts when we share our capabilities.

And why strip us humans of our intelligence-enhancing artifacts? Since the Stone Age, about 50,000 years ago, humans have used language to store and communicate knowledge, boosting our individual and collective reasoning capacity. Computers, the internet, even AI itself, are just the most recent additions to a set of technologies whose earlier members include red ochre (for cave painting), papyrus, the abacus, the printing press, typewriter and telephone.

These intelligence-boosting technologies have hugely expanded our ability to apply shared knowledge and control our environment according to our goals. This historical acceleration could easily be described as “runaway human intelligence”, as cultural and scientific development have led to a larger, longer-lived and better-educated human species.

Now, with advanced communication technologies such as smartphones, we can share our intelligence better than ever before. In this way, we contribute the raw processing power of our individual brains to what Francis Heylighen has called the “Global Brain”.

Visions of the future: it’s not all death and destruction for humanity. Cayusa

This enhanced, species-level intelligence has no obvious ceiling. We can continue to create technologies that complement our natural intelligence, which will allow us to communicate faster and make us collectively smarter. Comparing future AI with the Global Brain, puts a singularity event much further off, and makes it much less plausible that humanity will be left behind in the intelligence race.

Worrying scenarios remain, though. It could be that a split emerges between AI and the Global Brain, where a sneaky and malevolent AI attempts to conceal its advances from humanity. Like Skynet, the self-aware AI in Terminator, it could bide its time until it is ready to eliminate all unnecessary humans.

But this scenario underestimates the contribution of our biological intelligence to any future human-machine collective. There are many things that we do exceptionally well and which are hard for machines to master, because they lack the same richness of sensory and motor interaction with the world. Researchers are working hard on this challenge, and making some progress, with organisations like the Convergent Science Network providing a venue for collaboration and communication.

Still, the limitations of robots are obvious at events like the Robocup2013 tournament. Though they can pass the ball around, their awareness, dexterity and flexibility remain a very pale imitation of ours.

These ‘kid-sized’ robots still can’t bend it like Beckham.

Acting in, and understanding the world, are skills in which humans excel, and intelligent machines will need us around to intepret the world for them for a long time to come. There is no real economic incentive for replacing this aspect of human intelligence, either. Machines will continue to be engineered to take on the tasks we do poorly, rather than the ones we do well. Like symbiotic systems in nature, the future partnership of people with intelligent machines will be successful because its two halves complement, rather than copy, each other.

The most plausible scenario is that our collective intelligence will continue its runaway path. Greater and deeper integration between humans and our intelligence enhancing technologies will result in an increasingly bio-hybrid – part biological, part artificial – form. What is good for AI will then also be good for us.

Tony Prescott receives funding from the EU Framework 7 Programme via the Convergent Science Network (南宁桑拿网,www.csnetwork.eu/)

Misty eyed at the end of Atlantis era

“It was a great day today,” Bill Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for Space Operations, told SBS after the shuttle had left the earth.

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A space shuttle launch can be an emotional event and in that respect STL-129 did not disappoint.

“Every time they launch, I cry,” said one ground employee who has worked at the Kennedy Space Center site since 1975 and seen every launch – not all of them as smooth and successful as STL-129.

With “just” 59 problem reports during countdown, STL-129 set a record, of sorts, for a smooth, hitch-free, ride into space.

After 25 years of service, 2010 signals the final year of the Space Shuttle program which will come to an end after five more missions.

The United States government is currently considering which direction to take it’s human space program.

Options currently before President Obama include missions to Mars, revisiting (and staying at) the moon, further expansion of low-orbit missions like the Space Shuttle, and there’s even thoughts of opening up the US space program to commercial ventures.

From 2011, Russia will provide the taxis taking American astronauts to the International Space Station over the next seven years of its planned lifespan, using the legendary Soyuz spacecraft.

“It’s a little difficult to predict the future,” Gerstenmaier said about NASA”s next course. “By February there should be some policy known and some direction. We are preparing for all eventualities.”

NASA’s top bosses have no fear admitting they’re getting misty eyed at the end of an era – even as they were sending Atlantis into orbit.

“We were talking in the firing room [where the launch is controlled] today,” revealed Mike Leinbach, Launch Director. “It is starting to hit home [that this is coming to an end].”

Space Shuttles, it seems, have the potential to develop their own personalities.

“When we lost Columbia [in 2003] it was almost like losing a family member,” Leinbach added.

The end of the program?

It’s like kicking the kids out of home.

“This is a special time in history,” said Gerstenmaier. “You have to see it and feel it.”

The NASA boss wasn’t just talking about witnessing one of the five remaining launches close up but he could well have been.

From a distance of 4.8 kilometers (the closest vantage point for all but eight rescue workers on standby 1.5 kilometers from the launch pad) the launch of Atlantis inspired tension, drama, and awe.

And for many, the misty eyes weren’t kicked off by dust.

Twitter News Index: Royal Commission the most tweeted topic

By Axel Bruns, Queensland University of Technology

The latest edition of our Australian Twitter News Index arrives in a somewhat more timely fashion than the previous one did.

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Unfortunately, though, our data are somewhat compromised by the fact that regular scheduled maintenance on our Twitter data servers took place on Tuesday and Wednesday of last week – which means we missed a good chunk of the debate around the Royal Commission into child abuse in institutions, and particularly around Catholic Cardinal George Pell’s press conference about the matter. Very unfortunate, but there’s little we can do about it, I’m afraid.

ATNIX Week 46: 12-18 Nov. 2012

Because the Twitter API makes it easier to backfill missing data on minor than major tracking terms, such outages tend to affect our data on the most widely linked-to Australian news sites more strongly than those on the minor sites. Despite the major stories about the Royal Commission, therefore (which would usually boost the numbers of the leading sites disproportionally), the overall distribution of links across our news sites remains little changed from last week.

Notwithstanding the server outages, we captured some 133,000 tweets linking to these news sites during week 46; that’s down 17,000 from last week, and gives us a rough estimate of the volume of tweets we missed during the outage. With those caveats, the tweets we did capture distribute across the leading sites in a nonetheless familiar pattern:

ATNIX 46/2012: News Sites 南宁桑拿网,mappingonlinepublics.net/

The comparatively small share of tweets pointing to the Sydney Morning Herald and ABC News is an artefact of our outage; by contrast, the comparatively strong showing of news.com.au this week is genuine, as the persistent hair growth spammer which had plagued our dataset over the past few weeks has finally moved on.

The distribution of tweets across our opinion and commentary sites may also underestimate the marketshare of major sites, and chiefly the SMH. The total number of opinion tweets we captured this week is down slightly from last week, at 18,500, but it is very likely that without the outages we would have captured a substantially larger number of such tweets, especially on Tuesday and Wednesday.

ATNIX 46/2012: Opinion Sites 南宁桑拿网,mappingonlinepublics.net/

Given these limitations, then, our analysis this week must necessarily focus on the days for which we do have good data – starting with Monday. Here, we see a strong spike in sharing activity for several leading sites (including the SMH, ABC News, and news.com.au), which would most likely have carried through into the following day; by 8 a.m. AEST on Tuesday (before our servers were shut down), at least, Twitter news sharing had already well surpassed the activity levels set that time on the previous day.

ATNIX 46/2012: News Sites 南宁桑拿网,mappingonlinepublics.net/

While Monday is too early in the evolution of the child abuse crisis to be exclusively dominated by that story, there nonetheless is substantial focus on the issue. Some 270 links to the Sydney Morning Herald reference an article about calls for Cardinal Pell to close the religious order St John of God because of the scandal, while ABC News articles about Tony Abbott’s and Tony Windsor’s support for a Royal Commission receive some 140 and 130 tweets, respectively. A further 200 tweets link to the live stream of ABC News 24, which provided live coverage of Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s announcement of the Royal Commission. Pieces on Gillard’s consideration of an inquiry, and subsequently on her announcement of the Royal Commission, also serve as the most linked stories at The Australian that day.

The following days’ data are too problematic to examine in any detail; by Friday 16 Nov., however, we can trust our data again, and see another pronounced spike in activity especially for SMH and ABC News. By this time, however, the Royal Commission has already been announced, and even Cardinal Pell’s press conference is no longer at the centre of Twitter discussion. Instead, the SMH spike is driven by the reaction to a tweet by well-known Crikey psephologist blogger Possum Comitatus, which was widely retweeted on the day:

Tony Abbott just said this on Gardasil 南宁桑拿网,南宁夜生活,/Sb5SKHcx Meanwhile, the reality was actually this 南宁桑拿网,南宁夜生活,/2FXVbk8T

The tweet juxtaposes an SMH article from 2006 (which has then-PM John Howard overruling his Health Minister Tony Abbott about Abbott’s intended delay to the start date of the government’s cervical cancer immunisation programme) with Abbott’s tweet on Friday morning, taking the credit for the immunisation programme. It’s highly unusual to see such a comparatively ancient link trouble our weekly news index – but it demonstrates the potential of social media for fact-checking the statements of politicians. Some 260 of the tweets pointing to the Sydney Morning Herald site on Friday pointed to the 2006 article, turning it into an unlikely lead story by a substantial margin.

The simultaneous spike in ABC News links, on the other hand, continues to focus on its Royal Commission coverage: here, the leading Friday story is a piece about the support which police whistleblower Peter Fox had received on Twitter, following his Lateline interview. This also continues a long-term trend which sees articles with relevant to social media being shared especially widely on social media, of course.

ATNIX 46/2012: Opinion Sites 南宁桑拿网,mappingonlinepublics.net/

The patterns for opinion sites and sections are less pronounced; the minor spikes on Monday and Friday are due for the most part simply to the server outage-induced lull in between. There is, however, an unusual spike in links to the otherwise fairly underrepresented opinion section of The Australian, and this spike provides a final postscript to the Abbott story: a 2006 opinion piece in The Australian, which describes Abbott as ‘a national dill’ over his opposition to the cervical cancer vaccination programme, was shared by several Twitter users – including prominent blogger Grog’s Gamut and Health Minister Tanya Plibersek – and accounted for some 250 of the 450 tweets referencing The Australian’s opinion section on Friday.

Message to politicians: sometimes Twitter users have very long memories.

Standard background information: this analysis is based on tracking all tweets which contain links pointing to the URLs of a large selection of leading Australian news and opinion sites. For technical reasons, it does not contain ‘button’ retweets, but manual retweets (“RT @user …”) are included. Datasets for those sites which cover more than just news and opinion (abc.net.au, sbs.com.au, ninemsn.com.au) are filtered to exclude irrelevant sections of those sites (e.g. abc.net.au/tv, catchup.ninemsn.com.au). For our analysis of ‘opinion’ link sharing, we include only those sub-sections of mainstream sites which contain opinion and commentary (e.g. abc.net.au/unleashed, articles on theaustralian.com.au which include ‘/opinion’ in the URL), and compare them with dedicated opinion and commentary sites.

See the posts tagged ‘ATNIX’ at Mapping Online Publics for a full collection of previous results.

Axel Bruns does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Truce efforts intensify as Gaza death toll mounts

With Egypt at the centre of efforts to broker a ceasefire, Palestinian officials said it was possible a deal would be reached “today or tomorrow”.

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But there was no letup in the bloodshed in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. Medics said women and children accounted for most of Sunday’s dead, among them five babies and toddlers, killed in Israeli air strikes.

In the day’s most lethal raid, at least nine members of the same family — five of them children — were among 10 people killed when an Israeli missile destroyed a family home in Gaza City, the health ministry said.

At the scene, medics and bystanders all pitched in to remove the rubble to dig out the bodies in the hope of finding survivors, as people watched in shock, some weeping openly.

The latest violence hiked the Palestinian casualty toll to 77 dead and 700 injured in some 100 hours of raids, while three Israelis have been killed and more than 50 injured by rocket fire since Wednesday.

An Israeli air strike in the early hours of Monday morning leveled the Abbas police headquarters in Gaza City, but nobody was killed.

With Israel warning it could further escalate its operations in Gaza, US President Barack Obama on Sunday said it was “preferable” for the Gaza crisis to be resolved without a “ramping up” of Israeli military activity.

In Cairo, senior Hamas officials said Egyptian-mediated talks with Israel to end the bloodshed were “positive” but now focused on the possible stumbling block of guaranteeing the terms of a truce.

An outcome acceptable to Hamas would involve assurances about the United States, Israel’s main backer, being the “guaranteeing party,” one official said on condition of anonymity.

Security officials in Cairo said an Israeli envoy had also arrived in the Egyptian capital on Sunday for the talks.

Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi, meanwhile, met with both Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal and Islamic Jihad chief Abdullah Shalah to discuss “Egyptian efforts to end the aggression,” his office said without giving details.

‘ABSOLUTE CONDITION’ FOR A TRUCE

But Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman insisted that “the first and absolute condition for a truce is stopping all fire from Gaza,” and that all armed groups would have to commit to it.

Earlier, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Israel was ready to “significantly expand” its operation. He spoke ahead of talks with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who is on a whirlwind truce tour of the region.

Fabius later said his country was willing to help broker a truce. “War is not an option, it is never an option …There are two key words: urgency and ceasefire,” he told journalists in Tel Aviv.

Early on Sunday, Israeli aircraft hit two media centres in Gaza City, wounding at least eight journalists, one of whom lost a leg, health ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra told AFP.

The military defended the strike, saying it had targeted Hamas operational communications and sought to minimise civilian casualties.

Amid the truce efforts, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said “a ground invasion of Gaza would lose Israel a lot of the international support and sympathy that they have in this situation.”

On Sunday, about 125 rockets hit Israel, while scores more were intercepted in mid-flight by the Iron Dome defence system, the army said.

Throughout the day, two were fired at Tel Aviv, triggering air raid sirens in the commercial metropolis for the fourth day. Iron Dome intercepted both, police said.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, whose remit is limited to the West Bank, on Sunday urged his people to stage peaceful demonstrations against Israel’s military offensive on Gaza.

And around 500 Egyptian activists arrived in Gaza City and visited its Shifa hospital in a show of solidarity with its people, officials said.

Since the start of its Operation Pillar of Defence, launched after the killing of Hamas military chief Ahmed Jaabari in an air strike, the Israeli army says it has struck more than 1,100 targets in Gaza as militants have fired more than 800 rockets over the border.

Romney maps out five-day election end game

The answer should come as no surprise: Ohio, Colorado, Iowa and New Hampshire, battlegrounds which election experts define as the biggest prizes in the 2012 race, will feature prominently — as well as a few Democrat-leaning states that the Republican challenger insists are in play.

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Romney is locked in the tightest of races with President Barack Obama, who is also on a mad dash across swing states ahead of election day on November 6.

Romney starts his Friday campaigning in Wisconsin, which has voted for the Democratic Party since 1988 but which his team says has come into play given Obama’s slipping poll numbers there over the past month.

Both candidates will then converge on pivotal Ohio, where they have sunk vast amounts of money into television advertising.

No Republican has clinched the White House without also winning the Buckeye State, and so after a stop in Columbus, Romney will kick off one of the biggest events of his campaign.

The “Real Recovery Road Rally” in West Chester, Ohio will feature his running mate Paul Ryan and dozens of prominent Republicans such as ex-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and Senator John McCain.

On Saturday Romney will blitz across New Hampshire, Iowa and Colorado.

And on Sunday, after bouncing back to Iowa, he will stop in Pennsylvania, another Democrat-leaning state that the campaign hopes to poach from the president.

Pennsylvania has been in Obama’s column for months, with the latest Real Clear Politics average of polls showing the incumbent up 4.6 percentage points.

But Team Romney has consistently dismissed polls as giving an incomplete picture in many states — Pennsylvania and Ohio among them — where they feel the challenger has built recent momentum that they argue could translate into stronger-than-expected turnout.

On Monday Romney will make a last-gasp push in Ohio, before returning to New Hampshire for the final “victory rally” of his campaign.

Romney will watch the election results Tuesday night from Massachusetts, where he served as state governor from 2003 to 2007.

Notably absent from the published schedule? Monumental battlegrounds Florida and Virginia — although Romney visited the Sunshine State all day Wednesday and the latter all day Thursday.

Mali’s Tuareg rebels advance as world condemns coup

The African Union temporarily suspended Mali, Europe froze aid and the United States threatened to follow suit amid a chorus of condemnation over the coup in a country key to fighting drug trafficking and extremism.

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But AU officials will travel to Mali for talks with the coup leaders in a joint delegation with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) next week.

The coup opened the way for Tuareg rebels to deepen their hold on the north, with their National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) saying it had seized the town of Anefis between the key cities Gao and Kidal.

The MNLA said on its website it would continue to press its offensive as part of its military campaign for a homeland in the north of the west African nation.

It was the Tuareg rebellion that sparked the coup by soldiers, who say they have been ill-equipped to fight off the desert nomads,

The Tuareg force has been strengthened by the return of heavily armed fighters who previously fought for Libya’s slain dictator Moamer Kadhafi.

On Wednesday, army troops attacked the presidential palace and seized state institutions, before appearing on television to announce they had toppled the “incompetent” regime of President Amadou Toumani Toure.

On Friday, Mali’s coup leaders again took to television to deny reports of the death of their leader, Captain Amadou Sanogo.

Earlier, Sanogo himself reassured journalists that Toure was “doing very well”, and that members of the government arrested by soldiers were safe.

“We will not touch a hair on their heads. I will hand them over to the courts so that the Malian people know the truth,” insisted the green-beret officer, who says he has spent time at training programmes in US.

In separate comments to the BBC, he insisted he would stand down once he had ensured the army was properly equipped to tackle the Tuareg rebellion.

The problem at the moment was “a lack of equipment, a lack of training and our comrades are dying all the time,” he said.

“So once this has been fixed, I’ll be able to say ‘Ok, go for election’ in a short period of time. I promise.”

Rights group Amnesty International said that at least three people had been shot dead and 28 wounded in Thursday’s coup, while the local Red Cross said it had treated 40 people, mostly for bullet wounds.

Few people ventured out of their homes in the tense capital Bamako Friday, where some soldiers had turned to looting.

The international community has acted swiftly against the junta.

The AU Peace and Security Council announced it was suspending Mali until the government had been restored, said Paul Zolo, Nigeria’s envoy to Ethiopia and the AU.

AU Commission chief Jean Ping said the AU and ECOWAS would send a joint team to Mali to seek a return of constitutional order.

And the heads of ECOWAS were due to hold a special meeting in Ivory Coast’s main city Abidjan on Tuesday, a source in the Ivorian ministry for African integration said.

The EU’s executive arm said it was suspending development work as its foreign ministers called for the return of civilian rule, but direct support to the population and humanitarian aid would continue.

Drought means that Mali is threatened with a food crisis.

The World Bank and the African Development Bank suspended aid after the coup, Mali’s first in 21 years, and the US threatened to lift $70 million in military and economic aid if constitutional rule was not returned.

France, China and Mali’s neighbours Algeria, Mauritania and Niger joined the chorus of condemnation. The United Nations also condemned the coup.

Twelve Malian political heavyweights condemned the coup, which came just five weeks before a presidential election in which Toure had been due to step down.

Mali is usually seen as politically stable, but unrest in the north, where Tuareg tribes have long felt ignored by a southern government and where Al-Qaeda has also taken root, has created a major security problem.

Under Toure’s leadership, Mali had been hailed as a growing democratic success, but in mid-January the Tuareg launched a fresh rebellion aimed at winning independence, which has seen up to 206,000 people flee their homes.

New Chinese game based on disputed islands

A video game backed by China’s military that lets players fight enemy forces in islands disputed between Beijing and Tokyo is set for release.

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“Glorious Mission Online”, China’s answer to “Call of Duty”, marks the 86th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

The game, an online version of an earlier first-person shooter used by the PLA to train troops, features the East China Sea islands known as Diaoyu by Beijing and Senkaku by Tokyo.

Tensions have been mounting over the islands, which are claimed by China but controlled by Japan. Beijing’s vessels regularly sail into the disputed waters and, according to state media, tell Japanese ships they are encroaching on its territory.

A press release for the game says: “Players … will fight alongside Chinese armed forces and use weapons to tell the Japanese that ‘Japan must return our stolen territory!'”

Images from the game’s website are labelled “Guard the Diaoyu islands”, and a trailer posted online features shots of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

It also shows planes taking off from a computer-generated version of China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, which went into service last year.

The game was due to become available only at 5.00pm (1900 AEST) on Thursday, but its designers Giant Interactive Group, who developed it jointly with the PLA, told AFP millions of users had already registered to play.

Giant co-operated closely with the PLA while working on the game to ensure that weapons looked authentic and soldiers’ voices were accurate, said company vice-president Gu Kai.

“Our relationship with the military is like the relationship between the US army and Hollywood,” he said.

The release comes at a time of increased fears over the PLA’s expansion among China’s neighbours – Beijing is also in dispute with several countries in the South China Sea.

But Gu linked the game with attempts by the PLA to present itself as more transparent, including inviting foreign media to tour military bases, to boost its image abroad.

“It’s about soft power,” he said. “Through the game we want to allow ordinary people to gain an understanding of the army, which is often seen as closed-off and mysterious.

“In Western games the People’s Liberation Army is always the enemy, this is the first game where it is on the good side.”

Maggie Du, director of Giant’s Centre for Overseas Business Development, insisted “Glorious Mission Online” would not add to the tensions between China and its neighbours.

“We need to be related to actual events, but it’s not about politics, it’s a commercial consideration to attract customers.”

The company hopes to attract foreign gamers to fight alongside the PLA, she added, and possible future versions of the game designed for export might look to avoid identifying participant nations.

“We might replace the US and Russian armies with robots or zombies or something like that,” she said.