China’s once-a-decade power transfer began March 3, marking the start of new president Xi Jinping’s reign as the country’s most powerful leader. Xi, 59, takes over the world’s second-largest economy amid calls for increased democratization and an end to the country’s reeducation-through-labor camps.
As China’s National Congress convened, word emerged that Christian attorney Gao Zhisheng’s family was allowed to visit him Jan. 23. They were the first visitors in 10 months for the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize nominee, who was said to be “pale but in good health.”
Gao, 48, has been in and out of Chinese prisons since 2009 for speaking out against the government’s human-rights abuses. He was feared dead after his attorneys were forbidden to see him last August.
The Bible wins
History Channel’s 5-part, 10-hour miniseries The Bible premiered March 3 to 13.1 million total viewers—according to Nielsen—making it the No. 1 televised entertainment of the year on cable TV.
The series, three years in the making by husband-and-wife co-producers Mark Burnett (Survivor) and Roma Downey (Touched By an Angel), covers Genesis to Revelation in a format meant to improve Bible literacy rather than to evangelize, with a target audience beyond Christendom (see “Ultimate reality,” March 9).
With those ratings, The Bible was more watched than anything on the broadcast networks Sunday—including the two-hour NBC season premiere of Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice.
Not taking all comers
Virginia lawmakers voted late last month to give college campus groups the right to restrict membership to students who agree with their mission. The bill is designed to prevent state universities from enacting “all-comers” policies, which undermine the ability of religious and political organizations to form around a specific set of beliefs.
Critics called the bill unnecessary, saying no group had been threatened by a “hostile takeover.” But in recent years, colleges have used “all-comers” policies to prevent Christian groups from refusing to accept leaders who approve of homosexuality.
So-called nondiscrimination policies got a lot of national attention last year after Vanderbilt University, a private college in Nashville, Tenn., adopted one. Fifteen Christian groups refused to affirm the policy and lost their access to campus facilities and student-fee funding.
In an effort to force the school to reverse course, Tennessee legislators adopted a measure similar to Virginia’s, except it included any private school taking taxpayer money. Less than a week after the measure passed, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, vetoed it. Tennessee lawmakers resurrected the bill earlier this month. Ohio approved an “all-comers” ban last year.
Virginia’s measure now awaits Gov. Bob McDonnell’s signature.
The death of Chavismo
The likely successor to Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, vice president Nicolas Maduro, “is viscerally anti-American, opposes the checks and balances of liberal democracy and distrusts free markets,” according to former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela Charles Shapiro. It wasn’t out of step, then, that in the hours before Chavez’s March 5 death formally was announced, Maduro said the government would expel a top U.S. diplomat, military attache David Delmonaco, and accused him of espionage in trying to provoke a coup to destabilize the country.
Mourners took to the streets of Caracas, the capital, following news of Chavez’s death. The 58-year-old head of state, who secured the populist vote to win a 1998 election, had been ailing with cancer for nearly two years and died in the capital despite time in Cuba seeking treatment. He had not been seen in public since December.
When his health was strong, Chavez was a flamboyant symbol for Latin American socialism that came to be called “Chavismo”—and a brutal leader. Venezuela has five branches of government, yet Chavez managed to consolidate all five under his deputies. His presidency “was characterized by a dramatic concentration of power and open disregard for basic human rights guarantees,” according to a statement released by Human Rights Watch upon his death.
Three months ago in a Miami Herald op-ed, Shapiro noted that relations between the United States and Venezuela “have ranged from difficult to hostile” since Chavez took office. Yet the United States remained the lead trading partner for a country that sits atop one of the world’s largest petroleum reserves. Under Chavez oil production fell 30 percent, and the throttle on the economy and the people is likely to continue if Chavez cronies, namely Maduro, succeed in taking power. Under Venezuela’s constitution, new elections must be held within 30 days.
Defaulting in Detroit
Almost half of Detroit’s property owners failed to pay their tax bills last year, according to data collected by the Detroit News, a sign of both the high foreclosures there and the beleaguered city government. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has appointed an emergency manager over the city’s taxes. Residents complained to the News that they don’t receive even the most basic city services, and property taxes are among the highest in the nation’s cities. As home values have plummeted, assessments have become heavily inflated, too. A handful of businesses—three casinos, General Motors Corp., DTE Energy, Chrysler Group LLC, and Marathon Petroleum Corp.—paid 19 percent of Detroit’s collected property taxes, according to the report.
Not so fast
An Alabama judge moved swiftly to delay a bill that would give children attending failing schools within the state an opportunity to attend private schools through tax deductions.
Majority Republicans slipped the provision into another bill right before a vote, then passed it amid shouts and finger-pointing from surprised colleagues. Gov. Bob Bentley was set to sign the bill three days later until a teachers union secured an emergency judicial hold.
The move damaged lawmakers’ relationship with the state superintendent and will influence other education bills, said state Rep. Ed Henry, R-Decatur.
“That 8-page bill morphed into 27-page bill with no one getting to read it,” said Betty Peters, a state school board member. “If something is good and true, it should withstand scrutiny.”
Early 2012 results indicate teen driving deaths may have increased for a second straight year after eight years of decline. The new Governor’s Highway Safety Association report shows deaths among 16- and 17-year-old drivers spiked 19 percent in the first half of last year. Teen fatality accidents numbered 240 in 2012, compared to 202 in the first half of 2011. Overall traffic deaths rose 8 percent last year, an increase attributed to an improving economy as more drivers hit the roadways.