Sign of the Times: Total eclipses, dragons and power shifts

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Rosalind McLymont Tens of thousands of people ? scientists, eclipse junkies, foreign tourists and ordinary villagers ? gathered in remote villages of northern China on the morning of Aug. 1 to witness one minute and 27 seconds of a total eclipse of the sun. Millions more, locals mostly, stood along the country?s ancient Silk Road, the world?s oldest trade route ? a 5,000-mile stretch from China through south Asia, Arabia and East Africa to southern Europe on the Mediterranean Sea traveled for thousands of years by traders, merchants, pilgrims, monks, soldiers, nomads and city folk.

Around 11:18 a.m. China time, the moon hung between the Earth and the sun, putting the three in a perfect line. The sun turned black and sprouted a golden halo. The sky slipped under an indigo blanket with no holes for stars to peep through.

In keeping with ancient Chinese lore, some people banged pots, cymbals ? anything to create enough noise to chase the sun-eating dragon away.

Dubbed the ?Olympic eclipse? by the local press to mark its occurrence one week before the games of the XXIX Summer Olympiad in Beijing, it was the country?s first solar eclipse of the century.

And in a year that has encountered death-dealing snowstorms and river flooding and the deadliest earthquake in a generation, it was taken as a hopeful sign that the games would be successful; that China?s official coming-out party as a member of the Western-sanctioned family of nations would bring pride and joy to the country?s approximately 1.3 billion souls.

Ironically, another eclipse in which China played a key role was little noticed by most of those who were dazzled by the solar eclipse. On July 28 in Geneva, Switzerland, the World Trade Organization?s negotiations to dismantle tariff and other barriers to global trade collapsed after developing countries, led by China and India, dug in their heels for protection for their farmers against heavily subsidized U.S. and European products. After nine days, 35 trade ministers meeting in Geneva in a last-ditch attempt to save the Doha Development Round (named after the city in Qatar where the WTO negotiations were launched seven years ago) had almost reached a deal when those from developed countries balked at a clause that would have allowed poor countries to boost tariffs temporarily if there was a surge in imports or a sudden change in commodity prices.

When the U.S. and European Union offered to gradually cut subsidies to their own farmers and other tariffs, India and China fired back that those concessions were greatly exaggerated.

And that was the end of that. The collapse signifies a total eclipse of U.S. and EU dominance under a WTO prescription of trade liberalization that, according to United Nations and World Bank studies, has failed to deliver promised economic benefits to poor countries. What follows now is a scramble for bilateral and regional free-trade deals. But in the post-Geneva power shift, the United States and the EU likely will be shut out of free-trade arrangements currently being designed among China, India, Brazil and other Asian and African countries.

On Aug. 8, the world saw yet another sign ? one of re-emerging power as Russia gave its former Soviet satellite, Georgia, a sound military thrashing when the latter tried to retake the breakaway province of South Ossetia. A great deal of loud and angry blame-noise surrounds the Doha Round collapse and Russia?s whipping of Georgia. But these are 21st-century dragons and loud and angry noise won?t scare them away.