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China escalates fight with U.S. on clean energy aid

BEIJINGA dispute between China and the United States over Beijing’s subsidies to clean energy industries escalated on Sunday when a senior Chinese economic official warned that Washington “cannot win this trade fight.”

In an abruptly scheduled news briefing here, the official, Zhang Guobao, sharply rebuked the Obama administration for opening an inquiry on Friday into the subsidies.

Zhang accused American trade officials of repeatedly delaying talks over the same issues the White House now wanted to investigate and suggested the administration was playing election-season politics.

“I have been thinking: What do the Americans want?” said Zhang, vice chairman of the government’s National Development and Reform Commission. “Do they want fair trade? Or an earnest dialogue? Or transparent information? I don’t think they want any of this. I think more likely, the Americans just want votes.”

With campaigning for the November midterm elections defined in large part by bleak economic and employment statistics, candidates in both parties have increasingly blamed Chinese trade policies for slowing the American recovery from the 2008 economic collapse.

The White House has increased criticism of China in recent weeks, even as it dispatched senior officials to China to try to defuse trade tensions.

Justice Dept. sues Michigan blue cross over pricing

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department sued Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan on Monday, asserting that the company, the state’s dominant health insurer, had violated antitrust laws and secured a huge competitive advantage by forcing hospitals to charge higher prices to Blue Cross’s rivals.

The civil case appears to have broad implications because many local insurance markets, like those in Michigan, are highly concentrated, and Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans often have the largest shares of those markets.

In the Michigan case, the Obama administration said Blue Cross and Blue Shield had contracts with many hospitals that stifled competition, resulting in higher health insurance premiums for consumers and employers.

Sarkozy risks labor reform

PARIS — Weeks of protests over President Nicolas Sarkozy’s efforts to change France’s pension system were intensifying Monday in advance of a final parliamentary vote. But with approval expected, Sarkozy faces the possibility that winning will not offer much political gain.

Labor unions called for national work stoppages Tuesday, adding to the disruption that has been building since the first national protest strike Sept. 7 and that has worsened with strikes at oil refineries now in their second week. Trains have been canceled, commuters stranded and gas stations mobbed. Violent clashes have broken out. The civil aviation authority asked airlines to cut flights into French airports by as much as half.

Presenting himself as a champion of necessary change, Sarkozy had proposed the measures to help wrest France from the economic doldrums gripping many parts of Europe and to reverse years of declining fortunes before elections in 2012. He holds a majority in both houses of Parliament. With a Senate vote set for Wednesday and lower house approval already in hand, he believes he can bank on success for the changes, which include increasing the minimum age of retirement by two years to 62.