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From AI to facial recognition: how China is setting the rules in new tech

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This article is part of a series on the New Cold War

Zhao Houlin is head of the UN’s telecoms agency, an independent international arbiter that sets some of the rules shaping the modern technology industry. But that does not stop him from letting his patriotism burst into the open.

A former government official in China, Mr Zhao has repeatedly lionised the Belt and Road Initiative, the pet project of Chinese president Xi Jinping to invest in overseas infrastructure. He has also defended Huawei, the controversial Chinese telecoms champion, against US accusations that its equipment can be used for espionage.

“Those preoccupations with Huawei equipment, up to now there is no proof so far,” Mr Zhao, who is secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union, told reporters in Geneva last year. “I would encourage Huawei to be given equal opportunities to bid for business.”

But it is in his unabashed support for Chinese technology standards that Mr Zhao’s loyalty to Beijing is most striking. Although he was sworn into his ITU role with a pledge to act “with the interest of the union only in view” while avoiding influence from any one country, he regularly celebrates China’s growing presence in the telecoms and internet industries.

“Nowadays in the discussion of relevant ITU standards, China’s technical strength is already in the first echelon and the international community expects China to play a greater role in the UN system,” Mr Zhao was quoted by the People’s Daily, an official Chinese newspaper, as saying last week. In other statements carried by the Chinese media he has praised the role of the country’s telecoms companies in setting new industry standards.

Mark Warner of the US Senate intelligence committee says Beijing is intending to control digital infrastructure and, as it does so, to impose principles that are antithetical to US values
Mark Warner of the US Senate intelligence committee says Beijing is intending to control digital infrastructure and, as it does so, to impose principles that are antithetical to US values © Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

Zhao Houlin, head of the independent UN telecoms agency, regularly celebrates China’s growing presence in the telecoms and internet industries
Zhao Houlin, head of the independent UN telecoms agency, regularly celebrates China’s growing presence in the telecoms and internet industries © Denis Balibouse/Reuters

Mr Zhao declined to comment on his statements. His advocacy of China’s interests, however, throws light on the intensifying geopolitical battleground of technological standards, a much overlooked yet crucial aspect of a new struggle for global influence between China and the US.

Such standards might seem obscure, but they are a crucial element of modern technology. If the cold war was dominated by a race to build the most nuclear weapons, the contest between the US and China — as well as the EU — will partly be played out through a struggle to control the bureaucratic rule-setting that lies behind the most important industries of the age.

Gearing up

The commercial and geopolitical power of industrial protocols has long been recognised. Werner von Siemens, the 19th-century German industrialist and innovator who gave his name to the Siemens conglomerate he founded, said: “He who owns the standards, owns the market.”

Standard-setting has for decades largely been the preserve of a small group of industrialised democracies. Everything from the width of train tracks, to software, satellites, the frequencies that mobile phones use and a whole gamut of rules about how electronic gadgets work and process data have been decided by western-dominated standards organisations.

New Cold War

In a series of articles this week, the FT explores how the US-China rivalry is beginning to resemble a new cold war, with the technology world splitting into two blocs and countries being asked to choose sides.

Monday: Trump, Xi and the escalating US-China confrontation

Tuesday: Can supply chains in China be shifted elsewhere?

Thursday: How America turned hawkish on China

But China now has other ideas. “Industrial standards are an important area of contestation in the new cold war, with both Beijing and Washington gearing up to shape the development and implementation of global standards,” says Adam Segal, director of the digital and cyber space policy programme at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think-tank.

He and other experts say an intensifying US-China battle to dominate standards, especially in emerging technologies, could start to divide the world into different industrial blocs. In the same way that rail passengers who travel from western Europe to some former Soviet bloc countries must to this day change trains to accommodate different track widths, strategic competition between the US and China raises the spectre of a fragmentation of standards that creates a new technological divide.

Mr Segal says it is possible, for example, that 5G mobile telecoms — a bedrock technology that enables the “internet of things” — may be divided into two competing stacks to reflect US and Chinese influence. Some measure of division is also possible in semiconductors, artificial intelligence and other areas where US-China rivalry is intense, he adds.

A software engineer works on a facial recognition program in Beijing. The technology used in 'smart cities', which automate multiple municipal functions, represent a big prize for China’s standards drive
A software engineer works on a facial recognition program in Beijing. The technology used in ‘smart cities’, which automate multiple municipal functions, represent a big prize for China’s standards drive © Thomas Peter/Reuters

“In some sectors, there will be two stacks that are relatively incompatible,” says Mr Segal. “But in others, there is likely to be some demand that they co-operate. It is possible that large markets that make it clear they do not want to choose between China and the US may be able to pressure Chinese and US tech firms to ensure some degree of compatibility.”

In Washington, the battle for influence over technology standards is seen in some quarters as crucial to defending democracy from the influence of China, which Madeleine Albright, a former secretary of state, describes as “the world’s leading pioneer of what we call techno-authoritarianism”.

Mark Warner, Democratic vice-chair of the US Senate intelligence committee, sees the threat from China in equally unambiguous terms. Beijing is intending to control the next generation of digital infrastructure, he says, and, as it does so, to impose principles that are antithetical to US values of transparency, diversity of opinion, interoperability and respect for human rights.

“Over the last 10 to 15 years, [the US] leadership role has eroded and our leverage to establish standards and protocols reflecting our values has diminished,” Mr Warner told a webinar in September. “As a result others, but mostly China, have stepped into the void to advance standards and values that advantage the Chinese Communist party.”

“Communist party leaders are developing a model of technological governance that . . . would make Orwell blush,” Mr Warner added, referring to George Orwell, the British writer of the dystopian novel 1984.

Such issues are exercising others in Washington too. Two congressmen, David Schweikert and Ami Bera, introduced bipartisan legislation called the Ensuring American Leadership Over International Standards Act in June to commission a study on China’s influence in the setting of global technology standards.

Graphic showing the number of ‘smart city’ and ‘safe city’ project deals involving Chinese companies since 2013 (by region)

Military and civil applications

From a US perspective, China’s challenge derives from three main areas. First, it is developing world-beating technology in several emerging areas, such as 5G telecoms and AI. Second, as it exports this technology — often to more than 100 countries that participate in the Belt and Road Initiative — it is nurturing adherence to a distinctly Chinese set of standards and protocols. Third, Beijing is boosting its influence in the UN and other standards-setting bodies to enhance the interests of its own companies.

Yang Guang, a Beijing-based senior analyst at Strategy Analytics, a consultancy, says China has long been interested in raising the profile of its technology standards. “It is just that foreigners didn’t pay attention before,” he says, naming as examples TD-SCMA and WAPI, two telecoms standards that largely failed to catch on more than a decade ago.

The Chinese government is working towards a standards masterplan — China Standards 2035 — which Beijing was expected to publish before the end of this year. The strategy is expected to set out standardisation goals for crucial next-generation technologies. It is also due to emphasise the imperative to strengthen China’s role in standards organisations, analysts say.

“The strategy will also focus on standards to facilitate civil-military fusion — a concept that has gained considerable traction in China and has caused a stir in strategic communities overseas, particularly in Washington,” wrote research fellow John Seaman in a report this year for the French Institute of International Relations and the Policy Center for the New South.

Military-civil fusion is a plan to use the best of civilian research and development to bolster the technological capacities of the People’s Liberation Army. The drive is led by Mr Xi himself, who heads the Commission for Military-Civil Fusion Development. It is believed to target civilian advances in “dual use” areas such as quantum computing, big data, semiconductors, 5G and AI, but concrete initiatives are shrouded in secrecy.

“China’s greatest potential lies in areas where standards have yet to be collectively developed and defined,” Mr Seaman says. “It can roll out technologies using Chinese standards in foreign markets, creating ‘facts on the ground’.”

Digital silk road

Crucial to the goal of popularising Chinese standards overseas is the Belt and Road Initiative, which Mr Zhao described in a blog on the ITU’s website as holding “so much promise”.

The BRI is generally seen as a huge Chinese programme to build roads, railways, ports, airports and other forms of infrastructure in mostly developing countries. But this portrayal overlooks a key point. The BRI is also a means of diffusing Chinese technologies — and the standards they operate on — across the developing world by constructing what Beijing calls a “digital silk road”.

Zhao Houlin of the UN’s telecoms agency has defended Huawei against US accusations that its equipment can be used for espionage, saying 'up to now there is no proof'
A Huawei logo in Belgrade, Serbia. Zhao Houlin of the UN’s telecoms agency has defended the company against US accusations that its equipment can be used for espionage © Marko Djurica/Reuters

“The Chinese government has been actively promoting its internet and cyber governance playbook in many developing countries, most recently by leveraging 5G connectivity and smart city projects along the digital silk road,” says Rebecca Arcesati, an analyst at Merics, a Berlin-based think-tank.

“Smart cities” are a focus of this standards diffusion effort because they incorporate so many emerging technologies. The facial recognition systems, big data analysis, 5G telecoms and AI cameras that go into creating smart cities are all technologies for which standards remain up for grabs. Thus smart cities, which automate multiple municipal functions, represent a big prize for China’s standards drive.

“China is setting standards from the bottom-up through widespread export and foreign adoption of its technology,” says Jonathan Hillman, an analyst at CSIS, a Washington-based think-tank. “A country such as Serbia might not sit down and decide they want to adopt Chinese standards, but after enough purchases and deals, they might end up with Chinese standards. There is the risk of lock-in, a point after which switching becomes too costly.”

Serbia is just one of many countries that has signed up to a Chinese-installed smart city package complete with surveillance cameras supplied by Hikvision, a company blacklisted by the US because of suspected human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Indeed, the smart city package is proving immensely popular for governments that wish to automate services such as traffic management, sewage systems and public safety while keeping a close eye on what its people are up to.

According to research by RWR Advisory, a Washington-based consultancy, Chinese companies have done 116 deals to install smart city and “safe city” packages around the world since 2013, with 70 of these taking place in countries that also participate in the Belt and Road Initiative. The main difference between “smart” and “safe” city equipment is that the latter is intended primarily to surveil and monitor the population, while the former is primarily aimed at automating municipal functions while also incorporating surveillance functions.

Cities in western and southern Europe together signed up to a total of 25 such “smart” and “safe” projects, according to RWR Advisory. Cities in south-east Asia and the Middle East were also key recipients, taking 16 and 15 respectively.

Andrew Davenport, chief operating officer at RWR Advisory, says smart cities open the door to a series of risks. “Smart cities essentially increase the downside risk considerably of cyber intrusions or abuses, both in terms of data security and cyber security,” he says. “The cyber risk that is associated with entities that are subject to Chinese laws and governance structures is amplified in this environment.”

People pass facial recognition cameras at Peking University. China's growing influence in global IT standards-setting bodies is facing a US backlash, while the EU is likely to be squeezed by competing superpower ambitions
People pass facial recognition cameras at Peking University. China’s growing influence in global IT standards-setting bodies is facing a US backlash, while the EU is likely to be squeezed by competing superpower ambitions © Thomas Peter/Reuters

Chinese school children learn about artificial intelligence technology in Haian City. Some measure of global division is possible in semiconductors, AI and other areas where US-China rivalry is intense
Chinese school children learn about artificial intelligence technology in Haian City. Some measure of global division is possible in semiconductors, AI and other areas where US-China rivalry is intense © Costfoto/Barcroft Media/Getty

Alongside with these export moves designed to inculcate its technology standards, China is also active in signing political agreements to the same end.

The 2019 China Standardisation Development annual report, an official document, makes clear that promoting Chinese technology standards is a BRI priority. As of 2019, some 85 standardisation co-operation agreements with 49 countries and regions had been signed, though scant literature exists on the depth and specific contents of such agreements.

Institutional push

Not content with forging bilateral agreements along the Belt and Road, China is also trying to persuade multilateral standards agencies to recognise its growing clout.

As recently as 2007, China was a minnow in the International Organization for Standardization, one of the world’s leading standards-setting bodies, with 164 member countries. Back then, it had sparse representation on the all-important technical committees and subcommittees that do much to decide which standards to adopt.

But in 2008, Beijing managed to win a place as the sixth permanent member of the ISO’s council and in 2013 it became a permanent member of its technical management board, alongside the US, Japan, the UK, Germany and France. In 2015, the organisation got its first Chinese president when Zhang Xiaogang, a former steel industry executive, was chosen for a three-year term.

© Andrew Harnik/Pool/Reuters

It has been a similar story at the 88-member International Electrotechnical Commission, an organisation that publishes standards on all electronic items. China’s influence at the IEC has grown steadily, culminating in the appointment in January of Shu Yinbiao — who is also chairman of the State Grid Corporation of China — as president of the IEC. Mr Zhao completes the picture as head of the ITU, which he is due to lead until 2023.

The increased representation has had a marked effect on China’s standards-setting clout. As of March 2019, for instance, China had proposed 11 standards for the internet of things within the ISO/IEC framework, of which five had been adopted and published and six were still pending review, Mr Seaman said.

State Grid Corporation of China has also pulled off a coup. The IEC has agreed to take on co-ordinating standards for a concept called Global Energy Interconnection, which essentially aims to create huge grids of power cables that run between countries and continents. If the idea gets off the ground it could directly benefit State Grid, which is the global leader in making ultra-high voltage transmission lines.

The build-up of such institutional firepower in these standards-setting bodies is a sure sign that China is set to wield much more influence over global technological standards. But equally as sure is that the backlash from Washington is building. Europe, for its part, is likely to be squeezed by competing superpower ambitions.

“The non-transparent and authoritarian way in which China is going about data security management at home undermines trust in its standards and platforms abroad,” says Merics analyst Ms Arcesati. “On the other hand, the current US strategy is essentially equating data security with a total and unilateral decoupling from Chinese technology in the digital domain.

“This puts Europe is an extremely difficult position,” she adds.

The worst-case scenario, as described by Mr Seaman, is of a growing technological divide. If international collaboration on standards grinds to a halt, it could create opposing technology blocs that do not talk to each other. “Think of it almost like trying to connect with someone on [Tencent’s] WeChat by using Facebook, but on an industrial scale.”

Mr Davenport sees a similar risk. “If the US does engage more proactively in trying to confront Chinese influence over standard-setting bodies . . . it could lead China to explore creating parallel alternatives. This could ultimately result in a more bifurcated arena on industrial standards.”



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Polish women count cost of tough abortion curbs

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Even before Poland all but outlawed abortion, Zofia has been thinking about moving abroad. But the near-ban that took effect earlier this year helped her make up her mind: this autumn she plans to move to Prague in the Czech Republic.

“I feel better there, freer, and being a woman there doesn’t make me feel weaker or worse,” she said. “I love my life in Warsaw. But when the [abortion ban was mooted], I thought, I don’t want to live here any more . . . And I don’t want my kids to live here.”

The 31-year-old artist is one of thousands of Polish women outraged by the tightening of the country’s abortion laws which, even before the overhaul, were among the strictest in the EU. Their anger centres on a ruling by the Constitutional Tribunal in October last year, which declared that a 1993 law allowing abortions in the case of severe foetal abnormalities was unconstitutional.

The ruling came into force in January, leaving only two grounds for an abortion in Poland: a threat to the mother’s health or if the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest. Such cases made up just 2.4 per cent of the 1,100 legal abortions in Poland in 2019.

Hundreds of thousands of Poles took to the streets when the ruling was announced in October, and activists have called for another round of protests on International Women’s Day this Monday. Polling suggests that a majority of Poles back some form of liberalisation.

Anti-abortion campaigners, often guided by their religion in what remains one of Europe’s most strongly Catholic countries, say the change was needed to protect the rights of unborn children.

“An unborn child is a separate person, which has its own body and its own rights. A child must not be deprived of the fundamental right of every human being — the right to life,” Kaja Godek, one of Poland’s most prominent anti-abortion campaigners, wrote on Facebook last month.

A pro-life poster in Krakow. Many Polish opponents of abortion are guided by faith in one of Europe’s most strongly Catholic countries
A pro-life poster in Krakow. Many Polish opponents of abortion are guided by religion in one of Europe’s most strongly Catholic countries © Omar Marques/Getty Images

But activists say the ruling will force women to give birth to babies with such severe abnormalities that they have no chance of survival. They also say the government has done too little to help the families of children born with disabilities, who receive only limited support.

“I’m terrified because for me as a woman in reproductive age, it means getting pregnant in Poland became dangerous. And I’m afraid for my sister, for my colleagues and friends, for my relatives and for many other women I meet every day as clients,” said Kamila Ferenc, a lawyer from the Federation for Women and Family Planning, a women’s rights group.

“They will be in a horrible position . . . they have lost the possibility to decide freely on their own, because it’s not so easy to have an abortion outside the system.”

In the past, Polish women who could afford it were able to seek abortions in neighbouring countries with more liberal laws, such as the Czech Republic or Slovakia. But with the pandemic limiting travel, experts say women are likely to turn to the internet to buy drugs from overseas that would allow them to carry out abortions at home. Women are not prosecuted for self-managed abortions carried out before the 22nd week of pregnancy.

“It used to be the case that illegal abortions were through surgical procedures by doctors and back-alley providers. Then abortion tourism rose in the early 2000s after Poland joined the EU. Now we are seeing an increase in self-managed abortions, which can be less of a financial and emotional burden,” said Maria Lewandowska, a researcher into reproductive health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Justyna Wydrzynska, from Abortion Dream Team, a group that helps women who want to terminate their pregnancies, said that since the abortion rules were tightened in January, the organisation had received three times the normal number of calls from women seeking help.

“We get around 600 to 700 phone calls a month. Around 100 of them need to go abroad [for an abortion], and for the rest, . . . these are mostly people in need of pills, assistance in taking pills or post-abortion care,” she said.

“Often they are human dramas. Some people approach it in a task-oriented way, others very emotionally. Sometimes it is very difficult.”

Despite the huge protests last year, women’s rights groups acknowledge that as long as Poland’s conservative-nationalist Law and Justice party remains in power, the prospect of the laws being loosened is minimal. But they hope that in the long run, the debate sparked by the ruling will lead to greater support for liberalisation.

“The factual situation of pregnant women is worse. But on the other hand I think we are now on a better track to change the situation than when [the previous government led by the centre-right] Civic Platform ruled and everybody thought everything was all right,” said Ferenc.

“There is more courage in society to speak about abortion. People educate themselves and each other. I think that we now have more solidarity and strength in society to fight for reproductive rights. ”



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Hong Kong dropped from economic freedom index after crackdown

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Hong Kong has been dropped from a prominent index of the world’s freest economies, underlining growing concerns over Beijing’s tightening grip on the Asian financial centre after it introduced a national security law last year.

The announcement from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative US think-tank, came as the majority of a group of 47 pro-democracy politicians were refused bail in a case that critics say shows the rapid decline of civic freedoms in the city.

The Heritage Foundation also dropped the Chinese special autonomous region of Macau, a casino hub and former Portuguese colony, from the rankings.

The foundation in recent years has been aligned with the administration of former US president Donald Trump.

“No doubt both Hong Kong and Macau . . . enjoy economic policies that in many respects offer their citizens more economic freedom than is available to the average citizen of China,” the Heritage Foundation said. “But developments in recent years have demonstrated unambiguously that those policies are ultimately controlled from Beijing.”

Beijing imposed the national security law on Hong Kong last year in response to anti-government protests that engulfed the city in 2019.

The measures are part of a clampdown on civil and political freedoms guaranteed to the city for 50 years following its handover from the UK to China in 1997. Authorities are targeting anyone viewed as disloyal to the Chinese government in politics, education and the media.

The Hong Kong government has long taken pride in studies showing its economy to be one of the most liberal in the world, with the city marketing itself as an international business haven given its low tax rates and open port.

The Heritage Foundation last year replaced Hong Kong at the top of its “Index of Economic Freedom” with Singapore, toppling it from a position it had held for 25 years, but still included the territory in the rankings in second place.

The Hong Kong government said it was ‘dismayed’ by the Heritage Foundation’s decision and said it was “politically biased”.

The case against the 47 pro-democracy lawmakers and activists has been seen as a test of whether the city’s legal system can withstand pressure from Beijing.

Authorities charged the group with subversion, alleging they aimed to topple the government by staging an unofficial primary vote to select candidates to run for election to the city’s legislature. Subversion is punishable with up to life imprisonment under the national security law.

The bail hearings, presided over by a judge appointed to oversee national security cases, entered their fourth day on Thursday.

Victor So, the judge overseeing the case, only granted bail to 15 out of 47 defendants under harsh conditions, but the prosecution immediately appealed the ruling, returning them to custody until the appeal hearing takes place. 

On top of the usual bail conditions, the court ordered the defendants to not participate in elections or make any public political statements.

Sessions have often stretched late into the evening, including one that continued until 3am before the defendants were hauled back before the court the next day. At least one defendant collapsed inside the courtroom and six others were sent to hospital for treatment.

As they exited the court, some defendants shouted: “Political criminals are not guilty, Hong Kongers will not die!”

Simon Young, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, said the treatment of the defendants was “most unsatisfactory”. Jerome Cohen, a Chinese law expert at New York University, said the way the hearing was conducted “makes a farce of procedural fairness”.

Some of the defendants have faced multiple trials simultaneously and were forced to shuffle between courtrooms.

The defendants’ lawyers said on Tuesday their clients had not bathed in three days, forcing the judge to delay the hearing to allow them to wash.

Hong Kong has tight restrictions on reporting the substance of bail hearings.

Hundreds of supporters have queued each day in an attempt to watch the proceedings in person. Many held placards and chanted banned political slogans, risking prosecution under the security law.



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Pakistan’s finance minister ousted in surprise defeat for Imran Khan

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Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan suffered a major political setback on Wednesday, when his finance minister was defeated in a contest for a seat in the country’s senate.

Khan must now appoint a successor to the cabinet post by June 11 under Pakistani law. The surprise defeat of finance minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, a respected economist and former world bank official who led the country’s negotiations with the IMF for a $6bn loan, comes amid an escalating campaign by main opposition parties to have the prime minister removed from office.

Elected officials vote to fill vacated seats in the senate every three years. Following the result, the government announced it would “take a vote of confidence in parliament” to prove that the prime minister retained a majority of support.

Business leaders have warned that Shaikh’s departure creates uncertainty over the future of Pakistan’s fiscal policies as the country battles the pandemic’s fallout on the economy.

“Right now, it was essential to give a message of confidence to a range of stake holders within and outside Pakistan on the state of our economy. Now, people will be left asking questions,” the president of a private Pakistani bank told the Financial Times.

An 11-party opposition alliance, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), has accused Khan of using the powerful military to tip the 2018 election result in his favour — which leaders from the prime minister’s party have denied — and for failing to revive the moribund economy.

The PDM has announced a March 26 deadline for Khan to step down or face widespread opposition protests.

Though some opposition leaders have said they plan to follow up Wednesday’s defeat with a vote of no confidence against Khan, analysts said it was too early to predict his downfall ahead of the end of his five-year term in 2023.

“It’s a major upset for Imran Khan and his PTI (Pakistan Justice Party),” said Huma Baqai, a political commentator at the University of Karachi. “The government from hereon will face further pressure as the opposition continues to step up its campaign.”

The vote count suggested a break in Khan’s PTI party, with as many as 16 party members either voting for the finance minister’s opponent, former prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, or spoiling their ballots.

Shaikh’s defeat “will not automatically lead to the prime minister’s downfall. Some PTI members clearly changed sides [for this vote]. But it will be much harder for them to agree to removing the prime minister,” an opposition leader told the FT.

Faisal Javed, a PTI leader, claimed some representatives had been bribed by the opposition. “There has been a major corruption. There has been horse-trading. People have been sold,” he told the local ARY news channel on Wednesday. Opposition leaders have denied this.

The electoral college for the senate consists of members from legislatures of Pakistan’s four provinces as well as the lower house of parliament in Islamabad known as the national assembly.



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