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Income Disparity, Environmental Concerns Biggest Challenges Facing Chinese Communist Party – Eric X. Li

China’s income disparity and environmental degradation are the biggest challenges currently facing the ruling Chinese Communist Party at the 100th anniversary of its founding, said Shanghai-based venture capitalist and political scientist Eric X. Li, who vigorously defended the party’s style of government while expressing doubts about liberal democracies around the world.

“Liberal societies should learn from the party state in China,” Li said. “The party state in China has been very good at self-criticism – that’s why they reinvent themselves. Liberal societies have been failing at that for decades.”

In a spirited Zoom webinar moderated by FCC President Keith Richburg, Li said the CCP had embarked on its third “reinvention” since winning power 72 years ago and transitioning to a government party and then embarking on an openness and reform policy in 1979. This latest reinvention, he said, is driven by a desire to tackle income inequality and achieve a more “balanced growth.” He added that a focus on repairing the environment was a second major priority.

He said that Western countries such as the United States need to be less arrogant, then went on to dismiss the suggestion that the CCP needs to legitimize its rule through elections or referendums because such processes have caused dysfunction and paralysis in liberal democracies.

“I think democracy needs a new set of measurements,” Li said. “I think democracy needs to be measured by outcome, not procedure.”

Asked why the CCP has little tolerance for dissent or criticism, Li countered that there is plenty of debate and difference of opinion in China, including among the party leadership. But he argued that the dissent found in liberal societies has no place in China.

“Just look at the countries that have it: they’re not being governed very effectively, they are polarized, their people hate each other, their media hate each other,” Li said. “We don’t want that.”

He also defended the more assertive, sometimes bombastic, stands by Chinese officials on social media — sometimes referred to as “Wolf Warrior diplomats” — saying Westerners were simply not used to Chinese standing up and loudly speaking back against criticism. 

“They’re seeing their country being demonized by Western politicians and media, and they’re reacting to it for the first time in many decades,” Lis said. “You’d better get used to it.”

Aside from issues of income inequality and the environment, Li argued the CCP needs to steer younger generations away from populism and nationalism toward “productive socialism” and “healthy patriotism.”

“If it can do this, it will deliver on the material and spiritual aspirations of China’s new generations and, as a result, stay in power for a very long time to come,” Li said. “Success is not assured, but I wouldn’t bet against it.”

Watch the full conversation:

New Cold War between U.S. and China is a ‘disaster for the world’ – Noam Chomsky

Deteriorating relations between the United States and China have potentially disastrous consequences for the world when global cooperation is needed to fight threats such as COVID-19 and global warming, renowned intellectual Noam Chomsky said Friday in an FCC webinar.

Noam Chomsky talks to Club President Jodi Schneider on August 7, 2020. Noam Chomsky talks to Club President Jodi Schneider on August 7, 2020.

The attempts by the United States to prevent China from developing were cruel and pointless, he said.

“If China develops, we all benefit,” Chomsky said. “If we’re going back to a Cold War between China and the United States, that’s a disaster for the world. This is a moment, more than ever, where we have to have international cooperation. The crises that we face are all international.”

Relations between China and the United States have deteriorated since U.S. President Donald Trump – whom he called “the most dangerous political leader in history” – took office, resulting in a trade war and retaliatory actions against journalists in both countries.

Chomsky, one of the most influential public intellectuals in the world, said China was “trying to reassert its traditional role as the dominant force in Asia”, and the United States “won’t tolerate it”. He then likened the situation to the Mafia.

“The fact is the world is being run very similar to the Mafia.. the Don doesn’t tolerate any interference from states that challenge it, or even states that get out of line,” Chomsky said.

Discussing a range of topics, the author of more than 100 books including Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power, addressed the political unrest that gripped Hong Kong in 2019 and said the only way to ease the pressure on Hong Kong to “undermine its democratic procedures, practices and opportunities” was a “reduction of international tensions” between China and the United States.

“It’s always worth remembering the old saying that when the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled. Hong Kong is the grass. If the elephants start fighting, Hong Kong is lost.”

“The Hong Kong protests were a major sign of optimism. They didn’t totally succeed but laid the seeds for future progress,” Chomsky added.

The webinar opened with Chomsky’s thoughts on the COVID-19 pandemic and the Trump Administration’s handling of it.

“The United States is basically a wreck,” he said, citing Trump’s dismantling of former President Barack Obama’s preparations against a global health emergency which he said left America “unprepared when the pandemic struck”.

Chomsky went on to warn of future coronavirus pandemics that, intensified by the impact of global warming and habitat destruction, would be even more lethal.

“It could be something like the Black Death,” he said.

Arizona, the state where Chomsky resides and where he is laureate professor in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Arizona, was “now vying for the international record for the highest number of cases per capita”, he said. He accused Trump of “flailing around desperately to find some scapegoat to cover up for the fact that he’s responsible for killing over a hundred thousand Americans”.

Referring to misinformation around the pandemic, he took aim at media organisations such as Fox News for “peddling” misleading messages playing down the seriousness of COVID-19. But Chomsky also lamented the Trump Administration’s rhetoric towards the media as enemies of the people.

“With the media now it’s very scary. When half of Republicans think the government should have the right to close down media it doesn’t like, then that’s dangerous,” he said.

You can watch the entire talk here.

The challenges China faces in securing global dominance

China’s foreign relations have come a long way in the last 70 years, but major powers are held to higher standards and more is expected of Beijing, according to an expert on contemporary China.

Professor David Shambaugh outlined some of the major challenges facing China, including how it manages its reputation among its neighbours, and globally.

Speaking at the October 22 club lunch, Prof Shambaugh said another challenge the country faced was its relationship with the United States, which he said had deteriorated in recent years because the previously dominant cooperative element had been superseded with a competitive element. At the same time, China had significantly strengthened its relationship with Russia, he said, a relationship that at its core was driven by anti-Americanism.

“The so-called strategic triangle is back and orientated again at the United States at this time,”  Prof Shambaugh, the Gaston Sigur professor of Asian Studies, Political Science & International Affairs, and director of the China Policy Program in the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University in Washington, said.

He pointed to China’s multibillion-dollar investment in overseas propaganda as an example of its push for soft power but suggested it wasn’t getting a “return on its investment” as it slips down the global image rankings.

Watch the full video here

China trying to influence the world’s media, says new report

China’s move to silence its critics in order to portray a more positive image is now reaching far beyond its borders, according to a new report.

Journalists Josh Chin and Yuan Yan and discuss deteriorating reporting conditions in China. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC Journalists Josh Chin and Yuan Yan and discuss deteriorating reporting conditions in China. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC

Cedric Alviani, East Asia Bureau Director for the press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders, detailed the way in which China is suppressing information ahead of the release of a 52-page report next Monday.

“Journalism as we know it does not have its place in China and actually currently the Chinese authorities are also trying, little by little, to suppress free journalism outside China when of course it relates to Chinese news,” Alviani told the March 20 club lunch.

He added: “If we had met 10 years ago the purpose would have been as an NGO ‘how can we improve the situation in China?’. Now the question is ‘how can we protect democracies from the activities of China in this domain?’”

The Chinese authorities are spending in the region of US$10 billion per year on manipulating and modifying the perception of China in the modern media, he said. An example is China Watch, a pro-Beijing ‘news’ supplement being carried by international media including The New York Times and The Washington Post. China was also buying major stakes in media companies around the world, Alviani said.

His sentiments were echoed by journalists Josh Chin and Yuan Yang, also board members of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China, who pointed to falling revenues of news organisations in the West as a reason for them accepting Chinese investment.

“Even though the New York Times and Washington Post and so on have increased their subscriber base over the last few years, the advertising revenues coming into the media industry as a whole has plummeted because, as we all know, the rise of ad tech giants like Google and Facebook,” Yang said.

The panel also talked about the increased harassment – both in person and online – of reporters in China, specifically those covering the persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang. The Foreign Correspondents Club of China recently published its own report on deteriorating reporting conditions for journalists.

Watch the full talk here

China’s flouting of global trade rules is too big to ignore, says Hong Kong’s U.S. Consul

China must play by global trade rules and raise its game on economic reform, warned the U.S. Consul General to Hong Kong and Macau as he said the problem of Beijing’s “market-distorting policies and practices” was too big to ignore.

U.S. Consul General Kurt Tong discussed the recent trade developments between China and the United States. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC U.S. Consul General Kurt Tong discussed the recent trade developments between China and the United States. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC

Kurt Tong said that America’s tough stance on trade tariffs was “well-justified by the facts – and perhaps overdue”. He said China’s World Trade Organisation (WTO) commitments “reflect somewhat of a broken record” and added that the United States was “justified in claiming damages”.

“To borrow a metaphor from my favourite sport, China has drawn a deserved yellow card,” said Tong, a keen footballer. “Yellow cards are an opportunity for a player to change their style of play before someone gets hurt,” he added.

In March 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump imposed tariffs on steel imports. Soon after, China – the world’s biggest steel exporter – retaliated with tariffs on U.S. imports. The dispute has stoked fears of an all-out trade war that could damage the global economy.

During his April 24 appearance at the club, Tong said that the United States sensed that China’s forward progress on economic reform had stalled, adding that there were were “worrisome signs” that the country was moving backward.

“Some analysts have said that, given its size and importance, China is now too big to be challenged. I would submit that the opposite is true. I think that the China problem is too big to ignore,” he added.

Tong identified high tariffs, unfavourable terms for inward foreign investment, and lack of protection for intellectual property rights as America’s main problems with China. In fact, he said, other WTO partners are lodging many of the same complaints.

In a bid to allay fears within Hong Kong’s business community over the prospect of a trade war, Tong said the city had an opportunity to stand as an example of how an economy can be part of China but also play by the rules.

“Hong Kong has an opportunity to proactively use its autonomy to further strengthen its impressive economic competitiveness, as well as its inherent value proposition in the eyes of foreign partners,” he said.

China vs the U.S.: When it comes to caring about the environment, they’re both hit and miss

Who really cares about the environment – China or the U.S.? That was the question posed to two experts in the field of environment – and the answer was a little more complicated.

Professor Robert Gottlieb, founder and former Director of the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College in Los Angeles, told guests at the September 12 club lunch that both countries displayed positive and negative attitudes towards the environment.

He said that the Barack Obama administration had eventually paid more attention to environmental policy creation following years of rolling back of environmental policies under previous presidents. A robust social movement in America had done much to pressure the government on the issue of the environment. However, Obama’s work that was largely undone after Donald Trump was elected president, he added.

Left to right: Simon Ng, Professor Robert Gottlieb, FCC hosts Enda Curran and Victor Mallet. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC Left to right: Simon Ng, Professor Robert Gottlieb, FCC hosts Enda Curran and Victor Mallet. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC

“By the time President Obama was elected, the notion of environment as a priority issue really receded despite Obama’s own statements and the interest of those in congress who thought that environment was still a critical issue. In the 2012 election for example climate did not come up in the course of the election between Romney and Obama, but that changed partly because resistance in congress and in the last two years of the Obama administration there was a reconnection in the importance and significance of environment in areas such as air and climate and food thanks to Michelle Obama, the president’s wife, who made the idea of changes around food central to her agenda and subsequently her husband’s. But that didn’t last.”

Professor Gottlieb said that the election of Trump “and some critical appointments made that were significantly hostile to environmental issues” had seen a rolling back of policies: “Scott Pruitt (Environmental Protection Agency Administrator in the U.S.) came into office with an agenda to essentially dismantle both the agency and a wide range of environmental policies with the support of the president which culminated in the decision to begin a process of pulling out of the Paris Accord.”

He concluded: “Does the US care about environment? Yes and no. It does care when you think about citizen movements, it does care when you think about the level of resistance among certain policy makers particularly at the local and state level. And ultimately it does care in terms of wanting to sustain the changes that have been made since the 1970s and move it to the next level. But the answer is no when you come to the President and his head of EPA, the head of the energy department, head of the transportation departments who are actively hostile to this kind of environmental policy system that has been created since 1970 and doing their best to at least resist any further development if not pull it back.”

On China, Professor Gottlieb said it was almost in a reverse process to the United States: “In 2009 at the Copenhagen meeting China’s role was not hostile to but not willing to step up to the plate and in issues such as dealing with air quality, dealing with water quality, you had not necessarily resistance to the idea of the environment being important and crucial but it was not high on the agenda. High on the agenda was development, urbanisation, marketisation – this was the strategic direction of the government.”

He added that this situation has begun to change as China realised that environmental issues have a powerful economic impact and undercut some of the development strategies that have developed. “…there is a recognition that China, particularly now, as of 2016, can champion itself as an environmental leader whether it’s climate or any number of issues, particularly transportation shifting towards being the leading manufacturer of electric vehicles.

“But you haven’t seen a full transition. Take the issue of coal – China is committed tons with its new climate perspective to start reducing the level of coal …. used or particularly produced which has all the env impacts that are deeply felt in certain regions of the country. So in the last three years there’s been a very modest reduction in the production of coal for the first time but not a reduction at that same level in terms of the use of coal because you have an increase in the imports of coal.”

In conclusion, he said: “Does China care about the environment? Yes and no. China does care – it’s called the priority of priorities for example around air quality by government officials – but the implementation is uneven and you don’t necessarily have that robust social movement that you did have in the last 60 years in the United States that has created that ability to increase both awareness and the idea that we do care about the environment.”

Simon Ng of the Civic Society in Hong Kong discussed the government’s attitude towards environmental policy making. He said that two months into Carrie Lam’s administration he hoped she would honour the environmental pledges in her manifesto. He said though that other issues affecting the city – housing, education – were likely to take priority over environmental issues.

Mr Ng praised Hongkongers for their awareness of environmental issues and the fact that they were collecting air pollution information that was empowering them to take action and pressure leaders into doing so. He added that Hong Kong was the first city in Asia to tighten vehicle emissions standards. “When it comes to ship emissions Hong Kong is the first city in Asia to regulate ship emissions at city level.”

And he said that although Hong Kong universities are playing a big part in the development of sensors that measure air quality that are lighter, smaller, more sensitive and accurate, the city could do more. “Hong Kong can be a real leader – how come we have to wait until Beijing says ‘OK you should do this’ and we say ‘OK’ and in the next few days we follow?” He said this was bad for the city.

Professor Gottlieb and Mr Ng have written a book together, Global Cities: Urban Environments in Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and China, examining environmental issues in those locations.

Democracy across Southeast Asia is in danger – but all is not lost, says armed conflict mediator

Michael Vatikiotis discussed Southeast Asia's political and economic issues at the FCC. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC Michael Vatikiotis discussed Southeast Asia’s political and economic issues at the FCC. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC

A “democracy deficit” fuelled by conflict, religious division and widespread corruption has led to instability in Southeast Asia – and things will improve but at a cost, according to a mediator in armed conflict.

Michael Vatikiotis, whose new book Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia examines the region’s dynamics of power, said that in the next 30 years Southeast Asia will look like it did before it was colonised by European powers.

But currently, he warned: “Across Southeast Asia, democracy is in peril.

“Myanmar’s democratic transition is faltering; Thailand is enduring fourth year of military rule; Cambodia has launched an aggressive campaign against the opposition and threatens to wage war if it loses elections in 2018. Malaysia’s angry electorate is unlikely to be able to vote out of power a ruling party that has governed the country since independence; whilst in the Philippines, the number of people killed without due process this past year has already exceeded the total number killed by Marcos the dictator in the 1970s and 80s.

“Even in Indonesia, where democracy seems secure, there are indications that popular demand for equality and security are starting to outweigh respect for one-man one-vote.”

Factors contributing towards this “democracy deficit” in a region of 600 million people include enduring impunity and lack of accountability of governments; unresolved violent conflict; chronic levels of corruption; and alarmingly high levels of economic inequality, said Vatikiotis, who is Mediator in Armed Conflict, Asia Regional Director at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.

Scroll to the bottom to watch Michael Vatikiotis at the FCC

“Despite the gloomy perspectives elaborated above, I am reasonably confident that the region will continue to prosper; its people will achieve significant levels of wealth and security. But there will be costs.”

He said the democracy deficit would deepen; sectarian and ethnic strife would intensify; and China would dominate the geo-political domain. He added that there would be less tolerance of the region’s traditional balancing of powers impulse; less economic and financial autonomy; and the threat of China’s particular form of extra-territoriality with regard to the overseas Chinese.

Why such a pessimistic outlook?, asked host and board member Victor Mallet (read his Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia review here). Vatikiotis cited Cambodia as an example: economic growth of over 7% which has been a huge benefit to workers who have been pulled out of poverty. “Yet you have a PM that doesn’t believe anyone has the right to turf him out of power,” he said, adding: “He’s decided if the opposition wins the election he’ll go to war.” Vatikiotis said this undermines stability in society and sets up inevitable conflict.

On China, Vatikiotis said that President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) had stirred suspicion in Southeast Asia that the chief beneficiaries would be further away – South Asia and beyond. He added: “For the time being it’s mainly seen as a metaphor for China’s strategic ambitions.”

He said there was a great fear in the region that if China’s economy “went pair-shaped” there would be mass migration that would affect its neighbours.

Despite the gloomy outlook for the region in the interim, Vatikiotis believes that ultimately stability will return.

He said: “Fortunately, both access to technology and a sufficient degree of what I call ‘demi-democracy’ will enable civil society to address to a degree the need for some capacity to represent people, and push back on the state. This is ‘democracy you can eat’; it bypasses the political parties that have failed to deliver to communities at the grass roots, it ignores increasingly onerous security restrictions, and asserts popular will.”

Globalisation is coming to an end – but communism unlikely to rule, says top economist

Economist Stephen King explained how globalisation was soon to be a thing of the past. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC Economist Stephen King explained how globalisation was soon to be a thing of the past. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC

Globalisation is on its deathbed as people see inequality in wealth and some of the world’s richest countries seek to withdraw from cross-border partnerships, according to HSBC economist and author, Stephen King.

Speaking at a club lunch on June 20, King said that in the West we’re seeing a rejection of the values of globalisation amid a growing belief that institutions such as NATO and the European Union are less effective and, in some cases, no longer fit for purpose. He gave U.S. President Donald Trump pulling out of the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), and China creating the AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) as examples of how some countries are becoming more isolationist as they focus on their domestic interests over global relationships.

King said we reached peak enthusiasm for globalisation in 1989, when Berlin Wall came down.

The author of Grave New World: The End of Globalisation, the Return of History, conceded that in some cases it appears that there is a swing back to Liberalism, citing the recent French election victory of Emmanuel Macron and the drubbing of the Conservative Party in the U.K. election. But King said generally there appeared to be a new global narrative: them and us. For example, Greece and Germany: who is to blame for the financial collapse of the Mediterranean country? Greece, for years of financial mismanagement, or Germany for giving the Greeks over-generous loans?

“Once you get into blame and counter blame, you can see how globalisation ends up in trouble,” he said.

He discussed technology as a tool that, until now, has boosted globalisation. But he warned that although technology had enabled living standards to rise rapidly, globalisation instead depends on ideas and institutions.

When asked to give his thoughts on the likelihood of a global revival of communism, he was a little more upbeat. King said it would be difficult for any country to deliver fully-fledged communism when other systems where it has existed are in retreat.

China is on the rise – but could it be a 21st Century empire?

Author and journalist Toh Han Shih talked about whether China can be an empire in the 21st Century Author and journalist Toh Han Shih talked about whether China can be an empire in the 21st Century

China’s rise as a world leader in the 21st Century has mirrored that of the British imperialists in the 19th Century – but whether it can become an empire itself is still open to question, according to the author of a book on the subject.

Writer and journalist Toh Han Shih, guest speaker at the January 16 club lunch, drew comparisons with Britain as he posed the question of whether China, through its large and growing investment and trade with the rest of the world, can emerge as an empire in the 21st Century.

With industrialisation at its core, the former SCMP journalist said China’s march toward domination of the infrastructures of some of the world’s richest – and poorest – countries was unquestionable, but conceded that it could only take America’s position as superpower after the U.S. itself redraws the framework.

Quoting from his book, Is China An Empire?, Toh Han Shih mapped the way in which China had poured billions of dollars into overseas investments by building railways, buying up property, the high spending of its wealthy tourists, investment in financial institutions, and the placing of its companies at the centre of the world’s leading industries. It has now overtaken the U.S. as the biggest buyer of assets in the world.

“Chinese companies are well-placed to invest in the U.S. infrastructure,” he said, referring to president-elect Donald Trump’s recent announcement that he would inject $1 trillion into the country’s infrastructure over a 10-year period.

China denies it intends to become an empire, and according to Toh Han Shih, although there is no cohesive policy behind its rise, its ‘ultimate ulterior motive is to keep the 1 billion Chinese people stable’. Yet it pledges to stand at the forefront of the so-called fourth industrial revolution, he said, which would benefit everyone in the country, down to farmers in rural China.

He pointed out that the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) – the Chinese-led global financial institution of which 100 countries are now members – had attracted the United Kingdom as one of its first members, a feat that had left the U.S. appearing weak.

Toh Han Shih also drew parallels with Vladimir Lenin’s 1916 book, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. Lenin summised that new imperialism was an economic phenomenon and to define it one needed to accept five essential features including monopolisation, the merging of banking and industry, and the export of capital. Toh Han Shih said China was already meeting the criteria.

Revealed: Methods of torture used against China’s officials in corruption crackdown

Sophie Richardson, China Director, Human Rights Watch, revealed how China's corruption suspects are kidnapped and tortured Sophie Richardson, China Director, Human Rights Watch, revealed how China’s corruption suspects are kidnapped and tortured

The methods of torture used to extract confessions from suspected corrupt Chinese Communist Party officials was revealed as Human Rights Watch released its report at the FCC into the shuanggui detention system.

Beatings, solitary confinement, being made to stay in one position for hours, sleep and food deprivation were just some of the ways in which detention officers from the party’s CCDI (Central Commission for Discipline Inspection) coerced confessions.

Sophie Richardson, China Director of Human Rights Watch, called on the Chinese government to immediately abolish shuanggui, its secretive detention system that operates outside of China’s legal system, during the report release on December 6.

When President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, he announced a far-reaching anti-corruption campaign with a pledge to eradicate graft once and for all from the Communist Party. The campaign has seen both “tigers and flies” – high-ranking and low-ranking officials – detained and prosecuted for alleged corruption. What is lesser known is how shuanggui officers operate.

The Human Rights Watch report, titled Special Measures: Detention and Torture in the Chinese Communist Party’s Shuanggui System, is based on 21 interviews with four former detainees as well as family members of detainees, 35 detailed accounts from more than 200 Chinese media reports, and analysis of court verdicts from across the country. It outlines how suspects are led under false pretences to a meeting place where they are then spirited away for prolonged periods of time, their families not knowing where they are or why they have disappeared. They are then taken to shuanggui facilities, which the report stated have padded walls in order to prevent detainees from committing suicide, where they have no access to lawyers.

A drawing of a room used for shuanggui detention by a former detainee. A drawing of a room used for shuanggui detention by a former detainee.

One detainee, a former police chief from Jiangxi Province, recalled: “For nine days and nine nights I sat in tiger chairs; and urinated and defecated into adult diapers…for over a hundred hours, whether it’s day or night, they took turns interrogating me.”

Accounts from former detainees detail the various abuses inflicted by officers to extract confessions from the suspects, who are then typically brought into the criminal justice system where they are convicted and sentenced to often lengthy prison terms.

Ms Richardson called on China to abolish shuanggui, saying: “President Xi Jinping has built his anti-corruption campaign on an abusive and illegal detention system. Torturing suspects to confess won’t bring an end to corruption, but will end any confidence in China’s judicial system.”

She added: “Nobody, not even guilty Chinese Communist Party officials, should be denied basic fair trial rights or tortured.”

Figures in the report show that in 2015, 336,000 individuals were punished internally in the war against corruption. A further 14,000 were handed over to the courts for prosecution.

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