A campaign against supposed forced labor in Xinjiang has forced Uyghur workers out of their jobs while extracting a handsome payout from a US apparel company to Uyghur exile groups lobbying against China.
By Max Blumenthal
Published on the GrayZone, Apr 30, 2021
A self-described “worker rights organization” in Washington, DC called the Worker Rights Consortium has helped direct a “Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region” that has successfully pressured US apparel companies to leave the Xinjiang region of China. Claiming to represent “over 100 civil society organisations and labour unions from around the world,” the coalition appears bound together by a shared hostility to China’s communist-led government.
Besides the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), coalition steering committee members include the AFL-CIO labor federation, Uyghur exile organizations based in Washington DC, and Hong Kong-based separatist activists. Behind the scenes, the coalition has received assistance from the widely cited Xinjiang researcher Adrian Zenz, of the right-wing Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.
The coalition’s initiative scored its first success when it forced a college sportswear company called Badger Sportswear to abandon its factory in Xinjiang. University campuses across the US began to boycott Badger products in December 2018 as the allegations of “forced labor” first reached national media.
Within weeks, Badger formally cut ties with the Hetian Taida factory in Xinjiang, which was accused by the WRC-led coalition of employing Uyghur detainees. While the Chinese government slammed Badger’s decision as “pathetic” and “based on wrong information,” its opponents in Washington took a victory lap.
Instead of remediating the Uyghur workers that suddenly found themselves jobless, however, WRC compelled Badger to pay $300,000 to Uyghur exile organizations lobbying for a more hostile US policy towards China.
According to WRC documents, those organizations were selected by Human Rights Watch, a billionaire-backed advocacy group that is openly committed to undermining China’s government. In internal memos, WRC leadership acknowledged that the payout did not represent proper remediation “from a worker rights perspective.”
Since the US government initiated its policy of “great power competition” against China in 2018, it has focused intensely on the resource-rich, strategically located Western autonomous region of Xinjiang, the site of China’s alleged mistreatment of its Uyghur Muslim population.
The charge of forced labor has caused the most material damage, with numerous US clothing companies pledging to boycott factories in the Xinjiang and reject cotton sourced from the area.
Each allegation Washington has leveled against Beijing has relied almost entirely on an echo chamber of sources funded and coordinated by the US government. This same US-backed network not only supplied the WRC with the basis for its campaign against Badger Sport; it formed the backbone of the supposedly grassroots coalition against “forced labor.”
In the words of one of the NED’s founders, the organization was created by the US government to “do today [what] was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.” That has meant quietly funding civil society and media outlets to destabilize states where the US seeks regime change.
WRC director Scott Nova would not respond to questions about whether or not its Xinjiang “forced labor” campaign was underwritten by a NED-backed organization.
Whoever sponsored the WRC’s advocacy, its outcome raises questions about the moral concerns that US human rights NGOs have expressed for Uyghur workers inside China. Rather than directly assisting the supposed victims of Chinese government abuses, self-proclaimed human rights groups appear to be eliminating their jobs in droves on the basis of dubious allegations – and at least in one case, shaking down their former employers for a lucrative payout.
Constructing a crisis and cashing in
The Worker Rights Consortium’s campaign to pressure businesses to disinvest from Xinjiang began in December 2018, just as the US State Department started formally accusing China of subjecting Uyghur Muslims in the region to forced labor and mass internment. Its initiative appeared to have been coordinated with an interlocking network of advocacy groups, corporate media outlets, and US government interests dedicated to containing China.
A December 17 AP article alleging that the Hetian Taida Apparel factory in Xinjiang was the site of forced labor provided the impetus for the WRC campaign. The AP homed in on Badger Sport, a North Carolina-based clothing manufacturer that produced sportswear out of the factory. One day later, in what appeared to be a coordinated action, WRC Executive Director Scott Nova fired off a lengthy press release calling for Badger Sport to leave Xinjiang.
As with most US mainstream media reports alleging Chinese government abuses in Xinjiang, the AP relied entirely on partisan sources outside the country. To paint Hetian Taida as a de facto slave camp, the AP turned to testimony by Uyghur exiles in Kazakhstan and Google Earth analysis of the factory by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a right-wing think tank funded by the US State Department, the Australian Ministry of Defense, and several arms manufacturers.
Articles alleging forced labor in Xinjiang by the New York Times and the Financial Times appeared the same week as the AP’s report, and also relied largely on analysis by ASPI, as well testimony gathered in Kazakhstan by an exile organization called Atajurt.
Among the Uyghurs interviewed by the AP about allegations of forced labor in Xinjiang was Rushan Abbas, whom it identified simply as “a Uighur in Washington, D.C.” In fact, Abbas was the director of the Campaign For Uyghurs, a major separatist organization funded by the US government which lobbies aggressively for sanctions on China.
A former translator at the Guantanamo Bay detention center, Abbas has boasted in her bio of “extensive experience working with US government agencies, including Homeland Security, Department of Defense, Department of State, and various US intelligence agencies.”
In June 2019, the WRC issued a 37-page paper accusing Badger of profiting from supposedly forced labor in the Hetian Taida factory in Xinjiang. The document was comprised largely of claims by a tightly coordinated network of US-backed Uyghur activists, US state media outlets, US-funded think tank pundits, and Human Rights Watch – the same virulently anti-China elements that shape Western media’s coverage of Xinjiang.
WRC’s key sources included the following:
- Adrian Zenz, the far-right Christian fundamentalist fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation who has declared that he was “led by God” to antagonize China’s government. Despite Zenz’s extensive and well-documented record of statistical manipulation and retractions, and lack of scholarly credentials on China, the WRC described him as “a leading scholar on the government’s repression of ethnic Muslim minorities.” As we will see later, Zenz joined WRC’s campaign in a formal capacity.
- “Credible reports by Radio Free Asia,” the US government-sponsored news service that the New York Times once deemed, “A Worldwide Propaganda Network Built by the CIA.” While the WRC’s report described Radio Free Asia as “credible,” it branded China Central Television (CCTV) as “government propaganda.”
- The US government, whose accusations against China the WRC cited repeatedly and without a shred of skepticism. This same government may have funded the WRC’s campaign on Xinjiang, and finances many of its key coalition partners through the National Endowment for Democracy.
- The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), the US State Department- and arms industry-funded think tank notorious for satellite analysis that has labeled government buildings, primary schools, and senior high schools in Xinjiang as “concentration camps.” Among the ASPI researchers cited by WRC was Vicky Xu, an anti-China activist and attempted comedian who has reportedly declared, “I’m in a real war with China.” An investigation by Michael West Media found that a substantial sum of ASPI’s donations came from corporations that rely on prison labor.
- The Uyghur American Association (UAA), a US-government funded exile lobbying organization based in Washington DC. As The Grayzone has reported, UAA leadership organized a car caravan in April 2021 that interrupted and heckled a demonstration against anti-Asian racism, maintain close relations with anti-Muslim legislators like Rep. Ted Yoho, and host a right-wing militia-style gun club.
- Human Rights Watch, the billionaire-funded international lobbying outfit that ultimately identified Uyghur exile groups that receive payouts from Badger Sportswear.
The WRC’s accusation of forced labor hinged on the connection between the Hetian Taida factory and the adjacent Hotan Vocational Education and Training Center, claiming that workers in the former facility were “detainees” in the latter.
The Chinese government has insisted that vocational training centers like the one at Hotan are an integral part of the nationwide campaign to eradicate extreme poverty. When the Chinese state-backed Global Times visited Hetian Taida’s satellite handcrafts facility in Hotan, workers told the paper they were there voluntarily.
Hetian Taida’s own data showed that some 30% of its workers at the facility had been previously registered as extremely poor, and were now earning wages that allowed them a measure of independence.
In lieu of any damning video testimony from workers employed at Taida, the WRC spun positive comments by a female worker to state-backed China Central Television as proof of “a brutal regime of extra-judicial detention.” The worker had declared, “The Communist Party and the government discovered me and saved me.”
Similarly, the WRC attempted to reinforce its accusation of forced labor with a photo of Badger executive Ginny Gasswint inside the Hetian Taida complex in January 2018, surrounded by female workers.
“I am surprised the Hotan people are friendly, beautiful, enthusiastic and hardworking. I believe our cooperation will become larger,” Gasswint proclaimed, according to the WRC paper. Oddly, the WRC framed Gasswint’s positive impressions of the workforce she met at the factory, and the apparently cheerful photo they took together, as clear evidence of abuse.
The WRC bluntly dismissed Badger’s own assessment of the situation at Hetian Taida, which rejected the allegations of “forced labor.” (A Badger spokesperson responded to an interview request by The Grayzone with a boilerplate statement affirming the company’s “respect for international labor and human rights standards.”)
It also discounted the certification that Taida received following an on-site inspection by Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production, an international auditing body established by American Apparel to “certify socially responsible factories in the sewn-products sector.”
When Wu Hongbo, the owner of Hetian Taida, complained to Badger Sport that he had been misquoted by AP and did not “have a factory inside the HVETC that used ‘trainees’ provided by the camp,” the WRC batted away his claim on the grounds that AP’s reporters “have won a series of awards for their work on Hetian Taida.”
Finally, the WRC admitted that it “did not attempt to interview workers as part of its inquiry.” It justified its failure to independently confirm any of the allegations by outside, US government-funded sources by claiming “the climate of fear and repression in Xinjiang made it very unlikely that workers could testify freely…”
In the end, the coordinated media and lobbying campaign forced Badger to end its contract with Hetian Taida, leaving its workforce unemployed. Instead of offering the workers any help, the WRC demanded that Badger “contribute $300,000 to an organization or organizations, providing assistance to or combatting the abuses against the Uyghur population of Xinjiang province, identified by independent human rights experts.”
The WRC conceded in a summary of its report that its campaign had not benefited Uyghur workers in any meaningful way, and may have even harmed them.
“It is important to understand that full remediation, from a worker rights perspective, is not achievable in this case. As explained in our report, any attempt to aid and support the affected workers runs the risk of subjecting them to retaliation by the Chinese authorities,” the NGO claimed without evidence. “The best available substitute is for Badger to contribute to organizations working broadly to aid victims of the repression in Xinjiang.”
Those organizations appeared to have been some of the same advocacy groups that provided WRC with the sourcing for its “forced labor” report, and which are dedicated to advancing US government’s hostility towards China.
Under Human Rights Watch’s watch, Uyghur exiles profit from “forced labor” shakedown
Asked by The Grayzone which “independent human rights organizations” received the payout by Badger, WRC director of strategic research Penelope Kyritsis claimed, “When forced labor is uncovered, the typical remedy is to pay workers back wages. But the prevailing circumstances made it such that contacting workers in a place that’s as surveilled as that region would just put them in a lot more risk. So the Badger money went to Uyghur groups in the diaspora.”
When pressed to identify those groups, Kyritsis fumbled for an answer. “Um, there was one group in Kazakhstan,” she said, but claimed she could not recall its name.
In an emailed response to questions from The Grayzone, WRC director Scott Nova refused to name the Uyghur exile groups that received the lucrative payout from Badger. “We are not disclosing the names of these organizations because doing so could jeopardize the security of the refugees they assist,” he claimed.
Minutes from an October 25, 2019 WRC board meeting published on the WRC’s website show Kyritsis and WRC executive director Scott Nova giving Human Rights Watch the responsibility for identifying Uyghur exile groups to receive the Badger money.
The selection of Human Rights Watch (HRW) as an arbiter highlighted the ulterior, belligerent agenda of the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region. Far from an independent organization, HRW has historically functioned as force multiplier for US imperial goals, advancing regime change against politically independent and socialist states behind the guise of moral concern.
Human Rights Watch was founded in 1978 as Helsinki Watch, a US outfit dedicated to undermining the governments of socialist Eastern Bloc countries with an unrelenting stream of abuse allegations. With offices across the West, including in New York City’s Empire State Building, HRW has grown thanks to a $100 million cash injection from George Soros, an anti-communist hedge fund billionaire who has deemed China a “mortal danger” to humanity.
For the past 27 years, HRW has been led by Kenneth Roth, an obsessive antagonist of China’s government and cheerleader for regime change operations against virtually any state that defies Washington. As Ben Norton reported for The Grayzone, Roth has posted a meme comparing Beijing to Nazi Germany and spread a fake video that he claimed depicted Chinese “killer robots,” but which turned out to show a special effects training. Roth has also repeatedly speculated that Covid-19 was brewed in a Chinese laboratory.
Under Roth’s watch, HRW justified the NATO military intervention in Libya, after neglecting to oppose the US invasion of Iraq. It has also refused to call for an end to the US-Saudi assault on Yemen that has produced the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
HRW has campaigned ceaselessly for toppling leftist governments across Latin America, celebrating US sanctions on Nicaragua, advancing Washington’s economic strangulation of Venezuela, and endorsing the far-right military coup in 2019 that removed Bolivia’s democratically elected Indigenous president, Evo Morales.
While Bolivia’s military massacred unarmed Indigenous protesters, Roth celebrated the right-wing takeover as an “uprising” in a tweet featuring an image of Morales shooting himself in the face with a tank cannon.
Bolivia Evo Morales was so determined "to remain in power he made the classic strongman’s mistake of losing touch with the street." He finagled an end to term limits. "He then claimed victory in a dubious election last month. That triggered the uprising." https://t.co/Ay1gOCymsi
— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) November 17, 2019
After HRW documented the abusive labor practices of a Saudi billionaire, the tycoon arranged a $470,000 grant to the group, essentially buying its silence. The hush money was kept secret until an insider leaked it to the media, forcing Roth to take credit for arranging the payment.
Though HRW appears to have selected Uyghur exile groups to receive the $300,000 extracted from Badger Sportswear, an HRW spokesperson told The Grayzone that their organization received none of the money.
Teaming up with far-right researcher “led by god” against China, hiring Uyghur exile activist
The Worker Rights Consortium brands itself as a progressive organization that defends Global South laborers against corporate exploiters. Its director, Scott Nova, has appeared at Netroots Nation, the annual gathering of left-liberal online influencers, and worked with anti-sweatshop activists on campuses across the country.
When the WRC launched the Xinjiang “forced labor” campaign, however, its director forged an alliance with a right-wing extremist who has stated that he was “led by God” against China’s government.
On March 9, 2020, Nova co-authored a letter with Adrian Zenz that addressed international labor monitoring bodies, demanding they cancel all future audits inside Xinjiang. The two insisted to potential auditors that “worker interviews, which are essential to the methodology of any credible auditor or certification body, cannot generate reliable information about labor conditions.”
As seen at Hetian Taida, where Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production certified the factory following an in-person visit, any testimony by independent observers to Xinjiang threatened to disrupt the campaign of demonization waged from Washington by the WRC.
By pushing outside auditors to pledge to avoid factories in the region, WRC seemed determined to eliminate any threats to the official US narrative about Chinese “forced labor,” while ensuring that the hyper-partisan, US government-funded organizations it relied on for its own report enjoyed a monopoly over the debate.
The WRC’s jointly authored letter referred to Zenz as an “Independent Researcher and Expert o[n] China’s Minority Policies,” omitting mention of his fellowship at the right-wing Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and overlooking serious issues relating to his credibility.
As The Grayzone has documented in extensive detail, Zenz is a Christian extremist whose first published book, “Worthy to Escape: Why all believers will not be raptured before the Tribulation,” urged Christian believers to punish unruly children with “scriptural spanking,” denounced homosexuality as “one of the four empires of the beast,” and argued that Jews who refuse to convert to evangelical Christianity during the End Times would either be “wipe[d] out” or “refined” in a “fiery furnace.”
Zenz currently serves as a fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, a Washington, DC lobbying front funded in part by the right-wing government of Poland through its Polish National Foundation. Zenz’s employer has designated all global deaths from Covid-19 as “victims of communism,” blaming them entirely on Beijing. (The Memorial’s claim that 100 million civilians died under communist control includes the tens of millions of Soviet citizens killed by Nazi Germany.)
— Victims of Communism (@VoCommunism) April 11, 2020
Like his employer, Zenz has exhibited a penchant for manipulating statistics to further his ideological agenda. He based his widely cited estimate of 1 million Uyghur Muslims in “internment camps” on a single, highly dubious study published by a Uyghur separatist outlet in Turkey.
After The Grayzone exposed glaring falsehoods and outlandish claims in Zenz’s paper alleging “forced sterilization” of Uyghurs, the supposed expert quietly corrected his absurd claim that Uyghur women have been forced to undergo anywhere from 4 to 8 IUD surgeries per day, while tweaking the language of other blatant falsehoods to make them seem more plausible. (Zenz appears to have fabricated the date of his retraction as well.)
So 8½ months (!) after it's first release, Adrian Zenz finally managed to correct in his report the wrong graph label, as it was highlighted by @MaxBlumenthal at the recent panel he attended together with @DanielDumbrill, @RadDesai and others.
— Jiucai Hezi enjoyer (@abovetheclouds) March 31, 2021
The WRC’s de facto partnership with right-wing anti-Chinese elements extended beyond Adrian Zenz. In August 2020, the WRC published ads seeking a coordinator for its “project to combat forced labor” in Xinjiang, promising a $70,000 salary plus benefits for a year-long term.
Jewher Ilham is the daughter of Ilham Tohti, a former academic sentenced by China to life in prison for allegedly promoting separatism and advocating violent militancy. His imprisonment has made him a cause celebre among Western human rights organizations, helping to earn his daughter a meeting with President Donald Trump in July 2019.
The WRC’s Nova insisted that Ilham is no longer associated with Victims of Communism, and therefore “that association is disingenuous.” However, he did not respond to direct questions about his open partnership with Zenz, who remains a fellow at the notoriously Sinophobic organization.
“Your bad faith is readily apparent and we see no value in answering your questions,” Nova remarked to The Grayzone.
A grassroots labor coalition, brought to you by the US government
A month before advertising the job eventually taken by Ilham, the WRC announced the formation of the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region. Most of the organizations on the coalition’s steering committee were anti-China lobbying outfits funded by the US government through the National Endowment for Democracy, or directly by the US Department of State. Key members included:
- The World Uyghur Congress (WUC): The WUC is the major umbrella organization of the Uyghur separatist movement seeking an independent, NATO-oriented ethno-state in the Xinjiang region of China. As Ajit Singh reported for The Grayzone, the NED has provided the WUC with millions of dollars in funding, including over $1,284,000 since 2016. The WUC lobbies Western politicians to isolate and “increase the pressure on China,” ratchet up economic sanctions, curb ties with China, and pull Western companies out of Xinjiang. As Singh reported, the WUC enjoys historic ties to the far-right Gray Wolves movement in Turkey and was founded by a right-wing ideologue who called for “the dismemberment of the Chinese empire.”
- The Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP): The UHRP is a World Uyghur Congress subsidiary that is almost entirely sponsored by the US government, with the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) serving as its principal source of funding. The NED granted the UHRP a whopping $1,244,698 between 2016 and ’19. As The Grayzone has reported, the NED was founded under the watch of the Reagan administration’s CIA to fund and train opposition media outlets and NGO groups to undermine governments that Washington opposed. Louisa Coan Greve, the former vice president of the NED, today serves as UHRP’s director of global advocacy.
- Clean Clothes Campaign/Johnson Yeung: Listed by the WRC as the media contact for the Clean Clothes Campaign, Johnson Yeung is a Hong Kong separatist activist whose career has been nurtured by the National Endowment for Democracy. Yeung’s Civil Human Rights Front played a leading role in the protests and riotsthat consumed Hong Kong throughout 2019; it was disbanded following a Chinese government investigation into its alleged US financing. For its part, the Clean Clothes Campaign has been funded largely by the Dutch Foreign Ministry, as well as an unnamed “US-based philanthropic fund.”
- International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF): Claiming to “hold global corporations accountable for labor rights violations,” the ILRF is sponsored by the National Endowment for Democracy, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Rights and Labor. The coordinator of the ILRF’s China program, Kevin Lin, has been on the international committee of the Democratic Socialists of America.
- Anti-Slavery International: A celebrity-oriented NGO that claims to consist of “small and powerful changemakers delivering freedom now,” Anti-Slavery International is funded by the US Department of State Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; the UK Home Office, the European Commission, and wealthy foundations.
On September 17, select members of the “Coalition to End Forced Labor” testified before Congress, providing a campaign funded and guided by the US government with the patina of grassroots activism.
Besides the WRC’s Scott Nova, Congress heard from Rushan Abbas, the former Gitmo translator and Pentagon contractor who heads the US government-funded Campaign for Uyghurs. “It horrifies me to see China continue to be allowed to become a power able to strong-arm the world,” Abbas proclaimed.
The AFL-CIO’s international director, Cathy Feingold, also addressed Congress on behalf of the coalition. With little record of labor organizing to speak of, Feingold is the ex-foreign policy director for the Ford Foundation, a billionaire-backed non-profit that assisted CIA destabilization operations in Indonesia and Chile during the Cold War. She went on to lead the Dominican Republic and Haiti offices of the Solidarity Center.
The ironically named Solidarity Center operates out of the AFL’s offices in Washington, but is funded heavily by the US government through the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). In fact, the NED’s longtime director, Carl Gershman, is the former research director for the AFL-CIO. And the AFL sits on the steering committee of the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region.
Sociologist Kim Scipes has researched the history of international operations by the AFL-CIO spanning almost a century, demonstrating how the union federation has helped the US government subvert socialist revolutions around the world while assisting right-wing dictatorships.
In his book “The AFL-CIO’s Secret War Against Developing Country Workers,” Scipes documented the AFL-CIO’s role in backing opposition unions working for regime change in states including Jacobo Arbenz’s Guatemala, Salvador Allende’s Chile, Sandinista-controlled Nicaragua, and Venezuela since its socialist Bolivarian Revolution.
“I believe their understanding is that the US should run the world,” Scipes said of the AFL-CIO’s leadership.
Given the labor federation’s history, he commented, “I don’t think they’re doing [the forced labor campaign] out of any concern for Uyghurs. From everything I know, I’d say that the AFL-CIO is operating to consciously hurt China, and you can see it line up with the entire US foreign policy apparatus.”
The Solidarity Center was the outcome of the AFL-CIO’s consolidation of its foreign operations into a central node in 1997. Though it has attempted to soften the image the AFL earned for destabilizing socialist governments during the Cold War, academic Tim Gill obtained Solidarity Center documents from 2006 to 2014 that show the center flush with NED money and “coordinat[ing] concerted resistance actions” against the worker’s councils established by Venezuela’s socialist government.
A PhD thesis by George Nelson Bass exploring the Solidarity Center’s post-Cold War work concluded that it “indicates continuity with past AFL-CIO foreign policy practices whereby the Solidarity Center follows the lead of the U.S. state.”
The funding the Solidarity Center has received from the regime-change arm of the US government, together with its record of “contributions” to the Worker Rights Consortium, raises questions about its role in the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region. Asked whether the Solidarity Center financed the WRC’s work on the campaign, Penelope Kyritsis claimed, “I don’t know what the different groups in the coalition’s funding sources are.”
According to Scipes, the lack of transparency around the forced labor coalition is consistent with AFL-related campaigns over the years. “They’re not being open and honest. They’re not telling anybody out outside of a closed circle. It’s carried out behind the backs of the members,” he maintained, noting that he is a union member himself. “And yet they’re acting as though they’re acting in our name.”
Marketed as a grassroots initiative, the WRC and its partners in the “Coalition Against Forced Uyghur Labor” appear to be answering primarily to the US government. Inside Xinjiang, they have not only rejected any communication with the Uyghur workers whose jobs they have eliminated, they have refused to remediate them.
While providing a new Cold War with progressive cover, these supposed human rights advocates are rewarding themselves with the lost wages of those they claim to be defending.
Editor-in-chief of The Grayzone, Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist and the author of several books, including best-selling Republican Gomorrah, Goliath, The Fifty One Day War, and The Management of Savagery. He has produced print articles for an array of publications, many video reports, and several documentaries, including Killing Gaza. Blumenthal founded The Grayzone in 2015 to shine a journalistic light on America’s state of perpetual war and its dangerous domestic repercussions.
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