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Beijing Briefs — by Alexandra Stevenson
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Beijing Briefs

by Alexandra Stevenson

Beijing Briefs header image 1

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Highlights from Slashasia


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July 26th, 2009 · Business, Politics


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The following are excerpts from /A’s  Week in Retrospect. The site will go live in a month and will offer intelligent aggregation of North and Southeast Asian news headlines by journalists in the region.

[Week of July 13-19]

Rio Tinto case a warning to foreign business in China

The arrest of Stern Hu and three other employees of the Australian mining giant Rio Tinto in China for bribery and espionage is panning out to be a learning lesson for foreigners doing in business in China. The closest thing to concrete evidence to support allegations has been a China Daily article quoting an “industry insider” who accused Rio Tinto employees of bribing executives of 16 Chinese steel mills. This  week China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang directly accused Hu of spying and referred to Australian public opinion as “noise” that interferes with China’s judicial affairs. Some experts argue that this arrest, which comes amidst a deadlock in iron ore price negotiations, could be retribution for Rio’s recent walk away from a $19.5 billion investment deal with Chinalco. How Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd deals with this diplomatic challenge could have serious implications for Australian’s relations with China. The two countries are key trading partners, their combined trade totaling $53 billion in 2008, with iron ore taking up $14 billion of that.

Read more on ChinaStakes Asia Wall Street Journal , Financial Times

Jakarta bombings derail Indonesia’s peaceful path to democracy

Indonesia was rocked this week after four years of relative peace when two bombs blasted the Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriot hotels in Jakarta last Friday, leaving nine dead and 53 injured. Asia’s most wanted terrorist, Noordin Mohammad Top,  is believed to be behind the suicide bombings which have set Indonesia back after years on track to becoming the world’s third largest democracy with the world’s largest Muslim population. The attacks come after President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s re-election, revealing that his approach to containing terrorism has not been foolproof. Days after the attack there is a sense of urgency to get Indonesia back on track; “Indonesia’s very soul is at stake” writes the Jakarta Globe. One week after national elections Indonesians were expecting an anti climatic return to the norm, “But after this week, we probably need an even stronger morning-after pill to face a new reality about our country” says the Jakarta Post. These attacks and recent shootings near a gold and copper mining operation in Papua means that the government “must lead the country once again out of this new crisis.”

Read more on Jakarta Post , Jakarta Globe


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China a new architect for global finance?


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June 14th, 2009 · Business


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China held the attention of bankers and financiers around the world this week at a meeting of the International Institute of Finance in Beijing June 10-12. Most of the world’s financial power brokers gathered to discuss how a new global financial architecture would look, and China figured prominently. The meeting appeared to be strongly supported by the country’s elite.

What was behind the fancy talk about challenging old financial sector paradigms and giving a voice to emerging markets which members were told was a major theme? The answer appeared to be the stark realization by everyone there that global markets have to be stabilized and the unspoken fact that Chinese banks must play a major role in sustaining economic growth. Also unspoken was the fact that such a major role would not likely be played by China without a great deal of diplomatic and political give and take on the part of individual nations.

A time for reassessment

“Financial institutions live globally but die nationally,” explained Philipp Hildebrand, Vice-Chairman of the Swiss National Bank, pointing out that the Financial Stability Board, a global body tasked with monitoring national policies, must leverage off of domestic policies.

But what needs to be done in the short term is exactly the opposite of what should be done in the long term, warned financier George Soros, Chairman of Soros Fund Management, a private institution that by all accounts seems to have come through the recent financial crash unscathed.

In the short term governments must replace credit, which will increase national debt, but in the long run government needs to remove itself. Soros called for an immediate redefining of market risk and an end to credit default swaps which he called “instruments of destruction.” According to Soros, markets are imperfect, regulators are even more so, and therefore regulators should be kept in line. His final message and the last note of the meeting was this: markets are global, global regulators must monitor them.

That the financial sector must be re-defined was a point also made by Sir Deryck C. Maughan, Managing Director and Chairman Asia of Kolhberg Kravis Roberts & Co. Maughan urged a new definition of banking to include less leverage, more capital and lower returns. While the party was fun, he said, it is now over and the “social contract is about to be rewritten” soberly adding that “the way forward requires a much more rigorous business model.”

Jacob Frenkel, Vice Chairman of American International Group, was frank in highlighting the amnesia that was characteristic of the banking sector until the very last moments before the crash. Like so many at the conference, he belatedly emphasized that sustained growth could not be achieved without sound macroeconomic policies. He also pointed out the success of China’s focus on domestic infrastructure growth, but left audience members somewhat confused with his contention that a new paradigm was not the solution, “we are on a detour from the old paradigm.”

China rising?

The ‘old paradigm’ did not include much of emerging markets, a point acknowledged by Terrence Checki, Executive Vice President of Emerging Markets and International Affairs at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. He pointed out global adjustments need to be made to accommodate emerging Asian markets that are taking on a greater role in globally. This will require some to spend more and others to save, he said.

Much of the focus of the conference was naturally on China’s emergence as financial powerhouse. Stephen Roach, Chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia, was blunt about China’s approach so far. “Asia needs a new growth model,” he said. “We are at a critical juncture” and while China may be taking a proactive domestic approach while waiting out the crisis, it still has a long way to go. Roach recalled Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s announcement in 2007 that China’s macro conditions were “unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated, and unsustainable.”

Bank of China’s Vice President Zhu Min did not specifically counter Roach’s argument. But he strongly affirmed China’s current successful macro policies and massive amounts of stimulus being pumped into infrastructure expansion and social services. This he pointed out this means China’s confidence is high and the economy is growing strong.

Perhaps outlining the starting point for a new Asian financial paradigm, China Banking Regulatory Commission Chairman Lui Mingkang said the key to China’s development will be the “scientific development” of capital markets. He was blunt in rebuffing earlier arguments by some attendees that the world is merely on a detour and will likely return to the old financial blueprint. The current global response to the crisis has not been enough, he told the conference - a new road map must be drawn up.

What was unclear was whether China expected the high powered listeners to be involved in designing the new map or if China already has a new map ready for unveiling.


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Waiting for something more?


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June 4th, 2009 · Politics


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Today marked the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. The foreign community here in Beijing waited in anticipation for some sign of protest. Those holding their breath gathered near the Square and waited. Nothing happened.

To China watchers who hope for indicators of democracy sprouting many Chinese will say that China has been offered democracy from an indecipherable Western menu. Among them is Xinran, author and journalist who spent twenty years interviewing China’s silent generation, old Chinese who survived the barren years under Mao. She likens China thirty years ago, after Deng Xiaoping’s economic opening up, to a hungry child who, given the option of a menu or bread, picks bread: For her, “the menu is just a piece of paper – she won’t believe that piece of paper will provide food.”

Today, it’s still not a valued item on the menu. This is a result of holes in China’s modern history and rapid economic development.

This is an excerpt from a recent post on her blog, Xiang Yi Xiang — Think! Tiananmen Movement in 1989:

” Today’s comforts have made us too lazy to think and to dig the truth…or, at least to question the truth of our past. We must not ‘water [down]’ our beliefs and the glory lost by the blood of others - both of Chinese students and Chinese soldiers in 1989! Wo Men Bu-Neng Jian-Hua Li-Shi. We must not simplify history.”

Xinran believes that China’s history has not been taught properly; young people do not understand the depths to which the country sank a mere three decades ago. For this group of mainly single children, financial independence is paramount.

It remains to be seen how amidst global recession, China, with its national pride often spurred by hawkish foreign response to its rise, and its undefined modern identity, will define democracy in the future. There is no question that China will closely examine how Western democracies resolve the current economic crisis: If they succeed, democracy will likely become a choice on China’s menu. And then the foreign community here won’t need to stand, waiting with bated breath, for some notion of democracy to show signs of life.


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Sophie’s story


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May 10th, 2009 · Politics, Uncategorized


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Sophie poses with her teacher, Randy Simmon, at the temporary Beichuan Middle School in Mianyang.

Sophie poses with teacher Randy Simmon at the temporary Beichuan Middle School in Mianyang, Sichuan.


Beichuan Middle School was destroyed in last year’s Sichuan earthquake. Officials are reticent to give final numbers of students who died while attending the school, but they do offer figures for the number of students currently attending school at a temporary location in Mianyang today. That figure of 3000 students encompasses survivors from seven different Beichuan schools, all of which were reduced to twisted rubble. Prior to the earthquake, Beichuan Middle School alone had 2,700 students. This is the kind of math one has to do in order to fully grasp the impact of last year’s earthquake on the students who attend the school today.

Yet the students who survived don’t care about numbers; they only care about the images of individual faces of loved ones they saw die in the quake, images which are constantly with them. And they are, almost to a person, not about to share those deeply personal feelings with any nosy foreign reporter. So I was fortunate to meet Randy Simmon, the only foreign teacher at the temporary location in Mianyang, because he put some perspective on the matter. Randy, an American, who has been teaching at the school since last November, tells me that the grief these students have had to deal with is compounded by many things, but predominant is a very deep sense of survivor guilt.

Survivor guilt seems to be the biggest hurdle to overcome in the healing process. Randy recounts the story of a high school student who recently confided in him. The boy was terrified that if he started dating again, he would forget his girlfriend who died in the earthquake. This teenager is just one of many students who have come to talk to Randy.

Having so painfully been confronted with death and devastation, it appears these young survivors have one of two options: drown out the world around them, or focus on the road ahead. While Randy spoke with me, a tall girl named Sophie came bounding up to us. She was beaming, and it was clear that Randy is someone very important in her life. Sophie told me that she just had her hair cut. Then she told me she was training for an upcoming swimming competition and that the training was going well. After having seen many students in the area with crutches, in wheelchairs or limping, I thought to myself, this girl is so lucky to have gone through the earthquake unscathed. Later I found out that Sophie had lost both her legs in the earthquake and was only able to walk because of two prosthetic legs.

I can’t think of a better example of courage than Sophie. The official tally of students who died in the earthquake last year, 5,335, was released this week. We might never know the accuracy of this seemingly cold figure, which came out just in time for the first anniversary of the earthquake. But there can be no questioning the survivors, those living examples of courage who, by again embracing life, also keep alive the memory of friends they lost.


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Sichuan: The faces and landscape one year after the earthquake


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May 9th, 2009 · Politics


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Rubble and dust - One year after the Sichuan earthquake


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May 5th, 2009 · Politics, Uncategorized


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A child born weeks after the earthquake.

A child born weeks after the earthquake.

What has left the biggest impression on me after these five days of visiting some of the earthquake hit areas of Sichuan, is the resilience of the people who experienced death and devastation on such a grand scale. One farmer I spoke to, Zhao Rude, was energetic and sprightly for a seventy year-old as he showed us his newly built home. But as with so many others, tears rolled down his face as he began to recount the days and months after the quake. Despite all the pain that comes with those memories, and the new burdens of rebuilding a life, he is optimistic that he will one day pay off the 25,000 yuan worth of loans he has accrued.

It’s this kind of optimism that has kept the survivors of the Sichuan earthquake from buckling under feelings of guilt that they were spared while some 70,000 others lost their lives. Even children feel survivor guilt. They worry about making new best friends to replace those lost, and letting new people into their lives, who might possibly replace lost loved ones. But, as hard as it may sound, part of the human condition is learning to deal with sorrow in a constructive manner and move on. This is what many are trying to do. It is clear, however, that wounds have not fully healed.

Seeing Sichuan’s temporary Styrofoam cities and schools, meeting with locals and foreigners who experienced the Wenchuan quake, and interviewing local and provincial officials who are dealing with the aftermath, I am left with a strangely optimistic feeling. For many, despite losing everything, right down to the floor upon which they once stood, people have managed to pick themselves up from the rubble and start to rebuild their lives, piece by piece. This gives me renewed hope in human resilience and endurance.

[I will write more in the next few days about some of the stories I heard and the people I met]

An elderly man at a welfare home in Shifang. He has no family or home.

An elderly man at a temporary welfare home in Shifang. He has no family or house.

Zhao Rude, a farmer in Shifang.

Zhao Rude, a farmer in Shifang, remains precariously optimistic about the future.


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VIDEO: How to get a Beijing bargain


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April 29th, 2009 · Uncategorized


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A no-nonsense guide to negotiating the cunning salesladies and sensory overload at Beijing’s famous Silk Market.

A Beijing bargain from Rahul Venkit on Vimeo.


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Guest Post: The story of cop-killer Yang Jia’s mother


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April 4th, 2009 · Guest Posts


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This guest post was written by Myra Cecere, a freelance journalist living in China.

The story of Yang Jia has solicited a lot of attention online in China. Some see him as a national hero, others as a murderer. On November 26th 2008 he was executed for murdering six Shanghai police officers. His story, and now new accounts of police misconduct involving his mother, while not fully substantiated given the sensitive subject matter, shows a murky side to law and order.

The abridged version of his story is this: in 2007 he was taken in for interrogation by the Shanghai police for riding an unregistered bike, where he was allegedly beaten and verbally abused. In July 2008, while trying to throw Molotov cocktails at the police station, a guard stopped him. He stabbed the guard and then went on to kill police in the station. He was taken away, his trial and subsequent appeal postponed until post-Olympic celebrations. His story has been widely circulated through the Internet - a Twitter account has been made for him - where an active community of bloggers comment about the events that lead to his execution. Less known is his mother, Wang Jingmei’s story. She disappeared for four months shortly after she visited the police station to help with investigation last year. She may have been the only person with details of Yang’s beating in 2007. According to Time China Blog , without her, allegations of police abuse were moot.

Recently, Wang Jingmei’s story has surfaced. In the below link you can read translated sections of her personal account of being taken to a psychiatric hospital by police.

The Story of Yang Jia’s Mother - ChinaGeeks

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Alexandra Stevenson.


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Bullish China?


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March 13th, 2009 · Uncategorized


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牛年中国经济能牛起来吗?China feeling bullish in the Year of the Ox? China Radio International webcast

This short clip was shown at the National People’s Congress meeting last week in Beijing. Originally put together by the China Radio International web cast team.

Reporting: Bao Congying, Voiceover: Alexandra Stevenson. Subtitles, translation: Wutong, Yangyong. Shot, scripted and edited by Rahul Venkit.


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Strict Standards: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected 'America/New_York' for 'EST/-5.0/no DST' instead in /homepages/46/d201698760/htdocs/beijingbriefs/WP/trunk/wp-includes/functions.php on line 52

Strict Standards: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected 'America/New_York' for 'EST/-5.0/no DST' instead in /homepages/46/d201698760/htdocs/beijingbriefs/WP/trunk/wp-includes/functions.php on line 54

Strict Standards: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected 'America/New_York' for 'EST/-5.0/no DST' instead in /homepages/46/d201698760/htdocs/beijingbriefs/WP/trunk/wp-includes/functions.php on line 55

Strict Standards: mktime(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected 'America/New_York' for 'EST/-5.0/no DST' instead in /homepages/46/d201698760/htdocs/beijingbriefs/WP/trunk/wp-includes/functions.php on line 41

Strict Standards: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected 'America/New_York' for 'EST/-5.0/no DST' instead in /homepages/46/d201698760/htdocs/beijingbriefs/WP/trunk/wp-includes/functions.php on line 50

Strict Standards: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected 'America/New_York' for 'EST/-5.0/no DST' instead in /homepages/46/d201698760/htdocs/beijingbriefs/WP/trunk/wp-includes/functions.php on line 52

Strict Standards: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected 'America/New_York' for 'EST/-5.0/no DST' instead in /homepages/46/d201698760/htdocs/beijingbriefs/WP/trunk/wp-includes/functions.php on line 54

Strict Standards: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected 'America/New_York' for 'EST/-5.0/no DST' instead in /homepages/46/d201698760/htdocs/beijingbriefs/WP/trunk/wp-includes/functions.php on line 55

Chinese state media CCTV culprit in firework inferno


Strict Standards: mktime(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected 'America/New_York' for 'EST/-5.0/no DST' instead in /homepages/46/d201698760/htdocs/beijingbriefs/WP/trunk/wp-includes/functions.php on line 41

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Strict Standards: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected 'America/New_York' for 'EST/-5.0/no DST' instead in /homepages/46/d201698760/htdocs/beijingbriefs/WP/trunk/wp-includes/functions.php on line 52

Strict Standards: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected 'America/New_York' for 'EST/-5.0/no DST' instead in /homepages/46/d201698760/htdocs/beijingbriefs/WP/trunk/wp-includes/functions.php on line 54

Strict Standards: date(): It is not safe to rely on the system's timezone settings. You are *required* to use the date.timezone setting or the date_default_timezone_set() function. In case you used any of those methods and you are still getting this warning, you most likely misspelled the timezone identifier. We selected 'America/New_York' for 'EST/-5.0/no DST' instead in /homepages/46/d201698760/htdocs/beijingbriefs/WP/trunk/wp-includes/functions.php on line 55
February 12th, 2009 · Uncategorized


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View of Mandarin Oriental in central business district, Beijing

View of Mandarin Oriental in central business district, Beijing

A fire that erupted Monday around 8:30pm in downtown Beijing was started by fireworks set off during a light show organized by Chinese state television station CCTV to celebrate the last day of Chinese New Year celebrations. The ensuing blaze lit up the sky in something far grander than the usual lanterns and fireworks that clutter the sky. Authorities have confirmed that the fireworks used for the CCTV show were too powerful for a construction site and unsuitable for the urban environment where they were set off. According to authorities, the station had been denied permission to set them off. Policeman were ignored after they tried to stop the show.

The building, just north of the new CCTV headquarters, was the unfinished Mandarin Oriental Hotel. One firefighter has died and seven other people were injured. The entire debacle is not only a major PR disaster for the state-owned TV station, but it has also forced Beijing citizens to reconsider a ban on fireworks in Beijing.

For two weeks straight now the city has been under siege, it’s attackers thousands of firecrackers and fireworks. Over the Spring Festival holiday Chinese nation-wide are given temporary permission to set off fireworks in approved areas. Ask any Chinese person on the street and they’ll tell you this is a centuries-old tradition. Ask any foreigner on the street and they’ll tell you there is no apparent restriction on fireworks, which often ricochet off everything, from apartment windows to sidewalk trees.

A long tape of explosives set off on a side alley downtown

A long tape of explosives set off on a side alley downtown

Another explosion downtown Beijing

Another explosion downtown Beijing

From 1993 until 2006 fireworks were banned in urban areas, but authorities eased up, granting certain areas permissible in 2006. The last official day for fireworks was set for this last Monday, and as I set off to the scene of the fire, the firework police were lurking in the shadows, in large numbers ready to arrest anyone still firing crackers past midnight.

A Chinese newspaper, the China Youth Daily, published commentary presenting one side of so-called Chinese sentiment: that allowing citizens to set off fireworks shows the authorities’ respect for social, cultural and traditional customs. The article goes on to say that the solution shouldn’t be to ban fireworks, but rather to beef up Beijing’s emergency services.

This is just half the story, the other side being that CCTV is now the brunt of a jeering Chinese online community, pointing out the fact that while the fire was started by the station, it failed to report on it. According to University of California’s China Internet Project, many Chinese have expressed frustrations in online forums about the lack of transparency at the state TV station in covering stories like recent milk scandal.

Whether the subject of ridicule, or just a blaring sign that something needs to change, it’s clear this blaze has, ironically, instigated change for the New Year. But not the kind of change anyone anticipated here in Beijing.


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