Ed Dolan on China and Russia

Ed Dolan recently sent me an interesting theory on difference between Chinese and Russian corruption.  I suggested he post it, but his blog specializes in other topics.  So we decided I could post it here.  This is Ed Dolan’s idea:

Dynamic China, Stagnant Russia: Can Corruption Explain the Difference?

As a long-time Russia watcher, I endorse the widespread notion that corruption is one major explanation for that country’s relative stagnation. Even Russian president Medvedev agrees, saying that corruption is “systemic in nature” and has “deep historic roots.” (The Guardian). But what about China? China is pretty corrupt, too. Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index ranks Russia at a dismal 146 out of 180 countries surveyed, but China, at 79, is not exactly squeaky clean. Other attempts to measure corruption specifically and institutional quality generally seem to reach similar rankings. Yet China is far from stagnant. Why?

Is it simply that China, although corrupt, is less corrupt that Russia? Only as corrupt as Burkina Faso, instead of as corrupt as Kenya? No doubt the degree of corruption plays a role, but I wonder if part of the explanation also lies in differences in kind among the corruption encountered in one place or another.

By analogy, consider a distinction that Russians make between “white envy” and “black envy.” If your neighbor buys a new BMW, and your reaction is to want to work harder so that you can buy one too, that is white envy. If your reaction is to want to sneak over during the night and slash his tires, that is black envy.

By the same token, it seems to me there is “white corruption” and “black corruption.” In the white variant, a corrupt official might say, “I’ll pull strings to help your business grow if you will cut me in on a share of your future profit.” In the black variant, the official would say, “pay me off, or I’ll shut your business down,” or alternatively, “pay me off, and I’ll shut your competitor’s business down.”

I don’t mean to say that “white corruption” is actually good. It introduces distortions and raises costs relative to government based on honesty, transparency, and the rule of law.  But it certainly seems possible that comparatively speaking, white corruption is more pro-growth and black corruption is more pro-stagnation. The reason is partly that black corruption involves negative sanctions rather than positive incentives, and partly because it suggests more of a long-term, trust-based relationship. To borrow a term from Mancur Olson, the official practicing white corruption would be more of a stationary bandit, and the one practicing black corruption would be more of a roving bandit. The stationary bandit encourages the local farmers to take good care of their cows; the roving bandit slaughters the cows (maybe the farmers, too) and moves on after the feast.

I know from my own experience in Russia that black corruption is pretty widespread, although the white variant also exists. I have heard anecdotes about China that suggest that the white variant of corruption might be more common there. Does anyone with more experience of China than I have think that is true, and if so, if it could play a role in explaining how China can be corrupt, but dynamic?

This isn’t my area  of expertise, but his argument makes sense.   I was reminded of Ed’s email when I recently ran across the paper “Spite and Development” by Fehr, Hoff, and Kshetramade:

In a wide variety of settings, spiteful preferences would constitute an obstacle to cooperation, trade, and thus economic development. This paper shows that spiteful preferences – the desire to reduce another’s material payoff for the mere purpose of increasing one’s relative payoff – are surprisingly widespread in experiments conducted in one of the least developed regions in India (Uttar Pradesh). In a one-shot trust game, the authors find that a large majority of subjects punish cooperative behavior although such punishment clearly increases inequality and decreases the payoffs of both subjects. In experiments to study coordination and to measure social preferences, the findings reveal empirical patterns suggesting that the willingness to reduce another’s material payoff – either for the sake of achieving more equality or for the sake of being ahead – is stronger among individuals belonging to high castes than among those belonging to low castes. Because extreme social hierarchies are typically accompanied by a culture that stresses status-seeking, it is plausible that the observed social preference patterns are at least partly shaped by this culture. Thus, an exciting question for future research is the extent to which different institutions and cultures produce preferences that are conducive or detrimental to economic development.

Alex Tabarrok recently linked to another item that is relevant to Dolan’s argument:

In Russia, the ‘Ask the Audience’ lifeline isn’t one that the contestant would often use because the audience often gives wrong answers intentionally to trick the contestants.



22 Responses to “Ed Dolan on China and Russia”

  1. Gravatar of david david
    11. June 2010 at 11:24

    The analogy between white and black corruption and white and black envy doesn’t seem clear. Surely the difference between white and black corruption is that the former demands a share of future profit whilst the latter demands a payout now? And then officials in the latter position keep changing, and each of them demand a payout? Then we can apply the Olson bandit model. But how does envy play into it?

    But the distinction between positive incentives versus negative sanctions doesn’t work. Suppose lots of potential red tape exists, which allows an official to demand a payout to streamline some regulatory process. One official says, “pay me off, and I’ll ignore the rules”. Another says “pay me off, or I’ll enforce these rules on you”. There’s no difference!

    And if we were applying the envy model, well, we would just have a lot of officials applying excessive rules regardless of the payout offered. Then corruption doesn’t play into it.

    The Olson model is driven by factors which affect the bandit’s time horizon; preferences over relative wealth shouldn’t impact it unless we have some highly specific institutional structures.

  2. Gravatar of StatsGuy StatsGuy
    11. June 2010 at 11:59

    “By the same token, it seems to me there is “white corruption” and “black corruption.””

    I hope Dolan doesn’t ever get taken out of context.

    And talking about context, the side-adverts on your page for this article are telling me how to “Find my Russian Beauty Today!” Another asks “Fiance or Wife in Russia?”, which I’d originally read as “Finance Your Wife in Russia?” (For a moment, I was rather impressed with free market innovation – not only could I buy a Russian wife, but I could get financing for the purchase as well!)

    More seriously, I think Dolan is invoking a cultural argument (why do some economists believe in culture, but not institutions?). The cultural argument is rooted in psychology, although how you can have two cultures with vastly different psychologies without institutional reinforcement is something I don’t get.

    In any case, let me suggest a couple things:

    The difference between 79 and 140 on the corruption scale MATTERS A LOT.

    Second, if Dolan wants to grasp at differences in corruption, let me point out this difference:

    In China, individuals are corrupt and businesses are corrupt, but there is no question that the corrupt agents fear the government more than the government fears the corrupt agents. In other words, there is no doubt about the ultimate sovereign power.

    In Russia, I dare say that many in the government fear corrupt elements more than the corrupt elements fear the government. (In Mexico, it’s all out war, and I’m not sure who’s winning.)

    The difference is that in China, I might fear losing an investment and being unable to recover it. In Russia, I might fear that an attempt to recover my investment might cost me my life.

    I have no doubt that an Austrian like Dolan would object to this explanation (culture is much less threatening to the Austrian worldview than an explanation in which a strong state is not the ultimate enemy of humanity).

    Moreover, I would posit – and this is totally making stuff up, which seems fine since that’s the basis of Dolan’s argument too – that “white” and “black” envy are linked to perceptions of whether the object of envy was acquired legitimately or illegitimately. Thus, to the extent types of envy are correlated with outcomes, I would suspect the correlation is precisely the opposite of Dolan’s hypothesis – when I perceive you obtained your loot legitimately, I seek to emulate. When I perceive you obtained it illegitimately, I seek to punish.

    [Que the Austrian onslaught...]

  3. Gravatar of Indy Indy
    11. June 2010 at 12:42

    Maybe I’m completely off base – but is there perhaps a kind of Coase-theorem equivalency of the costs of either white or black corruption? Should the “intent” or “malice content” of the corruption really matter? It seems a little like the “who holds the property interest” indifference in the theorem.

    … transaction costs?

  4. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    11. June 2010 at 14:06

    This is why we should give potential Public Employees personality tests based to determine whether or not:

    1. They seek to better the private market even if it doesn’t benefit themselves.
    2. If they tend to wield power arbitrarily on their own whim.

    Because of the power wielded… civil servant tests should weed out personality types detrimental to economic growth.

  5. Gravatar of DanC DanC
    11. June 2010 at 14:25

    With limited experience I offer limited comments.

    Friends who had dealings in Russia talked about the Russian desire to create and control monopolies. Corruption plus fear of violence. Bribes as a way of life. With a workforce that was often talented except for the drinking.

    Friends who had dealings in China mentioned minor corruption (less then Chicago) but that training the workforce was a challenge. Plus they mentioned a concern about protecting intellectual property rights with suppliers.

  6. Gravatar of Ed Dolan Ed Dolan
    11. June 2010 at 14:49

    Thanks, all. Some good ideas so far.

    David: In your case, the threats are equivalent. However, what if the official does more than just abstain from the negative action of enforcing the rules of his own agency, and instead, pulls strings in a way that reduces the total transaction costs of running the business, say, by drawing on a network of connections in several agencies. Assume the official reciprocates the similar requests of other bureaucrats, building red-tape cutting networks throughout the government. In such a system the total transactions costs facing the business might be less than in a system where the entrepreneur encounters an obstructive bureaucrat at every turn. Does that make sense?

    Statsguy: I agree, both culture and institutions matter, and you are right, they do reinforce one another. But your idea that only illegitimately obtained wealth triggers black envy is SO American. I’m not at all sure my Russian students would think that way. In fact, some of them might admire and defer to someone who got his BMW through brazen banditry while scoffing at the person who bought his BMW with a salary earned by hard work for a company perceived as honest. It could be safer to slash the tires of the latter, who is clearly a wuss.

  7. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    11. June 2010 at 16:07

    Russian joke: an Englishman, a Frenchman and a Russian rescue a genie and he gives them one wish each. The Englishman wishes to be the richest man in the world–and “whoosh!” he is. The Frenchman wishes to be the world’s great love–and “whoosh!” he is. The Russian thinks hard and says “Most of all I want my neighbour Ivan’s cow to die”. NB: This is a joke Russians tell about themselves (From memory, it is in Hedrick Smith’s The Russians).

    Mancur Olson argued that the Cultural Revolution had broken up resource-constricting networks which had not rebuilt before liberalisation from 1979 onwards, but it had been too long since Stalin’s purges, so the former Soviet Union was over-run with the things. That would be compatible with the very different corruption levels reported between Russia and China. It would also be compatible with the different balance of power because state actors and corruption networks mentioned by Statsguy.

    As for institutional reinforcement for cultural patterns, it is possible that culture may be preserving patterns established by previous institutional arrangements and not undermined by current ones. Russia had serfdom until 1864, with collective taxation responsibilities. That may have led to destructive envy of those who did better and so found it easier to pay the taxes (or even, depending on how taxes were assessed, encouraged taxes to be higher next time). It is possible the Soviet collective farming system had some similar destructive incentives. That official and unofficial coercion was the way to wealth under the Soviet system may have had reinforcing effects about what gave status and wealth.

  8. Gravatar of david david
    11. June 2010 at 16:20

    @Ed Dolan

    The proposed case still has identical inverse positive incentives and negative sanctions. A business that refuses to give bribes just faces the rules of every agency. While I can see how it would reduce transaction costs (which correspondingly increases the opp. cost of not bribing), it still has no distinct ‘black’ or ‘white’ effects, and is still unrelated to envy!

    I should emphasize that all this is now also distinct from the Olson model; even a positive-incentive and networked official with a short time horizon will demand payouts now rather than a share of future profit, thereby discouraging productive activity.

    (I am partial to StatsGuy’s idea that the reason for corruption differences lies in the relative strengths of different agencies.)

  9. Gravatar of Tim Worstall Tim Worstall
    12. June 2010 at 02:02

    White and black corruption is an interesting idea. I’m sure it has some relevance.

    However, as someone who has lived and worked in Russia (indeed, to an extent, still does work in the Russian metals trade) the point to me is the reliability of corruption.

    Bribery (leaving aside legal and ethical issues) isn’t the thing that bothers me. It can easily be included in costs and planning etc.

    However, if someone is bribed, do they stay bribed? Do you need to bribe to even have a chance (and thus risk losing a lot of bribes paid) or does the bribery come as a cut after a successful transaction (which brings us back to black and white)?

    Again, leaving aside those pesky legal and ethical parts, I’ve no problem with cutting someone in for 10% of the deal to make the deal happen, paid after the deal has happened. I have huge problems with having to spend 10% of a hypothetical deal to see whther the deal happens and whether I get it if it does.

    Which is why, despite all of the technical expertise being in Russia and labour being available at the right price (and even useful raw materials being available nearly for free) our two little planned factories are going to be in England and Louisiana.

    Certainty matters more than costs perhaps?

  10. Gravatar of StatsGuy StatsGuy
    12. June 2010 at 04:32

    “But your idea that only illegitimately obtained wealth triggers black envy is SO American.”

    Probably true – certainly there is an underlying American notion of fair play that is biasing me. However, there is a social psychology faction that argues the desire to believe in a just world is a nearly universal human condition, and most political arguments for different government systems rely on a foundational argument for legitimacy against the more cynical “power is as power does” argument. This has led us to fabricate all sorts of stories to get populations to buy into a new status quo, all the way from divine right to the mythical state of nature to Goebels’ subhuman view of Jews.

    Perhaps I do not understand Russian humor and envy, but there’s a lot of evidence (mostly narrative, admittedly) that has been assembled in the last decade dealing with the human desire to punish illegitimacy. There have also been some games run in laboratory environments which show that people are more likely to (“irrationally”) sacrifice personal utility to punish or to defect on someone when they perceive the other person to have made ill gotten gains.

    I would argue this: when the balance of people in society start to think that _most_ people who are wealthy got their wealth illegitimately, a nation’s existing social Nash equillibrium is in a very precarious position. One of the great successes of libertarian think tanks has been to reinforce the quintessentially American view that most people who got their wealth deserve it.

    I think we would agree on that – the difference is that you are arguing that this view by itself has caused nations to be more successful, while I am arguing that successful nations have strong non-corrupt institutions which (regardless of social choices about wealth distribution) tend to generate a perception of greater legitimacy.

    Lots of endogeneity. Do you have any instrumental variables in mind?

  11. Gravatar of mbk mbk
    12. June 2010 at 05:19


    in the African context your “power is as power does” often combines with your “…the balance of people in society start to think that _most_ people who are wealthy got their wealth illegitimately…” to yield a perfectly non-envious equilibrium where most people seem to think corruption is OK, because it’s natural for people in power. The only real problem in life is how to get power (for rent seeking).

  12. Gravatar of scott sumner scott sumner
    12. June 2010 at 05:51

    Everyone, I’m not going to reply to each comment, because I consider this more of an Ed Dolan post, rather than my post. But I do have a few general comments.

    I thought some of the earlier comments criticizing Dolan were insightful, but I also think some may have underestimated his response. To me, the key concept here is spite. This moves us away from a perfect knowledge, utility maximizing Coasian world. That’s not to say Dolan has everything right in his initial hypothesis, but it seems to me he is on the right track. Spite means that you aren’t in the utility-maximizing world anymore (at least as utility is normally defined—in the non-tautological sense.) You would prefer losing one expected dollar, and your neighbor losses $10, to a situation where your neighbor gains $10 and you gain only $1. That’s the cultural assumption here. If that assumption is right then you’d expect corruption to play out in a more negative sum fashion in countries with high levels of spite. Just think of the old “Mexican stand-off” problem. In negotiations over bribery deals the Russian official might push harder, and be less afraid of the no agreement outcome, as long as he could avoid a situation where the other party seemed to do better than he deserved. Alternatively, Dolan mentions outcomes that are more cooperative among bureaucrats, and hence lead to lower transactions costs. Surely if you accept the spite assumption, it must be possible to create game theory models of corruption where the chances of win-win are lower than in a highly cooperative society?

    Again, That’s not to say Dolan’s initial post got things exactly right, but I still think he was pushing the inquiry in the right direction.

    A second issue is where do these (spiteful) cultural attitudes come from. Are they a given, or shaped by the institutional environment? I say both. There is a famous study showing that diplomats in NYC who come from more corrupt countries are less likely to pay parking tickets than those who come from less corrupt countries. That tells me that there is some inertia in corruption. People facing the same institutional setting can behave differently. On the other hand we have evidence that when the institutional structure changes (say the two Germanys or the two Koreas) that cultures gradually diverge over time. This suggest to me that corruption does reflect institutional settings to some extent, but there is inertia in changes over time.

    I like some of the ideas mentioned about how these cultural attitudes may reflect the perceived unfairness of economic outcomes in certain countries.

  13. Gravatar of Ed Dolan Ed Dolan
    12. June 2010 at 06:55

    Scott exactly answers the point David is worried about. The envious bribe-taker is not particularly afraid to ask for a bribe that is above the bribe-givers reservation price. Quashing a deal by doing so gives the envious bribe-taker some positive utility, even though the system as a whole drifts toward a negative-sum equilibrium. The far-sighted, stationary, non-envious bribe taker must maintain a positive-sum system.

    An addendum to my comment on bribe-takers who develop systems of connections that they use to benefit their clients: Such bribe takers are selling more than just the negative act of not enforcing an obstructive rule. (Parenthetical remark: I want to focus on rules of no real value, not “good” rules like treating your sewage before it goes into the river.)The bureaucrat embedded within a wide network of connections may possess genuinely valuable information on opportunities, customer needs, costs, reliability of suppliers, and so on. In return for the bribe, the entrepreneur get something that looks a lot like consulting services.

    Tim, I liked your comment about certainty in the bribe system. Corresponds to my own experience in Russia exactly. An especially annoying kind of experience: A friend tells you he bribed X to get permit Y, so you try it, and X spits in your face. You walk away thinking how much easier it would be if these guys just put up a sign like a motel that said [yes/no] bribes taken today.

    Statsguy: Yes, I think we agree more than we disagree. On culture and national success, try reading Jane Jacobs, “Systems of Survival.” One of her best, but not best-known, books.

  14. Gravatar of Jim Glass Jim Glass
    12. June 2010 at 16:02

    a distinction that Russians make between “white envy” and “black envy.” If your neighbor buys a new BMW, and your reaction is to want to work harder so that you can buy one too, that is white envy. If your reaction is to want to sneak over during the night and slash his tires, that is black envy.

    Back when I was a student visiting in the old Soviet Union during the Brezhnev era they used to tell a joke explaining their situation:

    God visits peasant Ivan and says, “You’ve been a good man so I will grant you anything you wish. But your neighbor Dmitri has been an even better man and so will receive twice what you ask for. You can have gold or a dacha, Dmitri will get twice the gold, two dachas, but you will choose for both of you.” Ivan thinks for a minute and replies, “Lord, make me blind in one eye.”

    as someone who has lived and worked in Russia (indeed, to an extent, still does work in the Russian metals trade) the point to me is the reliability of corruption … if someone is bribed, do they stay bribed?

    My favorite of all business-meets-politics tales of the USA is Commodore Vanderbilts’ famous “double corner” of Harlem RR stock versus the NYC and NYS legislators. (Well, it should be famous, taught in every business and political economics program).

    In short, the members of the NY City Council decided they could make money by requiring Vanderbilt to (1) buy, er, obtain a charter for the RR from them, then (2) via inside trading, also profit on the resulting rise of the shares; and then, because that money wasn’t enough, (3) sell the RR shares short and revoking the charter to destroy the RR, and clean up from the plunge in the stock. But Vanderbilt anticipated this and cornered the market on the RR shares, their price zoomed up instead of down, and the Council members discovered to their shock that to cover their shorts they had to go to Vanderbilt personally and beg.

    Next, while this was unwinding, the NY State legislators judged that Vanderbilt’s resources had been tapped out by the first corner so they could make a fortune doing the same thing — selling short the RR shares, then revoking its charter with them. There was no law against any of this and the legislators were so proud and brazen that they bragged in the Albany newspapers about how they were going to get rich from it.

    Vanderbilt responded by bringing in a shipload of gold from Europe (including from Winston Churchill’s grandfather) and agents from the midwest not known in the NY markets, and cornered the shares of his RR again. This time when the legislators came to him to beg and learn his price, he was … annoyed.

    He reportedly observed, “I don’t mind having to buy a legislature, but gentlemen once bought stay bought.”

    Larger points: Even unreliable corruption was brazenly endemic in the US’s growth stages, yet we still grew rapidly … unless DNA has drifted, the relationship between politicians and business people is unlikely to have changed substantively since them, as to either character or competence, in the US or anywhere else.

  15. Gravatar of Tom Waye Tom Waye
    12. June 2010 at 18:59

    I might be interpreting this wrong, but it seems the line between black and white corruption here is very blurred. Black corruption is corruption that directly destroys productivity, while white corruption only does so indirectly and not a big way? Is there a difference between this two statements other than the extent of intervention: “I’ll pull strings to help your business grow if you will cut me in on a share of your future profit.” and “pay me off, and I’ll shut your competitor’s business down.”? Presumably for a business to grow it needs to take revenue from somewhere. Sorry if this isn’t very clear I’m in a hurry, but I guess what I’m getting at here is some idea of grey corruption or a corruption continuum.

  16. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    13. June 2010 at 07:19


    I think you are missing the point… it is interesting to note the cultural differences, but that doesn’t mean all Russians are X, and all Chinese are Y.

    What it does mean is that we should seek to reward those in our own economy, society, government that are Y, and keep from power those that are X.

    Spitefulness is no different from racism. It is not an acceptable state of being. The kind of people who choose to suffer themselves if the other is gaining more… are BAD people.

    So I’ll say it again: Public employees should be given personality tests to ensure they are Y kind of people.

  17. Gravatar of JimP JimP
    13. June 2010 at 08:13

    Martin Wolff on inflation expectations in Japan.

    A quote:

    Second, hire a central bank governor who knows how to create inflation – an Argentine, for example. I am quite sure that any moderately determined central banker could do this, if he wanted to do so, by direct purchase of public and private sector assets on a sufficiently large scale. The government should prod this along by giving the Bank of Japan an inflation target of 3 per cent, after maturities have been extended, while informing the policy committee that all its members will be sacked, ignominiously, if they fail to hit the target within two years.


    Maybe Bernanke will read this. He is determined to give us another Japan. Lets stop him.

  18. Gravatar of JimP JimP
    13. June 2010 at 08:15

    Of course – it is up to the government. As Wolff says – raising inflationary expectations must be explicitly backed by the political authority – here just as much as in Japan.

    Where is Obama?

    Snoozing of course.

  19. Gravatar of JimP JimP
    13. June 2010 at 08:34

    Another quote:

    Third, let us suppose inflation indeed goes to 3 per cent. That should raise the interest rate on JGBs to 5 per cent. Other things equal, the market value of the outstanding net government debt would fall by 40 per cent. So now the Japanese government buys back the outstanding debt at its new market price, reducing the face value by 40 per cent of GDP. In the new inflationary environment, the Japanese find the real value of their huge holdings of cash falling sharply. So they buy real assets and consumer goods, instead, and, at last, the economy expands vigorously.

    Clearly Wolff and Krugman disagree about the power of monetary policy at the zero bound. Or maybe not. Lets get on with it!

  20. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    13. June 2010 at 09:57

    Jim Glass, You had me until the final paragraph;

    “Larger points: Even unreliable corruption was brazenly endemic in the US’s growth stages, yet we still grew rapidly … unless DNA has drifted, the relationship between politicians and business people is unlikely to have changed substantively since them, as to either character or competence, in the US or anywhere else.”

    I think there is much less corruption today, mostly because I don’t think corruption is caused by inate (genetic) characteristics. Cultures change.

    Tom, I think it is a continuum. I see black corruption as being partly motivated by spite.

    Morgan, I don’t think I missed the point, because I agree with everything you said.

    JimP, Good points, I address Japan in my newest post.

  21. Gravatar of R. Pointer R. Pointer
    13. June 2010 at 17:07

    It is summed up in this parable as quoted by a 20 year old russian.

    “Why do you think everything goes wrong in this country? What is it about these people?” my neighbor asked.

    I guessed him to be a computer specialist from Moscow in his early 20s and studying opportunities to get out of Russia once and for all.

    “That’s a very difficult question. I think about it often myself, but cannot find an answer,” the woman replied. “On the one hand, it’s clear that Russia has everything it needs to progress — land, resources, so many talented people … But on the other … Hmm … You know, if one farmer’s neighbor in America has one cow, the farmer who doesn’t have any will do all he can to get two cows. In Russia, that farmer would do anything he could to make his neighbor’s cow die as soon as possible. Maybe that’s the answer?””

    Source: http://www.sptimes.ru/index.php?action_id=2&story_id=237

    I’ve live in Russia and studied her for too long, but one of the most potent pieces of wisdom I have heard about Russia is this line. Ed Dolan isn’t the first to come across it as it is a part of Russian folk wisdom They already know this about themselves. We know the proximate cause, but not the root one. Go back to Herberstein and he asks the same questions in the 15th century.

  22. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    14. June 2010 at 06:24

    R Pointer, Yes, I’ve heard those stories too. I suppose the next question is where to those attitudes come from, and can they be changed if the ecionomic system gets fairer and more transparent?

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