Commentary Magazine

Third World Fantasies

A recent visitor to a Scandinavian university, after a heated debate with a group of students who had complained bitterly about the lack of freedom in their own country and in the West in general, asked which country in the world they most admired. The answer was Albania. None of the students was familiar with conditions in Albania, none had been there or had the faintest wish to go, but Albania was nevertheless the name of their utopia.

This syndrome is of course not new. Throughout history men have hankered after the perfect society, and have often assumed wistfully that in some distant place it already existed or was at least coming into being. In our time Soviet Russia was once the mecca of such pilgrims, the place where not only a new social order but a new species of mankind was said to have been brought forth, free of selfishness and depravity, free of crime and even neurosis, perfect in every respect, lacking only the gift of immortality. Enthusiasm for the Soviet Union has waned in recent years, but not the need for political gods to worship. Attention has shifted to China and, to a lesser extent, North Korea and Cuba.

On the whole, reverence for China has never quite achieved the dimensions of the Soviet cult before World War II—partly because so few outsiders know Chinese or are in a position to compare the old China with the new; partly because whatever happens in China has seemed of limited relevance to the West; and partly because Chinese foreign policy, smacking too much of Realpolitik, has dampened the eagerness of many potential admirers. North Korea, with its cult of the individual centering on Kim-II Sung, has not been an altogether satisfactory substitute either. Cuba at first seemed very attractive, but its glamor too has paled even in those circles which used to greet with ecstasy Castro’s every speech. A repression that could be justified at the time of revolution has grown harsher and more stringent in Cuba, with estimates of the number of political prisoners ranging between 25,000 and 60,000, larger in either case than in all other Latin American countries combined; culturally the country has become a desert, with all manifestations of intellectual freedom rigorously suppressed; and as for Castro himself, if he is not just another Latin American caudillo, perhaps more gifted and more radical than most, he has certainly turned out to be far removed from his original image as the new revolutionary messiah.

After their disappointments elsewhere, seekers for inspiration are left with the Albanias of this world and some of the newly emerging countries. It is said that, once freed from foreign rule, these countries will find their own way toward a new dignity, a social and political order unencumbered by the inequities of a dying Western civilization. Though they are primitive, their very backwardness may well be their insurance against the evils which have led Western civilization along the road to perdition. Perhaps after all a light will come out of the East, a new form of community, a new quality of life, a new model providing fresh hope for mankind.

These notions, first voiced in the 1950′s, have taken some hard knocks in the intervening decades, but are by no means dead—as is shown dramatically in a new book by L. S. Stavrianos, Adjunct Professor of Third World Studies at the University of California, San Diego.1 The professor’s message is optimistic: mankind is facing a new Dark Age, but it is one which holds great promise of creative new values and new institutions of greater freedom, of real participation in public and private affairs. His is a vision of humankind at last realizing its humanity, at last sloughing off the false values of Western society with its intolerable waste and its ideology of endless consumption. And where does our author see the “grass sprouting through the concrete,” the forces of regeneration? Although the Israeli kibbutzim get a kind word, and Sweden is praised as a country in which the “new person” envisaged by Lewis Mumford is more than a rhetorical phrase, the main answer is the Third World: China, Vietnam, Tanzania, Yugoslavia, Guinea-Bissau, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Somalia, Egypt (under Nasser), Cuba, and Peru.

Let us look at this list. Ethiopia and Somalia are ruled by gangs of military despots who indiscriminately kill their political opponents as well as each other; they are also bankrupt, and without outside help would be altogether lost. Ethiopia, furthermore, may disintegrate from its unresolved minority problems. As for Mozambique, which Stavrianos says may have an impact on Africa comparable to that of Vietnam on Southeast Asia—he quotes President Machel giving top priority not to administrative or economic measures but to “transforming the individual thinking”—the unfortunate history of FRELIMO, the Mozambique “liberation” movement, shows that it spent as much effort in internecine killing as in fighting the Portuguese, and the transformation of individual thinking in that country means no more than a giant purge. The prisons of Mozambique are overflowing with inmates, whose numbers far exceed those under Portuguese rule. The economy of the country is a shambles, according to its own leaders, who have turned to the United Nations with an urgent appeal for massive help—hardly a shining example of self-reliance.

Stavrianos seems equally ill-informed about Egypt under Nasser and about Cambodia. He claims, for instance, that a counterrevolutionary Western strategy “lavished” aid on King Hussein of Jordan but not on Nasser’s Egypt. In fact, Egypt received infinitely more money and goods from the West (not to mention Soviet billions) than Jordan; without U.S.-donated grain, Egypt would have starved. About Cambodia, a reviewer in the New York Times claims that Stavrianos “makes mincemeat” of standard Western perceptions of events there. A closer reading shows that his only source is a single favorable report on postwar Cambodia, one which is contradicted by a hundred unfavorable ones—a new and original recipe for making mincemeat.

This leaves Tanzania and Guinea-Bissau. In the former, President Nyerere’s rule has been enlightened, for Africa; he was elected with a majority of only 93 per cent and the number of political enemies executed from time to time is smaller than elsewhere. Fifteen years ago much promise was attached to the communal ujamaa villages, but they have not been a success; Tanzania’s growth rate from 1960 to 1973 was 2.8 per cent, less than its population increase, and since then the country, hit by drought and rising oil prices, has depended on aid from abroad. Guinea-Bissau, finally, is a very small country of some 600,000 inhabitants, whose leader in the struggle against Portuguese colonialism was Amilcar Cabral, a Communist and an impressive figure by any standard. But Cabral was killed, and while his successors seem to be continuing his pragmatic policies, it is far too early to conclude that they will be able to cope with the country’s problems—let alone provide inspiration to others; they too have become more and more dependent on help from abroad. Stavrianos has a great many bitter things to say about the counterrevolutionary strategy of the West in the Third World, but what he does not say is that a decisive part of the aid now given to the self-styled “Marxist regimes” of Ethiopia and Somalia, and to Tanzania and Mozambique, originates in the United States and Western Europe. Without it, they would all probably collapse.

The Yugoslav experiment in workers’ self-management has attracted much interest in the West, and Stavrianos expresses great admiration for it. But the results are in doubt, to put it cautiously. According to recent Yugoslav studies, most decision-making is done by the top management. Moreover, Milovan Djilas, who was one of the chief proponents of workers’ control, has said in a recent interview that it has not resolved any important problems but simply expanded the new ruling class to embrace some worker-leaders. This is borne out by Yugoslavia’s general political development: where it once seemed that the country might evolve toward a greater degree of freedom, there is now actually greater repression in every field. This in turn raises the question of whether the failure of workers’ self-management was not inevitable, for industrial democracy and totalitarian rule cannot coexist.



Thus, after many detours, we are left with China. To Stavrianos, “boss, bureaucrat, and expert have been demystified” in China. There, since those at the top must spend part of their time working at the bottom, the leaders learn from the masses, and “no policy decision remains fixed once it is made. There is constant testing of its reception and effectiveness among the people, reformulation, retesting, reappraisal, revoking, and so on.” Although Stavrianos is not certain that Maoism can survive Mao, nevertheless Mao’s China represents for him the human model par excellence, hardworking, dedicated, self-sacrificing, flexible, inventive, disciplined, honest, puritanical, well-motivated, cooperative, respectful of the virtues and dignity of labor. Above all, whereas in other Third World countries Western counterrevolutionary influence has simply perpetuated the rule of elites, in China (and in Indochina) power has passed into the hands of the masses, “the first anti-meritocratic revolution in human history.”

What is one to say about this? Whatever the achievements of China since 1948, the belief that it is not ruled by an elite, that the “masses” have any influence on the shaping of the country’s policy, that participatory democracy actually exists there, leads beyond the confines of rational discussion. China is certainly not an enormous economic success. Agricultural production during the last twenty years has averaged a 2 per-cent increase annually (despite growing investments), and has thus barely kept pace with population growth. (In 1976 it may have been actually less than 2 per cent.) Worse yet, from a doctrinal point of view, the production of the communes seems to be considerably lower than that of private plots. Greater investments will have to be made in the future in the development of industry, but then again, industrial workers are demanding higher wages. If Mao was incapable of persuading them that idealism and public service are more important than material rewards, his successors surely will be unable to do so.

It is perfectly true that the Chinese leaders are hardworking and have always put great emphasis on the unity of theory and practice (very much in contrast to the self-styled African or Latin American Marxists who combine revolutionary phraseology with a predilection for material comforts and a profound contempt for manual labor). But all the same, they constitute an elite which has never practiced participatory democracy as far as important policy decisions are concerned. Neither Mao nor his wife, neither Chou nor any other leader of the party, the army, or the political police ever went to work in a commune or factory, and rotation in the leadership has only come about as the result of purges in the struggle for power.

It is one thing to argue that China may eventually overcome its present difficulties. But to regard a society of unprecedented regimentation, control, and indoctrination as the new Arcadia, a solution to the spiritual and material needs of mankind, is a perversion of breathtaking enormity, more a symptom of than an answer to Western “degeneracy.”

Quite apart from the fallacies about the actual situation in the Third World and China, there are two fundamental issues with which writers of the Stavrianos stripe usually fail to come to terms. One is the problem of mass participation, which they make a fetish of in their writings. It is perfectly true that all modern political regimes have to mobilize the “masses” in one way or another, but the imperative holds equally for fascism and Communism, and even for the more streamlined military dictatorships. Historical experience has shown that such mobilization means little more than manipulation, and has nothing to do with the wished-for emergence of homo humanus. The replacement of old-fashioned autocratic regimes by more effective, more ruthless, and more repressive ones is not the road to progress. Iraq, which Stavrianos mentions, is a fairly typical example. “The displaced peasants [in Baghdad] took to the streets during the revolution of July 1958, exterminated the Hashemite royal family, and established a republic,” Stavrianos writes. In fact the Hashemite royal family was killed not by the masses but by a group of military conspirators; a few years later their leader suffered a similar fate. Iraq has been a dictatorship ever since, more effective and more brutal; whether a regime of this kind is defined as a monarchy or a “republic” is of little more than semantic interest.

The second issue is the emphasis placed on self-help and self-reliance, on communal life and small-scale politics. This is a modern form of an ancient idea—the idea of Natural Man—and in the last century alone it has produced whole libraries of mechanophobe fantasies, from Butler’s Erewhon (where the machines are collected and deposited in museums), to Chesterton’s Napoleon of Notting Hill and E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops. It has in fact more frequently inspired the extreme Right than the Left. Alienated man in the big cities, the corrupting effects of cultural modernism, the need to return to “origins,” the idea of basing the economy on self-help, on “joy in service”—all these notions occur in the speeches and writings of Hitler and Alfred Rosenberg, of Richard-Walther Darré and other ideologists of German National Socialism. Early Nazi sects developed elaborate blueprints for communal settlements (a “new brotherhood of man”) complete with nudism, homage to the sun, and bicycles instead of cars. This is not to say that because these ideas occurred to the Nazis they have to be rejected out of hand. Like the mobilization of the masses, they are in themselves neither good nor bad; everything depends on what use is made of them. Still, it is useful to bear in mind Marx’s contempt, in the Communist Manifesto, for “the promoters of duodecimo editions of the New Jerusalem,” especially when such promoters are describing not some future hoped-for condition but already existing societies.




Fantasies about the Third World vary greatly in character; whereas some concentrate on the alleged arcadian purity of primitive society, others, to the contrary, emphasize the growing economic and political power of the Third World and the threat this poses to the industrialized West. According to this latter school of thought, the great majority of mankind is in rebellion against political and economic exploitation, and unless the West changes its attitude toward these new and tremendously strong forces it will be doomed. The arguments that have been invoked range from considerations of economic self-interest (Third World countries hold most of the world’s needed raw materials), to those of morality (retribution for past injustices), to those of military expedience (desperate nations will use nuclear blackmail unless there is a just distribution of goods). Hence the call for a new economic world order, for cartelization, for indexation (figuring-in the prices of commodities exported by underdeveloped countries against the goods they have to import), and for the cancellation of Third World debts, as well as the demand for free transfer of technology and gifts or grants.

The enormity of the economic problems facing the poor nations cannot be disputed by any sane person, and there is much to be said for their attempt to get higher prices for their products and easier access to Western markets. The unfortunate truth is, however, that the bulk of commodity trading in the world (except for oil) takes place not between poor countries and rich countries but among the industrial nations themselves. If, for argument’s sake, all raw materials were to rise in price by 10 or 20 per cent, some industrial countries, such as Japan and West Germany, would be put at a disadvantage, but others (the United States, Canada) would benefit; among 87 developing countries, 12 would gain substantially, 16 would lose, and 59 would reap only marginal benefits. Moreover, many raw materials can be replaced. If the price of cotton rose beyond a certain level, artificial fibers could be used. Coffee and cocoa, if too highly priced, would no longer remain part of our staple diet. The consumption of tin could be reduced by two-thirds with the use of new technologies; copper (to provide another example) could be recycled. Cartelization might, it is true, have a salutary effect inasmuch as it would compel the industrial countries to save raw materials that are finite and that have been wasted in the past. But even in the unlikely event that unilateral cartelization were successful, only a few of the poorer countries would benefit; those most in need would not be among them. Again, a good case can be made for the cancellation of Third World debts, but here too, with the exception of India and Pakistan, the very poorest nations would not benefit very much because they received few loans in the first place; South Korea is about as much in debt as the whole of tropical Africa, and the debts of the Communist bloc are many times higher still.

One of the arguments most frequently used in favor of a massive North-South aid effort is the politically “explosive” character of Third World poverty—the assumption being that rapid economic development will somehow defuse the explosion. But experience shows that inequality of incomes markedly increases with economic development, at least in the short run, and that growth would result in more turbulence rather than less. The “rebellion of the poor” now taking place is a political campaign by the top stratum of the middle-income countries, who in both relative and absolute terms are better off than the majority of the population in the industrial world which is supposed to pay for their demands.

The military argument is perhaps the most curious of all, for on the one hand it is too farfetched, and on the other hand it does not go far enough. If we assume that a desperate Ruritania would use nuclear blackmail against the United States, why should blackmail stop at a one-time transfer of resources? The demand could well be made that the citizens of the United States should in the future share their income on a permanent basis with the Rumanians.

In short, there is no sound reason to believe that the “explosive” economic situation of the poorer countries will in any way diminish significantly on account of efforts made by the industrialized countries. The economic problems of most Third World countries are by no means insoluble, but the decisive effort will have to come from themselves. If on every occasion they invoke national sovereignty but deny this principle to others; if they continue to believe that population growth is not a critical problem; if their development efforts continue to be concentrated more and more on industry and less on agriculture, the results will be predictable, regardless of whether the industrialized nations commit 0.7 per cent of their GNP to the poorer nations (as the United Nations has demanded), or 7 per cent, or more.



Economic issues aside, the alleged growing political importance of the Third World is also something of an optical illusion. At the recent meeting of the European Communist parties, President Tito of Yugoslavia declared that the movement of nonalignment has developed into a “powerful international factor, which independently defines its policies and positions.” It is easy to understand why Yugoslavia should propagate such views; facing Soviet pressure, it is vitally interested in some kind of collective security system, however spurious. And certainly, as far as numbers go, the group of the “nonaligned” has grown by leaps and bounds since the days of Bandung (1955) and Belgrade (1961), when 25 countries attended their conferences. At the third conference of heads of state in Lusaka in 1970 there were 51 in attendance, in Algiers in 1973 there was 75 full members and 14 liberation movements, and in Colombo last August the number of full members had risen to 84. (On the other hand, the number of attending heads of state or government fell from about 70 at the preceding summit to 41 at Colombo.)

Yet even a cursory look at the composition of the membership shows precious little in common. For one thing, the list of conflicts among these countries is considerably longer than the list of member states. Syria, which is a member, fights the PLO, which is also a member; and within a year or two Algeria and Morocco, Libya and Egypt, India and Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Somalia (to give but a few examples) could be in a state of war. This by itself casts a large measure of doubt on the efficacy of such proposals as the one advocated by the Yugoslavs for collective security. Nor is there any logic to the criteria for membership. Vietnam and North Korea are prominent members of the nonaligned camp, but China has not been admitted and Rumania was not even given observer status at Colombo for fear of offending the Russians. Cuba is a leading member, but so is Argentina; and so on.

Ideologically, the nonaligned movement once had anti-colonialism as a common denominator, but since virtually all the countries once under colonial domination have meanwhile attained independence, this is no longer a live issue. Member states all subscribe to the principle that economic relations should be based on equality and justice—this is the “New Economic Order” as advocated by the “Group of 77”—but the “77” include on the one hand OPEC countries with the highest per-capita income in the world, and on the other hand the very poorest of nations. A new, all-embracing objective needs to be found to provide even a semblance of unity; this, however, seems impossible, as political, social, and economic interests diverge all along the line.



A part from differences in political orientation and social systems, the nonaligned camp consists to all intents and purposes of four groups: the OPEC countries; the middle-income nations whose exports are of economic importance or which are at a relatively advanced stage of economic development; the very poor (the majority); and lastly those which do not fit into any of these categories. Attempts are constantly made to ignore the conflicting interests, but the widening discrepancy between declarations and realities is a source of growing tension. To give but one illustration: not so long ago it was predicted that the OPEC governments would provide support to the poorer countries, far in excess (on a per-capita basis) of that given by industrial nations. The interim balance, after three years, shows that while the OPEC countries have made promises of many billions of dollars, the amount actually paid has been a mere fraction of that. Most of it, moreover, has gone to Arab and Muslim nations and a small amount, for political reasons, to India. The poor African and Asian countries have not even been reimbursed for the foreign-exchange losses created by the oil-price increases. Nor have the poorer Arab and Muslim countries much to be thankful for. Pakistan has received little, and Egypt, with its pressing needs for economic development, has not fared much better. President Sadat’s attempts to solicit help from Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states have resulted in promises to underwrite Egyptian arms purchases but only negligible sums for economic-development projects. These facts of life have already had a sobering effect, and may be only the beginning of a general process of disillusionment.

What binds the nonaligned together is a lot of high-sounding rhetoric and the ambition of a few leaders manipulating the rest. President Echeverria of Mexico, who wanted to be UN General Secretary, became a great advocate of Third World solidarity; likewise Mrs. Gandhi, who uses the “bloc” to enhance India’s bargaining position. As for the rhetoric, it is taken seriously in the West, which is a big mistake. Thus, at the Colombo conference France was threatened with an oil embargo on account of its trade with South Africa. A typical example of the demagoguery so frequent at these meetings was the speech of the Algerian minister of trade at the Nairobi conference in which he declared that Western aid had been totally unhelpful—which did not prevent him from asking for more of it.

There is yet another common denominator, the absence of political freedom. Most of the leaders convening in Algiers, Colombo, and Havana are usurpers or were voted in by 99.9 per cent of the electorate in phony elections. In no more than a handful of these countries do elementary political rights exist: a few Caribbean islands (such as Barbados, Trinidad, Tobago, and Jamaica) and places like Malta, Mauritius, the Maldives, the Seychelles, Cyprus, Malaysia, and perhaps one or two others. The total population of these free (or semi-free) countries is less than twenty million, about 2 per cent of the total population of the nonaligned bloc. All the others are under one-party rule or dictatorships of one form or another, some of them savage, others more enlightened.

Wherever democratic institutions once existed in the Third World, they have broken down. The trend in the nonaligned camp is toward the suppression of human rights, most recently the last vestiges of freedom of the press. The process, which started a long time ago, is reflected, inter alia, in the shrinking number of newspapers. In the early 1960′s there were still some 240 newspapers in Africa, today there are a mere hundred; there has been a similar fall-off in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The planned coordination of the media throughout the nonaligned countries should liquidate the last remnants of independence. If, as is quite possible, systematic censorship is introduced and foreign journalists are excluded, there will no longer be any reports on the murderous policies of Idi Amin and President Bokassa (of the Central African Republic), nor will there be news about the systematic use of torture in Cameroon, Mali, Senegal, Lesotho, Guinea, Zaire, India, Gabon, Mauretania, and many other countries, nor about the extermination of minorities in Cameron, Ethiopia, Malawi, Iraq, Sudan, Chad, and Rwanda.

Murder and torture are crimes whether they are committed by whites or by non-whites, and racism cannot be justified even if it appears among black people or yellow. As the years pass, the argument that all the shortcomings of the Third World are the result of past colonial oppression and present Western exploitation has turned into an alibi for the failure of the new elites. But this alibi will not wash. No matter what the Western nations can and should do to provide economic aid, they cannot bring about the cultural and moral revolution which is the essential prerequisite for real change. The West can export food and modern technology, but it cannot supply new and better elites; these will have to emerge from within the developing nations themselves. The excesses of some Third World regimes are defended with the argument that these are educational dictatorships in a transitional period on the path to democracy. In fact, many of them are not educational but regressive dictatorships, whose “radical” or “socialist” declarations are a smokescreen for the leadership’s desire to stay in power and enjoy the spoils thereof. In such countries political morality is low or nonexistent, and the government’s ritual appeals for hard work, honesty, and austerity go unheeded because they emanate from leaders whose style of living exemplifies the opposite qualities. This is of course not true of all Third World elites—in this regard especially one cannot refuse one’s respect for the Chinese—but it is true of too many of them.

Some years ago, analyzing the political prospects of the Third World in these pages (“Imperialism in this Century,” May 1970), the late George Lichtheim ridiculed the fashionable dichotomy that places Western imperialism against the starving masses of the Third World. In this perspective nationalism is identified with socialism which, in turn, is a synonym for anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism. Lichtheim stressed that in principle Third World nationalism could turn “Right” as well as “Left,” and that in either case there would be a revolution from above, with the intelligentsia establishing a dictatorship and turning into a bureaucracy responsible only to itself. Lichtheim thought that the Maoist model was more likely to be imitated than the facist model, which had gone out of fashion.

Lichtheim’s analysis of the dilemmas facing the Third World is still valid, although the perspective has changed since he wrote. The fragmentation of the Third World has progressed much more quickly than could have been expected even seven years ago. Some Third World countries have grown rich owing to sudden windfalls, others have fallen even further behind, and the Chinese are not in a position to claim leadership. Above all, the question has arisen of whether the Maoist model is indeed applicable to other parts of the world, for it presupposes the existence of a determined, efficient, and truly selfless vanguard. In most countries such a vanguard simply does not exist, or where it exists is not strong enough, or where strong enough it lacks the qualities for becoming an agent of modernization. Is it possible that, broadly speaking, China constitutes a historical exception to the rule? (And in the light of recent events there, can one be sure that even China is an exception?) If so, the future prospects for Third World countries which lack both resources and a “vanguard” are stagnation, regression, and a more or less permanent condition of turbulence.



In the final analysis the problem is political, not economic. Some Third World countries are so backward and desperately poor that they will have to depend for a long time on outside assistance. But for many the economic prospects are less gloomy; given the right approach, the problem of food production is a soluble one, and with the upturn in world trade and rising prices for non-ferous metals and agricultural commodities, economic growth should continue. Much can be done by Western nations in this respect; Western aid, which has fallen in real terms by 3 per cent over the last decade, could be increased, and new agreements could be concluded to offset the deterioriation in the terms of trade.

But before this happens, the air will have to be cleared and a fundamental reorientation in Western policies will have to take place. The United States and other Western nations, far from alleviating the international situation, have helped to aggravate it through their willingness to negotiate with a more or less artificial conglomeration of countries instead of dealing with individual nations on a bilateral basis in accordance with their needs. The motives underlying this gross error of political judgment may have been laudable—there was the wish to help the most seriously affected countries and at the same time to “de-politicize” aid, and there was the desire, again quite justified, to negotiate the terms of trade with the producers of raw materials. But this last cannot be achieved in an overall deal; it has to be done with each group of producers. Furthermore, multilateral aid, far from improving the relationship between donor and recipient, has done just the opposite. Negotiations between blocs of countries inevitably tend to ignore the interests of the truly needy. Stridently anti-Western governments, which spend far more of their considerable oil revenues on armed intervention and international terrorism than on helping their less fortunate neighbors, appear as the representatives of the “forgotten 40 per cent.” Anxious to prevent a confrontation with the Third World, the West has maneuvered itself into a position in which confrontation has become inescapable and the United States has been made to accept the historical responsibility for the effects of colonialism.

Sailing under the banner of international equity and a global compact, the Western governments are in fact on a collision course. Nothing constructive will be accomplished until that course is changed. Above all, no advance can be made so long as the West does not muster the courage to stop talking to demagogues with no genuine interest in economic and social improvement, for whom the nonaligned conferences, UNCTAD, the Paris “North-South Dialogue,” and the Group of 77 and other such bodies are merely a platform for their own destructive political ends.


1 The Promise of the Coming Dark Age, W. H. Freeman, 211 pp., $4.95.

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