What do Hong Kong, West Berlin and China’s Shenzen region have in common? They have all prospered as special economic zones alongside regions dominated by government.

Hooning off into the special economic zone… Picture: Ray Strange

The federal Opposition’s leaked proposal to spur development in Australia’s sparsely populated north met with peremptory dismissal last week. But special economic zones are neither a new nor untried idea.

The spectacular transformations of Hong Kong and West Berlin are renowned testament to the power of free trade and market prices. China’s spectacular economic growth rests on creative economic zoning too. Inspired by Hong Kong’s rapid efflorescence, then-leader Deng Xiaoping designated special economic zones in Shenzen in 1980.

Shenzen’s share of trade in the greater Guandgong Province exploded from less than 1 per cent to near 20 per cent over the next five years, as migrants poured in.

So impressed were China’s leaders they designated another three zones in 1990, including Shanghai’s now-bustling Pudong district.

Inside the special zones Chinese businesses and people enjoy far greater freedoms: company taxes are half those in other provinces, wages are less heavily taxed and are set by the market rather than China’s central wage fixing regime, and bureaucratic red tape has been stripped away.

If such policies are good enough for China, surely a nominally free-market country should be able to consider them? Such solutions might be even more suitable for Australia given total tax revenues are around 34 per cent of national income here compared to 22 per cent in `communist’ China.

The proposition that fewer regulations and lower taxes foster economic growth remains true even if it applies to parts of a country only.

The Coalition’s plan to “review personal tax incentives” warrants further consideration. The Western Australian economy is growing faster than China’s, and the Northern Territory’s is growing three times that pace again.

Yet Darwin, centre of a natural gas boom and on the footsteps of an emerging economic giant with a population of over 240 million people - Indonesia - still has a population half the size of Wollongong.

How will Australia grasp the opportunities presented by the `Asian century’ when the vast bulk of its population is huddled in the south-east?

Other parts of the Coalition’s proposals were disappointing: Australia should be talking about culling public servants rather than moving them, and the $800 million in the foreign aid budget flagged to build ``world centres of excellence’’ in health an education in the north would be better used to cut income tax.

Australia has modestly compensated taxpayers for living in `remote or isolated’ places since 1945. Last year the Zone Tax Offset cost over $260 million and attracted over 580,000 claimants. That amount could be increased substantially and better targeted.

But sky-high salaries in the booming West haven’t convinced many Australians to leave Sydney and Melbourne so far. Bigger personal tax rebates might not work and in any case wouldn’t reduce marginal tax rates which are the worse barrier to effort.

Notwithstanding any challenge from states claiming discrimination, the Commonwealth should instead abolish company tax for any firm establishing operations in the Northern Territory. Darwin is the most promising place for a special zone because of its size, proximity to Asia, and the Commonwealth’s ability to freely govern it.

Because company tax is a withholding tax Australian shareholders get a tax credit for any company tax paid the change would offer relatively little (and potentially disruptive) inducement for Australian companies to relocate.

But for foreign companies pondering where expand their operations, it would be a siren call. The Henry review explained clearly that global capital is far more attracted to low taxes than workers, who are social creatures of habit.

If a new Top End low-tax zone failed to attract new business or people, then it would not cost the budget much because hardly anyone lives there. If it did work, it would boost the Commonwealth’s tax revenues as workers relocated at the same time as providing a salutary economics lesson for the rest of the country.

The Coalition document suggested Australia should “substantially increase the population” of Darwin, Cairns and Townsville. Ultimately, Australia’s north will only thrive if people move there.

Without significant changes to Australia’s strict immigration system that boosted the skilled immigration intake, any special economic zone is likely to flounder. Perhaps Australia could introduce a new class of permanent immigration that restricted work to the Northern Territory.

A populated north might even shore up Australia’s long-run security: a hundred years hence Australia with its vast and valuable energy economic resources might struggle to stay independent if it remains very underpopulated compared to its neighbours.

Comments on this post will close at 8pm AEDT.

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    • Dr B S Goh, Australian in Asia says:

      05:42am | 15/02/13

      China has clearly demonstrated the effectiveness of Special Economic Zones in developing special parts of a country. I stopped in Shenzhen in my entry to China in 1977 as a tourist. It was then a sleepy fishing village. Now it is much bigger than Sydney and it is a major manufacturing centre for computers, other electronic and many other products. We actually tried to operate a Special Economic Zone in Darwin in the nineteen nighties as my friend Professor Don Watts worked as CEO for a short time.

      In December I was attending a major international conference and I listened to a lecture by a famous academician on how mathematics is now used in China to formulate effective economic policies in modern China.

      We in the West tends to assume that direct intervention in the economy by Govt is wrong. It was not always like that. In the nineteen sixties Harvard University set up a Joint Dept called Decision and Control with professors from the Division of Applied Physics and Engineering and the Business School. That was the golden age of rocket science and the engineers at Harvard and MIT were the leaders in the field. Glenda Korporaal then wrote an article in Washington Post on the use of optimal control in economics and how it would reduce the difference between a command economics in a communist country and a the free world. I knew very well this special Division on Decision and Control at Harvard then as I had an opportunity to be a post doctoral fellow in after finishing a great doctoral thesis on optimal rocket trajectories. But I went somewhere else.

    • acotrel says:

      05:44am | 15/02/13

      ‘The region, like the rest of the Top End, has a tropical climate, with a wet and a dry season. The city is noted for its consistently warm to hot climate, all throughout the year. Prone to cyclone activity during the wet season, Darwin experiences heavy monsoonal down pours and spectacular lightning shows.[4] During the dry season, the city is met with blue skies and gentle sea breezes from the picturesque harbour.’

      It could become the ‘Silicon Valley’ of the media ?

    • BC says:

      06:12am | 15/02/13

      Darwin? It’s a bit hard to convince people to live in a shanty town populated by drunk, rabid whites and aboriginals.

    • marley says:

      06:27am | 15/02/13

      I spent a week in Darwin last year - my first visit - and, fortunately, in the dry.  Didn’t meet a rabid white there (if you exclude the backpackers at the pub).  Nice city, decent layout, some good restaurants, and it didn’t take all day stuck in traffic to get around it by public transport.

    • gof says:

      06:48am | 15/02/13

      Increase middle class welfare to those who migrate north and watch the LNP supporters, like ants finding a picnic basket follow each others butts in mass exodus! Excellent idea actually! Will the discussion paper be written by lunchtime and leaked by 2pm by the opposition?

    • Modern Primitive says:

      09:01am | 15/02/13

      Gof, I think you’re confusing sides. ALP are generally the handout clan.

    • simonfromlakemba says:

      09:23am | 15/02/13

      What was Howard then? massive handout king.

      It’s a vote buyer

    • Modern Primitive says:

      09:39am | 15/02/13

      I never voted for howard.

    • gof says:

      12:21pm | 15/02/13

      # Modern Primitive,
      “I never voted for howard.”
      That doesn’t excuse the silly comment though #M P.

    • James of Hong Kong says:

      04:15pm | 15/02/13

      @gof and acotrel: I suggest you look at the comment by Dr. B.S Goh and assess what it means to make constructive additions to the issues being presented in the various articles on this site, rather than simply contributing childish and juvenile observations that add nothing to the discussion. Until you do you add nothing to the national conservation and are seen as nothing more than a childish pest in these comment sections.

    • gobsmack says:

      06:47am | 15/02/13

      Darwin has always had less regulations and a modest zone rebate not to mention having shit loads of money from Canberra poured into it.  For example, it has a large university, a large sports arena and the second largest parliament building in Australia.

      It used to have very cheap house prices too, which was a major incentive for living there.

      However, with establishment of the LNP plant and the influx of highly paid workers, house prices have skyrocketed.

    • gobsmack says:

      07:26am | 15/02/13


      The above should read “LNG plant”.  What was I thinking?

    • Bear says:

      02:17pm | 15/02/13

      Darwins like a tropical Queanbeyan. Pass.

    • Vet65 says:

      08:44am | 15/02/13

      Abbott’s vision for the north is a breath of fresh air for Australia – sure there will be plenty of knockers, as there already are – most can’t see past the point of their noses.

      This isn’t about hordes of people from any political party moving to Darwin – the north of Australia does not revolve round Darwin!

      There is no suggestion that all the dams and the vast vegetable, grain and fruit farms will happen overnight and that all the crocs will be fat feeding on unsuspecting southerners or Asians. These are Kylie Davidson’s naive & pathetic views! – but she is on the fringe anyway.

      We should be realistic and look at the long term which may be fifty years or even a hundred years, but sooner or later the top end has to produce more than a few scrawny Brahman cattle – which I might add are not fit for eating anyway! That’s why we were exporting ‘em to Indon. Before Ludwig stuffed the trade up!

      SE Asia has a similar climate to the top end but the peoples there seem to be able to grow wonderful vegetables, rice and exotic fruits (exotic to us that is) and have been doing it for centuries – so what’s wrong with Australians? Truth is most are just too damn lazy to have a go – and why should they when our welfare system is so generous.

      If Australians don’t want to farm the north – then lets let the Asians have a go – bet they succeed big time!!

    • Bear says:

      03:09pm | 15/02/13

      Yea Asia is a farmers bounty. That’s why they live on bugs, rice and snake meat.

    • James of Hong Kong says:

      05:59pm | 15/02/13

      @Vet65: You are correct, great comment! The crime that is the Australian Greens and in particular that child SH-Y is that it only takes a nano second to recall just how devastating and prolonged the last drought was. One can easily recall the amount of tragic suicides that took place by many on the land who were in despair at failing crops and an inability to repay loans to banks for equipment due to a lack of income from failed crops. So much tragedy, despair and family destruction. The Greens and the prog in general’s scant disregard for human life and the suffering caused by their ideaology is deeply sinister, to be almost criminal in its intent. They will always choose the frog over human life regardless of the despair and suffering their policies cause ... it’s obscene.

      The reason Abbott’s plan is gaining so much traction is that Australia has just spent 5 years of a regressive anti progress government and a coalition partner who has openly strangled the ability and need to forensically and intellectually analyse how to garner the Australian need for progress by doing anything and everything to stymie and suffocate that basic of human needs all for their own selfish, indulgent and insular ends. The Greens and the prog in general just don’t understand that you can’t live in a prosperous, healthy and wealthy nation by simply standing still whilst the rest of the world looks over their shoulder laughs and continues to street ahead of you. Get rid of these people they are the true enemy of life, liberty, progress and freedom of thought and action.

    • AdamC says:

      09:11am | 15/02/13

      This article was spot on, but for one thing. Unlike in China which, in the early 1990s, was packed with internal migrant labour looking for work, Australia has a labour shortage. So any NT special economic zone would not be about getting people to leave Sydney and Melbourne (who would replace these lost workers in the south east?) but about importing migrant workers from our region, who are in search of better life opportunities.

      The success of any special economic zone would therefore depend as much on establishing special migration rules as it would on concessional tax rates and regulatory holidays. (Though the latter two remain vital.) Ideally, these migration rules would be based on agreements between our regional partners, like Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Phillippines. We could turn Darwin into a thriving, multicultural, pan-regional economic hub.

      Of course, none of this will ever happen. But it should.

    • Dr B S Goh, Australian in Asia says:

      09:21am | 15/02/13

      We need some lateral thinking here. With us fully into the internet age we can move many of our civil servants at the Federal level and overcrowded cities of Sydney and Melbourne to live and work in Darwin.

      We can also move some top universities to Darwin.

      Singapore has shown how you can build a livable city in the middle of the tropics.

    • gobsmack says:

      09:58am | 15/02/13

      Where would you house them?

      Prices of current housing stock have gone through the roof there.  It’s surrounded by swamps and disused bombing ranges.

      People have been trying to kick-start Darwin for the last 40 years.

      BTW, Darwin has a well established university and one of the highest tertiray education participation rates in the country.

    • ZSRenn says:

      12:33pm | 15/02/13

      You build them gobby.

      I am so sick of this

      “oh it’s too hard,I might get a blister, It’s too hot, its too wet, there isn’t any fast food chains, I can’t get a pedicure, they don’t sell the beer that I like, the casino isn’t big enough, I can’t get a double latte on soy, they only have 7 free to air stations, the NBN won’t be there until 2020, what if the A/C breaks down”


      What happened Australia,  have we really become so weak?

    • Meph says:

      12:50pm | 15/02/13


      “BTW, Darwin has a well established university and one of the highest tertiray education participation rates in the country.”

      That might have a lot to do with the fact that they will take you as a paying student, no matter your year 12 scores, nor how many other universities you’ve been rejected from. They also take on huge numbers of international students at truly exorbitant rates.

      You might also want to make sure they have accreditation for the last years of any given course too, just in case you get caught short.

    • AdamC says:

      12:52pm | 15/02/13

      BS Goh, we do not need a northern SEZ to depopulate Melbourne or Sydney, or Canberra for that matter. Moving civil servants around is a provincialist boondoggle. To take your example, what we need to do is create a Singapore at our top end. And Singapore should definitely be the model: low taxes, development friendly regulatory arrangements and effective public and judicial administration.

      Who wants lots of public servants mooching around in a booming, private enterprise-driven metropolis anyway? Isn’t that why we invented Canberra in the first place?

      Gobsmack, I think you are missing the point. A market-driven SEZ works on the basis that people and organisations solve their own problems without the dubious benefit of central planning by remote mandarins. Failing that, we could just hand out land to developers and tell them to go nuts. Easy.

      Also, my reference to Darwin was a bit too literal. Obviously, the SEZ would need to cover more of a greenfields site, close to Darwin.

      ZSRenn, yes, of course we have. Why do you think there is no stomach for the SEZ idea in this country.

    • gobsmack says:

      02:52pm | 15/02/13


      I have had the benefit of living in Darwin for 15 years.

    • Al B says:

      09:14am | 15/02/13

      If driving down tax as a % of national income and reducing the size of govt is the aim, these economic zones are a great idea. And ideally a couple of them competing. One thing modern western democracy lacks is secession ...if there is a threat a region will break away, it puts a curb on the natural tendency for govt to grow overall. If they are scared a prosperous area will break away, govt is less likely to fleece an area to fund their bloated role elsewhere in the economy. Economic zones serve a similar though less disruptive role as succession in this respect…and preferable imo.

      Australia is too geared toward the game of politics and not enough toward bold, true prosperity inducing ideas like this. And no that doesnt include more redistributive middle class welfare. Thats no wealth creator… The only downside with this idea is that likely no one will follow thru on it.

      If we dont take advantages of what we have here, someone else will the moment we arent living under the protective shadow of some superpower. Given where we are in the world, its smart to open up opportunity for the private sector here and internationally, through zones like this. Get the investment in on terms that can grow the country, or risk becoming a backwater.

    • Anjuli says:

      09:55am | 15/02/13

      They said the Mundaring pipe line to the gold fields was just that a pipe dream ,it was built and aren’t the people of Kalgoorlie pleased they did it. Charles Court was ridiculed for the Ord scheme , it has proved him right. We need people with vision for Australia and not people who bury their heads in the sand which Australians are good at. Yes we might fail some of the time ,we will never know if we don’t try.

    • fml says:

      10:20am | 15/02/13

      With out massive investment in infrastructure and the creation of cultural icons, people are simply not going to be able to resist the lure of the big cities.

      I just don’t see the multinationals moving away to the north. Some mining companies may see a benefit, but after the minerals are out of the ground, they will be gone, they will not stay. One could predict that some people would stay after living in the area for tens of years, but the children of the next generation will always want to test their mettle in the big cities.

    • Modern primitive says:

      10:52am | 15/02/13

      Just let packer put a casino up there. It could be like Australia’s own Las Vegas.

      Build it and they will come.

    • fml says:

      11:38am | 15/02/13

      That is actually a good idea, you would get an influx of Asian tourists due to the cheap flights. The government can just give Packer a large block of land for free, I wouldn’t be opposed to that. Although, a few museums and a statue of a big fruit or something would add to the northern mystique.

    • Tubesteak says:

      10:26am | 15/02/13

      You brushed over this but I don’t think you realise the importance of it or the problem with it.

      Just because the Zone Rebate has been around since 1945 does not mean disadvantaged states won’t challenge the constitutionality of favouring certain areas.

      Right now the zone rebate, on your own figures, represents only about $450 per taxpayer. Numbers that low don’t matter. Moreover, there are areas in every state eligible for it.

      Beefing up any sort of favouritism in certain areas (namely those above the Tropic of Capricorn - namely not NSW, Vic, SA or Tas - as the original report showed) will only enrage those that miss out. These are areas of the country that are already suffering because they don’t have that many resources. Economic growth in places like NSW, Tas and Vic has been negligible. It is the case that growth has favoured WA and Qld.

      If you considerably favour areas that are already benefitiing you will only enrage the states that are suffering. They will have a case to take to the High Court and I can’t see how the High Court will uphold any favouritism considering s92 of the Constitution completely prohibits any sort of favouritism. Right now no-one has challenged the zone rebate because it doesn’t mean much.

      If you want to favour an area then you can do so with the Grants Power. That means pouring money n for infrastructure projects and the government can shift public service roles out of the bigger capitals. You won’t be able to do it with tax zones.

    • Watcher says:

      02:32pm | 15/02/13

      @DOB how dare you contradict zsrenn. the self appointed expert on all things chinese.

      you have to understand that everything is rosy in zsrenn-land’s middle class gated community. so what he says is possibly true in that little world. outside those gates, not so much but he/she would probably never stray too far from the english speaking chinese with disposable income unless it is to an expat bar. it is a matter of perspective.

    • DOB says:

      12:36pm | 15/02/13

      Oh, man:

      “Inside the special zones Chinese businesses and people enjoy far greater freedoms: company taxes are half those in other provinces, wages are less heavily taxed and are set by the market rather than China’s central wage fixing regime,”

      Are you for real? I had this out with ZSRenn on the Punch’s pages a few days ago. He doesnt know much about China’s SEZ’s either (or its Hukou system - he thinks its the same as Japan’s and Korea’s - a true marker of utter ignorance).Shenzhen is a good example. there are 11 million official residents of Shenzhen. Then there are an extimated 7 million “illegal” residents of Shenzhen. It is illegal for these people to reside in Shenzhen. If you rent an apartment to them or give them accomodation you have broken the law (this is why PASSPORTS AND OFFICIAL IDs are mandatorily inspected when checking into Chinese hotels) and you can be arrested and, by Chinese standards, heavily fined. Since it is also, technically, illegal to employ or pay these people they are ripe for exploitation and they receive no payments to their pension or housing funds. These people provide the factories with their cut price labour - and do not complain too much. Everyone knows they are there but the governemnts turn a (relatively) blind eye because the exploitation of these people is what fuels the system (ZSRenn thinks these people are all well treated. Many would be lucky to make A$300 a month, in a country where, for example, an auditor with 5 years at Ernst & Young might make A$35,000 before tax). As for Pudong - again, theres a reason why Chinese construction workers are housed in blue roofed temporary barracks on construction sites - its because they are mostly “illegals” and have no housing (nor can afford any). .Al you have to do to find this out is talk to them, although its an open secret anyway. Pudong was built on such labour and most of the construction in China is based on that. When you have a Hukou system that confines you to live and work in the place of your family registration then any rational economic system that requires mobile labour - and China has more mobile labour requirments than anywhere else on earth - is going to create “illegals” in a country, such as China, where such mobility is, technically, illegal.

      I support certain forms of SEZs. But dont be fooled into thinking that their success in China is all because of tax breaks yada yada. thats bullshit. The succes of China’s SEZs is based on the ruthless exploitation of ordinary Chinese people. that is not a model that Australia can emulate or can compete with.

    • ZSRenn says:

      12:50pm | 15/02/13

      @  DOB (This is what I said in reply to you! )

      Obviously comprehension is not your strong point so I will repeat it.

      You start off talking about China and how you know and love the place. Then your first mistake or untruth which most Australians wouldn’t know. The SEZ’s you suggest are for industrial areas only which is wrong. SEZ were created to attract foreign investment with greater independence from Beijing driven by market forces. Guangxi is hardly an industrial center but tourist orientated.

      You then go on to talk about the HuKou (sic) system like it was something special to China and another mistake. This system is shared with two of our greatest Allies Japan and Korea and is an ancient tradition within China not something introduced by the CCP.

      You suggest that Chinese cannot travel to work in another province, under this system, which is a lie. The transport system had to manage 2.5 million passengers a day as they return home for Spring break and do so every year.

      You talk about workers working in horrifying conditions.  I don’t know where you get this but most of the Chinese I know live very comfortably thank you very much earning a decent wage provided with housing and three meals a day as part of their work agreement. They are even able to save enough to buy their own business or move into their own home. They go on strike only if you cut their overtime!

      Then the cruncher you accuse me of being brain washed by the communists and then of being a right wing sycophant. I am not sure but I would have thought that these two insults would have to be opposite and I have to one or the other.

      You allude that this was a Gina R idea but we all know this topic was on the shelf when Gina R was shitting yellow!  You then suggest that to build SEZ, which isn’t even what is under consideration, is inhumane. Is this some kind of scare tactic?

      You then launch off on some tirade with an idea to bring millions of cheap workers to our shores. We must we must we must! WTF Sorry mate but you lost me.

      This is a simple plan to attract industry and investment to the north where we can take advantage of the closeness to Asia. Its simple three page discussion paper and how you got all of this rubbish from it is beyond my logic!

      It’s a good plan and it has been ridiculed without proper debate and that is sad for the Australia I love!

    • ZSRenn says:

      01:46pm | 15/02/13

      @  DOB Now in reply to this piece of silliness

      “An estimated 7 million “illegal” residents.” 

      If they are illegal why, is China so busy updating its transport system to accommodate them? Why are they in every aspect of business and also now part of the government including the CCCP.

      By your definition I am as an illegal immigrant as anyone from Beijing or Hunan living next door to me and I don’t carry a citizens card. I still have an apartment.

      Yes you do need a passport or ID card to book into a hotel for security reasons but in all Australian hotels you can’t book in if you don’t have a drivers license or passport as ID and in some you can’t book in if you don’t have a credit card also.

      Again it is not illegal to employ these workers and factories go to great lengths to attract them. The government department of Labor helps the factories locate workers (Typing this I am getting frustrated at your ignorance.) A women with some experience working in a bra factory might attract ¥3000 a month but lets look at some other figures. Six of us went out for dinner the other night and with beer it cost us ¥150 or $20AU. A tall bottle of beer costs 50c. Top line, international, genuine jeans sold in Europe for ¥700 can be brought for ¥90. A meal deal with Australian beef is sold for $3AU.

      You are using your soft Australian thinking to the construction workers.  They come from their homes in Tibet, Sichuan Hunan and all places in between to earn money not to spend it. They get three meals a day and the Dongas to live in and get save every cent they can. Most do like a beer after work but hey at ¥3.5 it is not a big spend. They take this entire money home and after a few years have enough to set up their family for life. 

      Besides have you ever spent anytime in an Australian outback mining town? If you had you would see that the situation is already very similar.

      Whilst it is legal for their children to be educated in another province they must return to their home province to take exams. I would suggest that if they were allowed to stay you would see the destruction of many of the ethnic groups completely around the country and this is not China’s aim.

      You’re whole premise is wrong and unnecessary in this debate. Tony Abbott is not suggesting that Australia should adopt Chinese practices but that we should do what we can to use land to the north closer to our major trading partners to its best of its advantage and stop wasting it.

      We have a great resource here and nay Sayers who tell lies, such as your self, are one of the reasons Australia is falling behind compared to the rest of Asia.

    • Don Paul says:

      01:59pm | 15/02/13

      Glad the Punch is picking up the slack from other opinion sites and discussing this vision, nice article Adam.

      Thanks also to other commenters for their insights. Keep it up!

    • ZSRenn says:

      02:12pm | 15/02/13

      Strangely Don Paul.

      They won’t let me post on other sites. 4 years of doing this and not one post. I try every day.

      Go figure!

    • Watcher says:

      04:57pm | 15/02/13

      @zsrenn pehaps they are more discerning when it comes to trolls and fabrication and that is why your posts aren’t accepted.
      i see from you previous posts in this thread that inspite of your verbose ranting you really have no idea what you are talking about when it comes to the reality of life for migrant workers in china.
      oh my giddy aunt. do i have to quote margaret thatcher again

    • Liberal chimp says:

      02:04pm | 15/02/13

      So long story short you are sponging off poor people!?

    • Lordy says:

      02:04pm | 15/02/13

      Adam, this is one side of the story and unfortunately you make it sound like a glossy pr document by the LNP. Can you please tell us the whole story, including facts, please so we can make up our own minds?

    • mick says:

      05:39pm | 15/02/13

      This is about merging us into the Asian union you fucking halfwit..Its about us being completely swamped by jungle Bunnies and being run by a 1 world communist system…And you support that??? Drop dead you fucking treasonist cocksucker…


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