Delayed Obama For-Profit Fraud Protection Ordered Into Force

Students defrauded by for-profit colleges scored an important victory on Tuesday, when a court cleared the way for an Obama-era policy that will make it easier for them to get their student loans forgiven.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had said the regulation, known as borrower defense, made discharging loans too easy and was unfair to taxpayers. The rule was due to take effect in July 2017, but DeVos froze it while she worked on devising a new regulation.

But U.S. District Judge Randolph Moss ruled last month that DeVos’ delay was unlawful. On Tuesday, he denied a request by an organization representing for-profit colleges in California, to further postpone the rule, thus paving the way for borrower defense to enter into force.

“The rule is finally in effect. No more excuses. No more delays,” said Julie Murray, an attorney with Public Citizen, who is representing the defrauded students in their suit against DeVos.

Education Department spokeswoman Liz Hill said DeVos “respects the role of the court and accepts the court’s decision” and will soon provide information about how the regulation will be implemented. 

But DeVos continues to regard the regulation as “bad policy” and will continue writing a new rule “that protects both borrowers and taxpayers,” Hill said in a statement Tuesday.

The ruling marks a significant setback for DeVos, who has made deregulating the for-profit college industry a top priority. The decision means that the Obama rule, which DeVos has fought hard to scrap, could be in effect until July 2020, when any new rule written by DeVos would enter into force.

Under the Obama rule, students whose school closed mid-program or shortly after completion, will become eligible for automatic loan discharge. The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, estimates that Tuesday’s decision will affect tens of thousands of students at over 1,400 schools who will now be eligible for $400 million in automatic debt relief across the nation.

Other provisions in the rule allow students to apply for loan discharge as a group. It also prevents schools from forcing students to sign away their rights to sue the program and makes sure that the schools, not just tax payers, bear financial responsibility in case the schools end up shutting down.

Over 100,000 students who say they have been swindled by their schools are currently waiting for the Education Department to consider their applications for loan forgiveness. James Kvaal, president of the Institute for College Access and Success, said that the agency must immediately halt debt collections and wipe out the loans of those borrowers whose schools have been shut down.

“This is a major victory for students across this country in the ongoing battle against the Department of Education and the for-profit college industry,” said Toby Merrill, director of the Project on Predatory Student Lending at Harvard University that also took part in the lawsuit.

But Steve Gunderson, president of Career Education Colleges and Universities, the industry lobbying group, described Judge Moss’ ruling as “disappointing as it will only create further confusion for students and schools” and urged the Education Department to provide as much as guidance as possible while it finishes writing the new rule.

Gunderson added, “Many will look at this ruling where a Judge appointed by President Obama upholds a rule created by the Obama Department of Education and see further evidence of the politicization of our court system.”

The group, whose motion to delay the rule was denied Tuesday, the California Association of Private Postsecondary Schools, did not return a request for comment.

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Trump Criticizes Condemnation of Saudi Arabia in Journalist’s Disappearance

President Donald Trump criticized growing condemnation of Saudi Arabia and allegations it is behind the disappearance of a Saudi journalist, saying, “Here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent,” in an interview Tuesday with the Associated Press.

Trump compared the case of Jamal Khashoggi, a missing journalist who was critical of the Saudi monarchy, with the case of his recent Supreme Court nominee who faced sexual abuse allegations.

“We just went through that with Justice [Brett] Kavanaugh and he was innocent all the way as far as I’m concerned,” Trump told the AP. “I think we have to find out what happened first.”

The interview was released after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman about Khashoggi, who was last seen Oct. 2 entering Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul to fill out paperwork for his upcoming marriage to his Turkish fiancee, Hatice Cengiz.

The Saudis have rejected Turkish claims that Saudi agents murdered Khashoggi inside the consulate. However, U.S. news reports said Saudi Arabia was edging toward acknowledging that Khashoggi was killed after he entered the consulate, blaming his death on an interrogation gone wrong.

Khashoggi, a critic of the crown prince in columns written for The Washington Post, had been living in the U.S. in self-imposed exile.

Turkish investigators

Pompeo’s visit to Riyadh came hours after Turkish crime scene investigators finished an inspection of the Saudi consulate. The AP quoted an unnamed high-level Turkish official as saying that evidence was found there of Khashoggi’s killing, without elaborating, while Reuters said investigators found “strong evidence” but no conclusive proof of Khashoggi’s death.

The Turkish official also told AP that authorities were likely to search the consul general’s home. The diplomat had left Turkey, according to the official.

In a statement after meetings with both the Saudi king and crown prince, Pompeo said they “strongly denied any knowledge of what took place in their consulate in Istanbul.” 

“My assessment from these meetings is that there is serious commitment to determine all the facts and ensure accountability, including accountability for Saudi Arabia’s senior leaders or senior officials,” he said in a statement.

Pompeo next travels to Turkey to meet with officials there. 

While Pompeo was in Riyadh, Trump said on Twitter that he had talked with the crown prince, the country’s de facto leader, “who totally denied any knowledge of what took place in their Turkish consulate.”

Trump said the Saudi leader assured him that “he has already started, and will rapidly expand, a full and complete investigation into this matter. Answers will be forthcoming shortly.”

The U.S. State Department said Pompeo made it clear to the Saudis that “learning what happened to Jamal Khashoggi is the primary reason” Trump dispatched him to Riyadh, and that the matter “is of great interest to the president.”

Pompeo met first with King Salman, then twice with the crown prince. As they sat down for their first meeting, the crown prince, in English, told Pompeo, “We are strong and old allies. We face our challenges together — the past, the day of, tomorrow.”

“Absolutely,” Pompeo replied.

While the meetings were going on, Trump, in Washington, said on Twitter, “For the record, I have no financial interests in Saudi Arabia (or Russia, for that matter). Any suggestion that I have is just more FAKE NEWS (of which there is plenty)!”

But during a 2015 campaign stop, Trump boasted about his business dealings with the Saudis. “Saudi Arabia, I get along with all of them,” Trump said. “They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.”

As he dispatched Pompeo to Riyadh on Monday, Trump told reporters at the White House that King Salman’s denials to him about Khashoggi’s fate in a phone call “could not have been stronger.”

U.S. lawmakers’ reactions

But some lawmakers in the U.S. have all but accepted Turkey’s version of the events, that a team of Saudi agents arrived in Istanbul and killed Khashoggi when he went to the consulate.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said Tuesday the U.S. should “sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia” over the incident and said he would never again work with the crown prince, assailing him as “toxic” and calling him a “wrecking ball.”

The State Department said Pompeo also met with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, continuing their conversations from the recent United Nations General Assembly about a range of Middle East issues and U.S.-Saudi concerns.

Up until this point, Saudi officials have strongly denied accusations that Khashoggi was murdered, saying instead he left the diplomatic outpost on his own. Neither side has publicly shown clear evidence to back up its claims, and the two governments agreed on a joint working group to probe Khashoggi’s disappearance.

State Department correspondent Nike Ching contributed to this report.

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Blind Athlete Achieves Dream: Hiking Grand Canyon

Blind Paralympic cyclist Shawn Cheshire, 43, recently faced her biggest challenge — a rim-to-rim hike through the Grand Canyon.

Cheshire crossed 68 kilometers of steep and uneven terrain, hiking through the night and finishing in 24 hours and 15 minutes — believed to be a record by a blind hiker.

“The last couple of years, I’ve been on this desperate purpose of grasping as much independence as possible,” Cheshire said. “And so for me, being able to walk in the Grand Canyon like that, that’s freedom.”

Cheshire lost her sight after an accident nine years ago and turned to athletics.

“I was in a really dark place and hated being blind.” But she said sports and physical challenges gave her “another opportunity at living.” She competed in the Paralympics in Rio in 2016 and hopes to compete in Tokyo in 2020. 

In the meantime, Cheshire was determined to complete this challenging hike.

“I had a huge ball of emotion welled up in my chest — like I cannot believe we just did that — and just (felt) gratitude,” she said.

​She finished the challenging hike on Oct. 8. Three friends helped her complete the trek, serving as guides and warning of obstacles as they worked to set a record.

“We literally smashed it,” recalled guide Sara Schulting-Kranz, “including going up the north rim and down the north rim, the entire thing. Every trail that we were on, I’ve never actually gone that fast on,” she said.

It is believed that the previous record by a blind hiker was set in 2014 at 28 hours. Cheshire beat that mark by nearly four hours.

It was an exercise in teamwork. Cheshire and her guides walked several paces apart. She listened for warnings of obstacles from her teammates and monitored the bell that the lead hiker wore, which sounded as they walked. She used hiking poles for balance.

It was a journey of discovery for the four-person crew.

“I’ve learned a lot about myself,” said Scott Drum, a friend of Cheshire’s and a guide on the trek. “I learned a lot more about the canyon,” he added.

For Cheshire, it was a major accomplishment on the road to others. In addition to cycling and hiking, she runs, skis and rock climbs. 

“I’d like to figure out everything a blind woman has never done, and I would like to do that.”

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Probe of Missing Saudi Journalist Brings Consulate Search, US Secretary of State Visit

The search for what happened to missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi progressed on several fronts Tuesday, with Turkish crime scene investigators finishing an inspection of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meeting with Saudi leaders in Riyadh.

The U.S.-based cable television network CNN and the New York Times also reported Saudi Arabia was preparing to admit Khashoggi was killed after he entered the consulate on October 2.  The reports, citing unnamed sources, said the Saudi government would blame Khashoggi’s death on an interrogation gone wrong.

Up until this point, Saudi officials have strongly denied accusations by Turkish officials that Khashoggi was killed, saying instead he left the diplomatic outpost on his own.  Neither side has publicly shown clear evidence to back up its claim, and the two governments agreed on a joint working group to probe Khashoggi’s disappearance.

After talks with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on Tuesday, the State Department said Pompeo “thanked the King for his commitment to supporting a thorough, transparent, and timely investigation of Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance.” Pompeo also met with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

U.S. President Donald Trump said he was dispatching Pompeo to U.S. ally Saudi Arabia “to find out really, firsthand, what happened.”

“He may go to Turkey, he may not. He may meet with all of them together,” Trump said. “But we want to find out what happened. And he’s got instructions to find out what happened.”

Trump said King Salman in a telephone call Monday denied having any knowledge of what happened to Khashoggi, who in his writing for the Washington Post was a critic of the heir to the Saudi throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“His denials to me could not have been stronger,” Trump said at the White House. “Maybe I do not want to get into his mind, but it sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers – I mean, who knows?”

David Mack, a scholar at the Middle East Institute and a former ambassador, told VOA that what Saudi Arabia is accused of would be hard to get away with in the United States, but is possible for Saudi Arabia given its tight controls on the media and discipline instituted by the royal family.

“I suppose possible that Saudi Arabia will be able to sell this, however I think most people would be very dubious that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had not had some hand in the matter or knowledge that it was taking place,” Mack said.

Khashoggi was living in self-imposed exile in the United States. He went to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to get documents he needed to marry his fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, a Turkish national who waited in vain outside for Khashoggi to return.

Trump told the CBS news show “60 Minutes” on Sunday that Saudi Arabia would face “severe punishment” if it is determined Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi consulate, but Riyadh dismissed the U.S. threat and said it would retaliate if Trump took any action against Saudi Arabia.

In protest of Khashoggi’s disappearance, several U.S. businesses leaders have pulled out of next week’s Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh, dubbed “Davos in the Desert,” after the annual meeting of world economic interests in Switzerland.

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Three-Way Talks Begin on Disarming Key Part of Korean Border

Negotiators from North and South Korea, along with the U.S.-led United Nations Command, are holding their first talks Tuesday on demilitarizing a section of the heavily fortified border that separates the rival Koreas.

The talks will take place in the so-called Joint Security Area, which the three sides have controlled since the Korean War ended with a truce in 1953, leaving North and South Korea in a technical state of war.

During their third summit in Pyongyang last month, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in reached an agreement to disarm the JSA, including clearing mines buried within the small area, and removing guard posts, surveillance and other military equipment by the end of the year.

The Joint Security Area is the only spot within the Demilitarized Zone where troops from North and South Korea stand face-to-face. The area has long been used for diplomatic engagement. The JSA is also the scene of a bloody incident in 1976, when two U.S. Army officers were killed by ax-wielding North Korean soldiers.

During high-level talks Monday in the truce village of Panmunjom, the two Koreas agreed to begin a joint project to modernize and connect their rail and roadways before the end of the year. They also agreed to hold Red Cross talks related to families separated by the Korean War at the North’s Mount Kumgang Resort in November. 

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US Designates Hezbollah, 4 Other Groups as Top Threats

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday designated five groups, including the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Central American street gang MS-13, as “top transnational organized crime threats,” targeting them for stepped up prosecutions by the Justice Department.  

Sessions identified the other three groups as Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion, a Mexican criminal group; the Sinaloa Cartel, an international organized crime syndicate based in Mexico; and Clan del Golfo, a Colombian drug cartel, Sessions said.

Speaking to a group of law enforcement officials in Washington, Sessions described the designations as “our next steps to carry out President [Donald] Trump’s order to take MS-13 and other [transnational criminal organizations] off of our streets.”

“Taking on transnational criminal groups like the cartels is a priority for this president and for his administration,” Sessions said.  “The same day I was sworn in as Attorney General, President Trump ordered me to disrupt and dismantle these groups.”

Session said the five organizations had been identified by the FBI, DEA, the Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF), and the Justice Department’s criminal division.   

A task force of prosecutors organized into five committees has been created to “coordinate our efforts and develop a plan to take each of these groups off of our streets for good,” he added.  Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein will head up the task force.

Each subcommittee will be led by a prosecutor experienced in investigating and prosecuting the target group.   

The subcommittee on Hezbollah will be headed by Ilan Graff, an assistant US attorney in the Southern District of New York overseeing the prosecution of two alleged Hezbollah members, the first Hezbollah operatives to be charged with terrorism in the United States.  

The subcommittee will be staffed by members of the Hezbollah Financing and Narcoterrorism Team. Sessions created the team in January as part of the Trump Administration’s anti-Hezbollah campaign, accusing the group of involvement in drug trafficking and vowing to “prosecute those who provide financial support to Hezbollah in an effort to eradicate the illicit networks that fuel terrorism and the drug crisis.”

The Lebanese Hezbollah was designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department in 1997.

Last October, Sessions designated MS-13, the only street gang listed as a transnational criminal organization in the United States, as a priority for the OCDETF, ordering prosecutors to use every law in their toolkit — from tax laws to firearms laws — to prosecute its members.    

“Transnational Criminal Organizations – whether they are gangs, drug trafficking cartels or terrorist groups — are a scourge,” Rosenstein said.  “They sow violence and sell poisonous drugs.  They bribe public officials and fuel corruption.  They terrorize law-abiding citizens.”

The newly formed task force has been charged with providing the attorney general with recommendations within 90 days with the best ways to prosecute the target groups.

“With the advice of these experienced professionals, the Department will be better able to follow the President’s order and dismantle these organized criminals,” Sessions said.

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Trump Reiterates ‘No Deal’ with Turkey for Pastor’s Release

U.S. President Donald Trump has reiterated the United States did not negotiate a deal with Turkey for the release of American pastor Andrew Brunson.

“We had no deal with Turkey,” Trump said Monday at the White House.  “I feel much differently about Turkey today than I felt about them two days ago.  I have a very good feeling toward Turkey, two days ago, I did not.”

Evangelical Christian minister Andrew Brunson had been imprisoned in Turkey for two years before his release last week.

The freeing of Brunson marked the end of a bitter diplomatic dispute between Washington and Ankara.  Brunson was facing 35 years in jail if he had been convicted on terrorism and espionage charges, allegations Washington called baseless.

Asked by VOA on Friday what had led to Brunson’s release, Trump said, “We spoke to Turkey, and he went through a system and we got him out.  We’ve been trying to get him out for a long time.”

Trump, partly in retaliation for Brunson’s prosecution, slapped Turkey with trade tariffs in August.  The action led to the collapse of Turkey’s currency.

Brunson had lived in Turkey since the 1990s.

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Market Can Cope with Push for Zero Iranian Oil Sales, Says US Envoy

The United States still aims to cut Iran’s oil sales to zero and does not expect restored oil sanctions against Tehran to have a negative impact on a market that is well-supplied and balanced, a senior U.S. official said on Monday.

U.S. special envoy for Iran, Brian Hook, was talking to reporters after a visit to India, a major importer of Iranian oil, and talks with officials from France, Britain and Germany before the start of a new round of U.S. sanctions on Nov. 4.

The three European countries have been trying to save the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and multiple global powers since U.S. President Trump announced in May that the United States would withdraw from the pact.

In a conference call from Luxembourg, where Hook was meeting European officials, he said that Iran uses oil revenue to support and fund terrorist proxies throughout the Middle East and that the U.S. goal is for countries to cut Iranian oil imports to zero as quickly as possible.

“We are working with countries that are reducing their imports to ensure that this happens,” he said.

Hook declined to answer questions on possible waivers on sanctions for countries that are reducing their imports but said the U.S. is confident that energy markets will remain stable.

“We are seeing a well-supplied and balanced oil market right now. We should focus on these fundamentals and not be distracted by the emotional and unbalanced claims coming from Tehran.”

Iran, OPEC’s third-largest producer, has repeatedly said that its oil exports cannot be reduced to zero because of high demand in the market.

Washington, meanwhile, plans to continue coordinating with oil producers and maintain U.S. supply.

“Our crude oil production increased by 1.65 million barrels in August compared to one year ago and that is expected to continue rising by as much as 1 million barrels a day within the next year,” he said.

Hook also said that European efforts to create a special purpose vehicle for trade with Tehran would find no demand because more than 100 foreign firms have indicated that they would be leaving the country.

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Immigrants Face Hurdles to Prove Abuse by US Agents

Within hours of being booked at a Border Patrol station in far West Texas, two teenage sisters from Guatemala came forward to allege that an agent conducted an improper strip search.

The agent in question denied the allegations, including the sisters’ claims that he touched their genitals. He insisted he had only fingerprinted the sisters before taking them back to their cell.

Investigating the case came down to the sisters’ word versus the agent’s. And as in dozens of similar cases, government investigators sided with the agent.

Advocates say the case — outlined in a report compiled by internal investigators — shows the kinds of hurdles detained immigrants face when they make claims of misconduct, even when they come forward immediately, as the sisters did.

“These women were actually, for lack of a better word, lucky that their case was investigated,” said Christina Mansfield, co-founder of the advocacy group Freedom for Immigrants. “They are in the extreme minority in that regard.”

The sisters, ages 17 and 19, entered the U.S. without legal permission in July 2016, several days after leaving their home village in Guatemala. They were detained by Border Patrol agents shortly after crossing the border.

The Associated Press received a redacted copy of the investigative report through the Freedom of Information Act. It shows that investigators determined that the sisters’ allegations could not be substantiated due to a lack of physical evidence.

The station where the sisters were detained did not have cameras in the booking area. The room where the sisters say they were taken, later described as a supply room or a closet, wasn’t processed for fingerprints because the sisters said they didn’t touch anything. And the agent in question said he was alone with the sisters due to manpower shortages, the report says.

Immigration advocates say the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General, which reviewed the sisters’ case, rarely recommends action against officers. A study by Freedom for Immigrants found that between January 2010 and July 2016, the inspector general received 84 complaints of coerced sexual contact against U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which includes Border Patrol. The inspector general opened just seven investigations, none of which are known to have led to charges, according to the study, which was conducted by examining government records.

The study found a similarly low number of cases were investigated by the inspector general for detention facilities operated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

CBP would not directly address the sisters’ case or whether it disciplined the agent involved. The agency said it was committed to treating detainees with “professionalism and courtesy.”

Immigration authorities detain and process thousands of people every month who cross the U.S. border without permission. Border Patrol chief Carla Provost said in a recent interview that her agency takes any allegations against any of its 19,000 agents “very, very seriously.” Provost previously led CBP’s internal affairs division, which also investigates allegations of employee wrongdoing and that the agency has taken steps to strengthen in recent years.

“They are very few and far between,” she said, speaking generally about misconduct complaints.

The sisters were taken by agents to the Presidio Border Patrol station and booked into the same holding cell. The agents who detained them went out on another call.

According to the report, a third agent then took the elder sister out of the cell. He told investigators that he processed and fingerprinted each of them before returning them to their cell.

The elder sister told a different story. She said the agent took her into a back room that had a table filled with snacks and drinks. There, she says, the agent told her to lift her sweater and dress. The woman said that after a small photograph fell out of her bra, the agent pulled up her bra. Then, she said, he told her to remove her pants and underwear, then touched her genitals with the outer part of his hand.

The younger sister would accuse the agent of conducting a similar search.

Border Patrol guidelines prohibit male agents to strip-search female detainees “except in exigent circumstances,” and only then with another agent present to observe. Under the guidelines, a vaginal cavity search must be done by a medical professional at a medical facility.

When the agent later heard one of the sisters accusing him of misconduct, the report says, he “became upset and told the girl he didn’t make her do that.”

According to the investigators’ report, one agent said that “this is exactly the reason cameras are needed in the processing area.”

The accused agent would speak to investigators three times. The last time, an investigator noted the agent “appeared to be nervous and removed,” and he “had to constantly review a prepared statement” from his initial interview. But a month after the last interview, investigators took their case to a federal prosecutor, James Miller, who agreed with their conclusion that there was a “lack of evidence.”

Miller declined to comment on why he didn’t pursue a prosecution. The agent did not return phone messages from The Associated Press, nor did his attorney, Raymond Martinez.

The sisters were eventually released and went to live with their mother in California. One of the sisters has since sued the U.S. government. Court filings show both sides are now discussing a settlement.

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Chinese Envoy Says US Charge of Election Interference ‘Groundless’

China’s ambassador to the U.S. says many accusations the Trump administration has made against Beijing are “groundless”, including election interference.

“One of the fundamental principles in China’s foreign policy is non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries,” Ambassador Cui Tiankai told Fox television Sunday. “We have been consistent in this position. We have a very good track record.”

Without presenting any tangible evidence of Chinese election interference, the White House has accused China of trying to turn voters away from the Republicans in next month’s election.

It also calls the China Daily insert in many U.S. newspapers propaganda.

Cui called the newspaper section a page out of the U.S. media playbook — buying commercial pages in newspapers to make one’s views known.

He also denied the U.S. and China are involved in a trade war, despite the tit-for-tat exchanges of huge tariffs on each other exports.

He said Americans have to look at the “whole picture,” pointing out how much money U.S. companies have made in China over the years.

The ambassador also denied China steals intellectual property from the U.S., days after a senior Chinese intelligence officer was extradited to the U.S. for allegedly trying to steal secrets from American aviation companies.

Cui says such charges are “unfair” to the Chinese people.

“China has 1.4 billion people. It would be hard to imagine that one-fifth of the global population could develop and not prosper, not by relying mainly on their own efforts, but by stealing or forcing some transfer of technology from others. That’s impossible.”

The ambassador also accused the U.S. of stoking military tensions by sending its ships into the South China Sea near Chinese territory, saying there are no Chinese ships hovering around the Gulf of Mexico or off the California coast.

But despite tensions and disagreements, Ambassador Cui said U.S. President Donald Trump and China’s President Xi have a “good mutual understanding and a good working relationship” that he is sure will continue.

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