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Reports: Japan’s prime minister under pressure to resign next month over tsunami, budget

TOKYO – Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, criticized for his handling of the tsunami disaster and the country’s sluggish economy, is under pressure to resign next month after budget bills are passed by parliament, reports said Monday.

Kan is being pushed by senior members of his party to step down after the passage of a second extra budget for the current fiscal year, which ends in March 2012, according to the Kyodo News agency and public broadcaster NHK.

Passage is expected in mid-July.

Kyodo and NHK said Kan is expected to announce details of his intentions soon, after meeting with the party leadership. NHK said it is not clear whether he will agree to step down next month or try to hold on longer.

Kan has said he is willing to resign after the country’s recovery from the disaster takes hold, but has not specified when.

No clear successor has pulled away from a pack of potential replacements, though the Japanese media have focused on Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda, a fiscal expert who shares many of Kan’s policies.

Kan’s resignation would be an embarrassment to his ruling Democratic Party of Japan, but his rivals in the party apparently believe it would be better off without him at the helm.

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Kan has been under increasing pressure to resign because of his perceived lack of leadership following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the country’s northern coastline and left about 23,000 people dead or missing.

Damage is estimated at $300 billion, making it the most expensive natural disaster in history.

He has also been hammered for his handling of the crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, which was severely damaged by the tsunami.

But Kan was deeply unpopular even before the disasters as he struggled to find policies to boost the economy, lower unemployment and deal with the public debt.

Kan assumed office just over a year ago. Japan has had five prime ministers in the past four years, and its parliament is mired in gridlock.

The disasters have been a major test for Kan.

Factories throughout the region were damaged, leading to shortages of parts and components for automakers and other manufacturers. Consumer spending has plunged and the crippled nuclear power plant has caused widespread power shortages that could worsen in the months ahead.

Last week, the International Monetary Fund slashed its outlook for Japan, predicting its economy will shrink 0.7 per cent this year instead of growing 1.4 per cent.

Half of workers and managers have faced mental health issues, study suggests

OTTAWA – Susan Jakobson, of all people, might reasonably have been expected to recognize and act on the signs of mental illness.

A nursing supervisor with a long history in managing human resources, Jakobson nonetheless was slow to seek help when cancer treatment and a suicide in her family combined to send her spiralling into depression.

“I think when you’re actually the person who has the illness, you might have all the academic knowledge around it and all the things you think you should know – but when it’s about you, it’s a totally different situation,” Jakobson said in an interview.

“It’s different being the patient than being the health-care professional in these situations.”

Mental illness in the workplace is a huge issue hiding in plain sight, a situation made clear in a new report by the Conference Board of Canada released Monday.

The report, “Building Mentally Health Workplaces,” is based on a national survey of more than 1,000 employees – including almost 500 front-line managers, with follow-up interviews for some. The findings bookend a new initiative by the Mental Health Commission of Canada to establish national standards for psychologically healthy workplaces.

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“When it comes to mental health, misinformation, fear and prejudice remain far too prevalent,” says the Conference Board report. “It is time for a change.”

The report says that in 2009-10, “78 per cent of short-term disability claims and 67 per cent of long-term disability claims in Canada were related to mental-health issues.”

The personal and financial cost is staggering.

Jakobson, a Toronto-based health professional who is the principal of Healthy Minds at Work, says she was 53 and at the top of her game – “going strong, working at a job I absolutely loved” – when things began to unravel.

A breast-cancer diagnosis which coincided with the suicide of a beloved niece turned her life upside down.

“The problem was my symptoms actually got worse because of the way my situation was managed at work by one particular senior manager,” she told a news conference in Ottawa last week.

“Unfortunately this person didn’t recognize that there was an impact of my physical illness and the loss of a loved one on my mental health, and that – even though I was back at work – I was still trying to recover.”

Jakobson was “increasingly disorganized” and unable to concentrate, and worked longer hours in a fruitless effort to compensate. She became short-tempered with co-workers and family, couldn’t sleep and lost her appetite.

“I started believing I was incompetent,” she said.

“I remember actually having to bargain with myself to get out of bed in the morning.”

Hers is hardly a unique situation.

The Conference Board found that 12 per cent of its survey respondents were currently experiencing a mental-health issue and another 32 per cent said they’d faced one in the past.

The report found “a significant disconnect” between the perceptions of executives and employees about how well their workplaces deal with mental illness. Four fifths of executives felt their companies promote mentally healthy work environments, yet just 30 per cent of employees felt the same way.

Almost half of all managers – 44 per cent – had no training in managing workers with mental-health issues.

The report states that despite the challenges, “most solutions are relatively inexpensive to implement, but require flexibility and creativity on the part of employers.”

For Jakobson, it took her the better part of a year to come to terms with her mental illness and “accept treatment.” After switching jobs within her company and getting support from friends, family and senior managers her health improved “fairly quickly.”

“My situation has brought home the need for supports for both employers and employees,” she said.

“If I’ve learned anything to help employers it is this: That an actual important part of recovering is being at work, is going to work. But don’t expect the employee to be 100 per cent when they get back.”

Jakobson said “you need a thoughtful, supportive, planned way to return someone to work.”

The Conference Board report suggests changing corporate culture is one of the more difficult challenges in this regard.

“Like any successful venture within an organization, the full support and involvement of senior leaders is required for change to occur …. It is still relatively uncommon in organizations for senior management to openly discuss the importance of mental health.”

But the report doesn’t spare co-workers or unions.

The survey found some employees returning from a mental illness “felt isolated, ignored or shunned by colleagues,” a reception that increased feelings of shame and embarrassment.

The survey also found that “somewhat surprisingly, employees are no more comfortable disclosing a mental-health issue to a union representative or shop steward than they are to their supervisor.”

Louise Bradley, the president and CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, said publicly airing workplace mental-health issues is the place to start ending the stigma.

Bradley compares it to the early years of AIDS “and even around breast cancer, for Pete’s sakes, people didn’t talk about.”

Jakobson is doing her part, putting a public face on an illness that too often lurks behind the cubicle next door.

“It still is about a three-year journey for me, but I’m in a good place now,” she said.

Disasters, economy top agenda as western premiers gather in Yellowknife

YELLOWKNIFE – Disasters, such as spring flooding and forest fires, will be on the agenda when Canada’s western premiers hold their annual meeting.

The political leaders from Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, B.C., Yukon, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories start a three-day meeting Monday in Yellowknife.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger want to talk about how the provinces can press Ottawa for a new national disaster strategy.

“Most disaster damage and rebuilding costs are entirely preventable,” said Wall.

“Investments in prevention provide a four-to-one return on investment and they limit the misery and anguish these disasters cause our families.”

Both Saskatchewan and Alberta have faced serious flooding this spring.

In fact, Wall’s arrival at the conference will be delayed because he’ll spend Monday touring communities in southern Saskatchewan that have been flooded by a deluge of rain. Up to 75 millimetres of rain fell on southern parts of the province between Friday and Saturday, causing significant swelling of the Souris River.

Selinger said the serious challenges facing the agricultural economy on the Prairies, such as the amount of unseeded land, will also be discussed.

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The Canadian Wheat Board said last week that somewhere between 2.4 million and 3.2 million hectares of farmland will go unseeded in the West, mostly in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. That could suck $1.5 billion to $2.5 billion out of the prairie economy.

Tapping into new economic markets and trade will top the agenda for Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach.

“Our future prosperity will be determined by our ability to tap into rapidly growing Asian economies,” Stelmach said in a news release.

“If we’re going to sell our products in countries like China or India, we need to be able to get those products to market. It’s critical that we in the West work together to ensure the infrastructure we need – the pipelines, the ports, the railways – is in place and up to date.”

This is Stelmach’s last western premiers conference before he steps down from office in October.

Some of the other faces around the premiers’ table have already changed – this is the first meeting for British Columbia Premier Christy Clark and Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski.

Trial begins of Indonesian militant accused of procuring weapons, setting up terror camp

JAKARTA, Indonesia – One of Indonesia’s top terrorism suspects went on trial Monday on charges of helping set up a terrorist training camp for a group that plotted attacks on foreigners and assassinations of the country’s moderate Muslim leaders.

The trial of Abu Tholut began days after a hard-line cleric was sentenced to 15 years in prison for supporting the same jihadist camp.

Tholut, 50, is accused of procuring M16 assault rifles and other weapons for the camp, which was raided early last year in westernmost Aceh province, prosecutor Bambang Suharyadi told the West Jakarta District Court. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

Arrested in December, Tholut is one of more than 120 alleged members of the “Tanzim Al Qaeda in Aceh” group to have been captured or killed since the camp was uncovered. More than 50 of those men have been sentenced to prison.

Radical Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, co-founder of the al-Qaida-linked Islamist movement Jemaah Islamiyah, was last week sentenced to 15 years for supporting the camp.

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Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, was thrust onto the front lines of the battle against terrorism in 2002, when Jemaah Islamiyah militants bombed two crowded nightclubs on the resort island of Bali, killing 202 people, many of them foreign tourists. There have been several attacks since then, but all have been far less deadly.

Police have said the Aceh group was plotting Mumbai-style gun attacks on foreigners at luxury hotels in the capital of Jakarta and assassinations, including of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, to punish the government for supporting the U.S.-led anti-terrorism fight.

Tholut, also known as Mustofa, became one of Indonesia’s most wanted fugitives after master bomb-makers Noordin M. Top and Dulmatin were gunned down early last year in police raids.

He was convicted for involvement in a 2001 bomb blast at a shopping plaza in central Jakarta that wounded six, and he served five years of an eight-year sentence after getting remission for good behaviour. Like dozens of other convicted Indonesian extremists, he returned to his terror network after he was released.

Nasir Abas – a former militant who has helped police track down and arrest several members of his network – said Tholut had been a combatant in Afghanistan and an “excellent instructor” who helped train Islamist militants in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao.

Judges adjourned the trial until next week, when Tholut’s lawyers are due to respond to the charges.

EU harshly condemns worsening violence in Syria, threatens new sanctions against regime

LUXEMBOURG – The European Union condemned in the strongest terms Monday the worsening violence in Syria and said it was preparing to expand its sanctions against the regime.

But it stopped short of announcing new penalties, and it did not call for President Bashar Assad to step down. Any new sanctions would be an effort to bring about “a fundamental change in policy by the Syrian leadership without delay,” it said.

The sanctions in place so far have not had that effect. In late May, the EU expanded sanctions to include Assad himself after earlier travel bans and asset freezes on 13 people with links to the regime failed to stop the killing of anti-government protesters.

Monday’s statement gave no indication of who might be targeted next, other than to say that they would “target individuals and entities responsible for, or associated with, the violent repression against the civilian population.”

The statement made no mention of Assad’s televised speech Monday, in which he said his regime would consider political reforms but also said that “saboteurs” were exploiting legitimate demands for reform.

On the way into the foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg, British foreign secretary William Hague said Syria’s leader had to reform or go.

Hague also said he hoped that Turkey, Syria’s northern neighbour, would play an influential role in conveying to Assad the will of the international community.

“I hope our Turkish colleagues will bring every possible pressure to bear on the Assad regime with a very clear message that they are losing legitimacy and that Assad should reform or step aside,” Hague said.

The opposition estimates more than 1,400 Syrians have been killed and 10,000 detained as Assad unleashed his military, pro-regime gunmen and the country’s other security forces to crush the protest movement that erupted in March, inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

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China offers riot informers cash, honorary titles, chance to obtain urban residency

BEIJING, China – Informers who help identify participants in a three-day riot by migrant factory workers in southern China could be rewarded with cash, honorary titles and a chance at official urban residency status, an official announcement said.

The police notice published on the website of the Zengcheng Daily newspaper indicates authorities are having trouble tracking down those behind the violence that broke out June 10, in which vehicles were torched, government offices ransacked and at least 25 people arrested.

Authorities are offering up to $1,500 in cash together with “outstanding migrant worker” titles and urban residency permits that allow better access to schools, subsidized housing, health care and other public services, the notice said.

“The public security departments call on the broad masses of city residents not to be incited by people with ulterior motives, but to keenly struggle against criminal lawbreakers and actively reveal the identities of these criminal lawbreakers,” said the notice, dated Saturday.

It wasn’t clear whether the offer has led to any useful information and calls to police and telephone numbers attached to the notice rang unanswered Monday.

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Yet it was a clear sign of the lack of trust between security forces and citizens at a time of growing unease over corruption, abuse of power and a worsening income divide.

The Zengcheng riot was sparked by a confrontation between security guards and a pair of migrant sidewalk vendors in Zengcheng’s Xintang township. Tensions grew over the following two days as more and more fellow migrants from the southwestern province of Sichuan rushed to the area, culminating in a night of violence on June 12.

Migrant workers usually perform the most dangerous and least desirable work in China and are widely seen as vulnerable to abuse and discrimination by authorities and local residents.

A number of apparently unrelated cases of unrest have broken out around China in recent weeks, some involving migrant workers. The government’s response has been to meet them with overwhelming force while being slow to address underlying causes.

However, such stopgap measures will grow increasingly ineffective unless fundamental tensions between citizens and the Communist government are addressed, said Liu Shanyin, who studies social unrest at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

“If these problems are not addressed, the government’s legitimacy will come into question and political and criminal forces could get involved, leading to big trouble,” Liu said.

IAEA wants to improve nuclear safety, but implementation will depend on individual states

VIENNA – The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency on Tuesday urged a worldwide safety review to prevent new nuclear disasters, but acknowledged that since the IAEA lacks enforcing authority, any improvements are only effective if countries apply them.

IAEA chief Yukiya Amano’s comments to a meeting of government ministers and other senior delegates of the 151-member IAEA, reflected the fact that most countries want any new safety measures to be voluntary – and that they work only if observed by nations with nuclear reactors.

“Even the best safety standards are useless unless they are actually implemented,” Amano said. And Ecology Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet of France – a strong opponent of outside regulation – told the meeting that “the implementation of commitment on nuclear safety depends of the willingness of each state obviously, since nuclear safety is primarily a national responsibility.”

An IAEA report compiled by international experts ahead of the Vienna conference reflected the limitations of depending on voluntary compliance. It faulted Japan for failing to implement a number of IAEA safety measures and recommendations in the years leading up to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

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Asked outside the meeting if he would like to see the IAEA have the same authority against safety violators as it now has against nuclear proliferators – which includes referral to the U.N. Security Council – Amano said: “I do not exclude that possibility.”

But he said a sense of post-Fukushima urgency dictated action now under existing rules.

“We have to move by days, weeks, months, and I cannot wait years” – the time it would take to revise the IAEA’s mandate for the 35-nation board – he said. “We need to have a sense of urgency.”

A statement adopted by the conference also showed that the gathering was content to work on upgrading present safety practices and emergency measures without giving the IAEA an enforcing role.

It called for a commitment to “strengthening the central role of the IAEA in promoting international co-operation and in co-ordinating international efforts to strengthen global nuclear safety, in providing expertise and advice in this field and in promoting nuclear safety culture worldwide.”

Outlining a five-point plan to strengthen nuclear reactor safety, Amano called for bolstering IAEA standards and ensuring they are applied; establishing regular safety reviews of all the world’s reactors; beefing up the effectiveness of national regulatory bodies; strengthening global emergency response systems, and increasing IAEA input in responding to emergencies.

Amano also urged that the INES scale – which classifies nuclear incidents on a seven-point scale – be revamped. The March accident at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi accident was upgraded to seven – the highest on the scale – only on April 12. That was more than a month after a 9-magnitute earthquake and a devastating tsunami overwhelmed the Fukushima reactor’s cooling system and radiation started leaking into the atmosphere.

“Safety standards … in particular those pertaining to multiple severe hazards such as tsunamis and earthquakes should be reviewed,” Amano told the meeting. He proposed “IAEA international expert peer reviews” to complement national safety checks, and establishing stockpiles of emergency equipment by reactor operators to try and prevent a replay of Fukushima.

“Many countries have accepted (peer reviews) already; European countries, Japan, the United States,” he told reporters outside the meeting. “I would like to expand it, so that all nuclear power plants will see a peer review on a random basis.”

Speaking for Japan, Economics Minister Banri Kaieda pledged that his country “will take drastic measures to ensure the highest level of safety” for its reactor network.

Philippine troop clashes with communist rebels leave 7 dead, 17 wounded

MANILA, Philippines – Clashes between government troops and communist rebels have killed seven people and wounded 17, military officials said Monday.

The government and the rebels resumed talks in February to end one of Asia’s longest-running Marxist rebellions, but clashes have continued in the countryside.

Maj. Gen. Emmanuel Bautista, an army division commander, quoted field reports as saying six rebels were killed and 11 others wounded and subsequently captured in two clashes Saturday in central Negros Oriental province. A soldier was slightly wounded.

Bautista said the first clash broke out early Saturday in Pamplona township’s Banawe village. The New People’s Army rebels withdrew after a 40-minute gunfight, leaving behind their two dead and five wounded comrades.

Some 10 hours later, soldiers caught up with the fleeing guerrillas in the same village of Banawe, sparking another battle that killed four rebels and wounded six others.

Bautista said the rebel fighters were under the command of Marilyn Badayos, a guerrilla front leader arrested on Saturday in a hotel in the adjacent province Negros Occidental while recuperating from a gunshot wound sustained during a clash with troops in May.

Lt. Col. Lyndon Paniza, an army spokesman, says on the same day in southern Compostela Valley province’s Pantukan township, a soldier was killed and five others were wounded when troops on combat operation clashed with around 70 guerrillas.

Paniza said the rebels also suffered casualties, but their number was unknown.

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Asia stock markets down amid Greek bailout impasse

BANGKOK – Asian stocks were mostly lower after European finance ministers delayed a decision to extend emergency help to prevent Greece from defaulting on its debts.

Oil slipped below $92 a barrel while the dollar rose against the euro and the yen.

Japan’s Nikkei 225 rose 0.2 per cent to 9,368.16 despite data showing Japan’s exports dropped for the third straight month in May due to massive production losses following the March 11 earthquake.

Toyota Motor Corp., the world’s No. 1 automaker, rose 0.2 per cent after it announced expansion plans aimed at ramping up production and sales in India, top business daily the Nikkei reported on its website.

South Korea’s Kospi sank 0.3 per cent to 2,027.10, although autos helped staunch the fall. Hyundai Motor Co., the country’s biggest car maker, rose 2.2 per cent after data showed the company sold more vehicles in Europe last month than any other Asian brand, Yonhap News Agency reported.

Hong Kong’s Hang Seng shed 0.4 per cent to 21,614.04, with oil-related shares dropping. Sinopec, Asia’s biggest oil refiner by volume, and China National Offshore Oil Corp., known as CNOOC, were both down 0.1 per cent.

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Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 was 0.5 per cent lower at 4,461.90. Benchmarks in Singapore and Indonesia were higher while those in Taiwan, New Zealand and mainland China were down.

Early Monday, Eurozone finance ministers postponed a decision on a vital installment of rescue loans needed to avoid bankruptcy next month. Greece will get the next euro12 billion of its existing euro110 billion bailout package in early July, but only if it manages to pass euro28 billion in new spending cuts and economic reforms by the end of the month, said Jean-Claude Juncker, the prime minister of Luxembourg.

“All eyes remain on Greece,” strategists at Credit Agricole CIB wrote in a research note. “News this morning that the Eurogroup’s final decision on the country’s second bailout package has been delayed until early July will result in more uncertainty filtering through markets.”

Aside from the risk that Greece poses, markets were jittery as the end of the Federal Reserve’s $600 billion bond-buying program draws near. The quantitative easing program, dubbed QE2, was intended to keep interest rates low and encourage economic growth. It ends in late June.

Another factor adding to investor uncertainty, analysts said, was whether China’s attempts to cool its runaway growth to more sustainable levels would result in severe consequences such as significant job losses.

“We are looking at some other concerns – how the end of QE2 will affect the market overall and on the China side, whether it will be a hard or soft landing,” said Lee Kok Joo, head of research at Phillip Securities in Singapore.

On Wall Street last week, the U.S. stock market eked out its first week of gains since April, helped by signs a solution to Greece’s debt problems were near.

The Dow Jones industrial average closed up 0.4 per cent at 12,004.36. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index rose 0.3 per cent to 1,271.50. The technology-focused Nasdaq composite index lost 0.3 per cent to 2,616.48.

Oil prices fell below $92 a barrel as a stronger U.S. dollar made commodities priced in the greenback more expensive to investors spending foreign currencies.

Benchmark oil for July delivery was down $1.36 to $91.65 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract lost $1.94, or 2 per cent, to settle at $93.01 on Friday.

In currencies, the euro fell to $1.4231 from $1.4315 in late trading Friday in New York. The dollar rose to 80.21 yen from 80.06 yen.

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AP Business Writer Kelvin Chan contributed from Hong Kong.

Miles of dikes close to overflowing as official says China at critical point in flood control

BEIJING, China – More than 40 miles (70 kilometres) of dikes are in danger of overflowing in an eastern Chinese province where floods have caused $1.2 billion in losses, authorities said Monday as the country neared a critical point in battling seasonal rains.

Heavy rains pounded Zhejiang province over the weekend, and the level of a river that passes through Lanxi city has risen sharply, said Zhao Fayuan, deputy director of the provincial flood control headquarters.

The level of Lanjiang river has now hit 110 feet (34 metres), the highest since 1966, the headquarters said.

Several sections of the dikes in Lanxi city are barely holding, Zhao said. More than 20,000 people could be affected if the dikes are breached, he was quoted as saying by the Xinhua News Agency.

The flood control headquarters advised Lanxi officials to evacuate all residents near the dikes that are at risk of overflowing, and to repair them immediately.

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Recent flooding has destroyed 600,000 acres (241,600 hectares) of farmland and caused 1,846 companies to stop production in Zhejiang, incurring 7.69 billion yuan ($1.19 billion) in direct economic losses, the flood control agency said. Of these, 3.4 billion yuan were agricultural losses. Coastal Zhejiang is one of China’s richest provinces and its economy grew 11.8 per cent last year.

Flooding in eastern and southern China this month has triggered landslides, cut power and telecommunications and left more than 180 people dead or missing. Five more people were killed Sunday and one remains missing after surging floodwaters swept them away in their southwest villages, Xinhua reported.

China’s minister for water resources said Sunday that the country was entering a crucial period for flood control as severe floods triggered by heavy rains threatened southern areas.

It is likely that more frequent and more intense downpours will continue, Chen Lei told a meeting in Beijing, Xinhua reported.

He urged local authorities to improve weather forecasting and ensure dikes, reservoirs and dams are safe.

China’s national weather agency said Monday that torrential rains will continue in southern and eastern areas for the next three days.

However, while the deadly flooding continues, a persistent drought is still plaguing five provinces in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River. It has left 630,000 people without safe drinking water and affected 11.9 million acres (4.8 million hectares) of farmland, Chen said.