Catalonia independence: Spain’s unfathomably delicate task

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Spain’s prime minister rarely talks in such stark language.

But his message to Catalonia’s devolved government, which spearheads the pro-independence movement, was blunt. He said Madrid would remove its leaders and impose direct rule.

Mariano Rajoy is conservative by party, and in his political style.

He has meandered his way through other crises; a financial one for his country; a corruption scandal that tainted his party. His “keep calm and carry on” strategy worked each time.

But Catalonia today is a completely different ball game.

This Spanish region has enjoyed a high degree of autonomy since the 1980s – only the Basque Country has more.

It’s also important to note that in cultural terms, Catalonia is arguably the most distinct of Spain’s regions.

The Catalan language is widely spoken and from the folkloric dance of Sardana to human towers, there is a long list of cultural traditions here, which enforce the sense of Catalan identity.

And a large part of Catalan society will see Madrid’s planned takeover as an affront to their whole way of life.

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Competitions to build tall and elaborate human towers are a common sight at Catalan regional festivals

The word among the pro-independence camp is that, in the coming weeks, peaceful direct action will be the order of the day.

The Spanish government has outlined a clear strategy, couched within a legal framework.

Advisers close to the prime minister emphasise that the decision to intervene was not taken lightly but they also argue that Mr Rajoy was left with no choice.

At stake, they say, is Spain’s entire system of governance; no other Western government would allow a regional administration to ride roughshod over its constitution and laws.

Catalonia’s independence, or a legitimate vote on the matter, has never been and never will be an option, they exclaim.

But over the next days Mariano Rajoy’s government faces an unfathomably delicate task.

It must now reassert Madrid’s authority in Catalonia.

The practicalities of that won’t be straightforward.

Some within Catalonia’s civil service will be die-hard supporters of independence. Others will simply hate the concept of Madrid being ultimately in charge.

Catalonia’s regional police force, Mossos, insists it remains impartial. “We are policemen, not politicians,” Inspector Albert Oliva told me.

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Media captionPolice inspector: ‘We are not politicians’

But he admits that his force is in the middle of a “political hurricane.” Over the coming weeks the loyalties of Catalan police will be tested to the absolute limit.

Before we reach that point, the Spanish senate will have to approve Madrid’s proposals. That could take days.

In the meantime, the soon-to-be-sacked Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont will try and convene the regional parliament, before it is stripped of powers.

If that happens, he will probably make a more emphatic declaration of independence.

The vast majority of Spaniards will, in turn, declare that meaningless.

But every twist and turn from now will play into an already febrile political atmosphere.

Every time I speak to a taxi driver or an old lady pushing her shopping trolley down the street, be it in Catalonia or in the neighbouring region of Aragon, people’s views, on both sides, have hardened.

To the naked eye of a tourist, Spain is a country at ease, a country of sun, sea, beautiful buildings and friendly people.

Scratch below and there are deep political divisions.

And in Catalonia the situation is becoming fractured beyond belief.

Why more people are running marathons in all 50 US states

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Steve and Paula Boone

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Steve and Paula Boone have run more than 1,000 marathons between them

Why are more people running marathons in all 50 states – and what does it say about modern America?

In 1988, Steve Boone was a computer systems designer who played football in his spare time.

One of his customers was training for the Houston Marathon. He bet Steve – a 39-year-old who had never run 26 miles – that he couldn’t finish the race.

It’s safe to say Steve won that bet.

He finished the 1988 Houston Marathon, and has returned to the race every year since. The 2018 event will be his 31st in a row, and his 700th marathon in total.

The only downside?

“It was a principle bet,” says Steve. “No money at stake.”

In 1997, Steve was at the Boston Marathon, waiting outside a hotel for a bus that didn’t turn up.

By this point, he had run more than 100 marathons, including one in all 50 states. He had the idea after running in San Francisco. “It was one of those obsessions,” he admits.

While waiting for the bus, he got talking to one of his fellow runners, Paula. “By the time we walked back to the hotel we were best friends,” he says.

They were married 18 months later.

In 2001, the Boones decided to start a club for people who had run – or wanted to run – marathons in all 50 states. They began with 82 members; Steve thought they might get 400 or 500 total.

At the last count, there were 4,326 members. In total, more than 1,500 have finished all 50 states.

Of the finishers, more than a third are female, and almost all come from the US, although there are members from Brazil to Bermuda.

But the interesting thing isn’t where they come from. It’s why they run in the first place.

50 State Marathon Club: The rules (or some of them)

  • The event shall have a minimum of 10 finishers
  • It must have a minimum of 60 days’ advanced publicity in a running publication, magazine, newspaper, website or race brochure
  • The event must either start or finish in the state being counted. A marathon that runs into two states counts as one

In 1997, Paula Boone was a marathon novice.

She ran her first, in her home state of Utah, a year earlier while “getting in shape after having my two kids”. But after meeting Steve the pace picked up.

By 2003, she too had run a marathon in all 50 states. She now has 330 marathons in total, including at least four in each state.

“Steve was a really bad influence,” she says.

Paula – who’s 51 and lives with her husband in Humble, Texas – says she isn’t an elite athlete. Her last marathon took seven hours, although she ran her first in three hours and 59 minutes.

So if she’s not breaking records, or winning races, why does she keep going – step after step, state after state, more than 8,000 miles and counting?

“The actual running is really difficult,” she says. “But I love to travel, that’s my favourite thing to do. It’s really the best way to see the country.”

For example – one race took Paula to Minot, North Dakota, a town that’s not in many travel brochures. “The middle of nowhere in the middle of nowhere,” she says.

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Jody Reed

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Jody Reed and her running partner, Sydney

There’s also the social side. Jody Reed, a 58-year-old lawyer from Ashburn, Virginia, ran her first marathon in 1987 and has now done 152 – including at least one in every state.

“At this point, it’s the friends [that keep me going],” she says, speaking from Milwaukee where she’s about to run another race. “I’m here with a friend who I met last fall. We’ve done several races together since then.

“It would be a very unusual marathon where I’m not with people I know. And not just people I know – friends.”

But while camaraderie is important, Paula thinks there’s a deeper reason why people run.

“Most of us have pretty cushy jobs,” she says. “We’re not out there sweating, and as humans we like to have some sort of striving, some kind of drive.

“The marathon fulfils that. We want to work towards some kind of goal; [to have] some kind of stress and strain.”

So running marathons is a counterforce to the comfort of modern life?

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Media captionLondon Marathon: An inspirational end to the Marathon for two runners

“I think so,” says Paula.

“The people who join our club are from every walk of life – people who are very poor, people who are very rich, and everything in between. The one thing that ties everybody together is they all strive. They are all self-driven.

“The mountains have all been climbed, everything has been discovered, but this is manageable – while being out of your comfort zone.”

  • The man who catches marathon cheats

Ross Brennan, a 57-year-old from Washington, DC, ran his first marathon in 1990. Back then, he says, marathon running “was just becoming a thing – it was still a little bit exotic”.

Now, marathons are certainly a thing. During the weekend of October 21-22, at least 26 cities in the US and Canada will host one according to There are 15 the weekend after and 24 the weekend after that.

There are a number of reasons for that, says Ross. More people keep fit; the internet makes it easier to find races; and technology has made running “less boring”.

“You can nerd-out on the IT stuff,” he says. “There are heart rate monitors, you can listen to tunes. In the 80s you couldn’t do that.”

And, like Paula, Ross thinks modern life makes marathons more appealing.

“From time to time, it’s kind of primal,” he says. “It’s me and a pair of shoes, I’m not thinking about work, I’m not doing a PowerPoint presentation, and I’ve still got it.

“You can think ‘my job sucks, I feel like crap, I’m getting old’ but once in a while you show up and still do 26 goddamn miles.”

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Ross Brennan

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Ross Brennan: a self-confessed ‘total geography nerd’

But – while that may explain running marathons – it doesn’t explain doing one in every state.

“Oh, I’m a total geography nerd,” admits Ross. “I love travelling in the US. It’s so heart-warming to turn up in a small town. The whole place welcomes you and it’s wonderful.

“There are banners, free ice creams at the ice cream parlour, a party in the city park… I need that reality check. It’s so much part of why I do it.”

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  • The man with 7,000 licence plates

At first, Ross didn’t realise he was collecting states.

He ran on holiday. He ran during work trips. But it was only when looking at his spreadsheet – all runners have a spreadsheet, it seems – he noticed he was covering the country, slowly but sorely.

Ross was helped by the rise of “series marathons”, when races are organised back-to-back over a week or so – often for people who want to complete all 50 states.

“The most I did was five in a week,” he says. “It was the Riverboat Series – Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, I think – four of which I hadn’t done before.”

Ross told his wife he wanted to run in 50 states only three years ago. “I did it in quite a subtle way,” he says. “It was like: ‘Here’s this thing I’m doing…'”

But when he flew to Hawaii to complete the set, his family came to watch him cross the line.

The date was 26 June 2016; his time was just under five hours. A journey that began 26 years earlier, 5,000 miles east, had ended.

He has now run 71 marathons and there are no plans to stop. “Even if I’m not planning to run, I’ll log onto Marathon Guide and see what’s out there.”

While that may be “eccentric”, as Ross says, it’s nothing compared to some members of the 50 State Marathons Club.

“I remember being on a shuttle bus in a race in Montana, or somewhere,” says Ross. “This guy said to me ‘It’s number 11.’

“I said ‘Cool – are you going to do all 50 states?’ He replied ‘No – I’ve done all 50 states. This is the 11th time round.'”

Bird hunters risk steep cliffs to catch gannets

The Faroe Islands are home to an impressive array of seabirds but there is only one colony of gannets, located on the most westerly island, Mykines. The young birds are considered a delicacy by the islanders. So, once a year, hunters abseil down the cliffs to catch the birds.

It takes eight fit men to carry the 150m of thick rope which will form the essential lifeline for the bird catchers.

As thick as a man’s wrist, it has to be lugged along a cliff-top path and then across a narrow gorge to the adjoining island of Mykinesholmur.

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Oscar Joensen lays out the long rope needed for the climb

Skirting a colony of chattering puffins outside their burrows, I followed the men for an hour towards the gannet cliffs, 150m high, and dropping almost vertically into the Atlantic swell.

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Carrying the rope out to the bird cliffs takes a strong team

As dusk fell I could see the ghostly white shapes of the adult birds, cruising silently above the darkening ocean.

About 50 men had taken the small ferry out to the island to help with the hunt, essential now that Mykines’s single village only has about a dozen full-time residents.

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Mykines village only has a dozen full-time residents

On a steep grassy incline we stopped to rest. In the half-light, food supplies were shared – bread and skerpikjot, fermented legs of lamb, which the men carved with sharp hunting knives at their belts.

Once it was dark, the final climb to the cliff edge where the birds nest began.

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Nesting gannets can be seen on the northerly cliffs of Mykinesholmur

One by one the men stepped into a simple harness cushioned with sheep’s wool, and abseiled backwards down the rock face.

The drop is sheer and within seconds they were out of sight. Once on a suitable ledge below, each of them removed the safety harness and the rope was hauled back up for the next man.

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Men from the rope team are needed to pull the hunters back up the cliffs

“Hiva! Hiva!” came the cry to pull together.

Once about a dozen men had been deposited on ledges out of sight, the rest of us could only wait, and in my case imagine the slaughter going on below.

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The constant wind chilled me to the bone, and groups of men lay in the grass through the darkest hours talking about the hunt, wondering how many sula, as they are called locally, would be caught. They seemed impervious to the cold, bred in a country where even in summer it rarely gets above 16C (60F).

The hunters were sanguine about the process.

“We look forward to the gannet hunt,” a young man named Johannus explained.

“The seabirds, the sheep and even the pilot whales which we catch occasionally are all part of the traditional Faroese diet. That’s our culture,” he insisted.

“We don’t want to depend on imported food from plastic packets and eat animals kept in captivity all of their lives.”

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This young gannet still has down rather than feathers, so it will be spared

At around 04:30 in the morning a watery dawn light crept across the sea, and we returned to the rope.

Slowly and with much effort, hundreds of dead birds tied by the neck in bunches were hauled up. These chicks, just a day or two away from flying for the first time, were large, over 4kg (8lb) in weight and perhaps 80cm (30in) tall.

And then the men came. They were an extraordinary sight, faces and hands sometimes as black as if they had been down a coalmine. Reeking of the oily, fishy smell of gannet guano, many had scratched hands and ripped clothes, caused by the birds’ spear-like beaks.

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A gannet’s nostrils are inside, rather than outside, its beak

The last man up was Espern, the island’s chief gannet catcher. Extraordinarily fit and strong he walked up the vertical cliff with the rope in one hand and two live gannets held by the neck in the other. A swift expert cut to the back of the neck and in a second the great grey creatures hung lifelessly from a beefy human hand.

But the night’s work was not over.

Now the birds had to be thrown from the cliffs into the sea to be picked up by a small fishing boat which would deliver them to the village jetty. Otherwise, in rougher weather, the men would have to carry the rope and climbing equipment as well as around 500 birds, all the way back to the village.

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A boat waits at the bottom of the cliffs to collect the birds

Later, after a hearty serving of soup, we were allowed to choose two birds each, as a reward for helping raise and lower the rope during the long cold night.

We had all been up for the best part of two days and a night, but everyone was in a good mood.

“Now you know what to do, you must come again next year,” said Johannus. “And maybe try going down the cliff next time.”

It was a generous offer. But I know I’m simply not brave enough.

All photographs by Tim Ecott

Wives wanted

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Athaya Slaetalid with husband Jan and their son Jacob

There’s a shortage of women in the Faroe Islands, so local men are increasingly seeking wives from further afield – Thailand and the Philippines in particular. But what’s it like for the brides who swap the tropics for this windswept archipelago?

Read: Wives wanted in the Faroe Islands (April 2017)

Join the conversation – find us on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter.

Militants kill Egyptian security forces in desert shoot-out

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The clash took place near the Bahariya oasis (pictured)

More than 50 Egyptian security personnel have died during a clash with suspected Islamist militants.

The militants opened fire on the group during a raid on their hideout near the Bahariya oasis in the Western Desert, the interior ministry said.

Security forces are understood to have gone into the desert following a tip-off about a possible hideout. Fifteen militants also died in the attack.

Egypt is currently fighting an Islamist insurgency in northern Sinai.

The Bahariya oasis where this attack took place, however, lies hundreds of kilometres south-west of the troubled region.

There has been no claim of responsibility by the Islamist groups active in the area.

An initial claim in Egyptian media linking Hasm, a smaller group, to the attack was later revealed to have been false.

A security source quoted by local news outlets said their convoy came under attack by militants using rocket-propelled grenades and explosive devices.

The situation was reportedly made worse for the security forces by the attackers’ familiarity with the area, while the commanding officer was unable to call for land and air reinforcements due to poor telecommunications in the desert.

In total, 53 members of the security service died, sources told the BBC.

Man arrested after knife attack in Munich

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Police said no motive had been established

German police have arrested a man in Munich after four people were lightly injured by a knife attacker.

Police said the suspect lashed out at five men and one woman around Rosenheimer Platz in the east of the city, but missed two of his targets.

A police spokeswoman said the detained man strongly resembled descriptions given by witnesses at the scene.

The suspect is said to have started attacking passers-by shortly after 06:00 local time (04:00 GMT).

“We have arrested a person who very strongly resembles the description by witnesses, but we cannot confirm that he is the attacker,” Munich police spokesman Marcus da Gloria Martins said.

Martins added that police had not been able to establish any motive for the attack. None of the victims suffered life-threatening injuries.

Witness accounts described the suspect as a man in his 40s, unshaven, with grey trousers and a green tracksuit top and carrying a backpack and sleeping mat.

Police said he fled the scene on a bicycle.

Trump’s Renoir painting is not real, Chicago museum says

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Art Institute of Chicago

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Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Two Sisters (On The Terrace)

A US museum says an Impressionist painting which President Donald Trump reportedly claims to own is a fake.

In a recent interview, Trump biographer Tim O’Brien said he was once told by the future president that his artwork was an original.

But the Chicago Institute of Art says the real painting, Two Sisters (On The Terrace) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, has hung in its gallery for 80 years.

A museum spokeswoman said “we have had this authentic painting” since 1933.

“We’re proud and grateful to be able to share this exceptional work of art with our 1.5 million visitors each year,” Amanda Hicks said in an email to the BBC.

The painting was given to the institute in 1933 from a donor who bought it for $100,000 (£76,000).

The donor acquired it from an art dealer who purchased it directly from the French Impressionist painter in 1881, she added.

But Mr O’Brien said during a recent interview with Vanity Fair’s Hive podcast that Mr Trump has repeatedly claimed to him that his version of the painting was authentic.

During a flight on Mr Trump’s private jet while he was writing his 2005 book, TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald, Mr O’Brien said he spotted the painting and asked about it.

“You know, that’s an original Renoir,” the author said Mr Trump had told him, adding that the property tycoon repeated the claim the following day.

“Donald, it’s not,” he recalled telling Trump. “I grew up in Chicago, that Renoir is called Two Sisters on the Terrace, and it’s hanging on a wall at the Art Institute of Chicago.

“That’s not an original.”

The artwork was later apparently moved to Trump Tower, the author said, noting that it was visible in the background of a CBS 60 Minutes interview that Mr Trump gave shortly after the presidential election.

“I’m sure he’s still telling people who come into the apartment, ‘It’s an original, it’s an original,'” Mr O’Brien said on the podcast.

Mr Trump sued Mr O’Brien for $5bn because the author wrote in TrumpNation that rather than being a billionaire, his net worth was actually as low as $150m.

The defamation lawsuit was dismissed.

Millions caught in South Africa’s ‘worst data breach’

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South Africa has been hit by what is described as the worst data breach in history

Authorities in South Africa are investigating a data breach which has seen the personal details of more than 30 million citizens leaked on the internet – placing them at risk of identity theft.

The information contained in a 27GB file was discovered by Australia-based internet security expert Troy Hunt earlier this week.

It contains their names, full identity numbers, income, gender, employment history, contact numbers and even home addresses.

South Africa’s population is about 54 million, so more than half of the country is affected by what has been described as the country’s worst leak of private data.

The country’s State Security Agency (SSA) would not be drawn into discussing the implications of such a breach and whether it could threaten security.

“We are looking in to the matter. There is an investigation. We are obviously very concerned,” SSA spokesperson Brian Dube told the BBC.

“It’s important to us to get to the bottom of this, see how it came about and do whatever we have to do, to deal with it,” he said.

Local newspaper, The Times, is reporting that the breach has even reached senior politicians, including President Jacob Zuma, but this has not been confirmed.

What could go wrong?

There are many unknowns.

According to Mr Hunt, the file dates back to April 2015 but it is not clear how long the information was on the internet prior to his find.

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The file has since been removed but it is not clear how many people have already accessed it

The information could have been accessed by anyone from anywhere in the world if they knew what to look for.

Experts say this is the sort of data that companies would pay good money for.

Mr Hunt said on Twitter this week that the data breach “is one of the worst I’ve ever seen on many levels”.

The server of a property company called Jigsaw Holdings appears to be the source of the breach, this was traced through an IP address, according to local reports.

While Jigsaw has not been available for comment, it is not believed the cyber breach was a result of malice or negligence.

What happens now?

Some local newspapers have been calling for South Africans to use Mr Hunt’s website haveibeenpwned which works by checking one’s email address to see if their account has been compromised.

I took his advice. I’ve been using a private email address for years which I have always believed to be secure – but it turns out I’m in the 30 million.

It is not clear what happens now and perhaps that is the part that is most unnerving – do you wait until you are a target? Will you be a target? Do you warn your credit providers? Or simply do nothing?

So what’s the risk?

The publisher of Stuff Magazine, a technology magazine in South Africa, says in the wrong hands, the information could be used to impersonate people.

“All of this information could be used to open a bank account, a credit card account and they would use it knowing that someone will else have to pay for it when the bill comes,” Radio 702 quotes Toby Shapshak as saying.

He also speculated in the same interview that as many as 60 million people have had their personal data compromised, if you include the details of people who have died.

Time to panic?

South Africa’s banking institutions are said to be among the safest in the world, but they could be caught off-guard if the information was misused.

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Experts say cyber crime is still not taken as seriously as conventional crime despite its links in some cases to terrorism

It is said to be the largest leak of the details of private citizens in the country’s history – and yet it seems to have gone largely undetected.

There is no outcry.

But Mr Shapshak says South Africans “should panic”.

“Yes the data may be five years old but our ID numbers stay the same, our employment history stays the same and these are the sort of things that make it possible to create fake identities. It is a serious problem and I’m not being paranoid.”

Experts say cyber crime is still not taken as seriously as conventional crime, even though it can be used to fund all sorts of illicit activities including terrorism. While the possibility of identity theft could open a whole new door for criminals here.

“It’s too early to say anything at this moment… There are a lot of reports going around, but we are concerned and looking into it,” said Mr Dube.

And so we wait – and hope that the right people are doing all the right things to protect the country’s citizens from those who live on the dark web.

Players ‘applaud’ Xi Jinping in Tencent game

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Users “clap” for Mr Xi by tapping their phone screen

A smartphone game in which players can “applaud” Chinese president Xi Jinping has gone viral.

The app, released in the week of the Communist Party Congress, lets users clap for Mr Xi by tapping their phone screen as many times as possible in 19 seconds.

The game, from Tencent, has racked up 1.2 billion plays in three days.

Public displays of loyalty to the president are commonplace in China and have intensified ahead of the congress.

The closed-door summit, which ends on Tuesday, will determine who rules China and the country’s political direction.

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President Xi gave a speech lasting three and a half hours to the Communist Party Congress

Mr Xi, who is widely expected to be re-appointed as leader, opened the summit with a speech lasting three and a half hours, in which he said China had entered a “new era” and should “take centre stage in the world”.

In the Tencent game, users are shown extracts of the speech on topics such as regulating the housing market to protect young homebuyers, or improving the lives of poor farmers.

They are then encouraged to tap the screen to see how fast they can “applaud”.

Many have challenged friends to compete and shared their scores on social media.

On Thursday, Tencent said players had clapped over a billion times in total so far.

‘Cult of personality’

It is not the first time apps have been used to encourage political loyalty in China.

The Communist Party has released more than 100 for its members, featuring quizzes and classes that promote its values.

Public displays of loyalty to the president are also commonplace in China, with Mr Xi’s face appearing prominently on billboards and souvenirs sold in tourist areas.

Top officials also often publicly praise his ideology – although this has led some to warn that Mr Xi is creating a cult of personality around himself to entrench his position.

Since taking office in 2012, Mr Xi has taken steps to cement his leadership including a wide-reaching corruption crackdown, likened by some to a political purge.

The Communist Party is widely expected to rewrite its constitution next week to enshrine his political ideology – dubbed “Xi Jinping Thought”.

The move would elevate him to the level of previous leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

Czech election: Billionaire Andrej Babis poised to win

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Andrej Babis’s ANO (Yes) party is predicted to win the biggest share of the vote

Czechs are voting in a two-day general election in which the favourite is a populist billionaire who has campaigned on an anti-establishment platform.

Andrej Babis, 63, is estimated to be worth $4 billion (£3bn) making him the country’s second richest man.

His centrist ANO (Yes) party has a wide lead in the polls but is not expected to secure a majority.

Its current coalition partner, the centre-left Social Democrats (CSSD), is polling in second place.

Polls opened at 14:00 local time (12:00 GMT) and close at 22:00 (20:00 GMT). They will open again on Saturday morning and close in the afternoon.

Andrej Babis’s party, which has campaigned on an anti-establishment, anti-EU and anti-corruption basis, is predicted to win the biggest share of the vote.

Far-right and far-left parties are also predicted to make gains.

This will put Mr Babis, who has faced numerous scandals including a fraud indictment and accusations he was a communist-era police agent, in pole position to become prime minister as part of a coalition.

If his party secures a majority, it is not known who Mr Babis will seek to form a government with.

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Outgoing leader Bohuslav Sobotka (R) has had a turbulent relationship with Andrej Babis (L)

Currently, Social Democrat Bohuslav Sobotka heads a coalition formed after a 2013 snap election. This was triggered by the fall of the centre-right government of Petr Necas over a spying, sex and bribery scandal earlier in the year.

In May, Mr Sobotka submitted his government’s resignation because of a disagreement with Andrej Babis, who was serving as finance minister at the time.

He was unhappy about alleged unexplained business dealings involving Mr Babis.

Japan’s snap election explained – BBC News

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Japan is heading to the polls on Sunday in a snap election called by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

He called the vote in September, saying he was seeking a fresh mandate to overcome “a national crisis” amid rising threats from North Korea.

His decision came at a time when his approval rating had just rebounded from a record low over the summer, and with the political opposition largely in disarray.

Mr Abe is widely expected to win the vote which would put him on track to becoming the longest-serving political leader in Japan’s post-war history.

What are the choices?

Incumbent Shinzo Abe from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is campaigning on a tough stance on security and North Korea, and a focus on social policies at home.

After a short-lived first stint as prime minister in 2006, he returned to power after a landslide election win in 2012. However, his sweeping promises to lift the economy out of years of stagnation have proved difficult to fulfil.

He is also backing a full return to nuclear power, a policy that has been unpopular in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster.

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Many Japanese people remain opposed to nuclear power

Traditionally, the main challenger to the LDP would have been the Democratic Party but the party went through a tumultuous leadership struggle in July and in late September entirely fell apart.

Its former members are now running as independent candidates or for other small parties, the most notable one being the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ) formed only earlier this month.

Mr Abe faces though a new challenge from a former LDP cabinet member and current Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, who in September launched a new national party.

Yet the initial strong public support has since faltered, in part because Ms Koike decided not to run herself and because there was little time to prepare its election campaign.

Her Party of Hope’s are not too different from that of conservative incumbent Abe has to offer but differ by promising to freeze a planned sales tax hike and to exit nuclear power by 2030.

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Though not running herself, Yuriko Koike remains a future challenger to Mr Abe

The president’s former ally is still considered a potential future challenger to the LDP and might well run in the next general election after this one.

Why snap elections?

Analysts see the snap vote as Mr Abe’s attempt to ride his resurgent support to victory by exploiting the weakness of the opposition.

For months earlier in the year, Mr Abe’s popular support had been badly hit by a string of scandals and unpopular policies.

  • He was accused of using his influence to help a friend secure approval to open a private university – a claim he denies
  • He was accused of links to an ultra-nationalistic school that was sold government land at a fraction of its value – another claim he denies
  • He pushed for a shift in Japan’s post-war pacifist defence policy, calling for formal recognition of the military in the constitution
  • He introduced a widely criticised anti-terror law

In July, his ratings had dropped to less than 30% but then recovered and surged back to above 50% in September.

The slump in ratings had also put pressure on Mr Abe from within his own party and a strong result on Sunday would likely silence the rivals within his camp.

What do the polls say?

The past weeks’ polls have consistently shown Mr Abe in the lead. Latest numbers see his LDP taking around 300 of the lower house’s 465 seats.

With his current junior coalition partners Komeito polling at more than 30 seats, the next Abe government would be able to maintain its two-thirds majority needed for any changes to the constitution.

Following Japan’s defeat in World War Two, the country’s constitution bars the military from using force to resolve international conflicts except in cases of self-defence.

Mr Abe wants to change the constitution so that Japanese troops can be more easily deployed as part of international missions with its allies around the globe.

Ms Koike’s New Hope party is expected to take around 50 seats, coming in a very distant second.

However, polls are not always reliable, and calling snap elections carries plenty of risks.

In the UK, a similar plan by Prime Minister Theresa May backfired badly when, unexpectedly, she lost the majority and was forced into a coalition to remain in power.