Category Archives: Politics & Society

China Considers Overseas Counterterrorism Special Ops

BEIJING IS CONSIDERING with renewed urgency law to authorize counterterrorism operations beyond its borders. One of the provisions of its controversial proposed anti-terrorism legislation, Article 76, would let People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and state and public security forces operate in other countries with the approval of that country.

A draft of the new law was circulated late last year. Primarily focused on combating domestic terrorism, the draft has been criticized by human rights organizations for its broad definition of terrorism. The execution of a Chinese citizen held by Islamic State for ransom, which Beijing’s apparent efforts failed to avert, and the siege in Mali in which three China Railway Construction Corp. managers were killed have given new impetus to enacting the draft law to provide the PLA with the legal authority its commanders desire if they are to conduct counterterrorism operations abroad.

Details of what overseas counter-terrorism operations could be undertaken are not laid out in any detail, in the manner of draft Chinese law. Article 76 says no more than:

Given that the proposed law includes ‘thought, speech or actions’ that seek to ‘influence national policy making’ as possible acts of terrorism, it potentially provides authorities with broad latitude abroad as well as at home. However, regardless of what is finally put into law, and, more critically, implemented — and it is highly unlikely that Beijing would be anything but ultra-cautious in embarking on overseas counterterrorism missions, even in lawless areas of the world where Chinese citizens are in harm’s way — carrying out any such operations will be challenging even with the cooperation of other countries.

Chinese military and security forces have scant experience of the political, cultural and operational constraints on such work beyond their borders despite the country’s extensive domestic security apparatus. Flushing out suspected terrorists with flamethrowers before shooting them, as reportedly happened recently in Xinjiang, would not necessarily be acceptable elsewhere.

It was only in late 2013 that the PLA sent its first detachment of armed personnel abroad to join a UN peacekeeping force, a deployment of 170 soldiers (now increased to 400) — in Mali, as it happens. Previously, Beijing’s peacekeeping contributions had concentrated on logistical and medical support, as it has done in the international anti-piracy operation off the Horn of Africa.

The PLA-Navy has, though, in recent years undertaken evacuations of Chinese citizens from Libya in 2011 and Yemen earlier this year. In 2011, it engaged in combined operations with Thailand, Myanmar and Laos on the Mekong river against drug runners.

Operations a few metres offshore are obviously very different from sending special forces or even intelligence teams on counter-terrorism missions a few thousand kilometres away. However, providing a legal framework for doing so would signal a change in both foreign policy and military doctrine.

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China’s Islamic State Dilemma

THE KILLING OF a Chinese hostage by the self-described Islamic State poses a dilemma for Beijing. It does not want to get dragged into the Syria-Iraq front of a war on terror it does not see as its fight and in which at best it would be a junior partner, not the equal on the world stage that it wishes to portray itself as. At the same time, it needs to preserve the narrative that Mother China — for which read the Party – looks after all its citizens when they venture abroad.

It is unclear under what circumstances Fan Jinghui fell into Islamic State’s hands. Described as a freelance consultant from Beijing, he was captured in September, according to Islamic State, which demanded a ransom for his release. That he has perished shocked Chinese. President Xi Jinping said in Manila, where he is attending the APEC summit, that terrorism was the “common enemy of humanity” and that “the Chinese government is opposed to all forms of terrorism, and will firmly crack down on any violent and terrorist activities.”

There have been unconfirmed reports that China is considering joining the Russian-led coalition against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, but at best any presence is likely to be token and focused on humanitarian operations. China’s foreign minister Wang Yi summed up Beijing’s dilemma when he told the UN Security Council session in New York earlier this month that “the world cannot afford to stand by and look on with folded arms, but must also not arbitrarily interfere”.

What Xi’s condemnation may turn out to mean is a further crackdown on Uighurs on the excuse that a handful of the Muslim minority in Xinjiang has gone to fight for Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. On Friday, state media said that security forces had disbanded a ‘terrorist group’ in Xinjiang that was “directly guided by an overseas extremists group”, and during the 56-day operation had killed 28 people allegedly responsible for a deadly attack on the Sogan coal mine in Asku on September 18 in which 16 people died. Update: Flamethrowers were used to flush out militants hiding in a cave, who were then shot, according to the BBC.

Update: Chinese are reportedly among hostages taken by an al-Qaida-affiliated group that attacked a Radisson hotel in Mali on Friday. Later update: Three China Railway Construction Corp. managers were among the 21 hostages reported killed in the siege; four other Chinese hostages survived.

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Hu Next?

Guangdong party chief Hu Chunhua THE CRITICAL PROMOTIONS for China’s next generation of leaders are still a year away when five of the seven Politburo Standing Committee members reach mandatory retirement age, but the jockeying for position will be continuing at the party plenum now being held.

One of the front-runners to be the country’s next president, Hu Chunhua (left), is taking a leaf out of the incumbent Xi Jinping’s playbook for how to become China’s top leader. Hu has been talked of for several years as a likely successor to Xi, but the Guangdong Party boss is maintaining an ultra-low profile, just as Xi did as he eased ahead of the early front-runner to succeed President Hu Jintao, the now prime minister Li Keqiang.

In many ways, Guangdong is the bellwether for China’s economic reform. Hu’s success — or otherwise — in restructuring the provincial economy and sustaining the economic parity of its capital, Guangzhou, with Beijing and Shanghai will be a litmus test of whether he could do the same with whole economy — and whether he could do so while maintaining social stability in a rich, coastal and relatively liberal province that looks more like tomorrow’s China than the under-developed tough-to-govern inland provinces that Hu has previously run.

Hu has pursued cautious economic reform in Guangdong since taking over at the end of 2012 from the sloganeering Wang Yang. He has promoted unglamorous small and medium-sized businesses but also been careful to align with the edicts of central leadership. Hu’s policies for the province have echoed Xi’s line about the “quality and efficiency” of economic growth and in setting lower growth targets. He has promoted the move up the value chain by Guangdong’s manufacturers and into services while moving labour intensive businesses into poor inland districts.

His predecessor Wang’s setbacks — he failed to get promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee at the November 2012 party congress at around the same time as the high-flying Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai was being brought low — will not have been lost on Hu. He has already survived two incidents that could easily have finished a political career.

He was governor of Hebei when the tainted baby formula scandal started there. In his next job, party chief in Inner Mongolia, violent protests broke out against the destruction of traditional Mongol grazing lands by Han-controlled mining interests. Hu cracked down on these and tripled per capita income in his five years but established a dubious record on environmentalism, a factor that now weighs more heavily in political calculations for promotion.

There is no doubt that Hu’s rise has been rapid. A staff position with the Communist Youth League (CYL) in Tibet in 1983 led to governor of Hebei province in 2008, party boss of Inner Mongolia by 2010 and then the same role in a high-profile province, Guangdong, in 2012 along with promotion to the Politburo. In 1996-99, Hu studied for a master’s degree in economics at the Central Party School, where officials marked out for future high office get sent.

Still in his early 50s he is young even by the standards of the prospective sixth generation of leaders. A career in the CYL, where he became a protege of Hu Jintao (no relation), is the bureaucrat’s rather than a princeling’s to power.

Hu has demonstrated both the caution and the orthodoxy of officialdom and his deeper policy beliefs remain somewhat obscure. Both in Tibet and Inner Mongolia, he took a hard line on security and in Guangdong, which has long had a more vibrant local press than most of the rest of China, he has been criticised for tightening censorship.

Hu has also cracked down on Guangdong’s drugs and sex industries and gone after officials who have done well enough out of their offices to be able to keep and support their families abroad. Hu has bought some 800 ‘luoguan’ to book, again moves in line with Xi’s anti-corruption drive.

Bo’s disgrace opened avenues for loyalists, down which Hu has advanced. Whether he completes the journey to the highest offices may turn on the influence that Hu Jintao can wield in the inevitable factional horse-trading. The corruption charges against another Hu Jintao protege, Wan Qingliang, the party boss of Guangzhou, may suggest Xi is constraining his predecessor, even if not as publicly as he is Hu Jintao’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin.

It will also depend on Hu’s own ability to keep his head down and out of trouble and Guangdong’s economy thriving.

A third factor, unknown at this point, is where Xi will come down. Will he consider Hu’s conservatism and reformist credentials suitable to carry on his policies? Will he back a fellow princeling or acknowledge that the presidency is due to return to Hu Jintao’s CYL faction?

Hu is regarded as a Hu Jintao version two and is familiarly known as ‘Little Hu’. Both men come from humble backgrounds. Hu was the son of a poor farmer in Hubei who made it to the elite Beijing University, where he took a bachelor’s degree in Chinese language and history, by dint of outstanding exam scores. Both were student leaders in their university days, rose through the CYL and cut their political teeth in troublesome provinces with ethnic minority populations, Gansu and Tibet, in the elder Hu’s case, Tibet and Inner Mongolia in the younger Hu’s case. Unusually for a senior Han official, he speaks fluent Tibetan. He also doesn’t die his hair.

Politically, they a both low-key, consensual leaders who advocate policies of social justice and economic equality. Both of those may be in tune with the party’s needs in 2022 when Xi’s successor starts to take over, and some rough edges to China’s economic rebalancing will be in need of smoothing.

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Settlement And Security In Xinjiang

REPORTS EMERGING FROM Xinjiang about a deadly attack at a coal mine by suspected Uighur separatists in mid-September have got this Bystander thinking of that peculiar state organization, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC). Also known as the Bingtuan (‘military corps’), the XPCC is a paramilitary economic development agency that has widespread administrative and judicial authority in the semi-autonomous region.

Some 50 people were reportedly knifed to death in the attack on the Sogan colliery in Aksu prefecture. Most of the casualties were Han Chinese, including workers and police. If the casualty numbers and identity of the attackers turn out to be true, it would have been both the most deadly single attack by Uighur militants and the first time they had struck at an industrial site.

Politburo member Yu Zhengsheng, speaking at the 60th anniversary celebrations on October 1 of Xinjiang’s founding as an autonomous region, said that long-term stability and security is the top priority in Xinjiang, with counterterrorism as its focus.

“We must be fully aware of the severe situation we are facing,” he said probably with the attack in mind though authorities have not acknowledged that it has happened. “The three forces (separatism, terrorism, and extremism) are the biggest threats for Xinjiang… We must clench our fists tight and take the initiative to crack down on violence and terror activities.”

Aksu prefecture is one 14 areas in Xinjiang that have cities, settlements, and farms under the control of an XPCC regiment, belying its military roots. The headquarters of the regiment in Aksu is in Aral, a town of more than 200,000 people built by the XPCC on the edge of the Taklamakan desert. The prefectural capital of Aksu is Aksu City, a stop on the ancient Silk Road that is little more than a three-hour drive from Aral in the direction of the border with Kyrgyzstan.

The XPCC dates back to the 1950s. It was a Mao Zedong initiative, rooted in a centuries-old tradition of sending military units to settle and cultivate remote border regions. The aim was to combine the economic development of frontier regions with border defense and the keeping of minorities from being troublesome. Production and Construction Corps, comprised of former soldiers, were dispatched to Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang as well as Xinjiang.

The XPCC fell victim to the Cultural Revolution, being disbanded in 1975. However, Deng Xiaoping revived it in 1981 in response to fears about Soviet encirclement and rising militant Islam in Central Asia. Turkic-speaking, Muslim-majority Xinjiang was seen as a vulnerable frontier.

There was forced migration from the East, particularly of women to provide wives for the soldier-farmers. The region’s remoteness and harshness also made it ideal for political banishment. Ai Qing, the poet father of artist Ai Weiwei, was exiled to a Bingtuan-run penal colony in the late 1950s. Generations of dissidents have followed him to labour-reform farms and prison factories.

To this day, the XPCC has a role with the army and armed police in combating separatism through its militia. Nonetheless, its line of authority is civilian, jointly to central and provincial government, though the Xinjiang authorities leave the Bingtuan to its own devices. The corps has a bureaucratic status equivalent to that of the provincial government.

It is a state within a state, its role a blend of American Peace Corps and West Bank settlers. The analogy with Israel is appropriate in another way. The Bingtuan has made the desert bloom. Over the years, it has built the irrigation and other rural infrastructure that lets its farms, stockbreeding, and commercial enterprises now generate upwards of an estimated $24 billion or one-sixth to one-seventh of Xinjiang’s economic output.

The Bingtuan has also built half a dozen cities. It is a far cry from the early days of hunger and hardship when teams of ex-soldiers would yoke themselves together to pull ploughs by hand to break the desert soil.

As of the end of 2013, the Bingtuan had 176 regiments, 14 divisions, an area of 70,600 square kilometers under its administration. More than a million hectares of farmland and more than 2.7 million people — overwhelmingly Han Chinese and equivalent to one in eight of Xinjiang’s total population — fall under the XPCC’s jurisdiction.

Its 1-million-strong workforce is primarily engaged in growing cotton, fruit and vegetables and in light industry, the XPCC having handed most of its mining interests over to the Xinjiang provincial authorities.

It has more than 4,400 businesses ranging from food processing to paper manufacturing, cement and electricity, with 11 of them publicly listed and trading under the umbrella of the China Xinjian Group. It also runs two universities.

Increasingly it is building cities. It controls ten, four of which have become cities since 2011. Urbanization is a central prop of the XPCC’s counter-terrorism strategy. In April last year, President Xi Jinping visited the Bingtuan and called to strengthen its role due to meet what he called the new conditions. As the Sogan colliery attack shows, the mission of the soldier-settler-farmer-colonists is far from complete.

Footnote: This history of the Bingtuan was produced by the government in 2014 to mark the 60th anniversary of the XPCC’s founding.

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Bangkok Bomb’s Possible Uighur Connection Presages New Crackdown

SUSPICION, IF SCANT hard evidence, is growing that there is a Chinese Uighur connection to the bombing of the Erawan shrine in the Thai capital Bangkok last month.

Thai police say that an alleged accomplice to the still-fugitive bomber had in his possession when captured near the Cambodian border a Chinese passport identifying him as Yusufu Mieraili, born in Xinjiang, home to China’s Turkic Muslim Uighur minority. Unnamed Chinese officials have declared to state media that Mieraili is a member of the Muslim separatist East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM).

Thai authorities said at the weekend that they had issued a warrant for the arrest of the suspected organiser of the plot, whom they named as Abudusataer Abudureheman, a 27-year-old from Xinjiang. He is reported to have fled Thailand.

Muddying the picture is reports of Malaysian police arresting three people suspected of helping the bombers leave Thailand. They are two Malaysians and a Pakistani.

Authorities in Beijing are known to be watching the case closely. If, as it is being suggested, the bombing was retaliation for Thailand’s repatriation to China in July of 100 Uighurs, then it would provide Beijing with vindication — at last — for its long-standing claim that the ETIM is an international terrorist threat.

The group, which Washington, at Beijing’s urging, also put on its list of foreign terrorist organizations post-9/11 but now seems to have quietly dropped, wants an independent East Turkistan state stretching from Xinjiang somewhat indeterminately westwards. Most of the 8 million Uighurs live in Xinjiang, but the diaspora spreads to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey and a lesser extent beyond.

East Turkistan has had two brief periods as an independent state. Mao’s revolution put an end to that. In 1955, it was declared to be China’s Xinjiang autonomous region.

Uighur militants have been fighting a low-key war with Beijing for years. More recently, particularly since late 2013, they have been able to extend attacks beyond Xinjiang, despite a hardening security crackdown on Uighurs in the region. The Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), which may be a splinter cell from ETIM or the ETIM in another incarnation, claimed responsibility for fatal attacks in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and notably Kunming, where 33 people, including four of eight knife-wielding attackers, died at the railway station. In Urumqi, a car bomb killed 42 people including all four attackers, all believed to be Uighurs.

However, the opaque and obscure ETIM, which was first heard of around 1997, has scarcely shown the capacity to operate across international borders with any consistency, if at all. One of its founders, who moved the organization in the late 1990s from Xinjiang to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, was reportedly killed shortly after in a U.S. drone strike against al-Qaeda bases; another languishes in a Chinese jail.

Its current leader is reputedly Abdullah Mansour, although little is known about him or the rest of the leadership. Mansour told the Reuters news agency last year that it was his Islamic duty to fight China. However, it seems more focused on the Middle East than the Middle Kingdom. A ‘Turkistan brigade’ of foreign fighters, including Uzbeks, is reportedly in Syria alongside al-Qaeda aligned forces, supported by militant Uighurs in Turkey.

It is nigh impossible to know the strength of the ETIM though it probably numbers in the low hundreds. Reuters news agency quoted Pakistan intelligence sources as putting the number at 400. More than 20 Uighurs captured by the U.S. in 2001 in Afghanistan fighting with the Taliban were held for several years in Guantanamo Bay. Once released, they were not repatriated to China by the United States. Pakistan, however, has been readier to hand over captured Uighurs to Beijing.

As in other parts of the western Marches, minorities have long complained of the Han colonisation of the regions in which they have traditionally lived, a suppression of their religions and cultures, and a worsening of their economic prospects compared to the newcomers. Shortly after the revolution, in 1953, three-quarters of Xinjiang’s inhabitants were Uighur. In the latest published census (2000) they accounted for barely two-fifths. Beijing says its sole intention is to promote economic development.

If indeed the Bangkok attack is Uighur-related, Beijing is likely grab with both hands the opportunity to jump on any signs of separatism in Xinjiang regardless of whether the ultimate instigators of the Bangkok bombing were the ETIM or sympathizers in Xinjiang or Turkey.

Separatism is a prime fear of Beijing’s and provokes well-armed counterterrorism measures whenever it is perceived. Stability in Xinjiang is a particular concern. The region is not only mineral- and energy-rich, but it is also a critical corridor through which the One Belt (New Silk Road) of the One Belt One Road project passes.

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Tianjin Blasts: Shaking Up Environmental Disaster Denial

THE CITY OF Tianjin is facing an environmental disaster of unknown proportions following the double explosion at the Ruihai International Logistics warehouse on Wednesday. The presence of sodium cyanide, which combines with water to form deadly hydrogen cyanide gas, has been acknowledged along with calcium carbide, potassium nitrate and sodium nitrate — all industrial chemicals whose impact on the population of the northeastern port city may be felt through illness and shortened lives for generations to come.

For the leadership, failure to deal with the aftermath of this tragedy that has cost at least 112 lives with hundreds more injured could be just as toxic. At risk is public trust in the Party to look after the people.

Industrial accidents are commonplace in China, even in large cities. Yet the power of the second blast in particular and the amount of dramatic video footage seen on social media before the inevitable media clampdown puts this one into a class of its own.

By way of comparison, the Jilin chemical plant explosion in 2005, one of China’s worst comparable man-made disasters, killed six and the injuries were in the dozens. However, pollution of the Songhua River was severe. Harbin, 400 kilometers downstream, had to cut off the public water supply to avoid poisoning its residents. Environment agency minister Xie Zhenhua was eventually sacked.

The initial official response to Jilin was to cover it up. That has been the go-to response for authorities to any environmental disaster until the evidence can no longer be ignored. Officials did not admit to the Bohai Bay oil spill in 2011 until a month after it had happened.

A nationwide check ordered on dangerous chemicals and explosives following the Tianjin blasts and a blanket order to officials to enforce safety regulations seems like bolting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Even worse will be if authorities react in their customary way and pursue a carefully managed information blackout.

Signs are not encouraging. Social media accounts and websites are already being closed down; state media is starting to craft a narrative around the laxness of businesses and workers that officials will address.

Even in these early days a finger is being pointed at Ruihai for keeping inadequate records of what was on site, following inadequate storage procedures or turning a blind eye to what safety regulations there are. Regulations keeping public transport and housing at a specific distance from dangerous industrial sites were ignored or flouted by officials.

The first-responder firefighters were ill-informed, inadequately trained and equipped, or all three. Suggestions that attempts to put out an initial fire with water inadvertently caused the chemical reactions that produced the subsequent blasts seem well founded, though, again, this Bystander cautions against early judgments on limited information. Whatever the circumstances turn out to have been, firefighters have paid a heavy toll in human life.

Assurances by officials that air and water quality levels in Tianjin are safe have been met with incredulity by residents. The 3-kilometre evacuation zone imposed on Friday will have done nothing to diminish concerns, any more than the earlier shutting off sewers to stop discharge into Bohai Bay. Many residents already know the water they drink and the air their breathe are polluted enough.

China has long disregarded environmental and public health whenever untrammelled economic development was at risk. Pockets of populations with abnormally high cancer rates in some of the most polluted areas bear silent testimony to that. The Party has seen the delivery of ever higher living standards to the broad population as the basis of its claim to a monopoly on political power.

For most Chinese, higher living standards increasingly include quality of life, not merely the quantity of material well-being — simple things like clean air and water and neighbourhoods that don’t explode.

This Bystander would like to think that the legacy of the Tianjin disaster would be that it was the one that caused that penny to drop for the authorities. That is likely wishful thinking. Scapegoats will again be found; rescue efforts will be lionized; online critics will be silenced. The policy and institutional reforms needed to ensure there is no repeat will not be carried out with the same vigour.


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Beside The Seaside, Beyond The Grave

Mystery surrounds this year’s annual Beihaide meeting. Mystery surrounds every Beihaide meeting. It is a secretive, closed-door gathering of past and present senior officials who turn up at the salubrious Hebei seaside resort around August 10 each year.

There are unconfirmed reports that this year’s meeting was cancelled or that it was held early, ostensibly to accommodate preparations for President Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington next month. Most likely it has been scaled back and downplayed in importance this year.

The traditional significance of the meeting is that it allows the leaders of the factions and interest groups within the Party informally to discuss policy in a way that both ensures collective buy-in and brokers the constraints on the actions of both the top leadership and those not supporting their policies.

Beihaide meetings can bring final consensus to thorny policy questions. The ending of the one-child policy followed a Beihaide meeting and, our man on the seashore assures us, a lot of the questions about the public face of dealing with the disgraced Bo Xilai were fixed there.

This year’s agenda, as far as anyone knows, was meant to include approval of the draft 13th five-year plan. That would already have been agreed in outline by the Politburo but the Beihaide meeting would set the tone for the priorities and pace of implementation that will be contained in the final draft to be presented to the Party Congress plenum in October for rubber-stamping.

Similarly, discussions would likely be held on how to deal with the economic slowdown, reforming state-owned enterprises (and their embedded vested interests), and how far  Xi’s crackdown on corruption should be allowed to run in the current economic circumstances.

However, most critically, Beihaide has provided an effective forum for former leaders to continue exerting power and influence long after they have retired from office. Former President Jiang Zemin would be a prime example, and one who the very pinnacle of official mouthpieces, the People’s Daily, obliquely suggested should stay retired from active politics.

It is an open secret that Xi has found Jiang an obstacle to his extension of control over every aspect of the party, government, and state. Xi is said to be annoyed that the excesses of Jiang’s drive for untrammeled economic growth when he was president are having to be cleaned up on his watch, from corruption and cronyism to environmental degradation. It is no accident that many of the biggest tigers snared by Xi’s anti-corruption campaign have connections to the Jiang faction.

Bringing down a former president would be a reach too far, even for Xi, who may also be betting that time will do the job for him. Jiang is 88, and indeed rumoured on more than one occasion to have died.

Much of the political turmoil that seems to be churning at the top of Chinese politics despite the official narrative of Xi’s consolidated grip on power may best be explained by Jiang trying to secure the legacy of his Shanghai faction come the day when he has to wield his influence not from beside the seaside but from beyond the grave.

The loyal Politburo members Jiang had left in place after he left office in 2002 were certainly an impediment to scaling back of the state-owned-enterprise-led model of infrastructure investment when Xi’s predecessors, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, first tried. Their influence has since waned and Xi has sought to diminish it further. The question is whether it will survive at all once Jiang is gone.

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