China’s Nationalist Heritage

WHAT DOES China want? As the country’s remarkable rise continues and as Beijing’s interests seem to clash more frequently with those of its neighbors and the United States, the answer grows ever more important for American policy makers. Recently, a civilian analyst at the U.S. Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii sought to shed light on the issue. The analyst, Timothy R. Heath, braved the notoriously turgid prose in Chinese official documents and identified the stated “desired end state” for the country. It is wrapped up in the term “national rejuvenation.”

This end state is codified in the work of incoming Chinese Communist Party (CCP) general secretary Xi Jinping, the successor of Hu Jintao, and in recent editions of the Chinese constitution. In the near term, according to authoritative CCP documents, achieving national rejuvenation will require that China assuage international concerns about its rise while strengthening its sovereignty over disputed areas on land and at sea. This may explain the apparent contradiction, a source of consternation in the West, between Beijing’s claim to be pursuing “peaceful development” and its assertive foreign-policy behavior—for instance, in the East and South China Seas. But the question of what national rejuvenation means over the longer term goes deeper—and remains unanswered.
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Even in the absence of an official explanation from the CCP, it is at least possible to consider the origins and evolution of the term. Despite its currency today, national rejuvenation is not an invention of the party. Its pedigree in China actually dates back to the formative period of Chinese nationalism, from the latter stages of the nineteenth century through the early twentieth century. But it was repopularized by Premier Zhao Ziyang at the Thirteenth Party Congress under Deng Xiaoping in 1987. It then became a watchword during the tenures of Deng’s two successors as CCP general secretary, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. As the Harvard historian Mark Elliott has pointed out, use of the term increased dramatically, both in official party language and in the popular culture, over the last decade, starting in 2001 when Jiang declared that the party was leading the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” There followed a popular CCTV television series, a three-volume book and a “song-and-dance epic” at the National Theater, all called the “Road to Rejuvenation.” In March 2011, a permanent exhibit with the same name opened at the National Museum of China in Beijing. The preface to the exhibit concludes, “Today, the Chinese nation is standing firm in the east, facing a brilliant future of great rejuvenation. The long-cherished dream and aspiration of the Chinese people will surely come to reality.” In the course of a single 2011 speech marking the one hundredth anniversary of the 1911 Chinese revolution, Hu mentioned rejuvenation twenty-three times. It was Chinese nationalists who took power following that revolution, and understanding their worldview turns out to be a critical requirement in order to fill out the picture of national rejuvenation.

Up to now, Chinese nationalism has been invoked generically to explain China’s conduct in territorial and resource disputes, as well as in international forums such as climate-change negotiations. Its historical roots and content, however, have seldom been discussed. Instead, nationalism is treated as an abstract force that compels CCP elites to lash out against, for example, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam or the United States. It also compels these Chinese elites to stand tough in the face of foreign complaints about China’s behavior. But what, specifically, do today’s Chinese nationalists believe? Is Chinese nationalism a matter of pride in China’s achievements, and therefore inwardly focused? Or is it other-directed, necessarily involving comparisons with other states? What does Chinese nationalism say about where China is today and where it is going?

TO ADDRESS these questions, it is necessary to understand the links between contemporary Chinese nationalism and the work of late nineteenth-centuryand early twentieth-century Chinese thinkers who sought to restore their country to greatness after a series of devastating defeats in the waning years of the Qing dynasty. The perspective of these pioneering Chinese nationalists was in turn shaped by their contact with Japanese nationalism, itself a product of Japan’s exposure to nineteenth-century European thought, especially social Darwinism. Today’s Chinese nationalism still bears the hallmarks of illiberal imperial Japanese and European worldviews, and this is likely not only to generate turbulence in China’s external relations but also to exacerbate challenges for the CCP at home.

Without this critical historical context, extreme interpretations of today’s Chinese nationalism threaten to create more confusion than understanding. One such interpretation, articulated by prominent Japanese and Indian sources, among others, recalls the Nazi German quest for lebensraum. China is said to be pursuing its own lebensraum policy, driven by a view of the superiority of the Chinese race. “Since the 1980s, China’s military strategy has rested on the concept of a ‘strategic frontier,’” said Japan’s former prime minister and current leader of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, Shinzo Abe, in an address at a Washington think tank in October 2010. He continued:

In a nutshell, this very dangerous idea posits that borders and exclusive economic zones are determined by national power, and that as long as China’s economy continues to grow, its sphere of influence will continue to expand. Some might associate this with the German concept of “lebensraum.”

Veteran Indian journalist and political activist Rajinder Puri has offered a similar perspective. Writing in the Statesman, an Indian daily newspaper, he called China “a corporate version of Nazi Germany.” Most recently, in October 2012 a Beijing-based New York Times correspondent reported that Chinese scholars within China have initiated debates over whether the country is turning fascist.

Meanwhile, at the other extreme, some argue that Chinese nationalism, insofar as it is a popular force, can be understood as a step on the path to democracy or liberalization. According to this reading, when angry Chinese youths demonstrate in front of Japanese consulates in China, they are exerting pressure on the regime to take a hard line in disputes with Tokyo. If public opinion affects the foreign-policy decision making of CCP elites, the reasoning goes, then China is no longer simply or purely a dictatorship. Ever since the Tiananmen Square protests of June 1989, when the party used force to suppress a collection of working-class and student demonstrators in the capital, CCP leaders have used nationalism as a way of bolstering their legitimacy. In time, according to this thinking, this has become a mechanism for ordinary Chinese people to critique their regime and thereby acquire some say over how the country is governed.

The reality is more nuanced than either the image of European-style fascism or the theory of Chinese democratization, though it is unfortunately closer to the former than the latter. Today’s Chinese nationalism is a direct descendant of intellectual currents that predate the rise of Nazi Germany, but these currents were in circulation in Weimar Germany and may have helped Hitler ascend to power. This thinking is essentially illiberal and hence certainly not a sign of liberalization. Moreover, as Christopher Hughes of the London School of Economics has noted, even before Tiananmen Square the post-Mao CCP had begun to promulgate nationalism as a way to fill the vacuum left by the erosion of the Great Helmsman’s cult of personality. Before succumbing to the CCP’s crackdown, in fact, the student protesters of June 1989 actually tried to invoke the slogans of early twentieth-century Chinese nationalists that the party had recently trumpeted. But the forcefulness of the CCP’s response made it clear that the elites had no intention of letting nationalism become a lever of popular influence. That remains the case today, as the current exponents of rejuvenation and Chinese nationalism follow in the autocratic footsteps of their late imperial Chinese forebears.

IN THE early twentieth century, it was the nominal republican Sun Yat-sen who introduced the theme of rejuvenation—in Chinese, alternately zhenxing (also translated as invigoration, reinvigoration or revitalization) or fuxing (also translated as revival or renaissance). As the Chinese diplomacy scholar Zheng Wang has noted, Sun originally named his party the Society for Invigorating China, which later became Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang and lost to the CCP. But Sun was not a real republican. His political outlook was closer to protofascism, a mix of social Darwinian and authoritarian impulses acquired during his travels to Japan and through his reading of European theorists who stressed national strength over all else. The roots of today’s Chinese nationalism lie in the thought of Sun and his contemporary intellectuals. To appreciate the depth of their convictions about the zero-sum nature of the international environment and the brutality of interstate competition and warfare, along with their chauvinism about the natural ascendency of the Han Chinese race, it is necessary to review their experiences and their philosophy at the turn of the twentieth century.

Sun was part of a generation of radical reformers disgusted by the weakness of the late Qing dynasty, which had suffered major domestic unrest and a series of defeats at the hands of foreign powers by the end of the nineteenth century. From the first Opium War with the British in 1839–1842, to the “unequal treaties” imposed on China by not only the British but also the French, Germans, Russians, Americans and Japanese, the Qing saw its global status and its self-image eviscerated over several decades. Of all the setbacks that the Qing incurred, the most traumatizing was losing to Japan in the first Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895. Whereas European powers were literally relegated to the fringes of the Qing’s maps, Japan had been a tribute-paying power, squarely within China’s sphere of influence—a “dwarf,” in Chinese parlance.

As the Japanese had reacted to Commodore Matthew Perry’s forcible opening of trade rights in 1854 by seeking to learn from the West, so now Chinese reformers, including Sun Yat-sen, went to Japan to investigate the sources of its new strength. The Japanese at this time were not envious of the West; they despised it. Despite having lost battles to Western militaries, they felt superior. This was reflected in their reference to Westerners, for instance, as the “feet of humanity.” This was the Japan that became the source of China’s learning about the West and modernity. From 1867 to 1870, the Japanese scholar Fukuzawa Yukichi wrote a ten-volume book called Things Western. He literally had to create new words to describe Western institutions and concepts, including the idea of “freedom,” which was translated into something approximating “selfishness.” While Japanese intellectuals read widely, including the work of social-contract theorists such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and liberals such as John Stuart Mill, Prussian martial thinking and works of social Darwinism gained the greatest traction in Japan. That’s because they resonated with indigenous ideas about a natural social order and hierarchy. Edward Morse, an American zoologist at Tokyo University, introduced Darwin to appreciative Japanese audiences in the 1870s. In the last quarter of the century, several translations of Darwin’s Descent of Man enjoyed wide circulation in Japan, and even more popular were works by Herbert Spencer, who coined the term “survival of the fittest” after reading Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

Sun and other architects of Chinese nationalism were deeply impressed by how Japanese modernizers in this period committed themselves to increasing Japan’s national power and raising the quality of the Japanese population, consistent with the lessons of Spencer’s social Darwinism. The Japanese developed a formula for embracing modern technology without adopting foreign (i.e., liberal) political, social or cultural arrangements. The catch phrase for this was “Eastern values, Western learning.” In Chinese, this became the ti-yong essence-function formula, and Sun Yat-sen’s contemporary and fellow exile in Japan, the prominent Chinese reformer Kang Youwei, wrote memorials warning the Qing emperor against indiscriminate Westernization that would result in “moral degeneration.” As good students of Western positivist philosophy, Chinese reformers also believed that China’s social situation could be diagnosed scientifically. Accordingly, they emphasized the need to prescribe only those particular Western institutions or practices that were suitable for China to adopt in light of its own guoqing or national condition. Within twenty years, Japan’s modernization drive had succeeded. Perhaps even more shocking to the Chinese than their own loss to Japan was Japan’s defeat of Russia in 1905. Now Chinese reformers had evidence that the West’s learning, if mixed properly with local strengths, could be used to defeat it.

Even in cases where works were transmitted directly from the West to China, the Chinese scholar transmitters seemed to favor the same kinds of imports as their Japanese counterparts. The first Western book directly translated into Chinese was Yan Fu’s rhetorical rendering of Thomas Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics, which he was inspired to produce after the Chinese defeat in the first Sino-Japanese War. (The translation appeared in 1896, one year later, and Yan also translated the work of Herbert Spencer.) Thus did China import certain nineteenth-century European ideas of nation, race and social Darwinism. From the beginning, China’s understanding of nation-states was embedded in a zero-sum perspective on the international environment, a place where only the fit survive. The reformer Liang Qichao, who joined Sun Yat-sen and Kang Youwei in Japan for a time, imported the Japanese term for nationalism back to China as minzu zhuyi. The Chinese word for nationality, minzu, comes from the Japanese minzoku, which conjures the idea of bloodlines and racial purity. When Sun first developed his “Three Principles of the People” (i.e., nationalism, democracy and welfare) in Tokyo in 1905, he was consciously trying to emulate Abraham Lincoln’s idea of government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” and yet Sun saw fit to include a decidedly un-Lincolnian paean to the lineage of the Chinese race:

The greatest force is common blood. The Chinese belong to the yellow race because they come from the blood stock of the yellow race. The blood of ancestors is transmitted by heredity down through the race, making blood kinship a powerful force.

The “yellow race” chauvinism evident in this passage comes through in other important contributions from this formative era of Chinese nationalism. It was at this time that the modern Chinese discourse of guochi or national humiliation was born. While the emphasis on humiliation may seem negative, to Chinese ears the implication is that the Chinese, defined as descendants of the Yellow Emperor, are the heirs of a glorious civilization and will recover their preeminence. In Sun’s words, “We have become a sheet of loose sand and so have been invaded by foreign imperialism and oppressed by the economic control and trade wars of the [imperialist] Powers, without being able to resist.” The task for China was to “become pressed together into an unyielding body like the firm rock which is formed by the addition of cement to sand.” Sun argued that this would require reducing the freedom of the Chinese people, cementing his own status as an authoritarian rather than a republican leader.

THE CCP patriarch Mao Zedong, who defeated Sun Yat-sen’s Kuomintang successors in China’s civil war and who is now credited with launching China on the road to recovery from humiliation, adapted only some of the key concepts of the late Qing and republican Chinese reformers during his tenure from 1949 to 1976. But in the post-Mao era, the original Chinese nationalism has come back to the fore. It is so dominant in today’s CCP discourse that the party has to finesse the tensions between Marxism and nationalism by means of word tricks, such as saying that China has progressed from the stage of revolution to the stage of development. For Mao, his revolution trumped restoration as the national priority, though he did appropriate Sun’s language about China as a heap of “loose sand” requiring unification, and he justified using the tiyong formula and the idea of guoqing or national conditionon the grounds that Marxism requires the study of local conditions. Overall, though, Mao propounded a unique synthesis of Western Marxism and Chinese ti for his own purposes under the heading of Marxist-Leninist Mao Zedong Thought. When Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping led China into a new age of “reform and opening,” however, he explicitly encouraged a reconsideration of turn-of-the-century ideas to justify increased commerce and engagement with the rest of the world. To deal with the sharp transition from Mao’s revolution to Deng’s restoration, subsequent CCP general secretaries have formulated a narrative celebrating two great moments along China’s journey from humiliation to rejuvenation. First is Mao’s 1949 victory, which led to the expulsion of foreign forces and the unification of all of China under a single leader. Second is Deng’s ascension in 1978, when the path to development was illuminated, making possible the relative prosperity that China now enjoys.

The conservative Chinese analyst Yan Xuetong argues that rejuvenation today conjures “the psychological power” associated with China’s rise “to its former world status.” The concept assumes both that China is recovering its natural position and that this means being the “number one nation in the world.” The echoes of early Chinese nationalists such as Sun are clear. Given the character of Chinese nationalism, the outlook for Chinese policy and behavior in the future might be problematic. Considering Chinese nationalism in its full context raises several causes for concern.

The sociologist Liah Greenfeld has produced a typology of nationalism along two dimensions based on historical analysis of the English, French, German and Russian cases. The first dimension is the individualist-collectivist dichotomy. Greenfeld diagnoses French, German and Russian nationalisms as collectivist, while those of England and the United States are viewed as individualist. Already in Tudor England the individual, as opposed to the collective, was emerging as the basic political unit; elsewhere in Europe, it was still only a monarch or a select few who were thought to represent the best interests of the general population. Greenfeld’s second dimension involves the criteria of membership in the state—namely, whether it is civically or ethnically based. German and Russian nationalisms are based on ethnic membership, as opposed to both the individualist British and the collectivist French varieties, in which membership is civic, based on the opting in of citizens. Greenfeld’s typology and study of history yield two conclusions relevant to China. First, nationalisms that are both collectivist and ethnic are by their nature suspicious of and hostile to individualist, civic or liberal nationalisms. Several twentieth-century wars, including the two world wars, attest to this. Second, ethnic nationalisms are difficult to sustain in multiethnic countries, and countries featuring collectivist, ethnic nationalisms tend to be subject to violent revolutions rather than peaceful political evolution.

From imperial Confucianism to Maoism and the residual Leninist attributes of party rule in China today, the dominant political currents in China have all prioritized the collective over the individual, as seen through the prism of Greenfeld’s analysis. The Chinese party state falls firmly in the collectivist camp. The CCP purports to represent and speak for the Chinese people as a whole, and society as a whole is invoked in contemporary slogans such as xiaokang shehui (comfortable society), hexie shehui (harmonious society), shehui jianshe (social construction) and shehui guanli (social management). The Chinese people are usually described as laobaixing or commoners (literally, the “old hundred surnames”). The word qunzhong, or “the masses,” is the Leninist equivalent of the laobaixing, and used most often, along with the collective renmin, meaning “the people,” in political speech. One often hears Chinese people speaking in English use the term “masses” or even “peasants” to describe the majority of China’s population. In a 2009 article for a Western academic journal, even the self-described liberal Chinese professor Cong Riyun defines his terms in ways that make clear that he considers an elite few to represent the interests of the majority of Chinese citizens—instead of considering each citizen to be a bearer of political rights in his or her own right: “In China, the absolute majority of the population is mass in root. They, peasants in particular, have almost no consciousness of or identification with the state. This consciousness and identification lodge in intellectual and political elites.” Despite identifying himself as a liberal, Cong does not sound so different from rank-and-file party officials in the way he talks about the Chinese citizenry. The party secretary of a city in Guangdong Province recently complained, “Ordinary people have bigger and bigger appetites, and become smarter every day. They are harder and harder to control.” Though difficulties perhaps mount, China’s single party still considers itself the proper steward of the collective known as “ordinary people.”

Turning to Greenfeld’s second dimension, China’s various ideologies and traditions portray citizenship, on balance, as a matter of ethnic rather than civic belonging. Officially, Marxism and Maoism preach equality, including across ethnic lines. But traditional Confucianism emphasizes birth circumstances and ancestry: “I have heard of barbarians being transformed by Chinese. I have never heard of Chinese being transformed by barbarians.” At the end of the nineteenth century, the founding generation of Chinese nationalists blamed Confucianism for the Qing dynasty’s weakness and sought to replace it. But as discussed above, Sun Yat-sen and others returned from exile in Japan impressed by Japanese ideas of race. Granted, Sun lived to discover the inconvenience of his notion that “the greatest force is common blood.” Once he set about the task of trying to govern China after the fall of the last Qing emperor in 1911, it proved unwise to exclude those not descended from the Yellow Emperor in the “Three Principles of the People.” Sun was now trying to lead not only Han Chinese but also Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans and Muslims. To help unify the territory that had belonged to the Qing, he proceeded to develop an idealization of the “union of five races”—Han, Manchu, Mongol, Tibetan and Hui (Chinese Muslim)—that has been carried on by successive CCP chiefs to this day.

Do traditional notions of Han lineage trump later efforts to forge a common, transethnic identity in China? The Hong Kong–based historian Frank Dikötter contends that “Chineseness” in contemporary China is “primarily a matter of biological descent, physical appearance and congenital inheritance.” He cites a passage from He Shang (River Elegy), a popular 1988 television miniseries written by the son of a high-ranking party member:

This yellow river, it so happens, bred a nation identified by its yellow skin pigment. Moreover, this nation also refers to its earliest ancestor as the Yellow Emperor. Today, on the face of the earth, of every five human beings there is one that is a descendant of the Yellow Emperor.

Under Mao, tracing the nation to the Yellow Emperor would have been forbidden as a relic of Confucianism, but pre-Communist perceptions and impulses are now resurgent. China has not produced any kind of melting-pot ideal that would allow non-Han people to share the traditions of the Chinese nation. At best, the party seems to have adopted a mixed approach to China’s ethnic minorities, combining in rhetoric and practice elements of egalitarianism, paternalism and exploitation. The three main lessons about ethnic minorities offered in current Chinese high school textbooks revolve around encouraging them to “overcome superstition” (i.e., their religious beliefs), harnessing their “contributions” (e.g., oil from Xinjiang and pastoral products from Mongolia), and receiving their “gratitude” for the civilizing role of the Han population. Traces of older ideas about bloodlines and racial value thus remain apparent in the CCP’s less than fully tolerant approach to minorities.

Chinese contacts are sometimes candid in explaining to foreign visitors the logic behind the official encouragement of, and provision of incentives for, Han resettlement in Tibet and Xinjiang (home of the Uighur Muslim minority in western China). A friend of the author was recently told by a Han security officer in Xinjiang: “Once we have achieved a 9 to 1 ratio of Hans to Uighurs, our problem will be solved.” Similarly, Western travelers to Tibet these days often hear from locals that the party is trying to extinguish their culture.

SETTING ASIDE any judgments of Beijing’s policies as illiberal or inhumane, the conditions fostered by these policies have generated deep-seated insecurity for CCP leaders. In virtually every speech and document from the party, reference is made to the unification or great unity of the country, including minorities, usually in connection with the rejuvenation project. The effort to conjure an image of past and future Chinese greatness is allied to an attempt to depict China as ethnically unified, despite the reality of persistent ethnic tension. Again, Jiang Zemin was an early exponent of the trend. As Zheng Wang, a scholar of Chinese nationalism at Seton Hall, has noted, in a speech in July 2001 at a celebration of the eightieth anniversary of the founding of the CCP, Jiang proclaimed:

We have thoroughly put an end to the loose-sand state of the old China and realized a high degree of unification of the country and unparalleled unity of all ethnic groups. We have abrogated the unequal treaties imposed upon China by Western powers and all the privileges of imperialism in the country.

For those who might have missed the link between strength from unity and rejuvenation, the speech also includes this assurance:

Every struggle that the Chinese people fought during the one hundred years from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century was for the sake of achieving independence of our country and liberation of our nation and putting an end to the history of national humiliation once and for all. This great historic cause has already been accomplished. All endeavors by the Chinese people for the one hundred years from the mid-20th to the mid-21st century are for the purpose of making our motherland strong, the people prosperous and the nation immensely rejuvenated.

Jiang’s successor, Hu Jintao, went even further out of his way to emphasize rejuvenation and unity. His aforementioned 2011 address on the centennial of the 1911 revolution exhorted China to remember that “patriotism is the soul of the Chinese nation and a powerful force mobilizing and uniting the whole nation to strive to revitalize China.” For rejuvenation to succeed, he explained, it is necessary to “foster harmonious relations between ethnic groups, between religions, between social strata, and between compatriots at home and overseas.” The incoming general secretary, Xi Jinping, will inherit not only this rhetoric but also a raft of supporting material, from textbooks to museums, memorials, and even public holidays dedicated to China’s humiliation and renewal, including its achievements vis-à-vis minorities. All of this fanfare has been developed and promulgated over the past two decades, and in an address to the CCP’s Central Party School in 2008, Xi showed that he has been a careful observer of these innovations. After paying homage to the two “historic leaps” that China had made in the past century, in 1949 under Mao and in 1978 under Deng, Xi stated:

The theoretical system of socialism with Chinese characteristics [i.e., the CCP’s system] is the only correct theory by which to carry forward into the future, keep up with the times, and unite and lead the people of all ethnic groups across the country along the road of socialism with Chinese characteristics to achieve the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

Beneath the compulsive repetition of this theme by successive Chinese leaders lies a deep-seated anxiety about the durability of the party’s achievements in the domains of unification, prosperity and international prestige.

The content of contemporary Chinese nationalism helps explain the recent flare-ups between China and its neighbors, as well as with the United States and Europe, over issues that include fishing rights, territorial claims, intellectual-property theft and participation in international climate-change initiatives. Given the chasm between the outlook of CCP elites and that of Western or Westernized nations in the region, such clashes are likely to grow in intensity and frequency. Chinese nationalism will create turbulence for China abroad because its hierarchical, zero-sum perspective is fundamentally at odds with the principles underlying the current global order and because international engagement remains critical to the party’s economic-growth strategy.

Domestically, the elitist and ethnocentric cast of Chinese nationalism pits the party against elements of China’s own population. Hence the ever-rising domestic-security budget, now reportedly higher than spending on the Chinese military, aimed at controlling the growing number of domestic protests, or “mass incidents” in party parlance. From the standpoint of stability, the implications of CCP elites’ reversion to the pre-Communist idea of rejuvenation are mixed. Having abandoned revolution, the party is now casting itself as the heir of Chinese dynasties that ruled over the glory days of Chinese civilization. Throughout Chinese history, however, dynasties rose and then fell, and rejuvenation or restoration was a retrospective way of characterizing and celebrating the peaks in this cycle. The low points involved the dissolution of central authority, invasion by foreign conquerors and, at times, the loss of significant pieces of Chinese territory. Today’s talk of rejuvenation is thus inherently two-sided; it is triumphalist, but it also raises the specter of a potential future in which the current regime will have succumbed to the age-old forces that undermined past dynasties. For the United States, dealing with such a combination of confidence and insecurity in Beijing is likely to be especially difficult.

Jacqueline Newmyer Deal

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