Six Four: He Xin’s 1990 speech at Beida
He Xin (何新) is a noted Chinese scholar from the ’80s, variously labeled as “neo-conservative” or “ultra-nationalist” by Western analysts. Before and after June of 1989, he was attacked from both the left and the right: the left accused him of fomenting a coup alongside the students, and the right attacked him for being a “running dog” of the Communist Party for opposing the protests.
Below is a translation of the speech he delivered to the 1990 graduating class at Beijing University. He was received in a very hostile way, but spoke candidly of the reasons why he opposed the Tiananmen protests. Everything from this transcript is interesting; keep in mind the timing of the speech, and the (hostile) reactions of the Beida crowd… it gives us a flavor of China during the late 80s. Nineteen years later, a significant number of young Chinese believe He Xin made excellent points about the protests.
The original Chinese version as posted on MITBBS is here. For time/space reasons, I’ve edited out some materiale.
I: Opening Remarks
(He Xin walks to the podium. The audience is filled with rowdy boos. Some bang on chairs, some curse, numerous boos and whistles.)
It looks like I’m very unwelcome here.
(Students laugh, cheer. Someone shouts: “Why’d you still come?”)
I never attended university, but I do seem to have a bit of destiny with Beijing University (Beida). I’ve had an opportunity to come and speak here every year since 1985.
(Students laugh, boo. Whistles. )
The last time I was here, it was April of last year (1989). From that point until now, it’s been a year. And over this year, Beida, China, the world have all changed dramatically. Coming back here today, I’m filled with emotion. What emotions…? I know that coming here right now isn’t the easiest thing to do… (students yell: “You’re right!” “At least you still know yourself!” Claps, laughs, boos)… but I still came, because I’m ready to be roasted on this grill. Before I came, some of my friends warned me…
(Students yell loudly: “We also warned you not to come!” Laughs, boos, clapping)
Those who warned me said, why are you going to Beida right now! Things just happened on 6/4! To tell you the truth, before coming, my heart was also troubled. And now sitting here in front of everyone… my heart is very heavy.
(Students laugh, yell: “What are you worried about?”)
To tell you the truth, I came to exchange my thoughts with you. A teacher said earlier, they invited me to educate you on your thinking…
(Students loudly laugh, boos, claps)
You guys laugh, and I think it’s all laughable too. I didn’t receive that good of an education, never even finished university, how am I qualified to teach all of you? I came because I just want to tell everyone what’s in my heart…
(A student yells: “Just talk.” Another student yells: “If you’re going to pass gas, just fart and get it over with.” “What do you have to say?” …)
When I came in, I heard people cursing me. Cursing, it isn’t something that’s new to me. I’ve been cursed to the point I’m used to it. My name has been cursed all around the world. I brought some material for you… from the New York Times (“A Defender of Deng Xiaoping Tells Why He Did This”) and the Christian Science Monitor (“A Conservative Speaks”).
(Students laugh loudly, call out “great!”, clap)
I knew you guys would cheer that. I also brought some letters. Listen to these letters, maybe it’s got the curses you have in mind. First an anonymous letter: “He Xin, you’re a traitor to China’s democratic spirit, you’re an intellectual loser! Therefore, the Chinese intellectual jury sentence you, from spirit to body, to the death sentence!” (the crowd cheers, clap) Hold on, I’m not done! “We want to lynch you, and smash your head! Boil you in oil. You better be ready!” That was written 1989, August 1st. This is standard Cultural Revolution language.
There are even more beautiful examples: “He Xin, you shameless, self-prostituting, opportunist dog. You will forever be nailed to civilization’s alter of shame. ” He even said I could report him; I’m not going to report him, something like this is priceless! And take a look at this, a work of art: “He Xin, you dishonest man. Even if you do something honest, you won’t win the confidence of people. We’ve read your works on the Youth Daily; just about everyone is mocking you, calling you a rabid dog.” Signed: “Someone who completed university.” This is a subtle reminder that I never finished university; any chance the author is in the audience today?
Others have accused me of opposing the protests because I wanted to be a government official. First, I have no interest in being an official, and second, I really can’t be one. I’m stuck in a hard spot. Westerners accuse me of being Deng’s dog; others accuse me of being an “elitist” who slipped through the government net. Some have sent letters exposing the “free” speech in my writings, sending it to relevant government authorities. I hear they have a pile of stuff on me now; my days aren’t exactly easy.
But regardless, even as attacks come from all sides, my conscience is clear, and I sleep well. I have no regrets, and I will maintain my perspective, my attitude. Why? This is what I want to talk to everyone about today.
(the crowd quiets slightly)
I came today, because I want to tell you why I did what I did. If I said, I don’t want to be an official, and I’m not trying to climb in power, then the question automatically follows: why are you helping the Communist Party? Why are you their dog? Well, let me tell you why! I’m not trying to educate everyone’s thoughts, I don’t know how. I’m not a Communist Party member, and I’ve never done political work. I can even say, I’ve only been the recipient of education. Then someone will ask, why are you on this podium? Why do you have the credentials to speak to us? I’m not here with the credentials of a scholar; I’m here with the credentials of a Chinese person! China today faces danger, tremendous danger! This threatens you, and also threatens me, and threatens every Chinese person! So, I have to speak!
From April of last year until today, I’ve been watching all of you. I know some of you hate me, because I opposed you. But do you realize what you were doing? And who you were doing it for? Do you know who’s cheering you on? — The enemy of our people! Some people wanted to borrow your hand to smash China, destroy China. But you, you instead insisted on seeing them as China’s savior, you wanted to help them. Amongst those cheering you on, there really are these people!
(students are restless, discuss amongst themselves)
It’s true. I have my own thoughts and perspectives on the events of last year, and they’re different from yours. Isn’t the point to get democracy? Freedom of thought? Then I can have my own thoughts, right? I can stay firm to my thoughts? If so, why write those dirty, anonymous letters? Why the personal attacks? Why the constant spreading of rumors? Why the threats of murder?
Where do my thoughts originate from? It didn’t fall from the sky, it wasn’t dug up from the ground, and it wasn’t transferred to me by anyone. Since 1985, I haven’t participated in a single domestic academic conference. I have never joined any discussion group. Some people say I turned in 3000 intellectuals… but of all the intellectuals in China, I probably only know 100.
I guess I might be a little famous, if the NY Times and CS Monitor have written about me. But it’s only because they’re cursing me that I know I’m a little important. Keep cursing, I don’t believe I can be condemned to death. The ancients said: “if a thousand people place blame, you can die even without disease”. But that’s only for people who’s souls have guilt, who’s done something shameful. I don’t believe I can be cursed to death. Why am I famous? Because on certain things, I’ve held firm to my independent thoughts. I’m not afraid of the authority of the powerful, and I’m not afraid of the authority of the many. I have my own eyes to see, and my own brain to think. Of course, in the practical world, I do have to admit fault sometimes… either because I was actually wrong, or just a strategic, temporary manuver to survive.
I want this independence, and I’ve seen seeking it all my life! That’s why I can never be an official. Mencius once said something like this: “where the path leads me, even a million are going in the opposing direction, I will keep going!” I appreciate this sentiment. So, that’s why I’m here. A friend sitting here today is a reporter. He can be my witness. On June 1st of last year, a publisher friend came to my home and told me: “He Xin, I was just at Tiananmen Square, outside the tent of the High Self Alliance (Ed note: a self-organized university student union in ‘charge’ of the protests). I heard them say that after the ‘revolution’ succeeds, all of the intellectual traitors should be hung up on the power lines on Tiananmen. And the first one they named is you! You should go hide.”
I said I’m not going to hide. I’m going to organize people, and oppose them at the square. I’m going to the square right now! I’m not afraid to die.
Americans say that the brave ones of today are the dissidents like Fang Lizhi. But everyone here knows, in recent years, sitting at this podium cursing our situation, cursing our political system doesn’t require bravery. You’ll receive numerous cheers from both inside and outside of the country. It’s only those willing to defend and speak for this system, this country, this people that really needs a little bit of bravery.
I’m at Beida today, because I’m looking for Beida’s conscience and wisdom, looking for the rational inside all of your hearts. This is the campus of democracy and science, right? Okay, I want to try it. I’m going to tell everyone what I think. Perhaps I’m right, prehaps I’m wrong, but it’ll be from my heart. .. if you feel, regardless what I say, true or false, there’s no reason to listen to it… don’t bother us with this crap, get out! Let all these people raise their hands. If its more than 50%, I will get up and leave immediately.
(students discuss, some laugh, some call: “Make your point! We want to hear.” No one raised their hand. “C’mon, talk!” A few boos.)
I know some in the audience already discussed how to cause trouble for me. I know what this world is like. I’ve seen it all; I was a trouble-maker as a kid. I’ve seen murder, mafia… everything. During the Cultural Revolution I was a rightist, and wore handcuffs for a half year. Your “boo” sounds don’t scare me.
(someone calls: “stop causing trouble! let him speak!” 10+ people get up and leave)
Someone says they want to hear me speak. Great, thank you! Some people left; I also thank you. Okay, let’s get to the main topic.
II: A warning of turmoil
When I last spoke at Beida, it was the eve of the turmoil. At the time, I think I predicted that China was about to face certain events: the second Cultural Revolution. At the time, I felt the thinking man’s world was already filled with a poisonous atmosphere, an atmosphere encouraging the people into extremist rebellion. I told you at the time, I have a feeling that something’s going to happen to this country. I said I didn’t know if it would be good or bad. I said at the time my thoughts were becoming muddled and confused. For example, at the time people were heatedly debating the concept of “democracy”. I said, I really don’t understand it. At the time I asked, everyone says they want democracy, but I don’t understand, what is the “democracy” that you want? I asked, can one of you students tell me precisely: when you want democracy, what’s the first thing you want? The second? The third? I waited, but received no response.
So, I said to you all: I see your so-called “democracy” as an emotional display of your dissatisfaction with certain politics; its a clamor raised by unclear political objectives. I said this sort of emotion is extremely dangerous, because it allows other people to use them, and it will force the Republic into a dangerous area. So, I worried, a huge disaster was waiting for us! This isn’t just hindsight; everyone at the scene can verify that’s what I said at the time.
(audience is silent)
I can say that, from numerous angles, from a very deep level, I understand all of you here today. I understand the wounds and grief you’ve accumulated after experiencing the events of last year. I also understand all of those who were on the streets, all of the average citizens. Why? Because I’m just an average citizen just like all of you. The only difference between us lies on one point: I fully recognized the complicated political background of the 1989 incident. I recognized that it could destroy the evolution path for our entire people. Therefore, I hated those provocators domestic and foreign who were enflaming divisions, and fanning the turmoil. I hated those fisherman who were sitting and waiting to enjoy the fruit of their work.
I know, some of the students here have this attitude: I don’t believe anything. All I have is emotion, all I want is to fight. But have you ever thought about what the future of this country is, if we continue like this?
I have an article here that I published in 1988, in the Hong Kong magazine “Ming Pao Monthly”. From this, I think perhaps everyone can better understand me, and understand why I held my opinion of your student movement, of the entire “democracy movement”. In this article, I said: as a hypothetical political experiment, we should consider the following events as a possibility within the next 10-20 years. That is to say, I forecast street protests and violent movements, I forecast a potential second cultural revolution and the Tiananmen incident. And at the end I concluded: if social turmoil continues, and because of uneven economic development, and because of the complicated international environment, we can predict military-led separation of the country. A united China will disintegrate. China in terms of economics and politics will enter into a complicated, turbulent period. This was just a hypothetical of future trends, but it was published in November of 1988.
Some people might rebuttal this argument by saying, I’m too deeply imprinted by the “Great China” philosophy, and that a divided China might not be a bad thing. And perhaps by splitting the country apart, this might even help economic development. Some foreigners have said the same thing to me in the past; they’ve said, if China divided, it might help economic development. But I asked him in reverse: why haven’t the various states in the US split, and instead are now working towards a unifying structure with Canada and other Latin American countries? (Ed: Referring to NAFTA and free trade.) The countries of western Europe have been divided since ancient times, but why are they marching towards a unified alliance through the European Union?
I firmly believe that if China is divided, then there is only one possible outcome for decades to come: frequent civil war. And the people will, for this separatism, pay the huge price of blood being shed, lives being lost, and economy in decline. To be honest, I’m very suspicious whether this “great unity” is really a backwards concept. The theory that this hurts economic development is being fed to the Chinese people by the strategic thinkers in some developed countries. The goal? To pre-emptively provide mental weapons and rhetorical preparation for the destruction of China, for the splitting of China. That way, they can permanently seize China’s opportunity to catch up to and surpass the developed nations.
Another article of mine was published in March of 1989, still before the turmoil. In this article, I clearly predicted the subsequent collapse of communism in eastern Europe, as well as the disintegration of the Soviet Union. I want to warn everyone: the 1990s is not an era for dreaming, but rather an era filled with immense new dangers, difficulties, and challenges. I pointed out an alarming problem: “China’s modernization conflicts with the strategic interests of the United States, Japan, and other development countries.” At the time I felt a need to warn everyone, there are numerous signs indicating that allowing China to sink into internal chaos, might be just the kind of thing that some countries wanting to dominate the world hoped to see. In these countries, the most deserving of attention is the US and Japan. I said that if we seriously consider the US and Japan’s policies towards China on politics, economics, technology, and culture, then we can deeply recognize that their anti-China strategy is deeply considered and long reaching. In their eyes, the Chinese remain an inferior people, and Chinese culture remains a weak culture. And the time we’ve spent reconsidering our culture in recent years is only giving them another reason to look down upon us. Psychologically and politically, we’re destroying ourselves!
In reality, as China sets goals of modernization and high-speed economic growth, and as we begin to seek investment capital and technology from Japan and the United States, we overlooked a critically important fact. China’s growing economic and military strength means that east Asia will have a new superpower. And delaying or blocking this process must become the global strategic objective for the US, Japan, and other Western countries. This is especially true after the Soviet Union has weakened from an aggressive superpower to a local regional country, and China’s no longer needed to restrain them.
I sent these warnings to some government leaders, and I was later warned by a central government leader: don’t scare the people unnecessarily! By the way, let me also mention that this was pasted onto poster boards at Beida last year, but someone tore them down the same night. Someone didn’t want you to hear my warnings.
III. Tiananmen – Intellectuals
In terms of last year’s events, I took a position that was different from yours, and even all of society. Some thought I was an opportunist, or just wanted to be a hero. No, I didn’t say all that to be a hero. Only an idiot would want to be a hero during such a complicated, dangerous historical moment! I’m just an extremely ordinary person. The last two years, my heart has been dismal. Why? I was an observer of all of your protest marches last year. I also stayed on the square numerous times. On the evening of 6/3, I was also an observer on the streets. During the morning of 6/4, I wrote a bicycle around Beijing. When I saw Chang’an street filled with flames, brick, and corpses, my heart was broken! Hegel once said, only when we lose peace and security, will we understand these are a natural requirement for life. Those days, I felt constant sense of depression. I was shocked by man’s stupidity, rushing into disaster as if it was a huge holiday to be celebrated!
Recently, I received a letter from a reader. It comes from an anonymous intellectual in Guangzhou, and the letter says:
“I also don’t believe in freedom and democracy. But I also can’t support you. I believe that China needs some major chaos! Without chaos, our problems can’t be solved. Our population is so large, our social structures and government organizations are so corrupt… if we don’t kill off a few hundred million people and live in chaos for 100 years, if our turmoil isn’t deep enough and thorough enough, how will we have an opportunity for new life? I hope the end of days quickly arrive for our people! Destruction is the only hope for a rebirth. So, I believe you’re trying to block the flow of history! Really, a few decades of chaos and war isn’t as terrifying as you’ve painted it!”
After reading this letter, I had a feeling this was someone pretending to be God. What audacity… “kill a few hundred million, give us 100 years of turmoil”. This isn’t the voice of humanity, and definitely not the voice of God, this is truly the voice of the devil. This voice is right around us, but some people still haven’t sensed it! To these people, my answer is simple: let’s start with you, please die first.
A foreign reporter was speaking with me. He saw me defending China’s politics, and asked me: “why are you defending the Communist Party? Are you a Communist Party member?” I answered no. “Why not?” I said I had never applied, never thought about it. I’m not interested in government and politics. So why do I publish editorials? Because I really have no other choice. Let me raise an example. Pretend we all live in the same home, and the home is old and beaten up. Next door, some rich men have a beautiful high-rise. By being here, we’re obstructing what they want to do. They’re always trying to tear down our house. And my buddies living in this house with me tell me, this house is really old, let’s tear it down, and we can build a high-rise like the rich men next to us. I can only oppose them, and I say: “we don’t have enough money right now. We don’t have enough savings, we shouldn’t be competing with those rich guys.”
But now, some of you started tearing down the house. And at this point, I have to get up and shout: “Sorry! I’m opposed to all of you!” But those neighbors are pretty excited. They’re on the sidelines both encouraging and threatening, saying: “You’re doing great, little buddies! This house should’ve been torn down long ago. Look at the beautiful high rise we live in. If you don’t tear your house down, you’ll never have this.” And they join you in cursing me, saying that I oppose you guys living in a new house. I think you’re clear what my story means. So why do I hold my positon? Because I’m trying to protect the house that we live in. I don’t want to be an official, I don’t care about politics, I’m not trying to kiss anyone’s butt or beanyone’s dog. But if someone is trying to tear down the house that we all live in, how can I not come out and speak!?
IV: Warning signs are around us
What is China’s outlook? Two years ago, we were all optimistic. But the problems that we’ve seen since, according to some, its all because we’re not committed enough to reform, its because political reform is lagging other reforms. Is that really the truth? Everyone can open their eyes and see Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Are their reforms not complete? Aren’t their political reforms advancing first, before economic reforms? And what’s happening? Bankruptcy, factories closing, waves of unemployed are covering these areas in a tidal wave. Countries have been destroyed, alliances lost; hunger and cold follow. Many are naively considering Eastern Europe’s color-change only as a change in political system. But from my point of view, the challenges Eastern Europe faces is upcoming: industries going bankrupt, economies collapsing. It’s all part of the economic globalization and economic danger sweeping all countries. Their future will see them as a vertical “attachment” beneath western developed countries, or perhaps as debt slaves owned by the western developed countries. These warning signs are around us!
But some people say, for democracy, we have to pay a price. The situation these countries are facing is only a transition period. This kind of rhetoric is so elegant! But let me ask a few questions: first, this sort of torturous “transition period” with countries in chaos, peoples divided, and economic collapse… how long will it last? 3 years, 10 years, is there any hope it’ll end? And second, what isn’t in transition? I can tell you right now, that the difficulty China is in now is also only temporary, is only a transition period. But you don’t like to hear that? Why do you believe it so easily when it’s applied to those other countries?
People like to fool themselves. Just now, I read that letter from Guangzhou; he said that China needs turmoil to break apart our current structure, and only on the new foundation will China have a chance for rebirth into a new era. But I’m a practical guy; I rolled out of a hay of peasants from the Northeast. I don’t know how to calculate an account that far in the future, I only know what’s in front of me. Based on the prescription he’s given us, then China should immediately be sunk into chaos, war should begin, smoke and fire should sweep the nation. Are you really willing to accept that?
Everyone says socialism is flawed and horrible, right? I don’t know whether socialism is good or not. But I do know that the current system is providing for the lives and interests of a billion people. Some people say, political systems are like a suit of clothes… if it doesn’t feel good, try a new one. But I disagree! Political systems grow within the bones and flesh of every individual in this society. If you forcibly pull it off, it will bleed! You will have to pay a price in lives! So, my hope is for reforms from the present situation, but not turmoil or revolution.
I have a good friend; during the incident last year, someone in his family was mistakenly injured. After the incident settled, he was filled with anger. He said to me: “Fuck, I’m a child of the Communist Party, but I’m never going to work with them again!” He shed tears of outrage and hatred. I sat at his side, and I had nothing to say… no one in my family had died. But I understand his emotions. He’s a good friend of mine, and we’ve always had frequent discussions, and he understands my position and perspective. So, I later said, I don’t know how to judge the Communist Party or socialism. But I do know that they’re intimately tied to the welfare and lives of a billion people, including both of us. If great turmoil breaks out around us, then your dad and my dad won’t have retirement funds, pension funds. They live in public housing, and when these public assets are privatized without careful planning, they won’t know who to give the housing up to. A billion government employees, workers, average city folk will lose their careers during such turmoil, not to mention their homes. After a large enough riot, all of the normal economic links in society will break down. Banks won’t make loans, the RMB will collapse, the credit system will collapse, banks will close their doors, and no more salaries!
Some countries are facing this predicament right now. Some people say, the economy has some difficult at the moment. Some factories have closed their doors while waiting for supplies. I know this. But I also know that even if you cause trouble, even if you march on the streets… someone is still going to pay you a salary. But if this continues for 3 months, then it’ll be a miracle if anyone can pay you even a cent. Maybe “Voice of America” will send you money? Maybe American bread can feed a billion people? Great, if that’s the case, then let’s go over to the American embassy and kowtow before them! But I’m myopic, all I recognize are the practical matters, the deep issues I don’t understand. I only know the logic of average people trying to get by… I’m a peasant! (students laugh)
Back to the topic of last year. Right now, many people are still filled with anger. I know. Towards the government for example, some people are filled with anger… why didn’t you give way a little earlier! A Japanese person wrote an article, saying that it was the government and the students stubborn attempts to win face that led to the final result last year. This is an incredibly shallow view. Based on what I observed, there was more than one force pushing the movement last year; it wasn’t just you university students, it wasn’t just those of you who wanted democracy, who wanted glory, who wanted a modernized China. Behind it lay a deeper domestic and foreign political background. To fully pull back the full face of the incident, perhaps it will still take a few years. Some people will say, you’re clearly implying that foreign forces had involved themselves. But why would the United States care about China? China’s so poor, even we were available as a colony nobody would want us! Maybe you’re right, no one wants China as a colony. This makes it even more clear that China’s future depends purely on itself! If China’s political system disappeared, if China itself disintegrated, then what waits for China is absolutely not fortune and glory. If I can make an example, then I would conclude that China’s future will look like a combination of the following examples: an economy that looks like Africa! Debt that looks like Latin America! Political chaos and civil war that looks like Lebanon! Many Chinese will be left to flee to the corners of the earth, becoming a modern version of the Palestinian people.
(the audience is completely silent)
These last two years, I’ve really gained much more insight. To tell you the truth, I’ve heard and seen many things I had never heard or seen before. When you were marching last year, why were your wrapped in white cloth and holding black flags? (Ed note: Traditional Chinese funeral garb.) Did you really not realize at the time that this was an extremely unlucky sign? I’m a little superstitious. I ran into a monk, an intellectual who’s been a long, long friend; I won’t mention his name, he prefers to be anonymous. As everyone was marching, he was squatting by Jinshui Bridge watching. I walked next to him, and asked: “How do you see these things playing out?” He said: “Really unlucky!” I said: “How so?” He said: “Look at them, why are they wearing white cloth and carrying mourning flags?” I said: “You’re right, never noticed that.” He said: “Scary! I think Beijing will soon have a bloody disaster on its hands. Try to talk to the students!”
(students discuss amongst themselves)
Was it just superstition, or was it an intentional warning? This old guy, I’m sure you’d all know him if I said his name, is a very famous moral and wise intellectual. At the time he also pointed at the Memorial (at the center of Tiananmen), and right on the pole was a yellow flag with the two words: “jue shi” (绝食，fasting). Everyone knows that words in Hanyu has many meanings; behind “jue shi” were many other meanings. Those days, I had a friend who was overwhelmed with excitement, extremely hyper, marched on the streets every day. I tried to talk to him: “You’re still marching? Your kid at home is still so small… you should prepare some formula and instant noodles. Quickly.” He said: “What’s that supposed to mean?”, in a very negative tone. I said: “Didn’t you see the flag in front of the Memorial? If turmoil comes, then the food supply will be cut off.” I’m a farmer, I don’t understand elite politics. All I care about are clothing, food, and housing. Of course, the government decisively controlled the situation shortly after, so things never got as bad as I feared. But I can tell you, for this I can only give thanks for how lucky we Chinese were.
History has given us more time to work hard. As far as what will come next, these next 3-10 years, I can say with certainty that these are the critical years that will decide China’s future. What will China’s future be like? Will there even still be a China in the 21st century? There are two possibilities, and I’ve mentioned them previously. It really all depends on whether China can achieve political stability! The article that I published on the Ming Pao two years ago shouldn’t be discarded yet. If the turmoil comes again, if society loses control and anarchy erupts, then I don’t care what label is given as the reason for this movement… there’s only one future for this country: chaos, war, homelessness.
The future of this country is held in the hands of everyone here. Let everybody make their own decisions!
————————– end translation ————————–
He Xin’s speech follows here with a longer discussion about nationalism and his world view. It’s also a very interesting and important discussion to have. However, to keep this post focused on Six Four, I will translate the rest in a future post.
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