Translation Matters: Problems of Inference in the 2020 State Department Policy Planning Report “The Elements of the China Challenge”
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Translation Matters: Problems of Inference in the 2020 State Department Policy Planning Report “The Elements of the China Challenge”

As the United States gears up for “great power competition” with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), accurate translation of Chinese sources is increasingly important. Different translations can lead to different inferences about intentions, which in turn can affect policy analysis. As an example, this article looks at the November 2020 study on China by the Department of State’s Policy Planning Office, which made key inferences about China’s long-term intentions based, in part, on a problematic translation and decontextualization of key phrases in a speech by China’s leader, Xi Jinping.


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Alastair Iain Johnston

The Governor James Albert Noe and Linda Noe Laine Professor of China in World Affairs, Harvard University

Abstract

As the United States gears up for “great power competition” with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), accurate translation of Chinese sources is increasingly important. Different translations can lead to different inferences about intentions, which in turn can affect policy analysis. As an example, this article looks at the November 2020 study on China by the Department of State’s Policy Planning Office, which made key inferences about China’s long-term intentions based, in part, on a problematic translation and decontextualization of key phrases in a speech by China’s leader, Xi Jinping. This same translation has also been invoked by influential analysts and pundits to argue that there is no need to debate China’s long-term intentions anymore. This article suggests that a more accurate translation of these phrases does not support any particular inference about long-term goals and thus does not support the claim that debate over China’s intentions should end.

Introduction

Inferring another state’s strategic intentions is rarely easy, even when a lot of information is available. 1 It is especially hard when analysts are examining an opaque political system. Problems include determining the authoritativeness of multiple sources of information, resolving contradictions among them, assessing the degree to which there are internal debates, and testing alternative theories about where preferences come from (i.e., should we privilege the external material or social structures in which actors operate or privilege the agency—and thus idiosyncrasies—of particular individuals?). On top of all this, the evidence for interpreting intentions often comes in a foreign language, and translation will affect its meaning—which, in the end, is most consequential for policy. Despite progress in machine learning, accurate translation remains a daunting task. Similar terms can have different meanings depending on their context and the ways individuals invoke them. Sarcasm and humor are both notoriously difficult to detect. And, in the case of discussions about public policy, terminology may be used in a ritualistic fashion as political top cover to protect the advocates of novel or controversial ideas.

As the “great power competition” and associated security-dilemma dynamics intensify in U.S.-China relations, the translation of key statements, concepts, and ideas will be increasingly important in discerning intentions. This puts a greater premium on the careful contextualization of language, including setting up systematic mechanisms for checking the translations of key concepts. Without such care and contextualization, certain problematic translations may lead to premature inferences. The purpose of this article is to make the case for more routinized consultation among experts about translation. I use a recent case as an example of how one translation of a Chinese phrase has had a critical effect on analytical conclusions. Specifically, I look at the November 2020 Department of State Policy Planning Staff document on the China challenge.2 It uses a particular translation of some terms in a 2013 speech by Xi Jinping—a portion of which was reproduced in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) publication Qiushi in 2019—to buttress certain conclusions about the long-term intentions of the PRC.3 The report quotes Xi as saying (in translation), “Most importantly, we must concentrate our efforts on bettering our own affairs, continually broadening our comprehensive national power, improving the lives of our people, building a socialism that is superior to capitalism, and laying the foundation for a future where we will win the initiative and have the dominant position.” Particularly relevant is the phrase rendered as “a future where we will win the initiative and have the dominant position.” The State Department links this quote to a conclusion that the PRC intends to seek global hegemony, “the dominant position,” whereby it can restructure “world order to conform to the CCP’s distinctive way of empire.”4

In addition to the State Department report, this translation of Xi’s words has had considerable influence in the discourse about China inside Washington and elsewhere. It has been cited by some analysts and pundits to declare that the debate over the PRC’s long-term intentions is settled. The implication is, to mix metaphors, that this phrase is not just a smoking gun but the slam-dunk evidence that removes doubt about these goals. As one example, under a headline urging the end to debate over China’s intentions, Johns Hopkins University professor Hal Brands concludes that such discussions are “growing stale” and, to make his point, cites the translation used in the State Department report that China’s goal is “a future where we will win the initiative and have the dominant position.”5 Former director of the American Institute in Taiwan William Stanton, drawing on an essay by a British journalist, also invokes the phrase “a future where we will win the initiative and have the dominant position” to describe China’s intention to impose its version of socialism around the globe.6

I argue here that this is not an accurate translation of the original Chinese and that a more linguistically precise and contextualized translation is most likely not a reference to China seeking a “dominant position” in global affairs. To this end, the first section of this paper addresses problems in the grammar and usage of the State Department translation. The second section argues that the context of the key phrase does not refer to spreading socialism around the globe but to showing its superiority within China. The third section explores why the CCP reproduced Xi’s 2013 speech; contextualizing the document itself suggests that it is not likely a statement of strategic intentions. In the conclusion, I posit that this problematic translation is not a minor point in a larger intellectual argument—it actually plays an important role in constituting the report’s claims about China’s imperial ambitions.

Problems in Translation: Grammar and Usage

The first reason the State Department report does not provide an accurate translation of the crucial passage by Xi Jinping has to do with grammar and usage. The original Chinese phrase translated as “a future where we will win the initiative and have the dominant position” appears in a speech Xi Jinping gave in 2013 a part of which was later reproduced in part in 2019. The phrase in Chinese is 赢得主动、赢得优势、赢得未来. A literal translation is “win the initiative, win the advantage, win the future” (for convenience I will refer to these as the “three wins”). Grammatically, this is a list, not a clear causal sequence. Each “win” is separated by a uniquely Chinese punctuation mark, the enumeration comma (literally a “pause mark” 顿号, also called a “sequence mark”) that usually “serves to count off items in a list or sequence.”7 In English, these might be separated by “and”—for example, “win the initiative and win the advantage and win the future.” The State Department translation implies there is a causal hierarchy of building blocks wherein initiative leads to a future of dominance. But grammatically, these are not necessarily hierarchical, nor are they ordered in the way the State Department translation puts them.8 In the original Chinese, the end of this sequence is winning the “future,” not a “dominant position.” Technically, using the State Department sentence structure, the phrase should read something like, “laying the foundation where we win the initiative, win the dominant position, and win the future.”

But even if the State Department report had used this more accurate sequencing, the translation took a great deal of literary license in rendering “winning [the] advantage” (赢得优势) as “dominant position” in terms of global status. To be sure, one translation of 优势 is “dominant position”—though it should probably have the characters for “position” (地位) after the reference to “dominant” (优势). One finds this in standard Chinese–English dictionaries. But, like many Chinese terms, it has other meanings in different contexts, such as “preponderance”, “superiority”, a situation that is more favorable to you than to someone else (比对方有利的形势)9, an “excellent situation” (优越的形势)10 and “advantage” (e.g., 竞争优势 “competitive advantage”).

Indeed, authoritative English-language Chinese publications tend to translate the “three wins” using “advantage,” not “dominant position.” Back in 2013, when reporting on the goal of achieving a moderately prosperous society by 2020, the English-language China Daily translated the phrase as “gain initiative and advantages to win the future.”11 It seems this became the accepted translation. For example, this is how the phrase appeared in the official English version of the 18th Party Congress Report12—as well as in the English version of senior intelligence analyst Yuan Peng’s summary of the report.13 It is also the translation used in the English version of comments by Zheng Bijian, former deputy head of the Central Party School of the CCP, in reference to achieving a moderately prosperous society by 2020.14

Other Chinese sources present the “three wins” as more of a list, closer to a literal translation. For example, the official translation of the “three wins” in volume 2 of The Governance of China, a collection of Xi Jinping’s statements,renders a slightly differently ordered list of the “three wins” as “to gain competitiveness, win the initiative, seize the future.”15 It is worth noting that this ordering in both the Chinese and English versions suggests that it doesn’t matter so much which of the “three wins” goes first because they are a list, and they are not conceptually connected the way the State Department translation implies. Indeed, a survey of newspaper articles since 2000 in the China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI) database shows that about 25 percent of them use “win the advantage, win the initiative, win the future” (赢得优势、赢得主动、赢得未来), while the rest use “win the initiative, win the advantage, win the future (赢得主动、赢得优势、赢得未来). It does not appear to matter much. Xi mixes the order up, too.16

In short, the State Department translation is not accurate or grammatically correct, nor is it consistent with official English translations as used in China.17

Three Wins in Context

In Chinese language publications, the “three wins” show up in many different contexts, most of which have little to do with China’s strategic intentions. A partial list of these contexts dating back to 2010 (with representative examples) includes discussions about:

  1. cheering on the development of Hunan province through the application of high technology such that Hunan can “win the initiative, win the advantage, win the future”18
  2. achieving a moderately prosperous standard of living by 2020 through “winning the initiative, winning the advantage, and winning the future”19
  3. the importance of education, self-improvement, and developing skills in the training of Party cadres, whereby this training will enable these individuals to (vaguely) “win the initiative, win the advantage, and win the future”20
  4. enhancing CCP discipline through Party building and Party unity so that members can “win the initiative, win the advantage, and win the future”21
  5. taking advantage of the period of strategic opportunity (a phrase in 2010 referred to maintaining reasonably stable relations with the United States so China can achieve rejuvenation) to “win the initiative, win the advantage, and win the future”22
  6. cheerleading the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation23
  7. suggesting that taking advantage of opportunities and promoting development has been critical for states in general to “win the initiative, win the advantage, win the future”24
  8. relying on Party leadership to overcome (unstated) problems, thereby “winning the initiative, winning the advantage, winning the future”25
  9. using the Belt and Road Initiative and the idea of a community of common destiny to achieve the long-term ideals of communism26
  10. developing science and technology27
  11. the importance of education so students can eventually “win the initiative, win the advantage, win the future” in their own lives28
  12. the importance of being “people-centered” in the development of Hohhot, the capital city of Inner Mongolia, so it can “win the initiative, win the advantage, win the future”29
  13. summarizing Xi’s views on how increasing a state’s power and preserving its sovereignty, security, and interests allows it to “win the initiative, win the advantage, and win the future” (a realpolitik, not Marxist-Leninist, take on the “three wins”)30

Perhaps, however, there is a clear and specific context for the “three wins” as directed toward Party officials? If so, its usage should be consistent across training and guidance documents for senior Party members. Not long after the State Department report appeared, I searched for the “three wins” phrase on the Central Party School’s webpage, with the assumption that content posted there is largely for the purpose of training senior CCP leaders. There were 24 hits, most of which were reproductions of articles from Party media outlets such as the Peoples Daily. The topics of the articles were wide-ranging, just as they are in society writ large. The articles that used the phrase referenced a variety of topics, including building a moderately prosperous society, curing the three “illnesses” in lazy young cadres, fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, improving manufacturing, relying on the Party to overcome (vaguely defined) challenges and take advantage of opportunities, and whether or not China can rejuvenate. In most cases, the “three wins” were used as an exhortation—namely, to suggest that if these problems are overcome, then we “win the initiative, win the advantage, win the future” in a particular field. Translating the phrase to mean creating a future where China takes the initiative and wins the dominant position globally does not fit most of these contexts.

Of these 24 hits on the Central Party School’s public site, one was to the Qiushi article from which the original State Department translation comes. One notable element of the Qiushi article is its focus on “building a socialism that is superior to capitalism” (建设对资本主义具有优越性的社会主义) (hereafter “superior socialism”). The link between superior socialism on the one hand and China achieving “the dominant position” on the other is core to the State Department translation of the “three wins.” Put differently, the State Department report implies that this connection essentially constitutes an authoritative formulation (提法) for talking about global dominance. It is therefore important to linger a bit on what “superior socialism” means in Xi’s 2013 speech as reproduced in Qiushi.

There are at least four reasons to conclude that building a “superior socialism” and the “three wins” in Xi’s 2013 speech are not a politically coded reference to global dominance. For one, the reference to building a “superior socialism” originally comes from comments made by Deng Xiaoping in 1987 about improving living standards in China. According to Deng, building a “socialism that is superior to capitalism” first and foremost requires eliminating poverty in China.31 So, its first use had nothing to do with building superior socialism around the world. Moreover, according to the CNKI database, the vast majority of newspaper and journal articles that refer to building superior socialism also refer to Deng’s quote about first eliminating poverty. This includes articles published as late as 2020. 32

Second, in Xi’s 2013 speech, when the “three wins” are used in conjunction with the “superior socialism,” the context is the superiority of socialism within China, not globally. The superiority of socialism and the “three wins” leads from the exhortation to “handle our own affairs well” (办好自己的事情)—that is, to build socialism in China.

Third, beyond the Qiushi document, it is very rare to find a connection between the phrase “superior socialism” and the “three wins” in China’s open sources. A recent search of the CNKI database returned only a few hits across all Chinese newspaper articles where “superior socialism” (优越性的社会主义) appears in the same paragraph as the “three wins.” The same pattern appears for journal articles. Only a tiny percentage of hits place “superior socialism” and the “three wins” in the same paragraph or sentence. Specifically, 36 journal articles used these phrases in the same paragraph or sentence, out of over 2000 articles that mentioned superior socialism and 692 articles that mentioned the “three wins.” All co-appearances have occurred since Xi came to power. Almost all were quoting Xi’s 2013 speech. Thus, if linking “superior socialism” and the “three wins” is political code for a long-term CCP grand strategic goal, it is apparently used very infrequently—and not by previous leaders. In short, “superior socialism” is rarely linked to the “three wins”; the “three wins” are used in many different contexts that do not refer to “superior socialism.” This is not what one might expect if this were a political code about intertwined global strategic goals. And, as noted, in Xi’s 2013 speech “superior socialism” is a reference to building socialism in China, not around the globe.

Finally, it is not surprising that professed Marxist-Leninists would stress that socialism will eventually demonstrate its superiority to capitalism. They can hardly say the opposite, or even nothing at all, if they are to display their ideological purity. As such, the reference to “superior socialism” in Xi’s 2013 speech is likely more of a domestically targeted political signal than a reference to external strategy.

The Significance of the Reproduction of Xis Speech: Unclear

Perhaps the answer to what the “three wins” means lies in the reason for reproducing Xi’s 2013 speech in Qiushi in 2019? Was it published to send a specific signal to the CCP about gearing up to compete for global domination? This is the claim implied in the State Department report’s translation of the “three wins.” The problem with this hypothesis—even if one accepts the State Department translation—is that this is not the first time portions of this speech were quoted in a major Party outlet.

For example, a large portion of the relevant paragraph used in the State Department report was published in a People’s Daily article in November 2015. The article refers to the inevitable victory of socialism, but this assertion is made in the broader context of confidence in China following its own path of development and making contributions to humanity’s progress. This is hardly remarkable and is consistent with the rhetorical boosterism that typifies the common usage of the “three wins” in Party media. In the People’s Daily article, the excerpts from Xi’s 2013 speech are not part of a case for pursuing global domination. 33

Other excerpts from the speech were reproduced in the PLA Daily in February 2018, about a year before Qiushi published its chunk of the text. The PLA Daily article does not identify the original speech but does include the same references to the need for long-term cooperation and competition between socialism and capitalism, the importance of China focusing on handling its own affairs well, and building a socialism that is superior to capitalism. Although it indicates that these efforts should lay a solid foundation for “winning the initiative, winning the advantage, and winning the future,” the article is clearly about the ways China can contribute to the further realization of a “community of common destiny.” 34 Its language and content is not about seeking a “dominant position.” 35

Possibly the earliest article to quote the “superior socialism” and “three wins” section of Xi’s speech appeared in 2013. It was written by Yan Shuhan, a Central Party School cadre and member of a Marxist theory research group. Yan argues that China will remain situated in the primary stage of socialism for a long time, and its slow progress will be compared against that of developed capitalist countries. In the face of this, Yan quotes Xi’s “superior socialism” and “three wins” paragraph as part of an exhortation to be confident in the superiority of China’s socialist road. The article basically notes the “three wins” are a “state of mind” (精神状态) that will ensure ideological unity. In short, in this early Central Party School gloss on Xi’s speech, the “three wins” are (as they are in so many sources) a rhetorical flourish urging CCP cadres to keep the faith. They are not a reference to achieving a “dominant position” globally. 36

The Qiushi piece came out in early 2019. According to the CNKI database, it was then reproduced in full in five publications shortly after that. Prior to November 2020 (when the State Department document was released), several more articles cited the speech. The contexts of these articles varied. One focused on the importance of Party cadres improving their level of knowledge and capabilities so they can think more strategically about a range of questions, and only then could they “win the initiative, win the advantage, win the future.” Basically, the “three wins” was again a vague rhetorical flourish.37 Other articles citing the Qiushi piece focused on improving the ideological quality of senior Party officials, including one by a Central Party School analyst about how leading officials need to study Marxism more deeply. The author highlighted the contradictions and dilemmas that capitalism created for building a “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” The crux of this process, the article noted, is not to waver on the basic principles of scientific socialism—in other words, to remain ideologically steadfast. The article quoted the “three wins” paragraph as part of a discussion of the ideological challenges that come from internal and external market forces. It is in the context of these threats that Xi urged the Party to build a superior socialism in China. 38 In short, the occasions on which the Qiushi article was subsequently cited do not indicate that Xi’s speech was reproduced to signal or reveal the grand strategic goals of the PRC.A more careful review of the version of Xi’s 2013 speech that Qiushi published illuminates another central point. The “three wins” phrase appears in a paragraph about upholding the ideals of communism, reflecting a concern—as other Party materials indicate—that Party members are insufficiently committed to the CCP’s ideology. This is a theme Xi has repeatedly expressed since coming to power. The victory of socialism is, of course, one of the core elements in Marxist-Leninist ideology. But, arguably, Xi’s repeated endorsement of Chinese socialism is not a statement of grand strategic intent, as much as its part of his ongoing effort to avoid the fate of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and prevent the collapse of the CCP regime. The concluding passage of the Qiushi reproduction of Xi’s 2013 speech underscores that its purpose is to focus on the “question of the road” (道路问题)—emphasizing that China’s rejuvenation cannot follow the Western capitalist “road” and that building socialism in China is the superior “road”. Thus, the whole thrust of the “three wins” passage in this speech is about the superiority of socialism in China and the need for ideological self-strengthening.

Even more telling was Xinhua’s packaging of the Qiushi piece. Xinhua often publishes articles to guide how audiences should read major leadership statements. Its commentary on the Qiushi version of Xi’s speech stressed that the core ideas were the “question of the road” and the need to uphold communist ideals. Xinhua’s exegesis did not have anything to say about socialism defeating capitalism, putting China in a “dominant position,” or “winning advantage.” There was no reference to the “three wins” at all in the Xinhua summary.39

Perhaps the State Department translation makes more sense if the “three wins” phrase is more specifically linked in Xi’s diplomatic or foreign-policy thinking? If the “three wins” were reproduced to reveal grand strategic goals, one might expect them to be included in speeches about the international situation, the nature of the epoch, or China’s security. But this does not appear to be the case either. As noted above, the phrase from his 2013 speech has been used for a range of purposes. It has not been exclusively used to explicate some long-term goal of global domination or achieving a “dominant position.” Indeed, it appears not to be linked to Xi’s foreign-policy thinking at all. I recently searched for articles in CNKI that explicate “Xi Jinping’s diplomatic thought” (e.g., that use 习近平外交思想 in the abstract, title, or keywords). I found 381 articles, only one of which includes the “three wins” phrase.

40 If one broadens the search to references to Xi Jinping’s diplomatic thought in the full text (not necessarily the main topic of the article), there were 1312 results, only three of which used the “three win” phrase. These data do not seem consistent with the notion that the phrase is a central concept in Xi’s thinking about foreign policy or grand strategy.

Finally, it is worth noting that the “three wins” do not show up frequently in Xi’s other speeches or writings. If the “three wins” were central to understanding strategic intentions, it is odd that the phrase does not appear in a three-volume collection of internal-circulation speeches to the Chinese military from 2012–2016 41 and that it only appears twice in a two-volume, 2700-page collection of Xi’s public speeches from 2012–2020. 42 He did use the “three wins” in a speech in 2017, but this was to urge Party leaders to use Marxist theory in their work:

Only by taking Marxism as one’s special ability, thinking about problems with a broader vision and a longer-term perspective, constantly improving the ability to use Marxism to analyze and solve practical problems, and constantly improving the ability to use scientific theory to guide us to respond to major challenges, resist major risks, overcome major obstacles, and solve major contradictions can we win the advantage, win the initiative, and win the future. 43

Once again, his use of the “three wins” was a rhetorical flourish to urge officials to be better Marxists. The State Department translation of the “three wins” would make little sense in this context. 44

Additional analysis of the context and translation of the “three wins” phrase might yield different insights or emphases. It is possible there are internal circulation materials that provide an exegesis closer to the State Department translation—but, as far as I am aware, none has surfaced. That, of course, is the point. As this study of the grammar, common usage, and context for the “three wins” suggests, it is at best premature to claim that this phrase is a definitive statement of China’s grand strategic goals. It should not be the basis for cutting off important research into China’s long-term international intentions.

Conclusion

Translation is important—and it is hard. All of us who work with Chinese sources get things wrong or miss nuances. In this instance, however, the translation used in the State Department Policy Planning Staff report (and in other reports by the Department of Defense) is a probably not an accurate rendition, misses traditions of usage, and has been shaped to make certain claims about the CCP’s strategic intentions that probably can’t be sustained by the “three wins” phrase.

Of course, one might ask, why worry about this particular problematic translation? It may be that there is other incontrovertible evidence for the claim that the CCP’s long-term strategic intentions are clear and indisputable. Indeed, the State Department report provides additional examples that it believes also make its case for the CCP having global imperial goals. Much of the evidence cited comes from public CCP texts and Xi’s speeches. In particular, the “dominant position” translation is a prominent part of this overall argument. The report puts a great deal of stock in the claim that China is striving to spread a “superior socialism” around the globe and to put itself in the globally “dominant position,” from which it will implement its “distinctive way of empire.” 45 The translated term “dominant position” appears within the document’s first major quote at the beginning of the report, framing the findings of the entire report. Moreover, a discussion of the phrase “dominant position” appears in a section on the intellectual origins of China’s behavior, in which Xi’s speech is the primary evidence used to claim that China is trying to impose socialism on the rest of the globe and replace the United States as the global hegemon. 46 One assumes, therefore, that the authors of the report believe Xi’s speech is important evidence of China’s intentions, otherwise why cite it so prominently? Indeed, in principle, a high-profile translation such as this can become a lens through which other data is interpreted. Behavior that could also be analyzed as less coordinated, occasionally reactive, driven by competing domestic interests, or less radical is instead filtered through this particular reading of Xi Jinping’s language. 47 As I suggest here, a more accurate translation of Xi’s speech does not provide textual support for the case that the State Department report tried to make in the rest of the document.

A more contextualized reading of this passage in Xi’s speech could easily be that China will demonstrate socialism’s superiority at home by handling its “own affairs” well (an inference closer to that in the Department of Defense’s 2020 report on Chinese military power). In short, the “three wins” is not likely to be a key to the code. It is a relatively common phrase used in a wide range of contexts, from education to sports to ideological training to economic development, often as a rhetorical fist pump.

Given the stakes in the U.S.-China rivalry, translation is going to be more important and consequential than ever. How might we, as analysts, reduce the error rate in our translations? Here are three suggestions. Analysts should consider setting up a review process whereby potentially analytically significant and policy-relevant translations are subject to double-blind peer review—something akin to an academic product. This way, analysts with and without area knowledge will be better able to assess the significance of CCP phrases and texts. 48 Another possibility is to set up a wiki process where a translation can be posted and a pool of language experts provide input. Political scientists have been successful in using this method to code polities according to various political features. Finally, sometimes translations can be tentative even after rigorous analysis. So perhaps we need to develop a norm where, as authors, we provide a note or appendix in our articles with alternative translations, with an assessment of the validity of particular key terms, and with an explanation as to why we are using a particular translation rather than another. 49


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Alastair Iain Johnston, "Translation Matters: Problems of Inference in the 2020 State Department Policy Planning Report “The Elements of the China Challenge”," Interpret: China, Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 31, 2022, last modified March 2, 2022, https://interpret.csis.org/translation-matters-problems-of-inference-in-the-2020-state-department-policy-planning-report-the-elements-of-the-china-challenge/.

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