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Amid trade tensions with America, China is showing old war films

Economist - Thu, 05/23/2019 - 16:52

THERE IS A lot for Americans to dislike in the Chinese propaganda film “Shangganling”. It is based on a real battle in late 1952, during which American and South Korean forces failed to take a mountain ridge from more lightly armed Chinese troops, who suffered terrible casualties. The weeks-long campaign came near the end of the Korean war of 1950-53, which began when the Stalinist regime of Kim Il Sung invaded the pro-American south and which eventually drew in millions of Chinese and UN forces. Chinese schools teach that China joined the war in self-defence and was victorious. Pupils are told their countrymen showed solidarity with communist brethren in Korea while standing up to American imperialists who were bent on attacking China’s heartland. Official histories avoid the awkward question of who started the “War to Resist America and Aid Korea”, as it is known. China’s internal estimates put the Chinese death toll at 400,000. The public is told that only 152,000 Chinese were killed.

Newspapers have begun to cite the Korean war in editorials, as they brace the public for prolonged trade conflict with America. Filmed in 1956, “Shangganling” is one of several Korean war films shown on national television in recent days. Sporting crude, prosthetic hooked noses beneath their steel helmets, the “Americans” in that film cackle with...

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African swine fever hits China, home of half the world’s pigs

Economist - Thu, 05/23/2019 - 16:52

WHILE THE Chinese zodiac celebrates the year of the pig, for the Earth-bound variety it is a terrible time. African swine fever, harmless to humans but fatal to porkers, has spread across the country. Hong Kong’s first case was reported on May 17th. The epidemic has affected colossal numbers of pigs, pushing up pork prices steeply. It has walloped the tens of millions of Chinese who depend on pig-rearing for their livelihood. There is no effective vaccine. Experts say that it may take years for China to control the disease.

African swine fever is so named because the first known case was detected in Africa over a century ago. The virus spreads easily between pigs, which can also catch it from ticks, contact with contaminated surfaces or by eating infected food (cheap animal feed in China often contains pork). It causes haemorrhaging and often kills in less than a week. The death rate is at least 90%. Since 2016 outbreaks have occurred across Europe and Asia. But nowhere have they been more devastating than in China, which at least until recently was home to half of the world’s pigs.

China’s first officially acknowledged case was reported in August last year in the north-eastern province of Liaoning. But many people in the industry believe that the virus began spreading, unreported, months earlier. The country (excluding...

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China is a nation of tea-drinkers, but coffee is taking off

Economist - Thu, 05/23/2019 - 16:52

ON A SPRING morning in Chengdu, the capital of the south-western province of Sichuan, Zhang Xiaoyu stands in her classroom, teaching the art of coffee-making. On the wall a dozen plaques from the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe certify her proficiency in skills ranging from roasting beans to serving the drink. Seven students, all women in their 20s and 30s hoping to open coffee shops, take sips from tiny cups and make notes on the flavours.

Until the 1990s coffee was rarely served in China except at luxury hotels aimed at foreigners. When Starbucks opened its first outlet there in 1999 it was far from clear that the country’s avid tea-drinkers would take to such a different—and usually more costly—source of caffeine. Starbucks tried to entice customers unused to coffee’s bitter taste by promoting milk- and sugar-heavy concoctions such as Frappuccinos.

The average Chinese still only drinks five cups per year, says the International Coffee Organisation, a London-based group. That is just 1.3% of the amount consumed by the average Japanese or American. But coffee has become fashionable among the middle class. Starbucks now has about 3,800 outlets in China—more than in any other country outside America. Statista, a business-intelligence portal, says the roast coffee market in China is growing by more than 10% a year...

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As China tightens rules on religion, unregistered churches wince

Economist - Mon, 05/20/2019 - 10:54

XU YONGHAI’S flock gathers weekly to worship in his small studio apartment in west-central Beijing. On a chilly winter morning a dozen people climb the concrete stairs to his door, dump their coats on his Snoopy bedsheets and gather around a table laid with tea and Bibles. The service begins with some devotional songs, accompanied by music from a battery-powered speaker. The pocket-sized gadget packs up halfway through the medley, forcing the pastor to dig out a spare.

Many tight-knit services such as this one take place across China each week. The small congregation meets without the permission of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, a government umbrella under which all China’s Protestant congregations are supposed to huddle. It meets on Fridays rather than Sundays, an arrangement considered less likely to provoke officials. Authorities know what goes on and occasionally post a watchman to a security box outside the building. But they tend not to interfere, says Mr Xu, because they know that all his congregation does is “read the Bible”.

Chinese Christians were thought to number about 70m in 2010 and are probably more numerous now. Perhaps only a minority of them worships in government-sanctioned churches, in which the party vets both clergy and services. Most attend unregistered ones, which vary from cramped house groups such as Mr Xu’s to...

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China’s desert-taming “green Great Wall” is not as great as it sounds

Economist - Thu, 05/16/2019 - 17:13

AN EX-ARMY LORRY chugs across the desert outside Minqin, a town in the north-western province of Gansu. It is delivering water to a team of about 20 people planting saxaul—a squat, spiky tree native to the area—on the banks of towering dunes. The hope is that the vegetation will anchor the ground and help prevent sand from sweeping through Minqin during wind storms in spring. Without these efforts, says one of the planters, the oasis town could be “eaten by the sand”.

Minqin is the seat of a county of the same name which is half the size of Belgium. It is surrounded on three sides by the Gobi desert (see map). On a warm evening the town’s neat central plaza is thronged with locals practising dance routines for exercise and entertainment. But their livelihoods are threatened by the desert, which in recent decades has been advancing on the town at an average rate of several metres a year. To help hold it at bay, officials plan to have shrubs and trees planted in the county. These will eventually form a belt more than 400km long, say reports in the state-controlled media.

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China bristles at Western naval transits through the Taiwan Strait

Economist - Thu, 05/09/2019 - 16:54

AS DAWN BROKE on May 5th, Chinese warships began live-fire drills in the north of the Taiwan Strait, the 180km-wide waterway between China and Taiwan. Fishermen, who were told to stay clear until May 10th, will be getting used to passing shells. In April 2018 the Chinese navy held its first live-fire exercise there for three years. The Taiwan Strait now seems thick with warships—and not only with China’s.

Last month the passage of a French frigate through the strait angered China. It complained that the passage was “illegal” and barred France from a multi-country ceremony to mark the Chinese navy’s 70th anniversary. The suggestion of illegality—later removed from the website of China’s defence ministry—raised eyebrows. It seemed to imply that China was staking a claim to an entire international waterway.

That did not discourage a pair of American destroyers from sailing through the strait a few weeks later, on April 28th. The US Navy said the transit showed America’s “commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific”. It was the fourth such American passage in 2019, according to figures released by America’s Pacific Fleet in May and first reported by the South China Morning Post, a newspaper in Hong Kong.

American naval transits rose from an average of under six per year between 2007 and 2010,...

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China worries about how study in Taiwan might affect its students

Economist - Thu, 05/09/2019 - 16:54

SIPPING ICED coffee at a trendy restaurant in Tainan, a city in southern Taiwan, Li Jiabao appears calm despite the attention the 20-year-old student’s outspoken views have recently attracted on the island’s campuses. Mr Li is a student of pharmacy from the eastern Chinese province of Shandong. In March he released a startling self-recorded video in which he denounced China’s decision, unveiled about a year ago, to scrap the ten-year term limit for the presidency. He compared China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, to an “emperor”. Most Chinese students in Taiwan keep quiet about politics at home. But Mr Li says living in Taiwan’s “model democracy” inspired him to speak out. Last month he applied for political asylum there.

Liberal thinkers in China have long been fascinated by Taiwan’s politics because of the island’s close cultural and historical links with the mainland. At the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, the defeated Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalist Party, took refuge on the island and ruled it with the same contempt for democracy that the victorious Communist Party displayed in China. But Taiwan succeeded economically, producing a middle class that began pushing for reform. Eventually, in 1996, Taiwan held its first democratic presidential election. The KMT won but the next time, four years later, it was defeated.

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Calls to harden the West’s defences against China suggest despair

Economist - Thu, 05/09/2019 - 16:54

THE HISTORY of attempts to contain modern China is not a happy one. The Soviet Union tried it in 1960 when Mao Zedong’s insouciance about nuclear war—he had suggested that such a conflict would kill more imperialists than socialists, leaving the world ruined but Red—alarmed Nikita Khrushchev. Soviet technical advisers, including nuclear-weapons experts who shredded all documents they could not carry, were withdrawn from China. Chinese technicians reassembled the shreds, recovering clues which helped China test an atom bomb four years later.

The lesson was clear. Withdrawing assistance from a threatening China may be rational, but a China that succeeds anyway, and then feels less dependent on outsiders, is not necessarily safer.

It is not a lesson that has much resonance in America today. Whatever happens with the trade war started by President Donald Trump, America is hardening itself against China. Moves are afoot to wall off sensitive technologies behind export controls, tariff barriers and tougher investment-screening rules. With varying degrees of success, American officials are leaning on allies in Europe and elsewhere to shun such Chinese firms as Huawei, a telecommunications giant. Amid allegations of rampant, China-directed espionage on campuses, America is tightening visa rules for Chinese students of science...

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“Avengers: Endgame” has been an unusual hit in China

Economist - Thu, 05/02/2019 - 16:46

EVEN IF IT did not boast a character called Captain America, the superhero film “Avengers: Endgame” is a very obviously American spectacle. Beyond its swagger and expensive special effects, the Marvel comic book film series, of which this is the final instalment, celebrates flawed, individualistic superheroes. That the film just broke Chinese box-office records for its opening weekend could lead outsiders to assume that the American and Chinese film markets—the world’s two largest—are converging. In fact China’s film world is becoming more distinctive and self-confident.

Hollywood producers have bet fair sums of money, over the years, on the idea that American and Chinese audiences are not so very different, and will laugh, weep and cheer at the same, carefully globalised movies. China has a habit of proving them wrong. The “Avengers” series has a large but distinctive set of fans in China, who often say they love the films precisely because they identify with its misfit heroes, struggling with a harsh, judgmental world.

Over 1.7bn cinema tickets were sold in China last year, a domestic record. Most sales were driven by locally made hits in which the stories ranged from Chinese military heroics overseas (“Operation Red Sea”) to a bittersweet drama about cancer (“Dying to Survive”). Though Hollywood had a respectable...

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Space-themed tourism is taking off in China

Economist - Thu, 05/02/2019 - 16:46

MEALWORMS WRIGGLE on a shelf in the botanical module of Mars Base 1, a simulated Martian habitat on the edge of the Gobi desert in western China. Guo Jiayu, a guide, tells a group of wide-eyed schoolchildren that, mashed up, such larvae could be part of the diet of astronauts should they reach the red planet. Elsewhere in the complex (pictured), neon-lit corridors lead to sleeping compartments and a control centre. Through an airlock lined with spacesuits awaits a rover, ready for exploring the rocky expanse outside.

The small installation is near Jinchang, a nickel-mining city in the western province of Gansu. It was built last year at a cost of around 50m yuan ($7.5m) by Bai Fan, a garrulous British-educated entrepreneur with the backing of private investors. For now Mr Bai is mainly using the base to teach students about travel to Mars. Eventually he hopes the facility will become the centrepiece of a resort. His company has secured the right to develop 67 square kilometres of the surrounding desert—an area bigger than Manhattan. The base has already hosted a reality television show, in which six celebrities pretended to be astronauts facing life-threatening challenges.

Businesspeople across China see money-making possibilities in the country’s quest for space-faring achievement. In January China became the first...

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The Communist Party grapples with a momentous anniversary

Economist - Thu, 05/02/2019 - 16:46

A SHORT WALK from Tiananmen Square, young carworkers wearing company tracksuits stand with their fists in the air. They are renewing their vows to the Communist Youth League by chanting promises to “resolutely support” the Communist Party and “strictly follow” the league’s regulations. When they step aside for a group photo, 40 students from a technical college take their place to make their own pledges of loyalty. A growing queue of youngsters waits nearby to do the same.

The oath-swearing spot is in the courtyard of an imposing edifice of russet brick, known as the Red Building. A century ago it belonged to Peking University, one of China’s most prestigious seats of learning (now in a north-western suburb). There is a striking contrast between these professions of faith in a dictatorial party and an exhibition the same young people are taken to see inside the building. It is about the students who, 100 years ago on May 4th, set off from the Red Building and other sites around the city to join a protest at Tiananmen provoked by the shabby treatment of China by its allies after the first world war. The Treaty of Versailles had awarded a former German colony in China to Japan.

Today May 4th is officially celebrated as Youth Day. Its significance is strongly contested. The party recalls the May 4th Movement, which refers...

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Four prominent activists in Hong Kong are jailed

Economist - Thu, 04/25/2019 - 10:48

PRO COMMUNIST Party newspapers in Hong Kong call them the “black hands”: the activists who inspired the “Umbrella Movement” of 2014 involving 79 days of sit-ins and demonstrations in busy commercial areas in support of democratic reform. On April 24th a court in Hong Kong sentenced eight of them, including four who were sent to jail. Two academics, Benny Tai (pictured) and Chan Kin-man, received the stiffest punishment: 16 months behind bars. A Baptist minister, Chu Yiu-Ming, was given the same sentence, but his term was suspended. Human-rights groups say the jailings will have a chilling effect on free speech. China would like that.

 

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China tries to calm jitters about the “Belt and Road” initiative

Economist - Thu, 04/25/2019 - 10:48

CHINESE ENGINEERS are drilling their way through the green hills of Laos, clearing a path for a railway that one day may traverse South-East Asia. Each time they complete a tunnel—at least three times in the past month—they hold a brief ceremony, waving Chinese flags for the cameras. They are celebrating not just their engineering success but also the evidence before them that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s global infrastructure-building scheme, is making progress. The full railway is a long way off. Work has barely begun in Thailand, the next link. But the section in Laos should be in use by 2021.

It will be a test of what many see as a big economic danger of the BRI: that it will saddle poor countries with unmanageable debts. China insists that its tens of billions of dollars in loans and investments are fostering global prosperity—a message that it is sure to repeat to foreign leaders attending the second Belt and Road Forum, which takes place from April 25th to 27th in Beijing (pictured is a floral display marking the event). But worries about the cost of the BRI, a project closely linked with President Xi Jinping’s foreign policy, have become widespread. Malaysia, Pakistan and Sierra Leone are among a growing list of countries that have delayed or scrapped China-led projects.

There are three main...

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China throws a revealing party for the anniversary of its navy

Economist - Tue, 04/23/2019 - 19:14

AS MILITARY PAGEANTS go, multinational parades of warships deliver quite a complex message. Over a dozen countries—ranging from friends to overt rivals—sent naval vessels to the eastern Chinese city of Qingdao on April 23rd. There they steamed past a destroyer carrying China’s commander-in-chief, President Xi Jinping, in honour of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army Navy.

Paint gleaming and brass fittings buffed to a hospital shine, there were frigates from near-allies such as Russia, and destroyers from almost-foes like India. Their mission was friendship and diplomacy. But these were heavily armed peace envoys, warily visiting a China whose emergence as an ocean-going nation is shaking Asia, and may one day change the world. Visitors involved in territorial disputes with China, including Japan and Vietnam, sent ships bristling with weaponry. America sent no ships at all.

China sent mixed messages, too. As the celebrations began, the visitors were hailed by Mr Xi as a sort of floating United Nations. A peace-loving China yearned to work with foreign navies to secure international sea-lanes and safeguard the ocean’s riches, Mr Xi declared. On state television presenters noted that, as a mainstay of anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden since 2008, the Chinese navy had escorted more...

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Hope remains for Western solidarity. Look at embassies in Beijing

Economist - Wed, 04/17/2019 - 16:54

CHINA’S MESSAGE to the Western world has been called an argument in three parts. In order, it runs: China’s rise is inevitable; there are rich rewards for those who co-operate with it; resistance is futile. In the tree-lined embassy districts of China’s capital, there is no debate about the country’s rise, which inspires a mix of admiration, greed and dread. But the rest of the argument inspires more scepticism.

Take that second claim about rewards awaiting China’s partners. Diplomats describe much greater realism in their internal discussions. Their views are affected, inevitably, by the apparent consensus in Washington that China is a threat, bent on growing richer and more powerful at America’s expense. But there has also been a broader change of mood. Only a few years ago, it is related, as soon as envoys sat to dine, “stealth boasting” would start. Isn’t China tricky, the envoys would sigh—though, of course, my country’s relations with it are rosy. Such bragging has become rarer.

Diplomats say that the new realism extends to countries like Germany, whose trusted brands and sought-after technology seemed to give it an upper hand in a symbiotic relationship with China. Even the biggest firms find themselves in competition with state-backed Chinese rivals that mean to defeat and replace them. France and Britain are...

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Office workers in China organise a rare online labour movement

Economist - Wed, 04/17/2019 - 16:54

IN THE WORLD’S most censored region of cyberspace, finding an unpatrolled spot to air shared grievances is hard. Yet disgruntled Chinese software developers have recently found one at their fingertips: GitHub, a platform owned by Microsoft that allows developers to help each other build software. Fed up with the grindingly long work hours imposed on them by China’s internet giants, this collective has recently built something else—a movement demanding more humane office hours and calling out the worst corporate offenders.

Their beef is the “996” regime, which refers to a work schedule of 9am to 9pm, six days a week, often without extra pay. Toiling such hours has become an unspoken rule in the frenetic world of Chinese tech. In late March anonymous activists created a webpage called 996.icu (the letters standing for “intensive care unit”). On it they listed firms at fault, including 58.com, a site for classified ads that popularised the 996 approach in 2016. A page with the same name was also set up on GitHub, which was also used to host a sister project called “955.wlb” (standing for “work-life balance”). This celebrates firms with more relaxed working hours. Almost all of those listed are foreign ones.

The anti-996 campaigners have a point. In 2016 Didi Chuxing, a ride-hailing giant, ranked the most “hardcore”...

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In a Chinese border town, officials try a new approach to immigration

Economist - Wed, 04/17/2019 - 16:54

WHEN HE IS home in his native Vietnam, Nhi Quang Ninh spends part of the year on farms and part of it down coal mines. Since last year, however, he has been finding more rewarding work in southern China. The polite 24-year-old waits for a permit at a visa office in Dongxing, a Chinese city with a beguiling old town that is separated from Vietnam by a shallow, narrow river. The job he has secured in a nearby brick factory pays about as well as his previous stints as a miner, but is a lot less dangerous.

Vietnamese have been crossing into China for years in search of work. They have often come illegally, especially when demand for labour spikes during the sugar-cane harvest. Some have obtained three-day work passes reserved for residents of Vietnam’s borderlands. (Vietnamese traders in Dongxing are on the left of the picture above.) A Vietnamese migrant who sells fruit beneath the city’s busy border bridge says she has been serially renewing hers for five years.

But under a scheme begun in 2017, Chinese firms in Dongxing and several nearby cities can now legally hire Vietnamese on monthly renewable visas, says Su Shihao, a local employment agent. The aim is in part to help manufacturing firms in Guangxi, a largely agricultural province, and in part to replace local residents who have left to find work in more prosperous...

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Many Chinese suffer discrimination based on their regional origin

Economist - Thu, 04/11/2019 - 16:40

THE SCHOOLCHILDREN started to vomit. Some fell unconscious and were whisked into hospital. Angry parents demanded an explanation. The food-poisoning scandal quickly lit up Chinese social media. A kindergarten teacher in the central province of Henan was detained—accused of adding sodium nitrite, which can be toxic in large doses, to the meal boxes of at least 23 pupils late last month.

Most comments online have focused on the evil of the act and have expressed sympathy for the parents. But a surprising number have noted the alleged perpetrator’s home province. “I’m not surprised. Henan people would stoop to anything,” says one commentator on Baidu Tieba, a social-networking site. “Apart from wicked, I can’t think of another word to describe Henan people,” chimes in someone with more than 50,000 followers on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, who identifies himself as a financial journalist.

Han Chinese are more than 90% of the population and their prejudice against ethnic minorities is well documented. In Tibet and Xinjiang it has reinforced the Communist Party’s repressive tendencies. Discrimination by Han people against members of their own ethnic group is less well-known, but also common. Its consequences are not as appalling, but it makes life tough for tens of millions of people. Over the past three decades it has...

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Two cities tussle over who makes the tastiest Sichuan hotpot

Economist - Thu, 04/11/2019 - 16:40

CHENGDU, THE capital of Sichuan province, has an ancient rivalry with Chongqing, a city to its south-east. Residents of Chongqing accuse their Chengdu cousins of being pompous. The people of Chongqing are hotheads, Chengdu dwellers shoot back. Both cities share a love of spice-laden Sichuan cuisine, which in recent decades has conquered Chinese palates. But they are at war over which has the best Sichuan hotpot—a type of DIY-cooking that involves boiling vegetables and slices of meat in a communal broth with chillies and numbing peppercorns.

A private museum in Chongqing, opened several years ago, makes the case for Chongqing-style hotpot. It describes how it developed from a method used to make cheap offcuts of meat taste delicious. But Chengdu is playing catch-up. In January the city sold a plot of land on condition that the developer build a hotpot museum on part of it. Such presumptuous behaviour will test the famous fiery tempers of Chongqing-ites. Chengdu may be the capital of Sichuan cuisine’s eponymous province, but Chongqing was part of Sichuan for long periods of history until 1997. It is now the capital of its own province-sized region, which is also called Chongqing.

The two cities are among many in China with their own styles of hotpot. The stories behind these dishes reveal how different regions like to...

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Need a metaphor for a rising China? Try its national curling squad

Economist - Thu, 04/11/2019 - 16:40

IN THE PAST athletes in China had a particular image problem, reports Lei Yi, a sports official. Almost universally, she regrets to say, people thought that sports were for strong, fit people who “don’t have a brain”. Happily, views have changed. Specifically, says Ms Lei, sports are seen as a way to teach young Chinese useful lessons about working hard, believing in themselves and in their team, and not giving up easily.

If Ms Lei’s case for sports sounds a little light on fun and heavy on improving virtues, she has an excuse. She is a team leader from China’s General Administration of Sport, and has less than four years to prepare a dozen perfectly trained athletes for the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022. Her domain is curling, a team game played on ice that was almost unknown in China 20 years ago. Almost five centuries after matches were first recorded on the frozen ponds of Scotland and the Low Countries, curling has been declared a sport that plays to China’s strengths.

Curling is a bit like lawn bowls, except played on ice with a lump of polished granite that can, as it glides, have its trajectory altered by team-mates madly scrubbing the ice in its path. The stone’s squat shape gives the sport its Chinese name of binghu, or “ice kettle”. The central authorities and local governments are...

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