Chinese economic reform
|History of the People's|
Republic of China (PRC)
|Generations of leadership|
The Chinese economic reform (simplified Chinese: 改革开放; traditional Chinese: 改革開放; pinyin: Gǎigé kāifàng; lit.: 'reform and opening-up'; known in the West as the Opening of China) refers to the program of economic reforms termed "Socialism with Chinese characteristics" and "socialist market economy" in the People's Republic of China (PRC). The reforms were started by reformists within the Communist Party of China—led by Deng Xiaoping—on December 18, 1978, during the "Boluan Fanzheng" period. They went into stagnation after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, but were revived after Deng Xiaoping's Southern Tour in 1992. In 2010, China overtook Japan as the world's second-largest economy.
Before the reforms, the Chinese economy was dominated by state ownership and central planning. From 1950 to 1973, Chinese real GDP per capita grew at a rate of 2.9% per year on average, albeit with major fluctuations stemming from the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. This placed it near the middle of the Asian nations during the same period, with neighboring capitalist countries such as Japan, South Korea and rival Chiang Kai-shek's Republic of China outstripping the PRC's rate of growth. Starting in 1970, the economy entered into a period of stagnation, and after the death of Mao Zedong, the Communist Party leadership turned to market-oriented reforms to salvage the failing economy.
The Communist Party authorities carried out the market reforms in two stages. The first stage, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, involved the de-collectivization of agriculture, the opening up of the country to foreign investment, and permission for entrepreneurs to start businesses. However, a large percentage of industries remained state-owned. The second stage of reform, in the late 1980s and 1990s, involved the privatization and contracting out of much state-owned industry. The 1985 lifting of price controls was a major reform, and protectionist policies and regulations soon followed, although state monopolies in sectors such as banking and petroleum remained. In 2001, China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO). The private sector grew remarkably, accounting for as much as 70 percent of China's gross domestic product by 2005. From 1978 until 2013, unprecedented growth occurred, with the economy increasing by 9.5% a year. The conservative Hu Jintao's administration regulated and controlled the economy more heavily after 2005, reversing some reforms. On the other hand, a parallel set of political reforms were launched by Deng in 1980, but eventually ended in 1989 due to the Tiananmen Square protests.
The success of China's economic policies and the manner of their implementation resulted in immense changes in Chinese society in the last 40 years, including greatly decreased poverty while both average incomes and income inequality have increased, leading to a backlash led by the New Left. In the academic scene, scholars have debated the reason for the success of the Chinese "dual-track" economy, and have compared it to attempts to reform socialism in the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union; as well as to the growth of other developing economies. Additionally, these series of reforms have led to China's rise as a world power and a shift of international geopolitical interests in favour of it over Taiwan.
The reform era has been said to end during the leadership of Chinese Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping, who generally opposes the reforms and has rolled back many of the Deng-era reforms as the Communist Party reasserts control over different aspects of Chinese society, including the economy. In 2018, China expert Minxin Pei has argued that the Chinese economy is currently the least open since the reform era began in the 1980s. This de-liberalization is seen by one Hong Kong commentator as part of the subject of the present US–China trade war, in which the United States alleges the Chinese government is giving unfair and discriminatory competitive advantages to Chinese state-owned and private companies.
Course of reforms
Economic reforms began during the "Boluan Fanzheng" period, especially after Deng Xiaoping and his reformist allies rose to power with Deng replacing Hua Guofeng as the paramount leader of China in December 1978. By the time Deng took power, there was widespread support among the elite for economic reforms. As the de facto leader, Deng's policies faced opposition from party conservatives but were extremely successful in increasing the country's wealth.
In 1979, Deng Xiaoping emphasized the goal of "Four Modernizations" and further proposed the idea of "xiaokang", or "moderately prosperous society". The achievements of Lee Kuan Yew to create an economic superpower in Singapore had a profound effect on the Communist leadership in China. Leaders in China made a major effort, especially under Deng Xiaoping, to emulate his policies of economic growth, entrepreneurship, and subtle suppression of dissent. Over the years, more than 22,000 Chinese officials were sent to Singapore to study its methods.
Deng's first reforms began in agriculture, a sector long mismanaged by the Communist Party. By the late 1970s, food supplies and production had become so deficient that government officials were warning that China was about to repeat the "disaster of 1959", the famines which killed tens of millions during the Great Leap Forward. Deng responded by decollectivizing agriculture and emphasizing the household-responsibility system, which divided the land of the People's communes into private plots. Under the new policy, peasants were able to exercise formal control of their land as long as they sold a contracted portion of their crops to the government. This move increased agricultural production by 25 percent between 1975 and 1985, setting a precedent for privatizing other parts of the economy. The bottom-up approach of the reforms promoted by Deng, in contrast to the top-down approach of the Perestroika in the Soviet Union, is considered an important factor contributing to the success of China's economic transition.
Reforms were also implemented in urban industry to increase productivity. A dual-price system was introduced, in which (State-owned enterprise reform 1979) state-owned industries were allowed to sell any production above the plan quota, and commodities were sold at both plan and market prices, allowing citizens to avoid the shortages of the Maoist era. Moreover, the adoption of Industrial Responsibility System 1980s further promote the development of state-owned enterprise by allowing individuals or groups to manage the enterprise by contract. Private businesses were allowed to operate for the first time since the Communist takeover, and they gradually began to make up a greater percentage of industrial output. Price flexibility was also increased, expanding the service sector.
At the same time, in December 1978, Deng announced a new policy, the Open Door Policy, to open the door to foreign businesses that wanted to set up in China. For the first time since the Kuomintang era, the country was opened to foreign investment. Deng created a series of Special Economic Zones, including Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Xiamen, for foreign investment that were relatively free of the bureaucratic regulations and interventions that hampered economic growth. These regions became engines of growth for the national economy. On January 31, 1979, the Shekou Industrial Zone of Shenzhen was founded, becoming the first experimental area in China to "open up". Under the leadership of Yuan Geng, the "Shekou model" of development was gradually formed, embodied in its famous slogan "Time is Money, Efficiency is Life", which then widely spread to other parts of China. In January 1984, Deng Xiaoping made his first inspection tour to Shenzhen and Zhuhai, praising the "Shenzhen Speed" of development as well as the success of the special economics zones.
During this period, Deng Xiaoping's policies continued beyond the initial reforms. Controls on private businesses and government intervention continued to decrease, notably in the agrifood sector which saw relaxation of price controls in 1985, and there was small-scale privatization of state enterprises which had become unviable. A notable development was the decentralization of state control, leaving local provincial leaders to experiment with ways to increase economic growth and privatize the state sector. Township and village enterprises, firms nominally owned by local governments but effectively private, began to gain market share at the expense of the state sector. With the help of Yuan Geng, the first joint-stock commercial bank in China, the China Merchants Bank, and the first joint-stock insurance company in China, the Ping An Insurance, were both established in Shekou. In May 1984, fourteen coastal cities in China including Shanghai, Guangzhou and Tianjin were named "Open Coastal Cities (沿海开放城市)".
On the other hand, conservative elder opposition, led by Chen Yun, prevented many major reforms which would have damaged the interests of special interest groups in the government bureaucracy. Corruption and increased inflation increased discontent, contributing to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and a conservative backlash after that event which ousted several key reformers and threatened to reverse many of Deng's reforms. However, Deng stood by his reforms and in 1992, he affirmed the need to continue reforms in his southern tour. He also reopened the Shanghai Stock Exchange in November 1990 which was closed by Mao 40 years earlier, while the Shenzhen Stock Exchange was founded in December 1990.
Although the economy grew quickly during this period, economic troubles in the inefficient state sector increased. Heavy losses had to be made up by state revenues and acted as a drain upon the economy. Inflation became problematic in 1985, 1988 and 1992. Privatizations began to accelerate after 1992, and the private sector grew as a percentage of GDP. China's government slowly expanded recognition of the private economy, first as a "complement" to the state sector (1988) and then as an "important component" (1999) of the socialist market economy.
In the 1990s, Deng forced many of the conservative elders such as Chen Yun into retirement, allowing radical reforms to be carried out. Despite Deng's death in 1997, reforms continued under his handpicked successors, Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji, who were ardent reformers. In 1997 and 1998, large-scale privatization occurred, in which all state enterprises, except a few large monopolies, were liquidated and their assets sold to private investors. Between 2001 and 2004, the number of state-owned enterprises decreased by 48 percent. During the same period, Jiang and Zhu also reduced tariffs, trade barriers, and regulations; reformed the banking system; dismantled much of the Mao-era social welfare system; forced the Chinese army (PLA) to divest itself of military-run businesses; reduced inflation; and joined the World Trade Organization. These moves invoked discontent among some groups, especially laid-off workers of state enterprises that had been privatized.
The domestic private sector first exceeded 50% of GDP in 2005 and has further expanded since. Also in 2005, China was able to surpass Japan as the largest economy in Asia. However, some state monopolies still remained, such as in petroleum and banking.
Hu Jintao and his conservative administration began to reverse some of Deng Xiaoping's reforms in 2005. Observers note that the government adopted more egalitarian and populist policies. It increased subsidies and control over the health care sector, halted privatization, and adopted a loose monetary policy, which led to the formation of a U.S.-style property bubble in which property prices tripled. The privileged state sector was the primary recipient of government investment, which under the new administration, promoted the rise of large "national champions" which could compete with large foreign corporations. China would finally surpass Japan's economy in 2010.
Under Party general secretary Xi Jinping and his administration, the Communist Party of China has sought to increase its control over state-owned and private enterprises. At least 288 firms have revised their corporate charters to allow the Communist Party greater influence in corporate management, and to reflect the party line. This trend also includes Hong Kong listed firms, who have traditionally downplayed their party links, but are now "redrafting bylaws to formally establish party committees that previously existed only at the group level."
On 21 July 2020, the general secretary of China Communist Party, Xin Jinping made a speech to a group of public and private business leaders at the entrepreneur forum in Beijing. Xi emphasized that “We must gradually form a new development pattern with the domestic internal circulation as the main body and the domestic and international dual circulations mutually promoting each other.”  Since then “internal circulation” became a hot word in China. Some Chinese worry that the emphasis of “internal circulation” signals returning to 1960s-era seclusion, and ending of Chinese economic reform.
Effects of the reforms
After three decades of reform, China's economy experienced one of the world's biggest booms. Agriculture and light industry have largely been privatized, while the state still retains control over some heavy industries. Despite the dominance of state ownership in finance, telecommunications, petroleum and other important sectors of the economy, private entrepreneurs continue to expand into sectors formerly reserved for public enterprise. Prices have also been liberalized.
China's economic growth since the reform has been very rapid, exceeding the East Asian Tigers. Since the beginning of Deng Xiaoping's reforms, China's GDP has risen tenfold. The increase in total factor productivity (TFP) was the most important factor, with productivity accounting for 40.1% of the GDP increase, compared with a decline of 13.2% for the period 1957 to 1978—the height of Maoist policies. For the period 1978–2005, Chinese GDP per capita increased from 2.7% to 15.7% of U.S. GDP per capita, and from 53.7% to 188.5% of Indian GDP per capita. Per capita incomes grew at 6.6% a year. Average wages rose sixfold between 1978 and 2005, while absolute poverty declined from 41% of the population to 5% from 1978 to 2001. Some scholars believed that China's economic growth has been understated, due to large sectors of the economy not being counted.
Impact on world growth
China is widely seen as an engine of world and regional growth. Surges in Chinese demand account for 50, 44 and 66 percent of export growth of the Hong Kong SAR of China, Japan and Taiwan respectively, and China's trade deficit with the rest of East Asia helped to revive the economies of Japan and Southeast Asia. Asian leaders view China's economic growth as an "engine of growth for all Asia".
Effect on inequality
The economic reforms have increased inequality dramatically within China. Despite rapid economic growth which has virtually eliminated poverty in urban China and reduced it greatly in rural regions and the fact that living standards for everyone in China have drastically increased in comparison to the pre-reform era, the Gini coefficient of China is estimated to be above 0.45, comparable to some Latin American countries and the United States.
Increased inequality is attributed to the disappearance of the welfare state and differences between coastal and interior provinces, the latter being burdened by a larger state sector. Some Western scholars have suggested that reviving the welfare state and instituting a re-distributive income tax system is needed to relieve inequality, while some Chinese economists have suggested that privatizing state monopolies and distributing the proceeds to the population can reduce inequality.
Reforms in specific sectors
During the pre-reform period, Chinese agricultural performance was extremely poor and food shortages were common. After Deng Xiaoping implemented the household responsibility system, agricultural output increased by 8.2% a year, compared with 2.7% in the pre-reform period, despite a decrease in the area of land used. Food prices fell nearly 50%, while agricultural incomes rose.
A more fundamental transformation was the economy's growing adoption of cash crops instead of just growing rice and grain. Vegetable and meat production increased to the point that Chinese agricultural production was adding the equivalent of California's vegetable industry every two years. Growth in the sector slowed after 1984, with agriculture falling from 40% of GDP to 16%; however, increases in agricultural productivity allowed workers to be released for work in industry and services, while simultaneously increasing agricultural production. Trade in agriculture was also liberalized and China became an exporter of food, a great contrast to its previous famines and shortages.
In the pre-reform period, industry was largely stagnant and the socialist system presented few incentives for improvements in quality and productivity. With the introduction of the dual-price system and greater autonomy for enterprise managers, productivity increased greatly in the early 1980s. Foreign enterprises and newly formed Township and Village Enterprises, owned by local government and often de facto private firms, competed successfully with state-owned enterprises. By the 1990s, large-scale privatizations reduced the market share of both the Township and Village Enterprises and state-owned enterprises and increased the private sector's market share. The state sector's share of industrial output dropped from 81% in 1980 to 15% in 2005. Foreign capital controls much of Chinese industry and plays an important role.
From virtually an industrial backwater in 1978, China is now the world's biggest producer of concrete, steel, ships and textiles, and has the world's largest automobile market. Chinese steel output quadrupled between 1980 and 2000, and from 2000 to 2006 rose from 128.5 million tons to 418.8 million tons, one-third of global production. Labor productivity at some Chinese steel firms exceeds Western productivity. From 1975 to 1992, China's automobile production rose from 139,800 to 1.1 million, rising to 9.35 million in 2008. Light industries such as textiles saw an even greater increase, due to reduced government interference. Chinese textile exports increased from 4.6% of world exports in 1980 to 24.1% in 2005. Textile output increased 18-fold over the same period.
This increase in production is largely the result of the removal of barriers to entry and increased competition; the number of industrial firms rose from 377,300 in 1980 to nearly 8 million in 1990 and 1996; the 2004 economic census, which excluded enterprises with annual sales below RMB 5 million, counted 1.33 million manufacturing firms, with Jiangsu and Zhejiang reporting more firms than the nationwide total for 1980. Compared to other East Asian industrial growth spurts, China's industrial performance exceeded Japan's but remained behind South Korea and Taiwan's economies.
Trade and foreign investment
Some scholars assert that China has maintained a high degree of openness that is unusual among the other large and populous nations,[dubious ] with competition from foreign goods in almost every sector of the economy. Foreign investment helped to greatly increase quality, knowledge and standards, especially in heavy industry. China's experience supports the assertion that globalization greatly increases wealth for poor countries. Throughout the reform period, the government reduced tariffs and other trade barriers, with the overall tariff rate falling from 56% to 15%. By 2001, less than 40% of imports were subject to tariffs and only 9 percent of import were subject to licensing and import quotas. Even during the early reform era, protectionist policies were often circumvented by smuggling. When China joined the WTO, it agreed to considerably harsher conditions than other developing countries. Trade has increased from under 10% of GDP to 64% of GDP over the same period. China is considered the most open large country; by 2005, China's average statutory tariff on industrial products was 8.9%. The average was 30.9% for Argentina, 27.0% for Brazil, 32.4% for India, and 36.9% for Indonesia.
China's trade surplus is considered by some in the United States as threatening American jobs. In the 2000s, the Bush administration pursued protectionist policies such as tariffs and quotas to limit the import of Chinese goods. Some scholars argue that China's growing trade surplus is the result of industries in more developed Asian countries moving to China, and not a new phenomenon. China's trade policy, which allows producers to avoid paying the Value Added Tax (VAT) for exports and undervaluation of the currency since 2002, has resulted in an overdeveloped export sector and distortion of the economy overall, a result that could hamper future growth.
Foreign investment was also liberalized upon Deng's ascension. Special Economic Zones (SEZs) were created in the early 1980s to attract foreign capital by exempting them from taxes and regulations. This experiment was successful and SEZs were expanded to cover the whole Chinese coast. Although FDI fell briefly after the 1989 student protests, it increased again to 160 billion by 2004.
In the 1990s, the financial sector was liberalized. After China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO), the service sector was considerably liberalized and foreign investment was allowed; restrictions on retail, wholesale and distribution ended. Banking, financial services, insurance and telecommunications were also opened up to foreign investment.
China's banking sector is dominated by four large state-owned banks, which are largely inefficient and monopolistic. China's largest bank, ICBC, is the largest bank in the world. The financial sector is widely seen as a drag on the economy due to the inefficient state management. Non-performing loans, mostly made to local governments and unprofitable state-owned enterprises for political purposes, especially the political goal of keeping unemployment low, are a big drain on the financial system and economy, reaching over 22% of GDP by 2000, with a drop to 6.3% by 2006 due to government recapitalization of these banks. In 2006, the total amount of non-performing loans was estimated at $160 billion. Observers recommend privatization of the banking system to solve this problem, a move that was partially carried out when the four banks were floated on the stock market. China's financial markets, the Shanghai Stock Exchange and Shenzhen Stock Exchange, are relatively ineffective at raising capital, as they comprise only 11% of GDP.
Due to the weakness of the banks, firms raise most of their capital through an informal, nonstandard financial sector developed during the 1980s and 1990s, consisting largely of underground businesses and private banks. Internal finance is the most important method successful firms use to fund their activities.
By the 1980s much emphasis was placed on the role of advertising in meeting the modernization goals being promoted by Deng. Lip service was still paid to old Maoist ideals of egalitarianism, but it did not inhibit the growth of consumerism.
In the pre-reform era, government was funded by profits from state-owned enterprises, much like the Soviet Union. As the state sector fell in importance and profitability, government revenues, especially that of the central government in Beijing, fell substantially and the government relied on a confused system of inventory taxes. Government revenues fell from 35% of GDP to 11% of GDP in the mid-1990s, excluding revenue from state-owned enterprises, with the central government's budget at just 3% of GDP. The tax system was reformed in 1994 when inventory taxes were unified into a single VAT of 17% on all manufacturing, repair, and assembly activities and an excise tax on 11 items, with the VAT becoming the main income source, accounting for half of government revenue. The 1994 reform also increased the central government's share of revenues, increasing it to 9% of GDP.
Reasons for success
Scholars have proposed a number of theories to explain China's successful transition from a planned to a socialist market economy. This occurred despite unfavorable factors such as the troublesome legacies of socialism, considerable erosion of the work ethic, decades of anti-market propaganda, and the "lost generation" whose education disintegrated amid the disruption of the Cultural Revolution.
One notable theory is that decentralization of state authority allowed local leaders to experiment with various ways to privatize the state sector and energize the economy. Although Deng was not the originator of many of the reforms, he approved them. Another theory focuses on internal incentives within the Chinese government, in which officials presiding over areas of high economic growth were more likely to be promoted. This made local and provincial governments "hungry for investment," who competed to reduce regulations and barriers to investment to boost both economic growth and their careers. Such reforms were possible because Deng cultivated pro-market followers in the government. Herman Kahn argued that Confucian ethic was playing a "similar but more spectacular role in the modernization of East Asia than the Protestant ethic played in Europe".
Taken together, Yuen Yuen Ang argues in Foreign Affairs that political reforms took place with economic reforms under Deng, except the former did not take Western forms. She writes, "To be sure, Deng's reforms emphasized brute capital accumulation rather than holistic development, which led to environmental degradation, inequality, and other social problems. Still they undoubtedly kicked China's growth machine into gear by making the bureaucracy results oriented, fiercely competitive, and responsive to business needs, qualities that are normally associated with democracies." But this only applies to the Deng era. Ang notes that since 2012, when Xi Jinping took over, the new leader has reversed Deng's political reforms and limits to power, "just as political freedoms have become imperative for continued economic growth." 
China's success is also due to the export-led growth strategy used successfully by the Four Asian Tigers beginning with Japan in the 1960s–1970s and other Newly industrialized countries. In 2001, China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO). As of 2006, over 400 of the Fortune 500 companies had entered the Chinese market, while at the same time a considerable number of Chinese companies had opened their markets outside of China. Foreign aids to China, including those from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, also played an important role. Since the beginning of opening, China has received a significant amount of aid from major developed countries such as the United States, Japan, Germany, France and the United Kingdom. For instance, through its Official Development Assistance (ODA), Japan had offered China various forms of assistance worth 3.65 trillion Yen as of 2018. On the other hand, the assistance from the U.S. reached a total of US$556 million as of 2012, and has "helped Tibetan communities improve livelihoods, promote sustainable development and environmental conservation, and preserve cultural traditions...also supports targeted programs that strengthen cooperation on combatting the spread of HIV/AIDS and other pandemic and emerging diseases as well as rule of law programs."
The collapse of the Soviet Bloc and centrally planned economies in 1989 provided renewed impetus for China to further reform its economy through different policies in order to avoid a similar fate. China also wanted to avoid the Russian ad-hoc experiments with market capitalism under Boris Yeltsin resulting in the rise of powerful oligarchs, corruption, and the loss of state revenue which exacerbated economic disparity.
Comparison to other developing economies
China's transition from a planned economy to a socialist market economy has often been compared with economies in Eastern Europe that are undergoing a similar transition. China's performance has been praised for avoiding the major shocks and inflation that plagued the Eastern Bloc. The Eastern bloc economies saw declines of 13% to 65% in GDP at the beginning of reforms, while Chinese growth has been very strong since the beginning of reform. China also managed to avoid the hyperinflation of 200 to 1,000% that Eastern Europe experienced. This success is attributed to the gradualist and decentralized approach of the Chinese government, which allowed market institutions to develop to the point where they could replace state planning. This contrasts with the "big bang" approach of Eastern Europe, where the state-owned sector was rapidly privatized with employee buyouts, but retained much of the earlier, inefficient management. Other factors thought to account for the differences are the greater urbanization of the CIS economies and differences in social welfare and other institutions. Another argument is that, in the Eastern European economies, political change is sometimes seen to have made gradualist reforms impossible, so the shocks and inflation were unavoidable.
China's economic growth has been compared with other developing countries, such as Brazil, Mexico, and India. GDP growth in China outstrips all other developing countries, with only India after 1990 coming close to China's experience. Scholars believe that high rates of investments, especially increases in capital invested per worker, have contributed to China's superior economic performance. China's relatively free economy, with less government intervention and regulation, is cited by scholars as an important factor in China's superior performance compared to other developing countries.
Legacy and criticism
The government retains monopolies in several sectors, such as petroleum and banking. The recent reversal of some reforms have left some observers dubbing 2008 the "third anniversary of the end of reforms". Nevertheless, observers[who?] believe that China's economy can continue growing at rates of 6–8 percent until 2025, though a reduction in state intervention is considered by some to be necessary for sustained growth.
Despite reducing poverty and increasing China's wealth, Deng's reforms have been criticized by the Chinese New Left for increasing inequality and allowing private entrepreneurs to purchase state assets at reduced prices. These accusations were especially intense during the Lang-Gu dispute, in which New Left academic Larry Lang accused entrepreneur Gu Sujung of usurping state assets, after which Gu was imprisoned. The Hu-Wen Administration adopted some New Left policies, such as halting privatizations and increasing the state sector's importance in the economy, and Keynesian policies that have been criticized by some Chinese economists who advocate a policy of deregulation, tax cuts and privatization.
Other criticisms focus on the effects of rapid industrialization on public health and the environment. However, scholars believe that public health issues are unlikely to become major obstacles to the growth of China's economy during the coming decades, and studies have shown that air quality and other environmental measures in China are better than those in developed countries, such as the United States and Japan, at the same level of development.
- Economy of China
- Economic history of China (pre-1911)
- Economic history of China (1912–1949)
- Boluan Fanzheng
- Deng Xiaoping Theory
- Go Out policy
- China's political reforms in 1980s
- Deng Xiaoping's Southern Tour
- China Model/Beijing Consensus
- Washington Consensus
- Great Divergence
- Đổi Mới in Vietnam
- Economic liberalisation in India
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