Resurgence of Literary and Cultural Nationalism in Contemporary Tibet
Chok Tsering, Research Associate, FNVA
In the spring of 2008, Tibetans throughout the Tibetan nationality areas were engulfed in a series of protests and demonstrations against the Chinese state, indicating the extreme height of Tibetan nationalism. This was one of the major turning points in Sino-Tibetan relationship. Most notably, this happened after less than two decades of 1987-1989 protests. This has led to the growth of a strong cultural nationalism which was seen in the form of literary writings, songs and other art forms. With annexation of Tibet in 1950, China gradually tried to win the hearts and minds of Tibetans through different policies like democratic reforms, economic liberalisation and political autonomy. However, all these policies have led to a consolidation of Tibetan nationalism instead of integration with Han China. Songs and music, which came out in the aftermath of 2008 crisis formed the communication network between ordinary people and their leaders and they also expressed the soul of unity and nationalist sentiments. Therefore, it has become the most powerful medium of expression; reaching to the maximum number of audiences. Different works of writers, poets and singers have significant impact on the ordinary Tibetans as a medium through which the aspirations of Tibetan are highlighted, leading to heightened cultural nationalism. Tibetans have so far used non-violence as a core value of struggle in the past half-century. Beyond particular strategic needs, music and songs strengthened and transformed personal identity into collective identity for most of the freedom struggle movements. In this context, this paper attempts to discuss the theories of nationalism and tries to fit them in the context of Tibet. It particularly examines how literary texts, new writings, songs and music generated by younger generations have re-shaped the general awareness of the Tibetan nationality. Referring specifically to the primary sources especially songs as well as the new literary texts from Tibet, this paper tries to analyse their deep-rooted meaning behind their common usage of word and understanding.
“Looking at Tibet, I sometimes feel ashamed to be a Han. In a civilised world in the 21st century, when something incredible happens in a certain area but many people around us including Tibetans yell out about a crackdown and mass killing, should we seriously reflect on ourselves: Why? For those who randomly say outrageous things, please apologise to our kind Tibetan compatriots. Only mutual understanding and trust can build up our truly harmonious society.”
Blog post by a student of Central University of Nationalities, Beijing, China Digital Times, 1 April, 2008
“We support the Dalai Lama’s appeal for peace, and hope that the ethnic conflict can be dealt with according to the principles of goodwill, peace, and nonviolence. We condemn any violent act against innocent people, strongly urge the Chinese government to stop the violent suppression, and appeal to the Tibetan people likewise not to engage in violent activities.”
Liu Xiaobo, Wang Lixiong and 338 other Chinese renowned intellectuals, The New York Review of Books, 15 May, 2008.
The above two statements signify the popular Chinese responses to the Tibetan uprising in March 2008. In the spring of 2008, Tibetans throughout ethnic Tibetan areas were engulfed in a series of protests and demonstrations against the Chinese state, indicating the extreme height of Tibetan nationalism. This was a major turning point in the Sino-Tibetan relationship.The protests of 2008 and the brutal suppression of the wave of demonstrations from Beijing led to the growth of a strong cultural nationalism which was seen in the form of writings, songs and other art forms. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) strictly imposed total ban on cultural and literary writings during the Cultural Revolution throughout China. Equally, almost all publishing houses in the Tibetan language were closed except for a few Party propaganda papers. So the only differentiation between Chinese and Tibetan people was the spoken language (Shakya 2000:30).
Fortunately, Deng Xiaoping’s new reform policies revived the contemporary Tibetan literature and many new literary papers emerged in the market. However, most of the writings published in the post reform era were basically condemning the evils of the old Tibetan society and praising the benefits of the Chinese liberation (ibid: 32). Clearly, writers and singers in Tibet lack the full freedom to explore their sentiments openly. Generally, the forms of culture most focal to any movements were undoubtedly religion, music and literary writings (Reed 2005:2). Songs, which came out in the aftermath of 2008 crisis formed the communication network between ordinary people and their leaders and they also expressed the soul of reunification of exile and homeland and nationalist sentiments.
Nevertheless, even under strict restraints imposed by the Party and the state, Tibetan writers and singers inside Tibet were able to bring burning issues into the forefront in the post-2008 uprising. One of the famous Tibetan writers, Pema Bum contends that all Tibetans both inside and outside Tibet share a common sorrow of the lost of their homeland. Additionally, Tibetans inside Tibet also bear the sorrow that comes from being forced to hide their anger toward the plunderers of their homeland and the killers of their father. They can never show their real feelings and must bow respectfully to those in power. In addition to this, there is also a special suffering for writers, poets and singers. Suppressing the fire of hatred in their hearts and pretending to smile, they must use their pen which is their soul, to sing songs of praise to the bloody hand that murdered their fathers (Bum 1999:3). The language of this writer clearly brings to notice how Tibetan writers and singers were suffering and depressed, and how they were suppressed under extreme helpless condition and expressed the mental experience of this hatred towards the PRC. Such is the height of the feelings of Tibetans. Most of the contemporary writers, poets and singers were born after the Cultural Revolution; a period seen as the most tumultuous in the history of China. In a number of cases, these Tibetans were close to the CCP and were working in the state’s publishing houses or as editors for official magazines (Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, TCHRD 2010:21-23). Fluent in both Chinese and Tibetan; they are techno-savvy to circulate their views through internet (ibid: 22). A deep impact was marked in the psyche of the Tibetans through the events of 2008 crisis which inspired unprecedented growth of emotion and national consciousness irrespective of their background. The new policies implemented in the post 2008 especially the Patriotic Re-education Campaign to demonise the Dalai Lama in all spheres of life led to a further sharpening of Tibetan identity which have been popularly expressed in the writings, poetries and songs which emerged in the public domain.
Generally, there has been an immense scholarly works on nationalism which provides an essential guide to the understanding of the issues of Tibetan nationalism in particular. Theories of nationalism can be divided into two: primordialist and modernist. Primordialists consider national identity as culturally given, historically continuous and ethnically fixed. This approach holds nationality as a natural part of human experience and argues that nations have existed since times immemorial (Ozkirimli 2000: 64). Primordialists assume that there exist in all societies certain primordial, irrational attachments based on blood, race, language, religion, region, etc. In the words of Clifford Geertz, they are indescribable, inexpressible yet maintain strong ties (cited in Llobera, 1999). In other words, primordialists like Anthony D. Smith and Edward Shils treat that nations have persisted since the very beginning of history. This approach contends that ethnic bonds are natural, fixed by the basic experience that human beings undergo within their families and other primary groups. Anthony D. Smith argues that “ethnie” remains at the core of a nation and those groups who have their own ethnic solidarity are more likely to form a nation. This argument can be accepted as far as the rise of contemporary Tibetan nationalism is concerned.
On the other hand, “modernist” theorists argue that nationalism emerges as a result of the process of transition from traditional to modern society and more specifically they claim that nations are socially constructed creatures of modern processes, technologies and the product of peculiarly modern industrial development in thesixteenth century (Anderson 1991, Gellner 1983). In other words, the main cause for the development of nationalism is due to the spread of industrialization, and on the socio-economic, political and cultural conditions functionally associated with it. Benedict Anderson (1991) defined the nation as an ‘imagined community’in which he views the spread of print media through the capitalist market made the unity of national consciousness (cited in Duara: 152). Similarly, Ernest Gellner states that nationalism could only be understood in the context of industrialization, where a competition between classes in the newly created industrial stratification and of the integrating effects of language and education (Gellner 1983, cited in Llobera 1999). Nevertheless, it is a fact that national identity and nationalism existed in pre-modern times. In the Tibetan case, the Chinese have used both violent and other means to assimilate Tibet into the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Subsequently, the Tibetans have increasingly used their ethnic identity to counter Chinese assimilative policies. According to Anthony D. Smith, people who possessed specific cultural attributes often formed a social network or series of networks, which over the generations has been designated as “ethnic communities”. This ethnic identity could neither be replaced by modernisation nor removed by revolution. It is the undeniable and irreducible psycho-matrix of what makes a particular group different from generalised others (Norbu 1992: 67). Dawa Norbu argues that the rise of Han nation has resulted in Han majoritarianism. It essentially implies that Han being a majority has the right to control over other minority nationalities. As a result of which Han culture has become the leading cultural model legitimising national integration and assimilation of the minorities (Norbu 2001: 96). However, this has serious repercussions for the Tibetans as Han nationalism threatens the cultural identity and political autonomy of the Tibetan people (ibid: 96). The basic constituents of Tibetan ethnicity is their independent history, language, race, geography, administrative structure and religions and these special characters or others have contributed towards the building up of a particular Tibetan community different from the Han Chinese. For him, religion and culture are significant components of traditional nationalism which induces political mobilization. Similarly, political mobilization of Tibetan identity and nationalism has emerged through religious activities.
In Tibet, a widespread awareness of Tibetan identity has become evident along with the increasing number of Han Chinese immigrants. On top of this, nationalism presupposes unification under one central authority and this leader should be charismatic and approachable to bring all community under one umbrella. Charismatic leaders are a product of their own leadership qualities and they respond to such situations not necessarily in any original but imaginatively-representative ways that attract mass following. As such the Dalai Lama took the central responsibility of whole Tibet to keep the nation’s identity intact. Georges Dreyfus (1994), one of the eminent scholars on the cultural history of Tibet argues that the Tibetan sense of collective identity cannot adequately characterize in solely ethnic or religious terms. The collective identity which the Tibetans possess is political as well and the origin of this political identity can be traced back to shared memories. In other words, he argues that certain memories act as the focus for the formation of a sense of community in Tibet. Hence, it is described as proto-nationalism. Warren Smith (2009), a leading scholar on the issue contends that the Tibetan resistance is a nationalistic reaction to the Chinese policies and invasion. He further states that the Beijing leaders cannot provide genuine autonomy for Tibet because the very existence of a separate Tibetan ethnic identity is a threat to China’s national security and territorial integrity. Ronald Schwartz (1994) and Robert Barnett (1996) emphasize on the role of Tibetan Buddhism and culture as a mode of creating an alternative form of nationalism in Tibet against the Chinese domination.
Over the years, there has been a growing incident of resistance against the rule of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) through different literary and cultural means. However, these have been handled through excessive military and security measures provoking more hatred towards the PRC.
Songs and Music: Cultural Expressions of Tibetan Nationalism
Different works of writers, poets and singers have significant impact on the ordinary Tibetans as a medium through which the aspirations of Tibetan are highlighted, leading to heightened cultural nationalism. This is best seen in two songs titled “Mentally Return” and “The Sound of Unity”. However, ‘Mentally Return’ composed by an ethnic Amdo origin Tibetan, Drug Gyal was first sung before 2008 by Yadong, Kunga, Gangzhung and Tsewang. All the singers are well-known amongst the Tibetan community and have huge respect. Similarly, ‘The Sound of Unity’ was composed by Taglha Gye in 2010 and performed by an Amdo singer Shertan, who is a well known in contemporary Tibetan music (High Peaks Pure Earth, 2010). Both songs share similar lyrics of unity amongst Tibetans but are markedly different in style. Songs in general are often the primary means to convey the difficult idea of freedom struggle and Tibetans have so far used non-violence as a core value of struggle in the past half-century. Beyond particular strategic needs, music and songs strengthened and transformed personal identity into collective identity for most of the freedom struggle movement.
Following is the lyrics of “The Sound of Unity”:
Amdo, Kham and U-Tsang all belong to the same family
If you think of the sadness on the face of your father
If you think of the tears from the heart of your mother
Tibetans of the Land of Snows unite
We are the kin of the same parentage
We are the inheritors of a nation…….
Young men and women unite
We are the messengers of the new era
We are the future inheritors of the land surrounded by snowy ranges
Oh ruddy faced Tibetans……(Translated by High Peaks Pure Earth, 2010)
This bold song calls for the unity of all three traditional provinces of Tibet and the word writer has used directly implies the denigration of Tibetan identity and sense of solidarity. Theoretically, Anthony D. Smith defines an ethnie is a community characterized by a common shared name, myth of common descent, shared historical memories, culture, an association with a specific territory and a sense of solidarity (cited in Malesevic 2006:113). Sense of solidarity here means deep sense of community feelings expressed in altruistic values and actions. This sense of belonging is conceptualised as active and in times of crisis as superior to other forms of collective identification (ibid: 113). In the case of Chinese minorities, culturalism or cultural nationalism carried the notion of Chinese ethnicity. Similarly, Shertan’s ‘The Sound of Unity’ sung at the time of Tibetan crisis with the composer, Taglha Gye brilliantly reminding all Tibetans; young and old, men and women, Amdo or Kham or U-Tsang to unite for united cause of freedom. Generally, music and singing proved to have wide appeal across class, regional, generational, gender and other lines of difference. Significantly, this song became one of the most popular songs among Tibetans both inside and overseas.
‘Mentally Return’, written by Drug Gyal calls for the unity of Tibetans but in a different style than Taglha Gye’s ‘The Sound of Unity’.
Its snow-capped mountains are the heavenly ramparts
Its pure blue rivers are the shimmering ornaments of the sun and moon
Its vast meadows and pastures are the beds of the stars
The holy land situated close to zenith of the sky
The bountiful land on the roof of the world
Are these our fatherland, the Land of Snows!
Oh Great Mother, the Land of Snows……
The six migratory beings are our kind parents
Non-violence and peace are our mental wealth
Bravery, wisdom and heroism are the strength of our heart
The nationality who inhabits this Land of Snows
The first people to settle here and exercise ownership
Are us, the ruddy faced Tibetans of the Land of Snows
Oh Tibetan brothers and sisters
This is the circle dance of unity taught by you
This is the gift to celebrate the reunion of brethren…..(translated by High Peaks Pure Earth 2010)
The central theme of the song indicates Tibetan identity and unity among all Tibetans. Unlike previous song, the lyric in this song has been carefully coined not directly mentioning Tibet. In this sense, the writer has magnificently used different metaphors to explain the beautiful surroundings of Tibet with ‘bountiful land’, and Tibetan ‘circle dance’ is used to exemplify the unity of people. In fact, circle dance is the most common form of dance in Tibet and in every party and celebration, people come together to join in this circle dance. Similarly, Tibet is called both fatherland and motherland and the Tibetan struggle for freedom are through non-violence and peace to strengthen their nationalism. The basic feature of music and songs are understood as an expression of emotions and personal experience of past time. Composers of above two songs have equally expressed their lost identity and urged for the greater unity.
The tumultuous crisis of 2008 has deeply made a direct impact on the cultural production of Tibetans particularly among Tibetan artists and singers. Like most socio-political movements, the use of freedom songs of unity that appear to be a natural was the result of much conscious, deliberate organizing over many years (Reed 2005:14). Similarly, this can be seen in the Tibetan freedom struggle in the last few years. A 30-year-old singer, Tashi Dhondup’s bold song titled “Unable to Meet” met him with huge punishment from the central government calling his song reactionary in nature (TCHRD 2010:57-58). The lyric of the song emphasises the lack of freedom in Tibet; not able to unfurl his own national flag and unable to sing songs about his loyalty. His banned album consists of thirteen songs expressing sadness over the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) handling of the 2008 crisis and deep longing for the exile leader the Dalai Lama (ibid: 58). Unfortunately, he was arrested on 3 December 2009 by officials of Henan province for singing reactionary songs and made him undergo re-education through Labor Management Committee for fifteen months (ibid: 58). Similar cases have happened in Tibet in last few years.
The CCP generally reacts to such incidents by acting to prevent the breakup of China under Article 52 of the Chinese Constitution to safeguard ‘the unity of the country and the unity of all its nationalities’ (Constitution of the PRC, 1982). T.V. Reed in his book ‘The Art of Protest’ argues that freedom songs are not only to overcome fear in the process of struggle but play a significant role of a deep-seated process of personal and collective political transformation (Reed 2005:25). These freedom songs deepen the sense of solidarity and devotion to their cause. Many other singers were arrested by Chinese authorities for singing “politically sensitive” songs such as Chogsel, Gebe, Pema Trinley, Chakdor, Lo Lo, etc. Chogsel was arrested for being singing “politically sensitive” worded songs that expressed his wish to meet the exiled leader the Dalai Lama. Gebe also faced similar fate for singing patriotic songs. His song titled ‘Not Yet Done’ themed on the strong feelings of Tibetans calling for the protection of the Tibetan language (Voice of America, VOA: 2012, VOA: 2013, China Digital Times: 2014).Yet another popular Tibetan singer, Kalsang Yarphel was arrested by the Chinese authorities in July 2013 after he organised concerts and he has been recently ordered four years jail term for singing songs calling on Tibetans to speak their own language and to build unity among themselves (Radio Free Asia: 2014).
Tibetans, we learn Tibetan, speak Tibetan, it is our duty to do so
Tibetans, we unite, unite all three areas of Tibet together
Tibetans, we being brave, being brave reminding ourselves that years are mixtures of happiness and sorrow
Tibetans, we express our joy and woe, thinking of the future of Tibet, we chase our dreams
Tibetans, we hold national pride, march forward proudly shoulder to shoulder
Tibetans, we work hard, we are the future inheritance of Tibet’s new generation (Free Tibet: Online).
Language is one of the important tools of nation building and Kalsang Yarphel’s coinage of word in this song moved the Beijing government. In fact, he has large fan following in Tibet especially in Amdo and Kham provinces of Tibet and the videos of concerts were widely distributed. Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government banned the video of the concert (Phayul 2014). These songs provide voice to sentiments held by many Tibetans that the central government formulated policies are encroaching on Tibetan culture and identity.
China has imprisoned scores of Tibetan artists including writers, singers, bloggers and educators for supporting Tibetan national identity and language rights since widespread uprising in 2008. Such is the height of Tibetan nationalism during the wee time of strict surveillance in Tibet. Song and music however, are not the only force in shaping movement identities, but they clearly are among the most powerful tools in strengthening nationalism which were evidently seen in the Tibetan struggle for last few years. Songs and music, poems and self-immolation in Tibet have now become a new language of expression of the continuing tension on the Tibetan plateau.
Nationalism as Reflected in Poetry and Literature
The clampdown on peaceful protestors and imposition of culture imperialism in the post 2008 led to the Tibetans raising their voices of dissent. A large number of intellectuals and public figures were actively criticising the government policies towards Tibet before 2008. One of the most powerful voices has been Woeser, daughter of Tibetan PLA commander born in Tibet. After successfully completing her education on a Chinese literature programme for minority nationalities, she worked as an editor for the leading Tibetan literary magazine. This academic career taught her the reality of Tibet’s past and discovered her strong roots (ICT 2009:9). Due to the repressive policies of the PRC on Tibetan religion, Han immigration and unbalanced economic development in Tibet, Woeser started writing critically on the PRC’s policies on Tibet and her book ‘Notes on Tibet’ was banned in 2004. Her book made her undergo political re-education and made her shift to Beijing (ibid: 10). During the 2008 uprising, she was the sole unofficial source of information for the outside world especially after China closed down all Tibetan regions to outside journalists and world. Under house arrest in Beijing, she communicated with other Tibetans and regularly updated her blog, which was hacked several times (ibid: 10-11, Topgyal 2013:531). Her blog has become the voice of Tibet during the uprising. Woeser continues to update her blog although she faces threat calls as well as comes under a series of attacks from state backed hackers. Tsering Shakya, an expert on contemporary Tibetan history states that Woeser’s writings are offensive to the Communist Party because she not only dares to speak what the Party doesn’t want the people to voice, but she writes in the language of the communist ruler (cited in ICT 2009:18). Woeser thus became one of the most prominent figures both in and outside Tibet.
Besides her, there were several others who have strongly criticized China’s handling of the 2008 Tibetan uprising and suffered heavily in reprisal. For instance, Jamyang Kyi, a prominent Tibetan broadcaster, singer, blogger and woman activist was detained without charge on 1 April 2008 (Topgyal 2011:191, Topgyal 2013:531). Other scholars like Arig Dolma Kyab, Go Sherab Gyatso, Golog Palchen Gyal and Norzin Wangmo were arrested after protest. Norzin Wangmo was arrested and sentenced to five years imprisonment for speaking on the phone about the situation in Tibet (ibid: 191, ICT 2009:22). Others were arrested for their active role in demonstrations. What can be analyzed from above examples is that the PRC cannot tolerate even a single criticism from public especially the intellectuals whose single voice may influence the greater noises among Tibetans which may ultimately result in a larger repercussion. They were the central bases of Tibetan nationalism.
Beijing, on the other hand justified its commitment of restoration of Tibetan culture in their white paper entitled ‘Protection and Development of Tibetan Culture’ which argued that ‘the traditional culture of Tibet has been appropriately inherited, effectively protected and vigorously promoted, while modern Tibetan culture, has opened to the outside world and achieves rapid and all round development propelled by Tibet’s economic and social development’ (White Paper: Protection and Development of Tibetan Culture 2008). With the promotion of new ‘re-education campaign’, Beijing leaders urged the monks and nuns to regard the Dalai Lama as a de facto criminal and accept the legitimacy of the Panchen Lama appointed by Beijing (US Congressional Executive Commission on China, CECC 2009:279-280).
In contrast to Chinese policies, scores of Tibetan intellectuals and writers continue to produce different works highly critical of the PRC. The police arrested a leading Tibetan writer, Tagyal (pen name, Shogdung), who was charged with inciting separatism. He along with other intellectuals, were charged to sign a public statement that called the earthquake another blow to Tibetans on top of armed force and cruelty. They urged people to give donations only to trustworthy agencies implying that government agencies are corrupted and untrustworthy (Crowe 2013:23, TCHRD 2010:46). In his most recent work, ‘The Line between Sky and Earth’, he describes Tibetan the plateau as a place of terror and directly challenges the party’s views on the representation of 2008 (TCHRD 2010:44-45). His work demonstrates the increased amount of repression imposed on Tibetans in the aftermath of unrest in 2008. Therefore, a central focus in Beijing’s efforts to win Tibet more deeply into the communist system is to reshape and control Tibetan Buddhism as well as to contain intellectuals, singers and writers.
Further restriction was imposed on film-makers and researchers. Dhondup Wangchen, a famous film-maker from Amdo province of Tibet was arrested on 26 March 2008 and imprisoned for six years for making a documentary film titled ‘Leaving Fear Behind’. This film was based on personal interviews and thoughts of Tibetans on the Dalai Lama, the Beijing Olympics and Chinese handling of 2008 uprising. Along with him, his assistant, Jigme Gyatso, a monk from Labrang Tashikhyil in Gansu province was also severely tortured and arrested. Fortunately, he was released in October 2008 and secretly escaped from Tibet and arrived in India in May 2014. With the end of Dhondup Wangchen’s prison term for six years he was released on 5 June 2014. There were many similar cases in Tibet. Most of the new Tibetan writers, singers and intellectuals put strong emphasis on contemporary liberal ideas like human rights, democracy, freedom which were strictly banned and unheard of under communist control in Tibet.
Demonstration and repression have been two simultaneous phenomenon in contemporary Tibetan freedom struggle. When Tibetans oppose to the new policies imposed by the CCP, they literally came out on streets to protest against such policies but invariably their demonstrations were suppressed with the strong presence of security and military forces of the PLA. Thus, mass uprisings scale like that in 2008 and the current wave of self-immolations in Tibet can be perceived as a challenge to the legitimacy of the state. This legitimacy has been built on the idea of economic development of the Tibetan region. However, it should now be clear to the Chinese authorities that economic development of the region alone will not resolve the problem or it will lead to acquiring legitimacy of its rule. Instead, unequal economic development accompanied by discriminatory practices of inviting large number of Han Chinese further intensifies spirit of nationalism among Tibetans. Simultaneously, with the development of information technology, the crisis of legitimacy is likely to strengthen as China no longer holds the monopoly over information in Tibet. The current spate of self-immolation and solo-protest in different forms can be identified as a strong nationalist response from the Tibetans against the Chinese policies.
Undeniably, Chinese officials are using the 2008 uprising as a justification to increase its campaign to restrain Tibetan nationalism by pressurising fear and threats into the hearts of new generations of intellectuals, singers and cultural figures who are openly criticising the government policies and fearlessly expressing their opinions. Since 2008, Chinese control over literary and cultural works produced by Tibetan writers and singers has intensified. The creative writers and artists were faced with severe punishment, making artists more cautious than ever. As a matter of fact, identity crisis lies in the heart of Tibetan people and the ongoing individual protests are the extreme form of rise of Tibetan nationalism. Therefore, it is extremely important for both Tibetans and Chinese to find a solution to the problem during the lifetime of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, as he is the only charismatic leader who can convince the Tibetan community to accept a compromise as well as to convince the Chinese government. This interest will be served best by finding a feasible, peacefully negotiated settlement of the dispute; otherwise the conflict can never be resolved.
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