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Uighur girl
China has established “autonomous” regions for some of its dozens of ethnic groups but many members of those groups complain that policy is aimed at merely giving the appearance of autonomy while Chinese control remains tight.

Many minorities reside primarily in autonomous areas set up for them by the Chinese government. The groups are usually allowed to practice their religion, marriage customs and other aspects of their culture as they please and have some degree of control over their own affairs as long as they respect Beijing’s ultimate authority.

The impact of the government on their lives varies from region to region and minority to minority. In most cases the government builds roads, schools and clinics but their quality is often less that than those received by Han Chinese. Minorities are often exempt from China’s strict family planning rules but often their homelands are threatened by encroachment by Han Chinese. Some minorities are in danger of becoming minorities in the areas where they have traditionally been the majority.

Issues involving minorities and ethnic groups are overseen by the Office of Nationality, Religion and Overseas Chinese Affairs. Beijing exerts control through Chinese-language school, whose curriculum has a strong nationalist slant. Success in these schools and learning Chinese are regarded as essential to getting ahead and getting a good job. The local government structures are usually not that different from those in non-minority areas, except that tribal leaders and village elders are incorporated into the system. The state owns the land and leases it out on a contract basis in return for taxes or the handover of a portion of the harvest.

Many of the places where minorities live---including Tibet and Xinjiang and areas near the borders of Burma, India, Russia, Mongolia and the republics of the former Soviet Union---are regarded as places where discontent and unrest "could threaten security." Many minorities living along China's perimeter live across from the border from people---often of the same ethnic group---that either have their own states or have more freedom than people living in China. The Chinese are concerned about independence movements launched by these minorities and border conflicts with countries such as India, Vietnam or Afghanistan.

China doesn’t want to give one ethnic group too much freedom because it fears that other ethnic groups will demand more freedom too. One reason why China cracks down so hard on Tibet is because it fears Tibetan-like independence uprisings might develop in other parts of the country with large minority populations and break apart the motherland.

In December 2008, the government announced that beginning in primary school students would study “ethnic unity.” The move was widely seen as a response to unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang.

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Chinese Government Policy on Minorities

All nationalities in China are equal according to the law. Official sources maintain that the state protects their lawful rights and interests and promotes equality, unity, and mutual help among them. The 56 ethnic groups (55 minority ethnic group plus the Han Chinese) recognized by the Chinese government were defined and organized by the Chinese government. Among scholars there is some debate over how the groups were defined and who belongs in which group. There are many examples of small groups being lumped together with larger groups which they have little in common with linguistically and culturally. Pedro Ceinos Arcones wrote in Ethnic China:“There have not still been carried out detailed studies on the indigenous cultures of China.... During several decades the specialists have been devoted to try to frame their social systems in the strait corset that provided the Marxism, and to laud the progress that the new regime carries to their lives. Only in the last years, the Chinese anthropologists, more and more free of ideological conditions, are beginning to discover and describe... the indigenous cultures.”

Louise Watt of Associated Press reported: “Ethnic minorities, including Tibetans and Muslim Uyghurs from the neighboring Xinjiang region, make up about 6 percent of the Communist Party's 86 million members. They are recruited to fill posts at various levels as a key component of the party's united front policy, although the top party official in provinces and regions such as Tibet is always a member of China's overwhelming majority Han ethnic group. [Source: Louise Watt, Associated Press, January 28, 2015]

China defends its treatment of minorities, saying all ethnic groups are treated equally and that tens of billions of dollars in investment and aid have dramatically raised their living standards. William Wan wrote in the Washington Post, “Nationwide, China has long offered ethnic minority groups favorable treatment as a way to try to integrate them into society, a policy that is often criticized by Han and ethnic minorities alike. When one or both spouses are of ethnic minority, a couple can generally have up to three children, despite China’s one-child policy. Ethnic students are given extra scores for their minority status in college entrance exams. Intermarried families are also often awarded honors for being “models of ethnic unity” and are sometimes favored for government positions. [Source: William Wan, Washington Post, August 18, 2014]

Kelly Olsen of AFP wrote: “China's constitution proclaims that the country's dozens of minority groups are an integral and equal part of the national tapestry, but analysts say a system of ethnic labelling — originally meant to promote minority rights — is fuelling unrest. The country's constitution emphasizes the need "to combat big-ethnic chauvinism, mainly Han chauvinism, and also to combat local-ethnic chauvinism"."The state will do its utmost to promote the common prosperity of all ethnic groups," it says. While ethnic categorisation was meant to foster minority rights and status, in places such as Xinjiang it now serves to harden parochial rather than national identity, analysts say. "They've shot themselves in the foot by having fixed ethnic identification," said Reza Hasmath, an Oxford University lecturer in Chinese politics who studies Uyghur issues. "By virtue of doing that, the party has actually solidified ethnic boundaries." [Source: Kelly Olsen, AFP, July 3, 2013]

On China’s policy of repression in Tibet compared to other ethnic groups and and minority religions, Tibetan filmmaker Losang Gyatso told the Los Angeles Times: “There are some shared experiences with the Uyghurs and others. But Tibet brings up other issues. It is a society and a nationality and an entire region that had a treaty agreement with Beijing and a unified existence as a state for centuries. [Source: Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times, June 6, 2013]

Early History of Ethnic Policy in China

Dru C. Gladney wrote in the Wall Street Journal: "Sun Yat-Sen, leader of the republican movement that toppled the last imperial dynasty of China (the Qing) in 1911, promoted the idea that there were Five Peoples of China---the majority Han being one and the others being the Manchus, Mongolian, Tibetan and Hui (a term that included all Muslims in China, now divided into Uighurs, Kazakhs, Hui etc.). Sun was a Cantonese, educated in Hawaii, who wanted both to unite the Han and to mobilize them and all other non-Manchu groups in China (including Mongols, Tibetans and Muslims) into a modern, multi-ethnic nationalist movement against the Manchu Qing state and foreign imperialists. This expanded policy with the recognition of a total 55 official minority nationalities, also helped the Communists’ long-term goal of forging a united Chinese nation." [Source: By Dru C. Gladney, Wall Street Journal, July 12, 2009, Dru Gladney is president of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College]

Since 1949 government policy toward minorities has been based on the somewhat contradictory goals of national unity and the protection of minority equality and identity. The state constitution of 1954 declared the country to be a "unified, multinational state" and prohibited "discrimination against or oppression of any nationality and acts which undermine the unity of the nationalities." All nationalities were granted equal rights and duties. Policy toward the ethnic minorities in the 1950s was based on the assumption that they could and should be integrated into the Han polity by gradual assimilation, while permitted initially to retain their own cultural identity and to enjoy a modicum of selfrule . Accordingly, autonomous regions were established in which minority languages were recognized, special efforts were mandated to recruit a certain percentage of minority cadres, and minority culture and religion were ostensibly protected. The minority areas also benefited from substantial government investment. [Source: Library of Congress]

“Yet the attention to minority rights took place within the larger framework of strong central control. Minority nationalities, many with strong historical and recent separatist or anti-Han tendencies, were given no rights of self-determination. With the special exception of Tibet in the 1950s, Beijing administered minority regions as vigorously as Han areas, and Han cadres filled the most important leadership positions. Minority nationalities were integrated into the national political and economic institutions and structures. Party statements hammered home the idea of the unity of all the nationalities and downplayed any part of minority history that identified insufficiently with China Proper. Relations with the minorities were strained because of traditional Han attitudes of cultural superiority. Central authorities criticized this "Han chauvinism" but found its influence difficult to eradicate. [Ibid]

“Pressure on the minority peoples to conform were stepped up in the late 1950s and subsequently during the Cultural Revolution. Ultraleftist ideology maintained that minority distinctness was an inherently reactionary barrier to socialist progress. Although in theory the commitment to minority rights remained, repressive assimilationist policies were pursued. Minority languages were looked down upon by the central authorities, and cultural and religious freedom was severely curtailed or abolished. Minority group members were forced to give up animal husbandry in order to grow crops that in some cases were unfamiliar. State subsidies were reduced, and some autonomous areas were abolished. These policies caused a great deal of resentment, resulting in a major rebellion in Tibet in 1959 and a smaller one in Xinjiang in 1962, the latter bringing about the flight of some 60,000 Kazak herders across the border to the Soviet Union. Scattered reports of violence in minority areas in the 1966-76 decade suggest that discontent was high at that time also. [Ibid]

“After the arrest of the Gang of Four in 1976, policies toward the ethnic minorities were moderated regarding language, religion and culture, and land-use patterns, with the admission that the assimilationist policies had caused considerable alienation. The new leadership pledged to implement a bona fide system of autonomy for the ethnic minorities and placed great emphasis on the need to recruit minority cadres. [Ibid]

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Later History Minority Policy in China

“Although the minorities accounted for only about 7 percent of China's population, the minority deputies to the National People's Congress made up 13.5 percent of all representatives to the congress in 1985, and 5 of the 22 vice chairmen of its Standing Committee (23 percent) in 1983 were minority nationals. A Mongol, Ulanhu, was elected vice president of China in June 1983. Nevertheless, political administration of the minority areas was the same as that in Han regions, and the minority nationalities were subject to the dictates of the Chinese Communist Party. Despite the avowed desire to integrate the minorities into the political mainstream, the party was not willing to share key decision-making powers with the ethnic minorities. As of the late 1970s, the minority nationality cadres accounted for only 3 to 5 percent of all cadres. [Source: Library of Congress]

“Under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese government in the mid-1980s was pursuing a liberal policy toward the national minorities. Full autonomy became a constitutional right, and policy stipulated that Han cadres working in the minority areas learn the local spoken and written languages. Significant concessions were made to Tibet, historically the most nationalistic of the minority areas. The number of Tibetan cadres as a percentage of all cadres in Tibet increased from 50 percent in 1979 to 62 percent in 1985. In Zhejiang Province the government formally decided to assign only cadres familiar with nationality policy and sympathetic to minorities to cities, prefectures, and counties with large numbers of minority people. In Xinjiang the leaders of the region's fourteen prefectural and city governments and seventy-seven of all eighty-six rural and urban leaders were of minority nationality. [Ibid]

Dru C. Gladney wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “The country’s policy toward minorities involves official recognition, limited autonomy and unofficial efforts at control. Although totaling only 9 percent of the population, they are concentrated in resource-rich areas spanning nearly 60 percent of the country’s landmass and exceed 90 percent of the population in counties and villages along many border areas of Xinjiang, Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Yunnan. Xinjiang occupies one-sixth of China’s landmass, with Tibet the second-largest province. [Source: By Dru C. Gladney, Wall Street Journal, July 12, 2009, Dru Gladney is president of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College]

“Surprisingly, it has now become popular, especially in Beijing, for people to come out as Manchus or other ethnic groups. While the Han population grew 10 percent from 1982 to 1990, the minority population grew 35 percent overall---from 67 million to 91 million. The Manchus, long thought to have been assimilated into the Han majority, added three autonomous districts and increased their population by 128 percent from 4.3 million to 9.8 million. The population of the Gelao people in Guizhou shot up an incredible 714 percent in just eight years. These rates reflect more than a high birthrate; they indicate category-shifting, as people redefine their nationality from Han to minority or from one minority to another. In inter-ethnic marriages, parents can decide the nationality of their children, and the children themselves can choose their nationality at age 18.” [Ibid]

"Why is it still popular to be officially ethnic in today’s China? This is an interesting question given the riots in Xinjiang recently and in Tibet last year, not to mention the generally negative reporting in the Western press about minority discrimination in China. By the mid-1980s, it had become clear that those groups identified as official minorities were beginning to receive real benefits from the implementation of several affirmative action programs. The most significant privileges included permission to have more children (except in urban areas, minorities are generally not bound by the one-child policy), pay fewer taxes, obtain better (albeit Mandarin Chinese) education for their children, have greater access to public office, speak and learn their native languages, worship and practice their religion (often including practices such as shamanism that are still banned among the Han) and express their cultural differences through the arts and popular culture. [Ibid]

Efforts to Help Minorities in China

The government---on paper anyway---protects the customs of minorities by law, and encourages them to participate in the government and has set up special development programs to help them. During televised coverage of Communist party meetings, cameras often pan across all the minorities dressed in their traditional costumes in the People's Hall. For minorities there are five autonomous regions, 30 autonomous prefectures, 124 autonomous counties.

Because minorities in China are exempt from some of China's birth control restrictions their growth rates are as much as triple that of the Han Chinese majority. The Chinese government allows this at least partly to assuage worries by the minorities about being outnumbered in their homelands by migrating Han Chinese.

Minorities have been beneficiaries of some affirmative action policies: they have sometimes been given preferences for university admission and government promotions. The aim of these policies however. it often seems, is to recruit the best and brightest minority group members to join the Communist Party. To recruit loyal party members from China's non-Han ethnic groups the Chinese government set up the National Minorities Institute in Beijing.

Partly due to the fact that he had served as Tibet party secretary from 1988 to 1992, Former President Hu Jintao has since the late 1990s been personally involved with Beijing’s policy toward ethnic minorities. And the majority of senior cadres in both Tibet and Xinjiang, including their party bosses---Zhang Qingli and Wang Lequan, respectively---are senior members of the president’s so-called Communist Youth League (CYL) Faction. These Hu protégés, however, are also hardliners known to have neither sympathy for local culture nor sensitivity toward their charges’ sentiments. Zhang, for example, publicly labeled the Dalai Lama---the revered leader of the exiled Tibetan movement---a wolf in sheep’s clothing. [Source: Willy Lam, China Brief, July 23 2009]

Go West and Minority Education

"As early as the 1950s, the government began to organize and fund migration for land reclamation, industrialization, and construction in the interior and frontier regions. Land reclamation was carried out by state farms located largely in Xinjiang-Uygur Autonomous Region and Heilongjiang Province. Large numbers of migrants were sent to such outlying regions as Nei Monggol Autonomous Region and Qinghai Province to work in factories and mines and to Xinjiang-Uygur Autonomous Region to develop agriculture and industry. In the late 1950s, and especially in the 1960s, during the Cultural Revolution, many city youths were sent to the frontier areas. Much of the resettled population returned home, however, because of insufficient government support, harsh climate, and a general inability to adjust to life in the outlying regions. China's regional population distribution was consequently as unbalanced in 1986 as it had been in 1953. [Source: Library of Congress]

As part of the “Go West” campaign a number of recently graduated doctors, teachers, engineers and agronomists are heading to Xinjiang, Tibet, Yunnan and other western provinces to offer their services at local clinics, schools and other facilities in remote, undeveloped areas. China has a tradition of sending people with expertise to the countryside to help and live among peasants. Each year about 10,000 Peace-Corps-like volunteers are sent by the Communist Party Youth League to underdeveloped areas. Young people are increasingly eager to take part in such endeavors even though they only receive $80 a month in living expenses and salary. In 2006 there were 60,000 applicants for the 10,000 positions. The Go West program is also involved in developing tourism (See Xinjiang).

Education of Minorities in China: Naomi Furnish Yamada's PhD dissertation is on contemporary minority education. : Gerard Postiglione from Univ of Hong Kong has written extensively on minority education and language policy issues. His works include as China's National Minorities and Education Changes Journal of Contemporary Asia vol. 22, no. 1 (1992); China's National Minority Education: Culture, Schooling, and Development by Gerard A. Postiglione, ed. (New York: Falmer, 1999); Minority Movement and Education by Wang, S; In China's Minorities on The Move: Selected Case Studies , edited by R. R. Iredale, N. Bilik, and Fei Guo,32-50. Armonk, N. Y.: Sharpe, 2003.

Communist-Party-Supported Minority Language Databases

Bruce Hume wrote on Ethnic China Lit: According to China’s Ministry of Education , several minority language projects underway during the current 12th Five-year Plan (2011-15) have been appraised and approved by experts. They are: 1) Database of Modern Tibetan Grammar Research; and 2) Database of Daur, Evenki and Oroqen Voice Acoustic Parameters. Undertaken by the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences , applications for these databases include promotion of minority language education, language engineering research, and in the case of the Tibetan database, text annotation and machine translation. [Source: Bruce Hume Ethnic China Lit:]

“It will be interesting to see where all this hard work leads. Many minority languages in China still have no written form and research into them is often restricted to territory and peoples within the PRC, even when speakers of the language straddle international borders. The Evenki language, spoken by several tens of thousands of Evenki in China, Russia and Mongolia, is a case in point. According to an expert cited in Wikipedia (Evenki Language), in Russia, ‘since the 1930s “folklore, novels, poetry, numerous translations from Russian and other languages, textbooks, and dictionaries have all been written in Evenki.” Evenki elementary and middle school textbooks have also been published. [Ibid]

“As I understand it, however, nothing similar has taken place on the Chinese side of the border. In my piece on Evenki Place Names Behind the Hànzì, I describe how related research is carried out in the PRC: Indeed, a book called “Evenki Place Names,” compiled by a committee of Evenki scholars in 2007, confirms that those [Evenki place] names [cited in a novel about the Evenki, Last Quarter of the Moon] definitely exist. This book alone cites some 1,800 Evenki place names, and the overwhelming majority are not translations from the Chinese, although many have been influenced by Russian, Mongolian and Manchu names. [Ibid]

“As might be expected in politically correct China today, the book cites only those place names that are located within the People’s Republic of China. Considering that the Evenki traditional homeland extended into Russia, that’s an annoying blind spot! I have found the same approach in other Evenki-related reference works written and published in China. For instance, “Evenki: A Reference Grammar”, by the respected Evenki scholar Dr. Chao Ke who earned his doctorate in Japan, is a 365-page tome which mentions that about half of all Evenki live in Russia, and speak a dialect that differs somewhat from those spoken in China. Period. There is no further discussion of how this dialect has been impacted by contact with a Slavic language, for instance, or how it otherwise differs from those spoken on the Chinese side of the border. [Ibid]

Foreign NGOs and Preserving Minority Languages in China

Up to 40 percent of China’s minority languages may be at risk of extinction. Phonemica, a project aiming to document China’s threatened languages and dialects through stories told by native speakers, is currently raising funds through indiegogo, a small group of linguists (and a growing group of volunteers) that believe that there is tremendous value in documenting China’s rapidly disappearing languages and dialects. Phonemica is a project to do exactly that. The group is building an open archive of stories from people all over China and the Chinese diaspora, told in the everyday speech of their home towns. [Source: Samuel Wade, China Digital Times, May 6, 2013]

Studying diversity in language helps us understand diversity in culture and how we exist as societies. Sadly, much of China’s linguistic diversity is being threatened by ever-growing pressure from Standard Mandarin. As a result, fewer people are teaching their mother tongues to their children. One consequence of this is that we’re quickly approaching a point where children cannot communicate with their grandparents, whose stories will then be lost. The academic side is that, with this loss of linguistic diversity, we are losing opportunities to understand how these languages work, giving us that much less to help us understand how language as a whole works. [Ibid]

The Eastern Tibet Training Center (EETI) is a vocational training school in Shangri-La (Zongdian) in Yunnan Province where Tibetans, Naxi, Bai, Han and Yi from rural villages are taught English, computer skills and other things in a 16-week, live-in, fully-funded program. The founder of the school, Ben Hillam, a professor at Australian Nation University specializing in development in China, told National Geographic, the ‘school is designed to help students from rural areas bridge the gap to urban job opportunities...They are traditionally agropastorialists, experts at subsistence farming---growing barley, raising yaks and pigs. But these aren’t the skills that youth need today...Culture is something that constantly evolves...Economic development can rekindle interest in cultural heritage, which is inevitably reinterpreted.”

Problems Faced by Minorities in China

Minorities have traditionally been regarded as barbarians by the Han Chinese. The character for "minority," in fact, contained the symbol for "dog" until 1949 when it was replaced with "man." Minorities suffered greatly during the Cultural Revolution when their religious practices were banned and shamans were outlawed.

Many groups feel marginalized by Beijing’s policies that regulate minorities. Economic incentives that have lured millions of Han Chinese to the country’s western, southern and northern fringes have created socioeconomic rifts along ethnic lines. “There’s a widespread belief among minorities that Han have an unfair advantage in terms of getting better employment and opportunities in minority areas,” said Dru Gladney, an expert on Chinese minorities at Pomona College in California. Such resentments, he added, were an underlying factor in recent uprisings in Tibet and the western region of Xinjiang, where rioting by ethnic Uighurs claimed hundreds of lives, most of them Han Chinese. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman and Andrew Jacobs , New York Times July 16, 2011]

It’s not easy, he said, being an ethnic minority in China, particularly in Inner Mongolia, where Mongolians are far outnumbered by Han Chinese and are under pressure to prove their allegiance. “They have to do this kind of thing to get ahead. They’ve got to serve the strong.”

Chinese is replacing the languages of minorities with Mandarin Chinese as the main teaching medium in schools despite the existence of laws aimed at preserving the languages of minorities.Many minorities fear being overrun by the Han Chinese. They look suspiciously upon government initiatives that involve them because they often view these initiatives more as ways for the Chinese to exploit them and their resources than help them.

Even local Communist Party members that belong to minorities feel discriminated against. A local cadre in Xinjiang told journalist Kerry Brown in the 1990s, “Everyday, all we do is read the same old lies in the official Chinese press?, he complained. “How do you think it feels like, going around all your life just to be identified as a “minority'. Is that all I am? A minority? In most of the cities in this area, I am in the majority. Who the hell has the right to say I am a “minority'?” [Source: Open Democracy, Kerry Brown July 14, 2009]

Dru C. Gladney on Ethnic Tensions in China

Dru C. Gladney wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “The myth of a monolithic China was shattered by [the riots in Xinjiang and Tibet]. Running barelybeneath the surface of what the government has sought to portray as a harmonious society, the fracture created by the Urumqi and Lhasa riots threatens to shake the country.” [Source: By Dru C. Gladney, Wall Street Journal, July 12, 2009, Dru Gladney is president of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College]

“Foreigners and the Chinese themselves typically picture China’s population as a vast Han majority with a sprinkling of exotic minorities living along the country’s borders. This understates China’s tremendous cultural, geographic, and linguistic diversity---in particular the important cultural differences within the Han population. Across the country, China is experiencing a resurgence of local ethnicity and culture, most notably among southerners such as the Cantonese and Hakka, who are now classified as Han. [Ibid]

“Cultural and linguistic cleavages could worsen in a China weakened by internal strife, an economic downturn, uneven growth, or a struggle over future political succession. The initial brawl between workers in a Guangdong toy factory, which left at least two Uighur dead on June 25, prompted the mass unrest in Xinjiang on July 5 that ended with 156 dead, thousands injured and 1,500 arrested, with ongoing violence spreading throughout the region. [Ibid]

“China is also concerned about the Kosovo effect, accusing its Muslim and other ethnic minorities of seeking outside international (read Western) support for separatist goals. But ethnic problems in President Hu Jintao’s China go far deeper than the official minorities. Sichuanese, Cantonese, Shanghainese, and Hunanese are avidly advocating increased cultural nationalism and resistance to Beijing central control. Ethnic strife did not dismantle the former Soviet Union, but it did come apart along boundaries defined in large part by ethnic and national difference. [Ibid]

“The unprecedented early departure of President Hu from the G-8 meetings in Italy to attend to the ethnic problems in Xinjiang is an indication of the seriousness with which China regards this issue. The National Day celebrations scheduled for October 2009 seek to highlight 60 years of the harmonious leadership of the Communist Party in China, and like the 2008 Olympics, its enormous success. The rioting threatens to derail these celebrations. [Source: By Dru C. Gladney, Wall Street Journal, July 12, 2009, Dru Gladney is president of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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