China fared better than most industrialized nations during the economic crisis in 2008 and 2009 caused the subprime mortgage crisis in the United States. It avoided trouble in part because of state guidance that limited foreign investment in the banking sector thus staying clear of the exotic financial devices that were at root of the economic crisis.

The closed nature of the Chinese financial sector meant that the exposure of Chinese financial institutions to flaky securities like the Lehman mini-bonds was minimal. The banking sector was more insulated from the domestic housing market deterioration than the U.S. Financial sector. Only 19 percent of bank loans went to real estate compared to 50 percent in the United States. In the end China not only rode out the crisis pretty well but provided an engine for growth that helped pull the rest of the world out of recession.

That is not to say China didn’t suffer. The sharp drop in trade caused many factories to go idle. An estimated 20 million Chinese lost their jobs in a matter of months. Problems began to set in before the Beijing Olympics in August 2008 and accelerated at the end of 2008 and peaked in early 2009 as new orders plunged at Chinese factories; exports barely grew or fell; and the real estate market went flat, with price of apartments falling in southeast China, where economic hard times were particularly acute.

The change was very sudden and occurred right around the time the Olympics ended. One economist in Shanghai told the Times of London in November 2008, “Only a few months ago there was only one story to write about corporate China: how much money everyone was making. Suddenly the golden years have shuddered to a dramatic halt.”

But still, growth figures weren’t bad. China recorded 6.88 percent growth in final quarter of 2008 and 9 percent growth in for 2008 as a whole. It achieved 8.7 percent growth for 2009 with 6.3 percent growth first quarter of 2009, the lowest in a decade, 7.9 percent growth in second quarter, 9.1 percent in third quarter in 2009 and 10.7 percent in the 4th quarter.

Chinese President Hu Jintao blamed the global economic crisis of 2008 on an “the absence of regulation” and said “its root cause lies in the serious defects of the existing financial system.” In January 2009, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Premier Wen Jiabao blamed the U.S. for creating the economic crisis. Earlier he expressed concern about China's holdings of U.S. government debt given questions over Washington's economic policies.

Effects of Economic Crisis in 2008 in China

In China, the economic crisis hit the export industry first. Factories shut down, workers were laid off and migrant workers were forced to return to their villages. In the next stage white-collar businesses laid off workers, slashed salaries and cut the year-end bonuses that employees highly value. Lenovo Group, the world’s fourth biggest computer maker, laid off 11 percent of its global work force and sharply cut executives’ pay. China Eastern Airlines, a state-owned enterprise that is receiving $1 billion in government bailout money, cut the monthly salary of some managers by up to 30 percent.

Over the first 10 months of 2008 the value of the Chinese stock market fell nearly 70 percent. Production, orders, manufacturing and exports all recorded record drops. Some say the effect on China’s export market was not as bad as it could have been because most of the goods that China produces are labor-intensive and needed for daily use. But that turned out to necessarily be true as China now produces much of the world’s electronics and increasingly making more value-added products itself.

Chinese banks held some risky American mortgage-backed securities and set aside reserves to cover the losses. The lack of global credit meant there was less money for foreign investors to invest in China. The Chinese didn’t worry so much about bank bailouts because the banks are state controlled. The ups and down of the stock market were largely irrelevant.

What was most alarming was the effect of falling global demand on exports. Exports, imports, energy consumption and industrial output all fell off. Exports declined by a record 26 percent in February 2009 and 17.5 percent in January as global demand for Chinese-made toys, shoes, clothes and other goods collapsed. The deprecation of the dollar hit exporters as hard as the decline of orders. Many make a few pennies per item on goods that are sold in bulk. They watch their small profits turn to losses as the dollar fell. The effects trickled upwards. Las Vegas say a lot fewer Chinese high rollers.

About 670,000 businesses shut down and 6.7 million jobs disappeared in 2008 because of the economic downturn, Chen Quansheng, an adviser to the Chinese cabinet, said in a magazine published by The People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece. Others estimated the crisis cost 20 million rural migrant workers their jobs. The government's statistics show the unemployment rate of 2008 is 4.2 percent, excluding rural migrant workers. Taking rural migrant workers into account, a study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences puts the figure for urban areas as high as 9.4 percent in 2009.

Effects of Economic Crisis in 2008 on Chinese Workers and Ordinary People

As of February 2009 the Chinese government said that because of the economic crisis 20 million migrant workers had lost their jobs or couldn’t find work and 12 percent of recent college graduates could not find jobs. The 20 million figure was announced in February was triple the 6 million figure released a month before.

The global financial crisis was hard on cheap labor and migrant labor as many people lost their jobs as factories cut back their work forces. One laid-off migrant worker at a machinery factory whose foreign ordered dried up in Fujian Province told AFP, “We really don’t know what to do. We can’t go home, but there are few jobs here and they don’t pay enough.”

The trouble was most acute in southern Guangdong Province, China’s manufacturing heartland, where one-fifth of factories in major cities closed by the end of 2008. Thousands of workers gathered outside factories demanding back wages and severance pay and mobbed labor offices checking out job listings. Most jobs offered pay between $175 and $370 a month about 50 percent less than early in 2008.

The value of middle class possessions fell. Home prices plummeted, prices dropped by 15 percent in a single month (February) in Shenzhen. The middle class responded by being more choosy in their shopping, looking more for bargains, buying in bulk and crossing off luxury items from their buy lists and delaying major purchases like a new car or larger apartment.

As for workers in a small industrial town, Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker, people “seemed to take these events in stride. They didn’t have mortgages or stock portfolios, and they had long ago learned to be resourceful. They were accustomed to switching jobs — many laid off workers simply went back to their villages to wait for better times. In any case, they had many reasons to believe that the international economy was rational and predictable...As 2009 progressed the economy regained its strength, and workers made their way back into the assembly lines.”

Chinese Industry During the Global Economic Crisis

In 2008 the Maanshan Iron and Steel Company opened a giant $3 billion steel mill on the outskirts of Maanshan, about an hour west of Nanjing. The mill, which covers one and a half square miles and has its own power plant and shipping port, was built to help meet China’s seemingly insatiable appetite for growth. [Source: David Barboza, New York Times, November 25, 2008]

But during long periods of the global economic crisis in 2008-2009 it was silent. Rolls of coiled steel sat near the end of a long assembly lineas a few helmeted workers lounged about, playing with their mobile phones. Three blast furnaces and a line that produces H-beams for construction were also temporarily shuttered. In Hebei Province, in north China, Capital Steel, one of China’s biggest steel makers, was building a $10 billion steel mill complex on an island, even though its profits are evaporating and steel prices had fallen from $768 a to $490 a ton in six months. [Source: David Barboza, New York Times, November 25, 2008]

The global downturn is already reaching deep into the heart of the country’s once-rapid industrial transformation — its steel, cement and construction companies — stalling dozens of multibillion-dollar investment projects. Plunging housing prices at home combined with a virtual global investment freeze have led to steel orders softening, steel prices plummeting, and inventories and losses piling up.

Lead smelters, which produce material for the battery industry, and aluminum producers shut down production lines. And cement makers — one of the pillar industries in a nation perpetually under construction — are depressed. For a while electricity production in China dropped for the first time since early 2005, a sign that big industry, the largest consumer of power, is in retreat.

Factory Closures in China During Economic Crisis in 2008

There were a number of factory closures and lay-offs. In the first half of 2008 about 67,000 small- and medium-size companies closed, including more than 10,000 textile firms, due to cash flow problems. More than 100,000 firms were expected to close by the end of 2008. The manufacturing centers in Guangdong Province and around Shanghai were particularly hard hit. In Guangdong more than 62,400 businesses closed in 2008, with more than 10,000 factories closing in the Dongguan area alone during a six week period at the end of 2008.

Some factories were closed with shocking suddenness. They were humming one moment and closed down with owners skipping town the next, without warning. Not only were the owners, managers and workers hurt by the closures so too were the shops, restaurants and businesses that surrounded them. Describing the neighborhoods around a shut-down hard disc factory in Dengfeng in the Dongguan area of Guangdong, Leo Lewis wrote in the Times of London, “Entire rows of shops are shuddered; those that remain open blare invitations to closing-down sales. The staff of local barber shops, pool bars and mobile phone showrooms stand forlorn without customers. In the center of town, the biggest crowds swarm the walls of work-placement offices in a desperate scramble for jobs.”

On worker at a shoe factory in Guangdong who returned to his home village told the Times of London, “there wasn’t enough work. I was barely making my basic salary. Over the past few months the company wasn’t getting orders. There was never any chance for overtime, so we were unable to save any money.”

One of the bigger operations that was closed was the Jianglong Group, the largest textile dyer operation in China, with four factories, 4,000 workers and debts of at least $200 million. In October 2008, the company’s owner Tao Shouling burned his company financial books, sold this Mercedes S-600 sedan and private golf club membership and skipped town, leaving employees of the company without jobs and severence pay owed them, and stiffed suppliers out of millions of dollars. Many of these suppliers in turn went bankrupt.

While many company owners made a run for it. Other were arrested by police or committed suicide. Many were already hurting from high labor and raw material cost, increased environmental regulations, and the appreciation of the yuan.

Anger and Worries in China During the Economic Crisis in 2008

Laid off and unpaid workers clashed with police outside locked up and abandoned factories. Employees of liquor company in Harbin traveled to the company headquarters in Beijing to demand back wagers. Middle class home buyers rioted in Hangzhou after finding that units they paid full price for were being sold for 25 percent less.

There were worries that the economic crisis could produce social unrest. People who lost money on the stock market blamed the government. In January 2009, hundreds of constructions angry over unpaid wages blocked a major bridge over the Yangtze and clashed with police in Anhui Province. As many as 20,000 taxi drivers scuffled with police in protests that spread over nine provinces. Even the police participated. In Hunan Province auxiliary officers surrounded a Communist Party office demanding higher wages.

Half of China’s toy exporters, which exported nearly $8 billion worth of goods in 2007, went out of business in the first seven months of 2008. In November 2008, hundreds of workers laid off from the Kai Da toy company rioted in Dongguan, Guangdong Province over a dispute about severance pay. They protesters clashed with police and attacked the offices of a toy factory executive. The Guangzhou Daily reported: Rioters “smashed one police vehicle and four police patrol cars...fought with security guards...and entered factory offices, broke windows and destroying equipment.”

There were reports of increasing crime rates, In Shenzhen one taxi driver said he was robbed at knife point and gave his two young attackers enough money for two bowls of noodles and said don’t try to rob anybody again. The influence of organized crime rose some said.

Many blamed migrant workers but as is always the case it was not clear whether they caused more crimes than non-migrant workers. Crime was not just a problem in the cities it was also a problem in the countryside. There were reports of an increase in burglaries with some people saying their houses had been broke into twice.

Zhou Xiaozhe, a professor of sociology at the People’s University in Beijing, told the Los Angeles Times, “Definitely, this is the most serious problem we have seen since 1989. You have millions of college students who can’t find jobs...You have migrant workers who have lost their jobs at factories and didn’t have land to go back to.” Susan Shirk of the University of California San Diego told the Los Angeles Times, “I think the leaders are scared stiff. The Chinese Communist Party leadership believes there is a connection between economic growth, social stability and the survival of one-party rule.”

To head off worries about unrest the government blamed “hostile forces” for stirring up trouble. The public security budget was raised by nearly a third in 2009 to $4.2 billion in part to address concerns trouble brought out by unemployed workers and other problems associated with the economic crisis in 2008 and 2009 as well as unrest in Tibet and western China.

The government told police to ensure social stability. A police chief in Shenzhen told AFP, “The financial crisis may create unemployment among migrant workers, and the unemployed may come under the influence of criminals and became a destabilizing elements, or they turn into criminals themselves.”

China was also very worried about protectionist measures in other countries and the impact of this on China’s exports. Beijing was critical of an American $789 billion stimulus package that favored American goods, calling it “poison.”

Jokes That Circulated in China During in China During the Financial Crisis

During the global economic crisis a number of jokes circulated online and via text messages on mobile phones. One posted on the bulletin board went: A bank worker calls a colleague, and asks, “Hey, how's it been going?” “Not so bad? is the answer....”Oh, sorry, I've definitely called the wrong number.” [Source: Ben Blanchard, Reuters, February 3, 2009]

Others adopt a similar tone, but riffing off Communist propaganda slogans: “In the face of the financial crisis, I have bravely stood up and am marching forward! That's because ... I can't pay back my loans and the bank has repossessed my car.”

Other were puns based on the fact that a single pronunciation can have several wildly different meanings in the tonal Chinese language. A posting on popular Chinese website cautions people aboutsending text message greetings for the Lunar New Year, which was marked last week, lest their meanings be misinterpreted. These included “Wealth surging in” which has the same pronunciation as “Lay-offs surging in.” Similarly, people were warned not to wish friends or family, “May you have everything you wish for,” fearing it could be interpreted as “Pay cut by 40 percent.”

Another joke circulated by text message pokes fun at the fake money which is becoming a worry as incomes start to falter amid what the government calls the “financial tsunami.” “Two people produce fake 15 yuan notes,” it starts, already unlikely in itself as there is no such thing as a 15 yuan bill in China. “They decide to go to a remote mountain area to spend it and buy a candied melon slice for 1 yuan. They burst into tears when they get two 7 yuan notes in change,” it ends, the joke being there is also no such thing as a 7 yuan note.

Response to the Economic Crisis in 2008 in China

Stephen Roach, Morgan Stanley chief, told Newsweek, “The Chinese command-and-control system can actually work more effectively than other market-based systems in times of economic stress.” The government pumped up growth with tax cuts and investment in infrastructure such as railroads. It cut interest rates for the first time in six years and cut them five times to 2.25 percent. Low inflation figures in late 2008 made it easier to pump up the economy. It didn’t hurt that China had huge foreign reserves and a load of money to throw around.

To stimulate spending and help alleviate financial worries which cause people to save arther than spend, the government decided to spend $123 billion by 2011 to establish universal health care. The Ministry of Civil Affairs doled out $1.3 billion to 74 million people as a one-time living subsidy, given out before the Lunar New Year in 2009.

Arthur Kroeber, the managing director of Dragonomics, an economic research consultancy in Beijing, said many companies lowered costs by cutting wages rather than jobs. This was partly in response to a government order mandating state-owned companies not to lay off workers, presumably to maintain social stability. Many companies also put in place hiring freezers, making it hard for the unemployed to find work.

Export tax rebates were raised on hundreds of products to give a break to troubled exporters, and the government stopped letting the yuan rise against the dollar. State-backed banks were encouraged to help small and mid-size firms that otherwise would have trouble getting financing. Unemployed college graduates were encouraged to take state jobs in small towns, rural areas and remote provinces.

The response of the government has been to maintain control whether ley markets o free by, for example, not loosening state ownership on 160 mega-firms.” Chinese Premier Wen Jibao said maintaining economic growth was the government’s “first priority”? The Chinese government cut interest rates, cut for home buyers, promised infrastructure spending, supported banks hurt by the economic crisis by buying stock in them, told investors in Lehman-Brother’s-backed bond they would be compensated

In December 2009, China adopted a controversial “buy China” policy in which Chinese were encouraged to favor domestic products over foreign ones, primarily in the computer, communications, software and energy conservation sectors. In June, Beijing imposed a requirements that said that groups receiving stimulus money were required to buy goods domestically and needed permission to buy foreign goods. The moves were criticized by United States, Japan and Europe and had the potential of developing into an international trade issue. China had earlier criticized the United States for it “Buy America” stimulus provisions.

Cash rich companies found the crisis provided them with an opportunity to snatch up assets at bargain prices. Some foreign companies like Toyota scaled back production in China out of fear of being stuck with cars it couldn’t sell.

Government Stimulus Package

In early November 2008, China announced a 4 trillion yuan ($586 billion) stimulus package worth 13 percent of GDP, over two years. The money was spent mostly on infrastructure and social welfare, particularly on railways, highways, low-cost housing, and rural infrastructure, and given to banks to provided low interest loans for home and car buyers and companies in need of financing.

The total value of the stimulus was put at $1.8 trillion, 38 percent of GDP, by some economists. About $1.2 trillion of it was in the form of soft, subsidized loans.

Stimulus measure introduced by the government included tax rebates for exporters in labor-intensive industries, cuts in value-added taxes and low interest loans for first time home buyers. Reconstruction in areas hit by the Sichuan earthquake was a major feature of the stimulus plan. By some estimates it took up a forth of the stimulus package.

Some local governments such as the ones in Hangzhou, Chengdu and Nanjing gave out vouchers and coupons to help the needy and stimulate consumption. In Hangzhou a booklet of $30 work worth of vouchers was given to elderly, students and jobless workers. Officials figured the coupons were better than cash or tax breaks which Chinese tend to just save,

The stimulus measures were implemented very quickly and in very concentrated manner thanks to the all encompassing power of the Communist Party. Many of the projects such as railways and highways were already going and just needed more money funneled into them. Troubled companies such China Eastern and China Southern airlines had cash injected into them.

Beijing also promised to spend more, whatever was necessary, to turn to the economy around. Some analysts said this promise acted the same way that deposit insurance prevents bank runs by giving consumers confidence to go ahead with their lives and spend and invest without worries. Paul Carey of Macquarie Securities in Hong Kong told Reuters, “To some extent, it is an expectations game, and that is clearly what the government has been trying to manipulate over the course of the last couple of months.”

Effects of the Government Stimulus Package

After the economic stimulus packages was approved in early 2009, China built and expanded 35 airports, opened 557 kilometers of railways, including the world’s fastest high-speed train, paved 98,000 kilometers of highway and picked up the pace on subway projects from Shenyang in the north to Guangzhou in the south — all within a year.

In the months after the stimulus package was launched investment in real estate and capital picked up, consumer spending was brisk, stock prices rose and orders for new products began to flow in.

Banks heeded calls by the government to loosen up credit controls to rev up the economy and gave out double the loans they gave out the previous year. The banks were in a good position to do this as they had access to state money and largely been immune to the subprime mortgage crisis that affected other banks around the globe.

One of the goals of the stimulus package was to generate more consumption but analysts thought this was unlikely to happen until China created a safety net. Some critics claimed that many of the infrastructure projects were wasteful and having so much money floating around encouraged speculation and corruption. The Shanghai stick market surged 90 percent in the first eight months of 2009 driven many believe by money diverted into stocks from bank lending to support the stimulus package.

Some analysts hoped most of the money would go to build schools and low-cost housing for migrant workers rather than more highways and seaports which benefits mostly industry. Included in the package were promises for more social spending, with the government pledging $123 billion over three years to deliver basic health care and health insurance to 9 out 10 Chinese.

Most of the money from $1.2 trillion of soft, subsidized loans was supposed to go to consumers. But that’s not what happened. Some analysts have reckoned that 85 percent of the subsidized loans went to state-run companies and banks, inflating the investment bubble. According to preliminary research by Victor Shih of Northwestern University, off-the-books borrowing by local investment companies was out of control and could add up to $1.7 trillion, or 34 percent of China’s GDP. In 2012 Beijing was still tackling the after-effects of that program, which triggered a frenzy of real estate speculation, saw local governments amass 10.7 trillion yuan of debt and drove inflation to a three-year peak by July 2011.

Economy Picks in China up after the Stimulus Package

In March 2009,the Chinese government announced that the economy was responding well to stimulus measures and that no other stimulus measures were necessary. The Shanghai Stock Market was up 85 percent in first eight months of 2009. Property sales jumped 75.5 percent to $645 billion in 2009 on coat tails of a record number of loans.

The loosening of credit created a building boom and unleashed a car and home buying frenzy. The booming stack market and high apartment sales made up for weak exports. State-owned construction companies sucked in money and posted huge profits and hired lots of workers. Money also went buy materials and hire subcontractors, which generated more jobs.

Of the 20 million migrant workers that lost their jobs as of early 2009 about 14 million had found work by June according to the National Bureau of Statistics, which said about two thirds found jobs in the eastern coastal areas and a third got jobs in the central and western China.

By autumn 2009, firms that had feared going bust were looking for migrant workers to fill their Christmas orders. Some in the Pearl Delta area around Guangzhou and Shenzhen were having a hard time finding workers because the stimulus package was creating more opportunities in the interior. At the port in Shanghai container ships lay idle and empty while bulk carriers laden with raw material were backed up because they couldn’t be unloaded fast enough’signs trade was still hurting but manufacturing was preparing for a rebound. By December 2009, orders were surging and production reached an all-time high.

China achieved 8.7 percent growth for 2009 despite the economic slump. Growth was 6.8 percent in the last quarter in of 2008, 6.3 percent growth first quarter of 2009, the lowest in a decade, 7.9 percent growth in second quarter, 9.1 percent in third quarter in 2009 and 10.7 percent in the 4th quarter.

China as an Engine of Global Growth

China resilience to the economic crisis in 2008 and 2009 was so strong many wondered whether it could pull the world out its slump. According to the IMF China is likely to account for almost three quarters of global growth between 2008 and 2010. Shanghai-based economist Andy Xie told Time, “Everyone want to know the same thing: Can China save the world?”

Money from state-owned banks found its way overseas and was major stimuli for world growth. Chinese banks injected $1.3 trillion over the first nine months of 2009. The money helped construct copper mines, purchase airplanes and expand retail operations. Among the recipients were Southwest Airlines in the United States, Aercap airplane leasing in the Netherlands and the Foster’s brewery in Australia. China also bought up $50 billion worth of IMF bonds, .expanding the capacity of the fund to deal with financial crisis and help others.

The amount of money lent abroad by China doubled in 2009 from 2008 and accounted for 11 percent of all new loans, bank analysts told the Washington Post. Chinese demand helped the economies of countries like Australia and Brazil that provide it with raw materials and food. But in the end growth in China helped but the economy of China but was still too small to have a really big impact on the global economy.

Worries in China After the Economy Picks Up in 2009

There were worries that high stock prices and booming real estate would create a bubble. A lot of stimulus money flowed into assets markets for quick profits rather the real economy.

By early 2010 there were worries that the economy might overheat. The central bank took measures to control the surge in bank lending by raising the amount of money that banks must keep in reserve, and the government raised interest rates and let the yuan appreciate to keep things from getting out of hand.

Inflation also became a concern as rising prices accompanied the surge in orders. Yu Hong, a Hong Kong-based economist for Goldman Sachs, told Reuters in January 2010 “We are near a tipping point when news of very strong growth is not necessarily welcomed anymore as inflationary pressures are clearly rising quickly.”

Some tentative measures were taken to curb inflation but not off to slow down the recovery. , Some thought it was time for te stimulus measures to be wound down because of anything they worked too well

China Emerges Strong from the Economic Crisis

In 2009, the worlds three largest global banks measured by market capitalization, were all Chinese. In 2006, China didn’t have a single bank in the world’s top 20.

Chinese leaders chided the United States for its profligate spending, proposed dumping the dollar as the global currency and said the United States should overhaul its economic aid system to give developing countries more say in how the aid money is spent.

On how major manufacturers were holding up James Fallows wrote in the Atlantic Monthly, “While many were struggling, some viewed the recession as a chance to move into higher-value work, and introduce their own advanced products rather than strictly as sun subcontractors.”

Wen and other Chinese leaders now say that the economic downturn had shown that China is too dependent on an export economy, and that domestic spending should be encouraged to wean China off that reliance.

Economy Picks Up After the Economic Crisis

China’s GDP surged 11.9 percent in first quarter of 2010. It was the second quarter in a row of double digit growth and a clear indication that China had quickly overcome the economic slump and was back to explosive growth as usual. The trend was attributed to positive effects from government stimulus measures, strong consumer spending (a 17.9 percent increase from the previous year) and an increase of exports (a 28.7 percent increase). On the negative side there were indicators that some sectors of the economy, particularly real estate, were overheated and inflation was a concern.

China reported a trade deficit in March 2010, its first since April 2004. The deficit of $7.24 billion was attributed to energy and raw material imports and a slow down of domestic production following the Chinese New Year. Some questioned the veracity of the data as the its announcement came just as the United States was racheting up pressure on China to devalue the yuan.

Growth was 10.3 percent in 2010. GDP was $5.88 trillion, ahead of Japan’s $5.45 billion. Growth 9.7 percent in the first quarter of 2011 and 9.5 percent in the second quarter of 2011.

China trade surplus in 2010 was $183.1 billion, down from $196.1 billion in 2009 and that was a big drop from a peak of nearly $300 billion — before the Lehman shock — in 2008. The trade gap between China and the United States was $181.3 billion in 2010, up 26 percent from 2009.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2012

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