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Trump Trade Theater

Trump Trade Theater

Congratulations, America! Last night Trump declared victory in his trade war with Mexico. In a Tweet, of course, he explained that the US had a “signed agreement,” allowing him to magnanimously “suspend” tariffs that would have sent our own economy reeling. Once again, his Blazing Saddles gun-to-my-own-head routine was a stunning success.

What did Dear Leader win for our country and its Great Patriot Farmers? Nothing. Go ahead and read the signed agreement and find a meaningful, enforceable thing Mexico will deliver that wasn’t happening already. Trump went on to tell a flat out lie, claiming that Mexico will step up purchases of farm produce. In return for Trump’s glorious achievements, the rubes will lay down their bodies for him while their farms go broke.

One more time, Trump has manufactured a crisis then secured victory by arbitrarily declaring that crisis over. This Great Wall of Bullshit approach to international relations has been remarkably successful so far, at least politically. The President provoked in a crisis in 2018 by declaring he would withdraw from NAFTA. Negotiators from Canada and Mexico then discovered the ruse – all they had to do was play along. After a few months of sophomoric “negotiations” officials revealed New NAFTA, whose biggest revision was its name.

Leaders around the world have learned how to play this administration. Ignore Trump’s bluster. Pay for rooms at his hotel while feeding cash through his family’s money laundering business. Eventually Trump will give you whatever you want as long as you let him pretend to defeat you in a WrestleMania victory lap on social media. This model works for anything. Want to defeat a pro-democracy insurgency after gassing your own people? No problem. Want permission to quietly continue your nuclear missile program? Go for it. Looking to arm radical jihadi terrorists with the most sophisticated bomb technology on the planet? Salaam-Alaikum, brother. Keep dropping coins in the juke box and you can dance all night.

While kleptocrats from North Korea to Israel cash in at the Trump diplomatic casino, pink doughy “real Americans” in golf shirts learn from Fox News that Trump has cowed the North Koreans and built a monumental wall against the heathen masses from the Mexican countries. It doesn’t take much energy to fool people begging to be deceived.

There is, however, one troubling hold-out. The Chinese have thus far refused to play. They seem to have a very different strategy in mind, seeing an opportunity in Trump to score a much more potent and lasting victory against their greatest rival.

We got an early preview of China’s unique Trump strategy immediately after the inauguration. The Kushner Family was on the cusp of completing a massive money laundering operation involving the failed 666 Park Avenue Tower in New York, thanks to a cash infusion from Chinese insurance giant, Anbang. At the last minute, to the apparent surprise of Anbang’s senior management, Chinese officials torpedoed the deal. China’s move sent the Kushner companies into crisis. Desperate for cash thanks to the Chinese rebuke, the Kushner crime family scrambled to pressure someone into financing their rescue. Their desperate international beg and threaten road-show almost triggered a war among the Gulf States.

When Trump later came calling on Beijing to host an episode of Trump Trade Theater, the Chinese were ready with their own strategy. After a few months of staged negotiations, it was time to declare victory for Trump while agreeing to basically nothing.

At the first gate, they let Trump have his prize. In February 2019, Trump announced that a deal was being reached and promised a big signing ceremony. Chinese officials quietly hinted that no such agreement was in place, but those comments were largely ignored. When it came time in May to memorialize an agreement, which consisted of little beyond a few empty promises of future action by the Chinese, they simply walked away.

A stage-managed power-slam of the Chinese was meant to be Trump’s signature achievement, and they balked. In a tantrum, Trump doubled down on the disastrous tariffs imposed on American farmers and consumers. The Chinese carefully retaliated, while making preparations for a long siege. Trump may have found a country that won’t be bought or bullied, reinforced by a long-simmering memory and a tradition of multi-decadal planning.

Chances are, the Chinese see in Trump an opportunity far bigger than any trade deal. Donald Trump is the greatest national weakness Americans have displayed since the Civil War, an opportunistic vulnerability the Chinese seem reluctant to waste. How will they exploit this weakness in the world’s only superpower? It isn’t clear, but Trump represents a national failure the Chinese may seize upon when they’re ready.


  1. I am amazed at the difference in engagement levels in the fight for democracy all over the world. Hong Kong, one of the most law abiding locations on earth, and one of the richest per capita, is going wild given the fact that a totalitarian regime is now exerting its power over Hong Kong. I don’t know the numbers on the protests last night and today, but for the previous protest, using the low-ball numbers of 240,000, provided by the police, means 1 in 30 citizens hit the streets.

    Can you imagine if 12 million Americans surrounded the White House?

    I imagine the tryant’s regime is taking notes today on how to attack protesters.

  2. I think you give the Chinese too much credit. They don’t necessarily have a long-term goal in their dealings with Trump. They’re driven by their own internal political necessities as much as anyone else.

    One of the biggest things democracy gives a leader is legitimacy. Anyone who manages to win an election automatically gets huge legitimacy, which allows him to do unpopular things. Whether those things are bad (a-la Trump), or good (a-la Mexico’s President making a superficial concession), they never lack legitimacy.

    Non-democracies need other sources of legitimacy. That’s why Saudi Arabia’s ruling monarchs throw tons of money at extreme Wahhabi priests and wrap themselves in the garb of pious defenders of Mecca despite leading lives so morally degenerate that the Prophet himself would probably have started a jihad against them (ObL’s argument, BTW). The mullahs give them legitimacy with the people that they otherwise have no way of gaining.

    In China, legitimacy comes from righting the wrongs of colonialism when the Western world (and historic rivals like Japan) brought China to its knees and split it up. Ever since Mao rose by dismissing Chiang Kai-Shek as a Western puppet, legitimacy has been based on who best makes China “strong”. Which means Xi *can’t* accept even a meaningless concession if it means people back home would interpret it as showing weakness to the West.

    Even Deng Xiaoping, when he began liberalizing the economy, couldn’t admit that Mao’s economic policies failed and capitalism was the better approach. (Forget any hint that the Cultural Revolution devastated the Chinese population as much as any external power ever did). Instead, he had to couch it in nationalist terms, with his famous phrase “to get rich is glorious”, implying that accumulating wealth and developing the economy was about continuing Mao’s war via economic means.

    Trump is a man of spectacle. So is China. It so happens Trump’s spectacle is used to hide bad policies, while China’s spectacles are used to hide generally good policies. What happens when these two meet? Neither one can give up the spectacle, even when it turns detrimental.

    It doesn’t help China to perpetuate this trade war, and given that Trump is giving them an easy way out, and would probably even give them more if they played him right (like all those disputed islands in the South China Sea?), they’re playing a stupid game. But just like Trump needs to satisfy his base, so does China. Even to their detriment.

    It’s instructive that Huawei’s CEO has publicly exhorted Chinese people to *not* retaliate against American companies, while Xi has done the opposite. Huawei’s CEO already has legitimacy for how he’s turned Huawei into a global competitor (almost like how the Japanese worshipped Sony’s CEO because of how much Sony did to turn around the global view of Japanese manufacturers). He can afford to say unpopular things that happen to be correct. Xi has no such leeway.

    Not everything that China does has some amazing long-term plan for victory (I could spend ages talking about their idiotic foreign policy in Asia). With that said, if they *do* have a higher purpose, I would bet good money it has to do with the only thing China really cares about: Taiwan…

  3. If you are correct about China viewing Trump as their Big Opportunity (and I am 99.999% certain that you are), then do you not think that their next move is obvious? If the Dem primary results in anyone reasonably competent, the Chinese will suddenly become all too willing to give Trump his big symbolic “victory” about a month before the 2020 election. He’ll go around trumpeting that the sacrifice was worth it, and the good people of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan will eat it up. Thus, the Chinese will earn themselves four more years to fully pounce.

    1. I’m not sure they would ever need to pounce. The meanness, ignorance, greed, dishonesty, of corruption of Orange Foolious is angering our closest allies and eroding our standing in the world. They just need to sit back and wait. Putin is also gaining from this.

    2. Many are assuming that Russia (Putin) and China are all knowledgeable and that the US and the democratic system is fatally flawed. That was the similar attitude of the America Firsters during the 1930’s and even up to Pearl Harbor. There was a similar attitude in Britain and on the continent, also towards Japan. However, because no dissent was allowed fatal blunders were made by both. Whereas, though the democracies were in a deep depression and mental funk in the 1930’s, the democratic process worked to self correct. True, we have a white supremacist, fascist in the presidency now and he is working to suppress all dissent and has FAUX News on his side, he has not been successful and will not be. During the 1930’s much of the national media (mainly the press, at that time), were also supportive the the Fascist powers.

      I stubbornly have faith in the American people, though they do make mistakes, they can also learn. We do need leadership, and that has been lacking. The struggle is not going to be easy, but still keep faith.

      1. The Russians are a slow-rolling catastrophe. China is making a lot of problems for itself that will be very difficult to fix by stifling democratic reforms rather than rolling them out incrementally.

        That said, China continues to be run by professionals whose main personal financial interests are centered on Chinese economic success. Unlike the Russians and Saudis, who are effectively governed by pirates, and of course, the US, where the political class is now openly for sale, the Chinese are in a position to make reasonably sensible, long term calculations, performed by well-educated professionals who more or less know what they’re doing.

        The Chinese aren’t super-human geniuses. They just enjoy the momentary luck of being governed by clever people. And by the way, with XI consolidating his power, their run of luck is going to end in a few years. That short-lived political/managerial meritocracy that sprung up at the end of the last century won’t survive the revival of autocracy.

      2. Chris’ comment is absolutely on the mark! Because, we have debate in democracies, there is the ability to self correct. All debate in Russia and China has been suppressed. That will lead to problems. Trump is attempting to suppress dissent but has not an will not succeed!

        One reason for me looking at the 1930’s and 40’s is that I have just finished ‘The Plots Against the President’ by Sally Denton. That focuses on the dark days of 1932-1934 and how FDR was able to lead and take control despite an assassination attempt, and two attempts to organize coups amid heavy opposition from Wall Street business interests. I am currently reading ‘The Mantle of Command’ by Nigel Hamilton, the first of the FDR at War trilogy. That is focusing on how FDR was able to take command of the the Allies war effort in 1941 – 1942, the darkest days of WWII. These books have been very interesting. By way of comparison the current situation in America is nowhere near as difficult as what FDR faced. Yet, he was able to rally Americans. He did not demagogue, but was confident and frank. He was careful about phraseology in his communication. There is nothing wrong with that. Nevertheless, he got things done.

      3. tmerritt-
        We were very, very lucky in having FDR during WWII and the Great Depression. He was basically a dictator, doing things like threatening to stuff the Supreme Court with additional judges if they didn’t approve his (likely unconstitutional) New Deal on the flimsy basis of the Fed’s ability to regulate interstate commerce. He overthrew nearly 2 centuries of the Monroe Doctrine to involve us in a quagmire intra-Europe war just a few decades after our horrible experience in WWI. And as for his respect for media, he used the newfangled technology of radios in every homes to take his message directly to the people (with his fireside chats) and bypass the media. The parallels between FDR and Trump using new media like twitter to bypass Fake News media is remarkable. He also violated the unwritten norm established by George Washington that Presidents would only serve 2 terms, running for re-election over and over until he died in office.

        The only thing, really, that differentiates FDR and Trump’s tactics and contempt for democracy was that FDR happened to be right. It’s very much an example of Chris’s argument that dictatorships tend to work really well, and much better than democracy, *as long as you get a good dictator*. Otherwise, you can end up breaking a country (Stalin’s purges, Mao’s Cultural Revolution).

        At the time of FDR’s election, there was a large communist movement in the US. The New Deal was actually seen as a compromise to placate the hoi polloi to keep them from becoming communists. If FDR had messed up, the Trumpian precedents he set in terms of Presidential Power could have easily been used by a successor to create a far worse America than we have now (just ask Germany about Hitler).

        IOW, IMHO, our democracy is far more fragile than our 60-year run of good luck would indicate.

        I agree that China is about to face this with Xi. They had an incredible run of luck, from Deng Xiaoping on, in choosing leaders who, despite being nominal communist apparatchiks, actually did a good job of managing their economy for the long term. Xi seems cut from a different cloth. His consolidation of power and revival of nationalist foreign policy seems ripe to set that country back by decades. In an autocracy, you only have to pick poorly once to completely devastate your country.

    1. Shhh, don’t tell the trumpster….He said he’s going to be watching to make sure Mexico keeps its word and that numbers go down. Of course, his base will applaud his great business acumen…obviously, they don’t read Political Orphans, Huffpost, WaPo, NYT, etc. And we know what message is coming over FOX….

      I got a price yesterday for shutters that are made in China. The sales lady noted that the price had gone up likely because of the tariffs. This lady depends upon sales of this product but when I asked her if she felt the tariffs had been well thought out and well executed, she was emphatic, noting, “the economy has never been this strong…so needed after the last adminstration…” I did not place the order. Figure there are more shutter suppliers out there to explore or I’ll just get a shade (-: Needless to say, this lady is a trumpster and told me that generally she really likes most of everything he has and is doing. We’re flatly going to have to outvote these folks because they hear no evil and see no evil, but they will turn out to support their guy.

    2. What we may be overlooking is the impossible position in which Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador finds himself. Mexico is an easy target for the orange bully to pick on…and the value of beating up brown people, whether they are presidents or immigrants, is manna for trump’s base, which, by extension, means the GOP will zip their lips. Why would he not continue to press Mexico on this? As Nicholas states below – trump wins with his base either way because they aren’t paying attention to facts anyway. Where does this end? It surely isn’t going to end by force of senate republicans deciding to stand up in sufficient numbers to trump. If they allow him to export our smart bomb technology, grant bomb-making contracts worth billions to Saudi Arabia, does anyone really believe these gutless wonders will be concerned “enough” to draw a red line at the border? I think not.

      1. RE: GOP Senators

        Aside from the obvious racism, the main reason the GOP senators are so gutless is the McConnell controlled PAC. He carefully takes care of the big money folks, they in turn contribute huge sums to the PAC which then uses the funds to make sure McConnell approved senators win primaries and are elected in the General Election. Of course McConnell uses his wife’s cabinet position to further that, by ensuring that favorite projects are funded. Any GOP senator immediately caves when confronted with the McConnell political machine. A perfect example is Susan Collins.

  4. It is the bitterest of ironies that the people who blather on the most about American exceptionalism (and get fighting mad if they perceive you as not paying enough lip service to it) are actually a danger to all the things that are exceptional about America and are giving China a great opportunity to surpass America as a world power.

  5. Our current structure of free trade and the concept of multilateral trade deals have become especially vilified, both in the lead-up to the 2016 election and afterward. Much of this vilification is in fact justified. Multilateral trade deals, both past and present, have been crafted and ratified with a hilariously depressing amount of contempt for the people who’d have to live under them, all for the sake of corporate profit.

    NAFTA was just the start. That trade deal ruined Mexican agriculture and a lot of other business in the country. They couldn’t compete with heavily subsidized American agriculture. This led to a fair amount of illegal immigration from Mexico to America. This immigration likely helped to foment the racism and anti-immigration sentiments that we see today. NAFTA weakened the ability of American workers to fight against decreases to wages and benefits they received, with employers threatening to move to Mexico if they didn’t get on their knees and accept what their bosses gave them. And many companies still moved to Mexico anyway, using any displaced agricultural workers that didn’t try to come to America and the rest of Mexico’s working class as cheap and expendable labor.

    Let’s look at the other multilateral trade deal that would’ve caused even more myriad issues, especially in our new technological era, the TPP. It was known for profound lack of transparency in negotiations dominated by corporate representatives, disregard for effects on workers and consumers, blatant giveaways to rent-seeking multinational corporations (with one giveaway even decreasing the ability of sovereign nations to create and enforce the laws that they want), enforcing draconian intellectual property laws (especially on pharmaceuticals) and extending copyright protections far beyond reasonable time frames. Anything that would benefit corporations was binding. Anything that would protect consumers, benefit workers, or defend the environment was a non-binding suggestion.

    As someone who keeps his ear to the ground with regards to anything related to technology and the Internet and desires for it to stay free and open, everything that leaked and eventually was officially released to the public about the TPP was disastrous. SOPA, the draconian copyright bill that had luckily failed in Congress in 2012 after mass protest online and in real life, was enshrined in the TPP under the telecommunications section. This would’ve given the RIAA and MPAA leverage to force ISPs to act like copyright cops on their behalf, taking down websites and issuing warnings for people to delete content without any regard for Fair Use cases such as parody, remixing, and what have you. Copyright extensions to life-plus-70-years would be put in place across the entire trade bloc, damaging the public domain. Net Neutrality, an excellent concept which requires ISPs to treat all web traffic equally and not speed up or slow down anything based on payment or in order to gain an advantage, was given a pathetic “Oh, NN would be nice, but you don’t actually have to do anything to protect it” non-binding consideration.

    There was a section of the TPP that would have doled out heavier punishment for tech whistleblowers, whose uncovering of exploits and critical flaws have proven invaluable to the security of our computer systems and the Internet. Digital Rights Management circumvention, a critical part of what those whistleblowers do, would also have been more heavily punished. DRM sucks in general, and many consumers circumvent it because said DRM makes the products that people buy worse, especially when trying to fix said product. People have to frickin’ hack their John Deere tractors because the DRM put in place keeps all but official dealership mechanics who have the license keys from fixing the machinery. Right to Repair is an important freedom that needs protecting, and the TPP would’ve put that freedom in jeopardy.

    Also, with the TPP we would’ve been allying with countries who don’t give a flying care about human rights. The U.S. ignored mass graves and human trafficking in order to upgrade Malaysia’s human rights standing so that it could become a member of the TPP. Any of the trade that we’d be doing with Malaysia would revolve around sweatshop and slave labor. Malaysia and Brunei (another TPP member) deal in persecution. Malaysia’s tourism minister said that gay people don’t exist there. Brunei is a corrupt sultanate that wishes to stone LGBT people to death.

    The TPP’s Investor-State Dispute Settlement would’ve expanded the ability for companies to engage in outside arbitration in corporate-run kangaroo courts against countries that enact laws that supposedly harm those company’s future profits. Such a thing is an affront to the sovereignty of nations and the ability of countries to enact laws based upon the will of the people.

    Lastly, the most insulting thing about the Obama Administration’s push for the TPP was that, as opposition to the TPP became broad and bipartisan, they went to their last resort and kept banging the drum ad nauseam about how the trade deal was absolutely necessary to curtail China. It was pathetic. The TPP, which was undoubtedly negotiated by many of the same companies and organizations that have benefitted from offshoring to China, was being sold as a powerful agreement stem China’s influence in Asia. The TPP, which would do nothing to protect human rights and even ignored blatant human rights violations in its creation, was being offered as a way to make China take a step back and realize “Maybe we shouldn’t violate human rights.” It was a bunch of lies. And even if it wasn’t, the trade-off to keep China in check was still that people in the TPP bloc would have to lose key freedoms that we *need* now more than ever in this digital age, as well as a good bit of old-fashioned national sovereignty. It never seemed like a worthwhile trade-off.

    When Trump killed the TPP deal (at least the one where the U.S. was a party to it), a bipartisan coalition of tech freedom advocates, conservatives leery of multinational agreements, and human rights organizations held their noses and cheered because he did the right thing, even for the wrong reasons. Years later, I’ve seen people trying to engage in revisionism and lumping the TPP decision in with the utter disaster that everything else he’s done has been. Commentators saying that all our problems with China would’ve been solved if we’d just licked boot and accepted the TPP irritates me to no end.

    It’s my hope that sometime in the future, the U.S. and other countries can work toward building a multilateral trade deal with a negotiation and ratification process that’s open, democratic, and places the needs of people above corporate profits.

    1. I started to build my own computers and use Linux for the operating system to get around vendor lock in. The computer I am using is the first Windows computer I have used in over 10 years. It is better now and much more like Unix. But I have my Ubuntu stick and if I have trouble I will not hesitate to collect my personnel data and then wipe out Windows and install Linux replacing my personal data on the new system.

      Power systems are in a flux too. People are already installing solar and wind power electrical systems on their RVs and homes. It is now very possible to live off the grid escaping another vendor lock in.

      Many of our modern diseases are dietary in nature. Things like diabetes, obesity and hypertension are curable with a diet and life style change. Even cancer is being treated by a low carb diet.

      In the past you made most of the stuff you used in everyday life. We are returning to that way. This should give workers much more barter power and a fairer deal as capital will be less important in the future while knowledge and skill will become more valuable.

    2. This trade skepticism is one of the reasons I’m not hopeful about the future of democracy. Nothing in human history has ever done more to lift people out of poverty than the trade revolution since the fall of the Soviets. NAFTA ruined Mexican agriculture just like trade and competition are destroying US agriculture – by freeing all of us from the grip of a zero-value industry. Food there is cheap now, just like it’s cheap here. For the first time in the country’s history, food is largely taken for granted. Mexicans are wrestling for the first time with the spectre of obesity.

      In the past few years, Mexico has finally joined the planet’s list of predominantly middle-class countries, with severe poverty dropping to less than 3% of their population. And the decline in infant mortality has been particularly steep.

      GDP, which was nearly flat across the country’s history, exploded after 92. It has nearly quadrupled in just thirty years.

      Overall now, the flow of migrants FROM the US TO Mexico is larger than Mexican migration to the US.

      All this, and Mexico isn’t even really a remarkable success story for the era. What’s really remarkable is what’s happened in Ghana, Nigeria, India and China since trade and political liberalization.

      Why do we hate trade? Because trade breeds constant change, constant competition, constant challenge. Trade, like capitalism, is inherently disruptive. Disruption is uncomfortable, and people don’t like to be uncomfortable. Generally, people will choose to keep what they have rather than take a risk to build something far better.

      Here’s a challenge. TPP is no longer a speculatory document, a ghostly shadow of potential horrors. It’s a real thing that half a billion people are living under. Where are all these nightmare provisions? Where are the horrors? And yes, those copyright provisions dropped from the final version (nothing remotely as extreme as you describe) were vitally necessary to curtail China, and we’ll all be poorer for the rest of the century for the failure to get them written into international law when we had a chance.

      In a democracy, we are often our own worst enemy.

      1. Change threatens control. Those in power don’t want to share. Capitalism has been wonderful in creating opportunity but it has become its own worst enemy as a result of those in power shutting others out. I believe in regulated free trade that is peacefully, respectfully negotiated. Not demanded, extorted or stolen. I have long since stopped believing in American Exceptionalism because we have lost our right to claim this title.

      2. Chris, could you also compare the GDP growth of another country in your list: China.
        Seems to me, the massive growth there had zero to do with democracy, but more the expansion of the Internet, and yes, the liberalization of trade China had with our countries, or more specifically, nation-corps like Walmart.

        And hate to break it to you. Walmart, like Amazon, are NOT corporations that create generalized wealth, but rather, concentrate wealth in the hands of a few. The damage done by Walmart and Amazon far exceeds the “good” they do with lower prices.

  6. The only people Strongman Trump is talking to is his right-wing authoritarian base.

    And what they heard is that Strongman Trump has solved yet another problem.

    So, a victory for Strongman Trump, and just more Firehose of Falsehood that everyone else is busy trying to point out to people who think it was a victory for Strongman Trump.

  7. The biggest issue I see with the Mexican/US “agreement” is the agreement by Mexico to “hold” all immigrants (indefinitely?) waiting for asylum hearings in the U.S. Practically, this seems to be a huge concession by the Mexican government in terms of management and cost. Why is this not a major concession by Mexico? Dispersal of Mexico’s National Guard to their southern border may stem the inflow of asylum seekers but I thought Mexico was already doing this?

    1. Why isn’t the “remain in Mexico” provision a big deal?

      1) We’re already doing it. We didn’t need an agreement from Mexico to make this happen and the agreement changes nothing. From last month:

      2) Mexico isn’t going to do anything at all in response to this “agreement” and there’s nothing anyone intends to do about it.

      The whole thing is phony, as usual.

      1. The huge numbers purported to be reaching the border are far in excess of the 5000 cited. Doesn’t Mexico open itself up to accommodate much larger numbers with this agreement? Are you saying Mexico has no intention of keeping this “agreement “?

      2. There’s nothing for Mexico to do here. How were they going stop US customs from dumping people at their border station? So far, they haven’t. And everything else in the agreement is notional. “Increased security” on their southern border? What does that mean? It’s just like the agreement with the North Koreans. Talk and noise, which is all his supporters need. Mexico isn’t going to do anything, and this agreement won’t change anything, and there’s no enforcement mechanism in this agreement to make anyone accountable.

      3. This article explains more clearly than I could articulate my concerns about all the people piling up in Mexico while awaiting asylum determination. Not trying to be argumentative, just noting that there are going to be problems any time you have that many poor, homeless people congregating in areas insufficient to manage their needs.

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