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A Letter From Executive Editor Jonathan Hahn

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triptych-cDoes an academic boycott of Israel advance, or damage, the cause for peace in the Middle East?

This and related questions around the wisdom of academic activism in general have recently brought some scholars and populist movements together, while they have torn other colleagues apart. The BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement has become the locus for a new front in the ongoing crisis over Israeli and Palestinian identity, sovereignty, and self-determination. For supporters, the movement to boycott is in the great tradition of academic freedom and discourse. For opponents, it is an example of gross overreach that will inflict even more damage.

When I attended the Modern Language Association (MLA) conference in January, I encountered many scholars and students who were deeply affected by the boycott movement — even more so when the association’s Delegate Assembly then approved a resolution criticizing Israel’s restrictive entry and residency policies. That resolution — and the American Studies Association (ASA) vote to boycott Israeli universities which preceded it — underpin one of the most contentious debates now tearing at the American academy.

An unprecedented forum appears on LARB today — “Academic Activism: Israelis, Palestinians, and the Ethics of Boycott (8 Essays)” — featuring eight leading voices in this debate: David Palumbo-Liu, Cary Nelson, Judea Pearl, Colin Dayan, David Lloyd, Russell Berman, Noura Erakat, and David Myers. Their powerfully incisive, at times heated essays illustrate just how complex, and deeply personal, this issue has become.

The issue is obviously fraught; we considered various ways to engage it, from a roundtable setting to having the participants read and respond to each other’s papers. We decided that, in the interest of intellectual integrity and fairness, we would allow each to make their case in detail. We hope to publish more essays and continue adding to this forum. For now, we are happy to present the most extensive discussion on the issue yet published; for your convenience, we will make a digital ePub of the forum available on April 1.

Jonathan Hahn
Executive Editor


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The China Blog chinaspy

A Short Look at the Long Literary History of Spies in Asia

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By Paul French

One of the most noteworthy books set to hit the U.S. market next week is Olivia Milburn and Christopher Payne’s English translation of bestselling Chinese espionage author Mai Jia’s latest thriller, Decoded, which was published in other markets last year and has already generated a good deal of interest in the U.K.  This is just the latest development in a broader publishing tale: the resurgence of interest in Asia generally, and China specifically, as a settings for stories of intrigue.

One sign of this phenomenon has been the appearance of recent thrillers with present-day Asian locales, such as Charles Cummings’s Typhoon (2010) and Ridley Pearson’s The Risk Agent (2012).  Both of these were set in a contemporary Chinese milieu where shopping malls proliferate, post-socialist but still Communist surveillance mechanisms are in play, and industrial espionage is a feature of the international business scene.  Scandi-crime top sellers Jo Nesbø and Henning Mankell have recently made brief excursions to East Asia.  A China of the near future features in the thrillers Dragon Strike (1997) and Dragon Fire (2000), both by Humphrey Hawksley.  And even Asia as it was, rather than as it might soon be, can still cast a spell, as shown by David Downing’s choice of pre-WWI Shanghai as the place where the plot of his recent Jack of Spies (2013) unfolds. Old Shanghai has long held a special allure for espionage writers, and other recent books prove that its attractiveness endures:  cases in point range from Adam Williams’s trilogy The Palace of Heavenly Pleasure (2004), The Emperor’s Bones (2005) and The Dragon’s Tail (2007), to Tom Bradby’s The Master of Rain (2002), or Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans (2000) — all of them set in the city between the 1920s and 1950s.

Given this recent interest in China and Asia among writers interested in spies, this seems a good time to look back at some of the Asian adventures conjured up by greats of the espionage writing game of earlier generations. Here is a sampler of choice works, a mix of novels by famous past masters and noteworthy books, by now little known, but in their time influential or at least popular contributors to the genre:

The 1930s saw China emerge as a destination for espionage in novels. Now almost forgotten, but popular at the time, was Francis Van Wyck Mason’s The Shanghai Bund Murders (1933) — full of warlords, gunrunners and damsels in distress. Van Wyck Mason, a Bostonian novelist, had a long and prolific career spanning 50 years and 65 novels. His mysteries were filled with characters from the American government’s intelligence services, a world he knew well, having lived in Berlin and then Paris, where his grandfather had served as U.S. Consul General. As a teenager he served in first the French, and then in the American army as a Lieutenant during World War One. After the War he attended Harvard where he was mistakenly arrested for homicide after borrowing a dinner jacket; he was wrongly identified as a waiter wanted on murder charges. He published his first book in 1930 featuring his proto-James Bond character Captain Hugh North, a detective in G-2 Army Intelligence. This was his seventh in the Hugh North series and he eventually ends up solving the Shanghai Bund murders and nailing the western gunrunning baddies who were clearly based on the many westerners running guns along the China coast at the time.

Shady foreigners in Peking who might just be involved in espionage also feature in Vincent Starrett’s Murder in Peking (1946). Set before the war, murder strikes an elegant foreign dinner party in Peking. During the course of the investigation the enquiries move in and out of the Legation Quarter, into the temples of the Purple Mountains where the foreigners picnic, and through the backstreet hutongs of the city. Starrett visited China many times and knew Peking well, and it shows.

Wartime China is the setting for any number of novels but the most widely read at the time, and one for which espionage is at its heart, is Jan Maclure’s Escape to Chungking, published in 1942 and a popular book in Britain in what would nowadays be called the ‘YA’ market. It’s a sort of World War Two Kim with 14-year-old Christopher, or Kit, discovering that his mother is party to hidden military secrets in Japan. Kit finds his mother’s friend nearly dead after trying to take secrets to the British and is handed a package containing the formula for a new kind of explosive before the friend dies. He takes this on a long journey from Japan to Chungking to deliver the secrets to the Chinese government battling Japan from the head of the Yangtze. The author remains a mystery, with no other books listed under her/his name, but was obviously someone who knew China, Japan and Asia well, as the descriptions of the Chinese countryside, as well as Tokyo, Singapore and Malaya, are spot on.

I inherited my mother’s old wartime book club copy that she read as a young teenager in Blitzed London and in these days, when it’s fashionable to say that China was a forgotten element in World War Two, the bestselling success of Escape to Chungking perhaps indicates a greater awareness of the war in China than many assume.

Murder and espionage in pre-revolutionary China became popular themes, and remained so until the Bamboo Curtain fell and the idea of a white spy running round Mao’s China became impossible to imagine. Authors could not get access to research and writers looked elsewhere — to other countries and other historical events — for inspiration.

Pre-revolutionary China would have been perfect territory for “Greeneland”, but it was not to be. Early in his career, Graham Greene did pen a play featuring spies and kidnapping in Manchuria, but never finished it, didn’t like it and destroyed it. He had been fascinated with China since he was a boy and read the now long forgotten Captain Charles Gilson’s The Lost Column, a book published in 1909 about the Boxer Rebellion. After school Greene joined British-American Tobacco in the 1920s and enrolled in Chinese language classes at London’s School of Oriental Studies, where his teacher was none other than a young Chinese writer sojourning in the capital, Lao She. Of course Greene did eventually return to Asia in the masterpiece that is The Quiet American (1955) where, around the time of Dien Bien Phu and the French retreat from Indo-China, the hard bitten English hack Fowler drinks away his career on Saigon’s rue Catinat, until he encounters the mysterious American, Alden Pyle.

That early retreat from empire in Indo-China was to inspire other writers, not least Nicholas Freeling, the creator of Amsterdam’s Commissaris Van der Valk, who in Tsing-Boum! (1969) uncovers a murder in sleepy Holland that takes him back to the disaster at Dien Bien Phu and trouble with the French intelligence services.

China was closed but South East Asia and Hong Kong were still accessible to writers, and one master of the spy genre, Eric Ambler, ventured across the region, taking in the newly free state of Indonesia as well as Singapore and Hong Kong in Passage of Arms (1959). The clients are different after the war but western gunrunners are still active and the British and American intelligence services still want to be part of the action. Ambler’s descriptions of Hong Kong are particularly acute. Speaking of Hong Kong, of course, it’s worth re-reading James Clavell’s under-appreciated follow up to his best seller Tai-Pan (1966) — Noble House (1981), where the taipan of Struan’s trading company, Ian Dunross, finds himself in the 1960s struggling to maintain the family firm from interference by Soviet, American and British spies.

We can’t not acknowledge Ian Fleming and Bond, despite being so well known. Fleming himself knew Asia reasonably well. Of course his brother, Peter, was an inveterate traveller to China and wrote his own bestselling books on the country (News from Tartary (1936) and One’s Company (also 1936)). Less well known, though recently republished, is Fleming’s collection of travel articles for The Sunday Times, Thrilling Cities (1963), where he visits Hong Kong, Macao and Tokyo, among others, in 1959-1960. Profitable research time!

We end our short trip into the earlier years of Asian espionage writing, with a true classic — John Le Carré’s The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), the only outing by George Smiley to Asia and the second book in the Karla Trilogy. Hong Kong as the western listening post on Red China, British intelligence determined to hang on and still count in an American-dominated Cold War espionage world, opium still a valuable commodity to China and a truly memorable description of little known Vientiane. Any (male) visiting espionage fan to the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club will have stood at the club’s urinals and looked out the windows over the view that greeted the gangly twenty-seven-year-old, and badly hungover, Vietnam War reporter Luke as he stands in the same spot, watching a typhoon approach to engulf the Colony, in the opening pages of the novel.

China and Asia are still “sweetspots” to western espionage authors and now, it seems, they are being joined by a new crop of Chinese spy writers. Long may the tradition continue!


The China Blog A group of volunteers from a local NGO called I YOU SHE performing for elderly residents in a residential compound in Chengdu, Sichuan Province.  © Tong Lam

Grassroots NGOs

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By Tong Lam

For many Chinese people, their exposure to the concept of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and their potential for civic action can be traced back to 1995, when Beijing hosted the Fourth World Conference on Women. In early September that year, thousands of international NGO delegates arrived in Beijing to discuss issues of equality, development, and peace, and the event was widely reported in China’s national media. However, NGOs actually have a relatively long history in China. As early as the beginning of the twentieth century, a number of foreign NGOs, such as private foundations and public health organizations, were already operating in China. Also, soon after it came to power in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party began to organize semi-autonomous civic associations as part of its mass mobilization campaign. Although these were not NGOs in the narrow sense of the definition, they were the predecessors of the new “government-organized NGOs” (commonly known as GONGOs) that have emerged in recent years.

The idea of government-organized “grassroots” organizations may sound oxymoronic, but these newly emerged non-profit organizations represent an important mechanism for the government to gain popular support and claim political legitimacy. Not surprisingly, many of the GONGOs established in recent years are civic associations dealing with issues related to the business and professional communities. Meanwhile, an increasing number of international NGOs have also been allowed to operate in China.

Volunteers chatting with residents after their energetic and popular performance. I YOU SHE was originally a volunteer organization focusing on communal rebuilding after a massive earthquake hit Sichuan Province in 2008. Since then, the organization has evolved into a professional NGO with multiple offices in Chengdu. The organization frequently collaborates with the local government and has even received government grants for some of its projects, but also seeks to maintain its autonomous status and pursue its own agenda for community development.

Volunteers chatting with residents after their energetic and popular performance. I YOU SHE was originally a volunteer organization focusing on communal rebuilding after a massive earthquake hit Sichuan Province in 2008. Since then, the organization has evolved into a professional NGO with multiple offices in Chengdu. The organization frequently collaborates with the local government and has even received government grants for some of its projects, but also seeks to maintain its autonomous status and pursue its own agenda for community development. © Tong Lam

In addition to these GONGOs and foreign NGOs, there has also been a surge of real grassroots NGO growth in the past decade. For example, after the devastating earthquake in Sichuan Province in 2008, many of the private and spontaneous rescue and relief efforts soon cohered into professional organizations, and began to offer long-term recovery and mobilization programs, both in the disaster zones and beyond. Generally, these homegrown NGOs are small, local, and poorly funded. Many of them are keen on addressing urban middle-class concerns such as environmental protection, charity, cultural preservation, citizen participation, and community development. In short, their agendas are not incompatible with those of the government, and, by law, they have to be supervised by government agencies. Indeed, by playing a role in vital areas where traditional government-sponsored civic organizations have failed to serve meaningfully, these domestic NGOs help to maintain much-needed social and political stability. In a way, their existence is even consistent with the neoliberal trend of downloading the government’s responsibilities to the private sector.

Still, by cultivating citizens’ awareness of local affairs and establishing international links with foreign NGOs, grassroots Chinese NGOs are sometimes seen as competitors by local officials and even higher levels of the government. As such, Chinese NGOs often have an ambivalent relationship with the state. While it is not uncommon for them to receive funding for specific projects, it is also not unusual for them to run into government-placed obstacles in their work. In the long run, it remains to be seen how the government will interpret the kind of bottom-up social mobilization and citizen participation advocated by these domestic NGOs with mostly middle-class initiatives.

A group of volunteers from a local NGO called I YOU SHE performing for elderly residents in a residential compound in Chengdu, Sichuan Province.  © Tong Lam

A group of volunteers from a local NGO called I YOU SHE performing for elderly residents in a residential compound in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. © Tong Lam


Uncategorized LARB_JOURNAL_RECEPTION_v2

LARB Launches the Second Issue of the Quarterly Journal

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This Sunday, please join the Los Angeles Review of Books in celebrating the launch of the second issue of the LARB Quarterly Journal. With readings by Geoff Nicholson, Dinah Lenney, Alice Bolin, and Victoria Dailey at the Mandrake in Los Angeles.

The LARB Quarterly Journal is a testament to the fact that print is still thriving as readers continue to have a profound appetite for curated, edited, smart and fun opinion, written by the best writers and thinkers of our time.

We’ve carefully selected these articles, poems, interviews and essays—all written exclusively for this publication—for readers of just about any interest. The new issue of the LARB Quarterly Journal includes:

  • Victoria Dailey tells a true adventure story of how the two most famous escapees from Devil’s Island made it to Los Angeles.
  • Bruce Robbins considers the connection between reading novels and falling in love.
  • Dinah Lenney braves the cultural mores of cell phone behavior.
  • John Rechy juxtaposes fictional characters and real life.
  • Featuring James Welling’s artist portfolio.

Including articles, shorts and original poetry by Geoff Nicholson, Francesca Lia Block, Laila Lalami, Leo Braudy, Alice Bolin, George Prochnik, Jack Pendarvis, Colin Dickey and more.


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The China Blog chinaSmackScreenshot2.22.14

Netizens Unite: A Q&A with chinaSMACK Blog Founder Fauna

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By Alec Ash

Fauna (a web name) is the founder and editor of chinaSMACK, a website that translates popular and trending Chinese digital content and online comment threads into English. It’s been around for over five years, and has hundreds of thousands of monthly visitors. The content is taken from a range of Chinese websites, discussion forums, and social networks, and ranges from serious social stories (Dongguan Anti-Prostitution Campaign) to the downright silly (Girl’s Rabbit Facial Expressions Amuse Chinese Microbloggers). As such, it’s a valuable window into what Chinese Internet users or “netizens” think. Often, what interests them is plain puerile – but that in itself is a useful reminder that most netizens are after distraction more than sedition, and their attitudes can also offer insight into hot button social issues that higher-minded analysis often misses. 

When did you start chinaSMACK? I know you prefer to remain anonymous, but can you say anything more about yourself and why you chose to do this work?

My first post was July 9th, 2008. I had the idea a few months before and a friend helped me choose the name. To begin with, chinaSMACK was a personal project to practice my English. I used the Internet a lot and there were a lot of funny or interesting things on it that I wanted to share with friends, including foreign friends. I used Chinese discussion forums (BBS) for a long time. Now they are not so popular because of Weibo [the microblogging service] and Weixin [the social messaging app], but when I first started chinaSMACK they were very big. You could learn a lot of news and information from other netizens, and the comments were often very funny.

I’m surprised chinaSMACK has become so popular. Along the way, I have met a lot of people and made new friends who share my interests. Many of them have also contributed to chinaSMACK, and I think today chinaSMACK represents the interests of more people than just me.

What have you learned from translating comments from Chinese netizens on news stories? Was there anything about their attitudes that surprised you?

What I usually learn is just new information, but information on the Internet is also unreliable. So I think what is most interesting is just the different reactions from different people, especially if they are unexpected or creative. But after a lot of time, there is nothing very surprising anymore. I am more surprised by the comments and attitudes of chinaSMACK netizens than those on Chinese sites.

What do you think blogs like chinaSMACK can help people understand about China and its society that conventional Western journalism can’t?

I think chinaSMACK can help people see a part of the Chinese Internet as it really is. Normal Western journalism tends to reflect the journalist’s perspective or interpretation of what they see. We want to show more of what Chinese netizens see, including pictures, reports and anything else Chinese netizens are saying – because these all influence what the Chinese netizens think.

For example, if I read a CNN article about something, what I learn will be different from what I learn if I read the comments about that same thing on Reddit. I can understand the same thing in different ways. Should I learn more about America from its news or from its TV shows? Should I learn about America from its journalists or from its netizens? I think that these different ways of learning things will all present a richer and maybe more accurate picture of a country and society. BBS was popular in China because Chinese netizens could learn from each other and not just from CCTV or People’s Daily. It is not always accurate, but it is still part of our life.

Do you think there are preconceived notions or biases about China in the Western media? What are they, and have they changed in the last five years?

Of course, and the same is true in Chinese media also. Media is people and people are this way, so media must be this way. If people are not perfect then media will not be perfect. I do not read or watch Western media very much, so I don’t know if my feelings about notions or biases are accurate. I am afraid that my feelings are too much influenced by Western netizens commenting on chinaSMACK, but I also know that they are not representative of all Western media. If Chinese netizens do not represent Chinese media, how can Western netizens on chinaSMACK represent Western media? Can one CNN or Daily Mail article represent Western media?

The change is that there is more attention about China, both good and bad attention. But if there is more attention, then there will be more information, and people and the media will become more familiar with China. If Western media pays more attention to China, maybe their first reports will have preconceived notions or biases but after more time they will become more accurate and fair. That is my hope. I know Chinese views about the West which are not very accurate, and I think Western views about China are often not very accurate also.

Some of the stories you run are about spoiled youths, the so-called second generation rich (fuerdai) behaving badly, or showing off their wealth. A lot of the netizen comments below are very angry. Is this the general attitude towards them?

Nobody likes arrogant people who show off.

Other netizen comments on stories about Japan or the US are very nationalistic. What’s your impression of the “angry young men” (fenqing) who write them? Are they really die-hard nationalists, or just ordinary young people venting their anger?

Fenqing is also used to describe netizens who criticize the Chinese government. It is just “angry young people”, and there are real people like that. But many are wumao [the “50 cent-ers”, who are allegedly paid to post pro-party comments on news stories]. There are more wumao than foreign netizens think, but less than Chinese netizens think. After reading so many of this type of article and comment, it is easy to know when they are real or fake.

How do you react to the stereotype that young Chinese are materialistic and selfish?

That depends on who has this stereotype and why they think it. Is it a Chinese person? How old are they? Where do they live? Is it a foreigner? What is their background? No matter what, I think it is true that many young Chinese are materialistic and selfish. But there are different kinds of expressions and reasons for this. For example, a materialistic and selfish rich second generation Chinese is different from a middle class Chinese. Their reasons can be very different too. And are young people who are not Chinese less materialistic and selfish?

But do you think that, broadly speaking, young Chinese genuinely care about their society and politics, or only about themselves?

There are idealistic people, there are bored people, and there are indifferent people. I think most people care about their own life most of all, but will say this is bad or this is good when they see the news about a social or political problem. Maybe Western young people are more active in politics because their government provides them with more opportunities to do political things. In China, like any society, I think most young people want their society to become better.

The celebrity blogger Han Han, who is also known for his novels and career as a racecar driver, has said in interviews that just because netizens seem angry about national issues, it doesn’t mean they would actually do anything about it. Do you agree?

Of course, this is common sense. On the Internet especially. It is easy to express an opinion. It is easy to grumble, denounce or judge. But it is difficult to stay angry and really try to change a national issue. What national issue is more important than our personal issues?

Finally, are netizens representative? Do you think that the kind of people who comment on the posts that China Smack translates represent their generation’s opinions?

Chinese netizens and their comments do not represent everything but they do represent something. Most people do not comment, they only read. The comments only represent the commenters (unless they are fake comments). I think the opinions of commenters are often shared by many non-commenters, but there is already a difference between someone who will share their opinion and someone who has an opinion but does not share it. Internet opinion represents and influences public opinion. This is important, but it is not perfect.


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Equatorial Guinea’s Most Important Living Writer Forced Into Hiding

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By David Shook

Juan Tomás Avila Laurel is Equatorial Guinea’s most important living writer, but he’s often been persecuted by his own state for his outspokenness regarding their blatant disregard of human rights. This week that disregard has turned dangerous, as Malabo’s infamous security forces have forced Avila Laurel, 48, into hiding for his work as activist. Avila Laurel had planned a sit-in protesting a recent wave of police brutality, and had requested official permission to stage the event, as required by national law. Soon after being denied the requested permission, Avila Laurel was informed that political party El Elefante y La Palmera [Elephant and Palm Tree], which had made the official request, had been declared dissolved by the Guinean government, and that he was one of several activists targeted for arrest without formal charges. The government crackdown centers on the political party El Elefante y la Palmera [Elephant and Palm Tree], known for its peaceful protests of police and government brutality, and is officially focused on the arrest of party founder Salvador Ebang Ela.

Avila Laurel, whose first book in English is forthcoming from And Other Stories in a superb translation by Jethro Soutar, is no stranger to government harassment. After declaring a hunger strike in February 2011, he eventually sought exile in Spain at the recommendation of national and international observers concerned for his safety, where he lived for two years before having his request for asylum denied. Since his return to Equatorial Guinea, Avila Laurel has been active in organizing peaceful protests of the Obiang regime, especially its police brutality.

Under the leadership of Guinean president Teodoro Obiang Nguema, now the longest-serving head of state in Africa, Equatorial Guinea continues to rank among the most corrupt states in the world. Its human rights record is particularly concerning. The Human Rights Watch World Report for 2013 reports:

Corruption, poverty, and repression continue to plague Equatorial Guinea under President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has been in power since 1979. Vast oil revenues fund lavish lifestyles for the small elite surrounding the president, while most of the population lives in poverty. Those who question this disparity are branded “enemies.” Despite some areas of relative progress, human rights conditions remain very poor. Arbitrary detention and unfair trials continue to take place, mistreatment of detainees remains commonplace, sometimes rising to the level of torture.

Avila Laurel’s extensive work includes novels, short stories, plays, and poetry, like this newly translated poem from his collection Intimate History of Humanity:

Guinea

Panfleto de
Reyes godos
en boca de pelinegros
de seso torcido.

Ni evangelismo
ni patronatos
de indígenas indigentes
de fe y bravía.

Al color rojo lo llaman sangre
porque desconocen
la púrpura de los prebendados.

Bantúes con lengua negra
y con todos los pecados capitales en la punta
de los pies y labios carnosos.
Eso sí, no murió el gran Cristo entre nosotros.
Y playas, ríos, plantas y otras plantas que atraen
el vicio
de ladrones de ilusiones ajenas.
¿Un nombre?
Muchos citan el refrán del río.

Guinea

Satire of
gothic Kings
in the mouth of black-haired men
with twisted brains.

Not evangelism
nor patronage
of the indigent indigenous
of faith and savageness.

To name the color red blood
because they don’t know
the purple of the prebendary.

Bantus with a black tongue
and with every cardinal sin on the tips
of their feet and fleshy lips.
It’s true, the great Christ didn’t die among us.
And beaches, rivers, plants and more plants that attract
the vice
of thieves with foreign illusions.
A name?
Many cite the refrain of the river.

translated from the Spanish by David Shook

Juan Tomás Avila Laurel’s safety is currently at risk; he faces dire conditions if captured by Guinean security forces. The international visibility of his situation is an important protection. Follow his case and learn more about what you can do at the PEN Center USA and EG Justice websites.


The China Blog 36168_JackLondonRussoJapWar_122_200lo

Remembering Jack London’s Oriental War

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By Paul French

“I am disgusted! I’ll never go to a war between Orientals again. The vexations and delay are too great.”

     — Jack London

He’d sailed his broken down sloop Razzle Dazzle as an oyster pirate; he’d crewed the sealing schooner Sophie Sutherland along the coast of Japan; he’d served with Kelly’s Army and tramped the western United States; he’d dropped out of UC Berkeley. He was just 19. He joined the Klondike Gold Rush; he became a socialist; in 1903, at just 27, he published The Call of the Wild and with it gained money and success (10,000 copies flew off the shelves the first week of publication). And then, in early 1904, the San Francisco Examiner asked Jack London if he’d like to go and report on a war between Asia’s rising power, Japan, and Europe’s largest, but crumbling, monarchy, Russia. Though the war was between the armies of Tsar Alexander and the Meiji Emperor, it was to be fought largely on Korean and Chinese soil. London, in the midst of a protracted divorce from a four-year marriage, thought “why not”? He embarked for Yokohama.

London’s time as a war correspondent in Asia has rather slipped from his popular biography. The “big books” (The Call of the Wild, White Fang, The Sea-Wolf, The Iron Heel), his leftist politics, the man’s-man adventurer persona — these are what have come to dominate.  The same goes for the conflagration he covered, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05.  It, too, has rather slipped from history. It shouldn’t have. Indeed it should be front-and-center right now as we commemorate the centenary of World War I and, in some parts of Asia, as a recent post to this blog emphasized, attention is also being paid to the 120th anniversary of the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War.  We need to make room for the big event that fell halfway between the two.  This month marks the 110th anniversary of still another war — one that not only shook the solidity of Western right and might (the first time an Asiatic power defeated a European one) but offered a first taste to the Generals and politicians of Europe and America of what the more globally famous and infamous modern, mechanized wars to come would look like.

The Russo-Japanese War surely made it impossible for anyone to be seriously shocked by these classic elements of World War I: trench warfare stalemates; the deadly impact of modern artillery; aerial warfare (balloons and kites used to drop bombs); the futility of old guard cavalry against new hi-tech machine guns (Maxim Guns, the so-called “Devil’s Paintbrush” cut down swathes of soldiers); and the ferociousness of sea battles involving modern battle cruisers, torpedo boats and submarines (threatened, but never eventually deployed, by the Japanese Imperial Navy who, incidentally, had just taken delivery of their first subs from their suppliers — Electric Boat of America).

The Russo-Japanese War was also a precursor for World War I in terms of press coverage. Photography, newsreels, “embedded” reporters on both sides, wandering freelancers supplying “the wires” and telegraph services to send reports quickly down to Shanghai, east to New York, and west to London. For the first time, a war on the far side of the world was reported to Americans and Europeans with their morning pancakes or kippers.

Of course, for London it was all at first one big adventure. He was one of a group of American journalists who travelled together from San Francisco to Yokohama on the SS Siberia specifically to cover the war. They called themselves the “Vultures,” descending upon the mayhem, chaos and death of the conflict initially with a frathouse-like glee. The fun didn’t last long. London soon got himself in trouble. He hopped from Japan to Korea, where most of the fighting was occurring, and made his way to Pyongyang. His first reports for the Examiner covered the battles raging across the Korean peninsula and were sent scribbled on rice paper.  London had brought a camera and managed to smuggle out photographs from the Japanese front at Chemulpo, a major staging-post for Japanese ground forces in Korea.

The trouble — London was arrested and subjected to hours of rigorous interrogation by the Japanese, who suspected him of being a Russian spy. However, the drinking sessions on the Siberia en route to Japan turned out to be useful. Some of the other “Vultures” were connected. The urbane Richard Harding Davis called on his friend, Lloyd Griscom, the US minister to Japan, who managed to secure London’s release.

Back at large, London used his sailing skills to hire a boat and catch up with the Japanese First Army, by now advancing into Manchuria. Trouble followed him. London managed to get himself arrested again and was forced to enlist Harding Davis’s support to secure his release once more. He got to see the ferocious Battle of the Yalu (a Japanese victory but at the cost of over a thousand dead out of 40,000 combatants), but then, yet again, he got himself arrested by the Japanese, who finally decided enough was enough. Eventually the Japanese released him after the intervention of no less a personage than Teddy Roosevelt in the White House! But that was that —  and he was sent back to America.

London opted for a slightly less exciting life after returning. He bought a thousand-acre ranch in Glen Ellen, Sonoma County. He was now decidedly more anti-war than he had been before his “Vulturing” adventures in Asia. In his 1911 short story, War, he describes the anonymous battle for an unspecified piece of land and chooses not to dwell on the causes, or the righteousness of any cause, other than simply the waste that conflict brings.

Another of the “Vultures” who eventually returned from the Russo-Japanese War was New York Herald correspondent Charles Edward Russell, a muckraker who inspired Upton Sinclair. Russell summed up the effect on witnessing the Russo-Japanese War, the mechanized war that might have warned everyone just how bad the trenches of France and Belgium would be barely a decade later:

“I question much if any of the correspondents that followed the Russo-Japanese War are enthusiastic supporters of the theory that modern war has been humanised…I was in Japan just after the close of the war, and saw some of the remains of Japanese soldiers brought home for burial, an arm or a foot or a cap (being all that could be found after the shell exploded), and there was nothing about these spectacles that appealed much to one’s senses as remarkably humane.”


The China Blog Photo by Fernanda Fraiz

Funny Bones: A Q&A with Jesse Appell About Comedy in China

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Photo by Fernanda Fraiz

By Alec Ash

Jesse Appell is a young American in Beijing who performs comedy in Chinese – both traditional Chinese forms and more Western fare such as stand-up. He studied Chinese comedy as a Fulbright fellow, and now promotes cross-cultural comedy through a project called Laugh Beijing. His parody music video Laowai (foreigner) Style proved a big hit, and his new video, an “economic rap”, is “Mo Money Mo Fazhan” (development). I talked to him about what sets Chinese comedy apart, and the phenomenon of foreigners performing traditional comedy on Chinese TV.

What first got you interested in Chinese comedy?

I came to Beijing in 2010, and did six months of an intensive study abroad program. I had done improvised comedy back in the US, throughout high school and college, and I found the bilingual improv group here. I thought that how Chinese did improv would reveal different things about Chinese culture, so that was the initial impetus. Then I had the chance to come back here last fall on a Fulbright fellowship, which was specifically for me to study comedy in China. That ended a couple of months ago, and now I’m trying to make it as an intercultural comedian and comedy entrepreneur.

So the idea is that comedy can be a form of intercultural exchange?

Yes, definitely. The Fulbright fellowship was a great way to start looking at ways in which comedy could be used as cultural exchange. And it really can. There are certain types of jokes that are really hard to translate – that rely on shared areas of cultural knowledge. Wherever the joke references knowledge specific to one culture – think American Idol winners, or Hot Pockets – those jokes can fall flat. But if the comedian drills a bit deeper, thinks of “reality TV” and “frozen foods” and plans accordingly, most of the things that make those jokes funny will still work in another culture.

Have you found that Chinese and Western audiences find different things funny?

There are differences in terms of the styles that people are used to. One of the reasons why xiangsheng [crosstalk, a traditional form of comic repartee with history going back to the Qing dynasty] is just funnier to Chinese people than it is to Westerners is because Chinese people know the xiangsheng style. In a similar way, Americans would probably find wacky Saturday Night Live sketches funnier than Chinese would. But that doesn’t means it’s a cultural difference, that you can’t “get” those sketches if you’re from a different cultural background – it’s just a matter of being in the culture enough to know what those things are, and to get used to them.

Tell us more about xiangsheng, and why you chose to learn how to do it.

I studied traditional xiangsheng, an art form which has come down over 150 years, master to student. As a result, it has managed to keep some things the way they were done in the Qing dynasty. However there are a lot of things that were funny in the Qing dynasty, but aren’t now – routines about matching new year’s scrolls, lantern riddles, guessing characters, a lot of stuff based off traditional culture. The main difference between xiangsheng and something like stand-up is that xiangsheng is an art form. There’s a very set idea about what counts as doing xiangsheng correctly. Performing the art form well is in some cases important enough that it’s OK if people don’t laugh at the jokes. They’re funny, but not as funny as modern jokes.

But people are pushing the boundaries in live xiangsheng shows, even if you don’t see it on TV. There are live xiangsheng shows that are straight-up for young people, and they don’t include any traditional routines. You hear people talk about tainted milk, about housing prices. All the hot button issues that show up in Chinese comedy shows show up in xiangsheng as well. You can see these pieces at clubs like the Xiha Baofu Pu [a collective of young xiangsheng performers] or De Yun She [established by the most famous Chinese xiangsheng performer, Guo Degang].

What’s your take on foreigners doing xiangsheng on Chinese TV?

A lot of foreigners have studied xiangsheng, and everyone has a different reason for it. Some people are really into the culture, others enjoy performing. Ding Guangquan, my xiangsheng master, is an amazing personality. He’s incredibly knowledgeable about comedy, and is one of those personalities where you meet him once and never forget him. He’s retired, after about 60 years of doing xiangsheng, and he wants to pass it on, to keep it going throughout the generations. He has discovered that there are foreigners who love xiangsheng, which is going to get the art form known in the rest of the world. The first foreigner to gain national prominence for performing xiangsheng was Mark Rowswell, who uses the stage name Dashan. He made his name at the New Year CCTV Gala in December 1988, after which he became a celebrity in China.

The phrase “performing monkey” is sometimes used in this context.

That comes up a lot. Foreigners do legitimate xiangsheng. But the Chinese media, when it comes to booking performances, already know what they’re looking for when they find a performer. So all of the TV shows that find us are already looking for foreigners doing xiangsheng, and we have to adjust to what they want. Plus if Chinese writers write for you, their sense of what a foreigner says and does is not even close. So it winds up looking like dancing monkeys, because it’s written by Chinese people for Chinese people, but the person saying it doesn’t look Chinese.

Chinese people find the phrase “dancing monkey” very funny when that concept is explained to them. Of course foreigners dance and sing on Chinese TV, they say – so do we! Chinese performers wind up doing stranger and more “embarrassing” things than foreigners, so it seems strange that foreigners would hate on each other for doing the same sorts of thing that are generally done on daytime entertainment television. As a foreigner who constantly needs to defend himself against the “performing monkey” stigma, I think it’s important to remember that just like any other form of cultural communication, wires get crossed in parsing the performances of foreigners on TV. Chinese people don’t see foreigners as “losing face” within Chinese culture for doing gimmicky daytime TV shows. That loss of face exists mostly in the mind of the other expats who are seeing the shows.

Tell us about tuokouxiu or “talkshow”, China’s version of stand-up.

Tuokouxiu is starting to get really big. The question is whether it’s ever going to be any good. Right now, there are a lot of people doing it, and there’s a lot of bad tuokouxiu. Most of that is on the internet, and there’s some on television too. There are several cities that have stand-up clubs – Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen. Hong Kong has been doing it for years and is completely different. But it’s starting to get bigger in the mainland. Joe Wong just sold out 800 seats five days in a row in Shanghai.

Whatever the hot button issue is might not make its way on TV, but it will make its way on stage in small clubs and bars. The issue is the platform. In America, the market rules the platform, so if people laugh at it, it will find it’s way onto mainstream media. But what’s on the Chinese mainstream media is never going to look as intense. Then again, subtext and context always informs comedy, and in China half of what makes a joke funny is knowing what you can and can’t get away with on that platform.

Are there some jokes you just can’t get away with making in China?

My big takeaway as a comedian who creates content and performs is that, while there is government censorship and you need to realize what medium you’re going to be performing in, the biggest decision is still: what do Chinese people find funny? Just saying all the words you’re not supposed to say isn’t funny. It’s not that people don’t want to hear jokes about these things, but to call them out directly just isn’t funny to a Chinese audience. People will feel embarrassed and worried. If the jokes on stage get too insensitive, or too dirty, you will see audience members who get nervous and upset. In a small venue, the only censorship comedians face is self-imposed, either by the audience or culturally. But part of what I’ve seen in the Chinese stand-up scene is that they are finding ways to get at the sensitive topics more subtly.

But the material still steps on toes, right?

It definitely does. I think there’s a misconception that China doesn’t have The Daily Show, because the government won’t let it happen. There are already fake news programs on the internet that rib the news. There’s a hugely popular show called Baozou Dashijian [Thug News], where they make jokes about news stories. The hosts wear giant comedy masks – half of that is to be funny, and half of it is probably because they don’t want people to know who they are. They have a huge audience, but it’s cutesy-funny rather than angry-funny, and a lot of the social dialogue is implied and not explicitly stated.

The Chinese approach to sensitive stuff in general is to imply it. You don’t just yell the truth out really loud. Chinese artists who like doing that find more success in the West, because it’s a communication style that we’re used to. We very easily understand the message of Ai Weiwei, but Chinese comedians reach more people in China because they have found a way to do it that is sensitive to the average person on the street, who doesn’t even want to be next to the person who is yelling something uncomfortable. For example, would rib the results of a policy rather than the policy itself. It’s too direct at this point to say that the government has a bad policy and that created pollution. Instead, people make jokes about the pollution, and everyone knows why it’s there.

Is the improvised comedy scene here purely Western, or homegrown too?

There are Chinese scenes, but obviously improvised comedy as an art form comes from the West. It was originally brought here by expats, and then spread to Chinese people. There are bilingual improv groups and several Chinese language only improv troupes in Beijing. So it follows the people who do it. There was a foreigner who did improvised comedy in English in Beijing. Then he moved to Xiamen, and there were no foreigners who wanted to do improv there, but lots of Chinese. So now Xiamen has a Chinese improv troupe.

Of course, part of the interest is that it’s a Western art form. People are eager to Westernize, so to speak – to experience new types of comedy, while doing it in a Chinese way. That’s exactly what’s happening with tuokouxiu. Because xiangsheng has so much history associated with it, that context plays into it when you see a show. But there are people who want to do comedy outside of that context.

Tell us about your new video, “Mo Money Mo Fazhan.”

I came up with the phrase “intercultural comedy” before I even really knew what it meant, so half of my journey has been figuring out what comedy means between the two cultures of China and the West. “Mo Money Mo Fazhan” is an example of that, because it’s meant to be entertaining and funny for foreigners and Chinese alike, but to each in different ways, perhaps. Westerners might get a laugh out of the rap aesthetic – it’s a white guy doing rap in Chinese with a giant 福 (fu – wealth) character over his neck as a Flava Flav reference. That will go over the heads of most Chinese people, but calling Deng Xiaoping my 哥们 (gemen – brother) might get a bigger laugh with them.

Also, Chinese identity is closely tied up with their economic progress – it’s the thing that everyone’s talking about. So the idea of having an economic rap song made way more sense than it should. It’s a totally natural Chinese rap song, when you think about it. My rapper name is Bling Dynasty.

What are your plans for the future?

I’m going to keep making comedy, and I’m hopeful about getting an online platform for an internet comedy show. I’m trying to make better comedy than what exists now, especially where foreigners are concerned, and to really use the comedy to draw out the common humanity that reveals that we all laugh at the same things. I was talking to a Chinese friend the other night, and he said “We’re all human, we’re all idiots.” We all have the same foibles and difficulties – we can talk about them and laugh about them, and not be so solemn all the time.

Alec Ash is a writer and freelance journalist in Beijing.


20 Minutes into the Future Infinity

Technology, Entertainment, Design: SyFy’s Helix

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DESPITE SOME B-grade acting and melodramatic character back stories which do not inspire me to take their emotional depths seriously (i.e. Alan’s (Billy Campbell) childhood and his dull flirtation with Sarah (Jordan Hayes), whose secret cancer seems another tired cliché), SyFy’s Helix continues to fascinate me with its world building. This week we saw some significant changes in alliances and a deepening of the mystery about just exactly what Ilaria Corporation is up to in its arctic research station. New clues to this mystery include the abduction of children, the cryo-preserved head of a missing scientist, and information that suggests Julia (Kyra Zagorsky) was herself the object of Dr. Hatake’s (Hiroyuki Sanada) research when a child. Although Julia’s back-story sounds tediously like a reboot of Olivia’s (Anna Torv) story on Fringe (2008-2013), more promising are the introduction of Intuit police officer Anana (Luciana Carro) and her missing brother Miksa, whose twin just happens to be played by Meegwun Fairbrother, who also plays Daniel, Hatake’s adopted son/feudal vassal. While sinister corporations who treat people as expendable are a familiar theme from cyberpunk fiction and film, and form the basis of a number of cyberpunk digital games such as Deus Ex and Resident Evil, we’ve lacked a good SF television series working in this mode, although James Cameron’s briefly lived Dark Angel (2000-2002) gave it the college try.

Part of what makes Helix work for me are its ancillary texts on their Access Granted website, which provide additional clues and documents that committed fans can review as they try to unravel the show’s mystery. Such multi-media storytelling is nothing new in science fiction, or indeed in television broadly, as stations compete to generate the committed and engaged fan base that made shows such as Lost (2004-2010) and Breaking Bad (2008-2013) such phenomenal successes. It also seems natural for a show like Helix to have such an involved website, for it is designed to appeal equally to science fiction fans and those accustomed to the puzzle solving of digital games, two communities known for their committed engagement with the worlds of chosen texts. So, Helix is very much a text of our age.

Yet as I visited the Helix website, I was struck by a contradiction between its presence as a marketable commodity (television show), the use of the show’s narrative to market other commodities (a Verizon advertisement branding the company as about “powerful solutions” to contemporary challenges), and the show’s narrative, which casts Ilaria Corporation in a sinister light.

Here are some of the intriguing things you can find in the Access Granted documents. First is a calendar for an Ilaria executive named Philip Duchamp. Among his activities are: a “pharma competitive intelligence conference,” an event that raises questions for those thinking about science and social justice as well as the role of pharmaceutical corporations in what Vandana Shiva has called the continued colonial exploitation of biopiracy; second, Duchamp is scheduled to give a TED talk, a genre that promises to help us imagine and build better futures, but whose emphasis on entertainment often substitutes inspiring visions for viable research, as Benjamin Bratton brilliantly skewered last year in the best TED talk I’ve ever heard. One of the things Bratton calls for is “design as immunization,” using imaginative power to prevent certain dystopic futures from materializing. Science fiction has a long history of performing this kind of cultural critique, and the cyberpunk-inflected future Helix channels is widely regarded as a key expression of this more cynical attitude toward the future produced by technological innovation. In Neuromancer (1982), for example, William Gibson describes the dangerous urban Night City as “like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button” (7). Technology displaces people in such futures, and Helix explores this terrain in its new story arcs about missing children, evidence of which is expanded considerably on the Access Granted site that includes a list of some 30 missing children, mainly from the global south, and most with Inuit-sounding names.

In his essay “SF Capital,” Mark Fisher critiques the conflation of narrative, advertising and commodity product in much science fiction, in which the power to imagine the future and to inspire readers to invest in such visions is channeled into the purchase of products that simulate this future and take the place of real social critique and political change. The advertising rhetoric of this sf is much like the futurist rhetoric of TED talks, and the relationship between such visions of the future and corporate market-share is much like the relationship between Star Wars as text and the sale of Hasbro action figures.

These systems collide on the Helix website. To enter the website at all, you first must click through a page noting that Arctic Biosystems is a division of Ilaria Corporation, whose slogan is “stop existing, start living.” One of the ancillary texts you can access on this website is the advertisement above for Ilaria Infinity lenses. The aesthetics of this poster conveys all the promise of the future as entertaining design embodied by TED talks, and Ilaria evokes the usual inflationary rhetoric of living better: “See clearly. See freely. See the world through different eyes.” Yet the larger type on this poster asks, “Do your contact lenses make you feel like you’re dying?” Presumably Ilaria lenses will solve this problem in the usual way of corporate futurism, yet the fine print of the poster suggests instead that this corporatized future is the problem – side effects of seeing the world through Ilaria’s eyes include “feelings of yearning” and, in rare cases, “general disinterest in living.”

Through these supplementary texts then, Helix continues its narrative vision of a critique of corporations that sacrifice people, the same vision we see in Gibson’s sardonic description of Night City, the same vision expressed through more hyperbolic sarcasm in Verhoeven’s Robocop (1987), and the same future we presumably will see in its remake by José Padilha opening this week. Padilha’s Robocop, however, is already inevitably bound up in the economics of contemporary Hollywood that make it half narrative film and half vehicle for product placement and advertising for future action films.

What of Helix’s corporate critique? One of SyFy’s sponsors is Verizon, and as soon as one visits the Helix website a video advertisement launches. In the mode of contemporary infotainment, this short video at first seems to be yet another ancillary text (an Ilaria advert for an antidepressant is remarkably similar in tone). Only gradually does it become clear that this “discover innovation” campaign to solve “the world’s biggest challenges” through “even bigger solutions” is a slogan for Verizon, not Ilaria. Clicking through to Verizon’s website, one discovers a Powerful Answers web series with episodes about the various ways Verizon is working to make a better future of sustainability, public safety, improved healthcare, and access to education. The series shows the work of “innovators” who competed to partner with Verizon to bring their ideas to life, a contest that required these “empowering solutions” to emerge from “Verizon’s unique combination of technologies.” This website, merging science fiction with corporate advertising with the production of material futures that direct the flows of venture capital seems the apotheosis of the process of commodifying the future diagnosed by Fisher more than a decade ago.

Helix is thus a fascinating science fiction text, as much for its context as for its content. Inside and outside blur, as Ilaria and Verizon overlap as antagonist and sponsor. The website lets one preview the first five minutes of the next episode, “Survivor Zero,” which show the arrival of Constance Sutton (Jeri Ryan), CEO of Ilaria Corporation at the research base. Within these five minutes she metamorphoses from a smooth and overtly helpful resource in public, to a violent attack on Hatake’s failures in private. Is her public face a version of Verizon, whose polished futurism hides its complicity in Ilaria-like conspiracy?

Or am I just “reading too much” into science fiction?

¤


Naked Bookseller WillyVlautin

Where in the World is Willy Vlautin?

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By Juliet Suess

Have you heard of Willy Vlautin? If you haven’t yet, and are in the Bay Area this weekend, the Naked Bookseller recommends you stop by Green Apple Books on Saturday.

Mr. Vlautin made a name for himself in the Nineties as frontman of Portland-based Richmond Fontaine. With its clear alt-country bent and lyrics that have sparked critical comparisons to Raymond Carver, it’s no surprise that Vlautin is also a writer.

The FreeLike any literary troubadour worth his salt, Vlautin is visiting San Francisco for what promises to be more than your usual book reading and signing.

“Willy is a great reader and speaker,” Kevin Ryan of Green Apple Books told us, “And as value added, he will be bringing his guitar, and he blends reading and guitar picking in a way that turns a regular old author reading into a transformative event.”

Author of three previous books including Motel Life, his new novel The Free is the number one Indiebound book for February.

“Several of us here have been big fans of Willy’s since his first book, and always look forward to his next one,” Ryan of Green Apple Books said. “He’s gotten outrageously glowing quotes from Ann Patchett and Ursula LeGuin, and it seems that this is poised to be his breakout book.

In addition to his four novels, Vlautin has released has released nine studio albums with Richmond Fontaine.

Green Apple Books was founded in 1967 by Richard Savoy. On his first day of business, he logged $3.42 in receipts. Starting in 1999, three individuals (Kevin Hunsanger, Kevin Ryan, and Pete Mulvihill) started a gradual buyout of the business. It has been voted the best bookstore in the Bay Area perennially by the San Francisco Bay Guardian, The San Francisco Weekly, and others.

Their recommended books this month include: Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, Flappers by Judith Mackrell, and An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine.

How LARB Helps Independent Bookstores

Through our Naked Bookseller Program, we want to collaborate with independent bookstores to tell their stories, and broaden their reach so that fans of a store can support it no matter where they live. Learn more here.


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