by Laurel Stewart
edited by Yuzhou Yan
In 2008 Cui Zi’en, Chinese queer activist, director and screenwriter, produced the documentary Zhi tongzhi, 誌同志. The programme, which has been translated into English as Queer China, ‘Comrade’ China, consists of interviews of thirty prominent activists within the Chinese queer community. They discuss the changes to views about homosexuality and the development of the Chinese gay community in reference to Chinese culture and history. In doing so, they identify the existence of the tongzhi ‘queer’ community in China and highlight how this queer identity has been forged to create new positive and safe spaces for Chinese LGBTQ+ individuals.
Since the 1990s, the term tongzhi has gained currency in Sinophone communities to refer to Chinese queer identities. Previously promoted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the term had meant ‘comrade’ but has since undergone a transformation of meaning, opening up new spaces for people identifying with non-normative sexual identities in China. In its post-socialist period, China underwent tremendous social and economic change that simultaneously gave freedom and created restrictions for queer people. At the same time, western queer theory gained momentum in China, creating opportunity for queer discourses, while also removing the ‘Chineseness’ of queer identities. In response to these changes, Chinese queer communities appropriated the term tongzhi to refer to an indigenous same-sex identity distinct from global gay identities.[i] This paper will examine this linguistic shift and situate tongzhi’s new meaning in the context of China’s transnational and neoliberal present while recognizing its cultural continuity in the shadow of China’s socialist past.
My examination of ‘tongzhi’ will encompass the Sinophone tongzhi community ¾ namely those in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China. The integration and influence of different cultural phenomena within Sinophone geographic parameters prove significant in the emergence of queer discourses. It is important to acknowledge the relative independence of the three regions, but also the influence they have on each other in terms of discourses about feminist movements, queer studies, and human rights.[ii] Furthermore, the Chinese language “helps forge a fluid, deterritorialised, pan-Chinese identity among Chinese speakers across national boundaries”[iii] that provides fertile ground for new ideas to emerge.
This paper will first trace the emergence of tongzhi as a word to create a collective identity of shared political aspirations in China’s Republican era (1912-1949) and its subsequent adoption as ‘comrade’ by the CCP. I will then explain how tongzhi disappeared in the post-1976 reform era and then re-emerged in a transformed queered space. I will then discuss how the present meaning of tongzhi both maintained its socialist legacies and adopted external activist influences to create a distinctly Chinese queer identity. I will argue that individuals who identify themselves as tongzhi evade categorization, yet there exist subcultures within the tongzhi community: apolitical and activist subjectivities. Through a discussion of Chinese queer Marxism, I will argue that apolitical and activist individuals coexist and that the Sinophone tongzhi community cannot and does not attempt to be defined or delineated in a single way. It is important to acknowledge the polysemic nature of words such as ‘tongzhi’ and ‘activism’; however, for the purposes of this paper, I refer to ‘activism’ in the context of tongzhi publication of literature, essays, texts, production of art, film and online media that draw attention to and discuss issues of tongzhi subjectivities. In doing so, I will examine how different tongzhi identities emerge through different media representations and activist spaces to create a multifaceted tongzhi community.
GENEALOGY OF TONGZHI
The term tongzhi 同志 was originally constructed in the Republican era to represent an identity that shares egalitarian and revolutionary principles. The two characters have individual meanings on their own: tong 同 means ‘same’ or ‘common’ and zhi 志 means ‘ideal’ or ‘aspiration’. These words can be used separately in different contexts in the Chinese language and have historically been placed together to form sentences such as “we have the same aspiration.”[iv] Placed together this way, both characters retain individual meanings rather than a singular, joint meaning. The first record of compounding the two characters was in 1911. A group of nationalists were protesting against handing over a railway project to westerners, and they described their political opposition to imperialism through this term.[v] Their joint political agenda created a shared identity which was articulated by bringing tong and zhi together to form the term tongzhi, thus an identity of ‘common aspiration’. In this way, the term tongzhi became more commonly used to refer to people of the same political sentiment and revolutionary struggle.
The most popular early usage of the term tongzhi comes from Sun Yat Sen, who in 1925 described all people who shared the same revolutionary ideals as tongzhi, thus reinforcing a shared political identity. His declaration, “geming shangwei chenggong, tongzhi rengxu nuli (the revolution has not yet succeeded; comrades must continue fighting),”[vi] officially uses the term tongzhi to construct a shared political, egalitarian, anti-feudal, intrinsically Chinese identity. This construction was then adopted by the CCP and consequently became a term of address. In this context, tongzhi is translated as ‘comrade’. For example, Wang tongzhi (Comrade Wang) replaced hierarchical terms such as Wang daren (Master Wang), Wang xiansheng (Mr Wang) or Wang xiaojie (Miss Wang). The use of tongzhi had a levelling effect that disregarded family background, class and education. Bao Hongwei notes that the reciprocal use of the term between colleagues, friends and strangers “signified solidarity, equality, respect and intimacy and established an ideal of egalitarianism.”[vii] In this way, tongzhi became a linguistic vehicle for a radical identity that would mobilise a revolutionary cause and stand in opposition to individualism and self-interest. The ability for this tongzhi identity to overturn normative subjectivities in China’s socialist era is significant in its later adoption by queer activists, as the term provides a space for counter-public and radical subjectivity.
In the post-Mao reform era, the original political and revolutionist connotations of tongzhi rendered the term unpopular. It began to be used for strangers whose occupations were unknown or carried no title, and the use of titles such as xiaojie (miss), xiansheng (mr) and laoshi (teacher) to address acquaintances also returned to the social lexicon.[viii] The reform era can be characterised by Deng Xiaoping’s loosening of state control over the private sphere and introduction of economic reforms. This more relaxed atmosphere allowed for a growth in the number of people identifying themselves as homosexuals (tongxinglian) and the opening up of spaces such as bathhouses, bars, public toilets and then online chat rooms for these people to congregate.[ix] However, the term tongxinglian, which can be translated to mean ‘same-sex love’, was stigmatised as it had emerged when western ideas of homosexuality entered China in the early twentieth century. The introduction of western sexology to China meant that ‘homosexuality’ as an identity was translated into Chinese as tongxinglian, which acted to pathologise same-sex desire.[x] The term tongxinglian consequently developed negative connotations and was not a term with which people wanted to identify themselves. Thus, in the post-socialist era, there emerged a need to construct an indigenous Chinese queer identity that allowed for both the respectful self-identification of homosexuals and the creation of a space to counter hegemonic western etymology. At this juncture, the term tongzhi was appropriated and redefined to represent a Chinese queer identity.
The first time tongzhi was ‘queered’ to articulate homosexual identity was at the 1989 First Hong Kong Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.[xi] The organiser’s use of tongzhi in the title’s translation of ‘Gay and Lesbian’ was an active effort to move away from constructs of western identity “that failed to capture the essence of Chinese sexual minorities.”[xii] They believed that the term was appropriate for the Chinese queer community because it not only pointed to an indigenous Chineseness, but also tied together the shared experience of revolutionists and sexual minorities as “marginalized groups living under oppression.”[xiii] Furthermore, the tongzhi identity actively counters the emergence of a ‘global gay identity’ which had been criticized by activists in the Sinophone region as depriving Chinese sexual minorities of a language to talk about their individual experiences.[xiv] The concept of a ‘global gay identity’ aimed to contest sexual rather than gender norms, emphasize the normalisation of sexual identity, and create a sense of community based on sexuality. However, this idea consequently universalized Chinese culture and experience. In this way, despite cultural differences, queer people in China are assumed to experience queer spaces and subjectivities in the same way as those in the west.[xv] The tongzhi subjectivity subverts this universalization of queer experience by creating an identity that stems from Chinese history and culture and therefore incorporates a ‘Chineseness’ that values local uniqueness. In this manner, the incipient tongzhi community called upon sexual minorities to uphold respect for themselves and join the common goal of fighting for equality and recognition in a heterosexist society.
While Liu and Chen acknowledge the positive connotations of the appropriated term – namely respect, equality and intimacy – they also suggest that it was difficult for people to use as a tool of self-identity. Some people preferred to use ‘ellipses’ where same-sex desire is not specified explicitly, or circumlocutions such as ‘people like me’ to explicate their sexuality.[xvi] Liu and Chen draw our attention to the fact that although the term tongzhi opened up a space for queer identities, not everyone knew about it or adopted it for themselves. Similarly, its adoption in queer circles also differed between Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China, contributing to its varied and multi-faceted nature.
Despite evidence of some reticence in adopting tongzhi as an identity, its acceptance and adoption has been emphasized by queer activists in both Hong Kong and the mainland as a means to destigmatize homosexuality. In December 2000, Hunan satellite TV broadcast a show that specified that the use of tongzhi should be adopted as a way for positive self-identification within Chinese queer communities, to be used “with dignity and pride.”[xvii] Not only did this allow homosexuals in China to identify their sexuality in a humane way, but it also created a space for collective solidarity through a specifically Chinese identity. This use of television media to propagate tongzhi motivations intersects with the rise of the internet and other tongzhi print cultures. Andrew Wong equates the tongzhi community to an ‘imagined community’ through these media possibilities. An imagined community is usually used to define the unifying force of nationhood, where a community is constructed in the minds of its members through shared access to media representation. According to Wong, the ‘imagined community’ created through media representations of tongzhi subjectivities is formed through a distinct linguistic style that acts to delineate the boundaries of the community.[xviii] Wong’s analysis of the Taiwanese G&L Magazine, a gay and lesbian magazine, highlights the editor’s role in curating a space for queer political activism through their reference to tongzhi identity within the magazine. The creation of a tongzhi ‘imagined community’ through print culture allows people otherwise unrelated and unknown to each other to enter a space of collective solidarity that is comparable to a transnational experience of national unity.
We have seen how the term tongzhi was re-articulated in Hong Kong and how tongzhi communities emerged through print culture in Taiwan. It is significant to examine how these Sinophone communities outside mainland China acted as an extended Chinese community that proved fertile ground for these discourses to emerge and mobilise tongzhi activism. The 1996 Tongzhi Conference held in Hong Kong brought together queer activists from different parts of the Sinophone world to formulate a “tongzhi movement strategy,”[xix] which incorporated different experiences of sexual minorities across the Sinophone community while emphasizing “a strong postcolonial and decolonial political stance.”[xx] In this way, the tongzhi community can be seen as a transnational activist community that maintains many revolutionist and egalitarian principles of China’s socialist past.
TONGZHI’S SOCIALIST LEGACY
The post-socialist tongzhi identity draws on China’s socialist past to express a non-normative sexual subjectivity that is specifically Chinese. Bao argues that the ‘queered’ tongzhi subjectivity is inextricable from its socialist legacy. The post-socialist adoption of the term tongzhi for homosexual identities engages with the prior socialist legacy of its meaning rooted in collective association with grassroots activism, egalitarian ideals, and revolutionary goals. As Bao distinctly notes, it is impossible to dissociate China’s socialist legacy from the queer present because “if queer represents a disruption of normative gender, sexuality and social and political norms, the ‘comrade’ subjectivity is undoubtedly queer.”[xxi] This highlights the continuity between socialist ideals and the motivations of the queer community. Bao’s articulation of the post-socialist tongzhi identity places emphasis on the fact that both ‘comrade’ and ‘queer’ subjectivities co-exist through today’s tongzhi identity. He argues that both subjectivities in fact “work together to structure queer subject formation and queer politics.”[xxii] Where the ‘comrade’ subjectivity is mostly hidden from sight, it emerges through grassroots activism and the materialization of the ‘queer’ subjectivity’s radical political potential. In this way, the use of the term tongzhi “creatively reworks old symbols and makes them meaningful for a community under construction,”[xxiii] and highlights the distinct Chineseness of the identity.
Bao’s analysis of the emergence of a ‘queer’ tongzhi suggests that it stems solely from China’s socialist past. In contrast, Wong suggests that the modern tongzhi identity is built upon multiple aspects of Chinese history, not just its socialist past. He argues that tongzhi was constructed through the adoption of gay and lesbian cultures in the west, the feminist movement, Chinese revolutionist discourses, and the Chinese kinship system to create a distinct space and language of its own.[xxiv] For example, tongzhi communities use untranslated western terms such as ‘gay movement’ and ‘gay rights’ in tongzhi discourses to invoke their indigenous contextual meanings. Similarly, the translation of western queer notions of ‘coming out’ can be useful to tongzhi activists in challenging the traditional Chinese kinship structure. To ‘come out’ usually appears translated into Chinese as chugui (out of the closet) or xianshen (to appear).[xxv] The Chinese kinship structure describes marriage as “the bonding of two lineage groups, not the romantic union of two individuals.”[xxvi] Translating and adopting this specifically western notion of ‘coming out’ provides Chinese sexual minorities with the means to express changes to sexual and gender status.
The tongzhi community has also adopted language and ideas from the women’s movement in 1970s and 1980s Taiwan.[xxvii] These women’s writings act to challenge the traditional Chinese gender order and undermine the deeply entrenched Confucian ideals of marriage through print culture such as a monthly magazine called Fu nv hsin chih – ‘Awakening’ – that aimed to bring light to women’s issues and change legislation concerning women. After the lifting of martial law in Taiwan in 1987, the women’s movement gained traction and legitimacy and has been a source of activist inspiration for the Chinese tongzhi community.[xxviii] The tongzhi adoption of specific linguistic resources from Taiwanese feminist discourses has been instrumental in the building of the tongzhi community. An example is the adoption of gendered second person pronouns, which differentiate gender through either a female radical or a generic one. For example, it is common to differentiate gender (he or she) in third person, but in second person (you) gender is usually left ambiguous.[xxix] In 1970s Taiwan, feminist writers began to emphasize the importance of gender equality by using the female radical（女）in second person ‘you’. This is best portrayed through this example published in G&L Magazine, which shows the unusual use of the female second person ‘you’:
So, even if a friend of yours came out to you (fem.)/you (masc.), you (fem.)/you (masc.) should not reveal her/his identity to everybody, and do not think that s/he has come out to her/his family and friends.[xxx]
This kind of gender differentiation, originally used by Taiwanese feminists, is now seen in tongzhi publications. This shows the influence of the women’s movement on tongzhi activists through print culture. We therefore see a convergence of feminism and tongzhi activism and also see how these different forms of activism influenced tongzhi motivations outside of their socialist roots. In this way, although the tongzhi identity is built from its socialist past, its discourses also incorporate many different egalitarian, activist, and transnational principles to create a distinct and fundamentally Chinese identity.
INTERSECTION OF TONGZHI AND QUEER MARXISM
The specifically Chinese politicization of queer identity through tongzhi discourses in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China carries through activist ideals from the socialist era and creates a new identity separate from western queer identities. Liu labels the local specificity of tongzhi “homosexuality with Chinese characteristics,”[xxxi] which effectively creates a linguistic and imagined alternative to Euro-American queer theory. Liu argues that the unique Chineseness of this identity should be understood alongside Chinese queer Marxism, which acknowledges the relationship between geopolitics and sexuality. Queer Marxists aim to question what kinds of historical processes empower individuals of certain sexualities and how tolerance and questioning of appropriate desire are brought about, rather than asking for a society to accept or tolerate non-normative sexualities.[xxxii] This should be discussed alongside tongzhi discourses that often act to normalize non-normative sexualities.
The queer Marxist approach acknowledges and underscores the problems demanding mainstream inclusion of queer people by dissociating homosexuality from “culturally undesirable practices and experiences such as AIDS, promiscuity, drag, prostitution and drug use.”[xxxiii] The conformity of queer groups to heteronormative structures and ‘acceptable’ social behaviour acts to further disempower and stigmatize people who do fit into these categories of undesirable subjectivities. For example, the rise of homonormativity has placed men such as ‘money boys’, who engage in transactional male sex, at the centre of debates about “licit and illicit, proper and improper desires.”[xxxiv] The frequent stigmatization of ‘money boys’ from within Chinese queer communities highlights the intersectionality of economic and class structures in orienting tongzhi identities in a neoliberal China. Liu’s analysis of queer Marxism raises questions as to how the tongzhi community acts to normalize or subvert queer identities in China. Through an understanding of how tongzhi subjectivities become entangled within neoliberal economics and transnational interactions, we see the dependence of normative reproductions of society on queer marginalization. This points to the possibilities for tongzhi to refer to their socialist roots and use Marxist ideologies to prevent the further disempowerment of subjects within the tongzhi community.
The question we are left with is how tongzhi subjectivities use a queer Marxist approach in practice. The comparison of Chinese tongzhi activists to “nomadic subjects”[xxxv] is an example of how grassroots activism can effectively avoid the state. These ‘nomads’ constantly shift and adapt to their surroundings and grapple with changing perceptions of what constitutes acceptable politicized desire. Lisa Rofel suggests that this flexibility and constant shifting comes through the ability to ‘read’ the government and anticipate crackdowns on what is considered ‘devious’. Through this, they can “maneuver within and around the various powers that shape subjectivities, socialities, political beliefs and economic inequality in China.”[xxxvi] This kind of tongzhi activism intersects with queer Marxist ideology because it undermines the state control without attempting to normalize tongzhi identities within Chinese culture. This action may be influenced by figures such as tongzhi film director Cui Zi’en, whose films constantly fill these ‘nomadic’ spaces with a queer Chinese nature that can never be defined.
Cui Zi’en’s cinematography is an example of visual tongzhi activism that aims to dispel homonormative ideals from within the tongzhi community. Rofel provides a comprehensive analysis of Cui’s film, Feeding Boys, where she points to Cui’s questioning of how non-normative sexualities can fit into homonormative spaces. The experimental depiction of money boys in Feeding Boys merely portrays the mundanity of life which “challenge not only specific judgements about money boys among gay men but the entire apparatus of normalization in China that tries to delimit desire.”[xxxvii] Cui does not depict money boys having sex, but rather depicts heteronormative or religious relationships as damaged, perverse, or boring. He actively directs the audience’s gaze away from what might be considered perverse and further subverts normative desire by “making the normal perverse and the perverse normal.”[xxxviii] In this way, Cui’s queer cinema does not aim to normalize non-normative sexualities, but rather asks the audience to reconsider their perceptions of post-socialist desires. By exiting the homonormative realm, Cui’s cinema “queers both the heteronormative as well as the ‘gay’,”[xxxix] thus exemplifying a Marxist approach to tongzhi activism. His visual art is effective in creating a space for non-normative Chinese sexualities to exist as autonomous individuals that are empowered by both their sexual and national subjectivities. Cui provides a small but significant insight into how tongzhi activism is both rooted in and dependent on its specifically Chinese socialist past.
The modern ‘queering’ of tongzhi in Sinophone spaces creates a community of Chinese speaking people of non-normative sexual identities, brought together through their ‘common aspiration’. We have seen, however, that within the tongzhi community, there are those who attempt to normalize non-normative sexualities, and then there are tongzhi ‘activists’ who do the opposite. I argue that the former group fits within the modern, neoliberal ideals of ‘appropriate’ desire and attempts to find their space as tongzhi by conforming to normative economic, gender, and power structures. The latter group, whom I term tongzhi activists, can be seen to adopt Chinese queer Marxist theory and acknowledge the socialist legacy of the meaning of tongzhi. They do not act to conform to normative ideals of desire, nor do they attempt to gain social acceptance. Instead, they adopt ‘nomadic’ techniques of existence that constantly undermine state means of control. Diversity within the tongzhi community makes it difficult to delineate – indeed, it seems antithetical to attempt to do so. What we can discern, however, is the fact that the fundamentally Chinese nature of tongzhi opens up a space for non-normative sexualities to gain autonomy, community and visibility in China and internationally.
In an interview with Cui Zi’en about his queer cinematography, he explained that the creation of tongzhi as an identity to be expounded through his films is an effective way to share Chinese queer subjectivity to transnational audiences. When he first started directing, he had thought that “people in the west had already ‘seen the light’ and did not need more.”[xl] However, his films have been able to promote the Chinese tongzhi experience to the rest of the world in meaningful ways. Rather than China being the passive recipient of western queer theory, there is now a multinational discourse that brings to light the complexities and nuances of different sexual subjectivities and experiences around the world.
Laurel Stewart is in her last year at McGill University, studying History and East Asian Studies. Having focused on Chinese history and politics, she is particularly interested in contemporary issues of minority identities in China.
[i] Tiantian Zheng, Tongzhi Living: Men Attracted to Men in Postsocialist China (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 4.
[ii] Howard Chiang, After Eunuchs: Science, Medicine, and the Transformation of Sex in Modern China (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), 285.
[iii] Zoron Lee Pecic, New Queer Sinophone Cinema: Local Histories, Transnational Connections (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 3.
[iv] Hongwei Bao, Queer Comrades: Gay Identity and Tongzhi Activism in Postsocialist China (Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2018), 69.
[v] Bao, Queer Comrades, 69.
[vi] Bao, Queer Comrades, 70.
[vii] Bao, Queer Comrades, 71.
[viii] Yonghou Liu and Xiaomin Chen, “The Semantic Changes of Tongzhi and Shifu,” International Journal of Language and Linguistics 2, no. 4 (2015): 75-76.
[ix] Zheng, Tongzhi Living, 6.
[x] Deborah Sang, Translating Homosexuality: The Discourse of Tongxing’ai in Republican China (1912-1949) (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), 283.
[xi] Wong, “The Linguistic Construction of the Tongzhi Community,” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 10, no. 2: 251.
[xii] Liu and Chen, The Semantic Changes of Tongzhi, 76.
[xiii] Liu and Chen, The Semantic Changes of Tongzhi, 76.
[xiv] Wong, “The Linguistic Construction of the Tongzhi Community,” 251.
[xv] Wong, “The Linguistic Construction,” 252.
[xvi] Liu and Chen, The Semantic Changes of Tongzhi, 76.
[xvii] Bao, Queer Comrades, 78.
[xviii] Wong, “The Linguistic Construction,” 249.
[xix] Bao, Queer Comrades, 76.
[xx] Bao, Queer Comrades, 76.
[xxi] Bao, Queer Comrades, 72.
[xxii] Bao, Queer Comrades, 91.
[xxiii] Wong, “The Linguistic Construction,” 261.
[xxiv] Wong, “The Linguistic Construction,” 252.
[xxv] Wong, “The Linguistic Construction,” 255.
[xxvi] Wong, “The Linguistic Construction,” 255.
[xxvii] Wong, “The Linguistic Construction,” 258.
[xxviii] Wong, “The Linguistic Construction,” 258.
[xxix] Wong, “The Linguistic Construction,” 259.
[xxx] Wong, “The Linguistic Construction,” 260.
[xxxi] Petrus Liu, Queer Marxism in Two Chinas (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 4.
[xxxii] Liu, Queer Marxism in Two Chinas, 44.
[xxxiii] Liu, Queer Marxism in Two Chinas, 31.
[xxxiv] Liu, Queer Marxism in Two Chinas, 2.
[xxxv] Lisa Rofel, “The Traffic in Money Boys,” Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 18, no. 2 (2010): 429.
[xxxvi] Lisa Rofel, “Grassroots activism: Non-normative sexual politics in post-socialist China,” in Unequal China: The Political Economy and Cultural Politics of Inequality, ed. Wanning Sun and Yingjie Guo (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013), 158.
[xxxvii] Rofel, “Grassroots activism,” 158.
[xxxviii] Rofel, “The Traffic in Money Boys,” 443.
[xxxix] Zoron Lee Pecic, New Queer Sinophone Cinema: Local Histories, Transnational Connections (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 2.
[xl] Cui Zi’en and Petrus Liu, “The Communist International of Queer Film,” Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 18, no. 2 (2010): 423.
Bao, Hongwei. Queer Comrades: Gay Identity and Tongzhi activism in Postsocialist China. Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2018.
Chiang, Howard. After Eunuchs: Science, Medicine, and the Transformation of Sex in Modern China. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.
Cui, Zi’en and Petrus Liu. “The Communist International of Queer Film.” Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 18, no. 2 (2010): 417-423.
Liu, Petrus. Queer Marxism in Two Chinas. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.
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Sang, Deborah. Translating Homosexuality: The Discourse of Tongxing’ai in Republican China (1912-1949). Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.
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