BBC interviews Wang Huiyao on Climate ChangeCCG | April 12 , 2021
BBC: Dr. Wang, thank you for making time for us, it’s a great honour. I also understand that you’ve met John Kerry at last year Munich Security Comference. Tell us about meeting Mr. Kerry.
Wang Huiyao: Yes, I think it was great meeting with Secretary Kerry. He was attending a conference at the Munich Security Conference and he came to our roundtable that was organized by CCG at the Munich Security Conference – last year, actually. It was a great meeting and he spoke about climate change and the challenges that are faced by both the US and China and referred to the Paris Accord which was promoted by him and he discussed the signing of the deal with China at the time. Understanding they’re talking about coming to China, we hope he can make the visit and talk more on this collaboration for climate change.
BBC: President Biden has put climate change at the absolute center of his agenda. How important is climate to President Xi?
Wang Huiyao: I think President Xi attaches great importance on that as well. As you probably know, China is a great country with very diversified geography, but also has a lot of challenges to face on climate change. China is one of the fastest developing economy and one of the largest economies in the world. It has a lot of challenges and a lot of work to complete for combating climate change. I think President Xi actually attaches great importance on that and he actually proposed at the UN conference last year that before 2030 China will reach carbon peak and before 2060 China will achieve carbon neutral – and remember the word he said was not “by” but “before” so we could see a strong determination from China. Before President Xi took over, Beijing was plagued by the smoke for many years, but for the last 5-7 years, we have got quite clean air now in Beijing, in winter time particularly. They shut down a lot of thermal plants and a lot of polluting factories around Beijing and now there are a lot of clean-energy vehicles in Beijing. You can see an increasing number of automobiles now have a green plate at the back, which means there are clean energy drive. So I think there’s a lot of determination and action. Combating climate change has also been put into the 14th 5-Year Plan, which shows that China has really set a very high standard. So I think this reflects that Chinese top leadership has attached great importance to climate change for China – also to collaborate with the world.
BBC: We also, at the same time, read many reports of dozens of new coal-fired power plants being proved across the country. Are you concerned – how confident are you that the official plans will actually meet these targets that President Xi has said?
Wang Huiyao: I don’t think there’s a lot, but probably there are still some. The reason for that is that China is still – talking about the carbon peak, there’s still 8 – 9 years to go. More than that, I think China has actually set a very strict standards for clean coal. We see a lot of things happening in China. For example, China is now the largest clean-energy vehicle producer in the world. We also see China now is the largest solar energy and wind power producer in the world and is probably going to be the largest hydra-power producer as well. You can see the development of all those alternative energy has really accelerated and I’m sure that with also the energy saving for the buildings and all those things, the concept of what Chinese government said that green water, green mountains are gold waters and gold mountains is widely accepted by the Chinese society. This kind of thermal drive will be gradually reduced and I think Chinese people realize that. A good example I can give you is Beijing. There are used to be so many thermal plants in the areas around Beijing and now you can see that has been reduced quite a lot. So the understanding of that concept is there and I’m sure with the international consensus, China will accelerate the green economy and green energy and also cut down thermal plants as expected.
The Upcoming Earth Day Summit is a Crucial First Step
BBC: We’re very lucky to be speaking with you, somebody who also advise the Chinese government. Can you help our listeners understand what’s going on behind the scenes in Beijing ahead of this Earth Day Summit in Washington? What kinds of preparations will the Chinese side be making?
Wang Huiyao: I think that, first of all, China has been preparing that all along. I think that President Biden has won this election largely based on his two very prominent proposals. One is to fight the global pandemic which has won him huge popularity in the US compared with the previous administration. The second is he’s a great supporter for climate change. The first agreement he signed when he took office is to return to the Paris Accord of climate change. Actually to support his initiative and also the climate change agreement, Chinese government has made a concrete proposal last November at the UN summit in New York. Basically, President Xi spoke about China is going to reach carbon peak before 2030 and carbon neutral before 2060, outlining concrete objectives. That’s really a huge challenge for China to meet those targets because China is such a huge country, as you also know, largely relied on the thermal plants for its energy supply in the past many decades. So it’s an enormous challenge for China, but I think China has really embrace that challenge. The newly adopted 14th 5-Year Plan has been developed again and again among the delegates of Chinese parliament, CPPCC and also State Council at many levels and one million recommendations and suggestions were received on making the new 5-Year Plan. One of the key areas in the plan is climate change. China wants to build a green economy with more energy saving, being eco-friendlier. So, I think the important thing for governments is to build up consensuses to really orient the society that we need to be more environment-sensitive and that climate change is really one of the key areas that we should pay attention to. Also, the government has very straight plans for that has also set up experiments on some cities and provinces. For example, Sichuan, which is one of the largest provinces in China with 80-million population, has already started the experiment on how they can really cut down carbon emissions, and also try a variety of new energy and different alternatives on energy savings. So, there’s a concrete consensus being built, there’s a concrete plan made into the 14th 5-Year Plan and then there’s also heavy investment putting into the new energy and clean-energy production like clean cars. They have to solve those challenges, for example, one is how they could get a better price for alternative energy and also making more transmission lines so that they can distribute to the coast area where there are great demands. Also, there’s energy saving for buildings. China has half of the world’s tallest buildings and there’s a huge consumption of energy there too. It’s a problem that how we achieve energy saving there. Same question can also be applied to massive urbanization as so many households have been built. Enormous energy savings can be achieved in apartments and townships. So China has realized that and been on the same pace with the international community on climate change.
China and US, as the largest emitters in the world, have to take leadership roles. That kind of consensus is there. I heard that Secretary Kerry plans to visit China and will meet Chinese representatives on Climate Change, Minister Xie. It would be great if they can meet and prepare for this Earth Day Summit at Washington that President Biden is calling for 40 heads of state to attend to. I hope that the US and China can take some leading roles and they can really collaborate and work together.
BBC: What specifically, will Beijing be looking for out of Mr. Biden at this summit?
Wang Huiyao: First of all, we have an agreement there on the climate change – the Paris Accord, to which both China and the US are signing countries. I think, to reach the objective, we should really start to implement the Paris Accord. This Climate Summit could be serving as a very good start of this normal relationship between major superpowers than that can collaborate on climate change. That’s very important, because they can really come together, fighting the common threat for the mankind. In addition to the pandemic, climate change is probably the next biggest challenge we are facing. That’s number one. Number two, I think that they can help build a friendlier and more cooperative atmosphere for the international community to find. If China and the US can put their act together and really play some leading roles, and I think EU is always in support of this, not to mention the Accord was signed in Paris, then it is a really great impetus for the whole world, for other countries to follow along. It is very important that President Biden demonstrated some leading role. I think President Xi has already committed China’s objective at the UN summit. Both leaders also know each other quite well. I hope that they can reach some good consensuses, so they can send a positive signal of this really downward spiral negative sentiment that’s spoiling the relationship between China, the US and many other countries. Big countries can work together on some of the great threats that we are facing. So that’s number two. Number three is that the G20 is coming up and China and the US now are all working as a leading group at the G20 Summit for the climate change. So if China and the US can shape a new agenda for G20, which is going to be held later this year, I hope that we can make some breakthrough. Because with President Biden has really come back in full swing of this climate change initiative, I hope that is really a great achievement that they can have. Finally, if there’s 40 countries attending this summit, as President Biden invited so many heads of state to be there, the consensus that between China and the US is absolutely important. After all those negative years and those geopolitical differences, all the politics going on and also shouting matches across the Pacific or Atlantic. I would really hope that all those countries can really calm down and do some down-to-earth business together. With the new Biden administration coming in charge of the US policy now, hopefully we can push forward some global agenda that is suitable for not only China and the US but for the rest of the world.
Fighting Climate Change Would Be a Great Legacy for the Biden Administration
BBC: American officials are scrambling to put together something to announce, something that is thought around about what their own greenhouse gas reduction targets might be for the end of the decade. What are you looking for out of their announcement to measure whether they’re really taking this seriously or not?
Wang Huiyao: I think that the U.S. should really do something too, for being the second largest carbon emitter in the world. Economically, EU has already proposed some concrete plans. If you combine all EU together, EU is probably the largest economy in the world. If you’re not counting on the country level, if the European commission can really propose something for the European Union to reach some target, for example, by 2050. I hope that being in the same developed country circle with the US, they should probably match that. With the EU and the US have been already well-developed before China, probably several decades before China, it’s time that they put up some concrete objectives and also set good examples for the world as well, especially given that John Kerry, who is so capable and a great advocator for climate change when he was the Secretary of state during the previous many years in the Obama Administration. I really think that if the US can come up with some concrete objectives, that would be really great for setting a great example for the world and would serve as a great stimulus and put up some benchmark for other countries to collaborate as well. Big countries like both the US and China have more responsibility and probably moral duties for climate change, particularly the US, who has built up the global governance system since the World War II. It’s time to push forward. Now with globalization 2.0, global governance, climate change, and pandemic fighting are very key issues and the US can do a great deal with its advanced technology and large policy research community on this subject. So, many things can be done and I hope they do.
BBC: How reliable a partner does you think the United States is on climate? We are less than 4 years away to another Presidential election and the American people could return to someone who doesn’t believe in climate change and we’ve seen what that can do. How hard is it to make long-term commitments on climate with a partner who can flip flop like that?
Wang Huiyao: I think that’s a great question, but I still think that if the US and Biden Administration can take some leadership on that, it probably will be a great legacy. Even if the next US administration was to reverse that, we can see how unpopular that would be and how huge the damage can be done to the US if they do that. When President Trump pulled out of the Paris Accord, it alienated all his allies and the international community and received negative opinions from many international experts and international community as a whole, I suppose. So I think that this is a great time for President Biden to set up good leadership on that, and also to push forward the global agenda for climate change. With a capable envoy, John Kerry, the US can achieve that. President Biden has almost 4 years ahead and he has this commitment for his re-election. In all those areas – climate change, pandemic fighting and infrastructure construction, the US can collaborate with China, because in these three areas, China also has a lot of experience. So I think we probably should come down to those real issues, real substance that are really faced by the whole mankind, the global village, rather than fighting each other on ideological values, development models or human rights issues. Everybody has its own problem. But let’s not focus on each other for those problems. Let’s focus on the global common threats and common challenges. For President Biden, there’s much more he can do to promote his climate change agenda and serve as a great example for upgrading the existing standards, and also leading the whole world to a much higher level of climate change agenda. I’m sure there’s always two step forward, one step backward, but on the whole, the mankind is progressing even with some setbacks and the climate change will force us to push forward. This pandemic is really a great lesson, a punishment to human beings. If we do not respect the nature, if we do not respect climate change, the nature can haunt us and can really punish us. So I don’t think that any government in the future can really stop this mega trend and we really have to go forward on it.
Global Consensus is Vital for Combating Climate Change
BBC: But do you think, given the rising emissions and rising temperatures, we have time for one step backward, two steps forward?
Wang Huiyao: I think that’s why we need international leadership. We need international consensus and international gathering on that. And I think that the US and China, being the leading countries on the G20 for the climate change group should really work together. Also, as we are facing the pandemic and we are facing the climate change threat, there are a lot of areas that are still unregulated. That’s why we need this global community to work together and we need the US and China to work together. Precisely because of that, we need to consult each other, discuss with each other and set up international efforts. China, the US and the EU as well as many other developed countries and developing countries like India, Brazil, Indonesia, are also responsible to come up with new plans as well. It’s a concerted effort for every country. No country is an island or can do it alone. It has to be an international effort. So this is really a great addition, a great momentum for globalization and an upgrade of global governance. We probably need a global green bank or a new global infrastructure investment bank – we could upgrade AIIB to the global infrastructure investment bank.
BBC: You mentioned the kind of outcry internationally and among experts when President Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement. But at the same time, there were cheers from within the Republican party at home. And I don’t want to linger on this, but it just struck me as a very important problem. If the world is going to be hitting the kinds of targets that scientists say we need to hit, this is a crucial decade. And if we could suddenly lose another 4 years. I mean do you think American politics as currently practiced can actually meet the challenge of climate change?
Wang Huiyao: It can’t be said for sure absolutely, I agree with you. And that’s why I think this meeting is important. That’s where I think that we need a global consensus on. But I think in general, we have a global consensus. Particularly among the G20 countries, you have the EU which is sold on this idea. You have Japan, you have Canada, Australia, and all those Western developed economies and also some other countries. In the US, some Republicans maybe not favour that, because there’s always politics going on in the US and I don’t think some multinationals even favour that either. We see that there was a sandstorm in Beijing, China in this winter, and there was wild fire in California last year, we had tsunami and earthquakes, and the pandemic, which is a huge lesson for us. So I think all those will wake up the people. Even for China, it’s really not such a hard sell. 10 years ago Beijing was polluted by smoke, everybody was choking and suffering from that, but people made the determination that we need blue sky and clean air. Then people put their acts together. London in the industrial age has gone through that. As every country has hat same problem, I don’t see why the US is not going to favour that and but insists on the old way. So I’m sure that it may take some time, but eventually the reality will push us all to accept what we should really do.
Decoupling and Rivalry on Clean Technology Would Not Be Wise
BBC: You earlier listed some of the ways that China is leading the green revolution with the scale of its electric, with its vehicle fleet in its solar technology and with its wind technology. How much do you think President Biden’s new domestic agenda, particularly around becoming a leader in these fields actually signals a new round of rivalry with China?
Wang Huiyao: Yeah, that’s something I worry about. The US administration, particularly the Trump Administration, was really doing the technology decoupling. We all know that we need technology. China is such a new technology experiment ground and a test ground. With such large land, China has done pretty well. As you mentioned that China is the largest producer of clean vehicles in the world now, it is not just the largest wind power producer, but also largest solar panel power producer. So on technology, China is probably one of the leading countries as well. The US is also leading and some EU countries as well. I really think all the countries should work together rather than blocking each other, rather than we decouple because we have two or three different systems. Fighting or sanctioning each other would be really silly and bad. So that’s why I see this climate change collaboration and international meeting so important, because it really can get us back to some real challenges rather than doing military exercise far from its own country and into other countries’ neighbourhoods. We should not be poisoned by some negative geopolitical sense, but do some real business together. The multinationals would look forward to that. That’s why President Biden said combating climate change could bring in trillions of dollars of new business. All the companies probably see that green economy is another generation of new technology and new opportunities. China and the US can work together to promote green technology to the rest of the world and work with the rest of the world. Why should we fight on each other on unimportant issues? We should work on the common good and common prosperity for the world instead. After all, we are all living on the same planet, we’re human beings, right? We talk about go to Mars, but let’s firstly build a peaceful global village together.
BBC: I can’t imagine anyone would argue with that. I just wonder though you did agree kind of it seemed with the premise that there is a risk that Biden’s domestic agenda could signal new rivalry with China. Because I mean, surely, as you said, corporations could see trillions potentially in developing these industries, but it’s whether those trillions go to China or go to the United States, whether those jobs go to China or the United States, that seems to be the new potential flash point for rivalry here.
Wang Huiyao: I don’t see it in that way. China is the largest carbon emission country, so China having a bit more relevant technology is probably understandable. It is also because China’s proportion of global population, China has almost 18 % to 20 % of the global population. When the US was taking on more than the UK, the UK accepted that. This is a zero-sum game. I’m sure that the US is still having a lot of advantages and other Western countries, to some extent, have advantages. But I think green technology can benefit everybody. For example, the automobiles, let me give you an example, clean automobiles – Tesla has a plant built in China, and Tesla has almost become the largest company in the world, because the Chinese factory is so profitable and so great in production, even during the pandemic time and also they have this big market. All the European automobiles, Volkswagen, BMW, Mercedes, and Toyota – they all sell more in China than their own countries. So having the technology doesn’t necessarily mean that it is monopolised by China. We are already in the intertwined and interdependent world. I think everybody would have their rightful place, contribution and benefit. The US and China are both promoting it but doesn’t mean who is going to be dominant on it. So we should view this as a win-win situation and this is really a benefit to all of us. If we don’t suffer from climate change, we will all live longer and healthier and our future generations will benefit. I think this is really a great initiative for both countries and for EU and the UK and many other countries, too. So I don’t really see only China benefits or only US benefits, I see this is a blessing for all countries, for all mankind. For example, US produces Boeing airplanes, whereas the UK and Germany produce airbus. China buys a lot of them and China isn’t jealous. The concept of competitive advantage coined by David Ricardo is still there. Everybody does its best but let’s also trade and do business with each other. So I would say, in the future, we can find a way to benefit all of us rather than to decouple with each other, which can be a suicide. I had a dialogue with Graham Allison, just a few days ago. He was saying that the Thucydides’ trap is really dangerous and China and the US are like linked twins, if one is trying to decouple and then the other has to die too. It’s a suicide for anybody wants to decouple. I agree with him. I see this climate change is a common threat. We have to find a common solution. We have to take on this common challenge together and also develop talents together and then we can share fairly. So I really see this as a great chance to turn this negative world sentiment around a little bit, rather than this negative sentiment in a downward spiral that we’ve been seeing.
Combating Climate Change Could Bring Peaceful Corporation and Competition
BBC: John Kerry is trying to separate the climate issue from other bilateral issues. Do you think that’s a good idea?
Wang Huiyao: I think it’s a good idea. With everybody has been geared up and every country has been pulled into this kind of geopolitical conflict or disagreement, we need to probably stop for a moment. Let’s have a break, and have something else to talk about. So that we can reset a bit of the pace and the mind and let’s restart on something positive. If we really get some trust building, momentum gathering with new ideas, new initiatives, and new corporate spirit on climate change, it may reflect on other areas. I think there’s consensus that climate change is probably something that everybody realizes that we have to tackle particularly after this pandemic. So I think it’s high time for major powers to work together and not to fight with each other on the issue. So I think we can have a break on name calling and shouting matches but have something practical, useful and beneficial to discuss and to work on, which will dilute the current opposing atmosphere, breathing some fresh air. Then we give people some new hope that after all, human beings can manage to work together regardless of nationality and cultural differences. So I really think climate change is probably one of the greatest challenges and opportunities that we can work together on in the 21st century. We cannot just let the geopolitical disagreement to destroy us.
BBC: So it sounds like what you’re saying is that cooperation on climate could be the basis for cooperation in other areas?
Wang Huiyao: Yeah, I think that cooperation on climate, if we can do it well, can maybe turn around a bit of this negative sentiment and can really serve as a good example that we can work together and have some international consensus. I think these visits, exchanges, dialogues and consultations on climate change, international market, global governance building, United Nations are somewhere to start. We haven’t seen each other for almost over a year now and we haven’t talked about any serious issue on cooperation. So this is probably the first time we can reach that button and reboot the system. And let’s work together, maybe there will be some trust building and will cultivate some good views and then can work there and avoid this negative dangerous geopolitical sentiment which was getting out of control. I really hope that we can be realistic, pragmatic and really think about the future of the mankind in our agenda.
BBC: You’re talking about a reset here, just for people who don’t follow the US-China relationship, how bad had things gone?
Wang Huiyao: I think basically during the last three and a half, or four years of President Trump, they’ve been putting China as a major strategic competitor or rival. But I think to see the relationship as rivalry is probably wrong. Because, China, after all, not only develops on its own but has also embraced globalization – China has conducted trade investment and has worked with the rest of the world. If China can live to 800 million people out of poverty and can become a large trading nation with 130 countries and can contribute over 1/3 of global GDP growth and contribute to the global prosperity, why some countries, particularly the US, is picking on China so much? I really don’t think there is much ground for that, because if China is prosperous, it’s serving the needs of the global community. I remember once I was at a meeting and a former head of one country in Eastern Europe said that China wasn’t becoming another Iran or another Syria or Libya – China doesn’t export famine or refugees. You just imagine if China is crumbling or China is suffering from poor economic development, Chinese refugees and immigrants could flood the world and make every country in trouble. China is taking care of itself very well and is avoiding the gap between rich and poor. China is really solving its social problem and that’s the biggest human rights development probably in the world but some countries didn’t see that. Whereas in the Western country, particularly the US, the wealth of the 1 % almost equals to the 50 % of that of the mass population of the general public. De-globalization and populism are really the problem while China very often becomes the scapegoat. We really should focus on our own domestic issues, solving its domestic challenges, inefficiency, redundancy and a lot of arguments back and forth. China is working on one 5-year plan after another 5-year plan, reaching one target after another target, China is managing its KPI very well. If all the countries have an Olympic, China probably is already in the top three or five. Let’s have peaceful competition but China is still getting a lot of blame for doing things right. That’s really the problem that US has on China. China may have a different system and different cultures and values. China favours collectivism, but that’s why we fight this pandemic really well as people are willing to sacrifice, whereas in some Western countries like the US, they insist on individualism – everybody cannot be locked down, everybody has to move freely but finally you have to pay for that.
Let’s have a peaceful cooperation and competition. We can’ say you have to converge with me or you have to be exactly like me, otherwise you are evil. We have to be more tolerant and see the practical results. Just like Deng Xiaoping said, it doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice. We have come to a time that is not the end of history like Fukuyama said. We probably should see how different system work and we may have to work a bit more. I see now everybody is emphasising the government’s role now, even the Biden Administration have a big government expenditure proposed. So maybe having more government coordination and intervention is needed in the 21st century in fighting the pandemic or climate change. So many concepts have to be changed rather than seeing what has happened in China with the old lens.
BBC: It sounds like you’re saying that as the United States is trying to reclaim its leadership position, China is already kind of, de facto, already there. It’s already making the things that could bring down carbon emissions. It already has some of the policies that can bring down carbon emissions that China really is the leader.
Wang Huiyao: Well, I’m not saying that Chinese is the leader. China always said that China doesn’t want to seek leadership from the world doesn’t want to replace the US. China just wants to have its own peaceful development and each country should really focus on their domestic challenges. For example, the US has its challenges – the Black Lives movement and racial discrimination, and also the gap between rich and poor. There’s a lot of domestic challenges for the US to tackle. China has its own challenge, too. I’m just thinking we should not pick the problem of each other, but focus on our own while fighting on the common threats like climate change and other things. That’s what I was really proposing.
The Outcome of the Earth Day Summit is Likely to be Positive
BBC: Good, what’s the best-case scenario coming out of this Earth Day Summit in Washington?
Wang Huiyao: I think they can have some consensuses building up but I’m not really giving a too big expectation because after all, the leaders haven’t really met before through this kind of high-level meetings on climate change. But first, they have to build up a consensus on this common threat. Second, if they can really pave the way for the G20 to adopt something, it’ll be really great. And then, as you said, if the US can come up with some concrete target, it would set a great example for the rest of the world and will also mobilize the US society and push a lot of investment and company development into relevant areas. So, I think there’s a lot of things can be done, and this will be a great achievement if they can start well on the consensus building.
BBC: That’s the best-case scenario. You can probably imagine what the next question is, what’s the worst-case scenario coming out of the summit?
Wang Huiyao: I don’t see how worst it can be, because if China can go there too, I’m sure President Xi will elaborate what he said at the UN Summit last November. China has already set a huge target and probably can introduce a bit more on the 14th 5-year plan, which have set certain new concrete measures. And as this is not a discussion on a binding international treaty, each country just compares notes, states its position, how it has been doing and what can be done together. I see it as a consultation and consensus building. I don’t see it as a negotiation – they’re not going to sign another Paris Accord. There’s a big hurdle to jump as this is really a mobilization for the world. The Biden administration has already injected over 100 million people, maybe half of that population. So, he has already moving a wheel on that front of pandemic fighting. Now the next biggest front that he has promised in his campaign is climate change. He really demonstrates his leadership by saying that America is back. Now, let’s back on climate change. So, I think if this can be held, if all the 40 heads of state and can really agree that climate change is a big threat, if China and the US can agree on it, it is already quite successful I don’t see how bad it can.
But there is one thing that I really have to be cautious though. Let’s talk about climate change, let’s not use this occasion to do politics or picking on other issues like each other’s domestic development or human rights. Every country has its own human rights issues, but let’s focus on climate change. That really depends. I don’t want to see another Alaska meeting that countries criticizing each other. Let’s really hope countries can just compare notes on this subject to see how we have been doing, how we can do better and what we can do in the future. That would be really great, and I really hope it will be really a great meeting.
BBC: Great. Dr. Wang, it’s just so valuable for us to get a hold of you from Beijing, particularly from one who is able to advise the government. It’s very helpful. Thank you.
Wang Huiyao: Yeah, I think if you broadcast this episode, I’m giving all my advice, not only to the Chinese government, but also to the international community and the US government as well. I think this could be a great meeting. Let’s focus on climate change, and that’s compare notes and compare progress. Let’s put out new objectives and consensus. Let’s focus on G20. Let’s build up trust and hope for the future that we can work together.
BBC: Excellent. Dr. Wang, thank you. And I’m sure we’ll talk again and I hope we can. Much obliged.
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