Study on the growth and spatial distribution of the human population in Mainland China from the 1970s to present

Submitted on March 31, 2015 as an essay for a geography course at HKU.

1. Introduction

This essay aims at exploring the growth and spatial distribution of the human population in Mainland China from the time period of 1970 to the present. This time period is worthy of exploration as it records how demography in Mainland China has changed following the birth control and the reform and opening up policies, which are the major policies that allowed China to transform into a modern economy. This essay shall employ statistics to illustrate the change over time.

This essay will also try to account for the causes of such growth and spatial distribution over time, as well as argue on the consequences of the identified pattern. The researcher shall also provide a brief conclusion on the insights of this research.

 

2.1 Patterns of population growth in Mainland China from 1970s to present

The Chinese population has experienced a positive growth rate throughout this period. However, it can be noted that following the implementation of birth control policies, birth rate in China has experienced a steady decrease.

According to China’s State Statistical Bureau, in the period preceding 1973, the population natural growth rate averaged 2.1% (Tian, 2004). For example, in 1971, China’s total fertility rate[1] stood at 5.44, with annual birth at 25.8 million people (Gu, 2003). However, in 1982, the total fertility rate declined tremendously to 2.87, and annual birth also drops to 22.5 million. The total fertility rate and annual birth further decreased to 1.80 and 19.60 million in 2000, indicating a steady decreasing trend in the period succeeding the 1970s. It is noted that each woman should statistically achieve a 2.1 fertility rate in order for the population size to remain stable (Cai, 2009). In this retrospect, China’s fertility rate has reached the stage of low fertility, and population size will diminish in the future unless fertility rate is increased.

The birth rate and natural growth rate in Mainland China during this period is illustrated in the figure a below: –

geog1017 birth rate

Figure a/ Birth rate and Natural growth rate in Mainland China from 1970 to 2008 [2].

The above graph shows the decreasing trend of both the Birth Rate and Natural Growth Rate in Mainland China following the implementation of the birth control policies in 1971 (China compendium of statistics 1949-2008, 2010).

It is worth noting that the total population in China continues to increase throughout this period (from 830 million in 1970 to 1.33 billion in 2008). Nevertheless, it has been suggested that 400 million fewer people have been born, with reference to China’s birth rate and natural growth rate in the 1970s (Tian, 2004). Hence, according to the World Bank, China’s population growth rate[3] has declined to about 0.5% in recent years (World Bank, 2015). The United Nations predicts the Chinese population will reach its peak in 2030, with an estimated population of 1.458 billion (Cai, 2009). The Chinese population is expected to decline after 2050. This will inflict major consequences on the Chinese society, and this will be addressed in the latter section.

It is also worth addressing that there has been an increased sex ratio at birth in China since the 1980s (Cai, 2009). With reference to the population census in China, the sex ratio at birth has increased remarkably from 108.5 in 1982 to 113.8 in 1990. The figure continues to rise to 119.9 in 2000 (Li, 2011). The worsening sex ratio imbalance problem in Mainland China can potentially have a long-lasting effect in the Chinese society.

 

2.2 Causes of this pattern of population growth in Mainland China

In this section, the researcher shall account for the reasons that constituted the identified pattern of population growth. Two causes will be explained and analyzed below, including: –

·      Birth control policies (commonly known as the One Child Policy[4])

·      Traditional customs and thoughts

 

2.2.1 China’s birth control policies

It can be noted that China’s birth control policies are a major factor leading to the decrease in birth rate and natural growth rate since the 1970s. The policy was enacted in response to the dramatic increase in the Chinese population in the 1950s and 60s (Potts, 2006), when Deng Xiaoping wanted to contain population growth in order to ensure the success of the implementation of his economic reforms (Christiansen, 1996).

Generally speaking, the policy stipulates that only one child is allowed per couple within the country, but with several exceptions. For instance, ethnic minorities are exempted from the requirements, and that couples are allowed to have an extra child if the first child experiences an abnormality with proof from doctors. The central policy is planned by the State Family Planning Committee, which passes regulations that are applicable across the country. However, enforcement of the rules is carried out by the provincial family planning committees. Hence, there has been a wide variation in how the effective the policy has been carried out across various provinces in China (Potts, 2006).

Furthermore, it is believed that the Chinese government did not intend the policy to last forever. Rather, the leadership circle anticipates that this policy will induce a shift towards “small family culture” in the Chinese culture, and hence the state is not required to enact family planning policies in the long run (Greenhalgh S, 1987).

China’s birth control policies have undoubtedly influenced the pattern of population growth within the country since the 1970s. Since the policies limited the number of offspring allowed per couple, it is reasonable to speculate that it would result in a drastic decrease in China’s natural growth rate and birth rate. This pattern is identified and illustrated in the above section, which shows that there has been a decreasing trend in both rates since the 1970s. It may also be true that the “small family culture” is slowly replacing the traditional “big family culture” in China, as there has been a constant decrease in birth rate and natural growth rate even though China has not introduced tougher birth control policies in recent years.

Moreover, some demographers have suggested that the increased sex ratio at birth[5] in China since the 1970s could also be explained by the birth control policies. That is because if parents are keener on having boys rather than girls, and that they are only allowed to have one child, they can potentially manipulate fertility in order to achieve the desired gender of the child (Li, 2011).

In addition to the increased imbalance in sex ratio at birth, China has also experienced a worsening abnormality in the infant mortality rate by gender during this period. Statistics showed that since the 1980s, the overall infant mortality rate in China has been decreasing. However, the infant mortality rate of girls is abnormally higher than that of boys (Cai, 2009). It might suggest some deliberate maltreatment of girls by some Chinese so as to legally have a baby boy, even though such claim must be backed up by more sophisticated research studies. However, if this is true, the birth control policies imposed by the Chinese authorities might also be a factor constituting such abnormality in the country’s sex ratio at birth since the 1970s.

 

2.2.2 Traditional customs and thoughts

As a civilization with a history of over 5000 years, China has had an influential cultural customs and thoughts deeply rooted within her society. Such customs and thoughts still play a major role in the contemporary society in Mainland China today. Hence, this can also be used to account for China’s sex ratio imbalance in recent years.

It is worth mentioning that son preference is a cultural background rooted in the Chinese society. Such traditional belief is derived from the idea that males are essential to continue the family bloodline, as he will be able to pass on the family surname to the next generation (Poston Jr, 2002).

Scholars have argued that it is undoubtable for the male-biased sex ratio in China to be associated with the traditional son preference beliefs (Li, 2011). Hence, the notion of traditional elements should also be taken into consideration.

 

2.3 Consequences of this pattern of population growth in Mainland China

In this section, the researcher shall illustrate several major potential consequences of the identified pattern of population growth in Mainland China. Two consequences will be explained and analyzed below, including: –

·      Problem of aging population

·      Changing marriage patterns in China

 

2.3.1 Problem of aging population

There are two main factors relating to the problem of aging population: the increased social security needed for the elderly population, and the shrinking work population. Both factors shall be accounted for and explained below.

There has already been an accelerating speed of aging population in Mainland China nowadays, especially after the implementation of birth control policies that severely limited the number of young people in the entire Chinese population. It is estimated that the proportion of population aged 65 or above will increase by 3.4% during 2010 to 2020, by 4.2% during 2020 to 2030, and by 5.6% during 2030 to 2040. In 2050, the elderly population in China will constitute 22.6% of the entire population, with the median age at 43.7 years old (Tian, 2004). Such a change in the population structure shall increase the economic burden of the population in the future (Cai, 2009).

The increased economic burden is actually derived from the growing need of social investments to cater for the needs of the elderly. For instance, the state might have to bear the burden of increased medical expenses. It might also be necessary for provincial governments to build more hospitals and elderly centres in order to accommodate them.

In addition, the dependency ratio[6] is also expected to surge in the coming years as the problem of aging population becomes more apparent. Demographers have calculated that the elderly dependency ratio was at 10% in 1995, and the figure has increased ever since (Cai, 2009). It has been predicted that the increased need for social investments shall eventually lower China’s overall economic growth rate in the future (Crook, 1997). Hence, it can be seen that the problem of aging population is a major consequence of the birth control policies put in place by the Chinese authorities in the 1970s.

Furthermore, aging population also implies a shrinking working population in the future. With the birth control policies, much less people have been born since the 1970s. Hence, the number of young working population has been reduced in the past years.

The problem of China’s working age population not being able to meet the huge demand for workers has already been noted by the Chinese authorities (Shen, 1998). This implies the potential problem of shortage of labour supply in the future, and this may pose a serious threat for China to continue to rise economically. With reference to basic economic theories, the shortage of labour will necessarily result in an increased wage level. This, however, means that it is more costly for firms to place their production line inside Mainland China. Firms may instead relocate their factories to other Southeast Asian or African countries in order to save costs. China might eventually lose its status as the “World Factory”, due to her reduced competitiveness. Hence, the problem of shrinking working population in Mainland China is definitely worth concerning.

 

2.3.2 Changing marriage patterns in China

The worsening sex ratio imbalance at birth can also impact marriage patterns in the future. Since the sex ratio imbalance is male-biased, this implies that less women of marriage age will be available in the society for men. Hence, a significant portion of men might have to delay marriages, or even have to forgo having marriage with a Chinese woman, simply because the sex ratio imbalance problem is too high in Mainland China (Guilmoto, 2014).

The problem of large number of men unable to get married is a potentially dangerous element for the state. That is because it is usually the poorest men who are getting more difficulties to be married. If they are adversely affected by this new marriage pattern, they might actually act as a destabilizing force inside the country (Guilmoto, 2014). Hence, the effects of men getting harder and harder to be married due to the worsening sex ratio imbalance should never be underestimated.

 

3.1 Spatial distribution of population in Mainland China from 1970s to present

In modern times, the spatial distribution of the Chinese population has always been unbalanced. Yet, such spatial distribution has remained more or less identical. For a long time, the population density in eastern China has always been higher than that in western China.

To better illustrate this point, a detailed geographical division of China can be made. With reference to the book China’s Population and Development, it is supposed that the country can be divided into 3 areas: western China, central China and eastern China. Western China encompasses the provinces of Shaanxi, Ningxia, Gansu, Qinghai, Xinjiang, Sichuan, Guizhou, Yunnan and Tibet, as well as Chongqing municipality. This area constitutes 56.97% of the national total land area. Its population was 22.66% of the national total at 286.66 million in 2000.

On the other hand, central China consists of Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, Jilin, Heilongjiang, Anhui, Jiangxi, Henan, Hubei and Hunan provinces. This area constitutes 29.49% of the national total land area. Its population was 34.74% of the national total at 439.4 million in 2000.

By the same logic, eastern China includes Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Liaoning, Shanghai, Shandong, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi and Hainan provinces. This region comprises 13.54% of the national total land area. However, its population was the highest among the three regions, constituting 42.4% of the national total at 536.22 million in 2000 (Tian, 2004).

Judging on population density[7], data from the 2000 population census suggests that western China has a number at 52.4, whereas central and eastern China each has a number at 155.2 and 412.5. Thus, this can be used to illustrate clearly the increase in population density from west to east. The above statistical figures are illustrated in the figures below: –

geog1017 pie chart

Figure b/ percentage of population in a region relative to the entire population in China [8].

geog1017 bar chart

Figure c/ Population density of different areas in China [9].

Hence, it can be illustrated clearly the increase in both population and population density from China’s west to east.

Furthermore, it is also crucial to mention the issue of floating population in Mainland China. There are currently a large number of farmers with the rural hukou[10] system flocking to the urban city areas in search of work. Such an issue has become more and more dominant ever since China relaxed the restriction on rural-urban migration in 1979. Due to the huge rural surplus labour, many decided to travel a long distance to the urban cities, and work as migrant workers there (Chai, 1997). However, it should also be noted that these people actually do not have official residential status in these urban areas, and thus they are not counted as permanent residents of cities and towns.

Floating population is characterized by the very high mobility of the migrants, and hence it is very hard for researchers to accurately record the size of the floating population at one particular time (Liang, 2004). Nevertheless, estimates are made in annual census with the attempt to project its size. With reference to the official Chinese population census in 1982, 1990, 2000 and 2010, it can be identified that there has been a growing trend in the number of floating population throughout this period. Such a trend is illustrated in the figure below: –

geog1017 line chart

Figure d/ Number of floating population in China from 1982-2010 [11].

From figure d, the number of floating population was only at 6.37 million in 1982. The number increased to 21.6 million in 1990, and 78.76 million in 2000. During the period of 2000 to 2010, the growth rate began to take on momentum, and the figure rocketed to 221.03 million in 2010 (Liang, 2012). Hence, this illustrates the significance of floating population in affecting the spatial distribution of the Chinese population.

Furthermore, it is crucial to understand that eastern China is a popular destination for many migrant workers. That is because many major urban cities are located in eastern China, and hence it is the preferred destination by the majority of the floating population. The issue of migrant workers actually determines the spatial distribution of the population in China. The following map illustrates the percentage of population in a province that is identified as floating population (i.e. they are migrants without local household registration status).

geog1017 china population map

Figure e/ Floating population in China as a share of provincial population and its composition by province of origin in 2000 (Liang, 2004) [12].

In figure e, provinces with a higher percentage of floating population are indicated in dark grey. Hence, it can be seen that provinces that attract the most migrant workers are generally coastal provinces, with the apparent exception of Xinjiang. Nevertheless, eastern China has experienced a higher population increase than western China.

According to the 2000 population census in Mainland China, the amount of floating population in Guangdong, Fujian and Zhejiang provinces are 21 million, 3.8 million and 5.4 million respectively. These three provinces are located in eastern China, and the floating population makes up at least 10% of their provincial population respectively (as indicated in figure e). In Guangdong, the floating population even accounted for 24.7% of the provincial population, the highest in the entire nation (Liang, 2004).

On the other hand, even though 10.4% of the population in Xinjiang is classified as floating population, the actual number of floating population is only 1.9 million. Hence, it can be seen that floating population also contributes to the population imbalance between east and west.

 

3.2 Causes of the identified pattern of spatial distribution of population

In this section, the researcher shall account for the reasons that constituted the identified pattern of spatial distribution of population. Two causes will be explained and analyzed below, including: –

·      Climatic and geological factors

·      Socio-economic factors

 

3.2.1 Climatic and geological factors

It should be noted that the climatic and geological conditions are remarkably different in eastern and western China. It has been mentioned that spatial condition is an important factor determining the geographical distribution of population in a country (Tian, 2004). Hence, it is believed that the identified pattern of spatial distribution can be accounted for partly by natural factors.

First of all, western China is generally mountainous. For instance, the Himalayas is located in Tibet. The Karakoram and Tianshan mountain ranges can also be found at its north. In fact, western China is characterized by its extensive mountain ranges and plateaus. On the other hand, the average height above sea level in eastern China is far lower than that of western China. This implies a huge climatic difference between east and west, which is a major factor leading to the identified population imbalance.

Climatic condition is a major determining factor on population size as it dictates the carrying capacity of land in the area. Since human depends on natural resources for its own survival, low carrying capacity of land tend to result in a lower population size (Cao, 2007). In particular, the temperature and precipitation are crucial in determining whether a specific area is conducive to the growth of crops and human activities.

In western China, the inland geographical position and mountainous terrain mean that low temperature and low precipitation are found in western China. Since the growth of crops requires abundant sunlight, a short frost-free period, and high precipitation, the conditions in western China actually inhibits the amount of crops that can be grown in that area. With a lower carrying capacity of land, the number of people living in these areas is restricted (Tian, 2004). On the other hand, eastern China is marked by its higher temperature and precipitation. Thus, this can explain why western China has a much lower population density than eastern China.

 

3.2.2 Socio-economic factors

Besides climatic factors, the contemporary population difference is increasingly accounted for by another aspect – the socio-economic factors. As mentioned above in section 3.1, the effects of floating population have magnified dramatically over the previous decades as more and more migrant workers move from one place to another in search of work. The common reason for the majority of the floating population to move away from home is socio-economic factor.

With the relaxation of rural-urban migration restrictions in 1979, many farmers have flocked to urban city centres in search for better monetary income and living standards (Chai, 1997). Hence, this explains why many people with rural household registration status decide to move to urban areas with the hopes of enjoying a better life.

Also, the dominant floating population can also be explained by the increased rural labour surplus. Ever since the reform and opening up policies, China has experienced a huge wave of urbanization. Agricultural activities have decreased, and there have been an excessive labour supply of farmers in these rural areas. Hence, these farmers chose to migrate to urban areas in order to search for work and earn a better monetary income (Tian, 2004). This is also a cause for the huge number of floating population that makes up the population imbalance between China’s east and west.

 

3.3 Consequences of this pattern of spatial distribution of population

In this section, the researcher shall illustrate several major potential consequences of the identified pattern of spatial distribution of population in Mainland China. Two consequences will be explained and analyzed below, including: –

·      Rapid development in eastern China

·      Worsening problem of “left-behind children” in western China

 

3.3.1 Rapid development in eastern China

The huge manpower available in eastern China has served an indispensable role for the rapid development in this area. Especially, the floating population provides the much needed cheap labour for China to become the leading “world factory” (Chai, 1997). Because of the huge population size, the strategic policies of “reform and opening up” can be successfully implemented. The abundance of labour force has allowed planning and construction work to be done within a short period of time. Foreign companies also found it easy to employ workers locally, and hence they are more willing to invest here.

However, it should also be pointed out that the rapid development in eastern China actually comes with costs. The rural population that migrated to urban areas has, at the same time, added pressure to the city’s land and water resources. Also, the increased demand for cars has also resulted in the intense air pollution seen in big cities, such as Beijing and shanghai (Wang, 2008). Hence, the huge population density in eastern China has concurrently contributed in the rapid economic development and the intense pollution in the region.

 

3.3.2 Worsening problem of “left-behind children” in western China

The population imbalance between eastern and western China has also led to various social problems in the western parts of the country. One of the most serious and long-lasting issues is the problem of “left-behind children”.

“Left-behind children” generally refers to children of migrant workers who are separated from their father and/or mother because their parents have to relocate elsewhere to work for a period of at least 6 months. These children usually stay inside the rural areas with their grandparents, while their parents can only manage to visit them once or twice per year. These migrant workers generally cannot afford to bring their children with them to urban city centres, because they do not have a urban household registration status.

With reference to the report produced by the All-China Women’s Federation in 2008, over 140 million rural farmers in China have migrated to work in urban areas. An estimated 58 million children, or 28.3% of all children in rural China, were left at home as the “left-behind children” (Jia, 2010). This has shown that the problem of “left-behind children” is penetrative into a large number of families in rural western China.

In fact, studies have suggested that children with long-term separation from parents tend to demonstrate various negative effects, including depression, behavioral problems at school, lower academic achievement and lower self-esteem than their peers (He, 2008). It is argued that the lack of effective supervision and encouragement are the main reasons inhibiting their motivation to study, as they are unable to receive praise from their parents on their work. Furthermore, the same study suggested that “left-behind children” generally have lower independent and perseverance skills, and they encounter more difficulties in their interactions with others.

Hence, it is fair to suggest that these “left-behind children” tend to perform less well than others, and that their competitiveness in society is lower than that of others. This will make them even more difficult to make use of education to climb up the social ladder in the future. Also, since more and more workers in rural areas decide to temporarily migrate to urban areas for work (as indicated in section 3.1), this problem will only get worse and worse. Hence, the psychological and sociological effects on the entire generation of “left-behind children” should not be neglected in the analysis on consequences on this pattern of population spatial distribution.

 

4. Conclusion

To sum up, China has experienced a unique pattern of population growth and population distribution since the 1970s, due to various government policies. The research materials of this study suggested that there are many potential consequences of the identified pattern, with effects like changing marriage pattern and “left-behind children” potentially having a long-term impact on the Chinese society. The researcher believes that the causes and consequences of such pattern should be studied more carefully, such that adjustments can be implemented in the policy-making process to achieve a more desirable outcome for the wider Chinese population.

 

[1] Total fertility rate refers to the average number of children that are born by each woman overall her lifetime.
[2] Birth rate refers to the total number of births per 1000 of a population given during a particular year; Natural Growth Rate is equal to the birth rate minus death rate in a particular year. The data is adapted from the book China compendium of Statistics 1949-2008, and the information is analyzed and illustrated by the researcher.
[3] Population growth rate refers to the rate at which the population grows in a certain year.
[4] It should be noted that the term “One Child Policy” is not an accurate description of the birth control policies that China introduced since the 1970s. For instance, some ethnic minority groups in China are exempted from the regulations (Li, 2011). It would be over-simplistic to consider the policy as such.
[5] Sex ratio at birth refers to the ratio of newborn boys to newborn girls in a specific population. An abnormally high sex ratio means that there is, statistically speaking, a more serious gender imbalance problem than in normal circumstances.
[6] Dependency ratio is a concept that measures the pressure of the population not in the working age on those who are in the working age. A high dependency ratio typically implies that those who are in the working age population need to cater for a larger number of individuals who are not in the labour force. In other words, the economic burden on those who are in the working age population is higher.
[7] In this essay, the researcher shall refer population density to as the number of people per square kilometer.
[8] Data adapted from the book China’s Population and Development (p.25), and is analyzed and graphically illustrated by the researcher.
[9] Data adapted from the book China’s Population and Development (p.25), and is analyzed and graphically illustrated by the researcher.
[10] Hukou refers to the household registration record in Mainland China. A hukou identifies whether an individual belongs to the rural or urban resident status.
[11] Statistical data are adapted from Zai Liang’s presentation in the United Nations in 2012, titled Recent Migration Trends in China: Geographic and Demographic Aspects and Development Implications, as quoting the Tabulation on the Population Census of China in 1982, 1990, 2000 and 2010, published by China’s National Bureau of Statistics.
[12] This figure is directly adapted from Zai Liang’s journal article China’s Floating Population: New Evidence from the 2000 Census (p.474) in the Population and Development Review in September 2004.

 

Bibliography:

Cai, F. (2009). The China Population and Labor Yearbook, Volume 1. The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill.

Cao, S. (2007). Disharmony between Society and Environmental Carrying Capacity: A Historical Review, with an Emphasis on China. Ambio, 36(5), 409-415.

Chai, J. C. H. (1997). China’s Floating Population and its Implications. International Journal of Social Economics, 24(7/8/9), 1038-1051.

China compendium of statistics 1949-2008. (2010). Beijing: China Statistics Press.

Christiansen, F. (1996). Chinese Politics and Society: An Introduction: Routledge.

Crook, N. (1997). Principles of Population and Development. United States: Oxford University Press.

Greenhalgh S, B. J. (1987). Fertility Policy in China: future options. Science, 235(4793), 1167-1172.

Gu, B. (2003). Population, Reproductive Health and Poverty in China Population and Poverty: Achieving equity, equality and sustainability. New York: United Nations Population Fund.

Guilmoto, C. Z. (2014). Sex-ratio imbalance in Asia: Trends, consequences and policy responses. Paris: United Nations Population Fund.

He, Y. (2008). The Effects of Parents’ Absence on the Lives of the Left-Behind Children in Middle and Northern Rural China. (Doctor of Education), University of Massachusetts Amherst, United States. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.eproxy2.lib.hku.hk/docview/304577244?accountid=14548 

Jia, Z. (2010). Health-related quality of life of “left-behind children”: a cross-sectional survey in rural China. Quality of Life Research, 19(6), 775-780.

Li, H. (2011). Estimating the Effect of the One-Child Policy on the Sex Ratio Imbalance in China: Identification Based on the Difference-in-Differences. Demography, 48(4), 1535-1557.

Liang, Z. (2004). China’s Floating Population: New Evidence from the 2000 Census. Population and Development Review, 30(3), 467-488.

Liang, Z. (2012). Recent Migration Trends in China: Geographic and Demographic Aspects and Development Implications. New York: United Nations Expert Group Meeting.

Poston Jr, D. L. (2002). Son Preference and Fertility in China. Journal of Biosocial Science, 34(3), 333-347.

Potts, M. (2006). China’s one child policy. British Medical Journal, 333(7564), 361-362.

Shen, J. (1998). China’s Future Population and Development Challenges. The Geographical Journal, 164(1), 32-40.

Tian, X. (2004). China’s Population and Development. Beijing: China Intercontinental Press.

Wang, S. (2008). On the Balanced Development of Urban Population/ 城市人口均衡发展研究. Beijing: Social Science Academic Press.

World Bank. (2015).  Population growth (annual %). Retrieved March 28, 2015, from http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.GROW


Submitted for HKU course: Human geography in a globalizing world (GEOG1017).

Copyright © 2015 Eric Cheung. All rights reserved.
Please note that copying without proper acknowledgement (plagiarism) is a very serious offence in the academic world.

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