Three deprivation narratives

I’ve been reading Lynn T. White’s book Rural Roots of Reform Before China’s Conservative Change (Routledge, 2018). I couldn’t honestly recommend it as a light bedtime read, but it’s absolutely fascinating nonetheless. Here I just want to reflect on the case of a rural migrant mentioned by White thus:

“A twenty-five-year-old legal migrant from Henan to Suzhou explained in 1994 why he was so much more productive on the delta: “We used to spend three months doing farm work, one month celebrating the Spring Festival, and eight months in idle time every year.” Now he was a restaurant waiter, working fourteen hours each day, seven days a week – but receiving 400 yuan (about US$50 a month, which was four times his previous Henan wage). When asked whether he thought he was working too hard, he replied with great eloquence….“No, it is better than sitting idly by watching people in cities getting rich. The conditions here are not bad at all. Color TV, electric heating, free meals – these are great. What I like most here is that I can take a shower every day. I was not able to take a bath during the entire winter at home. It would be too cold to do so in the river.” (p.354)

This example poses some potentially awkward questions for those like me who advocate for a small farm future – for more Henan and less Suzhou, so to speak. Could I look this man in the eye and tell him that he should have stayed on the farm? My answer to that, emphatically, is no.

But I think the implications of what he said are worth pondering. The first reason he gave for leaving the farm draws from a relative deprivation narrative – why molder away in rural poverty while city people make so much more money? The last reason he gave draws from an absolute deprivation narrative – back home, he couldn’t even take a shower during the winter!

This individual story fits easily into the dominant narrative of our times – people naturally seek prosperity, and when the opportunity arises will therefore move from countryside to city, and also from poorer countries to richer ones in search of it. Good luck to them – so long as the national and international economies are structured the way they are, I have zero sympathy for the anti-immigration rhetoric of right-wing populism, and little sympathy for left-populist peasant romanticism either.

But if you aggregate this one man’s journey across the global billions, urban and rural, who share his impoverished starting point, I can’t see this strategy of wealth-through-urbanization-and-economic-growth working. For one thing, while the global economy is certainly capable of lifting millions of people out of poverty in some places – China foremost among them – I don’t think it’s structurally or physically capable of doing it adequately everywhere. If, like me, you number among the top few hundred million in global wealth then that may not concern you much. Possibly it doesn’t concern a man like the Henan waiter either. And much as I’d like to think that such persistent inequalities would prompt the poor into political action to achieve a fairer distribution of the world’s resources, the fact is this only happens in historically unusual circumstances, as occurred in early 20th century China.

If economist Minqi Li, whose book China and the 21st Century Crisis (Pluto, 2016) I’m currently ploughing my way through (it’s another bedtime no-no, I’m afraid), is to be believed, these circumstances are also likely to occur in the mid-21st century, and will probably result in the end of the global capitalist order. Let me throw in another China book while I’m at it – David Bandurski’s Dragons in Diamond Village: Tales of Resistance in Urbanizing China (Melville House, 2016) – a much better candidate for bedtime reading, which shows vividly why somebody like this waiter may get richer in the city but will always be watching other people get richer still. Having corresponded recently with David (more on that anon), he pronounces himself pessimistic about the opportunities for resistance in Xi’s China. Time will tell.

Quite apart from the limited economic capacity of the global political economy to lift adequate numbers of people out of poverty, the other side of it is the limited environmental and energetic capacities to do so. If you aggregate the single migrant journey from Henan to Suzhou I’ve described here among all those similarly lacking in the food, shelter, comfort and entertainment that many of us take for granted, the consequences will quite simply be environmentally catastrophic and untenable long-term unless you buy into ecomodernist fantasies that it’s all manageable through nuclear power, GM crops and the like. So here we come to a third deprivation narrative – contemporary people pursuing eminently justifiable and personally rational goals deprive others, most especially future generations, of the opportunity to do likewise.

The only way I see out of this morass is to detoxify the first and third of these deprivation narratives while focusing relentlessly on the second. I’d like to think that it should be possible for everyone in the world to have safe and comfortable shelter (including access to tolerably warm bathing water) and an adequate diet (I’m not so sure about the color TV…or the free meals: isn’t there a capitalist story doing the rounds that the latter are a myth?) But to achieve that sustainably so that future generations don’t go without I think we’re going to have to let go of the relative deprivation story, the “people in cities getting rich”, by sharing the wealth around much more fairly.

Well, it’s a plan – and it’s been tried before, notably in China by one Mao Zedong. The aforementioned Minqi Li seems to be among the cohort that’s reevaluating Maoism positively, for example analyzing Mao’s Cultural Revolution as an attempt to “save the revolution” through “the dictatorship of the proletariat” (p.18). Personally, I struggle to justify the enormous destructiveness, misery and cruelty of it in those terms, when it seemed to be at least as much about saving the power of Mao Zedong through the dictatorship of Mao Zedong. I find Lynn White’s analysis more interesting – in his view, the disasters of Mao’s Great Leap Forward followed soon after by the power vacuum created by the Cultural Revolution fostered considerable local economic autonomy in China from the 1960s, and it was this bottom-up economic dynamism rather than the top-down reforms of the post-Mao government that laid the foundation for the country’s transformation into today’s huge industrial-capitalist power (I do find Li’s prognosis for how that transformation is likely to end in tears quite convincing, however).

So no, I’m not too keen on Maoist solutions to economic inequality. My preference is for agrarian populist solutions to it – which essentially means getting more people into farming and paying them better for it. Low economic returns to agriculture have often been a historical fact, but they’re not intrinsically an economic one. Still, the questions remain – is such a populist solution likely to occur, and how could it happen? My answers to that are ‘no’ and ‘with great difficulty’, but it’s the only solution that strikes me as likely to be successful long-term, so the long march back to Henan-with-hot-showers is the one I want to devote my thinking to. White and Li’s books have helped me to see that a little more clearly, though still through a glass darkly. I’ll try to elucidate it more in future posts.

25 thoughts on “Three deprivation narratives

  1. I recently read Gaelan Brown’s The Compost-Powered Water Heater which was in turn inspired by the home and water heating experiments of Jean Pain in France in the Sixties I believe. The rural worker would need quite a lot of compost (preferably wood chip based) and lots of plastic piping, but this could at least allow them to eke out the warm showers through winter. The spectacle of city life would still hold its appeal for many migrants, though perhaps not for ever.

    • Hey, sorry for the bunny trial. I want to let my buds here on the blog know that recently, Resilience has taken what seems to me a neo-bolshie turn. My comments kept disappearing… at first, I assumed my error. But eventually I asked. Bart explained to me they recently had a meeting and decided to erase messages they do not approve of. T’ hell with their own guidelines. And they did not even let people know, but kept erasing on the sly. In the past I offered to fix offending passages, no prob. But now I have apparently become a persona non grata, along with others. That after about a decade of steadfast support. What’s next, a purge? Or more likely a dead space filled with the occasional PC comment. Damn shame, it was once a great and lively space to be.

      I asked Bart if he thought that resilient communities strengthened or weakened their resilience through censorship, but he erased that too. Oh and this lifelong supporter of dialog told me that… well, something like “certain people are beyond the pale” and cannot be dialogued with. Howz that for “othering”? Again, apologies for the digression.

  2. If the only sacrifice for eight months “idle time” was lack of hot water, I wonder whether there might be a lot of people who would willing to make it. I have seen peasant life in the French Alps described by those peasants as “five months of hell followed by seven months of bliss”, the hell being the summer growing season.

    But I think the Henan man’s inability to take a warm bath was really a joke. Any place that can boil water can provide a hot bath and I suspect that even in Henan they could boil water.

    I have spent a total of three years of my adult life taking ‘cold’ baths or showers, albeit in the tropics. I did so for most of that time because I was too lazy (unlike my wife) to heat a half gallon of water on the stove. That amount of water together with another three gallons at ambient temperature makes for a delightfully warm bucket shower. One uses a five gallon bucket to hold the mixed water and a cup for delivery to the body. The first gallon or so is to get wet and soap up, the rest is for the rinse. Another even more parsimonious technique is the sponge bath. Both provide the same result as a hot shower.

    As to the lure of the big city for rural peasants… with the support of bountiful energy supplies and a willingness to work hard more than a few months of the year, the opportunity to experience modernity and acquire the trappings of wealth (by peasant standards) will always be a draw. After all, “How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm, After they’ve seen Paree’ “.

    I don’t blame “Paree” folk for succumbing to the temptation of rapidly burning their way through their fossil fuel patrimony at the expense of future generations, since everyone likes to party, but I do think that ruining the earth’s climate is an extremely harsh hangover that the party-goers get to unfairly pass on to their descendants, all of whom will eventually have to live the more pedestrian Henan life.

    I think that Henan life, with an equitable climate, is all that we can ask for, or deserve. To get it, the party needs to be cut short. Send ’em back to the farm!

  3. Interesting post, and I like the way you classify the narratives. I wonder if you might add one more the their number: a migrant narrative.

    Narratives of relative and absolute ‘deprivation’ might just as well be classified as narratives of relative and absolute ‘difference’ between town and country. On the face of it differences might be neither good nor bad – it takes an extra step to add a judgment of relative benefits, and if one chooses to do this, then the elements chosen for comparison are illuminating.

    In this case, the relative difference between levels of monetary wealth favours the urban environment because there is usually a much greater degree of monetization in a city – ‘wealth’ might mean many things, but by focusing on monetary wealth the comparison closes down recognition of other forms (of which ‘idle time’ for creative pursuits might be considered one). Cities are always likely to have more monetary wealth because of their dominant position in the current capitalist global economy, but choosing this factor to compare with the rural hinterland does nothing to explain why more monetary wealth should be seen as a good thing – the migrant’s answer doesn’t actually explain why he thinks he now lives a better life, he only really states that he thinks wealth should be measured in money.

    The absolute difference of hot shower availability might disguise a relative difference in cleanliness, but this isn’t what the migrants says, and we have no reason to believe that nobody washes in Henan. In any case normative standards of cleanliness vary, as much within cities as between cities and countryside, so the comparison wouldn’t be as simple as that between more and less money (and the well-groomed clean-cut corporate slicker may well prove to be historically anomalous). So the real point of the migrant’s statement has to do with notions of luxury, and his evident opinion that a hot shower is the height of luxury.

    The point here is that luxury is also a difficult thing to compare. During the embarrassingly brief part of my career in which I worked in the great outdoors, I often regarded coming into the warm for a cup of tea as the height of luxury. My point isn’t to argue that a cup of tea is any more pleasurable than a hot shower, only that the whole idea of comparing the two is flawed, because their variant appeals depend on context. It is therefore very interesting that the migrant, in making a case for the superior luxury of the city, chooses something that cannot be directly compared with the country at all, i.e. the very fact that it is an absolute difference.

    This for me is why the migrant narrative is important. Anyone could argue the pros and cons of the many differences between town and country (I believe the mice started it), but if it is a migrant from one to the other doing so, a kind of moral authority is given to his voice because his life embodies the fact of judging between them – after all, he must have come to the city for some reason. But of course he’s not an ‘objective’ observer. The fact that he’s now in the city suggests that he was already predisposed towards it before he left the country – he already saw it as holding out a ‘better’ life. Moreover, for as long as he stays there he is likely to try to justify his presence there to himself.

    I therefore disagree with Lynn that his answer was in any way eloquent. He merely emphasizes the one thing the city offers above all else – money – which is anything but an objectively ‘good thing’, and then points to an absolute difference in an attempt to paint the superiority of an urban lifestyle – this is simply conspicuous consumption, highlighting the wonder of what others don’t have because other don’t have it. In the process he closes down any real discussion about the merits of monetization or the nature of different forms of luxury.

    I’m all for luxury – Fully Agrarian Luxury Populism now! But having to argue that a small farm future can include hot baths cedes the territory to the migrant narrative. Sure it’s possible – the Romans had a hot bath on every villa estate – but there are much more inspiring reasons for chasing a small farm future. It’s not simply that energy shortage will force us to abandon cities and a small farm future makes the best of a more deprived life. Neo-peasantism actually holds out the prospect of a better life in so many ways – ironically these become more obvious when compared with the depravity that characterises so much of life in so many cities around the world. The migrant may well have been quite lucky.

  4. Good points. If I had a penny for every time a city dweller has told me simply having time would be the greatest luxury. Space comes in a close second.

  5. I did visit Henan in the 90’s and remembered specifically how one farm household I visited used cotton stalks for their cooking as that was the fuel they could afford….I believe the lack of warm water is more attributable to inequalities and bad planning than to deficiencies in the economic capabilities of small scale farming.

  6. Thanks for the comments. I’m a bit short on time to respond, but a lot of interesting points above. I don’t know if the hot shower point was a joke or not, but I’d guess that in highly concentrated settings with limited fuel it might not be – I agree with Gunnar though that it’s not to do with the intrinsic capabilities of small scale farming, a point that I think I made at the end of the post. Whether the hot shower point holds or not, I think the general points here about relative and absolute poverty remain…though of course I agree with those of you speaking up for the virtues of the rural and agrarian. I like Andrew’s nuanced reading of the story and the point about the moral authority of the migrant voice. White lays out his argument quite persuasively but he’s clearly what I might call a small ‘c’ conservative pluralist ‘progressivist’. I’m not suggesting that either he or the migrant’s take on things is correct, but I think it does give the ideological measure of what an agrarian populist counter-argument is up against.

  7. Thanks Andrew for questioning the equation of wealth with money. Money is a flimsy construct compared to the wealth of actual life (and death) in a landscape that has not had the soul crushed out of it.
    Having migrated, like the mouse, from the country to the city and then back to the country, do I get double moral authority? Some of my city friends cannot get over the idea that I languish quite pitiably here in the country-side, no matter how often I deny it. I wouldn’t trade places with them even on the days when failures in the off-grid mean no hot shower.
    Do I understand you correctly, Chris, that in “focusing relentlessly” on getting hot showers to Henan, so to speak, that you mean addressing the structural inequities to which Gunnar refers, and to which my city friends also refer in their half-conscious way?

    • Double moral authority! Or perhaps the two journeys cancel out…

      Actually that got me thinking again. I suppose we have to take the migrant at his word, that he loves the money and just can’t get enough showers. He was speaking his own truth, but the moral authority is foregrounded when others, like White, repeat it. And that’s because the migrant narrative supports the greater truth, the ‘dominant narrative of our times’ as Chris puts it, capitalist realism.

      Is there a moral authority to be found in narratives describing the migration from town to country? Well, people speak their truths about why they went ‘back to the land’, and I’m sure I’d agree with most of their reasons, but I don’t think it supports a greater truth in the same way. The ethical power is there, the self-belief, but it’s not harnessed to a greater shared worldview, not at the moment. We’re against a whole host of evils but we’re still flailing around for a greater good.

      So when Chris warns us about the difficulties facing an agrarian populist counter-argument, I think he’s right, but perhaps it’s better to ignore the counter and seek an agrarian populist argument instead. We don’t need to rectify the deficiencies (or deprivations) identified by those who have already chosen the city. In a way there is no choice under the current dispensation, the city is the only lodestar, everything else means travelling in the wrong direction. Instead, the land needs to become the new determining principle.

      Nobody really wants to go back to Henan as it is now, but Henan as it might be, the land as truly magnetic to all… What’s the vision that gets us to that point? Let’s not take lessons from the city dwellers – I agree with you that there should be so much more to life than hot showers!

      • Yes, you’re absolutely right, I have zero moral authority, being a running dog capitalist from sybaritic Hawaii, for Heaven’s sake!
        But I have my doubts about this Henan-ren as well. Either he’s the best or the worst peasant ever. Eight months of idle time? I bet his mom (or his dad for that matter) didn’t have eight months of idle time a year. And then he runs away to the city!

        • Yes, the 8 months of idle time does make one wonder…

          I’m a bit torn on these issues. My feeling is that impoverished small farmers are generally quite unromantic about their situations and create complex livelihood strategies in which the virtues of the agrarian way don’t figure highly, though at the same time there have been strong traditions of peasant-led agrarian populism which do make an ideological play on such points. As I’ve argued before on this site, contemporary capitalist culture is intolerant towards rural romanticism but indulgent towards urban romanticism and there’s a good case for pushing against that, but it’s hard to do when there are those cities on a hill…

          So yes, I think Michelle’s framing of it in terms of inequality makes sense. A good deal of urban wealth and rural poverty arises from urban self-interest…but perhaps not all of it. And the ideology of more is better is a hard one to get back in its box. I need to reflect more on these points.

          Meanwhile, I’m fascinated by your discussion of the claims to moral authority implicit in rural-urban and urban-rural migrant narratives. I’ll never forget Mike Shellenberger writing of me something along the lines of “Where is the morality of privileged British intellectuals retreating to the countryside and writing critiques of modernity?” And there was me thinking I was doing something useful by growing food and selling it… his unwitting choice of the word ‘retreat’ struck me as quite revealing.

          • Yes, very revealing. I’m also struck by the implication that you have no moral right to question modernity because you have benefitted from it – again, moral authority is only conceivable when supporting the dominant narrative.

            On urban romanticism, I suppose the rural-urban migrant narrative is very much part of that genre. It may be a little reductive to credit such romanticism with a ‘role’ in promoting capitalist hegemony, but it certainly emerges from the broader context of the city as a kind of cultural nexus, the only real place of opportunity, where the parameters of any kind of success are defined and made possible.

            In contrast, rural romanticism doesn’t really have an obvious role, it doesn’t orbit any kind of cultural centre of gravity. At its worst it’s elegiac, pining after worlds we have lost, maybe even a kind of traumatised ‘retreat’ from modernity. It’s probably quite revealing that the more optimistic urban-rural migrant narratives tend to focus on the personal – the specific relationship between the migrant and their piece of land, the strength and achievement of an individual spirit. There is no grander narrative to plug into, no agrarian populist hegemony to celebrate.

            No wonder impoverished small farmers are unromantic. But if any kind of rural romanticism is going to eclipse those hill-top cities, I don’t think it would be formed around the inherent virtues of the agrarian way, whatever they might be. The livelihood is only the means to the ends, and for the land to become culturally hegemonic, rural life has to become the crucible of opportunity for new ways of life. Only then would urban-rural migrant narratives be considered to possess a wider moral authority.

  8. A demographer friend from Anhui recently wrote about urbanization in China:
    “This book examines the impacts of China’s urbanization on the country’s economic development, clan culture, rural societies, minority resident areas, natural environment, women, and public policy reforms, drawing on official statistics, independent survey data, archives, and fieldwork research to do so. Adopting a cross-disciplinary perspective, the book places special emphasis on issues that have been neglected in prior studies, and provides up-to-date information, reports, and analyses based on the latest events. Further, it considers future directions and strategies regarding urban development, discusses regional urbanization in selected poor and “backward” western provinces, analyzes changes in traditional clan culture brought on by urbanization, and explores evolutions in local clan societies in the Qin and Han Dynasties when cities expanded and business flourished. Lastly, the book examines the effects of infrastructure-related determinants on urban expansion rates and urban land prices, demonstrates the ebbs and flows of public opinion regarding various environmental issues, discusses planned real estate tax reform, and assesses the impact of demographic and socioeconomic changes on young unmarried women.”
    My friend also wrote about Mao’s thought and action:
    “This book is a study of Mao’s ideological history. In terms of the structure of the book, the authors have adopted a method that regards time as longitude and space as latitude. Part One briefly presents traditional Chinese culture so as to provide non Chinese readers with the necessary Chinese cultural background. This part primarily introduces Confucianism, as it is the mainstream of traditional Chinese culture. From Part Two onward, the relations between Maoism and Chinese culture are discussed. We divide the development of Maoism into three stages: namely, Mao’s ideology in his youth and his early years; Mao’s ideology during his middle aged period (which was called the New Democratic Revolution Period by the Chinese government); and his ideology in his later years (that was officially regarded as the Socialist Revolution and Construction Period). The material related to each period is described in Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four respectively. Each part analyzes the relations between Mao’s thoughts and traditional culture based on concrete themes ”

  9. The experience of the shower-loving migrant from Henan could be atypical for China, since “rural-urban migrant households settled in urban China have an average happiness score lower than that of rural households”, according to:

    World Happiness Report 2018
    Chapter 4, Rural-Urban Migration and Happiness in China
    John Knight (Emeritus Professor, Department of Economics, University of Oxford…)
    Ramani Gunatilaka (Director, Centre for Poverty Analysis, Colombo…)

    “This chapter links the literatures on rural-urban migration and on subjective well-being in developing countries and is one of the few to do so. Using microeconomic analysis (of people and households), it poses the question: why do rural-urban migrant households settled in urban China have an average happiness score lower than that of rural households?…”

    • Interesting. Thanks for that. I guess there are some issues here about China’s household registration system, the ‘left behind’ children and old people, and ‘home town’ ideology which I’ll be writing about soon. But it’s certainly a thought-provoking finding.

  10. Dear Andrew, you do mystify but in the most thought provoking way. I would disagree that there is no greater worldview around which agrarianism might orbit. It’s just that it’s a problematic orbit. And for now I wouldn’t want it any other way, since perfect orbits don’t fit in this world of wicked problems and uncertain solutions. The trouble is that that greater worldview is invisible to the Moderns of whatever variety – whether high moderns, postmoderns, or eco-moderns. It cannot be seen as good, desirable, or rewarding from the modern perspective. (Maybe especially from the modernity of the left?) I would utterly disagree that there needs to one, single worldview to rule them all, and I would also disagree that an agrarian livelihood is necessarily the means to an ends.
    How is it that I am being so disagreeable of a sudden?
    Like all great world-views, this one must be built up with painful slowness and in doubt all the way. There’s no getting out of that. But again, why only one? Perhaps we could have a constellation of world-views that might be orbitable, such as those of women-farmers, indigenous peoples, and yes, intellectuals in determined retreat from academia. All of whom might find life more rewarding outside the bounds of modernity and its rather suffocating humanism?

    • Thanks Michelle, I think! I probably should plead guilty to mystification – at the moment my life contains too much thinking and not enough doing, and I think it’s starting to show!

      I find myself agreeing with much of what you said. Indeed, the fact that the agrarian orbit is problematic, that it is invisible to many, and is not seen as desirable or rewarding, was the point I was trying to make. That’s why not much moral authority is ever given to urban-rural migrant narratives.

      I think you raise two crucial questions. First, do we actual want a dominant, hegemonic agrarian populist worldview. I can sympathise with your caution here, but without one how will the world change in the dramatic ways necessary to end the manifold problems created by global capitalism?

      Second, if we do want to go about building such a world view, how should it be done? Your words appear very sensible to me – with doubt, or critical awareness, as a constellation of approaches – all except the painful slowness. Scientists are openly warning of environmental catastrophes round the corner, and I’m not sure we have time to be slow.

      Perhaps where I disagree with you is the idea that we keep working outside the bounds of modernity. I think our strategies (and the plural is definitely important) do need to take aim at capitalist modernity, and actively engage with ending it and building something new in its place. That has to be hegemonic if it’s going to work, but it doesn’t have to be suffocating. Of course it’s all very well thinking this through in general terms, but what d we do?

      • Andrew/Michelle – thanks for your debate. I don’t have much to add, but I’ve found it informative. In many ways, it touches on the issues around civic republicanism that we discussed on here a while back. I hope to come back to this soon.

  11. Chris wrote about “a third deprivation narrative – contemporary people pursuing eminently justifiable and personally rational goals deprive others, most especially future generations, of the opportunity to do likewise.”

    This brings up the self/other divide, along with temporal discounting, for which it seems the remedy is more “Seven Generations” than “Cultural Revolution”.

  12. Andrew, I would hope that the hegemony we come upon is one of choice – of choice making the utopia, as Chris wrote about a few months ago. Little as I want to privilege the individual, there is something important, even essential, about free will. Not to the point where one can do whatever one wants, with no thought for the common good of human and non-human, but then free will is not necessarily about just doing whatever one wants. It’s a more subtle and entangled thing than mindless greed or license.
    I agree with you that we don’t have time for the slow accretion of a soundly built alternative worldview to capitalist modernism; we will have to make do with whatever we can rig up in the next few years. I find this latest IPCC report to be a more effective call to arms, at least for me, than their previous communications. I’m going to try to get my county government to commit to some annual carbon-reduction goals. Wish me luck!

    • I’m going to try to get my county government to commit to some annual carbon-reduction goals.

      Perhaps one could suggest some geothermal development? [sorry… too soon?]

      • Glad to hear from you, Clem. It is extremely humbling to live on an active volcano. Best-laid plans, etc. On the up side, risk of such biblical/geological proportion does help to keep the insurance companies/uber capitalists at bay. 🙂

    • I’m all for democratically accountable hegemony! Good luck with your campaign Michelle – it would be great to hear more about it. I really need some inspiration in the ‘actually doing something about it’ category, especially after that IPCC report…

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