Interview with Xiao Qiang, Editor-in-Chief of China Digital Times

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The "Coral Reef" Below the Ship of China’s Internet Censorship

Interview with Xiao Qiang, Editor-in-Chief of China Digital Times

Xi Ran, August 8, 2019


Since the late 1990s, internet censorship in China seems to have moved in lock-step with the popularization of the internet. As the world's first "great internet nation," the Chinese people's craze for online trade, finance, and invention and their pursuit of an open, free digital space have been inextricable from each other; at the same time, the Chinese internet is an increasingly restrictive place where big data, artificial intelligence, facial recognition, and speech recognition are harnessed to control society.

To confront this enormous "ship" of internet censorship, Xiao Qiang, adjunct professor at the University of California Berkeley's School of Information and head of the Counter-Power Lab, built China Digital Times (CDT), launching the English website in 2004 and the Chinese site in 2011. Over the past 15 years, Xiao and his team have been monitoring and archiving censored material (especially "self-media" platforms), relying on human editors and automated aggregation to select and organize digital content. Xiao believes that CDT is more than just a battlefront for an alternative record of history. It is also a place of connection, where he and his compatriots can create a collective experience. "CDT is like a growing coral reef of resistance to internet censorship. One day, the reef will be so big that it will tear into the hull of the dictators' legitimizing discourse."

In the summer of 1986, Xiao Qiang, then 24 years old, graduated from the University of Science and Technology of China with both a bachelor’s and master’s degree, then came to the United States for a doctoral program in astrophysics at the University of Notre Dame. In June 1989, he saw "June Fourth" unravel on TV. He felt awakened by these tremendous events and made up his mind to go back to China; he resolved to "stand on the side of justice" and to "become a part of this historic moment" through action. Two months later, he returned to the U.S. and started on the path of a professional human rights activist. In 2001, Xiao received a MacArthur fellowship in recognition of his leadership in human rights. In September 2003, Xiao joined the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism (later moving to the School of Information), where he launched the CDT website, embarking on an intensive 15-year study of China's internet censorship and digital ecology.

Xiao points out that CDT's most important source of both content and readers is the growing number among China's 800 million netizens who disavow dictatorship and censorship. He quotes Kahlil Gibran's poem "On Freedom," from The Prophet: “And if it is a despot you would dethrone, see first that his throne erected within you is destroyed. /For how can a tyrant rule the free and the proud, but for a tyranny in their own freedom and a shame in their won pride?" "I hope that our [heartfelt, genuine] readers and authors are all ‘free and proud,'" Xiao said. "CDT exists for them."

On one hand, Xiao Qiang firmly believes in the internet's power to liberate, that the connections forged by information circulation and self-expression have the power to turn collective experience into affirmation of the rights of citizenship, promoting civil society by protecting the rights and interests of citizens. On the other hand, faced with the development of the digital space on authoritarian soil and the global rise of digital authoritarianism, Xiao speaks frankly about information technology's power to control, in particular his own underestimation of the role of large corporations and governments. As the "empire strikes back" by co-opting internet technology, Xiao foresees an ongoing tug-of-war among different powers in the coming years, a challenge that the whole world, including China, will have to face.

In January 2019, I interviewed Xiao Qiang in California. He talked about how CDT got its start, introduced the projects he and his team are working on, and reflected on the present and future of internet censorship and internet technology in China, and the influence of these developments on the global internet. Below is a condensed version of our conversation (edited and abridged):

What made you decide to create China Digital Times 15 years ago? What are the major sources of funding for your online and offline projects?

Xiao Qiang (hereafter "Xiao"): CDT is the "byproduct" of my teaching and research at Berkeley's School of Journalism and School of Information. In September 2003, I had just started at the journalism school, and was interested in the internet, so I co-taught a course with two other instructors that investigated this new phenomenon of blogs. I provided the content, mainly reporting on the internet in China. By the end of the semester, the site was basically fully formed. We named it "China Digital News." The next year I taught a course on human rights in China and had the students continue to work with me on the site content. Around April or May of 2004, we changed the name to China Digital Times. After all, the site was tracking news and events, then putting these events in chronological order. In March 2006, CDT was blocked by the Great Firewall.

In 2009, I moved from the journalism school to the School of Information, and my interest in internet technology only grew. At that time, online Chinese-language content was particularly rich. I wanted to use a few different methods to gather and organize that content, so I started a tech project called Blogging China, tracking Chinese social media (mostly blogs and Weibo) and investigating their political, social, and cultural influence. We wanted to automate the aggregation of blog content, but automating selections from that content proved to be more difficult. Back then Chinese Twitter was really active. There was more high-quality news there, and there were always some interesting articles. You could basically sift through most censored content by tracking what was popular on Chinese Twitter. The number of replies and retweets also turned out to be a good indicator. Once we introduced these criteria, our automatic aggregation had much better results. About two years after we went through this process, we launched the CDT Chinese site in the beginning of 2011, publishing alongside the English site.

Since 2013, when CDT became a registered non-profit in California and started hiring staff, the operating costs of the websites and other projects have depended on fundraising. Aside from some departmental and institutional support from Berkeley, we have received grants from the Open Technology Fund, and American organization which supports global internet freedom; the National Endowment for Democracy in the US, supporting freedom of speech and freedom of the press; the Dutch organization HIVOS, supporting citizen media; the Open Society Institute; and some small-scale private grants and donations (such as from former Sino-American Friendship Association board member Jack Edelman). In the early years, when the site was still a university research project, we almost ran out of money to keep going. In the past few years, as the impact of the site continues to grow, our sources of funding have also expanded somewhat. But the financial pressure has only increased. You have to be persistent.

How are the Chinese and English sites, and their respective readership, different from each other? What does the site's logo mean?

Xiao: Actually, the readers of the Chinese site and those of the English site aren't entirely the same. The English site primarily monitors and reports on news from China. They also translate some content from Chinese social media. They're trying to show the English-speaking world the internet as experienced by Chinese netizens--not just "how it happened," but also "what do Chinese people think about it? "In particular, the more something is ignored or glossed over by the mainstream English-language media, the more valuable that content is. It's an alternative "Chinese story."Our English readers are mainly people who want to know how Chinese social media reflects current events in China. Now that we've been around while, because we've accumulated so much information, a lot of students learning about China or doing research on China use the site. After all these years, English readers don't make up a huge proportion of our total readership, and monthly site traffic is only in the tens of thousands; but they're high-quality readers, they're fairly reliable, and they aren't affected by the Great Firewall. Over the years, I've often run into people who tell me they've been reading CDT for a quite a while.

Readers of the Chinese site are mostly people in China who have scaled the Great Firewall. In the very beginning they came to us from Chinese Twitter. When it comes to the users of the Chinese site, they're readers as well as writers; on CDT they can read content that has been deleted or censored by the Central Propaganda Department and the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission, and because of them, we're able to save that content can't be saved behind the Great Firewall. The website simply sifts through and compiles this content. Readership of the Chinese site has grown over the years, with monthly traffic now at about several hundred thousand; but that readership isn't very stable. When the Great Firewall is stronger, traffic drops. Since the Chinese site shares its domain name with the English site -- it was never an independent site -- it's never not been blocked by the Great Firewall.

The newsletter is a different project that we built from 2013 to 2014. At the time, a lot of Chinese users were on Gmail, including the majority of our newsletter subscribers. Our total number of subscribers is no longer growing, though it probably accounts for several tens of thousands of the site's monthly traffic figures. Besides this, we also push our site content to social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, Google Reader, WhatsApp and Telegram. In the past two years, we've also been developing a project called China Digital Space, which is supported by wiki technology.

The CDT logo on both the Chinese and English sites is a green circle with the character shí 時, from the word "time" (shíjiān 時間), written in white in seal script. Speaking for myself, the website is "a new and different writing of history," told from the perspective of the resisters -- those who've been rejected by the totalitarian society, the oppressed outsiders -- a battlefront of alternative record-keeping. Meanwhile, China Digital Space, our recently [re]launched wiki platform, is built by "turning time into space."If blogs and microblogs are tools to write "first draft of history," then wikis are the tools to write "the never-finished final draft of history."These histories aren't histories of past events, but of a carefully observed present. Together, the two sites offer an alternative story of the different voices and different bits of information struggling against each other on the same online battlefield.

How exactly does CDT resist the Chinese government's censorship of the internet?

Xiao: CDT is an aggregator that tracks, records, and organizes Chinese-language content (especially from "self-media") that has been censored or blocked online. The content that netizens collectively refer to as "sensitive information" is varied, including so-called "internal information" such as propaganda directives and high-level political intrigue, as well as social issues such as corruption, housing prices, medical reform, wages and environmental pollution. Out of its own self-interest and the demands of its rule, the Communist Party will block relevant topics or specific pieces of information, both out of the need to maintain the stability of the ruling order at the smallest possible cost, and to portray legitimacy in order to create a national identity in which "Party and State are one" -- to quietly coerce their fellow countrymen to consent to this one-party dictatorship. But this struggle for so-called "consent" embodies a struggle for truth; when netizens share and discuss "sensitive information" in ways that are not officially approved, this is naturally a form of resistance to internet censorship.

The government's typical responses to netizens, such as deleting posts and tightening filters of "sensitive words," have created a whole range of direct and indirect "resistance discourse," that is the kuso (ègǎo 恶搞) or parody that is so ubiquitous online --like flipping, distorting, and reinterpreting the symbols and slogans of the "main theme." It also includes satire, mockery, roasts, provocations, take-downs and deconstructions, or intentionally "oppositional" interpretations. "Online resistance" also includes the exposure of the inner workings of the censorship system. CDT's series of verified leaks, "Directives from the Ministry of Truth," is the best example. Also, the "Great Firewall" is an important layer of the Chinese government's censorship system, as well as a key target of online resistance. From anger at the "wall," ridicule of the wall's symbolism and active protest against it, to the development and spread of "wall-scaling" technologies, these are experiences that netizens are all familiar with. It's also the content that CDT monitors, archives and publishes. By collecting and organizing "forbidden words" from the internet behind the Great Firewall, we can discern the true intent of censorship, while also revealing the diligence and intelligence with which netizens resist this censorship.

CDT pays special attention to these "sensitive words," words like "Celestial Empire," "Big Spender," and "fart people." In March 2018, Xi Jinping amended the constitution to remove term limits on the presidency. This was undoubtedly a monumental event in recent Chinese history. But due to strict government suppression and internet scrubbing, all you could find about it on social media behind the Firewall was approval and praise from state media. It was impossible to hear anything from ordinary people. Our editors documented a large volume of "sensitive words" that were blocked from search on Sina Weibo at that time, like "shameless," "backslide" and "Yuan Shikai." By recording and disseminating this "resistance discourse," which was spread even further by our readers, in a broad sense CDT has become a part of the online resistance.

There are layers of meaning behind a lot of the column titles on CDT Chinese. Could you talk a bit about those titles and why you chose them?

Xiao: At first, we didn't really have a plan, except for keeping our eyes glued to what the censors would and wouldn't let you say. Political humor, sarcasm, irony -- there will always be someone cracking jokes under political pressure. But online, where many more people can hear you and share what you say, this so-called hidden discourse has gone public. Yet it is still indirect. For instance, terms like "Zhao family member," "grass-mud horse" and "river crab" are really metaphors for China's aristocracy, or for internet censorship and resistance to it. Each of these turns of phrase acknowledges something essential, so they spread online. In general, the words that get shared speak the truth; when a word resonates with people, that's when it goes viral. When that happens, we take note, and it becomes the name of a column.

For example, the "Ministry of Truth" refers to ideological departments, such as the Cyberspace Affairs Commission and the Propaganda Department. When you read about the Ministry of Truth in 1984, you'll see that George Orwell essentially described the work of these departments. Or take "Zhao family member," a phrase that appeared online in the past two years that really gets at the essence of aristocratic politics; since this phrase has come to be, anyone who uses "Zhao family member" or "Zhao country" brings up all of its connotations, including the taunt directed at "fifty centers" and "little pinks": "You are not worthy of the surname Zhao!" After a while, if we find that even more people are using a term, it also becomes a column title.

Actually, for any given phenomenon, there may be hundreds of different ways of referring to it. But one among them will be more prevalent, and in general it's the most apt. These sayings aren't created in the academy, but are instead the natural sediment from the practice of language. "Hot words" often emerge from one or another "online event." As a platform that continuously tracks and sorts through [China's online world], we try our best to pin down and define these terms. The result of this effort has also become one of our methods of organizing information. We don't decide in advance. The column takes shape as we take note of a rising word's emergence and form. These aren't abstract terms. You can see them, feel them, read them. CDT has actually put together a "history of discourse" based on our reporting on these events. With the additional organization of China Digital Space, we do our best to preserve and present the essence of this discourse. It's resistance discourse, and it's censorship and suppression, and it's also a survey and analysis of online public opinion and the formation of popular will.

In the past few years, China's internet censors have also tried their hand at creating cool new internet lingo, but for the most part they have utterly failed. Only the weak can laugh at those in power. Jokes that the powerful make at the expense of the weak are not going to catch on; it's not that these words can't be co-opted by the powerful, but that the power structure behind them is different. If you want to use language equally, then power must be shared equally; otherwise, the language you use and the stories you tell will not be the same. It's not that easy to confuse people -- readers and netizens have common sense, too.

In the coming years, what do you see as the potential utility and value of CDT in the fight against internet censorship, management and control?

Xiao: As I see it, CDT has two main functions: to record an alternative history from the perspective of the resisters, and to create a collective alliance. First, as a human rights person and news watcher, in the process of observing and documenting online content, what I've seen is that you can now say the things that you couldn't before. The internet makes it possible to circulate information, and you can watch the struggle unfold online. Even though the authorities have enormous power, they can delete content or even detain people, but the traces of dissent are everywhere. In an authoritarian system, the efficacy of censorship relies in large part on people's ignorance of it; they don't just force people to forget history, they do whatever they can to change history. But every online incident, every storm of public opinion, every round of deletion and control, every wave of the "fifty-centers" and the "water army," every "sensitive word" here and there -- not only do netizens invent [responses] and use them widely, but after they're censored or blocked, CDT archives, organizes and disseminates that content. This is what forms an "alternative history."Observing, recording and monitoring the boundaries of this fight in fact offers a window onto the issues facing China, and a way to record these competing voices.

Second, for each person who posts or reposts content that gets deleted, it isn't just something that happened, but a significant experience on their way of thinking, their maturation and their emotions. For one individual, it's just a personal experience; but for thousands and thousands of individuals, it's actually a collective experience, which then becomes an identity. As for myself, the time I've lived abroad has already exceeded the time I lived in China, but I'm still from China. Even though I can't go back, when I read what they post online—especially the content that foreign media can't easily cover—it has a lot of value for me. On the Chinese internet, even though I'm not directly saying anything, this record-keeping or archiving is also a way of being there, a collective experience that I share with the Chinese people, my hometown, and my homeland.

As Chinese society transforms, the internet and social media have enabled a great soul-bearing, and a great listening. The dissatisfaction and suffering unique to the individual living under political power and social pressure, those stifled truths and untold miseries, once they are clearly explained or given voice, they'll go viral online--because for every netizen who takes part, the act of "reposting" helps them to break through the confines of social reality from deep inside themselves. Besides, there's usually an atmosphere of incredible creativity, even "revelry," in the satirization, deconstruction and e'gao of the "main theme" or official media, such as in "five times better," "anyway, I believe it," and "this batch of people is no good." For netizens, this process of "reposting" and "surrounding and watching" (wéiguān 围观) is a "liberating" act. It turns an individual's mental "release" into meaningful resistance, and it builds a reciprocal alliance among the netizens who have listened to each other and shared their stories. This alliance is not just that I as an individual have shared this thing that was then read and reposted by others. It's also a new kind of association and experience for the people who read and repost.

The "propaganda directives" that the censors send to the media or the "sensitive words" they give to the search engines are never public. The highest form of propaganda is to "outwardly entertain and subtly influence." Internet censorship's strength also comes from its concealment. Our combing through and recording is precisely bring to light these hidden mechanisms of power, to learn the true purpose behind the party-state's discourse. But if we look at what's being censored, we'll find out that one type of censored content is the censorship apparatus itself, the "behind-the-scenes" work. The other type looks ordinary, but actually reveals details of the workings of political power in everyday life, such as the "sex diary" of the former head of the Guangxi Tobacco Monopoly Bureau, or the private life of Yi Junqing, the former head of the Central Translation Bureau and Marx-Lenin expert who came up with the theory of the "three self-confidences." These are also the targets of censorship. It's just like the artist Ai Weiwei said: "As soon as you try to understand the motherland, you have already started on the path to crime"; our site's subtitle--"here, [you can] understand your motherland"--is a tribute to this brave artist, who is also my old friend from my New York days.

If I have another value, I would say it's hope. After online content is deleted, forgotten, and amended, actually it's a chaotic and untidy process. A tiny bit of information that is selected and saved may disappear after a few days; but once hundreds and thousands of these little bits of information are saved, it takes the form of a discourse, like the remains of little creatures accumulating on the ocean floor. A site like China Digital Times, whether it uses algorithms or people to sift through this information, it's just like a coral reef of online resistance. I hope that one day it will be full enough and big enough to become part of the whole reef, doing its part to force the ship the autocrat's legitimizing discourse to run aground and sink.

Since Xi Jinping came to power, China has simultaneously pushed a new wave of development in digital technology and tightened its grip on the internet. Do you still believe that internet technology can be an instrument of good to defend the rights of citizens and to build civil society? What challenges does China's increasingly restricted online environment pose to citizens' rights and civil society?

Xiao: In general, this [observation] hasn't changed; but right now, it looks like the progression of history isn't that simple. First, everything has a rebound. What we're seeing right now is the rebound of power by violence and intimidation. A period of easing up on information controls doesn't mean that the autocratic system has given up or surrendered. On the contrary, it will redouble their efforts, even resorting to violence. As long as the dictators have the resources and the strength, they'll keep it up. To borrow the language of Star Wars, the beginning is "A New Hope"--over the past 15 years, the gradual emergence of the popular will on the Chinese-language internet is in fact a "zeitgeist"; online public opinion reflected the changing values of Chinese society, and in the process of establishing those values, the [sentimentalized] netizens began to approach an "organized citizenry." But since 2013 it's been The Empire Strikes Back, and the backlash may still be ongoing--public security and the courts resort to brute force to arrest and suppress; under the supervision of the CAC, social media companies use machines and manpower to delete content and block accounts; the national firewall is constantly upgraded to block more foreign content and "wall-scaling" services; state media, universities, and PR firms of every stripe gang up to launch "public sentiment research" services (AKA intelligence services provided by every level of government); the Communist Youth League and governments organize massive "fifty cent" teams and "water armies" in an attempt to change "online public opinion" into a part of the state's dominance technology...

However, this is not to say that things are back to where they started, or that the social and political outlook of today's netizens has gone back to what it was 20, 30, 40 years ago. Even if you arrest people and others don't really speak out, that doesn't mean they've truly changed their minds. Like the saying "we don't want to be represented," once it's out there, it won't just vanish from netizens' minds. The consent that the dictators want to manufacture hasn't really been produced. At its heart is abject dread, and this dread hasn't lessened, it's actually gotten worse. True "consent" doesn't stop at words, it's embodied in people's thoughts and actions. To give you a common example, in China a lot of "nationalists" say they vehemently "oppose American hegemony," but if given the opportunity, they will not hesitate to send their children abroad, move their assets out of the country, or even emigrate themselves. This brings no solace to the architects of the ideology. So I don't think the last few years of internet repression have had that big of an impact in terms of changing hearts and minds. It's just on the surface; years of tracking Chinese social media tell me that you can never underestimate the [agency] of the controlled. Right now it looks like an occupier's conquest, not the result of a manufactured consent.

Second, what we rather optimistic "information freedom theorists" didn't see, or at least underestimated, was that changes to information technology (especially big data and artificial intelligence) don't only help ordinary, unempowered people, they also help big companies and big governments. The people who have access to these huge data sets and who can employ algorithms to extract the most use out of them, are only big companies and big governments. The new generation of infotech has enormous power to control, surveille, and force people to submit. Xi Jinping's "New Era" is without a doubt moving toward a combination of authoritarianism, populism, and nationalism. It's not just that the Great Firewall has been reinforced and that internet censorship keeps getting worse and worse. It's also that in the hands of China's autocrats, the new wave of digital technology is becoming a powerful, oppressive tool for surveillance and control of society as a whole. The new generation of infotech has an incredible capacity for surveillance, control, instrumentalization, and forced subordination. This stands in even starker contrast to the earlier assumption that tying information freedom to human freedom would democratize society.

The Chinese government is really encouraged by big data, AI, facial recognition, voice recognition, and other technologies of social control. It is these technologies that truly pose an enormous threat and challenge to human freedom. It's not just in China. All over the world, no matter where we are, we've lost our privacy, we're living in a surveillance state, we're living in a global society where the democratic system itself is threatened. But in China, it can solve two fundamental problems: one is that it can greatly reduce the cost of social coercion and suppression, and two is that it can target the smallest resistance with the exact amount of force needed. That's what makes it every dictator's dream technology.

At the same time, big data also has predictive power. It can see not only the conscious of the individual within society, but with statistical analysis it can also see the subconsciousness of group behavior. In China under autocratic rule, internet giants like Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent can't opt out of cooperating with the government, while the government has data on the entire populace. If this data were fully integrated, it would have enormous power to predict and control. This is one possible direction for tech innovation. For the dictators, this would double their power; for ordinary people, while they benefit from the everyday convenience, they're paying a huge price with the loss of their freedom. The goal of this kind of surveillance is not merely to eliminate risk. It could also allow the autocrats to use all the information about people that's hidden—their flesh, their emotions, their hopes and beliefs—to strengthen the appeal of their ideology, allowing them to achieve social control.

In addition, China's technologies could spread around the world, and in fact it has already spread to many countries, like Malaysia and Zimbabwe. This is also a threat to global values of freedom. The combination of new technology and autocracy has already started to alarm the world, especially in democratic countries. It's a huge tech challenge for humanity.

How do you view the influence of China's internet policy on political control and economic development? What changes do you think we'll see in the next phase of Chinese internet censorship and globally rising digital authoritarianism?

Xiao: Online consumer behavior and commerce does not at all conflict with political control. In fact, economic activity is part of political control. The simplest example is WeChat. There's no doubt that WeChat has brought a lot of convenience, or that it's innovated in tech and the economy. At the same time though, it's also created enormous consumerist conformity. More importantly, while WeChat use has exploded, users have no guarantee of privacy or freedom. From the government's perspective, this has two benefits: on the one hand, it's created convenience and profit, while on the other, it's strengthened the government's control. But for the masses, this poses a huge challenge, and they have no other choice.

In the past few years, it seems that China's control of the internet has actually encouraged economic progress. But at the same time, these controls have infiltrated, even imperiled foreign internet companies. As the world's largest online marketplace, no foreign company can give up on China if it wants to stay competitive. But the Chinese government can't totally control sites dedicated to user-generated content (UGC). That's why, in the era of Internet 2.0, these UGC sites have been the primary target of the Great Firewall. While the blocks are politically motivated, they've had big economic consequences, creating inequality in the marketplace. Because of this trade barrier, the Great Firewall has allowed Chinese internet business to flourish, creating a separate market from the one outside the firewall. In most other countries, this could have created huge financial loss, but the Chinese market is big enough, so a lot of internet companies have been hugely successful. Their level of innovation and tech leadership, their market share and wealth creation, have been incredible. This has actually made the Chinese government view censorship and barriers as effective tools for governing both politically and economically.

The longevity of China's autocratic system is precisely due to the power of economic development and political control. This has been both complementary and developmentally useful for preserving the dictatorship, and it's one of the reasons China's autocracy has survived and thrived. Even so, as long as the government lacks confidence in its own legitimacy, the digital barriers will stay up, and the strict control of information will continue. Most countries are talking about "internet security," but in China they've added concerns like "content security" and "ideological security," because the bottom line for their dictatorship is whether the masses "consent" to the "unity of the party-state." If that line is crossed, their rule will be in crisis; to use the government's own term, that would endanger the "security of the polity." The day that China truly opens to foreign companies and the international community its information, communications, and media, that will be the day of China's democratic transformation.

That aside, digital authoritarianism is expanding technologically, politically, and economically. It's not just in China that it's affecting internet censorship and threatening people's freedom; that makes resistance all the more crucial. I don't think the digital threat to human freedom will shrink or go away any time soon, nor do I think humanity will simply be enslaved by their own technology. Neither of these extremes is likely to happen very quickly. This is not a one-way process, but the product of multiple forces, a perpetual see-saw of adjustment and struggle. It's like this from China's perspective, as it is from the perspective of the entire world.

Translation by Anne Henochowicz.

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