The story behind the Tiananmen Tank Man Photo


I’ve written about the “Tiananamen tank man” before, but I just came upon this article that details how the famous picture came to be taken. It’s an amazing story in itself and one I had never heard before.

I also like the article’s close:

A decade and a half later, Widener’s photograph retains all of its potency. “It’s an urgently important message about what you can do if you have the guts to do it,” says Mickey Spiegel, a China specialist at Human Rights Watch in New York City, who has hung the photograph in every office she has occupied since 1989.

Richard Baum, director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, says there’s “an emotional legacy to that shot. I think that has cost China more in public image than any other single image in modern times.”

Widener, now 47 and a staff photographer for the Honolulu Advertiser in Hawaii, has considered going to China to revisit the story. “The picture’s part of my life now,” says the photographer. “His message was, ‘Enough’s enough. There’s been enough killing. It’s got to stop.’ “

Other posts about Tiananmen Square:
Tiananmen Square revisited
Tiananmen Square re-revisited
Messages on Tiananmen Square

You can see the famous Tiananmen Tank video here.

You can read Pico Iyer’s sublime tribute to Tank Man in Time magazine here.

The Discussion: 67 Comments

A while ago, National Geographic tracked down the striking Afghan girl it had put on its cover 20 or more years before. I’d love to see them, or some other news agency, do the same with Tank Man.

January 23, 2004 @ 4:06 pm | Comment

People have been trying to track him down for years. It would be fantastic if he could be found, but I’m not counting on it anytime soon, if ever.

January 23, 2004 @ 5:57 pm | Comment

tank man

Richard points out an article on how the famous “geezer in front of a tank in Tiananamen Square” photo came to be taken. In the comments, someone wonders if they’ll do a “years later National Geographic finds Afghan girl with…

January 26, 2004 @ 2:51 pm | Comment

And I still have my copy from the paper that next day that I clipped out.

That has got to be one of the most powerful photos ever taken, at least in the political arena.

I still get worked up and emotional when I see it, almost 15 years later.

January 27, 2004 @ 3:28 am | Comment

Super Bowl halftime report from China

Amazing. Just before broadcasting the terrible Super Bowl halftime show on China Central Television 5, an MTV ad showing various celebrities ran. It was something about “Choice” I wasn’t really paying much attention until I saw a certain picture from…

February 2, 2004 @ 10:06 am | Comment

Superbowl blogging from China

Tennessee Ruck has some posts on the Superbowl in China. Here and here. Apparently, the Superbowl was the first time the Tiananmen Square picture was…

February 2, 2004 @ 11:19 pm | Comment

Amazingly to me, I just showed this picture and the Quicktime file at

to a student of mine who was a young girl in Beijing at the time (she donated money to the demonstrators). I was surprised that she’d never seen it, despite living in the U.S. for about 4 years.

February 5, 2004 @ 7:57 am | Comment

CCTV irate over Tiananmen still blast from the past.

[beep] [beep] [beep] … this just in … [beep] [beep] [beep] … An NFL lackey took a phone call from a PRC lackey over the airing of Tiananmen’s Look at-’em-straight-in-the-eye Tank Man. Presidential inquiry with pre-approved judges to lead co…

February 9, 2004 @ 2:56 pm | Comment

I think that It would be nice to keep this hero anonymous. Lets don’t make the same mistake that National Geographic made with the afghan girl. The mystery and the legend around this guy is part of the History. He is not a single guy. He is the Chinese people who want a Democratic regime. He is the invincible spirit of the hundreds of Chinese people killed in Tiananamen.

April 14, 2004 @ 3:51 pm | Comment

I think the man in question was identified at the time by the BBC. If my memory serves me correctly I believe he was killed later on that day I think his name was Wang Wellin.

April 27, 2004 @ 2:45 am | Comment


The Iraqi prisoner abuse story is extremely significant. It is a devastating blow to any notion of winning the hearts and minds of Arabs in or outside of Iraq. Most newspapers are carrying stories on outrage in Cairo, UAE, Bahrain….

May 1, 2004 @ 7:23 pm | Comment

I believe there’s something of a tragic urban legend developing that says this man is dead. However, the BBC reported a few years back that no one really knows what actually happened to him:

May 22, 2004 @ 12:35 pm | Comment

It wasn’t the photograph that gave the incident its power, though it helps it endure. By the time the photo appeared the man was already world famous from the broadcast of him stepping in front of the tank, which then tried to drive around him, whereupon he blocked its way in that direction too. It was almost comic– I felt like laughing at the tank driver’s fix, notwithstanding the grim circumstances. I read in a Time magazine instant paperback that the man’s horrified friends eventually ran into the street and pulled him from in front of the tank to safety, but I didn’t see that. I don’t think the name is Wang Wellin, but Wang Weilin or Wei Lin. While that is the name most commonly associated with the tank man, it’s uncertain that it’s who he is, or was. –Dennis Myers/Sparks Nevada

June 3, 2004 @ 10:36 pm | Comment

I just checked the book Time put out on their picks for the most important 100 people of the 20th century, one of whom was the tank man. It says after he blocked the tank’s way and kept stepping in its way, he then climbed up on it and tried to talk to those within: “Then this anonymous bystander clambers up onto the vehicle of war and says something to its driver, which comes down to us as: ‘Why are you here? My city is in chaos because of you.’ One lone Everyman standing up to machinery, to force, to all the massed weight of the People’s Republic β€” the largest nation in the world, comprising more than 1 billion people β€” while its all powerful leaders remain, as ever, in hiding somewhere within the bowels of the Great Hall of the People.” Time also argues that in that broadcast, “Almost certainly he was seen in his moment of self-transcendence by more people than ever laid eyes on Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein and James Joyce combined.” –Dennis Myers

June 3, 2004 @ 10:47 pm | Comment

This photo still leaves me speechless and emotional. The bravery this gentleman showed is an inspiration to everyone on the planet. He showed that one person, no matter who they are, can do something about the things going on around him. There are a lot of bad people out there, but it fills me with pride in humanity to know that there are people like this out there too. I admire this man greatly.
And let’s not forget the men in the tank either. They did everything they could to keep from running him over, likely against their orders. How must they have felt looking at this lone character standing in their way.
I will never forget that image and the man as long as I live.

June 4, 2004 @ 12:28 pm | Comment

I would love to know where I could find a poster of this picture. I also have access to plotters so I can make my own if anyone can point me to a good JPG or GIF (the one in this article is too low to blow up to a 24×36 poster). The picture is the single most inspirational photo I have ever seen, and I would like it framed in my house. Many thanks in advance, please email me with leads. I’m sure there are others who would like the same info.

June 5, 2004 @ 8:25 pm | Comment

Go to and search for “Tiananmen”. They have a beautiful B&W poster of it for $9. I’ve ordered it and it looks great, although a tad big for my wall, 61 x 86 cm (24 x 34 in).

I’ve also found other posters of it but this is in my opinion the best one. Just use Tiananmen, Poster on google or Altavista and I’m sure you’ll find plenty of posters.

If anyone would find a good JPG or GIF of it aswell I would very much like to know of it.

June 16, 2004 @ 6:00 am | Comment

I think some of you, and most people, are missing the point. The photo doesnt mean a thing, its the action. The fact you want a poster of the action totally demeans the action itself. This is by no means the first time something this would have happened and surely not the last, but the only difference with this is it was on T.V.
Theres a song about the conflict in tiananman sqaure, she is the one in fifty million who can help us to be free, because she died on T.V.

August 10, 2004 @ 8:34 pm | Comment

Steve, that’s the power of the media, I’m afraid. Because it was captured by the media, it lives with us forever. There were undoubtedly more significant things hapeining in Beijing, but by a quirk of fate the photographer captured this moment which captured the heart of the entire world.

August 10, 2004 @ 8:42 pm | Comment

just more christians looking for extremist suicidal martyrs. it’s perfectly reasonable after enduring six weeks of disruption, conceeding 30 of 35 demands, to say enough is enough. the american goverment would never even come close to tolerating that much. and in the end, it’s actually the government’s job to maintain a smoothly running city, isn’t it? and that westerners all love to think of these people as pro democracy protestors, is just a joke. they were waving mao’s red book, and this way got sympathy from communist hardliners in the politburo, thus receiving protection. the little statue of liberty thing was something they did for the cameras.

winning a battle abroad nowadays means that you have to win the sympathy of americans, not build your own great army, or spread your ideas as before. and all i see here on this post is another bunch suckers, just like the ones who fell for the mass graves in yugoslavia, WMD in iraq, or whatever the fashionable excuse is to interfere in other places you can’t even find on a map.

September 19, 2004 @ 10:58 pm | Comment

Mr Tao, a big difference is that in America they could hold an election and vote out the officials with whom they disagree, or take the issues to the courts. There has never been a Tiananmen Square-type incident in America or any democratic nation that I know of — democracy makes such actions unnecessary. But when you have one party and no rule of law and the ability to lock up or even murder anyone you please — well, you know, it gets kind of sucky.

September 19, 2004 @ 11:13 pm | Comment

Richard, I think there are a few Americans who would disagree with that statement. Democracy is much like communism in that works better in theory than in practice. Only if all Americans were educated about the issues and voted would there be atrue democracy. Not to mention the factor of choice that is inherent in the idea of democracy that is forgotten when Westerners try to push it onto other nations. And there were several moments during the Civil Rights movement that were similar to violence in T-Square. The scale might not have been as great, but the power of oppression from the government was the same.

October 1, 2004 @ 2:37 pm | Comment

Krista, what are you talking about here? Westerners weren’t trying to push democracy on the Tiananmen Square demonstrators.l They craved it, and were willing to fight hard for it. Would it have worked? Maybe; maybe not. But shuold they have been killed for wanting their freedom?

October 1, 2004 @ 4:17 pm | Comment

It is people like Mr Tao who reaffirmed my believe that the Chinese very much deserve all the abuses and tragedies that happened to them and all that would happen in their future.

I am eternally grateful to my grandparents who fled China two centuries ago… they may have done it for survival, but they gave to me a life I know I never can repay.

October 5, 2004 @ 8:53 am | Comment

Tan, I wouldn’t quite go that far…. Lots of wonderful people in China.

October 5, 2004 @ 9:25 am | Comment

It’s all Gandhi’s fault

November 4, 2004 @ 10:08 am | Comment

and krista is a right wing leftist nihilistic moron

November 4, 2004 @ 10:14 am | Comment

and hooray for Nirvana

November 4, 2004 @ 10:18 am | Comment

Inspirational even though the man is rumored to have been executed the following day.

November 20, 2004 @ 6:54 pm | Comment

As far as I have heard from every where I have seen that is a reliable source his identy was never known and no one knows what happend to him. Anything about an exucution or whatever are not true. People dont know who he is and prob never will. But he will never be forgotten.

December 7, 2004 @ 12:10 pm | Comment

Al, I believe you are right. There are ots of theories about what happened to this man, but no one knows for sure, and there’s never been any proof he was found, let alone executed, that I know of.

December 7, 2004 @ 12:16 pm | Comment

He probably got the Rachel Corrie treatment-crushed under the Israeli tank

December 8, 2004 @ 6:54 pm | Comment

He probably got the “Rachel Corrie” treatment – crushed and flattened under the Israeli tank

December 8, 2004 @ 6:55 pm | Comment

I believe the focus on this discussion has drifted from the true significance. America’s bloody history has effected us all. Even more so perhaps in years after this powerful moment, as we again find ourselves engaged in military operations across the world.

The true significance I believe is that is if we all only had the courage to take a stand in something we believe, then what the result be. If a young man can single handedly stop 4 combat tanks, what could we collectively do as a society.

Stand Up. The power of non-violent confrontation, or demonstration can not be minimized. Stand Up for what it is you believe in.

December 21, 2004 @ 5:31 pm | Comment

Matthew, I think you’re making some excellent points — thanks.

December 21, 2004 @ 6:56 pm | Comment

Don’t waste your time argueing with peeps like Mr. Tao. Every conscious Chinese people knows that they were paid for this. Even if hs were not a specialist-as I presumed, at least he is a quite positive citizen who is enthusiastic about enjoying Chinese style of speech freedom granted by their Constitution, or shall we say, the freedom of saying 2+2=5.

January 9, 2005 @ 12:07 am | Comment

Not sure exactly what Mr. Oat is saying, but what I’d like to say is, Matthew said it best: “[S]tand Up. The power of non-violent confrontation, or demonstration can not be minimized. Stand Up for what it is you believe in.” That is why the picture, the idea, is so desirable…it represents this in one shot. It reminds people that even one average person can do so much at the right moment if he has the courage to.

What’s sad is that slowly, oppression is becoming homogenous with tradition, and people like Mr. Tao are so exposed to this concoction, that they can’t distinguish between the two, between abuse and responsibility…

I like to imagine, however romanticized the idea may be, that this man, this Wang Weilin, is a drop that preceeds a great flood of enlightenment that will wash over the nation, and purify those who would let millions die for their own gain, their own greed, for money, for power…

…you’ve got to believe…in the power of love…

January 30, 2005 @ 9:07 pm | Comment

First thank you for this site with this historic and profoundly impressive photo. Thank you also for the source information re a poster. After a long life of involvement in politics, I think that Krista’s comments (10-1-04) are quite accurate. This photo, reflecting the courage of one man, especially in a culture which did not reward this kind of individual expression of opposition, pictures a supremely noble historic act which should inspire activists to persevere.

February 24, 2005 @ 12:15 pm | Comment

My take on the unknown man standing in front of the tanks, a man displaying great courage, something that we all know in our hearts, is as follows:

I will not be controlled by being threated with violence. I am an indivdual human with a voice and with dignity. “You” have murdered many in order to maintain control, unjust and corrupt control, and I will not be controlled – I may be killed but I am not afraid “You.”

We have not hurt anyone, we have done nothing wrong; and we have naturally arising and ultimately inalienable rights as human beings to communicate with one another, to ask questions,
to self-expression and to self determination. I stand for this, I believe in this, I believe that somewhere inside you know this, and I am not afraid of “You.”

Peace and Goodwill,


June 4, 2005 @ 12:42 am | Comment

Hi, no offence to the romantics please…
I lived over there some years ago and have some experience of the swift measures taken by certain mafioso style police.

In all probability the man was eventually arrested. Taken to some dark prison, made to kneel down, and shot through the back of the head.


August 15, 2005 @ 3:30 pm | Comment

This photo totally shocked and moved me.

I’m Chinese, and I live in Beijing. Before yesterday, I never heard about June 4th, let alone the courageous man who stood in front of the tanks. The actions of the tank man were the bravest I have heard of. To step out would be almost certain death. Nobody would know if he didn’t step out. But he still did. At the moment, I’m asking myself, would I ever have the courage to step in front of 17 tanks, knowing that the city is under martial law and that the army has already killed hundreds the last night– most of whom were not even in the way?

The answer is, I don’t know. I don’t think I could ever be that brave. But who knows what men are moved to do when the situation arises?

August 18, 2005 @ 2:21 am | Comment

News on every hour.

August 18, 2005 @ 2:22 pm | Comment

Interesting that noone refers to the tank crew when looking at this powerful image. Why did they stop?Who gave the order, who disobeyed the order to drive on maybe? I always wondered about the alternative…the lead tank driving on and smashing the man…and it scares me.

August 21, 2005 @ 2:06 pm | Comment

To me, this picture symbolizes the amazing courage necessary to stand up to what is wrong… Ghandi would be proud.

August 24, 2005 @ 10:25 pm | Comment


August 31, 2005 @ 1:37 pm | Comment

Animal Jewelry

September 5, 2005 @ 7:54 am | Comment

The story with the tank crew is that their regional commander gave orders to forcefully remove him under threat of being shot. However the gentleman was persistent & tried to talk to the crew inside the tank. The tank squadron commander wisely told the lead tank crew to just remain in the tank, make no contact w/him & just try to go around him. As the gentleman climbed the tank, the crew was being ordered to shoot just him or get rid of him by any means necessary. Somehow, the tank commander of the lead tank would not carry out the order. After a couple minutes of this the regional commander was told by a party boss that the event was being televised & rescinded the order to forcefully remove him & to just wait for the local police to remove him. Before the police would arrive some chinese folk decided to carry him off to safety. That incident costed the lead tank commander & his squadron commander disciplinary actions as well as losing their commands. Too bad somone got punished for doing the right thing.

October 11, 2005 @ 1:35 am | Comment

I agree with Mann Marks on his comment in the photo or better seen in the video clip, there are 2 rebels, the one who refused to stand aside and the other who refused to kill in cold blood.

December 8, 2005 @ 4:57 am | Comment

The tank man’s will is strong enough to stop tanks without his hands demonstrating that the ideals of an individual are stronger than that of a person who forces the tanks to stop.

Now a question to all, how many people have you seen using physical force in a photograph getting so much publicity and praise.

February 6, 2006 @ 11:16 am | Comment


April 11, 2006 @ 3:32 am | Comment

It wasn’t at all the photograph that gave power to the people of china. To prove this statement i can honestly say that the footage of the “tank man” was only shown once on chinese television and the government used propaganda in one bold attempt to indoctrinate the country. The news broadcaster said “the tanks are resisting” in an effort to reclaim the lost power of the government. the broadcaster also says it was the ” weastern propaganda” that made it seem like the “tank man” was trying to stop something bad from happening. Oddly enough that ” weastern propaganda” was in fact the truth….however the widley unknown truth in China today. The picture was only seen once in China, andtherefore it copuld not have been the picture that sparked hope of a new china, a new idea of freedom of choice, opionions, and ideas a china without opression. If tank man was found it would bring new hope to all of us in the weastern hemisphere, but its been almost 17 years since that photo has been seen in china, it wount mean anything to the new age university students, because of all the “new freedoms” that they now have. Unfortunatly most of them do not no off the struggles of their predessors to give them such freedoms if any at all. They dont no who to thank, because many dont realise it ever happened. Its called censorship of the media.

April 13, 2006 @ 3:41 pm | Comment

Its such a shame that this world is not, and will never be, perfect. Humanity at this point is the most powerful it has ever been, and we are still not powerful enough to create anything resembling a perfect world. Maybe we have become too powerful, too advanced for our own good, in which case we are spiralling down, and our best shot at perfection has allready passed, and failed.
However, when we see People like ‘The Tank man’ It reminds us that, even against the odds, we can ahieve great things. If one man can halt millions of pounds of mankinds most advanced weaponry, dont you think six billion of us can reverse global change? Relieve Africa of poverty? create peace in the middle east?

Sadly, we cant, and we wont. Purely for this one reason.

The bottom line is money.
And nobody gives a fuck

May 16, 2006 @ 2:59 pm | Comment

I just saw the TankMan -Frontline program tonight and was moved by the photos and video all over again. Very little remains hidden, so we will eventually know who he was. The four or so persons involved in escorting him away knew him, and the operator of the tank may have known him. Why was he first contacted by a person on a bicycle who spoke to him and then two others on each side of him with a third person who seems to be running interference for them? Perhaps he was related to someone high in the party, otherwise it seems unlikely he would be spared being taken out by a sniper. It is a fabulous image of courage in any case.

May 28, 2006 @ 11:25 pm | Comment

I just saw the TankMan -Frontline program tonight and was moved by the photos and video all over again. Very little remains hidden, so we will eventually know who he was. The four or so persons involved in escorting him away knew him, and the operator of the tank may have known him. Why was he first contacted by a person on a bicycle who spoke to him and then two others on each side of him with a third person who seems to be running interference for them? Perhaps he was related to someone high in the party, otherwise it seems unlikely he would be spared being taken out by a sniper. It is a fabulous image of courage in any case. I would like to know what message that a CIA agent might read into the odd escort sequence.

May 28, 2006 @ 11:29 pm | Comment

He is alive – I got a postcard from him in 1991 when I was in a british jail for my objection to the gulf war.

May 29, 2006 @ 3:30 pm | Comment

A truly powerful image that still evokes much emotion in me, it has been said thousands of times before but still rings true that one person alone can truly make a difference

May 29, 2006 @ 4:02 pm | Comment

Does anyone know if it’s true that the Chinese eat baby stew? This is no joke! I had some most disturbing pictures sent to me by someone who lives and works in China. The pictures show aborted babies being prepared for cooking and the finished dish. I could not beleave my eyes when I first saw these pictures.

May 30, 2006 @ 5:47 pm | Comment

Did you hear that the CNA news agency in Taiwan is reporting that the tank man is alive and living in Taiwan now. June 2006.

June 3, 2006 @ 9:08 pm | Comment

What about the babies? the Tank man is history these babies are dying everyday to be consumed.

June 4, 2006 @ 5:35 pm | Comment

fuck the chinese army of 1989

June 8, 2006 @ 5:16 pm | Comment

really ? can you show the picture in here ? I wanna see it

June 9, 2006 @ 4:12 am | Comment

Don’t know how to post the abborant pictures here, or else I would have done

June 14, 2006 @ 6:25 pm | Comment

Declaration of Their Independence

As I sat here wondering what my message will be for the upcoming holiday. I slowly navigated to Internet Explorer, clicked on the desktop icon, and then I moved the mouse arrow to my favorites. I proceeded to click on the Goggle link, placed the mouse arrow in the space provided to type, and then I typed the History of Independence Day. While waiting to click Goggle Search, I thought about what would come up on the screen. I immediately envisioned links to websites that would resemble my search criteria. Of course I was right. So, I clicked on the first one I saw: Independence Day on the Net?Story. Well, I definitely got what I asked for. The history of America?s birthday is in big fonts, stars are all over the page, firework graphics are protruding, and that song I despise is playing. What is it? America, America… Somebody help me. By the way, the song repeats itself over and over again. That was irritating me as I tried to continue my research.

Eventually, I clicked on the icon that read: Declaration of Independence. I have read the document before. However, this time around I read it without trying to memorize selected areas of it. Then it finally hit me that the most quoted sentence of the document (We hold these truths…) precedes two extremely important sentences. Read below. Pay close attention to the second and third sentence.

?We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.?

Since the day this so called Declaration of Their Independence was written we (black folk) were not included. We were property then. I ask, what are we considered now? Answer: Since this document has not been amended and never will be we are still technically speaking, property. However, today we have been given a status to have unalienable rights. Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. I have my life. I am breathing. I guess I have liberty. I am considered free from restriction and control. Wait, is this true? Anyway, I do have the opportunity to be happy. I am happy.

Being happy is great, but why don?t I feel included? I feel like this holiday is not for me. I have asked myself time and time again, why in the world am I celebrating this holiday that does not pertain to me? My answer: ?Why not? The steaks, hotdogs, and ribs I eat on the 4th of July are always good!? The 4th is just like Thanksgiving for me. I drink and eat until I get sleepy. Then I wake-up, drink, and eat some more.

Plain and simple, Independence Day is another ridiculous day that our government has sanctioned to celebrate under the auspice of a few alienable rights. It is among numerous other holidays that we claim are our reasons to be thankful and joyous i.e. the birth celebration of Jesus Christ (not sure why this is so important. I guess he ranks up there with George Washington). Anyway, I will eat a steak on the government and I will probably stand with hundreds of other people to watch the sky light up with the colors of America via fireworks. But there is one thing I will not forget, and maybe you should not either. Read below.

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.?

We should take heed to what we are summoned to do since the present government has become destructive. It is in our rights to abolish the government and institute a new one considering the elected officials have created an environment where our safety is in jeopardy i.e. terrorist attacks, and considering many of us are having difficulties pursuing happiness on several fronts because of our governmental policies.

I am ready to rebel. Are you? The Tank Man pictured in the portrait below was ready. (Click on this link to view the picture:

Written by Brian E. Payne. Inspired by that sickening flag I am bound to see waving in the sky for the next few days and the Tank Man. The Red, White, Blue, Stars and Stripes. This flag has a similar psychological effect on me after visualizing or seeing a symbol of hatred such as the Nazi used swastika or the Klansmen?s uniform: DISGUST.

June 29, 2006 @ 9:10 am | Comment

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September 14, 2006 @ 9:11 pm | Comment

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