Seduced by the Map

Seduced by the Map, Chapter 2 (Part 6)

Dependencies as Quasi-Countries?

       We now come to the most important acknowledged gap between the world model (based on theoretically equivalent national units) and the world map: the remaining colonial and post-colonial dependencies. Most of these territories are so small that they are a challenge to depict when mapping at the global scale. The CIA cartographers resort to some serviceable if subtle expedients. Where recognized states (including the Vatican and Kosovo) are labeled in all capital letters, dependencies are not; in addition, the names of their sovereign superiors are noted (in parentheses). For example, under Greenland one finds (DENMARK); under Curaçao, (NETH).[1]

       Still, one size does not necessarily fit all. One of the most stubborn challenges to accurate mapping of dependencies is the need to distinguish among the varied relationships they have with their metropoles. The situation of the U.S. commonwealths, Puerto Rico or the Northern Mariana Islands, for example, is not the same as that of the “unincorporated and unorganized territory” called American Samoa.[2] The key variable in metropole-dependency relations is supposedly the degree of self-government. Although difficult to quantify, this metric matters a great deal to the United Nations, which maintains an evolving list of non-self-governing territories that are supposed to be on a trajectory toward full autonomy, independence, or union with their controlling power.[3] Critics note that the decision to include or exclude a given dependency from this UN list reflects political considerations more than measurable self-governance (although at least it represents an attempt to draw distinctions). I take a similar tack here, cataloguing some of the inconsistencies and quirks in the way the CIA maps dependencies around the world. Close reading turns out once again to be an effective tool for exposing the unstated priorities—indeed, the worldview—of the map’s creators.

       Some of the world’s not-quite-countries are classified vaguely by the U.S. State Department as “areas of special sovereignty.” On both the State Department list and the CIA map, such places are lumped together with formal dependencies, making it difficult to differentiate the two categories. The two most prominent cases in the former category are Hong Kong and Macao—China’s Special Administrative Regions (SARs)—which retain their own legal systems, immigration bureaucracies, and currencies, but fall under the sovereign sway of the People’s Republic. On the CIA map, the SARs’ status is clearly marked through the tag “Special Administrative Region,” the only such labels on the map. These territories differ from other global dependencies in that their subordinate position derives from prior colonization by a country other than the one to which they currently belong. During the transition from one overarching sovereign (Britain/Portugal) to another (China), both were allowed to retain elements of their previous governmental apparatus. But that situation is scheduled to end in the mid-21st century, and already the SARs are being harshly subjected to the power of Beijing. Given their liminal status, Hong Kong and Macao are perhaps best viewed as temporary quasi-countries. That said, Hong Kong appears be in the process of forging a national consciousness of its own,[4] as seen in the heated clashes of 2014 and 2019. As for the other areas of special sovereignty recognized by the State Department, the map either leaves them off or marks them simply as dependencies. For example, while the CIA World Factbook specifies that the British military bases on Cyprus (Dhekelia and Akroteri) are areas of “special sovereignty,” neither figures in the CIA’s world political map.[5]


       If such special zones and dependencies generally remain hard to see on the map, they do show up on various tabulations and charts. One influential taxonomy is that of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), which provides two-letter “country codes” for all kinds of territorial entities (including some with no human inhabitants).[6] The ISO Alpha-2 codebook reserves “GS” for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (with an estimated year-round population of 16), and “TF” for the uninhabited “French Southern Territories.”[7] In the ISO’s reckoning, the terrestrial globe is divided into 249 discrete, coded territories, all of which are formally classified at the same hierarchical level.[8] Such a schema evidently proves serviceable for the global organization of the internet, where the issue of sovereignty is largely moot.

            Although increasingly used in pull-down menus on websites and in the flag-emojis employed in text messaging,[9] the ISO country-classification scheme is seldom encountered in its pure form in general tabulations of geographical information. But in data tables provided by the World Bank, the IMF, and the CIA, populated dependencies are increasingly finding their place alongside sovereign states.

            One might wonder whether dependencies are worth such extended consideration as we have given them here. After all, little attention is accorded to them in the standard world model (or in the mainstream media, for that matter). Most are treated as vanishing vestiges of bygone times—colonial holdovers fated eventually to dissolve into union with their metropoles or gain independence. In the vast literature on the British empire, the remaining territories are typically dismissed in a sentence or two. For Niall Ferguson, “The British Empire is long dead; only flotsam and jetsam now remain.”[10] Simon Winchester, one of the few popular authors who does focus on imperial remnants, highlights the “lack of caring [that] seems to characterize Britain’s dealings with her final imperial fragments.”[11] One could say the same of the United States, where imperial holdings have always been downplayed; those that remain constantly slip out of the national consciousness. As David Immerwahr argues in How to Hide an Empire, “One of the truly distinctive features of the United States’ empire is how persistently ignored it has been.”[12]

       Like Immerwahr, I believe there are good reasons not to ignore the world’s dependent territories when thinking about geopolitical space. For one thing, although most are small in terms of land-area, many are situated in highly strategic places, and collectively they confer control over a vast expanse of sea-space. The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of French Polynesia alone encompasses almost five million square kilometers of the Pacific Ocean. This makes a huge difference for the size of France. By conventional land-based reckoning, there are 40 countries on the planet larger than France. But if one includes maritime holdings, France jumps to the sixth position, trailing only Russia, the United States, Australia, Brazil, and Canada.[13] Island possessions also allow metropolitan countries to project military power across much of the world. As Immerwahl bluntly puts it—tipping his hat to Ian Fleming—“islands are instruments of world domination.”[14]

       Moreover, while dependencies may be remnants of an earlier order, that does not necessarily mean they are headed for extinction any time soon. On the contrary, most seem to be here to stay—often owing to the wishes of their own residents. In the ironic endgame of European imperialism, many territories that were once economically exploited are now subsidized, and their residents have no desire to be cut loose. Valuing their connections to Europe, the inhabitants of places like the Dutch Caribbean have rejected independence in repeated referenda. Of the six Dutch holdings in the area, half have opted to become “constituent countries” of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, while the rest have elected the status of “special municipality” within the same state.[15] On the CIA’s map, the former are marked as dependencies, whereas the latter are not. (Compare the depiction of Aruba and Bonaire on the second map below. The label “Bonaire” is italicized, marking it as an island rather than a polity, while the label for the sovereign state to which it belongs, “NETH,” is not placed in parentheses, marking it as an integral part of the Netherlands.)

       To be sure, strong movements for independence have arisen in some former colonies. A secession movement in French Polynesia commands considerable support on some islands, and independence referenda in New Caledonia in 2018 and 2020 received heavy backing from the indigenous Melanesian Kanak population. Although the latter two plebiscites did not pass, their narrow failure was due not only to the resistance of French settlers but also to the newer Polynesian and Asian communities.[16] The current official designation of New Caledonia — “a sui generis collectivity” — says much about the uncertain nature of geopolitical affiliation in the remaining vestiges of Western overseas empires.

      Local residents are not the only party with a vested interest in perpetuating para-states. Wealthy individuals from across the world profit from the shadowy status of dependencies like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands, which enjoy British security without being subject to British corporate and tax law. The Cayman Islands, with a grand total with a grand total of 57,000 residents, is home to a staggering 100,000 corporations, nearly a fifth of which are domiciled in a single five-story building called Ugland House.[17] Vast sums of money stream through this and other non-sovereign financial centers, arguably at great cost to the global economy. According to one 2014 report, “$7.6 trillion, or 8 percent of individual financial wealth …, is held in offshore tax havens, resulting in $190 billion in lost annual tax revenue for governments.”[18] Not surprisingly, private interests have joined forces with the governments of these islands to maintain the status quo, resisting British and international efforts to reign in their shady financial practices.[19] In short, despite their small size, dependencies play an outsized role in the global economy.

[1] Incongruously, however, the French overseas departments of Reunion, Mayotte, Martinique, Guadalupe, and Guiana were portrayed in the same manner until 2019, as if they were mere possessions rather than integral parts of France. To this day Mayotte, another French overseas department, is not uniformly treated as an integral part of France. Although it is portrayed in such a manner on the CIA world map, on the CIA regional map of Africa it is depicted instead as “administered by France claimed by Comoros.”

[2] In formal terms, the former designation “broadly describes an area that is self-governing under a constitution of its adoption and whose right of self-government will not be unilaterally withdrawn by Congress,” whereas the latter term designates only “an area over which the Constitution has not been expressly and fully extended by the Congress.”). These quotations are found in: 7 FAM 1120


(CT:CON-429;   01-03-2013)
(Office of Origin: CA/OCS/L

[3] “Non-Self-Governing Territories,” United Nations and Decolonization (Official United Nations Document):  Significantly, “unorganized” American Samoa appears on this roster but the Northern Mariana Islands, formally a commonwealth, does not.

[4] See “HK Youth Shunning ‘Chinese’ as their National Identity: A Survey Finds That 8.7% of the City’s Young People Find Their Hong Kong Identity ‘Absolutely Incompatible’ with Being ‘Chinese,’” By Kent Ewing. Asia Times, April 19, 2018.

[5] One problem here is the failure of the U.S. Department of State, and most international organizations as well, to differentiate dependencies from “areas of special sovereignty” (see “Dependencies and Areas of Special Sovereignty,” US Department of State. The CIA World Factbook does specify that each of the British bases on Cyprus count as an “area of special sovereignty” (see

and  Hong Kong and Macao are likewise usually reckoned as “areas of special sovereignty.”

Other places that are sometime classified as “areas of special sovereignty” include Finland’s autonomous Åland Islands and Norway’s dependency of Svalbard (see The U.S. Department of State, however, includes only the latter in its list of “dependencies and areas of special sovereignty.”

More problematic, the same source incorrectly includes French overseas departments in this list, while noting that, “French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Mayotte and Reunion are first-order administrative divisions of overseas France, and are therefore not dependencies or areas of special sovereignty. They are included in this list only for the convenience of the user.” Their inclusion, we suspect, generates more confusion than convenience for “the user.”

[6] See International Organization for Standardization, Country Codes ISO 3166:

[7] Technically speaking, these are ISO 3166-1 alpha-2 codes.

[8] At the next level down in the spatial hierarchy, ISO 3166-2 provides codes for the main subdivisions of the larger of these “countries,” such as India’s Uttar Pradesh [IN-UP], with a population of more than 200 million

[9] See Tim Whitlock’s webpage on this issue:

[10] Ferguson 2004, p. 358.

[11] Winchester 2004, p. 346.

[12] Immerwarh 2018, p. 18.

[13] See the data tables found in Fishery Management:

[14] Immerwahl 2019, p. 340.

[15] “Dutch Caribbean,” in Dutch Caribbean Legal Portal:

Although determined to retain their ties with the Netherlands, the residents of the two largest islands, Aruba and Curaçao, are equally adamant that they remain cut-off from each other, tied to the metropole through separate formal relations. As Arend Lijphart (1980, p. 191) notes, “during the colonial period, the Arubans often resented the overbearing administration of their island from Curaçao more than Dutch colonialism itself… .”

[16] See “New Caledonia Narrowly Rejects Independence from France in Historic Referendum,” by Stephen Dziedzic and Prianka Srinivasan, ABC News, November 4, 2018. But with more than 56 percent of the voters rejecting independence, the rejection of independence was perhaps not as narrow as the headline indicates. See also “The French Election in the Pacific,” by Grant Wyeth, The Diplomat, May 3, 2017.

In the 2020 independence referendum, however, support for remaining a dependency of France dropped to 53 percent. See “’No’ Vote in New Caledonia Independence Referendum a Pyrrhic Victory for Loyalists,” by Denise Fisher. The Strategist (Australian Strategic Policy Institute), October 6, 2020.

[17] “House of Nineteen Thousand Corporations,” by Joshua E. Keating. Foreign Policy, January 24, 2012:

See also, “The Cayman Islands: Home to 100,000-Companies and the £8.50 Packet of Fish Fingers,” by Jaques Peretti, The Guardian, January 18, 2016:

[18] “The Geography of Financial Secrecy,” by Uri Friedman, The Atlantic, April 9, 2016: Admittedly, not all of this money is held in non-sovereign off-shore banking centers, but a great deal of it is.

Intriguingly, the concept of “off-shore banking” originated with some of Europe’s most venerable geopolitical incongruities, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. As crown dependencies, Jersey, Guernsey, and Man are not subject to the laws of the United Kingdom, but they do shelter beneath its protective blanket, as we shall explore in Chapter Three.

[19] In 2019, for example, “the leaders of the British Overseas Territories presented a united front … against what they all see as the creeping neo-colonialism of the UK.” See “BOTs Unite Over ‘Modern Colonialism’ Threat.” Cayman News Service, June 27, 2019.


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Seduced by the Map, Chapter 2 (Part 7, Final)

Military Bases

        While colonial dependencies get at least a token nod on the CIA map, military bases are nowhere to be seen. It is tempting to infer that the reason bases do not appear on political maps is, well, political: would one really expect the CIA to draw attention to American military footholds around the globe? While that may well be part of the story, their omission has an inherent cartographic logic as well (borne out by its recurrence on similar maps made in other countries). If bases do not make it onto the map-key, it is partly because our standard world maps are designed to highlight sovereign entities (states), whereas military networks are typically created through contracts (leases). In traditional political theory (and neo-classical economics), states and leases are completely different classes of things; the one cannot compromise the other. If anything, the ability to enter into contracts is taken as proof of the host-country’s sovereign status. In practice, of course, the relationship between long-term leases and national sovereignty is a fraught one, especially when such a relationship yokes the poor to the powerful.

        Before examining bases in detail, it may be worth pausing to briefly consider two other types of invisible exclaves with which they have telling similarities: foreign embassies and corporate holdings. Like bases, both of these entities typically come into being through lease agreements, and yet in practice they can function as semi-sovereign exclaves of their home country. Embassies are unusual in the extent to which they advertise their foreignness: by hoisting the home country’s flag over their property, stationing their own military personnel inside it, and exercising special legal rights within their walls (as the world is reminded every time a dissident or criminal flees to an embassy for refuge). Corporate exclaves, by contrast, tend not to announce their presence any more than necessary. The reason is not far to seek. Leaseholds and land purchases in poor countries, for the purpose of gaining access to agricultural or mineral resources, are often fiercely opposed by local citizens who denounce them as compromising the sovereignty of their nation. When a foreign state backs up such a move, opposition can be even more intense; China in recent years has been widely accused of neo-colonial “land grabs” in Africa.[1] Similar arguments swirl around major infrastructural projects, whether funded by the IMF or an individual state. To be sure, opposition is never unanimous within the host countries.[2] The governments in question generally welcome the investment, seeing it as a boost for their economies rather than as a threat to their sovereignty.[3]

         In the case of military bases, the compromises are starker. When staring down a fleet of foreign warships or a fortified encampment of alien soldiers, it is hard to argue that their presence does not impinge on local sovereignty. Denial becomes still less credible when the lease underpinning such arrangements can be revoked only if both countries agree to end it—or when the compensation is set so low that, as a point of pride, the host country never cashes the check. Unlikely though such extreme conditions may sound, both obtain in Guantanamo Bay, a nominal piece of Cuban territory that is effectively controlled by the United States. As noted by Joseph Lazar in 1968, “The legal status of Guantanamo Bay, both in international law and municipal law, is peculiar and unique.”[4] It effectively functions as an extraterritorial possession of the United States—one whose offshore location allows its infamous military prison to flout the American constitution. Yet on the CIA world map, it is indistinguishable from the rest of Cuba. (It is, however, is marked on the regional CIA political map of Central America and the Caribbean, where it is colored as part of Cuba but labeled “U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay.”)

        Guantanamo Bay is only the closest and most controversial of a great many overseas U.S. military bases.Although the figures vary among different sources, the number is staggering. David Vine, in Base Nation, calculates that the United States runs a total of 686 foreign base sites.[5] While no other facility on foreign soil has the same entrenched legal status as Guantanamo Bay, these myriad territories collectively project U.S. military power over much of the world. Many scholars have argued that such a massive military-base complex constitutes the sinews of a veritable American Empire that is entirely invisible on conventional political maps.[6] Even by more conservative definitions, the bulk of the North Pacific can be mapped as part of a greater U.S. realm, extending from the state of Hawai’i through the quasi-dependent countries under “Free Association” with the United States to culminate in the U.S. territory of Guam, almost one third of which is devoted to military bases. Some analysts would include security agreements under the same rubric. The noted Japan scholar Chalmers Johnson went so far as to argue that this hidden empire in the north Pacific ranges yet farther to the west: “the richest prize in the American empire” he argued in 2000, “is still Japan.”[7]Nor is the maritime extension of the U.S. military limited to the Pacific. The joint American-British base on Diego Garcia in the Chagos archipelago (also known as the British Indian Ocean Territory, or BIOT) projects power across the Indian Ocean and well beyond. In 2019, the International Court of Justice ruled that British sovereignty over the BIOT is unlawful, ordering that the archipelago be handed over to Mauritius, where its inhabitants were exiled in the late 1960s and early 1970s to make room for Chagos’s militarization.[8] Evidently, neither the UK nor the US has any intention of following the court’s ruling.[9]

        While the United States has more foreign military bases than all other countries put together, it is not the only player in the game. The UK exercises sovereign power over its bases in Cyprus, while Russia maintains bases in Armenia and Central Asia. In 2015, Syria allowed the “free and indefinite transfer to Russia of the Khmeimim Air Base,” further agreeing to give Russian military personnel “the status of immunity and extraterritoriality.”[10] Some states lease bases to more than one external power. In Tajikistan, for example, Moscow maintains the 201st Russian Military Base while India shares the Farkhor Air Base with Tajikistan’s armed forces. Djibouti hosts American, French, Japanese, Italian, and Chinese military facilities, and additional countries are considering joining them.[11] Such entrepreneurial leasing may well entangle Djibouti unfavorably in the geopolitical webs that it has woven, but it does indicate that the country is not a subject of any single imperial power.[12]

         As already noted, we are not exactly surprised that the territorial infrastructure for projecting power abroad goes unmarked on the CIA world map. On the one hand, leasehold arrangements are beyond its conceptual purview. On the other hand, depicting hundreds of military bases on a map at this scale would be daunting. That said, the call to do better is compelling. Anyone who is serious about mapping global political structures on an empirical basis needs to include military archipelagos, which surround and infiltrate sovereign states to create a powerful set of network geographies. How to capture it all is the question.

The CIA World Map Reconsidered

        As I have sought to demonstrate, the CIA’s world map is a highly useful but often misleading document: one that foregrounds a US-centered diplomatic vision while hiding a host of inconvenient aberrations. The official map employed in the United States renders de facto states invisible, even as it makes chimerical ones look real. Yet the political and ideological presuppositions behind this cartographic strategy go unspoken, allowing viewers to be easily seduced into seeing it as an objective portrayal of the situation on the ground. To rely on the CIA world political map to guide our global understanding is to sacrifice empirical complexity in favor of a stripped-down and antiseptic model of geopolitical organization.

        To be fair, asking the CIA to map the world in a less prescriptive and more descriptive way would be unrealistic.If only on practical grounds, designing a world depiction so detailed as to highlight tiny offshore banking refuges along with scattered archipelagos of the US military would be challenging indeed. For general pedagogical purposes, a simple portrayal has much to recommend it. Properly understood, moreover, the CIA world political map is an invaluable document. The key to unlocking its value is to grasp what the Agency’s cartographers are actually charged withmapping: the world as officially imagined by the US Department of State. That world-view, in turn, is embedded within a broader (although far from universal) international diplomatic consensus about how the world ought to be geopolitically structured. This is why almost all global political maps the world over have much the same appearance, deviating from each other only at the margin.

        To reiterate my central claim, all of these conventional political maps are both useful and seductive. Put simply, they make the world look more orderly and stable than it is, masking a messy flux that requires careful attention. To take the map at face value is to assent that a country is a semi-natural entity—one that, whatever its current tribulations, will endure as a unified state. Underpinning that belief, in turn, is the notion that every country’s inhabitants, however divided, form a singular people—a nation—whose collective will is best expressed through that state.

         If this were always true, we might inhabit a peaceful planet. If all the countries of the world governed their own lands, served their own citizens, and respected each other’s sovereignty, the world would probably be a more secure and wholesome place. In this sense, perhaps Somalia ought to be a nation-state. But that does not mean that it is one. If conflating “is” with “ought” can generate a kind of mindless conservatism, as David Hume warned in 1739, conflating “ought” with “is” can lead to blinding utopianism.

         Yet the slippages between reality and depiction that I have highlighted thus far are relatively superficial, entailing merely the most obvious infidelities visible on the map. It is time now to turn to cases where the misalignment between the standard model of geopolitics and the actual global organization of both political power and national sentiments is more subtle.

[1] See, for example, “What Do We Know About Chinese Land Grabs in Africa,” by Amadou Sy, Brookings, November 5, 2015.

[2] See, for example, “U.S. Politicians Get China in Africa All Wrong,” by Deborah Bräutigam, Washington Post, April 12, 2018.

[3] Political leaseholds and other forms “privatized sovereignty” form a vast topic that we cannot do justice to in these pages. For a historical exploration of the phenomenon, see Press 2017. As he argues, sovereign rights over lands and persons in the late 1800s essentially became commodities, “accessible to every kind of buyer” (2017, p. 173).

[4] Lazar 1968, p. 730.

[5] Vine 2015, p. 4. Of that total, about ten percent, or 64, are “active major installations.”

[6] Lutz 2009, p. 7.

[7] Johnson 2000, p. 21.  Elsewhere, Johnson (2010, p. 1) rather extraordinarily described Japan as a “docile satellite of the United States.”

[8] “UN Court Rejects UK’s Claim of Sovereignty over Chagos Islands,” by Owen Bowcott. The Guardian. February 25, 2019.

[9] Whether the vast network of U.S. foreign military bases constitutes an empire is a complex and controversial issue. Those who reject the idea point to the fact that several countries, including the Philippines, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, have expelled U.S. forces and taken over their bases with relatively little push-back from Washington.  But even if foreign military bases are excluded, some writers maintain that unequal power relations alone can generate imperial sway. For Engseng Ho, the United States is “an empire without colonies,” or an “anti-colonial empire” (2004, p. 225), able and inclined to dominate other states even without the “presence of possession over expansive transnational spaces…” (2004, p. 211). Such an expansive claim is certainly not going to be resolved in these pages. But in one sense, it is moot; even if one looks only at formal dependencies, the United States can be regarded as holding a vestigial empire.

[10] Vasiliev 2018, p. 489.

[11] See “The Most Valuable Military Real Estate in the World: Strategically Placed at the Entrance to the Red Sea, Djibouti Is Home to More Foreign Bases Than Any Other Country,” by Bruno Maçães, Politico, January 15, 2018:

[12] As a final note, it must be acknowledged that the United States, Russia, France, and the UK are not the only countries to maintain effective spheres of influence, allowing them to cast a penumbra of sovereignty over lands and waters well outside their own territorial bounds. Australia, for example, has intervened in several Melanesian countries in recent decades, sending in security forces when anarchy seemed impending. It did so, however, through the invitation of the states in question, and with substantial local support. An Australian-led military contingent was present in the Solomon Islands, for example, from 2003 to 2013, as part of “Operation Helpem Fren” (See “RAMSI Ends: “What’s Next for the Solomon Islands?” by Grant Wyeth, The Diplomat: June 30, 2017: In late 2021, troops Australian troops again intervened in the Solomon Islands to quell unrest.  See “’Nothing left’: Solomon Islands burn amid new violence as Australian troops arrive,” by Michael E, Miller, The Washington Post. November 26, 2021.

Australia has also recently operated overseas detention facilities for undocumented would-be immigrants, which some scholars view as neo-imperial impositions. But Australia shuttered the Manus Regional Processing Centre in Papua New Guinea (PNG) in 2017 after the PNG Supreme Court ruled that this detention facility was illegal; it shut down its “processing facility” in Nauru in 2019. In 2018 the Australian government closed a detention center in its own dependent territory of Christmas Island, but it might be reopened in the near future. In the case of the Nauru facility, media access had been tightly restricted, supposedly by Nauru’s own government. An October 2018 issue of The Guardian, however, reported that the policy was actually concocted jointly by Nauru and Australia. (“Australia Jointly Responsible for Nauru’s Draconian Media Policy, Documents Reveal,” by Helen Davidson. The Guardian, October 3, 2018: Australia jointly responsible for Nauru’s draconian media policy, documents reveal) Basic issues of sovereignty are thus at play yet again.


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