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Momentary Freedom for the Media – An Analysis of the CCP’s Reaction to the High-Speed Train Wreck

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The deadly high-speed train wreck near Wenzhou City, Zhejiang Province on July 23 stirred up a deluge of Internet/media activity in China. The general public reacted swiftly and overwhelmingly on the Internet to share information and cast doubt on the government’s credibility. While the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) attempted to quiet the media, the media, on the other hand, tried to express their freedom of speech. Eventually the Central Propaganda Department of the CCP imposed tight control over media and Internet content.

This paper analyzes how the public, the media, and various official actors reacted to the situation and observes: Some “bad guys” and “good guys” in the CCP may react differently to an incident, but it is the CCP’s top decision makers who make the final call. What they care about the most is to protect the CCP’s power. They would not let anything happen to jeopardize that power.


The Background of the Accident

In the past several years, China invested heavily in building its high-speed train system. It boasted having the best technology and the longest railroad miles. On July 23, 2011, two bullet trains collided in Zhejiang. The result, according to official figures, was 40 deaths and 192 injuries. The official explanation of the accident was that lightning struck causing the first train D301 to lose power and stall on a bridge. Then the second train D3115 crashed into it at full speed. Six cars derailed, four of which plunged off the bridge.

A rescue effort at the accident site was carried out initially and then stopped. The Ministry of Railways announced that there were no signs of life in the trains and ordered a site cleanup to put the railroad back in operation as soon as possible. The cleanup work would have resulted in the death of anyone still alive in the trains. Special police captain Shao Yerong insisted on continuing the search for survivors. He found Yiyi, a 2-year old girl, still alive after 6 hours of cleanup work. [1] As part of the cleanup effort, the front car of the second train was buried under a mud pond.

Many questions were raised regarding the accident and the ministry’s handling of it:

1.      Is the high-speed train safe to ride?

2.      Why would lightning cause a train to stall?

3.      What happened to the safety mechanisms designed to stop a collision?

4.      What is the real number of casualties?

5.      Why did the government stop its rescue efforts so soon? The saved toddler proved that even after the cleanup work started, there were still people alive in the trains.

6.      Why did the government clean up the site and bury cars instead of conducting a full investigation?

A few days later, the Ministry of Railways announced the result of its investigation. The crash was caused by a malfunctioning signal system.


Three Types of Government Actors: The Good, the Bad, and the Czar

In the train wreck incident, the CCP and the government played the same role and are interchangeable.

There are three distinct types of government actors involved in the incident: the “good officials” (Wen Jiabao and a few other officials who show care and sympathy for the victims and the general public), the “bad officials” (the Ministry of Railways who tried to cover up the government’s responsibility), and the “Czar” (the soul of the CCP, or the ultimate CCP decision making group that represents the CCP’s will. It may be represented by different entities during different events. In this instance, the Central Propaganda Department of the CCP is the “Czar”.).

It is important to realize that each of these three official actors has a different stake and therefore behaves differently from the others. The “bad officials” seemed to be at fault and might be held accountable for this accident. They wanted to downplay the accident to minimize their exposure. The “good officials” were either officials connected with the victims (e.g. some party officials from Zhejiang Province) or bystanders. Since they were not at fault, they could take a more liberal stand on dealing with the accident. The CCP, the “Czar,” is responsible for the well-being of the CCP. Its ultimate goal is to see that the CCP remains in power. It will take whatever actions necessary to facilitate that end result.

Among the three official roles, the “Czar” has the real power. To secure its reign, it repeatedly tells the Chinese people that the CCP is great, glorious, and correct. However, with official’s growing corruption and abuse of power, it sometimes also admits there are “bad officials.” It can even tolerate the media and public’s criticism of those “bad officials,” as long as the criticism is controllable (restricted to the “bad officials,” and does not extend to the entire CCP) and the solution to the problem is “within the system” (having the “Czar” as savior). The “Czar’s” handling of these “bad officials” can then be used to demonstrate that the CCP is great, glorious, and correct. However, if the criticism gets out of control, the “Czar” will no longer tolerate it and will prohibit it.

As for the “good officials,” they may say things that the general public wants to hear, but it is the “Czar’s” opinion rather than the “good officials” opinion that really matters. Having “good officials” helps the “Czar” present a positive image and placate the people.

In the high-speed train crash aftermath, the government officials clearly acted according to their roles.


The “Bad Officials”

The Ministry of Railway’s goal was damage control. This could be seen from the announced number of casualties, which was later questioned as being unrealistically low, and the rush to clean up the site and resume railway operations. The Economic Observer quoted a train driver’s explanation, “These officials were anxious get the trains running again because the gravity of the disaster is measured by the length of time the services were suspended.” [2] The public, however, viewed burying the car as a cover up.

The ministry didn’t hold a press conference until 26 hours after the accident. That conference was held because the media demanded it. The only officially planned press event was a “coordination meeting” with two state media Xinhua and China Central Television (CCTV). Other media were outraged. Their outcry forced the ministry to offer a public press conference. They informed the media only half an hour before the event. [3]

During the Question and Answer session at the press conference, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Railways, Wang Yongping, produced some amazing answers.

“Q: Why bury the cars?

A: It was not to cover up (the accident). Actually this accident can’t be covered up. The situation at the rescue site was very complicated. There was a muddy pond that made it hard to work. They also needed to handle other cars, so they buried the front car and covered it with dirt. It was to make the rescue work easier. That’s the explanation they provided. Whether you want to believe, is up to you. I, myself believe it anyway.

“Q: Why was a toddler found alive after you stopped rescue work and dissembled the cars?

A: That’s the miracle of life! (This remark caused immediate audience uproar). The thing just happened. It’s just like that.” [4]

The Ministry of Railways then remained quiet for the rest of the time.


The “Good Officials”

Since the accident occurred in Zhejiang and many victims were from there, the Zhejiang Province Party Committee had a high stake in the rescue efforts. They fought with the Ministry of Railways to have more time spent on rescuing people before switching to cleanup work. Within the first 6 hours after the accident, Cai Qi, head of Zhejiang Party Organization Department sent 36 microblogs to report on the rescue efforts. He even made a comment on the microblog, “For such a big accident, how can it just be blamed on the weather and technical factors? Who should be responsible for it? The Ministry of Railways should learn a big lesson from this: However fast the trains go, it must be ‘safety first’! We can’t afford lives!” [5]

Lv Huanbin, Deputy Chief of the Party Propaganda Department of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, a bystander at the accident, commented on how the microblogs were used in reporting the accident. [6]

Wen Jiabao, who had a close-to-the-people image, visited the accident scene on July 28. Wen said that he couldn’t come earlier because he had been in bed for 11 days and this was the first day that he was allowed to go out. The media later noted a report from Xinhua indicated Mr. Wen had met with a Japanese trade delegation on July 24, the day after the train collision. [7]

During his press conference with reporters, Wen stated, “Whether this accident is handled properly is dependent on whether (the government) provides the truth (to the public).” [8] He also said, “The construction of the high-speed railway should be comprehensive, including design, equipment, technology, construction, and management. Among those, safety is the most important. If we lose safety, we lose the credibility of the high-speed train.” [9]


The “Czar” (7/23 – 7/28)

At first, the Central Propaganda Department of the CCP used its successful tactic from the handling of the Wenchuan earthquake: lower the media’s report tone and redirect the public’s attention from investigating the accident to showing people’s love. Reuters reported on the directive the Propaganda Department issue to the media on July 24, on how to cover the accident. The directive established the major theme as “in the face of great tragedy, there is great love.” “Do not question. Do not elaborate. Do not associate.” It also asked the media not to investigate the cause of the accident and reminded news reporters to report based only on official information. [10]

Several Chinese web sites then posted this information, reporting it as the details of the Central Propaganda Department’s directive. One posting was:

“Central Propaganda Department Directive: For the bullet train crash accident in Wenzhou, all media should timely report the information released by the Ministry of Railways, do not send reporters to conduct interviews, and importantly, control their affiliated newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do not link anything to high-speed train development-related information and do not do lessons-learned reports.

“Additional direction to the Central media: The latest requirements on Wenzhou accident reporting: 1. Death and injury numbers should be based on reports from the government; 2. Do not report too frequently; 3. Have more coverage on touching stories such as blood donations and free rides offered by taxi drivers; 4. Do not try to dig into the cause of the accident; just follow official releases; 5. Do not create lessons-learned reports or commentaries.

“Reporting suggestions: The Wenzhou bullet train off-track accident report should use the standard title ‘7-23 Yong Wen Rail Line Serious Railway Accident.’ The accident from now on should follow the major theme of ‘In the face of great tragedy, there is great love.’ Do not question. Do not elaborate. Do not associate. Do not republish individual microblogs! (Report) programs can provide the appropriate service information. The background music should create the (appropriate) atmosphere!” [11]


The Media (7/23 – 7/28)

At first, many media, especially the state media, closely followed the Propaganda Department’s directive. Xinhua website’s “hot issue” list had seven topics: The Party’s 90th anniversary, Studying Hu Jintao’s July 1st Speech, Today in the Party’s History, 60 Years in Tibet, Using Public Funds to Cover Personal Expenses, The World Swimming Championship, and The Norway Bombing and Shooting. Many Chinese were annoyed that the government would rather report on Norway’s death case than China’s own. A netizen commented, “Our TV kept talking about the other end of the world, as if they didn’t know there was a bloody case in their own country.” [12]

A few media dared to defy the “Czar’s” command. Though the media were told not to investigate, on July 25, a reporter of the Beijing-based Economic Observer managed to come to the crash scene, Shuandai Village, which was under the government’s control. That reporter interviewed several eye witnesses and reported that the accident time the government provided was wrong. [13] The Economic Observer also published a series of commentaries online, directly criticizing the Ministry of Railways for improperly handling the accident. [14][15][16][17]

21st Century Business Herald, a Guangzhou-based financial media, published over 40 reports and commentaries on the accident. It composed a list of quotes of China’s top railway experts praising China’s high-speed trains’ safety [18], posted three questions challenging the Ministry of Railways’ explanation and handling of the accident [19], and provided an extensive list of the Ministry of Railways officials who were closely connected to companies in the high-speed train industry to hint at the possibility of widespread corruption. [20]

By July 29, Beijing News had published 6 editorial commentaries. It questioned why China’s self-developed automatic block system didn’t work though Chinese railway experts had praised it as the leading technology in preventing rear-end collisions. [21] It also called for the Ministry of Railways to provide more transparent information. [22]

As time passed, more and more media joined in expressing their right to freedom of speech. Even Xinhua and People’s Daily started criticizing the Ministry of Railways. A commentary by Economic Information, a publication under Xinhua, said. “The right to life is the most basic human right for human beings. … Protecting every citizen’s right to life is the bottom line for every country.” [23]

On July 29, nearly 100 newspapers had used Wen Jiabao’s words, “We must provide the public the truth” and “The Ministry of Railways must answer if saving people is their no. 1 task” as headlines in their print editions. [24]

The media also started calling for democracy and press freedom.

Peking University Law School Professor He Weifang called on the National People’s Congress (NPC) to establish a special committee to investigate the accident. This call had a significant meaning, since, in the eyes of Chinese, using or empowering the NPC is a big move towards democracy. The Economic Observer published a commentary online to second the call. [25] Beijing Evening News showed its support tactically by publishing a 3,000-character interview with Professor He. The interview covered the legality of the NPC special investigation committee and went into details on the scope, formation, and operations of such a suggested NPC committee. [26]

China Youth even published an article with the title, “It’s Time to Use the Internet to Force (the CCP) to Reform.” [27]


The “Czar” (7/29 – )

On July 29, sensing that the situation was getting out of control, the Central Propaganda Department banned reporting. Epoch Times reported the directive as saying, “After the 7-23 Yong Wen rail line serious railway accident, domestic and overseas public opinion has become increasingly complicated. All local media, including their affiliated newspapers, magazines, and websites must immediately cool down the reports of the accident. Except for positive news and information released by the authorities, do not publish any reports and do not publish any commentaries.” [28]

The “Czar” also issued a “Notice” to websites on the same day: “All websites must immediately remove articles related to the Wenzhou bullet train accident; leave no article on their front page; they can keep one latest piece of news on their news page, and must not publish any commentaries. Forums, blogs, and microblogs must not refer to anything on this topic. Forum-style web sites must remove all recommendations and references to accident-related postings, blogs, and microblogs. Postings, blogs, and microblogs that are not up to the (Propaganda Department’s) requirements must be deleted resolutely. All websites must implement this Notice’s requirements immediately. Implementation must be done within half an hour and checkup will follow in the second half hour.” [29]


The Media (7/29 – )

The Central Propaganda Department’s ban “forced newspaper editors to frantically tear up pages of their Saturday editions, replacing investigative articles and commentaries about the accident … with cartoons or unrelated features. Major Internet portals removed links to news reports or videos related to the crash.” [30]

A few media found ways to protest. Nanfang Metropolitan published an article titled “F*** ‘Miracle’!!!” to express its anger. The article said “Facing such a tragic event and bad handling by the Ministry of Railways, we had only one word to express our opinion – F***!” This article was removed from the website shortly thereafter. [31]

Several newspapers blanked out pages in their print edition. Youth Daily’s front page had only a picture of Wen Jiabao bowing at the accident site, two train numbers (D301 and D3115), and the time of accident July 23, 2011 20:34. Dongfang Daily had an entire page with only two quotes from Wen Jiabao: “The government’s biggest responsibility is to protect people’s lives,” and “Save People. Whether the Ministry of Railways actually did it, must be answered truthfully.” [32]


The General Public

Though the general public’s reaction is not the focus of this analysis, it is important to describe it to understand the public sentiment and the challenges that the CCP “Czar” faced.

Immediately after the accident, Chinese netizens started posting. Millions of postings were made on microblogs, forums, and blogs, on the Internet. The “Czar” ran its censorship machine and many postings were deleted, but the sheer number of postings made it impossible to delete them all. The public postings ranged from questioning the government’s cover-up to criticizing the government as a whole. There were 26 million postings just on Weibo, a twitter-like Chinese microblog site. The following are a few of the comments available on the web on July 28.

“I have a lot of doubts…:

1. The casualty (number) is 39 deaths and 192 injuries? Is that correct? … A low estimation would be 60 people per car… Counting the five cars that crashed or fell, there would be 300 people. Only 39 died and 192 injured? Suspicious? Bury the bodies (unverified)? Hide the numbers?” [33] (Editor’s Note: Zhejiang TV reported the cars were full so there might have been as many as 500 people in those damaged cars.)

“China, please slow down your running pace, wait for your people, wait for your soul, wait for your moral standards, and wait for your conscience! Don’t let trains derail, don’t let bridges collapse, don’t let buses burn, don’t let roads have big holes, and don’t let buildings become dangerous residences. Walk slowly. We can live without high-speed trains. We can live without bullet trains. We want every life to have freedom and dignity…

–  lcsyld, 2011-7-25 10:28:31” [34]

“The Ministry of the Railways spokesperson Wang Yongping said it was a miracle of life that little girl Xiang Weiyi (Yiyi) was saved. After they stopped rescuing, not being destroyed by the bulldozers, crashed by the dissembled car bodies, or smashed by the excavator’s claws was really a miracle of life. A freezing cold shivering miracle!

– z602471772, 2011-7-27 0:43:33” [35]

Political jokes and innuendo are a good way to understand Chinese people’s sentiments:

A netizen compared three newspapers’ front page headlines and concluded that “the high-speed train crash tells us that the Party’s graciousness is higher than the sky.” He posted a picture of the three front pages on July 26. The headlines of Apple Daily and Ming Pao, two Hong Kong-based newspapers, were victim’s relatives’ complaints about the Ministry of Railways: “They Only Care about Resuming Train Operations but Not Saving People.” People’s Daily didn’t mention the accident. Its headline was “A Uighur Party Member’s Feeling: the Party’s Graciousness Is Higher Than the Sky.” [36]

Another netizen invited people to make sentences with “Whether you want to believe, it’s up to you. I, myself believe it anyway.” The Ministry of Railways’ spokesperson said this when trying to explain that burying the car was not to cover up the real cause of the crash. The following are a few replies:

“State Family Planning Commission: The public funds spent on our tour of foreign countries are to promote ‘it’s good for a couple to have only one child.’ Whether you want to believe it, it’s up to you. I, myself believe it anyway.

– ptpengyou, 2011-07-25 10:14:37

“The Ministry of Railways is actively negotiating with the court of heaven to extradite the lightning god who worked without a license… Whether you want to believe, it’s up to you. I, myself believe it anyway.

– by Shouhounanfang, 2011-07-25 10:19:38

“This accident will end without any real closure. Whether you want to believe, it’s up to you. I, myself believe it anyway.

– Daofeng 56565, 2011-07-25 10:28:51

“This ** sooner or later will reach its end. Whether you want to believe, it’s up to you. I, myself believe it anyway. (Editor’s Note: ** can be interpreted as many things, such as the spokesperson, the head of the Ministry of Railways, or the CCP.)

– red Flyover, 2011-07-25 10:35:58

“The Ministry of Railways held another press conference and announced that a miracle happened again. All the 35 dead people came back to life. This small accident didn’t cause any casualties. Whether you want to believe, it’s up to you. I, myself believe it anyway.

– Chechengtaxuexunmei, 2011-07-25 10:41:26

“The train speed matched the international standard. Victim’s compensation is at China’s own standard. Whether you want to believe, it’s up to you. I, myself believe it anyway. (Editor’s Note: The author is suggesting that the victims won’t get much compensation.)

– Zhishibanjiajia, 2011-07-25 10:45:25

“35 people died. 200 injured. All others traversed (to other dimensions). Whether you want to believe, it’s up to you. I, myself believe it anyway.

– vivi, 2011-07-25 10:54:53

“China is now harmonious

The South China Sea is calm

High-speed trains are safe

Lightning is able to derail a train

Food has passed safety-inspections

Housing prices are affordable…

Whether you want to believe, it’s up to you. I, myself believe it anyway.

– Shouhounanfang, 2011-07-25 10:57:57

“China’s public servant’s goal is to ‘serve the Renminbi wholeheartedly.’ Whether you want to believe, it’s up to you. I, myself believe it anyway. (Editor’s Note: The author criticizes the government’s corruption by making fun of the CCP’s propaganda slogan ‘serve the renmin (the people) wholeheartedly’)

– Olaiya, 2011-07-25 11:28:42” [37]



1. It can be seen clearly that the general public consciously cares about human rights. They have found that the Internet is a good tool to voice their concerns and mobilize society to protect their rights.

2. The Central Propaganda Department can still keep a lid on the media.

3. The media crave freedom and are willing to push the limits of control.

4. Although there are “bad officials” and “good officials” inside the CCP, the “Czar” is the real decision maker and has the ultimate power. The “Czar” will sometimes accommodate the public’s requests, but its fundamental goal is to keep the CCP in power. It will use whatever means necessary to achieve that goal.

In the train crash aftermath, the “Czar” first tried to silence the media reports. A few media defied the prohibition. Their initial focus was just the “bad officials,” not the overall CCP. Thus the “Czar” tolerated them for a few days.

As time passed, more and more media jumped onto the free expression bandwagon. The “Czar” then sensed danger from multiple areas:

a. It was losing its control over the media. This is a real danger to the “Czar” because it relies on control of the media to govern people’s thinking.

b. More and more criticism has targeted the central government and the CCP, thus challenging the CCP’s ruling position.

c. The public and the media started to demand human rights and democracy. This threatens the CCP’s reign.

d. Many foreign media reported on Chinese media’s breaking away from the CCP’s control. If this were to continue, it would encourage Chinese media to demand more freedom. The “Czar” does not want to see the Western world’s support for China’s democracy movement. This is probably why the “Czar” said in its July 29 “Notice,” “Overseas public opinion has become increasingly complicated.” [38]

Any of these dangers will make the “Czar” nervous, not to mention all of them coming together. Therefore, the CCP “Czar” pulled the curtain for the media and web sites on the train crash issue.

If one understands the “Czar’s” position, it is not difficult to predict the likely outcome when some “good officials” suggest that the CCP implement democracy, give the media freedom, or follow the rule of law.



[1] China Smack, “Wenzhou Train Crash: Police Captain’s Insistence Saves Girl,” July 27, 2011.

[2] Economic Observer, “Railway Officials Care More for Their Careers than Their Passengers,” July 25, 2011.



[3] Phoenix, “Ministry of Railways Spokesperson: Whether you want to believe, it’s up to you. I, myself believe it anyway,” July 25, 2011.

[4] Id.

[5] China Youth, “It’s Time to the Use Internet to Force (the CCP) to Reform,” July 25, 2011.

[6] Id.

[7] Wall Street Journal, “Wen Jiabao’s Stunning Admission at Train Crash Site.

[8] China News Service, “Wen Jiabao Visited the Accident Scene While Sick, Stressing to Provide the Truth When Meeting Reporters,” July 28, 2011.

[9] Xinhua, “Wen Jiabao Answers Questions about the 7-23 Accident,” July 28, 2011.

[10] Voice of America, “Central Propaganda Department Limits Reporting on the Train Crash,” July 25, 2011.

[11] Aenon Land.中宣部通知温州动车追尾事故各媒体要及时报道铁道部发布的消息各地媒体不派记者去采访特别是要管好子

[12] East Money, “Which Is Worthy of More Attention? China’s High-Speed Train Accident or the Norway Killing Case,” July 25, 2011.

[13] Economic Observer, “Investigating the Cause of the Bullet Train Rear-ending,” July 26, 2011.

[14] Economic Observer, “‘Miracles’ of the Railway Ministry’s Making,” July 25, 2011.



[15] Economic Observer, “Railway Officials Care More for Their Careers than Their Passengers,” July 25, 2011.



[16] Economic Observer, “The Arrogance of China’s Rail Leaders,” July 26, 2011.



[17] Economic Observer, “The Railway Ministry’s Disrespect for Human Lives,” July 26, 2011.



[18] 21st Century Business Herald, “High-speed Train ‘Hymn’ List.”

[19] 21st Century Business Herald, “Crash Mysteries.”

[20] 21st Century Business Herald, “Behind the High-Speed Rail Industry China: Ministry of Railways Officials Are Everywhere.”

[21] Beijing News, “The Most Important Thing Is to Find Out the Cause of the Accident,” July 25, 2011.

[22] Beijing News, “Restore Public Trust Starting with the Handling of the Accident Aftermath,” July 25, 2011.

[23] Economic Information, “Don’t Risk Human Lives to Increase the Speed of Economic Development,” July 28, 2011.

[24] Epoch Times, “Near One Hundred Newspaper Mourned on the Seventh Day of the Accident; Central Propaganda Department Blocked Reporting and Newspapers Blank Out Page to Protest,” July 30, 2011.

[25] Economic Observer, “Call for NPC to Launch Special Investigation into Wenzhou Train Disaster,” July 26, 2011.



[26] Beijing Evening News, “Peking University Professor Calls for NPC Special Investigation Committee for the Bullet Train Rear-ending Truth,” July 27, 2011.

[27] China Youth, “It’s Time to Use the Internet to Force (the CCP) to Reform,” July 25, 2011.

[28] Epoch Times, “Near One Hundred Newspaper Mourned on the Seventh Day of the Accident, Central Propaganda Department Blocked Reporting and Newspapers Blank Out Page to Protest,” July 30, 2011.

[29] China Times, “Central Propaganda Department’s Ban on Reporting; The Longest Night for Mainland Media,” July 31, 2011.

[30] New York Times, “Media Blackout in China After Wreck,” August 1, 2011.

[31] Epoch Times, “Nanfang Metropolitan Bellowed: F***ing ‘Miracle!!!’” July 31, 2011.

[32] Epoch Times, “Near One Hundred Newspaper Mourned on the Seventh Day of the Accident, Central Propaganda Department Blocked Reporting and Newspapers Blank Out Page to Protest,” July 30, 2011.

[33] Tianya, “Regarding Truth Investigation of Wenzhou Bullet Train Accident,” July 25, 2011.

[34] Tiexue, “What Does the High-Speed Train Rear-Ending Tell Us.”

[35] Id.

[36] Tianya, “The High-Speed Train Crash Tells That the Party’s Graciousness Is Higher than the Sky,” July 26, 2011

[37] Tianya, “Please make sentence using ‘Whether you want to believe, it’s up to you. I believe it anyway.’” July 25, 2011.

[38] Epoch Times, “Near One Hundred Newspaper Mourned on the Seventh Day of the Accident, Central Propaganda Department Blocked Reporting and Newspapers Blank Out Pages to Protest,” July 30, 2011.


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