The New Chinese Empire and What It Means for the United States by Ross Terrill
The New Chinese Empire and What It Means for the United States by Ross Terrill

The New Chinese Empire: And What It Means for the United States

May 14, 2003

Our interests with China are peace, prosperity, and mutual exchange between two great countries and civilizations with openness for business, for students, for the professions. It is also in our interests that there be political liberalization, but it is not America’s business to bring this about.


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. On behalf of the Carnegie Council I thank you all for joining us this morning as we welcome Ross Terrill to our Books for Breakfast program. Today he will be discussing his book, The New Chinese Empire: And What it Means for the United States.

Lately, so much of our attention has been focused on the war in Iraq that some fear we may be so distracted that we will neglect events that are unfolding in other regions of the world. The place that I am particularly thinking of today is China. This country, with its new economic strength, its growing middle class of independent producers and avid consumers, has the potential to affect not only every American but also every Asian and Central Asian who lives on its borders.

The past quarter-century has been a period of remarkable growth in China, characterized by economic expansion and the opening of the society to the outside world. What has ensued is a better life for many of its citizens. As a result, China boosters from outside its borders have become confident that economic and social progress will eventually lead to a more open political system.

But don’t be fooled, says our guest this morning, for although China’s humming factories may make it the world’s leading workshop, its political system, he says, is a veritable dinosaur.

Mr. Terrill describes China as a land of contradictions: on the one hand, it is undergoing rapid modernization; while on the other, it is held back by an outdated imperial structure, as its handling of the recent SARS epidemic so clearly indicated.

In The New Chinese Empirehis aim is to show how fundamental features of the Chinese party state explain much of the domestic and foreign policy of China today.

Ross Terrill first traveled to China more than thirty years ago. He is a highly regarded China watcher whose writing is informed by historical analysis, which provides the critical insights necessary to understand the future impact that China may have on the world. The New Chinese Empire is not Mr. Terrill’s first book on China. He first gained attention for his works entitled Eight Hundred Million: The Real China and Flowers on an Iron Tree: Five Cities of China. He later wrote the highly acclaimed Mao and Madame Mao, two books which are reported to be the most widely read biographies of China’s amazing couple. Maoalone was translated into seven languages and has sold over 1.4 million copies in a Chinese-language edition inside China.

As a leading Chinese scholar, he has served as an analyst for CBS News and also appeared on numerous national television and radio programs, such as “The Today Show,” “Firing Line,” National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” and today C-SPAN Book TV and Voice of America in China.

For his writings on China he received the National Magazine Award for Excellence and was a recipient of the George Polk Memorial Award for Outstanding Magazine Reporting. Currently he is Research Associate at the Fairbanks Center for East Asian Research at Harvard.

I ask that you give a very warm welcome to Ross Terrill. Thank you for joining us.


ROSS TERRILL: Thank you, Joanne. I follow programs here through the excellent newsletter, and I am looking forward to an exchange with this distinguished and varied audience this morning.

Is China still a Soviet-type regime? Is it a normal Third World authoritarian country? Is the regime just one more dynasty, like the Ming or the Ching, painted red? None of the three gives the full picture.

Others say an extraordinary phenomenon, called market Leninism, has come into existence. And some say it’s a transitional society, a theory based on other countries where we know what the transition was to, that the guaranteed monopoly of power by a single party came to an end. There is no such transition yet in China.

Our President in the 1990s twice referred to China as “a former Communist country.” There is some confusion here.

The very strength of the Beijing regime is disputed. Some say the center is losing power to the periphery, including in the crucial area of revenue. Others say that the Chinese party state, bereft of ideological appeal as it may be, has never been stronger.

Our confusions are partly because there have been two influential ideas: that culture is destiny, and that everything will be different in China because of Chinese culture: Marxism was different; democracy, should it come, will be unrecognizable. The culturalists are somewhat cautious about whether the United States and China could ever be close.

Then, in the 1990s also, there was a powerful school that said “economics first—if China makes it economically, a modernized politics will automatically come as a by-product.”

In fact, politics is destiny for Beijing in the near-to-medium term, and a tradition of governance that is very old and aspects of a mentality that went with it have been used as a basis by a Marxist-Leninist party state which has grafted onto it an originally Soviet-style system. This extends autocratic empire into an era otherwise done with multinational empires. The last one to disappear was the Soviet Union.

Understanding the state will help us with a few questions. Will the PRC meet the fate of the Soviet Union? As the political system changes, can it do so smoothly and gradually, or must there be a crunch? And in foreign policy, is the Beijing regime of the view that today is an aberration, that they will eventually be supreme in Asia, which they were for a long time; or, on the other hand, is China settling into the international community, a very different destiny, even if we don’t know quite what the international community is?

Why do I speak of empire? Three reasons.

China has nearly thirty provinces. The three biggest are in territory that historically was not Han Chinese at all: Tibet; Xinjiang, the Moslem area in the west; and the southern part of Mongolia, which China calls Inner Mongolia. These territories were frequently in history separate regimes that dealt in an international fashion with the dynastic court of China. In the Tang, for instance, Tibet was an equal of the Chinese polity and defeated it. The Mongols ruled China for a couple of centuries. The atmosphere in these three territories is semi-colonial, so in this sense China is an empire.

Secondly, China is the only major power that expects to acquire substantial additional territories: Taiwan and a large number of islands in the South China Sea. These are all claimed by Beijing and the Beijing military has plans to take them all when the capacity to do so is there.

Mao in 1964 remarked that, “The Russians took 1.5 million square kilometers from us and we haven’t yet presented our account.” He repeated that remark almost verbatim to Henry Kissinger in 1973, although he had added a few hundred thousand kilometers by then. There is a large piece of today’s Kazakhstan that China has consistently said is Chinese territory. China is the only major power with a list of unsatisfied additional territorial demands.

The third reason to use “empire” is that there are traits of the imperial state in the Beijing polity. I will give a few examples of this by jumping back into history and talking about this fascinating system that lasted longer than any of the other ancient systems in the world. Nearly all of the others originated in what is now the Middle East. The Chinese was not the first, but it is easily the most long-lasting.

One of its traits was that it did not have any boundaries. The jurisdiction of the Chinese Emperor—who called himself “the Son of Heaven” to make his relation to the cosmos, not just to a territorial extent, quite clear—was all under Heaven, and it was culture and way of life, not lines on a map, that set the Chinese apart from their neighbors. They did have neighbors, not on the maritime flank but on the inner Asian flank, and most of them were nomadic peoples who gave the Chinese a great deal of trouble because their form of warfare using horses was something the Chinese frequently could not cope with.

So China did not have experience in dealing with other polities on an equal basis. The theory was that there was only one civilization; Chinese civilization was co-terminus with civilization. The non-Chinese were called barbarians, yi in Chinese, and they had to be fitted into the world view of the Confucian monarchy. They were not so fitted as independent states but as peoples who were perhaps rebelling against the Emperor but who were ultimately his subjects.

That lasted right until the end of the Manchu Dynasty in 1911. China never had a foreign ministry until four decades before the end of the whole 2,500-year system.

Today Beijing is reluctant to discuss those islands in the South China Sea as an international question; they will discuss it bilaterally but not multilaterally. Historians in China have read back into history a situation whereby the Uighurs in Xinjiang, the Tibetans, the Mongols, and the Manchus were always “brotherly nationalities within our country,” rather than separate polities. This conception borrows heavily on Stalin’s theory of national minorities.

Another trait of this Chinese state was that it had a sense of superiority but it was not regularly aggressive; it was even quite passive. There is no great contradiction between the two.

The Chinese Emperor often felt: “Why bother with the barbarians? They are not worth it and leaving them alone might be the best policy.” So this traditional Chinese empire was arrogant but it also had an aspect of modesty or defensiveness. Many a dynasty would have been quite happy if the barbarians would just stay on the steppe and China would not interfere with them. But they wanted Chinese tea and silk.

The PRC perpetuates this dualism. Toward Taiwan they are extremely presumptuous. The Vice President of Taiwan was recently called by Beijing “the scum of the Chinese race,” not a phrase we would expect in the international community. But Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian get away with an effective declaration of Taiwan’s independence. The Beijing state has been ineffectual in doing anything about it. But the sense of proprietary, of presumption, over Taiwan continues even as a practical passivity continues.

This state had a doctrine, it was obsessed with a doctrine, but it wasn’t a theocracy. The center of gravity of the philosophy of the Chinese polity was statecraft, nothing to do with the supernatural. Confucianism was fundamentally an ethics.

But there was orthodoxy and there was heterodoxy, and it was wise to know the difference. The Chinese state invented a whole series of fictions to cope with the failure of orthodoxy to prevail, so the dynastic histories would write the story as if orthodoxy had prevailed even if it had not.

Tamerlane, the great Moslem leader at the time of the Ming Dynasty, was depicted in the Chinese histories as having paid tribute to China. He hadn’t. He found out and set off on an expedition to Beijing to convert the Chinese Emperor to Islam. He died on the way; otherwise history might have been different. But normally the Chinese court got away with rewriting history.

In the PRC at the lowest point, in the 1960s, when Mao was defying the Soviet Union and the United States alike and soon lost the two close friends it had, Albania and Vietnam, the slogan went up in Beijing “We have friends all over the world.”

To some degree, in the PRC the role of Heaven has been replaced by the role of history. Heaven’s will was the guiding light for the emperors. History’s movement is for the party state. Does that mean Hu Jintao believes in the Marxist stages of history? Probably not. Does that mean Hu Jintao has a historical confidence that is a residue of the mental structure of those historical stages of Marxism? I believe he probably does.

The Chinese state was a blend of Confucianism and legalism. Confucianism is well known. It’s a hierarchical ethics. The situation of the ruler is analogous to the father of a household; the officials were actually called “father and mother” officials. The people, by analogy, were children, to be nurtured but also condescended to by the ruler.

But the Chinese polity would never have lasted the way it did if it didn’t blend Confucianism with what is called, a bit inadequately in our translation, legalism: the law and order philosophy of Han Fei and other thinkers. Confucianists said human nature is good. Legalists said it is bleak, people only understand force. A weak state, said Han Fei, will have five rewards to every five punishments; an effective state will have three rewards to every seven punishments.

The Confucianists taught the people about their duty and how they should obey the rules. The legalists told the ruler how he should exercise power. The Chinese polity kept swinging back and forth between a dominant Confucianism and a dominant legalism, but the two were in symbiosis, Confucian harmony and legalist toughness. The Confucian scholars were superior men but they were also authoritarian.

The PRC half-century—half of it Mao’s twenty-five years, half of it post-Mao—can be understood as, first of all, a neo-Confucian quarter-century: moral socialism, doctrine to the fore, the reign of virtue. The second period can be seen as neo-legalism: Deng Xiaoping saying: “We will have rules and regulations; you can believe in socialism if you wish, you can not believe if you wish, as long as you don’t oppose it, but you will obey.”

The reason why China has made a successful shift away from almost everything Mao did is that they have updated the symbiosis between Confucianism and legalism.

By Confucianism here I don’t mean that Mao believed in the doctrines of Confucius. Mao did believe in the functional role of a doctrine in authoritarian rule; there has to be a doctrine. And Jiang Zemin came up with the “Three Represents” a few years ago. Implausible it is, but he felt that there had to be a doctrine.

In summary, this half-new/half-old state is like the dynastic polity, one that comes from above not from below, where truth and power are said to emanate from a single source.

Where truth and power emanate from a single source you cannot have free expression. Corruption goes through the roof, as there is no one to blow the whistle. And if someone does blow the whistle, like Dr. Yanyong at a Beijing hospital recently, he is put under surveillance, or worse.

The Falun Gong Buddhist meditationists found out that a single moral universe still exists, for their religious doctrines were interpreted by the Communist Party as political doctrines, which they are not. But any world view that is not the CCP’s own is a challenge. And, extraordinarily enough, the Falun Gong people, whose practice is based on a very ancient Chinese tradition of Qi Gong, were denounced in the name of Marxism from Germany and Leninism from Russia.

Writing prior to the SARS outbreak, I said in The New Chinese Empire: “Much of rural China is an arena of social Darwinian struggle when it comes to competent treatment for illness or injury. AIDS is not being confronted squarely, storing up future problems, and any new pandemic would find China a juicy target.”

The reason for this is twofold. One is that empirical investigation is not compatible with the party state deciding what is safe or dangerous, what is right or wrong. That is the medical professional problem. The second is the situation of the public health infrastructure in rural China. It is to be hoped that this will not be put to a test if the SARS virus stops its rampage and is contained in Beijing the way it has been contained in other places.

Finally, I will discuss the American position in relation to the Chinese system. U.S.-China relations are quite businesslike, and since 9/11 they have improved. In the 1950s, when there was great mutual hostility; we had the Korean War, which we would not have had but for that mutual hostility. In the 1960s the archetypal event in East Asia was the Vietnam War, which again would not have become a major conflagration without U.S.-China mutual hostility. China-U.S. relations are extremely important.

Moreover, in our era, since the third quarter of the twentieth century, the United States has had cordial or better relations with both Japan and China, unlike for a century before. Meanwhile, neither China or Japan sought hegemony in East Asia or fought each other. We are, then, in a very much better position than we have been for a long time.

Our interests with China are: peace, that we don’t fight them and they don’t fight their neighbors; prosperity, that we gain benefit from their enormous and booming economy—at the moment, we have a $100 billion U.S. dollar trade deficit with China; and thirdly, that we have the circumstances for mutual exchange between two great countries and civilizations with the widest possible openness for business, for students, for the professions.

Beyond that, it is in our interests to hope that there will be political liberalization in China, but it is not America’s business to bring this about.

Zeroing in on this party state that I have described, China will not eclipse us and be number one while it is an authoritarian system. It will take more than that for Chinese civilization to be matched, as it one day may, by a system that will make it truly a world leader. I am not alarmed by China’s current strength. China is an ambitious power but constrained in a number of ways.

At the same time, the United States is a necessary rhetorical enemy for China. The more Marxism evaporates in China, the more the theory that the revolution was made against imperialists is difficult to sustain.

But we are hegemonists now. That is not as Marxist a term as imperialists. We are holding China back, the CCP says. It’s all nonsense. We wouldn’t be buying 30 percent of China’s exports if we were trying to hold them back. But we are a necessary enemy for the legitimization of a party state that has to clutch at new sources of legitimacy, even though our imports from China are keeping the economic rate ticking over at 7 percent or better.

We have to put up with this. We cannot expect from this regime that we will please them, satisfy them or cease to make them angry on occasion because we have to be there as their problem. That is central to the nature of their existence at the moment.

It is better for us to be agnostic on the self-determination issues that arise on the periphery of this empire, whether it be territories like Taiwan that China wants, or some in the west that would like to leave the PRC. All we should say is that it must be done with the will of the people.

Every aspect of American presence in China at the moment—business, education, law, and other professional exchanges—is extremely important for China’s future. I expect a political crisis in China, but this period we are in may be quite a rich one for China because after the political change the future will build on today.

We learned in Eastern Europe that what happens before the Communist Party moves aside vastly determines what happens afterward. That’s why Poland and the Czech Republic have had a different experience from Romania or from Russia.

The Chinese political future will be all the richer for this economic boom, all the richer for the interchange that is going on between America and China in our time. We should have what I call a “today and tomorrow” perspective on this: dealing in a businesslike fashion with the Chinese regime today but expecting that there may be something more liberal in the cards.

It certainly is not a good idea to refer to China as “a former communist country.” That would be storing up some future surprises for ourselves.

President Reagan was much criticized in 1983 for calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” I myself was not comfortable with the word “evil,” the moralism of it in international affairs. But in that remark and in his speech to the British Parliament his diagnosis that the Soviet Union had feet of clay politically was correct, and such a correct diagnosis helped him deal successfully with the Soviet Union.

Thank you.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you for laying an excellent foundation for our discussion.

Question & Answer

QUESTION: Your argument that the essence of China hasn’t changed over the ages is a persuasive one, but you seem to overlook massive change agents occurring within China. One is the large number of Chinese students who come to study here in America, 20,000-50,000 a year, that then go back and begin to run cities and run corporations; two, the spread of the Internet in China, faster than anywhere else in the world; and thirdly, all the business links as a result of trade. Will these change agents make a difference to the essence of China?

ROSS TERRILL: Yes, the change is great. To go back to SARS, we can see the change if we compare SARS with the Tangshan earthquake in the last year of Mao’s life. The Tangshan earthquake was known by geologists to be a huge one. The U.S. and UN offered aid which was declined, and China said, “There’s no big problem.” Years later, after Mao was dead, Beijing said 242,000 people died in the rubble of Tangshan.

Hu Jintao was not able to suppress news even of a fairly small-scale epidemic for very long. In the Chinese dynasties an epidemic was a state secret; an earthquake, a flood, even a meteor falling down, went unmentioned because it was believed to be a portent that the Chinese court was in trouble. That’s one reason why Mao and the people around him covered up the Tangshan earthquake.

They couldn’t possibly do that now. All this will make for a new politics. But you have to get from here to there. At the moment it’s a system unaccountable to below, a system that cannot separate the fount of truth from the fount of power.

It’s not exactly the same as the past. I did explain that the dualism of Confucianism and legalism allows a great deal of swinging back and forth in China, much more than in the Soviet Union. The Slavic mind may not live with contradictions as easily as the Chinese mind.

But ultimately, the very technology you mention will have consequences. And economic freedom cannot be separated from political freedom indefinitely, not least in a civilization that has lived by ideas for 2,500 years. China has generally had a believed public philosophy. It would be condescending to the Chinese people to think that they will go on with a public philosophy that they don’t believe in.

QUESTION: In the context of Taiwan and China, do you see convergence in the medium-term future? Do you see any convergence between Taiwan and China in terms of the political development, considering that the author has taken politics as destiny as the main explanation of developments, even though the historical interpretation is in terms of culture?

ROSS TERRILL: No, I’m not a “culture first,” I’m a universalist. The Chinese tradition contains autocracy and it has suited the Chinese Communist Party to appropriate that. The Chinese tradition also contains the humanism of Confucian thought. It contains Daoism, which is a perfect philosophy for small government—the way to rule a big kingdom, said Lao Tze, is the way you should cook a small fish: don’t toss it around too much, don’t burn it. So we see a selective use of Chinese tradition by the Chinese Communist Party.

The problem with the Chinese system is not Chinese; it is its autocracy. That brings me to your second question. Taiwan is part of the broader Chinese civilization, but it is an island which for 400 years or so has been ruled by or heavily influenced by other peoples. The Qing Dynasty only made it a province of China when the Qings started to be scared of Japan and turned its attention from in Asia to the maritime flank thirty years before the end of the Qing Dynasty.

The developments in Taiwan since 1987 prove to me the superior power of universalist explanations, in that the old idea that Chinese culture would preclude democracy has been disproved, just as Korea virtually disproved it before that.

The factor of culture at the moment is not a force for Taiwan and the PRC drawing closer. In practice, they are drawing further apart, despite a close bond of economics. The biggest reason why they are drawing apart—a reason of political culture—is that elections from below have created, first with Lee Teng-hui and now with Chen Shui-bian, a sense of separateness in Taiwan. Nothing creates legitimacy like elections, and history will view those elections as very important steps.

As long as the United States remains strong in East Asia on more general grounds, Beijing has missed its opportunity to take Taiwan.

QUESTION: You made a very powerful case for the burden of history in China, but you also made a very good case for the inevitability of a crisis in the Chinese polity. Could you put a timeframe on that? How long do you think that polity retarded by history can withstand change elements?

ROSS TERRILL: My guess is the least interesting part of what I should say to your question. I doubt that in twenty years the Communist Party of China, if it is still called that, will have an inbuilt monopoly over political power in China.

But there has to be a trigger for change, which could come in three contexts: something within the Chinese Communist Party; forces within Chinese society coming at the Party from outside the Party; the international context.

To take the third first, China has had a very successful period in foreign policy. China has never been more secure internationally since the Chenlong Emperor, who ruled for sixty years in the eighteenth century. This is no small matter.

But it also means that China, because it has borders with fourteen countries, not to speak of three or four more that are just across the water—it abuts South Asia, Central Asia, Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia—is very vulnerable.

You have to ask in that context: especially perhaps in Central Asia or Northeast Asia, will there be a trigger that would give Beijing sufficient trouble to cause a major rupture in Beijing’s policy making?

The forces within Chinese society that would challenge the Communist Party are not the same as before. It will not be students or intellectuals. It would more likely be angry farmers who are being hit with arbitrary levies and high taxes and workers losing their jobs in the cities. So far those two forces, rural and urban, have made absolutely no linkup with each other. Unless they do, this is not a problem sufficient to threaten the Chinese Government, which has been very skillful in mixing carrot and stick in both cases.

The third context, within the Party: every conceivable idea about China’s future—federalism, democracy, change the name of the Party to the Chinese Party—are all discussed among the 66 million who belong to the Chinese Communist Party.

The best scenario for political change in China would be an occasion for a large quarrel in the Communist Party to split it. Some would hold fast to the leftist position, that without a Leninist system, China would not keep its national unity, and they would have a strong argument. But the others would say that the new society and economy simply cannot continue to move ahead without a new political system, and they would have strong arguments too.

But it is conceivable that this division, perhaps adjudicated by the military if it was a sharp division, could lead to some steps toward a pluralist politics. There are other scenarios that are less appealing than that.

QUESTION: How do politics relate to non-political events, especially those complex changes post-1989?

Many hoped before 1989 that somehow all these economic changes and the new openness to the outside world would bring about a political change

But, for example, there was the 1997 economic crisis. In China that effectively closed the banking system for months and months. Very few governments in this world have that tool to defuse an economic crisis by employing that. Will the economic changes help that regime to more effectively control by political means and keep economic development growing, or the other way around, as we always hope for?

ROSS TERRILL: You can draw up a balance sheet. The economic progress is one of two factors keeping the regime in control. The other is nationalist feeling. These are both new legitimators for the Beijing party state.

So what happens if there is a major slowdown? The same with technology. The Internet at the moment is cutting both ways. It liberates the individual. But most Chinese do not have access to the Internet, it is a small minority still; that is worth stressing.

When there is a big event, like the 1999 bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade or the May 2001 collision of a U.S. and Chinese aircraft, the government can successfully control the opinion of the populace and turn the hose of information on and off, as it did in 1999, because it didn’t tell anybody that President Clinton and NATO had apologized. So, naturally, you would rampage in the streets if you thought the United States had deliberately bombed the Belgrade Embassy of China. It’s a frightening use of monopoly of power over information.

All of these things that you mentioned are ingredients in the political future, but they don’t tell me anything at all about how the political change will come.

No Chinese regime has ever in history fallen other than violently and no Leninist system has made a smooth transition to a commercial, let alone capitalist, economy that was sustained. I am guided by these two points.

The unexpected will always occur. Who expected SARS at the very moment Hu Jintao had not yet fully succeeded to Jiang Zemin, a very delicate moment?

There will be further triggers. You have to ask yourself: how will this regime, given the transformations in the society and in the economy, cope with a very serious future political crisis? You cannot be strong in a large crisis unless you have a legitimacy that is not just asserted from above.

Let’s say there’s a problem in the Taiwan Strait and at the same time there is restiveness in one of the non-Han areas in the West and that the economy is also slowing. This tripartite of factors is not unthinkable by any means. You have to ask yourself: how strong is this regime to cope with that kind of problem? They haven’t had such a blend of international and domestic crises since 1989.

Your generation – younger Chinese—can reap the benefits of all these technical and economic successes. It doesn’t have to be left to the Chinese Communist Party!

QUESTION: What sort of relations do you see between China and North Korea? Would you share your views on the very hypothetical question: what happens if North Korea becomes a country similar to South Korea because of internal revolution or reunification?

ROSS TERRILL: Korea is a case where we see that China has changed and where we see that in other respects it has not. China had Korea as one of its tributary states. The tributary system meant that if the small country—Vietnam, Korea—behav

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