Crimes against humanity, however, seldom deterred the American consumer from buying Chinese though. Whether it be Microsoft Xboxes or Apple iPhones, all of the consumer electronics that millions of Americans enjoyed on a daily basis were manufactured in China, the land of the cheapest labor on planet earth. It turns out when you’re not required to pay minimum wage and can employ child slave labor to mass produce your goods and sew your Nike tennis shoes, then you can churn out widgets for sale at basement-bottom prices (which are then sold at your local super-conglomerate big box retailer like Walmart).
“Tell me,” says Charlotte, leaning forward. “Let’s just cut straight to the chase, as you Americans say, Mr. Fletcher. How do you feel about the Xi regime? What is your opinion of our fair country?”
“I’m a fan,” I say evenly. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here.” I’m ready for this question have rehearsed my answer dozens of times; I reel off my response effortlessly, on autopilot.
“Obviously, China’s track record is less than stellar,” I say, stating the obvious. “But I’m also cognizant that it’s a country of 1.4 billion people. And that there’s a long and complicated history that is diverse, multicultural, and tangled. Under Xi’s leadership, as terrible as some things have been for some people in some parts of the country, it’s also undeniable that in the three decades under his totalitarian rule, China has lifted more people out of poverty than any other civilization in the history of humanity. Thanks to Xi, farmers and people from the rural hinterlands have healthcare for the first time in their lives, infant mortality rates are way down, average Chinese life expectancy is way up, and production across all sectors –agriculture, technology, finance, and manufacturing– have all boomed, seeing double-digit growth, year-over-year, for the past fifteen years.”
I butter another beignet and take a bite, shifting my weight in my chair. The powdered sugar on top is heavenly. “So, in summary,” I say, “I’m a fan. As the old saying goes. You can’t make an omelet without cracking a few eggs. And it’s simply the case that Xi’s made quite a few omelets in the three decades that he’s been in charge.”
I finish and lean back in my chair. That’s it. Whether my entire trip here continues from this point forward depends on how well I’d just delivered what I’d said. If it wasn’t sufficiently convincing… well, then this is going to be one very short trip.
“That’s… a rather enlightened view,” Charlotte finally says. She smiles and takes a sip of her tea, the first I’ve seen her drink since the start of our conversation. “I’m glad to hear that,” she says. “It’s not often that we speak with Americans who have… such a big-picture comprehension of the state of things.”
I shrug. “America’s a big place. I’m sure you’ll find all sorts of us from all walks and corners, if you look hard enough.”
Charlotte chuckles. “Ah, well, that is the beauty of your American internet, it would seem.” She slides the manila folder that she’d extracted earlier from her briefcase over to my side of the table. “Thanks to your world-wide-web, as you call it, I don’t even need to come looking for you. Conveniently, people like you always have a way of finding their way to people like me.”
She taps the manila folder.
“Inside here,” she says, “you’ll find a phone. Standard-issue, encrypted, and secure. And it has everything inside that you’ll need next. You are to discard of your current phone immediately after we finish speaking here. Do you understand?”
I nod and Charlotte gets up, preparing to leave.
“Is that it?” I ask. “I was told there would be a preliminary interview after I’d completed the assessment.”
“This was it,” says Charlotte, putting on her overcoat, a black and white fur-lined affair made of minx and some other endangered species, I’m sure. “Congratulations, Mr. Fletcher. You passed. I hope for all of our sakes that you’re as comfortable in the kitchen as your manners suggest.”
“In the kitchen?”
Charlotte looks back over her shoulder. “We’re in the business, Mr. Fletcher, of making omelets. Of all shapes and sizes, of all kinds and flavors. I hope you’re ready, Dexter. I hope you know what you’ve signed up for.”
And with that, she disappears into the morning bustle, through the revolving doors, and out of sight.