Quelling Dissent Quietly is a Puzzle

NOTE: This is an ongoing original fiction story that I’m currently writing. I started writing this fictional story back at the beginning of October 2020 and contribute ~500 words to it every day on this blog. I didn’t outline the story at all going into it but it’s slowly evolved into a tale about a data scientist in his mid-thirties from America who finds himself summoned to China where’s he’s been offered a job to work for the Chinese Communist Party on a project monitoring the Uyghurs in the Chinese “autonomous region” of Xinjiang. In China, the story’s protagonist, Dexter Fletcher, meets other professionals who’ve also been brought in from abroad to help consult on the project. My story takes place several decades in the future and explores human rights, privacy in an age of ever-increasing state-surveillance, and differences between competing dichotomies: democracy vs communism, eastern vs western political philosophies, and individual liberties vs collective security. If this sounds interesting and you’d like to read more, my fiction story starts here.

Chapter Five – Passage Six

“Meeting the locals will be a crucial part of the project,” Alan is saying.  “If we’re going to build a campaign to win over hearts and minds, we’re going to need to know how they feel and think.”

It’s a few weeks later and we’re back in Building 11 again.  For days we’d tossed about dozens of ideas.  No matter which approach we came up with, the chief obstacle was always the same:  The key challenge in Xinjiang was that there existed a small but vocal faction of protestors in the region who resented Chinese control and rule.  Using the state surveillance apparatus, we’d gleaned their whereabouts.  Overhead satellite imagery told us where they convened, an old building in the Shuimogou district above a convenience shop stuck between a clothing store and a rundown Chinese restaurant.  Once they entered the building though, we had no idea what happened inside.

“I don’t understand,” Coleman says.  “In Ürümqi, the people have everything.  The local municipality provides government-sponsored housing and daily food rations for the destitute.  No one goes hungry or without a roof over their heads.  Why are people plotting in secret to overthrow the regime?”

“The discontent and disillusioned are predominately the young, new generation,” says Alan.  “Among the older folks, for decades, there was never a single peep.  But increasingly, as young people return to Ürümqi after studying and working abroad, they’re appalled by what they see in their hometown.”

“Is it possible,” asks Deepak, “to simply restrict all movement in and out of the capital?  Lock down all of the borders and disallow free movement between provincial and city borders?”

Van sighs.  “So obviously, it’s possible.  Anything’s possible.  But if we can help it, we’d prefer not to.”  She taps a few keys on her computer and projection of China springs up on the wall.  Some areas are colored in light pink.  “These colored regions represent potential zones of turmoil by what we’ve been able to observe.  When we operate in Xinjiang, it’s critical to understand that we’re operating under a microscope.  While there is some western press covering Xinjiang, what’s really important is that we don’t provide any fodder to China’s other autonomous regions that would instigate rebellion or action.”

“But you guys control of the media, right?” Coleman asks.  “Why are we worried about this?”

This is my cue.  I’ve actually been studying this data in the last few weeks and my findings aren’t what I expected.

“The Great Firewall of China,” I explain, “is considerable but not impregnable.  In fact, with each passing year, the CCP has actually been losing its ability to control information within the country.  There’s a significant uptick in people using VPNs, among other methods, to circumvent state control.  While once formidable, the sieve is slipping.”

Kristen chuckles.  “Have you ever tried containing the internet?  It’s easier said than done.”

“Right,” says Van.  She turns to Deepak to answer his question.  “So like I was saying earlier.  If we did just shut down all movement in and out of Xinjiang, there’s no way to do that quietly.  We’re talking about closing down border checkpoints, shutting down airports, and barricading all ports of entry.”

“Yeah,” I say.  “And also, you’ll need to enforce it too, which is a whole other project in itself.  There’s gonna be coyotes illegally ferreting people in and out– what are we going to do with these folks?  The Chinese army is just supposed to shoot rulebreakers on sight?”

“Right, and then you just know that some kid’s gonna snap a photo of it with his ancient 3G Huawei phone: his 80-something Grandma being shot in the back as she flees Chinese border patrol on foot–“

“–and that’ll eventually make it onto the frontpage of Reddit, The Post, or worse.”

We all sigh.  This is a puzzle, alright.  Quelling dissent in Xinjiang– but doing it quietly.

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