Chapter Six – Passage Three
So it turns out they had tried exactly that.
“We brought in a team of specialists two years ago,” Alan patiently explains. “The most experienced professionals and prominent academics in all the land. Knowledgeable and well-connected to Xinjiang, from China’s biggest and most successful companies as well as the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences– the most famous university in China, the equivalent of England’s Oxford.”
“Huh. That’s nice. Gathered the country’s best and brightest to go in and occupy and restore peace in a foreign land. What could possibly go wrong?”
“Everything,” Alan sighs. He looks at the scenery outside the train windows, racing by. We’re cruising by pastoral rolling hills of gorgeous, untouched Chinese countryside. Alan takes a moment to compose his thoughts.
“To understand the extent of the catastrophe that ensued though,” he continues after a beat, “it’s necessary to first know how the Chinese government functions. Everyone thinks they know what communism and socialism is. In the west, you’ve painted beautiful myths about communal sharing and the laboring class owning the means of production. And while that’s nominally true, people also forget that leadership still needs to exist. In a company, you can’t just have everyone being an individual contributor and there existing no middle management. A world without hierarchy may be socialism; but it’s also chaos.”
Having been in my own fair share of Silicon Valley, libertarian pipedreams gone horribly awry, I nod my head knowingly. I’m no political scientist, but I’ve seen my fair share of office politics.
“And the problem with the project two years ago,” Alan says, “is that everyone was connected to someone. What you need to understand about China is that it’s all tightly connected and interwoven. Even if you’re the department chair or endowed professor at the Academy of Sciences, that endowment actually comes from somewhere. Similarly, if you’re the chief executive of some Chinese megacorp, you only have the position because you’ve been installed with the blessings of the regime. No one ascends to any position of power in the communist and socialist structure without a network of deep alliances, coalition-building, backroom deals, and back-scratching. Everyone’s got dirt on someone because they otherwise wouldn’t even be there in the first place. Does that make sense?”
“Nothing new there,” says Coleman. “Same way with American politics. You’re describing a universal truth, buddy.”
“No,” says Alan, “you don’t get it. Sure, favoritism and cronyism exist everywhere. But at least in the west, the money is divorced from the power. Your Silicon Valley billionaires can build their own corporations and Super-PACs to air commercials against your government. Hell, you dismantle and rebuild your governments every four years, anyway. But the point is, your wealthiest and most powerful may achieve their riches honestly or dishonestly, but after they’ve obtained it, they can do whatever they want with it. Build their own nation states in the south pacific, run attack ads and campaigns against your sitting presidents, it’s all fair game.
“But in China, though we’ve minted more billionaires than the rest of the world combined in the recent decade, all those billionaires sit at the mercy of Xi. Though impressive on paper, their vast wealth is all stored with the People’s Bank of China, a nationalized institution. Remember, the laboring class owns the means of production. Which may administratively means that the people do collectively own everything. But there’s still a government. And ‘the collective will of the people’ still need to me implemented by some state apparatus.
“So basically, you’re saying all that money can just be frozen or disappear at any time,” Coleman says slowly. The kid’s starting to get it.
“Exactly,” Alan nods. “Don’t you ever wonder why those anti-corruption charges that sweep China every few years are conveniently accompanied by periods of peace and minimal societal turmoil? Billionaires just conveniently go to jail for life for ‘fraud charges’ and the like. It’s simply suppression under the veneer of ‘draining the swamp’ and that’s where the difference lies.”
“What happened two years ago?” I ask. “Why did that project fail?”
Alan’s a good guy but he has a habit of rambling sometimes. Someone occasionally needs to set him back on track.
“Right. So this is actually important for you to know.” Alan blinks a few times and takes a moment to wipe down his glasses. You can see the gears and cogs whirling away; he’s clearly trying to figure out how to summarize a ridiculously complicated geopolitical situation for Coleman and me, total neophytes.
“The first thing to understand is that Xi’s control has been waning in recent years,” Alan begins. “The guy’s getting old and there’s a new guard vying for supremacy. So realize that in this respect, Xinjiang has come to symbolize far more than just the Uyghur population. It’s a proxy battle in many ways to show who’s the true leader of the CCP.”
“Alright,” Coleman says slowly. “Sounds like we’ve got some good ol’ fashioned palace intrigue. So set the table for us. What we got?”
“Xi represents the hardliners,” Alan explains. “The curmudgeon’s old school. If he had his way, Urumqi would be a smoking crater by now. 23 million Uyghurs, in his mind, is a pittance in the grand scheme when his dominion, that’s still growing with no sight in end, is at 1.4 billion and ever climbing. He’s cranky that this entire ordeal has already dragged on as long as it has.”
“So in his mind,” I summarize, “this whole situation in Xinjiang can be remedied with a few well-placed ballistic missiles.”
“Exactly. But of course, there’s Cia Fudong, the son of the previous CCP viceroy, Cia Xia, the prominent former Central Party School professor who was exiled from the country forty-some years back. Her son’s been building power slowly over the decades since returning to China and has accrued a loyal following– people who also think that Xi is taking China down the wrong path.”
I rub my temples, feeling a throbbing inchoate but inevitable. “Okay, great. So Xinjiang on a more meta-level isn’t about the Uyghurs at all. But is a battle of egos to demonstrate very publicly who’s got the power.”
“There’s actually a third contender in the wings,” says Alan shaking his head, “but I’m just gonna gloss over that part for now.” He looks me. “So in a nutshell, yes. What happened two years ago with the group we assembled then was that half were loyal to Cia’s strategy of a more peaceful and measured approach towards the Uyghurs. While Xi loyalists instead wanted to send in the tank battalions and burn it all to the ground. The impasse slowly built to a crescendo, dragged on for months, and then before things could come to a head, Xi disbanded the entire initiative when it started looking bad for him.”
Coleman furrows his brow in consternation.
“So basically you people have yourselves a Chinese civil war on your hands and you’ve dragged us into the middle of it?”