Chapter Seven – Passage One
Winding our way in a horse-drawn stagecoach over cobblestone streets, we later get the full story about Xi’an from Alan. The ride is a little tight with five of us sitting inside the carriage, facing each other; I’m sitting with Kristen opposite of Alan, Deepak, and Coleman. And Shu’s sitting up top with the stagehand who’s working the reins. Our luggage rollers and duffels are all tied up and chorded in the coach’s caboose. It’s basically a scene out of Oregon Trail except we’re just trying to cross town and not all of North America.
As Kristen had mentioned earlier, we’re apparently on our way over to Jack Bao’s place for a luncheon appointment. Dimly, I knew that the Bao family was one of the richest in China (“fifth richest,” Alan later informs us) and they’d accumulated their tremendous wealth on the back of a social network called Weibook. Last I checked, it was estimated that Weibook had a roughly 90% penetration of the Chinese market which would make it the second largest platform in the world. Of course, Chinese citizens didn’t really have a choice –all non-Chinese platforms had been explicitly banned– so it really, in my mind at least, begged the question of what 10% in China wasn’t on social media this day and age.
Aside from that founding story, the only other tidbit I know about Jack was that he’d stepped down from the company last year that his father had founded. Bao Senior had passed away around that time and that was the reason that Jack, now in his fifties, had given for his retirement. But there had also been speculation that it’d been a coup by the CCP. And that once Bao Senior died, the predictable power vacuums had bloomed, Jack had lost, and that he’d been ousted. But honestly, who knows? It was all rumors.
“This is wild!” Coleman says over the sound of the clomping of horse hooves. “It must take ages to get anywhere and do anything though!”
Alan nods. “That’s precisely the point.”
It takes something like half-an-hour to go a meager few miles but during that time Alan explains to us the entire rationale behind Xi’an.
Like all countries, China at first was bowled over by the great technological tsunami that’d swept the world. The internet! Mobile smartphones in every pocket! All that information at your fingertips! But over the decades, as the gleam of the initial joy began to dull, the CCP started seeing all of the drawbacks of this new, smaller, interconnected, always-on, highspeed world as well. Information was travelling so fast electronically that it couldn’t be factchecked in time. Even with the Great Firewall enforcing at maximum blast, messages were falling through the cracks, as were full-bore websites. Clever youths with their roundabout, multi-continent-traversing-proxy-VPNs were getting through to the outside world. What’s fascinating though, that the CCP eventually discovered, was that while technology enabled these new deleterious social effects, they were not the cause. The cause was something far more primitive– it was basic human appetite. Chinese citizens weren’t consuming because they could; they were consuming the vast petaflops of information because they desired it.
So the CCP set up an experiment: Xi’an: The Unconnected City.