Chapter Nine – Passage One
Launching a targeted super-virus into a major metropolitan area is easier said than done. Logistically, there were a thousand different things that could go wrong. First, like any good data science project, we needed to define our parameters. At the top of that list, obviously, were human fatalities.
“Whatever solution you devise,” Jack had told us on the platform as we were about to depart Xi’an, “it simply must do no worse than the current situation on the ground. As long as Beijing sees that you’re moving in the right direction, you’ll be fine. The Chinese are a patient people. We don’t expect overnight successes; in fact, we highly suspect any achievement not borne of years and decades of pain and suffering. But we do expect improvement. Always.”
Jack’s words ring in my head as I watch the scenery blow past outside our speeding train window. We’re back in modern civilization again and it’s nice to be back in the land of chrome-plated expresso machines, laptops, and gigabit wireless internet. Though I’d enjoyed the quaint retro-steampunk world of Xi’an the two days that we were there, I was ready to return to the twenty-first century. It was time.
Before, we’d been thinking too small. Trying to use conventional means to reduce civil unrest and turmoil in Xinjiang. What I’d realized after our two-day jaunt in Xi’an was that people’s behavior in Urumqi was far more complex than just simple toggles and switches on a dashboard. We’d tried the carrot and we’d tried the stick. Both had totally failed miserably. It was time to bring out the Tomahawk missiles.
Besides, we were nearing the end of the second month of our engagement and so far we’d delivered no results. No, even worse than no results. We’d spent tons of time, energy, and money. But some policies had actually further deteriorated the situation on the ground in Urumqi. Negative results. I must admit– though I had not contemplated it before, I sure as hell was now thinking about it: What was the price of failure?
In America, even if you’re on a total debacle of a project, if it sends in total failure and catastrophe, while the project’s very public head –say, like the Secretary of Health and Human Services– may be sacked in a show of public accountability, most consultants like myself simply slink away unscathed. We’ve already collected our tens or hundreds of thousand dollars in fees; our job is done! And then we simply conveniently leave off the dumpster fire of a project from our CVs when we gallivant off onto our next engagement. All is well.
But here, in China, I begin to wonder if the consequences of abject failure are similarly so nonchalant?
Similar concerns seem to be weighing on Kristen’s mind too because she’s been surprisingly open to this new direction. That is to say– she’s been very quiet; I would’ve expected more loud protests of outrage, disbelief, and umbrage at the thought of making tens of thousands of people severely ill, if not worse, but she’s taken this recent turn of events in stride.
“So the bare minimum,” Kristen says to me over the train dining table, “is that whatever solution we propose, there simply cannot be more fatalities than are currently happening. But on what time horizon?”
“Let’s say– a year,” I suggest. I also have my laptop in front of my and am punching in numbers as we speak, to just explore this scenario a bit, to see what kind of outcomes we might be looking at. Or as they say: See the possibility space.
“So we know the Xinjiang and Kazakhstani border is currently among the most disputed in the world. Maybe only second to the Gaza Strip. If we loop in those casualty numbers, it’ll give us much more to work with than just using the Urumqi crime statistics.”
I nod knowingly. This shifty little maneuver, an underhanded technique that data scientists often use when they’re trying to argue for a particular case in their favor, we call: Moving the goalposts.
I examine the map to see the contested hot zone– it’s a region along the border by the small Kazakhstani town of Horogos. Is this to become our new West Bank?
Of all of us, Coleman is the one with the most trepidation towards this new direction, however. The prospect of killing thousands of innocent people hangs over him like a dark spectre.
“Guys– you are not seriously considering Jack’s idea, are you?” he says, clearly dumbfounded. “These… these are war crimes we’re talking about.”
“War crimes,” Deepak replies, “is having hundreds and thousands of your own citizens dying every year from poverty, random missile attacks, and suicide bombings in the public market. That should be a war crime. How many of innocent citizens have died from the terrorist violence that’s currently going on down there today?”
“But that is not state-sanctioned violence!” Coleman protests. “What you’re proposing here is knowingly committing atrocities.“
“Wait, hold up,” Kristen says holding up her hands. “No one is talking about killing tens of thousands of people. In fact, if everything goes right, no one will die at all.”
“Oh, really?” Coleman says dubiously.
“We’re talking about a moderate biological agent. Something that people might get ill from; but they’ll make full recoveries! With these kind of programs, the fear, especially in the beginning, is what prompts action. We’re not setting out to kill anyone year– just make them a little sick.”
Ah, I see. This is clearly how we sleep at night. Clearly.
“We just need to manufacture pretext for Chinese withdraw from the region,” Alan chimes in. “A bunch of people will get the flu but everyone will ultimately be fine.”
As we’re discussing this ludicrous idea, I do notice how everyone is conveniently omitting talking about the second part of Jack’s plan, which for some reason everyone’s suddenly become very fond of. Assuming some biological agent we create doesn’t mutate into a super-virus and turn into the next Bubonic Plague that slaughters everyone, Jack’s entire proposal hinges on the idea that after Chinese withdrawal, the Uyghurs will turn on themselves; that in the absence of Chinese infrastructure and support, the entire region will degenerate into a chaotic morass of death and destruction. No one mentions this part.