Chapter Nine – Passage Four
Occasionally, I smoke. It’s not a typical habit but sometimes I’ll light up a cigarette when I’m feeling particularly tense or stressed out. Over the horizon, dawn’s about to break and in another hour The Silver Dragon will arrive at Urumqi. Our first appointment of the day is a nine o’clock meeting with Governor Wu at his offices in the city town hall. He’ll be expecting a status report and an outline of next steps and how we plan to proceed. Every time you walk into a client meeting, the hope is that you’ll be able to deliver wonderfully good news. That you’ve met every objective for the quarter and really knocked it out of the park. But then, sometimes, you’ll be in the situation like we’re in now. Where the news is less than stellar.
In our defense, we’ve been consistently sending periodic status updates to the governor’s office: Daily and weekly dashboard snapshots of the situation on the ground in Urumqi. So at least we’re not surprising anyone with bad news. (That’s always the first lesson in the business: Surprises are bad. Clients can (well, relatively) ingest bad news when they’re warned (repeatedly) ahead of time and made well aware of the risks along the way. But if things suddenly go pear-shaped and once-theoretical risks suddenly reify with very severe, very real-world consequences, this is when you’ve got a problem.)
But things had been steadily going downhill for the past six weeks. While our initial efforts had at first appeared promising, after the second week, incidents of petty crimes such as theft and vandalism had rebounded and climbed even higher than their previous levels. And ever since, all of our charts had been going in the wrong direction.
I hear the garden car door open behind me and turn. It’s Kristen.
“Up early, are we?” she asks. The garden car is one of the more quixotic in The Silver Dragon. Normally, China’s pretty warm and doesn’t get the deep autumn seasons. So a clever engineer somewhere along the way decided to install a “greenhouse” car on the train to emulate foliage and fauna that the Chinese don’t normally see. For urban folk –namely, the wealthy who could afford passage on The Silver Dragon— the garden car was a wonderous marvel. Most of the urban wealthy in China spent their days in soaring, airconditioned office towers all of their waking hours. To be able to enjoy nature for, even for a few hours, on a long train trip was a welcome reprieve from the pedestrian daily grind of one’s mundane Chinese life.
I’m in the garden car just because it had the proper ventilation systems to vacuum away all of my cigarette smoke though. Gotta find some way to get rid of all of the evidence, after all.
Kristen walks over and sits next to me on the garden bench. She’s wearing a dark blue suit pants; a beige, cashmere turtleneck; and golden hoop earrings. I’m pretty sure she’s also wearing heels because she seems taller. It reminds me that we’re all going to need to get dolled up when we see the governor. (And I’m suddenly reminded that I’ve spent the past two months in sweatpants in the basement of the JFL.)
“Big day, today,” I say, taking another drag on my cigarette. “We’re not exactly going in to deliver the best of news.”
Kristen shrugs. “Good news is easy. Anyone can deliver good news. It’s needing to deliver bad news and convince them to keep us around– that’s where we really earn it, right?”
I chuckle. “True, true. So very true.”
“Besides,” Kristen says brightly. “We’ve got a full-proof plan! It’s bold! It’s daring! They’re going to love it!”
“Our plan involves fabricating and maintaining a wild lie to feed to millions,” I say, sighing. “In order to strike fear and worry into the lives of millions of Chinese citizens, many of whom poor farmers and common folk who are already struggling enough as it is to make ends meet and just get by.”
Kristen clasps me on the back. “C’mon! Don’t be like that. It’s for the greater good. Isn’t that what we always tell ourselves? Follow the data? Trust the numbers? Instead of dwelling on all of the negative side effects, think about the good parts! The decrease in sectarian violence! All of the suicide bombings in the Sunday morning markets that’ll be averted!”
“Yeah, they’ll be averted because there won’t be a Sunday morning market. We’ll be asking tens of thousands to go into voluntary quarantine when this whole thing begins. Maybe even hundreds of thousands if we expand beyond Phase I.”
“You know what your problem is?” Kristen suddenly says, turning to look at me. “You, Dexter Fletcher, worry way too much.”
“Jesus Christ, woman.” I stand and flick away my cigarette, lighting another. “How can you not worry about what we’re about to propose? To the CCP, of all people?!“
“Relax,” she says. “We’re just giving a run-of-the-mill update and gently suggesting an idea. No one’s pulling the trigger on anything yet. We’re just introducing an idea into the ether.”
“An idea built on lies!”
“So what? Geez, grow up, Dexter. Look around you. I may be Australian but I’ve slaved away my fair share of man-months deep in the salt-mines of America. Where has all that free-flow of information gotten you, exactly?”
Kristen’s retort brings me short. I want to protest, but there’s a part of me that knows she’s right. America’s holiness around first amendment, free speech rights hadn’t exactly done the country any favors in the online age either. Our indices for civil unrest, crime rates, and unhappiness stood, after all, among the highest in the developed world.
“I sleep fine at night,” says Kristen, “because ultimately you need to look at the ends that we’re trying to achieve. So a few tens of thousands of people get stuck at home for a few months. Is anyone hurt or dying? No. Will some people get cabin fever? Sure, they’ll get restless and bored, probably. But you know what? Bored is better than dead.
“Additionally,” she continues. “Mom and pop businesses won’t shutter. We’re proposing that the CCP step in with one-time loans and grants after ‘the virus’ strikes. This will build gratitude in the Uyghur populations, at least among the merchant class. That in their time of need, when an Act of God unfortunately struck, that Xi’s government was there! That the Chinese Communist Party saved the day! That the Chinese National Guard built hospitals at record speed! Only in a time of emergency and desperation does everyone suddenly become fans of big government. In times of great need, everyone’s suddenly a Democrat.”