Disposing My Old Mobile Phone

Disposing my old mobile phone is a simple matter of running a special app called “Nuclear Cleanse” that I’d obtained via root kit ages ago.  Most people, when they wish to erase the contents of their phone, perform a “factory reset” which they believe will securely erase all of their personal data from their device.  And to be fair, most of the time, for most people, “factory resetting” your phone accomplishes their desired objective.

But for a rarified few, if your name exists on a very short, state-authored list of undesirable people, then what performing a “factory reset” actually does is send up a big red flare in cyberspace telling authorities, “Hey! Here I am!” followed by the surreptitious beaming of all personal data you may have on your device off to some mothership in the cloud somewhere.

Furthermore, if you’ve ever wondered how “data recovery experts” down at the local strip mall, sandwiched between the Jamba Juice and the Kung Fu Bubble Tea place, are able to somehow recover that long-lost video file that Grandma accidentally shift-dragged to the recycle bin, here lies the secret: When you “delete” a file on your device, the file in fact isn’t really deleted at all.  Instead, the computer simply labels that memory address space on the disk as “unoccupied” and ready to be written over.  Then, the next time you record an hour-long video, the device “knows” to write to that address space.  The key here:  If you never record a new video, that old file that you “deleted” is never actually deleted; it’s physically still on the disk.  And thus can be recovered.

Thus, the “Nuclear Cleanse” app does exactly what you’d imagine it would:  Upon invocation, it overwrites every single existing byte in the memory of your device with some gibberish token of information.  The process takes exponentially longer than a “factory reset” but also has the nice feature of actually wiping all personal data from my device.  Technology is terrific, but you need to know how to use it.

Back in my hotel room, I boot up the new phone that Charlotte gave me and register it with my thumbprint biometric.  This also conveniently transfers over my hotel keycard over to the new phone.

In the movies, there’s always some ridiculous scene where the hero needs to get rid of his phone and then proceeds to  chuck his device into a lake or some other body of water.  On a long list of Hollywood travesties, that trope is definitely among the worst of the worst.  Electrical devices can be easily recovered from bodies of water.  And after the devices dry, they –surprise, surprise– usually turn on and work just fine.  If you ever need to discard your phone for some reason, please don’t hurl it into a lake.  That will do absolutely nothing.  Also:  It’s weird.  If you saw some random stranger throw a $2,000 iPhone into the ocean, wouldn’t you be suspicious?  Such shady behavior arouses nothing but unwanted attention.

No, after my old phone finishes its “nuclear cleansing,” I’ll likely sell it off at a pawn shop somewhere in Shanghai.  Truth be told, it’s a late-model Samsung and will likely still fetch a pretty penny.  Also, even after being wiped of all personal data, the phone –the moment it turns on– will still need to connect and register with services like GPS and NFC which immediately betrays its identity because each device connects to the global network with unique hardware identifiers that are burned into the phone’s firmware.  Pawning off the phone is both infinitely less suspicious and also has the added benefit of misdirection.  If the NSA or anyone ever wished to track me, they’re welcome to follow some Chinese teen as she galivants off across the Shanghai night city scene.  All the more power to them.

Electronics Avenue

Chapter Two

Echelon is the name of the clandestine operations program that the Chinese Communist Party uses to monitor all internet traffic within the Chinese mainland.  For foreigners visiting China and getting onto its internet for the first time, the experience is strange and surreal, as if you’ve stepped into a parallel universe.  As is well-known, the giant American players like Facebook and Google don’t exist in China– you’re not able to access those websites at all and will be blocked by the Great Chinese Firewall if you try.  Instead, you access incredibly similar sites– literally, 99.99% perfectly identical down to the colors, icons, and typography.  The only difference is that the site is in Chinese and is controlled by the Chinese government or a state-sponsored company.

My first assignment, on my first full day in Shanghai, is to visit one of the many nondescript, government buildings that houses the Echelon project. Shortly after setting up my new phone, I receive a ding! on the device, informing me that I am the proud new recipient of a roundtrip bus ticket, heading out to Jinshui, which I knew was a district on the outskirts of town. It’s about an hour’s ride out to the northwest and I’m told in the message to bring my overnight duffel– I would apparently not be returning to the hotel that evening.

The bus station is within walking distance of the Four Seasons and departure isn’t until two o’clock that afternoon which meant I still had a few hours of free time to burn. I decide to use the time to wander around downtown Shanghai for a bit on foot. May as well take in some local culture. I’d use the few free hours I had to visit a used electronics store to pawn off my old phone and also take in some of the sights.

I toss my laptop, toothbrush, and some clean clothing I need into my overnight duffel and head out of my hotel room. I make sure to not leave anything of any value behind. Part of me is certain that I’ll have visitors looking through whatever I leave in the room while I’m away. It may be paranoia but it comes with the profession. By this point, I’m used to it.

With the help of one of the helpful concierge receptionists, I’m able to make my way to 電子大道, which roughly translates into “Electronics Avenue.” It’s a bustling and crowded city road full of street vendors hocking their wares. In one of my ears I have a Google Ear Bud which helps translate in real-time all of the Chinese that is flying to and ‘fro. The translation isn’t perfect but is far better than nothing.

“For cheap! For cheap!” cries one of the short, balding shopkeepers. His ragged, white tank top is dirty and stained with sweat. “PlayStation 9 for sale! PlayStation 9! Sold here first! Get here now!”

“Get yours, today!” yells another shopkeeper across the way, an old rotund greying grandma who looks like she’s put away one too many steamed pork dumplings in her day. “On sale now! On sale now! Big screen for movies and videogames! 18k resolution! 18k resolution!”

I push my way through the crowd to a small shop sandwiched between a storefront selling laundry machines and another selling cellular SIM cards. This was the shop that the concierge hotel agent had recommended to me. Using my limited Chinese (and Google Translate on my phone) I’m able to pawn off my old Samsung for a decent price. While I’m there, I also buy another phone, a used but still serviceable cheap ZTE Chinese branded one. I drop it into my duffel for use later; one can never have too many phones.

I’m tempted to hang around Electronics Avenue for longer, admiring all of the cheap Chinese knockoffs and counterfeit goods on sale, but see on my watch that it’s nearly two o’clock so I begin heading towards the bus station, which is luckily just a few blocks away.

The Shanghai Central Bus Terminal is a gleaming citadel of modern technological wonder. Because of course it is. Flat screen LCDs line every square inch of wall surface and display the bus routes and real-time maps in bold colors and typography, in seven different languages, all simultaneously. There is not a single scrap of trash or litter anywhere. Every available surface practically glitters and shines. It’s another testament of what you can do when you have unlimited government funding and eminent domain to basically build whatever you wish and trample over indigenous lands and communities. Port Authority back in New York City looks like a war-ravaged, war-torn, third-world refugee camp by comparison.

Riding the Bus & Meeting Erin – Part I

Following the directions on my phone I make my way to my assigned bus seat.  There is a young brunette woman already sitting in the window seat when I arrive.  She looks a few years younger than me with her hair done back in short ponytail and is wearing a pair of aviators and wireless, oversized pink earmuff headphones; it’s clear she completely oblivious to the outside world lost in her own Spotify playlist or some other auditory universe.  This wouldn’t be any of my concern except her North Face backpack and jacket are sprawled in a tangled heap on my aisle bus seat.

“Excuse me,” I say, tapping her on the shoulder.  “Do you mind?”

“Oh!  Sorry!” she says, snapping out of her reverie.  She hurriedly moves her stuff from my seat.  “My bad, my bad,” she apologizes.  I make her accent out to be English– closer to a proper Queen’s English than cockney or estuary.

“No worries,” I say as I take my seat.  The bus lurches backwards; it appears like we are departing.

She eyes me over, giving me a second look.  “Hey,” she says, “are you also staying at the Four Seasons downtown?”

I blink, surprised.  “Yeah, I am.  You are too?”

She smiles.  “Indeed!  My name’s Erin Morgan,” she says, giving a small wave.  “I’m here on a contracting project for VenPulse.  I saw you in the hotel dining area this morning.”


“Yeah, you’re a tall, lanky white guy with unruly red hair in a sea of short Asian people.  And you’ve got a whole Malcolm Gladwell look going– it’s difficult to miss and not remember.”

I laugh.  “Ha.  I suppose so.  I’m Dexter Fletcher,” I say.  “I’m also here on a job.”

I search my mind to see if Erin’s company, VenPulse, rings any bells.  It does not.  It is common in China though for the CCP to set up its numerous contracting gigs through various shell companies and fronts.  It’s a tangled web, but if you dig deep enough, just about everyone is only a few degrees of separation away from the communist regime.  Behind the curtain, it’s the government ultimately footing the bill.  This is the simple inevitable outcome that results when the state controls who’s in the business, who isn’t, who wins, and who loses.

“What specific line of work do you do at VenPulse?” I ask.

“Oh, a little bit of everything,” she replies nonchalantly.  “Specifically, I work in security.  But out here, I’ve found that they’ve been just about as interested in what I’d done previously. It’s a topic that’s arisen a lot, surprisingly.”

“Have you been out here long?”

“I’m six months in on an eight-month assignment,” she says.  “So it’s been a decent chunk of time.  Yourself?”

“Today’s my first full day,” I say.  “I just got in last night.”

“Ah, a greenhorn,” Erin says smiling.  “I bet you’re feeling you’ve really wandered through the looking glass.”

“It’s been a bit of an adjustment,” I admit.  “Above everything else, I’ve been impressed with how swiftly everything has moved,” I say.  “Just 72 hours ago, I was sitting in my apartment in Brooklyn.  But since then, I was contacted online, tested via a virtual assessment, flown halfway around the world, and now I’m sitting here on a bus leaving Shanghai.  It’s been a whirlwind of a ride.”

Erin chuckles.  “You don’t need to tell me.  Before this, I was with the NHS in the London office.  It took me two months just to wait for my drug tests to clear so I could onboard at Norfolk.  And then another month before they processed all of my paperwork so I could actually start.”

“So, what’s their secret?” I ask, genuinely curious.  “How do they get everything done so quickly?”

Erin tilts her head to think for a moment before answering.  Outside the bus window, the Shanghai cityscape has begun morphing into rolling fields with pastures full of sheep and cows.  We’re just about to leave city limits and enter the countryside.

“I think one big advantage,” Erin finally says, after thinking a moment, “is that the Chinese were so far behind.  The west did everything first.  It’s like in Africa how the Ugandan government didn’t even bother setting up telephone poles and lines.  They just went straight to satellite and cellular; everything was wireless from day one.  When you’re last to the party, you can skip over all of the mistakes that everyone else ahead of you already made.  It’s essentially like taking an exam for which you already know all of the answers.  When you get it last, you get it best.”

“So what you’re saying makes sense for infrastructure,” I say.  “Like, I can understand why their highways, hospitals, and mass transit systems are all so futuristic and advanced.  Xi had the luxury of a blank slate to begin with and hasn’t been bogged down with legacy baggage.  But does that apply to bureaucracy?”

“Sure it does,” says Erin.  “Lemme tell you a story.  Back home, in Fulham, we wanted to build a bicycle lane, right?  Just a dumb extra lane next to the main road so us bicyclists wouldn’t be run over like second-class citizens.  Oh my god, lemme tell you– getting that thing built was akin to moving heaven and earth.  Being a young naïve twenty-something at the time, I’d volunteered to lead that project since I’d been attending university nearby and enjoyed bicycling.  Biggest mistake of my life, I tell you.  We had to get the Fulham town council onboard and then win over the neighborhoods that the lane would go through.  And then the roadside businesses opposite the lane had an opinion, because of course they would.  The entire project, sixteen measly blocks, took a year to approve and then another six months to build.”  Erin shakes her head like she’s remembering a horrid memory.  “It was awful.  Absolutely awful.  Everyone had a voice and everyone had an opinion.  And so it took forever.  You could’ve been forgiven for thinking we rebuilding Buckingham Palace or something.   But no, it was a bicycle lane.

Meeting Erin – Part II

“Gee,” I say dryly.  “That’s a real ringing endorsement for the democratic progress.”

“Well, right,” says Erin.  “That’s exactly my point.  Xi takes power in 2013, right?  And what’s the first thing he does?  Anti-corruption purges across the entire country.  Hundreds of political opponents jailed in a single weekend.  Chinese SWAT teams going province to province, kicking down doors of quinquagenarians and sexagenarians and hauling their ancient, old asses off to jail on trumped up kangaroo court charges.”

“And no one complained?” I ask.

“Of course people complained,” scoffs Erin.  “There were riots in the streets.  Tiananmen Square 2: The Sequel, every single weekend.  Hundreds jailed or just suddenly disappeared.  Elites who were in power under Hu Jintao went apoplectic.  But Xi controlled the military, and thus the country.  What was one to do?  You just didn’t see any of this in the west because media was of course censored.”

“So you’re saying that Xi essentially just wiped the board clean and started over with a blank slate?”

“I’m saying Xi’s ascension in China was like Fat Man hitting Nagasaki,” says Erin shaking her head. “It was complete, total, and irreversible. After Xi made landfall in Beijing, no one who defied him survived. Not even bacteria. All legacy baggage, dissenting voices, and opposition vanquished in one fell swoop in a matter of weeks with Terminator-esque efficiency.  It was nothing but smooth sailing.  For years leading up to 2013, Xi had worked behind the scenes, pulling levers and pushing buttons, to install all the right people in the right places.  So when the time came, it was the easiest and most peaceful coup in Chinese history.  Mao would’ve been proud.”

“Sounds like you really admire Xi Jinping,” I say.  “You speak of him in such glowing terms.”

Erin frowns.  “I guess as much as one can admire an authoritarian ruler who stomps all over human rights, disappears his political opponents, and runs forced detention and reeducation camps?”

“So you like the results,” I say, “but not the methods.  Sounds kinda hypocritical, if you ask me.”

“I think it’s a thankless job,” says Erin.  “And being president and chair of a top-heavy communist regime is certainly no picnic.  I’m sure every night, Xi sleeps with the fear of being assassinated by one of his own cabinet ministers, the Americans, or some other party hostile to his vision of what China can and should be.  It’s not an enviable life.”

The bus begins to slow and I look outside Erin’s window.  We’re turning off of the main, 16-lane highway and onto some dirt road that looks like a scene out of Mad Max: Fury Road.  It looks like they’re building a new highway interchange and there are earthmovers and bulldozers everywhere.  Construction workers in yellow vests and hard hats are busy operating heavy machinery and digging.

New Construction Everywhere

“How is it everywhere I look, everything’s always under construction all the time?” I ask.  “I’ve literally seen ongoing construction everywhere I’ve been in the two days that I’ve been in the country.”

“Chinese construction crews work three eight-hour shifts, around the clock,” says Erin pointing out the window at one of the construction cranes.  Beside it, a giant pneumatic piledriver is noisily hammering giant steel stakes of enormous, unimaginable girth into the ground.   “It’s nonstop, seven days a week, 365 days a year,” Erin says.  “You’ve seen it everywhere, all the time, because it is literally everywhere.  No breaks, ever, even on holidays.  When you have 1.4 billion people in your country and 9.6 million square kilometers of land, there’s no reason not to always be building.  How do you think Chinese GDP’s been growing by double-digits year over year for the past, I dunno, decade or so?”

I nod, already knowing much of what Erin is telling me.  I’d rehearsed and memorized my lines on the plane on the flight over, in preparation for what ended up being my informal interview with Charlotte that’d just happened that morning.  And I’d said all the right things.  But seeing the insane growth and all of the construction activity up close, first-hand in person was an entirely different matter altogether.  As they always say:  You don’t know until you know.

This construction pace was ludicrous.  Back home, in New York, it’d taken three years for the inept Cuomo administration to finally rebuild the aging and anciently dangerous Tappan Zee Bridge.  Three years!  In comparison, I know from my interview prep that China lays down 33,000 kilometers of expressway every five years.  Comparatively, the entire US interstate system, built during the Eisenhower era, spans only 78,000 kilometers and took three decades to build.

Shortly after passing by the interchange, our bus reaches a giant walled compound that spans something like a hundred football fields in length. In the middle of literally nowhere off the narrow, two-lane dirt road suddenly sprouts what appears to be a ginormous, 14th century medieval stronghold that rises high into the sky like some mirage in the desert.  It’s as if some prepubescent tween who was playing a city simulator videogame like Skylines or Civilization decided to just plop Alexandria, circa 331 BC, into the middle of rolling Chinese farmland in the eastern plains.  It’s literally the most random thing I’ve ever seen.

Jesus, once we get up close I see that the walls must be twenty stories tall! The entire complex must’ve been what Constantinople looked like in 740 AC! (When Emperor Leo III rebuilt the Theodosian walls that guarded the capital of the Byzantine Empire.)

“This is an office park?” I ask Erin in disbelief as our bus rolls up to the wrought iron gates of the giant stone fortress. “What kind of lunacy is this?”

Erin just chuckles. “Wait until you see what’s on the other side.”

Our bus halts at the gated entrance (I’m honestly half-surprised there isn’t a moat and drawbridge) and a helmeted, body-armor-wearing security officer clad in black does a round around our vehicle with a Deutsch Hound apparently sniffing for bombs. After several minutes of inspection and a conversation between our driver and one of the officers, the red-striped crossbar eventually lifts and two other stern-looking, helmeted and goggled security guards with automatic rifles strapped across their chests wave us through. As we drive past I can’t help but notice the sizable cache of automatic weapons that’s locked in metal cages in the back of the stone guard tower behind the officers and their closed circuit monitors. It’s only a fleeting glance but I count at least three rows of small firearms and munitions. It’s clear that whatever happens inside of Jinshui is apparently important enough to properly secure with violent force.

But in a moment, we’re past. And what I see next beyond the gate totally stuns my brain.

Jinshui Technology Park

“Incredible,” I say. “This is unbelievable.” Besides me, Erin just smiles. “That was my reaction the first time I saw this place too,” she says. “The first time really does take your breath away.”

Once you set foot inside the twenty-story tall stone walls of Jinshui Technology Park, you’ll see gleaming forty-story sky scrapers built of shining glass and steel. Eight gleaming cylindrical office towers made entirely of glass, shoot upwards into the sky. Between them are carefully manicured lawns and koi ponds. Longer-slung office buildings also fill the adjoining space– it is a palatial office park, modern and futuristic, a world apart from the staid, soulless corporate office complexes that I’d grown accustomed to seeing back in the States.

“Wait,” I say puzzled, “how is it that we didn’t see these giant office towers from afar coming in?”

“Ah,” says Erin, “it’s active camouflage. It helps the Chinese conceal places like Jinshui from the prying eyes of American and European satellites up in space,” she says pointing upwards. “You know if word ever got out about just how much the west doesn’t know about China, there’d be outright panic, right?”

“I see,” I say nodding. I look alongside the inner walls of the office park and see that Erin is right. Giant holographic projectors are painting a façade of thin air to anyone who looks at the compound from the outside.

“That’s why the outer walls are built the way they are,” says Erin, “and looks like they date back to the days of Julius Caesar or Genghis Kahn. From the outside, this entire thing just looks like another historical artifact of antiquity.”

“You know over a millennia separate Caesar and Kahn, right?” I say giving Erin some side-eye. “Jesus, you kids these days.”

Erin rolls her eyes. “Whatever, old man. Same difference, same difference. C’mon, let’s go get some grub. I’m super-famished.”

Now that we’ve actually arrived, it occurs to me that I don’t actually know what I’m supposed to be doing here. I check my phone that Charlotte had given me but I have no new notifications. All I’d received earlier was a round-trip bus ticket and my return leg wasn’t until tomorrow.

Also, I am hungry. It’s just about five o’clock so I nod to Erin. “Sure, let’s get something to eat.”

The bus has come to a stop in a giant parking lot and passengers are already filtering out. I see most of the people who rode in are young, in their twenties and thirties– and aside from Erin and myself, everyone else is ethnically Chinese.

Jinshui Technology Park’s Cafeteria

Jinshui Technology Park’s cafeteria is a buffet-style feast for the eyes and stomach.  But first– here’s one interesting sidenote observation that I found fascinating:  When I arrived at Jinshui, I didn’t receive a visitor’s pass.  I half-expected one to be zapped to my phone just like everything else has been electronically delivered.  But nope.  Instead, I was required to swipe into the cafeteria with my American passport (which was also on my phone).  Apparently, there are only two ways to swipe into all CCP properties (universities, laboratories, government offices, hospitals, etc):  If you’re a foreigner– with your passport that’s on your phone.  If you’re a Chinese citizen:  With either your Chinese passport or Chinese National Identification Card– both of course, on your phone.  The entire system is apparently unified that way– it’s like Single Sign-On, but for real-life.  I’m probably the only person who finds this nerdy detail amazing but it genuinely impresses me.  The Chinese had finally, at long last, done it:  Achieve the dream of unified identity across all platforms and properties, both virtual and material.  Hallelujah.

Anyway, the cafeteria is an eccentric bazaar of food offerings.  While the bus ride over had been predominately dominated by a monolithically Chinese ridership, the folks in the cafeteria are considerably more diverse.  I spy white people, black people, middle eastern folk, and even a sprinkling of Japanese which surprises me.  Historically, Japan and China have had their fair share of, uh, differences.  I guess I can’t generalize when it comes to populations of entire nation states but it honestly just surprises me a bit.

After some indecision I decide to try the station that serves South Korean hotpot and eventually make my way back to Erin who waves at me from the seating area.  By the time I get to her table, I see that she’s settled on a Philly cheesesteak sub that’s oozing with melted provolone over pastrami and salami.  It’s a monster sub but she’s already halfway through it.

“If there’s one thing you Americans get right,” she says through a mouthful of submarine sandwich, “it’s sandwiches.  Bless your little American hearts and stomachs.”

“Uh huh,” I say.  “They don’t have American cheesesteaks back across the pond?”

“Oh please.  Of course we do.  But this is such an American food.  I wouldn’t be caught dead eating it back home.”

“But you seem to be enjoying it so much.”

Erin licks her fingers, finishing her sub.  “Appearances, dear, appearances.  Gotta look the part of prim and proper; can’t be eating like a barbarian from the land of the Americas.”

As I watched Erin stuff her face with Philly cheesesteak sandwich, a simple but undeniable truth finally clicks in my brain.

Phone Bumping: Dumbest Thing Ever

Keeping up appearances in China is completely and totally unnecessary.  Here, newly arrived, people could reinvent themselves however they wished.  There was no longer a need to maintain any false pretenses and you possessed no obligation of allegiance to your former self.  Here in China, we could all start over and be anyone we wished to be.  It was a place for new beginnings.

As I pondered my new reality in this ancient country I now unexpectedly found myself in, I suddenly feel the phone in my pocket begin to buzz.  I check my device and see I have two new messages.  The first is directions to my accommodations for the evening– I’d been put up in Building 67 which, according to the map, contained the guest dormitories which was conveniently several buildings down from the cafeteria.  And the second message is a meeting notice– I’ve been summoned to a gathering that’ll be held tomorrow at nine o’clock in Building 11, a small laboratory tucked away in the southwest corner of the campus.  When I tell Erin about my newly assigned agenda, she raises an eyebrow.

“Building 11 just finished its renovations, last week,” she says.  “I didn’t even know it was back open yet.”

“I thought this entire complex is new,” I say.  “Isn’t it early for renovations?”

“Well, there was a horrible explosion last month,” Erin explains.  “A terrible accident.  I was over in Building 22 and had felt the ground shake from there.”

I frown.  “There was an explosion?  We’re in an office park.  How on earth does that happen?”

“I dunno.  But anyway, nothing to worry about, I’m sure.”

We finish up our dinner, chat a bit more, and then decide to call it a night.  It’s getting late and I’m totally wiped.  It’s been a long day.  Before parting ways, Erin and I bump our phones to trade contact info.  It takes me a moment fumbling around with my device before I finally get to the right screen to make the whole wireless exchange of bits and bytes work.  But seriously, it’s the dumbest-looking thing I can imagine; I can’t believe this is how kids nowadays interact.

“It sounds like some kinda grotesque sex act,” I grumble.  “Seriously?  ‘Phone bumping?’  Please come ‘bump my phone?’  What the hell ever happened to business cards?  Do you kids even know what those are?  Honestly, this entire world’s gone mad.”

“Get used to it, old man,” Erin scoffs, when she hears my grumblings.  “It’s the 21st century.  Something called technology.”

Later that night in my guest dormitory (a simple room with a small twin-sized bed and desk; nothing fancy), I fall asleep the moment my head hits the pillow.  My first full day in China had come to a close.  What would the next day bring?

Life After Coronavirus

Interstice One

Life after Coronavirus was never the same.  In the beginning, everyone was extraordinarily careful.  Everyone followed the government’s initial recommendations.  We stayed inside and avoided all human contact with the outside world.  For months, the only interactions we had were with our own families.  We were all good citizens.

This lasted for about three months.

Why did things end so badly?  In summary, the chief cause was two-fold:  First, humans are simply not built to process long-moving, slow-term danger.  It’s like facing climate change or the proverbial frog example:  We’re much better as frogs put into a sudden boiling pot; we’ll feel the sudden heat and immediately leap to safety.  But as a society of hundreds of millions of people, it’s infinitely more challenging (read: impossible) for us to sense and react to the pot that’s slowly brought to a boil.  It’s simply difficult for humans to sit still for long periods of time without being shown the immediate consequences of what happens when we do not.  Thus, predictably, in March, college kids sauntered off to beaches for spring break; students attended keggers; and entire more libertarian-leaning families went on road trips, totally disbelieving the dangers of Coronavirus.

Second, we didn’t immediately understand the full severity of Coronavirus.  Sure, plenty of people got sick.  But most of them recovered after several weeks.  It was like a bad case of the flu and so after the initial panic wore off, folks largely resumed their lives as normal believing that the warnings had all been overblown and it really wasn’t a big deal.

Or at least that’s what we had thought.

As a civilization, we’d weathered the initial outbreak admirably; folks banded together and shared in the sacrifice of cancelling vacations, camps, and sporting events.  But after a few months, after all of that shared community spirit and comradery began to dissipate, that autumn, when the Coronavirus returned in people we thought had made full recoveries– well, that’s when things really hit the fan.

Basically, the timeline that first year:  Coronavirus arrived in early spring.  We were all good citizens throughout the summer and bunkered down in our homes.  And then people started to get tired.  By mid-summer, we saw that the fatality rate wasn’t as high as initially feared.  And the people who were dying were largely older, senior citizens– the above-60 crowd.  To be clear, hundreds of thousands were still dying in America.  And millions around the world.  But there are ~330 million people in America.  And we have a global population of over seven billion.  So mathematically, you’re still “only” looking at 0.7% of the American population dying.  And people were, it turns out, fine with that– especially if they were older folk already in retirement homes and nursing facilities. Our politicians whispered darkly to each other while sitting on back porches, sipping tumblers of whiskey and scotch: “Out of sight, out of mind.”

So the economy kept roaring and people kept spending.  The government sent out free money to everyone.  The stock market, after initially cratering in March, neared all-time highs again by that October.  We thought we’d turned the corner.

And then November happened.

Millions Died That November

Millions died that November.  It happened all at once and so suddenly that not a single country or soul on earth was ready for it.  To this day, we’re still not exactly sure what had changed, but it was as if God had flipped some kind of master switch of life and death.  The numbers that eventually came to pass made the Pol Pot death marches in Cambodia in the late 1970s seem like amateur hour.  The massive fatality rates landed like waves crashing against the beach with ever-increasing intensity, exponentially.  First 4,000 deaths a week which people professed to be disturbed by; but in their heart-of-hearts just considered, “That’s the way it goes.” Then 8,000 the following week; then 16,000; then 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1,028 by week nine… that’s over a million people dying every week1,028,000.  It just took us just nine short weeks to get there.

How did society respond?  Predictably, I guess.  Like Billy Bob Thornton once remarked, “Basically, it was the worst parts of the bible.”  Civil services broke down overnight.  Kind of pointless to show up for your job when there was a 50/50 chance you could contract the virus and just suddenly die.  The stock market, which had rebounded so spectacularly, nosedived once more– plummeting something like 10,000 points in a single day.  It was Black Monday all over again:  Speculators, investors, and day-traders lost everything as margin calls swept across the land and bank accounts were cleaned out.  Flooded with redemption requests that destroyed their livelihoods, every week some new hedge fund manager was flinging himself or herself off a Wall Street skyscraper.  We didn’t know it then but they were the smart ones; the lucky folks.  It was a merciful swift end in the cold, heartless, brutal new normal that was to come.  Grocery shelves were picked bare, schools were abandoned, airlines went bankrupt, and the economy once more halted on a dime– except this time, it wasn’t a voluntary crash like it had been back in March.  It was the real thing.

And then, what happened next– if there were ever some executive one-pager, some Cliff Notes or Spark Notes for how humanity operates in its darkest hour– what happened next basically goes down as the pinnacle HBS Case Study that best represents the human species:  One day, long after humans have already gone extinct by our own hand, some alien race will discover our remains in some epic archeological excavation and scratch their little alien head(s).  “Jesus,” they’ll wonder.  “Was this a tragedy or a comedy?”

In a nutshell, the place it all began:  That infectious diseases biolab in Wuhan, China– It developed the first successful vaccine.

And China refused to share its vaccine with the rest of the world.

Jinshui Future Laboratory

Chapter Three

Nine o’clock nears and I find myself in Building 11, making my way to the meeting.  Though the building is reopened, not all renovation has completed.  The lobby is a well-lit and sparse arrangement with modern-looking chairs around round white tables but there is still yellow caution tape that’s up everywhere that cordons off where not to go.  I follow a series of hand-drawn signs; someone has helpfully scrawled:  “9 AM MEETING!  THIS WAY!  ⬆️⬆️⬆️” on sheets of paper and taped them every ten meters along the wall.  I honestly kind of feel like a rat being led along in a maze.

Eventually, I reach an open room that appears to be some kind of lounge and see several other folks who are already there:  Four Chinese, two white people (me and another blonde woman who’s draped herself in the oversized corner armchair), an Indian guy, and a super-nerdy looking, skinny black guy in a plaid shirt and huge over-sized glasses.  Aside from one of the Chinese men who looks older, we all look about the same age, mid-twenties to mid-thirties.

Actually, once I get closer I see that the black guy is considerably younger– maybe in his early twenties.

The woman looks vaguely familiar, though I can’t place her face in the moment, and I don’t recognize anyone else, so I just give a small wave to everyone and sit on a barstool at the bar next to the Indian guy. He gives me a small nod when I sit down but his expression is otherwise inscrutable.  The room is quiet, though I appear to be the last one that everyone was waiting for.  After I sit, the older looking Chinese guy rises to his feet to address the room.  He’s a handsome fellow with a lanky frame and slicked back, black hair.  He’s wearing wireframe glasses and a suit blazer but without a tie and has his polo shirt open collar.

“Welcome, everyone,” he smiles looking around at us.  “My name is Yu-Law Yang.  I am one of the directors here at the Jinshui Future Laboratory.  First, I would like to thank all of you for making the trip.  I know our humble lab here in Jinshui is a good distance away for most of you, especially those from abroad.  Secondly, I apologize for much of the secrecy.  It may seem exaggerated and overblown but is unfortunately necessary.”

Yang pauses a beat but no one interrupts him.  It’s early and most of us are still jet-lagged.  Or we’re just patient people and have seen this movie before.  So Yang just clears his throat and continues.

“The reason you’ve all been brought here,” he says, “is because we’re looking for some help with a sensitive subject.”

The First Meeting: “Freedom-Loving People Within Our Borders Must Be Stopped.”

“Ostensibly, I know you’ve all been told that you’re being brought onboard to help consult for The Echelon 2 Project.  And this is accurate.  It’s true we could use your expertise in suppressing the free flow of information within China’s borders and stomping out any hint of dissent or assembly that we’re able to detect within our population of 1.4 billion.”

No one blinks an eye.  We know why we’ve been summoned.  We all know we have particular skills and how our unique skillset can be used.

“But the truth,” Yang sighs, “is that mere suppression of information is unfortunately no longer sufficient.  There needs to be, shall we say, a more proactive means of prevention.”

I raise an eyebrow.

“As you all well know,” Yang continues.  “The plague of western liberalism is slowly but surely sweeping the world.  Here in China, we’ve more successfully resisted its effects.  But the internet is vast. Despite our glorious government’s best efforts, our citizens are increasingly being seduced by dangers like ‘democracy’ and ‘independent thought’.”

Yang shakes his head sadly.

“It may work in the west.  Though I personally don’t think it has.  But I’ll tell you this– as certain as the sun rises in the east, western liberalism and democracy unequivocally will not work here in China.  The clear majority of our citizens still live in the rural hinterlands and are uneducated.  Corruption would be rampant, even more than it already is.  And society and civilization would devolve into chaos.  One day, we might be ready.  But today is not that day.  And thus, today, freedom-loving people everywhere within our borders must be stopped.  They are like a disease that threatens the health of the greater whole, all of China.”

The blonde woman speaks up.  “Alright, that’s a nice speech.  But can you just tell us what you’re asking for? From us?  Specifically?”

Yang smiles.  “Ah, Ms. Henley.  Always one to cut to the chase.  Very admirable.”

Hearing her name and seeing her face suddenly stokes a long-dormant neuron back in my brain somewhere.  The woman in the armchair is Katherine Henley, previously a fast-rising star at the social media search giant, Foogle, back in the United States.  Just less than a year ago, she’d been the media darling of Silicon Valley and on the cover of every news glossy in the Bay Area.  I hadn’t followed events closely, but apparently at some point she’d made some waves, sparked controversy, and there’d transpired a spectacular fall from grace.  And now here she was, it appeared, in China.

The skinny young black guy also raises his hand, speaking up.  “Wait, hold up a sec.  Yang, man, you made about seventeen different leaps of logic in your opening statement there.  Clarify for us for a moment– why exactly are the legions of Chinese poor unworthy of voting?”

A Meeting of the Minds & Intellectual Discourse

“Poverty,” Yang sighs, “is the great undoing of democracy.  When people are poor and struggling to simply put food on the table and a roof over the heads of their loved ones, then all of your high-minded western ideals about ‘freedom’ and ‘human rights’ mean nothing.”  You have all grown up in the west.  And most of you have never personally faced the scourge of starvation up close, first-hand.”  Yang pauses.  “I have.”

Well, on this count, the Chinese man, from whom I’m getting increasingly serious Mussolini vibes, is right.  Back in the States, I grew up in the Midwest, went to school and worked in the Northeast, and never once in my life ever even entertained the prospect of not having enough to eat.  Sure, my folks were seldom at home growing up but there was always a Hungry Man in the freezer that I could pop into the microwave to nuke (3 minutes and 45 seconds for the Salisbury Steak) that instantly gave me dinner.  Such was the beauty and victorious success of the United States.  America had waged war on poverty and kicked its ass.

But Yang has a point.  Hungry Man had not disseminated as successfully to the rest of the world.  In fact, most of the rest of the world didn’t even own microwaves.  Or refrigerators.  It didn’t take a rocket surgeon to know that the majority of the world population outside the States lived on less than two American dollars a day. 

“So for that simple reason,” Yang finishes, “democracy will never succeed in China.  At least not now.  Our tech, finance, and manufacturing billionaires and trillionaires would just paradrop rice and free televisions to the masses in return for their votes.  Is that the world you want?  A country run by the richest and most powerful?”

Katherine frowns.  “Well, how exactly, pray tell, do you describe what you have now?” she asks.  “With the Xi regime?”

“Well, to be sure,” Yang says, “Xi hasn’t always been the paragon of good leadership.  But he’s undoubtedly better than whatever we would’ve had in his absence in a democracy– that is to say, the uneducated mob.

The skinny black guy is quiet, though it’s unclear to me if he’s been convinced.  Personally, I suspect he’s not.  In my experience, when people grow quiet, it usually means that they’re unswayed and that they’re often just processing.  They’re racking their brains to see what anecdote or Snapple factoid that they can cherry-pick in order to formulate a rebuttal that’ll succeed in a public forum.  Succeed, in the sense, of convincing the rest of us that they’re right.  That’s all most people care about these days when exchanging ideas with strangers:  Being right.

Yang turns to Katherine to finally answer her question, a question we all had on our minds.  She’d just been the first to put it into words.

Quelling Unrest in China’s Autonomous Regions

“Quelling unrest is an art as much as it is a science,” Yang says, steepling his fingers, “and we are hoping to solicit your help for a particular task.  All in the name of peace, of course.”

“Of course,” says Katherine.  “Uh huh.”

“As you are likely aware,” Yang says delicately, “the Xinjiang Province has been an increasingly active zone of conflict here in China.  It is of growing concern.”

The Indian guy next to me chortles.  I nearly do too but manage to catch myself.  Calling Xinjiang an “active zone of conflict” is like saying, “There was a small disagreement in Concord and Lexington in 1775.”

For years, there’d been rampant speculation in the west that if Xi’s iron fist of domination and control was to finally loosen, or rather– be forcibly pried open, that it would start in the Xinjiang Province.  In the past decade, Xi’s CCP had gladly picked up the baton of colonization off the ground where the British had dropped it like a flaming potato two-and-a-half centuries ago, doused and dusted it off, and then happily continued the imperialist tradition.  Territory by territory, the Chinese Empire had slowly expanded:  Macau, Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and now, Xinjiang.  All of these regions were previously independent territories with their own peoples, cultures, and local governments.  But under Chinese rule, they were slowly assimilated into China’s fold.  First, they were “autonomous regions” and each was structured (laughably) under a rule of “two governments, one country.”  But over subsequent decades, inciting events in every region had “required” the CCP to “reluctantly move in to restore and maintain the peace.”  Funny thing was that after “restoring the order,” the Chinese National Guard just conveniently never left.  And slowly over time, the Chinese national security apparatus just weaved its way into the local governments and social fabric of each autonomous region.  They went from being initially “helpful” to being “important” to then being “necessary” until finally becoming “indispensable.”

“What do you want our help with in Xinjiang?” I ask, finally speaking up.  May as well join this circus and see where it all goes.

“Xinjiang is currently a tinder box,” Yang says.  “With the unfortunate violence and riots that happened last month, it appears like we’ve reached an inflection point with the province.  As you know, the CCP has extended nothing but goodwill towards the Xinjiang people.”

“And by ‘goodwill’ you mean ‘convenience police stations’ every other block, I assume?” says Katherine.

“We do what is necessary to keep our citizens safe,” Yang says evenly, “and police is an integral component of that equation.”  He gestures towards Katherine.  “You, Ms. Katherine Henley, of all people should know that.  After all, until recently, you led Foogle’s Smart City initiative in Darwin, Australia, did you not?  In particular, the division to ensure public safety and trust?”

Katherine’s eyes narrow but she says nothing.

Yang turns towards us.  “We have here, a collection of unique individual talents.  Mr. Coleman Hughes,” Yang looks at the skinny black guy, “you are a political consultant and were instrumental behind the scenes helping DTJ win the most recent presidential elections in America.  Mr. Deepak Chopra, you are an academic who specializes in colonial history.  I found your dissertation on the Indian/Pakistani border separation of 1947 fascinating.”

Chopra, the Indian guy sitting on the barstool next to me, merely stares back at Yang. His expression gives nothing away.

Yang then turns to me.  “And last but not least, Mr. Dexter Fletcher, you are our resident data science expert.  You freelance for the American government and in your free time, do open-source work in cryptocurrencies.  May I also add, you are quite an accomplished fan fiction author.”

The room suddenly feels about ten degrees hotter and I’m pretty sure I turn at least a little red.  Out of the corner of my eye,  I see Katherine raise an eyebrow and hearing Yang mention her most recent gig finally jogs my memory. This is rich– the woman who single-handedly nearly turned Darwin into a unitary police state has the gall to judge me. That’s great.

“And on Team China,” Yang continues smoothly, “we have Shu Qi, Alan Chen, and Vanessa Tan.  Shu specializes in marketing and promotion– there’s literally nothing on this planet that she can’t sell you.” Shu bats her long lashes and smiles. “Alan grew up and was raised in Xinjiang; he knows everything there is to know about the province, and Vanessa –well– Vanessa does a bit of everything.”

Yang clasps his hands together.  “Between the lot of you, we are hoping that you’ll help us create a new campaign plan to win over the hearts and minds of the Xinjiang people.  Over the past decade, Xi has thrown every tool in the toolbox at the province but we’ve been… unsuccessful.  We’re now trying a more soft-power approach, you could say.”

“You want us to help China assimilate Xinjiang?” I ask, somewhat incredulous.  This is most definitely not consulting work even remotely related to Echelon.  Like, at all.

“I, and the Xi government, want a safer future for all Chinese citizens,” Yang says calmly, “and that includes all of the good people of Xinjiang.”  He checks his watch and sees the time.  “And now, I’m afraid I must be off for another appointment.  I’ll take my leave now but feel free to mingle amongst yourselves.  If you have any questions, please ask Shu, Alan, or Vanessa.  They will be here all morning to answer any queries you may have.  Thank you for your time this morning.  I really do hope you will join us.”


1. Explain why the CCP has brought us to China - Campaign to win "hearts and minds" of the people. - First project: Quell civil unrest in the Xinjiang Province. 2. Introductions.

Reaching a Decision

Reaching a decision isn’t easy.  After Yang leaves the room, our phones collectively ding! And we all see that we’ve received further information on our devices.  I quickly read through the material. 

The highlights:

  • If I decide to participate, for nine months of work, I’d be paid 300,000 US dollars in biweekly installments.  The job would begin immediately.  Even after taxes, that’d be a cool ~$200,000 or so.
  • All lodging, food, and transportation expenses during my stint, both inside and outside of China would be provided and paid for.
  • Our team would be headquartered out of Jinshui.  In the event we did need to travel outside of the compound, additional security personnel to escort and transport us safely would be provided.
  • I’d have to sign an NDA guaranteeing that I’d never share any details of whatever work I did inside of Jinshui with outside third-parties, including the American government.  Any material (code or otherwise) that I developed during my employment would be solely owned by Jinshui Future Laboratory.  I’d forfeit all claim to anything I helped create during my tenure with JFL.
  • I have until midnight, tomorrow, to provide my answer.  I submit my response (surprise, surprise) via my phone and biometric thumbprint scanner that’s on my device.

Well, the money is certainly excellent– prorated, it’s solidly above what I normally make from my usual consulting gigs.  And it’s intriguing to me that they’re expecting the nature of our work to possibly take us outside of China.  But honestly, with a job like this, the crux (for me, at least) really boils down to a question of conscience.  While the promise of $200k is alluring, I’ve already made enough at this point (and tucked enough away in savings) that I was comfortable.  Certainly not rich.  And I couldn’t retire anytime soon.  But I didn’t need $200k.  This was a sum of money that I’d, monetarily at least, be perfectly fine walking right away from.  (Albeit, sad about.)

So let’s get real– there’s really only one question here:  Do I want to help the Chinese Community Party curb stomp human rights and suplex democracy in China by maybe a half-century or more? Or do I walk away from not just the money, but also maybe the most fascinating data science and social experiment that I’ll probably ever be offered?

“Admit it, you’re intrigued.”

I look up and see Shu standing in front of me. Somehow, she’d approached our bar unnoticed while we’d had our heads down, reading through the documents.

Continue reading “Reaching a Decision”

Shu Qi: “Great Artists Steal.”

“Shouldn’t I be?” I reply.  “This is the opportunity of a lifetime.  Unfettered access to all of that personal citizenry data.  Zero privacy requirements.  This is a total treasure trove, ripe for analysis a thousand different ways, every data scientist’s absolute dream.  But from a moral and ethical standpoint, it’s pretty much a slam dunk, one-way, guaranteed ticket to hell.”

Up close I see Shu is classically beautiful in the way that is popular in China these days:  Light, creamy complexion, long curly bangs, round face, and large green eyes.  They’re a light, ocean-green, entirely unnatural and knockout gorgeous.  China is currently the only country in the world that allows CRISPR techniques to be used on developing fetuses (unborn babies), though the allowable genetic edits are still limited.1

Anyway, it doesn’t surprise me in the least that she is the marketing guru of the group.  Selling is all about appearances.  And with a face and body like that (also most certainly genetically or surgically altered, I’m pretty sure), you’re already halfway there.

“I think there’s another way of looking at it that perhaps you’re not considering,” Shu says.  Her voice is soft, supple, persuasive.  “A more optimistic interpretation of the task.”

“Oh?  Enlighten me.”

“You are in a privileged position to shape the very course of human history,” Shu says.  “You know it; I know it; we all know it.  This is the Chinese Century.  And you’re, right now, at this very moment, on the ground floor, at the very beginning.  What happens in China this next decade is where it all begins.”

“That’s… a bold statement.” is all that I can say.

Chopra, who’s been sitting next to me on his barstool the entire time, listening, speaks up.  “What makes you think China’s going to be the new global superpower?  The only thing the Chinese has ever excelled at is leading from behind.”  Chopra sits up a bit straighter in his barstool and begins gesticulating with his hands, going into full-on professor-mode.  “China’s good at sitting back, seeing what works everywhere else in the world, and then shamelessly copying those successes wholesale.”  There’s definitely more than a hint of disdain in his voice as he says this.

Shu turns to look at Chopra.  “And what’s so wrong with that?” she asks.  “Didn’t that great American, Steve Jobs, whom you all idolize so much, once say that ‘good artists copy; great artists steal’?”

“That was Picasso actually,” I say.  “And also– we don’t all idolize Jobs.  That guy was a total ass.

“The problem with stealing,” Chopra says patiently, “is that it’s not leading.  Any idiot can steal.  You just look at what works and then copy itHow difficult can that possibly be?

“Uh, pretty difficult?” I say.  “The path to success it littered with a long line of corpses.  You need to climb over each and every one of them to get to the top.”

Apparently sensing an opening, Shu smoothly changes gears.

  1. At least, legally.  The aftermarket for unapproved CRISPR edits offers considerably more selection but are substantially more dangerous as well.  Once CRISPR went mainstream in China, rich Chinese parents went wild.  Skin tone and eye color are two of the most popular edits.  (It’s also possible to add up to another 10cm of height or so, though that edit is significantly steeper, price-wise.)

Continue reading “Shu Qi: “Great Artists Steal.””

The Thing You Should Consider

“The thing you should consider,” she says, “is what happens in your absence.  Using your knowledge and skills, you have a chance here to be in the room when critical decisions are being made and have a say in what happens.  If you walk away now, who knows how things will end up in Xinjiang?  Yang will just bring in another team to head the project and it could eventually all end in famine or genocide, especially given the direction things are currently going.  You could prevent that.”

I search my conscience.  Do I care that countless millions of total strangers from a province that I’ve never set foot in could possibly die if I did nothing?  Indonesia in 1965; the Khmer Rouge in in the 1970s; Rwanda in 1994? Am I swayed?

Weirdly… no.

As soon as Shu tries to guilt me along this tact, my brain immediately formulates its own counter-rationalizations:  First, it’s not immediately clear to me at all that with my help, things will not end up actually being worse.  It’s perfectly possible that Yang and his puppeteers behind the curtain take my work and bastardize it, using it for some even greater evil.  These massive machine learning models and pipelines that data scientists build are tools.  And once you’ve built the actual tool, how one uses it is an entirely different matter altogether.  For example, the same image recognition software that helps a mother find her lost child in a crowded mall could be the same software that helps a totalitarian dictator hunt down and assassinate political opponents.  To a computer, a human face is just a face.  In all those old 007 secret agent movies, there’s always a “head scientist” who works for the Bond supervillain and if I’m not careful, I could totally unwittingly become that scientific accessory to evil. A supervillain-enabler. Most definitely not a good look and a categorically, maximally undesirable outcome.

Second, in all honesty– I feel a sense of detachment.  I know that makes me a horrible and heartless human but, unfortunately and inconveniently, it’s simply just true. (At least if I’m being honest with myself.)  I’d grown up in America all of my life and had led an extremely sheltered and privileged existence.  For the most part, two very big oceans had separated me from most of the world’s concerns.  And thus, for better or worse, again, if I’m being genuine: In my heart of hearts, I’d grown numb and apathetic to the headlines, especially international headlines, that I’d seen on endless repeat, looping again and again over the many years and decades now.  Mass starvations in Darfur or thousands dying from drought in Ethiopia and Somalia.  Even when I read about those events, they just felt like they were far away, in another galaxy and solar system.

Appealing to my desire to possibly prevent genocide is a losing argument.  And, give her credit, Shu seems to read from my expression that she’s failed to persuade me or move the needle at all. Apparently, this card wasn’t the ace that she’d thought she’d had.

I see her flash a quick glance at Vanessa, who’s still standing with Alan across the room.  It’s probably imperceptible to most, but I notice that Vanessa gives a smallest of nods back.  Apparently, the Queen Bee has given her underling some kind of greenlight on, well, something.

“Very well then,” Shu says, sighing.  “I guess there’s really only thing left to show you at this point.”

Chopra and I look at each other.

“Oh, come on,” Shu says as she puts her hand on my forearm and bats those long, alluring lashes again.  “You’ve come all this way, from so far.  Aren’t you at least a little curious?  It’ll only take a bit.”  She looks at all of the others, assembled in the room.  “You can all come to see.  I promise it’ll be worth your while.  You won’t want to decide on anything yet without seeing this first.”

Continue reading “The Thing You Should Consider”

Under Normal Circumstances

Chapter Four

Under normal circumstances, I’m generally already a pretty curious person.  I’m constantly always looking stuff up on Wikipedia (Jimmy Wales is one of my all-time heroes and on my personal Mount Rushmore) and I’ll always follow wherever my curiosity leads me.  I simply just need to know.  I’m one of those people.

So, being in China, in the most mysterious environment ever –that is, some secret Chinese Communist Party-backed laboratory in the middle of literally nowhere– of course I’m going to follow the exotic, genetically-altered Asian beauty to see whatever she’s wanting to show us.  Life is rife with moments when you’ll need to make tough, difficult choices that take weeks of deliberation.  This isn’t one of them.  This is a total no-brainer.

“Lead the way,” I say to Shu, standing up from my barstool.  I stretch my arms above me for a minute and it feels good to finally be back on my feet with free range of motion.  Homo sapiens had not evolved over 300,000 years and stumbled out of Africa in a drunken stupor to spend most our waking hours sitting on our asses.  We’re just not anatomically built for it; but in a cruel twist of fate, nowadays that’s all we mostly do. It’s a genuine tragedy.

Shu leads the way and everyone follows.  Apparently, we’re all curious people.  We shuffle after Shu out of the faculty-esque lounge like kindergarteners on a class field trip, turn the corner in the hall, and then begin descending down several flights of steps deeper and deeper into the bowels of Building 11.

Of course, we’re headed to the basement.  It’s always the basement.  Every time.

At the bottom once the stairwell ends, Vanessa walks up to the front of our little group and scans her palm against a semi-translucent glass security plate next to a ginormous titanium, concrete door.  Looking around me, I feel like we’re about to enter some sort of super-secure secret bunker, the kind of installations typically reserved for presidents, dictators, or mega-rich billionaires paranoid about zombie apocalypses.

“You guys really watch a lot of American action movies,” Coleman says from somewhere behind me, clearly admiring our surroundings.  “I do like the décor though.”

“This facility’s built to withstand nuclear war,” says Alan.  “You’re about to see why.”

After a moment, the security scanner beeps, apparently satisfied with Vanessa’s handprint.  Two dozen giant steel tumblers grind and unlatch as the massive vault-like blast door unlocks and slowly swings open.  We all step through.

Continue reading “Under Normal Circumstances”

The Reveal

Vibrant, fluorescent lights flicker on overhead and my eyes take a moment to adjust.  When they do, I’m looking at a gigantic miniature city on a massive stainless steel table that’s laid out before me.  The mini-city and the table it’s on is positively gigantic, maybe the size of sixteen ping-pong tables arranged 4×4.  It takes a minute and I need to blink a few times, but then I realize what’s odd.

The city’s in motion.

And by motion, I mean that the little miniature people and cars in the city are all moving around.  Miniature pedestrians are walking along sidewalks and little delivery trucks, sedans, vans, and school buses are driving up and down the city streets, halting and going at stoplights, dropping off kids, the whole nine yards.

“What in fresh hell is this?” says Coleman, bewildered.  “Some kinda model train set on steroids?”

“Please don’t touch anything,” Vanessa says wearily. “But feel free to take a look around. Though please do be careful.”

Her tone makes it sound like she’s a parent chaperoning a school dance who’d really much rather just be at home nursing a pint of scotch.

I take a step closer to the miniature city to get a better look.  The details on the tiny models are amazingly intricate and lifelike.  One of the skyscrapers even has little window-washing men cleaning the building’s glass façade, dangling from steel cables to do their work.  Upon inspection, I see that the entire mini-city’s actually in fact enclosed under a thin glass dome.  Clearly, whoever slaved away on the model didn’t want anyone touching anything, a sentiment I can most definitely understand.  I search for familiar landmarks in the model but don’t see anything I immediately recognize.

“This is impressive,” I begin, “how did you guys–“

“Good god.  You lunatics actually built it.”

I turn and see Katherine’s half a step behind me.  Her face has paled, drained of all color, and she looks like she could suddenly faint so I reach out to help but she just swats my arm away.  She pushes past me, walks up to the miniature city, and puts her hands and face right up against its plexiglass enclosure, like a kid looking into a candy store from the outside.

“Hey!” snaps Vanessa.  “No touching!”

Katherine just ignores her.  A moment of awkward silence passes and the rest of us just look at each other.  Whenever you’re in a group of adults and someone outright transgresses, blithely deciding to simply not follow rules, it always gets weird.  Like, no one ever knows what to do. Is someone supposed to tackle her?  Reprimand her sternly?  The protocol’s honestly unclear.

Finally, it’s Chopra who speaks up. “You recognize it, don’t you?” he says softly.  “You know what this is.”

Katherine gives a short, bitter snort.  “I damn well should.  After all, I designed it.

Continue reading “The Reveal”

The Eye

We all turn to Katherine but it’s Vanessa who actually speaks next.

“You’ll find that this version in fact significantly improves on Ms. Henley’s original design.  And while we’re certainly grateful for her initial work on the idea, it’s come a long way since those early stages.”

“Did you just steal this right out of Foogle’s Labs in Darwin?” scoffs Katherine.  “Some kinda cloak-and-daggers corporate espionage?  Bribery?  Coercion? No, I bet it was blackmail. You likely got some dirt on Tunney, didn’t you? I bet you probably turned him, that gutless slimeball.”

“Oh, don’t be dramatic,” Vanessa says dismissively, waving her hand.  “This isn’t a Grisham thriller. And it’s not like you Australians have a monopoly over creating totalitarian police states.”

“Can someone please for the love of God just explain what we’re looking at?”  Coleman is looking around at us, clearly increasingly agitated that he’s utterly in the dark.  “What the hell’s going on?  I see a mini-model metropolis –granted, a super-expensive and detailed one– of some random city.  Why’s everyone so worked up?”

I turn my attention back to the miniature city and study it for a moment.  It’s fascinating how the human mind works when it’s trying to tease out a riddle.  All of the pieces are here and I feel like I have everything I need to put this puzzle together.  Katherine’s sudden departure from Foogle.  Her work in Darwin.  All of us suddenly here in Jinshui.  The CCP initiating a state surveillance apparatus in Xinjiang.  Like individual discs sliding into place in a rotary combination lock, I slowly piece it all together.

Chopra beats me to the punch though.

“This is a model city of Ürümqi, isn’t it?” he says, “the capital of the Xinjiang Province.  You’ve somehow built a real-life proxy representation of the city.”

“And it’s even more than that,” I add, the last tumbler finally falling into place.  “This is real-time, isn’t it? That’s why everything’s in motion.  You’ve got IoT sensors all over the city tracking every movement of every Uyghur and you’re streaming all of that raw data into a system somewhere to reconstruct what’s going on in Ürümqi, all of it, at this very exact moment.”

I gesture towards the mini-city, sweeping my arm.  “And this is a 3D-visualization of that, right?  It’s not a physical model at all.  Rather, it’s a hologram.  Just like the fancy projectors you have mounted outside that hide this compound from spy satellites overhead. But here just on a vastly tinier scale. This monster science project thing lets you track and visualize every single Uyghur in the city in real-time at any time.”

“Good lord,” says Coleman, his eyes growing round.  “You mad lads legit created The Eye of Sauron.  Jesus.”

Continue reading “The Eye”