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NOTE: This is an ongoing original fiction story that I’m currently writing. I started writing this fictional story back on October 2, 2020 and contribute ~1,000 words to it every day on this blog. I didn’t outline the story at all going into it but it’s slowly evolved into a tale about a data scientist in his mid-thirties from America who finds himself summoned to China where’s he’s been offered a job to work for the Chinese Communist Party on a project monitoring the Uyghurs in the Chinese “autonomous region” of Xinjiang. In China, the story’s protagonist, Dexter Fletcher, meets other professionals who’ve also been brought in from abroad to help consult on the project. My story takes place several decades in the future and explores human rights, privacy in an age of ever-increasing state-surveillance, and differences between competing dichotomies: democracy vs communism, eastern vs western political philosophies, and individual liberties vs collective security. If this sounds interesting and you’d like to read more, my fiction story starts here.

Chapter Eight – Passage Four


Having finished at Xi’an Coliseum, we decided to get lunch before catching our late-afternoon train out of Northlight Station and continue our westward journey.  Since there was no electricity allowed in Xi’an, I was intrigued by how they would manage powering a giant city of twelve million people.

Well, it turns out all you need is steam power.

In the olden days, writers and artists often fantasized about a genre called “steampunk”— an essentially alternate timeline of history where 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery rose to prominence and we never developed electric motors.  Instead, as the namesake suggests, steam is primary means of power.  And to create steam, you needed a steam engine which meant you need gigantic boilers that heated water to create a heat engine.

And while I was aware of the genre, it never struck me that the basis of steampunk was actually rooted in reality.  This wasn’t like writing about fantastical warp gates and other outer space figments of the imagination like orbital defense platforms and trillion-zillion ton battlecruisers.  Steampunk was rooted in actual real-life technology, an imagining of what that version of history could’ve possible looked like.

And Xi’an is a very real-life manifestation of those imaginings.

“When you talk about power,” explains Kristen, “everyone’s always thinking about electric engines with is –surprise, surprise–using the movement of electrons to power an engine.  But before Edison and Westinghouse pushed electrons, we pushed heat.  I’m not going to bore you with the details, but to convert thermal energy into mechanical energy, you need to create heat some way.  You can burn wood, boil water, or burn diesel, ethanol, or fossil fuels.”

Kristen, it turns out, actually studied mechanical engineering at some point and was, for some reason, well-versed in thermonuclear dynamics.

“Ah, here we are,” says Li.  We’ve been riding in the horse-drawn carriage until now, on the way to lunch.  On our way, we passed through the industrial district of Xi’an which was filled with giant factories.  Smokestacks reaching high into the sky, expelling giant plumes of black clouds into the sky.

“Wow, that makes for wonderfully breathable air,” Coleman had remarked, pointing.  “All doing our bit for the earth, I see.”

In the giant factories, I’d see giant mechanical shafts turning.  Gears and cogs whirled away.  As far as I could tell, all of the power was generated from the burning done at the base of the gigantic smokestack and then apparently distributed throughout the rest of the factory via giant turning rods and axels that whirled away, driving ever smaller roads and axels.  It was a massive, well-greased machine that was mechanical through-and-through.

As we’re driving by, a bell suddenly shrilly starts ringing in one of the factories and I turn to see what the commotion is all about.  A small group of Chinese men are running towards one of the driveshafts and I see smoke pouring out of one of the complicated-looking contraptions.

“Electric engines are wonderful for productivity and efficiency,” Jack says, “but that’s not what Xi’an is built for.”  He gestures to the hubbub, “the challenge with mechanical energy like this, in addition to being horribly inefficient and losing a ton of energy by sheer heat loss, is that it’s fragile.

I watch all of the Chinese youths scramble around to try to troubleshoot the problem.  One of the driveshafts has malfunctioned and stopped turning.  But luckily the others still spinning, their respective belts and conveyors still whirling away.  If you build such an intricate but fragile cog-work system, redundancy appears to be of paramount importance.

“You’re saying that it really takes a village to keep the entire operation running smoothly,” I say.

“So you’ve deliberately set back the entire city two centuries in order to foster a greater sense of interconnectedness,” says Deepak.  “It was a generation when people actually needed to cooperate or things would literally fall apart.”

“Precisely,” Jacks says.  “Make no mistake, “Xi’an in so many ways is so bad.  Bad for the environment.  We burn a metric ton of wood to produce the same amount of electrical energy you could easy get with solar in a few days.  But what we get back with this time capsule city is an age when people actually needed to rely on each other.  An era when neighbors actually knew and talked to each other.  Because if they didn’t, they simply wouldn’t survive.”

Our carriage slowly draws away from the factory where the Chinese men in blue coveralls are still troubleshooting the broken driveshaft and another thought suddenly occurs to me.  The entire steampunk system that the CCP has constructed here in Xi’an drives another message into the 18-year-old trainees every year:  Just like individual gears and cogs that the trainees were maintaining, the trainees themselves were at very least subconsciously being indoctrinated that they too were fungible and easily replaceable.  In America, every schoolchild is taught that every American is unique and special.  That we all have gifts and something only we can contribute to this society and world.

But in China, the message in this communist country is the opposite.  Every Chinese citizen is part of something greater, to be sure.  But each person, on their own, is also only a simple cog in the great machinery.  Building on this metaphor, a more complicated aggregate component like a driveshaft or steam turbine may then be considered a municipality– the larger, more important ones being maybe considered the alpha cities– your Shanghais and Beijings.  But the message was loud and clear– the whole is infinitely more important than any individual constituent piece.

I don’t know what CCP politburo member dreamed up this whole “everyone-18-year-old-spends-a-year-in-Xi’an-steampunk-world” system, but it’s ingenious.  Implementation and execution aside –no easy feat, to be sure– just on a purely psychological brainwashing-level of the Chinese youth, it’s seriously Mensa-tier strategic thinking.

Deepak and Coleman start some debate with Kristen over the finer points around the laws of thermonuclear dynamics (a bit absurd considering their respective backgrounds) but I mentally check out and begin thinking over the situation in Xinjiang with Uyghurs.  That’s the project we were brought here to help solve, after all.  The crux of all of the civil unrest there lies in the fact that there’s a fundamental philosophical chasm between the Uyghurs and the rest of China.  But how to bridge this divide?

CTWC 2020: A New World Order


Gallopin’ Gorgons!  This past Sunday’s CTWC Grand Championship matchup was truly a tournament for the ages.  Top-eight, single-elimination, same piece-set, with global participation.  CTWC has been around since 2010 and has always billed itself as the “World Championships.”  But Real Talk for a moment.  As Heather mentions in the Ecstasy of Order documentary, for the longest time, the “W” in “CTWC” was a kind of inside joke– it really was practically restricted to only the people who happened to live around LA.  Then in 2012 once it moved up to Oregon to the Portland Retro Gaming Expo, it then –if we’re being honest here– should’ve been called:  “The-Classic-Tetris-World-Championship-that-only-people-who-can financially-afford-flying-to-Portland-and-staying-in-a-hotel-for-an-entire-weekend-can-attend.”

But then COVID happened this year.

For the first time in CTWC history, money and means would be far less obstacles to participation.  Though, to be fair:  You still needed decently fast internet, an NES, the game cartridge, and some minimum tech savvy to know how to stream on Twitch.  But this, beyond all doubt, was a far lighter lift and one trillion times more democratic than in previous years.  This year the existing Tetris world order was primed for a shaking up.

And boy, were things shook.

Below are several quick highlights of the tournament.  The first surprise:  Huff pulling up a 3v2 upset of two-time defending champion, Joseph Saelee in the opening round of eight!

Sir Huffulufugus would go onto semifinal where he ultimately lost to thirteen-year-old, No 1 seed, Dog, 1 vs 3. But in his final game, he noticeably scored a maxout but still lost to Dog who’d scored ~1.1 million by level 28! No shame, Huff, no shame. That was a match well played!

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Finally, after two months and hundreds of contenders… the Grand Final Championship Match saw… Brother versus Brother. You literally couldn’t have scripted a more more cinematic, Hollywood-style final showdown. One day I’ll write up the match specific details, but for now, let’s just jump to the best part:

Down 0 vs 2 against his older brother, 15-year-old P1xelAndy, 13-year-old Dog was faced with that monstrosity of a set up. With his back against the wall, with no where else to turn, Dog then subsequently turned on beast mode and joined the Mount Rushmore of all-time Tetris greats, storming back to win the match in a reverse sweep. Words are inadequate here to describe Dog’s legendary comeback but as Liam Neeson’s character once told Bruce Wayne:

“If you make yourself more than just a man, then you make yourself something else entirely… Legend, Mr. Wayne.”

–Liam Neeson (Batman Begins)

And also:

Despite a misdrop (in the heat of Game 5, the Champion Match DECIDER!) that would’ve ended most people, a few pieces later, Dog manages to fight his way out of it! Good lord, what poise and composure. Tetris is so much about not only playing pixel-perfect, but also being able to think fast on your feet in the heat of a critical moment. Because no matter what, the pieces will just keep raining down! So when things do go wrong (and they always eventually will, if you’ve played long enough), not panicking, keeping calm, and fighting back one piece at a time is absolutely critical. Truly, a big kudos to Dog for battling his way outta that roof on level 24 in Game 5. Well done.


Taking a step back, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the gods who organized CTWC 2020 for us mere mortals: Director Vince Clemente, Keith Didion (vandweller), and Technical Wizard Extraordinaire Trey Harrison. Additionally, the commentating by Chris Tang, James Chen, and Arda Ocal were all also top-notch and superb as well. This year I really appreciated that they aired “Player Interview” videos before the matches that gave the audience a better chance to get to know the players. Many fans don’t closely follow the Classic Tetris scene so those interviews were a terrific “gateway introduction” into the Classic Tetris World. At the height of the stream yesterday, when Joseph was playing against Huff, the viewership reached ~30k on Twitch! Later, after Joseph was eliminated, those viewership numbers did drop though. Moving forward, whether or not the scene can grow and expand will highly depend on whether more players became well known.

So incredibly looking forward to next year! Well done to all players and organizers this time around and thank you for giving us such a great show! 🙏🙏🙏


“Shared Experience Holds Together a Society.”


NOTE: This is an ongoing original fiction story that I’m currently writing. I started writing this fictional story back on October 2, 2020 and contribute ~1,000 words to it every day on this blog. I didn’t outline the story at all going into it but it’s slowly evolved into a tale about a data scientist in his mid-thirties from America who finds himself summoned to China where’s he’s been offered a job to work for the Chinese Communist Party on a project monitoring the Uyghurs in the Chinese “autonomous region” of Xinjiang. In China, the story’s protagonist, Dexter Fletcher, meets other professionals who’ve also been brought in from abroad to help consult on the project. My story takes place several decades in the future and explores human rights, privacy in an age of ever-increasing state-surveillance, and differences between competing dichotomies: democracy vs communism, eastern vs western political philosophies, and individual liberties vs collective security. If this sounds interesting and you’d like to read more, my fiction story starts here.

Chapter Eight – Passage Three


“Freaking better than YouTube and videogames, eh?”


After the obstacle race, there is a raging afterparty that’s held on the top level of the Coliseum.  As the plebeians of Xi’an file outside, we stick around in our seats for a while longer and I watch a small army of Chinese janitorial staff begin dismantling and cleaning the obstacle course.

“They take it apart after every competition?” Kristen asks curiously.

“The grand competitions take place the final Sunday of every month,” Alan explains. “Each time the configuration of the course is different.  The obstacles themselves are the same but they’re arranged differently.”

“And occasionally,” Jack says, his eyes twinkling, “they even introduce a new obstacle!”  He slaps Alan on the back.  “Ah, grand times!  Grand times!”

From my stone bleacher, I watch the custodial staff, all decked out in matching grey one-piece suits, attack the cleaning job.  There must be at least a hundred of them and they are well-coordinated, moving briskly and efficiently, as if on some invisible timer.  They work in small groups of three-to-five people and quickly move to their respective tasks.  A handful of groups begins draining the mud swamp.  Two other groups work on dismantling the scaffolding for the monkey-bar obstacle.  So on and so forth.

I can’t help but think back to what manual labor unions look like in America where it takes a dozen grown men an entire morning to fill a pothole in an asphalt street.  At the rate they’re working, the legion of Chinese custodians will have cleared and cleaned the entire obstacle course in under an hour.

For the larger sheet metal that needs to come down, several teams of the Chinese cleaning men and women work a complicated-looking mechanical pulley crane to take down individual sheets before placing them on steel gurneys to be wheeled away by other teams.  Bereft of any kind of electronics or technology, they need to hoist the giant sheets down with nothing but thick twine rope, six people to a side, collectively lowering the sheet metal until it’s safely reached the ground.

“So these are all 18-year old trainees, actually,” Li says to me.  I turn and apparently she’s noticed that I seem to be more fascinated by the ongoings of the deconstruction and cleanup crew than I am by the free-flowing alcohol.

“Isn’t it dangerous, doing so much by hand?” I ask.  “It seems unnecessarily risky and old-school.  Simple industrial grade machinery would make this whole process a hundred times safer.”

“Tsk, tsk,” Li clicks her tongue.  “You Americans are always so concerned about safety.  Yes, of course people get hurt every month.  Minor or major injuries.  Every few years, at least one of the kids will even die on the job, an unfortunate fatal accident usually caused by carelessness.  It’s part of their training to cycle through all of the activities though, including cleaning, construction, and maintenance.”

“You think it builds character?”

“That and comradery and empathy and respect.”  Li looks at me.  “In America I know you westerners outsource your cleaning to a lower class.  And to be fair, we do too, once the kids become adults.  But in the beginning, for at least a single year, every Chinese citizen, no matter how rich or from what background, or whatever their family name, will learn what it means to mop grime off of public restroom stall tiles, plunge toilets, and–” she motions to the obstacle course rapidly being deconstructed “–work in teams to accomplish dangerous tasks.

“Laws don’t hold a society together, Dexter,” she says to me.  “Shared experience does.”

“For instance,” Li says to me as she points over at a small team of teenagers trying to dismantle a scaffolding of steel beams, “over there, you’ve got 18-year old Ming Tao, the heiress of Tao family fortune, working side by side with 18-year old Zhi Zhen Wong, scion of the Wong family fortune.  The Taos are an ancient bloodline that dates back to the Chinese Civil War in 1949.  Great-Great-Great Grandpa Tao started with a single aluminum canning factory that canned tuna and sardines.  Three generations later, the Taos are the steel magnates of China, one of the two major manufacturers of the metal.”

I follow Li’s gaze and see a small group of Chinese youths indeed working very efficiently. They’re working as if they’re being timed; which I guess they probably are.

“And?” I ask.

Li rolls her eyes.  “And the Wongs are the rival steel manufacturing family.”

“Ah.”  I frown.  “Wait, but they don’t–“

“–of course they don’t.  Mandatory two year service is required of everyone.  But the wealthier families will of course submit their children to the national training regime under pseudonym.  For security and privacy purposes.”

“So you’ve essentially got a modern-day Montague and Capulet situation going on here then?” I say.  To my American, fan-fiction writing mind, this arrangement is positively wild.

Li shrugs.  “Maybe and maybe not.  But the National Program takes great lengths to place, let’s say, optimally.  Of course, the cadets are all informed that placement is wholly random.”

“Which is a lie, of course.”

“Of course,” scoffs Li.  “That goes without saying.  Millions of 18-year-olds filter through this program in Xi’an every year.  The organizing committee–“

“–who I’m guessing you’re of course familiar with–“

“–yes, but of course–”  Li bats her eyelashes coquettishly, “but more to the point– once the kids are handed off to the National Training Regime, great pains have been taken to build a Chinese Wall between the civilian and military arms of China.  And the National Training Regime falls under military jurisdiction.”

“So the idea is that all of that Tao family aluminum money won’t help Ming here.”  I say.  To say the least, I’m a tiny bit skeptical.  That’s akin to saying in America that a Bush or Obama somehow went into service and was given zero preferential treatment.

“Well,” Li says, “it actually works better than you might imagine.  As you know honor of the family name is still a big deal here.  You may be training under pseudonym, but cadets are still assigned to barracks–“

Li searches the air a moment, apparently trying to figure out a suitable analogy for my apparently uncivilized and puny American mind.

“Maybe something to your Gry-fan-dor home or Pufflehuff house system?”

“That’s the United Kingdom, an entire ocean away, but okay– I get your point.”

Li shrugs. “Whatever. All is the same to us. West is simply the West.” She continues, “In China’s two-year system, there is likewise a ‘House Cup’ conceit and the barracks which scores the most points per each year will win eternal glory and go onto the Wall,” Li explains.  “Similar to your Top Gun program of your Tom Cruise?  So it behooves the teams to work together in all of their interests.  Finishing poorly likewise bring eternal shame upon your family name.”

I nodded. In a ridiculously twisted way, I’m starting to slowly understand how China’s authoritarian and behemoth autocratic system has survived so long, amidst an ocean of western liberalism. Buffeting always against inexorable tides of progressivism and human rights constantly crashing against its shores.

“For instance,” Li says, “now that they are about to finish cleaning, “inspectors will come in to evaluate the quality of their effort.”

As Li speaks, I see teams of adults now descent upon the scene; these people are dressed in pale-blue jumpsuits and have clipboards in hand.  They are apparently here to judge.

“China is not as large as you might imagine,” says Li. “Swift shame accompanies any hint or scandal or impropriety or preferential treatment. So it’s in the wealthy and powerful’s interest to keep the identities of their children secret throughout the course of the program.”

Power vs Force by Dr. David R. Hawkins


“Enlightenment,” according to this new book I started reading today, “is the highest emotion.”  And, interestingly to me, “shame” is the “lowest emotion.”  Not “sadness,” “depression,” or “anger.”  But: “Shame.”

For the longest time, Bagel had been trying to get me to read Power vs Force by Dr. David R. Hawkins.  I’ve literally had the book sitting on my shelf staring at me for the past several months.  And while I’d initially flipped through it back in the summer, I never continued at the time.  Hawkins’s thesis is that via kinesiology, it’s possible to via physical feeling (feeling strength or weakness) to discern the truth value of any given proposition.  Literally, any binary question:  “Should I invest in Tesla?”; “Is my boss lying?”; “Will Brazil win the World Cup this year?”; “Will this medicine cure my cancer?”

Needless to say, I was skeptical for all of the obvious reasons.  But as the months have passed, and as I’ve spent more time with Bagel, I’ve started giving more credence to this kind of “new age” philosophical thinking.  I’m not entirely bought in yet, but I’m willing to entertain the notion that humans don’t yet know how this universe works.  And for all of our fancy science, technology, and empiricism, I do buy that there are greater forces at work which we, puny humans, clearly don’t currently understand.  Thus, I’ve started seriously reading the book!  And in the coming months, as Bagel and I slowly wind our way through it, I’ll periodically post musings and learnings that I think are noteworthy here on this blog.

Usually, whenever I read nonfiction books, I like to take notes when I privately journal.  Last year when I read The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis, I’d jotted some of my notes on this blog publicly.  And so I’ll be doing the same here as well with Power vs Force.  The two other lessons I learned today in reading the book’s four prefaces and introductions (I’m not even at Chapter 1 yet!) is that the “measure of a human” and their “contribution to the Universe” is not measured in a person’s actions (like what the Jewish believe, ie. “good deeds”) or words or beliefs (like how protestants believe that “belief and surrender to God, not good works, is how one gets to heaven); but rather, Dr. Hawkins asserts:  “The measure of a human is not in words or actions but in what they become by the time they die.”  That stuck out to me.

Finally, Hawkins –who writes well!– painted a good metaphor towards the end of his new introduction:  He writes about the story of two ships.  In the beginning, out in the ocean, they may only be a fraction of a degree different in bearing.  But a hundred miles later after weeks of sailing in the ocean, they’ll be thousands of miles apart from each other in distance.  Essentially:  Small differences are initially trivial.  But over the long passage of time, it matters!  And could mean all the difference between setting a proper course and going astray.


What Don Draper Taught Me About Being a Man


Don Draper from the television show, Mad Men, has been on my mind a lot lately.  This year because of COVID, Bagel and I have watched a good amount of television.  Since January, we’ve ripped through The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story, Community (S1-6), When Calls the Heart (S1-2), Under the Dome (S1-2), and I also discovered and personally devoured all four seasons of Rick and Morty as well (Bagel dislikes cartoons so she sat that one out).  Of all of the shows I’ve seen this year though, Mad Men is definitely the most thought-provoking.  The show’s actually quite old; its first season released back in 2007.  And while I remember at the time watching the first two or three episodes, I eventually lost interest and never continued.  Thirteen years later though I think I’m finally now mature and old enough to appreciate Mad Men— this is probably one of the best television shows I’ve ever seen. 

To be clear, this is still not a show that I’d probably watch on my own.  Left to my own devices, I generally turn to television to be entertained.  Fare like Rick and Morty and Community are right up my alley.  But now I’ve met Bagel, my repertoire of appreciation has significantly expanded!  On our evening walks, Bagel and I often like to discuss Mad Men and its different characters.  While the show is fictional, it possess a fidelity to the 1960s that I’ve never seen in period television.  In the past, I’ve watched (and tremendously enjoyed!) period pieces like Spartacus: Blood and Sand and The Tudors but let’s just say that “period authenticity” isn’t exactly the appeal of those particular Starz and Showtime cinematic masterpieces.

Mad Men fascinates me though precisely because is so real.  I love all of its attention to period detail.  The way people smoke and drank (and littered after picnics in the park!) back in the 1960s is insane!  And since I obviously wasn’t around for the Cuban Missile Crisis or the prospect of nuclear annihilation, seeing people live during those periods have been hugely educational.  And while there are tons of things I could discuss (and probably will in future posts), today I wanted to write about Don Draper.  Specifically, what I’ve learned from him about what it means to be a man and a good husband.

I’ve always been proud of my own honesty and transparency.  But what I learned from Don is that when you’re married, being a good husband does NOT mean telling your wife and family everything.  In the past, I always foolishly believed that I should tell Bagel everything.  For example:  Our finances.  Let’s just say this year has been a very rough ride.  And there are times that when I’ve mentioned the specifics of our finances and budget to Bagel, it’s just needlessly stressed her out. If I lost a good chunk of money day-trading one day, it’s not like she had any way of helping to recover that money. She was helpless and this added information did nothing for her except ruin her day.  I always thought I was being a good life-partner by telling her everything.  But now I realize I was wrong.

On days when I’ve lost a ton of money and I’d tell Bagel about my poor results, she’d get super stressed out.  But then a few days or weeks later, I’d often make back all of the money!  And then I’d tell Bagel about my good days too.  I had thought that we were a team and so I should share with her, my failures as well as my triumphs.

But I now see the tremendous error of my ways.

By sharing my daily ups and downs with Bagel, I was needlessly taking her on my rollercoaster ride.  She often had trouble sleeping at night and poor appetite on days when I lost a ton of money day-trading.  When I reflect on this year, I see all of that was entirely unnecessary.

What I learned from Don Draper is that when you are the man of the house, your wife (or S/O, life-partner, etc) doesn’t actually want to know everything.  As the man, it is your duty to be the provider and primary caretaker.  (Or if you’re a house-hubby and the wife is the one who works, then the same would go for her.  Basically, I’m talking here about situations where one spouse works and the other stays at home as the homemaker.)  If you are the primary provider of a single-income household, it is simply your duty to provide comfort and security to your S/O.  You need to find a way to put food on the table and roof over your children’s heads.  And that’s it. There is no need and no reason to share all of the gory details on how the sausage is made.

You don’t need to share every single financial detail with your S/O.  Now, two caveats here:  First– if your S/O specifically asks, then sure– you can tell him/her the details. 

However, if they don’t ask, as the Main Provider of a single-income household, your job is to give your S/O a sense of stability and security.  Absolutely, make a monthly budget and expect everyone to stick to it.  But aside from that, there’s no need and no purpose to share daily details with your S/O.  The second caveat is– sure, if things really go sideways, you should tell your life-partner.  For example, Bagel and I have agreed that there is a certain number our household savings (that I day-trade with) should never fall below.  And if I ever fall under that number then I should automatically tell her.

Aside from these two caveats, a good S/O should just exist to be your life-partner’s rock.  Don Draper never shares any of his daily work shenanigans with Betty; he simply shoulders all of the troubles and burdens alone. That is his sole responsibility and duty as the Man of the House. Betty doesn’t care what Don does at Sterling Cooper; she just wants to be able to shop for groceries, take care of the kids, go horseback riding, hang out with and drink wine with friends, etc.  When you get home from a hard day’s work, you leave it at the door.  Your wife just wants a lovely husband, safety, and security.  That is what it means to be a man.


The Arc of History May Be Long But It Bends Towards Communism


NOTE: This is an ongoing original fiction story that I’m currently writing. I started writing this fictional story back on October 2, 2020 and contribute ~1,000 words to it every day on this blog. I didn’t outline the story at all going into it but it’s slowly evolved into a tale about a data scientist in his mid-thirties from America who finds himself summoned to China where’s he’s been offered a job to work for the Chinese Communist Party on a project monitoring the Uyghurs in the Chinese “autonomous region” of Xinjiang. In China, the story’s protagonist, Dexter Fletcher, meets other professionals who’ve also been brought in from abroad to help consult on the project. My story takes place several decades in the future and explores human rights, privacy in an age of ever-increasing state-surveillance, and differences between competing dichotomies: democracy vs communism, eastern vs western political philosophies, and individual liberties vs collective security. If this sounds interesting and you’d like to read more, my fiction story starts here.

Chapter Eight – Passage Two


“Civilization,” Jack says to us airily, “needs its monuments to human progress.  Testaments that remind us all how far we have risen as a society.  That while alone we may be specks of dust in the wind.  But together, we bend the arc of history towards communism!  To the Chinese Dream!”  He sweeps his arm expansively.  “These, my friends, are The Games.

I’m unsure what I’m expecting exactly.  But what I see before me at the center of the Xi’an Coliseum certainly does not disappoint.

Laid out at the center of the Coliseum is a padded obstacle course– very similar to an old American television show that I’d once watched clips about on YouTube:  American Gladiator.  There were apparently seven teams competing for eternal glory.  But in order to be crowned the victor, they had to cross, relay-style, nine different obstacles in their paths.  The obstacles, it appeared, increased significantly in difficult as the course progressed.

“That first one is a cakewalk,” Jack explains.  The man consumes liquor like water and so despite it being only midmorning, he’s already three sheets to the wind.  “All you need to do is cross the 30 meter-long beam without falling into the mud pit below.  It’s a piece of cake.”

The starting pistol goes off and we watch the contestants fly off the starting blocks.  They are kids, basically, supposed eighteen years old but they honestly look much younger.  To indicate their team, they all wear matching colored shirts and shorts.  They look like an army of miniature Power Rangers.

With an agility and speed that I didn’t think possible, they sprint across the 30-meter high beam with zero difficulty and hand their batons off to their teammates, who then take off sprinting.

“Next,” Jack commentates, “you’ve got the net-rope-wall.”

Indeed, the next obstacle is a vertical wall of netting that looks like it was requisitioned off some 14th-century pirate ship.  The kids reach the netting all at roughly the same time and begin scampering up it like monkeys.  The dexterity is inhuman.

“This is crazy,” Coleman says.  “How are these kids in such insanely excellent shape?”

“Well, you’re saying the Championship Round,” says Li.  “So they are the very best of this year’s crop.  That said, the CCP expects all of its citizens, men and women, to be of a certain physical condition.  It’s mandated by the state.”

I think back to my days of youth.  Most of my days were spent playing Xbox or PlayStation.  And while I was never exactly fat, per se, I also could never in a million years navigate an obstacle course replete with rock climbing walls, giant foam battering pendulums, springboards the way these kids are doing.

Finally, on the fourth obstacle, the course takes its first casualty.

The challenge is to navigate a series of monkey bars like you’re at the jungle gym.  For the life of me, I can’t imagine even attempting the challenge– the upper body strength you’d need must be spectacular.  A girl in a red shirt who’s maybe in third place finally loses her grip after trying to swing from one bar to the next and plunges in the muddy depths, ten meters below and there’s a collective gasp of both awe and disappointment from the crowd.

“This is unreal,” says Deepak looking around at the crowd who are on their feet cheering.  “In India we also have national service but it’s nothing like this.  I think I spent my time digging ditches.  You guys have gone ahead and turned it into a full-sail spectator sport though.  This is unbelievable.”

“All in the name of national cohesion,” Jack says without taking his eyes off the games.  “Might as well kill two birds with one stone, right?”

Looking around, I also see that all eyes are on the games.  This is spectacle with purpose.  The Chinese bystanders are totally absorbed; all their attention fixated.  For many of them, in this city with no electricity, this event was probably the highlight of their week.  At least until next week.  Apparently, this is how you keep peace in a land of billions.

On the fifth obstacle, the boy wearing a blue shirt mistimes his step and gets full-on body-slammed by the foam wrecking ball.  He goes flying into the mud pit ten meters below.  Such a shame too because the blue team was in the lead with only two obstacles left.  The crowd collectively wails in disappointment.

“So sports betting is a thing?” says Kristen looking around.  Tons of people are throwing away their ticket stubs in disgust.  It’s down to the yellow and black teams who are vying for the lead into the final stretch.  Apparently, the teams save their more athletic and best for the final leg of the relay.  They’re neck and neck– the final obstacle is apparently an Indiana Jones-inspired obstacle– you need to make it across a platform of tiles and inscribed on each tile is a number.  Spy the pattern to step on the right tile.  But step on the wrong tile and it crumbles beneath you, plunging you into the mud pits below.

“Jesus, this is unreal,” says Coleman.  “You’ve gotta solve brain teasers too?”

“All part of the curriculum,” Li says, shrugging.  “Not just about brawn.  You gotta be able to think fast on your feet.”

Their pace have slowed considerably and all of the teams are at the final obstacle now.  I can’t make out the exact numbers on the tiles but I guess it must be something like figuring out the next number in the Fibonacci sequence or something.  Or maybe they’re multiplying giant three-digit and four-digit numbers together in their heads.  Who knows.

The girl in the yellow shirt and a boy in a black shirt are virtually tied.  And the crowd is at this point on its feet cheering.  They’re a mere several meters from the end.

Two tiles from the finish line the girl in the yellow shirt steps on the wrong tile and it crumbles beneath her; she hurtles down into the mud pit, arms reaching upwards, her face a mask of shock.  The crowd goes absolutely insane.

The boy in the black shirt makes it to the finish line and wins the event.  He grabs the golden trophy that’s sitting on a silver pedestal awaiting the victor and thrusts it up into the air, victorious and triumphant.   The crowd roars and I can feel the stone amphitheater shake beneath me.  It’s complete pandemonium and my ear drums feel like they’re about to burst.  I don’t know it until then, but I suddenly realize that I am too am on my feet, apparently swept away in the moment like everyone else.

The rest of the world slowly comes back into focus and I look over at Jack who’s beaming.

The Xi’an Coliseum and Chinese Communist Youth League

https://www.britannica.com/topic/Colosseum
https://www.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/1998362/communist-youth-league-overhaul-key-structures-ahead
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rungrado_1st_of_May_Stadium

NOTE: This is an ongoing original fiction story that I’m currently writing. I started writing this fictional story back on October 2, 2020 and contribute ~1,000 words to it every day on this blog. I didn’t outline the story at all going into it but it’s slowly evolved into a tale about a data scientist in his mid-thirties from America who finds himself summoned to China where’s he’s been offered a job to work for the Chinese Communist Party on a project monitoring the Uyghurs in the Chinese “autonomous region” of Xinjiang. In China, the story’s protagonist, Dexter Fletcher, meets other professionals who’ve also been brought in from abroad to help consult on the project. My story takes place several decades in the future and explores human rights, privacy in an age of ever-increasing state-surveillance, and differences between competing dichotomies: democracy vs communism, eastern vs western political philosophies, and individual liberties vs collective security. If this sounds interesting and you’d like to read more, my fiction story starts here.

Chapter Eight – Passage One


“Banishment to the end of the world is not without its perks,” Jack says to me over a tub of greasy fried chicken.  As the fifth richest man in China, you might have thought that Jack Bao would’ve possessed a more sophisticated palate, a sense of taste more Per Se than KFC.  But nope.  No Michelin stars for Jack here.

The crowd roars as the contestants in the coliseum complete another lap around the track.  I look around from our perch on the stone bleachers and take it all in again.  The tumult is deafening and I marvel at simply how unbelievably gigantic the stadium is.  Back in the day, way back when, the Romans had built a Colosseum for gladiatorial combat too, an effort by the noblemen and chief magistrate to give the plebians some entertainment to help them pass their miserable days.  But the architectural skills of the ancient Romans were nothing compared to the architectural prowess of the modern-day Chinese.  The Colosseum in Rome looks like a Lego play toy compared to what the Chinese have built here in Xi’an.

The Chinese Coliseum is at least four times larger than its Roman counterpart and spans an area of nearly twenty hectares.  I’m uncertain but I’m pretty sure it’s even larger than the Rungrado Stadium in North Korea, which was once the largest stadium in the entire world.  (It briefly crosses my mind that building gigantic venues for entertaining the unwashed and destitute masses appears to be a common autocratic strategy for keeping the peace.)

In Xi’an, after they instituted the “一年不科技程序”1 for all training cadets, the CCP quickly realized that no matter the culture, no matter how obedient, if you coralled tens of thousands of teenagers together for an entire year and didn’t give them a strict regimin of how to spend that time, you’re going to have chaos on your hands.  It’ll simply degenerate into utter and complete pandamonium.  Thus, a strict schooling and training curriculumn had been created.  But additionally, entertainment was necessary.  Even the Chinese people, with their insane study work ethics, couldn’t just hit the books all day.  And thus, the Xi’an Coliseum was born.

In addition to being an architectural wonder, Xi’an Coliseum also hosts Training Contests every weekend.  Tens of thousands of 18-year-olds arrive in Xi’an every year in order to complete their one-year of “no-technology” training.  And upon arrival, like any good training program, they’re divided into teams and expected to perform at athletic competitions every weekend.  The exercise supposedly fosters a sense of comradery and cooperation among the youths, all while instilling in them the many virtues of communism and why the west and its capitalist ways are decadent and lesser.  It’s all part of the intricately planned Communist Youth League program that’s been at the core of China’s Communist Leadership for over 150 years now.

When you have a unitary state, such as Communist China’s, the question of generational turnover and leadership very quickly surface.  Back in the US, I was so accustomed to democracy that political succession honestly never really crossed my mind.  It just seemed obvious to me, back then at least, that every four years America had elections and that’s how we decided our leaders.

But in China, there are no elections.  There is no democracy.  The citizens aren’t allowed to, and do not, vote.  So how does it work exactly?  When I’d asked Alan about this, he’d patiently explained the intricate pipeline of the CCP politburo ascendancy to me.  We’d been waiting in the concessions line at the Coliseum waiting for smoked sausages on sticks (a delicious snack popular among the commoners).

“So China is big, right?” Alan says gesturing with his hands to indicate the immensity of the country.  “It essentially occupies most of Asia, the way the US occupies most of America.”

“Sure,” I say, “assuming you discount the entirety of Canada and Mexico.  But okay, let’s roll with it.”

“So we may not have states like you Americans,” says Alan, “but China has provinces, which for all intents and purposes, function in a similar fashion.  While everyone obviously ultimately answers to the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, realistically, seven people are not going to govern the entirety of China’s 1.4 billion citizens.”

“Obviously.  Doesn’t exactly take a super-genius to conclude that.”

“Patience, grasshopper.  So, what you’ve got instead are 34 different provinces in China, each with its own provincial committee, committee secretary, and governor.  The province’s governor is the local authority on the ground in the region.  And the committee secretary is the interface between the CCP’s politburo and the governor.  All are appointed positions.  Following so far?”

Our smoked sausage line inches forward and I nod my head.  “I think so.”

“So, I guess, crudely, you could call the system a Laboratory of Communism,” Alan says, “for lack of better words.  Starting with the Communist Youth League, CCP leadership identifies promising youths who may one day transition to a higher seat within the party.  To this day, that entire process remains fraught.”

“Fraught?”

“So we may not have formal political parties like you guys do in America.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t have factionalism.”  Alan looks around to make sure no one is listening and then says more quietly, “the current CCP power structure has been divided between two major coalitions for the past 150 years– the Princelings and the Populists.”

I nod.  This makes sense, actually.  In the west, whether it be the Chinse Communist Party, or the USSR before that, communism was always portrayed as some all-mighty, unitary, monolithic entity.  But that of course would be overly reductive and simplified.  The CCP, like any governmental bureaucracy was rife with warring factions, each with their own political ideologies, heroes, and villains.  How else did you expect a government of 1.4 billion to function?

“The Princelings,” Alan explains, “are your typical heredity successionists.  The current crop alongside Xi dates back to people who were at Mao’s side back in the 1930 when Mao’s Red Party first rose and seized power.  Xi’s grandfather, Xi Zhongxun was literally at Mao’s side 1949 when Mao first declared the People Republic of China its own independent nation state having defeated Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT party for control over the country.”

“And on the other side?”

“Well, you’ve got the populists.  It’s your usual story– people who believe political power isn’t the sole right of some royal bloodline.”

There is something inordinately absurd to me that one of the CCP’s main political factions is essentially an elitist, hereditary bloodline but I don’t say anything.  I’m curious to see how deep this rabbit hole goes.


  1. Roughly translated: “One-Year-Without-Technology Program”

The Yun Bao Story


NOTE: This is an ongoing original fiction story that I’m currently writing. I started writing this fictional story back on October 2, 2020 and contribute ~1,000 words to it every day on this blog. I didn’t outline the story at all going into it but it’s slowly evolved into a tale about a data scientist in his mid-thirties from America who finds himself summoned to China where’s he’s been offered a job to work for the Chinese Communist Party on a project monitoring the Uyghurs in the Chinese “autonomous region” of Xinjiang. In China, the story’s protagonist, Dexter Fletcher, meets other professionals who’ve also been brought in from abroad to help consult on the project. My story takes place several decades in the future and explores human rights, privacy in an age of ever-increasing state-surveillance, and differences between competing dichotomies: democracy vs communism, eastern vs western political philosophies, and individual liberties vs collective security. If this sounds interesting and you’d like to read more, my fiction story starts here.

Chapter Seven – Passage Six


“After Jack left the company last year,” Li says as she slices come carrots, “he really hasn’t been the same since then.  It was a big blow being so publicly ousted from the very company his own father had built.  They didn’t share much else but the company was one of the few things that was solely and truly theirs.”

“Was Jack and his father not close?” I ask.  “I thought Weibook was a tightly controlled family affair.”

Li chuckles.  “Weibook was a tightly controlled Yun Bao affair.  Jack’s father had, let’s say, a very strong sense of direction of what Weibook should be and where it was destined to go.”  Li finishes with the carrots and moves on to the onions.  In the skillet, I smell the eggs and spinach already beginning to sizzle.

“You know,” Li continues, “while I know it was always reported in the media that the CCP wrested control of the company from Jack.  But that’s not exactly how it happened.  If Yun hadn’t set up the line of succession the way he had, Jack would’ve never lost control the way he had.”

“Why?”

“Despite all of his tussles with the communist regime over the years, Yun Bao was very much a man traditionally molded in the way of the old guard.  A typical story of poor boy from a fisherman’s family in the rural provinces who rose from nothing to obtain everything.”

I chew on some butter toast and mull over what I’m hearing.  Of course, I knew the broad strokes of the legendary Yun Bao story.  Any technologist worth his salt knew at least the general outline.  It was very much your typical rags to riches tale.

“But what you don’t hear in the oft-repeated tale,” explains Li, “is that in China, without the right help form the right people at the right time, Yun would’ve and could’ve never done it.  Sure, part of it was luck.  But it was also partially that he fit the right profile.  Weibook happened at a time when the Chinese economy was finally beginning to slow.  Having relied on rock-bottom wage labor to propel its massive double-digit rise in GDP year over year was unsustainable.  If Xi was going to take China to the next level to the next level of economic prosperity, he could no longer do it on the back of knitting together Nike soccer balls and Abercrombie sweaters on the backs of, essentially, slave labor.”

I slowly put the pieces together in my head.  In all fairness, if I hadn’t been feeling like a puddle of garbage run over by a cement truck at that moment, I probably would’ve been a bit sharper on my feet.

“So you’re saying,” I manage slowly, “that Jack had different ideas then.  About cooperating with the CCP.  And that was the source of the rift?”

Li pours the bowl of diced carrots and onions into the skillet and stirs around the egg yolk.  The entire omelet slowly congeals, looking and smelling delicious.  I get the feeling that she’s choosing her words carefully.

“Sure, Yun was certainly determined and possessed a tremendous work ethic,” Li finally says slowly,  “there is no doubt about that.  But he also caught China at an inflection point.  Xi wished to shed China of its image as a predominantly manufacturing economy.  The joke for generations had been that ‘Made in China’ was a sign of cheapness–” 

“–Value,” I interject.  “Let’s be gracious here.”

“Sure,” Li says.  And while her expression remains unchanged, I can literally hear the eyerolling in her voice across the kitchen island from where I sit.  “Value, let’s call it.  And sure, poor people in developed countries who shopped in your bargain basement stores may have loved China for its value.  But Xi dreamed big.  He wanted China to be a country known for luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Tiffany’s.  Not as the choice, go-to supplier of cheap goods sold to impoverished masses the world over.”

I thought about my own story growing up.  With Devana when we were little, my mother would always take us shopping at the local Walmart in Ressler, the small rustbelt town we’d grown up in.  When that Walmart Supercenter had arrived, it’d positively steamrolled everything in its path and within a year, all of the smaller mom and pop shops had been absolutely devastated leaving that single Walmart Supercenter as the sole shining beacon of hope in Ressler.  As children, Devana and I had adored Walmart though.  Everything was cheap!  And because we often went in the evening, after mother had finished her second shift, the nice Spanish grandma, Louisa, who worked the hot bar always gave Devana and I extra-large helpings of the mashed potatoes and corn sides when we’d get our dinner there.  (Which was literally every time we went.)  Bless her heart, Louisa may have spoken maybe only five words of heavily-accented English but she was always so kind to us.

“And so Jack doesn’t want China to move up in the world?” I ask.  “I’m still not seeing where the conflict happened.”

“So you’re skipping ahead a bit,” Li says.  She serves me the now-finished omelet on a blue porcelain plate and I dig in.  It’s delicious.  “First, before you can persuade billions of Chinese citizens that luxury brands are actually something that they want, you need to convince them that paying four times for essentially the same thing is actually worth it.”

“Ah,” I say.  “So therein lies the rub.”

“Exactly,” Li says.  “There’s currently a giant wealth divide in China.  The well-to-do are all westernized carrying around their $1,000 handbags and wearing their $2,000 wristwatches, in particular in the big cities.  But the rest of China in their rural towns are plenty happy with their $10 Timex watches.  And so there’s currently a battle over the soul of the country.

“Yun Bao was aligned with CCP in trying to move China towards a wealthier cultural attitude.  But Jack disagrees.  He thinks that China’s identity is rooted in its ‘everyday-ness’– the very quotidian nature of the average Chinese citizen may be modest.  But he believes that China should embrace it instead of fleeing from it.”

The Jack Bao Story


NOTE: This is an ongoing original fiction story that I’m currently writing. I started writing this fictional story back on October 2, 2020 and contribute ~1,000 words to it every day on this blog. I didn’t outline the story at all going into it but it’s slowly evolved into a tale about a data scientist in his mid-thirties from America who finds himself summoned to China where’s he’s been offered a job to work for the Chinese Communist Party on a project monitoring the Uyghurs in the Chinese “autonomous region” of Xinjiang. In China, the story’s protagonist, Dexter Fletcher, meets other professionals who’ve also been brought in from abroad to help consult on the project. My story takes place several decades in the future and explores human rights, privacy in an age of ever-increasing state-surveillance, and differences between competing dichotomies: democracy vs communism, eastern vs western political philosophies, and individual liberties vs collective security. If this sounds interesting and you’d like to read more, my fiction story starts here.

Chapter Seven – Passage Five


“Thirty years ago,” Jack begins grandly, “you know, it was different.  Sure, the CCP was around.  But China was big in a way that’s no longer true now.  You could hide out in your own little corner of the country, scheme grand dreams, and fly under the radar.

“In our laboratories, hidden away from the wider world out of the public gaze, we dreamed the biggest dreams!  We built the grandest projects!  Monumental achievements, I tell you, monumental.”  Jack sweeps his arm expansively, clearly seeing something the rest of us mere mortals cannot.  “We imagined a connected China where every man, woman, and child shared knowledge and a collective story!  Where information flowed freely and the entire genius of the Chinese people could be brought to bear!”

Jack drunkenly clambers onto a stone dais, one with a marble statue of a magnificent serpentine white dragon, three meters tall and thick with polished scales.  The monstrosity must weigh something like two tons and I briefly wonder if the mythological creature is going to suddenly turn real and launch into the midafternoon sky.

Dimly, as if in a heavy fog, I look at my drink. 

“There was a time,” Jack bellows, his glass raised in the air, “when we celebrated excellence!  Invention!  Chinese ingenuity!

His expression turns dark.  Clearly in his mind’s eye, he’s a thespian for the ages; a modern-day Cicero orating to the peanut gallery.  He shakes his fist at the midafternoon sky, mostly blue with only one or two Cumulous poofs hanging in the air.

Damn you dirty communists!  Damn you all to hell!” he cries dramatically, still shaking his fist.  “I know you 白痴s1 are watching from up there in the sky!  I know it!  I spit in all of your faces!”

After that tirade of rage and anger aimed at the heavens, the remainder of the afternoon is a hazy blur.

In my fleeting moments of consciousness as I swim in and out of transcendent worlds here and elsewhere, a narrative suddenly begins crystalizing in my vodka-infused brain.  Jack Bao was a man who’d briefly had it all before he’d lost it all.  His father, Yun Bao, had risen from nothing, a poor farmhand from one of the far-flung eastern provinces.  During the golden period in the early 2000s, China had loosened its control while warring factions had fought over the country’s direction. (Embrace capitalism? Double-down on communism? But last time we tried that, Mao had killed 30 million!)  During this turmoil, Yun had taken the initiative, quit his dead-end meatpacking job, and bet his meager lifesavings on becoming a successful entrepreneur and capitalizing on China’s ecommerce boom. 

And Yun Bao had bet right.

Ruthlessly, over the carcasses and discarded bodies of defeated competitors left and right, he’d risen to the top, slowly at first, and then eventually mercurially, and had groomed his only son, Jack, to take the reins once he left this mortal world.

But once Yun had died last year, Jack had somehow frittered it all away.  He and his allies had bumbled and fumbled, the CCP somehow wrestling away control of the gigantic, multi-continent-spanning, megacorp now the family patriarch was gone.  A legendary story come to an inglorious and ignominious end; Jack Bao had instead become a cautionary tale for all who dared cross the Chinese Communist Party.  Indeed, it suddenly dawned upon me, that must be another reason they kept him imprisoned here.  Alive, he served an iconic reminder that no one, not even multibillionaires, was safe from the arm of the Chinese communist government.  Its reach could always find you, strip you of everything, and detain you anywhere.


When I wake, I find myself in a soft, white feather bed, tucked in under sheets.  I have no recollection of how I’d gotten here, but someone at least someone had apparently helped me kick off my shoes.  The second thing I notice is a thunderous headache that slams into my being with the force of a thousand suns.  There’s a throbbing in my temples that feels like a locomotive derailed and struck a nuclear power plant.  All while somehow crashing into a jumbo airliner that screamed in from on high.  Every fiber of my being feels dehydrated and I feel like a depleted husk.

Looking around gingerly, I notice that I’m in a small quaint room, nicely appointed with modern furniture.  I see that the room has its own bathroom so I stumble over to take a shower and get cleaned up.  Outside, the windows are bright and daylight seems to be streaming through the curtain blinds.

Half-an-hour later, I stumble out of my room and down the stairs.  It’s all slowly coming back to me as I survey the damage of the night before in the living room floor.  Kristen is still passed out on the soft, draped in a bear fur, of all things.  Empty beer bottles litter the heated stone tile floor and I need to watch my step in order to not sprain an ankle on all of destruction.

We had one and truly laid waste to the place.

There’s a giant flat screen display on the wall opposite of the wall-length fireplace that Jack built into the wall.  It’s weird to me that a place as hot as Xi’an could also get snow, but sure.  On the display, I see that apparently at some point in the evening, we’d gone to town on karaoke.  The scrolling marque from John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” is still scrolling across the bottom of the screen.

“Do you want breakfast?”

I look behind me and see Li.  She’s wearing a grey oversized knit sweater and big, thick black-framed glasses.  I guess perfect eyesight still wasn’t a thing you could buy with all the CRISPR tech.  Also, despite the fact that it’s also quite cold, for some reason she’s wearing absurdly short shorts.

I start to say something but my head spasms with pain so I can only nod.

“Of course,” she says sympathetically.  “Sit, sit.  I’ll make something up.”

With great care, I sit on one of the orange leather barstools at the massive kitchen island that’s Antarctica-sized and she bustles about, cleaning up the countertop and sweeping away the mess from the night before.  She pours me a tall glass of orange juice which I accept gratefully.

A fragment of my piecemeal brain suddenly recalls a memory:  Li is definitely standing on the glass coffee table in the living room drinking Grey Goose straight from the bottle with one hand and a microphone in the other.  I look at her, now at the stovetop scrambling eggs; the smell of onions, chives, and cheddar wafting in the air.

“Li,” I manage to croak, my voice hoarse.  “How are you still alive?”

She laughs.  “Ah, high tolerance and a quick recovery period is one of the benefits, you see.”

She lays out the plate of food before me.

“Eat, eat!  Shu is currently out at the morning market.  She’s getting supplies for our big outing later today.”  Li smiles as me, “We’re all very happy that you’ve visited us.  It can sometimes become… isolating here, away from it all.”


  1. “dickheads” (roughly translated)

Reverie


NOTE: This is an ongoing original fiction story that I’m currently writing. I started writing this fictional story back on October 2, 2020 and contribute ~1,000 words to it every day on this blog. I didn’t outline the story at all going into it but it’s slowly evolved into a tale about a data scientist in his mid-thirties from America who finds himself summoned to China where’s he’s been offered a job to work for the Chinese Communist Party on a project monitoring the Uyghurs in the Chinese “autonomous region” of Xinjiang. In China, the story’s protagonist, Dexter Fletcher, meets other professionals who’ve also been brought in from abroad to help consult on the project. My story takes place several decades in the future and explores human rights, privacy in an age of ever-increasing state-surveillance, and differences between competing dichotomies: democracy vs communism, eastern vs western political philosophies, and individual liberties vs collective security. If this sounds interesting and you’d like to read more, my fiction story starts here.

Chapter Seven – Passage Four


Zen rock gardens abut the lawn by linen-draped folding tables that the staff’s laid out for our lunch.  Maybe it’s the sudden oxygen deprivation that my brain’s suddenly suffered from all that physical exertion climbing that atrocious hill but as I sit there on those white marble steps under the midmorning sun catching my breath, I find my mind suddenly wandering.

Bao’s rock garden is immense, maybe the size of a volleyball court.  It’s certainly larger than any Zen garden that I’ve ever seen.  An ancient tradition inherited from the Japanese that started way back in the Muromachi Period, I know that the sands and landscaping of a Zen garden is arranged to evoke utmost peace and serenity of one’s inner-being.  Back when we were young and growing up with our mom, Devana went through a considerable spell of being completely enamored with Japanese culture.  Saturday morning anime, late nights under the covers reading manga by flashlight, Godzilla, and giant fighting mecha robots that could transform into increasingly powerful versions of themselves as a battle fight progressed.  (Which always begged the question in my mind, story-telling and dramatic tension purposes notwithstanding, why these didn’t just start in their “Ultimate Form” first and go from there?)  Personally, I was always more a fan of American comics: Captain America, Iron Man, Batman, and Supes.  But through Devana, I learned more than I ever cared to know about Japan.

Where is Devana now?

My thoughts are interrupted abruptly by a maid– she’s wordlessly handing me a damp towel and bottled water and I accept both gratefully.  No time to think about the past now and I suddenly snap out of my reverie back into reality.  Only our present and future matter; dwelling on what can’t be changed serves no purpose.  We humans can only move forward.  Once I’ve sufficiently recovered my breath I shake my head to clear my thoughts and wander over to the table spread under the lawn canopy to see what’s been laid out.

It’s Italian food!  Spaghetti with red sauce and meatballs, freshly tossed spinach salad with chives, portobello mushrooms, and diced carrots!  There’s also thin slices of Thai skirt steak and potato salad.  On the HSR ride to Xi’an, we’d been on a constant diet consisting solely of bento boxes.  Thank lord, the gods have deigned to grace mercy upon us today.

“Welcome!”

A giant booming voice sounds behind me and I turn to see an older man in his fifties, dressed casually in an unbuttoned collared shirt and wearing tan khakis.  This must be Jack Bao, the fifth richest man in all of China.  Jack holds out his hand and we shake– to my surprise, I feel his skin rough and calloused.

“We know you’ve traveled a great long way to visit our humble abode today,” he says, motioning to one of the wicker basket chairs around the table.  “Please!  Sit, sit.”

By this time, Kristen and the others have also wandered over.  Behind them, coming up the dirt path, I also see Da’an walking up towards us.  Over his shoulder he’s carrying Deepak fireman-rescue-style like a sack of flour.  The poor Indian professor apparently must still be unconscious from heat stroke, poor fellow.

“He’ll be fine, right?” Kristen asks, concerned.

“No worries at all,” Amanda assures her, waving her hand.  “It’s common!  Foreigners arrive all the time, unprepared for our newfound heat and humidity.”

“It wasn’t always like this,” Shu says sadly.  “Xi’an was always north and actually considered cold country for the longest time.”

I nod knowingly.  Back home in the States, it’s the same as well.  Climate change had eaten the polar bears and penguins alive taking no prisoners and was now coming for us all.  We’d kicked the can down the road as far as cans could be kicked.  The bill was coming due.

“Enough with the dour talk!” Jack says.  He looks like he’s already knocked a few back but graciously pours half a dozen glasses of some liquid that looks like red Kool-Aid mixed with lighter fluid and passes them around the table.

“Drink!” he says in a commanding voice.  “Drink!”

Kristen and I look at each other.  The liquid even smells like lighter fluid, now I’m holding a glass in my hand.  Across the table Alan gives me the look.  It’s a universal look that any consultant who’s done any time in the field will immediately recognize:  Client’s the boss.  Buckle up, buddy.  This is gonna be one wild ride.

I raise my glass in a toast.  “Cheers!”

An hour or three later, it’s  late afternoon and the luncheon is a complete wasteland.  The linen cloth is splattered with red spaghetti sauce and all the food’s gone; we’d collectively eaten everything the way Rome demolished Carthage.  There’s literally nothing left.

I don’t remember much, and what I do remember is hazy, but somewhere around the third glass of the watermelon-Kombucha infused vodka, it suddenly dawned on me the kind of man that Jack Bao was:  He was clearly a prisoner in his own castle. 

While his estate may be breathtaking in every way imaginable, and though he was married to an absolutely gorgeous trophy wife, and even though his father had founded the single more important Chinese telecommunications and social media company in the history of the continent, Jack Bao was a man who was stuck.

“They can’t throw me in prison,” he’d said at one point.  “Papa still has too many friends, you know, in the politburo.  But they can’t just let me roam free either.  And so here I am.”  His voice trailed off.  “Here I am…”

And so now he had nothing better to do than entertain guests at his McMansion at all hours of the day.  Every day was a feast.  He’d never need to work for money ever again.  But he could also never leave.

At first, I’d been confused.  Since we’d just about immediately started drinking without much pretense or chatter.  But then I also realized that all the alcohol served another purpose:  It was Jack’s way of weeding the weak from the strong.  By the second glass, Coleman was out.  Looking incredibly sick, he scuttled off to throw up in the bushes somewhere.  But all those years of wining and dining during my consultant jaunts had served me well.  I somehow manage to keep up with the man and Kristen does too.  The Australians are infamous for their iron stomachs, after all.

Finally, only after we’d sufficiently imbibed did Jack begin talking more openly.

Jack’s Estate, Amanda Bao, Turtles, Here Be Dragons


NOTE: This is an ongoing original fiction story that I’m currently writing. I started writing this fictional story back on October 2, 2020 and contribute ~1,000 words to it every day on this blog. I didn’t outline the story at all going into it but it’s slowly evolved into a tale about a data scientist in his mid-thirties from America who finds himself summoned to China where’s he’s been offered a job to work for the Chinese Communist Party on a project monitoring the Uyghurs in the Chinese “autonomous region” of Xinjiang. In China, the story’s protagonist, Dexter Fletcher, meets other professionals who’ve also been brought in from abroad to help consult on the project. My story takes place several decades in the future and explores human rights, privacy in an age of ever-increasing state-surveillance, and differences between competing dichotomies: democracy vs communism, eastern vs western political philosophies, and individual liberties vs collective security. If this sounds interesting and you’d like to read more, my fiction story starts here.

Chapter Seven – Passage Three


Yet, rolling up to Jack Bao’s estate in our horse-drawn stagecoach makes me requestion all these suppositions.  For a communist country where everyone’s putatively equal, Jack Bao seems awfully more equal than everyone else I’ve seen in China thus far.

His estate is positively palatial in the most golden and gaudy way imaginable.  Everything is done up in a far-east, oriental style that must harken back to some dynastic period when China was ruled by Emperors and fire-breathing dragons.  I know nothing about Chinese history but it certainly feels like I’ve set foot in some Universal Studios theme park attraction.

The front gate itself is a deep, vermillion red with two grand columns framing the entrance.  Up top, the roof is ornate green with gold and jade embroidery of creatures from the Zodiac:  Rat, Monkey, Tiger, Horse, etc.  The whole thing basically looks like a classed up version of the entrance of San Francisco’s Chinatown.  The estate itself must at least be a dozen hectares and it surround by a 30-meter tall fence of black wrought iron.  Beyond the gates, I see rolling lawns of green, with carefully manicured bushes and hedges.  A gentle dirt path leisurely winds its way from the front entrance gate up the hill and to the estate house itself.

“How on earth is this communism?” Coleman asks, pointing at the grounds.  “I thought China was all about equality and everyone being equally poor.”

“Don’t believe everything you read on the internet,” Alan says dryly.  “It’s not the 1900s anymore.  Tremendous wealth always has a way of finding those who seek it.”

The stagecoach lets us off at the front gates and Alan pays the stagehand with weathered Chinese bills that look like they’ve been circulating for decades.  On the other side of the golden gate, a young elegantly dressed woman and her chauffer are awaiting us.  The chauffer is a broad-shouldered, barrel-chested, and dark-skinned man who’s got tree trunks for arms and legs.  He wears a severe, no-nonsense look– clearly the muscle and is dressed in a suit of black satin.  Next to him, the woman is a good 20cm shorter but still quite tall, at least 170cm, I’d guess.  She’s knockout gorgeous with shoulder-length chestnut colored hair and deep violet eyes.  Even under her flowing yellow sundress, it’s clear her figure is lithe but her bare shoulders and arms are toned, some clear signs of athleticism.  There’s something about her that feels familiar that I can’t quite put my finger on though.

The gates open and Shu bounds over and embraces the woman, giddy with delight. Some rapid-fire Chinese dialog happens between the two women that I don’t understand at all but the lightbulb suddenly clicks on for me.

“Yeah, they’re sisters,” Alan says to me, seeing my face.  “Amanda’s Jack’s wife –third wife, actually– that’s another reason we dropped by today.”

“Is she–“

“Yeah, Amanda’s a CRISPR baby too.  You might think she and Shu are twins but they’re actually a solid twelve years apart.”  Alan pauses, thinking a moment.  “Yup, Amanda’s gotta be pushing forty by now, I think.”

Forty?!”  Kristen says, dumbstruck.  I also can’t believe it.  Laughing and smiling with Shu, Amanda looks maybe early-thirties, at most.

Deepak clasps his hand on Kirsten’s shoulder, comforting her, as if she’s suffered some great personal calamity.  “Don’t worry, in the future, everyone’s gonna have CRISPR tech.  And then aging will be a thing of the past.”

Kristen’s eyes narrow but she says nothing.  There’s apparently a kind of competitive spirt that’s ubiquitous among all women, I’ve come to notice.  Or at least women of a certain segment.  A sort of constant comparing that’s always ongoing even when there is no contest.  It’s honestly bizarre to me that someone like Kristen, super-educated, professionally accomplished, and enormously capable would even entertain the faintest notion of caring about Amanda’s beauty or age.  But I dunno.  I guess she does.  I’m an idiot though and honestly don’t understand these things at all.  My only saving grace is that I know enough (now, after some hard lessons over the years) to just keep my mouth shut on these matters, whenever in the presence of women.  Just smile and nod.  And then politely transition to the next topic. It’s a mysterious land, my friend, turtles all the way down. Here be dragons.

“Da’an will take your bags,” Amanda says motioning to the mountain man.  “Let’s walk up to the house though.  Jack’s finishing up a few meetings now but he’ll be joining us for lunch in the garden.”  She speaks with a slight English lilt just like Shu does and I’m beginning to wonder if it’s some side effect of the CRISPR-process.

Da’an, who’s essentially the Chinese version of Andre the Giant, grunts and lifts our luggage rollers and duffels effortlessly and begins lumbering up towards the estate house without saying a single word.

“This way,” Amanda says smiling and she starts up the path herself.  “It’s a beautiful day!  No better time for a walk!”

Some twenty minutes later we’ve walked up the hill, through half-a-dozen topiary gardens (also filled with Zodiac creatures; I’m beginning to sense a pattern) and finally make it to the front lawn of the house.  Da’an, despite carrying all of our bags, made it there well ahead of us and has already deposited our luggage on the marble steps of the house entrance where I see a small legion of maids and manservants assembled and awaiting our arrival.  Shu and Amanda chattered nonstop the entire way up like two nonstop phonographs on endless repeat catching up after some great hiatus away from each other.  And even Alan, though a little pudgy around the middle, also appears to have made it up the hill with a surprising briskness I wouldn’t have expected.

Coleman and I have sweated clear through our polo shirts by the time we reach the house though.

“Oh my God,” I pant, my hands on my knees.  “What the hell.”

Coleman sits down on the marble steps, wheezing.  “Jesus.”

Kristen, who also arrived ahead of us, wipes her brow and drinks from a bottled water that the maids are handing out.  Her white tank top is also completely soaked through and the staff have concerned looks on their faces.  She looks at us quizzically and frowns.

“Where’s Deepak?”

“He collapsed three-quarters of the way up,” Coleman huffs, pointing behind us, back the way we came.  “Somewhere by the rabbit-shaped topiary hedges, I think.”

The air is so humid and heavy; I feel rivets of sweat running down my spine and back.  Somewhere under the white lawn canopy, Shu and Amanda are still chattering away in nonstop Chinese.

Two-Year Mandatory National Service

https://www.scmp.com/news/china/society/article/2165265/why-chinese-students-have-start-academic-year-short-spell

NOTE: This is an ongoing original fiction story that I’m currently writing. I started writing this fictional story back on October 2, 2020 and contribute ~1,000 words to it every day on this blog. I didn’t outline the story at all going into it but it’s slowly evolved into a tale about a data scientist in his mid-thirties from America who finds himself summoned to China where’s he’s been offered a job to work for the Chinese Communist Party on a project monitoring the Uyghurs in the Chinese “autonomous region” of Xinjiang. In China, the story’s protagonist, Dexter Fletcher, meets other professionals who’ve also been brought in from abroad to help consult on the project. My story takes place several decades in the future and explores human rights, privacy in an age of ever-increasing state-surveillance, and differences between competing dichotomies: democracy vs communism, eastern vs western political philosophies, and individual liberties vs collective security. If this sounds interesting and you’d like to read more, my fiction story starts here.

Chapter Seven – Passage Two


Xi’an, it turns out, had been deliberately designed as a city that all Chinese citizens were expected to live in after graduating high school and (if they went) attending college.  Upon turning 18, all Chinese citizens were required to show up for two years of military service and training.  One of those two years are spent in Xi’an.  To be clear, there hasn’t been a major land war engagement in the world in nearly two centuries.  But all Chinese citizens, men and women, are expected to learn how to shoot a rifle, address a field wound, cook in the wilderness, and other basic training you’d find in a typical ROTC-type program.

Mandatory National Service is a concept that had long since vanished in western societies but in China the idea is still very much alive.  Alan explains to us succinctly, “In order to make communism work, you need people to share a communal feeling. A single, cohesive sense of national character.  In any given society, you’re going to have tribalism and so integral to the CCP’s desire to maintain a single, unified China, we need to stamp out these seeds of prejudice to the best of our ability.”

“But China doesn’t officially sanction religion here,” says Deepak.  “So surely that helps with minimizing regional conflict and difference.”

“Yeah,” adds Coleman.  “And you guys don’t even have black people here!  How can you be racist when everyone’s the same race?”  You can tell the incident at Seven-Eleven from a few days ago is still on his mind.

“Here in China we may not have racism and freedom of/divisions over religion the same way you guys have it in America,” Alan explains patiently, “but bigotries are manifold and you don’t need religion or race to divide people.  Believe me, China’s been around since before America was even a twinkle in someone’s eye.  We have plenty of factionalism existent to keep our politburo members up at night.”

“China’s got the same problem that Australia does,” Kristen says, nodding slowly.  “It was one of the chief problems I’d worked on when I was in Darwin.  How to stamp out prejudices based on regionalism.”

“Exactly,” Alan nods.  “Chinese history is like everyone else’s.  You occupy a large enough space for long enough and before you know it, you’ve got the descendants of the Qing dynasty hating on the descendants of the Han dynasty and vice versa. Many of whom somehow harboring a mutual deep-seated hatred for the other despite never even having met.  You’ve also got a strong northern/southern divide that goes far beyond preference for noodles vs rice.”  Alan gives Coleman some side-eye.  “And while I know all Chinese people may look the same to you, there really are differences between our aboriginal, Manchurian, and mixed-ethnicity populations.”

Coleman holds up his hands.  “Okay, okay, I get it.  Jeez, accuse the one black guy in the whole group of being racist.”

“Anyway,” Alan continues.  “The current policy that the CCP’s settled on, which solves some problems but introduces others, is this idea of forced collective national service.  The hope is that by mandating all Chinese citizens from all walks– rich and poor, educated and not, eastern and western, Qing and Han– share a single collective experience over the course of a year during training in Xi’an, while being almost completely disconnected from the outside world, will foster some kinda comradery and empathy.”

“Sounds idealistic,” I say, feeling libertarian strains in me stirring.  “A one-year of hell that instead further breeds disdain and resentment.  Despite your lofty goals, you could in fact just be planting seeds of contempt.”

“Maybe,” admits Alan.  “But being someone who myself endured the ordeal, it’s definitely not glamorous.  But I’ll also add–” he gives me a look– “this is not some kinda didactic or pedantic, pretentious summer camp excursion in the woods.  It’s hard.  Maybe not on the level of SEAL camp training or whatever you have in America, but this is a program expected of everyone.  And this is China– 18-year old trainees die every year during these two years of training.  Remember, no human rights here– the CCP doesn’t care if a few hundred 18-year-olds perish in tragic accidents or off themselves because they’re too depressed, out-of-shape, or whatever.  Hell, Xi probably thinks it’s pruning the gene pool someway of all the weaklings.

“Mandatory national service in China is not child-safe and babyproofed.  18-year-olds are put into situations where they must cooperate or they’ll be severely injured physically or even killed.”  Alan rolls up his shirt sleeve to show us a long scar that stretches on his forearm from his elbow to wrist.  “It’s the real deal.”

“So the idea,” Kristen concludes, “is that once you’ve been put through the ringer, in the trenches crawling over broken glass and barbwire, shoulder-to-shoulder with your fellow citizen to ensure mutual survival, that you’ll be much less likely to emerge on the other end making broad-stroked generalizations about entire population subsets.”

“Oh, people still generalize,” says Alan, shaking his head.  “No way to get around that.  But the CCP wants the Chinese people to give each other the benefit of the doubt.  Even if you’re a princeling from an aristocratic family, it’s much harder to hate a poor working-class kid if the guy’s once saved your life from live gunfire in some training exercise.  Stuff like that.”

By the time we reach the front gates of Jack Bao’s estate, we’ve all gotten the entire spiel on mandatory National Service from Alan.  And while I remain unconvinced that such a program would work in America, I understand Alan’s points.  They do make sense: China’s a collectivist culture that dates back centuries and is well-suited for a national service program. 

But in America, we’re a different breed.

We’re born free men!  Don’t tread on me!  Live free or die!  And in America we aren’t socialist the way the Chinese and many other European countries are.  In America, it’s a meritocracy!  The cream rises to the top!  And the chaff is separated and let go, the lowest of the low shunted aside into cardboard boxes living on the side of streets.  This is why in our shining American land of hope and prosperity that we have tent cities brimming with chronically homeless which stretch as far as the eye can see. Living in abject poverty and chewing shoe leather under the 280 while super-rich techie urbanites blithely drive overhead in their Teslas and Benzes.  If everyone were equal, true: There’d be no poor people and no starvation.  But there’d also be no rich people either.  And there’s nothing more American than the American Dream of becoming obscenely, filthy rich based on your own hard work, will, and dedication.  Anything else simply wouldn’t be red, white, and blue.

Xi’an: The Unconnected City


NOTE: This is an ongoing original fiction story that I’m currently writing. I started writing this fictional story back on October 2, 2020 and contribute ~1,000 words to it every day on this blog. I didn’t outline the story at all going into it but it’s slowly evolved into a tale about a data scientist in his mid-thirties from America who finds himself summoned to China where’s he’s been offered a job to work for the Chinese Communist Party on a project monitoring the Uyghurs in the Chinese “autonomous region” of Xinjiang. In China, the story’s protagonist, Dexter Fletcher, meets other professionals who’ve also been brought in from abroad to help consult on the project. My story takes place several decades in the future and explores human rights, privacy in an age of ever-increasing state-surveillance, and differences between competing dichotomies: democracy vs communism, eastern vs western political philosophies, and individual liberties vs collective security. If this sounds interesting and you’d like to read more, my fiction story starts here.

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.

“Welcome to Xi’an.”


NOTE: This is an ongoing original fiction story that I’m currently writing. I started writing this fictional story back on October 2, 2020 and contribute ~1,000 words to it every day on this blog. I didn’t outline the story at all going into it but it’s slowly evolved into a tale about a data scientist in his mid-thirties from America who finds himself summoned to China where’s he’s been offered a job to work for the Chinese Communist Party on a project monitoring the Uyghurs in the Chinese “autonomous region” of Xinjiang. In China, the story’s protagonist, Dexter Fletcher, meets other professionals who’ve also been brought in from abroad to help consult on the project. My story takes place several decades in the future and explores human rights, privacy in an age of ever-increasing state-surveillance, and differences between competing dichotomies: democracy vs communism, eastern vs western political philosophies, and individual liberties vs collective security. If this sounds interesting and you’d like to read more, my fiction story starts here.

Chapter Six – Passage Six


Vigor and youth are honestly wasted on the young.  I reflect to myself, shaking my head.  But even the curmudgeon in me can’t help but marvel at this antiquated world that has been meticulously maintained around us.  All modern cities at some point face a dilemma with their central transit systems: How much history and tradition to preserve?  How much of the future to embrace?  And most places end up compromising.  The gaudy Americans embraced it all, of course.  And this is why you see flatscreen LCD displays at a place like Grand Central or Union Station.  New Yorkers apparently believe putting some museum exhibit enclosed in a glass case next to the bleeding-edge technology somehow classes up the joint.

But here, at Northlight Station, Xi’an’s main HSR hub, other than the futuristic maglev trains that we rode in on, everything else appears to have been frozen in time.  No compromise of any sort here.  From our wooden platform I spy horse-drawn carriages outside of the marble archways.  Additionally, for the poorer folk, rickshaws pulled by humans on both foot and bicycle are also available for service.

I don’t see a single automobile anywhere.

There is something enormously strange, impossible to describe with mere words, about being suddenly transported nearly two centuries back in time.  Most of my days, I move through the world brimming with confidence.  I’ve spent a lifetime studying and acquiring skills.  I know things.  Additionally, I’ve watched my countrymen put a man on the moon.  I’ve watched us drop the atomic bomb.  I’ve seen the full might and potential of the human species come to bear.  But abruptly arriving here at Northlight Station, where I don’t anywhere see a single smartphone, tablet, computer, or automobile– this evokes an entirely differently combination of emotions that I’ve not felt in a long time.

A sense of humility and awe. 

Suddenly, I feel incredibly, incredibly small.  A feeling washes over me all at once that there’s a wondrous force much larger than imaginable which is at work.  Words and logic fail to describe this sensation but it’s an acute and sharp feeling that undoubtedly exists.  Like a feeling that you’ve known always true but is so horribly inconvenient that you’ve simply shoved away in the deepest recesses of your brain, suddenly surfacing and finding air once more.

Beside me, Coleman takes out his smartphone to snap a few photos but Deepak snatches it from him, faster than I’d expect.

“Don’t!”

“Hey!  What the hell?”

Coleman’s phone in his hand, not yet on, Deepak explains:  “They’ve set up a constant EMP sphere here in Xi’an.  You turn on anything electronic, a cellphone, computer, anything— and the device will be instantly fried.  The only things that run electric here are the incoming HSR lines.”

Deepak hands Coleman back his phone.  “Be careful.”

Coleman can only stare, jaw agape.  No Spotify, music, or earmuffs for this young man today.

“C’mon, guys!” calls Alan from the marble steps leading out of the station foyer.  His shout interrupts our ad-hoc lesson and I see that he’s already several yards ahead of us, a dozen steps up, blazing ahead like the consummate scout leader he is. “Places to be and people to meet!” He grins and opens his arms expansively back at us, suddenly a theatrical showman.

“Welcome to Xi’an.”

“It’s All True.”


NOTE: This is an ongoing original fiction story that I’m currently writing. I started writing this fictional story back on October 2, 2020 and contribute ~1,000 words to it every day on this blog. I didn’t outline the story at all going into it but it’s slowly evolved into a tale about a data scientist in his mid-thirties from America who finds himself summoned to China where’s he’s been offered a job to work for the Chinese Communist Party on a project monitoring the Uyghurs in the Chinese “autonomous region” of Xinjiang. In China, the story’s protagonist, Dexter Fletcher, meets other professionals who’ve also been brought in from abroad to help consult on the project. My story takes place several decades in the future and explores human rights, privacy in an age of ever-increasing state-surveillance, and differences between competing dichotomies: democracy vs communism, eastern vs western political philosophies, and individual liberties vs collective security. If this sounds interesting and you’d like to read more, my fiction story starts here.

Chapter Six – Passage Five


“Using your logic, what’s the point of even having a country?” Kristen asks, apparently unimpressed with my reasoning.

“Countries are good for the big things.”  I shrug.  “A single national currency.  A standing military to ensure national defense.  Shiny national monuments like Mount Rushmore to put in the brochures and glossies.  But in America, at least, even since the beginning, people always strongly identified with one’s state far more than one’s country.  It was really only after World War II that people started to share to a single more national identity over their state identity.  Of course, in peace time, with the first few decades of the 2000s, the pendulum swung back, as it always does.  When things are going well, people tend to retreat back into their own corners.”

Kristen finishes drinking her Guava juice and crushes the carton in one hand before tossing it into the train’s rubbish bin, some shiny oblong-shaped trash receptacle that looks like a futuristic incinerator.

“You know an awful lot of history for someone who supposedly never studied it.”

“Nah,” I shake my head.  “I’ve looked at Foogle search trends over the decades.  Once this whole internet thing happened, it suddenly became markedly easy to get the pulse of an entire country.  For the first time in human history, if you had any question at all, anything under the sun, you could simply Foogle your query and find an answer.”

“Doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get a correct answer,” Kristen points out.  “Just cause you find some answer you want doesn’t mean it’s rooted at all in reality.”

“Who cares?  It’s an answer.  And if it happens to reinforce your existing worldview or prejudices, then it’s even better in that it makes you feel good.  Isn’t that we humans like?  Feeling good?  Why else do people do what they do?”

I look at Kristen, as if seeing her for the first time in a new light.  I thought I’d known her MO, but maybe I’d been mistaken.

“You work in data science, just like me,” I say to her.  “Why are you in this field at all?  Isn’t shaping and influencing giant populations at the core of what we do?”

“It is, but not entirely divorced from what’s true.”

I laugh.  “What’s true?  It’s all true.”  I wave at the charts and graphs on my laptop that I was examining earlier.  “Look at his.  Human beings aren’t capable of just ingesting millions of rows and columns and somehow magically understanding it.  We require narrative, a story to make things legible and comprehensible.  But depending on what you want to spin, you can make anything sound plausible.

“For instance, I’ve been looking at this data that Alan shared with us earlier.  Two years ago, if you simply read the police reports and crime incidents, then Xinjiang was as peaceful as it’s ever been.  But if you monitored the log data and sentiment analysis on all of the internet chatter during this same time period for this same region, then you’ll see high spikes in the population, especially the 18-25 demographic, searching for terms like “protest,” “west,” and “democracy.”  And then months later as the security presence started to ratchet up, words like “rifles,” “bombs,” and “Molotov cocktails.”

Kristen tilts her head, apparently mulling over whether or not to pursue this debate with me.  I can tell that part of her really wants to.  She’d thoroughly enjoy nothing more than totally going to town in an all-night bull session like we’re in some college dormitory all over again.  Pontificating and discussing Life’s Big Questions until sunrise and then grabbing an egg and cheddar sandwich at the deli out around the corner.  The role of media and free speech in society.  Unintended consequences of an unfettered fourth estate; a world where anyone and everyone was suddenly a pressman, delivering breaking news, an outlet of information and misinformation for all.

But instead she just shrugs.

“Dexter Fletcher, man, you really are a piece of work,” she says, polishing off her baby carrots.  The plastic bag goes into the futuristic incinerator.  “You know we’ll be visiting Jack Bao when we reach Xi’an tomorrow morning, right?  Oh man, you guys are going to get along famously.”

With that, she turns and leaves the dining car; disappearing into the connection way.  The sliding door closes behind her with a quiet woosh and I’m suddenly alone again.  In China on some Snowpiercer train racing through the blackness of night.


The next morning, The Silver Dragon arrives at the Xi’an Station and I step off the maglev train for the first time for the first time in something in like twenty-hours.  The first leg of the trip honestly wasn’t bad at all.  We were literally levitating on magnets the entire so you really couldn’t ask for a smoother rider.  And we had hot showers, highspeed internet, gourmet dining, and exercise machines on the train.  So it really was unequivocally the most comfortable train ride I’d ever been on by a country mile.

Xi’an though is nothing like Shanghai or Jinshui.  Shanghai screamed cosmopolitanism with architecture spanning everything from French to Portuguese to Russian influences.  And Jinshui, with its next-level camouflage projection technology was essentially like stepping into some futuristic Gibson sci-fi novel.  But Xi’an is the exact opposite of all that.  It is old school.

The terminal that receives The Silver Dragon has wooden planks for its platform and there’s a small brick kiosk with a straw-hatched roof that’s selling newspapers.  Jesus, I haven’t seen newspapers in like twenty years.  There is no computerized displays or cutting-edge holograms here.  You can hear the clickety-clack as the massive timetable placards flip their lettering to announce the incoming schedules and updated train timings.  A giant mechanical clock that looks like Big Ben’s oriental second cousin adorns the western wall, opposite of giant painted windows that stretch from floor to ceiling. At this early hour, morning light filters warmly and the entire station looks like 1920 Grand Central, untouched by time and place.  It’s bustling with travelers arriving from all over; Xi’an is the central hub that connects all of Central China’s rail lines, a major artery of the Chinese HSR network.

Alan and Shu find us.  Coleman and I are looking around like idiots at the parade but Deepak and Kristen apparently already knew that we’d be stepping into some time machine and traveling back to 19th-century China.

“Is this some kinda Universal Studios setup?” Coleman asks Shu, bewildered.  “When did all this happen?  You guys totally Wizarding World’ed this.”

Shu smiles politely and you can tell she’s bemused.  Ignorant Americans not knowing a single thing about the larger, broader world.  She hands us rectangular pieces of crinkled, yellowing paper.

“What’s this?”

“It’s money, you moron.”  Deepak rolls his eyes.  The old Indian’s gruff and keeps up a severe look, but you can also tell he too is at least a little impressed.

Coleman holds one of the bills against the sunlight, his eyes wide.  “Oh my God… actual, real-life money….

Cai Xia: Banished Political Exile


NOTE: This is an ongoing original fiction story that I’m currently writing. I started writing this fictional story back on October 2, 2020 and contribute ~1,000 words to it every day on this blog. I didn’t outline the story at all going into it but it’s slowly evolved into a tale about a data scientist in his mid-thirties from America who finds himself summoned to China where’s he’s been offered a job to work for the Chinese Communist Party on a project monitoring the Uyghurs in the Chinese “autonomous region” of Xinjiang. In China, the story’s protagonist, Dexter Fletcher, meets other professionals who’ve also been brought in from abroad to help consult on the project. My story takes place several decades in the future and explores human rights, privacy in an age of ever-increasing state-surveillance, and differences between competing dichotomies: democracy vs communism, eastern vs western political philosophies, and individual liberties vs collective security. If this sounds interesting and you’d like to read more, my fiction story starts here.

Chapter Six – Passage Four


That night I’ve sitting alone at a table in the dining car with my laptop and thoughts mulling over what Coleman and I had learned from Alan earlier in the day.  Of course the situation in Xinjiang was much more complicated than we’d been initially told.  And while I had done searches online for information about Cai Xia and her son, Cai Fudong, those results had been unsurprisingly sparse.  Looking through the archives, there had been one article in The Times about Cai Xia and her expulsion forty years ago from the Central Party School, the highest educational institution in the CCP that was responsible for training the regime’s next generation of leadership on the highest level.  Aside from that one article though, I’d been unable to find any other information on Xia.  Again, it was unsurprising that western media hadn’t exactly fallen over themselves to cover the incident.  In the west we may put freedom of the press upon the pedestal but we also shackle it to advertising dollars to keep the lights on.  Alas, we’re all beholden to someone.  Thus, some random article about a professor’s expulsion from China half-a-world away isn’t, let generously say, top-of-mind for your average American.  No page clicks; no coverage.

And on Cai Fudong, the son who’d be in his forties now, I’d found exactly nothing.

Which I guess makes sense.  If you wanted to stage an epic, revenge-styled payback story against all the people who ever wronged you, then it’d make sense to stay under the radar.

From her brief article on Wikipedia though, I’d learned that after Xia had fled China as a political exile, she’d relocated to the states with her then-newborn child, Fudong.  The Wikipedia article only gives years and not exact dates but if its timeline is to be believed, then Fudong couldn’t have been much older than one-year-old when he and his mother had been banished to America.

So this is the fate of those who speak out against Xi.  Banishment to foreign lands; out of sight, out of mind.  I frown.  But when I think about it a bit more, it remains a mystery to me how Fudong managed to make his way back into China years later as an adult.  Surely, he was on every single CCP-blacklist in the country.  China may be communist but it’s not incompetent; Fudong should’ve never been able to set foot on native Chinese soil ever again and the fact that was indeed back in the politburo, and not rotting away in some dank, unnamed Chinese prison somewhere in the Tibetan mountains, definitely meant there was more to the story here that I obviously didn’t know.

On my laptop, I flip over to some Excel spreadsheets and data dumps that Alan had also provided us earlier.  Though we’re on a highspeed, maglev train racing under the cover of night across the Chinese northern hinterlands, I still have blazing-fast gigabit wireless access.  (Back in New York, the densest urban center in America, sometimes I couldn’t even get signal when I was standing in the wrong place in my bedroom.)  Even though the previous project two years ago had apparently failed miserably, I was still curious to study and read over what had previously been attempted and succeeded or failed.  As a data scientist, a constant curiosity for evermore information is what separates amateurs from professionals.  And I, to toot my own horn a bit, was definitely no greenhorn.  To say the least, I’ve seen this rodeo more than once.

Looking at all of the data that Alan has provided, there are dozens of way to look at the data.  If you focus only on the decrease in petty crimes and acts of vandalism, then some of the harsher methods that the Xi loyalists had employed appeared to be effective.  But during that same period of martial law, factory output and commercial goods generation fell precipitously and the unemployment rate had skyrocketed.  Civil unrest was like one of those annoying air bubbles you’re trying to eliminate when you were trying to lay down carpet; it never totally disappeared– it just went elsewhere.  And depending on whatever metrics you wished to highlight, you could tell whatever story you wished. 

“Burning the candle at both ends, eh?”

I look up and see Kristen is at the other end of the dining car.  She’s wearing a white sweatshirt and grey sweatpants; evening garb, I guess.  It’s just the two of us at this hour, supper dining hours having already long since passed.  She helps herself to some guava juice that’s in the cabin refrigerator behind the counter and appears to be looking for snacks.

“Just trying to figure out how to make sense of everything going on,” I say.  “What are you doing up?”

She locates a remote on the counter and clicks it.

Over the dining bar, there’s a display that I hadn’t noticed earlier.  A Chinese news station blinks to life and the news anchor is reeling off highlights of the day.  I obviously don’t understand a word that she’s saying but pleasant visuals that stream by accompanying the bright, enthusiastic rapid-fire news anchor speech.  Apparently, it was yet another harmonious day of peace and prosperity in the middle kingdom.  Part of me strongly suspects that when the only news is state-sponsored news, then every day was likely similarly glorious.

Kristen tears open a plastic bag of baby carrots and pops one into her mouth.

“I’m trying to decide how I feel about all Uyghurs in Xinjiang getting all of their news from a single official source,” she says, chewing thoughtfully.  “Back home in Darwin, it’s not like this at all.  There’s half-a-dozen outlets and even then, a chunk of Australian don’t believe any of them and instead prefer to just get their news from their Foogle feeds.  And lord knows the provenance of those articles. Seriously, no one knows what’s true and what to believe anymore; it’s just all noise.

“America’s the same,” I shrug, “as is every single other liberal democracy in the world.  You guys are in good company; join the club.”

On the display, the news station crew appears to have visited the National Zoo in Beijing and the camera’s zooming in on a pair of giant pandas who appear to have produced offspring.  Apparently this is an infrequent and momentous event, worthy of national celebration.

“Do you ever wonder,” Kristen asks me, “if maybe Xi’s onto something?  Maybe not full-up Mussolini-style autocracy; but maybe not a complete free-for-all like what we have in the west, either.”

I shake my head and motion to the display. 

“No way.  If we left it up to some central authority, we’d just be seeing panda mating rituals all day.  I don’t know about Australia but in America, I’m actually one of those people who solely gets my news from my custom Foogle feeds.  And I’ve chosen to live in a neighborhood and community that reflects my values and beliefs.” 

Kristen is looking at me like she’s befuddled so I try to clarify what I mean.

“Like, I don’t need, and frankly don’t care, if people the next neighborhood over disagree with me on most things, especially culture issues like immigration, abortion, taxes.  I care about my taxes.  If they want to pay more because they’ve got kids or whatever who attend the public school system, then good for them.  They can vote for higher taxes in their district.  How does that quote go?  ‘Perfectly reasonable minds can disagree.’  That’s fine. Agreeing to disagree is a gift!  At the day’s end, for practical purposes, you’re not a citizen of the world; or even of America or Australia.  You’re a citizen of your state, of your specific community.  It’s called federalism for a reason.”

“It’s All Connected.”


NOTE: This is an ongoing original fiction story that I’m currently writing. I started writing this fictional story back on October 2, 2020 and contribute ~1,000 words to it every day on this blog. I didn’t outline the story at all going into it but it’s slowly evolved into a tale about a data scientist in his mid-thirties from America who finds himself summoned to China where’s he’s been offered a job to work for the Chinese Communist Party on a project monitoring the Uyghurs in the Chinese “autonomous region” of Xinjiang. In China, the story’s protagonist, Dexter Fletcher, meets other professionals who’ve also been brought in from abroad to help consult on the project. My story takes place several decades in the future and explores human rights, privacy in an age of ever-increasing state-surveillance, and differences between competing dichotomies: democracy vs communism, eastern vs western political philosophies, and individual liberties vs collective security. If this sounds interesting and you’d like to read more, my fiction story starts here.

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?”

Coleman and Blackness in China


NOTE: This is an ongoing original fiction story that I’m currently writing. I started writing this fictional story back on October 2, 2020 and contribute ~1,000 words to it every day on this blog. I didn’t outline the story at all going into it but it’s slowly evolved into a tale about a data scientist in his mid-thirties from America who finds himself summoned to China where’s he’s been offered a job to work for the Chinese Communist Party on a project monitoring the Uyghurs in the Chinese “autonomous region” of Xinjiang. In China, the story’s protagonist, Dexter Fletcher, meets other professionals who’ve also been brought in from abroad to help consult on the project. My story takes place several decades in the future and explores human rights, privacy in an age of ever-increasing state-surveillance, and differences between competing dichotomies: democracy vs communism, eastern vs western political philosophies, and individual liberties vs collective security. If this sounds interesting and you’d like to read more, my fiction story starts here.

Chapter Six – Passage Two


“Real talk a sec.  Stop being dim a moment,” says Coleman.  “I’m talking about wherever I go and whatever I do in this country, people seem to treat me like some kinda zoo exhibit.  A sort of endangered species on display for all to see.”

I sigh and fold my laptop lid.  It’s clear I’ll be getting no work done this morning.  Earlier on our car ride from JFL to the Jinshui High Speed Rail station that was 30-some kilometers away, we’d stopped by a Seven-Eleven convenience shop that’d literally been in the middle of nowhere, some small village off the bypass.  It’d been early and everyone needed orange juice and whatever in China passed for convivence-store breakfast (in this case, boiled eggs marinated in soy sauce and tasteless rice cakes).  As chance would have it, there was some local school bus that’d also similarly stopped over while we were there while apparently on some sort of field trip.  The Chinese school children had filtered out of the bus in abject wonder and crowded around Coleman like he was some kinda celebrity.  Smartphones out, snapping selfies, the whole nine yards.

“Coleman, dude,” I say, “put yourself in their shoes.  You know China’s a closed country.  No open borders.  Heavily controlled and restricted movement everywhere.  For those kids, seeing an actual black person was like meeting Tom Cruise or something.  Look around you– does this particular part of China strike you as remarkably multicultural and racially diverse?”

“But I’m not a museum display!”

“Good God, man, stop whining.  You should be happy!  You’re gonna grace their Instagram and Facebook feeds today.  Or whatever Chinese copycats of those are here in rip-off country.  You’ll be famous for all of fifteen minutes, or maybe more like two, and then everyone’ll forget and move onto the next TikTok video or whatever.  Who cares?”

“I care.”

“And you’re the only one,” I say.  “Stop being ornery about it.  To these people you’re OJ Simpson, Michael Jordan, and Barack Obama all rolled into one.  These kids have only seen black people in movies, in TV shows, and on their Saturday morning anime cartoon shows.  To them, you are the entirety of black people.”

“Jesus!  We’re well into the twenty-first century!  This isn’t the 1700s!”

“So what?” I shake my head.  To be fair, I was over a decade older than Coleman, a total newb so painfully fresh right outta school.  But it still struck me as absurd just how bubbled college-grads were these days.  Were they seriously learning anything on those fancy college campuses?

“It’s not like western progressivism is evenly distributed the world over,” I patiently explain.  “And with an authoritarian, autocratic country like China, the cultural value systems are even more stark because they’ve top-down resisted western liberal ideology.  If it feels in certain facets like the 1700s around here, it’s because the Communist party wants it to, at least culturally.”

I look at Coleman for a moment.

“Also, didn’t you study political science?  Jesus, why do I even need to be telling you this?”

Coleman huffs up, clearly agitated.  I obviously struck a nerve.

“I specialize in American elections,” he says.  The amount of pompousness in his tone is palpable.  “Specifically, American political and electoral history and innerworkings.  How the proverbial sausage is made.”

I raise an eyebrow.  “If you consider yourself a high-end charcutier,” I say, “it’d still behoove you to know about bacon and prosciutto.  Your precious American sausages aren’t the alpha-and-omega of it all, you know.”

“Oh please.”  Coleman scoffs.  “My massive intellect can’t be bothered with these obscure meanderings of these plebians.  Who knows what going through their empty heads?  These Neanderthals are the very definition of the collective herd.  There’s not a single original thought in the whole lot of them.”

“The Chinese people may be unoriginal but they’re united.”

Coleman and I both sit up in seats a little straighter and look behind us.  It turns out Alan’s been there the entire time, apparently eavesdropping.  Coleman doesn’t turn red exactly but I can tell he’s at least a tad embarrassed.  Good to know the kid’s still capable of at least a little shame.

“Oh.  Alan.  Sorry, I didn’t mean–“

Alan holds up his hand.  “No worries.  No offense taken.  Well, maybe a little taken.  But your ignorance speaks more about you than us.  Don’t worry, I’ll sleep fine tonight.” 

Coleman frowns.

“Even if your descriptions are incomplete,” Alan continues, “there is a seed of truth in them.  You’re correct that the Chinese people are wholly more collective in their identities than westerners.  Whereas you emphasize the individual, here in the east –especially the rural east– the family name is still everything.  Your family’s reputation in a village is your destiny.  Remember that most of these rural Uyghurs and Chinese in the region have never set foot outside their province.  For them, it’s truly a small world.”

“But you’ve got the internet!  Smartphones and YouTube!”  Coleman protests.  “Geographical parochiality is no excuse for ignorance.”

Alan merely shrugs.  “Yes and no.  It’s accurate that with the CCP’s Broadband Initiative a decade ago, all of China is indeed connected and online. But seeing black people on YouTube and in movies is a far cry, you’d surely agree, from meeting them in the flesh and blood.” Alan pauses and his furrows his brow. And then adds:  “Though I do feel it’s ironic that parts of rural China have internet connectivity but not clean running water or food security.”

It’s my time to shrug. “Internet’s actually trivial, if you really think about it,” I say.  “You can easily generate electricity with a hand-crank.  And internet is simply beamed to you from satellites up in outer space.  But clean running water requires infrastructure.  And modern crop yield, if you’re not already surrounded by developed agriculture, requires supply chains.  It’s not as ironic as you might at first suppose, to have internet before you have food and water.”

Alan can only shake his head.  “I guess?  Still, something insane about it all, if you ask me.”  He turns to Coleman.  “Dexter’s right though.  We’ve brought in you Americans to consult and advise on this project in Xinjiang.  But to get anywhere with it, you need to understand China and Xinjiang.  We obviously value your western perspectives, else you wouldn’t be here at all.  But you’re going to need to learn a lot about us too.”

“I actually don’t get why you didn’t bring in people more specialized and familiar with China,” I say, voicing a thought that’s been percolating in my head for a while now.  “Why bring in a bunch of people who know nothing about this entire geographic region and history?”

Alan looks at me.  “Who says we didn’t try that first?”

The Silver Dragon


NOTE: This is an ongoing original fiction story that I’m currently writing. I started writing this fictional story back on October 2, 2020 and contribute ~500 words to it every day on this blog. I didn’t outline the story at all going into it but it’s slowly evolved into a tale about a data scientist in his mid-thirties from America who finds himself summoned to China where’s he’s been offered a job to work for the Chinese Communist Party on a project monitoring the Uyghurs in the Chinese “autonomous region” of Xinjiang. In China, the story’s protagonist, Dexter Fletcher, meets other professionals who’ve also been brought in from abroad to help consult on the project. My story takes place several decades in the future and explores human rights, privacy in an age of ever-increasing state-surveillance, and differences between competing dichotomies: democracy vs communism, eastern vs western political philosophies, and individual liberties vs collective security. If this sounds interesting and you’d like to read more, my fiction story starts here.

Chapter Six – Passage One


Quaint, idyllic Chinese countryside races by my passenger window.  We’re on the Silver Dragon, a highspeed express train which is scheduled to reach Xi’an, the first smart city on a two-day trip to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province.  The maglev train itself is a gleaming technological marvel, a polished steel stallion that cuts its way across the Chinese northlands.  It’s been thirty years since China finished its high-speed rail system, having laid down more track in that same amount of time than all the rest of the world combined.

“It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?”

I’d hoped for an entire row to myself but fate had seated Coleman next to me.  He’s wearing his giant earmuff headphones around his neck and looks like a hyperactive rabbit stuck in a box.

“It’s impressive,” I admit.  I was trying to get some work done on my laptop but it was a hopeless task.  When I wasn’t being distracted by the gorgeous scenery passing me by at 350km/hour outside my window, then I had Coleman talking in my ear.

“Tell me,” he continues, “why are you really here?”

“I’m here because I’m a specialist in data analytics and this is a state-surveillance project built on a mountain of data.  Why are you here?”

Coleman downs the rest of his gin and coke and gestures towards the sexy attendant standing in the connection way for another. She’s wearing a plaid miniskirt that’s apparently the formal train uniform despite the fact that it’s something like nineteen Celsius in the cabin.  Since we’re in business class, there’s an attendant per every train car whose sole purpose is to wait on their passengers hand and foot.  A moment later, the attendant’s whisked his empty tumbler away and replaced it with another, freshly filled.  Coleman’s twenty-two and he’s clearly living the time of his life.  I’m pretty sure he’s already knocked a few back, as it is.

“I was summoned here like the rest of you.  Received an anonymous, secure message in my inbox one day.  Took an assessment.  And apparently did something right.”  Coleman shrugs.  “And so I’m here.”

I roll my eyes.  “Obviously.  I meant why are you here?”

“Yeah, I know what you meant.”  He sighs and studies his tumbler briefly before replying.

“You must think it’s weird, because I’m black, right?  That I’m helping Communists set up mandatory internment and reeducation camps.”

“I literally didn’t say any of those words.  Or any words even phonetically similar to what you just said.”

Coleman just looks at me. 

“Yeah, maybe.  But you were definitely thinking it.”

“Coleman, son.  You are literally a few years removed from High School Musical territory.  No, never mind.  You’re so young you don’t even know what that is.  Point being:  You have no earthly idea what I’m thinking.”

“You know, man,” Coleman continues, his speech a little slurred.  “Have you ever contemplated the possibility that black people can basically be like white people too?  We’re perfectly capable of racism and acts of atrocity for the sole desire of material greed and power.  It’s not like white people have a sole monopoly over colonialism and enslaving others.”

“Yeah,” I say dryly.  “I think the Japanese and the Mongolians would likely agree with you.  Colonialism and empire building are most certainly not the sole province of white people. That’s a real keen insight you got there.”

Planning a Field Trip


NOTE: This is an ongoing original fiction story that I’m currently writing. I started writing this fictional story back at the beginning of October 2020 and contribute ~500 words to it every day on this blog. I didn’t outline the story at all going into it but it’s slowly evolved into a tale about a data scientist in his mid-thirties from America who finds himself summoned to China where’s he’s been offered a job to work for the Chinese Communist Party on a project monitoring the Uyghurs in the Chinese “autonomous region” of Xinjiang. In China, the story’s protagonist, Dexter Fletcher, meets other professionals who’ve also been brought in from abroad to help consult on the project. My story takes place several decades in the future and explores human rights, privacy in an age of ever-increasing state-surveillance, and differences between competing dichotomies: democracy vs communism, eastern vs western political philosophies, and individual liberties vs collective security. If this sounds interesting and you’d like to read more, my fiction story starts here.

Chapter Five – Passage Nine


Pondering, Van taps her fingers against her lips and thinks for a moment.  She paces to the windows and back.  Outside, the sun has long since set and beyond the glass, it’s all now nothing but black, well into night.

“That is actually not as insane an idea as it first sounds,” she finally says.  “Unfortunately, Alan’s right.  I think he wouldn’t fit in well enough which could cause problems.  The last thing we want are the Uyghurs sniffing him out and then stringing Alan up out on the rack in the town square at high noon as an example.  That would be bad.”

“Yes,” says Deepak dryly.  “That’d be very bad.”

Alan looks relieved beyond all measure.  Clearly, going on some secret agent assignment to infiltrate the ranks of aspiring, would-be domestic terrorists was not high on his list of life goals.

“However,” continues Van, “I think a trip out west to Xinjiang is actually a good idea.  It will help you all learn a lot.  Along the way, you could additionally stop by several Chinese provinces to see the lay of the land.  These past few weeks, you’ve heard and learned all about China.  But maybe it’s high time you see the real thing with your own eyes.”

“You’re planning to send them to Urumqi by train?” asks Shu.  “That’s a ~4,000 km trip that’ll take two solid days.  They don’t even speak the language.”

“That’s why you and Alan are going with them,” Van says smiling.  “Consider it an educational exercise to expand horizons.  A cultural exchange between nations.”  The woman is clearly enjoying this.

Shu looks dismayed.  She purses her lips but says nothing.

“If we’re going by train, we could also visit the experimental smart cities in Hebei and Gansu along the way,” says Alan.  Though he initially seemed apprehensive, he appears to be warming to the idea.  “This could actually be good.”

It might be my imagination but I feel like Kristen perks up a bit at the mention of visiting the other smart cities.  But it’s late and maybe I’m just overthinking it.  She’s been quiet this entire time though.  I honestly can’t tell what she’s thinking.

Personally, this outing to Shanghai and Jinshui is the first time I’ve ever set foot outside America.  And it’s been great so far.  Free food, meeting interesting people, and tackling a tricky Gordian Knot of a problem.  If we’re traveling on the CCP’s dime, might as well milk the gravy train for all it’s worth.  See the world!  Learn something new!  Take in some sights along the way.

Let the record show that when adventure came calling, Dexter Fletcher answered the call.

“Let’s do it,” I say.  “When would we leave?”

“It’s settled then,” says Van, “tomorrow afternoon.  I’ll call the office in the morning and make the necessary arrangements.”  She smiles.  The prospect of a bunch of gringos traversing the Chinese countryside, clueless and confused, obviously amuses her.  “Buckle up, boys.  You’re about to get a whirlwind, firsthand taste of China.”

“Oh joy,” says Coleman wearily.  “What could possibly go wrong?”