Story – Introduction + Changelog

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.

Continue reading “Story – Introduction + Changelog”

Chapter One

Chapter One

Friday – Oct 2Landing in Shanghai1
Saturday – Oct 3“Zoomies” – The Wonders of Chinese Public Transportation Infrastructure1
Monday – Oct 5You Can Never Go Home1
Tuesday – Oct 6Total Surveillance State1
Wednesday – Oct 7Breakfast the Next Morning1
Thursday – Oct 8Crimes Against Humanity1
Friday – Oct 9Disposing My Old Mobile Phone1

Landing in Shanghai

Chapter One

Yesterday, I’d landed in Shanghai.  Even amidst the torrential downpour, Shanghai Pudong International Airport (PVG) was a gleaming marvel of steel and glass, nothing like the third-world, backwater Podunk travesty called LaGuardia that I’d flown out of just thirty hours prior.  Everything about PVG had struck me as excessively new and modern.  The first I thing I’d noticed when I deplaned was that since I was an American, I was actually a solid head and shoulders taller than everyone else around me.  This was nifty and quite convenient because it allowed me to navigate around more easily.

The second thing I’d quickly noticed was that I also stuck out like a sore thumb.  The moment I alighted, I was immediately intercepted by two stern, uniformed airport security officers who’d led me to an enclosed side room for a “routine health check.”  They took my temperature and scanned me multiple times with a thermal imager to ensure I didn’t have a fever or was coughing at all.  With the virus still everywhere in full swing, the Chinese were understandably weary about letting in foreigners who could be potential vectors of disease.

Luckily for me, I had my official stamped letter.  Let me tell you, waving that thing around was like some kind of magical pass.  That letter, an invitation actually, was the entire reason I was in fact half-a-world away from home, here in Shanghai.  But I’ll get to that shortly.  First, a little bit more about PVG…

Third, amazingly enough, there was not a scrap of litter anywhere.  Shanghai’s airport concourses, though bustling with throngs of people, were sparkling clean.  As I’d waited by the baggage carrousel for my luggage, I’d observed the Chinese secret:  Legions of cleaners.  Wearing nondescript grey uniforms, there were hundreds of masked men (all were young men that I observed) who appeared to be state-sponsored janitors.  I guess when you have 1.4 billion people in your country and lead an authoritarian state, you can simply hire janitors by the truckloads to keep your airports clean.

Eventually, I was able to collect my bags and make my way to the airport’s central bus hub.  Unlike LaGuardia, where there was essentially no signage of any kind and travelers were expected to either be native New Yorkers who’d grown up in the Big Apple their entire lives and thus simply expected to know how LGA was laid out, PVG actually had incredibly helpful colored arrows that were painted onto the floor’s linoleum tiles.  Like, literally:  Painted on the floor was signage that you could easily follow to get to wherever you wanted to go.  Jesus.  It was absurd how well designed Shanghai’s airport was.  You literally could not have created a diametrically more polar opposite airport than LaGuardia if your life had depended on it.

“Zoomies” – The Wonders of Chinese Public Transportation Infrastructure

“Zoomies” are what the Chinese call their intercity bus system.  From PVG Airport to downtown Shanghai, where I’ve been put up at The Four Seasons, is roughly 46km, which I’ll need to cover by bus.  I suspect something likely got lost in its translation to English though because “Zoomies” doesn’t do an ounce of justice to what I can only describe as the cleanest, most futuristic, most modern, and palatial bus that I’ve ever set foot in.  Seriously, the design for this thing literally looks like it came out of Blade Runner from the mind of a sci-fi, steampunk genius who loved Voltron and Mechzilla.  It’s a sleek and shining steel marvel that sits on elevated tires which allows the bus to glide over any pedestrian cars and rush hour traffic that may be congesting the highway.  Again, ingenious.  I’d honestly always thought that my birth country, America, was the greatest country on earth.  But now, after just two hours of setting foot for the first time in a foreign land, I realize just how misguided I’ve been my entire life.  It’s easy to call your own home the greatest when you’ve never bothered visiting someone else’s house.

By the way:  In any developed country, you can basically tell how egalitarian the nation is by its public bus transit system because usually, only the people without means (ie. the poor people without cars) will need to rely on the bus system.  For example, in America, taking the public bus will usually take five times longer than individually driving and will be the dirtiest and most harrowing ordeal you likely ever subject yourself to.  The plastic seats are grimy and disease-infested, the drivers are paid the minimum wage (and drive like it), there’s graffiti everywhere, and more often than not, the bus is running way behind schedule.  In America, it’s clear we don’t care about the poorest among us.  And thus, the American public bus system is essentially garbage.

Now, China, a country of 1.4 billion people, has a slightly different problem.  America only has 330 million people but happens to be, literally, the richest country on planet earth.  China, on the other hand, ranks among the poorest in terms of GDP per capita.  Additionally, China is a mono-party, communist regime.  Meaning:  When times are good, everyone’s happy.  But when times are bad, there’s no way to “vote” leaders out of power (like we so often do here in America).  So instead, you get something like the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976 where 30 million Chinese people die in a violent overthrow of the government.  Thus, it behooves the people in power like General Secretary, Chairman Xi to build gleaming, futuristic bus systems for the legions of the Chinese poor.  It’s a pretty good trade, I think– give the hordes of Chinese plebeians a nice and fancy public bus system in return for harmony and stability of the social fabric.

You Can Never Go Home

24.28 million people live in Shanghai and I watched a small sliver of them flicker by, tiny lights on the city skyline, as the Shanghai night rolled past.  On the “Zoomie” bus, it was a straight shot from PVG Airport to the Four Seasons hotel in downtown Shanghai.  It was a long bus ride and just shortly after midnight so the cabin lights were dimmed giving us passengers a chance to get some shuteye.  Even at the hour, there on the outskirts of the city by the airport, there were still cars and large autonomous semi-trucks everywhere on the sixteen-lane highways.  Thanks to the Zoomie’s unique, elevated design though, we were able to simply glide over all of it, unencumbered.

I knew I was arriving in China at a unique time.  On one hand, yes– great turmoil and tremendous risk.  But on the other:  Unfathomable riches and opportunities.

I watched a cacophony of car lights streak by below me, in a blur.  This situation I now found myself in, half a world away from home, in a country I didn’t speak the language of, in a land I didn’t know any of the customs to, was less than ideal.  But as they say, fortune favors the bold.  And as they also say:  You can never go home.

The truth is, I had made a hash of things back home.  I had lived a beautifully privileged life, possessing every creature comfort.  But in a series of bad decisions that’d quickly escalated, it’d all spiraled out of control, crashed, and burned in spectacular fashion.  It was the Hindenburg of personal life failures, a catastrophe on a scale and magnitude so sweeping, so epic, so gargantuan, that had it not actually happened to me, personally, I honestly would not have believed it.

But happened, it did.  And I had had a front row seat to all of it.

So now I found myself in this present moment:  Cecilia and Devana likely thought I was dead in a ditch somewhere, FoxGen, my former employer, believed me guilty of embezzling funds and stealing proprietary company intellectual property, and so I was here, on a Chinese “Zoomie” bus, heading into China’s biggest city, on an invitation of mysterious provenance.

When I was a young schoolboy, I was a big admirer of John le Carré spy craft novels, often reading them late into the night, under the cover of dark, beneath my blanket illuminated only by flashlight.  Le Carré often wrote of handsome, dashing young men, who’d led double lives, jetting about all over the world under the guise of secret identities on matters of national importance and urgency.  But now, as an adult, I realized that le Carré’s heroes and spy protagonists led the most lonely lives imaginable.  Not a single other person on the planet currently knew my whereabouts.  If I were to disappear tonight, I’d simply be gone without a trace. 

Honestly, though, I wasn’t sure what pained me more:  The knowledge that no one would know.  Or the knowledge that no one would care.

Total Surveillance State

A little after one o’clock in the morning, we reach the hotel and I walk across the tall, handsome atrium of marble and glass in order to check in.  A giant, glittering chandelier hangs overheard that likely costs the amount of a small house.  As I’d done so at the airport at Customs, all I needed to do was swipe my phone and verify my thumbprint on the biometric pad at the counter to complete the check-in process.  After a brief moment, there’s a ding! that confirms my identity has been successfully verified.

“Welcome to Shanghai, Mr. Fletcher,” the receptionist says to me, smiling.  “If there is anything you require, at any hour, please do not hesitate to call us here in Concierge.  For the duration of your stay, please use your phone to swipe in and out of your room and note that breakfast is served starting at seven o’clock, running until ten.  You can likewise swipe in on either of our dining floors, the 13th or the 47th, for entry into the dining area.”

“Thank you,” I say and give a small smile back.  The receptionist is attractive but as I look around the lobby, I notice that the receptionists actually all look quite eerily similar in appearance– the same raven-black hair, high cheekbones, and red lipstick; the same sleeveless, silk crimson uniforms.  It’s a bit unnerving.

Inside the elevator, I need to swipe my phone again, which automatically directs the elevator carriage to the 43rd floor, where my room is located.

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government had built an entire surveillance state predicated on tracking every single citizen electronically.  From your birth, every Chinese citizen is assigned a “National Identification Number,” very similar to the “Social Security Number” that all Americans receive.  But for the Chinese, the NIN is literally your digital key to your entire life.  You need an NIN to open a bank account.  You submit you NIN when you apply for a job or home loan.  And if you ever run into trouble with the law, your criminal record is likewise forever attached to your NIN.

What exists in China, which doesn’t exist in America, is a National Citizenry Registry that is all-knowing and comprehensive.  Every apartment you’ve ever rented, every house you’ve ever lived in, and every job you’ve ever held.  The elementary, high school, and college that you attended.  Every time you’ve departed and entered the country by boat, train, or plane.

All of this is child’s play though, basic information that any authoritarian regime would wish to know about its citizens.  Where the Chinese NCR system really shines is its granular tracking of all consumer transaction history.  The key thing to understand about China, especially if you’re visiting from the west, is that beginning in 2037, the country went entirely cashless.  There is literally no longer any physical currency.  No coins, no bills; it’s all now virtual. You swipe to pay for everything and the debit is automatically deducted from your bank account.

Now that I’d used my phone to land in Shanghai and to check into the hotel, the Chinese government would know exactly where I was and when I’d arrived. In fact, as I headed to my room now, on the 43rd floor, the CCP –if it so cared– even knew about that too.

Breakfast the Next Morning

Breakfast the next morning is a sizzling platter of crispy maple bacon, sautéed scrambled eggs, and a generous dollop of hollandaise sauce on the side.  The coffee is steaming and rich, a dark Colombian roast that instills life into anything it touches, myself included.  I may have sold my soul to be here, but at this very moment, it feels so incredibly worth it. Never underestimate what man will do on an empty stomach. And never doubt what man can accomplish on a full one.

I’m starting in on my second plate (the waiter is extraordinarily attentive and constantly placing food in front of me; the moment I finish one plate, another will materialize as if from thin air) when a young Chinese woman sits down at my table across from me.  She has shoulder-length black hair that is dyed with streaks of auburn and is wearing a dark blue business suit with giant golden hoop earrings.  It is clear from her demeanor and the way she sits that she knows exactly who I am.

“Mr. Dexter Fletcher?” says the woman.

“In the flesh and blood,” I say.

“My name is Charlotte Xu,” she says crisply, “I understand you arrived here in Shanghai last night.”

“That I did,” I say and I take a drink of my coffee.

She eyes the three empty sides of bacon, two English biscuits, and fruit bowl that I’ve put away.  “I hope you are enjoying your accommodations.  We do hope they are sufficient.”

“They are quite sufficient,” I say.  I polish off the rest of the bacon and then turn to give her my full attention.  “How can I help you today, Ms. Xu?”

She pulls a manila folder from her briefcase which she’d brought with her.

“We’ve gathered from our assessment, Mr. Fletcher, that you possess a certain set of skills which we consider useful.  If used properly, we think you would be able to help contribute to our project here on the mainland.”

“I’m listening.”

“But before continuing, I suppose, let me ask you this,” says Charlotte.  “How have you found your visit to Shanghai so far?”

“Well, truth be told,” I say carefully, “I’ve only seen the airport and this hotel ’til now.  But if they’re any indication, Shanghai has struck me to be far more modern and shiny than I think I’d expected.  Using one’s mobile for literally everything –identification to boarding pass to payment to hotel key– is quite impressive, if somewhat concerning.”

Charlotte smiles.  “Westerners are often both impressed and somewhat weary with the ubiquity of our technology.”  She makes a small wave at the surroundings.  “The truth is, everything that you see here, Mr. Fletcher, the gleaming steel and glass, the modern furnishings and appointments– it is all veneer, a shiny gloss that obscures a far uglier and disordered reality.”

I nod.  What Charlotte is telling me isn’t exactly a secret.  Back in the west, not a week would pass without some American newspaper or media outlet running a breathless article or op-ed about grotesque human right abuses in China.  Whether it be suppression of the Uighur minorities in the western provinces or the forced detention and reeducation camps in Tibetan south, there was always some new atrocity apparently occurring within China’s borders.

Crimes Against Humanity

Crimes against humanity, however, seldom deterred the American consumer from buying Chinese though.  Whether it be Microsoft Xboxes or Apple iPhones, all of the consumer electronics that millions of Americans enjoyed on a daily basis were manufactured in China, the land of the cheapest labor on planet earth.  It turns out when you’re not required to pay minimum wage and can employ child slave labor to mass produce your goods and sew your Nike tennis shoes, then you can churn out widgets for sale at basement-bottom prices (which are then sold at your local super-conglomerate big box retailer like Walmart).

“Tell me,” says Charlotte, leaning forward.  “Let’s just cut straight to the chase, as you Americans say, Mr. Fletcher.  How do you feel about the Xi regime?  What is your opinion of our fair country?”

“I’m a fan,” I say evenly.  “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here.”  I’m ready for this question have rehearsed my answer dozens of times; I reel off my response effortlessly, on autopilot. 

“Obviously, China’s track record is less than stellar,” I say, stating the obvious.  “But I’m also cognizant that it’s a country of 1.4 billion people.  And that there’s a long and complicated history that is diverse, multicultural, and tangled.  Under Xi’s leadership, as terrible as some things have been for some people in some parts of the country, it’s also undeniable that in the three decades under his totalitarian rule, China has lifted more people out of poverty than any other civilization in the history of humanity.  Thanks to Xi, farmers and people from the rural hinterlands have healthcare for the first time in their lives, infant mortality rates are way down, average Chinese life expectancy is way up, and production across all sectors –agriculture, technology, finance, and manufacturing– have all boomed, seeing double-digit growth, year-over-year, for the past fifteen years.”

I butter another beignet and take a bite, shifting my weight in my chair.  The powdered sugar on top is heavenly.  “So, in summary,” I say, “I’m a fan.  As the old saying goes.  You can’t make an omelet without cracking a few eggs.  And it’s simply the case that Xi’s made quite a few omelets in the three decades that he’s been in charge.”

I finish and lean back in my chair.  That’s it.  Whether my entire trip here continues from this point forward depends on how well I’d just delivered what I’d said.  If it wasn’t sufficiently convincing… well, then this is going to be one very short trip.

“That’s… a rather enlightened view,” Charlotte finally says.  She smiles and takes a sip of her tea, the first I’ve seen her drink since the start of our conversation.  “I’m glad to hear that,” she says.  “It’s not often that we speak with Americans who have… such a big-picture comprehension of the state of things.”

I shrug.  “America’s a big place.  I’m sure you’ll find all sorts of us from all walks and corners, if you look hard enough.”

Charlotte chuckles.  “Ah, well, that is the beauty of your American internet, it would seem.”  She slides the manila folder that she’d extracted earlier from her briefcase over to my side of the table.  “Thanks to your world-wide-web, as you call it, I don’t even need to come looking for you.  Conveniently, people like you always have a way of finding their way to people like me.”

She taps the manila folder.

“Inside here,” she says, “you’ll find a phone.  Standard-issue, encrypted, and secure.  And it has everything inside that you’ll need next.  You are to discard of your current phone immediately after we finish speaking here.  Do you understand?”

I nod and Charlotte gets up, preparing to leave.

“Is that it?” I ask.  “I was told there would be a preliminary interview after I’d completed the assessment.”

“This was it,” says Charlotte, putting on her overcoat, a black and white fur-lined affair made of minx and some other endangered species, I’m sure.  “Congratulations, Mr. Fletcher.  You passed.  I hope for all of our sakes that you’re as comfortable in the kitchen as your manners suggest.”

“In the kitchen?”

Charlotte looks back over her shoulder.  “We’re in the business, Mr. Fletcher, of making omelets.  Of all shapes and sizes, of all kinds and flavors.  I hope you’re ready, Dexter.  I hope you know what you’ve signed up for.”

And with that, she disappears into the morning bustle, through the revolving doors, and out of sight.

Disposing My Old Mobile Phone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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