Chapter Eleven – Passage One
Xenophobia is the key to the hearts and minds of the fearful everywhere. It’s been that old reliable standby that’ll never let you down. When you’re in dire straits, appeal to people’s sense of uncertainty and doubt. There’ll always be a reliable subset of the population that’ll act from a desire to avoid a worst-case scenario. This is your go-to workhorse.
Following the analysis that Alan had done with the anosmia outbreak data, we relocate to Guangzhou, several provinces away from Shingatse. As the gateway city to Hong Kong by rail, Guangzhou has long been a fixture of southern China. With a history dating back over 2,200 years, it was once the maritime terminus of China’s Silk Road; people who crossed the continent would put their wares on the barges on the port of the Pearl River and from there, Hong Kong was a mere 120 kilometers away. Founded in 1842, Hong Kong was the single most important colony the British Empire would ever establish on the mainland. But in 1997, all of that came to a crashing end. As the British Empire continued the last legs of its decline, China gained a new foothold upon the world stage.
The end result after the handover was calamitous as you might imagine.
The Honk Kongese resisted it every step of the way. Over a century of western influence had made its mark. Modern with western manners, the people who Hong Kong despised many of the more rural, ruder, and cruder Chinese citizens who poured into their city after the handover. In the western world, we obey traffic signals like red lights. But in Guangzhou, where the first Chinse wave first originated, stopping at red lights is optional.
When I first set foot in Guangzhou, I also noticed the rural population there had a habit of spitting everywhere.
“That is positively disgusting,” Kristen says, making a face. “How can they just spit everywhere?”
“It’s a habit you’ll see here in the country,” Shu says, “the Chinese people, especially here in the rural areas, have long believed that expelling saliva– especially when you’re ill– is critical to good health. All of those toxins, is the thinking, you must eject from your body at the first opportunity.”
Kristen crinkles her nose and just grimaces.
While I’ve never set foot in Hong Kong, I’ve seen plenty of VODs of the city when I was researching China’s other autonomous regions. And while the city is significantly smaller– only 7.5 million residents compared to Xinjiang’s 22 million, I can totally understand why rampant anti-Chinese and xenophobic sentiment rages in full force. For the Hong Kongese, China’s communist and conformist ways is 100% diametrically opposed to Hong Kong’s capitalist ways– one of the world’s financial supercenters. The norms, traditions, cultures, and entire value systems are just violently different.
One report, around traffic fatalities that I found, was particularly illuminating. A decade later, over 87% of the traffic accidents and fatalities caused in Hong Kong were from mainlanders who’d streamed in to the city. It wasn’t racism; it was just pattern-recognition. Unfettered Chinese pouring into the already densely-packed city– was proving to have disastrous results with fatal consequences.
“Everyone always says they want diversity,” Coleman had said, when I’d shown him the report. “But they only want good diversity or harmless diversity. Once the rubber meets the road, it’s really a heavy lift.”
Alan’s data leads us to a hospital in the Guangzhou province where the cases of anosmia first spiked and after spending a night on the phones and making a series of calls, Alan’s managed to get a meeting with one of midlevel people in the governor’s office. It’s a simple meeting in a café.
Of course we can’t just have a bunch of foreigners walking into the cafe. And Alan’s been apparently flagged so he can’t go either. Because of its close proximity to Hong Kong, Guangzhou was one of the first regions set up to be entirely electronically surveilled with CCTV and facial recognition cameras everywhere.
So Shu volunteers to go while the rest of us camp out in a hotel room that’s half-a-block away from the café.
In the hotel we’ve booked two rooms and when Shu emerges from the other, after having cleaned up, she’s back to looking like her normal lustrous self. CRISPR was really a thing. And it worked. On her way out, she catches me in the hallway just as I’m returning from the vending machines. It’s just the two of us in the dimly lit hall.
“How do I look?”
She looks dazzling but that’s actually not what I have on my mind.
“Shu, are you sure you want to do this?” I ask her, one final time. “We don’t know what’s out there. And we don’t even know if we have anything. We just have a lead. Some wild hunch. Is it worth the risk just wanting to find out more?”
Shu smiles and pats me on the cheek.
“It’s sweet of you, Dexter, to be concerned. But wouldn’t you want to know if everyone back in your home was murdered?”
“That’s a strong word. And I honestly don’t know if I would,” I say. “I mean, even if we find out, so what? You’re going to just march into the National Assembly and throw it into Xi’s face? Or whoever’s now in charge?”
“I don’t know,” Shu admits, “but if Alan thinks this is a possible lead, then I trust him. We can’t just this be a mystery until the end of time.”
“Are unsolved mysteries really so bad?”
She pauses a moment to collect her thoughts and I wait, standing. Candy bar in hand, on the ragged stained carpet while a lightbulb flickers at the end of the hall.
“Unresolved mysteries aren’t bad,” Shu finally says, “and I’ll admit I don’t know all the fancy stuff that you and the others do. But all I do know is if I don’t this now, it’ll hang over me until the end of my days. I can’t just walk away from this.” She looks at me.
“Sometimes we do something not because we want to. But because we know we’ll regret it forever if we don’t. Does that make sense?”
Chapter Eleven – Passage Two
“You’ve already done so much. You’ve been with us since the beginning. Every step of the way, everything we’ve done, we couldn’t have done without you help.”
Shu smiles. “Not just another pretty face?”
“Not at all.”
Shu kisses me on the cheek.
“That’s very sweet of you to say. I should get going. Or I’ll be late.”
Shu makes her way down the hallway and I head back into the hotel room where the others are waiting. They’re all gathered around Alan’s laptop and I see that Shu’s been fully wired up– the jade pendant she’s wearing around her neck is a small camera with a small microphone. We’ve got eyes and ears.
Coleman’s grinning widely when I walk in and… well, whatever. I don’t care.
“You’re a real lady killer, you know?”
More than I know.
Maan Café is where Alan’s contact is supposed to meet Shu. It’s a small but hip and stylish establishment that’s among the first to reopen after the COVID-59 outbreak. The vaccine is finished and released now but given that it was rushed through clinical trials, the CCP has adopted a phased rollout plan. The thinking is that while it’s supposedly safe given everything we know about it, we don’t exactly know everything about it. But the reasoning is solid, at least to a laymen like me.
“The metric being used,” the head scientist had explained during the Chinese CDC presentation VOD, “is whether or not releasing the vaccine now will do help more than it harms. And while we admit we don’t know everything at this present moment, the answer to that question is simple– a resounding yes.”
And so the CCP had begun rolling out the vaccine widely to the population. As part of that effort, businesses were going to be reopened in a staggered fashion. That way if something did go grotesquely sideways, at least you didn’t have the entirety of your population in one basket. Redundancy in all things, after all.
“Who’s your person on the inside?” I ask Alan as we both huddle around his computer to see what Shu’s pendant is seeing.
“Someone mid-level in Governor Hu’s office.”
“Someone you can trust?”
“I guess we’re about to find out.”
On the screen, we see that Shu’s taken a seat. The café is by appointment only but even so, it’s significantly busy and crowded. With millions of fellow human beings dying off every day, you might think that people would be a little cavalier about moseying about. But all available evidence I’ve gathered so far proves the contrary. After nine months of quarantine and isolation, the young people at least, are ready to risk it all if it means they can go about their lives. From what we see from Shu’s vantage point, everyone who is out and about are young. Thirty at most it appears. Shu fits right into the crowd.
Shu’s gotten there a little early and several minutes later, at one o’clock, a young man is led to her table by the maître d’ and joins her.
The man smiles. “Really a lovely time of year for violet hydrangeas, wouldn’t you say?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Shu replies, repeating the passphrase that we’d rehearsed before, “I’m a much bigger fan of blues one. Prettier, I think.”
The man looks around casually and then takes a seat. He places an order on the touchpad that’s at each table and a coffee shortly arrives on a conveyor belt that runs by each table. It’s like one of those sushi boat places, but for everything.
We then learn the full story.
There was an assassination attempt. It failed. Xi was injured but is still in charge. Supposedly. No one’s entirely sure. During his convalescence though, party secretaries Hu and Ji and have taken the helm, consolidating princeling control. There is a very tight rein on the information in the politburo so aside from these details, the governor’s office doesn’t currently know much else. For the past nine months, apparently behind the scenes in Beijing, the situation had descended into chaos.
“And the virus?”
“Chinse CDC is rolling out vaccinations across the entire country. It appears like the incident in Urumqi was not authorized by the Standing Committee at all.”
Back in the hotel room, Alan and I look at each other. A rogue element inside the CCP?
“Good lord, this must have been what the Soviet Union was like when it fell.” I mutter. “No one seems to know what’s entirely going on. Is Xi dead? Is he alive? Is he on the mend? Does anyone even know?”
Alan grimaces. “They managed to end that without total nuclear annihilation. Let’s hope we’re so lucky.”
Coleman and Deepak are sitting on the bed and they’ve been watching everything play out as well. Deepak strokes his chin thoughtfully.
“It’s impressive, actually,” Deepak muses. “While you’d think that China is entirely under the control of Beijing, the thirty-four individual provinces have actually been able to manage on their own with little direction from Zhongnanhai.”
“It makes sense, right?” Coleman replies. “Just because it’s a communist regime doesn’t mean there’s no bureaucracy. After all, it’s communism, not anarchy. There’s a huge state apparatus. Just because the figurehead or great leader at the top is incapacitated, it doesn’t been the entire system just falls apart. That’s why there’s a politburo and standing committee. There’s an entire hierarchy in place to ensure continuity of government in case of events like these.”
For day-to-day operations, it makes sense the each province possessed a fair amount of autonomy. Not to pass laws or for self-rule, but simply for logistical reasons. Each province is managed by two governmental figures; both (of course) appointed: The province governor who manages the ins-and-outs of the province. And a committee secretary who serves as the CCP liaison between the governor and the politburo. Together, the two are expected to work in harmony to keep the great machinery of government and municipality running smoothly.