Keeping up appearances in China is completely and totally unnecessary. Here, newly arrived, people could reinvent themselves however they wished. There was no longer a need to maintain any false pretenses and you possessed no obligation of allegiance to your former self. Here in China, we could all start over and be anyone we wished to be. It was a place for new beginnings.
As I pondered my new reality in this ancient country I now unexpectedly found myself in, I suddenly feel the phone in my pocket begin to buzz. I check my device and see I have two new messages. The first is directions to my accommodations for the evening– I’d been put up in Building 67 which, according to the map, contained the guest dormitories which was conveniently several buildings down from the cafeteria. And the second message is a meeting notice– I’ve been summoned to a gathering that’ll be held tomorrow at nine o’clock in Building 11, a small laboratory tucked away in the southwest corner of the campus. When I tell Erin about my newly assigned agenda, she raises an eyebrow.
“Building 11 just finished its renovations, last week,” she says. “I didn’t even know it was back open yet.”
“I thought this entire complex is new,” I say. “Isn’t it early for renovations?”
“Well, there was a horrible explosion last month,” Erin explains. “A terrible accident. I was over in Building 22 and had felt the ground shake from there.”
I frown. “There was an explosion? We’re in an office park. How on earth does that happen?”
“I dunno. But anyway, nothing to worry about, I’m sure.”
We finish up our dinner, chat a bit more, and then decide to call it a night. It’s getting late and I’m totally wiped. It’s been a long day. Before parting ways, Erin and I bump our phones to trade contact info. It takes me a moment fumbling around with my device before I finally get to the right screen to make the whole wireless exchange of bits and bytes work. But seriously, it’s the dumbest-looking thing I can imagine; I can’t believe this is how kids nowadays interact.
“It sounds like some kinda grotesque sex act,” I grumble. “Seriously? ‘Phone bumping?’ Please come ‘bump my phone?’ What the hell ever happened to business cards? Do you kids even know what those are? Honestly, this entire world’s gone mad.”
“Get used to it, old man,” Erin scoffs, when she hears my grumblings. “It’s the 21st century. Something called technology.”
Later that night in my guest dormitory (a simple room with a small twin-sized bed and desk; nothing fancy), I fall asleep the moment my head hits the pillow. My first full day in China had come to a close. What would the next day bring?
Jinshui Technology Park’s cafeteria is a buffet-style feast for the eyes and stomach. But first– here’s one interesting sidenote observation that I found fascinating: When I arrived at Jinshui, I didn’t receive a visitor’s pass. I half-expected one to be zapped to my phone just like everything else has been electronically delivered. But nope. Instead, I was required to swipe into the cafeteria with my American passport (which was also on my phone). Apparently, there are only two ways to swipe into all CCP properties (universities, laboratories, government offices, hospitals, etc): If you’re a foreigner– with your passport that’s on your phone. If you’re a Chinese citizen: With either your Chinese passport or Chinese National Identification Card– both of course, on your phone. The entire system is apparently unified that way– it’s like Single Sign-On, but for real-life. I’m probably the only person who finds this nerdy detail amazing but it genuinely impresses me. The Chinese had finally, at long last, done it: Achieve the dream of unified identity across all platforms and properties, both virtual and material. Hallelujah.
Anyway, the cafeteria is an eccentric bazaar of food offerings. While the bus ride over had been predominately dominated by a monolithically Chinese ridership, the folks in the cafeteria are considerably more diverse. I spy white people, black people, middle eastern folk, and even a sprinkling of Japanese which surprises me. Historically, Japan and China have had their fair share of, uh, differences. I guess I can’t generalize when it comes to populations of entire nation states but it honestly just surprises me a bit.
After some indecision I decide to try the station that serves South Korean hotpot and eventually make my way back to Erin who waves at me from the seating area. By the time I get to her table, I see that she’s settled on a Philly cheesesteak sub that’s oozing with melted provolone over pastrami and salami. It’s a monster sub but she’s already halfway through it.
“If there’s one thing you Americans get right,” she says through a mouthful of submarine sandwich, “it’s sandwiches. Bless your little American hearts and stomachs.”
“Uh huh,” I say. “They don’t have American cheesesteaks back across the pond?”
“Oh please. Of course we do. But this is such an American food. I wouldn’t be caught dead eating it back home.”
“But you seem to be enjoying it so much.”
Erin licks her fingers, finishing her sub. “Appearances, dear, appearances. Gotta look the part of prim and proper; can’t be eating like a barbarian from the land of the Americas.”
As I watched Erin stuff her face with Philly cheesesteak sandwich, a simple but undeniable truth finally clicks in my brain.
“Incredible,” I say. “This is unbelievable.” Besides me, Erin just smiles. “That was my reaction the first time I saw this place too,” she says. “The first time really does take your breath away.”
Once you set foot inside the twenty-story tall stone walls of Jinshui Technology Park, you’ll see gleaming forty-story sky scrapers built of shining glass and steel. Eight gleaming cylindrical office towers made entirely of glass, shoot upwards into the sky. Between them are carefully manicured lawns and koi ponds. Longer-slung office buildings also fill the adjoining space– it is a palatial office park, modern and futuristic, a world apart from the staid, soulless corporate office complexes that I’d grown accustomed to seeing back in the States.
“Wait,” I say puzzled, “how is it that we didn’t see these giant office towers from afar coming in?”
“Ah,” says Erin, “it’s active camouflage. It helps the Chinese conceal places like Jinshui from the prying eyes of American and European satellites up in space,” she says pointing upwards. “You know if word ever got out about just how much the west doesn’t know about China, there’d be outright panic, right?”
“I see,” I say nodding. I look alongside the inner walls of the office park and see that Erin is right. Giant holographic projectors are painting a façade of thin air to anyone who looks at the compound from the outside.
“That’s why the outer walls are built the way they are,” says Erin, “and looks like they date back to the days of Julius Caesar or Genghis Kahn. From the outside, this entire thing just looks like another historical artifact of antiquity.”
“You know over a millennia separate Caesar and Kahn, right?” I say giving Erin some side-eye. “Jesus, you kids these days.”
Erin rolls her eyes. “Whatever, old man. Same difference, same difference. C’mon, let’s go get some grub. I’m super-famished.”
Now that we’ve actually arrived, it occurs to me that I don’t actually know what I’m supposed to be doing here. I check my phone that Charlotte had given me but I have no new notifications. All I’d received earlier was a round-trip bus ticket and my return leg wasn’t until tomorrow.
Also, I am hungry. It’s just about five o’clock so I nod to Erin. “Sure, let’s get something to eat.”
The bus has come to a stop in a giant parking lot and passengers are already filtering out. I see most of the people who rode in are young, in their twenties and thirties– and aside from Erin and myself, everyone else is ethnically Chinese.
“How is it everywhere I look, everything’s always under construction all the time?” I ask. “I’ve literally seen ongoing construction everywhere I’ve been in the two days that I’ve been in the country.”
“Chinese construction crews work three eight-hour shifts, around the clock,” says Erin pointing out the window at one of the construction cranes. Beside it, a giant pneumatic piledriver is noisily hammering giant steel stakes of enormous, unimaginable girth into the ground. “It’s nonstop, seven days a week, 365 days a year,” Erin says. “You’ve seen it everywhere, all the time, because it is literally everywhere. No breaks, ever, even on holidays. When you have 1.4 billion people in your country and 9.6 million square kilometers of land, there’s no reason not to always be building. How do you think Chinese GDP’s been growing by double-digits year over year for the past, I dunno, decade or so?”
I nod, already knowing much of what Erin is telling me. I’d rehearsed and memorized my lines on the plane on the flight over, in preparation for what ended up being my informal interview with Charlotte that’d just happened that morning. And I’d said all the right things. But seeing the insane growth and all of the construction activity up close, first-hand in person was an entirely different matter altogether. As they always say: You don’t know until you know.
Shortly after passing by the interchange, our bus reaches a giant walled compound that spans something like a hundred football fields in length. In the middle of literally nowhere off the narrow, two-lane dirt road suddenly sprouts what appears to be a ginormous, 14th century medieval stronghold that rises high into the sky like some mirage in the desert. It’s as if some prepubescent tween who was playing a city simulator videogame like Skylines or Civilization decided to just plop Alexandria, circa 331 BC, into the middle of rolling Chinese farmland in the eastern plains. It’s literally the most random thing I’ve ever seen.
“This is an office park?” I ask Erin in disbelief as our bus rolls up to the wrought iron gates of the giant stone fortress. “What kind of lunacy is this?”
Erin just chuckles. “Wait until you see what’s on the other side.”
Our bus halts at the gated entrance (I’m honestly half-surprised there isn’t a moat and drawbridge) and a helmeted, body-armor-wearing security officer clad in black does a round around our vehicle with a Deutsch Hound apparently sniffing for bombs. After several minutes of inspection and a conversation between our driver and one of the officers, the red-striped crossbar eventually lifts and two other stern-looking, helmeted and goggled security guards with automatic rifles strapped across their chests wave us through. As we drive past I can’t help but notice the sizable cache of automatic weapons that’s locked in metal cages in the back of the stone guard tower behind the officers and their closed circuit monitors. It’s only a fleeting glance but I count at least three rows of small firearms and munitions. It’s clear that whatever happens inside of Jinshui is apparently important enough to properly secure with violent force.
But in a moment, we’re past. And what I see next beyond the gate totally stuns my brain.
“Gee,” I say dryly. “That’s a real ringing endorsement for the democratic progress.”
“Well, right,” says Erin. “That’s exactly my point. Xi takes power in 2013, right? And what’s the first thing he does? Anti-corruption purges across the entire country. Hundreds of political opponents jailed in a single weekend. Chinese SWAT teams going province to province, kicking down doors of quinquagenarians and sexagenarians and hauling their ancient, old asses off to jail on trumped up kangaroo court charges.”
“And no one complained?” I ask.
“Of course people complained,” scoffs Erin. “There were riots in the streets. Tiananmen Square 2: The Sequel, every single weekend. Hundreds jailed or just suddenly disappeared. Elites who were in power under Hu Jintao went apoplectic. But Xi controlled the military, and thus the country. What was one to do? You just didn’t see any of this in the west because media was of course censored.”
“So you’re saying that Xi essentially just wiped the board clean and started over with a blank slate?”
“I’m saying Xi’s ascension in China was like Fat Man hitting Nagasaki,” says Erin shaking her head. “It was complete, total, and irreversible. After Xi made landfall in Beijing, no one who defied him survived. Not even bacteria. All legacy baggage, dissenting voices, and opposition vanquished in one fell swoop in a matter of weeks with Terminator-esque efficiency. It was nothing but smooth sailing. For years leading up to 2013, Xi had worked behind the scenes, pulling levers and pushing buttons, to install all the right people in the right places. So when the time came, it was the easiest and most peaceful coup in Chinese history. Mao would’ve been proud.”
“Sounds like you really admire Xi Jinping,” I say. “You speak of him in such glowing terms.”
Erin frowns. “I guess as much as one can admire an authoritarian ruler who stomps all over human rights, disappears his political opponents, and runs forced detention and reeducation camps?”
“So you like the results,” I say, “but not the methods. Sounds kinda hypocritical, if you ask me.”
“I think it’s a thankless job,” says Erin. “And being president and chair of a top-heavy communist regime is certainly no picnic. I’m sure every night, Xi sleeps with the fear of being assassinated by one of his own cabinet ministers, the Americans, or some other party hostile to his vision of what China can and should be. It’s not an enviable life.”
The bus begins to slow and I look outside Erin’s window. We’re turning off of the main, 16-lane highway and onto some dirt road that looks like a scene out of Mad Max: Fury Road. It looks like they’re building a new highway interchange and there are earthmovers and bulldozers everywhere. Construction workers in yellow vests and hard hats are busy operating heavy machinery and digging.
Following the directions on my phone I make my way to my assigned bus seat. There is a young brunette woman already sitting in the window seat when I arrive. She looks a few years younger than me with her hair done back in short ponytail and is wearing a pair of aviators and wireless, oversized pink earmuff headphones; it’s clear she completely oblivious to the outside world lost in her own Spotify playlist or some other auditory universe. This wouldn’t be any of my concern except her North Face backpack and jacket are sprawled in a tangled heap on my aisle bus seat.
“Excuse me,” I say, tapping her on the shoulder. “Do you mind?”
“Oh! Sorry!” she says, snapping out of her reverie. She hurriedly moves her stuff from my seat. “My bad, my bad,” she apologizes. I make her accent out to be English– closer to a proper Queen’s English than cockney or estuary.
“No worries,” I say as I take my seat. The bus lurches backwards; it appears like we are departing.
She eyes me over, giving me a second look. “Hey,” she says, “are you also staying at the Four Seasons downtown?”
I blink, surprised. “Yeah, I am. You are too?”
She smiles. “Indeed! My name’s Erin Morgan,” she says, giving a small wave. “I’m here on a contracting project for VenPulse. I saw you in the hotel dining area this morning.”
“Yeah, you’re a tall, lanky white guy with unruly red hair in a sea of short Asian people. And you’ve got a whole Malcolm Gladwell look going– it’s difficult to miss and not remember.”
I laugh. “Ha. I suppose so. I’m Dexter Fletcher,” I say. “I’m also here on a job.”
I search my mind to see if Erin’s company, VenPulse, rings any bells. It does not. It is common in China though for the CCP to set up its numerous contracting gigs through various shell companies and fronts. It’s a tangled web, but if you dig deep enough, just about everyone is only a few degrees of separation away from the communist regime. Behind the curtain, it’s the government ultimately footing the bill. This is the simple inevitable outcome that results when the state controls who’s in the business, who isn’t, who wins, and who loses.
“What specific line of work do you do at VenPulse?” I ask.
“Oh, a little bit of everything,” she replies nonchalantly. “Specifically, I work in security. But out here, I’ve found that they’ve been just about as interested in what I’d done previously. It’s a topic that’s arisen a lot, surprisingly.”
“Have you been out here long?”
“I’m six months in on an eight-month assignment,” she says. “So it’s been a decent chunk of time. Yourself?”
“Today’s my first full day,” I say. “I just got in last night.”
“Ah, a greenhorn,” Erin says smiling. “I bet you’re feeling you’ve really wandered through the looking glass.”
“It’s been a bit of an adjustment,” I admit. “Above everything else, I’ve been impressed with how swiftly everything has moved,” I say. “Just 72 hours ago, I was sitting in my apartment in Brooklyn. But since then, I was contacted online, tested via a virtual assessment, flown halfway around the world, and now I’m sitting here on a bus leaving Shanghai. It’s been a whirlwind of a ride.”
Erin chuckles. “You don’t need to tell me. Before this, I was with the NHS in the London office. It took me two months just to wait for my drug tests to clear so I could onboard at Norfolk. And then another month before they processed all of my paperwork so I could actually start.”
“So, what’s their secret?” I ask, genuinely curious. “How do they get everything done so quickly?”
Erin tilts her head to think for a moment before answering. Outside the bus window, the Shanghai cityscape has begun morphing into rolling fields with pastures full of sheep and cows. We’re just about to leave city limits and enter the countryside.
“I think one big advantage,” Erin finally says, after thinking a moment, “is that the Chinese were so far behind. The west did everything first. It’s like in Africa how the Ugandan government didn’t even bother setting up telephone poles and lines. They just went straight to satellite and cellular; everything was wireless from day one. When you’re last to the party, you can skip over all of the mistakes that everyone else ahead of you already made. It’s essentially like taking an exam for which you already know all of the answers. When you get it last, you get it best.”
“So what you’re saying makes sense for infrastructure,” I say. “Like, I can understand why their highways, hospitals, and mass transit systems are all so futuristic and advanced. Xi had the luxury of a blank slate to begin with and hasn’t been bogged down with legacy baggage. But does that apply to bureaucracy?”
“Sure it does,” says Erin. “Lemme tell you a story. Back home, in Fulham, we wanted to build a bicycle lane, right? Just a dumb extra lane next to the main road so us bicyclists wouldn’t be run over like second-class citizens. Oh my god, lemme tell you– getting that thing built was akin to moving heaven and earth. Being a young naïve twenty-something at the time, I’d volunteered to lead that project since I’d been attending university nearby and enjoyed bicycling. Biggest mistake of my life, I tell you. We had to get the Fulham town council onboard and then win over the neighborhoods that the lane would go through. And then the roadside businesses opposite the lane had an opinion, because of course they would. The entire project, sixteen measly blocks, took a year to approve and then another six months to build.” Erin shakes her head like she’s remembering a horrid memory. “It was awful. Absolutely awful. Everyone had a voice and everyone had an opinion. And so it took forever. You could’ve been forgiven for thinking we rebuilding Buckingham Palace or something. But no, it was a bicycle lane.“
Echelon is the name of the clandestine operations program that the Chinese Communist Party uses to monitor all internet traffic within the Chinese mainland. For foreigners visiting China and getting onto its internet for the first time, the experience is strange and surreal, as if you’ve stepped into a parallel universe. As is well-known, the giant American players like Facebook and Google don’t exist in China– you’re not able to access those websites at all and will be blocked by the Great Chinese Firewall if you try. Instead, you access incredibly similar sites– literally, 99.99% perfectly identical down to the colors, icons, and typography. The only difference is that the site is in Chinese and is controlled by the Chinese government or a state-sponsored company.
My first assignment, on my first full day in Shanghai, is to visit one of the many nondescript, government buildings that houses the Echelon project. Shortly after setting up my new phone, I receive a ding! on the device, informing me that I am the proud new recipient of a roundtrip bus ticket, heading out to Jinshui, which I knew was a district on the outskirts of town. It’s about an hour’s ride out to the northwest and I’m told in the message to bring my overnight duffel– I would apparently not be returning to the hotel that evening.
The bus station is within walking distance of the Four Seasons and departure isn’t until two o’clock that afternoon which meant I still had a few hours of free time to burn. I decide to use the time to wander around downtown Shanghai for a bit on foot. May as well take in some local culture. I’d use the few free hours I had to visit a used electronics store to pawn off my old phone and also take in some of the sights.
I toss my laptop, toothbrush, and some clean clothing I need into my overnight duffel and head out of my hotel room. I make sure to not leave anything of any value behind. Part of me is certain that I’ll have visitors looking through whatever I leave in the room while I’m away. It may be paranoia but it comes with the profession. By this point, I’m used to it.
With the help of one of the helpful concierge receptionists, I’m able to make my way to 電子大道, which roughly translates into “Electronics Avenue.” It’s a bustling and crowded city road full of street vendors hocking their wares. In one of my ears I have a Google Ear Bud which helps translate in real-time all of the Chinese that is flying to and ‘fro. The translation isn’t perfect but is far better than nothing.
“For cheap! For cheap!” cries one of the short, balding shopkeepers. His ragged, white tank top is dirty and stained with sweat. “PlayStation 9 for sale! PlayStation 9! Sold here first! Get here now!”
“Get yours, today!” yells another shopkeeper across the way, an old rotund greying grandma who looks like she’s put away one too many steamed pork dumplings in her day. “On sale now! On sale now! Big screen for movies and videogames! 18k resolution! 18k resolution!”
I push my way through the crowd to a small shop sandwiched between a storefront selling laundry machines and another selling cellular SIM cards. This was the shop that the concierge hotel agent had recommended to me. Using my limited Chinese (and Google Translate on my phone) I’m able to pawn off my old Samsung for a decent price. While I’m there, I also buy another phone, a used but still serviceable cheap ZTE Chinese branded one. I drop it into my duffel for use later; one can never have too many phones.
I’m tempted to hang around Electronics Avenue for longer, admiring all of the cheap Chinese knockoffs and counterfeit goods on sale, but see on my watch that it’s nearly two o’clock so I begin heading towards the bus station, which is luckily just a few blocks away.
The Shanghai Central Bus Terminal is a gleaming citadel of modern technological wonder. Because of course it is. Flat screen LCDs line every square inch of wall surface and display the bus routes and real-time maps in bold colors and typography, in seven different languages, all simultaneously. There is not a single scrap of trash or litter anywhere. Every available surface practically glitters and shines. It’s another testament of what you can do when you have unlimited government funding and eminent domain to basically build whatever you wish and trample over indigenous lands and communities. Port Authority back in New York City looks like a war-ravaged, war-torn, third-world refugee camp by comparison.
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.