Continue reading “Story – Introduction + Changelog”
Continue reading “Story – Introduction + Changelog”
|Monday – Oct 19||Jinshui Future Laboratory||3|
|Tuesday – Oct 20||The First Meeting: “Freedom-Loving People Within Our Borders Must Be Stopped.”||3|
|Wednesday – Oct 21||A Meeting of the Minds & Intellectual Discourse||3|
|Thursday – Oct 22||Quelling Unrest in China’s Autonomous Regions||3|
|Friday – Oct 23||Reaching a Decision||3|
|Saturday – Oct 24||Shu Qi: “Great Artists Steal.”||3|
|Sunday – Oct 25||The Thing You Should Consider||3|
Nine o’clock nears and I find myself in Building 11, making my way to the meeting. Though the building is reopened, not all renovation has completed. The lobby is a well-lit and sparse arrangement with modern-looking chairs around round white tables but there is still yellow caution tape that’s up everywhere that cordons off where not to go. I follow a series of hand-drawn signs; someone has helpfully scrawled: “9 AM MEETING! THIS WAY! ⬆️⬆️⬆️” on sheets of paper and taped them every ten meters along the wall. I honestly kind of feel like a rat being led along in a maze.
Eventually, I reach an open room that appears to be some kind of lounge and see several other folks who are already there: Four Chinese, two white people (me and another blonde woman who’s draped herself in the oversized corner armchair), an Indian guy, and a super-nerdy looking, skinny black guy in a plaid shirt and huge over-sized glasses. Aside from one of the Chinese men who looks older, we all look about the same age, mid-twenties to mid-thirties.
Actually, once I get closer I see that the black guy is considerably younger– maybe in his early twenties.
The woman looks vaguely familiar, though I can’t place her face in the moment, and I don’t recognize anyone else, so I just give a small wave to everyone and sit on a barstool at the bar next to the Indian guy. He gives me a small nod when I sit down but his expression is otherwise inscrutable. The room is quiet, though I appear to be the last one that everyone was waiting for. After I sit, the older looking Chinese guy rises to his feet to address the room. He’s a handsome fellow with a lanky frame and slicked back, black hair. He’s wearing wireframe glasses and a suit blazer but without a tie and has his polo shirt open collar.
“Welcome, everyone,” he smiles looking around at us. “My name is Yu-Law Yang. I am one of the directors here at the Jinshui Future Laboratory. First, I would like to thank all of you for making the trip. I know our humble lab here in Jinshui is a good distance away for most of you, especially those from abroad. Secondly, I apologize for much of the secrecy. It may seem exaggerated and overblown but is unfortunately necessary.”
Yang pauses a beat but no one interrupts him. It’s early and most of us are still jet-lagged. Or we’re just patient people and have seen this movie before. So Yang just clears his throat and continues.
“The reason you’ve all been brought here,” he says, “is because we’re looking for some help with a sensitive subject.”
“Ostensibly, I know you’ve all been told that you’re being brought onboard to help consult for The Echelon 2 Project. And this is accurate. It’s true we could use your expertise in suppressing the free flow of information within China’s borders and stomping out any hint of dissent or assembly that we’re able to detect within our population of 1.4 billion.”
No one blinks an eye. We know why we’ve been summoned. We all know we have particular skills and how our unique skillset can be used.
“But the truth,” Yang sighs, “is that mere suppression of information is unfortunately no longer sufficient. There needs to be, shall we say, a more proactive means of prevention.”
I raise an eyebrow.
“As you all well know,” Yang continues. “The plague of western liberalism is slowly but surely sweeping the world. Here in China, we’ve more successfully resisted its effects. But the internet is vast. Despite our glorious government’s best efforts, our citizens are increasingly being seduced by dangers like ‘democracy’ and ‘independent thought’.”
Yang shakes his head sadly.
“It may work in the west. Though I personally don’t think it has. But I’ll tell you this– as certain as the sun rises in the east, western liberalism and democracy unequivocally will not work here in China. The clear majority of our citizens still live in the rural hinterlands and are uneducated. Corruption would be rampant, even more than it already is. And society and civilization would devolve into chaos. One day, we might be ready. But today is not that day. And thus, today, freedom-loving people everywhere within our borders must be stopped. They are like a disease that threatens the health of the greater whole, all of China.”
The blonde woman speaks up. “Alright, that’s a nice speech. But can you just tell us what you’re asking for? From us? Specifically?”
Yang smiles. “Ah, Ms. Henley. Always one to cut to the chase. Very admirable.”
Hearing her name and seeing her face suddenly stokes a long-dormant neuron back in my brain somewhere. The woman in the armchair is Katherine Henley, previously a fast-rising star at the social media search giant, Foogle, back in the United States. Just less than a year ago, she’d been the media darling of Silicon Valley and on the cover of every news glossy in the Bay Area. I hadn’t followed events closely, but apparently at some point she’d made some waves, sparked controversy, and there’d transpired a spectacular fall from grace. And now here she was, it appeared, in China.
The skinny young black guy also raises his hand, speaking up. “Wait, hold up a sec. Yang, man, you made about seventeen different leaps of logic in your opening statement there. Clarify for us for a moment– why exactly are the legions of Chinese poor unworthy of voting?”
“Poverty,” Yang sighs, “is the great undoing of democracy. When people are poor and struggling to simply put food on the table and a roof over the heads of their loved ones, then all of your high-minded western ideals about ‘freedom’ and ‘human rights’ mean nothing.” You have all grown up in the west. And most of you have never personally faced the scourge of starvation up close, first-hand.” Yang pauses. “I have.”
Well, on this count, the Chinese man, from whom I’m getting increasingly serious Mussolini vibes, is right. Back in the States, I grew up in the Midwest, went to school and worked in the Northeast, and never once in my life ever even entertained the prospect of not having enough to eat. Sure, my folks were seldom at home growing up but there was always a Hungry Man in the freezer that I could pop into the microwave to nuke (3 minutes and 45 seconds for the Salisbury Steak) that instantly gave me dinner. Such was the beauty and victorious success of the United States. America had waged war on poverty and kicked its ass.
But Yang has a point. Hungry Man had not disseminated as successfully to the rest of the world. In fact, most of the rest of the world didn’t even own microwaves. Or refrigerators. It didn’t take a rocket surgeon to know that the majority of the world population outside the States lived on less than two American dollars a day.
“So for that simple reason,” Yang finishes, “democracy will never succeed in China. At least not now. Our tech, finance, and manufacturing billionaires and trillionaires would just paradrop rice and free televisions to the masses in return for their votes. Is that the world you want? A country run by the richest and most powerful?”
Katherine frowns. “Well, how exactly, pray tell, do you describe what you have now?” she asks. “With the Xi regime?”
“Well, to be sure,” Yang says, “Xi hasn’t always been the paragon of good leadership. But he’s undoubtedly better than whatever we would’ve had in his absence in a democracy– that is to say, the uneducated mob.“
The skinny black guy is quiet, though it’s unclear to me if he’s been convinced. Personally, I suspect he’s not. In my experience, when people grow quiet, it usually means that they’re unswayed and that they’re often just processing. They’re racking their brains to see what anecdote or Snapple factoid that they can cherry-pick in order to formulate a rebuttal that’ll succeed in a public forum. Succeed, in the sense, of convincing the rest of us that they’re right. That’s all most people care about these days when exchanging ideas with strangers: Being right.
Yang turns to Katherine to finally answer her question, a question we all had on our minds. She’d just been the first to put it into words.
“Quelling unrest is an art as much as it is a science,” Yang says, steepling his fingers, “and we are hoping to solicit your help for a particular task. All in the name of peace, of course.”
“Of course,” says Katherine. “Uh huh.”
“As you are likely aware,” Yang says delicately, “the Xinjiang Province has been an increasingly active zone of conflict here in China. It is of growing concern.”
The Indian guy next to me chortles. I nearly do too but manage to catch myself. Calling Xinjiang an “active zone of conflict” is like saying, “There was a small disagreement in Concord and Lexington in 1775.”
For years, there’d been rampant speculation in the west that if Xi’s iron fist of domination and control was to finally loosen, or rather– be forcibly pried open, that it would start in the Xinjiang Province. In the past decade, Xi’s CCP had gladly picked up the baton of colonization off the ground where the British had dropped it like a flaming potato two-and-a-half centuries ago, doused and dusted it off, and then happily continued the imperialist tradition. Territory by territory, the Chinese Empire had slowly expanded: Macau, Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and now, Xinjiang. All of these regions were previously independent territories with their own peoples, cultures, and local governments. But under Chinese rule, they were slowly assimilated into China’s fold. First, they were “autonomous regions” and each was structured (laughably) under a rule of “two governments, one country.” But over subsequent decades, inciting events in every region had “required” the CCP to “reluctantly move in to restore and maintain the peace.” Funny thing was that after “restoring the order,” the Chinese National Guard just conveniently never left. And slowly over time, the Chinese national security apparatus just weaved its way into the local governments and social fabric of each autonomous region. They went from being initially “helpful” to being “important” to then being “necessary” until finally becoming “indispensable.”
“What do you want our help with in Xinjiang?” I ask, finally speaking up. May as well join this circus and see where it all goes.
“Xinjiang is currently a tinder box,” Yang says. “With the unfortunate violence and riots that happened last month, it appears like we’ve reached an inflection point with the province. As you know, the CCP has extended nothing but goodwill towards the Xinjiang people.”
“And by ‘goodwill’ you mean ‘convenience police stations’ every other block, I assume?” says Katherine.
“We do what is necessary to keep our citizens safe,” Yang says evenly, “and police is an integral component of that equation.” He gestures towards Katherine. “You, Ms. Katherine Henley, of all people should know that. After all, until recently, you led Foogle’s Smart City initiative in Darwin, Australia, did you not? In particular, the division to ensure public safety and trust?”
Katherine’s eyes narrow but she says nothing.
Yang turns towards us. “We have here, a collection of unique individual talents. Mr. Coleman Hughes,” Yang looks at the skinny black guy, “you are a political consultant and were instrumental behind the scenes helping DTJ win the most recent presidential elections in America. Mr. Deepak Chopra, you are an academic who specializes in colonial history. I found your dissertation on the Indian/Pakistani border separation of 1947 fascinating.”
Chopra, the Indian guy sitting on the barstool next to me, merely stares back at Yang. His expression gives nothing away.
Yang then turns to me. “And last but not least, Mr. Dexter Fletcher, you are our resident data science expert. You freelance for the American government and in your free time, do open-source work in cryptocurrencies. May I also add, you are quite an accomplished fan fiction author.”
The room suddenly feels about ten degrees hotter and I’m pretty sure I turn at least a little red. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Katherine raise an eyebrow and hearing Yang mention her most recent gig finally jogs my memory. This is rich– the woman who single-handedly nearly turned Darwin into a unitary police state has the gall to judge me. That’s great.
“And on Team China,” Yang continues smoothly, “we have Shu Qi, Alan Chen, and Vanessa Tan. Shu specializes in marketing and promotion– there’s literally nothing on this planet that she can’t sell you.” Shu bats her long lashes and smiles. “Alan grew up and was raised in Xinjiang; he knows everything there is to know about the province, and Vanessa –well– Vanessa does a bit of everything.”
Yang clasps his hands together. “Between the lot of you, we are hoping that you’ll help us create a new campaign plan to win over the hearts and minds of the Xinjiang people. Over the past decade, Xi has thrown every tool in the toolbox at the province but we’ve been… unsuccessful. We’re now trying a more soft-power approach, you could say.”
“You want us to help China assimilate Xinjiang?” I ask, somewhat incredulous. This is most definitely not consulting work even remotely related to Echelon. Like, at all.
“I, and the Xi government, want a safer future for all Chinese citizens,” Yang says calmly, “and that includes all of the good people of Xinjiang.” He checks his watch and sees the time. “And now, I’m afraid I must be off for another appointment. I’ll take my leave now but feel free to mingle amongst yourselves. If you have any questions, please ask Shu, Alan, or Vanessa. They will be here all morning to answer any queries you may have. Thank you for your time this morning. I really do hope you will join us.”
Notes:1. Explain why the CCP has brought us to China - Campaign to win "hearts and minds" of the people. - First project: Quell civil unrest in the Xinjiang Province. 2. Introductions.
Reaching a decision isn’t easy. After Yang leaves the room, our phones collectively ding! And we all see that we’ve received further information on our devices. I quickly read through the material.
Well, the money is certainly excellent– prorated, it’s solidly above what I normally make from my usual consulting gigs. And it’s intriguing to me that they’re expecting the nature of our work to possibly take us outside of China. But honestly, with a job like this, the crux (for me, at least) really boils down to a question of conscience. While the promise of $200k is alluring, I’ve already made enough at this point (and tucked enough away in savings) that I was comfortable. Certainly not rich. And I couldn’t retire anytime soon. But I didn’t need $200k. This was a sum of money that I’d, monetarily at least, be perfectly fine walking right away from. (Albeit, sad about.)
So let’s get real– there’s really only one question here: Do I want to help the Chinese Community Party curb stomp human rights and suplex democracy in China by maybe a half-century or more? Or do I walk away from not just the money, but also maybe the most fascinating data science and social experiment that I’ll probably ever be offered?
“Admit it, you’re intrigued.”
I look up and see Shu standing in front of me. Somehow, she’d approached our bar unnoticed while we’d had our heads down, reading through the documents.
“Shouldn’t I be?” I reply. “This is the opportunity of a lifetime. Unfettered access to all of that personal citizenry data. Zero privacy requirements. This is a total treasure trove, ripe for analysis a thousand different ways, every data scientist’s absolute dream. But from a moral and ethical standpoint, it’s pretty much a slam dunk, one-way, guaranteed ticket to hell.”
Up close I see Shu is classically beautiful in the way that is popular in China these days: Light, creamy complexion, long curly bangs, round face, and large green eyes. They’re a light, ocean-green, entirely unnatural and knockout gorgeous. China is currently the only country in the world that allows CRISPR techniques to be used on developing fetuses (unborn babies), though the allowable genetic edits are still limited.1
Anyway, it doesn’t surprise me in the least that she is the marketing guru of the group. Selling is all about appearances. And with a face and body like that (also most certainly genetically or surgically altered, I’m pretty sure), you’re already halfway there.
“I think there’s another way of looking at it that perhaps you’re not considering,” Shu says. Her voice is soft, supple, persuasive. “A more optimistic interpretation of the task.”
“Oh? Enlighten me.”
“You are in a privileged position to shape the very course of human history,” Shu says. “You know it; I know it; we all know it. This is the Chinese Century. And you’re, right now, at this very moment, on the ground floor, at the very beginning. What happens in China this next decade is where it all begins.”
“That’s… a bold statement.” is all that I can say.
Chopra, who’s been sitting next to me on his barstool the entire time, listening, speaks up. “What makes you think China’s going to be the new global superpower? The only thing the Chinese has ever excelled at is leading from behind.” Chopra sits up a bit straighter in his barstool and begins gesticulating with his hands, going into full-on professor-mode. “China’s good at sitting back, seeing what works everywhere else in the world, and then shamelessly copying those successes wholesale.” There’s definitely more than a hint of disdain in his voice as he says this.
Shu turns to look at Chopra. “And what’s so wrong with that?” she asks. “Didn’t that great American, Steve Jobs, whom you all idolize so much, once say that ‘good artists copy; great artists steal’?”
“That was Picasso actually,” I say. “And also– we don’t all idolize Jobs. That guy was a total ass.“
“The problem with stealing,” Chopra says patiently, “is that it’s not leading. Any idiot can steal. You just look at what works and then copy it. How difficult can that possibly be?“
“Uh, pretty difficult?” I say. “The path to success it littered with a long line of corpses. You need to climb over each and every one of them to get to the top.”
Apparently sensing an opening, Shu smoothly changes gears.
“The thing you should consider,” she says, “is what happens in your absence. Using your knowledge and skills, you have a chance here to be in the room when critical decisions are being made and have a say in what happens. If you walk away now, who knows how things will end up in Xinjiang? Yang will just bring in another team to head the project and it could eventually all end in famine or genocide, especially given the direction things are currently going. You could prevent that.”
I search my conscience. Do I care that countless millions of total strangers from a province that I’ve never set foot in could possibly die if I did nothing? Indonesia in 1965; the Khmer Rouge in in the 1970s; Rwanda in 1994? Am I swayed?
As soon as Shu tries to guilt me along this tact, my brain immediately formulates its own counter-rationalizations: First, it’s not immediately clear to me at all that with my help, things will not end up actually being worse. It’s perfectly possible that Yang and his puppeteers behind the curtain take my work and bastardize it, using it for some even greater evil. These massive machine learning models and pipelines that data scientists build are tools. And once you’ve built the actual tool, how one uses it is an entirely different matter altogether. For example, the same image recognition software that helps a mother find her lost child in a crowded mall could be the same software that helps a totalitarian dictator hunt down and assassinate political opponents. To a computer, a human face is just a face. In all those old 007 secret agent movies, there’s always a “head scientist” who works for the Bond supervillain and if I’m not careful, I could totally unwittingly become that scientific accessory to evil. A supervillain-enabler. Most definitely not a good look and a categorically, maximally undesirable outcome.
Second, in all honesty– I feel a sense of detachment. I know that makes me a horrible and heartless human but, unfortunately and inconveniently, it’s simply just true. (At least if I’m being honest with myself.) I’d grown up in America all of my life and had led an extremely sheltered and privileged existence. For the most part, two very big oceans had separated me from most of the world’s concerns. And thus, for better or worse, again, if I’m being genuine: In my heart of hearts, I’d grown numb and apathetic to the headlines, especially international headlines, that I’d seen on endless repeat, looping again and again over the many years and decades now. Mass starvations in Darfur or thousands dying from drought in Ethiopia and Somalia. Even when I read about those events, they just felt like they were far away, in another galaxy and solar system.
Appealing to my desire to possibly prevent genocide is a losing argument. And, give her credit, Shu seems to read from my expression that she’s failed to persuade me or move the needle at all. Apparently, this card wasn’t the ace that she’d thought she’d had.
I see her flash a quick glance at Vanessa, who’s still standing with Alan across the room. It’s probably imperceptible to most, but I notice that Vanessa gives a smallest of nods back. Apparently, the Queen Bee has given her underling some kind of greenlight on, well, something.
“Very well then,” Shu says, sighing. “I guess there’s really only thing left to show you at this point.”
Chopra and I look at each other.
“Oh, come on,” Shu says as she puts her hand on my forearm and bats those long, alluring lashes again. “You’ve come all this way, from so far. Aren’t you at least a little curious? It’ll only take a bit.” She looks at all of the others, assembled in the room. “You can all come to see. I promise it’ll be worth your while. You won’t want to decide on anything yet without seeing this first.”