Continue reading “Story – Introduction + Changelog”
Continue reading “Story – Introduction + Changelog”
|Tuesday – 11/24||Xi’an: The Unconnected City||Chapter 7.1|
|Wednesday – 11/25||Two-Year Mandatory National Service||Chapter 7.2|
|Thursday – 11/26||Jack’s Estate, Amanda Bao, Turtles, Here Be Dragons||Chapter 7.3|
|Friday – 11/27||Reverie||Chapter 7.4|
|Saturday – 11/28||The Jack Bao Story||Chapter 7.5|
|Wednesday – 12/2||The Yun Bao Story||Chapter 7.6|
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”