Continue reading “Story – Introduction + Changelog”
Continue reading “Story – Introduction + Changelog”
|Thursday – 12/3||The Xi’an Coliseum and Chinese Communist Youth League||Chapter 8.1|
|Thursday – 12/3||The Arc of History May Be Long But It Bends Towards Communism||Chapter 8.2|
|Sunday – 12/6||“Shared Experience Holds Together a Society.”||Chapter 8.3|
|Tuesday – 12/8||Heat||Chapter 8.4|
|Wednesday – 12/9||“This Reminds Me of My First Marriage.”||Chapter 8.5|
|Thursday – 12/10||Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)||Chapter 8.6|
“Banishment to the end of the world is not without its perks,” Jack says to me over a tub of greasy fried chicken. As the fifth richest man in China, you might have thought that Jack Bao would’ve possessed a more sophisticated palate, a sense of taste more Per Se than KFC. But nope. No Michelin stars for Jack here.
The crowd roars as the contestants in the coliseum complete another lap around the track. I look around from our perch on the stone bleachers and take it all in again. The tumult is deafening and I marvel at simply how unbelievably gigantic the stadium is. Back in the day, way back when, the Romans had built a Colosseum for gladiatorial combat too, an effort by the noblemen and chief magistrate to give the plebians some entertainment to help them pass their miserable days. But the architectural skills of the ancient Romans were nothing compared to the architectural prowess of the modern-day Chinese. The Colosseum in Rome looks like a Lego play toy compared to what the Chinese have built here in Xi’an.
The Chinese Coliseum is at least four times larger than its Roman counterpart and spans an area of nearly twenty hectares. I’m uncertain but I’m pretty sure it’s even larger than the Rungrado Stadium in North Korea, which was once the largest stadium in the entire world. (It briefly crosses my mind that building gigantic venues for entertaining the unwashed and destitute masses appears to be a common autocratic strategy for keeping the peace.)
In Xi’an, after they instituted the “一年不科技程序”1 for all training cadets, the CCP quickly realized that no matter the culture, no matter how obedient, if you coralled tens of thousands of teenagers together for an entire year and didn’t give them a strict regimin of how to spend that time, you’re going to have chaos on your hands. It’ll simply degenerate into utter and complete pandamonium. Thus, a strict schooling and training curriculumn had been created. But additionally, entertainment was necessary. Even the Chinese people, with their insane study work ethics, couldn’t just hit the books all day. And thus, the Xi’an Coliseum was born.
In addition to being an architectural wonder, Xi’an Coliseum also hosts Training Contests every weekend. Tens of thousands of 18-year-olds arrive in Xi’an every year in order to complete their one-year of “no-technology” training. And upon arrival, like any good training program, they’re divided into teams and expected to perform at athletic competitions every weekend. The exercise supposedly fosters a sense of comradery and cooperation among the youths, all while instilling in them the many virtues of communism and why the west and its capitalist ways are decadent and lesser. It’s all part of the intricately planned Communist Youth League program that’s been at the core of China’s Communist Leadership for over 150 years now.
When you have a unitary state, such as Communist China’s, the question of generational turnover and leadership very quickly surface. Back in the US, I was so accustomed to democracy that political succession honestly never really crossed my mind. It just seemed obvious to me, back then at least, that every four years America had elections and that’s how we decided our leaders.
But in China, there are no elections. There is no democracy. The citizens aren’t allowed to, and do not, vote. So how does it work exactly? When I’d asked Alan about this, he’d patiently explained the intricate pipeline of the CCP politburo ascendancy to me. We’d been waiting in the concessions line at the Coliseum waiting for smoked sausages on sticks (a delicious snack popular among the commoners).
“So China is big, right?” Alan says gesturing with his hands to indicate the immensity of the country. “It essentially occupies most of Asia, the way the US occupies most of America.”
“Sure,” I say, “assuming you discount the entirety of Canada and Mexico. But okay, let’s roll with it.”
“So we may not have states like you Americans,” says Alan, “but China has provinces, which for all intents and purposes, function in a similar fashion. While everyone obviously ultimately answers to the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, realistically, seven people are not going to govern the entirety of China’s 1.4 billion citizens.”
“Obviously. Doesn’t exactly take a super-genius to conclude that.”
“Patience, grasshopper. So, what you’ve got instead are 34 different provinces in China, each with its own provincial committee, committee secretary, and governor. The province’s governor is the local authority on the ground in the region. And the committee secretary is the interface between the CCP’s politburo and the governor. All are appointed positions. Following so far?”
Our smoked sausage line inches forward and I nod my head. “I think so.”
“So, I guess, crudely, you could call the system a Laboratory of Communism,” Alan says, “for lack of better words. Starting with the Communist Youth League, CCP leadership identifies promising youths who may one day transition to a higher seat within the party. To this day, that entire process remains fraught.”
“So we may not have formal political parties like you guys do in America. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have factionalism.” Alan looks around to make sure no one is listening and then says more quietly, “the current CCP power structure has been divided between two major coalitions for the past 150 years– the Princelings and the Populists.”
I nod. This makes sense, actually. In the west, whether it be the Chinse Communist Party, or the USSR before that, communism was always portrayed as some all-mighty, unitary, monolithic entity. But that of course would be overly reductive and simplified. The CCP, like any governmental bureaucracy was rife with warring factions, each with their own political ideologies, heroes, and villains. How else did you expect a government of 1.4 billion to function?
“The Princelings,” Alan explains, “are your typical heredity successionists. The current crop alongside Xi dates back to people who were at Mao’s side back in the 1930 when Mao’s Red Party first rose and seized power. Xi’s grandfather, Xi Zhongxun was literally at Mao’s side 1949 when Mao first declared the People Republic of China its own independent nation state having defeated Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT party for control over the country.”
“And on the other side?”
“Well, you’ve got the populists. It’s your usual story– people who believe political power isn’t the sole right of some royal bloodline.”
There is something inordinately absurd to me that one of the CCP’s main political factions is essentially an elitist, hereditary bloodline but I don’t say anything. I’m curious to see how deep this rabbit hole goes.
“Civilization,” Jack says to us airily, “needs its monuments to human progress. Testaments that remind us all how far we have risen as a society. That while alone we may be specks of dust in the wind. But together, we bend the arc of history towards communism! To the Chinese Dream!” He sweeps his arm expansively. “These, my friends, are The Games.“
I’m unsure what I’m expecting exactly. But what I see before me at the center of the Xi’an Coliseum certainly does not disappoint.
Laid out at the center of the Coliseum is a padded obstacle course– very similar to an old American television show that I’d once watched clips about on YouTube: American Gladiator. There were apparently seven teams competing for eternal glory. But in order to be crowned the victor, they had to cross, relay-style, nine different obstacles in their paths. The obstacles, it appeared, increased significantly in difficult as the course progressed.
“That first one is a cakewalk,” Jack explains. The man consumes liquor like water and so despite it being only midmorning, he’s already three sheets to the wind. “All you need to do is cross the 30 meter-long beam without falling into the mud pit below. It’s a piece of cake.”
The starting pistol goes off and we watch the contestants fly off the starting blocks. They are kids, basically, supposed eighteen years old but they honestly look much younger. To indicate their team, they all wear matching colored shirts and shorts. They look like an army of miniature Power Rangers.
With an agility and speed that I didn’t think possible, they sprint across the 30-meter high beam with zero difficulty and hand their batons off to their teammates, who then take off sprinting.
“Next,” Jack commentates, “you’ve got the net-rope-wall.”
Indeed, the next obstacle is a vertical wall of netting that looks like it was requisitioned off some 14th-century pirate ship. The kids reach the netting all at roughly the same time and begin scampering up it like monkeys. The dexterity is inhuman.
“This is crazy,” Coleman says. “How are these kids in such insanely excellent shape?”
“Well, you’re saying the Championship Round,” says Li. “So they are the very best of this year’s crop. That said, the CCP expects all of its citizens, men and women, to be of a certain physical condition. It’s mandated by the state.”
I think back to my days of youth. Most of my days were spent playing Xbox or PlayStation. And while I was never exactly fat, per se, I also could never in a million years navigate an obstacle course replete with rock climbing walls, giant foam battering pendulums, springboards the way these kids are doing.
Finally, on the fourth obstacle, the course takes its first casualty.
The challenge is to navigate a series of monkey bars like you’re at the jungle gym. For the life of me, I can’t imagine even attempting the challenge– the upper body strength you’d need must be spectacular. A girl in a red shirt who’s maybe in third place finally loses her grip after trying to swing from one bar to the next and plunges in the muddy depths, ten meters below and there’s a collective gasp of both awe and disappointment from the crowd.
“This is unreal,” says Deepak looking around at the crowd who are on their feet cheering. “In India we also have national service but it’s nothing like this. I think I spent my time digging ditches. You guys have gone ahead and turned it into a full-sail spectator sport though. This is unbelievable.”
“All in the name of national cohesion,” Jack says without taking his eyes off the games. “Might as well kill two birds with one stone, right?”
Looking around, I also see that all eyes are on the games. This is spectacle with purpose. The Chinese bystanders are totally absorbed; all their attention fixated. For many of them, in this city with no electricity, this event was probably the highlight of their week. At least until next week. Apparently, this is how you keep peace in a land of billions.
On the fifth obstacle, the boy wearing a blue shirt mistimes his step and gets full-on body-slammed by the foam wrecking ball. He goes flying into the mud pit ten meters below. Such a shame too because the blue team was in the lead with only two obstacles left. The crowd collectively wails in disappointment.
“So sports betting is a thing?” says Kristen looking around. Tons of people are throwing away their ticket stubs in disgust. It’s down to the yellow and black teams who are vying for the lead into the final stretch. Apparently, the teams save their more athletic and best for the final leg of the relay. They’re neck and neck– the final obstacle is apparently an Indiana Jones-inspired obstacle– you need to make it across a platform of tiles and inscribed on each tile is a number. Spy the pattern to step on the right tile. But step on the wrong tile and it crumbles beneath you, plunging you into the mud pits below.
“Jesus, this is unreal,” says Coleman. “You’ve gotta solve brain teasers too?”
“All part of the curriculum,” Li says, shrugging. “Not just about brawn. You gotta be able to think fast on your feet.”
Their pace have slowed considerably and all of the teams are at the final obstacle now. I can’t make out the exact numbers on the tiles but I guess it must be something like figuring out the next number in the Fibonacci sequence or something. Or maybe they’re multiplying giant three-digit and four-digit numbers together in their heads. Who knows.
The girl in the yellow shirt and a boy in a black shirt are virtually tied. And the crowd is at this point on its feet cheering. They’re a mere several meters from the end.
Two tiles from the finish line the girl in the yellow shirt steps on the wrong tile and it crumbles beneath her; she hurtles down into the mud pit, arms reaching upwards, her face a mask of shock. The crowd goes absolutely insane.
The boy in the black shirt makes it to the finish line and wins the event. He grabs the golden trophy that’s sitting on a silver pedestal awaiting the victor and thrusts it up into the air, victorious and triumphant. The crowd roars and I can feel the stone amphitheater shake beneath me. It’s complete pandemonium and my ear drums feel like they’re about to burst. I don’t know it until then, but I suddenly realize that I am too am on my feet, apparently swept away in the moment like everyone else.
The rest of the world slowly comes back into focus and I look over at Jack who’s beaming.
“Freaking better than YouTube and videogames, eh?”
After the obstacle race, there is a raging afterparty that’s held on the top level of the Coliseum. As the plebeians of Xi’an file outside, we stick around in our seats for a while longer and I watch a small army of Chinese janitorial staff begin dismantling and cleaning the obstacle course.
“They take it apart after every competition?” Kristen asks curiously.
“The grand competitions take place the final Sunday of every month,” Alan explains. “Each time the configuration of the course is different. The obstacles themselves are the same but they’re arranged differently.”
“And occasionally,” Jack says, his eyes twinkling, “they even introduce a new obstacle!” He slaps Alan on the back. “Ah, grand times! Grand times!”
From my stone bleacher, I watch the custodial staff, all decked out in matching grey one-piece suits, attack the cleaning job. There must be at least a hundred of them and they are well-coordinated, moving briskly and efficiently, as if on some invisible timer. They work in small groups of three-to-five people and quickly move to their respective tasks. A handful of groups begins draining the mud swamp. Two other groups work on dismantling the scaffolding for the monkey-bar obstacle. So on and so forth.
I can’t help but think back to what manual labor unions look like in America where it takes a dozen grown men an entire morning to fill a pothole in an asphalt street. At the rate they’re working, the legion of Chinese custodians will have cleared and cleaned the entire obstacle course in under an hour.
For the larger sheet metal that needs to come down, several teams of the Chinese cleaning men and women work a complicated-looking mechanical pulley crane to take down individual sheets before placing them on steel gurneys to be wheeled away by other teams. Bereft of any kind of electronics or technology, they need to hoist the giant sheets down with nothing but thick twine rope, six people to a side, collectively lowering the sheet metal until it’s safely reached the ground.
“So these are all 18-year old trainees, actually,” Li says to me. I turn and apparently she’s noticed that I seem to be more fascinated by the ongoings of the deconstruction and cleanup crew than I am by the free-flowing alcohol.
“Isn’t it dangerous, doing so much by hand?” I ask. “It seems unnecessarily risky and old-school. Simple industrial grade machinery would make this whole process a hundred times safer.”
“Tsk, tsk,” Li clicks her tongue. “You Americans are always so concerned about safety. Yes, of course people get hurt every month. Minor or major injuries. Every few years, at least one of the kids will even die on the job, an unfortunate fatal accident usually caused by carelessness. It’s part of their training to cycle through all of the activities though, including cleaning, construction, and maintenance.”
“You think it builds character?”
“That and comradery and empathy and respect.” Li looks at me. “In America I know you westerners outsource your cleaning to a lower class. And to be fair, we do too, once the kids become adults. But in the beginning, for at least a single year, every Chinese citizen, no matter how rich or from what background, or whatever their family name, will learn what it means to mop grime off of public restroom stall tiles, plunge toilets, and–” she motions to the obstacle course rapidly being deconstructed “–work in teams to accomplish dangerous tasks.
“Laws don’t hold a society together, Dexter,” she says to me. “Shared experience does.”
“For instance,” Li says to me as she points over at a small team of teenagers trying to dismantle a scaffolding of steel beams, “over there, you’ve got 18-year old Ming Tao, the heiress of Tao family fortune, working side by side with 18-year old Zhi Zhen Wong, scion of the Wong family fortune. The Taos are an ancient bloodline that dates back to the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Great-Great-Great Grandpa Tao started with a single aluminum canning factory that canned tuna and sardines. Three generations later, the Taos are the steel magnates of China, one of the two major manufacturers of the metal.”
I follow Li’s gaze and see a small group of Chinese youths indeed working very efficiently. They’re working as if they’re being timed; which I guess they probably are.
“And?” I ask.
Li rolls her eyes. “And the Wongs are the rival steel manufacturing family.”
“Ah.” I frown. “Wait, but they don’t–“
“–of course they don’t. Mandatory two year service is required of everyone. But the wealthier families will of course submit their children to the national training regime under pseudonym. For security and privacy purposes.”
“So you’ve essentially got a modern-day Montague and Capulet situation going on here then?” I say. To my American, fan-fiction writing mind, this arrangement is positively wild.
Li shrugs. “Maybe and maybe not. But the National Program takes great lengths to place, let’s say, optimally. Of course, the cadets are all informed that placement is wholly random.”
“Which is a lie, of course.”
“Of course,” scoffs Li. “That goes without saying. Millions of 18-year-olds filter through this program in Xi’an every year. The organizing committee–“
“–who I’m guessing you’re of course familiar with–“
“–yes, but of course–” Li bats her eyelashes coquettishly, “but more to the point– once the kids are handed off to the National Training Regime, great pains have been taken to build a Chinese Wall between the civilian and military arms of China. And the National Training Regime falls under military jurisdiction.”
“So the idea is that all of that Tao family aluminum money won’t help Ming here.” I say. To say the least, I’m a tiny bit skeptical. That’s akin to saying in America that a Bush or Obama somehow went into service and was given zero preferential treatment.
“Well,” Li says, “it actually works better than you might imagine. As you know honor of the family name is still a big deal here. You may be training under pseudonym, but cadets are still assigned to barracks–“
Li searches the air a moment, apparently trying to figure out a suitable analogy for my apparently uncivilized and puny American mind.
“Maybe something to your Gry-fan-dor home or Pufflehuff house system?”
“That’s the United Kingdom, an entire ocean away, but okay– I get your point.”
Li shrugs. “Whatever. All is the same to us. West is simply the West.” She continues, “In China’s two-year system, there is likewise a ‘House Cup’ conceit and the barracks which scores the most points per each year will win eternal glory and go onto the Wall,” Li explains. “Similar to your Top Gun program of your Tom Cruise? So it behooves the teams to work together in all of their interests. Finishing poorly likewise bring eternal shame upon your family name.”
I nodded. In a ridiculously twisted way, I’m starting to slowly understand how China’s authoritarian and behemoth autocratic system has survived so long, amidst an ocean of western liberalism. Buffeting always against inexorable tides of progressivism and human rights constantly crashing against its shores.
“For instance,” Li says, “now that they are about to finish cleaning, “inspectors will come in to evaluate the quality of their effort.”
As Li speaks, I see teams of adults now descent upon the scene; these people are dressed in pale-blue jumpsuits and have clipboards in hand. They are apparently here to judge.
“China is not as large as you might imagine,” says Li. “Swift shame accompanies any hint or scandal or impropriety or preferential treatment. So it’s in the wealthy and powerful’s interest to keep the identities of their children secret throughout the course of the program.”
Having finished at Xi’an Coliseum, we decided to get lunch before catching our late-afternoon train out of Northlight Station and continue our westward journey. Since there was no electricity allowed in Xi’an, I was intrigued by how they would manage powering a giant city of twelve million people.
Well, it turns out all you need is steam power.
In the olden days, writers and artists often fantasized about a genre called “steampunk”— an essentially alternate timeline of history where 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery rose to prominence and we never developed electric motors. Instead, as the namesake suggests, steam is primary means of power. And to create steam, you needed a steam engine which meant you need gigantic boilers that heated water to create a heat engine.
And while I was aware of the genre, it never struck me that the basis of steampunk was actually rooted in reality. This wasn’t like writing about fantastical warp gates and other outer space figments of the imagination like orbital defense platforms and trillion-zillion ton battlecruisers. Steampunk was rooted in actual real-life technology, an imagining of what that version of history could’ve possible looked like.
And Xi’an is a very real-life manifestation of those imaginings.
“When you talk about power,” explains Kristen, “everyone’s always thinking about electric engines with is –surprise, surprise–using the movement of electrons to power an engine. But before Edison and Westinghouse pushed electrons, we pushed heat. I’m not going to bore you with the details, but to convert thermal energy into mechanical energy, you need to create heat some way. You can burn wood, boil water, or burn diesel, ethanol, or fossil fuels.”
Kristen, it turns out, actually studied mechanical engineering at some point and was, for some reason, well-versed in thermonuclear dynamics.
“Ah, here we are,” says Li. We’ve been riding in the horse-drawn carriage until now, on the way to lunch. On our way, we passed through the industrial district of Xi’an which was filled with giant factories. Smokestacks reaching high into the sky, expelling giant plumes of black clouds into the sky.
“Wow, that makes for wonderfully breathable air,” Coleman had remarked, pointing. “All doing our bit for the earth, I see.”
In the giant factories, I’d see giant mechanical shafts turning. Gears and cogs whirled away. As far as I could tell, all of the power was generated from the burning done at the base of the gigantic smokestack and then apparently distributed throughout the rest of the factory via giant turning rods and axels that whirled away, driving ever smaller roads and axels. It was a massive, well-greased machine that was mechanical through-and-through.
As we’re driving by, a bell suddenly shrilly starts ringing in one of the factories and I turn to see what the commotion is all about. A small group of Chinese men are running towards one of the driveshafts and I see smoke pouring out of one of the complicated-looking contraptions.
“Electric engines are wonderful for productivity and efficiency,” Jack says, “but that’s not what Xi’an is built for.” He gestures to the hubbub, “the challenge with mechanical energy like this, in addition to being horribly inefficient and losing a ton of energy by sheer heat loss, is that it’s fragile.“
I watch all of the Chinese youths scramble around to try to troubleshoot the problem. One of the driveshafts has malfunctioned and stopped turning. But luckily the others still spinning, their respective belts and conveyors still whirling away. If you build such an intricate but fragile cog-work system, redundancy appears to be of paramount importance.
“You’re saying that it really takes a village to keep the entire operation running smoothly,” I say.
“So you’ve deliberately set back the entire city two centuries in order to foster a greater sense of interconnectedness,” says Deepak. “It was a generation when people actually needed to cooperate or things would literally fall apart.”
“Precisely,” Jacks says. “Make no mistake, “Xi’an in so many ways is so bad. Bad for the environment. We burn a metric ton of wood to produce the same amount of electrical energy you could easy get with solar in a few days. But what we get back with this time capsule city is an age when people actually needed to rely on each other. An era when neighbors actually knew and talked to each other. Because if they didn’t, they simply wouldn’t survive.”
Our carriage slowly draws away from the factory where the Chinese men in blue coveralls are still troubleshooting the broken driveshaft and another thought suddenly occurs to me. The entire steampunk system that the CCP has constructed here in Xi’an drives another message into the 18-year-old trainees every year: Just like individual gears and cogs that the trainees were maintaining, the trainees themselves were at very least subconsciously being indoctrinated that they too were fungible and easily replaceable. In America, every schoolchild is taught that every American is unique and special. That we all have gifts and something only we can contribute to this society and world.
But in China, the message in this communist country is the opposite. Every Chinese citizen is part of something greater, to be sure. But each person, on their own, is also only a simple cog in the great machinery. Building on this metaphor, a more complicated aggregate component like a driveshaft or steam turbine may then be considered a municipality– the larger, more important ones being maybe considered the alpha cities– your Shanghais and Beijings. But the message was loud and clear– the whole is infinitely more important than any individual constituent piece.
I don’t know what CCP politburo member dreamed up this whole “everyone-18-year-old-spends-a-year-in-Xi’an-steampunk-world” system, but it’s ingenious. Implementation and execution aside –no easy feat, to be sure– just on a purely psychological brainwashing-level of the Chinese youth, it’s seriously Mensa-tier strategic thinking.
Deepak and Coleman start some debate with Kristen over the finer points around the laws of thermonuclear dynamics (a bit absurd considering their respective backgrounds) but I mentally check out and begin thinking over the situation in Xinjiang with Uyghurs. That’s the project we were brought here to help solve, after all. The crux of all of the civil unrest there lies in the fact that there’s a fundamental philosophical chasm between the Uyghurs and the rest of China. But how to bridge this divide?
Jack feels like someone who might be able to give some insight on our predicament in Xinjiang so during lunch, I ask him about his opinion on the region. You might think that Jack, someone who the CCP has taken so much from, would be incredibly hostile towards the communist party and it’s treated the Uyghurs in the region. But Jack’s response surprises me.
We’re sitting in a noodle shop and just about the only ones there. It’s hot and there’s a fan blowing. Jack swirls his tumbler of gin around pauses a moment; a crease appears between his eyebrows and then disappears.
“So what this reminds me of,” he says slowly, “is the story of my first two marriages.”
Kristen cups her chin with hers hands and leans forward. “Oh, this sounds like it’s going to be good.”
Even Li’s appeared to have perked up a bit.
“So honestly, one of the many mistakes that I made at least in my first marriage was that eventually –and if you’ve ever been married long enough, you’ll totally understand this– but eventually, you’ll get into fights that actually have nothing whatsoever to do with what you’re fighting about. Every fight is simply a proxy for a deeper issue. In my first marriage that went off the rails, it was all about control. She resented that I expected her to maintain a certain image and pretense. And I resented that she didn’t understand how business worked.”
“Where was Wife #1 falling short?” Deepak asks delicately. For whatever reason, Deepak’s apparently taken a sudden interest in the subject.
Jack waves his hand dismissively, “Ah, the details don’t really matter. I don’t even remember them much now anyways. But it eventually became a battle for territory. Every bickering and conflict stemmed from a fundamental difference in values. I was a high-ranking executive at Weibook then and we’d attend ceremonies and such. I expected her to be there. And so she was always deliberately absent. I expected her to stay at home to raise our children. And so she was always gallivanting around to pursue her own career or interests.”
I manage to keep my face neutral but I do feel like that there’s more to the story that we’re not getting. But I don’t press.
“Being married,” Jack says contemplatively, “is not like running a company. When you run a company, especially one your family has founded, you possess the authority to simply fire people. Terminated, executed, goodbye. And then you can always hire someone new for the role. But in a marriage, you really can’t do that. Well, not without getting divorced–“
“–which you did,” Li contributes.
“Yeah. But that took forfeiting a third of my net worth at the time,” Jack says. “Among other things. Look, it’s different. The dynamics and stakes are wholly different. You’re talking about family– the threat and incentive model needs to be entirely different. You can’t bully or threaten your spouse into a position. This isn’t corporate warfare. It’s a million times harder played on a different field altogether.”
“So you’re saying no amount of hard or soft power that the Xi regime uses will persuade Urumqi?” I ask. Inside, I feel like a deflating balloon.
Jack scoffs. “I’m saying the greater the force that Beijing exerts, the harder that Urumqi will resist. At this point, no one cares about additional crops, new schools and libraries, renovated infrastructure, or any of the carrots that you guys have been trying to dangle in from of the Uyghurs so far. At this point, it’s solely about pride. The Uyghurs will die, to every last man, woman, and child, before they submit to Chinese rule. You’re wanting to destroy their culture, after all. Their entire history as an autonomous people.”
“We’re trying to help them,” Shu says, annoyed. I don’t often see her worked up but it’s clear that she’s grown angry. Her normally soft features have hardened in frustration. “They’re starving in poverty and entirely deficient in education. Is that the world that they wish for their children? Destitute? Ignorant?“
Jack looks at Alan and speaks something in rapid fire Chinese. I’m clearly lost but Alan replies. This goes on for a bit. Throughout the entire exchange, Li’s face hardens and Shu also looks increasingly distraught. This is one of the parts about working in a foreign country that no one ever bothers to tell you about. That as an outsider, there are just going to be giant swathes of critical conversation you simply miss wholesale. But you’re still expected, somehow, to deliver results.
Finally, Alan deigns to fill the rest of us in.
“Jack’s wondering if we have current fatality and mortality rates in Xinjiang– from disease, starvation, crime, accidents, etc.”
“Of course we do,” Coleman says. “That’s all part of the standard corpus.”
“So here’s Jack’s thinking on the matter,” Alan says. “What are the current KPIs of this project?”
KPIs –or Key Performance Indicators– are the critical benchmarks that any data science project is based upon. For example, back in the US on the other projects that I’d slaved away on in the past, KPIs were often mundane metrics that you’d pretty much expect from any pedestrian, vanilla project: The number of new people who enrolled for healthcare during November, the amount of advertising revenue that a marketing campaign was currently generating, etc.
In our case, since project was a bit more exotic, the KPIs of our assignment were likewise more exotic as well. We measured our success in Xinjiang among two primary metrics:
The first was a scorecard gauge of the number of crimes committed in Urumqi on a given particular day. Crimes obvious comes in all flavors of the rainbow –from petty theft to arson to murder– but for our overhead reporting purposes, we had a single summary statistic that aggregated all crime numbers.
By the way, I should take a slight detour to mention here: In data science, the devil is entirely in the details. There’s a famous saying in our profession: “All models are wrong. But some are useful.”
At the score of data science is the desire to make sense of reality around us with numbers– to somehow quantify the ineffable. In a case like looking at the crime statistics in Urumqi, we needed a single number to summarize how are policies were performing in the capital. But if we instituted a policy that decreased petty theft but increased murders in the city, was that a win? All crimes are not so obviously we then need to weight these metrics somehow. But how, and who, determines that? Does every murder equal five incidents of petty theft? Ten incidents? Etc.
As you can see, the entire project quickly turns into a scenario modeling and analysis exercise. For example, we’d devised two models to measure crime differently. Crime, in China, is broadly categorized under three classes: Trivial (Class 1), Moderate (Class 2), and Severe (Class 3). For example: Trivial would be your petty theft or drunken pub brawl (where no one was injured); Moderate would be the vandalization or destruction of property; Severe would be murder or inciting subversion of state power. (Notably, in China, assembling in groups larger than fifty people required a local municipal permit. For instance, a wedding with over fifty guests? You’d need a permit for that. And violation of this mandate would result in a Class 3 violation of Chinese law which carried a hefty fine and, depending on the kind of meeting, imprisonment or even death by execution.)
Our first model had a 3x multiplier for Class 2 crimes and a 10x multiplier for Class 3 crimes.
Our second model featured a 6x multiplier for Class 2 and 15x for Class 3.
But our models were consistently failing to manifest real-world results that we expected. Week after week, the scorecards on our dashboards remained unchanged (or went the wrong direction!); despite the fact that our analyses and models had predicted certain outcomes. But for some reason, in the real world, we were not achieving our KPIs.
After Alan explained the way that we’d set up our models to Jack, Jack had just thrown back his head and laughed.
“Making Urumqi a totalitarian police state, despite whatever you may have been told, is never going to work. Occupation simply breeds hate and resentment which’ll fester. Maybe quietly at first, but make no mistake. It will most certainly boil over.”
“So what do you suggest?” Kristen asks, irritated. I also felt my own collar growing hot. Who was this lazy bum to lecture us on our efforts? What did he know about suppressing minority populations in communist regimes?
“My thought,” Jack says, “is you loosen all of the restrictions. Withdraw. Give it a year or two. Hell, give it maybe six months.
Alan stares. “What?”
“All of the electricity and civil services in the region are entirely reliant on Beijing,” Shu says, “without a Chinese presence, the entire area will degenerate into complete anarchy in a matter of weeks. Supply chains, crops, clean running water…”
Jack waves his hand. “So what? The Uyghurs want freedom? I say, give it to them.” He turns to me, “you westerners have a saying, do you not? The grass is always greener on the other side?” Jack laughs. “There is no grass on the other side! Or if there is, it’s all yellow, dying, and dead!”
I turn to Alan, “Just out of curiosity, what would have happened if Beijing withdrew from the region? This is nothing we’ve never modeled, right?”
Alan frowns. Of all of the hundreds of scenarios that we’d entertained and tried over the weeks, simply giving up and going home had definitely not been anything that anyone had thought of. His forehead creases in that way which always happens when he’s consternated.
“Well,” Alan says slowly, Kazakhstan would most definitely see a withdrawal of that magnitude. They’d most definitely be shocked. It’s been over a century of contesting that geographic region. To suddenly pick up and just go home…”
“Guys, wait up. You’ve all just spent weeks telling me how Xi and China is the most honor-bound society on the planet. Even if this plan somehow yielded results, which is still dubious to me, what on earth makes you think that Beijing will go along with this? Wouldn’t this be an ultimate sign of great shame and surrender?”
“I’ve got it.” Deepak says suddenly and we all turn to him. “Coleman’s right, of course. Beijing will never just withdraw from the region voluntarily. But if we manufactured pretext… if we somehow, someway provided a reason to withdraw…”
“…you mean something like a natural disaster?” says Shu. She taps her fingers against her lips. “Something like–“
“–something like a man-made disaster,” Kristen finishes the thought. I realized what Deepak was getting at a split second before Kristen did but it makes sense. In the most awful, frightening way possible, it makes sense.
“You want to manufacture a kind of biological crisis,” I say aloud. “In one fell swoop, it would solve all of the problems. Some of the old guard, which has been the most resistant to Chinese control, would be the most vulnerable. And the new generation, the most politically active, have the softest hands the world has ever seen. China’s weened them for years now to use smartphones and computers– this a is a generation that couldn’t milk a cow or farm agriculture if their lives depended on it.”
“By withdrawing Chinese support for maybe a year after they were to accidentally receive some kind of plague would send the entire region into chaos,” says Alan, “hundreds of thousands would likely die. Maybe more depending on the potency of the biological agent.”
Jack nabs the final shrimp dumpling from the dim sum bowl. The old man honestly looks the most alive I’ve seen him since we’d arrived on our trip yesterday. He chews slowly and thoughtfully, and then swallows.
“Maybe,” Jack says. “But you’ve gotta admit– it really could be the answer to all of your problems. It really could.”