|Friday – 12/11||The New Plan||Chapter 9.1|
|Saturday – 12/12||Manufacturing Pretext for Chinese Withdrawal||Chapter 9.2|
|Sunday – 12/13||The Importance of Public Minority Opposition Parties and a City Upon a Hill||Chapter 9.3|
|Monday – 12/14||“In Times of Great Need, Everyone’s Suddenly a Democrat.”||Chapter 9.4|
|Tuesday – 12/15||Visiting Governor Wu’s Office||Chapter 9.5|
|Wednesday – 12/16||Catalyst||Chapter 9.6|
Chapter Nine – Passage One
Launching a targeted super-virus into a major metropolitan area is easier said than done. Logistically, there were a thousand different things that could go wrong. First, like any good data science project, we needed to define our parameters. At the top of that list, obviously, were human fatalities.
“Whatever solution you devise,” Jack had told us on the platform as we were about to depart Xi’an, “it simply must do no worse than the current situation on the ground. As long as Beijing sees that you’re moving in the right direction, you’ll be fine. The Chinese are a patient people. We don’t expect overnight successes; in fact, we highly suspect any achievement not borne of years and decades of pain and suffering. But we do expect improvement. Always.”
Jack’s words ring in my head as I watch the scenery blow past outside our speeding train window. We’re back in modern civilization again and it’s nice to be back in the land of chrome-plated expresso machines, laptops, and gigabit wireless internet. Though I’d enjoyed the quaint retro-steampunk world of Xi’an the two days that we were there, I was ready to return to the twenty-first century. It was time.
Before, we’d been thinking too small. Trying to use conventional means to reduce civil unrest and turmoil in Xinjiang. What I’d realized after our two-day jaunt in Xi’an was that people’s behavior in Urumqi was far more complex than just simple toggles and switches on a dashboard. We’d tried the carrot and we’d tried the stick. Both had totally failed miserably. It was time to bring out the Tomahawk missiles.
Besides, we were nearing the end of the second month of our engagement and so far we’d delivered no results. No, even worse than no results. We’d spent tons of time, energy, and money. But some policies had actually further deteriorated the situation on the ground in Urumqi. Negative results. I must admit– though I had not contemplated it before, I sure as hell was now thinking about it: What was the price of failure?
In America, even if you’re on a total debacle of a project, if it sends in total failure and catastrophe, while the project’s very public head –say, like the Secretary of Health and Human Services– may be sacked in a show of public accountability, most consultants like myself simply slink away unscathed. We’ve already collected our tens or hundreds of thousand dollars in fees; our job is done! And then we simply conveniently leave off the dumpster fire of a project from our CVs when we gallivant off onto our next engagement. All is well.
But here, in China, I begin to wonder if the consequences of abject failure are similarly so nonchalant?
Similar concerns seem to be weighing on Kristen’s mind too because she’s been surprisingly open to this new direction. That is to say– she’s been very quiet; I would’ve expected more loud protests of outrage, disbelief, and umbrage at the thought of making tens of thousands of people severely ill, if not worse, but she’s taken this recent turn of events in stride.
“So the bare minimum,” Kristen says to me over the train dining table, “is that whatever solution we propose, there simply cannot be more fatalities than are currently happening. But on what time horizon?”
“Let’s say– a year,” I suggest. I also have my laptop in front of my and am punching in numbers as we speak, to just explore this scenario a bit, to see what kind of outcomes we might be looking at. Or as they say: See the possibility space.
“So we know the Xinjiang and Kazakhstani border is currently among the most disputed in the world. Maybe only second to the Gaza Strip. If we loop in those casualty numbers, it’ll give us much more to work with than just using the Urumqi crime statistics.”
I nod knowingly. This shifty little maneuver, an underhanded technique that data scientists often use when they’re trying to argue for a particular case in their favor, we call: Moving the goalposts.
I examine the map to see the contested hot zone– it’s a region along the border by the small Kazakhstani town of Horogos. Is this to become our new West Bank?
Of all of us, Coleman is the one with the most trepidation towards this new direction, however. The prospect of killing thousands of innocent people hangs over him like a dark spectre.
“Guys– you are not seriously considering Jack’s idea, are you?” he says, clearly dumbfounded. “These… these are war crimes we’re talking about.”
“War crimes,” Deepak replies, “is having hundreds and thousands of your own citizens dying every year from poverty, random missile attacks, and suicide bombings in the public market. That should be a war crime. How many of innocent citizens have died from the terrorist violence that’s currently going on down there today?”
“But that is not state-sanctioned violence!” Coleman protests. “What you’re proposing here is knowingly committing atrocities.“
“Wait, hold up,” Kristen says holding up her hands. “No one is talking about killing tens of thousands of people. In fact, if everything goes right, no one will die at all.”
“Oh, really?” Coleman says dubiously.
“We’re talking about a moderate biological agent. Something that people might get ill from; but they’ll make full recoveries! With these kind of programs, the fear, especially in the beginning, is what prompts action. We’re not setting out to kill anyone year– just make them a little sick.”
Ah, I see. This is clearly how we sleep at night. Clearly.
“We just need to manufacture pretext for Chinese withdraw from the region,” Alan chimes in. “A bunch of people will get the flu but everyone will ultimately be fine.”
As we’re discussing this ludicrous idea, I do notice how everyone is conveniently omitting talking about the second part of Jack’s plan, which for some reason everyone’s suddenly become very fond of. Assuming some biological agent we create doesn’t mutate into a super-virus and turn into the next Bubonic Plague that slaughters everyone, Jack’s entire proposal hinges on the idea that after Chinese withdrawal, the Uyghurs will turn on themselves; that in the absence of Chinese infrastructure and support, the entire region will degenerate into a chaotic morass of death and destruction. No one mentions this part.
Chapter Nine – Passage Two
Manufacturing pretext for a Chinese withdrawal from Xinjiang is now top-of-mind for everyone involved. We’re due to arrive in Urumqi in just under six hours and at that time, the Premier of the Western Provinces will be expecting a full report of our analysis and recommendations of further action. We had two months to put together a plan. And of course we’re going to do it all in six hours. It always, without fail, happens this way. But of course.
Luckily, we’re on a state-of-the-art train with highspeed wireless internet. And everyone’s also brought their laptops, of course. We have six hours to bang out a killer report for the Premier. It’s do-or-die time.
On consulting projects, the way it works is that the client –in this case, the Chinese Communist Party– often approaches us with some kind of general question. It always starts because the client is unhappy with something. On most traditional projects I’d done previously , it was about how to incentivize more people to sign up for health insurance or how to persuade more customers to buy Widget X this Christmas season. Projects can come in all kinds of flavors, but the two most popular are “one-time reports and recommendations” and “long-run projects.” With “one-time reports,” those simply require analysis of a previous event. For example, the giant American airport, LAX, had contacted us one summer to request that we help them analyze the catastrophic Christmas season that they’d had the previous year. Due to weather snarls, TSA security lines had taken hours, hundreds of passengers had missed flights, and it’s been a complete debacle from beginning to end, making national headlines. It was such a bad look that LAX had engaged us to perform a one-time analysis of why that particular Christmas had been so calamitous– they were keen to learn lessons and insights to prevent such disaster from ever happening again in future Christmas seasons. We engaged, worked on the project for a month, delivered a report and final presentation, and that was that.
And then there are “long-run campaigns.” These are projects that possess long, multi-month time horizons and are demarcated along some specific start-date, like the start of the World Cup or the Olympics. We prepare ideas and materials to help a clients gather ideas on how to acquire purchases or impressions (general brand awareness). Timewise, these projects are demarcated into two distinct phases: “Before Go-Live” and “After Go-Live.” As the name suggests, the client keeps us engaged (and keeps paying us!) after the “Go-Live” of the event and we stick around to continue monitoring traffic, incoming revenue, page click-throughs, etc. All is done in real-time and then we continue to give the client recommendations on places the campaign may be falling short, places we are doing well, and places where we think we might be able to do even better.
Meeting Premier Wu in Urumqi was the first in-person meeting with the top-brass that we’d be having with the CCP. So far, my entire time in China had been abstract, hidden away in the JFL in Jinshui. But things were about to get much more real. If we didn’t impress Premier Wu, I suspected our trip in China would become far less comfortable than the luxury that’d we been treated to so far.
“Right now, the problem is that the people perceive the benefits of public dissent more favorable than they fear the consequences of being caught,” I say, thinking aloud. “So we’re hoping that by elevating the costs, we can deter the undesirable behavior.”
“Instilling fear only works though if it’s not a hollow threat,” Deepak says. “If you threaten that some virus has suddenly swept the land, people may barricade themselves at home for maybe a week or two. But eventually, you know that someone will most definitely wander outside.”
I reflect on my own experience. Deepak is definitely right on the mark. There’s always that guy. The one who simply must know with his own two hands and his own two eyes. Normally, I’m rooting for him; but this one time, he’s a sore thorn in our sides.
“No matter the situation, there will always be the risk-takers; people who climb free solo,” Kristen says. “The key to making this work will be to identify these people and make examples out of them.”
Coleman stares. “Guys, we’re not wantonly killing hundreds of people just to set an example.”
“No, of course not,” I agree. The beginning of an inchoate idea is beginning to congeal in my head. Like a ship far off in the fog slowly drifting closer, I begin to make out its faint outline. Ideas are born in our minds by millions of neurons and synapses firing away, like electric impulses in a thunderstorm. I have no idea what cross-pollination of lived experience, fantastical thinking, and Hollywood movies happens, but I’m struck by a sudden thought.
“I wonder if it might be possible to set up a Potemkin kind of situation?” I muse aloud. “People growing ill and being hospitalized. No one actually dying but the fatality rates soaring?”
Kristen furrows her brow. She’s been pacing this entire time, towards one end of the train car and back, up and down the aisle. She’s definitely a pacer.
She stops pacing.
“I really want to dismiss your idea as absurd. But it’s actually not as dumb as it first sounds,” she finally says.
Coming from Kristen, this is pretty much qualifies a bonafide compliment.
Alan picks up the thread. “With state-controlled media, it’d be easy to fabricate fatality numbers.”
“But if the truth ever got out,” says Coleman, “no one would ever trust the media again, right? Isn’t legitimacy a concern here?”
Alan shrugs. “On the Chinese internet, even behind the Great Firewall, there are already dozens of popular conspiracy theories. We live in an age where people just believe whatever they wish to believe anyway. If the truth got out, it’d –ironically– just be considered another conspiracy just like all of the others.”
Chapter Nine – Passage Three
Notwithstanding my own massive reservations with this new proposed direction for our project, we decide to dive down this rabbit hole to see how far it goes. In life, it’s generally a net plus to maintain an open mind. It’s a truism that sometimes the best ideas originate from the least likely places and in all of my years consulting as a data scientist, I’ve definitely witnessed my fair share of harebrained ideas.
But this one, I’m fairly confident, takes home the gold: Fabricate the existence and wild spread of a fictional virus to scare the good people Xinjiang to stay at home, give Chinese authorities the cover to withdraw, let the region degenerate into complete chaos, and then have the Chinese move back in to save the day.
What on earth could go wrong?
“It’s not without precedent,” Deepak muses. “Back in 1947, the British partitioned India, picked up their toys and simply left. Sometimes if nothing’s working, it’s worth just shaking up the snow globe and trying something totally new.”
“Right,” Coleman says dryly. “And remind us all again, please, how that turned out?”
“Well, over half-a-century of bloody territorial dispute ensued between the newly formed Pakistan and India resulting in thousands of casualties and fatalities,” Deepak admits. “Not to mention, because of all of the bombings and extrajudicial bloodshed, to this day bitter religious blood-feuds among the 10-12 million displaced along the Line of Control endure still to this day.”
Kristen works the holo-table and 3D projection of Xinjiang materializes in the air. She taps several of the floating options and different parts of the region light up.
“This would be a classic ‘divide and conquer’ move,” she says, looking at Alan. “Didn’t you say earlier that’s how Mao stole all China from Chiang Kai-shek way back when?”
“Yes, that’s right,” Alan says, looking surprised that she remembered. “Chiang at one was running the show on the mainland but then depleted all of his men and forces fighting off the Japanese. By the time Chiang was finished, he’d beaten off the Empire of the Rising Sun but had nothing left to fend off Mao when the PRC swept the country. It was actually quite ingenious on Mao’s part.”
“Right, so we now essentially can use the same playbook on the Uyghurs. What we need, now, is a way to break their fighting spirit,” Kristen says aloud. I think she’s still half working out the plan for herself as she’s explaining to us. “In the beginning, everyone’s always super gung-ho about defending the homeland. Lots of patriotism and nationalism abound. But eventually, a decade in, it just becomes Vietnam all over again. The new generation won’t even understand why, what, or whom we’re fighting. And everyone then just wants to just go home.”
I begin to see what Kristen is driving at. Resistance to a regime can never entirely be eliminated. No matter what you do, and how good of a job you do, there will always be some vocal minority immensely unhappy with your effort. Like that damn air bubble you can never totally get rid of when you’re newly laying down fresh carpet. In fact, if my past few months in China had taught me anything, it was that there was actually immense value in publicly recognizing a minority opposition party– people who disagree with you but are not in control. If you don’t, then you get a setup like the CCP’s politburo: Where everyone appears to be on the same page but really all secretly harbor their own agendas. Then that’s just a slime-infested swamp of palace intrigue, backstabbing, double-and-triple-crosses, etc. It’s a complete desert wasteland where you don’t even know who’s on your side, who or where your enemies are, and anyone can be actually murdered or jailed at any moment.
In other words, modern day China.
Just because you declare some land “one harmonious kingdom singularly united under the banner of heaven” or whatever, it doesn’t mean all of the differences in political ideologies, philosophies, lineages of family rivalries, and petty interpersonal conflict just suddenly disappear overnight. You can say the words, but that doesn’t change reality– all of it just goes underground.
In America and the other modern democracies, at least you knew who your enemies were at all times. Like, the teams are very clearly delineated. At least compared to this Kabuki theater situation that existed in China. No matter the fancy system or label that you apply to a regime or group of people, at the day’s end, after all the dust’s settled, humans are going to human.
Kristen points at the two regions of the holo-map that she’s highlighted.
“This is Urumqi and roughly 315 kilometers away to the northwest is Karamay, the fourth largest city in Xinjiang at a population of about 400,00 people.”
“So about ninth the size of Urumqi,” Coleman says. “It’s also a paltry 200km from the Kazakhstani border.”
“Yes– so what we can set up,” Kristen says, “is some kind of intercity competition in Xinjiang. Right now all of the hatred and resentment in Urumqi is directed towards a single common enemy: The CCP. But what if we could frame improvement differently? Instead of seeing non-vandalism and criminal and anti-corruption measures as highhanded mandates coming down from Beijing, what if we could sway the Uyghurs into believing that they were locally creating these measures organically?”
The key to a good negotiation between two hostile sides which want nothing more than to destroy each other is always to first find common ground. No matter how much two groups of people may despise each other, no matter whatever eons of bad history may exist between them, there is always something that both parties want. That’s step one.
Then step two is to frame the proposal in a way that’s acceptable to both sides. Who came up with the idea, who gets to take the credit, who’s dictating what, etc. Sensitive egos, bouts of pride, nationalism, all that.
“Right now what we’re lacking in Urumqi is an aspirational model of what they desire to be,” I say aloud. In my head, I can’t help but think of the Puritan, John Winthrop, in 1630 having just arrived in the Massachusetts Bay. America was to “A City Upon a Hill“— a beacon of hope and light to the rest of the world of what was possible.
Without a City Upon a Hill to admire, Urumqi had no sense of direction. It was just all chaos and messiness.
We needed to give them direction. And Karamay could be that model vessel. We all need greenlights at the end of the dock, even entire cities.
Chapter Nine – Passage Four
Occasionally, I smoke. It’s not a typical habit but sometimes I’ll light up a cigarette when I’m feeling particularly tense or stressed out. Over the horizon, dawn’s about to break and in another hour The Silver Dragon will arrive at Urumqi. Our first appointment of the day is a nine o’clock meeting with Governor Wu at his offices in the city town hall. He’ll be expecting a status report and an outline of next steps and how we plan to proceed. Every time you walk into a client meeting, the hope is that you’ll be able to deliver wonderfully good news. That you’ve met every objective for the quarter and really knocked it out of the park. But then, sometimes, you’ll be in the situation like we’re in now. Where the news is less than stellar.
In our defense, we’ve been consistently sending periodic status updates to the governor’s office: Daily and weekly dashboard snapshots of the situation on the ground in Urumqi. So at least we’re not surprising anyone with bad news. (That’s always the first lesson in the business: Surprises are bad. Clients can (well, relatively) ingest bad news when they’re warned (repeatedly) ahead of time and made well aware of the risks along the way. But if things suddenly go pear-shaped and once-theoretical risks suddenly reify with very severe, very real-world consequences, this is when you’ve got a problem.)
But things had been steadily going downhill for the past six weeks. While our initial efforts had at first appeared promising, after the second week, incidents of petty crimes such as theft and vandalism had rebounded and climbed even higher than their previous levels. And ever since, all of our charts had been going in the wrong direction.
I hear the garden car door open behind me and turn. It’s Kristen.
“Up early, are we?” she asks. The garden car is one of the more quixotic in The Silver Dragon. Normally, China’s pretty warm and doesn’t get the deep autumn seasons. So a clever engineer somewhere along the way decided to install a “greenhouse” car on the train to emulate foliage and fauna that the Chinese don’t normally see. For urban folk –namely, the wealthy who could afford passage on The Silver Dragon— the garden car was a wonderous marvel. Most of the urban wealthy in China spent their days in soaring, airconditioned office towers all of their waking hours. To be able to enjoy nature for, even for a few hours, on a long train trip was a welcome reprieve from the pedestrian daily grind of one’s mundane Chinese life.
I’m in the garden car just because it had the proper ventilation systems to vacuum away all of my cigarette smoke though. Gotta find some way to get rid of all of the evidence, after all.
Kristen walks over and sits next to me on the garden bench. She’s wearing a dark blue suit pants; a beige, cashmere turtleneck; and golden hoop earrings. I’m pretty sure she’s also wearing heels because she seems taller. It reminds me that we’re all going to need to get dolled up when we see the governor. (And I’m suddenly reminded that I’ve spent the past two months in sweatpants in the basement of the JFL.)
“Big day, today,” I say, taking another drag on my cigarette. “We’re not exactly going in to deliver the best of news.”
Kristen shrugs. “Good news is easy. Anyone can deliver good news. It’s needing to deliver bad news and convince them to keep us around– that’s where we really earn it, right?”
I chuckle. “True, true. So very true.”
“Besides,” Kristen says brightly. “We’ve got a full-proof plan! It’s bold! It’s daring! They’re going to love it!”
“Our plan involves fabricating and maintaining a wild lie to feed to millions,” I say, sighing. “In order to strike fear and worry into the lives of millions of Chinese citizens, many of whom poor farmers and common folk who are already struggling enough as it is to make ends meet and just get by.”
Kristen clasps me on the back. “C’mon! Don’t be like that. It’s for the greater good. Isn’t that what we always tell ourselves? Follow the data? Trust the numbers? Instead of dwelling on all of the negative side effects, think about the good parts! The decrease in sectarian violence! All of the suicide bombings in the Sunday morning markets that’ll be averted!”
“Yeah, they’ll be averted because there won’t be a Sunday morning market. We’ll be asking tens of thousands to go into voluntary quarantine when this whole thing begins. Maybe even hundreds of thousands if we expand beyond Phase I.”
“You know what your problem is?” Kristen suddenly says, turning to look at me. “You, Dexter Fletcher, worry way too much.”
“Jesus Christ, woman.” I stand and flick away my cigarette, lighting another. “How can you not worry about what we’re about to propose? To the CCP, of all people?!“
“Relax,” she says. “We’re just giving a run-of-the-mill update and gently suggesting an idea. No one’s pulling the trigger on anything yet. We’re just introducing an idea into the ether.”
“An idea built on lies!”
“So what? Geez, grow up, Dexter. Look around you. I may be Australian but I’ve slaved away my fair share of man-months deep in the salt-mines of America. Where has all that free-flow of information gotten you, exactly?”
Kristen’s retort brings me short. I want to protest, but there’s a part of me that knows she’s right. America’s holiness around first amendment, free speech rights hadn’t exactly done the country any favors in the online age either. Our indices for civil unrest, crime rates, and unhappiness stood, after all, among the highest in the developed world.
“I sleep fine at night,” says Kristen, “because ultimately you need to look at the ends that we’re trying to achieve. So a few tens of thousands of people get stuck at home for a few months. Is anyone hurt or dying? No. Will some people get cabin fever? Sure, they’ll get restless and bored, probably. But you know what? Bored is better than dead.
“Additionally,” she continues. “Mom and pop businesses won’t shutter. We’re proposing that the CCP step in with one-time loans and grants after ‘the virus’ strikes. This will build gratitude in the Uyghur populations, at least among the merchant class. That in their time of need, when an Act of God unfortunately struck, that Xi’s government was there! That the Chinese Communist Party saved the day! That the Chinese National Guard built hospitals at record speed! Only in a time of emergency and desperation does everyone suddenly become fans of big government. In times of great need, everyone’s suddenly a Democrat.”
Chapter Nine – Passage Five
Party loyalty, it’s true, has no place in the real world. When push comes to shove, pragmatism and survival always win over all else. After all, history’s only written by the winners.
Urumqi is literally the end of the line for The Silver Dragon. It’s the very last stop for the train on the northwest route and all towns and cities north or west of Urumqi could only be further reached by car or bus. With 3.5 million people, Urumqi is the largest city in all of Central Asia and when we get off of the train, the first thing I immediately notice is that all of the people look markedly different.
“This is still China?” Coleman asks, looking around curiously. “Are you sure?”
“Oh yeah, you know Chinese communist governments,” says Deepak. “Just randomly building giant, mega-structure train terminals in other countries not their own by accident.”
Coleman’s remark is obviously inane but also makes sense. Even I am taken aback momentarily. Up until now, whether it be Shanghai, Jinshui, or Xi’an, everywhere I’ve looked, the Chinese citizens all around have appeared largely similar, at least to me. While I’m sure there are differences, whatever those were, they were subtle. Let’s just say, on my trip so far, China hasn’t exactly been the most racially diverse place that I’ve ever been to. (And this is from someone who’d grown up in Kentucky back in the United States, not exactly the most diverse place in America.)
But here in Urumqi, even to my untrained American eye, it really does feel like we’ve set foot in an entirely different country. Thicker eyebrows, rounder eyes, more elongated facial structures, longer hair, and beards. Not to mention: Probably at least every other man is wearing a–
“Why’s everyone wearing a Yamaka?” Coleman again, of course.
“Those are Taqiyyas,” Shu explains patiently, “same Abrahamic God, but different prophet. That’s why they’re so similar.”
I keep my mouth shut but I’m similarly as uninformed as Coleman. Back home in America, Islam and the Muslims weren’t exactly a demographic powerhouse in the Bluegrass State.
There is a black Lincoln town car awaiting us outside the terminal station entrance and we sweep across the lobby and descend the entrance steps dressed like royalty. I’m wearing a suit, which I haven’t worn in ages, and Coleman and Deepak have likewise cleaned up nicely. Shu’s wearing a traditional Uyghur dress which means it’s very conservative and shapeless. Not a hint of bare skin anywhere. Normally when you think about China, you don’t think about it being cold. But it’s cold. Shu’s also wearing a thick fur cap that makes me think of Russian Bolsheviks, for some reason. One’s mind makes strange connections like that.
In short order, the Lincoln town car whisks us across the city. I’d love to describe all of the interesting environs that I’d observed on the way to Urumqi’s city hall, but my mind’s too preoccupied to take in any of the surroundings. Before I know it, we’ve arrived at our appointed destination, have alighted the car, and are escorted inside and up a flight of marble stairs by a pair of armed guards wearing army fatigues to the waiting chambers outside of the governor’s office.
“Governor Wu is expecting you,” says the plump secretary who is in Wu’s outer office. “Please enter when you’re ready.”
Alan turns to look at us.
“Hold up a sec,” says Shu and she takes a moment to adjust mine and Deepak’s ties. It takes a minute of fidgeting before she’s satisfied.
“Remember, guys,” says Kristen. “Rome may not have been built in a day. But it was built one stone at a time.”
And with that, we enter Governor Wu’s office.
It’s an ornately appointed affair with dark-paneled wood, a mahogany executive desk, and large bay windows overlooking the city square. The office is sprawling with bookshelves replete with thick, leather-bound texts and journals, fancy framed awards on the opposite wall, and two sofas with a coffee table in between to entertain company. In the corner there’s even a giant grandfather clock that looks at least two centuries old.
“Welcome!” Governor Wu rises from behind his desk and walks over to greet us. Wu is a tall, wiry man with white hair and looks like he’s well into his sixties. He gestures towards the sofa couches. “Please, sit.”
Once we’re all properly situated, Coleman unloads the holo-projector, and we start our presentation.
While Alan gives his opening remarks, I turn my attention to the Governor. We’d all been given preliminary briefing material on the train on our way in and I know basic details about Wu. A longtime member of the CCP, he’d possessed a long and distinguished record as one of the politburo’s fastest rising stars in his early years. Also a descendant of princeling lineage, at some point Wu had hit a ceiling though. For whatever reason, he’d never climbed his way out of the National Assembly and into higher standing. And then three years ago, the CCP had assigned him here, to Urumqi, to be the Governor of Xinjiang.
It was unclear to me, and we even had a small pool going among the group, whether being assigned to Xinjiang had been a punishment or reward for Wu. On one hand, being flung to the most remote outpost of the sprawling Chinese empire was a little like being sent to Fargo. Conversely, Xinjiang was by far the most restive of all Chinese provinces. So maybe only the truly capable and promising were sent here. It was honestly fifty-fifty.
Half-an-hour later, we wrap up. Everyone does their bits beautifully. After Alan’s remarks, Deepak provides some historical context and then Kristen and I had present last, our proposal for the region. Once we’ve finished, Governor Wu leans back in his chair, looking thoughtful.
“That’s quite an idea,” he finally says, steepling his fingers. “It’s certainly a novel approach.” He rises from his armchair and deliberately walks over to the bookshelf to get something. When he turns, I see that he has a copy of the Quran in his hands and has put on his reading spectacles, which were hanging from around his neck.
“You know,” Wu starts, “in the Quran, there are huge swathes about eschatology— you know, what happens at the End of Times, man’s final judgment before God, and the destiny of one’s soul and of all humankind. It’s actually outlined, with impressive detail, what happens in hell, or what they call: Jahannam— that is, different levels of hell depending on your sin: al-Nar النار (‘The Fire’), Hutamah حطمة (‘That which Breaks to Pieces’), and Haawiyah هاوية (‘The Abyss’), among others.”
Wu turns to look at us.
“Do you know what is the worst possible sin that you can commit in all of Islam?”
Chapter Nine – Passage Six
“Quran followers believe that the most heinous sin in all of Islam is shirk (شرك)– that is, polytheism; idolatry. Worshiping or deification of anyone of anything other than Allah.” Governor Wu looks up at us from the holy text and his expression turns wistful for a moment. “You know, it really is a shame that the Chinese and the Uyghurs were several centuries apart. In so many ways, we are one in the same.”
“China is an atheist state though, correct?” Coleman says. You can practically hear the restraint that he’s using every single muscle in his body to employ as he says this.
“Oh, sure, sure,” Governor Wu says waving his hand dismissively. “All of the details might be different–“
“–that’s a pretty freaking huge detail–“ Shu elbows Coleman in the ribs and he luckily quiets down.
“But the superstructure,” Governor Wu says grandly sweeping his arms, is the same. “Whether it be aesthetic thought or Islam, both the Chinese and the Muslim people worship a very particular narrowness in one’s way of thinking– very strict sense of judgement. In both of our countries and cultures, there is only one God. There is only one way that things are done. There is only one result that every good Muslim or Chinese citizen aspires to be. Or at least, the band of acceptable outcomes is much narrower.”
“And that’s a good thing?” I ask. “You do realize this narrowness of acceptability is exactly the source of your problem, right?”
Governor Wu shakes his head. “You Americans and your diversity. Homogeneity makes us strong. In every culture and every religion the world over through all of the ages of history, purity has always been the staple of our strength. In Judaism, it’s wool and linen or milk and meat.”
“A single field of all the same crop perishes with but a single disease.” Shu says quietly.
“Ah! A scholar, we have, do we?” Governor Wu says, amused. “Well, while it’s true that diversity may give you some resilience, it’s not a free lunch, is it? After all, whatever strength you gain from that mixing of variance, you give back many multiples over in lost efficiency, progress, consensus, and harmony. Nothing is ever for free.”
“So what are you saying?” I ask. I’m growing exasperated but am trying to not let it show in my voice. This guy here is the politburo person in charge of running all of Xinjiang, after all.
“I’m saying I like your plan,” Governor Wu says, smiling. “It’s actually more perfect than I think even you realize. As you yourselves have described in your analysis, Urumqi –and Xinjiang as a whole– is not a monolith. Like any large population, people have grown divided– the Muslim people are no exception. There is a Muslim hardliner group who think any cooperation with Beijing leads straight to hell. There are moderate Muslims who are more willing to give it a shot. And then there’s everyone else who doesn’t care one way or the other but just want to be able to put food on the table. And everything in between.”
In my head, I can see it all playing out. Once the fictional virus hit, you just knew that some groups would use it as pretext for God’s wrath. I could totally see it now: Ten of thousands being killed because and the Mullahs citing their deaths as the inevitable outcome of a vengeful God who’s gone on rampage to cleanse the land of all sinners and nonbelievers. The Virus would become anything and everything to anyone and everyone.
In fact, the more I think this out with this new information that Governor Wu has provided us, the more the picture begins to crystalize. The creation of our fictional virus would merely be a catalyst.
Xinjiang was already a powder keg waiting to explode. If a suddenly deadly, natural disaster swept the region, it really would be a golden opportunity for the CCP to declare martial law, enforce curfews, and restrict freedoms. On the Islam-side, the hardliners would feel that the wrath of God had finally descended.
There’d be chaos.
And amidst the chaos, undoubtedly, certain dissidents who’d long been thorns in Beijing’s side I’m sure would be resolved.
“For years already,” Governor Wu says, “the Uyghur populations have already been modernizing. The old ways are disappearing. Little by little. Every year, fewer young people return from Urumqi back to the rural lands. If we had the luxury to just wait fifty years or so, the outcome would be the same.”
“But you don’t want to wait, do you?” Kristen says, “Beijing wants results now.”
“Why the hurry?” Deepak asks.
“Xi Wiping knows that his days at the top are numbered,” says Governor Wu, “which is why he wants to expedite Xinjiang’s submission. Having this notch on his belt would go great lengths to helping him keep his powers consolidated.”
I take a moment to take off my glasses and wipe them down. Good lord, this thing is a total swampland. It’s even worse than in America. And I’d thought all of the backroom knife-fighting back in DC has been bad.
“You do understand,” Governor Wu says, sighing, “that Xi has never fully recovered from the Shangri-La disaster two years ago. That was a major public failing and a huge blackeye for him at the time. All of the global attention and bad press all at once. Ever since, he’s been increasingly desperate in wanting to show himself as the capable and rightful leader of the party.”
And so there it was. Once more, the lives of millions of innocent citizens would be toyed with simply for one man’s insatiable ego. Collateral damage in an interminable political war. A forever war. Succession was always a problem that authoritarian regimes had never quite ironed out. In America, Presidents did their time, and then good or bad, afterwards when four or eight years were up, everyone simply packed up and sailed off into the sunset. In China though, there were always vicious political opponents waiting to strike at even the slightest hint of weakness. This is what happens when you have no term limits. You do the job until you die or until you fail.