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.”