The American Approach

NOTE: This is an ongoing original fiction story that I’m currently writing. I started writing this fictional story back on October 2, 2020 and contribute ~1,000 words to it every day on this blog. I didn’t outline the story at all going into it but it’s slowly evolved into a tale about a data scientist in his mid-thirties from America who finds himself summoned to China where’s he’s been offered a job to work for the Chinese Communist Party on a project monitoring the Uyghurs in the Chinese “autonomous region” of Xinjiang. In China, the story’s protagonist, Dexter Fletcher, meets other professionals who’ve also been brought in from abroad to help consult on the project. My story takes place several decades in the future and explores human rights, privacy in an age of ever-increasing state-surveillance, and differences between competing dichotomies: democracy vs communism, eastern vs western political philosophies, and individual liberties vs collective security. If this sounds interesting and you’d like to read more, my fiction story starts here.

Chapter Ten – Passage Four

Undoing centuries of culture and community was not a challenge for the faint of heart.  And it took every tool in the toolbox for the CCP to achieve its aim.  But like everything the CCP did, there was neither subtlety nor patience in the endeavor.  Change was a blunt instrument brought to bear, all at once, in a single stroke.

When you are occupying a foreign land, there are generally two approaches.  And it’s entirely a numbers game.  The first approach is if you’re the minority population numbers-wise.

“For example,” Deepak had once explained to us.  “The British in India.  No matter what the British did, they would never outnumber the number of Indians on the subcontinent which was at the time 500 million and counting.  While there were only a few thousand British.  Thus, the English were destined to forever only be a minority in the country.”

This is why the grand British experiment had ultimately failed in India. (At least, according to Deepak.)  And had also failed in the Americas.  And in North Africa, the Caribbean, and China (then, Manchuria).  They simply never had the numbers on their side.  So they tried to win hearts and minds instead.  Hence, to this day, the English that is spoken in India still carries a heavy British influence and intonation.  “Trousers” instead of “pants”; “rubbish bin” instead of “trash can.” Etc, etc.

When you are the numerical minority, you need to try to win mindshare and you need to convince and persuade.  This is the first approach of colonialism and foreign occupation.

“This,” Alan explains patiently, “is obviously not what China did.” 

He’s sitting upright in the armchair holding a bag of frozen peas to his cheek, which is now rapidly swelling.  Alan grimaces as Shu rubs some ointment on his face– a nasty cut has opened right beneath his right eye.

And then, Alan goes on to explain, the second approach.

Pioneered by the thirteen colonies in the new world, the second approach is when you possess –or will possess– overwhelming numerical superiority.  In this case, you can swoop in, bulldoze the native lands, and steamroll all of the aborigines to get your way.

“There’s no need to win hearts and minds if you simply assimilate all of the willing and annihilate anyone who resists,” as Deepak had once told us.  “The Christopher Columbus and John Smith model of occupation.  People forget this sometimes, but before the British colonists, back in 1619, North America actually already had people on it.”

So what happened to the existing indigenous population?

“Oh, it’s simple,” Deepak explained, shrugging.  “You simply shunt them off into reservations– a tiny fraction of their previous homeland while you– the American majority– subsume everything else.  Then in several generations, they’ll either all have been assimilated –via money, wealth, fame, promises of a better life, etc– or have died off.”

We call this approach The American Model:  Success and achievement via brute, unrelenting, numerical force.

“The Chinese are a proud people but they’re not above picking and borrowing from the best ideas,” Alan says.  “As Deepak had wrote up in his report– in 1619 with Jamestown, the US pioneered a new model of occupation that was a wild and smashing success.  So being the keen students of history that they are, the CCP simply used that exact same playbook in Xinjiang.”

Alan taps a few keys on his laptop and I see several charts flash onto the screen.  It’s an illustrated comparison of the Uyghur birthrate in Xinjiang compared to the Chinese birthrate.  Suffice it to say, the Chinese population is significantly outstripping the Uyghur birthrate by at least threefold.

In my head, another piece suddenly falls into place.

Even before we had joined the project, I remember now that the previous team who had worked in Xinjiang ahead of us had focused their energies on encouraging feminism, equal rights, and a higher standard of living in Xinjiang.  They’d hoped to tap into some of the repression of the Muslim community but at the time, I hadn’t understood the reasoning.  But now I understood– it was clear as day.

All of the data unequivocally shows, as clear as day, that with industrialization and rising gender equality, birthrates will always sharply plummet.  Research has long demonstrated that every society which possessed more educated women also likewise results in declining family sizes and birthrates.  As women flourished and were able to pursue their dreams, many chose careers and started families later or not at all.

Masquerading as champions of gender equality and progressivism, China had poured resources into Xinjiang that had encouraged women to become increasingly independent.  To begin with, it’s only been the small things– like being able to drive their own cars or not have to wear hajibs.  But freedom begets more freedom.  And while the Uyghur women were probably never going to be using Kindlr or whatever app of the day for loose, casual hookups, the CCP had done everything in its power to empower women in the region.

It took several decades, but the Chinese plan had slowly over a generation gained traction.  The Uyghur women got a taste of freedom and liked it.  Within sixty years, liberalization had begun sweeping the land– more women working and fewer tending to families.  And families were increasingly smaller and wealthier– better adapted to fit the “knowledge economy” that was increasingly the only way to make a living anymore as living standards had slowly ticked ever upwards over the decades.

The second leg of the plan, then, was to somehow “deal” with the conservative, religious right– bastions of Uyghur culture and identity.  Under no circumstance would women from those households ever be working or empowered, despite the CCP’s best efforts.  The deeply religious stuck dogmatically to their doctrine, praying at the mosques five times a day, holding steadfast to their beliefs.

And so Beijing developed COVID-59– the ace in their back pocket.  A biological agent to break the religious right by using their most cherished strength against them:  Their belief.

“Logical people are the least dangerous and the most easily tricked,” Deepak had concluded.  “Rational people who listen to science and follow the data are the most easily convinced.  You simply show them ‘data’ and ‘new facts’ and you’ve changed their ‘enlightened minds’.  It’s the people who believe against all reality who are the most dangerous.  Convincing or destroying this set of people in Xinjiang will be what the effort hinges upon– the difference between overwhelming success and outright failure.”

“It’s All True.”

NOTE: This is an ongoing original fiction story that I’m currently writing. I started writing this fictional story back on October 2, 2020 and contribute ~1,000 words to it every day on this blog. I didn’t outline the story at all going into it but it’s slowly evolved into a tale about a data scientist in his mid-thirties from America who finds himself summoned to China where’s he’s been offered a job to work for the Chinese Communist Party on a project monitoring the Uyghurs in the Chinese “autonomous region” of Xinjiang. In China, the story’s protagonist, Dexter Fletcher, meets other professionals who’ve also been brought in from abroad to help consult on the project. My story takes place several decades in the future and explores human rights, privacy in an age of ever-increasing state-surveillance, and differences between competing dichotomies: democracy vs communism, eastern vs western political philosophies, and individual liberties vs collective security. If this sounds interesting and you’d like to read more, my fiction story starts here.

Chapter Six – Passage Five

“Using your logic, what’s the point of even having a country?” Kristen asks, apparently unimpressed with my reasoning.

“Countries are good for the big things.”  I shrug.  “A single national currency.  A standing military to ensure national defense.  Shiny national monuments like Mount Rushmore to put in the brochures and glossies.  But in America, at least, even since the beginning, people always strongly identified with one’s state far more than one’s country.  It was really only after World War II that people started to share to a single more national identity over their state identity.  Of course, in peace time, with the first few decades of the 2000s, the pendulum swung back, as it always does.  When things are going well, people tend to retreat back into their own corners.”

Kristen finishes drinking her Guava juice and crushes the carton in one hand before tossing it into the train’s rubbish bin, some shiny oblong-shaped trash receptacle that looks like a futuristic incinerator.

“You know an awful lot of history for someone who supposedly never studied it.”

“Nah,” I shake my head.  “I’ve looked at Foogle search trends over the decades.  Once this whole internet thing happened, it suddenly became markedly easy to get the pulse of an entire country.  For the first time in human history, if you had any question at all, anything under the sun, you could simply Foogle your query and find an answer.”

“Doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get a correct answer,” Kristen points out.  “Just cause you find some answer you want doesn’t mean it’s rooted at all in reality.”

“Who cares?  It’s an answer.  And if it happens to reinforce your existing worldview or prejudices, then it’s even better in that it makes you feel good.  Isn’t that we humans like?  Feeling good?  Why else do people do what they do?”

I look at Kristen, as if seeing her for the first time in a new light.  I thought I’d known her MO, but maybe I’d been mistaken.

“You work in data science, just like me,” I say to her.  “Why are you in this field at all?  Isn’t shaping and influencing giant populations at the core of what we do?”

“It is, but not entirely divorced from what’s true.”

I laugh.  “What’s true?  It’s all true.”  I wave at the charts and graphs on my laptop that I was examining earlier.  “Look at his.  Human beings aren’t capable of just ingesting millions of rows and columns and somehow magically understanding it.  We require narrative, a story to make things legible and comprehensible.  But depending on what you want to spin, you can make anything sound plausible.

“For instance, I’ve been looking at this data that Alan shared with us earlier.  Two years ago, if you simply read the police reports and crime incidents, then Xinjiang was as peaceful as it’s ever been.  But if you monitored the log data and sentiment analysis on all of the internet chatter during this same time period for this same region, then you’ll see high spikes in the population, especially the 18-25 demographic, searching for terms like “protest,” “west,” and “democracy.”  And then months later as the security presence started to ratchet up, words like “rifles,” “bombs,” and “Molotov cocktails.”

Kristen tilts her head, apparently mulling over whether or not to pursue this debate with me.  I can tell that part of her really wants to.  She’d thoroughly enjoy nothing more than totally going to town in an all-night bull session like we’re in some college dormitory all over again.  Pontificating and discussing Life’s Big Questions until sunrise and then grabbing an egg and cheddar sandwich at the deli out around the corner.  The role of media and free speech in society.  Unintended consequences of an unfettered fourth estate; a world where anyone and everyone was suddenly a pressman, delivering breaking news, an outlet of information and misinformation for all.

But instead she just shrugs.

“Dexter Fletcher, man, you really are a piece of work,” she says, polishing off her baby carrots.  The plastic bag goes into the futuristic incinerator.  “You know we’ll be visiting Jack Bao when we reach Xi’an tomorrow morning, right?  Oh man, you guys are going to get along famously.”

With that, she turns and leaves the dining car; disappearing into the connection way.  The sliding door closes behind her with a quiet woosh and I’m suddenly alone again.  In China on some Snowpiercer train racing through the blackness of night.

The next morning, The Silver Dragon arrives at the Xi’an Station and I step off the maglev train for the first time for the first time in something in like twenty-hours.  The first leg of the trip honestly wasn’t bad at all.  We were literally levitating on magnets the entire so you really couldn’t ask for a smoother rider.  And we had hot showers, highspeed internet, gourmet dining, and exercise machines on the train.  So it really was unequivocally the most comfortable train ride I’d ever been on by a country mile.

Xi’an though is nothing like Shanghai or Jinshui.  Shanghai screamed cosmopolitanism with architecture spanning everything from French to Portuguese to Russian influences.  And Jinshui, with its next-level camouflage projection technology was essentially like stepping into some futuristic Gibson sci-fi novel.  But Xi’an is the exact opposite of all that.  It is old school.

The terminal that receives The Silver Dragon has wooden planks for its platform and there’s a small brick kiosk with a straw-hatched roof that’s selling newspapers.  Jesus, I haven’t seen newspapers in like twenty years.  There is no computerized displays or cutting-edge holograms here.  You can hear the clickety-clack as the massive timetable placards flip their lettering to announce the incoming schedules and updated train timings.  A giant mechanical clock that looks like Big Ben’s oriental second cousin adorns the western wall, opposite of giant painted windows that stretch from floor to ceiling. At this early hour, morning light filters warmly and the entire station looks like 1920 Grand Central, untouched by time and place.  It’s bustling with travelers arriving from all over; Xi’an is the central hub that connects all of Central China’s rail lines, a major artery of the Chinese HSR network.

Alan and Shu find us.  Coleman and I are looking around like idiots at the parade but Deepak and Kristen apparently already knew that we’d be stepping into some time machine and traveling back to 19th-century China.

“Is this some kinda Universal Studios setup?” Coleman asks Shu, bewildered.  “When did all this happen?  You guys totally Wizarding World’ed this.”

Shu smiles politely and you can tell she’s bemused.  Ignorant Americans not knowing a single thing about the larger, broader world.  She hands us rectangular pieces of crinkled, yellowing paper.

“What’s this?”

“It’s money, you moron.”  Deepak rolls his eyes.  The old Indian’s gruff and keeps up a severe look, but you can also tell he too is at least a little impressed.

Coleman holds one of the bills against the sunlight, his eyes wide.  “Oh my God… actual, real-life money….

Under Normal Circumstances

Chapter Four

Under normal circumstances, I’m generally already a pretty curious person.  I’m constantly always looking stuff up on Wikipedia (Jimmy Wales is one of my all-time heroes and on my personal Mount Rushmore) and I’ll always follow wherever my curiosity leads me.  I simply just need to know.  I’m one of those people.

So, being in China, in the most mysterious environment ever –that is, some secret Chinese Communist Party-backed laboratory in the middle of literally nowhere– of course I’m going to follow the exotic, genetically-altered Asian beauty to see whatever she’s wanting to show us.  Life is rife with moments when you’ll need to make tough, difficult choices that take weeks of deliberation.  This isn’t one of them.  This is a total no-brainer.

“Lead the way,” I say to Shu, standing up from my barstool.  I stretch my arms above me for a minute and it feels good to finally be back on my feet with free range of motion.  Homo sapiens had not evolved over 300,000 years and stumbled out of Africa in a drunken stupor to spend most our waking hours sitting on our asses.  We’re just not anatomically built for it; but in a cruel twist of fate, nowadays that’s all we mostly do. It’s a genuine tragedy.

Shu leads the way and everyone follows.  Apparently, we’re all curious people.  We shuffle after Shu out of the faculty-esque lounge like kindergarteners on a class field trip, turn the corner in the hall, and then begin descending down several flights of steps deeper and deeper into the bowels of Building 11.

Of course, we’re headed to the basement.  It’s always the basement.  Every time.

At the bottom once the stairwell ends, Vanessa walks up to the front of our little group and scans her palm against a semi-translucent glass security plate next to a ginormous titanium, concrete door.  Looking around me, I feel like we’re about to enter some sort of super-secure secret bunker, the kind of installations typically reserved for presidents, dictators, or mega-rich billionaires paranoid about zombie apocalypses.

“You guys really watch a lot of American action movies,” Coleman says from somewhere behind me, clearly admiring our surroundings.  “I do like the décor though.”

“This facility’s built to withstand nuclear war,” says Alan.  “You’re about to see why.”

After a moment, the security scanner beeps, apparently satisfied with Vanessa’s handprint.  Two dozen giant steel tumblers grind and unlatch as the massive vault-like blast door unlocks and slowly swings open.  We all step through.

Continue reading “Under Normal Circumstances”

The Unfulfilled Promise of the Internet – Part I

Unfulfilled promises are a dime a dozen.  Having high hopes dashed for a promising prospect that sadly never fully reifies is an all-too-common occurrence.  But when I think of all of the Freddy Adus and Amazon Fire phones of the world, there is no greater disappointment than the current state of the internet.  Honestly, some people reading this likely didn’t even exist back in the 1990s, but in today’s entry, lemme tell you whippersnapper youngbloods a story of what we had all thought the internet would become back in the day of Gateway 2000 PCs and dial-up modems.

So, the usual short caveat paragraph:  Obviously, there are many good things about the current internet.  I can order eggs and milk from Jeff Bezos’s empire and have it literally (within two hours!) delivered to my doorstep. (Now, to be fair, it happens on the backs of essentially slave labor, but that’s a diatribe for another time.)  Likewise, I can spin up The YouTube and listen to virtually any song or watch any movie clip I wish on a whim.  All these things are unequivocally good.  (Well, the slave labor part is less unequivocally good, but the convenience is good, I mean.)

Now onto the glaring and gigantic disappointment:  Originally, there had been a belief that with “the information superhighway,” humanity was going to usher in a new utopian supranational, truly global community.  There was an idea that when you signed into an AOL chatroom, the person on the other side may be half-a-world away from you and hail from a totally different culture, but that person would be, in a way, fundamentally good.  S/he would be, like yourself be a decent human being; an inquisitive sort curious about the world and its ways.  There was an entire idea (mythology?) that complete strangers would connect and learn from each other.  On the internet, no one may know you’re a dog; but there was also a belief that you could shoot up a single flare up into the great night sky and that a group of likeminded people, fundamentally kind and decent, would find you.  And that a community of love and mutual learning/understanding would ensue.

Fast forward a quarter century and all of that seems like a sick joke now.  Everywhere I turn, it’s two-second memes.  There is no getting to know complete strangers in any genuine or authentic way.  Instead, there are only walled gardens and ruthless scam artists.  I have no idea whom I can trust and on Facebook– the system purportedly built on “Real ID” in order to facilitate “trust”– God forbid if I express any thought that is “against popular opinion”– doing anything of the sort will simply get you lynched by the hate-mob.  In twenty-five years, the internet literally degenerated into the lowest common denominator.  No, even worse than that, actually, if that’s believable.  We largely make each other worse human beings online.  We really do.

But… wait! Is all hope lost? No! We are human beings! We never surrender! We never quit! It is simply not in our DNA! The human species survived the Bubonic plague; we sure as hell aren’t going to be defeated by the likes of Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg. Thus, I think I have an idea that could help restore “The Internet” (or at least, a tiny part of it) to what it was originally meant to be! Tune in tomorrow to find out more! 😇

Universal Basic Income

Universal Basic Income is one of those ideas that really light up the imagination.  While UBI as a concept is pretty well-known, it really gained widespread renown when democratic candidate Andrew Yang made it his centerpiece proposal during his 2020 run.  Yang’s campaign never gained traction with the American public and largely went down in flames.  But I’ve been recently pondering UBI and its implications.

America intrigues me because it’s largely the only remaining country that believes in meritocracy and luck.  Nordic countries, and Europe, more generally, have embraced a model of intrinsically valuing human life.  But here in America we’ve largely resisted that sentiment.  If you look at the way we treat our incarcerated and impoverished (people in the bottom socioeconomic strata), it’s very clear that Americans just don’t care.  (If you somehow doubt this, look at America’s response to COVID-19 in 2020 compared to every single other advanced democracy.)  The United States is a very individualist society and there’s a general feeling that while there exist some basic social safety nets (like the ADA is a thing; if you’re wheelchair-bound, public universities and most buildings will meet ADA requirements such as wheelchair ramps, braille on signs, etc), aside from the minimal basics, Americans are simply plenty content with just letting other fellow Americans die or starve in the streets if we see them to be “not useful to society.”

I think one way UBI could gain more traction with more Americans is if we framed it more as a Guggenheim grant/MacArthur Fellowship dispensation system.  Yang’s mistake was to emphasize the “Universal” part in his appeal.  The problem with this is while the bottom half is hugely into it (because they’ll be taking), the upper half is less pleased because they’ll be giving.  Appealing to our common humanity is a losing argument (as I think Yang’s failed campaign proves).  Instead:  Frame it in vocabulary and concepts that most Americans will more readily accept– as a more “elitist/special” dispensation.  Everyone (especially Americans!  Ha.) like to be told that “they are special.”  We can thank a lifetime of Disney and American Exceptionalism for that.  Who wouldn’t want to receive a call saying they’re a “MacArthur Genius” or a “Guggenheim Fellow” and are being awarded free money every quarter for the next ten years?  Then over time, find a way to expand the recipient pool until it’s increasingly universal.

Yang, man, you’re a smart dude.  Trojan horse UBI into the public American consciousness by initially making it non-universal and exclusive.  Artificial scarcity!  That’ll be how you win American hearts and minds.