The Key to Hearts and Minds

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 Eleven – Passage One

Xenophobia is the key to the hearts and minds of the fearful everywhere.  It’s been that old reliable standby that’ll never let you down.  When you’re in dire straits, appeal to people’s sense of uncertainty and doubt.  There’ll always be a reliable subset of the population that’ll act from a desire to avoid a worst-case scenario.  This is your go-to workhorse.

Following the analysis that Alan had done with the anosmia outbreak data, we relocate to Guangzhou, several provinces away from Shingatse.  As the gateway city to Hong Kong by rail, Guangzhou has long been a fixture of southern China.  With a history dating back over 2,200 years, it was once the maritime terminus of China’s Silk Road; people who crossed the continent would put their wares on the barges on the port of the Pearl River and from there, Hong Kong was a mere 120 kilometers away.  Founded in 1842, Hong Kong was the single most important colony the British Empire would ever establish on the mainland.  But in 1997, all of that came to a crashing end.  As the British Empire continued the last legs of its decline, China gained a new foothold upon the world stage.

The end result after the handover was calamitous as you might imagine.

The Honk Kongese resisted it every step of the way.  Over a century of western influence had made its mark.  Modern with western manners, the people who Hong Kong despised many of the more rural, ruder, and cruder Chinese citizens who poured into their city after the handover.  In the western world, we obey traffic signals like red lights.  But in Guangzhou, where the first Chinse wave first originated, stopping at red lights is optional.

When I first set foot in Guangzhou, I also noticed the rural population there had a habit of spitting everywhere.

“That is positively disgusting,” Kristen says, making a face.  “How can they just spit everywhere?”

“It’s a habit you’ll see here in the country,” Shu says, “the Chinese people, especially here in the rural areas, have long believed that expelling saliva– especially when you’re ill– is critical to good health.  All of those toxins, is the thinking, you must eject from your body at the first opportunity.”

Kristen crinkles her nose and just grimaces.

While I’ve never set foot in Hong Kong, I’ve seen plenty of VODs of the city when I was researching China’s other autonomous regions.  And while the city is significantly smaller– only 7.5 million residents compared to Xinjiang’s 22 million, I can totally understand why rampant anti-Chinese and xenophobic sentiment rages in full force.  For the Hong Kongese, China’s communist and conformist ways is 100% diametrically opposed to Hong Kong’s capitalist ways– one of the world’s financial supercenters.  The norms, traditions, cultures, and entire value systems are just violently different.

One report, around traffic fatalities that I found, was particularly illuminating.  A decade later, over 87% of the traffic accidents and fatalities caused in Hong Kong were from mainlanders who’d streamed in to the city.  It wasn’t racism; it was just pattern-recognition.  Unfettered Chinese pouring into the already densely-packed city– was proving to have disastrous results with fatal consequences.

“Everyone always says they want diversity,” Coleman had said, when I’d shown him the report.  “But they only want good diversity or harmless diversity.  Once the rubber meets the road, it’s really a heavy lift.”

Alan’s data leads us to a hospital in the Guangzhou province where the cases of anosmia first spiked and after spending a night on the phones and making a series of calls, Alan’s managed to get a meeting with one of midlevel people in the governor’s office.  It’s a simple meeting in a café.

Of course we can’t just have a bunch of foreigners walking into the cafe.  And Alan’s been apparently flagged so he can’t go either.  Because of its close proximity to Hong Kong, Guangzhou was one of the first regions set up to be entirely electronically surveilled with CCTV and facial recognition cameras everywhere.

So Shu volunteers to go while the rest of us camp out in a hotel room that’s half-a-block away from the café.

In the hotel we’ve booked two rooms and when Shu emerges from the other, after having cleaned up, she’s back to looking like her normal lustrous self.  CRISPR was really a thing.  And it worked.  On her way out, she catches me in the hallway just as I’m returning from the vending machines.  It’s just the two of us in the dimly lit hall.

“How do I look?”

She looks dazzling but that’s actually not what I have on my mind.

“Shu, are you sure you want to do this?” I ask her, one final time.  “We don’t know what’s out there.  And we don’t even know if we have anything.  We just have a lead.  Some wild hunch.  Is it worth the risk just wanting to find out more?”

Shu smiles and pats me on the cheek.

“It’s sweet of you, Dexter, to be concerned.  But wouldn’t you want to know if everyone back in your home was murdered?”

“That’s a strong word.  And I honestly don’t know if I would,” I say.  “I mean, even if we find out, so what?  You’re going to just march into the National Assembly and throw it into Xi’s face?  Or whoever’s now in charge?”

“I don’t know,” Shu admits, “but if Alan thinks this is a possible lead, then I trust him.  We can’t just this be a mystery until the end of time.”

“Are unsolved mysteries really so bad?”

She pauses a moment to collect her thoughts and I wait, standing.  Candy bar in hand, on the ragged stained carpet while a lightbulb flickers at the end of the hall.

“Unresolved mysteries aren’t bad,” Shu finally says, “and I’ll admit I don’t know all the fancy stuff that you and the others do.  But all I do know is if I don’t this now, it’ll hang over me until the end of my days.  I can’t just walk away from this.”  She looks at me.

“Sometimes we do something not because we want to.  But because we know we’ll regret it forever if we don’t.  Does that make sense?”

Two-Year Mandatory National Service

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 Seven – Passage Two

Xi’an, it turns out, had been deliberately designed as a city that all Chinese citizens were expected to live in after graduating high school and (if they went) attending college.  Upon turning 18, all Chinese citizens were required to show up for two years of military service and training.  One of those two years are spent in Xi’an.  To be clear, there hasn’t been a major land war engagement in the world in nearly two centuries.  But all Chinese citizens, men and women, are expected to learn how to shoot a rifle, address a field wound, cook in the wilderness, and other basic training you’d find in a typical ROTC-type program.

Mandatory National Service is a concept that had long since vanished in western societies but in China the idea is still very much alive.  Alan explains to us succinctly, “In order to make communism work, you need people to share a communal feeling. A single, cohesive sense of national character.  In any given society, you’re going to have tribalism and so integral to the CCP’s desire to maintain a single, unified China, we need to stamp out these seeds of prejudice to the best of our ability.”

“But China doesn’t officially sanction religion here,” says Deepak.  “So surely that helps with minimizing regional conflict and difference.”

“Yeah,” adds Coleman.  “And you guys don’t even have black people here!  How can you be racist when everyone’s the same race?”  You can tell the incident at Seven-Eleven from a few days ago is still on his mind.

“Here in China we may not have racism and freedom of/divisions over religion the same way you guys have it in America,” Alan explains patiently, “but bigotries are manifold and you don’t need religion or race to divide people.  Believe me, China’s been around since before America was even a twinkle in someone’s eye.  We have plenty of factionalism existent to keep our politburo members up at night.”

“China’s got the same problem that Australia does,” Kristen says, nodding slowly.  “It was one of the chief problems I’d worked on when I was in Darwin.  How to stamp out prejudices based on regionalism.”

“Exactly,” Alan nods.  “Chinese history is like everyone else’s.  You occupy a large enough space for long enough and before you know it, you’ve got the descendants of the Qing dynasty hating on the descendants of the Han dynasty and vice versa. Many of whom somehow harboring a mutual deep-seated hatred for the other despite never even having met.  You’ve also got a strong northern/southern divide that goes far beyond preference for noodles vs rice.”  Alan gives Coleman some side-eye.  “And while I know all Chinese people may look the same to you, there really are differences between our aboriginal, Manchurian, and mixed-ethnicity populations.”

Coleman holds up his hands.  “Okay, okay, I get it.  Jeez, accuse the one black guy in the whole group of being racist.”

“Anyway,” Alan continues.  “The current policy that the CCP’s settled on, which solves some problems but introduces others, is this idea of forced collective national service.  The hope is that by mandating all Chinese citizens from all walks– rich and poor, educated and not, eastern and western, Qing and Han– share a single collective experience over the course of a year during training in Xi’an, while being almost completely disconnected from the outside world, will foster some kinda comradery and empathy.”

“Sounds idealistic,” I say, feeling libertarian strains in me stirring.  “A one-year of hell that instead further breeds disdain and resentment.  Despite your lofty goals, you could in fact just be planting seeds of contempt.”

“Maybe,” admits Alan.  “But being someone who myself endured the ordeal, it’s definitely not glamorous.  But I’ll also add–” he gives me a look– “this is not some kinda didactic or pedantic, pretentious summer camp excursion in the woods.  It’s hard.  Maybe not on the level of SEAL camp training or whatever you have in America, but this is a program expected of everyone.  And this is China– 18-year old trainees die every year during these two years of training.  Remember, no human rights here– the CCP doesn’t care if a few hundred 18-year-olds perish in tragic accidents or off themselves because they’re too depressed, out-of-shape, or whatever.  Hell, Xi probably thinks it’s pruning the gene pool someway of all the weaklings.

“Mandatory national service in China is not child-safe and babyproofed.  18-year-olds are put into situations where they must cooperate or they’ll be severely injured physically or even killed.”  Alan rolls up his shirt sleeve to show us a long scar that stretches on his forearm from his elbow to wrist.  “It’s the real deal.”

“So the idea,” Kristen concludes, “is that once you’ve been put through the ringer, in the trenches crawling over broken glass and barbwire, shoulder-to-shoulder with your fellow citizen to ensure mutual survival, that you’ll be much less likely to emerge on the other end making broad-stroked generalizations about entire population subsets.”

“Oh, people still generalize,” says Alan, shaking his head.  “No way to get around that.  But the CCP wants the Chinese people to give each other the benefit of the doubt.  Even if you’re a princeling from an aristocratic family, it’s much harder to hate a poor working-class kid if the guy’s once saved your life from live gunfire in some training exercise.  Stuff like that.”

By the time we reach the front gates of Jack Bao’s estate, we’ve all gotten the entire spiel on mandatory National Service from Alan.  And while I remain unconvinced that such a program would work in America, I understand Alan’s points.  They do make sense: China’s a collectivist culture that dates back centuries and is well-suited for a national service program. 

But in America, we’re a different breed.

We’re born free men!  Don’t tread on me!  Live free or die!  And in America we aren’t socialist the way the Chinese and many other European countries are.  In America, it’s a meritocracy!  The cream rises to the top!  And the chaff is separated and let go, the lowest of the low shunted aside into cardboard boxes living on the side of streets.  This is why in our shining American land of hope and prosperity that we have tent cities brimming with chronically homeless which stretch as far as the eye can see. Living in abject poverty and chewing shoe leather under the 280 while super-rich techie urbanites blithely drive overhead in their Teslas and Benzes.  If everyone were equal, true: There’d be no poor people and no starvation.  But there’d also be no rich people either.  And there’s nothing more American than the American Dream of becoming obscenely, filthy rich based on your own hard work, will, and dedication.  Anything else simply wouldn’t be red, white, and blue.

“Xinjiang is a Powder Keg Waiting to Explode.”

“Xinjiang,” Vanessa says calmly, “is a powder keg waiting to explode.  It’s crucial we monitor the Uyghurs because if left unchecked, they could easily spread unrest to the rest of China like a contagion, sending the whole country spiraling into chaos.”

“Exactly,” Alan agrees, “in the past three months alone, we’ve already contained two bouts of arson against public property, two meetings that nearly grew into protests, and one violent knife attack during Sunday morning market in the Shuimogou District.”

He looks at me pointedly. “All thanks to our ‘monster-science-project-thing’ as you say.”

“So your solution is to monitor every single one of your citizens 24/7 in real-time?” Coleman asks in disbelief.  “Are you insane?”

I hold up my hand.  “Alright, wait.  Catch a breath, everyone.”  I turn to Vanessa and Alan.  “How accurate is this representation you’ve built?  What data are you accessing?”

“If you’re asking about latency,” says Alan, “it’s about four minutes behind right now.  Everything you see on the board happened roughly four minutes ago in the past.  We’re obviously trying to shorten that lag.  But with the sheer magnitude of data at this distance, over 7G and fiber, we’re kinda hitting the limits of physics.”

“You’re using 7G wireless in Ürümqi to collect all of the IoT signals within the city, processing and compressing onsite, and then fibering all that out, right?” asks Katherine.  Her earlier anger seems to have subsided a little, curiosity apparently winning out over indignation, at least for the moment.

“That’s generally correct,” says Alan.  He glances at Chopra and Coleman and sees only blank stares.  This may all as well be Greek to them.  “I can, uh, walk anyone interested through the data architecture later in finer detail if you wish.”

Chopra may not know what’s technically going on, but he gets the gist.  “So basically,” he says, “there’s no individual privacy in Ürümqi.  This… device lets you track all Uyghur whereabouts in the capital constantly, around the clock… if they’re at home or en route to work or eating out, etcetera.  Right?”

Alan and Vanessa exchange glances.  Vanessa nods.  “Show them.”

Sighing, Alan reaches over and grabs a tablet that’s on the table, tethered to the board, and begins tapping on it.

In the 3D holo-city-model, three dozen or so of the little pedestrian figurines suddenly tint vermillion.   And all of the remaining figurines fade to maybe 20% opacity.

“Additionally, here shaded in red are all persons of interest,” says Vanessa.  “On these people we possess significantly more surveillance.”

Alan taps a few more times on his tablet and a new holo-projection springs to life above the dome.

Continue reading ““Xinjiang is a Powder Keg Waiting to Explode.””

The Selfish Ledger (Google X ~2016)

X, the moonshot subsidiary of Google responsible for big dreams, created an intriguing, thought-provoking video back in late 2016 describing the idea of The Selfish Ledger.  In the video, the basic idea presented is simple:  In the future, as The Cloud knows increasingly more about us, wouldn’t it be very easy to create a world where we are continually “nudged” towards healthy and productive behaviors?  (Of course, this begs the question of who gets to determine “healthy” and “productive” but I guess… Google!)  This day and age, we are continually putting more and more data representing our preferences and beliefs into the world.  What YouTube videos we watch, we news articles we read, what new Spotify songs we listen to.  The world is so large and overflowing with content that you’d need multiple lifetimes just to consume it all.

Enter: Google’s Selfish Ledger.

“Content discovery” is the new billion-dollar industry.  Whoever can help make sense of all of the noise in the next few decades is going to become king.  Right now, the entire enterprise is driven by advertising.  People who are willing to pay a pretty penny are able to get their material “highlighted” and featured on main landing pages.  But what if there were another way?

Switching gears, I think one very promising aspect of “The Selfish Ledger” is if Google could figure out a way to predict your mood and propensity for certain activities.  If the user is wearing a Fitbit or an Apple Watch, then Google (or Apple) likely has a user’s health data and could detect when a user was sleeping poorly or irregularly.  Likewise, Google also owns Google Maps, of course, so they would totally know every time you visited a hospital or doctor’s office or Walgreens to pick up prescriptions.  Thus, Google could –from reading your online activity and personal health metrics– determine when you were feeling unwell and suggest more “comfort” activities for your consumption.  Either “feel-good” crowd-pleasing movies through Google Play or Nyquil and other medications from Amazon.  Foodwise, Google could also offer you ice cream and other delicious foods that aid in your health recovery.

I feel TSL is an inevitability that is good.  Since man first walked this earth, he’s done so alone, unable to connect himself with all of the wonders that the world has to offer.  Instead of seeing ourselves as individual actors on a stage, TSL asks us to view ourselves as mere hosts that are carriers of preferences, opinions, beliefs, and information.

The Chinese Century

Xi Jinping consolidated his power two years ago and masterfully found a way to remove China’s “presidential two-term limit” back in the March of 2018.  Lord only knows what kind of backroom wheeling/dealing, savvy political maneuvering/campaigning/horse-trading, and backstabbing/double/triple-crossing it took to accomplish the feat.  Truly, my imagination runs wild wondering what those months leading up to the 2018 National People’s Congress looked like, there in The Great Hall of the People in Beijing.   Yes, the Chinese Constitution forebode it.  But in the end, through hook or crook, carrot and stick, Xi successfully amended the Constitution and removed the term limits.  All but two of the 2,964 delegates of the National People’s Congress ratified the change.  It can be done and was done.  I sometimes wonder about those two delegates who held out.  Whatever happened to them?  Where are they now?

I am not the first to say this, and nor will I be the last, but this next century is going to be The Chinese Century.  Similar to how 1900-2000 was the American Century, 2000-2100 will belong to China.

Sure, America’s not going anywhere.  But it’s the beginning of the end, the same way the UK was never the same after World War II as its empire began to crumble.  First, India went in 1947; Cypress in 1960; and then Kenya and Malaya (now, Malaysia) followed in 1963.  A new world order had arrived with titanic shifts in global power structures as the stars realigned.  Also, for reference, China’s population currently clocks in at ~1.39 billion compared to America’s 327 million.  It’s simply inevitable.

What will The Chinese Century bring?  Time will tell but one thing’s certain:  Not since the USSR has western democracy and liberalism been significantly challenged in the way we’re about to witness.  Everyone just kind of assumed democracy and universal human rights was “the right answer.”  But is it?  Authoritarian China has neither of those and is rapidly on its way to building a new global hegemony.  But will China succeed?  Undoubtedly:  We live in interesting times.