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 Four

Zen rock gardens abut the lawn by linen-draped folding tables that the staff’s laid out for our lunch.  Maybe it’s the sudden oxygen deprivation that my brain’s suddenly suffered from all that physical exertion climbing that atrocious hill but as I sit there on those white marble steps under the midmorning sun catching my breath, I find my mind suddenly wandering.

Bao’s rock garden is immense, maybe the size of a volleyball court.  It’s certainly larger than any Zen garden that I’ve ever seen.  An ancient tradition inherited from the Japanese that started way back in the Muromachi Period, I know that the sands and landscaping of a Zen garden is arranged to evoke utmost peace and serenity of one’s inner-being.  Back when we were young and growing up with our mom, Devana went through a considerable spell of being completely enamored with Japanese culture.  Saturday morning anime, late nights under the covers reading manga by flashlight, Godzilla, and giant fighting mecha robots that could transform into increasingly powerful versions of themselves as a battle fight progressed.  (Which always begged the question in my mind, story-telling and dramatic tension purposes notwithstanding, why these didn’t just start in their “Ultimate Form” first and go from there?)  Personally, I was always more a fan of American comics: Captain America, Iron Man, Batman, and Supes.  But through Devana, I learned more than I ever cared to know about Japan.

Where is Devana now?

My thoughts are interrupted abruptly by a maid– she’s wordlessly handing me a damp towel and bottled water and I accept both gratefully.  No time to think about the past now and I suddenly snap out of my reverie back into reality.  Only our present and future matter; dwelling on what can’t be changed serves no purpose.  We humans can only move forward.  Once I’ve sufficiently recovered my breath I shake my head to clear my thoughts and wander over to the table spread under the lawn canopy to see what’s been laid out.

It’s Italian food!  Spaghetti with red sauce and meatballs, freshly tossed spinach salad with chives, portobello mushrooms, and diced carrots!  There’s also thin slices of Thai skirt steak and potato salad.  On the HSR ride to Xi’an, we’d been on a constant diet consisting solely of bento boxes.  Thank lord, the gods have deigned to grace mercy upon us today.


A giant booming voice sounds behind me and I turn to see an older man in his fifties, dressed casually in an unbuttoned collared shirt and wearing tan khakis.  This must be Jack Bao, the fifth richest man in all of China.  Jack holds out his hand and we shake– to my surprise, I feel his skin rough and calloused.

“We know you’ve traveled a great long way to visit our humble abode today,” he says, motioning to one of the wicker basket chairs around the table.  “Please!  Sit, sit.”

By this time, Kristen and the others have also wandered over.  Behind them, coming up the dirt path, I also see Da’an walking up towards us.  Over his shoulder he’s carrying Deepak fireman-rescue-style like a sack of flour.  The poor Indian professor apparently must still be unconscious from heat stroke, poor fellow.

“He’ll be fine, right?” Kristen asks, concerned.

“No worries at all,” Amanda assures her, waving her hand.  “It’s common!  Foreigners arrive all the time, unprepared for our newfound heat and humidity.”

“It wasn’t always like this,” Shu says sadly.  “Xi’an was always north and actually considered cold country for the longest time.”

I nod knowingly.  Back home in the States, it’s the same as well.  Climate change had eaten the polar bears and penguins alive taking no prisoners and was now coming for us all.  We’d kicked the can down the road as far as cans could be kicked.  The bill was coming due.

“Enough with the dour talk!” Jack says.  He looks like he’s already knocked a few back but graciously pours half a dozen glasses of some liquid that looks like red Kool-Aid mixed with lighter fluid and passes them around the table.

“Drink!” he says in a commanding voice.  “Drink!”

Kristen and I look at each other.  The liquid even smells like lighter fluid, now I’m holding a glass in my hand.  Across the table Alan gives me the look.  It’s a universal look that any consultant who’s done any time in the field will immediately recognize:  Client’s the boss.  Buckle up, buddy.  This is gonna be one wild ride.

I raise my glass in a toast.  “Cheers!”

An hour or three later, it’s  late afternoon and the luncheon is a complete wasteland.  The linen cloth is splattered with red spaghetti sauce and all the food’s gone; we’d collectively eaten everything the way Rome demolished Carthage.  There’s literally nothing left.

I don’t remember much, and what I do remember is hazy, but somewhere around the third glass of the watermelon-Kombucha infused vodka, it suddenly dawned on me the kind of man that Jack Bao was:  He was clearly a prisoner in his own castle. 

While his estate may be breathtaking in every way imaginable, and though he was married to an absolutely gorgeous trophy wife, and even though his father had founded the single more important Chinese telecommunications and social media company in the history of the continent, Jack Bao was a man who was stuck.

“They can’t throw me in prison,” he’d said at one point.  “Papa still has too many friends, you know, in the politburo.  But they can’t just let me roam free either.  And so here I am.”  His voice trailed off.  “Here I am…”

And so now he had nothing better to do than entertain guests at his McMansion at all hours of the day.  Every day was a feast.  He’d never need to work for money ever again.  But he could also never leave.

At first, I’d been confused.  Since we’d just about immediately started drinking without much pretense or chatter.  But then I also realized that all the alcohol served another purpose:  It was Jack’s way of weeding the weak from the strong.  By the second glass, Coleman was out.  Looking incredibly sick, he scuttled off to throw up in the bushes somewhere.  But all those years of wining and dining during my consultant jaunts had served me well.  I somehow manage to keep up with the man and Kristen does too.  The Australians are infamous for their iron stomachs, after all.

Finally, only after we’d sufficiently imbibed did Jack begin talking more openly.

“Zero Tolerance” and “Maximal Force”

“Zero tolerance is the approach they’re using,” Deepak is later explaining to us over lunch through a mouthful of lasagna bolognese.  “The policy is pretty simple:  Use ‘maximal force’ against all infractions as a deterrent to prevent future mischief by your citizens.”

After giving us the “shock and awe” presentation on Oracle, Vanessa and Alan fielded a few more questions and then wrapped up the meeting since they needed to peel off to attend to their other responsibilities.  Shu also wandered off somewhere to do something but the rest of us decided to all get a late lunch together at the cafeteria.  As foreigners, we were all strangers in a strange land and it was nice to be part of a tribe, even if we’d just met that morning.  After getting our food from the bazaar, we got a table as far away from everyone else as we could in the cafeteria corner.  Since it was late afternoon, the seating area was luckily sparsely populated.

Katherine frowns.  “What do you mean,” she asks Deepak, “by ‘maximal force,’ exactly?”

“It’s exactly what it sounds like,” Deepak says, shrugging.  He leans back, having finished his lasagna, and pats his professorial potbelly contentedly.  “For every single infraction they observe in Ürümqi, no matter how trivial,” he explains, “the CCP likely levies the maximum penalty– I’m guessing either imprisonment or maybe even death.”

I raise an eyebrow.  “You think the Chinese Communist Party is summarily executing Uyghurs by firing squad if they’re caught littering?”

Deepak shakes his head.  “No, of course not, don’t be absurd.  That’d be a total waste of bullets.  The CCP’s probably following Singapore’s model and hanging rule-breakers at high-noon in the public square.  That way it’s a twofer– no money wasted on bullets and you make a very public, very visible example to your citizens.”

“You cannot possibly be serious.”

“Why not?” Deepak asks and he rolls his eyes.  “You Americans are so naïve.  You think your precious Geneva Convention and humanitarian ideals are so high and mighty, so important.”  He harpoons a lone meatball on his plate, apparently having caught a second wind.  “You in the west can only think your lofty thoughts because you’re an obscenely rich and privileged country with a population that’s never exceeded 350 million.”  He points his fork at me.  “And yet, you Americans somehow manage to occupy the best, fattiest midsection of an entire continent.  You’ve never lived in a country of 1.4 billion people.  China, India, Indonesia– together, we’re half of the world’s population.  And yet, our people collectively on average live on less than two of your American dollars a day.

“When you’re trying to build a new world order in this environment of crushing poverty, like Xi’s been trying to do for a decade now, it’s necessary to curtail individual freedoms for the greater good.  If one homeless person litters without consequence, then everyone litters.  Soon your streets run with filth and garbage.  The drainage and plumbing get backed up.  Sewage seeps into the water supply.  And then you’ve got Detroit on your hands, just like that.  But if you make an example– swiftly and visibly— then after a few public executions and lots of tears, people start getting the gist and falling in line.”

Continue reading ““Zero Tolerance” and “Maximal Force””

“Zoomies” – The Wonders of Chinese Public Transportation Infrastructure

“Zoomies” are what the Chinese call their intercity bus system.  From PVG Airport to downtown Shanghai, where I’ve been put up at The Four Seasons, is roughly 46km, which I’ll need to cover by bus.  I suspect something likely got lost in its translation to English though because “Zoomies” doesn’t do an ounce of justice to what I can only describe as the cleanest, most futuristic, most modern, and palatial bus that I’ve ever set foot in.  Seriously, the design for this thing literally looks like it came out of Blade Runner from the mind of a sci-fi, steampunk genius who loved Voltron and Mechzilla.  It’s a sleek and shining steel marvel that sits on elevated tires which allows the bus to glide over any pedestrian cars and rush hour traffic that may be congesting the highway.  Again, ingenious.  I’d honestly always thought that my birth country, America, was the greatest country on earth.  But now, after just two hours of setting foot for the first time in a foreign land, I realize just how misguided I’ve been my entire life.  It’s easy to call your own home the greatest when you’ve never bothered visiting someone else’s house.

By the way:  In any developed country, you can basically tell how egalitarian the nation is by its public bus transit system because usually, only the people without means (ie. the poor people without cars) will need to rely on the bus system.  For example, in America, taking the public bus will usually take five times longer than individually driving and will be the dirtiest and most harrowing ordeal you likely ever subject yourself to.  The plastic seats are grimy and disease-infested, the drivers are paid the minimum wage (and drive like it), there’s graffiti everywhere, and more often than not, the bus is running way behind schedule.  In America, it’s clear we don’t care about the poorest among us.  And thus, the American public bus system is essentially garbage.

Now, China, a country of 1.4 billion people, has a slightly different problem.  America only has 330 million people but happens to be, literally, the richest country on planet earth.  China, on the other hand, ranks among the poorest in terms of GDP per capita.  Additionally, China is a mono-party, communist regime.  Meaning:  When times are good, everyone’s happy.  But when times are bad, there’s no way to “vote” leaders out of power (like we so often do here in America).  So instead, you get something like the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976 where 30 million Chinese people die in a violent overthrow of the government.  Thus, it behooves the people in power like General Secretary, Chairman Xi to build gleaming, futuristic bus systems for the legions of the Chinese poor.  It’s a pretty good trade, I think– give the hordes of Chinese plebeians a nice and fancy public bus system in return for harmony and stability of the social fabric.

Zidane’s Headbutt

Glorious or foolish?

Zidane’s headbutt in the 2006 World Cup arguably cost France the title that year.  This Very Bad Wizards podcast episode is now over two years old, but I still think of it from time to time.  I’ll summarize some of Sommers and Pizzaro’s discussion here which most stuck with me:  There’s a contradiction at play with how we judge emotional acts.  Consider two scenarios. 

Scenario One:  Imagine you are at a friend’s boathouse party.  It’s a family event and dusk has fallen, evening in twilight.  Everyone’s having a good time, there’s BBQ on the grill, the liquor is flowing fast and freely.  There are children shrieking and running around the deck having fun and you’ve knocked down probably one too many tequila shots, but whatever– life is good.  Suddenly, one of the kids accidentally fall overboard and it’s complete pandemonium.  Your immediate gut reflex is to jump overboard and save the child from the dark watery depths.  But then you catch yourself– you’ve consumed so much liquor… can you even swim?  In your moment’s hesitation, your drinking buddy, Ed –the neighbor next door who’s probably knocked back twice what you have– kicks off his shoes and jumps in after the kid.  Luckily, despite being so drunk, Ed manages the save the child and they’re both eventually hauled back topside, shaken but otherwise fine.  Ed is heralded a hero.

In this split-second moment, Ed made a flash decision to “do the heroic deed”– a selfless act that bypassed all rational thought and is celebrated for his decisive action.  Imagine a tragic outcome where both Ed and the child perished, sucked under by treacherous currents.  Ed would still be celebrated as a hero, I think?  That in the moment, when the chips were down, Ed revealed his true nature— he didn’t think.  He just acted with zero regard for anything else.  He didn’t think about his own family, his own wife, or his own kids.  He just jumped in to try to save an innocent child from drowning.  You could perhaps call Ed’s immediate action reckless and maybe even foolish.  But undoubtedly, people would memorialize him fondly, as having died trying to do the right thing.  In the moment when it counted, he acted with heart.  Despite whatever consequences eventually followed.

Scenario Two:  Zidane’s headbutt at the 2006 World Cup.  Reportedly, Materazzi insulted Zidane’s sister– that was the instigating incident.  In that immediate heat of the moment, Zidane just didn’t care.  It was a transgression that simply could not pass.  And thus, the headbutt.  France went on to lose the title in penalty kicks, 3-5.  Earlier that same year, at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, American Lindsey Jacobellis also lost the gold medal in the Women’s Snowboard Cross when she fell trying to show off in the final 100 meters on the last jump.  Despite the fall, Jacobellis still managed to grab silver which is just testament of how massive her lead was.

In all of these examples, the people involved acted on emotion in a moment of passion.  And yet, Ed is celebrated while Zidane and Jacobellis are largely criticized for their reckless foolishness that ultimately cost them the gold.  To me though, this distinction in attitudes doesn’t make sense.  They’re all flipsides of the same coin– if you want to celebrate the Eds of the world, we need to also accept, and even celebrate, the Zidanes and Jacobelli.  Reacting solely based on emotional response isn’t a choice.  There is literally no rational thought behind the action– it’s pure reaction.  It’s also, IMHO, what makes us human.