The serialization of “The Quantum Supremacy” continues. Now available in paperback.
Copyright 2019 David P. Goldman. All rights reserved.
The Quantum Supremacy”
Part six of Spengler’s spy thriller which pits China’s Ministry of State Security against the CIA in a deadly battle of wits
By SPENGLER (DAVID P. GOLDMAN)
China’s Ministry of State Security and the Central Intelligence Agency are locked in a deadly battle of wits – from Muslim unrest in Xinjiang Province to the high-tech nerve center of US American intelligence at the National Security Agency. At stake is The Quantum Supremacy – America’s most secret messaging system. Each week, Asia Times will publish further installments from Spengler’s riveting tale of deceit (Kindle edition). Read Part 1 here. Read Part 2 here. Read Part 3 here. Read Part 4 here. Read Part 5.
Chapter 14: The Light Bulb
Guang-Yin shivered in front of the ceramic heater that provided the only warmth in the safe house. Few Hong Kong apartments have central heating, a luxury given the small number of chilly days in the year. “A lot of Americans don’t want to believe that China could reach quantum supremacy before us,” Paul said. “They think the Chinese copy our technology without inventing anything of their own.”
“Really?” Guang-Yin said. “Name me an American invention.”
“Edison and the light bulb.”
“That’s my father’s favorite story,” Guang-Yin laughed. “Edison didn’t invent the electric light bulb. A British physicist had a working prototype in 1850. What Edison did was – what do you call it? – intellectual property theft. There were electric street lights before he sat down to work. He found a way to make light bulbs cheap and durable. The problem was in the filament, and he tried six-thousand kinds of material before he discovered that carbonized bamboo made it practical. America didn’t have a Faraday or a Maxwell, let alone a Max Planck or an Einstein. Americans didn’t come up with any important idea in physics until Feynman’s quantum electrodynamics, and Shinichiro Tomonaga had gotten there first, sitting in Japan by himself during World War II. America had grit, persistence and ambition. Edison wasn’t a genius. He was an organizer. He brought together scientists and engineers and craftsmen who could try ideas and see what actually worked.”
“Is that what your father does?” Paul asked.
“Making a quantum computer work is no different in principle than what Edison did. It involves a lot of trial and error. You have to cool the system down to a fraction of a degree below absolute zero. Then you have to transmit information and extract it. And no-one even understands the physics that creates qubits, or why they can transmit information to each other at a distance. My father doesn’t want to be John von Neumann or Alan Turing, but Edison. But he did do one thing for which he ought to get a Nobel Prize. You know that a conventional computer can tell you quickly if any number is a prime number. It knows how to do that: Take a very big number and divided it by all the known prime numbers – 2, 3, 5, 7, 11 and so forth. But a conventional computer doesn’t do well at extracting prime factors from very large numbers. That’s why cryptography relies on the prime factors of large numbers. It would take a supercomputer hundreds of years to crack a code based on prime factors. It’s been known for years that a quantum computer can factor large numbers quickly, at least in theory. But the qubits in the quantum machines are unstable and they produce errors, so you have to pick out the errors each time you do a calculation. What my father discovered is an algorithm that discards the errors and verifies the valid calculations, so it doesn’t matter whether you have errors or not, any more than it does if you get a low yield of usable computer chips from a fabrication plant.”
“I thought you studied English Lit.,” Paul laughed.
“I do!” the woman protested. “You wouldn’t find it strange if a computer scientist could say something intelligent about Shakespeare, would you? What’s wrong with a literature student knowing something about computers?”
“What made you choose literature?”
“Chinese people look up to the West – no matter what we say, we know that the imperialist countries humiliated us because we were weak and backward and couldn’t defend ourselves. We learn the piano and violin, not guzheng and erhu. Philosophy majors are more interested in Kant than Confucius. I could have studied computer science or mathematics, but everybody does that in China. I wanted to get inside the mind of the West – I wanted to see how Westerners act when they come to a crossroads in their lives, and that’s what novels are about.”
“We have a philosopher named Yogi Berra,” Paul countered, “who said: ‘When you come to a fork in the road,’ take it.”
“That sounds a bit zen,” Guang-Yi replied.
“Never mind that. What have you learned about my Western mind?” Paul asked.
“Your Western mind is a dirty mind,” Guang-Yin laughed. “No, seriously,” she changed the tone. “You are nostalgic and sad. Let me ask a question. In what language did you hear lullabies when you were little?”
“Tente, baba, tente” floated to the top of Paul’s memory. “Hungarian,” he said.
“Paul, the most important thing you need to understand about China is that no Chinese mother has ever sung a lullaby to her child in Chinese. You learned the characters, same as me, and you learned Mandarin. Mandarin is just a bureaucrats’ dialect. The Chinese lived for thousands of years in village and province, speaking their local languages and telling their local stories. Beijing was the tax collector far away. There are court poems written 1,500 years ago that we read – we read the characters, and try to put the words in an order that makes sense. They are soundless poems, ideogram-poems. Now the government has moved half a billion people out of villages into grand new cities, and the dialects are dying, and everyone speaks the bureaucrat-language. It is ugly! My family came from Fujian Province and spoke Hakka, the oldest of the Chinese dialects, but my grandparents and my uncles all are dead, and I have no-one with whom to speak it, Paul. We had our hill songs, beautiful songs about love and labor, about growing up and growing old. I remember a few of them from my childhood. I am so terribly lonely. I feel that I belong to a world that has disappeared.”
Paul felt a chill. He didn’t reply but changed the subject. “I don’t think you should go back to the mainland. Get out of Hong Kong and we’ll exfil your father separately. It’s chancy under the best of circumstances and we don’t know how badly our networks in China are compromised.”
“There’s no choice, Paul,” Guang-Yin said. “They’ll never let me out of Hong Kong. My residency card won’t get me on a plane, and they only let me come here because I didn’t have a passport. I’d be arrested the moment I scanned my ID. Beijing isn’t stupid. The way they see it, they have an important scientist who has a crazy daughter who cuts her wrists, and they don’t mind if she goes to Hong Kong to study crazy Western writers, but they aren’t going to let this mouse out of the treadmill. Besides, I know my father. He won’t trust someone he doesn’t know. I have to go with you and bring him out or he will never go along with it. I don’t care what happens to me anymore. Camus says that we are alone in the universe. I don’t know if that’s true, but the Chinese are alone in China, especially if they don’t have a family. My father is all I have – and you. You are like family to me. I want to be your family.”
That night Paul flew to back to Manila. He changed cabs twice before arriving at the American Embassy on Roxas Boulevard. A Marine guard escorted him to a secure room where he found the waiting D/NCS and the gaunt man he had met at the safe house in Falls Church.
“You’re going to take a commercial flight from Hong Kong to Beijing. You’re a consular official, and no-one will look at you twice,” said the gaunt man. “You will instruct Ms. Deng to have her father drive his own car next Wednesday morning to the underground parking garage in Basement 2 of the New World Shopping Center in Chonwenmen, Section 32. They should arrive at 11 a.m. precisely. Another vehicle will be waiting to take them to the factory of Red Panda Leather Goods at the Beigaozhuang industrial park in western Beijing, where they will transfer into a truck heading west. Your job is to make sure that they arrive at the factory, that they are not carrying telephone handsets or other electronic items that can reveal their location, and that they get on the truck. That’s all you are going to do. When that is done, go back to your hotel, get drunk, do whatever you want, and then fly back to Hong Kong.”
“If I may,” said Paul, “I see a couple of problems with your plan.”
The gaunt man replied, “You were not summoned here to offer your rookie opinion. You’re here to receive orders. Now you’ve got them. Shut up and get out of here, and remember that you weren’t chosen for this mission. You just fell into this particular manhole.”
“I wasn’t chosen by you, is what you mean,” Richetti mumbled.
“What does that mean?” the gaunt man asked. “Meeting adjourned.”
“Wait a moment, Arnold,” said D/NCS. “We all came a long way for a short meeting. Let’s hear what he has to say. What’s wrong with the plan, Richetti?”
“Deng Yongmin isn’t any defalcating Chinese quant,” Paul said. “If what his daughter tells us true, he’s the best they’ve got, the man who makes it all happen. He’s Western-educated, has a high international profile, and also has his hands in the cookie jar back at the lab. How did he get hold of the cable intercepts he sent us? Any time you download anything from a computer you leave a trail and the cybersecurity bloodhounds will be sniffing for it. How did he get it to us? Presumably, he met with his daughter. She carried the Micro SD card to Hong Kong by putting it where it could be found only by cavity search. If the daughter isn’t blowing smoke at us, she’s the kind of kid who would trigger a security alert – free spirit, Western cultural interests, at least one suicide attempt. All of this means that Professor Deng is going to be under a microscope. The Chinese have many weaknesses, but lack of thoroughness isn’t one of them, and least of all when it comes to something this important. It’s stupid to have him drive his own car. First of all, he’ll certainly be followed, probably by a tail car using a high-speed drone to keep him on camera while staying out of sight. Second, the Ministry of State Security will have placed a homing device in the car. It’s also stupid to transfer him to a car that we arranged. Our networks have been shredded by Chinese security. Just because they didn’t arrest everyone we know, doesn’t mean they don’t know everyone we know, and every vehicle they have access to. We can’t assume that CIA can come up with a clean vehicle anywhere in Beijing. Do you want me to go on? I could give you six other reasons why this is a recipe for disaster. And don’t be telling me that I’m supposed to take orders and shut up. I’m the one who will end up in a Chinese dungeon if this goes pear-shaped.”
“And what do you propose instead?” the gaunt man demanded.
“Assume that our whole existing operation is compromised. Source all the logistics independently,” Paul said. “Improvise in the field. The more we plan, the likelier the Chinese are to expose it. They are the world’s best planners. They anticipate, take into account contingencies, prepare alternative scenarios, check every box. But they aren’t at their best dealing with chaos. The goofier this operation is, the harder it will be for them to figure it out. There are holes everywhere in their system. The Chinese do their best to look like obedient citizens, but every one of them cuts corners and runs some kind of fiddle on the side. If you know China really well, the way the Chinese know it, you can find these holes in the system and disappear into them. You have to do the unexpected.”
The gaunt man replied, “I don’t hear a plan.”
“Plans are alright sometimes,” Paul quoted. “And sometimes just stirring things up is all right – if you’re tough enough to survive, and keep your eyes open s you’ll see what you want when it comes to the top.”
D/NCS folded his hands together. “I admire your critical judgment, Paul,” he began. “That was spoken like a real Clandestine Services operator. Paranoia is our occupational disability. In our world, only the paranoid survive. But we have given this a great deal of thought, and we have a lot of experience in these matters. Of course, there is a possibility that Professor Deng will be followed and that his car has a homing device, but there is nothing nefarious about a visit to a shopping mall. That is entirely within the range of normal behavior. As for the transfer car, we have also put this under the highest possible level of operational security. We have top people – top people – working on it.”
“There’s another thing, Director. I don’t believe that the offer of service is genuine.”
“Why do you think that, Richetti?”
“Because this supposed daughter of Deng Yongmin tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up. And she sounds like she’s working me according to a profile cooked up at the psy-ops department of the Ministry of State Security.”
“Goddamn it, Richetti, you aren’t that important,” the gaunt man expostulated. “Why the hell should the Chinese care about whether you have a psych profile or not? You’re the messenger boy in this circus. This is the biggest opportunity this agency has had in years, and a chance to make up for a lot of past setbacks in China. The risk-reward is overwhelmingly in favor of proceeding.”
Yeah, right, Richetti thought to himself. I’m the risk, and you’re the reward. If it’s a setup I get paraded before the news cameras and left to rot in a prison camp. If it isn’t, I was just the messenger boy. I get a tip, and you get the President’s Intelligence Medal.
“Any questions, Richetti?” the gaunt man asked.
“What? No. No sir,” Paul replied. He shook hands around the room and left. On the taxi ride back to the airport he studied videos of Beijing shopping malls and Google Earth images of western China.
Chapter 15: The Dragon’s Maw
Shortly before eight the next evening, Paul stopped at the concierge’s desk at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and picked a large shopping bag filled with small paper containers. A taxi took him up the hill to Mid-Levels and dropped him a block from the safe house. He went through a garage on Robinson Road and stopped behind a pillar to listen for footsteps, then climbed the stairs to the lobby, and crossed Conduit Road to another apartment building. Once inside the safe house, Paul retrieved red porcelain bowls from the cupboard and transferred the contents of the paper containers. A soft knock at the door interrupted him, and he opened it to admit Guang-Yin. She wore a black cocktail dress with black stockings. She kicked the door closed behind her and flung her arms around Paul. “I’m happy to see you, too,” Paul said after a long interval. “But first we celebrate. Mah Wan at the Mandarin Hotel has the best Cantonese cuisine in Hong Kong. We can’t go out in public – not yet in any case – so I brought it to you.” Using the apartment’s small microwave oven, Paul heated deep-fried codfish, roast suckling pig, roasted goose with plum sauce, wild cloud ear fungus, stewed abalone and baked crab meat, and they ate it with a 2007 Taitinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc des Blancs.
Guang-Yin dressed and removed her smudged makeup with a towelette. Paul handed her a scrap of paper. “This is where you will bring your father to meet me in Beijing,” he told her. “Memorize it and burn it.”
A few hours later the station chief reviewed the video of the meeting. Keeping an electronic record of a clandestine meet was outside of standard operating procedure, but she didn’t trust Richetti and thought it prudent to make sure he had followed instructions. She also wanted to gauge the motives of the scientist’s daughter. No question, she thought. This is a young woman in love. I don’t know what Richetti has going for him – he’s nothing to look at – but he’s wrapped her around his little finger.
On Monday evening, Paul waited in the lobby of the Kowloon office building where his Shenzhen commuter spent the day counterfeiting French handbags. He followed the man to the street, came up behind him and pressed his carotid artery. The man’s knees buckled, and Paul frog-marched him to the taxi that waited for him a few meters away. Once in the back seat, Paul took a hypodermic needle out of his jacket pocket and jammed it into the man’s thigh. The blend of fentanyl and psilocybin took instant effect. Paul found and pocketed the man’s wallet and cellphone, and told the driver in Mandarin, “Stop here! My friend is sick – take him to a hospital.” He gave the driver a five hundred Hong Kong dollar bill and got out. It would take a couple of days before the man was coherent enough to tell a story to the police, and he wouldn’t remember much in any case.
Paul slipped on the latex fingerprint membrane and tried the phone’s scanner. The screen flickered to life, and he found the Metropolitan Rapid Transit app with the high-speed rail pass. In the men’s room of the W Hotel, he applied the silicon mask. Ugly, he thought, but the frame just might hold. He donned a crushable porkpie hat and light sunglasses. Then he shouldered his bag and took a cab to West Kowloon station, and merged into the stream of commuters headed for the bullet train to Shenzhen. The duped latex fingerprint and the commuter’s identity card got him through the automated immigration gate in seconds, too fast for him to feel fear. Video cameras stood above the turnstiles; they were probably the new Huawei high-density models that shoot 60 frames a second. He assumed that his face would be matched to his fingerprint, his ID card, and the ticket on the high-speed rail smartphone app.
Paul boarded the bullet train, sat down, and felt the acceleration as it ramped up to 200 kilometers an hour. Rather than relief he felt near panic as he sat down, and fought hard to keep his breathing regular. Chinese bullet trains reached speeds half again as fast on distance runs, but the hop to Shenzhen was only 20 kilometers and eleven minutes. He left the train with the commuter crowd. Like almost everything in China’s major cities, the Shenzhen Railway Station is new, shiny, and enormous. Paul found an empty stall in the men’s room and removed the silicon mask. He walked to the other side of the station and paid cash for a business class ticket for a sleeping car on the overnight train to Beijing, showing his Hungarian passport, and nursed a beer at the station bar. The security scan at big Chinese railway stations looks for bombs rather than firearms. Paul’s shoulder bag went through an X-ray scanner, but the security guard only passed an electronic wand over his torso. The little Beretta taped to his ankle went through without a beep.
The improvised war room at the white brick house in Falls Church stank of smoke and stale coffee. It was 7 a.m., and the men seated around the coffee table had expected confirmation of Paul Richetti’s arrival at Beijing Airport two hours ago. Flight on time, uncle a no show read the text message from the observer at International Arrivals in Beijing. The gaunt man said, “The son of a bitch went over to the other side.”
“It’s too early to draw that conclusion,” replied D/NCS. “We can’t contact him. We’re still in radio silence. We can’t use encrypted communications channels because we don’t know if the Chinese can decipher them.”
“Could the Chinese have abducted him?” Jerzy Nowak asked. He was finishing his third bag of Cheetos.
“Where?” the gaunt man said, cleaning his glasses with a napkin.
“He’s a consular officer. They don’t kidnap US diplomats off the street. He never got off the plane to Beijing because he never got on the plane in the first place. His Blackberry is in his apartment – our man could hear it ringing when called from Richetti’s doorstep. He got the hots for the girl and went over the wall. Hell, he’s almost Chinese to begin with, born and brought up there. Who knows what kind of psychological pressure they used on him? The kid’s profile screams, ‘Fragile.’”
“Have we looked into a Mossad angle?” asked Kowak.
“Jerry, what are you talking about?” D/NCS said.
“Molnár was his mother’s name. That’s ‘Miller’ in Hungarian, a common enough name but often used by Jews trying to pass for Gentiles, like that playwright, the one who wrote the original story for ‘Carousel.’ We don’t know a lot about the old lady – parents supposed to be freedom fighters in the 1956 Revolution, got themselves killed and the girl got dumped in a Swiss orphanage. We need to get somebody from the Bern station digging into the archives.”
“I didn’t know they were putting hallucinogens in Doritos these days,” the gaunt man broke in.
“OK, forget I said it. What other possibilities are there?” Nowak demanded.
“How the hell should I know?” said the gaunt man. “He’s on a bender, shacked up with a hooker at a fleabag hotel in Wanchai. He got cold feet and didn’t have the guts to tell us he was quitting. He got kidnapped by space aliens. In any case, we’re screwed. We have an offer of what might be the most important defection in the history of this agency and we blew it because we relied on a psychologically unstable, inexperienced head case.”
“Beck, anything more from your inquiries?” Havisham Beckwith shook his head. His ferrets had done everything but vivisect Percy Leoung, the idiot-savant programmer who seemed to fit the profile of a Chinese mole. There was nothing more he could do but wait to see how time and chance would have their way with him.
D/NCS turned to Diderot Kaplowicz. “What do we actually know about China’s quantum computing program?”
“We know they’re spending a lot more than we are. Last year, we got the House to allocate $1.2 billion for quantum computer research. But the actual budget authority hasn’t gone through conference, which means that under the best of scenarios we’ll be able to spend a couple of hundred million dollars in 2020. Meanwhile, China’s spending $10 billion for one major lab, the National Laboratory for Quantum Information Sciences in Hefei.”
“Hefei? Where the hell is Hefei?” asked Jerzy Nowak.
“Uh, I’d have to look that up,” said Diderot D/NCS.”
“Wait, a second,” D/NCS said, and tapped into his smartphone. “Hefei, in Anhui Province. That’s a Prefecture-level city. What does that mean?”
“It means a provincial backwater,” said Nowak.
“It’s 80 miles west of Nanjing – you remember Nanjing from the Japanese massacre there in 1937. And it may be a backwater but it has almost 8 million people. It’s as big as New York. Who is going spend $10 billion for a computer science center in New York? We’re talking about a scale of investment that we can’t compare to US terms, in cities that we’ve never heard of that are as big as any city in the United States.”
“Microsoft, Google and IBM are all doing research in quantum computing,” Kaplowicz offered. “But that $10 billion number for the laboratory in Hefei is double IBM’s annual R&D budget, and what they put into quantum computing is a tiny fraction of what they spend.”
“What does that mean, practically?,” D/NCS asked.
“Practically, the Chinese already have demonstrated workable quantum satellite communications. That means it’s impossible to eavesdrop. Quantum communications use the entanglement of particles – that means that two subatomic particles behave as a unit. If you listen to a signal, you have to touch the signal with some kind of particle, and that changes the signal. It’s like a letter that changes its content the moment a human eye looks at it. It is theoretically impossible to intercept. They sent up the first quantum satellite in the world in 2016. They did a demo of quantum encryption two years ago, in a video call with some scientists in Austria. Now it’s two years and God knows how many billions of dollars later. We have to assume that they can talk to each other without any possibility of our interception their communications. The question is, can we talk to each other without the Chinese intercepting and deciphering our communications?”
“What do our people on the ground say?” the director asked.
“As you know, we don’t have a lot left on the ground. We have a couple of junior guys on the payroll, and they haven’t given us anything definitive. There’s an inner circle of computer guys who get to work with the prototype in a space that you need retinal scans and voice prints to get into,” Nowak said. “We really don’t know what they’re doing. The good news is that Deng Dongmin is one of them. The bad news is that we sent a trainee flake into China and he’s fallen down some manhole.”
Jerzy Kowak reached for another bag of potato chips and said, “There is another possibility. The kid had his own ideas about how we should run this operation. Maybe he hasn’t gone over to the other side. Maybe he’s free-lancing, making it up as he goes along. He grew up there. He knows China well enough to slip through the cracks. I’m just saying.”
“How can he get into China without using his passport?” demanded the gaunt man. Jerzy Kowak was silent.
Chapter 16: Brobdingnag and Lilliputians
Beijing is Brobdingnag populated by Lilliputians. From the Imperial palaces of the Forbidden City to the high temple of Chinese Communism, the 70,000-seat Great Hall of the People, the imperial presence lowers over its people. The characteristic architectural style is gigantism, designed to awe and intimidate. Eight-lane highways crisscross the city, with service roads on the side giving access to shops and office buildings. The people of Beijing dress modestly and look deadpan because centuries of experience have taught them that there is no upside in standing out. The rulers make themselves grand, and the people make themselves small. Tens of thousands of closed-circuit television cameras spaced at intervals of 100 meters scanned the faces of its 25 million people, and massive computer banks used machine-learning algorithms to identify them in real time. The cell phone network tracked the location of every handset in the city, and gridded location data with social media postings and online purchases, while the facial recognition computers checked that the smartphones moving through the city belonged to the owner of record. If two Chinese walked together who had posted something hostile to the regime, the computers flagged a possible conspiracy; if ten Chinese did so, the computers noted a subversive movement. Paul detested the capital; he preferred the commercial spirit and easy stride of his native Shanghai.
Political operations of the kind the CIA used to run in Poland and East Germany during the Cold War were futile here, Paul mused. The security apparatus surveilled the cybersphere and the public square like the eye of Sauron searching for the One Ring. But the eyes of the security establishment didn’t penetrate into the Beijing of non-people, the millions of migrant workers who did menial jobs, but didn’t have the residence papers to buy a dwelling or send their children to regular state schools. They were a polyglot rabble incurious about politics, concerned only with scraping together a living and sending money back home to villages in the remote countryside. Beijing reminded Paul of Fritz Lang’s silent-film Metropolis. The disparity between official aggrandizement and popular self-abnegation masked a more tenuous balance of power. The Communist Party had moved nearly 600 million people from farm to the city in just over 30 years, and millions had slipped through the cracks.
One of the million non-people of Beijing was Zhang Wei Huang, who lived in a hostel in the Changping district and drove an old Chinese-made Suzuki Alto. It was fitted with a light in the windshield that made him look like a taxi. He could only drive late at night when licensed taxis were hard to find and the traffic police were too lazy to pull him over, and he would have starved long ago except for the occasional Western tourist who didn’t know the local fares and paid quintuple. Migrants like Zhang Wei remained off the radar. For a while, his wife and son had lived with him in a rented shack in Changping, and his son studied at the Zhiquan School, one of the dozens of squatter schools set up by migrants and half-tolerated by the Beijing authorities. But shantytowns on Beijing’s periphery had grown too fast, and bulldozers had come a year ago to demolish the school. Zhang Wei had no choice but to send his wife and his son home to their village in Yunnan Province where factories had begun to open, while he moved into a hostel where he shared a room with six other men. Never mind, Zhang Wei thought as he steered his Suzuki into the night. Life was tolerable and would get better. His great-grandfather had been killed by the Japanese, his grandfather had died of starvation during the Great Leap Forward, and his father had worked a small paddy to produce enough rice to keep his family alive. In a few years, he and his wife would save enough to buy a small house in their village, with indoor plumbing and a modern kitchen, and his son would prepare for the university examinations.
As he drove past the Taoyuan Apartment Hotel in Changping, he caught sight of a Westerner with his hand out. Paul Richetti climbed into the front seat of the Suzuki and greeted him in Mandarin. “I want to see Beijing at night,” Paul said. “How much for the whole evening?” The driver replied, “1,000 yuan – fixed price.” That was about US$130, double what he made in a very good evening, and he expected a Mandarin speaker to haggle. “That’s great,” Paul said. “Take me to a nightclub.” They chatted. Paul said he was an American businessman starting an office for his company, which imported steel pipe and other industrial goods. He was going to need a full-time driver when the office opened. Was Zhang Wei interested? Very interested, the Yunnanese migrant replied. In that case, he could drive Paul on his errands during the next couple of days. Paul would pay him 2,000 yuan a day. He entered the driver’s number in a burner phone with a SIM card purchased at a vending machine in the Shenzhen station. Zhang Wei pointed the Suzuki towards Sanlitun, the entertainment street in the Chaoyang District, and dropped Paul at Vic’s. Paul bar-hopped for a while and bought drinks for laughing Chinese girls, and flirted and gossiped. He also watched to see whether any of the same faces reappeared in the dozen establishments he visited. Several hours’ worth of counter-surveillance reassured him that he wasn’t on the radar. He ordered bottled beer, and opened it himself, a normal precaution among patrons of Asian bars. Merry and weary, he texted Zhang Wei to pick him up and returned to his hotel.
A little after 4:00 a.m. Paul woke in the darkness and couldn’t remember where he was. He fumbled for the light switch but couldn’t find it, and groped for his phone on the nightstand, but only succeeded in knocking it to the floor. Darkness enveloped him and stopped his breath. He felt a sudden chill and began to shiver involuntarily. Where was he? In his dorm at Princeton? In his Hong Kong studio apartment? At home in Shanghai? He forced himself to breathe evenly and then felt for the light switch. The bland fluorescent light brought him back to the present, to a drab hotel room with a hard bed, carpets that hadn’t been cleaned during the present dynasty, and a small kitchenette with a faint odor of stale cooking oil. His mouth was dry and his head ached from alcohol. He found his shoulder bag and took out a steel hip flask, and took a long pull. Everybody’s got to be somewhere – he recalled the punchline of an old joke. But I am nobody, and I am nowhere. I have nothing to prove to anybody, because there is nothing to prove, and because there is nobody to prove it too. China has no purpose; China simply is, running out the clock until the end of time. America had a purpose but has forgotten it; it doesn’t remember where it came from and it doesn’t know where it is going. What is left? There’s a job to do, but the job is a farce and a fraud, so I have to re-invent it for myself. I’m scared. He broke an Ambien tablet in two and washed down the larger piece with another pull of vodka. He curled under the covers to get warm and lapsed into a dreamless sleep.
Chapter 17: Fireworks
The next morning Paul had Zhang Wei drive him to the Zhongguancun mall near Peking University. To the driver’s bafflement, Paul asked him to circle the complex before he went in. Paul was back in 20 minutes, and they drove to the Panjiayuan antiques market in central Beijing. There is as much chance of finding an antique here as there is of finding a virgin in Sanlitun, he thought. Dealers sat in front of identical stalls in the vast space offering antiques just off the assembly line, along with fake jade jewelry, ethnic clothing from China’s Silk Road provinces, and gold statues of Mao Zedong, George Washington and Donald Trump. Paul loitered around a porcelain shop that sold large vases. The proprietress was a chubby lady of indeterminate age. She sat on a stool next to her wares smoking a Double Happiness cigarette.
“Good morning, Měi nǚ,” Paul said, and the woman smiled at being called beautiful. “Do you have a cigarette for me?” She offered him the pack and a plastic lighter, and he lit a cigarette and took an unhurried drag. He pointed to a wide-mouthed porcelain vessel about three feet high and 18 inches in diameter. The old woman asked for 3,000 RMB, over US$400. Paul countered with RMB 2,000 and after a brief haggle they settled on RMB 2,800, twice what the woman would have sold it for. Paul asked the shopkeeper if she knew someone in the vast expanse of stalls and pushcarts who might have any fireworks left over from the New Year. Legally, fireworks are sold in China only in the week before the Lunar New Year celebration, but by good luck, the shopkeeper explained, her friend still had some rockets in the back of the store. She offered Paul a cup of tea. Ten minutes later a middle-aged man wearing a White Sox cap and a Patriots jersey arrived with a large package wrapped in brown paper. The Roman candles would have cost him US$20 a carton in a bulk purchase from Alibaba, Paul reckoned; he counted out 2,500 yuan, quadruple the seller’s cost. The man in the White Sox cap gave 300 to the shopkeeper as commission. He carried the porcelain vase and the package of Roman candles back to the car. Zhang Wei stowed them in the trunk. They drove to a pharmacy where he bought a liter of full-strength alcohol, and then to a grocery where he bought six pounds of sugar. Then he stopped at a cookware store and bought a large pot and a metal spatula. These he had wrapped in brown paper. Then he found a hardware store, and bought four dozen disposable smoke hoods.
Zhang Wei dropped him at the Taoyuan Hotel and the porter helped Paul with his packages. Once in his room, he locked the door, put the pot on the kitchenette’s electric stove and began to melt the sugar over low heat. Using a razor blade, he cut open several of the paper rockets and shook their potassium nitrate propellant into the sugar. He stirred the malodorous concoction for 15 minutes, until the sugar and propellant dissolved into a viscous brown liquid. He scraped the mixture out of the pot and smeared it on the inside of the porcelain vase, distributing the mass over as much of the inner surface as he could. In a few minutes, the sugar-gunpowder cocktail had congealed into a hard layer with the consistency of baked clay.
Zhang Wei was waiting in the hotel parking lot, playing the “Honor of Kings” game on a large-screen smartphone. Paul directed him to the Donghuamen District and the Beijing Da Dong Duck restaurant, which serves the best Peking Duck in the world. The duck’s skin, dried for hours before roasting, crackled and melted on the tongue, and the succulent meat anointed with Hoisin sauce exuded a savory steam. Paul wrapped skin, meat, sauce and scallions in rice pancakes and consumed them unhurriedly with a bottle of Veuve Cliquot. Considering the next day’s business, Paul thought, he might as well eat a decent last meal.
Late Wednesday morning, Guang-Yin strolled out of the East Gate of Peking University in a blue Burberry trench coat. With her was a grey-haired man wearing a plain blue parka and a tweed cap. They turned left onto Zhongguancun Street, crossed the road and continued another block to the shopping mall at Zhongguancun Square. It was alive with shoppers. Guang-Yin and the old man checked the directory and found the Jasonwood franchise store on the second floor. She stood to watch near the entrance while the old man pretended to look at polo shirts. She saw Paul down the corridor near the Bench Body outlet and tugged at the old man’s arm. Paul wore a rapper’s bright yellow quarter-length coat and a matching baseball cap and carried two enormous shopping bags.
From one of the bags, Paul produced the blue porcelain vase from the flea market. He set it down deliberately, poured a half liter of alcohol into it, stepped back a few feet, flicked on an old-fashioned Zippo lighter and tossed into the mouth. A pillar of flame arose out of the vase with an audible whoosh. In a few moments, the flame was followed by great billows of acrid black smoke, as the fire ignited the potassium nitrate and the sugar turned to carbon. A menacing cloud of smoke mushroomed below the mall’s low ceiling. Out of nowhere, a security guard ran shouting towards them grabbed Paul’s left arm. Paul brought his left foot down with a snap on the guard’s instep and the man sucked in air to scream, but before he could push it back out Paul had crushed his larynx with his right fist. The guard collapsed into fetal position on the floor, and Paul kicked him in the head.
The black cloud of burned sugar thickened and spread. Paul discarded the rapper’s coat and hat, fitted a smoke hood over his head, and walked quickly to where Guang-Yin and the old man stood gaping. “Put these on fast,” he shouted, handing them smoke hoods. Then he drew from his shoulder bag a can of compressed air with a klaxon horn attached on top. He depressed the button and the emergency horn let out a deafening screech. In a few moments, the klaxon was joined by the high-to-low siren of a fire alarm. Customers and employees scuttled into the corridor and ran for the down escalator. Paul shouted “Smoke hoods! Smoke hoods!” and emptied the contents of the second shopping bag onto the floor. The fleeing shoppers stooped and grabbed them. Paul guided Guang-Yin and the old man through the surge of hooded shoppers to the down escalator. “Drop your phones!” Paul shouted as he led them through the maze of electronics stalls on the ground floor to the building’s rear entrance.
They pushed through a surge of shoppers running towards the mall’s main exit and reached a side a door that led through a dim corridor to the rear of the complex. Another alarm squealed as Paul pushed the emergency door open. They ran past exposed pipes and ventilation machinery towards an exit sign at the end of a long corridor. Outside next to a delivery ramp, Zhang Wei sat idling in the Suzuki. Paul pushed the old man into a front seat and jumped in the back with Guang-Yin. The little car screeched to life, turned left on Haidian St., and then right on Suzhou Road, and disappeared into the Fourth Ring Road heading west.
Guang-Yin was shaking. “You’re crazy! You could have killed people!” she sputtered.
“Probably not, unless someone fell down the escalator and broke their neck,” Paul said happily. His face was flushed and he spoke fast. “There’s always some danger of trampling, I suppose. The rest of it was pretty harmless. The flames were alcohol and that burns out in seconds. Burning sugar made the smoke. It stinks and looks menacing, but it doesn’t flame. I needed a way to neutralize the surveillance. There are high-definition video cameras every 100 meters in the neighborhood of Peking University and every 50 meters in the mall,” said Paul as they sped south on the ring road. “But they can’t pick out three people wearing smoke hoods among dozens of people wearing smoke hoods. If you had a tail, we lost it in the confusion, and the computers won’t help pick up the trail.”
“You are a terrorist!” she shouted.
“One man’s terrorist is another man’s merry prankster,” said Paul. She folded her arms and looked away. “They’ll be looking for Uyghurs, not a Western tourist,” Paul added happily. Guang-Yin looked at him with unfeigned horror. “Besides, I thought the pillar of fire and the dense cloud was a nice Biblical touch,” Paul added. “Now let’s get out of Egypt.”
“Permit me to introduce myself,” said the old man. “I am Professor Deng Yongmin and I protest this reckless and destructive action.”
“Pardon me, Professor,” said Paul, “but if you want to get out of here alive, leave the details to the professionals.”
“Professionals?” Deng exploded. “You’re younger than some of my graduate students. How long have you been involved in covert operations in China?”
“Since I was six years old,” Paul replied. That stopped the conversation briefly.
“Everything OK?” Zhang Wei asked Paul.
“Tough customers,” Paul said. The driver grinned.
They wove through heavy traffic for half an hour from the Haidian District to Beigaozhuang, and pulled off the ring road into a complex of older factories and warehouses. Paul directed Zhang Wei through the maze of alleys to a long two-story building with frosted glass windows. “We have some business here,” Paul told Zhang Wei. “Get something to eat and meet us back here in two hours.” He gave the driver a small wad of bills and shooed him away. They waited in the cold for a few minutes. A truck crossed the alley a couple of hundred yards in front of them; that would be their contact circling. A minute later a red Sinotruk tractor-trailer with a sleeper cab pulled up in front of the factory. A short man in polyester jeans and a cheap padded parka climbed down from the cab.
Copyright: Spengler, David P. Goldman, The Quantum Supremacy
Next week: Chapter 18 – The Road to Xinjiang
About the Author: David P. Goldman has written the “Spengler” column at Asia Times since 2001. His previous books include How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too) and It’s Not the End of the World, It’s Just the End of You. He has published extensively in major media including The Wall Street Journal, The Journal of American Affairs, The American Interest, First Things, Tablet Magazine and PJ Media. He has directed major research groups at Bank of America, Credit Suisse and Cantor Fitzgerald, and received Institutional Investor Magazine’s award for research excellence. He consulted for the National Security Council during the first Reagan Administration and for the Defense Department’s Office of Net Assessment during 2011-2013. From 2013 to 2016, he was a managing director at Reorient Group, a Hong Kong investment bank, and has published and lectured extensively about China. This is his first work of fiction.
“Ask anyone in the intelligence business to name the world’s most brilliant intelligence service and we’ll all give the same answer: Oswald Spengler. David P. Goldman’s ‘Spengler’ columns provide more insight than the CIA, MI6, and the Mossad combined.” – Herbert E. Meyer, special assistant to the director of Central Intelligence and vice chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council in the Reagan administration.