‘When you are close, you must make the enemy think you are far.
And when you are far, make him think you are close’
Sun Zi, the art of war, 5th century BC
Saudi Arabia, Yanbu oil terminal
It was coming up to 8 p.m. Gustav Hartmann, the plant’s deputy director, was putting away the plans for extension 5 of the huge Yanbu oil terminal. One by one, he rolled up the large A0 format sheets tightly so they would go back into their stowage tubes. It was part of a project to expand the site’s storage capacity to face growing demands. Each of the vast circular tanks of the site’s tank farm could hold 100 million litres of crude oil. Hartman placed the tubes neatly back on their rack, still immersed in his thoughts. He turned round, moved to the window and contemplated the spaghetti of pipes spread before him amid plumes of steam and smoke. Festooned with floodlights, the Yanbu refinery and oil terminal glimmered like a small city in the Arabian night. Day and night its pipelines sucked in millions of tonnes of crude oil which were then digested to pump out an incessant flow of petrol, diesel oil, heating oil, lubricants and a whole spectrum of other derivatives. It also passed on the incoming crude oil through to shore-based depots for loading onto tankers. Farther out, beyond the distillation towers, a dozen or so supertankers were docked, each waiting to be filled with black gold.
Yanbu was the sole industrial complex on the west coast of Saudi Arabia, far from the oil fields in the east. It had reached saturation point and the construction of a new tank farm was now becoming an urgent matter.
In addition to his normal functions, Gustav Hartmann was on a roster for watching over the plant’s security 24 hours a day. That night, this East-German-born production engineer was scheduled for duty. The plant had been put on maximum alert the day before when a local terrorist chief, a certain Sheik Yussuf, appeared on Al Jazeera TV threatening that he would close the taps on imperialist nations. It was a mystery for no one that the Sheik’s menacing words were aimed at Saudi Arabia. And for the Western intelligence services, this public exhortation was none other than a pre-arranged signal for his agents in the field to trigger off planned operations.
Stock markets all over the world slumped upon hearing these warnings. The barrel of crude shot through the 180 dollar mark on the New York Mercantile Exchange. At London’s International Petroleum Exchange, the barrel of North Sea Brent was negotiated at over 190 dollars.
The Yanbu site spared no expenses on security. The personnel hiring policy was extremely strict. Out of the 3000 employees of this strategic oil terminal and adjoining refinery, only a small handful of carefully-vetted staff came from countries known to export potential terrorists. The overwhelming majority of the men came from the so-called ‘neutral’ nations: India, the Philippines, Thailand… All were kept under tight watch by outside special contracting services and formed a closed community housed on the site and very difficult to infiltrate. As they entered the work premises every morning, each had to pass through a highly sensitive metal detector barrier and undergo a search that would make New York’s JFK boarding control seem amateurish. All these draconian measures had been carefully devised and overseen personally by Hartmann.
It was now 10 p.m., time for Hartmann to begin his tour of inspection. Getting senior members of personnel involved in these routines was a way of showing that security at grass roots level was everyone’s business. Hartman subscribed fully to this management philosophy and never delegated the task, however overworked he was. He unclipped a heavy bunch of keys from the side of his belt and slowly opened the thick steel doors of his safe cupboard. Kneeling down, he pulled out from its bottom shelf a heavy dark-grey nylon backpack, closed the door gently, passed one of the straps round his shoulders and made his way out, switching off lights and locking up his office before heading down the long corridor to the main stairway. Once outside, he clambered inside the Jeep waiting for him in front of the building entrance and placed the backpack on the front passenger seat.
No one could penetrate inside the Yanbu oil complex without authorisation. No one. The ultra-sophisticated intrusion detection systems were classed ‘infallible’ by the American firm that installed them. As for the employees, Hartmann had spent so much time poring over their records that he felt he knew them personally. None of them had a profile even remotely resembling that of a terrorist.
‘If Sheik Yussuf ever wanted to take on Yanbu, he’d have a hell of a job to recruit from – or infiltrate – even one member of this workforce,’ thought Hartmann as he switched on the ignition.
His tour of inspection began with the refinery. As he approached the compound, he could see yellow-helmeted men busying themselves amongst the inextricable bundles of interwoven piping, some painted green, others purple. He drew up to the main atmospheric distillation unit. After being cracked under vacuum, the crude oil was fed along inside a tall distillation tower where it yielded its different end products: fuel, lubricants, derivatives, etc. These were then extracted and pumped to respective refining stages to upgrade their physical and chemical properties.
He turned off the main lane, leaving to his left the furnace that heated the crude oil to 300° centigrade, and parked the jeep in front of the distillation tower. He strapped the backpack firmly on his back and walked at a brisk pace. A group of four armed guards on patrol was making its way towards him. The men stopped and made a military salute as a sign of respect. One of the men – the leader – cast an inquisitive look at the backpack but refrained from asking any questions to the senior engineer. Hartman walked about the atmospheric distillation unit, hardly noticed by the workers and their foremen, all deeply absorbed in their task. He went about inspecting the building’s vulnerable points. They were all as familiar as his home. He climbed up a steel stairway and stepped onto a catwalk ten metres above the ground floor, stopped when he came to the level of a projecting platform giving access to the enormous distillation tower and put down his backpack.
He had collected it that very morning at the agreed spot and carried it through security without raising the least eyebrow. When the backpack went through the x-ray scanner, he simply said, matter-of-factly ‘defence-classified equipment – parts for a seismic sensor system.’ The man behind the monitor screen nodded and replied with a brief ‘Thank you, sir, have a nice day.’ Thanks to his director status and icy blue stare, Hartmann turned his security check into just a perfunctory display of co-operation.
He now unfastened the soft flap at the top of his rucksack. The ‘bricks’ were there, all neatly arranged in two stacks.
At the same instant, in the middle of the Arabian Desert, hundreds of kilometres from the nearest village, a group of Bedouins had just made a halt under the star-speckled sky. The silence was intermittently broken by the cry of a camel, its swollen tongue hanging from the edge of its large yellowish teeth as it dribbled. White clad figures were scurrying against the descending darkness in silent agitation. They had just found under the sand the pipeline that supplied Yanbu, an endless metal snake that guzzled the country’s oil.
One of the Bedouins pressed bricks of plastic explosive evenly around the circumference of the pipe. They were wired to a digital detonator programmed to trigger at midnight. Now they had finished; the stars were disappearing, obscured by the first of the arriving clouds of sand particles of an imminent storm. The men knew there was no time to waste. The chief bellowed some orders to reassemble. The camels got up briskly from their knees, alarmed by the unexpected pain of the nervously wielded sticks thrashing their flanks.
Gustav Hartmann dipped his hand inside the backpack. He pulled out a brick of plastic explosive pre-fitted with a timer detonator. The charge was a high-density derivative of Semtex and he had enough of them – if judiciously used – to blow up the whole installation. He attached the brick to a conduit stemming from a junction point of the distillation tower and set the timer for midnight, the agreed schedule for fireworks display.
He pressed once more with his weight against the charge to make sure it would hold fast and turned back the way he came. Outside, on his way to the jeep, he crossed one of the foremen, a Bengali, followed by a small group of night workers. He drove up to the entrance of another distillation tower unit and repeated the exact same series of movements, all with uncanny assurance.
He continued, systematically, until all four of the distillation towers had been primed. Now there remained the oil terminal.
The latter was several kilometres away from the refinery, accessible by a road cutting through a series of industrial installations, flanked on either side by countless sections of superposed and intertwining pipes. The tank farm comprised 30 oil holders and was guarded as fiercely as a fortress in times of war. The three Saudi guards at the main checkpoint instantly recognized the German and let him through with a polite nod. ‘Just bringing an acoustic sensor system for detecting the presence of drones over the site,’ Hartmann cheerily announced as he walked past them without even being asked. He realised that the less he said the better were his chances of escaping the risk of suspicion.
Within a few minutes, he was at the centre of an enormous reserve totalling several billions of litres of crude oil, all stored in the tank farm before him – an oil reserve that only needed a good box of matches to turn into a monumental inferno. As he drove on, he gently patted the backpack next to him and let his fingers skim over the explosives that would soon put paid to western imperialism and set aflame the consumerist tyranny governing the world. Terrorism was the only effective weapon to bring down that materialistic, productivist and totalitarian ideology that was dominating everywhere and denied human freedom. Hartman’s mission was to continue the struggle of the anarchists, where the Bader-Meinhoff group and the Red Brigades had left off.
He had never met Sheikh Yusuf in person, and yet was willing to work under his orders. It was not Islam that brought them close, but rather the insatiable need to resist, to exist, and simply ‘to be.’ Their respective terrorist networks joined forces towards the end of the previous year. They had found common ground between the anarchist’s anti-globalisation ideologies and the Islamic fundamentalist’s ongoing struggle.
Hartmann planned his attack with great care. He knew that the sheer number of tanks would make it impossible to place a charge on every one of them. However, he estimated that it would only be necessary to target half a dozen strategically-placed tanks across the site – the resulting firestorm from the inferno would be sufficient to ignite all the others in succession like falling dominoes. Hartman drove up to each of the selected tanks in succession, each time repeating the process of placing a charge on the two most vulnerable points: the welded seam where the primary outlet joins onto the tank body and the point on the opposite diameter, so as to create a shockwave that would cause the whole structure to implode. To maximise the impact, he had to position the charges accurately; a lengthy task during which he was occasionally greeted at short distance by guards on patrol. By 11:40 p.m. he had almost finished on the last tank. For the final time, Hartmann pulled out a brick of explosives. For a moment, he caressed it in his hand. It was going to be his last companion, the friend in whose hands he would die in a few minutes. As with the preceding ones, he moulded its gently the curved surface at the precise point diametrically across from the one he had just placed at the tank’s main pipe cluster.
Suddenly, a bright light made him stand out against the darkness. It came from a flashlight. He instantly turned his head.
‘Herr Harmann, was machen Sie?’
It was Olaf, a young Norwegian engineer.
‘I’m setting up acoustic sensors…’
‘What, at this time? Strange, no one ever told us…’
He scanned the torch beam and stopped it when he saw the object the German had just placed. The young man let out a broad grin.
‘Hey hey, Herr Hartmann… It’s a good job I haven’t got a suspicious mind. Your detector looks just like time bomb.’
He burst out in a heavy laughter, pleased with his friendly jibe.
The engineer’s mirth came to an abrupt end. The German had pulled out his pistol and, holding the barrel, swung it with all his weight towards the young man’s face. It struck his cheekbone with a dull thud, causing him to duck his head low as he let out a shrill scream under the excruciating pain. It ended abruptly as the butt crashed against his nape. Olaf collapsed head down in a bundle, quickly surrounded by a pool of warm blood pulsing from his open wound.
Hartmann checked his watch. He had barely a quarter of an hour. He walked briskly back to his jeep and returned a few seconds later with a reel of heavy duty adhesive tape. Pulling the Norwegian’s hands together behind his back, he unwound the tape and passed a strip a few times around the wrists. Next, he snapped shut his victim’s half opened jaw and immediately ran a first length of tape over his lips, then two more in a cross pattern, just as the young engineer was showing signs of coming back to his senses.
Pointing the gun directly between his eyes, Hartmann snapped hoarsely:
‘Quick, get up…’
He grabbed him by his shirt collar and pushed him vigorously up to the foot of the metal stairway that spiralled around the enormous tank.
‘Up you go!’
It took a good ten minutes to force the groggy Olaf to the top platform, some 30 metres above the ground.
From above, they could see spread all around them the vast installation of silvery metal structures, brightly lit against the black Arabian night by a constellation of sodium lamps, like a city that never sleeps. The silence was filled by the incessant drone of hundreds of pumps sending the lifeblood to and from the dozens of tanks that extended over several kilometres along the oil terminal beyond. In the more immediate vicinity, tall, narrow metallic chimneys sent large plumes of white vapour vertically up into the still sky.
Hartmann signalled his prisoner to sit down against the railings on the floor over the roof, and did likewise.
‘Watch, Olaf, watch closely, you’re about to see the greatest and the last show of your life! Open your eyes Olaf, you’re in the front seat, this is all for you, just for you!’
The usually cold, methodical German spoke with an air of exultation. His last words were uttered in a shrill tone and were followed by an insane laugh.
‘Come on, sit up, Olaf, the show’s about to begin!’
In the immediate moments that followed Hartmann’s hysterical announcement, everything remained the same. And then it all happened at once. The first explosion erupted behind them and tore apart a reservoir with a thundering rumble. It sent out a heat wave that scorched the back of their necks. It was the turn of the giant refinery to blow up in various parts, and then another tank in front of them. The Norwegian had time to see walls of flames rise before his eyes like giant waves in the ocean of the sky. Then there was an explosion below him as though he were seated on a volcano. The great tank shivered. A brief and dense rumble turned into a violent blast. He was thrown into the air, caught by the fire that engulfed him. He wanted to scream but his mouth was sealed. The fire was already in him, in his lungs, in his eyes, in his head. In a split second, he experienced the searing pain of a skinned body, and then the ultimate deliverance of sublimation.
In the hours that followed the total destruction of the Yanbu oil terminal and refinery, the Nymex light sweet crude delivery price for June made a series of uncontrolled leaps, true to its traditional way of reacting whenever a crisis hit the world. The first jump pierced through the symbolic 200 dollar ceiling. Then the price settled down to a corrected level of around 182.65 dollars later during the day as the market picked up. But the fall was like pressing down a spring…
The next day, the barrel was being traded at 234 dollars…
‘Yanbu? Why, that’s in China?’ exclaimed an imminent Politburo member, feigning surprise.
‘Yangbu, you mean? That’s right near where I come from, just outside Shanghai!’ joked one of the representatives of that province.
‘No! For your information, Yanbu Al Bahr is in Saudi Arabia. It’s the largest shore-based oil terminal of the west coast,’ corrected a third member present.
‘Or rather, it was!’ quipped the director-general of a car manufacturing consortium.
‘How can I get them to understand?.’ The question had been haunting Admiral Liang Dongbuo, vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, China’s highest military institution. ‘How can I make the country’s new business circles sensitive to geopolitical matters and the imminent dangers of the international situation?’
It now seemed the recent world events had given him a helping hand.
The admiral took the initiative of arranging this meeting, to which were invited the recently-promoted Politburo members with a background in industry, a handful of governors and dignitaries from the major coastal provinces, many of whom also figured among the country’s top businessmen. It was a carefully-selected gathering of men who urgently needed to become aware of the stark realities of international affairs. Because of their business and industrial backgrounds, they spoke of nothing but economics, stability, foreign investments, trade surpluses, etc., whereas Liang and his friends from the old guard were wizened to the darker realities of the world.
To Liang, it was clear that over the past few years, the United States had laid its hands on the world’s strategic oil reserves. They had posted their soldiers at each derrick, all along the main pipelines, placed units off the straits passed by supertankers, and could thereby at any moment turn off the tap that irrigated China’s economy. Their military bases held the country in a pincer. Their low-earth orbit satellites could spy on every square inch of the territory, listen in to any communication; their navy ruled the seas and their defence systems could intercept missiles.
It was a masterfully orchestrated plan whose pieces were systematically being put into place.
Its goal? knock China off the rails!
China had to be derailed, stifled, prevented from reaching the top of the podium, the step it could rightly claim on account of its size, its population, the depth of its history and culture, and the resourcefulness of its industrious and active people.
He looked at the expressions on each one of the members present. Most faces were unfamiliar to him, but he could almost gauge their state of mind and aptitude to confront the real world just from their general demeanour, carefully groomed hair, fashionable suits and designer spectacles.
Admiral Liang put the tip of his fingers to his temple as a quick salute to his colleagues of the military commission that had just arrived.
The rise of crude oil above 250 dollar mark following the terrorist attack the previous day confirmed his worst predictions.
No, oil was not simply a contingency to which one had to adapt, it was a lethal weapon in the hands of an enemy who would stop at nothing to get to the top.
He had three hours to convince these influential members. Three hours to swing the balance of power within his country. Three hours to sensitise the captains of industry, those who today weighed massively on China’s destiny with their monumental trade surpluses.
Whom could he count upon? At least on General Liu Rong, chairman of the Central Military Commission, a hardliner like himself. As for President Ren, his political savvy was the only thing he could rely on. Today, too much decision-making was in the hands of economists and business circles, in other words the advocates of stability.
Admiral Liang went straight to the point.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, as you are aware, the barrel of oil now costs over 250 $. This alone is a major preoccupation and constitutes a serious threat to Chinese growth. But there’s something even more important. The events of the last three days have exposed China’s fundamental weaknesses and extreme vulnerability. It took just one isolated terrorist act by an unknown group to jeopardise the security of our oil supplies. I intend to use this crisis to repeat once more: oil is a weapon of war, and this weapon is in the hands of our enemies.’
Liang clicked the mouse button of his laptop connected to a video projector, and a large map of Western Europe at the beginning of the 20th century came into view.
‘Oil first appeared on the scene of military conflicts with the First World War. The Germans were the first to use it intensely for their mechanised army to run its tanks, supply trucks, submarines and other sea vessels… This fuel quickly became the lifeblood for all battlefields. The First World War thus demonstrated the strategic importance of being able to control the world’s oil production zones. The fall of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of the war was to mark the beginning of bitter rivalry between the British and French, both wanting to control the middle-eastern oilfields. The British were soon to gain the upper hand in this political battle, only to find there was a new player to contend with: the United States with its insatiable appetite. Being aware that oil was not in unlimited supply, America made the decision – even back then – to ration the exploitation of its own reserves in Texas. The American oil companies were quick to set up oil derricks all over Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.
In the Second World War, supplying fuel to the troops was at the core of military logistics. You need only recall that the advance of General Rommel’s Afrika Korps in the North African desert was stopped dead in its tracks simply for lack of fuel. And it was because of their limited fuel reserves that the Nazis were forced into a risky strategy of first conducting a lightning war and then scrambling to take control of its enemy’s oilfields.
After the Second World War, America’s actions to promote decolonisation were conducted with the ulterior motive of taking the place of the old European nations. And thus we saw how in 1953 the CIA organised the overthrow of the Mossadegh government in Iran to put the Shah – a much more pro-Western figure – into power. Soon after, the Iranian National Oil Company granted a 25-year licence to extract and refine its crude oil to a consortium led chiefly by US companies, notably Exxon, Texaco and Gulf.
The United States deployed its oil strategy all along the Arabian peninsular. During a meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in February 1945, aboard the cruiser Quincy, the then King of Arabia granted a sixty-year monopoly of his country’s oil to American oil companies. Of course, it wasn’t a free gift: in exchange, the United States had to guarantee Arabia’s military protection. And that’s how the Arabian American Oil Company, Aramco, was for decades to exploit virtually all the oil in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. The Suez Canal crisis in 1956 was to put an end to European influence in the Middle East, and the new world order for oil was to be established largely to the advantage of the United States.
The Yom Kippur war, started by Egypt and Syria in 1973, pioneered the use of the oil weapon as a means of applying pressure to resolve a conflict, in this case opposing Israel to its Arab neighbours. In the space of just two months, the barrel of oil shot from $3 to $11.60.
If you analyse the situation, you’ll come to the conclusion that OPEC’s decision had nothing but advantages for the United States…
Together with the Middle Eastern countries, the US majors were the greatest beneficiaries of this quadrupling of oil prices! Moreover, the rise in oil prices increased the potential value of the US oil reserves, and overnight we saw American oilfields that were not economically viable become lucrative.
But, above all, this episode was to reinforce America’s domination among its allies. Europe’s economic boom of the previous 30 years, backed by vigorous and sustained growth, quickly ground to a halt. Its economic competitiveness suffered a severe downturn with soaring energy costs, all to the advantage of the United States. America’s allies suddenly became aware of the precariousness of their situation and began to realise just how much they depended on their transatlantic cousin. In 1973, European nations fell into an ‘economic crisis’ that has pervaded ever since, and had to live with high levels of unemployment.
But there was also a message there for Asia, and Japan in particular. The Empire of the rising sun was threatening to become a very serious competitor for American industry, not just in the car and electronics sectors, but in many others. The fear of the yellow peril had reached its peak. Not having any raw materials of its own, Japan could now see the limits of its ambitions both at the regional and international levels.’
It was now time to draw the lessons from this first oil crisis.
‘China today constitutes a far greater danger to America’s hegemony than Japan or Europe ever did in the past; in many ways, we are just as vulnerable as Japan and as naive as Europe.
By acquiring political control of the Middle-Eastern and Central-Asian oil producing countries, the United States now holds the balance of power within OPEC and has direct influence on the price of the barrel. That’s why you will see oil prices soar whenever a dangerous competitor needs to have its growth stymied, or its economy weakened, all to the benefit of the US oil majors. Conversely, whenever it is necessary to give the American economy a push, or to punish a country like Iran, Iraq or the USSR by diminishing their oil revenues, then you’ll see the price of oil dip.
The United States is also one of the main arms suppliers to that region. When Europe and Asia buy their oil from a US-controlled Middle East, much of the money works its way back to US companies and strengthens the dollar. Oil-producing countries in their turn recycle their dollars by purchasing – among other things – American weapons to protect themselves. And hence we have closed loop.’
He paused for a moment to take a few sips of green tea.
‘Now let’s move on to the present period. The Gulf war of 1990-91 only reinforced these different factors. For reasons which to this day remain a mystery, Iraq saw fit to invade Kuwait. And once again, Japan was pressured into heavily subsidising the Gulf War. It had to pay the States 13 billion dollars in recognition for America’s role in defending that country’s oil supplies by preventing a flare up in the Middle East – another way for the United States to remind Japan not to set its sights too high. Should we see a coincidence in that? Let’s just say that ever since the Gulf War, Japan has been going through a slow process of decline…
And so, after three oil crises interspersed with periods of settled prices, the price of the barrel seemed to level off at around 25 dollars.
But the American economic machine began to gather steam.
It first took control of the Caspian oil reserves, then those of Iraq. After that, it was time for the US to push up oil prices once more.
We can thus only conclude that all the fluctuations in oil prices have no other purpose than to serve the strategic interests of the United States.
Just like Japan yesterday, China is today enduring these oil price changes with total complacency. But the weapon’s still the same, and still in American hands, at the service of the same interests, whether it be in 1973, 1990, or today. Only now, it’s China’s turn to be the victim. The oil weapon used to slow down Europe in the 70s and Japan in the 90s is now pointed at China. It’s plunged Europe into turmoil and subsequently Japan into decline. That’s what’s now in store for China.’
The audience was visibly stunned by the virulence of the Admiral’s rhetoric.
‘Now, allow me to focus on the specific situation concerning China. We consume over 8 million barrels of oil each day and imports 40% of it. These oil imports increase at a rate of 20 to 25% per year. You can thus see how important it is for our economy to dispose of reliable long-term supplies. China has indeed made considerable efforts to boost its domestic production, but our country possesses hardly more than 2.5% of the world’s hydrocarbon reserves.
If we extrapolate along the current trends, within 10 years China will have to import seven to eight million barrels a day, i.e. more than Germany, France, Italy and Spain put together. It will then import half of its oil needs.
To meet these requirements, we will have to triple our imports from the Middle East over the next 10 years.’
He stopped for a moment to let these hard facts sink in.
‘We seriously have to consider the most pessimistic of scenarios. Oil is a weapon now in the hands of the United States. They can at any moment pull the trigger and knock the train of Chinese growth off the rails, and that is their prime international objective for the coming years.
China’s oil comes mainly from Arabia, Iran and Angola, the rest being bought from Russia, Oman, Sudan, Vietnam and Indonesia. Our national oil companies – CNOOC and Sinopec – are intensifying their efforts in prospecting abroad. China’s diplomatic policies have been rewarded with considerable success: we have signed oil supply agreements with Venezuela and Canada.
But China will feel increasing competition from not only its Asian neighbours, notably Japan, India and South Korea, but also from Europe.’
Admiral Liang next projected a world map on the screen.
‘Now, let’s look at the geopolitical situation. As you’ll see on this map, the world is divided into six main zones. These are in fact none other than the US military command zones! That’s exactly how United States sees the world and how they control it! The first four zones respectively cover the American continent, Western Europe plus Russia and West Africa. They are under direct US military command. We can call these four zones the ‘American sphere,’ which comprises the United States and its living space.
That leaves us with the two other zones: USCENTCOM and US Central command, which encompass the Middle East, Central Asia up to Afghanistan as well as Egypt, Sudan and the Horn of Africa. You will note that this American military command zone perfectly matches the oil producing regions that account for two thirds of the world’s hydrocarbon reserves and also covers the red Sea, which has become a main highway for super tankers.
Finally, we have the USPACOM zone, which covers the Pacific. It runs from India to Japan, passing through Australia. And it also happens to cover China…’
Looks of consternation spread among all the politicians and captains of industry upon hearing this. This was clearly news to them.
‘Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States with their 300 million inhabitants have enjoyed total and undivided domination over the rest of the world. Their military bases are now installed in all the strategic points of the globe. They are currently in control of all the sources of raw materials and communication channels. They can impose their own laws on potential rivals and direct the course of events solely as a function of their own interests.
No observer can fail to notice that NATO’s geographical coverage matches almost perfectly the 27 nations of the European Union! This is no coincidence. The United States use all their political power and influence to shape the frontiers of the European Union to serve their own interests, against the original goals of the old continent. It is the United States that define, from across the Atlantic, Europe’s footprint and frontiers. Heading inexorably along a demographic, political and economic decline, Western Europe will sink into oblivion in a matter of years. And the same fate awaits Russia. The question remains: who will lay their hands on the vast Siberian expanses and exploit their enormous mineral reserves?
In setting foot in Afghanistan, the United States opened bases in Georgia, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, this time pushing their strategic advantage towards the north of central Asia, in other words at our doorstep! The American imperialist powers threaten China on its Western flank, right next to our Xinjiang!’
The mention of that region provoked a flutter among the attendance.
‘The occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq ruined all of China’s efforts to enter politically and economically into a region of the world that is vital to our energy needs. Our project to build a pipeline linking central Asia to Russia along the north was dashed. Conversely, America’s intervention served to de-enclave central Asia towards the West and Turkey and the South via Afghanistan.’
The Admiral paused again to take a few more sips of tea.
‘America’s pressure had disastrous consequences for China. The Shanghai group formed in 1996 brought together Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Its purpose was to create a pole of stability and development in central Asia. It asserted the intention of its member states to promote a multi-polar view of the world. The arrival of the American presence simply wiped away China’s presence in that region. Hydrocarbons from the Caspian were no longer to follow the silk Route. Our western frontier is now flanked by the American military machine.
At the same time, China was surely and simply thrown out of Iraq. America’s aim is no doubt to one day to reconstitute the Baghdad Pact which, in the 1950s, federated Turkey, Iraq and Iran and formed a rampart on the South Western flank against what was then the Soviet Union. As for the ‘Great Middle East’ project, this is nothing less than an expanded version of the Ottoman Empire that dominated the region for over four centuries.
We can thus see that our policies of strengthening ties with the Islamic world are at present being dashed. The United States has reconfigured the Middle East and Central Asia according to its own strategy for controlling global oil reserves. This entire zone is now under the United States’ political, economic and military tutelage. The Middle East supplies over 70% of Asia’s hydrocarbon imports. Using the pretext of its war against terror, the United States is in the long term waging a war against China. It uses the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, which it designates as the official enemy of the Western world, to effectively weaken China’s positions.’
This bold geopolitical analysis appeared to be shared by many of the participants. A dignitary from the Guangdong province broke in with his own personal comment, which tallied well with the general feeling of indignation:
‘It’s a safe bet that if there wasn’t any oil in Islamic territories, no-one would be talking about ‘the clash of civilisations’! This absurd term is nothing other than political hype to mask the identity of the true enemy, namely China! It’s just a paltry excuse to justify military interventions in the four corners of the world.’
Liang had prepared a shock statement to conclude his talk.
‘Gentlemen, the United States have laid their hands on China’s oil. This is a deliberate and calculated strategy – nothing less than an act of aggression, which we are perfectly within our rights to treat as an act of war…’
He hammered out each of these words to drive home the full weight of his statement. Looking up, he could see the Politburo members and top civil servants in the room acquiescing with a slight nod of the head. His last three words ‘act of war’ were ringing in everyone’s ears.
He now had to strike while the iron was hot.
‘The Americans have just one objective, and that is to derail China before it reaches its critical mass and thereafter becomes impossible to contain. It’s in their interest to act quickly and exploit the current window of opportunity during which our country is still vulnerable and in full development stage. Today, China is a paradox. According to medium-term projections, it will only take 15 more years for China to become the planet’s second largest economic power, and another 15 for it to reach the number one position.
The world, our neighbours, our partners, our rivals and our enemies all see us already as the giant we shall become tomorrow, and this nurtures in them mixed feelings of fear, respect, jealousy and sometimes panic. We are thus seen as a giant, but a giant that hasn’t yet reached maturity, with defence capabilities comparable to those of a medium state. We are now like a harmless whale at the mercy of a harpoon. This puts us in a situation of extreme vulnerability for the 10 years to come.
Prairie animals would have no compunction in killing a baby lion or newborn elephant if they realised the strength of the adult animal it was to become. And the wild scrub in the forest would willingly stifle its neighbouring saplings if they knew the branches of the full-grown tree would starve them of sunlight. Many countries would like to see China as a bonsai, these Japanese trees that human hands turned into dwarves.
If no major factor comes along to disrupt the current trend, then the future is plain for everyone to see. China will become the world’s most powerful nation by virtue of its demography, its workforce, its dynamism and the resourcefulness of its people.
The United States will never let itself be overtaken without putting up a fight. They are imbibed with an imperialistic tradition handed down by the British and exacerbated with the pioneering spirit dear to the conquerors of the Wild West. We are dealing with a religious nation convinced of being invested with a divine duty, namely to impose their own order on the rest of the world.
Never in its 5000 year history has China ever been expansionist. The same cannot be said of the Europeans or the Western world as a whole. It is innate in them to conquer, to bring foreign peoples to submission, to impose their own values upon them. Just remember how Great Britain set about exploiting Asia, from India to China, with ruthless arrogance and cynicism and complete disregard for their peoples, their freedom and dignity.
Now take a look at the United States, that hideous replica of the British Empire, that former colony with its over-inflated ego that thinks it has the right to rule the world. As in the past, it will stop at nothing to come to its ends, which is to dominate, to bring nations to submission and bleed them white of their natural resources, and to pull the reins on the entire planet simply to satisfy its own interests.
We must face the fact that China will suffer an attack within the next 10 years, and most likely the next five. It is in the United States’ strategic interest to act while our country is still fragile and vulnerable. It’s cowardly to attack a child, but there’s no arguing it’s an effective and economical way of getting rid of the adult in the making.’
No-one among the spellbound audience thought for a moment of challenging these statements, so much they seemed to follow lines of unassailable logical reasoning.
‘Now let’s look at the factors that could put China off the rails. The most preoccupying of these remain the risk of a military conflict. And here there is no shortage of pretexts. If the security of our oil supplies is under threat, or if the political situation in Taiwan were to become intolerable, then China would have no other choice than to intervene.
The US military budget exceeds that of all the other countries put together. The United States has the clear intention of drawing China into a new arms race, like the one that led to the downfall of the Soviet Union. Their superiority here is overwhelming in every single field, and can only become more so in the years to come with the arrival of new advanced technologies that will give them a decisive advantage in all war theatre zones and in every situation. It’s simply beyond China’s capabilities to reduce that gap in the coming years.’
He displayed a new map of Asia.
‘We must also break ourselves free from the stranglehold at our frontiers. China’s eastern and southern flanks are threatened by several American bases, both in Japan and in South Korea. The United States could even set up a naval base in Vietnam…
The challenge in the years to come will be to free the major Asian industrial powers from the gravitational pull of America’s sphere of influence and draw them into a system of regional development centred on China.
The innermost circle of these nations comprises Japan, Korea and Taiwan. The next circle encompasses the ASEAN countries, where the Chinese community is the largest and controls their economy. China’s sphere of influence will then extend from Japan to Burma and from Mongolia to Bali.
It will then represent a human community of over 2.3 billion people, to be compared with 1.2 billion Indians and the 1.6 billion of the Western world.
In order to construct this sphere of prosperity and security, we must rely on three main factors: economic integration, Asian nationalism and military might. The first of these is being accomplished right now. Japan and Korea, as well as other countries in South East Asia, have invested heavily in China. Our country has become the lung through which all this region can breathe. In particular, Japan has been experiencing a deep crisis since the early 1990s. If it has now managed to pull away from that protracted recession, it’s thanks to China. As for Asian nationalism, it’s already very much alive and, as doubts begin to settle on America’s invincibility, we’ll see a growth in rancour and animosity against this hegemonic giant. The Asian world shall not tolerate for long this second colonisation by the white man, neither his arrogance nor his contempt towards other cultures. Asia shall at last get its revenge on centuries of domination and colonial exploitation, on the humiliation and disdain it has endured. Home to a quarter of mankind, China is the natural centre around which the Asian renewal shall crystallise. Our immediate objective is to bring about the closure of American bases in Japan and Korea. To do this, China must increase its own military potential, through its navy, which must now be able to project its forces throughout the Pacific, through its army, which must be able to carry out landings on all the region’s islands, through its arsenal of tactical and strategic missiles, and through its satellite-based intelligence gathering and observation capabilities.’
It was now the moment for Admiral Liang to deliver his conclusions.
‘The situation is most preoccupying and can be summed up very simply. The United States has five years in which to derail the train of China’s growth. It is deploying all the means it has to achieve this before our very eyes. China is dominated by America’s military might, which threatens and encircles it on land, on sea and in space. Look at the Iraqi affair! China didn’t budge. All it managed to show was its powerlessness, revealing the weakness of its position on the international scene. Never in the heyday of the Soviet Union would the USA have taken the liberty of invading a country under the USSR’s protectorate. Just think of the casualness with which it bombed our embassy in Belgrade back in 1999! This was a perfect example of the contempt we inspire the Americans. Will we have to wait till they invade Myanmar to react at last?
The snare is closing in on us and now forcing us to take the initiative. The USA must act now because they know that in ten years it will be too late. Each passing year raises the cost they’ll have to pay to stop us. So, we know the enemy is about to strike – that’s the only thing we can be sure about. As things stand, the United States has the choice of its battleground, the weapons and the time. Don’t let us concede such a strategic advantage. Strike by surprise, there where they aren’t expecting us…’
Beijing July 12
CIA Beijing Bureau
Stenton could not stand to remain deskbound. He had been forced to learn to type on a computer keyboard, use software and send e-mails. Back in Jakarta, he could simply dictate his reports with both feet crossed over his desk, comfortably slumped in an armchair, a generously filled glass of whisky in one hand and his gaze lost in the distance. Beside him there would be a petite secretary dressed in a sarong, bolt upright in her chair, painstakingly converting his words into a neatly presented text, beautifully set with different fonts, bullet points and paragraphing.
How the world had changed. Secretaries had now become personal assistants and CIA Department bosses doubled up as typists. Reporting always took too much of his time and he sometimes envied his agents, always on the field, always there in the action; or nearly always.
‘Tell me, Song, what’s our tropical fish collector up to – that is his favourite hobby, isn’t it?’
Stenton did not even know the name of the agent ‘recruited’ by Song. As far as he was concerned, he was just the accountant thanks to who they managed to infiltrate the Ministry of Information Technologies and whose hoped-for results were long overdue.
‘He’s having a fling with the secretary. And he’s taking more photos every day then a coach load of Japanese tourists in a week. I’ve got 500 shots of the secretary’s office, but nothing worth writing home about. The situation’s getting weird; we can’t see the contours, there’s nothing to sink our teeth into. Everything seems to come from that department and that ministry, but whenever you try to dig deeper, the picture just gets muddled.’
‘I don’t like that. These meetings are only the tip of the iceberg, and you can be sure that, under the surface, the ‘Lin Zexu group’ is leading a far more successful undermining campaign.
‘I don’t like that either, but there’s China for you!’
The Eurasian did not volunteer much information, but the expression on his face made it clear that he was expecting a lot more from Cheng and an affair with that secretary.
‘I’ll bet you anything this Bao Yutai, the regulations director, isn’t the leader of the ‘Lin Zexu group.’ He just doesn’t have the shoulders for it; he can’t be the brains behind their operations.’
‘If it isn’t him, who else could it be? He certainly fits the bill!’
Stenton decided to change the subject.
‘And what’s the latest news concerning Microsoft and that Chinese work group?’
‘You mean the GSP? They’re getting along like a house on fire. According to the reports from Kathleen Morse, the mission head, the Chinese are thrilled with everything given to them. They keep asking for more; they’re dead keen. As far as she’s concerned, there’s no doubt they’re co-operating fully. Especially that girl, the one who works with that little genius.’
‘You mean Tom Bailey?’
‘Yup. Her name’s Jin. They’ve struck up a relationship. She took him to the Summer Palace last Sunday and they sometimes dine out together.’
Stenton suddenly got up in his chair.
‘Who’s that girl? Do we know her? We’ve got to make an enquiry and find out everything about her! That’s where you should have started!’
‘Hey, easy, everything’s under control! We’ve got her file. She started working with the Science Academy’s Software Research Institute six months ago. We’ve crossed-checked all the information – she’s a bona fide computer scientist, and a highly competent one at that. In any case, the little genius would have noticed if she wasn’t.’
‘Apparently, she held several posts as an expert adviser for state commissions, and she also had occasion to mix with foreigners. She worked for some of China’s major projects, always on the most sensitive and advanced matters. But that doesn’t prove anything.’
‘What d’you make of all this, Song? D’you think she works for interior security? Is she watching over her comrades? Or is she out there gathering intelligence?’
He remained silent a few moments before answering.
‘I’d say there’s a 50% chance that she’s on intelligence gathering, maybe more. But that doesn’t necessarily make her all that dangerous. After all, there’s nothing unusual about everyone spying on everyone else in groups working on such sensitive subjects.’
‘I don’t want to see her around Tom Bailey!’
‘Listen, I spoke about that with Kathleen Morse and she doesn’t see any problem with this socialising. Remember, this Tom Bailey guy is their blue-eyed boy, he’s untouchable. Also the Microsoft team was told to go out of their way in being warm and friendly with their Chinese counterparts. That’s perfectly normal, they’re out on a public relations mission; it’s their job to seduce and reassure. On the other hand, the Chinese are keeping their distances and play the fraternisation game on the lower tone.’
‘Okay, but I don’t want this relation to develop into anything deeper, you got that?’
‘Don’t worry, I’ve had fat Ming and another guy follow her for weeks now. Each time they spent the evening together, she went back her own way and he took a cab alone to back his hotel. That’s happened two or three times… three if I’m right – on top of that Sunday at the Summer Palace. We’ve got some shots. There’s been nothing more.’
‘For the time being… but this Tom’s a real charmer. You know how women are fascinated by big… brains.’
‘I wouldn’t bet on that,’ muttered Song.
Stenton had already noticed Song’s animosity towards the young computer scientist. Just for kicks, he always found an occasion to say something flattering about him and watch its effect on the Eurasian’s tough face. Song was no intellectual and clearly nurtured an inferiority complex towards the young Californian prodigy.
‘Further to our latest warning, Microsoft could well decide to send him to Shanghai for a while. That’ll put things back in order.’
‘Excellent initiative. I’ll speak to Kathleen Morse about it. Meanwhile, just carry on. We mustn’t take our eyes off that Jin girl, not even for a moment.’
Song turned up immediately on the scene. After stalking the girl for two weeks, he and his men had now become familiar with her habits.
Whom was she visiting in this hotel on the outskirts of Beijing? It was a far cry from the city’s five-star resorts. The premises were clean but by no means luxurious. It was frequented mainly by agents, Chinese visitors and thrifty businessmen who preferred that kind of unpretentious hotel offering good value the money. It was certainly not the favourite stopping place for westerners, who generally went for the more central districts.
Ming was inside, posted at a lookout position on one of the floors. It was he who gave the alert. Things had begun to get serious an hour ago.
‘Something strange is going on’ was fat Ming’s message on his wireless intercom. The girl had taken exceptional precautions to escape his vigilance. She entered an underground car park and immediately drove out again without stopping. By the time Ming reached the ticket barrier with his car and paid his three yuans, she had already sped away and merged into the traffic. It was not the sort of thing people did out of amusement, only if they wanted to get rid of a stalker.
But her trace had not vanished completely. A few days earlier, Ming had placed a small radio transponder under Jin’s car.
Now all he had to do was switch on the screen of his GPS navigation system at the centre of the dashboard and watch the little green symbol showing her position overlain in real time on the street map. His own position was indicated by a red symbol; he simply had to get the symbols to merge.
He called Song immediately. His superiors seemed to have taken a deep interest in that female computer scientist ever since her relationship with one of the Microsoft team members had become a bit too intimate. Ming could not quite understand what was so dangerous about this situation. The Microsoft chaps had come to open up their coffers and put everything up on offer. There was no need for the Chinese to place as spy – the Americans were in Beijing precisely to reveal all their secrets of their own accord. No doubt they had to protect that Tom Bailey guy. After all, he was a whiz kid and perhaps knew things more important than the Windows source code? Things that the Chinese would dearly love to know?
The girl was only a few blocks away – nothing to be alarmed about. No need to put his foot down; he could follow her from a distance without risk of losing her. They thus cruised the city streets for almost three quarters of an hour until they entered this Beijing suburb he had never been to before. He arrived at the front of the hotel just as the automatic gates of its underground car park opened in front of the girl’s car. They had hardly finished closing again that they opened once more to let him in.
Knowing the room number beforehand, Jin made her way straight to the lift without going past the reception. No-one challenged her; visits by pretty young women were common in these hotels. Fat Ming caught up with her in the lobby just as the lift doors opened and they both stepped inside the cabin. Seeing her select the fifth floor, he reached over to press the button marked seven and meekly apologised for causing her to step back. In the short time they were together, he had time to sense the light and subtle fragrance exuded by Jin’s perfume. He had taken so many photos of her with the American from afar that he imagined he already knew her a bit, but this was the first time he stood physically close to her. She was nothing like his own wife. Ming had never gone out with a girl of such class. Eyeing the woman from the back, he admired her beautiful long hair falling in gentle waves down to her waist, stopping just short of her beige linen low-waist slacks neatly hugging the gentle curves of her lower body.
As the doors opened, he turned round to watch her step out. For a moment, the woman stood motionless in the corridor, deciding which direction to take. The doors were already sliding shut but he had just enough time to get a glimpse of her heading towards the right.
Zhou heard a knock on the door and got up to let the visitor in. It was Jin.
He was in this suburban hotel for a rather special operation that began towards the end of that afternoon. He had got hold of some highly interesting material – two hard discs loaded with extremely sensitive data belonging to an American firm – which he managed to trade against a thick wad of dollars and a Hong Kong passport for a Chinese citizen whose future existence now depended on his discretion…
After quickly checking that the corridor was empty, Jin entered the room. He gave her a warm hug by way of greeting.
‘Has anyone been following you?’
‘I don’t think so. I took the usual precautions.’
She was trying to give the impression everything was safe. But he knew the considerable risks she was taking in coming over to meet him.
‘The CIA’s at your heels now you’re working with that programmer. You can’t be too careful, you know.’
Jin had lost all face-to-face contact with her team and counterespionage members ever since she began her mission within the GSP. In particular, she had ceased to meet Zhou, now that American agents were watching her every move.
‘Why would Zhou want this meeting here in a hotel room; did he realise how much this get-together was dangerous?’ she thought. ‘What did he have to say that was so important?’
‘You know, as far as the CIA’s concerned, I’m the archetypal programmer! Besides, the Microsoft people are seeking to build up personal relations outside work. They’re ever such a warm and friendly lot. I guess it’s part of their job.’
She made no mention of the dangers involved in coming to see him. He wanted to see her and so she came, even if it meant flouting all the elementary safety rules of the business. That was all there was to it. He looked at her more intently than usual.
‘And how are you getting on with that Tom?’
She could not help turning away from his gaze a fraction of a second. Zhou sensed that defensive reflex driven by her innermost self. Perhaps she did not even really seek to avoid that rapid movement of the eyes that betrayed her. Something inside her refused to hide anything whatsoever from that man.
‘Fine. Just fine. In fact he’s taking part in some work meetings with our state institutes outside the official GSP sessions. And he’s quite open about it. The topics they discuss are just the usual stuff. He certainly doesn’t try to put a shroud of mystery over his activities. Apparently, Microsoft’s running a charm offensive along different lines.’
‘You really sure they’re being sincere?’
‘They’re absolutely irreproachable on that score. I was the first to be surprised.’
He went back to the subject of the young American.
‘Now this Tom… are you absolutely certain he is not taking part in any other program?’
‘Certain. If he were, I… I’d know it…’
This time, Jin looked at Zhou straight in the eyes.
Once more she had betrayed herself. But now she did not hide away. She no longer wanted to make a mystery of the tender relationship that was slowly building up between her and Tom Bailey. And she wanted to share it with Zhou. He looked at her for a few seconds before continuing.
‘Jin, I just want you to be careful with that fellow. He’s worth a lot to the Americans and you know they’ll put some tight security around him.’
The words they both spoke had little importance, so much their meaning was implicit. Perhaps at that moment Zhou was regretting having sent her on this mission that was to fling her in the arms of this American. Now he was losing her, he was realising that he was more attached to her than he ever dared admit. Life sometimes deals cruel and unexpected blows to those who think themselves invulnerable.
‘I know. He’s closely guarded by Microsoft and the special services,’ she answered.
He drew her towards him. She snuggled in his arms. She felt so safe with that man. She dearly wished she could find the words to express her affection for him from all the expressions defining the myriad forms of love.
Zhou did not ask her to stay. In fact, he was not even sure he wanted her to. She would have accepted, he knew. But he chose not to ask…
She gave him a last hug to say goodbye.
‘Jin, you will take care, won’t you?’
The door closed behind. In the hotel corridor, her eyes were brighter than usual.
Fat Ming was there, tucked behind a corner at the end of the fifth-floor corridor. Hearing a door open, he poked out his head and saw Jin leave one of the rooms. He quickly made a mental note of the scene and tried to memorise the exact door it was. The lift door opened and then closed again. He immediately pulled out his wireless intercom to inform Song that the girl was on her way down. Song had assigned the roles: he would remain in the hotel lobby while Ming was to be the lookout man upstairs.
Ming was now holding what appeared to be an ordinary Motorola clamshell-type mobile phone, but which in fact housed a sophisticated high-definition camera capable of taking a rapid succession of shots under low light conditions.
Song confirmed that the girl had left the hotel. He did not bother to follow her because it was now more important to identify the mysterious occupant – or occupants – of that hotel room on the fifth floor.
Ming stood by the lift as if he were waiting for someone. He was holding his phone open, looking down on the small screen like someone writing or consulting a text message.
After what seemed an eternity to him, but which was in fact only a little over a quarter of an hour, the room door opened and there emerged a man carrying a large briefcase.
Without raising his eyes from the screen, Ming began to walk towards him, then stopped in the middle of the corridor as if he were typing an SMS. The phone’s camera was now firing away at a rate of three pictures a second as Ming watched on his screen the man walking towards him ten paces away. And then suddenly the stranger disappeared out of sight. Ming immediately looked up. ‘Where the hell has he gone?,’ he muttered in utter astonishment. Then he heard a fire door close a few metres away to his right. The mysterious character had vanished into thin air like a ghost.
He called Song again.
-,’Quick, Song he’s going down the fire escape ladder four or five metres to the left of the elevators.’
Ming had now pushed the fire door and was standing in the open-air metal staircase. He stopped a few seconds, hoping to pick up a tell-tale sound from the fugitive. Everything was silent. He finally decided to make his way down, stopping now and then to listen.
He got to the ground floor and thrust open the door that gave onto the lobby, only to find himself face-to-face with Song waiting for him.
‘Well, did you see him?’ asked Ming.
‘No-one came through the door except you!’
‘But he was right in front of me!’
‘He must’ve left at one of the floors!’
Their agitated conversation was beginning to draw attention from hotel staff. It would be difficult for them to search the building. They chose to leave and watch all the exits from outside.
‘Where the fuck’s he gone?’ fused Song in frustration.
‘He slipped right away before my eyes. I was there getting shots of him and then in a flash he was gone! This guy’s the invisible man! He must’ve got suspicious seeing me with my cell phone in the corridor. Sounds like he’s pretty smart. I bet you anything he’s a pro, some agent from their special services.’
‘The building’s bound to have several exits. Come on let’s go.’
The two men made their way back to Song’s car.
Inside, Ming got out his mobile phone and activated the Bluetooth function. The photos began to transfer into the memory of the car’s on-board computer. Song switched on the media player, quickly selected a few functions on the display menu, and the first photo appeared on the central console’s 10-inch screen.
It was blurred, perhaps due to Ming having moved as the two men walked towards each other, combined with the low shutter speed. The next photo had the same fuzziness, and likewise for the third. The following two shots showed a face almost entirely masked by a hand.
The two men looked at each other aghast. All this stalking, all these efforts, all this deployment had come to nothing.
They remained silent as they watched the shambolic slide show.
And then, bingo! The second-to-last picture came up, pin sharp and near-perfectly framed. Song immediately stabbed the ‘previous’ button on the player and studied the image. The man had already passed the fire escape door but was turning round, as if to have a last look at his stalker before disappearing. He was clean shaven with a strong angular jaw, his hair carefully combed back. He was looking at them with steely stare; it was the look of a man who had no fear.
The two men were like fascinated, as if a king cobra had propped up before them. ‘It’s him’ thought Song. ‘So that’s the ghost we’re up against.’ At long last they could now put a face on the elusive and furtive enemy. There now remained to put a name to that face.
‘Ming, I want you to send that photo straight away to our agents and contacts in all the ministries.’
Song could now call it a day. He knew that it would only be a matter of time before they would identify the man. Stenton and the CIA will at last be satisfied…
Ministry of Information Industries
Beijing, late July
Cheng insisted on clearing up his desk before going off on weekend. He had promised to go out with the young secretary that night and could no longer back away from that date.
‘Come on, hurry up!’ said Yaping. ‘I’ll be waiting for you in my office.’
But instead of moving away, Yaping continued to observe him from the corner of her eyes, tut-tutting to herself as she watched his pitiful tidying efforts. In that field, he was simply no match for her!
He emptied the contents of his small briefcase: a few files, some personal belongings and a photo.
‘Who’s that?’ she asked.
It was the photo of the mystery man Song had sent him for identification. Cheng found the face frightening; the expression made him feel uneasy. The man must have been surprised in full action; he had obviously just spotted the camera that was there pointing at him. His features were smooth and tense; all the emotions were portrayed by his stare, like that of an enraged horse expressing all its anger and defiance. Cheng had never met him; he would have remembered otherwise. In fact, he did not really care to meet such a character.
‘Oh, that… no-one really… just a photo,’ he replied trying to sound casual.
The young woman was showing too much curiosity and Cheng quickly whisked the print out of sight.
‘Hey, I know him!’ It’s Mr. Zhou!
‘You actually know him?’
Cheng suddenly became very interested.
She hesitated for a brief moment before explaining:
‘Yes, he’s already been here at the ministry… but he doesn’t look too happy here!’
He had to dig into this matter right away, but first of all he had justify possessing that photo.
‘It’s a female colleague, an accountant like myself… she belongs to our association. And she’s madly in love with that man… can’t imagine why to be honest! They met at one of the administration’s social evenings. He gave her his telephone number and said he wanted to see her again, but the poor girl lost it, would you believe! She’s desperate and thinks the one true love of her life has slipped away. The only thing she can remember is that he works in a ministry, and maybe this one. That’s why she gave me that photo so I could enquire at my end…’
‘But why doesn’t she just call the switchboard operator here? Surely that would be a lot simpler than asking you to scout around with a photograph!’
She was still staring at the face which now had a name he could report back: Zhou!
‘That girl’ thought Cheng ‘you just can’t tell her tales; everything has to be absolutely logical and watertight.’ Yet inside he felt rather pleased with his little improvisation.
‘I’m not even sure if she remembered his name! Besides, Zhou is quite a common surname, you know, and I can’t imagine her exposing her love life to a receptionist… we accountants have our pride too, you know!’
‘Surely she should be happy with that – I think I got the story nicely sewn up now’ sighed Cheng to himself. Yet she proved him wrong:
‘But Mr. Zhou looks really angry in this photo… are you absolutely sure he really wants to see your friend again?’
‘Well, it wasn’t her who took it, in fact. They had an official photographer at the reception and he went round taking everyone’s picture. And to give you an idea of just how much she was smitten by him, she went over to see the photographer and, would you believe it, she inspected each and every one of his prints to try to pick him out! Now, if that’s not being lovestruck!’
Cheng was proud of himself. His display of a wit, alacrity and imagination demonstrated perfectly why he was in demand and how he had become a spy.
The girl at last seemed satisfied. She let out a smile, pleased at having been let into this secret.
‘Yapping, I must stress that this is to remain strictly between you and me. I don’t want you repeating this to anyone, least of all to this Mr. Zhou. Okay?’
This time he had overcome all her resistance and taken the upper hand.
‘Now I really need you to help me by saying how she could contact him… can you tell me where he works?’
She thought for a moment, pouting coyly.
‘Okay, I’ll help you. But just one thing… let me keep the photo…’
As she said this, she pressed the photo against her bosom with a grin showing determination.
‘What on earth could she find appealing in a chap with such a scary look’ thought Cheng with exasperation.
‘Okay, if you really want to, but keep it only to yourself and don’t tell anyone where it’s from!’
‘Don’t worry, the secret’s safe with me! Now come along, let’s go up to my office.’
When they arrived there on the 12th floor, she opened the steel cupboard where she put away all her documents for the night and pulled out a large directory to look up Zhou’s name. It was not in it, but she had another idea.
She then picked up a diary and flicked through the pages corresponding to the beginning of the year. It was almost a full minute before she finally let out:
‘There! He turned up on that day and I made a note of it. You see…Zhou, Ministry of State Security. I’m sorry, that’s all I’ve got – no telephone number, no contact, nothing. All the meetings with him are arranged directly by Mr. Bao himself.’
‘Zhou, Ministry of State Security. It looks as though Song will have to content himself with that,’ thought Cheng.
Ministry of information industries
Bao Yutai did not have any good news. Meetings followed one after the other without producing any concrete results. No matter how hard they stressed on the security breaches in the Windows operating system, on the risk of backdoors and both the short-term dangers and those in the longer term for national independence and control of strategic technologies, on Microsoft’s abuse of its dominant position… nothing seemed to come of it. Each of their efforts was opposed by something harder, stronger and heavier that seemed to want to block the mechanism of change.
They had now argued the point from every conceivable angle. The ‘conspirators’ were attached to different ministries, research institutes and state commissions but were united in their choice of remedy for saving China from subservience. And yet these tight, well targeted salvos proved ineffective.
In retrospect, they may had been better off sticking to the military strategy of concentrating all ones strengths on the opponent’s weak points. But for greater security, they had on the contrary decided to create a firestorm by lighting fires simultaneously at different corners.
However, the forces of inertia – as Zhou liked to call them – always had the last word. The only chance now was Zhou. They had to call in Zhou and with him learn the lessons from these last months of action, draw the consequences of that failure and hopefully set up new strategies.
But which ones?
A book by JF SUSBIELLE – Translation by Dominic KING