‘Nothing in the world is weaker and suppler than water.
Yet nothing surpasses it to assail the hard and strong,
and no one can equal it.’
Lao Tse, 6th Century BC.
Zhou was overcome by a feeling of powerlessness. A feeling that overwhelmed him. He didn’t like failure. But, more than failure itself, which was part of life, and whose causes he could analyse, what devastated him was knowing he had used up all the means at his disposal. His rational mind could not accept that state of things. There was bound to be something to be done.
He had now been driving for half an hour in nighttime Beijing. He drove along the main shopping street of Wangfujing, still crowded despite the late hour. The neon lights reflected against the car windows. He was going through all the elements of the case endlessly in his mind, almost obsessively. The different leads he explored, arguments incessantly defended and repeated, the people he had rallied to his cause. Those he knew and those, much more numerous still, who formed that virtual network in the shadows, the ‘Lin Zexu’ group, and whose names and faces he ignored. What was lacking was a catalyst, the chemical element that makes the reaction possible without directly playing a part in it. But no, that wasn’t the appropriate metaphor. He was fooling himself by thinking he was so near the goal. The situation was perfectly stable, far too stable, and he needed a foreign element to trigger off the reaction. It would take more than a pinch of magic powder to set things in motion. He had to free his mind, revive its extraordinary mechanism, possibly by some physical activity.
He was seized by a doubt. Was the mind imprisoned in the body, subjected to its gravity, entrenched in its biology? Or was it, on the contrary, that body which, with all its senses awakened, irrigated his brain and made it creative?
He drove on aimlessly and without destination, following the flow of the traffic. He began at last to search his bearings and recognised a few familiar buildings. He turned right, drove alongside an official building and slipped into a narrower street with closed shops for almost a kilometre. He stationed his car in the underground car park and took the lift to the tenth floor. He appreciated this place for its calm, its comfort and its unfailing impeccable service. A hostess in her fifties sprang from a corner of the room, black makeup on her eyes, a smile incrusted on her dark-red painted lips. She recognised him immediately and greeted him at length, nodding her head several times as if by clockwork. Without losing time, she ran through the names of her girls, including two or three who were new. But he had his favourites and didn’t like to change. The establishment was recent and no had nothing in common with those traditional old houses of another age. Judging just by the Italian style furnishing of discreet design, the place could be mistaken for the offices of any multinational in the business district. But the dimmed lights from coloured bulbs left no doubt that these premises were for relaxation.
Zhou closed the door of the bedroom and began to undress. He hung his clothes on the hook as if he were at home. He had his routines. Or rather no, it wasn’t routine that made his every movement seem mechanical. As a matter of fact, Zhou did everything mechanically, with a discipline that scarcely left any room for hesitation or fantasy. He switched on the television and went to have a shower. He preferred to be alone during this exercise; he hated having someone lather, exfoliate and friction him. When he emerged, his waist wrapped in a towel, the girl was already there, getting her massage oils and powders ready, adjusting the sheet on the heavy mattress lain directly on the floor. She was pretty, as he liked them, with long hair, light skin and a generous body. He didn’t react at all upon seeing her; no knowing glance or sign recognition. He simply lay down on the mattress after having tossed his towel on the floor. He was here to relax his body, to liberate his mind and the girl knew it. He had the air conditioning switched off, for nothing could match a hot and humid atmosphere to soothe his body. He closed his eyes and let the flow of news from the CCTV channel penetrate his brain while trying to think of nothing.
‘At the Jiuquan base in Inner Mongolia, China was readying the launch of a new Long March 2F rocket carrying in its payload an Earth observation satellite that was to endow it with new intelligence gathering capabilities.’ Ever since Colonel Yang Liwei had made fourteen orbits round the Earth in his Shenzhou-5 vessel, the whole country followed the news about space missions. Pictures of that adventure flashed back in his mind. Liwei hadn’t discerned the Great Wall from his spacecraft. And yet they said it was the only human construction visible from space. And what about the Three Gorges dam, had he seen it? Was there so much as a window in his vessel? The weather was uncertain over Mongolia and the authorities had preferred to delay the launch.
The girl began her massage. She had picked up one of the plastic bottles from a small basket placed on the floor and started to spread its contents on the Zhou’s lower limbs. The oil was delicately scented and he tried in vain to identify its constituents. There was camphor for sure, recognisable by its acrid smell. She was working up his thighs in small swift movements, freeing the muscle from its tensions. Then she began to work on well-defined points located on the path of energy meridians, those very ones that are stimulated by the acupuncturer’s needles. That body was lean, without an once of fat, and she had no trouble locating exactly the points on which she was to apply.
The television journalist was commenting on the good results of the Chinese economy at the second quarter, and was forecasting an even better third quarter. Nothing but routine. Annual growth rates of over 8% were now the norm. They were necessary to provide work for an ever-increasing Chinese workforce. There were around 200, possibly 300 million, unemployed in China, an inexhaustible source of labour.
His body began to react to the solicitations of the girl, whose skilful hands were now applied to the most sensitive zones of a man’s body.
The United States and Europe alike were battling with tenths of percentage points in their attempts to slow down the rise in the unemployment rate. China was living a privileged moment of exuberance and grace. That was the key to the problem Zhou was attempting to solve. How to drive home the message to an administration hypnotised by economic development, to those business moguls blinded by short-term profits, that national security, China’s superior interests, were at stake?
The girl was now applying oil over on his torso. He could feel her long scented hair glide over his face while she massaged his muscular pectorals. Her flesh was moist with perspiration. She had nothing under her simple silk gown. Without opening his eyes, he parted the sides of her garment and, like a blind man feeling round a statue, his hand made its way between the girl’s legs, discovering a light fleece with his fingertips, the satin skin of the inner thighs, then her breasts, heavy and beaded with sweat, like the morning dew on flower petals.
All that was needed to unravel his problem was a catalyst. He had to find urgently a massive argument to topple the scales to their side. That would invert the gravitational pull and snatch the decision away from the forces of stagnation. That heavenly body which was going to penetrate into the solar system to alter its equilibrium was there, he felt it; it was approaching. It wasn’t visible yet because it was a black hole, a mass of antimatter and besides, who cared what it really was, so long as it showed up – in the end.
‘A new semiconductor plant is starting up in the Shenzhen region, financed by Taiwanese capital,’ continued the newscaster. The girl had removed her gown and laid down on him. She was massaging him with all her body impregnated with scented oils, her skin sliding over his almost without friction. To the east of Taiwan, this time, America’s 7th fleet was moving around in circles.
She was now seated on him and making unhurried to-and-fro movements, her nipples skimming his chest, tracing out two parallel furrows. Now and then she would stop, tantalising him, at the apogee of tension, only to impale herself again deeply into him. She used her internal muscles to bring the massage to its grand finale, as she had been trained.
Taiwan yet again. China had warned, through its Taiwanese Affairs Bureau, that an evolution of that island towards any form of independence whatsoever would automatically lead to disaster. The People’s Liberation Army was targeting its medium-range missiles along the coast facing Taiwan. The girl had stepped up her rhythm and her breathing became quicker.
‘The economic integration of that island with continental China was already on track’, thought Zhou. It was only a matter of time; the territorial unification was bound to take place naturally. But would the USA leave it the time? The Chinese army was against a technologically superior military power. American troops had taken a foothold everywhere, from Japan to Korea, from central Asia to the Middle East. America controlled the main oil production zones as well as the routes through which that oil reached China. The army knew it. But it too was blocked, powerless…
A thunderbolt ran through Zhou’s body. Why hadn’t he thought of it before? He wasn’t even aware of the shot from his body, bursting with pleasure, so much the rapture of his senses was mingling with the exaltation of his mind.
He turned pallid. The girl noticed it and suddenly became anxious. Still seated upon him, she drew his face close to hers as if to examine it, enquiring whether there was something wrong. ‘The army!.’ That was it; the heavyweight player he was missing. He had pulled all the levers in the civilian sector but had overlooked the army! His very own corps! For the army had got rid of Microsoft applications ages ago. That’s why he had never thought of the army!
The People’s Liberation Army, China’s army, so desperately in need of munitions! These military, who no longer saw how to regain the initiative while they were being encircled by the USA. He was going to hand them over the ideal weapon, the perfect weapon. A weapon that was there all the time, its fuse just waiting to be ignited, but which nobody saw… Zhou opened his eyes. A smile lit up his face.
He had just invented the M BOMB…
Zhou woke up with a powerful migraine. A dull headache that never left him. Migraine was a companion of his, which had marked his life since adolescence. It could crop up three or four times a month and last from 24 to 48 hours, or take him by surprise after months of remission. It was the hallmark of creative minds, they had told him, possibly even a sign of intelligence. Be that as it may, he would well have done without it. These phases had ruined some of best moments of his life. That morning, he knew its cause. His insight of the previous day, that flash of light, so vivid, blinding and powerful, had thrust him into a state of exaltation so foreign to his calm nature, always in control.
He stopped by in one of those old quarters of Beijing which still survive, full of traditional houses with glossy tiled roofs, painted wooden frontages bearing the profession and name of their owners in large Chinese inscriptions.
He went through the circular opening which provided him a passage across the wall and penetrated inside a small planted garden with a rock fountain flowing in the middle. Some large goldfish were swimming around in the pool. He entered a Chinese medicine shop. The glass counter displayed roots, tubercles and small desiccated animals. Behind it, the wall was entirely taken up by a cabinet containing over a hundred small drawers, each marked with a brass plate fixed by two screws to indicate the nature of their contents.
Zhou had faith only in these preparations, concocted with the patience and wisdom of practitioners, holders of that ancient secular knowledge. Or at least, that’s what he liked to believe, for in actual fact he had tried a good number of treatments against migraine from western pharmaceutical laboratories. And some of those coloured pills or tablets produced by chemical synthesis did put an end to his headaches. But he kept that quiet. He preferred to come here today to meet this old man with his face wrinkled like the bark of a tree, like the dried roots he aligned under the glass top of his counter. Zhou saw a healthy complexion in this old man of 90. He was able to detect signs of vitality under that greyish skin, in those slowly-fading impish pupils. And he attributed this vigour to the beneficial effects of those natural ingredients.
The basic compositions comprised at least four active principles: the Emperor, the Minister, the Assistant and, finally, the Messenger whose task is to direct the first three principles to the required part of the body and maintain the right balance of the overall composition. Each herb was prepared according to its polarity, that is the degree of yin or yang it brings, and is assigned a temperature coefficient, from cold to hot going through warm, neutral and cool. A herbal tea could then be considered appeasing, calming, or else rather tonic or energising to different degrees.
A herb was also associated to each of the five elements of Tao philosophy: wood, fire, earth, water and metal. The elements interacted amongst themselves, exalted or opposed one another, regenerated or blocked one another, fed on or controlled each other. To each of these five elements, also known as the five movements, or Wu Xing, were also associated a respective one of the five senses, one of the five families of organs, one of the five emotions, of the five tissues… Now, considering the number of possible combinations or interactions, the numbers are countless. The dosage and composition of these prescriptions were a matter for specialists.
The old man finally arrived. He recognised Zhou immediately, not that he often paid him a visit, but because it was always for the same symptoms.
‘Now, tell me about this headache,’ he asked inviting him to sit down on a simple wooden chair.
His hands were sinewy, but their touch was gentle and appeasing. He took his pulse, both superficial and deep according to a technique claimed to sound each of the patient’s organs by the fingertips and determine their afflictions. From his numerous drawers, he picked out five or six different herbs which he then weighed on the pan of a small scale.
He placed the exact quantities of the active principles on a sheet of paper and began to blend them completely. Using a knife, he separated out five small heaps and flicked the switch of an electric kettle to heat up a small amount of water. Zhou was disappointed to see such a modern appliance in a place where everything exuded tradition. The elderly doctor took one of the five plant doses and threw it into a cup, poured in the simmering water and covered it. He was preparing an infusion which his patient was going to drink on the spot. Zhou got out to walk in the garden, carrying his cup.
Just like he, China was ailing, invaded by a pathogen which remained silent, careful not to kill the patient. This pathogen was Microsoft, ready to invade the country when the day had come, to levy its toll, to open the doors of computers to western invaders. But China, enslaved to short-term interests, was unable to defend itself. It was powerless to react, and allowed itself be colonised. China was stricken because its oil, that fluid which irrigated its economy, was in the hands of the enemy, ready to cut off its supply. An enemy which, in Taiwan, stalled the unification efforts of the country, that great body bearing the past mutilations from imperialist powers.
They had to act quickly. Apply a Chinese plant-based remedy. The Emperor would be the army, the central military commission that was going to correct the imbalance between the yin and yang and restore the country’s defence capacity. The minister was to be the allies of the of the ‘Lin Zexu’ group, those of the Science Academy, the Ministry for Science and Education, who have been working for a long time in favour of national solutions. The Assistants were his friends of the SILG and the SDPC of the State Commissions who yearned to benefit fully from the decision while avoiding the backlash. And the Messenger, the one who brought the information, who made sure the active principle reached its destination, would be Zhou Feng himself. Zhou the messenger. He was satisfied with this formulation. He went back to return his cup to the room where the old man sat. He cast a last look at the large goldfish swimming around in the pool. He inhaled the scent of flowers, breathed in the serene harmony of the small courtyard, then left with a determined step.
Zhou returned to the Ministry of State Security and decided to spend the rest of day studying the military hierarchy. He had a plan, now it had to be put to execution. He sat behind that desk he seldom used, and yet was reserved for him, at the headquarters of counterespionage.
He knew personally some of the active service colonels who had been fellow students, as well as a number of intelligence and counterespionage officers operating in China. But he very quickly focussed all his attention on the Central Military Commission, the country’s highest decision making instance in matters of war and armament, an institution much more powerful than the Ministry of Defence, which only had an administrative role. He brought the cup of herbal tea to his lips and let the hot liquid seep into him.
On the LCD monitor of his PC, he displayed the biographies and photos of the different members of the Commission. But that was not enough. He also needed the confidential notes. He called his secretary and asked him for a copy of a number of documents and files.
The CMC was run by a chairman, a function presently held by General Liu Rong. He was assisted by several vice-chairmen. Zhou was in possession of some secret documents detailing the balance of power within the Politburo and the Central Military Commission. He studied at length the profiles of each of the members making up these two institutions, spending two good hours immersed in his records and files.
His face suddenly relaxed, an imperceptible grin was cracking his placid face that let nothing through. He had found his man. There was no point in hesitating any longer. It was going to be Admiral Liang Dongbuo, the vice chairman of the CMC. Liang tended to be classed among the hawks, those military or leaders who wanted to take the initiative, to release the grip that was stifling China while there was still enough time. The chairman of the Commission, General Liu Rong, already espoused to his cause, was not a man to mince his words and had for some weeks been in a position of force thanks to the recent terrorist attacks that caused the barrel of crude to soar above 200 dollars. Liang was the outspokenly honest type, often announcing hard times ahead, and all too often ignored. But the recent events had shown him to be right and placed him at the forefront.
There now remained for him to get in touch with the admiral, something not as easy as it seemed, for it had to be done under the veil of the utmost secrecy to mask his intentions, to let nothing transpire. Above all, they had to avoid informing the forces of inertia, those which were trying to maintain stability by privileging economic development, those which wanted to reassure foreign investors at all costs. The ‘Shanghai Cartel’ was to be kept in the dark about his intentions, not even to suspect his strategy. The success of the operation depended on it. He had to maintain absolute secrecy to avoid counterattacks and hostile reactions.
Zhou feared more than anything the American intelligence services who had placed electronic and human ears in each department. In order for the bomb to be fused and launched with success, surprise was of the essence. If the Americans got wind of the project before it had time to fulfil, they would for certain find a way of stalling it. It would be easy to put pressure on the government and the administration, who may well then backtrack to avoid a crisis. The bomb was to catch everyone unaware. No-one was therefore to know what was being schemed.
How was he to come into contact with the admiral? Which man of confidence would be able to introduce him to the vice chairman of the Central Military Commission? Shen Wubin? Like himself, he had the rank of colonel and commanded the 3rd Department of army headquarters, the one in charge of military intelligence and, in particular, of listening to and processing communications of foreign armies. They had met way back at the Institute of International Relations in Beijing, which served to train a good part of the future spies of the Republic of China. The man was reliable, straight and loyal to his country. They hadn’t seen each other for a long time, but he knew he could count on him.
He had some difficulties in tracing Wubin. He left several messages, entreating him to call back. He was contemplating the town from the windows of this tenth floor office when the phone buzzed in its base, jolting him away from his thoughts.
‘Zhou Feng, why that must be at least five years since I’ve heard from you, where have you been hiding?’
‘Wubin, thanks for calling me back so quickly. Listen, I’ve got to see you urgently somewhere quiet and discreet.’
‘Tonight, if you like, I know a bar…’
He didn’t give him the leisure the finish his phrase:
‘Wubin, I don’t mean a nice quiet place like that!’
‘Cagey old Zhou, you’ll never change!’
‘What do you suggest? How about reserving a lounge in a karaoke bar and girls with nice…voices? That would be nice way of getting back in touch.’
Zhou took on a more serious tone, demarking from friend’s jovial mood.
‘Wubin, I would like to meet you at your place, in your office, this very afternoon. Is that possible?’
Wubin understood immediately.
‘Very well. You know the way to the barracks. I’ll wait for you at five pm. You’ll have to leave your weapon at the entrance…’
Before Wubin had finished giving his instructions, Zhou had hung up and left the Ministry with a determined step.
He only had three quarters of an hour to reach the barracks of the 3rd Department.
His friend hadn’t changed, his features just slightly more drawn.
‘Wubin, we must talk somewhere absolutely safe,’ blurted Zhou still agitated from his frantic pace and the importance of his meeting.
‘You don’t imagine my office is bugged, do you? Doesn’t it occur to you that we too know about discretion? Come along now, relax old chap.’
But he didn’t insist. Zhou didn’t feel like laughing. He never felt like laughing. He remembered their years at the Institute of International Relations. Zhou wasn’t funny, to say the least! He was an athlete, an introverted egg head, a cold animal, but he was a loyal friend.
‘You want the most discreet place around, so follow me. We’re off to the refectory.’
A continuous rumble filled the large room where soldiers and officers came for their meals. Zhou’s anxious eyes searched the mess and spotted a quiet table. They seated themselves, placing their meal trays before them.
‘I’m all ears, Zhou. What’s this so-important thing you have to tell me after all these years of silence and calls for all these precautions?’
‘Wubin, what I’m going to ask you is highly confidential. The country’s future depends on it. I can’t say more, but I need you. Do you know Admiral Liang Dongbuo?’
‘The vice chairman of the commission? Yes, I’m in regular contact with Liang for my work.’
‘You’ve got to get me a meeting with him. Most urgently. But the conditions are somewhat particular. I can’t disclose the purpose of our meeting and I demand total secrecy. No-one must know about our encounter. No-one, apart from you.’
Used to military secrecy, Wubin didn’t attempt to find out more. But Zhou insisted:
‘Trust me, it’s very important and I must take every precaution, no information must leak. Can you do that?’
Wubin thought for a few more seconds before answering frankly.
‘The admiral isn’t an easy man, you know. Obtaining a secret meeting without an object won’t be simple, but I promise you to put all my weight and credibility in the balance to make it work. I believe he values me. I’ll fix it, don’t worry.’
Zhou knew his friend was a man of duty and would keep his word. He made eye contact with him as if to renew once more his friendship and trust. Then, getting up suddenly from his chair and leaving his meal tray untouched, he said in a tone whose warmth touched Wubin:
‘When all this’ll be over, we’ll celebrate this. I promise.’
Beijing, ‘Flowers of Spring’ residence
Tom dived head first into the swimming pool. He swam a few strokes on the surface and then plunged more deeply towards the white tiled floor. Reaching the bottom, he straightened his head upwards and let out a stream of bubbles which rose to the surface in clusters. He stayed like that for nearly a minute, holding the bottom, seated under 3 metres of water, eyes wide open, lungs fully puffed.
From the bottom of the swimming pool, he noticed two wavering forms drawing towards the edge. They were looking for him, no doubt. With a kick, he emerged up to the surface and blew the air out of his lungs. Stenton was there accompanied by Kathleen Morse, Microsoft’s mission head for the GSP.
‘Hey Tom, I thought it was the man from Atlantis!’ quipped Kathleen.
‘Tom, we’d like to have a talk. You got a moment or two?’ broke in Stenton who had been fighting Kathleen for a fortnight to have this talk and press Tom to take some distance from that Chinese girl.
The young man followed obediently. He put on a towelling gown he had laid down on a deck chair and sipped through a straw a few long mouthfuls of a tropical cocktail a barman had prepared. Kathleen stepped back, letting Stenton question Tom. She was particularly ill at ease and came only grudgingly to accept the truth behind that relation, after Stenton had brought her the proof that Jin was in league with the Chinese intelligence services.
‘Tom, tell us about that girl Jin. It looks like you’re meeting her outside the GSP context, is that right? What do you think of her? Is she competent?’
Tom was taken aback and blushed slightly. He wasn’t expecting such an interrogation.
‘Jin is a very competent computer scientist. She’s on top of her subject. She’s in charge of some security modules we’re thinking of integrating into the next version of Windows. She’s a highly valued member of Chinese delegation. And she’s also a really nice girl. We enjoy meeting together. Is there a problem with that?’ asked Tom in a mildly aggressive tone.
‘No, Tom, there’s no problem in that. We’ve got instruction to take on a convivial, warm and open attitude towards the members of the Chinese delegation. Your relations are perfectly in line with that,’ conceded Kathleen.
But Tom did not seem convinced by this response. He insisted.
‘Where’s the problem, then?’
‘There’s no problem, Tom, reassured Stenton. We want to be sure this girl is a computer expert and not an intelligence agent. We have absolute confidence in your judgement.’
‘There’s one other thing, Tom,’ continued Kathleen Morse. ‘You’ll have to leave Beijing for two or three weeks, hardly more. We’re holding a big training seminar on networks in Shanghai. We’d really appreciate your presence at this venue. The Microsoft office in Shanghai insisted that you free yourself for this. You’ll certainly bring an element of quality into this forum. We accepted, after making sure the director of the Chinese delegation would accept this.’
Tom struggled to mask his deception and sadness. He was no longer going to see Jin for several days. During their working sessions, the two young people had exchanged body language and looks that left no doubt. They needed to be together. They would suffer from that separation.
‘When do I have to leave?’ he asked.
‘You’re leaving tomorrow morning, Tom. But you’ll see, Shanghai’s a most fascinating city!’
‘Why this separation?’ Tom asked himself. ‘Did the firm not take kindly to this amicable relation he had with Jin?’ Reluctantly, he got up to pack up his bags.
Stock still, one leg stretched to the horizon, Zhou seemed like a statue. For four days, he had retired to his temple, waiting for Wubin’s hypothetical reply. He was alternating between meditation and Tai Chi sessions when a student interrupted him, a sealed letter in his hand.
‘Master, an army courier has just dropped this envelope for you.’
Zhou adjusted his loose garment, gave leave to his student and took in the message. Wubin had arranged for him a meeting outside Shanghai’s Pudong airport. The registration number of the vehicle that was to wait for him was written in the middle of the message. His face lit up.
Zhou took the China Eastern flight departing from Beijing at 11:40 and arriving at Shanghai Pudong at 13:30. He refused the meal tray offered by the stewardess, settling for two cups of tea. He hated those plane journeys, being confined in small spaces, crammed with all those people, the decompression phases that went with the rise in altitude and which – he was sure of it – affected his metabolism. He closed his eyes without being able to fall asleep. He went through in his mind all the key arguments to put forward at his presentation. He knew he had little time to convince, that he had to win his points right from the start. He felt he was ready. Out of habit more than necessity he did some breathing exercises. He was inclining his head, now to the right, now to the left, to loosen his neck muscles when a stewardess interrupted his meditations and asked him to straighten his seat for the landing phase.
Zhou leaned over to observe the skyscrapers of the new business quarter in Pudong: the television tower, dubbed the Pearl of the Orient, standing 468 metres high. An architectural monstrosity, he thought. He utterly detested its two spheres. The Jinmao tower, 421 metres tall, was hardly less of an eyesore. He conjured in his mind with sadness all those Chinese people coming from the heart of the country pushing their way to the esplanade in front of the Bund and admiring the Pudong skyscrapers, leaning over the railings in front of the Huangpu river. They must dream for hours in front of the infinite ugliness of those graceless buildings, which symbolised in their eyes China’s renaissance. A sad renaissance indeed, thought Zhou. This district was only wasteland in 1993 and should have stayed that way.
Zhou knew the city was brimming with captains of industry, those new millionaires he was fighting, who were ruining everything in the sacrosanct name of stability so their business could grow. ‘Let the market decide’ they all declared, hand in heart! Nationalism had dissolved in the export market surplus.
He spotted the Nanpu suspension bridge and its spiralling motorway, farther along, Lupu bridge and its great steel arch spanning the river. The plane touched the runway, bounced to land again, and veered from right to left before finally stabilising its path. Zhou smiled thinking that it was in Shanghai, the seat of the cartel that hampered China, that he was about perhaps about to change the course of History.
Hardly had he left the plane that Zhou was rapidly crossing the arrivals hall. A small group of westerners were waving a sign board. He read unthinkingly the name it bore: ‘Microsoft – Tom Bailey.’ He muttered his name before realising that, by an incredible coincidence, he had travelled with the computer bod who worked with Jin… He chased away that thought, fearing it would break his concentration.
Without further turning his head towards the crowd hurrying into the airport building, he went straight to the exit. Outside, he turned right and went up the pavement along the terminal, crossing trolleys pushed by passengers he no longer noticed. He endlessly repeated to himself the registration number of the car waiting for him. He noticed a black Japanese 4×4. Drawing closer, he checked he had read the number plate correctly. A man was waiting standing outside the car. He held out an electronic fingerprint sensor on which Zhou placed the forefinger of his left hand. The man invited him to sit at the back of the vehicle.
They travelled about ten kilometres, passing through Pudong’s industrial areas, before the car stopped in front of a gate. A guard in military uniform appeared. The gate opened and the vehicle entered what must have been an old goods wharf taken over by the army. From the wild grass there emerged a small rusty crane and the wreck of an abandoned truck, its bonnet still open. Two bright-red high-speed crafts with overhead sirens and projectors was moored alongside the quay. They must have been used patrolling the Huangpu River. It was the perfect setting for a rendezvous, deserted and sheltered from indiscreet looks.
A sailor from the Chinese Navy, the People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN, saluted Zhou, invited him to come on aboard one of the craft whose engine was running. They left at high speed, going up the river Huangpu for about twenty minutes before reaching the Jiangnan naval dockyard.
The craft headed for the corner of the port reserved for military constructions and drew up to a destroyer with ‘170’ painted on the front of the hull. Judging by its angular radar-furtive outline, the vessel must have been very modern. Enemy radar waves reflected by these flat, faceted shapes only returned a weak echo that could not serve to identify the ship’s signature.
Zhou also spotted a Lanzhou 052C. It was equipped with a highly-sophisticated phase-array scanning radar able to guide several vertical-takeoff anti-aircraft missiles simultaneously. The craft docked alongside the deserted quay.
The sailor led Zhou up the bridge to enter aboard. The vessel appeared to be fully constructed and even commissioned; its presence in the naval dockyard must have been just for installing the latest equipment. Zhou climbed up several metal stairways which seemed interminable to him. He was now at least 30 metres above ground at the threshold of what must have been the ship’s command centre, a huge room of about 200 square metres lined with consoles and data display terminals. A group of five or six naval officers were holding a briefing session around a centrally-placed table covered with plans and technical documents. They were discussing loudly, obviously unsatisfied about the positioning of some of the electronic equipment. The sailor who accompanied Zhou asked him to wait by the door while he made his way towards the group. One of the five officers, the one who must have been the admiral, dismissed the others, who then disappeared through the opposite door, and beckoned Zhou.
‘My respects, admiral. I’m Colonel Zhou Feng…’
‘I know who you are, Colonel Zhou, interrupted the admiral. It’s four pm; you’ve got 10 minutes. Not a minute more. I must be at the Ningbo naval base at five thirty pm. What have you got to tell me?’
Admiral Liang Dongbuo must have been in his sixties. He was a massive, burly, thick-set man. His square face and prominent chin did not invite contradiction. He had a large balding forehead overlying drooping eyelids. They defined just horizontal slits pierced at the centre with razor sharp pupils. His thin-lipped mouth inspired authority and strength.
‘Admiral, China’s oil supply sources are in the hands of the United States and they can turn off the taps at any moment. Our country has to endure provocations from Taiwan, armed and protected by the Americans. The United States have decided to derail China and they have already begun the hostilities.’
‘Colonel Zhou, can you please get down to the facts. You’re wasting you time credit.’
The naval man was already beginning to show signs of impatience. He was listening while putting away the documents spread over the table. Perfectly in control of himself, Zhou remained calm.
‘I come to propose a weapon, a bomb that will explode without causing victims and without leaving ruins. A bomb we can set off in all legitimacy and which will bring our opponent to his knees, its economy collapsing like a stack of cards.’
Admiral Liang raised his head and pointed his gaze to that spy who was beginning to intrigue him.
‘I’m listening. You have all my attention.’
‘The bomb I’ve just proposed to you is called…Microsoft!’
‘Microsoft? Make yourself clear!’
The admirals face showed disbelief. Was he making a fool of him?
‘Think for a moment of Microsoft’s position: it’s one of America’s top three capitalisations. It’s also the most emblematic of information technology companies. It holds 90% of the market share in the desktop computer sector, where it generates a profit margin of 80%. So far, everything is rosy for Microsoft.’
Liang observed silently, scrutinizing his visitor’s body.
‘But that’s just a facade,’ resumed Zhou, more and more at ease, ‘A cardboard stage set because, behind, Microsoft’s image is far from being as solid as it looks. Why? Simply because Microsoft produces immaterial goods, software, and it so happens that China possesses products perfectly equivalent to theirs, and that those products are free!
‘So what? What’s your point?’
‘So, admiral, suppose China suddenly decided to replace all over its territory Microsoft’s Windows operating system with its own system. What would happen?…’
The low throbbing sound of an approaching helicopter could now be heard. It was nearing the ship.
‘Microsoft would immediately loose the best part of its value! For this value is entirely virtual and artificial. In fact, its stock value would collapse, bringing with it the entire American technology sector down the precipice! A chain reaction would then plunge the country’s economy into a deep and devastating crisis! This, admiral, is the bomb I’m proposing to you to detonate.’
The helicopter had touched down. The pounding of its blades was slowing down. They seemed to slash the air like a ventilator, marking the rhythm of the seconds ticking by. Zhou continued with his exposé, calm, precise and rigorous, leaving aside no argument susceptible of swaying the admiral’s decision, but holding back all excess of zeal. He drew from his pocket two CD ROMs, one bearing the Microsoft logo and the other the small penguin that symbolised Linux.
‘You see these two disks? This one costs over 2 000 yuans while the other is free! And yet overall they both do the same thing. Do you think this situation can go on for much longer?’
Puzzled, the admiral looked at the two disks.
‘And why indeed does it go on?’ he asked gravely.
‘Because Microsoft can draw from being the market standard, and the market can support only one standard. Even a free product like Linux is incapable of breaking through. This is the living proof that the laws of the markets and competition cannot apply. It takes a political decision to reverse the tide of things break this firm’s monopoly.’
‘And why doesn’t anyone take this decision?’
The admiral appeared not to understand. As though he needed time.
‘Exactly. It’s for China to take it! It’s up to the world’s most populous country to establish standards, not to have them thrust upon!’
Zhou knew perfectly how to play on the military’s patriotic fibre.
‘The value of Microsoft rests only on its monopolistic position and the absence of competition. But this position is built on sand, its value is purely virtual; it’s a fiction! If tomorrow the world’s first market, a quarter of mankind, becomes closed to its products and replaces them with free software without retail value, then we mechanically destroy the value of Microsoft. And behind Microsoft, it’s the whole of America that collapses.’
The expression on the admiral’s face had changed. His condescendence had first given way to interest. Then his face became grave under the effect of intense reflection. The man was measuring the far-reaching effects of what he had just heard. The idea, simple and ingenious at the same time, was sinking in, gaining strength and vigour. It came through as a self-evident proof, like a burst of beauty and power. A few seconds passed, punctuated by the beats of the helicopter’s blades. Liang suddenly asked:
‘And what would justify China banning this Windows over all its territory?’
‘Why, everything gives us the right, admiral! Windows is present in practically all the nation’s firms, domestic computers and moreover most of the state-owned companies and several administrations. Do you think that China can continue to entrust its information infrastructure to a foreign company? Such a strategic, such a sensitive element! Did you know that US intelligence agencies have undoubtedly reserved backdoors which allow them to penetrate inside our machines as and when they want? In case of conflict, admiral, the United States could annihilate our economy and infrastructures by remote control! Not to mention that Windows possesses glaring security flaws for which Microsoft has to send alerts several times a year. This then requires downloading a software patch whose contents we completely ignore! This cannot last, admiral! We must put an end to it!’
Zhou knew that he had already won his bid. At that moment, two naval officers entered the room and saluted their superior.
‘Admiral, your helicopter is ready to take off.’
With a simple gesture, Liang signalled them to wait.
‘Why haven’t we done this already?’ he added. ‘What you tell me is most serious! Why doesn’t our administration ban this Windows?’
‘But we’ve already begun! As you know, an operating system developed in China is now installed in the ministries and administrations. But the transition takes time. On the other hand, nothing is done for the 90% of the remaining computers, those that equip state enterprises, the private sector and homes.’
‘Why not? I want to understand!’ he insisted.
‘Because the private sector demands that we let the laws of the market decide! Some very powerful lobbies militate for non intervention. And yet, admiral, we’ve tried everything! For three years we’ve been in the shadows pushing our case with the Ministries of Industry and Information, of Public Security, of the National Defence, of Science and Technology and several administrations, the SILG, the CIC, and right up to the Politburo and the State Council. The banning of Windows is justified a hundred times over! It’s a matter of urgency! In the very short term, it finds justification for reasons of national security, in the medium term by the necessity to master sensitive and strategic technologies and, in the longer term, so that China can at last spawn a national software industry capable of competing with India. But despite all our efforts, the balance still tips in favour of the forces of inertia, of the status quo and stability. This is why I come to see you.’
He was now playing on conquered territory. The vice chairman of the Central Military Commission himself had to fight legions of conservatives, a nameless army difficult to manoeuvre.
‘You did the right thing,’ approved the vice chairman of the Commission in a grave tone, ‘You did the right thing!’
‘We have grossly underestimated the forces of inertia. They are sacrificing China’s fundamental interests on the altar of stability. With Microsoft, we have a hegemony over an entire sector of our industry – namely software – by a monopolistic foreign company that leaves no hope in prospect for establishing terms of fair competition. Microsoft means potentially 300 billion yuans leaving the country in the course of next five to ten years, if we’re complacent. A fortune to be budgeted for the purchase of software and on which the American publisher will take an 80% profit margin. That’s 300 billion yuans lost for the Chinese economy. And for software we don’t need, since we have its equivalent at hand, right here in China.’
‘And what is this national software? Is it the one installed in our administrations?’
‘Yes admiral, it’s a local variant of Linux for the general public that will boost our local software industry and eventually make it the world leader, before India. Just by its sheer demographic weight, China simply has to be the country that sets industry standards. Everything is ready to take over from Microsoft; we can rely exclusively on Chinese resources and companies.’
Liang could hardly believe what he had just heard.
‘Colonel, you’re trying to tell me that we are perfectly entitled to forbid Windows and, what’s more, such a decision would plunge the US into chaos! Is that right?’
‘It’s exactly that, admiral. Unbelievable as it may seem. Microsoft is at the heart of the American economy. It’s the symbol of the US renaissance in the 80s. It’s the world champion of information technology industries. To hit Microsoft, to sink Microsoft, is to strike at the centre of their economy, into the heart of their power.’
The two officers standing some distance away seemed to get impatient. Admiral Liang Dongbuo was going to be late.
‘In our wake, you can expect to see many other countries refusing to pay their due to Microsoft and America. I’m thinking of India, South-East Asia, Brazil, Mexico, or Russia. Our Japanese and Korean neighbours could also follow suit. And possibly even the Europeans. We wouldn’t be isolated. Quite the opposite. China will be regarded as the precursor, the liberator, the country that had the courage to bring a term to the imperialism of a private company with planetary powers.’
He cut himself short a few seconds, which finished convincing him that he had definitely scored the deciding points. The pulsations from the helicopter added a solemn note to the instant, like the roll of a drum.
‘The knock-on effect would be devastating, with dire consequences for the entire US information technology sector. Behind the predictable collapse of the markets and the consequent formidable destruction of market values, the American economy altogether could crumble like mah-jong pieces, with virtual bankruptcy facing pension funds, insurance underwriters, banks, and even the bankruptcy of the federal government and of many other states with abyssal deficits.’
The admiral remained speechless.
‘Admiral, no one can deny a country the right to exert control over its information systems and to keep control over strategic technologies. No one. It’s our national security that’s at stake, and only an active decision from the state can safeguard that interest. And the decision would have the power of a bomb. It can bring the opponent to its knees with just a line of the pen, without firing a single shell. The Microsoft bomb, admiral, is the absolute weapon, the weapon with no human victims, but whose devastating blast thwarts the opponent. It’s a gift that providence has placed opportunely in our hands. It’s a weapon; no warlord in the history of mankind, no conqueror, no emperor, ever had one so powerful.’
The admiral shuddered and signalled Zhou to hush a moment. He drew close to the colonel and, his eyes locked into his, asked him in a tone that wanted to dispel all doubt:
‘Colonel Zhou, it is war that you want? You do realise that when your bomb goes off, there’s bound to be a violent retaliation from the Americans, you understand what I mean?’
Zhou refrained from answering immediately. Like a chess player who projects several moves ahead, he had been expecting that question. He resumed in a calm and reassuring voice, determined to win over the admiral’s last misgivings and show him he was no warmonger, but on the contrary, the most pragmatic of men.
‘This bomb is a very powerful tactical weapon, but it’s up to us to present it as a strictly economical measure. China has the best reasons in the world to do away with Microsoft. There can be no doubt over our legitimacy and the rest of the world will endorse it. And then, we’re not attacking America directly on its soil like the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. We’re at home and taking a perfectly justified internal security measure. Just like Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu when he stopped the British from carrying out their opium trade in 1839. But we’re no longer in the nineteenth century. The United States cannot declare a conventional war creating hundreds of thousands of victims to defend the indefensible case of a private company! The Americans are trapped, admiral. Microsoft is fragile; Microsoft is in unstable equilibrium and ready to implode. We just need that final flick, a mark of the pen, a simple signature at the bottom of a government order; that’s all it takes today to bring down America…’
He seemed sincere. Liang knew men, and the one he had before him was a patriot. He no longer doubted it. The trap he was describing him was a gem of simplicity and efficiency. The occasion was too good to miss. Zhou thought it appropriate to insist.
‘Admiral, this weapon must be used now, because tomorrow it will be too late! China will have hundreds of thousands of networked computers and devices, and then it will be too late to backtrack! China is gearing up incredibly fast, admiral, and its opportunity to act diminishes with each year that goes by. We have a narrow firing window! We must take advantage of it; it’s now or never!’
Liang Dongbuo gave himself a few seconds’ pause before asking, as if he were already making plans in his mind.
‘Who can you count on to this day; who are your allies?’
Zhou had been waiting for this question. He was jubilant but let nothing transpire. Calmly, he pulled out a notepad and pen from the breast pocket of his jacket. He scribbled down some ten names, all members of the Politburo, the State Council, ministries… He held out the sheet to the admiral who ran though it without uttering a word.
‘Admiral, we are not alone…’
The vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission figured on the list. The admiral held out his hand, frank and respectful.
‘Colonel, this meeting never took place.’
Zhou shook Liang’s hand and, looking at him straight into his eyes, uttered the first words that came to his mind: ‘Long live the People’s Republic of China!’ The admiral’s look froze for a moment. Then he made his way to the door that led to the upper deck and vanished between the shoulders of the two officers who accompanied him. The exchange had barely lasted fifteen minutes.
Zhou followed the sailor who had escorted him and was waiting, unflappable, by the door. They reappeared on the quay. It was almost five pm. The sun was dropping over the horizon, stretching out the shadows and painting the landscape with rich, warm colours.
The helicopter’s engine began to rev up. Zhou turned his head to the stern of the ship. It had landed on the rear platform. It was a light naval helicopter, very different from those used for antisubmarine warfare. The blades whipped the air at full pelt. The noise deepened, thickened, and the machine took off, pivoted laterally through 180° and pitched towards the front. It drew away pounding the sky, climbing almost vertically. It was soon just a spot against the blue, dashing southwards.
Beijing, Presidential Palace
Office of the President of the Chinese Republic
August 2, 22h30
Prime Minister Wei Weimin arrived last, dressed in an impeccable dark suit. The president of the People’s Republic of China, Ren Zhibang, had preceded him by a few minutes. Standing in close rank waiting for him were the chairman of the Central Military Commission, General Liu Rong, flanked by his two vice chairmen, Admiral Liang Dongbuo and General Xie Qinglin. The agenda was simple and the evening’s program could be summarised under just one single subject: the ‘Microsoft bomb’.
The summit meeting was held in a private lounge of the presidential palace. The room was furnished in very traditional style and decorated with Tang sculptures that would have been the envy of world’s greatest museums. After a sign of the hand from the President, they all took their seats around a small low table on which stood a teapot surrounded by five fine porcelain cups. Small glasses of rice spirit were also placed on the table. The atmosphere was heavy, the gestures of each member leaden with gravity. They seemed to observe each other. And the Prime minister was the subject of all their attention.
All were wary of Wei Weimin. He symbolised that new China, the China of entrepreneurs and businessmen. He benefited from powerful support among the Central Committee and business circles. Strangely, he immediately grasped the immense repercussions of the plan General Liu Rong and Admiral Liang had come to explain to him a few days earlier, to induce him to take part in the this discussion so as to determine once and for all whether China had the means to get involved in a combat of such indiscernible contours. But his presence and the obstacle he could constitute for the execution of this plan were a constant cause for concern.
Liang was tense, his face closed. It was he who was to lead the discussions. The Prime Minister settled down slowly, as always. He greeted each of the protagonists and bowed before the President. The Vice Chairman immediately went straight to the point, with a display of precision and assurance that would have brought a smile on Colonel Zhou.
‘Now is the time to act. Tomorrow will be too late. The more computers there are in China, the more it’s going to be difficult to impose a change of computer operating system. Time is running against us. Time is our enemy.’
‘Time is also China’s friend. It will soon make us the leading empire of the planet, commented the President with wisdom.’
‘You are aware we’re besieged? We must break away from their claws, Mr. President.’
Sitting at his side, Vice Chairman Xie added in his small, staccato and imperative voice:
‘We must take the initiative. If we persist in our passive attitude, we’ll be encouraging the enemy. We have to earn its respect. These people only understand force! The Dragon must decide to bite!’
At these words, Vice Chairman Xie seemed to mime the attack of the beast. His jaws deformed as is he were about to spit fire. Prime Minister Wei seated in front of him appeared to ignore the Vice Chairman. He took off his jacket and placed it on the back of his chair. All awaited Wei’s verdict.
‘For me, the most serious matter is Taiwan. War seems inevitable…’
He brought the small glass of rice spirit to his lips. The Taiwanese cousins were prominent industrial partners and investors. He knew them well for having frequent contacts with them.
‘The situation in Taiwan has deteriorated considerably. I experience it every day. Government propaganda supported by the United States has strengthened nationalistic feelings. The island is arming at an alarming rate and getting ready to stand up to us. Despite our threats, the Taiwanese consider themselves very much protected and persuaded that if a war were to break out, it would involve just us and the States. Independence is a luxury the island can seemingly afford without risk.’
The three military men nodded their heads, convinced of the pertinence of their prime minister’s analysis. Chairman Liu Rong, unruffled by the correctness of the view just expressed by the Minister, turned towards him to continue.
‘A lethal trap has closed in on China and is leading us head on towards military confrontation. If such were the case, China would slide back twenty years and loose all it has gained. America’s military superiority is undeniable. They exert tremendous pressure on their European allies, including Russia, to refrain them from selling us their most sophisticated weapons.’
The president was listening, surprised by the unanimous opinion shown by everyone around the table should.
‘Are you fully aware of the risks we are running by acting in this way?’
‘Yes, Mr. President,’ answered Admiral Liang. ‘By putting the United States into difficulty, we are forcing them sit round the negotiating table and come to a compromise. America should then face the evidence and accept the idea of a strong China with which they must deal on equal terms…’
But before Liang could finish his sentence, the President took over, formulating his fears in even plainer terms.
‘I wanted to speak of the risk of reprisals, gentlemen. If the United States considers itself to be the victim of an aggression, they will retaliate with arms… We would be going straight into war…’
He appeared to be seeing himself again a few days earlier, confronting Colonel Zhou’s irrefutable arguments in answer to his deepest fears.
‘No-one would understand an armed response to China from the United States to protect the interests of a private company whose monopoly happened to be broken. The probability of a military escalation is very weak, Mr. President. I can only reaffirm, our decision is justified and will be understood throughout the world.’
The President turned towards his Prime Minister.
‘What’s your opinion?’
Wei took a few seconds before answering.
‘If we adopt this measure, I think we shall be faced with a few weeks of turmoil. America won’t give up its position so easily. But as far I’m concerned, the positive results we can expect to reap from this operation by far exceed the risk of an escalation: by reclaiming the advantage, China will acquire a considerable margin for manoeuvre before the United States. Gentlemen of the Military Commission, if you cease to call this initiative a ‘bomb,’ you may consider having the approval of the State Council.’
The President raised his glass towards the four men.
‘Gentlemen, there can be no hesitation. It is capital to take the enemy by surprise. The Minister for Industry and Information will take over command of operations as from tomorrow. I’m counting on each one of you to be discreet.’
Then, turning to general Liu Rong:
‘General, place the army on maximum alert. As discreetly as possible!’
A book by JF SUSBIELLE – Translation by Dominic KING