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China's Smoke-Smothered Sky

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From the Summer 2015 Issue "Climate's Cliff"

World Policy Journal is publishing its first work of fiction here in the form of a remarkable short story from Shangai-born Qiu Xiaolong. Through the use of fictional characters, Xiaolong reflects on the impact of pollution on the quality of air and life in China today. Loosely based on the travails of Chai Jing and a documentary on pollution that the Government banned from the Internet, the story follows Inspector Chen of the Shanghai Police Bureau, who explores the nuances of pollution politics in China.  

By Qiu Xiaolong

Chief Inspector Chen of the Shanghai Police Bureau found himself sitting by the tall window of the grand river-view suite on the 39th floor of the Hyatt Hotel in Pudong, in the company of Comrade Zhao, the retired yet still powerful Secretary of the Party’s Central Discipline Committee, who had given Chen politically sensitive cases in the past. The view outside should have been breathtaking, with colorful vessels moving along the river outlined by numerous high rises on both sides, but there was no view, nothing but a shroud of grayness.  

“Like everywhere else in China, Shanghai has changed a lot with unprecedented economic reform,” Zhao said. “It used to be nothing but farmland all over here, I remember. Now, with these skyscrapers jostling against one another, it is truly the financial center of Asia, and soon, of the world too.”  

Zhao usually did not speak in such an official manner. Chen listened respectfully. But it was a true statement—the city had seen unbelievable transformation in recent years. Next to the Hyatt, another new building, destined to be even higher, was under construction. 

“Guess why I’m here this time?” Zhao went on. “I have just had enough of the Beijing smog. So unbearable. For a change, it’s like a vacation for me here in the south. I’ll stay for a week, and then go to Suzhou and Hangzhou.”

Whether truly a vacation or not, Chen had no idea, but he had heard of some new power struggle unfolding at the top with Zhao’s name mentioned in the background. It did not appear that likely the old man would choose to take a vacation at this juncture.  

“Unfortunately, the air here is not too good, either,” Zhao said shaking his head. 

“For today’s air quality,” Chen felt compelled to say something in response, “school children are not supposed to go out in the open.”

“For an old man like me too,” Zhao echoed. “In Beijing, for more than half the year it can be smoggy like that, unsuitable, even dangerous, for activities outside. I have to wear a mask almost every time I go out. It’s understandable that people are complaining about pollution, and about corruption too, but...” 

There’s always a “but,” Chen knew only too well, nodding as Zhao continued.

“But the situation should not be politicized. Pollution results from complicated, historical factors in spite of the effort made by our government. It takes time to curb the pollution, particularly so for a developing country like China...”

Now that was no small talk. Not from a top Party leader like Zhao. Chen began to be on alert. 

“But how can people not complain if they breathe in polluted air, drink contaminated water, eat toxic food? Some activists here have embarked on a project about the polluted air, I’ve heard. And that is a job for you, Comrade Chief Inspector Chen. It’s simple. You just need to find out as much as possible about it.”  

“No, I’m not an environmental expert. It’s a job totally beyond me, Comrade Zhao.”

It came out as an instinctive no. No job from Zhao had ever been simple. Not to mention the fact that Chen saw nothing wrong with people trying to do something about the pollution. He coughed in spite of himself.

“For this job, there’s no need for an expert,” Zhao continued, “just a knowledgeable, sensitive, resourceful investigator. So you’re the very man for it. Just find out as much as possible about it. What are they doing? Who are involved and what are their contacts? Where does their financial support for the project come from? What plans are they making? The leader of the group, a young woman named Yuan Ling, has recently come back from a visit to the United States.”

 Chen couldn’t yet understand what Zhao wanted him to do. To maintain its legitimacy, the Party had been pushing for economic development at any cost. As Deng Xiaopeng put it years earlier, “Development is the one and only argument.” It had been the meta-narrative for China. To be fair to the government, the environmental crisis was not something it had counted on, since it was losing face big time. But any anti-pollution efforts at the expense of Party authorities were intolerable.  

“Don’t keep on saying no,” Zhao said, producing a large envelope from a pile on the desk. “Take a look at the material first. Yuan Ling was based in Wuxi, but she now has an office in Shanghai. And most of her associates are here too, including some business Big Bucks. You know the city and its people so well.”

There was something like a fortune-telling bamboo slip falling, ominously, in an ancient temple of his mind as Chen took a folder out of the envelope. He started leafing through the pages when he caught himself staring at a picture, that of Shanshan, in the folder. The picture stared back at him. Then the realization hit home: Yuan Ling was the micro-blogging name for Shanshan. She had gained attention with her writing on the Internet in the last couple of years. 

“More material will come to you in emails,” Zhao continued. “Make your report to me in a week. Any expenses will be reimbursed directly through the Discipline Committee.”

Now it was a task Chen could not refuse, for a personal reason, as well as the political reasons Zhao had been giving.

“Thank you so much, Comrade Zhao.” 

Three or four years earlier it was in Shanshan’s company that Chen had learned about the environmental crisis first-hand. But it was also more than that. The real cause of the crisis was China’s growth-at-any-cost oriented economy, in the midst of the ideological bankruptcy under the single party system.

“If you find something important,” Zhao said encouragingly, “you may contact me any time. While those activists may be acting out of understandable concerns, they can be too reckless, disregarding political consequences. Of course, there’s no ruling out that some people are taking advantage of the situation.”

Zhao did not give a hint about whether he knew anything about the personal relationship between Shanshan and Chen. But the old man was certainly shrewd.

“I’ll try my best, Comrade Zhao,” Chen said, closing the folder. Chen did not remember how he managed to say farewell, and left the hotel with the bulging folder stuffed in his briefcase. Walking out, he felt all the high rises around him begin to overwhelm him so oppressively. 

The memories of what had happened to him in Wuxi, after he had fallen for Shanshan, the anti-pollution activist, came rushing back to him. Somehow Chen could not succeed in juxtaposing these images with the one in the folder from Comrade Zhao—Shanshan turning into Yuan Ling. But it was not a moment for him to get lost in sentimental nostalgia. This was a job he had to do.

When he emerged from the subway close to his apartment, he turned back toward a public phone booth several blocks away. Not many of them were left in the city. A young girl walked by wearing a large mask, talking non-stop, a cell phone in her hand, eyeing him suspiciously as he stepped into the deserted booth. He dialed Little Huang, a young cop he had met in Wuxi, a devoted fan of Sherlock Holmes, and of Inspector Chen too. Huang called him back from a public phone booth in Wuxi with undisguised excitement in his voice.

“Another confidential case, Chief?”

“Confidential, yes, but not exactly a case. To start with, I want to know what has happened to Shanshan.”

Huang sounded even more excited. “After you left Wuxi at the end of that masterful investigation, I heard about her from time to time. She married a local businessman who runs a successful solar energy company. I don’t think she knew all you had done for her. Still, it might be just as well.”

Chen knew what the young cop meant by “just as well,” since he regarded Shanshan as a potential troublemaker, not politically suitable for the Chief Inspector still rising in the system. Because of her, though, he managed to have a realistic picture of the environmental problem. 

“Are you still there, Chief Inspector Chen?” 

Huang’s anxious voice pulled Chen back to the present.

“Find out as much as possible about her,” Chen said, reading the number on a new SIM card he had just bought, “and contact me only at this number.”

Back at his apartment, Chen began some research on the Internet. Air quality had long been a serious issue, but for years Chinese people paid no real attention to it, especially with the international isolation under Mao and all of the media party-controlled. After the end of the Cultural Revolution, Deng’s economic reforms brought relentless expansion of modern high rises that blocked out the sky, uncontrollable growth of cars, and air conditioners with ever-increasing carbon emission. The genie was out of the bottle, and ever-worsening industrial pollution spread through a system fueled by corruption—contributing in turn to the unchecked pollution. Despite People’s Daily describing the air as light-hearted and blue, people saw nothing but an oppressive black smoggy mass. But now, in the global age, they know the air was not necessarily the same elsewhere. Things came to a head when posts and blogs appeared online quoting the U.S. Embassy’s Twitter feed that tracked air pollution in Beijing. With the number of its followers rapidly multiplying by the Weibo microblog across the country, people learned whenever the level of PM2.5 (particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in size) in the air reached a level “unhealthy for sensitive groups,” at the same time the Beijing Environmental Bureau was categorizing the air quality as “good.” On the Internet, distrust of official air-quality statistics started up like the cacophony of cicadas in the summer, cutting through firewalls and the government’s cyber control.

Particularly embarrassing for Party authorities, people chose to believe overwhelmingly the air quality monitoring issued by the American embassy, shaking the appearance of a “harmonious, prosperous society.” In reality, the Chinese cannot even drink clean water, breathe fresh air, or see a clear star. The Party is experiencing a credibility bankruptcy among the people, tiring of the repeated cover-ups orchestrated from within the Forbidden City.   

So things really came to a head. At a regular press briefing on June 6, 2014, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told foreign embassies to stop publishing their own reports on air quality in China, criticizing them as illegal and irresponsible, and declaring that the Beijing government alone is authorized to monitor and publish air quality information. That immediately drew waves of angry protests from the people, condemning and comparing the government to a thief in a Chinese proverb—to stuff his own ears in the act of stealing a bell in the hope that other people may not hear. Even patriotic “50-cent posters” (who get 50 cents for a post online in support of the government) were largely silent. In a web forum, discussing pollution can be a political crime. In 2007, an environmental activist was sentenced to two years in prison. Indeed, China was experiencing a true environmental crisis—the result of unchecked economic development and systemic corruption under an authoritarian regime, for which people are paying a terrible price.

SORTING THROUGH

Chen began trying to sort through what Zhao had said in the hotel room. But he could not rid himself of the thoughts of Shanshan’s office in Shanghai. Perhaps this was made possible by financial support of her husband, but according to Zhao, she also had her own business contacts, including some Big Bucks in the city. Chen began making phone calls to Big Buck contacts of his own. To his surprise, Mr. Gu of the Mew World Group lost no time introducing him to Lian, an air purifier manufacturer, also an environmental activist with possible connections to Shanshan.

“Let’s meet in the Moon on the Bund in an hour,” Lian said without any hesitation. A high-end restaurant on the corner of the Bund and Guangdong Road, its seventh floor balcony suggested a panoramic view of the east side of the river—but once again the reality was only an impenetrable grayness. Sitting opposite Chen, Lian was a balding man in his mid-40s, constantly blinking eyes, stirring his coffee cup silently. 

Taking a cigarette from Lian, Chen wondered whether he should cut down his smoking. The air quality was bad enough. Like so many others in the city, he suffered from a constant sore throat, which seemed to be common, according to the doctor, even among people who did not smoke. 

“I’ve heard a lot about you, Chief Inspector Chen. Mr. Gu spares no effort recommending you as trustworthy and reliable,” Lian observed, looking him in the eyes. “But can you tell me first why you are interested in the project—and her role?”

“A leading comrade from Beijing wants me to look into it. I have to tell you that,” Chen said. “But let me also show you a poem.” 

“‘Don’t Cry, Tai Lake.’ You wrote it?” Lian began reading, surprised. “Sorry, I do not know anything about it.”

As Lian skipped to the end of the poem, Chen continued earnestly. “I wrote the poem in Wuxi, when I was with Shanshan. That’s something I have told no one.” 

“Thank you for your trust in me, Chief Inspector Chen.”

“I just want you know that I will not let any harm come to her.” 

“I’m so glad you tell me that. As people all know, air pollution is so serious. The air purifiers made by my company sell at the average price of 5,000 to 6,000 yuan ($800-$950) per unit, with some well-known brands at more than 10,000 yuan ($1,600), yet they keep selling like hot cakes. It’s more than the monthly pay for an ordinary worker. Meanwhile, the lung cancer rate is increasing so rapidly across the country. The government will never attribute it to the contaminated air, but no one can deny that it’s a contributing factor. Sure, our company has made a small fortune out of the crisis. But God knows how much a machine can really help. We should try to do something about the air. It’s up to us to help with her documentary.” 

“A documentary?”  

“Yes, she’s producing a documentary about the smog.” 

“But a film must go through censorship.”

“Censorship is a matter of course in China, particularly in movie theaters. But if it’s for the Internet, it could be a different story. Theoretically, people are capable of posting it online as long as there’s no anti-government stuff in it.

 “You know how much those websites depend on commercials,” Lian said with a knowing smile.

“Now I see. It’s generous of you to do so.”

While that was no guarantee of the documentary being shown online, funding certainly helps. Entrepreneurs like Lian contribute in their own way. 

“Well, it’s no waste of money. The commercials have to go somewhere. All of us want to see the film online—and to have it seen by an audience of millions. Shanshan has a free hand for the production. But some of us want to make sure the film doesn’t go too far. Otherwise it may not be able to come out at all, or even if it does, it will be instantly banned,” Lian adds, “In fact, there will be a meeting tomorrow afternoon.”

“Tomorrow afternoon. Are you going?”

“We don’t have to attend every meeting. Sometimes we send our representatives instead, so we know how things are going.”

“How about sending me there as your representative tomorrow?” Chen said quickly, “I’ll simply sit there and listen. No one will pay any real attention to me.”

“That may work, but I just want to say it again—it’s a good project.”

“I cannot agree more,” Chen said emphatically. “I give you my word: No harm will come to her, nor to the documentary.”

INTO THE NEW WORLD

The next afternoon, Chen slips into the meeting held in the Oriental Club in the New World—a gathering spot for the rich and successful elite in the high-end area of the city. An elderly doorman in uniform stands at the entrance, stopping Chen with his hand raised. Apparently only known members are admitted. 

“Mr. Lian of the Air Product Group is sending me for the meeting here as his representative.”

“Another representative,” the doorman mumbles, waving Chen in. 

 As Chen seats himself in the semidarkness of the spacious meeting room, some two dozen people are there already, saying little to each other, especially not to an unfamiliar face. A screen is at the front of the room.

 A young woman enters quietly through a side door, walking straight to a table in the corner close to the screen. Chen can make out only a vague profile of her in the dim light. 

“Today’s agenda is simple,” she begins. “Preview. During our previous meetings, we have discussed a number of issues. We have incorporated your suggestions.”

He recognizes her voice, though somewhat different with a touch of mature confidence. Suddenly, Chen is able to get a better look as someone turns on a light, which streams over her face. She rises and removes her red trench coat. It was a sudden déjà vu—the same coat she wore with him in Wuxi. 

With the room dark again, the documentary begins with an image of Shanshan making a Powerpoint presentation, pointer in hand. Dressed casually in jeans and white blouse, she paces back and forth, talking, combining personal narrative, investigative reporting, and explanatory skills to explore the causes of the air pollution stifling Chinese cities. In the film, she consults scientists for explanations about why small particles can be particularly lethal. A small girl says she has never seen a real star, nor white clouds or blue sky. Poor people describe suffering in a “lung cancer village.” Environmental scientists complain of their inability to enforce regulations, while the local officials maintain the importance of elevated production levels, despite the fact that the smallest pollution particles routinely measure more than ten times international standards. China is losing its “war on pollution,” the documentary concludes. The targets of Shanshan’s criticism include such state-owned giants as China National Petroleum Company, PetroChina, and Sinopect. Each sets its own production standards and flouts regulations to maximize profits, while government officials refuse to shut down such factories and sacrifice employment for the sake of the environment. 

At the end of the film she stands, faces the audience, and says, “When ordinary people say we are not satisfied, and we want to do something to change it, then we may be able to make a difference.”

It is an eloquent documentary—convincing with its multiple perspectives and vivid details. Chen also realizes why others, like Comrade Zhao, would feel uncomfortable. While the film does not point fingers, a message is unmistakable that the Party leadership is ultimately responsible for the nation’s environmental disaster.   

“Any questions or suggestions?” Shanshan asks.

“How did you manage to do the interview with the Kang, the head of China National Petroleum Company?” a white-haired man asks. “Did he allow you to record it?”

“It took a long time to make this video. At the time, Kang saw himself as politically untouchable. He accepted my interview to give a lecture and actually used the tape for propaganda purposes. But that’s quite a while ago, when the American Embassy was still accused of lying about PM 2.5, and not too many realized how disastrous the smog crisis actually is. Believe it or not, some of the scenes in the film were actually provided by our targets.”

“The whole ‘petroleum gang’ is in trouble,” the white-haired man comments, “the very subject of the government’s anti-corruption crackdown.” 

Chen has heard that too. Yong, the head of that gang, a member of the powerful Politburo Standing Committee, is said to be in a last ditch battle with the new secretary of the Party.

People in the audience start talking, focusing on how much of an attack is too much. It makes sense for them to weigh the consequences. It also shows the project is nearing completion. Chen is not in a position to comment like others who’ve been involved from the beginning. He keeps making notes, like a dutiful representative. 

“One more thing,” Shanshan concludes as the room falls quiet. “My husband’s computer has been recently hacked. Some business plan on it mysteriously came out in a web forum. Luckily, no big loss. But remember, we all must be careful.” 

When Chen walks out of the club, it is around 3 P.M. A new Mercedes is waiting for Shanshan. He should feel happy for her, though he wonders whether it’s something she really wants. Instead of heading home, he chooses a seat outside a Starbucks near the entrance of the New World, and takes out his laptop.     

After surfing online for about an hour and getting nowhere, he decides to review the scenes in the meeting room one more time. Halfway through, the “extraordinary interview” with Kang jumps out at him. Digging into the web archive of China Petroleum, Chen fails to find that particular interview. It’s possible that the company did not keep it for such a long time. But then in an unrelated website, Chen uncovers it.  He rereads Kang’s statement:

“China has been making incredible progress by leaps and bounds in economic development. The petroleum industry paves the way for the unprecedented advances for the country. Now we’re second only to the U.S. in GDP. Soon, second to none. No one can afford to look down on us any more. For this gigantic transformation in 20 years, we cannot but have paid some price, including  environmental, but we need to see the whole picture…”

Chen’s thoughts shift to what Shanshan said toward the end of the meeting. Her husband’s computer being hacked—possible, but not probable. He’s just a businessman. She would be a more likely target, which is probably why she’d brought the subject up at the meeting—a necessary reminder to the others involved in the project. So someone was spying on her. But the government could have easily stopped the project at any time. There were so many ready-made excuses available. 

He picks up his mobile phone with the new SIM card and dials a familiar number.

 “Hi Melong, it’s me, another unfilial son.”

“Another unfilial son—indeed. What’s up?” Melong sounds alert, without mentioning Chen’s name.

“I’ve just walked by an organic restaurant and thought of you. Long time no see. Let’s have dinner together this evening. You’re really a pro about organic food nowadays.”

“Come on. But I do know a good restaurant, and definitely organic too. Let’s go there. It’s on Tongchuan Road—called Small River. You won’t miss it. My treat at 7 P.M.”

 “See you then.”

Chen had been to one of those restaurants on Tongchuan Road. A fish market on a side street adjoins it. Customers can choose their live sea or river food there, bring it live to the restaurant, and have it cooked however they like. Small River is a two-story restaurant with a row of large red lanterns decorating the front in a rather vulgar way. Chen steps in, looks around, and a middle-aged man approaches from behind the counter near the entrance.

“Melong’s friend? Follow me. It’s the private room upstairs, the best. My name is Chang.”    

“A private room?” Chen says, realizing Melong must have made the reservation. The restaurant appears crowded and plain, its floor slippery from dripping plastic bags and with an unmistakable tang that wafts over from the market nearby. But the private room on the second floor turns out to be quiet and dainty, sporting a traditional Chinese landscape scroll on the wall. 

Chen has hardly seated himself at the table when Melong strides in with a large black plastic bag in his hand. 

“Finally you’re here, Melong. We are expecting you like the most welcome rain in a summer drought,” the maître d’ says excitedly. “We have all your favorites: turtle steamed with Jinhua ham and rock sugar, Asian carp fried with green onion, the seasonable vegetable in the free range chicken broth. We have the Japanese rice, superior quality, that’s for my own family, and for you too, of course,” Chang beams.

“Everything inside,” Melong says casually. As if on cue, something starts to twitch in the plastic bag at his foot. “Well, more than usual.”

“Thank you so much,” Chang says, scooping up the bag. “You have saved my neck again. A Big Buck has just stepped in, insisting on the real one.”   

“What’s all this about?” Chen asks, baffled by the dialogue between the two old friends.

“Turtles in the bag and live fish too. You think I’m here for the stuff from a smelly fish market? No, I know better. People immerse shrimp in formalin for better color, feed rice paddy eels with antibiotics—not to mention the chemical waste in the rivers and lakes. It’s suicide.” 

“But Chang and your plastic bag?”

“It’s because of my mother. She’s frail after the lung cancer operation. With the money the government paid for my website, I bought a villa in the suburbs for better air. I was lucky enough to have a large backyard attached to it because of a favor I had done for the developer. Now there are so many articles about the importance of organic food online, about farmers using DDT and chemicals, and your being unable to wash them clean, so I planted some of her favorite vegetables in the backyard.” In the backyard, there is a decent sized pond. From the Internet, I learned something particularly beneficial to a patient in recovery—the wild turtle. So I decided to raise them in my own pond. All the turtles in the food market claim to be wild, but I can guarantee they are fed with antibiotics and hormones. My mother likes real turtle soup. She has been doing fine for a woman of her age, and that after a large operation. I cannot say it’s because of the wild turtle or home-grown vegetables, but they may have helped a little. 

“But I’m no chef. It’s difficult to prepare the live turtle. It can bite like crazy. As I happen to know Chang, the owner of the restaurant, from time to time he prepares the turtle and some other dishes for me. In return, he gets from me the authentic ‘wild turtles.’ They’ve become a specialty for the restaurant.” 

Chang reappears in the room with a platter holding several dishes: cold tofu mixed with wild shepherd purse blossom, white shrimp in salt water, fried carp head, and slices of thousand-year-egg prepared with minced ginger. 

“All organic,” Chang says with a smile before withdrawing. 

“How can I help, Chen?” Melong said, picking up a piece of the slippery egg.

“A young woman named Shanshan, some people might be trying to hack into her computer. For things like that, you think you may hear any buzz in your circle?”

“You mean someone hacking her emails or documents?”

“It’s a possibility. Her husband’s has been hacked, but she seems to be a more likely target. It’s a long shot, of course.” 

“But why?”

“She’s an environmental activist, making a self-funded documentary about the air pollution.” Chen says earnestly, “She’s also a personal friend of mine. I don’t want any harm to come to her.” 

“You don’t have to say any more, Chief,” Melong said. “For years, the Party has declared that people’s right to live is far more important than human rights as advocated in the West. But what about the rights to clean air, unpolluted water, healthy food? These are people’s basic rights to live. You must have heard stories of high-ranking Party officials having special food supplies—neither contaminated nor polluted. But what about ordinary people like us? I have no choice but to raise the turtles.”

“Yes, Shanshan is doing the project for ordinary people.”

“My mother had lung cancer, but she never smokes. The horrible air quality, you know what I mean. But for your help, she would not have had the surgery in time. I keep nothing from you. You’re one of the few conscientious cops left in today’s society, like an endangered species. I’m still doing some business in the old line, just more cautiously. Don’t worry about your friend.”  

Chen gives Melong the necessary information about Shanshan. Chang arrives again with the first hot dish, then a waiter with the second. The fish immersed in Shaoxing wine tastes tender and delicious. The monstrous turtle steamed with Jinhua ham and rock sugar in a bamboo steamer is finished as Chen exclaims with delight. 

The next morning Chen wakes with a splitting headache. All the coffee and then the “wild turtle” the previous day might have thrown the yin-yang totally out of balance in his body system. He rises, makes a pot of strong black tea, and starts working on a draft of the report to Comrade Zhao. There’s no telling Zhao’s reaction. Also Chen does not think he is done with his job of investigation. He dozes off. He’s awakened by a shrill sound like a cricket moaning in the chilly fall. It was that special phone for the investigation with a text message from Melong: “Another turtle. Five o’clock.” For a notorious gourmet like Chen, a turtle dinner—if the message were intercepted by somebody else—would sound least suspicious. 

When Chen reaches the restaurant on Tongchuan Road, Melong is already waiting in the same private room and plunges right in: “Your hunch is right, Chief. The circle of the people really good in our line of business line is small. We won’t talk too much among ourselves, but if one asks questions, one usually get responses. After all, each of us has his or her specialties, and from time to time we have to help each other. Last night, I learned something from a friend named Rong. He has been given a job from China Petroleum to produce a video tape about your friend Shanshan. A well-paid job of 200,000 yuan ($32,000)—a video of her personal life, and with some scenes from surveillance cameras and some pictures from her computers. Some emails, too, which he will download in the background. He’s still working on it, and I wanted him to stop it for the moment.”

Melong takes out a laptop, inserts a flash drive, and starts playing the video. It seems to cover quite a long period of time, opening with scenes captured by hidden cameras, presenting fragments of Shanshan with another man in a bedroom, some images quite explicit, even erotic in their intimate moments. A caption appears: “What a shameless slut sleeping with a married criminal!”  Chen realizes the man in question must have been Jiang—an environmental activist from Shanshan’s hometown who had been set up and thrown into jail because of his political activities. But the video is unfair to Shanshan. At the time she did not know Jiang had not yet been divorced. Then it dawns on Chen what the video is driving at. In the clippings in the folder from Zhao, Shanshan is portrayed as a courageous, honest public intellectual fighting for an ideal. This is the image the video is seeking to destroy. In China, such a project, posted online, could spread like wildfire. And by posting it prior to Shanshan’s own documentary would doom her project even before its appearance.

The video in Melong’s laptop moves to another location. The new scene is lower quality, rather blurred in a much shabbier building and down a narrow dimly-lit corridor. Chen watches, as if under a spell as a man appears, moving along the corridor, coming to a stop in front of a door, then knocking. The man’s face is hardly discernable, but Chen recognizes the building—Shanshan’s company apartment where she worked in Wuxi. The door opens, and she emerges with a smile, standing in a white terry robe, barefoot and bare-legged, her hair still wet, with a soft ring of lamplight in the background. “Come in,” she says, reaching out her hand. Three hours later, according to the timestamp on the tape, the door opens again, and the man leaves. Another caption appears: “Adultery with another secret lover.” Melong steals a look at him silently. He wonders weather Melong recognizes the man stepping into Shanshan’s room as Chen. 

The scene in the video changes again. Now, Shanshan is stepping out of a Mercedes, entering a villa, carrying a Hermès purse. The caption changes too: “A soulless gold digger in the disguise of a public intellectual.” Some intimate pictures of her with her wealthy husband before their wedding—reinforcing the impression of a promiscuous woman. Finally, there is a scene, where she is immersed in a Jacuzzi tub in a spacious bathroom, partially covered in bubbles, holding a glass of champagne.

Chen presses the stop key. He doesn’t need to continue watching. This video was clearly produced to annihilate Shanshan’s documentary. Kang, the head of China Petroleum, must have been worried about the interview he’d given so long ago, and the documentary has ample evidence about his company riding roughshod over environmental regulation for big profits. With the public complaining about air pollution louder than ever before, and the “petroleum gang” losing in the power struggle at the top, Kang’s move was understandable. 

“I can have Rong put off handing in the video for a couple of days. It’s not totally finished,” Melong says after a pause, “But perhaps no more than that. It’s a large sum of money.”

“They have not seen it?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“If that’s the case, could Rong tell them he’s unable to deliver for one reason or another. Something like the tape accidentally wiped out,” Chen says. “As for the amount, I can try to top it, say 300,000 yuan ($48,500). I may have it reimbursed through the Discipline Committee.” At least Zhao had mentioned that. “I’ll go to the bank tomorrow morning. And I also have a couple of Big Buck friends. The sum shall be available tomorrow evening at the latest.” 

“Don’t worry. I have some at home too,” Melong says, rising. “Let’s move. I have to see Rong in person tonight.”

When they part outside the restaurant, Chen realizes there may be a snag in his plan. Some pictures might have come from Shanshan’s computer or her husband’s. But not so with the scenes from the surveillance cameras, which had been installed there by the police or Internal Security. So Kang and his people must have had the contents in their possession. Should Rong fail to produce the finished product, they just need to find another man for the job. It’s simply a matter of time. 

Back in his apartment, Chen embarks on his report to Comrade Zhao. It’s an objective report, but he does not try to hide his own opinion. He maintains that Shanshan’s project would immensely raise the “national level of environmental awareness.” Most of the points raised in it would be helpful, thought-provoking to government officials in the face of the crisis. He also emphasizes the broadening public complaints about air quality and the lack of effective government response. Encouragement for Shanshan’s project might also be seen as part of the Party’s effort to fight corruption. He does not mention Shanshan’s plan to post it online instead of submitting it for government approval in movie theaters. Then he focuses on Kang’s response as the root of the environmental crisis, including a printout of the interview, as well as some online angry answers to it. He knows better than to mention anything about the power struggle involving the head of the “petroleum gang” in the Forbidden City, but adds, “People are angry with the corrupt lifestyles of the officials in the petroleum industry, believing they must have embezzled all the profit at the expense of the environment, and of people’s health. They can hardly breathe under the smog-smothered sky. Such an environmental crisis is not in the Party’s interests.”

He thinks for a moment, then adds, “In your talk to me at the hotel, you mentioned that people complain about pollution and corruption. Now, we have been fighting corruption and pollution for years, but people do not believe in our effort. For example, they think we punish corrupt officials selectively because of power struggles at the top, and that we merely swat at small flies instead of fighting tigers in our environmental battle.”  

It’s a gamble, but it might work. All in all, it is a report Zhao might not really like, but Chen does not think he has a choice. When Chen signs his name at the end of the report, it is 6:30 A.M. There’s no point going to bed. He makes a new pot of coffee. Then he sets out to Lian’s company. He is going to have a talk with him. They should not wait any longer. The documentary has to be put online as quickly as possible. 

The next day, he gets a short text message from Zhao, “A good job. I really appreciate it.”  

Three days later, the documentary, “Smog-Smothered Sky,” is released online ahead of its original schedule. Just about a week before the opening of the Conference of China’s National People’s Congress. It is viewed 300 million times within five days of its release. Discussions about air pollution overwhelm all other news, including the Conference in Beijing. Then the government orders the film removed from all websites. 

Despite the documentary’s removal, some believe they’ve seen some change in the government’s attitude toward pollution. Another week later, Kang is removed from his position, accused of being a corrupt official, responsible for environmental disasters.

*****

*****

Qiu Xiaolong is a Shanghai-born novelist writing in English about issues plaguing China. He has sold millions of copies worldwide and had his works translated into over 20 languages.

[Photo courtesy of J. Aaron Farr]

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