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Authors: Charles McCarry

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“Speaking Mandarin as well as you do, with your war experiences and the resentments they’ll assume those experiences generated, you’ll be a natural target, so somebody, even an American, may try to recruit you. Just laugh and tell them to get lost. And let me know in the next e-mail if this happens, with full wild card description of the spotter and his friend who makes the pitch.”

“Any exceptions?”

“Listen with an open mind to any Chinese who approaches you.”

“And?”

“Let me know immediately. The person who hired the tenor and the acrobats may try to befriend you. Will try, probably.”

“And I’m supposed to welcome the overture?”

“’Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished,” said Burbank.

With that Burbank gave me a searching look, our first prolonged eye contact, and backed out of the parking space. It was a silent ride to the nearest Metro station, a silent parting. No wasted handshake, no “Good luck!”

It wasn’t until Burbank had dropped me off and driven away that I realized I had neglected to ask what happened, what I was supposed to do, if he died before I did. He had transformed himself, I realized, into my only friend.

8

When I got back to Shanghai,
I found no sign or scent of Mei. A ripple—come on, a tsunami of anxiety passed through me. I could tell she had been in my room after I left. The bed was made and all signs of bachelor disorder had vanished. She had sprayed the room with air freshener, a new touch. Did that mean she’d soon be back or that she had gone a step beyond wiping off her fingerprints and was erasing her own scent and that of the two of us, and this was good-bye forever? The second possibility seemed the more likely. Mei had a talent for exits. After six days without her I was very horny. But maybe she simply had had enough of the hairy ape. These thoughts were uppermost, but also I longed to speak Mandarin and had no one to talk to. My instincts told me she was gone. I’d never see her again. I had always expected this to happen—all those unasked questions, and maybe too much lust, had broken the back of our relationship. There would be no second bicycle crash. We could live in this teeming city for the rest of our lives and never bump into each other again. There was nothing to do but go out for a bowl of noodles and get on with my life. After eating the noodles and passing the time of day with the woman who sold them to me, I went home, read as much of the stoutly Communist
Jiefang Daily
as a political agnostic could bear, and fell asleep. About an hour after I drifted off, Mei—her old merry wet naked self—woke me up in the friendliest fashion imaginable. It was possible, even probable now that I had begun to see the world as Burbank saw it, that she was just carrying out her assignment as a Guoanbu operative, but if this was the case, ‘twas a consummation, etc.

I spent the next twelve months in Shanghai unmolested by the tenor or anyone like him, exploring Mei’s body and as much of her mind as she chose to reveal. We still arrived separately at parties, almost never dined in a restaurant or showed ourselves together in public, never sat together at the movies. We saw the local company of the Peking Opera—same performance as usual. I met more of her friends. Always, I was the only American at the party. Only one category of Chinese attended,
taizidang
as they were called—”princelings,” the children of the most powerful of China’s new rich. Strictly speaking, the title applied to the descendants of a handful of Mao’s closest comrades in China’s civil war, but Mei’s friends, the B-list, children of the new rich, qualified for the honorific, though in quotes.

It took me a while to figure this out. Most of these people were smart in all senses of the word, brainy and absolutely up-to-the-minute when it came to fashion of any kind—clothes, movies, slang, books, ideas, dangerous opinions, music, dances. They behaved as if freedom of speech was revered and encouraged by the Communist Party of China. How could they feel so invulnerable? Easy—they were the children of the high leadership of the Party who were the new capitalists. As long as their fathers were in favor, they were immune from the police, from informers, even apparently from the most powerful components of Guoanbu, since they were openly living la dolce vita and denouncing the stupidity of the Party instead of building communism in a labor camp. Since Mei was one of them, she too must have a power dad. Like Mei, they had all done well at good schools and universities, in China and abroad. At least half of them were Ivy Leaguers. They all spoke English, often very rapidly, to one another, as if it were a kind of pig Latin that only they could understand. They never spoke English to me—Mei’s rules, I guessed. In their cultishness they reminded me of American elitists, but less narcissistic and romantically paranoid. Unlike their Western counterparts, they did not have to pretend that they lived in a bogey-man, crypto-fascist, totalitarian state whose ruthless apparatus could mercilessly crush them the moment their fathers fell out of favor, or for no apparent reason at all. They understood that the absolute power and the absolute corruption of their rulers was their reality, knew as a birthright that the worst could happen tomorrow or an hour from now. So they ate, drank, and were merry.

Not that they didn’t have serious moments or hidden agendas. The princelings didn’t address one another by true name in the usual Chinese way, but instead used nicknames. I was called Old Dude, in English. Mei’s nickname was Meimei, or “little sister.” That nickname can also mean “pretty young thing,” but in the next lower stratum of slang it translates as “pussy,” so I didn’t really get the joke or the insult. Just before my last year of living Chinese came to an end, a member of the cohort who was called Da Ge, or “big brother” took me aside. Mei was particularly friendly with Da Ge. He was as handsome as she was beautiful—in fact they looked a little alike. Naturally they paired off. They spent hours together in corners, giggling and confiding and holding hands. This looked a lot like flirtation, though they never danced together or made eyes at each other or nuzzled. In the back of my mind I thought he might be her case officer. Or the lover I suspected she saw when she wasn’t with me.

One night, out of the blue, Da Ge asked me, while everybody else was dancing to the din of Metallica, if I would like to meet his father, who was CEO of a Chinese corporation that did a lot of business with American and European multinationals.

I was taken by surprise. I asked Da Ge why his father wanted to meet me. He said, “He is interested in you.” Where had I heard those exact words before? Was Burbank at work here? Was this the first phrase of a recognition code to which I had not been told the response? Not likely. There was only one way to find out what was going on. With as much nonchalance as I could summon, I said, “Sure, why not?”

After all, I was following orders, because Burbank had told me what to do in a situation like this. Da Ge named a date and time and said a car would come for me. He didn’t have to ask for my address. Next day I ordered a good suit and a couple of white shirts from a one-day tailor and bought a necktie and new shoes. I told Mei nothing about this.

The car turned out to be a stretch Mercedes shined to mirror brightness, Da Ge in the backseat. We were driven through traffic at a snail’s pace to a grand private house in a posh neighborhood I had never before visited. Da Ge made the introduction—”My father, Chen Qi.”—and disappeared. Chen Qi’s appearance took me aback. I saw in him, to the life, the father who had died a quarter of a century ago. Ethnic characteristics were erased. I did not know how a Chinese could so strongly bring to mind a dead WASP whom I barely remembered, but the resemblance was startling. Chen Qi was the same physical type as my late parent—tall, muscular, handsome as an aging leading man, possessed of a smile that pleased but gave away nothing, abundant dark hair with streaks of gray, skeptical brown eyes projecting wary intelligence, perfect manners, bespoke clothes, an almost theatrical air of being to the manor born. Of course both men were the recent descendants of peasants, so maybe that was the key to their patrician manner. Before dinner Chen Qi and I drank four-ounce martinis—three apiece. These, in larger quantity, had been my father’s favorite cocktail. The gin quickly made me drunk. The dinner itself, served by a drill squad of servants in tuxedos, was not the endless parade of Chinese banquet dishes I had anticipated, but instead the sort of twentieth-century faux French meal one gets, if one is rich enough, in a three-star restaurant in Paris or London or New York—four courses artfully presented, small portions, terrific wines. My host led a conversation that in its good-natured triviality mimicked banter. Again like my departed father, Chen Qi smiled his concocted smile seldom, but to great effect.

Over espresso and brandy in what I think he called the drawing room—a Matisse on one wall, a Miró on another—he came to the point. “My son speaks highly of you,” he said.

“That’s kind of him.”

“Kindness has nothing to do with it. He has been brought up to be truthful and to keep me informed about his friends. Through him and others I have been aware of you for some time.”

I said, “Really?”

“Yes, almost since you first came to Shanghai,” Chen Qi said. “Not many foreigners get on in China as well as you do, let alone penetrate our life as you have done.” He inserted a barely perceptible pause before the word
penetrate.

“I’ve been fortunate in my friends.”

“Indeed. And you had the right introductions. That’s very important. Also you speak Mandarin very well—almost too well, some might say. Do you get on as easily with Americans and other Westerners as you do with the Chinese?”

“Mostly,” I said. “But I’ve also met people everywhere who didn’t exactly fall in love with me.”

The smile. Chen Qi switched to English. “So have we all,” he said. “Now I would like to come to the point.”

Thereupon he offered me a job in his company. He explained that he did a lot of business in America, which, even though he was speaking English, he called by its Chinese name,
Meiguo,
the beautiful country. I was startled by the offer. Chen Qi saw this and said he had long been in search of a young but experienced American who knew both China and the United States and could move comfortably between the two and help him and his corporation to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings with its U.S. partners and other Westerners. He understood I spoke good French and fair German and thanks to the army, a certain amount of Dari, was this correct? I would work directly for Chen Qi, taking orders from no one but him, and if I succeeded, as he fully expected I would, the rewards would be appropriate. My starting salary would be $100,000 a year before bonuses and stock options, with a substantial raise after a six-month period of probation. I would have free occupancy of an apartment in Shanghai owned by the corporation and an expense account. The corporation would cover the full cost of medical care for any illnesses or injuries that might occur anywhere in the world. I would have six weeks of vacation a year but no Chinese or American holidays except October 1, National Day, which celebrates the Foundation of the People’s Republic of China, Christmas, and lunar New Year’s. This job, Chen Qi said, was a position of trust, and he would expect my full professional loyalty.

9

“So what was your response?”
Burbank asked.

“I told Chen Qi I needed a week to think his offer over and I’d give him my answer when I got back from the States.”

“How did he react to that?”

“He seemed to be okay with it,” I said. “He asked why I was going home.”

“And?”

“I told him I was going to visit my aged mother.”

“Then you’d better make sure you visit her,” Burbank said. “The eyes of China are upon you.”

I had gotten off an airplane less than an hour earlier and had spent every moment of that time giving Burbank a detailed report of my conversation with Chen Qi. Burbank and I were seated in a Starbucks in Tysons Corner, Virginia. The place was almost empty at this time of day.

Burbank sipped his milky coffee and made a face. It must have seemed insipid after green tea. Disdainfully he slid the paper cup across the tabletop until it was out of reach. My news had had a visible effect on him. This was something new. Clearly this bolt from the blue gave him something to think about, and I supposed that thinking was what he was doing now. He had fallen into one of his mini-meditations. I waited for him to come back to this world.

After a minute or two, a shorter interval than usual, Burbank revived and said, “What was your reply to the bit about full professional loyalty?”

“I asked if my loyalty to him was supposed to supersede my loyalty to the United States.”

“And he said?”

“That that particular issue would never arise.”

“Even though it has already arisen. You are no longer a dangle. You are a penetration agent. He’s taken the bait.”

Or maybe
we
had. I left this thought unspoken.

Burbank said, “What questions did he ask you about your background, your qualifications?”

“None. I assumed he must already know everything he needed to know.”

“A reasonable assumption. They’ve been assessing you for two and a half years—maybe longer, seeing that you majored in Chinese and your teachers were Chinese, no?”

“Some of them were,” I said. “Neither they nor anyone I met in Shanghai ever asked me a personal question.”

“Of course they didn’t,” Burbank said. “Chen Qi, or whoever in the background put him onto you, probably had some New York law firm run a background investigation on you. Perfectly legal, forever confidential under American law—attorney-client relationship.”

“Why would they be interested?”

“Because you’re a catch. You’ve got potential. Especially for them.”

“A multibillion-dollar Chinese corporation wants to pay a hundred thousand a year for potential?”

“They do it every day. To them, if in fact it’s them paying the bill instead of some shadowy third party, a hundred grand is chicken feed.”

BOOK: The Shanghai Factor
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