《Fatal Weakness》CHAPTER FOUR: The Classmate in D.C.
The four years we were in college, Liu Mingwei was elected class president two years in a row. That was at Peking University, a campus that already values democracy, and with us in politics, always so secretly envious of the Western 'get someone better in there to take a stab at it,' political culture, this was definitely no easy feat. In fact, a lot of not-so-easy feats came quite easily to Liu Mingwei. He, Wang Xiaohai and Tian Haipeng all arrived in America around the same time. Of the three, Tian Haipeng went 'turtle', coming back to Guangzhou as soon as he got an American passport; Wang Xiaohai got busy with life in Los Angeles, taking any chance to whine at anyone willing to listen; and Liu Mingwei, he went straight to work for the federal government. They say he was able to find something related to what we'd all studied at school. Eventually, Guo Qingqing and I came to the States too, to study. Though at the time I'd decided to carry on with my college major too, I had it clear in my head: a Chinese politics grad was not going to have an easy time finding related work in America.
Liu Mingwei, standing just under six feet tall, with soft and tender skin, a smile permanently hung from his face, always leaves one feeling kind of comfortable. At college, he really stood out from the crowd. At the time, we all thought this temperament of his came from the fact that his dad was vice-governor of Anhui province. I see now that this wasn't the case: Liu Mingwei's dad retired way back in the early nineties, yet Liu Mingwei's success didn't slow down a bit. That's why, first thing the next day, as I'm pulling my luggage through the hotel doors and I see someone in a suit and leather shoes, the ever-chic and -handsome Liu Mingwei, leaning on the hood of a big long Benz and smiling at me, I put on the appropriate expression.
"Yang, I don't even know what I should be calling you now. I hear now on the mainland, established men our age don't ask each other 'you eaten yet?', but 'you divorced yet?', with so many getting divorced the second they hit it big, finding a pretty little twenty year-old. Haha..." I haven't even reached his car yet, and Liu Mingwei's already joking. The way he stops the joke short, I guess he's remembered that I still haven't even gotten married a first time. He looks me over, and spreads open his arms.
"Yang, you've matured so much."
"Puh-leez. I know I'm getting old, you don't need to remind me like this. Though you seem a lot younger, more youthful." He squeezes the breath out of me as he gives me a hug, and we both laugh wildly. Just like in the old days, the sight of Liu Mingwei puts me right at ease. I make like everything's cool and climb inside his Benz E-320, with its new car and leather shoe smell.
"So we'll get going now, get brunch at McDonald's on the way, what do you say?"
"I say it's good you still remember I don't like to stop for meals." Back in the day I used to get breakfast and lunch together at the McDonald's between New York and Washington.
"These last few years back in China, how have you been getting by?" There aren't too many cars going out of New York this morning, and half an hour later we're already on the I-95.
"Moving around from job to job; not good, not bad—you know, whatever," I say quietly. Liu Mingwei lets out a sigh hearing me answer like this and, sounding a bit sorry for me, says: "I always thought you were the most suited for a government position, and I never thought that you'd actually leave all that behind just to go into business.
"I'll tell you, Mingwei, it should be the other way around, me feeling sorry for you. You were always the one who had what top officials are made of." I say this with full sincerity.
Liu Mingwei drops his smile, shakes his head, and sighs again: "Yang, didn't you tell me that even you're confused about the way things are on the mainland these days? It's not like you haven't noticed that those of us who went into politics and the liberal arts don't stand the slightest chance at getting an official post under the current political environment."
I just smile, don't respond. I like hearing the many original ideas Liu Mingwei has.
"Haven't you noticed—nobody who comes from a education background in politics, philosophy or history ever makes it into the cadre system? Engineering and science grads keep on moving up—even right now, all the Party and government leaders were science or engineering majors at Tsinghua or wherever—yet out of almost forty, people hardly anyone from our class has gained any prominence. As far as I know there's just that Li Jun, vice-deputy director of some ministry somewhere. But, whatever. Did you know, Yang, that there's even Peking University liberal arts grads, not even out of college for a few years, who ended up in jail. Can you guess why?
I shake my head.
"Because us liberal arts grads can't keep our big mouths shut! We like arguing too much, yapping about this or that. We just don't mesh well with the post-Cultural Revolution political environment—all the more so since the nineties. Over the last twenty years, the whole country has preferred to shy away from discussion or anything controversial, choosing instead to keep their heads down and steadily build up the economy, putting things like ideology and political systems off to the side in the meantime. But us liberal arts types, we studied political science, philosophy, literature, subjects whose essence lies in seeking knowledge through debate, and truth through practice. The second us liberal arts grads were denied debate, we all became a lot of good-for-nothings. What do you say, am I right or not?"
This time I nod. I've always greatly admired Liu Mingwei's eloquence. In college, everything Liu Mingwei ever said always seemed to be speaking truth to something, or somebody. The most mysterious thing was that no matter which side of the debate Mingwei happened to be arguing for, he always seemed able to dominate his opponents; if he didn't leave them completely speechless, he left them flushed with anger or embarrasment.
"After I left China, chances to go back came around, but I never followed through. Those of you whose who did go back, how did it go? I hear overseas returnees are pretty popular back on the mainland, but not popular enough, I guess, to include those like us who studied any Western politics, philosophy or literature."
"I'd say you made the right choice. Not debating, even not thinking too much, it's not so big a problem for us ordinary folk. Thinking just means suffering, and to debate is dangerous. Seeing as the State does all the thinking for us, and so considerately at that, why should we bother thinking too hard, or rushing in to argue and press the issue? We wouldn't just only end up making ourselves miserable, but our government leaders need to be happy for the million things they have to do every day." As I speak, Liu Mingwei several times stops watching the road and turns his head to watch me, probably trying to see from the look on my face if I'm joking or not. I laugh, putting on a more serious look as I say: "people who study science and engineering might just actually be more able at managing a country. The economy's been growing like crazy these last few years, and hasn't it gotten you Americans all jittery? People say countries are just like machines, so wouldn't you say those technocrat leaders of ours know how to run this machine a lot better than liberal arts types like us do?"
"Are you really serious?" Liu Mingwei tilts me a look, "Countries might be machines, but their peoples aren't. People can think, machines can't."
I stop speaking; the Benz burns down the freeway towards Washington D.C. at ninety miles an hour. I start thinking back to nearly twenty years ago to something Liu Mingwei said back in college. At the time, we were talking about childhood dreams and ideals and reality and the fantasies adults have, the kind of serious debate people often have in college, and the conversation went something like this:
"Every child has dreams, whether it's to grow up to be an airplane pilot, an astronaut, an army general or a politician, everybody had one," he proclaimed.
I nodded in agreement.
"But when we get to elementary school, high school, we begin to consciously readjust our dreams. It starts when teachers first ask us the question: 'what do you want to be when you grow up?'"
Of course we've all been asked this.
"The teachers tell us, when we go to college, we'll be taking a great stride toward our ideals. So we go to college. Four years of college later, though all spent up in the ivory tower, we do after all end up gaining some practical knowledge from the books. I'd say, though, that by the time they graduate from college, not even a third of people still carry those kinds of dreams."
I personally think even that figure's a little high; the ideals we have in elementary and high school are just too far removed from reality.
"Once they enter society, that third still carrying their dreams, with five or ten years of a good taste of reality behind them, eighty to ninety percent of them will then abandon the ideals they've since come to see as fantasy."
I think to myself: am I like that?
Though Liu Mingwei's eyes never leave my face, his overall expression is just like as if here were addressing a crowd: "ten years after college graduation, any guy who still bears those childhood dreams must got to have been successful in making those once vague dreams come true."
At the time I wasn't really sure what he was saying. He must have seen this in one of his works of literature, I thought. But what he said has stuck in my brain ever since. Just as Liu Mingwei described, a few years after graduating, I too discreetly tossed aside my fantasies, casting myself into real life. I think that ten years after graduation, if there's anyone from our class who still hasn't left behind their childhood dreams, Liu Mingwei's got to be one of them. It's just, who knows what dreams he might have had when he was a kid? And has he made those dreams come true today?
Watching his slight, white hands gripping the Benz steering wheel, and the sharply-defined angles of his face, I wonder: his dreams couldn't have been realized here in Washington, could they? None of us politics majors at the time would ever have imagined immigrating to Washington just to realize our dreams. Of course being a diplomat stationed to America would be something completely separate. Thinking of this, for the first time I feel sorry deep down for this old classmate of mine. Maybe because I'm afraid he'll be able to tell what I'm thinking, I ask: "you're really doing pretty well for yourself here in Washington. Not just working for the government, you've even got yourself a Benz. You like America, Mingwei?"
"Do I like America?" he repeats. I know that Mingwei could babble on for two hours in answering even this so simple a question, and that's fine with me; I wouldn't need to speak anymore for the rest of the trip. I'm just worried that if he gets too excited, he might keep twisting his head over to look at me and forget about driving safely. My head hurts a bit, probably from still not having gotten over the story I heard from my parents the day before, so I half-close my eyes.
Sure enough, Mingwei starts telling me all about his "American Dream": "do I like America? I've never really been asked this question before. America's got a good social system, democracy and freedom are safeguarded, and people's human rights don't really ever get infringed upon here. So I like America for its good social system. The streets here might not be paved with gold, but just as long as you're not lazy, you can always get by. And if you've got a good enough brain in your head, if you're fast on your feet, you can even make yourself some money. This is another reason I like America. Also, people here lack a certain sense of shared understanding, but everyone treats each other with respect; strangers passing each other on the street even go out of their way to smile at each other, nod. I've been here over ten years now, and I don't know if you'll believe me or not, but to this day I've actually yet to see people arguing on the street. So in these few regards, I truly like America. Right, there's one more: overseas, being American is actually something to be proud of. You don't have an American passport and you'll probably never have a chance to experience it, so I won't bother explaining. There's a lot more. What can I say? Compared to China, in almost every aspect, I really do like America."
"But your question is, do I like America. I have to say, compared to China, in the end I still like China a little more. I don't know if you can follow my meaning."
"When I first came to the States, I could haven't been more admiring of how well-mannered Americans are. I thought, ten or twenty years from now China might be able to build its own freeways or send someone to the moon, but there's no way they'll have learned the same level of grace and manners. Then I saw the American courts and how they accept cases for America's poor against the government and big business, asserting justice for victims and demanding huge sums in compensation; add onto that the American government's endless protests abroad against those governments which infringe upon people's human rights, and all the effort it puts into protecting those who, for various reasons, immigrate illegally into the country—all of this so different from the Imperialist America we see in our textbooks and newspapers. It really opens your eyes. But then, later, as I became more settled, more used to life here, it suddenly occured to me that just a few decades ago, the same American government and American people not only discriminated against Chinese, but American law at the time prohibited Chinese from getting married. Can you imagine what it was that in such a short time could have made those cruel white people all at once so civil? And have they truly changed? As I moved deeper into mainstream American circles, the more I began to feel as though I was of an entirely different species. And it's not like that kind of feeling just comes out of nowhere. I began to think that the stance Americans take, that all people are equal, advocating democracy and freedom, as impressive as these things are, is all just a facade, that there must be something more that's bringing out this feeling in me."
"Anyways, compared to other Western countries, I still much prefer America. Over the last hundred years, China has been continuously ravaged by Western powers, but without a doubt America has bullied us the least of them. But then America of today is so strongly supportive of Taiwan independence, what else can I say?"
"Even though America keeps pushing its own democratic system model, I don't see that as cause for criticism. Their democratic system actually is quite superior, wouldn't you say? Just look at how well they’ve been able to push democracy in Africa and Asia. What America's been able to achieve is actually quite impressive. I always used to think America was selfless, acting in the true spirit of internationalism, sharing with others the superior democratic system it itself enjoys. But then, slowly, something else occured to me. Yang, what do you think humankind's biggest accomplishment of the twentieth century was? Right, first is the advent of the democratic system, and the second has been the mad rush of development in technology. The most worthy representative of humankind's best achievements in these two areas is none other than America, yet when it comes to spreading these two human achievements around, America takes a completely opposite attitude and approach for each. When it comes to technology—or as they call it, intellectual property—they keep one hundred percent of it secret from the third world, and especially China. Just think about it: half the countries on this earth now use up their own human and material resources just in researching and developing technology that America has had for over twenty years. Just look at China; every year we put billions of US dollars each year into researching technology that's practically ancient in America. For example, with America keeping its technology completely locked up and confidential, how much people and financial resources do we put just into space development when America, proud to no end of this, had men on the moon forty years ago? Yet still they don't want to see other countries, like China, getting up there too. Why is that? If getting someone on the moon is the important first step in space exploration, why shouldn't China be up there? Similar examples from around the world are many. If America really hopes to see a better world, all it has to do is output some technologies to China or the third world. Do you know how big a contribution this would be to the joint development of the world? It'd be nice, if that were the case, world harmony and all, and shared prosperity for the entire world village wouldn't be that far off. But do you see the Americans doing that? China has recently sent people into space, but America's had the technology to do so for over forty years, and they're still not about to loosen up. With things being such, how could I not suspect America's motivation and sincerety in pushing this one—and remember, not the only one—particular outstanding achievement of the twentieth century, democracy?"
"Yang, trust me, I enjoy democracy, and just like Chinese government leaders love to assert, I think sooner or later it's going to take bloom in China. But that time will only come when the situation's ripe for us to set it up ourselves. Lately, I've finally come to realize that while America and the West are keeping the most advanced technologies for themselves but at the same time proclaiming democracy and freedom to be the wealth of all humanity. Their motives simply are sinister. While democracies are concerned with such universal truths as human rights, the individual and freedom, there's also the notions of so-called fair competition and free trade. But have you thought—any country still at a technology production capability level twenty years to half a century behind the West which implements their so-called political democracy or free trade systems, what the consequences would be?"
"Good point. Quite serious, I'd imagine. They'd be permanently reduced to an inferior, second-rate people, forever enslaved to those Westerners in possession of the most advanced technologies, their charity cases."
"So you see, Yang, having such complicated emotions living here, how else would you have me answer your question?"
Liu Mingwei is obviously doing all he can to keep his voice sounding calm, and his eyes never leave the pavement before him. For the remainder of the trip I lay comfortably in the Benz's large leather seat with its massage function, closing my eyes, just listening and thinking all the way there. It's like I've just seen the young Liu Mingwei again, standing up in front of some college forum. He hasn't changed, hasn't changed at all; Liu Mingwei is the same Liu Mingwei from college, and I think he still must be entertaining his childhood dreams. I have to admit, though, that regardless of whether I agree with Mingwei's opinions or not, I'll always still like the unique way he has of expressing his views and the special methods he uses to make his arguments. Where he's picked these tactics up I haven't the faintest, because the preceding several generations in Liu mingwei's family all seem to overlap in their various characteristics. No doubt, he inherited more than a few grand revolutionary traditions from his own high-ranking father, and is unable to escape the influence education has had on our 'say no' generation. Certainly, when he gets worked up, it seems to be of the same morality that those 'angry youth' draw from. At the same time, he's been through and seen a lot, and looks it, always giving off the appearance that he's some kind of know-it-all; the way he risks his neck in all these different jobs and industries is just like an old Red Guard.
When the Benz stops in front of his luxury mansion in the upper-class part of Washington D.C., I think that no matter which generations' traits Liu Mingwei has picked up, they're not going to have much impact on the things he does in his day-to-day life. Having said that and speaking of which, when it comes down to making decisions in real life, he obviously knows that a luxury mansion in a blue-chip district and a top-of-the-line Benz are worth a lot more than any ideal is.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Liu Mingwei's lover is off in Europe on a business trip, and their seven year-old daughter is at school; there's just one Mexican maid in the whole house. As we walk in the door, we're greeted by a thick coffee smell. The house is even more extravagant on the inside, putting me at a bit of a loss, though I manage to keep a straight face, stop myself from gaping around. He takes me first to the guest room I'll be sleeping in tonight, and then we go back to the living room. We've just sat down when the maid comes in from the hall pushing a tea cart.
"Yang, we've got every tea there is here, some even worth over a grand a kilo, want to try a cup?"
"You still drink tea? I would've guessed all you had was coffee, what with the smell and all."
"Haha, so you want coffee?"
"Of course not, I've never liked drinking that stuff. I tend to treat it like medicine, only for when life's tasting bitter, or when I don't feel like sleeping."
"As you like buddy, haha." Liu Mingwei jumps up, "I'll tell you a secret, though: we keep the coffee machine running twenty-four hours a day here, but none of us ever drink coffee. I just like the smell, so I keep the house swimming in it, you can even smell it in the bathroom. Whaddya think—pretty American, right? Sometimes I get some Yankee friends stopping by here, and even they compliment me on how Americanized I've become. Hah. If they only knew I feel about the same towards America that I do about coffee: it sure may smell nice, but it leaves one bad taste in your mouth."
Liu Mingwei's taken time off just to stay here with me, and the two of us drink cup after cup of tea as we sit steeping in the strong coffee smell. Starting with the first year of college we chat straight through to graduation, then about all our classmates and where they've ended up since. When we mention Ms. Guan who's just recently passed away from cancer, we both go silent. By the time we've chatted our way through our class of forty, there's four or five people who it seems have just disappeared into thin air, nobody we know has heard from them for ages. We moan and groan about their fates, and about our own. We chat about the one last pre-grad couple that's still together today, ending our chat with thinking of all our classmates that ended up marrying each other, smiling knowingly at each other.
"You know why it is that though so few of our classmates ever really hit it off with each other, of the ones that did get married almost none of them have gotten divorced?"
I know Liu Mingwei likes to ask questions that draw out his own answers, so I just smile and shrug.
"Because they're afraid of having to explain themselves to the rest of us at any classmate get-togethers."
We can't help but laugh out loud. I say: "Mingwei, you've been able to make use of what you studied back at college, and you've even managed to find your footing here in Washington. Not an easy thing to do. I even hear you're the resident China Problem expert down at the State Council."
"State Council? Which State Council?" A look of confusion flashes behind Liu’s eyes.
"Sorry, I mean the State Department. America's, of course. You're really impressive."
Liu Mingwei relaxes: "oh, it's nothing much. I just speak Chinese, that's all. And I'm online a lot, so I get to see what Chinese people are saying on the internet, and I just report this back to the bunch of bureaucrats at the State Department."
"That simple? Sounds a bit like open intelligence gathering..."
"You're talking nonsense, buddy." Liu Mingwei starts laughing. "Americans think they know China, but if you could just see how pitifully few Chinese speakers there are even in their key departments, you'd know that they're just fooling themselves. Seriously, and how us international politics types missed this is beyond me, but America, on the China Problem, has gotten almost nothing right. First it was in helping the Kuomintang fight against the Communists, which resulted in losing all of China. Then they went and pushed China towards the Soviet Union, only to turn around and ally with China or something, to resist the Soviets. Now it's a peaceful evolution they want, calling for development of strategic partnership relations, each step more absurd than the last."
"I really admire you," I say earnestly. "You must have a lot of friends here in Washington, eh? Good connections?"
"Not many. Me and Americans have always just been like me and coffee, a relationship in appearance only. Let's get outta here, I'll take you to meet my only true friends," Liu Mingwei says to me as he stands up. Perplexed, I follow him into one room decorated to look like a study, drawn in at once by the thousands of books lining the four walls. I take a quick glance around and notice all the books are divided up into dozens of categories, including politics, international relations, psychology, philosophy and even popular novels. "These books have been my devoted friends and mentors day and night for all these years."
"It's gold which books hold," I say, both out of envy and lament, "and jade from which they're made."
"Right... I don't know if you like books all that much, but it seems they're all I like right now. My world's divided between the real world and the book world. The second you enter the book world, the real world just seems cut and dry. The best peace of mind that exists on earth can be found in books, as can the most splendid of enjoyment. Sex, for example. To tell the truth, my greatest sexual enjoyment and orgasms have all come from the pages of erotic books. Ha, old friend, you know what I saying?"
"Sure I know. What do you take me for?" I laugh.
"Really." Liu Mingwei sobers up, and pulls out one book: "all the plots and scams that exist have all taken place at some point in history. Just look, this book was written by the best-selling American novelist Tom Clancy; it was written over ten years ago, but inside it writes of terrorists flying an airplane into the White House. A few years ago, before 911 took place, the American upper levels, from the White House to the State Department, to the Senate, the CIA and the Department of National Defense all thought this would have been impossible. I bet not a single one of those idiots have read this book. At the time I didn't find it strange it all, that's just how the world is. Anyone looking for a way to track down a criminal able to stir up the whole world shouldn't be relying on their own brain; they just need to turn to the right book and they can find what and who they want. The most genius criminals on this earth have always been well-read intellectuals."
"And if I'm not looking to commit any crimes? Don't you have any books that teach people how to succeed, get rich or score babes?"
Liu Mingwei laughs at this, then stares and asks: "you just asked if I had many friends in Washington, what did you mean by that? Is there something you need me to help you with?"
"I wanted to see if you or anyone you know can help me find someone. I hesitate, then just go ahead and say, "Guo Qingqing."
Liu Mingwei bunches his eyebrows: "Yang, Guo Qingqing was the jewel of our class, but we could still never figure out what exactly the thing was with you two."
Guo Qingqing, our eternal topic. Out of our class of forty, there were only eight women. Guo Qingqing had the best body, the most elegant cheeks.
"Mingwei, do you know where Guo Qingqing is? I need to see her." I stare back at him.
"Is she missing? I haven't been in contact with her for a long time either, and when we were it was all just over e-mail." For the first time ever I notice Liu Mingwei's eyes moving at a slightly different speed and pattern as he talks and I know he hasn't just told the truth. I have no way to tell if he's lying or not, so I go quiet. Back in college, there was a time when Liu Mingwei and Guo Qingqing were getting along pretty well, although they kept it extremely secret. But it was college, all secrets were open secrets.
"I'm still not really clear exactly what happened between you two back then in New York, but buddy, you've had two tragedies over the same person. I don't think anybody could stand that." Liu Mingwei's stare almost feels like a challenge.
He's referring to "the kissing incident" that messed up Guo Qingqing's graduation work assignment. In junior year at our college, in order to increase our exposure to foreign affairs and languages following graduation, the school often arranges for us specialty majors to join in parties held at the international student dormitories. Over time, things got pretty heated up between some of us and the foreign students, and some weren't able to stay strong, making small mistakes in their behavior, reselling foreign currency or trying to make a fast buck. Among those there was Guo Qingqing, who was spotted once by a classmate kissing one young American. This was in 1986, the year when capitalist freedom had just come into fashion. At first it wasn't a big deal, everyone just laughed it off. But then, right on the eve of graduation in 1987, an anti-capitalist, anti-liberalism political storm suddenly swept throught the country and in addition, graduation work assignment quotas were already strained by that point, so this "kissing incident" was set back on fire by some classmates. Because our work assignments at the time included such "good work units" as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Commerce, the State Council, a "kissing incident" with a foreigner naturally had a huge impact on Guo Qingqing's assignment. In the end, she wasn't actually able to find a suitable work unit. Meanwhile, all our classmates' gossiping over the kiss came as too large a blow to my pride, and just before graduation I decided to break up with Guo Qingqing. I was in such high spirits at the time over having just been assigned to the Ministry of State Security that I paid no attention to how Guo Qingqing was feeling. They say Guo, jobless and having just lost me, fell into a bout of depression for some time, refusing to talk to anyone from school. Later when I went to New York to study, I found out by chance from Liu Mingwei that Guo Qingqing was also in New York studying then, and the two of us quickly got back together. By this time, Guo Qingqing was no longer the same woman she'd been back at college, and when I saw how on such intimate terms she was with so many American men, I felt my pride hurt yet again. During this time, we argued nearly every day, to the point that before long, the two of us didn't even know why we were still arguing; each day's goal seemed to be to make each other miserable. When she decided to get married to one of her professors, an American thirty years her senior, we both knew that with this, she'd for the moment won our game of inflicting maximum pain, and without even waiting to get my diploma, I left New York and returned to China.
But I don't feel like explaining all this to Liu Mingwei; both times, the one more deeply hurt was me, after all. If I can get the chance, I just want to let Qingqing know.