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China’s Ministry of State Security and the Central Intelligence Agency are locked in a deadly battle of wits – from Muslim unrest in Xinjiang Province to the high-tech nerve center of US American intelligence at the National Security Agency. At stake is The Quantum Supremacy – America’s most secret messaging system. Each week, Asia Times will publish further installments from Spengler’s riveting tale of deceit. (Kindle edition)
Prelude: 2014, at the Torugart Pass between China and Kyrgyzstan
Reyhangul Yusup’s breath danced in blue wisps in the sparse air of the Torugart Pass. He and his sister’s son Bayanchur had bivouacked during the day in a small gully at 9,000 feet. At 1700 they had made tea on a small gas stove and ate bread and camel jerky before they knelt for evening prayers and began the night ascent to the Torugart Pass 12,000 feet above China’s Western border. On the other side stretched the Turkic lands of Central Asia. There was no moon, but the starlight seemed bright enough to cast a shadow. With the mercury reading minus 20 degrees, the Chinese border guards would be huddled around kerosene heaters in their huts, not patrolling the donkey trails that led to Kyrgyzstan.
“Allah spared me for a reason,” Reyangul thought. He never had expected to leave the Kunming Railroad Station alive. A month earlier he and his five comrades in martyrdom had drawn long knives and slashed and stabbed their way through the dense crowd on the rail platforms. They had killed more than 40 of the Han and wounded more than 100, before the Chinese police arrived with guns and shot them all down, everyone except Reyhangul. When he heard the first shot he lay down among the dead and wounded, his cheap blue suit swimming in blood. The police thought him a victim and the emergency workers took him to the hospital, and finding him unharmed, sent him away with a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. He joined the throngs of migrant workers boarding the train to Guangdong, and found a ride with a truck driver heading West with a load of beer and cigarettes.
“What was it like?” asked Bayanchur. At 18, his beard still was wispy.
“It was like slaughtering a sheep on the Feast of Eid,” said Reyhangul, “with blood and shit everywhere. The difference is that I don’t hate the sheep, but I hate the Han.” But he could not forget the eyes of the gray-haired woman who looked at him with simple surprise as he thrust his long knife upwards into her thorax. Her face had twisted into a demon mask as she fell backward. It was horrible and he would never be the same, but he still detested the arrogant Chinese who made themselves lords of the lands where a thousand years earlier his ancestors had heard the call of the Prophet.
“Once we were conquerors,” he said to the young man, “we who now live under the heel of the pig-eaters from the East. We have thrown them out of our lands before and with Allah’s help we will do so again. Hundreds of years ago we had a great leader, Timur the Lame, the Sword of Islam. He stood here where we stand, at the gate of China, ready to invade and crush the Ming Dynasty. He conquered the world, but he died before he could fight the Han. You still can hear him whispering in the west wind. Timur piled the skulls of his enemies into great pyramids. May the skulls of the Han grin at us, too. What was it like, Bayanchur? In all of my 40 years I have tasted dirt as the Han pushed my face into the ground. At the Kunming Station, I was proud. The Han fear us now. They have built themselves grand palaces, but never again will they feel safe there.” Tamerlane had killed perhaps 17 million souls, or one-twentieth of the whole world’s population, and many of them were other Muslims, but Reyhangul did not read much; he could not read Chinese characters, and he stumbled through the Roman letters of the Turkish religious tracts that circulated in Xinjiang from hand to hand. He was a slight, lean man, all skin and muscle, with hollow cheeks and hands that had gone arthritic from manual labor in the cold desert nights.
Just over the Kyrgyzstan side of the border, a group of men would meet them shortly before dawn. Reyangul and his nephew would guide them back over the border to their homeland – what the Han called Xinjiang, “new frontier,” but the Uyghurs called East Turkestan, the easternmost reach of the Turkic peoples. Two years ago, they had left for Syria to fight the heretic Shi’ites under the black flag of jihad, with Tahrir al-Sham at Idlib province. They had taken the southern route, through Yunnan province into Thailand, where the Turkish embassy kept blank passports for inbound Uyghurs and Turkish Airlines asked no questions. They had left as boys but would return as warriors skilled in the use of explosives, in the sniper rifle, in ambush and assault. Until now the Uyghurs had nothing to fight with but tooth, nail and knife, but the returning warriors would bring firearms and explosives. Our Turkish brothers provided quiet help. Had not the Erdogan, the pious leader of Turkey, declared that Han China had committed genocide against the Uyghur people? The son of his cousin was fighting the heretics in Syria. A Turk had come to him in Urumqi with a video message from the young man, with a promise to bring home a group of his comrades. They would need a guide through the mountains back to China and safe places to stay. Were the Turks not one people from Central Asia to the Bosporus? A Uyghur from Urumqi and a Turk from Istanbul could converse as easily as a Spaniard and a Portuguese. A couple of thousand feet down the mountain, the Turkish guide would be waiting for him with the returning jihadis. They would be disguised as a hunting party. Rich tourists from Turkey came to Kyrgyzstan all the time and hired guides and horses to hunt the magnificent ibex with its great curved horns.
Reyhangul and Bayanchur picked their way down the western slope of the Tian Shan mountains in the frozen night. The sharp stones lining the donkey path down the Kyrgyz side poked through Reyhangul’s cheap Chinese running shoes, but he grimaced and gave encouragement to the young man who panted after him in the thin air. Close to dawn they stopped and unshouldered their packs and made tea, and waited. Below them, the first light of dawn reddened the Chatyr-Kul, the great alpine lake to the West. A few hundred yards away they could just discern a human figure – the Turk. They scrambled a few hundred meters down the rocky path, towards a tall man in a fur hat and ankle-length fur cloak. The Uyghurs approached him and stood silently ten feet away. The Turk whistled softly and a group of men came forward.
Then Reyhangul watched his nephew’s head explode. A cloud of blood flew away from his neck. It was less than a second before he heard the supersonic crack from the big 12.7-millimeter bullet, but the moment seemed frozen in time. More bullets cut down the fur-clad Turk and his men. Reyhangul threw himself to the ground terrified. He wept and lost control of his bowels and his bladder.
“Regrettable,” said the Chinese major as he stood over the headless young man. He turned to the soldier carrying the QBU-10 rifle. “I wanted both of them alive.” He nodded to his sergeant, who wrinkled his nose in disgust as he fitted Reyhangul with plastic restraints and tied a black hood over his head. The Kyrgyz border guards ambled up and looked at the dead men indifferently. A pair of headlights peered at them over a ridge and approached. Two Chinese soldiers climbed out of the army truck and unloaded a few old bolt-action rifles and dropped them on the ground close to the corpses. “Get all of their packs!” barked the major. They stuffed the young man’s cadaver into a body bag and threw it in the truck with the dead men’s gear. Last in went Reyhangul.
The truck bounced overland for several miles until it turned into the dirt road that led up to the border checkpoint at the height of the Torugart Pass. A sentry waved it through, and it proceeds another dozen kilometers to a side road, at whose end lay a low cinder-block building. The soldiers cut away Reyhangul’s clothing and hosed him down with cold water. He collapsed in shivers. They dragged him inside, seated him in front of a kerosene heater and wrapped a rough blanket around him. The Chinese major removed the hood and set a low table in front of Reyhangul. On it, he placed a blowtorch, pliers, and poultry shears. “Who is your CIA contact?” the major asked. “Your Honor,” he pleaded, “I do not know any CIA. I only spoke to a Turk.” The major said, “We will have ample time to determine the truth.”
Prelude II: The Ministry of State Security
Geng Huichang kept a small office in the Ministry of State Security’s satellite headquarters in Beijing’s Western Garden next to the Summer Palace in Haidian. The chief of Chinese intelligence was one of the country’s most powerful men, but he affected the demeanor of a minor provincial official, modest and avuncular. Truth was a fragile flame, and ostentation obscured it. The minister’s car had met the military transport that brought the major from Xinjiang to Xijiao Airport in western Beijing. He had flown six hours across China, and it was past 9 p.m. when he sat down. Geng took a bottle of 12-year-old Bruichladdich from his desk drawer and poured shots for himself and his guest. He set a small pitcher of distilled water next to them and said, “Just a drop, to open the flavor.” Geng lit a Zhonghua cigarette and sipped his whiskey.
“We do not want to cause undue concern among the Chinese people,” he told the major at length. His tone was that of a kindly but concerned uncle who wished to protect the family from an awkward state of affairs. “After the massacre at Kunming Station, it would frighten them to know that terrorists with guns and bombs tried to cross the border. Let the Kyrgyz tell the media that they killed infiltrators who came into their country from China. I assume that the actual guards involved will exercise discretion?”
“They always have, Minister,” the major replied. “Their livelihood, that is, our supplement to their pay, depends on it.”
“Do you think the Americans were involved?”
“Please do not be cross with me, Minister, if I express my professional opinion that they were not. I personally conducted an enhanced interrogation of the terrorist who was to guide them into China. Of course, he confessed to every manner of CIA connection, but none of them are plausible. He was also questioned under hypnotic drugs. My conclusion is that his contact was Turkish, not American.”
“We have verified that independently, major. Turkish intelligence alerted us to the attempted terrorist infiltration and claimed that a rogue element in their own foreign service assisted them. I understand from your report that such a person was present during the countermeasures and regrettably did not survive. The Turks have been playing games with their Uyghur cousins for years, but it has been made clear to them that if they were to continue, they would regret it.”
“If I may be so bold, Minister, what persuaded them?” “That’s above your pay grade,” grunted Geng, and sipped his Scotch.
China’s military attaché in Ankara had asked a Turkish air force general whether he had seen the Youtube videos of Syrian rebels shooting down government fighter jets with Chinese-made FN-6 shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. The general had, and he also knew that the Saudis had given the weapon to Sunni rebels fighting the Assad regime, the ally of Saudi Arabia’s arch-enemy Iran. “We are doing our best to make sure that the FN-6 never falls into the hands of the Kurdish militia in the northeast of Syria,” the Chinese officer had said. “Of course, we cannot guarantee that a few MANPAD’s will not fall off the back of the truck.” He had the Turk’s undivided attention. “On a completely different topic,” the Chinese officer continued, “we would be most grateful for information about the movements of Uyghur terrorists training in Syria, especially if they are returning to China.” The Turks got the message and signed the death warrant of one of their operatives in Kyrgyzstan.
“The Turks,” Geng said at length, “only reached the Black Sea because we drove them out of China during the Ming Dynasty, and time has failed to civilize them. The Uyghurs are ignorant. Many of them do not learn the characters. They prefer to live in dirt and poverty like their ancestors. They understand nothing but bribery and butchery.” He stubbed out his Zhonghua and coughed.
“Minister,” the major said, “I am not sure whether I have exhausted all avenues of investigation. The fact that the Turks ran the operation on the ground does not rule out the possibility that the CIA was behind it.”
“Major Ma,” said Geng, “you are thinking like a Chinese intelligence officer, and that is commendable. We tend to view the West with a kind of paranoia, and well it is that we do so, for whenever we have trusted the West it has gone badly for us. But I do not think that the problem lies in your interrogation technique. It does not matter whether CIA directed this particular gang of terrorists towards the Torugart Pass or not. They know and we know that they have the capability to set terrorists loose in China. My counterpart at the CIA knows how much trouble the Mujahidin caused Russia in Afghanistan. There are only ten million Uyghurs among 1.4 billion Chinese, but a few more attacks like the knife murders at Kunming Station would hurt the Party’s credibility. If we can’t protect civilians from terrorists, what are we good for? That cannot be tolerated. The question isn’t what the CIA is doing, but what it might be tempted to do in the future.”
“What do you think the CIA might do, Minister?” the major ventured. It was impertinent to query a minister of state, but Geng was in an expansive mood and the major was eager to learn.
Geng leaned back in his chair and locked his fingers behind his head, his eyes closed. “Twelve million Uyghurs are a minor irritant. There another ten million Hui Muslims scattered through China. But to our South, Islam is a sleeping serpent. The three hundred million Muslims of Indonesia long have kept their own ways, but there are radical Muslims there now who demand a Sharia state. In 1998 they instigated riots and murdered hundreds of ethnic Chinese. They are agitating for Sharia law in Indonesia. They might make common cause with the Muslim rebels of the Philippines in Mindanao, and the three million Muslims in the South of Thailand. The Thais have contained Muslim rebels so far, but they are fighting on the border of Malaysia. The Malays control the politics of the country and overseas Chinese control the economy, and it is a delicate balance. What if the war on Malaysia’s frontier with Thailand became the cause of radical Muslims in Malaysia? What if the Muslim rebels in Mindanao demanded a separation from the Catholic Philippines and a union with Malaysia? What if Muslim radicals in Indonesia held the Chinese community hostage to support them? China would have a series of wars on its southern border rather than a stable and prosperous set of client states. The Uyghur insurgency is like a tiny melanoma on the skin. It looks insignificant, but if it enters the blood system it can infiltrate the major organs and kill the body.”
“Are the Americans agitating among the Muslims against us, sir?”
“Some of my colleagues think so. I’m not sure. I deal in evidence, not supposition. In my opinion, we have more to fear from American stupidity than from American guile. When the Americans invaded Iraq, they destroyed the only Sunni Muslim regime in the Levant. They insisted on majority rule, so they got majority rule by the Shi’a Muslims of Iraq, who are now the allies of Iran. The Iraqi Sunnis feared for their lives and had no state to protect them, so they rallied around non-state actors like al Qaeda and ISIS. The Turks decided to dip their spoon into the soup and supported Sunni terrorists in Iraq and Syria. Our Uyghurs and Sunnis, and they have close ties to Turkey. Thousands of them left to join the jihad in Syria, maybe as many as 20,000. Now they are coming back with weapons and they know how to use them.”
“How do we solve the problem?” asked the major.
Geng Huichang shuffled back to his desk, sat down and resumed his paperwork. He half-turned to the major and said, “We will do what we have done with unruly barbarians on our borders for 3,000 years. We’ll probably have to kill them all. Dismissed.”
A report in the news media the next day read:
A group of 11 ethnic Uyghur men from China’s western Xinjiang region have been shot dead after crossing into neighboring Kyrgyzstan, officials in the Central Asian republic said Friday, triggering calls for a probe into the killings amid concerns they may have been refugees fleeing “repression.”
Nine of them were gunned down by a special Kyrgyz border guard unit while two others were killed earlier by a local hunter who had spotted them in the mountains near the border on Thursday, Kyrgyz officials were quoted saying in reports Friday.
Acting head of the Kyrgyz border guards Raimberdi Duishenbiyev told reporters the 11 men appeared “to belong to an organization of Uyghur separatists,” the Associated Press reported.
Chapter One: A Letter in Lemon Juice
Hong Kong, 2019
Paul Richetti queued up behind a Chinese woman of indeterminate age at the Wang Leung Bank’s automatic teller machine on Connaught Road. The instructions had appeared in the text messages on his boss’s Blackberry the day before, transmitted from a burner phone. Richetti was the newest Clandestine Services operative in Hong Kong. He had the straight black hair of his Sicilian father and the pale broad face and high cheekbones of his Hungarian mother, set in a head that seemed a bit too large for his slender body. He had all the components of a face, but they didn’t quite fit together: His eyes were set a bit too deep, his brow a bit too high, his nose a bit too large, his mouth a bit too wide and his chin a bit too short – not an unpleasant face, but the sort one easily forgot. He wore a gray Armani suit and an open-necked black shirt and looked like transplanted Eurotrash, or FILTH – Failed in London, Try Hong Kong.
The text message was addressed to “Rosebud,” and it gave instructions for a dead drop at the bank ATM. Paul watched as the slight woman ahead of him fiddled with the keypad, withdrew a few red banknotes, and took her receipt. She wore a luxuriant blond wig and enormous sunglasses, and a cheap printed dress with long sleeves. She put a slip of paper in the bin below the slot. Paul used his bank card to withdraw 500 Hong Kong dollars – about $60 America – and found the slip that the older woman had left in the bin. It was the size of a bank receipt and of the same flimsy paper. He took it home rather than to the consulate and held it up to the light. It was blank. In his kitchen – really an alcove in his studio apartment with a three-burner electric stove on top of a small refrigerator – he heated a saucepan and poured in a thimble’s volume of ammonia while holding the paper above it with tongs. The acrid fumes made him gag, and he backed away to the window. The slip of paper remained blank. He then dug an electric iron out of the back of a closet, heated it to the low setting, and placed the paper inside a folded cloth napkin. He passed the hot iron over the napkin and extracted the note. In brown letters of burnt lemon juice there had appeared: “Janguo Hotel 1330 Nov 11 downstairs ladies second stall from end.” The paper fluttered, and Paul became aware that his hand was shaking. He didn’t know what the message meant, but he understood that his life had changed.
Paul photographed the paper with the camera of an unused burner phone. He removed the memory card that held the image and placed it behind the matches in a book from the Mandarin Hotel. With tweezers, he extracted the tobacco from a cigarette, then rolled the slip of paper tightly and fed it into the empty cylinder, and replaced the cigarette in its box. He walked out of his apartment into the Sheung Wan streets and took a tram to the consulate.
Paul walked into the station chief’s office. “You were expected here an hour ago,” snapped the fiftyish woman who had been head of the CIA’s small station in Hong Kong almost as long as Paul had known how to walk. With a pastel pants suit and short blonde hair, Deirdre Hollingsworth could have been a body double for Hillary Clinton. Paul put a finger to his lips, turned on the radio on the station chief’s desk, found a music station and turned up the volume.
“I think you’ll agree that I was right to extract the message myself rather than handing it over to the lab,” he said. He took a cigarette from his pack, cut it open with a pen-knife, and unrolled the note. Color drained from her face as she read the few words and her breathing became very regular.
“Who else knows about this?” she asked. Paul shook his head. “Is there any other copy of this?” she asked again. Paul extracted the memory card from the pack of matches and placed it on the blotter in front of the station chief. She sat down and tried to gather her thoughts: The lemon-juice message quoted instructions for a rendezvous with one of the Agency’s few remaining assets in Beijing, codenamed “Rosebud,” three days hence. There was nothing more secret in Agency communications. How did it end up in lemon-juice letters on a slip of paper sitting on her desk? The station chief parsed the possibilities. The leak couldn’t have come from the agent, who was scheduled to get these instructions tomorrow in a brush pass on the Beijing subway. It couldn’t have come from the asset that the agent was supposed to meet. The other possibilities were unpleasant to contemplate.
The station chief thought for a long time and said, “You never saw this. You will not log this on any electronic system or mention it to anyone. You will get on the 1700 United Airlines Flight to Los Angeles, change for the redeye to Dulles, rent a car and hand deliver it to this address” – the woman scribbled out a street address in Falls Church. “You don’t tell anyone you’re leaving Hong Kong, you don’t call your mother, you don’t tell anyone – and I mean anyone – at the Agency. Don’t file a requisition for the airline ticket – use your personal credit card and we’ll reimburse you later. Talk to nobody and take the battery out of your Blackberry. Tell D/NCS what you did and saw, and whatever else you see fit, unless you’re going to say that the head of Hong Kong station is an idiot.”
Richetti gave her a puzzled glance, looked theatrically around the room, and declared in a stage whisper, “Your secret is safe with me.” The station chief looked at him murderously. “Don’t worry,” he added. “My mother is dead. What’s this about?”
“You’re not read in yet. That’s up to D/NCS. When he left she closed her office door and took a Xanax.
Copyright: Spengler, David P. Goldman, The Quantum Supremacy
Next week: Chapter II: Codenamed Rosebud
About the Author: David P. Goldman has written the “Spengler” column at Asia Times since 2001. His previous books include How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too) and It’s Not the End of the World, It’s Just the End of You. He has published extensively in major media including The Wall Street Journal, The Journal of American Affairs, The American Interest, First Things, Tablet Magazine and PJ Media. He has directed major research groups at Bank of America, Credit Suisse and Cantor Fitzgerald, and received Institutional Investor Magazine’s award for research excellence. He consulted for the National Security Council during the first Reagan Administration and for the Defense Department’s Office of Net Assessment during 2011-2013. From 2013 to 2016, he was a managing director at Reorient Group, a Hong Kong investment bank, and has published and lectured extensively about China. This is his first work of fiction.
“Ask anyone in the intelligence business to name the world’s most brilliant intelligence service and we’ll all give the same answer: Oswald Spengler. David P. Goldman’s ‘Spengler’ columns provide more insight than the CIA, MI6, and the Mossad combined.” – Herbert E. Meyer, special assistant to the director of Central Intelligence and vice chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council in the Reagan administration.