Lin Xu Guan should never have been born. He was the second son born to his parents. By all rights, his mother should have aborted him as soon as she discovered that she was pregnant. Xu Guan was fortunate, in some respects, that his mother had chosen, instead, to deliver her baby. One of the Lin’s nosy neighbors had reported Xu Guan’s mother’s pregnancy to the family planning officials who threatened the family with fines if the pregnancy was not terminated. Xu Guan’s father was not about to force his wife to abort their child. Rather than abort the child or pay the fines, the Lin family moved to a rural village where Xu Guan’s uncle had a small rice paddy.
There was tension between Xu Guan’s father and his brother. When Xu Guan was young, he was unaware of the tension. As he grew older, the tension grew deeper and Xu Guan became more aware of its impact on the family.
Xu Guan came to realize that his family had imposed themselves upon his uncle. When he was born, his family had been left with few options. The fines for additional children were egregious. The Lin family did not have the resources to pay the fines. Ultimately, unpaid fines led to jail time. With Xu Guan’s father in jail, the family would have been unable to survive. He was the sole wage-earner.
When he was ten or eleven years old, Xu Guan remembered an argument that had turned into a fight between his father and his uncle. His uncle was angry because he now had to split the rice crop with Xu Guan’s father. Rice prices had dropped and it was nearly impossible to feed both families on the harvest from the one small paddy.
Fortunate? Perhaps not.
Not long after the fight, Xu Guan recalled, his older brother had joined the PLA. In theory, service in China’s standing army was compulsory for all males over the age of eighteen. There were ways around the service requirement if you were born into the right family or had enough money. Xu Guan was never quite sure whether his brother left to complete his compulsory service or whether he left because there simply wasn’t enough food to go around. Regardless, Xan Wei occasionally sent letters back to his family detailing his time in the PLA. To Xu Guan, those letters, laced with the heavy black marks of the PLA’s censors, carried tales of promise and excitement. Times were tough in his small village and Xu Guan dreamed of being able to leave his village and lead a life of excitement and danger like his older brother.
What Xu Guan didn’t realize was that his brother’s letters weren’t entirely true or accurate. Like many Chinese boys serving in the PLA, Xan Wei wanted his friends and relatives back home to believe that he lived an exciting and relatively glamorous life. The PLA wanted the younger brothers back home to believe the same thing.
Now, as Xu Guan sat in the dank hull of a surging PLAN destroyer bound for the United States, he reflected on his decision to join his brother in the PLA. He, as well as many of those around him were deathly ill. Sea sickness, combined with a deep, rattling cough, had most of the soldiers dreaming of returning home to the relative comfort of an empty belly and a nagging mother. The PLAN sailors seemed to be faring a little better. They received better rations and slept in better conditions than the soldiers. Xu Guan was part of a force being deployed to the United States to comprise a U.N. “assistance force”. They were tasked with helping the evil capitalists in recovering from the global collapse caused by their own greed.
“Capitalists”, Xu Guan wished he had never heard that word. He wished he had never volunteered for the PLA or for the duty that now took him to foreign soil.
Xu Guan spit a near-solid mass of phlegm at the floor beneath his hammock. The greenish glob held a rusty tinge as it slid back and forth along the floor as the ship rocked with the waves.
“I wonder where Xan Wei is,” Xu Guan mumbled to himself. “He’s probably in some whorehouse partying with a bottle of baijiu and some fourteen year-old whose family kicked her out to avoid multiple-child fines.”
Xu Guan sighed and let his body go limp in his hammock. He had to report for duty in no more than two hours. It was time to try to get some rest.
Just as Xu Guan began to drift off, the soldier in the hammock above him lost his battle with a bout of nausea, rolled over and vomited on the floor. Splatters of puke hit Xu Guan’s face, waking him but barely fazing him. There were definite disadvantages to the lower berth.
Xu Guan wiped his sleeve across his face and attempted, unsuccessfully, to return to the comforting embrace of sleep.
No more than a few minutes after the vomiting episode, Xu Guan’s platoon leader was blowing his whistle signaling the end of the four-hour rest period and the resumption of duty hours. Xu Guan groaned and rolled out of his hammock. The soldier in the berth above followed suit.
“I am very sorry about the vomit,” Ming Ho apologized.
“It is nothing,” Xu Guan assured him.
The two soldiers shuffled above-decks to report for duty. Most days, duty involved cleaning or maintaining the ship. Few of the soldiers were familiar with the maintenance needs of the destroyer or the tools required to perform the maintenance. As a result, most of them spent their time trying to look busy for nearly twenty hours a day – busy enough to avoid the beatings handed out by the platoon leaders whenever they decided someone was too lazy or too slow.
In the infinite wisdom of the PLA, the naval crew of the destroyer had been reduced to make room for more soldiers. More soldiers meant more boots on the ground when the ship made landfall in the U.S. More boots on the ground meant more U.S. assets seized more quickly. More U.S. assets meant more U.S. debt repaid. More U.S. debt repaid meant refilled coffers for China’s aristocracy and elite. That was what really mattered.
Chairman Tsing had declared that the Americans must be punished. They had borrowed and promised to pay a hundred times. Their greed had consumed them and their ability to pay … or so they said. Chairman Tsing knew that the Americans still had assets. These assets would be collected and returned to their rightful owners – those from whom the greedy Americans had borrowed to live their middle class lives.
It would be good for the American people to suffer as Chinese people had suffered for many centuries. Perhaps through suffering they would gain wisdom. Perhaps through suffering they would realize the idiocy of their capitalist system. Perhaps through suffering – Chairman Tsing grinned when this thought crossed his mind – they would become a territory of the great dragon.
After America, perhaps Europe. Tsing’s grin widened. This was a rare opportunity … an opportunity for the Chinese empire to rise again with him as its emperor.