There is a half-second when subjects adjust their faces. They open the door, all polite tolerance, expecting the small imposition of the meter reader or maybe the downstairs neighbor complaining about the laundry dripping onto her balcony.
But then I introduce myself and their expressions shift through tolerance to fear to obeisance. I don’t relish these details. It is my job.
Hasad, however, opens the door and his face actually brightens. A real Duchenne smile. He greets everyone this way. I have seen it on the cameras. But is he actually pleased to see people? He works in sales, a livelihood that depends upon people liking him. And he is successful. It is possible that he is a perfect and consistent liar. The difference is important. If he is actually happy to see everyone—mostly Han people in this neighborhood—then he is part of a harmonious society. Perfectly safe. If he is deceiving his neighbors, harboring resentment, it means he is dangerous and requires re-education.
“Please,” he says. “Come in.” He stands sideways in the doorway. His home is open.
I do not mind sending people to the Center. Many of the subjects are dangerous. Or have the potential for danger. Many of them still carry the mind-virus that caused the riots of 2009 and the massacres in 2014. It is our job to find it. And to cure it. It is for the safety of the nation. But Ming, I think, actually enjoys the convictions. And, of course, greater numbers help our files. Ming, who runs to Ms. Ling’s plant-lined office twice a week to explain why a particular subject cannot—must not—remain in society, has been promoted over me twice.
But I don’t want false convictions. We have had enough of that already. And there is the issue of resources: the Center is full. There are rumors about a scarcity of food, not enough toilets for that many people. It is my duty to be scrupulous.
Hasad has three pairs of slippers in a neat line by the door. Three is a good number, suggesting hospitality, but not a gathering place. And a sensitivity because it is not four, an unlucky number to the Chinese. But I think it is different in his culture.
I kneel to untie my black trainers. I do not have to remove my shoes. Ming would say an analyst shouldn’t demonstrate anything that might be considered deference. But his style is different from mine. He is all Do you believe A or B? Have you or have you not done such and such? I am not against this reduction to the binary. That was the function of my algorithms. It is the essence of our work now: yes or no? What I am against is a method that allows the subject to determine the answer. These things have to be interpreted. That is why I take off my shoes and demonstrate basic politeness. It puts them at ease. It makes them easier to read.
“It will be best if you are honest,” I say as I work the laces.
“Of course,” Hasad says. He shifts his weight, still holding the door.
“It is normal that you are resentful of my imposition on your time. No one likes having their closets looked into.”
“Really,” he says. “It’s fine.”
The slippers are large on my feet. I am a small woman. And Hasad is quite tall.
“It is best to be honest about this resentment. It is my job to determine whether this resentment is born out of the ordinary annoyance or out of a deeper resentment of the state. The former is acceptable. The latter is not.”
“I’ll try not to be too nice,” he jokes. It is a bad start.
Without my asking, he has produced his identity card. Even in the photo he is smiling. His face lacks the delicate features of most Han with his square jaw, prominent nose, and large eyes. I feel like Little Red Cap sometimes when I study their faces: What big eyes you have, what big teeth you have. Of course I don’t say this aloud.
“Politeness is fine,” I say as I walk into the apartment. “But I’m wary of charmers.”
“Sounds like you’ve had some rotten boyfriends,” he says. Then he claps his hands over his mouth. “See? I can’t help it. This is going to go terribly.”
I don’t mind liking the subjects. It is only an emotion. I have convicted many likable people.
I know about the dog, having seen the messages Hasad sends his sister—she correctly deduced that the dog was a palliative for the ex-lover who returned to America two months ago. The photos he sends are of a puppy, all fluff and paws. I have saved bits of bread in my pocket for her.
But when I step inside, the creature that rushes at me is large and dense. It crashes into my shins and then its claws are at my knees, my thighs, my waist. It is licking my hands. Its intention, I think, is to climb my body to my neck, my face. I realize I am screaming. I don’t want to be screaming. It’s unprofessional, but I can’t seem to stop. My hand is pulling the bread from my pocket, but the dog doesn’t notice. I will have to kick it, I think.
This is when Hasad grabs the dog by a handle on its harness—a sturdy thing he has spent some money on—and lifts it with one arm. I watch him carry it, thirty wagging kilos, into the bedroom. My father beat Shurik for less. He used his shoe, which was roughly the same size as the dog. But I don’t hear thuds or whimpers, just a calm voice issuing admonishments.
I feel that Hasad has played some trick. I was expecting a small, sweet thing and instead encountered this monster. Was it done on purpose, sending out images of a puppy in order to surprise me with a beast? Subjects often enjoy demonstrating an awareness of our methods. When out-of-town subjects arrive in Wenzhou, they are flagged once in the train station and again when they check into their hotel. Usually, it is a police officer’s job to do the hotel interviews. But if it’s a nice hotel, I sometimes step in. I enjoy entering the lobbies that smell like jasmine and making the well-dressed young men at the Shangri-La helpfully yield up a room number. I like taking the elevator, the precise clicks and quiet whirring.
But sometimes I arrive, looking forward to the process, when the subject rises from a nearby table and approaches to shake hands: “You must be looking for me. I thought I’d save you the trouble of searching.” There is a smugness in this, like they have ambushed me rather than the other way around. “I enjoy the search,” I say. And they have to apologize. Sometimes they jokingly offer to hide so I can find them.
So Hasad arranging my little humiliation with the dog isn’t unimaginable. Such an action would be more than an attack on an officer, it would bely the mind virus we are trying to eliminate.
But perhaps the photos were only for his sister. Perhaps it was only an accident.
“I’m sorry.” Hasad closes the door. If he were being charming, his face would be one of concern. But it is fear, the correct response. “You’re okay?” He reaches out a hand and for a moment it seems he is about to grab my arm. But he stops himself and puts the hand to his own abdomen, mirroring my body. I run my fingers beneath my shirt to find a small scratch near my naval.
“Nothing I can’t tend later,” I say.
“Please, if you’d like to use the bathroom, I have a kit.” He gestures to the door next to the bedroom. His face is wild.
The scratch is minuscule, but it’s a good excuse to examine the bathroom, so I go in and switch on the light. I leave the door open while I check the wound in the mirror. The room is clean and I can tell he has just mopped because it smells like the fishy water from the river. There is a single toothbrush in a cup and few enough toiletries to be contained in a mesh organizer that hangs on the wall. The kit he mentioned is a package of bandages stuffed into the lowest pocket along with a small pot of brown powder that must be shikonin. My grandmother used it to reduce the scar after a wound has healed, but I apply some now, mixing it with a smear of the lip balm in my pocket.
In the mirrored cabinet above the sink, Hasad has two prescriptions of traditional medicines and one packet of tablets with foreign text on the foil. I pull out my phone and snap a photo to run through the translator. It is Turkish for nerofen.
“What’s this?” I ask, turning and holding the packet out to him.
He is standing at the sink, cleaning a mug with a cloth and squints at the packet. “It’s for headache,” he says. “The last time I was in Turkey, my ex-wife…” He brings the hand with the cloth to his ear and makes the gesture of a mouth opening and closing, a rudimentary puppet. I want to laugh, but don’t.
The bathroom is otherwise orderly and stocked with proper toilet tissue. Some of them use the left hand. Tissue is a good sign of acculturation.
When I return my gaze to the mirror, I can see the living room behind me. It is the first time I have the opportunity to observe the room. It is not large. The kitchen is not even closed off. Given his financial records, Hasad could certainly afford a better apartment. But the furnishings are of good quality: stainless steel in the kitchen and a Scandinavian style sofa and chairs. And there is a spot on the wall where the paint is slightly brighter. He has had the separating wall knocked down: a preference for western design; another bad mark.
Hasad is moving around in the room now. He has a broom, which I see normally hangs from a clamp on the refrigerator, and is sweeping the dropped bread into a pile. “She is a puppy. She is still in training,” he says. He does not bother with a dust pan, just scoops the bread up with his hands and drops it into a bin. “Next time you come, she’ll have learned her manners.” When I come again. Like a friend.
“It’s okay,” I tell him as I exit the bathroom. I move to the sofa and don’t wait for an invitation to sit. “I do not mind dogs. We had one when I was a child.” I tell him about my father bringing home a tiny poodle. Not a brown one like everyone has now. Ours was white. I named it Shurik, after a slapstick character in the Russian films that played on television then.
“I remember Shurik,” he says, moving to the kitchen and switching on the kettle. “We used to watch him, too. Our family was the first to have a television in our village. All the neighbors would invite themselves in and my sisters and I had to serve everyone tea.”
“I would have hated that,” I say. I was an only child and generally treated as a little adult, which was exacerbated after my mother left. I hated serving because it was a reminder that I was, in fact, a child subject to rules and domestic hierarchy.
“My mother was often ill and we competed to make her laugh. She liked to have her hair brushed. But, of course when neighbors were there, we couldn’t.” He does not explain that his mother would have covered her hair when they had guests. He also does not explain that his mother is still an invalid, living with one of his sisters outside Kashgar or that he sends money every month to help with the cost. It is this type of filial piety—a Chinese cultural value—that most subjects overstate. They watch my face when they say it. But Hasad keeps his focus on measuring the tea leaves into the mug. “So we would try to make her laugh when we had company. My sisters—I have five—liked to position themselves behind the guest, so only my mother could see. Then they would mime murdering each other.” He smiles. “They got quite good at it. Very elaborate stranglings. The smallest one—she was always the one being murdered—got very good at falling silently.”
“Did your guests ever notice?”
“Sometimes.” He shrugs. “Though that wasn’t the point.” Many of the subjects come from big families and I am always intrigued by the contrast between their seeking out attention while I spent most of my time as a child wanting not to be bothered.
“What about you?” I ask. “Did you also murder people for entertainment?”
“Me? No. I had an action figure, one of those tiny plastic soldiers.” He holds his thumb and forefinger a few centimeters apart to show the size. “I liked to surprise her with it. I would place him behind her tea so that she would lift her cup and there would be this little guy, pointing his gun at her. Sometimes he would shoot her from the sugar bowl. Sometimes I would just walk up to her, very matter-of-fact, place it on her knee, and walk away.”
“Also, we had a neighbor who was very handsome.” The smile he has now is sly. “My sisters and I would all fight to be the one to serve him. He drank a lot of tea in our house.” Normally, homosexuality is a thing to hide. Or at least to reserve for greater familiarity. It might be a way of gaining familiarity. But we both know I have access to his messages, the dating apps, what he downloads from the internet. So the admission might be a sign of openness and compliance. It might be an attempt at feigned intimacy.
He crosses the room and hands me the mug he just cleaned, now with slices of leaves settling at the bottom. The tea he served the handsome neighbor would have contained milk, but this is green tea. It is another marker of sensitivity, this deference to our culture.
“Longjing?” I ask.
“I keep it for guests,” he says, sitting in the chair opposite me. A mistake, albeit a small one, that he covers quickly. “My mother always put milk in my tea. It makes me think of her.” It is fine that he honors his mother.
“What do you do for fun?” I say. Most subjects say they like to read. Their browsing histories say otherwise.
“I’ve been working a lot. It takes up most of my time,” he says. “And, believe it or not, I’ve been training the dog.” He shakes his head again. “But to relax, I play a computer game. Sometimes Crossfire or Journey Westward. Mostly, though, I like The Sims. Do you know it?”
I do. There is no purpose to the game. No competition. No interpretation of other players’ actions. All you have to do is make your avatar happy. I have watched Hasad create buildings and characters and make them move around. They fall in love and fuck and sometimes have children and sometimes don’t. There is an avatar that looks like him who is married to one that looks like the departed American.
When I play the game, my avatars choose the criminal career option. They are otherwise good people, attractive and successful in love. I build them mansions and give them large, complete families. No one lies. No one is arrested. Everyone has a mother.
“I’m familiar with it,” I say.
The dog whines from the bedroom. Hasad snaps his fingers and she stops.
“And now instead of Russian films, everyone names their dog after characters in American films,” I say. “Everyone’s dog is Qiu or Qiu Yi after the Star Wars character.”
“Qiu ba ka!” he laughs. His teeth are white and even. “Yes. I know at least four. No, five!” He is a bit too pleased.
There is a knock at the door and Hasad half rises to answer it, but then looks at me. I nod. And he straightens to his full height, crosses the room, and opens the door.
I hear him say “Hey!” I hear the smile in his voice. And then there is a flourish of Turkish and a man leans through the door to look at me.
“Hello,” he says. Hasad’s Chinese is quite good, but this visitor has a heavy accent.
“This is my friend Metin,” Hasad says. “We had a meeting today for tea.”
“He was late,” Metin says. “He is never late. So I thought I should check on him.” What he is asking is if Hasad can be released. Or when he will be released. Should he wait? Will I please go away?
I try not to smile when I say, “Come in. Please. Join us. I should like to meet Hasad’s friend.” And Metin’s smile is too big as he leaves his shoes in the hallway and steps into the slippers.
“I’ll need your passport, of course,” I say to Metin once he’s in. I don’t stand up. I make him bring it to me. He does this slowly and shyly.
Hasad goes to the kitchen to fill another mug with tea while I take the passport and flip through it. Pulling out my phone, I take a photo of the front page with his photo and information, then keep flipping.
“And what do you do, Metin?” I ask while I search for visas and entry stamps. He isn’t responding and when I pause to look up, he is looking at me stupidly. I say it again. Hasad says something over his shoulder in Turkish—either a repetition of my question, or a direction of what to say—and Metin says that he is Hasad’s business partner.
“Your visa has been cancelled” I say, holding out the page to him in which a blue square is stamped with red ink.
Metin reaches out slowly, as if I am the dog that might bite, and takes it from me. He flips through a few more pages— I have made an oversight: there are several visas—and hands back the passport with the page open to the latest one. I photograph this.
“He mostly stays in Turkey,” Hasad says as he brings the mug to Metin.
They stand over me, side by side, within an arms reach. Metin is as tall as Hasad, but not as wide. Standing shoulder to shoulder, they are a wall of human between me and the door. My first instinct to regain a little power is to stand up, but this is futile. It would only exaggerate the difference in strength between us.
I remember the attacks in Kunming and the riots and the ways some people are prone to violence. What big teeth you have. It occurs to me that my little move of inviting Metin in was stupid. Sometimes I am petty. I try to summon Ming’s confidence, his blind belief in his own power. The only way not to give up any ground or belie fear is to stay seated and manage them from here, our differentials in size counter- balanced by our differentials in influence.
“Sit down, Metin,” I say. “Tell me about Hasad. Have you known him since you were children?”
Both men move to the sofa and obediently sit. It is as if I had commanded a crane to fold up its wings and legs. Metin wraps his long fingers over his knees and Hasad spreads them on his thighs. It is a sign of deference. And a sign that they are trained in it.
“We met in university,” Metin says. “He was always playing jokes. Nothing serious. Nothing mean. Just always joking.” He offers an example, but his Chinese is bad and I can’t follow.
“Do you speak English?” I ask.
“A little,” he says. I nod and we switch to English. It is better. Hasad was not a prankster in university, Metin says. He misspoke. Hasad was studious. The class valedictorian. The transcript suggests otherwise.
“Metin is prone to exaggeration,” Hasad says. “It is a thing we do in our culture, exaggerate the good qualities of our friends.”
“One might call it lying,” I say. I take another sip of tea.
Hasan smiles. “He is my friend,” he says. “He is trying to help me. And he is nervous. Forgive our clumsiness.”
“Did you call him here?” I say.
“It is as I have told you,” Metin says. “We had an appointment. He was late so I came to check on him.” He fumbles in his coat pocket for his phone, finds the application he wants, and shows me the screen. It is the calendar, in which something is written in Cyrillic characters. “This says tea with Hasan.” Metin points. “Do you see?”
“It proves nothing,” I say. “You might have entered that just now before you knocked on the door.”
Metin opens his mouth to argue, but Hasad interrupts. “You’re right,” he says. “There is no way to prove we are not deceiving you. We will have to leave it to your judgement. That is what this all comes down to anyway, isn’t it? Your judgement.”
“I am an analyst,” I say. I tell them the story of how I used to be a data analyst for Alibaba. It was my job to write algorithms that predicted the products a consumer might want. I love algorithms. I love instruments that offer a simple answer to the impossible question: what do you want? My algorithms gathered data from previous purchases on our platform, of course. But we also purchased data from other platforms: did consumers prefer to order take-out or go to a restaurant? Did they purchase alcohol? Did they search for pornography? What kind of pornography? Did they commute through wealthy neighborhoods or poor ones? Do they smile in their photos or were they self-conscious about their teeth? What kinds of things did they admire or disparage online? By voice? Was the object of admiration a product? Could it be translated into one?
I enjoyed watching the lives of newly married men, business travelers, expats. I was good at predicting what they wanted. That is the reason I was recruited to become a defense analyst, to intuit desire.
Now instead of working for a company, predicting the desires of consumers, I work for the state, predicting the desires of Uyghurs. Have they acculturated? Do they harbor a resentment that could turn violent? Would they sic a dog on an officer?
Both men stare at their hands, but with different expressions. Metin is struggling to control fear. Hasad is struggling to control rage.
I sit back and give them time to form a reaction. Hasad speaks first: “You said you had a little dog. Shurik. What happened to him?”
“My father gave him to a friend. I’m sure he’s been dead a long time.”
“Ah.” He shakes his head. “Sorry to hear that. They’re like family. My friend’s dog died last month. I had dinner with him last night. He is still grieving.”
This wasn’t in his recent transactions. “A Chinese friend?” I ask. “Did he pay or did you?”
“Chinese,” he says. “Bao Tai Wei. And he paid—I always lose that fight with him. You can confirm. He lives on the third floor in this building. Unit 301. We ate at the barbecue place at the corner.”
“I hear it has very good pork,” I say just to needle him. Even reformed Muslims don’t eat pork.
“I’m a vegetarian,” he says. I have missed the lack of meat in his purchases. It might be a lie rather than a loophole. I make another note to check.
“Yes,” Metin interjects. “He was this way in university. In our culture, it is strange.” I ignore this.
“But you’re so big,” I say.
Hasad actually laughs. “I ate a lot of meat as a child. It’s only as an adult that I’ve stopped. I had to. I love animals.” A lot of people love animals. And if they don’t, they have the good sense to shut up about it. But I am suspicious when they use the claim to imply that they are gentle, harmonious citizens of society. Most people are gentle until they’re not. Especially in a police state. Violence is a one-time thing here.
Another problem: the issue of vegetarianism is a slight cultural separation, but not a serious one. Hasad views his abstention as a virtue, but my grandmother, once reduced to eating sawdust, impressed upon me that it is a luxury to be particular about your food. Luxury is a banned word.
I have an image of Hasad in the Center, being directed to sleep on his back (he is a stomach sleeper) or having his time in the toilet observed by some clumsy guard. My observation is unobtrusive and for gathering information. Theirs would be for nothing more than base intimidation. I don’t doubt there are other kinds of intimidation in the Center. I can have compassion for someone and still assign them to the Centers. Humans can hold two opposing ideas at the same time. The trick, I am told, is not to have your head explode.
“Vegetarianism is very noble,” I say, setting the mug down on the edge of the coffee table so that it falls off. It doesn’t break, just spills leaves and tea everywhere. It would be better if it broke.
“So sorry,” I say. My shirt is sticking to the balm on my stomach and I pull loose the fabric.
“Not a problem,” Hasad says. He is relieved for something to do and I can tell he is forcing himself to walk to the kitchen as he fetches a towel to clean up the mess I’ve made. Metin is hovering in a crouch over his seat, debating whether he should move or stay still. It is possible to push too much: there is a point when they shut down.
“You’ll have to forgive me,” Hasad says as he brings a roll of paper towel and kneels to make arcs across the wood laminate floor. “I’m out of tea.”
“It’s all right,” I say. “I have enough information to make my report. But I will ask Metin to wait outside so we can conclude privately.”
Metin stands quickly and moves to the door. I can tell he wants to run. He does not attempt a polite transition, just opens the door and walks out.
“You handle discomfort better than your friend,” I say to Hasad, who is still standing there, holding the dripping paper towel. He doesn’t nod or smile. He is waiting for me to get to the point.
“You should close your WhatsApp account. Your Facebook account as well.” Those foreign platforms are encrypted, so we cannot see the content of the messages. “And restrict communication to WeChat. Your contacts can switch to WeChat.”
I am not especially concerned with the content of the messages—I leave it to the censors to worry about whether or not they’re talking about Tiananmen or Falun Gong—what I care about is the patterns. How often do they talk to their mothers? How often do they communicate with colleagues? Old classmates? How many of their contacts are party members? Have any of the contacts expressed anti-party sentiment?
“Also,” I say. “Please delete your pornography.”
I did not intend this as a joke, but he laughs. “Yes, you probably don’t like looking at that.”
“It makes some of the other analysts uncomfortable.”
“But not you?”
“I am more tolerant than you believe me to be.”
He shrugs. “Good news for me, then.”
“You did well today,” I say, standing to leave. “See you next month.”
Hasad walks me to the door and opens it for me. Metin is not there, but his shoes are, long and brown like dried banana leaves that have curled into themselves.
Jennifer Marquardt is an Assistant Professor of English at Wenzhou-Kean University in Wenzhou, China. This story was an excerpt from her forthcoming novel.