“China’s technical advances have been made on the basis of classified and unclassified information derived from espionage, contact with US and other countries’ scientists, conferences and publications, unauthorized media disclosures, declassified US weapons information, and Chinese indigenous development. The relative contribution of each cannot be determined.”
GEORGE J. TENET, FORMER DIRECTOR OF THE CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY
The Intelligence Community’s Damage Assessment on the Implications of China’s Acquisition of US Nuclear Weapons Information on the Development of Future Chinese Weapons
“They are not comfortable with a world without an enemy.”
LIU XIAOMING, FORMER DEPUTY CHIEF OF THE CHINESE MISSION IN WASHINGTON
‘Loss of nuclear secrets called “one of worst failures” in US history’
“Spare us all word of the weapons, their force and range,
The long numbers that rocket the mind.”
RICHARD WILBUR, AMERICAN POET
‘Advice to a Prophet’
Dr Jie Gao rearranged the nameplate on her desk for the sixth time. She didn’t know which was more concerning: the fact that she’d rearranged it six times or the fact that she was counting.
But it was more productive than the alternative, she had decided. The alternative would only lead her to blame herself for the situation she now found herself in and there were plenty of others preparing to do just that. In fact, they were on their way to her at that very moment. All she could do was wait. And incessantly rearrange her nameplate.
She picked it up and studied it. Beneath the characters of her name, her position at the China Academy of Sciences was spelled out. Assistant Director of Special Projects. Her father had been proud. Not as proud as he had been of her brother upon his marriage, but proud enough. She didn’t resent his half-heartedness. The concept of marriage was easily comprehended. The concept of Special Projects was harder, especially since she was forbidden to relate any of the specifics of her job. She had code level clearance and he was a lowly miner.
But he seemed to understand now that this was an honorable substitute for marriage. She had planned for both. She would have liked both. Her father would have liked it more.
The door to her office burst open with a suddenness that made Jie jump in spite of the fact that she had known they were coming. She replaced her nameplate on the desk, absently noting the final tally came to seven and standing respectfully as the group of four men filed into the cramped room.
She had never been more aware of her petite build than at that very moment. Each of the men was at least a good foot taller than she was and the tallest of them must have been nearly two feet taller. She made sure not to look any of them directly in the eye, keeping her jet black gaze resolutely on the papers on her desk, but even through her peripheral vision she recognized one of the men.
Grey hair feathered his temples, which were surprisingly uncreased for a man of his age. He was dressed in a handcrafted suit and carried himself with the importance that a government position always seemed to imbue. The other three she didn’t recognize, but she didn’t have to. She recognized their military uniforms and the authority they automatically designated. In her mind, they all looked the same anyway. The same serious expressions. The same short black crew cuts. The same economical ferocity of movement. The same willingness to subordinate themselves to the will of something greater than their individuality.
The four men flanked her desk with precision, cutting off all possible routes of escape. It seemed they were expecting her to run. She would be happy to disappoint them.
She looked up at the man who had spoken the words and clasped her hands tightly together in front of her to hide the fact that they were shaking.
‘Yes, Honorable Minister?’
‘Where is Professor Long?’
‘I don’t know, sir.’
‘You are the Assistant Director here?’
It wasn’t a good sign that he was asking questions he already knew the answers to. ‘Yes, sir.’
‘And you are his trusted colleague?’
‘I thought I was, sir.’
‘But he did not trust you with this?’
‘No, sir.’ She waited for another question but it didn’t come. Instead, she filled the silence.
‘What is it you suspect him of?’
The second she spoke the words, she regretted them, knowing that she had also now succumbed to asking questions she already knew the answers to. She knew exactly what they suspected. She just didn’t believe it could be true. The Minister focused intently on her and she tried not to shrink under his gaze. However, he continued his silence and then turned to the three military police.
‘I would appreciate it if you would step into the hallway for a moment, gentlemen.’ They filed out immediately, taking up positions outside the door to Jie’s office. The Minister closed it behind them before at last responding to the question she had asked over a minute ago.
‘What is it you wish to defend him against?’
‘Groundless accusations, of course, Minister.’
‘You think these accusations are groundless? The prototype is missing. And now so is Professor Long. These sound like grounds for accusations if ever there were any.’
Jie remained silent. It made little difference though. The Minister seemed to be able to read in her face what she was thinking.
‘You have a different interpretation of these events, Dr Gao?’
‘I am merely a scientist, sir. I only have questions, rarely answers.’ It was the definition of a scientist’s life, she reflected.
‘How could anyone, even Professor Long, penetrate the security of this facility? There are rigorous procedures in place.’ She should know. Every year, government officials visited her to ask questions about her family and herself, to demand answers to anything they saw in her personal or professional life that did not conform to the model of an upstanding Chinese citizen. Employees at the facility were not permitted to take work home and security personnel searched the belongings of everyone who worked here when they arrived for work in the morning and when they left for home in the evening. Anyone found breaching the strictly enforced rules was immediately terminated and she had heard whispered rumors of worse punishments.
‘When the incentives are great enough, Dr Gao, any individual will find they are able to move heaven and earth in order to accomplish the seemingly impossible. It was something you once accomplished yourself.’
Jie bowed her head. She didn’t want to be reminded.
‘I think a better question to be asking at this stage is how anyone could steal something they have no knowledge of. Because that is what you are suggesting by arguing against Professor Long’s involvement. Apart from myself and the President, only Professor Long and you had any knowledge of this project and its success.’
The implication was subtle but it was there nonetheless. If Jie refused to accept the idea of Professor Long’s involvement, then she was either arguing for the guilt of two of the most powerful men in the country or for her own guilt. Neither argument was palatable.
In an oblique way, it was the accusation she had been expecting, that she was in some way responsible, but it lacked the force she had also expected to accompany it.
‘My first loyalty is to my country, Minister. And my second is to the Academy. I have no wish to accuse anyone. But I will not be held responsible for something I did not do.’ She must have spoken more loudly than she intended, for the door to the office again flew open. The most senior officer glared fiercely at her, but she forced her eyes to the Minister’s face and defiantly held his gaze. The other two military police shifted awkwardly behind their superior in response to Jie’s insolence. Few would dare to challenge such a high-ranking government official and fewer still would retain their freedom long after it.
The Minister did not blink as she stared him down and after a moment he relented, silently indicating with a flick of his eyes to the military officer for the door to be closed once more.
‘No one is holding you responsible, Dr Gao. Professor Long, however…’ He paused for effect and then failed to finish the thought. ‘The choices we make are not made lightly. They are made in the best interests of China. For a single act of treason to subvert all that we have worked for…well, it is unthinkable.’
It seemed unthinkable to her that Professor Long had betrayed them. He had been her teacher, her mentor, the giant upon whose shoulders she had stood in fulfilling her own scientific potential in such a manner as to bring her into the sharp focus of the Minister standing before her and even the President. If that man was guilty of what they were accusing, it would be a very great betrayal indeed. Not just a betrayal of the country, but a betrayal of her, too.
Though she did not voice them, she suspected her thoughts were again visible on her face as the Minister continued, ‘Put aside your allegiances. Along with mine, yours was the strongest voice in ensuring the safeguards for the prototype.’
‘The Minister is to be commended for his foresight.’
‘I hardly need commendations from you.’
Once more Jie bowed her head in a silent gesture of apology for having spoken out of turn.
‘Would you like to know what I do need from you, Dr Gao?’
She raised her head uncertainly. Her resignation could be the only thing of interest to the Minister now. In his eyes, she was undoubtedly tainted by her close association with the Professor.
‘I need you to reconstruct the prototype.’
It was not what she had expected, mainly because he was asking the impossible. For a moment, she could not move her mouth to form words. Eventually, she found the courage to say, ‘Minister, even if I wanted to—’
‘Are you saying you do not want to?’
‘—I do not know if I could. My research took a decade and was based upon previous decades of research. And I did not accomplish it on my own. Professor Long was…I don’t know if I can do it without him.’
‘Your country is seeking your help and you are denying it?’
‘The only thing I am denying… I think you are grossly overestimating my talents.’
‘Your country has faith in you.’ His off-hand manner didn’t inspire Jie with much faith at all. ‘You have until the prototype resurfaces. If it resurfaces in Chinese hands, then your work will be appreciated but thankfully unnecessary. If it resurfaces in other hands, your work will be essential to maintaining the stability of China’s position in the world order.’
‘Let us hope it does not come to that.’
‘We must do more than hope for it.’ The Minister turned to leave, then paused. ‘You were once condemned as a destroyer of worlds, Dr Gao. Now you may have the chance to redeem yourself as a savior as well. It is not an opportunity that presents itself very often. I would advise you to make the most of it.’
The Minister left her office and his military escort fell in step behind him as soon as he stepped into the hall. Jie did not unclasp her hands until she heard the distant sound of the elevator doors ping open and seconds later bump close. When she did, she looked down at her unnaturally white fingers and clearly saw there what she had never expected to see: the fate of the world sitting in the palms of her hands.