by Kenneth Meyer
The final issue of the newspaper was going to come out on Thursday. The local authorities had brought this about not by fiat or judicial decree, but simply by freezing the operating accounts of the firm, with the appropriate trials to be held at an undisclosed time. The solution was elegant and announced without fanfare. Accompanying that administrative measure, the founder and several of the editors of the paper had been taken into custody on charges of money-laundering, organizing of unapproved demonstrations, and collusion with a foreign power.
After dinner that Tuesday night there was nothing for Xinren and his wife, Daisao, to watch but The Northern Dating show, which was an import from the sovereign power. The dialogue was in a different dialect, but they both understood it. The program was interesting from a sociological viewpoint because the producers were careful to include dating contestants from all corners of the country, except for the native group from the far west (because who knew what disturbances might ensue if they were permitted on-board). The people from the southwestern sector were also usually absent, because a few tentative appearances from those citizens had repeatedly resulted in no takers.
The contestants were usually in their twenties, with a few in their thirties. Xinren called the production, “the march of the virgins,” which was a comment on the relative inexperience of the candidate pools. When the candidates spoke of their “romantic experience,” a “relationship” was frequently no more than having been out for a meal with one person several times over the course of some months, and sometimes was limited to text messages and phone calls.
“Do you think you were more experienced at that age?” asked Daisao.
“It’s true I was no famous lover,” admitted Xinren. He and Daisao had been married for twenty-five years. “But if you took the average young person on our island, they would be more experienced, more mature than this.” Perhaps that statement wasn’t beyond question, but it sounded about right. The pool of contestants testified to the relative conservatism of the society to the north.
There were in fact contestants from Xinren and Daisao’s island on the show—the producers were careful to include them, and regularly—and those compatriots usually supplied good humor, spoke the other dialect well, could carry a tune, and managed to snag prospective partners or at least dates.
Tonight there was a contestant from the province near the island, which was a relatively well-off area. The young woman played the drums and rode horses—that last was unusual. It meant the young woman must come from a family with money, because the equestrian pursuits were an expensive pastime. The contestant worked in some bank. All six male contestants, sequestered away in a side-room, were interested. “But do you like me? Or just that I’m different,” demanded the woman.
“I like you!” confirmed a male contestant.
“She’s definitely different,” observed Xinren.
“Perhaps you can write to her,” suggested Daisao facetiously.
“One thing they need to keep in mind here is that this is merely a dating show,” said Xinren thoughtfully. “If you accept to spend time with this boy or that girl, it doesn’t mean you have to get married. But they all talk as if this hour-long show will decide everything. They burden the show with too many expectations and hopes.” All those questions about how many children did he want, did she expect to study overseas—those were usually premature. At least that was Xinren’s opinion. But what did he know? He was just an unknown journalist.
“True,” agreed Daisao.
“Still, they have a good array of contestants.”
After the hippomaniacal bank-manager went off with one interested party, the next woman presenting a video of herself was a dance-instructor; there were quite a few of those on the program.
Xinren’s mind wandered during the video of the dance instructor and he began thinking about the local demonstrations of 2019, which had successfully warded off a proposed extradition law which would have facilitated islanders accused of certain crimes being tried in the territory of the sovereign power—a prospect none of the seven million citizens of the territory welcomed. Unfortunately, in the fall of that year continuing disturbances had seen some groups turning to violence resulting in damage to shops, tramlines and government property, and even some citizens being assaulted. Those activities gave the sovereign power the opening to enact a National Security law pertaining to the territory, which tightened the screws in many respects, social as well as legal.
Until there were these violent incidents, Xinren believed most of the population was in favor of directly electing the locale’s chief executive, resist extradition laws, and so forth. The narrative being created was that the violent protesters were funded and encouraged by foreign elements, but Xinren wondered if that story wasn’t too convenient.
He shared some speculations with his wife. “What if the groups that resorted to violence were actually paid to do that by the sovereign power? So that they could then say, ‘Look, things are getting out of hand. We have to intervene now.’ Would that just be a wild conspiracy theory? Is it too crazy to suggest such a thing? What do we actually know about the groups that were promoting violence?” The sovereign power’s current line was that the violent demonstrators were in cahoots with a foreign power, perhaps the U.S., or elements in the U.S..
“I hope you’re not going to write that. Because if you do, we’ll all be running for the Qantas flight,” cautioned his wife.
“I won’t. But I can’t help but wonder… Or maybe what happened was some combination of local actors, agents from the north, and perhaps money from some of our citizens overseas?”
The third female contestant selected a male candidate behind the curtain, but the indicated male stated he had no interest in the young woman. She made her arguments and pleas, but was rebuffed. It was clearly a disappointment. There were many disappointments on The Northern Dating Show.
“So many high expectations,” murmured Xinren.
The newsroom layout was open-floor, with cubicles whose dividers came up to your shoulders. When you were sitting down you were an island unto yourself, but when you stood up you might say, “Wait a minute, where did everyone go?” Or, “Oh, it’s crowded today, no wonder there’s all this racket.”
Today the newsroom was half empty. The paper was shutting down tomorrow, but Xinren had one last article to get into print. He was determined to see it in the final issue. Some of his colleagues thought his single-mindedness was misplaced or even ridiculous, but the journalist was confident that the financial criminals he brought to light would eventually be apprehended, even arrested overseas and brought back to the home jurisdiction, if that was what needed to happen.
His neighbor, sportswriter Lucy, read over his shoulder. “CEO of bank absconds with funds; turns up in Singapore. And he didn’t even grab the money from one of the major banks. This could have been an item from the 1960s.”
Oh boy, everyone’s a critic. “Yes, but these charges are current,” protested Xinren doggedly. “I have an interview with his co-worker in which the suspect refers to ‘getting away.’ And these e-mails,” leaving aside the question of how Xinren had procured them, “have him laying out the pathway of the money, and even the current entity of deposit. If one crooked executive is caught, then thousands of shareholders in our city will be safer. Their retirement funds will be safer, they can rest easier when they think about their futures. We’ll have a writ to bring the accused back to our territory, and this guy will wind up in jail.”
Lucy thought that was overly optimistic, but let it go. Xinren’s phone rang and she turned away.
It was his cousin Cindy, who worked in the Security Department. Although Xinren was ten years older, the two had been on good terms since childhood.
“Cindy, it’s good to hear from you. How is uncle Liu?” In an unusual family arrangement, uncle Liu Xingsheng—a widower—his niece Cindy, and her son shared a condo on the island. Uncle Liu had retired from the police department in December 2019, where he had been a senior detective. He was still known to appear occasionally as a ghostly apparition doing consulting work for the Secretary of Security, a matter Xinren wanted to chat with him about on a “not for attribution” basis. Who wouldn’t be curious about that? And what exactly Cindy did he had no idea. Whatever the political ups and downs of the island, the two cousins remained on good terms.
“He’s fine. He did come in for two weeks earlier in the year. I think he was persuading some fugitive to turn himself in or something. You can imagine how he loves being the ‘old hand for hire,’ but he’s still retired. Everybody wants to be wanted. But I hoped to talk about you. Are you holding up?”
I’m still sitting here, aren’t I? thought Xinren. “I was thinking I should ask you if I’m holding up,” he quipped. After all, wouldn’t Cindy know? The Security Department must know everything, right?
The publisher of his publication had been arrested in August 2020 and buried under so many charges it was doubtful his legal team could even sort them out, much less defend against them effectively. Collusion with a foreign power, participation in illegal assemblies—so many people were involved in “illegal assemblies,” you could arrest twenty percent of the territory’s citizens on that charge—was this a case of making an example? Improper use of leases and property; those charges had yet to be elucidated. Money laundering: which money exactly? Were the authorities saying the publication had been established with suspicious money? Or that funds from abroad were being funneled to demonstrators? The inference here was that the publisher accepted funds from a foreign power.
Two weeks earlier police had whisked away the chief editor, Byron Law, accusing him also of collusion with a foreign power and offences against the National Security act. Hey, the man was a newspaper editor, not James Bond! If there were specific editorials that were offensive, say which ones they were. And whatever happened to the legal principle of ex post facto; how could you charge a person with crimes purportedly committed before the law was enacted? They needed some good lawyers to deal with all this. Xinren pinched the bridge of his nose in exasperation.
Two other editors had also been apprehended and/or charged, leaving the newsroom with the sub sub-editor, a capable person, but of course not the experienced hand that Law was.
Finally, a week ago the local government had frozen the bank accounts of the publication. Without those, it was game over. It was clear that the local authorities intended to not only make an example of the publisher, but take out the top echelon of editors, and wipe out the publication too. It was a grand slam of punitive actions. As one of the lawyers associated with the basic law that had set up the territory commented: “In pre-1997 society there was the accepted principle of there being a loyal opposition. In the current society, no opposition is considered loyal.” Didn’t that sum all this up? Or as some wits around the territory were saying (with hands over their mouths), “It used to be ‘one country, two systems,’ now it’s ‘one country, one system.’”
“What’s happening at your building is not handled by my office,” cautioned Cindy. The police department of the territory amounted to 40,000 employees, and now there were also officers from the sovereign power’s ministry of state security about; How many? Who knew. One hand didn’t necessarily know what the other 500 hands were doing. “But we all want you to be careful.”
“I think tomorrow is it,” said Xinren. Curtains, finito, the end. “Let’s have some chicken legs and nai cha at the Tando this week and catch-up.” Assuming I’m not in jail.
“We’ll do that. Be careful cousin.”
Against what? What did I do? And isn’t it too late to be careful? “Thank you, Cindy. Talk to you soon.”
At three-thirty, Xinren trudged over to the break room, which was now more like the survivors’ commiseration room. He found Guo Liyou, the publication’s chief accountant, seated at a table. Since one of the accusations against the publisher—and somehow probably the publication too—was money-laundering, that threw Guo right into the boiling water. The gray-haired man stared down at his hands clasped in front of him on the table.
Someone offered Xinren some instant noodles, but he answered testily, “I’m not eating that crap!” The kind soul with the noodles withdrew without pursuing the matter further. Everyone was on edge. Someone else pressed a soft drink into Xinren’s hand. He hated soft drinks but took a swig anyway. This was an emergency.
Sitting down next to the accountant, Xinren said, “I’m surprised to see you’re still here. Didn’t they take your computer the other day?”
A week earlier, twenty-five (or was it thirty or thirty-five?) plainclothes policemen had descended on the headquarters and seized whole file cabinets of documents, and several computers and hard drives. Xinren had been present for most of that day, but no one had bothered him.
“They did take it,” confirmed Liyou. “However, now I’m working with a laptop I brought in.”
“Didn’t I hear one of the officers say you were a party of interest?”
Liyou shook his head, but not in denial. “That’s right. Party of interest, but not formally charged. That means your life is turned upside-down, but you get none of the fame. And probably no movie about me either.”
Despite everything, Xinren laughed. “It’s very unfair,” he agreed.
“I would expunge files, but I don’t see that we have anything to wipe out—or that needs to be wiped out. Maybe I’m missing something.”
“You must be. But I like your attitude.”
“Is this the end of our golden age?” asked Liyou.
It wasn’t clear if the accountant meant that of the newspaper or the territory, but either way the answer was yes. A few years back the most damning quote he could have summoned about the publisher would have been, “The truth should never get in the way of a good story.” Which for a newspaper boss sounded relatively normal. How had that party metamorphosized into a ‘threat to national security?’
At 7:00 PM Xinren went to discuss his piece with the number four editor—the only editor left. “Because Fan is running for it.” Fan had been the number three editor.
Number Four Editor was perspiring in a suit jacket but no tie. Xinren had known him for many years. He was competent.
“I read your item,” confirmed his new superior. “We’ll run it, but is this really our priority now?”
“I don’t care what page it’s on,” suggested Xinren. “But they can nab this person. I’m tired of account holders being left holding the bag; or rather, being left holding an empty bag.”
“Hmm, hmm. Agreed. It will be in there.”
“Hey! Come out to the balcony,” someone shouted.
Xinren and Number Four followed the last remaining workers past boxes full of personal possessions sitting on desks and onto the balcony; it was already dark outside. On the opposite sidewalk about one hundred pedestrians were standing, holding aloft their mobile phones with the flashlights on. A gesture of support. There were no chants or shouts, because no one wanted to say anything at this point—and anyway it was probably another “illegal assembly.”
Some of the newspaper workers held up their phones with the lights shining. They didn’t say anything either.
“Chao, get some footage of this,” Number Four directed one of the photographers.
What for? thought Xinren. There would be no more issues.
Kenneth Meyer spent most of his adult life overseas, with a special interest in the Middle East and Asia. He participates in several writers’ groups in Whatcom County, and when not doing that he and his wife May are lost on some trail somewhere.
Kenneth’s story “We’ll Surely Catch a Bus” was featured in our Summer Issue: Second Place.