The Beijing Conspiracy by Shamini Flint
This is one of the more entertaining pieces of fiction I’ve read in recent years. I finished it in just one afternoon on the first day of CNY 2022. The book opens with Tiananmen 1989 and that very familiar scene of a man standing in the way of a tank. What happened to him after that? Was he arrested or crushed? It was soon confirmed that Tank Man was still alive and rival factions in the CCP wanted to get their hands on him for different reasons.
The book takes us to present-day China. General Secretary Elect Hu Juntao and Colonel Guo Feng belonged to the democratic faction of the Chinese leadership and he was looking for Tank Man. Hu’s plan after his inauguration, was to present Tank Man as a hero and pave the way for democratic reforms in China.
Meanwhile, the conservative hardliners’ faction, led by General Zhang and vice premier Liu Qi was trying to seize power by creating a military crisis across the Straits of Taiwan in collaboration with corrupt US officials. A memo incriminating both parties was lost, apparently stolen by an American spy codenamed “Emperor”. The spy passed the document to a CIA agent who then escaped to Singapore. The PLA sent agents all the way down to Singapore’s Botanic Gardens to get that document back.
After a deadly battle between a CIA and 2 PLA agents, the document ended up in the hands of Jack Ford, a former CIA agent who was at Tiananmen in 1989. Back then, Jack had somehow mixed duty with romance and fell in love with a female student leader by the name of Xia. Jack became disappointed with the US government’s lack of support for the students and quit the CIA in protest.
Prior to that, Jack and his partner Peter had apparently rescued Tank Man in 1989 after a shocking betrayal from within the ranks of the democracy activists. Assassins from the PLA were soon hot on Jack’s heels. They not only wanted the secret document back, they wanted to find Tank Man in order to jeopardise Hu Juntao’s plans.
Jack travelled to Beijing to hand the memo to someone in the democracy movement codenamed “Confucius”. Then, someone in the PLA decided to kidnap Jack’s illegitimate daughter Fei Yen (should be Yan, author’s Hanyu Pinyin is not very good) to make him surrender the document and make him tell them what he knew about Tank Man. The mastermind turned out to be Colonel Guo Feng who had switched sides when he saw Hu Juntao losing power, but later decided to switch again.
Then, a major military conflict which would trigger nuclear war was about to erupt across the Straits of Taiwan. The incoming president Hu was caught completely off-guard. Zhang who orchestrated the whole thing took over and had Hu removed from power. After a dramatic struggle, General Zhang was killed and corrupt US officials implicated by the document were arrested. Hu Juntao was reinstated and China was on track for economic and political reforms, but Tank Man (implied by the author to be living in Taiwan at the end of the book) was still not found. The “Emperor” turned out to be someone quite unexpected.
The plot may be a bit simplistic and a character like Hu Juntao obviously doesn’t exist in real life, but the plot reveals the often neglected fact that the hardliners in Beijing have as much support from foreign powers as the democracy activists. The only issue I have with this novel is the author’s rather unfair portrayal of a clueless, tweeting POTUS which is way too obviously “politically motivated”.
Published in 2019, the book was probably written when unprecedented numbers turned out against the Extradition Bill in Hong Kong. The author obviously had a very optimistic outlook. Had this book been written a couple of years later, it might not have a happy ending.