Gilded Age

Speculative fiction from Shanghai – by Isaac Beech


She came to China in 2020, at the spring of a new nation. After college, a liberal arts sanatorium for privileged outrage during America's mad years, she dithered in a city internship for a few months before hopping the Pacific after Christmas in a half thought-out rebellion against her family's cloying helpfulness. New year's in Bangkok faded into hangovers in Angor Watt and a misjudged café-venture in Phnom Penh with a girl she met in a youth hostel. From there she traced the curve of the banana pancake trail up the coast of Vietnam, until South East Asia gave way to the country she had been avoiding and gravitating towards all along.

Haijing, this young capital of the nation's newest incarnation, was still adjusting to its new political status. After the events of 2019 that overthrew the old government, the 'northern capital' of Beijing was symbolically discarded as the seat of power, and the old 'southern capital' of Nanjing had too much historical baggage from Kuomintang rule. Shanghai was anointed in its place and renamed Haijing, the 'capital by the sea' of the fledgling Republic. Not the People's Republic of China, or the Republic of China – which lived on in Taiwan, independent and breathing easier, if still watched covetously from across the straits – but the United Republic of China, less than five years old and already at risk of dissolving.

It was a diminished republic, and no more united for it. Before the dust had settled on the new regime, revolts in the nation's far west had escalated until international pressure and chaos at the centre made fact of the de facto: Xinjiang and Tibet split off. China reset its boundaries, the western border now slicing through Qinghai to Gansu where the Wall dribbled out, while Inner Mongolia remained. The wings of the rooster that China's map evoked had been cut away, the chicken head in the north fought its own power struggle, and the southern belly rumbled for more autonomy. The heartland rallied around a sense of shared civilisation that had always been more myth than history, and the new rulers in Haijing struggled to keep it all together.

The city itself looked outwards to the ocean, as Shanghai always had. Cities themselves were different beasts, now, and the megacities of China spread wide roots. Just like the Pearl River Delta in the south and the northern cluster around what was now again called Beiping, Haijing had swallowed the suburbs and satellite cities around it, digesting Suzhou and Wuxi and already eyeing Hangzhou. The maglev train spun its web over this urban leviathan, yet in the tree-lined streets and hidden bars of its hub, like the shining glass towers along the banks of the Huangpu river, residents were insulated from the fractured inland that was forbidden for foreigners to visit – above all, journalists.

Four years after arriving, she was well settled into this gilded cage, and happy to put the rest of the country out of mind. Editor of a second-rate city magazine, Haijingks, she commanded a certain celebrity respect among the newer arrivals she so enjoyed pulling rank on. Perhaps it was her Chinese heritage that made them think she knew China in a way they didn't, although she never shook the feeling of being a fraud – as American, born and bred, as the next mid-Westerner fresh off the plane. Her parents, who had met at Cornell in the 90s, had adjusted quickly to life in the States and never looked back. She had resented it, every time, when she talked of China and they exchanged a glance, or a word in the language she was still struggling to learn, that seemed to say she would never understand.

But this city she did understand. Each newly-discovered back street, each expat cocktail speak-easy opening, gave her a warm feeling of being inducted into a shared secret. Salmon-slalom-biking the wrong way up honking roads, knowing no-one would give her a second look or pick her out from the crowd, afforded an anonymity and a sense of safety in numbers. The sheer noise and stimulation of it all was a drug injected straight into her veins, and not one she suspected she could quit without withdrawal symptoms. Her parents didn't understand this China. Nor did anyone else who wasn't here, nervously watching the country from outside. Inside, this gliterring city was hers.

That night, from her office at about eight, she checked on her phone where her friends were. Rachel and Alize were at Cocoa Bar, and she tapped on Alize's dot to ask if she could join. "Sure!!" the reply flashed on her screen after a few minutes – the double exclamation mark, and the uncustomary delay, meant that Alize must be on her second drink. With a last gunfire email and a swish of her jacket, she was out and locking the door while already thumbing for a cab.

It was generally considered rude to surprise a contact on Nali, just because you had seen they were out. 'Stalking', it was called, a little too glibly. But Alize was her close friend, and if you weren't hidden on the app then you wanted to be found. It had taken some getting used to, at first: being visible anywhere in the world, as a dot on the map for your friends to tap on and chat with. Geolocation had been a banner-bearer of the smartphone age long before, from dating apps to 'people nearby'. The Chinese quickly got used to being perpetually on the grid, while the rest of the world still balked at privacy concerns. Even now the American clone of Nali, WheresApp, lagged prudishly behind in its features and userbase. Here everyone was on it, and it was hard to believe that this app was once so revolutionary it had toppled a government, bringing together crowds of a size no-one thought possible.

Her friends were deep in conversation when she arrived. From the campari dregs crusted at the base of their tumblers, she could tell it was negroni season.

"It isn't only us who can't get out," Alize was saying sharply, just as she arrived. "They're not letting in Chinese, unless they have family here. And if you're a local resident and you leave you might never get back in."

"I don't know why anyone would want to get out," Rachel shot back.

"The good life still flows, huh?"

They turned to look at her. "It always does," smiled Alize. "But outside our champagne bubble I've heard reports of local militia taking over whole regions, like warlords of old. We're totally cut off from the rest of the country now. Basically a prison city-state, but with happy hour."

Alize was always better informed, when it came to the outside. Beyond the Foreign Concession, across the Pacific, China’s interior – she thought of it all as simply 'outside'. In the city the frame of reference was smaller, the circles of friendship tighter, and everything that wasn't part of her life already could be delivered within twenty-four hours.

"Just the way I like it," she smirked at Alize. They ordered fresh camparis, and talked of other things. At least there would always be other things to talk of.

Isaac Beech is an international man of mystery