Wey Lee could speak perfect Mandarin and perfect English; he had Anglicized the spelling of his name but refused to take on a appellation more palatable to flabby Western tongues, as had many of the Josephs and Sallys and such that Zhang Min had met on the campus. Compared to the twinkies that seemed to overrun the campus, the young man was a fresh breath of sharp fall air.

She had made turning pages and scanning them for Dr. Li such an automatic process that when Wey dropped by (as he often did, seemingly living in the library) she was able to engage him in bright and bubbly Mandarin even as she digitized books written by Americans on Tiananmen Square. Most of all, Zhang Min appreciated Wey’s sense of decorum: he was careful to meet her in a crowded place and in such a way (when she had her turn at the scanning terminal) that no one would suspect them of an illicit liaison.

They spoke of many things, of their shared memories of hot South China summers, of the terrible slop that passed for Chinese food in Hopewell, of how full of themselves the local Cantonese speakers seemed to be in comparison to the down-to-earth Mandarin speakers like themselves, and a shared passion for the admittedly cheesy soap operas and patriotic dance displays on mainland television. It made the tedium of scanning more bearable, and the ominous glares of that suspicious librarian less heart-pounding.

But Dr. Lin’s words could not be misinterpreted: “Do not think for a moment that you are here on a pleasure trip. Do not allow yourself to be distracted, as distraction leads to poor quality scans and lack of useful patriotic effort. Remember: if you cannot do as you are asked, there are ten girls in line to replace you.”

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

Zhang Min’s bag groaned with books on American history, the fall of the Soviet Union, and declassified State Department documents. The Southern Michigan University library had a robust collection in those areas to support its School of Security and Intelligence Studies, and it fell to Zhang and her roommates to retrieve the books and scan their contents using the public high-resolution scanners throughout campus. At any given time, a complex rotation schedule meant that one girl was scanning, another retrieving, and another in class.

The girls shared a single unit in the Hopewell student ghetto; the lease was in the name of their live-in handler, Dr. Li Xiu Ying. Dr. Li was ostensibly a junior faculty member in the Southern Michigan University Department of Physics, but her scholarship was quietly provided for her from back home; she was a member of the People’s Liberation Army General Staff Department. The girls were there at her pleasure, their expenses paid for out of her purse, and she ran a tight ship by minimizing frivolous socializing and keeping a sharp watch on her girls.

Dr. Li’s main interest wasn’t classified information; far from it, in fact. Classified information was too easy to trace, too hard to acquire. An entirely separate branch of the People’s Liberation Army General Staff Department handled that, and they were welcome to it. No, Dr. Li’s raison d’etre was qingbao, information that was publicly and freely available. “People are cheap,” she was fond of saying, “and information is expensive.”

Zhang Min had once heard another girl ask Dr. Li why they were bothering to acquire such “useless” information. Li, as was her wont, had responded with a backhand and a lecture. “Every piece of information we acquire is a bullet in the chamber,” Li had snapped, “making our nation stronger. Only a fool lets others take stones from their property, for over time those same stones can be used to build a fortress against them.”

What Li had meant, as near as Zhang Min could tell, was that the information they were sending back by the terabyte was gone over by professionals, indexed and categorized. Anything of value was added to the PLA database, where it could be useful for everything from rooting out traitors at home to predicting enemy moves in the event of a conflict. One could do a lot worse, she supposed, than to have the same books on one’s shelf as one’s enemies.

And if, as in Li’s diatribe to the weeping girl on the floor, the information had been carelessly put out for the taking by the foolish Americans…well, wasn’t it the duty of every patriot to gather those stones up that they might be turned into fortresses?

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

Despite this, I continued reading the message:

The result of this is that people are distancing themselves from reality, from the glaring gap between what society tells them and what they know to be true. Thanks to digital information, people can choose which truths they’d like to believe and filter their input accordingly. A blog, a biased news source, message boards–people are creating their own truths out of whole cloth, based not on how things are but how they should be.

And thanks to our belief systems–that there is no objective truth, only personal truths–this mass of contradictory information grows. People withdraw into it, into their insular information communities where no one questions them. Nobody right, nobody’s wrong, nothing is deleted, and information ceases to evolve. It’s drowning us, forcing humans further apart. This proliferation of worthless information will destroy the fabric of our civil society–in fact, it’s already begun. You can see it in the evening news.

We’ve got to stop this decline and bring things back into equilibrium. People that can use computers and manipulate information are increasingly powerful in this new digital age, and it’s our responsibility to act. Garbage information has to be weeded out in favor of what’s truly useful to society and future generations. That’s what our new system is capable of, if we take it to its logical conclusion.

It was signed, simply, “The Firewall.”