I could smell the cigar smoke before I entered the library. The intense aroma had become a permanent companion to the club, much to the chagrin of some of our more delicate members. Sitting in his usual chair by the fire, the LTC stared intently into the flames, a half-length cigar in his left hand and a glass of amber whisky lazily held in his right.
He was deep in thought and did not hear me approach.
The LTC looked up and took a drag from his cigar. He studied me for a brief second then nodded and waved at the chair next to him.
“Evening, Captain, you’re a bit late.”
“Yes, sorry… I was cleaning up some of the Bolivian fiasco.”
He nodded and watched me pour a drink of Lagavulin before settling into the chair.
“Sad situation down there. All settled though?”
“For the time being.”
He nodded and reached into his breast pocket. The medals on his Class A uniform, strained against the pressure, threatened to pop off into the fireplace. He pulled out a cigar and held it up to me with a slight nod.
“Don’t mind if I do, Colonel,” I said taking the cigar from him.
“Pace yourself, this might be a long night.”
“You look concerned, everything okay?”
“Depends on which layer of the onion we are talking about.”
“Oh, this sounds interesting; speak to me.”
“Where were you during Tiananmen Square?” he said looking back towards the fireplace.
I sat back and thought for a second. “I was in college, but I seem to recall being at home and watching everything on CNN, at least until things went dark.”
He grunted, “dark… choice word.”
He put down his glass on the small cherry wood table that stood between our chairs and looked at me with his usual intensity. “How strong is your network there?”
“Minimal, couple of joes who travel back and forth and one young man who has a father in the central committee. I think your wife might have a better asset base there than me.”
He nodded, “Some, but not what it should be. She is from Hong Kong and most of her family have not really integrated well into the greater state, no levers that can prove to be actionable. What are you getting from the joe with the father?”
“He wants to immigrate to America, working on his papers right now; that avenue may go dark soon.”
“Interesting someone that connected would be actively seeking to go under the wire.”
“I thought so, too.”
“Did you see the image of the protesters in Shanghai and Beijing holding the white papers?”
“This is going to be bigger than Tiananmen, Captain. This isn’t about political liberalization or localized grievances about corruption. This is now a full-throated attack on the party itself.”
“And the party won’t stand for it?”
“They will do what they will do. There will be a bunch of chess pieces taken off the table in the next couple of weeks. Xi will do what he needs to do to further entrench his cult of personality. Jiang’s passing will also be seen as a rallying cry. Remember General Lamarque? Sometimes, in death, a leader becomes more powerful than in life.”
“Do you think Xi will use force?”
The LTC shot me a somewhat angry look.
“Captain, they are already using force. Do you think the people who have been arrested are just sitting in Holiday Inn rooms? The body count has begun and I don’t know where it ultimately ends.”
“These things do get messy.”
“Xi has put himself in a bind, a serious bind. During Tiananmen the party had Zhao they could point to for blame, now Xi has literally purged out all but the truly loyal. If he turns on one, then his other supporters will take note. If he capitulates to the people, he will be seen as weak and the opponents will come out of the shadows. If he deals with it with force, he will become a pariah and ultimately, paradoxically, be seen as weak too… as JP has said, if you think strong men are dangerous, you should see what weak men can do.”
“I hear you, Colonel, and I understand your concerns, but we have always fought for and supported freedom from oppression.”
“And we will continue to do so, Captain, till our dying days… but we must also be cognizant of the empirical realities. China, we both know, is a teetering empire. When it falls, and it will fall, there will be collateral issues that must be dealt with.
“Well, Colonel, that is why we are here, is it not?”
“Indeed, Captain, indeed.”