The Heart of a Revolutionary

Jacob McLaws

Zhang Tianyu is being released from the hospital today. The Peking Union Medical College Hospital. I smoke as I wait for him outside. He won’t notice me. He’s never seen me before. And plus, I’m in civilian clothes and blending right in. No police jacket, no insignia, no stab vest, no gun. 

Tailing Zhang Tianyu is a top secret assignment. My supervisor said the boss asked specifically for me, given my experience. He didn’t go so far as to say it, but the strong implication was that this is an assignment coming directly from the top.

Here, in essence, are my orders: Observe Zhang Tianyu, the chairman of the Zhu Yuan Pork Company, following his heart transplant. Record detailed notes on his activities and report any and all evidence of political dissidence, revolutionary action, terrorism, ethnic separatism, religious extremism, or criticism of the Party.

Chairman Zhang’s loyalty has not been in question before—I combed the logs to be sure—and he is by all standards a loyal party member. But we must be diligent at times like these. Especially when dealing with the heart of a revolutionary.

The heart—which according to the dossier formerly belonged to Xiralijan Saadi—was delivered from far away in the west. The donation was not part of my assignment, but I did a thorough reading of the report to better understand what I might watch for.

The director of the reeducation center in Xinjiang, where Saadi had been staying, included only this in his memo:

Uncooperative with officials and procedures. Radical revolutionary ideologies persisted at time of death. All organs, excluding liver, in good health and recommended for use at Party discretion. 

Chairman Zhang emerges from the hospital, pushed in a wheelchair by the family’s maid and accompanied by his plump wife. I’m on my motorcycle by the time his driver pulls out of the parking lot and I follow the black car as it moves slowly down Dongsi Street. It’s not a long trip. The driver lets them out in front of their mansion just inside of Second Ring and the doorman holds the door for them as they enter.

This will be a challenging case, I know. Due to the top secret nature of this assignment, and a recent uptick in the number of suspected dissidents that must be surveilled, I’ve been allocated no additional headcount to aid me in monitoring Chairman Zhang’s home. I will have to make do with what I can manage on my own. Now that I’ve ascertained the location of the chairman’s current lodgings I must begin to make my arrangements.

I return to the station and retrieve the van. The van will be my home for the next six months. It’s a small van—unassuming; not old, not new—with the characters State Grid Beijing Electric Power Company decaled onto the sides and rear. I park around the corner from the apartment in a quiet alley and squeeze into the chair in the back where I boot up the computer. First I tap into the CCTV camera monitoring the street. Then I hook into the China Unicom internet service provider portal to track digital communication and web usage. Lastly, and this is a bit trickier, I run a search for all SIM cards registered to Zhang or his family members and cross-reference that with all the telecom pings for active SIMs in the area. I’ll keep track of ingoing and outgoing calls on each.

I’ve worked up an appetite so I put on my coat, walk down the street, and buy a couple dozen baozi at the corner. That will last me a day or two. Back at the van I remove my jacket, lean back in my chair, and watch the monitors while I eat.


Today will be important. This morning I disabled Zhang’s internet. Then, I intercepted the maid’s call to China Unicom. With my best  impersonation of a customer support agent, I promised to send someone to fix the issue immediately.

Now I’m standing in front of their mansion, disguised in a thin fake mustache, a wispy wig, a hat, and a padded workman’s jacket. To really seal the deal, I’ve slung a heavy tool bag over my shoulder. I squint at the doorman and explain I’ve come to fix the internet in a voice that sounds much older than my own. He’s been told by the maid to expect an internet serviceman and he lets me in without question. I ask the maid, who meets me at the door, how long the internet has been off and she explains the situation with a truly painful amount of additional superfluous details included. But I nod along patiently as she goes on and on. I play the part of a respectful serviceman masterfully. I doubt even Ge You could do any better.

I’ll have to take a look at the routers, I say.

I see, she says.

She leads me around the multiple floors of the large, lavish home and I pretend to adjust and test each router in turn.

Yes, I see the problem, I say confidently. The maid is quite dull and my sleight of hand is much too practiced for her to perceive as I connect the smallest of cameras and microphones to each router’s battery units.

Is this all of them? I ask after the third. Are there routers in the bedrooms? I’ll need to fix those too.

We cross paths with Chairman Zhang on the way into the bedroom and I bow my head to keep him from seeing my eyes. My disguise is good, but you can never be too careful. My bow and whispered apology will be interpreted as deference to a wealthy businessman of a class well-above my pretended station. The ploy works. He doesn’t even acknowledge me. With the two bedrooms bugged, I use my phone to turn the internet back on. The dull maid smiles with relief as she confirms the signal has returned and I even go through the motions of getting her signature on a service form before making my exit.


My supervisor says he is pleased with the progress so far, but I can tell from his voice that he wants more from me. My supervisor is a hard man, but not unfair. He understands the personal sacrifices his detectives make for the good of society, for the Party.

I have eaten only baozis and takeout lamian for the last three weeks. I have two two-liter bottles. I drink from one and piss into the other. I hold my bowel movements inside all day until I’m sure the chairman is deep asleep, when I can hear him snoring in his bed. And even then I never spend more than twenty minutes walking to and shitting in the toilet at the public park. I’ve slept reclined in the chair at the rear of the van every single night since I began. My back hurts, but I will not complain aloud. I defy anyone to find a hard-working comrade who’s back doesn’t hurt.

My daily reports are boring, even to me. The chairman rests most of the day, getting up to use the restroom, eat, and occasionally take business calls in his study. I watch and listen when he’s up and about, but it’s all talk of sales numbers and operational efficiency. To entertain myself I make up secret revolutionary codes. For example, each time Chairman Zhang mentions Regional Manager Li, I let myself interpret it as code for a revolutionary accomplice of his in Urumchi. Their financial projections for next quarter are their veiled plans for growing the religion’s membership numbers. The figures of pigs slaughtered and pork sold each month are code for secret acts of terrorism and violence performed by extremist Uyghur terrorists against my comrades stationed in the west. It’s all imaginary, of course, but it’s good practice nonetheless. I need to keep my mind sharp for these sorts of things.

            I’ve begun reading Saadi’s radical revolutionary writings to better understand what I should be watching for. They were censored and confiscated around the time of his arrest, of course, but I’ve been granted access to digital records based on the nature of my assignment. To be honest, I find them hard to get through, not just for their logical gaps—though they’re rife with rhetorical and manipulative tricks—but for their grumbling, carping tone. Is a Muslim never contented? What more can they ask from the Party than the Party has already generously given? The Party gives them protection, educates them, finds jobs for them, even sends Han men out west to wed their daughters. Truth be told, I don’t think their women are asbeautiful as they’re made out to be. I’ve seen the promotional material—young Uyghur women are attractive and caring and yada yada yada. I call bullshit. Us educated men out here in the capital know what taking a Uyghur wife really means. It means you’re desperate.


A fruit basket has been blocking my camera’s view of the living room for the last forty eight hours. The chairman has received many gifts from partners and associates wishing him a quick recovery after the transplant. A lot of wine and cigars as well as vitamin supplements, lotions, and what must be a dozen varieties of high-end teas.

Tonight there’s nothing going on. I watch the chairman as he lights a thick cigar, propped up in his bed. In the back of the small cold van I light myself a cigarette. Both of us smoke and I try to match my drags to his slow pace. He turns on the TV and now we’re just two men smoking, watching the late-night news together. After a few minutes I remember something and put out the cigarette. What I remember is that I’ve heard stories of detectives falling in love with their subjects. Maybe it’s some variation of the Stockholm syndrome. You spend so much time watching your assignee that you build up a closeness, an unwanted fondness towards them. It’s more common with male detectives assigned to surveil suspicious women, I suppose, but you can never be too careful about these types of things. I certainly don’t want to develop any special feelings for Zhang Tianyu.


We’re three months into the assignment and I’ve collected nothing of any real importance. It’s appearing more and more likely that Chairman Zhang has been unaffected by Saadi’s radicalist organ. I’ve kept track of the visitors carefully. Zhang’s son has come and gone three times, twice with his full-breasted wife in tow and once alone. Two of Zhang’s direct reports, Fu Wenming and Zhao Lin, have come and conferenced in the study. Mostly, however, Chairman Zhang lounges around the house between business calls—eating, smoking, and watching TV. It’s been rather boring. Apparently Chairman Zhang is feeling healthier though. He had sex with his wife this week. It was short-lived, but it’s something. I add it to the report.


The game is afoot at last. Finally, something worth reporting. It’s not damning in and of itself, but my supervisor will be happy to see some questionable activity.

Chairman Zhang has begun taking afternoon strolls around the neighborhood. I tail him on foot from a distance, but he never does anything other than walk and pause next to trees and breathe in the fresh air from the leaves. He never meets up with anyone, never even stops to buy a snack. Today, however, I could tell something was different. He walked faster than normal and took a new route. He stopped outside of an apartment building, checked his phone, looked around to make sure no one was watching him, and then rang the buzzer. The door unlocked and he went inside. Exactly two hours later he emerged and headed home. I waited and was able to snap a few photos of the woman when she exited the apartment fifteen minutes later. In the van afterwards I went back over the text conversations from the chairman’s phone and then cross-referenced my photos of her face with government records. The woman, it turns out, was born in Yining.

Cavorting with Xinjiang-born escorts is not necessarily cause for alarm. A man of Zhang Tianyu’s status and wealth probably purchases high-end service women of many different ethnic backgrounds. But for this to be his first choice after the heart transplant? It does strike the keen observer as something worth noting, does it not?


Chairman Zhang is now going into the office on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I will have to find a way to observe him there. For now, when he’s inside the building I sit and wait for him just outside, monitoring his cell phone calls and messages on my laptop. Nothing very interesting has happened recently. The good news is that the office is very close to a delicious noodle shop. I’m sick of eating baozi in the back of the van.


Another incident!

There I was sitting in the van listening in on/watching the chairman’s phone call with his son. Chairman Zhang had been drinking. He was upset at reports that a virus in the south is going to cause the company to shut down production at the pig farms. He was in his study on speakerphone, complaining about how much it’s going to cost the company to shut down the entire farm and slaughterhouse. He was practically shouting. Then, in a lowered tone, he said it. This whole virus ordeal has been handled extremely poorly. From the very top, I mean. Shutting down production! What kind of imbecilic–

Zhang’s son tried to calm his drunken father. The situation is complex, Ba. Things will be alright though. The company is strong. The Party supports you.

But there we have it. On tape. Criticism of the Party leadership! I’m practically bubbling as I send it off. My supervisor will enjoy this report.


Another walk this afternoon. It doesn’t look like he’s heading to visit a woman again today. This time he heads to the park. A nice day for it too. Everyone in Beijing should be outside on rare days like this. There’s a soft breeze and the sun is out, but with only the undertones of that terrible summer heat that is in soon in store.

He’s standing beneath a tree, his head lifted, eyes closed, breathing in and out with long pauses in between. I’ve seated myself on a bench across the way.

I’ve grown sloppy, I’ll realize later. Maybe it’s sleep deprivation or maybe it’s poor diet, but my brain isn’t functioning at full speed these days. I’d assumed he hadn’t noticed me at all over these past months, that I’d blended in perfectly like I always do. But when he opens his eyes he’s staring right at me. It’s surreal to be seen by him, to make direct eye contact with Zhang Tianyu. I have been an invisible specter observing his every action for over four months. I know him intimately, like a son knows his father. Or maybe more like a lover knows his paramour. I know the songs he hums in the morning after he showers, his preference for extra green onions on his eggplant at lunch, the sounds of his flatulence, what he values most in his employees, what he scrolls through on his phone while he is sitting on the toilet. I know all that, and yet this is the first time that I’ve actually seen into Zhang Tianyu’s dark eyes.

He’s approaching me at the bench now and I try to appear natural, try to look unphased.

Nice weather, isn’t it? he says as he sits down beside me. His voice is more resonant in person than it’s sounded through my headphones in the van all these months.

Quite nice, I respond. I can’t think of anything more to say. My mind is blank. My heart is racing. We sit there, the two of us both looking out at the lake, and a feeling of deja vu comes over me. Something about sitting on this same bench with my father years and years ago. And momentarily, I confuse the two men. In my disoriented dizziness, I wonder if Chairman Zhang is my father. I am ten years old and at the park on the bench with my father looking out at the red-crowned fairy cranes standing in the shallow area of the lake.


No. I am special detective Chu Mingliang. Twenty-eight-years old. And this man beside me is not my father. He is the man I have been assigned to investigate on suspicion of political dissidence. Beside me is a man with an extremist’s heart beating in his chest.

I know you’ve been following me, Zhang Tianyu says. I don’t move. I should play dumb. I should protest. I should do anything but what I am doing now. But I sit, silently.

Who are you working for? he asks me. Mu Yuan? Zheng Bang? I stare out over the lake as he names his swine-slaughtering competitors. When I don’t say anything he shakes his head. Won’t talk? No matter. I’ll find out. He stands up, then turns back towards me and takes a picture of me with his phone. If I ever see you again, you’ll regret it. Then he’s walking away, out of the park, back to his apartment. I don’t stand up. There’s no point. I remain seated for an hour, watching the birds on the lake.


I made my final report that night, back at the van. As expected, my supervisor removed me from the case the next morning. Detective Hu was assigned to replace me.

I followed Detective Hu’s subsequent reports closely. Chairman Zhang and his wife had left their 2nd ring apartment for their home up north near the Mangshan forest soon after he confronted me at the park.

Detective Hu had pursued them north, continued surveilling the chairman, and had reported two more incidents of political dissidence in the last month. My supervisor relayed the information up his ladder and apparently it had been enough to work with. A week ago, Zhang Tianyu had been confronted and forced to step down from his role as chairman of the Zhu Yuan Pork Company. It’s unlikely he’ll face severe further punishment. He will come groveling back to the Party with his tail between his legs and be availed some other, lesser, managerial position.

I’m drinking tonight. Alone, in a dark bar. I’m thinking about how it should’ve been me to close the case, not Hu. It was my assignment. I was sloppy and it cost me.

After the fourth drink I start thinking about Chairman Zhang. He had reminded me of my father. I’ve missed him. Missed being with him. Drinking tea, talking pigs and pig sales. Smoking together and watching the news. I know I shouldn’t care at all about a man with a revolutionary heart, but I can’t help it. I wonder how he’s doing. I wonder if he ever thinks of me.

Jacob McLaws lives in Tokyo. He is at work on a collection of stories and a novel.