Where We Live: When Reality Intrudes on an otherwise pleasant weekend

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There are days living in China, particularly in a relatively affluent city like Shanghai, when life can seem very normal to someone who grew up in the United States. This weekend was sunny and pleasant (the autumn is by far the nicest time of the year here), and I watched my daughter play outside with one of her best friends—a neighbor’s kid who comes over to our house frequently. On Sunday I played tennis with a friend at a brand spanking new sports club out where we live in the suburbs. I even saw a World Series game live on television, watching the despised Red Sox (sorry, I’m a Bronx born, life-long Yankees fan) beat Colorado. Normal, nice (ok, except the bit about the Red Sox winning… ), relaxing.
Then reality intruded. After our tennis game on Sunday, my playing partner invited my wife and I over for a post match cup of coffee. On the way to his apartment, my friend—a westerner who will remain nameless, for reasons that will become clear—casually mentioned that he had had something strange happen to him the day before. He had taken his car into a garage to get it serviced, and when it was up on the rack, he noticed something strange affixed to the bottom of the car: a small, rectangular device, covered in blue, shrink wrapped paper, with a couple of small wires sticking out of it.
Puzzled—and, for a couple of heartbeats, frightened (“it sort of looked like it could have been a bomb…”)—my friend and the garage mechanic clipped the wires, cut down the small package and disassembled the device. When we got to his home he laid the pieces out on his kitchen table: it was a small cell phone, with an antenna that was extended when my friend discovered the thing attached like a barnacle to the bottom of his car, plus the small wires that he had clipped to get the device down, and the batteries that enabled the whole contraption to stick to the bottom of the car.
It was, plainly, a tracking device. Someone –someone, that is, with access to a cellular network’s computers–could call the phone and pretty quickly determine where the car was.
When you’re a journalist or a diplomat or even a businessman working for a big foreign company here, you can fairly assume that your home and your phones are bugged. That’s not surprising; it’s straightforward, goes with the territory type stuff. But my friend works for a Shanghai based supplier of basic industrial machinery. A small, successful but not particularly notable metal bending company; its product line, and the machinery used to produce it, are not particularly sophisticated; there are no patents involved, no industrial high tech secrets, according to my friend. Nor are any of his company’s customers military or military related firms. In other words, he was completely flummoxed as to why the local public security bureau—if that’s who had affixed the device—would be so interested into his whereabouts at all times.
Could it possibly have been commercial espionage, I asked him. Could a competing company have done this? He said he didn’t know why they would. He said he drives his car to work, and that’s pretty much it, and it could hardly be a secret that he drove to work every morning.
My friend is an adventurous sort. He’s an outdoorsy type who has explored various parts of China to go camping and rock climbing, and often he will drive long distances to pursue these interests. He also speaks fluent Chinese.
So he’s not, true enough, your typical businessman-expat. But if he’s a spy, then I’m Manny Ramirez.
Perhaps it was, despite my friend’s doubts, a case of industrial espionage. But I tend to doubt it, too. I think the shrink-wrapped tracking device—classic spook gear–is evidence that there are too many Public Security Bureau guys with too much time on their hands here in Shanghai.
You’d think with the economy growing at 11.5 per cent per quarter they could get a real job.