Postcard — October 26, 2017, 12:53 pm

The World Stage

The death of China’s most famous political dissident 

The hospital—a squat, red-brick structure—seemed to bulge with the flow of patients pushing through its front entrance on a damp Friday morning in July. Inside, patients with gauze wrapped around their heads sat in the waiting area while nurses wheeled gurneys through the hallways. Life went on as usual; no one knew that Liu Xiaobo, China’s most famous political dissident, had died just yesterday, on the twenty-third floor.

Liu had become famous as a writer and poet in China during the intellectual ferment of the 1980s. When the turmoil leading up to the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989 began, he returned to China to participate in the student movements in Beijing, where he eventually negotiated the safe passage of students out of the square on the night of the violence. Over the next two decades, he continued writing and teaching in the city, eventually drafting Charter 08, a relatively moderate manifesto that delineated a potential transition for China to democracy.

The manifesto garnered mixed reactions. China sentenced him to eleven years in prison for state subversion in 2009; Norway awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. His wife, Liu Xia, was placed under house arrest despite never having been charged with a crime. 

Earlier this year, his imprisonment was disrupted by liver cancer. On June 26, he was moved into a heavily guarded ward in the top levels of a sprawling hospital in the northeast city of Shenyang. By July 13, he was dead. The hospital quietly removed his body and spirited it to a crematorium in the dead of night. At a press conference near the hospital that evening, his Chinese doctors told reporters that Liu had had a particular form of cancer that often went undetected until its late stages.

The day after Liu’s death, two bulky guards continued to block the narrow entrance to the ward, alarming visiting family members who were bewildered as to why men in uniforms were now asking them for identification to see their loved ones. When I asked the ever-cheery nurses to search the records for a patient named Liu Xiaobo, they insisted that no such person had ever stayed at the hospital. 

I flagged a taxi to visit the crematorium where Liu’s lawyers had confirmed his body had been taken. But as we pulled into the facility’s expansive grounds, I could see we were already too late. White-shirted men—plainclothes police—prowled the rows of freshly chiseled tombstones that lined the property periphery. Farther in was a group of police loitering around the entrance, some smoking cigarettes, others on their phones. Seeing our car approach, they quickly regrouped and straightened their hats. My bemused taxi driver pulled up to the gates.

I made up a story about visiting relatives inside—a story that sounded flat even to me, given that the place was completely deserted. The police seemed skeptical, checking a list of names on a clipboard before consulting in whispers with one another. They insisted on photographing my passport. I made one last attempt. 

“I’m actually here to see someone named Liu Xiaobo,” I said. 

“There is no one here name Liu Xiaobo. You should leave now,” said one officer, with a dismissive wave of his hand. 

I told my taxi driver to drive back into the city.

He nodded. “China has no human rights,” he said. “You should not have given them your passport! What right did they have to demand it?” 

He explained during our ride that he had spent almost twenty years in Japan and South Korea, working as a cook in Chinese restaurants. He had only returned recently, because the apartment he owned was being razed, and he had to collect his compensation in person.

The name Liu Xiaobo sounded incredibly familiar to him. Perhaps, he said, he had heard it from a news broadcast in Korea. 

The sky opened up later that evening, and water came with such force that it shook dust loose from the rafters of the café where I had taken refuge. The hour after Liu’s death was announced, thunderstorms had roiled Beijing too, but the rain had come down softly, as if comforting the hard earth. 

They were already waiting for me when I walked into the hotel lobby the next morning: four men, in tight black T-shirts, looking bored. They were state security, sent to tail me now that my presence in Shenyang was known. 

I headed to the airport, figuring Shenyang was on such tight lockdown that I might as well follow the story from Beijing. I had one leg out of the car when my phone rang. 

On the other end was my foreign-ministry minder, sounding harried: There was to be at least one press conference, in forty minutes, about Liu Xiaobo and the details of his cremation and funeral. He had just been told about it himself and had been frantically calling every journalist he supervised in Beijing.

Inside the ornate ballroom where the press conference was being held, a foreign-ministry employee sent down from Beijing sidled up to me. “The Shenyang government is very anxious to know what you want to know. If you have any questions you want to ask, let me know, and I will make sure they get asked,” he offered helpfully.

But few of our questions were answered. We learned that Liu Xiaobo’s body had already been cremated at daybreak, and a small, private funeral had been held. But questions about the plight of Liu Xia, his wife, were met with the seemingly oxymoronic response, repeated: “She is a Chinese citizen. She is free.” And with that, we were shooed out of the ballroom to wait for the second press conference, to be held at a yet undetermined time. 

We regrouped downstairs, about thirty bleary-eyed journalists sprawled across the lobby. The video and photography guys huddled with their equipment and Wi-Fi routers, anxiously checking their email. Close by, our security minders sat glumly, chain-smoking and watching music videos on their phones. When I got up to use the bathroom, one helpfully offered to watch my laptop while another casually meandered ten feet or so behind me. 

My personal minder, a stout, tan man with a thick string of Buddhist prayer beads encircling his wrist, appeared slightly embarrassed at the close quarters he was now forced to share with his surveillance target, and he compensated for this by asking a lot of questions, most of which I bounced back to him. 

When he was not following journalists, he told me, he provided security for soccer games and other public events. It was clearly a better gig than this job, which had resulted in a lost weekend and a very late night tailing me and a group of other journalists to dinner and then to a bar in the torrential rain. 

“I am tired,” he said, draped over a brocade chaise lounge. By noon, all of our minders were fast asleep.

The hours dragged on. I booked a later flight and canceled my dinner plans, then ordered takeout to the hotel.

When the second press conference finally rolled around, we shuffled back into the ballroom to watch the next act of the political theater China’s leaders had spun.

To the surprise of all, Liu Xiaobo’s eldest brother walked in.

In a tremulous voice—hoarse from cigarettes and fatigue—Mr. Liu praised the Chinese Communist Party for the care it had bestowed on his brother and the grace by which they had fulfilled every request his family had placed before them. Liu’s ashes had been scattered at sea only hours before, leaving no trace of him to be mourned. The hasty funeral had been the family’s idea, as was the sea burial; their own sister, after all, had been buried in such a fashion. 

“This demonstrates the advantages of the socialist system,” he concluded wearily. 

The room collectively tensed, seconds away from erupting in questions. Sensing this, a government spokesperson quickly cut in.

“Mr. Liu is very tired, so he will take his rest now,” he timidly ventured. 

Mr. Liu kept his eyes resolutely forward and jammed an unlit cigarette into his mouth before being frog-marched out of the room by two state spokespeople as disbelieving journalists shouted questions that would never be answered.

“The world is watching,” shouted one journalist. 

I did not have the heart to point out that this was written for a foreign audience—that we were sitting in a hotel ballroom with plastic chandeliers. 

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

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Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
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The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

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Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
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How to Start a Nuclear War·

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

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