Beijing in the late 1990s was a far cry from what it is today. Stuck between the reform and opening era and the digital age, late 1990s China encapsulated a short period when its global economic rise was becoming very evident and the possibilities for the near future were endless. Scott Spacek brings the reader into this special period in his debut thriller, China Hand (Post Hill Press, 2022), set in 1998 and 1999.
The hero, Andrew Callahan, moves to Beijing to teach English at the elite international affairs university. A recent Harvard grad from Chicago, he secured a job with a top management consulting firm. A beloved professor suggests he first teach in China for a year to improve his Mandarin. It could only help with his career.
So Andrew flies to Beijing in the fall of 1998 and immediately meets a colorful group of foreign teachers like the veteran Tom Blum, who had been in China for decades since the thawing of Sino-U.S. relations in the 1970s, as well as the burly Will Carter, another teacher who had lived in a number of war-torn countries. He also gets to know locals like Lily Jiang, the dean’s assistant and daughter of China’s top general. As Andrew meets more people on campus and in Beijing as a whole, he soon finds himself recruited to smuggle Lily Jiang and her mother out of China while her father defects on a work trip to Washington, D.C.
Spacek’s novel is based on the true defection of a Chinese general. Andrew and Lily become an item, but he has to keep her in the dark when it comes to their escape plan. Any leak could ruin it not just for Andrew and Lily, but for her parents and a network of CIA operatives and reformers in the Chinese government. The story mainly takes place in Beijing, but Andrew and his escape crew end up in other cities as they try to keep one step ahead of the people who do not want them to leave China.
The story moves at a quick pace and there are plot twists along the way. It also takes place during the 1999 US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, which sparked massive protests in Beijing at the U.S. embassy, among other places. Americans believed the CIA could easily have used an outdated map, but people in China were convinced the bombing was intentional. Spacek handles this issue very well, which is just one of the ways he presents a very balanced view of Sino-U.S. relations.
That said, it’s difficult for thrillers set in “contemporary” China to find homes in publishing these days what with the close relations between Hollywood and the Chinese government. Yet I’d argue that this story isn’t really contemporary since so much of it could not have happened today. Their internet access would not have been relegated to only Internet cafes and Lily would most certainly not have worked as an assistant in a university. There were also attendants on each hotel floor back then that would regularly bring thermoses of hot water to each room. Spacek includes all of these in his story, which are decidedly 1998-99, but I think people would be hard-pressed to find those in China today, at least not in the hotels where foreigners would stay.
Spy novel reviews should never include spoilers and I won’t do that here, but I think it’s all right to say that Spacek leaves the reader wanting and hoping for more. Let’s hope that wish comes true.