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Wai Jiande: Shanghai Internet

Wai Jiande’s pregnant mother screamed as a tank mowed down her father while the Chinese People’s Liberation Army murdered thousands of people near Tiananmen Square in Beijing in the early morning hours on June 4, 1989.

Seven months later, Wei Jiande was born. They moved to Shanghai, and mother married a sympathetic mid-level national party bureaucrat who helped raise her as if she were his own.

Mother told the Tiananmen Square story every anniversary to keep her freedom dream alive. But instead of a failed political revolution, Wai would help lead a technology revolution. Her good looks gave her an advantage in an environment dominated by young men and as her hacking skills grew, so did her reputation.

Some of mother’s friends met western journalists and others during that momentous spring of 1989 and wanted to renew ties with old acquaintances. But how? With paper mail unreliable, telephones monitored and no easy way to travel, the internet was the logical choice. And Wai was happy to assist. With help from her hacking friends, she set up an Internet café, complete with an email server.

The operation quickly became popular as people realized they could use her internet service to buy and sell goods with the west. And more. One day in 2008, while surfing in an underground chat room, a westerner who called himself duceml approached her.

Duceml: “Looking for an email relay service. Heard u were good. Interested?”

Wongladee: “Maybe. Why u need relay?”

Duceml: “I have customers who want to sell things to lots of people.”

Wongladee: “Why do I care?”

Duceml: “I did say lots of people, right?”

Wongladee: “And I asked why I care.”

Duceml: “Lots, meaning more than 1 million.”

Wongladee: “You want to send email to 1 million ppl?”

Duceml: “Yup. For starters.”

Wongladee: “u crazy.”

Duceml: “Been called worse. Maybe this job is too big for u.”

Wongladee: “U small gonads. I handle bigger things than u all the time.”

Duceml: “LOL. You are a big talker.”

Wongladee: “I not know you duceml. Why should I relay 1 million messages for u?”

Duceml: “I’ll pay u $1 US per 10K recipients. If u can handle 1 million recipients, that’s $100 US in your pocket for one easy job. And more after that if u walk as big as u talk.”

Wongladee: “Why go all the way to China? Why not use relay on your side of ocean?”

Duceml: “NOYB. Can u handle it or do I go somewhere else?”

Wongladee: “I need to know u better first. Next time make offer worth my time.”

It wasn’t hard to figure out why this Duceml wanted to relay a million emails through China. He was probably selling little blue pills or something else of questionable value and needed anonymity. She didn’t care; at that scale, Duceml could become a good friend. But only if he offered a payment worth her time. With half in advance.

If this Duceml were serious, he would contact her again. It was all part of the ritual. He questioned her tech prowess, she questioned his manhood. He offered a ridiculous payment, she told him she wasn’t interested. This American was no different than anyone else in the male dominated hacking culture she had come to understand and even enjoy.

Duceml contacted her again a few days later. And after more negotiations and banter, she took on his spam project and delivered it successfully. Duceml paid promptly and a partnership was born.

That initial project spawned another idea – why not automate the whole process? Surely other westerners wanted to send spam messages. Why not send them anonymously through her system? The banter was fun, but she could not banter with everyone and scale the business. So she set up a website where potential customers could sign in and prepay for bulk relaying services, no questions asked. Business exploded.

Until a few local party officials showed up.

“Your internet activity has been deemed undesirable by our committee, and we therefore order you to immediately shut down your operation.”

The color drained from Wai’s face. “How can this be? Surely, we can work something out.”

The party leader waved his arm around the business. “Your activity robs us of precious resources we need to maintain our infrastructure. There is nothing to work out.”

Mother’s stories and the image of a tank crushing her father before she was born played back in her head. It was all happening again. Perhaps it was time for a smaller revolution. “Didn’t I see some of you in my business last week? You know I keep logs of all internet activity through here. I suspect you may want those logs to stay private.”

“Are you foolish enough to try to blackmail us?”

“No. Not at all. Those logs will stay private as long as I run this business. However, if something happens to me or my business, I will no longer have control of them, and they could turn up anywhere.”

“Nobody threatens the authority of the party.”

She smiled. “Of course not. Perhaps as a token of how much I appreciate your work, I could contribute ten thousand yuan to each of you to help support your party activities. But if you shut my business down, I won’t have anything to contribute.”

The group leader’s eyes softened.

“Do we have a deal?”

Wai took a deep breath after they left. Mother was right. Communism has a way to hamper profit unless the right Communists share in it. These Communists would be back for more.

Perhaps her stepfather could help.

“Father – thank you. You and mother raised me well.”

“Wai, you have accomplished much in your short lifetime.”

“Perhaps I can do something to repay your kindness.”

“Repay? You have nothing to repay.”

“But father, I want to repay you. Would your superiors at your job like a list of millions of western email contacts?”

“You have such lists?”

“Yes. And more.”

“Such lists would be very helpful. My superiors would look favorably on me – and you – if I were to provide such lists.”

“If I were to share my contact lists with you, and you with your superiors, would they leave my Internet service alone?”

“I believe that can be arranged. They may want to also use your services.”

“I would be willing if they provide me the telecom capacity I need.”

And that solved the problem. Instead of an adversary, the Chinese government became her partner. 

Wai eventually made enough money to buy mother a villa in Brazil, where she lives today in comfortable retirement with her stepfather. A small reward for her futile efforts in Tiananmen Square all those years ago. Wai continues to operate her Shanghai Internet cafe from an undisclosed location.