John Polly enters Shanghai in 1948 on a muggy, velvet evening, just in time for the Communist takeover of China. It marks only his fourth month in America’s newly formed Central Intelligence Agency. Over the next two decades, Polly will become The White Mandarin, a double agent buried so deep within the inner circle of the People’s Republic as to shape the futures of both that nation and his own. Dan Sherman’s intricate, superbly crafted spy thriller follows Polly as he walks a dangerous tightrope of intrigue and suspense. As China rebuilds itself, Polly attempts to start a family in the intersection between the American intelligence system and the Asian drug trade. Can Polly keep his wife and daughter safe? Can he keep track of the shifting stories and changing allegiances in the CIA? Will his emotion get in the way of his mission? Only pages into this stunning novel, readers will easily understand why Sherman has earned comparison to the great John le Carré and Graham Greene. It is both a story of very personal love and loss, and an insightful history of China between the rise of Chairman Mao and the 1972 visit by President Nixon. Anyone looking to understand the China of yesterday and today—its power, its flaws, its beauty—need look no further than The White Mandarin.
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The White Mandarin
By Dan Sherman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1982 Dan Sherman
All rights reserved.
IF THERE is any single event that best seems to serve as an entrance point to this story, it would have to be the disappearance, on July 30, 1971, of John Polly's nineteen-year-old daughter. Of course, there are those who maintain that this story should be told chronologically, beginning with Polly's arrival in Shanghai twenty-two years earlier, but in terms of the existing record, it was the abduction of Maya Polly that remains most prominent in the minds of the Langley chroniclers.
It has been proposed that the abduction of John Polly's daughter represented a full-blown internal war between competing elements within the CIA's Asian division. On the one side there were those indigenous China warriors centered in Hong Kong and Taiwan. On the other side were the Asian Desk directors in Langley, Virginia. At issue was not merely an eighteen-year-old girl. At issue was an entire vision of the Far East.
In terms of a linear sequence to the abduction the record runs like this. In early July 1971, John Polly began to express concern for his safety and the safety of his daughter in Peking. As justification for this concern he cited the various political entanglements that surrounded his life as a spy just prior to Richard Nixon's celebrated meeting with Mao. A letter from the period illustrates his concern:
There are forces here that do not want this rapprochement, powerful forces that even Mao may not be able to overcome. You want me to remain still longer, I will. My daughter, however, will be leaving for the seaside in a week.
This letter, like others before it, was addressed to Polly's case officer, and one of the leading participants in this story, an elderly man named Simon Crane. Crane was one of the Agency's oldest China hands with a career extending back to before World War II. His role was pivotal.
Ten days after this letter appeared Polly sent his daughter to a summer resort on the Gulf of Po Hai near the Yellow Sea. It is a curious landscape, reminiscent of an older China. Along the main street are whitewashed villas encircled by eucalyptus, banyan trees along the estuary, pools of deep water among the rocks. A photograph, sent by Maya to her father shortly after her arrival, shows her standing on a grassy dune by the shoreline. In the background are the green tiles of a boathouse, a line of junipers and a clump of mottled bamboo.
The next entry in the record concerns the abduction. According to Polly his daughter had apparently been taken from her hotel room in the early hours before dawn. A porter who had tried to stop the abduction was badly beaten with a length of metal pipe.
Given the extent of Polly's involvement in the political maneuvering that had been occurring at this time within the ruling structure of Peking, it was originally thought that the girl had been abducted by members of an ultra- leftist faction that had entrenched itself within the Red Army. There was, however, no concrete evidence of this, nor any indication as to why the girl had been kidnapped, no ransom note or the like.
Polly's grief was inconsolable. He was said to have spent whole nights pacing through the rooms of his home in Peking, eating virtually nothing. It was at this point, three days after the abduction, that the record redirects attention from Peking and Po Hai to Langley, Virginia, where Simon Crane began to develop an elaborate theory concerning not only the girl's disappearance but the entire concept of the story. His theory began on a relatively minor note: the report from the British border watch of an unauthorized crossing from the Chinese border into Hong Kong. The crossing occurred near Lok Ma Chau in the New Territories beyond Kowloon.
It is a moody country. There are long stretches of open marsh, hidden willow ponds and cypress mounds among the hills. At night it is very dark. According to the British, a person of slight build was ferried across the Shum Chun River in the early hours before dawn and met on the banks by three unidentified men. Also of interest was the fact that throughout the crossing the fugitive was in clear sight of Communist border guards but they did not interfere. Attached to this report was a query asking if Langley had had anything to do with the crossing. Crane cabled back that Langley had not.
There are, however, two existing memos written immediately after the crossing that indicate that Simon Crane had already begun to focus his attention on the Agency's field station in Hong Kong and the station's director, Jay Sagan. To understand Crane's thinking here it is necessary to appreciate Sagan's role in events up until this point as well as the role of his longtime friend and power base, a Chinese Nationalist by the name of Feng Chi.
Like Simon Crane, Jay Sagan's involvement in this story extends before the events of July 1971. Sagan first entered the Asian sphere at approximately the same time as John Polly, and he too originally served under Crane in Shanghai. There he made a reputation as one of the few western intelligence officers to be wholly accepted by the Chinese elite.
As for Feng Chi, his involvement also began in Shanghai some twenty months before the fall in 1949. There he was one of the leading figures of the anti-Communist regime under Chiang Kai-shek, and worked closely with Sagan recruiting and training agents and assembling teams for a coastal watch. Later, when the war had been lost and Feng was living on the accumulated wealth from his involvement in the opium trade, Sagan came to him again and said, "We can still play the same game. You supply the people, I'll supply the technical expertise." Within three years there were lines from Macao to Canton, north to Wuhan and all through the southwest. Within twenty years there were lines across the whole of Asia, and technical expertise was still a term that Sagan used whenever he wanted to explain what it was that he had given to the Orient.
As for John Polly's role in this scheme, during those chaotic months in Shanghai just before the Communist victory, Polly became involved in a dispute with Feng Chi's younger brother. Polly killed the brother and fled to Peking, and Feng Chi swore revenge.
Such was the crucial background to that series of memos drafted by Crane in the days immediately following the abduction of John Polly's daughter. In all there would be three memos, each addressed to the Asian Desk's senior officer, Norman Pyle, and each stating that there were possibilities of complicity.
"It is by no means inconceivable to me," Crane wrote, "that Feng Chi was not only responsible for the abduction, but now holds the girl. I further find it not inconceivable that S.[agan] was, if not also responsible, at least knowledgeable in this matter."
To reinforce his theory Crane's next memo listed three occasions during which Jay Sagan had defied Langley policy on Feng's request, most notably in connection with the opium trade.
Initially Crane's theory was received with skepticism. A responsible memo pointed out that Jay Sagan had been a valuable member of the American intelligence community for years, and Feng Chi an equally valuable client. Further doubt about the validity of Crane's theory came up when one considered the fact that the girl had been abducted well within the Chinese mainland, far beyond the reach of either Feng Chi or Jay Sagan.
Crane remained unshaken. Another memo argued that given the enormity of Feng's power in the East, even the Communist border did not represent a barrier. "We have seen before that interplay does exist between Feng and certain Communist elements on the mainland," Crane wrote. "Surely what I am suggesting is not impossible."
To which Norman Pyle replied, "All right then, what do you want to do about it?"
Crane's final memo dealt with the necessity for secrecy. His concern seems to have been twofold. First, he believed that any overt investigation would only succeed in alerting Feng prematurely thus giving him time to bury all traces of the girl. Then, and even closer to the heart of this matter, Crane noted that no action should be taken which by consequence would reveal the extent of Langley's relationship with John Polly. By way of explanation it should be noted that apart from Simon Crane and Norman Pyle, only two others knew the complete John Polly story. They were the director of Central Intelligence and the secretary of state. (That the president was never told would later cause no small degree of embarrassment.)
For these reasons, then, and for what Crane called "the delicate operational balance of Polly's position in Peking," an improbable figure was brought into play. His name was Billy Cassidy, and his story, by virtue of the fact that it threads between all opposing factions, should prove as illuminating a beginning as any.
An item of note regarding young Cassidy appeared in newspapers about twelve years ago. The story told of Cassidy's release from a Chinese prison and his earlier relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency. Other relevant information included the fact that Cassidy had originally been captured when his aircraft, a modified B-17, was disabled and forced down by Chinese interception just south of Peking. Although the flight, which had begun in Taiwan, was initially said to have been part of the CIA's photo-reconnaissance program, later admissions revealed that Cassidy's actual purpose had involved the drop of politically hostile leaflets over the rural Chinese populace. In addition to Cassidy, four Nationalist Chinese crew members were also captured. Cassidy was then twenty-three years old. There were no deaths.
Accompanying most of the newspaper articles was a photograph of Billy. It was taken shortly after his release and showed him stepping from a military transport in Hawaii, a handsome, fair-haired boy with even features and soft eyes and dressed in a light sports coat and slacks. In his left hand he is carrying a canvas flight bag. Behind him stand two Marines in summer tans, while the shadow of a third falls upon the railing. The camera had caught Billy in mid-step, smiling vaguely, perhaps gazing out to a clump of palms at the far end of the airstrip.
Apart from this photograph and those few terse articles in the press there was no other mention of young Cassidy, nor of his experience in Peking, nor of his relationship with John Polly and Polly's daughter. It was assumed that after a brief period of rest Cassidy returned to the bureaucracy from which he came and that his life went on much as it had before. True and not true. There were nine days spent in San Diego with his mother, then another week in Langley for reorientation. Finally he returned to Asia in much the same capacity as before, but he was different. Inside he was very different.
Before the incarceration in Peking, Billy Cassidy had spent most of his time on the island of Formosa in what was commonly called Taiwan Central. This was the hub of the Asian sphere, with thirty-seven Langley employees and many more stringers in the field. But upon Cassidy's release from Peking and his subsequent return to the East, he was posted not in Taiwan but in Hong Kong.
Although smaller, the Hong Kong station had always been considered the more prestigious post. In view of their proximity to the mainland, Hong Kong officers were directly in the line of fire. Agents were run right over the border. Action was fast. On the average there were half a dozen kills a year, and twice that many kidnappings. Hong Kong station employees tended to form close personal ties and to shun outsiders.
Perhaps the most important figure in Cassidy's life at this time was the functional head of the entire Hong Kong-Taiwan sphere, Jay Sagan. Sagan had originally served as Cassidy's sponsor to the secret world, and years earlier had worked with Cassidy's father (and lied to the boy about the Reds causing his father's death).
Occasionally in the evening Cassidy and Sagan would drink together, usually at one of the waterfront bars where there was a view of the harbor junks behind the typhoon shelter. Generally Sagan did most of the talking, using words like "counterforce" and "lateralism," which were supposed to indicate his expansive view of Asia and his own role as white power broker in an Oriental world.
As for Cassidy, there were simply patterns that he was just too tired to change. While Sagan spoke, he would nod and say, "Yes, sir," or "I think I understand." Afterward they would part and Cassidy would stroll out into streets which before Peking had always frightened him but did not frighten him now.
Another figure in Billy's life of this period was a young man about his own age named Johnny Ray. Cassidy had actually met Ray well before Peking but it was not until later that they became friends. In many ways Cassidy's relationship with Ray was similar to his relationship with Sagan. Mostly the two men met in bars, and mostly Billy listened while Ray talked. It seemed that Ray was always involved in some deal or another. One week he would be trying to blackmail a delegate from a Shanghai trade commission, the next week he would be trying to spike an embassy.
There were also deals that had nothing to do with the business of spying. Opium. From Cassidy's first Asian days he had known that the trade routes ran from the southeast in Thailand and Laos, diagonally across Bangkok and into Saigon, Kuala Lumpur, Phnom Penh and finally to Hong Kong. In the beginning opium had been just another abstraction, like Jay Sagan's "counterforce."
Addicts lived in their own lost world with matches, tinfoil and twists of colored paper. These days, though, the trade was no longer so remote. Once a month, sometimes more often, Cassidy would pass a few hundred dollars on to Ray. A week later the money would be returned, doubled, often tripled. Cassidy never asked about these deals. He did not care who bought and who sold. His involvement had started not long after Peking, and now it was simply one of those things that you did like playing horses or saving spare change in a jar. Cassidy was not even certain how much money he had made, which was also indicative of a change since Peking. Before his capture and meeting with John Polly he had been fairly conscientious about money, but now it was just another abstraction.
As for Cassidy's own use, he was not smoking much anymore. Only occasionally with Ray, or else alone on Sunday afternoons. Although Cassidy's involvement with opium was relatively minor, it did bring him into contact with the third most consequential figure in his life—Feng Chi (the man actually responsible for his father's death). Cassidy did not know Feng well, but like all those who worked in the Hong Kong station he felt the man's presence, his power. In the station records there were memos about Feng's early years in Shanghai, and a few police reports regarding his association with a well-organized criminal society popularly known as the Triads. Of Feng's relationship with Jay Sagan ... Cassidy only presumed that the same apparatus that had made Jay Sagan the lord of the Asian intelligence division had also made Feng Chi the lord of opium.
In the main Cassidy lived on the fringes of other people's lives. If others around him did not take him seriously, he did not seem to mind. It was enough that they generally left him alone ...
Such was Billy Cassidy's life at the outset of this story. More than a year had passed since his return from Peking, but few had noticed the change. His memory of John Polly was still clear, his memory of Polly's luminous daughter even clearer. Once or twice he had been known to talk about Polly, but he never spoke of the girl. It hurt too much.
Seven days after John Polly's daughter was abducted, on a Tuesday, the second week in August, Cassidy had risen early, boiled an egg, smoked a cigarette by the open window and went off to work as usual at the Agency facility, which made it easy to forget you were in China. Office walls were paneled in rosewood laminate, the floors in gray linoleum. Certain rooms were partitioned with smoked Plexiglass, others with fiberboard. There was a view of the consulate courtyard from the lounge.
On this morning Cassidy was at work in finance, sorting through the operational expenditures.
Excerpted from The White Mandarin by Dan Sherman. Copyright © 1982 Dan Sherman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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