Truth can be stranger than fiction. If Meihong Xu's life story had been scripted by Hollywood, reviewers would have panned it as unbelievable. But it was not scripted. No one, least of all she, could have predicted she would veer wildly from the path prescribed for her. And making the leap from one plot to the other was not without romance, chaos and peril. Hollywood could not ask for a better story than the one Ms Xu and her former husband Larry Engelmann relate in their book, Daughter of China: The True Story of Forbidden Love in Modern China (Headline Book Publishing, HK$91). Things start simply enough. Party elders pluck a smart girl from a farming village, induct her into the Peoples' Liberation Army (PLA) at age 17, train her as an intelligence agent, order her to spy on a well-intentioned but naive professor of history visiting from the United States. You can probably guess the rest. The two become a bit too close. The spy disappears. The professor is forced to leave the country under a cloud. The spy re-emerges months later, expelled from the military and reduced to selling noodles on the streets of a far-western provincial town. Their personal drama then merges briefly with an epic chapter in mainland history, when students and workers occupy Tiananmen Square and public spaces across the country. The disgraced spy uses the opportunity to slip into Beijing. There she is able to phone the professor in the US and leave a message on his answering machine. After much bureaucratic intrigue, they meet and get married. The professor returns to the US and launches an intense and expertly targeted lobbying campaign. A decision is taken at the highest level of the Communist Party to allow the former spy, despite allegedly being a 'danger to state security', to leave the country. Finally, a beautiful-but-chastened young woman steps into the California sunshine, where she joins her husband. That is the point at which Hollywood's silver screen would fade to black. It is also where Ms Xu's first publisher wanted the story to end. But true love does not always conquer all. Real life is sometimes messy. People do get divorced. And publishers have been known to cancel book contracts when 'love story' marketing strategies face a rethink. However, other publishers have been known to pick up cancelled book projects, and life goes on. Ms Xu's life remains as interesting as ever. She has earned a master's degree in business administration and launched a successful second career, with jobs at Apple Computer, digital-music distributor Amplify.net and Sun Microsystems. At present, she is the mainland country manager for Global Internet Ventures, a venture-capital firm that invests in high-technology and Internet-related businesses in emerging markets, initially the mainland and India. Ms Xu likes the company's acronym, GIV, which she pronounces 'give'. Working in the US, the capital of capitalism, represents a startling change for a woman whose intensely patriotic parents named her Meihong, or 'beautiful red', in part to celebrate the Communist Party's revolutionary victory. 'I was, indeed, a very red child,' she recently told a rapt audience of venture capitalists gathered at an Asian Venture Capital Journal -sponsored conference in Silicon Valley. Ms Xu recounted how in school, she and her classmates would march around the playground carrying homemade weapons. 'We would practice shooting at Americans on the billboards, with slogans like: 'American invaders, you are surrounded. Hands up! Otherwise, we are going to shoot'.' In 1981, she was one of just a dozen young women selected from around the country to take part in the PLA's first experimental training of female intelligence operatives since the end of the Cultural Revolution. She and her colleagues were dubbed 'The 12 Pandas' to signify their status as 'treasures' of the army. But the lessons learned while studying guerilla and conventional warfare, survival techniques, Communist Party doctrine, intelligence and counter-intelligence operations, formal and colloquial English, and Western history and culture at the PLA Institute for International Relations in Nanjing were not the ones intended. 'We were young and red, and we believed we could do anything,' Ms Xu and Mr Engelmann write of The 12 Pandas. 'Then something went wrong. It happened gradually over the course of several years. We discovered that the longer we served in the PLA, the more our patriotic passion cooled. When we witnessed the sham machinations and corruption of the gods of our youth - the Communist Party and the PLA - our crisis of faith commenced.' Each of the Pandas has now left the PLA, and three live abroad. Ms Xu, for her part, has become a believer in venture capitalism as a form of development economics. 'I got burned by politics,' she said at the conference. 'And after I arrived in America, I decided that the best way for me to contribute to the country I still love is through economics, to empower people through technology. 'That's why I stayed in Silicon Valley, and that's why I joined all those [hi-tech] companies and a venture-capital fund . . . Global Internet Ventures is a perfect vehicle for me to contribute to the economy and the quality of people's lives in China.' GIV is the brainchild of Bill Melton. He is perhaps best known as the founder of Verifone, a transaction-automation company sold to Hewlett-Packard in 1998 for US$1.4 billion. Mr Melton is also a fluent speaker of Putonghua and an all-round China hand. 'He has such a passion about China,' Ms Xu said. 'He's truly a China expert, not only in a business sense but also culturally and how to work with the government.' In November, immediately after the US and the mainland agreed on the terms of Beijing's accession to the World Trade Organisation, Mr Melton decided that the time was right to start funding Internet start-ups in the world's biggest market. The plan is adventurous, given Beijing's ambivalence about the Web. Mainland officials have been struggling to get a handle on the Internet since they decided to attempt to harness the new medium rather than suppress it. Some had initially favoured building a domestic intranet isolated from the rest of the Internet. But this idea was dropped when it became clear the government could not stop the flow of information into the country. Now Beijing seems to have settled for a piecemeal approach that relies on red tape and occasional warnings. This reflects a fierce internal debate about who should supervise the Internet and has resulted in a blizzard of new, often confusing regulations as ambitious officials lay claim to their own corners of cyberspace. But Ms Xu said the potential gains to be won on the Internet were worth the risk in a vague, evolving regulatory environment. 'I'm very passionate about the Internet business because I think it will enable a lot of Chinese to get information and resources, and to know what's happening, versus traditionally when we had only one channel: the propaganda,' she said. GIV has already funded half a dozen companies. One is a business-to-business procurement service that Ms Xu likened to 'an online Silk Road'. Its aim is to promote trade by bringing together mainland manufacturers and international customers. Another is a site that aspires to be a Chinese-language version of Geocities, the US company that builds online communities. Ms Xu held out high hopes for a generation raised on chat rooms. 'When I was a young girl from the village, I was very curious about what was happening in the outside world,' she said. 'But we were limited. We were not even allowed to read books about Western societies. Now there's this great vehicle for people to get united, get communicated. It's got to promote peace in the world.' The third company is designed for women. It is a Chinese-language site inspired by talk-show hostess and self-help guru Oprah Winfrey, who runs a site called Oxygen. The fourth venture leases global Internet telecommunications applications to Internet companies and wireless carriers, specialising in 'neat technologies to help people get connected more effectively'. The fifth provides online and offline smart-card services, and the sixth provides information-technology and engineering services for start-ups. Ms Xu was convinced that these and other foreign-funded companies could serve as a catalyst for change, particularly once the mainland joins the WTO. 'I know that Apple and Sun, where I worked, treated employees very nicely,' she said. 'We want them to know that everybody's equal and we respect their rights. All of these things will slowly kick in to the larger population, and it will have a very positive influence.' At the age of 36, Ms Xu's second life is moving into high gear - and promises to be as fascinating as the first. Biography Meihong Xu, 36, grew up in Jiangsu province amid the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution. She was inducted into the People's Liberation Army at the age of 17 and became one of the mainland's first female intelligence agents. In September 1988, Ms Xu was assigned to spy on Larry Engelmann, a visiting history professor from the United States. His research materials for a book on Vietnam, which included a carton of declassified documents from the US Central Intelligence Agency, had raised suspicions. In December of that year, she was taken into custody, after allegations about her relationship with Mr Engelmann played into a power struggle between Maoists and modernisers in the Communist Party. One very difficult year later, she was able to leave the mainland and join Mr Engelmann in California as his wife. They divorced in January 1999. She now works as a venture capitalist with Silicon Valley-based Global Internet Ventures.