Death in the Flutter of an Eyelid

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Although its name suggests something racy, the X-Club is strictly PG — if you don't count the killing. But it's the killing that brings scores of regulars — mostly professionals in their twenties and thirties, equally divided between men and women — to the basement of a tall building in the affluent and vaguely bohemian Weigongcun district of China's capital. The killing at X-Club, of course, is done with the eyes, in a winking game that in other countries is confined to pre-teens. Killer, also known as Mafia and Murder, has existed in the United States for decades, but a fast-changing China has incubated an amped-up form of the game popular in dozens of hi-tech bars across China's Eastern seaboard — X-Club, alone, claims 3,000 regular members.

The basic premise of the game is that designated killers bump off cops with a wink, while remaining undetected. When the lights are dimmed, killers work together using a sign language of nods and winks to select a victim. The "police" then try to guess their identity, which is confirmed or denied by the judge. When the lights are turned back up, each contestant speaks either to defend themselves or accuse others before a vote eliminates one suspect. In subsequent rounds more players are voted off until no civilians or killers remain. The first to eliminate all members of the other side wins. For decades, Killer provided amusement exclusively to bored children. But in 2004, Chinese Ph.D graduates from Silicon Valley introduced a new futuristic, highly ritualized form of the game in Shanghai.

Having invented a suitable sobriquet — I don't know of any Chinese serial killers, so "Chairman Mao" will have to do — I'm led into what feels like an executive boardroom: A haze of sweet cigarette smoke hangs over an oval-shaped table around which sit 16 players. I take a slim silver case from the pile on a tray offered by a waitress. It flips open to reveal a card which is not that of a "killer." I try to avoid breathing a sigh of relief. Then the judge's voice rings out over the sound system, "It's night, everybody close your eyes." I belatedly reach for my gray, Darth Vader-style robot mask which makes it impossible to see what is about to happen next.

"Killers, open your eyes. Killers, kill somebody."

The lights dim, and with the darkness comes the incongruous sound of Tom Jones belting out a pulsating party remix of "Sex Bomb." Five minutes later, the music stops. "It's day, open your eyes. Number five has been killed."

Next to me an actress dressed immaculately in the full green uniform of the People's Liberation Army sits slouched in her chair, chain-smoking. She is a member of the elite dance troupe charged with entertaining military top brass. Opposite are a lawyer and some business types. It's my turn to say something. I've played this game many times before with Chinese friends, but I'm lost in the whirlwind of jargon. Keen to avoid a bloodbath in the first round, I make a feeble plea for cool heads to prevail.

"After all the game's only just begun, there's not too much point speculating at this stage," I say in Mandarin. At which point a suited business woman who had been concentrating on her PSP pauses her game and fixes me with an intense stare. I feel a frisson of excitement but look away first."Dog farts! This guy's shifty. He's spoken for three minutes without saying a thing. Keep an eye on him." I gulp, she has obviously mistaken my occasional blinking (caused, I protest, by tiredness) for a sign of guilt.

So, what's the secret of the game's popularity among aspiring professionals? It is not a substitute singles night — many of the players are married. Neither does it involve gambling, which is banned in China. Instead, as 25-year-old bond trader Chen Jinghua confides, players are addicted to the game's heady mix of technology, power and wealth. "I can practice manipulating people and learning how to persuade or hoodwink my opponents into doing what I want, skills that I have to use everyday," she says. Since joining the club, Jinghua has met many like-minded ambitious professionals, and those friendships often open the way to more formal business relationships. "Strangers become intimately acquainted in a short space of time," she explains. "I can look into the eyes of someone and see what kind of person they are."

The game has been running for half an hour when the bright lights are abruptly turned back on, accompanied by a kooky Korean love song. Scores flash on a digital screen revealing that the killers have lost. The latent tension in the room spontaneously erupts into a cacophony of recriminations. "You **** ! I told you, it's all your fault. You should talk less, and think before you open your mouth. Why are you so stupid? Can you tell me that? No! Then you're even more stupid than I thought you were." Sensing it's only a matter of time before this torrent of expletives, issuing from the mouths of female as much as male players, is directed towards me, I deem it judicious to make my exit; and leave well before the bar closes — at 8 a.m. on a Sunday. Another week, another murder spree, and then it's time to return to planning for making a killing at the office.