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Inside the Red Mansion: On the Trail of China's Most Wanted Man Hardcover – July 18, 2007
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"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? Cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, and instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise. Learn more
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. August, former Beijing bureau chief for the London Times, crafts a harrowing, super-detailed story of a China exploding with runaway growth yet still trapped in the past and ruled by the ethos of tufei—the classical Mandarin word for bandit. By turns delightfully surprising and slap-across-the-face sobering, August's yarn centers on his quest to find Lai Changxing, a country boy turned self-made billionaire, thug and China's most wanted man. August takes him from a private club (where [f]locks of sequined mermaids waltzed past in merry circles, followed by operatic massifs of rouged Red Guards goose-stepping to 'The Sound of Music' ) and Xiamen, an out-of-control coastal boomtown (with [a] furious sea of cement and marble, wave upon wave of high-rises rippling out, strips of tarmac submerged at bottomless depths) to a drab government building in Vancouver, B.C., where Lai was being held on immigration charges. August finally sees Lai not as a freewheeling gangster but as a man diminished—Nothing about his physical bearing suggested the lyrical countenance of a tragic hero or a human devil... This must-read, can't-put-it down tale shows the China only hinted at on the evening news—a place of outsized egos, over-the-top commercial development and shadowy, tradition-bound authoritarian rule.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From The New Yorker
In 1999, Chinas Public Enemy No. 1 was "Fatty" Lai Changxing, an illiterate rice farmer turned real-estate and shipping mogul who fled the country, accused of heading a multibillion-dollar smuggling ring. This account, by a former Beijing bureau chief of the London Times, casts Lais rise and fall as a cautionary tale of boomtown China. The author tours the remains of Lais empirea film studio built as a replica of the Forbidden City; a posh brothel where he bribed Party officials with the company of "Miss Temporarys"but he reserves his most vivid prose for the "fakers and fortune seekers, oddballs and outlaws" he meets along the way: canny dance-hall girls, magnates of karaoke and foie gras, an "honesty doctor" who treats patients in a public park. His portraits are so lively that when Lai is finally arrested, at a casino in Niagara Falls, its almost incidental.
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To those of us familiar with Fujian Province and the city of Xiamen, this is especially fascinating, as it shows an inside of Xiamen that academics, official visitors, and tourists never contact. To those unfamiliar with Xiamen it gives a very representative in-the-trenches picture of ways in which contemporary Chinese people creatively deploy entrepreneurial serendipity and governmental laissez faire to accrue wealth and construct social identities in a runaway economy.
August is a good storyteller, and travelers and China hands alike will recognize the way in which "inscrutable" encounters often eventually reveal themselves to be utterly rational - once you know "the other side of the story". Students of Mandarin, or those with some knowledge of the language will appreciate the way August brings to bear popular phrases and metaphors that connect to broader facets of Chinese culture.
As a cultural anthropologist and scholar of China, I have a few dissatisfactions. I wished for a more precise chronology of when August was in Beijing presumably doing what the Times was paying him to do, versus when he was in Xiamen. More problematic is the ambiguity of his facility with Chinese language. He went to China cold -- yet he proceeds through the narrative as if he has basically mastered the language; occasionally he mentions having an interpreter, but most of the time it's as if the language is completely transparent. As someone who's studied Mandarin for more than 20 years, I have difficulty believing that after only a few months a normal person could achieve the level of fluency August seems to have acquired - and yet, beyond brief descriptions of his first two worthless language teachers, he never seems to devote any time at all to studying the language. (Compare Deborah Fallows' recent book DREAMING IN CHINESE, which is a very realistic narrative about learning to communicate in Mandarin in China).
Another problem is the comfortable camaraderie August seemed to consistently enjoy with many of his "informants" - the truth is: no matter how accepted one may feel, one's foreignness in China never completely disappears in the way it seemed to for August, particularly among the working and rural classes with which he often associated. He seems like an honest bloke, but as an educated reader, I would have liked these opacities to have been made more transparent.
A great read for anyone who has lived in or is just interested in China and how it all really works over there.
The use here of one specific corruption case is an excellent device to show the shadowy ambiguities of the striking political, social, and economic transitions that have been underway in the PRC over the past two decades.
The author gives a very good picture of the tension between the needs of modernization and the country's still highly authoritative government: it being no surprise that since Mao's death the stunning economic expansion in China has been propelled in no small part by massive official corruption.
Since it appears Mr. August is now working in the Middle East, I expect another enlightening (and even better written) book in the years ahead on that troubled area.
Instead the story of this book is a metaphor about how the Communist Chinese party has adopted to recent economic change and all the logical incongruities involved.
The main character is Lai Changxing, a self-made billionaire by means of smuggling and shady enterprises before the Chinese government went after him. Why did the government let his illegal activities go on for so long? Because modern China is not a country ruled by law (despite what they say). The government allows laws to be bent/broken so long as there are plenty of bribes all along the way. At any stage the government feels free to reign in the relaxed laws and kill off the people behind them as criminals. This way the Party never has to say they made any mistakes or they changed their minds. They turn a blind eye to illegalities so long as the bribes continue lubricating the breaks, and if it gets out of hand at any point, the perpetrator can be punished without regret.
The book is very readable and makes many of the seemingly illogical actions of the Chinese Government more understandable. There is also a very good feeling of place because the descriptions of the people and places are superb.
I read this book from the library and then bought a copy from Amazon because I wanted to own it. I can recommend it to anyone who has the slightest interest in Modern China.