Sunday, May 31, 2009

Review: Inside the Red Mansion



German-born, Oxford-educated journalist, Oliver August, spent seven years tracking the story of Chinese businessman/gangster/fugitive Lai Changxing in order to write Inside the Red Mansion: On the Trail of China's Most Wanted Man.

By the time August arrived in China in 1999 as a London Times reporter, Lai was already on the lam, the subject of a massive criminal investigation by the Chinese government. August followed Lai’s trail geographically, socially, and mythically – renting an apartment in Xiamen, Lai’s home base; visiting the Lai's pleasure palace, the Red Mansion; talking to anyone he could find who ever met Lai; and parsing internet rumors of Lai that painted him as either the greatest entrepreneur of modern China, a Mafioso-style criminal, or a Robin Hood combination of both.

Lai’s story is a fascinating one, but the book is much larger than his story. Oliver uses Lai’s individual reinvention from illiterate peasant to billionaire tycoon as the vehicle to discuss the tumultuous decades of China’s reinvention as a dominate market economy. He gives enough of China’s 20th Century history to give context to the story, and he uses clues about Lai as topical springboards for examination of different aspects of modern Chinese life.

For instance, Oliver writes about popular midnight golf because he heard Lai liked to play, the world’s largest fois gras farm because Lai knew the enterprising owner, and an “underground” Christmas pageant attended by 5,000 Chinese Christians because he read a rumor that Lai had converted.

Oliver’s discussion is not merely anecdotal and entertaining, although it is both. His analysis of the political and cultural climate in China is astute, and he does not shy away from tackling the bigger issues facing the country – primarily the need for transparency in government, democracy, and the rule of law. As Oliver explains, rogues like Lai flourished because the government in Beijing needed them to change the economy while the government continued to maintain “official” positions contrary to the economic upheaval. Only when the government changes will real change come to China.  

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