Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Review: Inside the Red Mansion, Oliver August (2007)

The story of Lai Changxing's downfall? It's more. The story of his life? No, it's more than that, too. A survey of government-business relations in China? Yup, that's more like it. So: endemic corruption is fuelled by bad laws that allow government officials to trade in what they really possess - influence - for money and favours.

But this is no mere catechysm of the failure of governance in Communist China. Oliver August, the author, is a journalist. In his wallet there's a dog-eared, laminated photo showing him shaking hands with Jiang Zemin. It pops out frequently in China, in our case when he's talking to the madam of a brothel in Xiamen, Fujian Province.

August, a Times of London correspondent based in Beijing, spends a lot of time in Xiamen, a booming southern city built upon the foundations of the old colonial outspost of Amoy. He decides early on in his sojourn to chronicle the exploits of Lai Changxing, a successful businessman who has been proscribed by Beijing as a criminal.

The search for clues takes August into a hundred fascinating situations, which he tells us about. There's Lili's brothel-cum-stage-show-palace. There's the all-night golf course where caddies are hired to spy on opponents as well as to pass over clubs. There's the Red Mansion itself, Lai's 'pleasure dome' for entertaining the beneficiaries of his largesse.

And August is indefatigable. His inquiries serve to turn over the stone of silence that perennially caps Chinese affairs. Beneath the solid cover, we can see a people striving to negotiate the confusing and - frankly - rudimentary web of Chinese laws, pushing the boundaries in their quest for wealth and status.

August also pushes the boundaries, sometimes to humourous effect. The book opens with an encounter with officialdom in the form of nosy police in a hotel lobby. It ends with another unwelcome visit from state functionaries, who press him for information about his activities. In the end, he bluffs his way out of these encounters.

As for Lai, the journalist's prey, the story ends decisively, but I won't spoil it for curious readers. The search for the truth about Lai is not just about working out if he's guilty of what the state says he is. It's about understanding the state itself. August helps us to do this in this brilliant, very-readable book.

Highly recommended.

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