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Inside the Red Mansion On the Trail of China's Most Wanted Man Oliver August Houghton Mifflin: 268 pp., $26

July 15, 2007|William T. Vollmann | William T. Vollmann's novel "Europe Central" won a 2005 National Book Award. He is the author, most recently, of "Poor People."

THE tale of Lai Changxing is emblematic of post-Maoist China. The man's like may also be found in post-communist Russia. Here is someone who worked hard, took risks and knew whom to bribe.

Oliver August, who for seven years ran the Times of London's Beijing bureau, did not set himself an easy assignment when he decided to research Lai's career. Once his subject fell from favor and fled the country, people found it best for their health not to talk about him. With "Inside the Red Mansion: On the Trail of China's Most Wanted Man," August comes across as brave, resourceful and determined. Eventually, he even gets to peek inside the notorious Red Mansion where Lai kept concubines for various officials. By then, however, the Red Mansion has been shuttered. Indeed, the subtitle of the book makes the narrative, and August's commendable legwork, sound much more suspenseful than it actually is. I hope it is not giving away too much to reveal that the author does finally meet Lai, who has surfaced in Canada; the content of the resulting interviews is less impressive than the fact that they took place at all.

Although he deserves credit for striving to be otherwise, August is a pedestrian stylist, and his detailing of who refused to say what, and which prostitute he declined to sleep with, serves no narrative purpose other than to remind us of how hard he worked. On the other hand, dullness is often associated with honesty, and everything in this book is eminently believable.

August has a sincere interest in the many people he met -- Lili the dance hall administrator, Fangmin the not-quite-successful entrepreneur, Kim the shaved-headed lesbian -- and he introduces them to us not only as individuals but also as mass participants in, and sometimes victims of, the new China. Often, his characterizations fall short of vividness, and I wish that he had either given them a greater presence in the book, in which case the focus on Lai would have been further diluted, or else removed what comes across as mere padding.

Fortunately, a book does not have to be great literature to teach us something, and it is August's great merit to explain simply and convincingly what role people like Lai play in post-totalitarian economies. As we learn, they are useful not only to the functionaries they pay off but also, for a time, to their own societies. An unnamed vice minister in Beijing explains: "Some people in the government thought it was too early for China to enter the World Trade Organization. The benefit to our country would be to get lower export tariffs. But we would also have to reduce our import tariffs."

How can China have it both ways? Well, here comes convenient Mr. Lai, who smuggles in foreign automobiles at what works out to a lower tariff rate. China can use him without explicitly approving him. He takes the risk; the government reserves the right to change the rules. The vice minister continues: "[O]nce World Trade Organization entry was agreed, he certainly wasn't useful anymore. You will remember he fled around the same time as the entry negotiations were concluded in 1999."

"Inside the Red Mansion" begins very effectively with a scene in a certain dance hall where August must have spent a considerable amount of the Times' money. Lili is waiting to be raided. She has hidden her girls in a locked room. When the police come, she will show them around the other rooms, then invite them upstairs where the sealed envelope of cash is waiting. August implies that this is the modus operandi of the Chinese authorities. They remain free to tolerate Lili and profit from her. She takes all the risks. If and when she, like Lai, stops being useful, they will arrest her. That unnamed vice minister in Beijing has already laid out for us the expedient calculus of the people who take her money. What about her calculus, and what about Lai's? Quite simply, they "reveled in the pursuit of wealth. One-time workers and peasants gloried in excess, thrived on rule-breaking, and turned established morality on its head. They planted skyscrapers by the bushel and overran entire global industries."

This central insight strikes me as more than just true; as I reflect on it, I find it critically important in making sense of present-day China, which, after all, will only increase its significance in our lives. From the cheap and reliable travel alarm clock I recently bought to the tainted medicines in the news, China achieves its effects by being both less centralized and more authoritarian than the America I grew up in. August compares it to the Gilded Age of untrammeled 19th century capitalism. He might equally consider the Bush administration, with its combination of laissez-faire environmentalism and insistence on the right to spy on us. Perhaps a Halliburton contractor or a high-level Blackwater goon could achieve in miniature the ephemeral success of Lai Changxing.

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