'Inside the Red Mansion' goes behind China's new facade

On the heels of a wanted man, a journalist takes an eerie voyage through modern China.

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Stroll through the street market near Xiamen's train station with former Times of London Beijing bureau chief Oliver August and you will find many items of interest. There are $5 Gucci bags, pirated DVDs of American films plastered with English-language blurbs like "No amount of plastic surgery can save the plot or the creaky ending," an autobiography of Bill Clinton in which the former president tells his wife to "shut up" about Monica Lewinsky, and a Harry Potter sequel depicting the young wizard as a hairy dwarf.

On the more sinister side, identities are also for sale – a point August proves by spending $20 to instantly become a doctoral student in rocket science.

It's funny, it's sad, and, in many ways, it's just plain creepy. And that is true for so much of Inside the Red Mansion: On the Trail of China's Most Wanted Man, August's exploration of contemporary China wrapped around his pursuit of an infamous Chinese entrepreneur. The China August reveals is glitzy, ugly, and eerily soulless, but it's a portrait that will keep readers turning pages, if only in hope of some form of redemption. (Warning: Don't expect much.)

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August begins in 1999 when he stumbles onto the story of Lai Changxing, an illiterate rice farmer who leveraged China's economic boom into fabulous personal wealth – only to end up accused of smuggling $6.4 billion worth of goods into China and defrauding the Chinese government of $3.6 billion in taxes. By this time Lai has already disappeared.

For August, Lai becomes emblematic of the new China. He built his fortune in Xiamen, one of the coastal cities the Chinese government designated as a special economic zone. There, August explains, "One-time workers and peasants gloried in excess, thrived on rule-breaking ... planted skyscrapers by the bushel and overran entire global industries."

It's an era that August compares to America's Gilded Age of the late 1800s, when ambitious immigrants shaped a new US economy by forging railways, meat markets, and steel-frame towers. But in China, it's migrants from the countryside who are building monstrosities like a hotel with pink marble medieval lookout towers and a massive replica of the Forbidden City, in addition to smuggling in foreign cars and televisions.

August travels to Lai's distant hometown, visits the "Red Mansion" that was once his pleasure palace (allegedly filled with concubines known as "Miss Temporarys"), and traces his footsteps wherever he can, but both the man and his essence remain elusive. Photographs show Lai to be "trusting, awkward, toothy," but August comes to suspect that in China identity has become a fungible concept.

Many of today's Chinese, he hypothesizes, don't know how to integrate their peasant roots into a strange new world of money, prestige, and power. August collects friends and contacts along the road to Lai yet ends up with an uncomfortable feeling that he never really knows them.

He befriends Lili, the madam at a nightclub frequented by Lai. He visits the apartment with mock rococo moldings where she lives with a clandestine pet dog and he pages through a vanity photo album featuring Lili in various costumes and staged poses. But of her childhood in the countryside he learns nothing.

To travel with August through China is to be tantalized by quirky glimpses of a maverick culture – one in which golf is played at night to avoid a farmerlike tan, where churches can exist as long as they acknowledge that God is not the highest authority, and where people nonchalantly assume that the media always lies.

August is an entertaining and observant tour guide. He brings to life waiters who lunge "like kamikaze pilots" and makes note of carpet so soft and spongy that it seems "a little sinister." And yet somehow we never seem to arrive anywhere that we really want to go. Much is seen – but more remains missing.

Eventually Lai surfaces in Vancouver and August follows. Interviews August does suggest that Lai was being toyed with all along by his government – allowed to establish illicit trade at low import tariffs, but only so long as that aided China. "Beijing was having it both ways," August writes. "It encouraged citizens to act ever more freely, but without guaranteeing the legality of their actions."

It's ugly and rather murky but then so is most of what August describes. In the end it's hard to tell: Is the life of the new China really so hollow – or just in hiding?

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