The London Times’ former Beijing correspondent relates his growing obsession with the case of an enormously wealthy criminal whose whereabouts keenly interested the Chinese authorities.
August began to hear the name of Lai Changxing almost immediately upon his arrival in 1999; less than three months later, Lai vanished after being accused of smuggling $6.4 billion in goods and evading $3.6 billion in taxes. Though he had neither traveled in the country nor studied its languages, the 27-year-old reporter quickly concluded that in some fundamental ways Lai’s odyssey was also the story of modern China. When August was not working on newspaper assignments, he pursued Lai in every way. He hung out in a dance club once frequented by the free-spender and befriended the teenaged dancers who performed there. (How writers must suffer for their craft!) He maintained a residence in Xiamen, once the center of Lai’s power. He cultivated relationships with government officials, journalists, students and businessmen. He visited the birth village of his quarry. He learned Mandarin, read everything he could and surfed the Internet, where Lai’s case had engendered breathless, often factitious speculation. He located and managed an informal tour of the Red Mansion, the abandoned residence (now a museum) where Lai had once wined, dined and concubined his clients and government officials. At various times, the Chinese authorities became very interested in the author’s movements, and he endured a number of “interviews” with ominous, unsmiling bureaucrats. Eventually, Lai turned up in Vancouver, where he sought and, after protracted procedures, received asylum. The author flew to Canada to watch the public hearing and—no surprise by now—to worm his way into a couple of face-to-face encounters with Lai. August artfully delays the powerful denouement until the last dozen words.
A splendid debut.