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'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.)

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.

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