The notorious gangster Lai Changxing started out as an illiterate farmer, but in the tumult of China’s burgeoning economy, he seized the opportunity to remake himself as a bandit king. A newly minted billionaire of outsized personality and even greater appetites, he was a living legend who eventually ran afoul of authorities. The journalist Oliver August set out to find the fugitive Lai. On his quest he encountered a highly entertaining series of criminals and oddball entrepreneurs—and acquired unique insight into the paradoxes of modern China. Part crime caper, part travelogue, part trenchant cultural analysis, August’s page-turning account captures China’s giddy vibe and its darker vulnerabilities.
August, former Beijing bureau chief for the London Times, crafts a harrowing, super-detailed story of a China exploding with runaway growth yet still trapped in the past and ruled by the ethos of tufei the classical Mandarin word for bandit. By turns delightfully surprising and slap-across-the-face sobering, August's yarn centers on his quest to find Lai Changxing, a country boy turned self-made billionaire, thug and China's most wanted man. August takes him from a private club (where "locks of sequined mermaids waltzed past in merry circles, followed by operatic massifs of rouged Red Guards goose-stepping to 'The Sound of Music' ") and Xiamen, an out-of-control coastal boomtown (with " furious sea of cement and marble, wave upon wave of high-rises rippling out, strips of tarmac submerged at bottomless depths") to a drab government building in Vancouver, B.C., where Lai was being held on immigration charges. August finally sees Lai not as a freewheeling gangster but as a man diminished "Nothing about his physical bearing suggested the lyrical countenance of a tragic hero or a human devil..." This must-read, can't-put-it down tale shows the China only hinted at on the evening news a place of outsized egos, over-the-top commercial development and shadowy, tradition-bound authoritarian rule.