Manhunts don't come much stranger than the one that has preoccupied journalist Oliver August for the past few years. It isn't a black-and-white tale of heroes and villains. Instead, there's a billionaire racketeer and authorities who - for a time, at least - tolerate him. August's quarry, Lai Changxing, is not a dark anti-hero of perilous charm and sophisticated habits; he's an illiterate from China's Fujian province who, when we first meet him, is lounging in a nightclub buying plastic bouquets to rain on a favourite dancer. August arrived in Beijing as bureau chief for The Times of London in 1999 - the youngest ever, at just 27. Born and raised in Germany, he was fixed on being a foreign correspondent from an early age. He played truant from Oxford University to report the war in Bosnia in 1993, and soon after he left college was snapped up by The Times, posted first to New York, then to Beijing. He hadn't been there long before he heard the legend of Lai Changxing. His curiosity was piqued, but he wouldn't have been nearly so interested in Lai had he not begun to realise what a peculiarly representative life the man had led. 'He was born into what is probably the darkest time in modern China, the Great Leap Forward,' August says. 'During his first few years his family were starving, and the spectre of starvation returned again during the Cultural Revolution. 'With the death of Chairman Mao, and Lai's 18th birthday, things slowly began to improve, but then new problems presented themselves - how do you deal with an economy that is opening up when officials demand bribes? How do you suddenly go from a system where you work on a collective farm to one in which you're expected to strike out on your own? Well, as much to his own surprise as anyone else's, Lai was extremely well equipped for this. He was a natural at setting up businesses, at engaging people, drawing them to his cause, charming them, bribing them.' Lai was born in 1958 into a peasant family of eight in Shaocuo, a village amounting to no more than a cluster of houses near the port city of Quanzhou. He got started in business in a humble way: having trained as an apprentice blacksmith, he began making car parts. He moved to Xiamen, a city August describes as a typical coastal boom town, and there he began importing televisions and then cars. Then, all of a sudden, it seems (Lai's story is full of whispers and mysteries), he's a multimillionaire property developer, playboy and smuggler. 'Smuggling was the main thing,' August says. 'Cars, oil and cigarettes, mainly. And these profits he used to fund construction projects and assorted hobbies like a football team.' By the mid-1990s, Lai was more than a shady businessman - he was a dynamo of the economy. While he resided in Xiamen, the city's economy grew by 20 per cent. He put up apartment blocks with gaudy pink marble dressing. He constructed for himself a replica of Beijing's Forbidden City (taking care to include the portrait of Mao). And he built the Red Mansion, the pleasure palace that gave August the title for his book, and the place where Lai bribed the thousands of officials necessary to make his organisation function. Unfortunately, less than three months after August arrived in Beijing the authorities issued a warrant for Lai's arrest, citing evasion of US$3.6 billion in taxes. Lai, however, had been tipped off and had fled. So, before he had even begun, August's prey was China's most wanted man. And, unlike before, when many people had been happy to talk about Lai and celebrate his mythology as a bandit, now few people would discuss him at all. August was often left looking at what the man had left behind. Sometimes, that was literally holes in the ground: August took up unofficial residence in Xiamen to pursue his target and, at one point, he stands peering into a vast concreted pit, the foundations of one of Lai's stalled building projects. Nevertheless, August persisted. His tale is not a full-throttle chase. Instead, it's an informed walk-through of life in contemporary China, one populated with characters such as Lilli, the owner of the nightclub Lai once frequented, and Fangmin, the taxi driver and would-be entrepreneur who befriends August and brings him to dinner with two government officials, introducing him as an American diplomat. Lai, it seems, is not alone - everyone has some scheme going to play the system, bribe the government and better themselves. But Lai has a special importance. 'Smuggling is where Lai's political significance lies,' August says. 'He was doing this at a time when China was changing from a still fairly closed economy in the early 1990s to a fairly open economy in the late 1990s. He lived through that and probably accelerated that development, but he also fell victim to it in the end when the rules changed and people like him no longer had a role anymore. Tariff barriers were lowered and smugglers couldn't really make any money, nor were they really any use to the system.' Once again, Lai's life intersected with China's political maturation: just about the time that talks were concluded on joining the WTO, the authorities called time on Lai. While Lai's business dealings say much about the mainland's economy, August believes his leisure activities also say much about the less tangible forces of desire that are propelling the country along. Lai defined conspicuous consumption. He would load up on Hennessy XO, the status drink du jour, when he arrived at Lilli's, and his largesse was famous. But he only reflects the spread of wealth throughout the mainland. More than a third of all the Bentleys now sold go to the mainland, a thousand golf courses have been built since the sport was legalised in 1984, and the country is now consuming half of the world's concrete in its hunger to build. This is, August argues, the mainland's Gilded Age. 'All things come to an end eventually,' he says, 'but I don't think China is anywhere near the point where it's plateauing - economically, or in terms of social change. I don't think there'll be a political revolution of any kind. Nor do I think it will falter economically. The interesting thing - thinking of America's Gilded Age, from the end of the civil war to the beginning of the first world war - is that it was a very long time. The public memory of it is of increasing wealth and industrialisation, but if you look more closely it was a time of great ups and downs. 'So, while the optimists' case regarding China is that it will just go on like this, the pessimists' case is not that it will stop, but that we will get on to a roller coaster.' Either way, it will have to continue without the help of Lai. It would be unfair to reveal the details of Lai's fate, as August squirrels that away as his cliffhanger, but August does get his man and his meeting. And, as it could only ever be, it's an odd and inconclusive encounter. Was August disappointed with the man he met? 'Initially, yes. He was a smaller figure than I expected. I already knew he was illiterate, I knew he wasn't a very sophisticated man, but it really was just like meeting some man from Fujian province in a roadside restaurant. It was only after spending a little more time with him that I saw what I thought was his genius - and that was his sociability. He was doling out food to people in the restaurant that he'd never met before! It was only then that I understood how he managed to rope in thousands of Chinese government officials. It was charisma - a very Chinese form of charisma. He was respectful, gregarious, sociable. He had a magic about him.' Writer's notes Genre Non-fiction Latest book Inside the Red Mansion: On the Trail of China's Most Wanted Man, John Murray/Houghton Mifflin HK$208 Age 36 Born Bremerhaven, Germany Family Single Other works Along the Wall and Watchtower: A Journey Down Germany's Divide Other jobs Store detective, cook at a hotel and construction worker Next project Cross the Alps on foot from Munich to Lake Como What the papers say: 'A fondness for China shines through Oliver August's pages. He is a careful and thoughtful observer, with an eye for emblematic contradictions.' - Los Angeles Times 'Delightful, funny and perceptive. Inside the Red Mansion is a picaresque adventure that provides a look at a part of modern China rarely glimpsed by the outside world.' - Atlantic Monthly '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.' - Publishers Weekly Author's bookshelf Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt 'I recently visited Savannah, a city in the southern US founded by British colonialists. The similarities with the southern coastal towns in China that functioned as treaty ports in the late Qing dynasty were unmistakable. Set in Savannah, Midnight captures perfectly their colourful and unexpected otherness.' In Cold Blood by Truman Capote 'Capote is the standard against which true crime writing has been measured for the past four decades. I enjoy re-reading In Cold Blood, but his style of narration doesn't work particularly well for China. Capote is an absent, invisible narrator revealing absolute truths. Very few truths in China are absolute. That's what fascinates.' Bandits by Eric Hobsbawm 'For a long time, I struggled with the question of whether Lai Changxing was a real criminal or not. Then I found Bandits, written in the 1960s. It chronicles the lives of bandits a la Robin Hood who played political roles. I disagree with Hobsbawm, who regards many of them as legitimate social reformers. But he inspired an awareness of the political dimension of the Lai case. I now believe Lai was an unwitting but important actor in China's transformation.' A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe 'I read this book on a beach in Thailand a few months after September 11 when everyone's attention was focused on Afghanistan. It somehow reconnected me with China. Wolfe writes about the lives of the new - and old - rich in Atlanta, Georgia. With every page I turned, I thought. 'Gosh, why has nobody recorded the same for China?' I'm fascinated with the universe of ambition and compromise, and with the accidents of taste and the colourful deeds of entrepreneurs on both sides of the Pacific.'