Journalist Oliver August pursues an outlaw Chinese billionaire across an emerging China in Inside the Red Mansion.
China is such a powerful force. Why do you think Americans know so little about it?
It's only recently that the media started taking China seriously. In 1999, when I got there, my editors [at the London Times] were okay if I checked in every few days. They were happy to let me go off into the hinterland without a phone and report the stories I found. I was at Mt. Everest base camp on 9/11. I didn't find out about that for three or four days. It's very different now. Every day you have to file stories. It's the end of the era when a reporter could take time to dig into a story.
When you work on a story so in-depth, is it harder to keep your distance from your sources than in daily journalism?
Yes, it is. When you spend years following a story like I did writing Inside the Red Mansion, you do get close to people. You might be sharing an apartment with a source, seeing them day after day. In the book I tried to describe as well as I could the circumstance of the relationships to build trust with the reader. Also, the people around you are comparatively poor, and they come to see you, the reporter, as a resource. And you want to help them out. Sometimes that's okay. Other times it can cause problems.
What do you think the future holds for China?
I'd say there's still a lot more of the old China around than people give it credit for. I saw a resurgence of interest in imperial history and Confucianism. There's a real tug of war between the ancient and the modern. And it's much too easy to conclude that modernity is winning this race.
You spent a lot of time dealing with the dark side of the Chinese miracle. Did you ever feel in danger physically?
Very rarely. China is a very safe country to travel. The people that I met were extremely welcoming. They were more concerned with their own safety than mine. I did once get caught up in a police raid and was detained for 24 hours. It was chaos. Then the police put me on a plane back to Beijing and that was that.
Where are you now?
I'm in Damascus learning Arabic before my next project. Starting from scratch with language in China caused me to miss a lot of the subtleties of what was said. Now I'm committed to learning the language before I get into my next project.