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Scorpio In The Dragons Playground
"China is a sleeping Dragon - let her sleep," is a saying attributed to the ever prescient Napoleon, though one cannot find the saying amongst the Emperor's judgements. True or not the dragon is now certainly awake and China, vast, mysterious and potentially all-powerful is the background to Scorpio's most recent adventure. Essentially this is the story of how he located two relatives living in an obscure village in the extreme south of China and managed to bring them safely to Malaysia despite all the difficulties and dangers of an epic escape. But as background of the story is his impressions of a China exhausted by the charmingly named 'Cultural Revolution' in the course of which two million people were butchered by the barbaric Red Guards and a total of twenty million died due to the virtual collapse of the economy and the disease and famine that spread across the country. It was a world almost beyond the imagination of western civilised man. Only in China could these ghastly events have occurred and only China could have recovered as comparatively quickly as it did.
During and after the Cultural Revolution Scorpio had been promoted to Senior Assistant Commissioner and was in charge of the Communist Affairs division at . His duties included organising the briefing and debriefing of visitors to China and when he learned that a Malaysian Trade Mission was to pay an extended visit to China he managed to get himself included in it, suitably disguised as an official in the Ministry of Primary Industries. Before leaving he was asked by his father to trace his relatives in South China and a Commonwealth liaison officer asked him to try and find a 'mole' with whom his Embassy in Beijing had lost contact.
The China he saw on visits to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong and other big cities and to rural China was one of extraordinary contrasts. Lavish entertainment and civilised accommodation (complete with bugging devices in every room) on the one hand, abject poverty and neglect on the other. At its best Communism in China provided that mixture of tyranny and a paradise for prying petty bureaucrats that was the essence of Maoism. At its worse the Red Guards persecuted and killed millions and destroyed with lunatic enthusiasm any vestige of culture and civilisation that they could. And still, somehow, China survived. By sheer luck Scorpio made contact with the 'mole' who had survived years of persecution and hard labour and also chanced to meet some dissident students who wanted to escape from China and were prepared to denounce the whole Communist system once they were free to do so. He noted one of them as particularly well worth helping.
When he was able to get away on his own and contact his relatives he found them living a hand to mouth existence in a small village not far from the ruined ancestral home. Of his four uncles, two had been killed by the Red Guards. One cousin with whom he had played as a child at home was a dejected physical wreck. The other, a much tougher character, was doing as well as could be expected as an illegal trader on the Chinese side of the 'Golden Triangle' where Burma, Laos and Thailand adjoin each other. Here, smuggling, narcotics and nefarious doings supported rival war lords and a tough canny peasantry to whom Law and Order would be a completely meaningless expression.
On returning to Malaysia, Scorpio decided, as a matter of filial duty, to extract his two cousins from China and to add the dissident student to the party. The best way out would be via Laos by a route known to the border trader cousin. The only way in which the escapers would be allowed through the various immigration points would be if they had valid passports. There was also the matter of how he could visit China again on his own since individual Malaysians were not allowed to visit China. They way in which all these seemingly impossible difficulties were overcome and Scorpio brought the cousins and the dissident student out of China to safety is too complicated to describe in this review but Scorpio's former contacts in Thailand, Laos and Hong Kong enabled him, against all the odds, to do it.
The book is worth reading for this escapade alone but the Chinese background is equally absorbing. This includes frank descriptions of the less appealing aspects of that amazing country : examples of insulting gutter language that would be banned in the most bawdy British barrack rooms; food that would make an excellent emetic; and standards of personal hygiene and public sanitation that a reincarnated Neanderthal man would find reassuringly familiar. One's abiding impression is of the skill, determination, and never failing frankness of a remarkable author.
This is the penultimate book of a series which currently numbers four with one still to follow.
To read about the fifth book in this series, click here.