Thursday, June 29, 2006

Book Review:
Fires of the Dragon

David E. Kaplan's Fires of the Dragon (Scribner, 1992) skillfully balances biographical reconstruction with that of the historical and political currents that shaped the lives of the main participants in this gripping tale of espionage, intrigue, and murder. This is as suspenseful a page turner as any of Eric Ambler's or John Le Carre's best works. It is also superbly paced and has very few of the redundancies that so often haunt books of this genre.

Kaplan does a superb job at mingling the lives of the principal characters - writer Henry Liu (江南), the Chiang family back in Taipei, and a wide-ranging cast which includes Taiwanese, Mainland and American spies, government officials, and the criminal underworld - with the laden events of the Nationalists' "loss" of China to the Communists in 1949 and their exile to neighboring Taiwan. The author's portrayal of Taiwan under Chiang Kai-shek and his son, Ching-kuo (蔣經國), and of the repressive security apparatus they relied upon to sustain their power over the island, is thorough and altogether informative. The regime's aggressive intelligence activities overseas, which included influencing foreign governments (namely that in Washington), stealing weapons technology, spying on the Chinese diaspora and dissident groups, and - the backbone of the book - a direct role in the assassination, in 1984, of Henry Liu, a journalist who played all three countries' intelligence services to his advantage and who wrote a critical biography of Ching-kuo, are brought to light with a commendable attention to detail.

Buttressing the events so deftly described by Kaplan are the shifting grounds of politics of the period, as Washington switches its recognition from the Republic of China on Taiwan to that of the People's Republic of China. There, too, Kaplan excels at providing just the right amount of information to understand the history of the Washington-Beijing-Taipei triumvirate. Above all, his book demonstrates how the interplay of history and politics can affect the lives of those who choose to be participating citizens, as Henry Liu certainly was. It is, above all, the tale of one man who never shied from telling the truth to power and who unsparingly criticized both Beijing and Taipei. So incisive was the journalist's writing that, in the end, the underworld of Taipei's security apparatus, with help from criminal elements, extended their reach all the way to California and assassinated Liu at his residence.

Even though the book wraps up around 1992, at which point both Chiang father and son have left the scene and been replaced by the reformist Lee Teng-hui(李登輝), Kaplan's book still manages to retain its immediacy. More than fifty years after Mao's military victory on the Mainland, the Taiwan Strait issue remains unresolved. Not far behind that lingering diplomatic tension lurk old reflexes that, given the right circumstances, could undoubtedly give rise to reprehensible behavior of the kind that is so vividly exposed in this book. Taiwan's transformation, in so little time, from a state ruled by fear into an overwhelmingly vibrant democracy is nothing less than miraculous. Fires of the Dragon provides all the information one needs to fully realize why such a result indeed is the stuff of miracles.

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