Dai Li died a death bound to add mystery to the reputation he had built up as head of Chinese general Chiang Kai-Shek's most powerful secret service, the Bureau for Investigation and Statistics (BIS). On March 17 1946, less than a year after the end of the second world war in China, Dai took off from an airfield in north China for Shanghai to a meeting that he feared would conclude with his demotion. Not yet 50, Dai's life ended when his plane flew through low cloud cover and crashed into the side of a mountain south of Nanjing. When the news was announced, rumours spread about sabotage by the communists or the US secret service, about a firefight between Dai and a high-level communist, and even about the possibility that Dai had staged the event to elude enemies. These rumours testify to the fascination that Dai - China's Himmler for some, a tragic hero who came close to saving China from communism for others - provoked then and continues to hold.
Frederic Wakeman, author of this superbly readable biography of Dai, shares this fascination. "Observing Dai Li through his contemporaries'
eyes was like watching a cobra just a room away," he writes in an afterword that explores, darkly, his own fascination with disorder, war, gangland violence and, now, secret services. Wakeman concludes that "comprehending and resisting the viper's hypnotic stare" has given him "the illusion of countering it".
Wakeman is a master narrator with a good eye for detail. He is at his best evoking Dai's youth in a backwater, his transformation from a rural hooligan into a Shanghai Green Gang member, his development into a loyal but marginal servant of Chiang, and his emergence in the 1930s as the trusted chief of the BIS. We are also told about BIS' expansion during the second world war and its collaboration with US covert organisations.
Wakeman sets out the political intrigues, the feuding and the warfare of these years, and reconstructs the complex structures that Dai built and controlled.
Throughout, Wakeman works on several themes that give the book cohesion.
One is the cultural constructions of service and loyalty that underpinned the relationship between Dai and Chiang. These, Wakeman shows, were shaped by often-traditional values sustained by middling but ambitious elites in the countryside. In exploring their world, between that of the westernised urban elites and the peasantry, Wakeman makes a real contribution to our understanding of the period, and offers us opportunities to rethink the social and cultural backgrounds of the maligned nationalists of Chiang.
Another is the suspicion that resulted from the collapse of dynastic China, the struggles to emerge as the new rulers of all of China, and the warfare, banditry and famine. The resulting paranoias generated nasty persecutions and shaped popular understandings of the world during the 1950s and 1960s when one campaign after the other targeted hidden enemies in the most unlikely places.
We do not yet have access to the Chinese archives of the secret services of the communists, the nationalists or anybody else. One important source for Wakeman is Shen Zui's memoirs. Shen was trusted subordinate of Dai, who rose to become the head of its general office. After 1949, Shen stayed in mainland China and, in 1961, Zhou Enlai asked Shen to write down his recollections, which were distributed internally.
Behind this request was criticism within the CCP of Zhou. Zhou had headed the CCP's secret service in Shanghai before 1932 and in Chongqing during the second world war. Some leading communists blamed Zhou for the losses that nationalist intelligence services inflicted on the CCP in these areas.
It is perhaps not coincidental that Shen's memoirs offset the heroism and competence of communist secret services against the viciousness of Dai. But that Shen's account was believable, as Wakeman notes, says something about the atmosphere of the 1960s. So does the fact that Shen turned his memoirs into a bestseller in the 1990s.
Hans van de Ven is reader in modern Chinese history, University of Cambridge.
Spymaster: Dai Li and the Chinese Secret Service
Author - Frederic Wakeman Jr
Publisher - University of California Press
Pages - 650
Price - £49.95
ISBN - 0 520 23407 3