It’s a conspiracy theorist’s dream. One nation holds most of the planet’s supply of “rare earths”, the metals and alloys key to building many of the developed world’s must-have items, including mobile phones, computers, cameras and precision missiles. And that country happens to be China: the world’s last great bastion of communism (if you don’t count its basket-case dependent, North Korea) and for centuries the focus of western fear, loathing and grudging admiration. This is the dramatic factual premise behind this febrile but enjoyable first novel by Paul Mason, Newsnight’s economics editor.

A paunchy middle-aged reporter called Brough – “a has-been hack with a Yorkshire accent” reeking of whisky – washes up in deep northwest China in May 2009, to make a documentary about the state of the Chinese environment. He is accompanied by his producer, Georgina, a ruthless blonde alumna of Cheltenham Ladies College desperate to swing a Chinese television distribution deal; by an even more washed-up cameraman called Carstairs; and by Chun-Li, their enigmatic Chinese interpreter. After an afternoon filming townspeople sick from factory pollution, the crew is arrested and barely escapes an assassination attempt by a crazed underling from the local propaganda office.

While Brough fakes his own death and flees into the Gobi Desert, Chun-Li (a freelance spy, we learn) promptly dopes a psychotic Mongolian sex maniac with Russian truth-drug, and discovers the area is ruled by a cartel – half-gangster, half-government – that has enriched itself on illegal mining of rare earths.

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