This gripping piece of investigative journalism follows its authors’ attempts to uncover the truth about one of the world’s most dangerous men and his involvement in Iran’s ballistic missile programme. The authors come thrillingly close to tracking down the mysterious Chinese businessman, but Karl Lee, also known as Li Fangwei, remains on the FBI’s most wanted list with a five-million-dollar bounty on his head – a bounty equal to that once offered for information leading to the capture of Osama bin Laden.
The book consists of twenty-eight short chapters focusing on the authors’ pursuit of Lee and the trail of clues they glean from their sources. The authors – Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Frederik Obermaier and Bastian Obermayer, and distinguished reporters Christoph Giesen and Philipp Grüll – travel all over the world in search of the ‘Chinese phantom’, following up leads and interviewing contacts. Their journey from the USA to China takes them through Austria, the United Kingdom and Israel, affording them insights into the balance of power in contemporary international relations.
Lee’s influence is based on his capacity to reliably supply governments with the electronic components required for their weapons programmes, in ways that bypass Western sanctions. The addresses used by Lee for his multiple companies frequently lead to private residences with uncommunicative tenants, although the journalists do locate a graphite factory he owns – graphite being an important component in missile production. The closest they get to Karl Lee himself is to his lawyer and his brother. At the end of their research, they are faced with the possibility that Lee is in prison, although even that remains uncertain.
Lee is a pivotal figure in the power struggle between China and the United States, and the authors conclude that Lee must have protection at the highest level in China. It is suggested that China has an interest in maintaining tensions in the Middle East, which divert American attention away from the Indo-Pacific region. They also suspect that the authorities in the USA and Israel hold back because they do not want to alienate China completely. They finally admit that although – like the Western intelligence agencies who have been in pursuit of Lee for decades – they have come close, they have not fulfilled their aims.
The Chinese Phantom invokes a parallel world of deceit and lies, in which actors like Lee continuously change their identities, remaining several steps ahead of those in power. This is a thrilling and eloquent read which will appeal to a wide audience.
Rights sold: Netherlands, Alfabet.