The second of Lisa See’s Red Princess trilogy, The Interior is set in a small and remote village in Sichuan Province where Ling Suchee, a peasant woman, finds her daughter’s lifeless body hanging in an outbuilding. Since she cannot get the local police to cooperate, she sends a plea for help to her old friend Liu Hulan, Inspector at the Ministry of Public Security. Lui Hulan had met Suchee when she was sent to Sichuan Province for her re-education during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Liu Hulan travels to the interior to investigate the murder. When she finds out Suchee’s daughter worked for an American-owned company in virtual control of the Chinese interior, Knight International, she decides to go under cover posing as a worker for the company. Meanwhile, in the United States David Stark, Liu Hulan’s lover, witnesses the murder of a friend who was about to give him information related to Knight International.
While the story is a murder investigation, it also bears witness to the formidable invasion of foreign companies in Chinese territory taking advantage of the country’s resources and affordable land prices, as well as of the poverty of people in rural areas who see work at the factories as a better alternative to back-breaking labour in the fields. Companies such as Knight International, in fact, are shown to bring prosperity to rural areas that had, in the past, been at the mercy of “famine or drought or flood” (See 1999: 182). In fact, “at least [the factories aren’t] the fields” (See 1999: 150) and even offer women the opportunity to escape from “abusive fathers or unwanted marriages” or from “bandits or other rogue groups who [sweep] through remote villages kidnapping women to sell into marriages” after the one-child policy resulted in “millions of abortions of female foetuses” so “women … [have become] a valued commodity” (See 1999: 153). Furthermore, these women send their earnings home to their peasant families or save their salaries to open little businesses, so suddenly Chinese girls are “seen by their families as leaders of social and economic change; as a result … female infanticide [has] dropped for the first time in recorded history” (See 1999: 425).
While the novel exposes the abusive working conditions in foreign companies, it also makes clear it is with the complicity of the country itself. In China, See explains, it is not against the law to make money “by putting people’s health and safety in jeopardy” (See 1999: 216). Indeed, foreign businesses go overseas for “cheap labour and great tax breaks” but also because they can “skirt around … laws by hiring children, by using chemicals that would never pass [Western] safety standards, by having working conditions that [are] dangerous, and by employing people for inhumane numbers of hours;” (See 1999: 223-224) after all they are in China and they “can get away with a lot” (See 1999: 252).