“Saboteur” by Ha Jin takes place immediately following the end of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The setting is the fictitious city of Muji City. The tone of the story is harsh, brutal, and frustrating.
The main character is Mr. Chiu, who is a teacher at a college. He has just recovered from hepatitis and still feels some of the effects of the disease. Chiu and his new bride are returning from their honeymoon. Sitting outside eating their lunch, they are waiting on the train to take them to their home.
Chiu reacts to a policeman who spills food on the couple. Chiu accosts the policeman and is taken to prison. Charged with sabotage, he spends the week-end in jail. Chiu’s health worsens.
A young lawyer comes to help him. Chiu sees his lawyer tied to a tree, having been tortured. Chiu is taken before the official and signs a confession to the false charges. He and the lawyer are set free. Chiu eats many meals in several cafes as he leaves the city.
Because of his contagious hepatitis, eight hundred people acquire the disease including six deaths. Chiu has exacted his revenge.
The title of the story is misleading. Mr. Chiu is not a saboteur. However, at the end of the story, Chiu does take on the role when he decides to gain his revenge by using his illness to spread his hepatitis. The policemen are saboteurs because of the lies they tell to place Chiu in jail. Going a bit farther into the historical aspect of the story, Mao Zedong created an atmosphere in China through his dictatorship and limiting liberty and justice.
The author creates an atmosphere that allows the reader to accept the premise of the story. It seems outrageous that someone can quietly eat his lunch; then, with no provocation be handcuffed and taken to jail for no reason. His treatment is appalling.
Ignoring his illness, Chiu tells the jailers that he is sick and needs help. They do nothing to help him. The food is appalling and the treatment inhumane. Chiu’s hepatitis returns with a vengeance, which sets up the situation for him to sign the confession. He needs to see a doctor.
Mr. Chiu was so sick that he couldn’t stand up from the chair at first try. In his chest he felt as though there were a bomb. If he were able to, he would have razed the entire police station and eliminated all their families. Though he knew he could do nothing like that, he made up his mind to do something.
In addition, the torture of his lawyer is criminal. This is the second reason that Chiu agrees to sign the false confession. The lawyer does not understand what the teacher is doing at the end of the story. He looks at his former teacher and perceives a face that he has never seen before. Although the lawyer does not recognize it, Chiu’s countenance reflects his willingness to commit an immoral act to gain his revenge.