Three concepts dominate this starkly matter-of-fact story: deterioration, authority, and human warmth. Deterioration comes early in "Saboteur." We see it in the pigeons roosting on the statue of Chairman Mao. This august symbol of the People's Republic has been infested by a common, urban pest. This is reinforced by description of the smell of rotting melons. In both instances, the positive (the cultural reverence associated with Mao and the sweetness of melons) has been broken down by the ordinary and inevitable hand of time. Chiu's sickness has broken him down as well.
Authority is an ironic element throughout the story. The police act out a corrupt authority over Chiu when they intentionally throw tea on his feet, tossing the dregs of their consumption onto the bottom of his being, and arrest him when he complains about it. His stay at the local jail has him completely under the authority of the petty, brutal police, and though he tries to establish his own authority as a scholar, it is subsumed by the police's intention to punish him for something unknown. The failure of his own authority is symbolized by the arrival of his student, whom the police chain to a tree outside and torture. His actual and symbolic acquiescence in signing an untrue confession shows him giving up authority to the police while exercising an authority over his student. Even if indirect, he can only influence the student by giving in to the police, which allows the student to go free.
A pervasive problem faced by Chiu is one of human warmth, or rather the lack of warmth. The story begins at a small restaurant, a scene of social interaction and human connection. However, Chiu shows no affection for his wife. The narration never names her except to call her "his bride." When the police initiate the conflict with him, he coldly sends his wife away. The jail is clearly a setting of coldness and inhumanity, and ironically, we see Chiu responding to his situation in a cold, calculating manner. No fond memories of his wife and their love for one another or friendships or family offer comfort. And when we see him give in, signing the false confession, he exits the jail and returns to the setting of a restaurant. In fact, he visits several restaurants and eats small amounts of food, bringing his own personal corruption, in literal terms the hepatitis, but in figurative terms the disease on his soul, into the warm social environment of these eating establishments.