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Last Updated on November 29, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 568

Ha Jin criticizes communist China through his depiction of Mr. Chiu's unjust arrest and detention, as well as his recurring illness. Early in the story, the setting is established with a reference to a "concrete statue of Chairman Mao." After Mr. Chiu has been locked into his cell for the night, the narrator says he isn’t afraid because the Cultural Revolution is over, meaning all citizens are considered equal before the law. In the communist regime, this should include the police, too.

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In theory, Mr. Chiu ought to be safe from unjust treatment and handled fairly and equally, but that is not what happens. He is arrested and imprisoned when he has done nothing wrong, and he's expected to confess to a crime he didn't commit. The ideals of the Cultural Revolution and communism, then, have not been realized. Even though Mr. Chiu himself notes that the Cultural Revolution's ending should provide some egalitarianism, this is merely not the reality.

In fact, Mr. Chiu's health can be interpreted as a symbol of this communist political system as well; he literally becomes gravely ill as a result of his treatment. His hepatitis seems to have been in retreat previously, representing his life on the up and up. Mr. Chiu has been recently married, is employed at a university, and working toward a paper publication deadline. He and his wife are wrapping up their honeymoon after two weeks. In general, these factors indicate that his life seems to be going well. When he is wrongfully imprisoned, his illness returns with a vengeance. The government—in the form of the police—has caused his illness to rear its ugly head. It is especially symbolic that the illness was heightened when Mr. Chiu rose to sign the papers confessing his nonexistent crime. He faltered on his way up as if it were the final nail in his moral coffin. Though it is unclear if his health improves in the long term after the imprisonment, it follows that his mistreatment is a linkage. 

Irony runs through the story. The police arrest Mr. Chiu for disrupting public order even though the police officers who spilled on him were in the wrong. They accuse him of sabotage, though this is not the case—yet. When Mr. Chiu spreads his hepatitis through the population, he becomes the titular saboteur at last. 

The concepts of freedom versus imprisonment are overtly discussed in the story. Of course, there is the matter of Mr. Chiu’s physical imprisonment and subsequent release. On a metaphorical level, however, Mr. Chiu and the general Chinese public are not “free.” They must operate under the fear that the government has instilled. Through the manipulation of Mr. Chiu and the bystanders, the police have essentially deemed that no one is safe—even the truth can be corrupted. It becomes a lose-lose situation because honesty means little to nothing to the police.

This unfair, damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario causes him to act out spitefully and irrationally against people who have done nothing to him. Purposely spreading his contagion around the city is the only avenue of action that Mr. Chiu sees fit to act out. By doing so, "Saboteur" seems to suggest a warning: communism will result in the mistreatment of people, failing to offer the equality it promised, and this will lead to violent acts of rebellion.

Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 409

Readers familiar with the literary tradition will see parallels between this story and the work of European writer Franz Kafka, especially Der Prozess (1925; The Trial, 1937), a novel in which a man is arrested and tried for a crime he did not commit. In Ha Jin’s story, as in Kafka’s work, the power of the state to deal summarily with its citizens is revealed as arbitrary and frightening. In “Saboteur,” the individual who has been wronged is able to achieve some measure of revenge. In doing so, however, he merely stoops to the level of those who have perpetrated injustice on him; there is no sense that retribution is justified.

The central literary device used in “Saboteur” is irony. Readers sense from the beginning that actions and consequences are disconnected and arbitrary. The arrest of Chiu is ironic, because he has committed no crime. The willingness of the citizens of Muji to come forward to give testimony against a visitor to their city is ironic because they do not know him. The arrest and torture of Fenjin is ironic because he had come to Muji as Chiu’s savior. Chiu’s intent to infect the citizens of Muji with hepatitis is ironic because by doing so he has become like his captors, a person who inflicts punishment on the innocent simply because he can.

Ha Jin is particularly effective in conveying this irony because he uses a controlled, understated style of writing that relies on simple sentences to relate facts and conclusions. Seldom does he dwell on the emotions of his protagonist. The absurdity of the situation takes on an air of normalcy. The same kind of effect was created by Kurt Vonnegut in his Slaughterhouse-Five: Or, The Children’s Crusade, a Duty-Dance with Death (1969), in which Vonnegut’s narrator dismisses the horrors of the bombing of Dresden with the simple phrase “So it goes.”

Another principal literary device used subtly by Jin is that of sickness as metaphor. Chiu’s hepatitis is a symbol of the sickness of Communist China. It has invaded his body, and although at times it goes into remission, it returns with a vengeance when his body is placed under stress. So it is, the story suggests, with the country as a whole. China is suffering from an invidious disease—communism—that is eating away at its vitality. Given the right circumstances, the disease can break out into an epidemic, with disastrous consequences.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 100

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