As Desmond Shum was growing up impoverished in China, he vowed his life would be different. Through hard work and sheer tenacity he earned an American college degree and returned to his native country to establish himself in business. There, he met his future wife, the highly intelligent and equally ambitious Whitney Duan who was determined to make her mark within China’s male-dominated society. Whitney and Desmond formed an effective team and, aided by relationships they formed with top members of China’s Communist Party, the so-called red aristocracy, he vaulted into China’s billionaire class. Soon they were developing the massive air cargo facility at Beijing International Airport, and they followed that feat with the creation of one of Beijing’s premier hotels. They were dazzlingly successful, traveling in private jets, funding multi-million-dollar buildings and endowments, and purchasing expensive homes, vehicles, and art.
But in 2017, their fates diverged irrevocably when Desmond, while residing overseas with his son, learned that his now ex-wife Whitney had vanished along with three coworkers.
This book is difficult to review because, while it is an unpleasant read written by a vain and contemptible plutocrat, it does put a spotlight on the significant problem the government of modern China has become. Too often the problem (at least in American political discourse) of China is lost in an endlessly simplistic conversation of communism versus democracy. Such discussions miss that China, while calling itself communist, has evolved into a much more complicated and troubling political system than a traditional communist country. Over the past 30 years China has, with the cooperation and financing of Western democracies, taken the worst excesses of capitalism and combined them with the authoritarian power structure of a cold war communist dictatorship. The result is a novel and frightening political system that has created an extreme oligarchy controlled by a few families of communist party elites and which ruthlessly suppresses the basic rights of its citizen to maintain control.
So as a book that exposes this system, it is a worthy testimonial. Shum's first hand experience with the utter corruption and duplicity of the CCP is a needed wake up call to the world. In this sense the book is quite useful. As an enjoyable read, however, this book is a complete failure.
The author, Desmond Shum is an arrogant narcissist who seems to view the accumulation of capital as the ultimate good. Much of the book is a tedious recitation of nauseating consumption. You will hear endlessly about the wine he drinks, the designer clothes he wears, and the sports cars he drives. Though the book is a damning indictment of China's government, it is an equally damning account of the amoral capitalists that helped make the government into the shambling gangster state it has become.
To be clear, Shum is no hero. He, his wife, and people like them were willing participants in the Chinese system. They exploited labor, engaged in staggering government corruption, and had no problem supporting a government exclusively and brutally run by a cadre of families descended from the original Chinese communist revolutionaries. It was only when those families turned on him that Shum developed a conscience. Before that he willingly exploited every sin of the Chinese system for his own benefit without batting an eye. He even staged phoney counter demonstrations to undermine the Hong Kong democracy activists who were desperately trying to save their homes from autocratic control. This last act was particularly galling when you consider Hong Kong was a refuge to Shum and his parents after they were able to escape from China in the 1970s.
To be clear, no one has clean hands when it comes to China. But if most of us, who have blithely ignored the brutally repressive tactics of the CCP so that we could consume endless amounts of inexpensive goods manufactured in China, deserve a vacation in the 1st layer of Hell, Shum is a fully naturalized citizen of the 9th. Nevertheless, while I find Shum repulsive, this book does give an insiders account of what is so deeply wrong about the Chinese political and economic system. The world needs more evidence of that, so for that reason this book might be worth a read if you can stomach it.
I'm a bit torn on how I want to rate this... On one hand, this is an incredibly unique memoir from a Chinese billionaire that made enormous sums of money from his connections to China's Red Aristocracy (members of the super rich elite class of the Communist Party). Along the way, he gossips and reveals the inner deals of many of these business transactions. How many people are going to write a book from that POV? For this, I'll likely rate it higher than it deserves.
On the other hand, Shum is unapologetically capitalistic and self-aggrandizing, ambitious and power hungry, with a rags-to-riches story that sometimes feels both tone deaf and in bad taste. I think he's kind of an ass, and this had me rolling my eyes as I listened to the audiobook. It's also not the best written memoir - lots of name dropping and jumping around to reaccount business deals made the content repetitive and dull in a few parts.
My biggest takeaway here is that the leading Chinese Communist Party is literally the antithesis of the communist ideology, where EVERYTHING you do is dictated by your political and financial leverage, and an implicit system of you-scratch-my-back-and-I'll-scratch-yours. I know corruption exists, but this book made it seem like it was the baseline norm; a deceitful foundation for the entire political and economic success of China.
The blurb mentions that Shum's wife was "disappeared" a few years ago (although apparently she resurfaced recently to tell him not to publish this book). This book isn't about that disappearance - this doesn't occur until 98% through the book in the Afterward. But, much of the book is her story, but obviously without her input. Shum paints her both positively and quite negatively, and I can't help feel like this piece had the flavor of a memoir, without the authenticity. While the author is the "reasonable" billionaire, she is fascinating in her ruthlessness and strategy. I would have loved to hear her story from her own POV, but I doubt we'll get the chance. I can't help but wonder how the publishing of this book will impact his wife's status as a political prisoner. I don't think it will help her case.
Red Roulette is a rags-to-riches autobiography of entrepreneur and real estate developer Desmond Shum. Born in Shanghai in 1968 and raised in Hong Kong, Shum describes how his humble upbringing - which came from the fact that his grandfather was marked as a member of the low-ranking “black category” in post-Communist Revolution China - galvanized his entrepreneurial spirit. Red Roulette is a tell-all book that traces the steps of Shum’s journey, including his business dealings, his eventual partnering (both in business and marriage) with fellow ambitious entrepreneur Whitney Duan, and the inside happenings of China’s political environment that made Shum’s fortune possible. . Review: Red Roulette is full of twists and turns. With a steady pace and writing that flows easily, this is a quick read. In particular, the descriptions of wealth and spending are, I think, especially interesting purely for their opulent spectacle. I will say that I had trouble becoming fully emotionally invested in this book once the chapters shifted from Shum’s childhood to his adult business ventures. I felt like I got to know Shum on a very personal level in the early chapters, but not so much in the later ones when the focus was more on business dealings. However, I still say to pick this book up if you’re interested in an in-depth perspective on the intersection between Chinese politics and business, because this book definitely delivers on that! . Thank you to Scribner for sending me a copy of Red Roulette in exchange for an honest review!
I grew up in Beijing and studied in US. This book resonates me a lot. There are many familiar locations and I used to go pass by them everyday, the Oriental Plaza, the Beijing Hotel, the Shunyi etc. Obviously this book is only telling one side of the story and the author pretended to be innocent (装糊涂). It feels more like 'cleaning the carpet after murder scene' (洗地) for himself and related people. I have tons of confusions after reading this book. So this is not a full review of Red Roulette rather than my own notes.
As a person like me followed the western media reports for Chinese gov official secrets, most of the book is no news. WSJ/BBG/FT/NYT their reports along with internet rumors have covered most of the meats of this book. I believe this is intentional -- Shum carefully selected those open stories and added some nonimportant salt, e.g. no one really cares ZhangPeiLi eats instant noodles in 5-star hotel or if GuLiPing is not into fashion. That's not real meat we readers are looking for.
The questions and top of minds. * Who are the intended readers? Why is the book written in English? Obviously Shum is tri-lingual and speaks mother-tongue Mandarin. For this book's content, the best readers are people in China, right? Why there's no Chinese-version in the first print run? It looks very intentional.
* The author is trying to 'wash-white' himself （洗白）. It is not up-to-Shum to state if an act is corruption, it is the law, also for CCP members, it is the discipline rules. For example, if an official A approved some lands acquisition knowing you've connections to Prime Minister Wen and you made huge money, and later on official A got promoted to higher-level GaoGan. Is this crime/corruption? From the surface, 1) the land acquisition has all sort of legit documents. 2) the official A got promoted since Wen supported him proactively. 3) The official A is very capable of getting things done. If we read them separately, they are all legit actions, no crime involved. But if we connect the dots, this is power-money-trade (权钱交易), a clear crime going on.
* For the 3rd-gen red son/daughters, author only wrote 3 of them, the already publicly known Jasime Li 李紫丹 and Alvine Jiang 江志诚 because of their high-profile activities. Also LiuShiLai who seems dealing with money at much smaller level (but still afford to live in Four-Season Residence in Beijing anyway).
* Did Shum really love Whitney Duan? Is it cause Whitney can bring Shum this hidden-China so Shum married her? Also, did they divorce because of Shum's political sense and intently started fighting against Duan?
The book described 3 major business, 1) Ping An stock 2) Airport City (北京航空城）3) Hua Du Hotel (later on Genesis 启皓北京, including Bulgari Hotel). From all these deals, Ping An stocks made their fortune the most and earliest. PingAn listed China A-share in 2007 during the peak bull run and its price never hit that high point after 14 yrs. Since they own 1% (Wen has 2% as stated in book), that's to say they probably pocketed ~$1B USD in 2007 money (Shum described "hundreds of millions dollars gain"). It made me thinking how come they spent too much efforts on the Airport City project , they can continue to play the stock market game like Winston Wen which is much easier.
Further more on Ping An, Whitney and Shum instate that they paid a 'fair price'. This is untrue. On the very-same day, China Central Bank's chief's son-in-law, Che Feng, also bought Ping An private stock. Ping An is state-owned and big meat -- everyone knows it. Not really as Shum described that no one wants.
Several one-side story as I observed,
1. There are many reports on Whitney in Chinese media too. And some reports contradicted the book. It is well-known that Whitney started real-estate business in Tianjin before her expansion to Beijing and Whitney knew Wen's relatives in Tianjin already. It can be verified by company filings as shown in Caixin Magazine. Shum only mentioned Whitney was 'selling some mainframe servers to banks'.
2. There is zero mentioning of their business with Wen's sons and daughters as well as Wen's younger brother. From public company filings, it is known that publicly that they have done business together. The author deliberately avoided this and added writing about Wen's wife's gigolo.
3. The author positioned to have setup a foundation to 'improve China'. This is untrue, or not 100$ sincere statement. The Kaifeng （凯风公益基金会）head is Yu Keping. Shum only mentioned Yu promoted democracy, but at the time of hiring Yu Keping is a key person to Hu Jintao on political advice. Obviously, they want to have influent on Hu beyond Wen family. And this is one important guanxi they were cultivating.
4. At the end, author left China, largely blaming political wind-shifting after Xi is in charge and blamed CCP's press on entrepreneurs. I don't quite buy-in this. What are you expecting Mr.Shum? Continue to collect money in China like before, this 'industrial-level corruption' as in Hu&Wen era using your guanxi? All your guanxi are cut by Xi, such as Ling JiHua, Sun ZhengCai, Wen Jiabao. Xi is probably not the best choice, or a intelligent guy but I kinda support him in this crackdown of guanxi corruption including princelings. Assume Whitney has cultivated Xi's family, the Author could be enjoying his above-Bulgari Hotel penthouse in Beijing and looking over all the embassy buildings.
5. At the very beginning, Shum set the tone that Whitney claimed to be 'no dirt'. This is very laughable since he had threatened Whitney for more money in the divorce court because he know what she has done. Also contradictory, he in the last paragraph, he still implies Duan is innocent by law because she is 'cautious'. What the author wants to say (to China) is that '*HE* is in line'.
6. For all the people got mentioned in the book, 99% of them are already detained or politically weak or politically too-strong-to-move. Only people like Chen Xi， Chen-min'er， Song Zhe got natural attitude. This is a smart-move to protect these people and himself. Other people heavily involved in investment business, e.g. Che Feng, or Zeng Qinghong's son or Liu YunShan's son are closely tied to Wen family.
There's one-story made me really sad, is that how Whitney and Shum treated that COSCO chief, the guy sold Ping An stocks to them. He didn't get promoted to GaoGan (vice-ministry admin level) and even his daughter asked for $500k USD they refused. This is very coldhearted. Although they claimed they paid a fair price (as I mentioned above), this is obviously a lie.
I haven't research into Genesis project (Hua Du), but what they claimed that they are the only-bidder in the land auction a lie. Everyone knows who they are so other bidders just don't want to bid. It is known to be a prime location in China's capital. Shum's argument makes no sense at all.
Shum and Duan lived a luxury life and in some way, it's hard to distinguish Great Ocean (泰鸿) v.s. Wen's money. They have more co-investment than stated in the book. Form my POV, Duan is too Chinese and didn't expand overseas, this is definitely a mistake. As I know nearly all early-new-richies have foreign passports and transferred assets. This short-sight and lack of international kindset killed Duan.
Last on Xi, for everyone's perspective, Xi is a open-minded towards westerner and more opening and people-loving in the very beginning. And people supported his anti-corruption efforts since it was way too much. One friend told me 'if Xi doesn't do this anti-corruption, the country probably won't exist' (不反腐，国家就没了).
This was a very interesting book for me to read as it tossed me into strange waters. Many of the issues I was aware of superficially but the author has enlightened me on many issues relating to Chinese government and society. At times, the numerous people mentioned were confusing, but it was worth it to wade through.
My thanks to the author, Desmond Shum, and to Goodreads Giveaways through whom I received my e copy of this work.
The boldest book I read so far that clearly explains the evilness operation of the CCP and how the so-called red aristocracy who benefit themselves at the expense of the Chinese people. As long as it continues its rule, China and Chinese would continue to suffer. It makes me feel more certain that Hong Kong should separate itself from Mainland China once the CCP starts to collapse!
Shum's book is interesting in several different ways, but consistently and ultimately falls short of its potential to provide a more cutting account of how China's business and political leadership have become commingled by Shum's failure to reflect on and admit clearly to his own excesses and participation in corruption.
The best part of Red Roulette is Shum's credible account of life in China during the boom years of double-digit economic growth when businessmen, including Shum, and party leaders could exploit their wealth and power for personal gain. Shum finds himself lucky enough to fall in love with a woman skilled at managing political connection while he skillfully runs the business operations based on his experiences and education in China, Hong Kong, and the United States.
It is hard not to read Red Roulette and compare it to Red Notice, by Bill Browder. The similarities in the titles and subtitles is surely no coincidence, and I suspect meant to draw both a comparison and maximize sales. While both Shum and Browder ultimately found themselves chased out of the places where they had found success and fortune, the similarities end there. Browder found himself targeted by mid-level Russian security officers and competitor investors, and then attempted to use the Russian and US legal systems to provide justice. Shum and his wife embraced corruption and excess, working hard to fit in with party officials and use their connections to maximum effect.
Throughout Red Notice Shum consistently fails to reflect more deeply on his own embrace of corruption, greed, and excess. He never considers how China may have been better off if corrupt businessmen and politicians were not hoarding opportunities and profits for themselves and instead took efforts to ensure that investment opportunities were offered transparently on an open market.
Despite this shortfall, Shum offers excellent insight into China's economic and politics of you read into his anecdotes and overall story. We see that for some time in China the system required corruption to get ahead, only to expose all those who engaged in corruption to loss of their jobs, prison, or death if they did not fall in line with, ultimately, Xi's authority. This realization should lead us to question both the quality of China's economic development, and its ability to avoid the "middle-income" trap of economic expansion beyond raising the quality-of-life to a respectable level.
Red Roulette: An Insider's Story of Wealth, Power, Corruption and Vengeance in Today's China by Desmond Shum is a highly revealing personal narrative of a close family associate of former premier Wen Jiabao. Desmond's account is compelling in its own way, but he comes across as too much of a hero in his own narrative. I buy things on the macro level, but I'm dubious on his intent. Is he a pro-Western idealist who thought that business would be a good partner with with the party that would guide China towards a gradualist approach to modernity? Did he write to CCP leadership arguing in favor of Hong Kong autonomy and democracy? Who knows. It seems a little too perfect, and appeals a bit too much to his target audience. At the same time, this book is very useful in its own way, and it is one of the more readable and compelling accounts I've read on modern China from one of the asylees.
Time will tell if he gets Shanghai'd, or if his wife appears on Chinese national television.
I give a five because I appreciate the blunt storytelling of the author. There is no glamour or sensationalizing in his voice, yet the matter-of-fact recount of both enormous successes and falls from heaven of any character mentioned painted a chillingly true picture of China's bizzare condition. Coming from a culture with much historic and geographic ties to China, this book resonates strongly with some of the doubts I have been having about this nation, as well as greatly clarify many of the links I could not have realized before. Furthermore, this is a particularly valuable account because it is so timely. The events are still vivid and Xi's personality cult is still progressing. Truly something that merits reading as soon as it was released.
Red Roulette is mostly about what once was a "golden age" for a certain level of entrepreneurs in China, starting in the mid-1990s and tapering out by the 2010s. This era was a cash cow for certain levels of business, but also high-ranking members of the Chinese Communist Party. Mentioned by name include the former Premier Wen Jiabao and his wife Zhang Beili among others. The more you know about elite Chinese politics, the juicier the book can get. There are many instances of Shum telling stories about corruption, fraud, or closed-off or paranoid thinking. One party official was obsessed with financial conspiracy theories. I googled a few names and found people related to the current Evergrande real state conglomerate leadership.
Part of the book details obscene levels of conspicuous consumption - luxury cars, thousand-dollar meals, jewelry, bribes. Fine dining and heavy drinking with party officials every night, sending his own employees to deliver gifts, run errands for their wives and children. One member of his staff attended so many saunas and hot baths that his skin peeled. Shum, for his own part, says that his own participation in this status-seeking was mostly about curiosity and not always about further self-enrichment, naturally.
I cannot assume that this is how all business is run, but for specific lucrative industries, or with specific contact with party officials, this cannot be avoided to an extent. For most people in business, I assume their biggest concerns are expanding their market share, acquiring more technical expertise, streamlining their processes, maybe approaching party officials for a larger land purchase or just keeping their heads down to be left alone. But that is a few levels down from the billionaires and their affairs shown here.
This schmoozing is told in great detail, and I found myself skipping to the sections on the transactional relationships and squeeze which is how business is involved at this scale. To obtain regulatory approval, so many officials had to be bought off, demands accepted, social events attended. This included shuttling off one official to the United States for heart bypass surgery to building a luxurious office complex with theater and tennis courts for a customs office. All this to get 150-odd stamps of approval from a host of regulatory offices. The chapters around the construction of the Beijing Capital Airport, in particular, are a telling example of "how the sausage is made"; if I taught a relevant class I might assign those.
The book also partly explains why successive administrations - first the Hu Jintao administration and the Xi Jinping administration, emphasized anti-corruption campaigns and instilling discipline into Party officials, making them far-sighted, objective, technocratic, working for a goal of common prosperity. But Shum's story doesn't fit this neat guideline.
He also resents the power of the the princelings or the children of high-ranking party officials, who enjoy a separate tier of life from even the self-made rich, and enjoy the benefits of lucrative monopolies and sinecures from state-owned firms. As a more 'self-made man' who attended school abroad and relied on lower-level connections, I suspect there is a degree of tension between the new rich and established elites. The latter even escape anti-corruption drives - Shum asserts that the head of the former Capital Airport Holding Company, who was executed for embezzlement in 2009, was instead sent to his death because he talked too much and violated an unspoken party code of silence. To quote directly: "Red aristocrats got a prison sentence; commoners got a bullet in the head."
The party started to come to an end for Mr. Shum shortly after the New York Times reported on Wen Jiabao's corruption in 2012; although the crackdown on party business began a few years earlier. The party came for his patrons, and his (now) ex-wife, Duan Weihong, disappeared in 2017. She only appeared in 2021 to give him a call telling him not to publish the book; he went ahead with it anyway and enlisted the work of a Washington Post journalist, John Pomfret, as a co-writer.
Much of the book is likely to be alienating to most readers; without a specific knowledge of Chinese high politics or even a stomach for reading about the lives of the super-rich, detail is lost from lack of context. There is no doubt more than what Shum lets on: see further journalism by Mike Forsythe on the subject, among others. But there is enough that somebody pressed his wife to make him stop; and the presented image of a party that cannot really regulate itself and cannot completely regulate the worst drives of its members is a plausible story, and one that would drag on the lives of the Chinese people. If there is no single economic crash, the burden of corruption, waste, and hollowed-out or competing social services would be a net drag on the lives of hundreds of millions.
Mam mieszane uczucia, bo książka nie dostarcza tego, co obiecuje dostarczyć. Paradoksalnie powiązania i działania Komunistycznej Partii Chin okazały się tu dla mnie najnudniejsze, a cały środek opiera się na tym, że bogaci i wpływowi ludzie wydają pieniądze i rozmawiają o swoich wpływach. Najciekawsze były początek i koniec, a właściwie posłowie i część dopisana po roku od oryginalnej publikacji, a to za mało. 2,5
Interesting book describing the insider political and business dealings required to move a company forward in modern China. Gives an idea of how political dealings and power plays are done at the highest level in the country.
I was surprised at the extent to which personal relationship and corruption are central in this day to day world. Very large construction undertakings are overcome with bureaucracy and personal relationship wrangling to move things forward. Somehow I was under the impression that China is far more centralized and streamlined.
I want to take off a star for the writing being a bit dry at times, but the star comes right back given the uniqueness of the book and the novelty of the insider information provided. Nearly all members of China’s elite have much to lose and little incentive to dedicate energy to publicize information like this. This makes for a unique read, would definitely recommend to anyone who is interested in the working of politics or business in modern China.
Received as an ARC from the publisher. Started 7-9-21. Finished 7-12-21. The subtitle of this book makes it sound so scholarly and boring----it is anything but!!!! It reads like a fiction novel but unfortunately it is all so true. Mr. Shum and his first wife, with all good intentions, attempt to develop financial careers in China where they were born, and to help the country become more adept at encouraging other countries and companies to form businesses there. After years of success but the failure of their marriage, the Chinese government returned to its previous hard-nosed approach to criticism and to outsiders' influence, ending with the couples' loss of their businesses, the disappearance of the former wife, and the husband leaving China for good. I found myself reading faster as I got toward the end; not what I expected from a book with this title. Should be required reading for all those studying international business and/or politics.
at the end when Whitney Duan was kidnapped by the CCP, all but failing from her Guanxi-driven mega-rich empire, I wrote this, she is such an enchanting charachter, destined to fall in the era of Red Roulette, unforgettable.
Today's Financial Times headline reads (October 24, 2022): "Xi confirms growing hold over China after unveiling of loyalist senior team". If you want to know how he has worked his way up, the answer can be found on Red Roulette's pp 259 ff: "As Xi's corruption campaign played out, I finally concluded that it was more about burying potential rivals than about stamping out malfeasance. Xi had already played a role in locking up his fellow princeling, Bo Xilai. He followed that by jailing Bo's ally on the Standing Committee of the Politburo, Zhou Yongkang. He then turned his attention to destroying another faction within the Communist system, something called the youth League." (p. 259)
It continues "We believed the allegations against Sun [Zhengcai, "who had been in the running to succeed Xi Jinping after Xi's second term as China's president..." p. 262] and Ling [Gu] were manufactured by the Party security servicess to do the bidding of Xi Jinping to ensure that neither Hu Jintao nor Wen Jiabao would succeed in placing allies on the Politburo's Standing Commmittee.... this was how Xi Jinping consolidated power" (p. 263-4).
And on page 265: "In March 2018, he rammed through an amendment to China's constitution that ended term limits on the presidency, thereby opening the way for him to be emperor for life" (p. 265).
The subtitle of this book is "An Insider's Story of Wealth, Power, Corruption, and Vengeance in Today's China'. Need I say more....
This just a terrific book, a memoir of a man and his wife who climbed to the highest level in China only to have the wife disappear without a trace in 2017. More to the point, you will come away understanding at a very gut level how the Chinese system works in the post-Mao era. Is the system corrupt? Of course, but you do not walk into an official's office with a suitcase full of money...unless you want to go to jail. No, you must develop relationships (Guanxi) and they have to be the right relationships and they can become the wrong ones in a New York minute. So, it's damned hard to achieve what this couple did and frankly, their luck just finally ran out. Good book!
The topic of this book is ostensibly interesting, but the fact that the author is an insufferable asshole makes it a really tough read. It’s filled with unnecessary bragging. Every time I’d finally start getting into the book, he’d start bragging about something ridiculous, which would take me right out of it again. My favorite part is when he detailed his quest to learn how to raise his son among riches (a quest that included reading many books and interviewing scores of wealthy families, name-dropping included) to reach the stunning conclusion that.. he should love his son. Truly groundbreaking stuff.
It’s also strange to me that he doesn’t spend a bit more time on the disappearance of his ex-wife. The fact that the book opens with it hangs over the rest of the book like a cloud, but is barely mentioned again until the afterword. I would have been interested in his thoughts and reactions to her disappearance, and some rumination on the pattern that the CCP has displayed in disappearing wealthy business leaders (Jack Ma, for example). He has a particularly unique viewpoint into the phenomenon that he fails to use.
It’s a shame, because it does contain some interesting insights and revelations about the cost of doing business in China, but that’s mostly obscured by his bragging. Glad I got this from the library and didn’t buy it.
The only reason I bought this book was because of Bill Browder's comment on the cover page. The author is narcissistic to the core and quite proud of how he brown-nosed his way to the top. Gaining a conscience when you get caught is hardly conscientious.
The back cover makes you feel like it's going to be a story about his ex-wife's rise to the top and subsequent disappearance. But Shun is the main protagonist of his story with little focus on the wife's story. He's proud to have risen to the top using legal loopholes, bribes, and guanxi. The snippets about insights on China's culture could, at best, have been a blog post. There's nothing insightful enough to power through the 400 pages of self-serving diatribe.
This is not the Chinese version of Bill Browder’s classic “Red Notice”. This is a mildly apologetic and very revolting story about the vanity of the author and his Machiavellian ex-wife. There are some good parts inside - like the entrepreneurial stories, but you will find no ground-breaking news about how politicians operate in an emerging market. The whole thing feels like reading a gossip magazine.
Red Roulette: An Insider’s Story of Wealth, Power, Corruption, and Vengeance in Today’s China. Desmond Shum. Scribner. 2021. 310 pp.
Introduction After it all, “I thought that China wasn’t as bad as Americans tended to think.” (182) That’s the conclusion of billionaire Desmond Shum, author of Red Roulette – his autobiographical account of how he and his wife, Whitney Duan, rose from rags to riches in the go-go years of China’s developmental miracle.
Whitney and the Road to Wealth Born in the late 1960s, during the Cultural Revolution, both Whitney and Desmond received a normal education as children. She then enrolled in a military university in 1986. (73) As an outstanding student, she obtained employment as an executive’s assistant in “a real estate development company run by China’s military.” (74) At the time, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had numerous business interests, and Whitney started making connections with the elite among them. Later, the PLA was ordered to divest itself of these businesses as an anti-corruption measure by CCP General Secretary, Jiang Zemin in 1997. (75) The year before that, perhaps exercising shrewd foresight based on inside information, Whitney set out on her own and founded a real estate development company, which in English is called “Great Ocean.” (75) Using her connections she soon had her first $1M investor. (75)
Indeed, the main reason why the couple got so rich is that Whitney was a brilliant networker among the political elite of China. She made and used her political connections to receive free land grants, inside information on government development plans, fast tracks in the permit issuing processes, and social introductions to fruitful investors. Whitney had hit the Jack Pot when, in 2001, she shrewdly befriended the wife of Wen Jiabao, a powerful member of both the government and the Party. The relationship between the two ladies was so warm that Whitney and Desmond called her “Auntie Zhang.” (81f.)
The three made a pact that Auntie Zhang would use her connections with the top echelons in the Chinese political system to help Whitney and Desmond become superrich. In return, they would pay her 30% of their profits. (107) Shum suggests that such “influence peddling” was practiced widely in China at the time.
With Auntie’s influence, Whitney’s construction company, and the knowledge of modern business practices Desmond had acquired from his American education, the trio undertook, and profited handsomely from, numerous business ventures. For one, they developed the largest airport freight hub in China. (129f.) Just for that, their profits were in the $100s of millions.
Their Relationship In 2001, Desmond met Whitney while his employer was in negotiations to merge with her company. Out of the blue, she came up to him in a conference room and instructed him, “don’t speak until spoken to.” (65) That both ignited the spark and set the pattern for their relationship. Says Shum, “I allowed her to mold me.” (67)
In China’s male dominated business environment, single women were often harassed by men who assumed they were easy. So, Whitney needed a husband for appearances. (67-70) She made that clear to him, and he agreed. “It felt like an arranged marriage,” Shum says. (67) “Within a year of meeting, we’d moved in together.” (69)
One characteristic they had in common was that, like many other Chinese entrepreneurs during China’s economic boom, they both “wanted to leave something behind, to make a mark on China and the world.” (67) They would work together towards that end.
Both parties felt that they were getting what they wanted from the relationship, so they officially married “on January 17, 2004.” (119) Through her, he learned, among other things, how exploiting insider connections with the political elite of China could lead to great success in business. (67f)
Their only child, Ariston, was born “on April 21, 2009,” in NYC. (156) However, not long thereafter, the relationship started to deteriorate, and in August 2014, Whitney demanded “a divorce.” (267)
There was no community property law in China at the time, and Desmond, as subordinate partner, had always allowed Whitney to put their property in her name, or the name of her company. (268-269)
Although he had lived the life of a billionaire, she threatened to leave him destitute. He counter threatened to expose her questionable business dealings to “the Chinese authorities.” (270) Shum reports that, eventually, they reached “a settlement that provided me with enough to live comfortably.” (270) The divorce was finalized “on December 15, 2015.” (270)
The Disappearance Whitney disappeared, says Shum, on September 5, 2017, while he was at his “home in England.” (2) “She was last seen the day before” in her office which is located in a Beijing “development project she and I built worth more than $2.5 billion.” (1)
Shum supposes that Whitney was swept up in the anti-corruption arrests ordered by Xi Jinping, who was then, and is now, President of the People’s Republic of China, and Secretary General of the CCP.
Shum is outraged at the unfair treatment of a person who has contributed so much to the economic improvement of China. For example, besides all their other construction work, in 2007 he and Whitney donated $10M for the construction a new university library. (187) This is the “thanks” she gets?
Shum, of course, is more aware than most people of the widespread corruption in his country. He is one of its wealthiest benefactors. He is also aware of how the Chinese law enforcement system works in its stepped up campaign to uproot corruption. Indeed, he compares it to “America’s extraordinary rendition of terrorists suspects.” (2)
That’s why the word “Roulette” is in the title. Anyone who plays the corruption game is fully aware of what it means to lose. (3) Party investigators will take a corruption suspect into custody and interrogate them extensively so as to map out all the connections the person in custody made in their career. Whitney is still alive, but still in custody.
Shum’s beef isn’t with the new anti-corruption policies. (253) Indeed, he recognizes how zealously they are being conducted, not only against civilians, like Whitney, but against Party and government officials. “By 2020, Chinese authorities had investigated more than 2.7M officials for corruption and punished more than 1.5M, including seven national level leaders and two dozen generals.” (253)
Perhaps suffering from Law Breaker’s Remorse, Shum takes a few pot shots at the guy responsible for the new policy and its enforcement, Xi Jinping. Shum says he doubts that Mr. Xi is really concerned with cleaning up corruption, (257, 259) and he blames Whitney’s arrest on Xi’s vindictive efforts to punish his “political rivals.” (259) Anyway, Xi’s investigators are “being far too aggressive.” (252) Despite Xi’s career-long critique of corruption, Shum boils it down to “grandstanding.” (253) Furthermore, Xi is undemocratic, and ever since he came into office in 2012, his administration has been “taking a nasty hard-line turn.” (254) (For a more objective view of Mr. Xi, see Kerry Brown’s 2016 book, CEO, China. The Rise of Xi Jinping.)
Shum’s Political Reform Agenda From his travels to more “democratic” countries, particularly the United States, Shum “learned how people with money had always participated in the political process. China’s system was the outlier in that sense, denying its capitalist class a say in the direction of the country. But those of us who identified as capitalists wanted a voice.” (182)
So, besides more leniency in law enforcement, Shum wants to see more “democracy” in the governance of China. These democratic reforms should enable more entrepreneurs, like himself, to have a say in the policy making process. In fact, Shum has tried to become more involved in the political process. He joined the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in 2007. (187) This is a group within the CCP that enables various private citizens to express and discuss their opinions about policies with government and Party officials. Shum notes that several members, like himself, are worth more than “$10M.” (188) Giving this group actual voting power in the policy making process would be an excellent democratic reform, in Shum’s view. (188) Shum likes the thought “of using China’s entrepreneurial class as a force for wider changes.” (180)
Committed to reform, Shum even used his own money to fund a “think tank” to study how the Chinese political system could become more democratic. (189)
Ideally, Shum would have the CCP, like every other institution, subject to the Rule of Law, rather than be a law unto itself. (182) Of course, that would be the end of an autonomous CCP.
Perhaps that is why, in 2013, a year after “nasty” Xi Jinping came into office, a Xi official told Shum’s CPPCC group that their dreams of democracy will never happen. (254)
Shum’s Failure to Understand the Chinese Political System While a brilliant businessperson, Shum fails to comprehend that the entrepreneurial freedom by which he, and the whole class of new rich in China, created their wealth, was not the kind of laissez-faire environment envisioned by Adam Smith and later “free market” economists. The modern CCP has created an alternative to Smith’s The Wealth of Nations approach.
After Mao’s death in 1976, CCP leadership agreed that the “command economy” Mao learned from Stalin had resulted in disaster for China. Perhaps 50M people died of starvation because of Mao’s ill-informed and rigid economic policies.
The new policy of the CCP economic reformers, following the thought of Deng Xiaoping, puts in place a Middle Way between Smith and Stalin. The intent of this policy is to free the entrepreneurial spirit in China just enough so that the resulting modernized economy could become the basis for a “common prosperity.” To that end, Mr. Deng declared such maxims as “it is glorious to be rich,” and "Let a part of the population get rich first,” which were statements of a policy that was meant to be followed for as long as it was useful to the Party.
CCP leadership in the initial period of economic reform had understood what it was doing. It gave limited free reign to private enterprises established by both domestic and foreign capitalists. It purposely allowed Chinese investment in foreign companies, and foreign investment in Chinese companies. Thus, China’s wealthy class is the intended result of what I call, Enlightened Economic Planning. In the spirit of “Socialism with Chinese characteristics,” the CCP has sought to use government power to maximize the benefits it can engender for the Chinese people.
The Visible Hand of the CCP has recently begun to curb the selfish excesses of the nouveau riche and start reducing inequality. Xi Jinping’s crackdown on corruption curbs the privileged use of government that the rich have enjoyed, and which they used to become rich. Mr. Xi’s practices are a continuation of the original intent of the Deng Xiaoping generation of economic reformers to work towards the “common prosperity” of China.
The opening of China, led by the CCP, was never intended to be a suicide pact. The Party did not intend to allow a class of super rich to emerge and then swallow up the Party that allowed it to come into existence. Shum’s anemic calls for more “democracy,” while cheered on by anti-China capitalists in the USA and other Western countries, are a thinly veiled camel’s nose trying to get under the tent. Once in, it could recklessly bring down the whole structure. But the CCP won’t fall for that gambit.
Finally, what right does Shum have to complain that Whitney was arrested? They knew they were playing with fire when they got into their game of “Roulette.” He likely would have been arrested too, had he not been safely lounging about in his English Estate.
A well-written, courageous, and fascinating book disclosing China’s political fractions and purges, the dealings between business elites and high power political families, and the rises and falls of business tycoons and political stars. It makes you wonder about China’s political and economic future. I especially applaud the author for his courage and bravery by being so candid. This book definitely will anger top leaders in Chinese government, and put him and his family in danger. Highly recommend to who is interested in China.
The book provides a very rare glimpse of inner political workings of China, and it is nothing like how things work in the US. The author and his ex-wife were formerly insiders of the highest levels of China. They were masters of guanxi, or trusting relationship, to create business opportunities for themselves as well as for their political patrons. It is a formula that has enriched countless Chinese business people, bureaucrats, politicians, and communist elite. The author, with high degree of credibility, asserts that the present Chinese system is not only extremely corrupt, but it is also designed to protect & prosper its communist elite. The entire Chinese system is about benefiting the Chinese communist elites and their descendants. Those who play the game brilliantly can become, like the author and his ex-wife, very wealthy. The author is a very good observer and he sees the big picture. He believes the Chinese economic success had an awful price: China has become an win-at-all-costs society in which ethics, integrity, societal responsibilities are discarded for the losers. In China, it is almost impossible to acquire tremendous wealth & success without also benefiting (paying off) the communist elites and the bureaucrats. Now, China is descending into political authoritarianism that threatens any rights and civil liberties the Chinese had enjoyed as citizens in the last 30 years.
A very compelling and frightening story about life in Communist China. I can not decide how surprised I am at the story told. Under Xi Jinping apparently many if not all of the “liberal ideas” that could have and should been released are now closed. I can not understand how the CCP will be able to control the millions of people for the long term without a complete rebellion, but that was how it was born and perhaps how it will die. Good luck Chinese people!
Labai įspūdinga istorija. Autorius gimęs Kinijoj, užaugęs Hong Konge, išsilavinęs vakaruose veda Kinijoje turtingą moterį, kuri turi ryšių su vietos valdžia ir šeima įsivelia į didelio biznio darymą: stato Pekino oro uosto cargo terminalą, po to Bulgari viešbutį Pekine ir kitus didelius projektus. Bet su žmona išsiskiria, o po kurio laiko ji tiesiog... dingsta. Wikipedia rašo, kad dingusi
Savo stiliumi ir istorija primena Bill Browder verslo Rusijoje aprašymus. Labai įtraukia.
Insider account of going from rags to riches in boom-era China and ultimately running afoul of the political system. The details of the over-the-top consumption are ridiculous ($1,000 per person lunches, going on a world-wide tour to buy a yellow diamond, buying million-dollar paintings just to put them in a safe, etc., etc., etc.). The narrator and his wife are pompous and ruthless. But the whole thing is endlessly fascinating and downright terrifying. A worthwhile read.
I have a bit of a weakness for reading books from a villains point for view, and Desmond Shum certainly fits that bill in many ways. He was a capitalist party insider within China'a Communist party- playing both sides and benefitting both from the regime and the capitalist factory boom of China in the 90s-2000s. Desmond's role was not so much being active in participating in evil, but profiting immensely from it.
The story of his childhood and his rise to power was extremely interesting, as was his evolution into a business titan. That said, a LOT of this book is him talking about business deals. I get that it sets the stage, but it can be a little repetitive. I would love to see his life become an HBO style 'Succession' show because the material is good, but there's something a bit boring about reading a biography packed with chapters of someone talking about going to business meetings and using connections to spend a bunch of money. I would much prefer to see it fictionalized.
Key individuals who are deemed a risk to the regime are jailed or disappear in China, in Russia they fall from windows. Dictatorships have no use for formal fair justice systems; tribunals are window dressing for propaganda purposes. The author, a successfull entrepreneur, has written an entertaining autobiography which comes to the conclusion that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) opened up the chinese economy to a form of hybrid state|private businesses capitalism out of necessity to increase productivity. But it was only for a temporary period as total control over all activities and individuals remains the goal of the CCP.
The opening up of the Chinese economy created a class of rich capitalists who believed that their financial success would translate in an ability to wield influence over the political class. But just as the personal story of Desmond Shum demonstrates their freedom can be lost and their assets seized at any time. The administration of Xi Jinping is introducing another era of personality cult as Xi becomes a permanent leader controlling all levers of power in his own hands. As in Russia, history is at the service of state propaganda with a flavour of revenge and a strong imperial bias. Entrepreneurs like Desmond Shum have come to the realization that they are mere disposable pawns on a political chessboard. This book is highly entertaining and provides for detailed descriptions of the social interactions and the complex mechanisms of the distribution of power in the country. An interesting book which opens up a window on how backroom deals are arrived at within the cultural context of a CCP run China.
Great stuff. This book could be a movie, if anyone dared make it. Brave is he who takes on the CCP. The author tells the story of his rise from modest beginnings to China's class of super-rich, mingling with, though never admitted into, the Red Aristocracy, which, three generations on from the Revolution, remains an untouchable elite. Desmond and his wife Whitney were more business partners than husband and wife, and entered into the marriage to make money. I'm not sure the word 'love' is ever mentioned (listened to it on Audible). Desmond's instincts are more Western, he prefers transparency and rules; his wife's are deeply plugged into the Chinese way to doing things, via connections, influence, favors, opacity. But Desmond plays the game, and suffers ordeal by banquet and Maotai as he cultivates the endless political relationships he needs to make deals. Eventually the sums he and Whitney are making are so vast and the extravagance so meaningless, obscene even (three private jets to take a small party to Paris?), that the reader's left with the feeling that too much is never enough. Whitney in particular loses her sense of caution and discretion. And her deep involvement with the powerful Wen family eventually spells her doom. She's not even arrested, but seems to vanish in an extra-legal kidnapping by China's security forces, and remains lost in that system. The author speaks very candidly about the nature of the CCP, a Leninist organization whose default setting is oppression. Only in times of weakness, such as when it needs economic growth, does it loosen its grip, and give the West the false impression it is liberalizing. Loyalty to the party counts for nothing if you find yourself on the wrong side in a power struggle: you'll be charged with corruption and jailed if well connected, or shot, if not. Ultimately, the party serves not the collective, but the Red Aristocracy, who, as in Mao's time, live separately and more freely than the rest of the population. With the rise of the Chairman of Everything (Xi Jinping), Desmond realizes they're going to lose the game. His wife does not, and pays the price.