Playing red roulette in the People’s Republic of China

Red roulette.

Red roulette.

Photo credit: Pool

China is a mystery to many in the world today. This is a country that professes communism – it is ruled by the Communist Party of China (CCP) – but is the very symbol of capitalism today. China is on the way to overtaking America as the largest economy in the world.

There is hardly a product that is mass consumed today in the world that China doesn’t produce. The party and the country’s Marxist-Leninist ideals would suggest that the country would eventually become a pure communist state.

Of course today the Chinese ruling class would suggest that the country hasn’t yet reached the ideal final stage in its evolution. The story of how China is where it is today, as a capitalist country in everything but name, is told by Desmond Shum in his memoir, Red Roulette: An Insider’s Story of Wealth, Power, Corruption and Vengeance in Today’s China (Simon & Schuster, 2021).

This is the kind of book one takes to their holiday. It is deeply personal; its plot is thriller-like; the language is seductive; it weaves through history, taking one into pre-revolution China, to China after CCP came to power, to a transforming China, to the capitalist behemoth today that appeals to and scares many.

Shum’s story, though supposed to be sad, is quite entertaining, informative and, arguably, a historical record that many future students of China will refer to. For Red Roulette reveals information that even the most critical Western newspapers don’t often write about.

Red Roulette is a story of pursuit of money. But it is also a story of how that chase can easily be undone within a moment. The introduction says it all, “On September 5, 2017, Whitney Duan, age fifty, disappeared from the streets of Beijing. She was last seen the day before in her sprawling office at Genesis Beijing, a development she and I had built worth more than $2.5 billion. There, cocooned in a work space that visitors reached after running a gauntlet of security guards, meticulously landscaped gardens, and a dozen varieties of Italian marble, Whitney had masterminded real estate projects worth billions or more. And now suddenly she was gone. How had that happened? And who is Whitney Duan?”

Successful business partners

Desmond Shum tells you immediately that Whitney Duan had been his spouse of more than a decade. They had a son. They had been immensely successful business partners. They had “built one of the biggest logistical hubs in the world at the Beijing Capital International Airport.” They had fraternised with the most senior of CCP’s officials. They had made money, millions of dollars from tens of deals and projects in China. They had done well. They had been on the fast lane in a country that was speeding towards industrialization and modernization and wished to catch up with, if not overtake the West. They had been the symbol of a new China. But it all came crashing down when the party leadership changed its mind about the form and content of capitalism in China.

To read Red Roulette is to peer into the workings of capitalism, even in an avowed communist society. It is to know how the ruling elite can make compromises in order to raise money to run the state. It is to see how even a communist state could allow capitalists to invest in the country, well aware that they could tax the investors, they would be creating conditions for economic progress as well as employment.

Acquiring state authorizations for investment has always been an avenue, wherever in the world, to pass on unofficial envelopes. Indeed, Shum has endless stories of the difficulties of getting countless approvals from government officers at several levels. Often, Shum recounts, it was easier to smoothen the way with a number of benefits, ranging from cash to paid for foreign trips to membership on the boards of the companies undertaking the project for which an approval was being sought. In fact, the entire Red Roulette reads like a study on how corruption, in its many forms, is a key ingredient in the menu of a capitalistic (should we add communistic) society?

But if lower level officials stand in the way of an investment, why not worm one’s way first into the inner circle of the men (and women) of power? What about getting quite close to the wife of the premier? Or becoming buddy-buddy with the offspring of the old and current elite of the CCP and government?

Socio-economic changes

Yet, this is also the story of a country undergoing massive socio-economic changes. There are millions of Chinese people making money. They wish to spend that money. They see consumer goods that they had only dreamed of a few years back. Where there is demand, someone has to supply the goods and services to meet it. People like Shum and Duan did just that. They build warehouses because goods need to be imported into and exported out of China. They built swanky hotels because the newly moneyed wished to spend it. Shum and Duan collected wines, watches, and items of art because these are the things that make rich people feel exactly wealthy.

Making money is one thing. But to continue making it and having more of it, safely, sometimes depend on forces beyond one’s control. One such a force is the state. One can pay their taxes, create employment and add immense value to the welfare of their country. But one has to find a way to remain in the good books of the powers that be, nearly all the time. Yet, politics and politicians change all the time. Power play can unpredictably alter the balance of political control. This is exactly what happened to Shum and Duan.

Without their full knowledge, the CCP shifted its thinking about capitalism. It began to see unrestrained capitalism as damaging to society. A cynic can say that since the state was also an investor in the economy, it saw private business as competition.

Whichever way one analydes the situation in China, the one moral lesson of Red Roulette is that one can never truly befriend the dragon. It will always remain unpredictable, however comfy one feels in its company. The change in the Chinese government’s view of private business could just be a self-serving shift. But maybe it also represents intra-party faction battles. History shows that more often than not the party has had swings in persuasion between the conservative and the liberal wings.

Could Shum and Duan have lost out in the business world (and eventually Duan disappearing) simply because they couldn’t correctly read the dragon’s mood? Well, every country has its intrigues about power, wealth, corruption, vengeance, among others, but Red Roulette is an entertaining and unforgettable peek into China’s body and soul.

The writer teaches literature and performing arts at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]