Friday 7 January 2022

Red Roulette


I picked this up after watching 60 Minutes with the author, Desmond Shum.

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, travelling 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 living overseas with his son, learned that his now ex-wife Whitney had vanished along with three co-workers.

In Red Roulette Desmond Shum pulls back the curtain on China’s ruling elite and reveals the real truth of what is happening inside China’s wealth-making machine. This is both Desmond’s story and Whitney’s, because she has not been able to tell it herself. 

Many people living in Africa are interested in China, as it's the largest continent-wide development investor. Most of Rwanda's roads and large buildings have been built by Chinese construction companies, but it does seem to come with some strings. YouTuber Johnny Harris did an interesting video on it:

So, the builders bugged the African Union servers and then, when they were discovered, they offered to replace them with more servers! Wow. 

There's also an interesting one about China buying up the world's shipping ports. Which is a topic that gets talked about a bit in East Africa, after it was rumoured that China made a loan to Kenya that, if not paid back, would result in the port of Mombasa becoming Chinese owned. This resulted in Kenyan authorities assuring the public that this couldn't happen, but the fact it was so widely believed is interesting, and does rather make it look like China's following the age-old pattern of Western colonisers by trading money for... well, absolutely everything you have. 

China also became a particularly interesting topic in Rwanda with the Chinese treatment of the Uyghur, which has been condemned by human rights organisations and ruled as a genocide last month. This is tricky for a country such as Rwanda, where so much infrastructure has been paid for and built by China, but which has a strong and very public stance against genocide due to its own history. It was due to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda that rape was classified as a war crime. 

So, tricky all round, especially since the UK disbanded DFID in 2020 and, like other Western countries, greatly reduced its spending on international development. International aid has long been used as a tool for political gains and manipulation, and this isn't going to change in a capitalist system that only works when some countries are rich and others poor, but at the same time, China's brand of communism, as mentioned in the book, is a thick, soupy blend of communism and capitalism, with a lot of politics thrown in. 

Anyway - the book. It was engrossing to hear about China from a former Chinese elite insider, but it was a little hard to sympathise at times. He spoke of the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on cars, international hotels, wine tasting tours and business transactions. Not something I can relate to. And, although the biography was extremely honest, it felt perhaps a smidge derogatory towards his ex wife in places. She is currently disappeared by Chinese authorities and no one's sure if she's alive or dead, but if she's alive, and if she reads this, it would be interesting to hear her perspective. I think she might have a few things to say about it. 

But, overall it was interesting. It sounds like a bureaucratic nightmare trying to run a business. The book did seem to focus a huge amount on how they built the business up and only on what went wrong and the disappearance at the very end. I would have liked to hear more about the impact of that, and about life for ordinary citizens and how common disappearances are - or not. It's been a big talking point in the British news lately after Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis star, disappeared after accusing a former vice premier of sexually assaulting her. This seems to have faded from consciousness ahead of the Winter Olympics in Beijing.

It's all just a bit depressing. I spent most of last year with my face pressed to the screen, absorbing The Untamed. Even got the T-shirt. I'd love to go see the set. It looks like a stunningly beautiful country and so many things to go and see and enjoy, but the lack of free expression, combined with the treatment of the Uyghur, bugging the African Union, disappearing citizens and horrific rights abuses in Hong Kong, leaves a pretty bitter taste behind. Their approach to international development really seems to be working and it's providing Africa with a huge amount of infrastructure, but what's the end game? And, with politicians, there always is one. 

Anyway, the book provided an insight into a world most readers will never experience, and gave another angle on what's going on in China at the highest levels and at this moment in history. For a historical overview of life for ordinary citizens, I highly recommend Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang, and a nice read called Fifth Chinese Daughter by Jade Snow Wong which tells the story of a first-generation American girl in the 1940s, reconciling a traditional Chinese upbringing with the individualism of America. These three books combined give an interesting overview of China through the ages.

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