In the dirty political alleys of an emerging China
Red Roulette: An Insider’s Story of Wealth, Power, Corruption and Revenge in China Today. Desmond Shum. Simon & Schuster Ltée 320 pages. Price: Rs. 557 (Paperback)
Red roulette begins where most stories end in President Xi Jinping’s China – an unexplained disappearance. Author, Desmond Shum, opens the book by talking about his ex-wife, Whitney Duan, 50, who was last seen in Beijing in September 2017.
In an alternate universe, Dirty Roulette could have been a feature film or a Netflix series about a couple from humble beginnings, making their way through an open China, and getting lost in the maze of unprecedented success, only to be consumed by the dragon they once lay in bed with.
Desmond Shum Dirty Roulette is an editorial buffet on China breaking the chains of communism inherited from Mao Zedong. Beyond the story of China’s growth, the book delves into the dirty political lanes where business meets politics and the private sector meets political bureau.
The book touches on some interesting aspects, in particular how difficult it was for private companies in China to invite domestic and international investment.
Today, with global investments in stocks and bonds in China each exceeding 4 trillion yuan, it is perhaps hard to imagine a time when the mainland was not an investment haven. For example, against a billion Internet users today, the book traces the journey of the private sector since 1994, when the Internet arrived in China.
At the start of 1995, there were less than 50,000 people online in China.
For a long time after 1949, the Chinese had no liking for investments and real estate assets, luxury goods and money. The state was the essential guardian, rationing was routine, and private enterprises were as feared as black magic.
Red roulette discusses the impact of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, which ushered in a new private sector revolution in China.
The private sector revolution also ushered in the era of corruption in China – a Xi would take care of it after 2012. A booming real estate sector led party officials to allocate lucrative plots of land to their friends and to their families.
Party connections have been used to target civilians and businesses, but that hasn’t stopped the growth engine that roared through the decades of the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s.
There are many parallels between a China chained by Mao’s communism and an India overwhelmed by Nehru’s socialism. As was the case in the 1980s and 1990s in India, it took months and often a bribe or recommendation from a group member for families to get a fixed connection.
However, in China, this lack of telecommunications infrastructure has ushered in a pager revolution, fueled by the private sector. By 1995, there were over 100 million pager users in China, a testament to what the internet could achieve in a nation of 1.4 billion people.
Red roulette becomes a page turner when the story revolves around lobbying the author’s wife, Duan, on behalf of Wen Jiabao’s wife, called Aunt Zhang. Wen Jiabao was Chinese vice premier from 1998 to 2003 and prime minister from 2003 to 2013.
The author, in many ways and at various points in the book, emphasizes the importance of Guanxi in getting the job done in China.
To put it simply, Guanxi is a political network on steroids. In a country obsessed with status, symbolism, and strength, the Guanxi made the difference between a private business that grew or died overnight.
The author tells how the book’s protagonist, his wife Whitney Duan, used his network to do everything from something as trivial as a license plate to approving an infrastructure project, from the possession of works of art from around the world in search of one in elite circles, to tour the world in private jets with all the key players, including the founder of the Evergrande group, to make the party out of sight of the CCP.
The history of Beijing Airport, the project taken up by Shum and Duan, is particularly interesting, as the political roadblocks and bureaucratic obstacles it encounters are essentially the story of the CCP cracking down on private companies or employing them to do so. their dirty work.
For example, to get one of the many clearances for the international airport, Shum and Duan had to appease one of the CCP customs officials with a new building and a workspace for 300 people.
This was not the case, as the new customs building was also to have an indoor sports hall, regulation-sized badminton and basketball courts, a two-hundred-seat theater, a dormitory with four-star equivalent rooms, a karaoke bar, private lounges for senior officials and a two-story lobby.
However, the author also admits to using relations within the CCP, in particular with the wife of the then Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, to obtain loans from state-supported financial institutions. Thus, the whole of Guanxi has functioned by exchanging favors for short and long term returns.
Guanxi rose to prominence in emerging China because of the gray that existed between legislation and law enforcement. There was no clarity for private companies, starting to test the waters of the world’s largest untapped market, fearing a crackdown not only on the bureaucracy but also on the party.
Thus, the journey that Shum and Duan took with Aunt Zhang (Wen Jiabao’s wife) dwells on how connections within the CCP not only gave any private organization a free pass, but also gave them a free pass. also isolated from the party whip.
Red roulette is an important book for understanding China today. From Evergrande to Tencent, the founder or CEO of every company was once the blue-eyed professional of the CCP. Most of the private companies that fueled the rise of China, and hence the CCP, have been consumed by the latter, as evidenced by the crackdown over the past 12 months.
Still, Red roulette is not the story of China, but one of the millions of stories that make China what it is today. It’s not the best book you’ll find on China, but definitely the one that should find its way into your library.
The book is essential reading to understand the simple lesson that dictates the fate of private companies in China – The CCP will eventually reach you.