Desmond Shum, whose billionaire wife Witney Duan remains missing, believed detained by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), publishes a memoir in English
Chinese billionaire Desmond Shum was born into a politically disadvantaged background during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), yet eventually rose to mingle with the highest-ranking leaders of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, going into business with his wife Whitney Duan at the helm of the hugely successful Genesis Beijing property development project. During their ascendancy, Duan and Shum rubbed shoulders with the likes of former premier Wen Jiabao, flew in private jets, and ran a multi-billion dollar property development empire that included high-end hotels and an international air cargo terminal. Until Duan was “disappeared” by the authorities on Sept. 5, 2017 while Shum was out of the country, possibly as part of an investigation into the affairs of disgraced former Chongqing party chief Sun Zhengcai. Her whereabouts remain unknown. Shum, who is now divorced from Duan, and who has never returned to China, recently published a memoir titled “Red Roulette.” He spoke to Simon Shen, a Hong Kong political scientist and columnist, about his experience of the Chinese political and financial elite:
RFA: What did these experiences teach you?
Desmond Shum: Actually, I think that every aspect of business in mainland China depends on the powers that be. Everyone knows why. It’s because you had better not think of doing any kind of business without the support of someone in power. Even if you just want to open a store, you still have to get to know the local urban management officials in that neighborhood. Otherwise you might as well not bother.
It doesn’t matter who you are; you still need the backing of someone powerful. The days of stuffing envelopes are long gone; that’s crossing a line, and we’re not allowed to give very valuable gifts any more. But the people we were associating with have millions of options when it comes to making money, so you would never offer them money anyway. They would be able to get anything we could offer them via other channels anyway.
RFA: How did it feel to be in at the start of China’s economic boom?
Desmond Shum: Mainland China two decades ago still looked pretty backward, and was still in the process of opening up. We felt as if we were part of a positive trend. Some stuff made us feel uncomfortable, or wonder what we thought we were doing, but overall we felt like we were a part of something positive, and that made those things easier to accept.
To put it bluntly, you had to completely efface your own personality, and put their interests above everything else. You couldn’t have your own point of view; you had to look at everything from their point of view. After a while, I got used to it, but it was hard for someone who was raised in Hong Kong and went to college in the United States.
RFA: Was your ex-wife disappeared as part of the anti-corruption campaign of CCP general secretary Xi Jinping?
Desmond Shum: They’ve detained about four million people in the anti-corruption campaign. This has been reported in the media. But it’s a joke, and has been for the past three decades. Even if you hauled in every single party member and took them down, one by one, you still wouldn’t have gotten everyone. Some would always slip through the net. And there’s nobody who is uncorrupt in the entire party, if you apply party standards. So the whole thing is selective.
For example, in 2006, around the time that they detained [disgraced former Shanghai party chief] Chen Lianyu, they also looked into the affairs of the daughter of Han Zheng, who is now senior vice premier and in charge of Hong Kong. She was studying in Australia at the time, and they discovered that she had savings of around 100 million yuan. They were going to detain Han Zheng on that basis, but they were worried that would plunge Shanghai into political turmoil if they detained both the party secretary and the mayor at the same time, so they didn’t detain him. Instead, they just kept on promoting him.
And it’s not just the elite. It’s the entire country. Back when I was working [for a private equity company] that was categorized as Chinese-invested, the entire management had accounts in Hong Kong where they would stash money away. Everyone in mainland China has overseas bank accounts, to squirrel away money. Nobody believes that private assets will always be protected. There are always hidden dangers in mainland China, and nobody knows when everything will change. That’s why they stash their assets overseas. It’s a long-ingrained habit.
RFA: Do you think the CCP will lose its grip on power?
Desmond Shum: There are a few reasons why they won’t. First, they have all the guns. Second, they are willing to use them without scruple. That’s very different from the West. In Western and Eastern European countries, there’s always the stricture of religious belief, or some kind of moral restriction on using force against other people. But the CCP have no such scruples. Thirdly, I think the CCP have been highly successful at hanging onto power for the past 70 years, so they shouldn’t be underestimated. I think we are still a long way from the collapse of the CCP. Three years of famine [1958-1961] didn’t topple them, and 40 million people died.