Red Roulette - by Desmond Shum


Red Roulette - by Desmond Shum

Read: 2023-05-17

Recommend: 10/10

On China, this is one of the best books I read.


Here are some text that I highlighted in the book:

  1. [寧鳴而死,不默而生] Better to speak out and die than keep silent and live. —Fan Zhongyan (989–1052)

  2. Unexplained disappearances occur regularly in China, where the Communist Party holds a monopoly on power. Despite legal protections enshrined in China’s constitution, Party investigators flout those rules to seize anyone on the flimsiest of pretexts and hold them indefinitely. These days Chinese Communist operatives even perform snatch-and-grab operations overseas, targeting newspaper publishers, businessmen, booksellers, and dissidents. You’ve heard about America’s extraordinary rendition of terrorist suspects. Well, this is China’s version.

  3. The more I asked around, the more I realized that every relationship formed among those who work within the Party system in China is saturated by calculations of benefit and loss.

  4. I wasn’t born into the red aristocracy—the offspring of the leaders of the elite group of Communists who seized power in China in 1949.

  5. “five black categories”: landlord, rich peasant, counterrevolutionary, bad element, and rightist.

  6. Buying into Communist propaganda that the Party would partner with members of the capitalist class to build the “New China,” he decided to stay. My father never forgave his dad for that fateful decision, holding that his naive belief in the Party cost my dad his youth.

  7. I was born big and grew fast. I was worthy of my Chinese given name, Dong, which means “pillar.” My size—I top out at six-five—and athleticism made me a natural leader among my peers. My parents also cultivated in me a love of reading. From my earliest days, I had the best collection of comics about Chinese mythical figures, the heroes of China’s Communist revolution, and China’s war against Japan.

  8. listening with equal intent to the narrator and for the footsteps of my parents ascending the stairs.

  9. [红卫兵] Little Red Guard, a selective children’s organization sanctioned by the Chinese Communist Party.

  10. [笨鸟先飞] “Stupid birds need to start flying early,” she’d tell me, stressing that if I was going to make something of myself, I’d need to work a lot harder than other kids.

  11. Swimming contributed enormously to who I am today. It taught me self-confidence, perseverance, and the joy of a purposeful endeavor. Through swimming, I met people far outside my normal social circle. I still feel its imprint.

  12. Still, if nothing else, my father’s pigheaded perseverance gave him the strength to succeed.

  13. It took me years to acknowledge it, but witnessing my parents’ labor in Hong Kong to get us back up the ladder affected me profoundly. We were in desperate straits. For three years, we squatted in someone else’s living room. We had no bathroom of our own. We were barely making ends meet. But my parents both knew what life felt like at the other end of the tunnel. They understood what they had to do to make it through. So they went for it. I learned this lesson at their feet.

  14. Cops and crooks, in Hong Kong at least, were cut from the same cloth.

  15. I got picked on because I was a big target and I didn’t fit in.

  16. This constant motion taught me to adapt, even to dramatic changes, and made me comfortable with people from all over the world. Losing my home at an early age taught me to find a piece of it wherever I’d be. I learned to roll with the tide and adapt to different cultures. I became a chameleon, adept at changing skins to match the place. If nothing else, my constant wandering gave me the assurance that new things wouldn’t kill me and that, no matter what, I was going to survive.

  17. As it had with my father, doggedness became one of my greatest strengths. Things may seem insurmountable, I told myself, but you’ll always get out of the pool.

  18. Crawling up the class rankings at Queen’s College taught me a lot about my capabilities. I’m not lazy per se, but I do have a tendency to slack off.

  19. But that’s because somewhere inside me, I had this innate belief that when I needed to I could step on the accelerator and get the job done. These traits stayed with me throughout my professional life.

  20. [粒粒皆辛苦] My parents were—and remain—incredibly frugal and I took after them in that respect. When I cook today, I cut vegetables and meat with the goal of not wasting even a teaspoon’s worth. I still clean my plate at every meal. “Each grain of rice is hard won,” goes a line from a Chinese poem that we memorized at school.

  21. Tyson wanted to sell into China and my dad recognized that there was gold in all the parts that Americans didn’t eat. Chicken feet, chicken ass, chicken innards, chicken gizzards, chicken neck, chicken heart—the Chinese coveted them all. Tyson flew him back to the United States, where he suggested production line changes to salvage these nuggets.

  22. [凤爪] Within a few years, Tyson was selling 100 million dollars’ worth of junk chicken in Asia, filling the bellies of Chinese consumers with Yankee-grown “phoenix claws,” the Chinese term for chicken feet.

  23. “It’s not going to end well for these youngsters,” he predicted. “They don’t understand,” he said. “The Communist Party rose to power by manipulating protests, ginning up mass movements, and then suppressing them ferociously once they’d served their purposes.

  24. Anyone doing business in China did it this way, circumventing the rules in search of profit. I quickly learned that in China all rules were bendable as long as you had what we Chinese called guanxi, or a connection into the system. And given that the state changed the rules all the time, no one gave the rules much weight. At one point, a Chinese naval officer offered Tait Asia a Chinese warship to smuggle the beer.

  25. Because of US regulations, ChinaVest’s leadership needed to pretend not to know. A lot of Western businesses in China adopted a similar, don’t-ask-don’t-tell business model. Abysmal working conditions in factories making high-end sneakers? “Who knew?” Prison labor making blue jeans? “There must be a mistake.” In business with the army or the police? “We weren’t aware.”

  26. Tian’s ability to manage a telecommunications firm and articulate a vision was essential to the success of this staggering task. But Tian’s efforts with Netcom wouldn’t have succeeded without Jiang Mianheng. It was this combination of Tian’s can-do spirit and Jiang’s political pedigree that would drive China’s rise. The marriage of know-how with political backing became a template for China’s march into the future and a way for ambitious men and women like me to make something of our lives.

  27. China Democratic League, one of the eight political parties that the Chinese Communist Party had maintained after the 1949 revolution as the window dressing of a pluralistic system.

  28. For me, Robertson’s cultivation of Feng Bo peeled back the curtain on the inner workings of a political system that mouthed Communist slogans while the families of senior officials gorged themselves at the trough of economic reforms. These sons and daughters functioned like an aristocracy; they intermarried, lived lives disconnected from those of average Chinese, and made fortunes selling access to their parents, inside information, and regulatory approvals that were keys to wealth.

  29. The Communist system of central control and economic planning struggled to adapt to the changing China. Old laws no longer had relevance. But when the Party wrote the new laws, the ministries intentionally included vast gray areas so that if the authorities wanted to target anyone for prosecution, they always could.

  30. I had to admit that I had no idea how to interact with adult mainland Chinese. They were another breed. I felt like an alien landing on another planet.

  31. I couldn’t smoothly pass “red envelopes” stuffed with cash. All of those things added up. I was a foreigner in my homeland.

  32. Although I’d been born in the country and spoke three dialects like a local, I felt I was on the outside looking in.

  33. I felt as if I were standing on a riverbank watching the flow of a modernizing country rush by.

  34. I wanted to be part of the China story, not simply someone seeking to profit from it. What’s more, I’d always enjoyed exploring the unknowns—from the alleyways of Shanghai to the American heartland. I wanted a new challenge. I wanted to do something tremendous. And I was living through a period of time in China when the tremendous was possible.

  35. China was the intellectual property rip-off capital of the world, churning out pirated software and DVDs with abandon; no Chinese law enforcement agency in the year 2000 was interested in taking our case.

  36. I began to meditate, and I learned how to cleanse my mind so I could sleep. I worked on moderating my breath, a skill that would serve me well as life became more harried.

  37. “Your feet are higher than the table,” she observed one day as I sat with my legs crossed, one foot bobbing in midair. In China, she declared, when you meet with officials you’re not supposed to be so informal, so Westernized. “Be like a kid in a classroom,” she instructed me. “Perch yourself on the edge of your seat.” And don’t speak until spoken to.

  38. Given that this was a transformative period of my life, I was wide open to her charms.

  39. Ours was more a connection of the spirit and the brain than the heart. It felt like an arranged marriage, the difference being that we, not a matchmaker, were doing the arranging. The logic was persuasive. We complemented each other. I could read a spreadsheet and move easily in Western circles. Whitney had access to a hidden China. She made me realize how little I knew of that world even though I was a native and had done business in Beijing for years. She was my entrée into another dimension, one that was completely unfamiliar to me. I was entranced, wowed, literally swept off my feet.

  40. [汉·司马迁《报任少卿书》:“人固有一死,或重于泰山,或轻于鸿毛。”] Whitney wrote her ambition into the Chinese name of her company—Tai Hong. Those two words came from a sentence written by the ancient Chinese historian Sima Qian, who observed that a human life could be as weighty as Mount Tai or as trifling as a feather. That was how she saw herself and ultimately me. We’d come from nothing, and if we ended up making nothing out of our lives, it wouldn’t matter. So why not go for it all? That was her life’s motto, and without that kind of attitude she’d never have been able to pull herself from the bottom of the pile to the top.

  41. Like Edward Tian at AsiaInfo, Whitney discovered that to unlock the door to success in China she needed two keys. One was political heft. In China, entrepreneurs only succeeded if they pandered to the interests of the Communist Party. Whether it be a shopkeeper in a corner store or a tech genius in China’s Silicon Valley, everyone needed sponsors inside the system. The second requirement was the ability to execute once an opportunity arose.

  42. [中学为体,西学为用] In the nineteenth century, Chinese scholar-officials had advocated the theory that Chinese learning should remain the core of China’s march into the future while Western learning should be employed for practical use. The scholars called this zhongxue wei ti, xixue wei yong. Whitney epitomized Chinese learning, or zhongxue, and I stood for xixue, or Western education. I was coming from China’s periphery both literally and metaphorically and joining Whitney at China’s core.

  43. Whitney believed that traveling together was the best way to learn about a potential mate.

  44. Whitney knew that when cultivating someone powerful in China, the pursuer should never appear too eager. Other people would harass their targets and refuse to take a hint. But Whitney knew the psychology of China’s elite. With so many people angling to profit from a connection with Auntie Zhang, Whitney needed to separate herself from the pack. She was a fantastic judge of character. She’d baited the hook with a smash performance during their first meeting. Now with her line in the water, she waited.

  45. The director of the Party’s General Office is known colloquially as China’s “chief eunuch,” a throwback reference to China’s imperial past when castrated males constituted the backbone of the administrative workforce inside the Forbidden City.

  46. For almost a decade after 1989 while he toiled at the heart of the Party bureaucracy, Wen was only photographed in Mao suits, wearing his loyalty to the Party literally on his sleeve. The first time Wen appeared in Western attire was 1998, after China’s then premier Zhu Rongji moved Wen from his Party post to a top government position as a deputy premier.

  47. After his old boss Zhao Ziyang was muzzled under house arrest, Wen was the only Chinese leader to continue to speak publicly about universal values, such as freedom and democracy.

  48. That understanding—that he might speak up sometimes but would continue to play within the rules of the system—was a key reason why Wen got and stayed at the job.

  49. Of all the peoples in the world, the Singaporeans knew how the game was played in China and profited considerably from that knowledge.

  50. [一人得道,鸡犬升天] The financial success of Wen Jiabao’s wife and kids is summed up in the Chinese proverb: “When a man attains enlightenment [or in this case the premiership], even his pets ascend to heaven.” That said, neither Whitney nor I believed that Premier Wen was fully aware until very late that his family members had become billionaires.

  51. Whitney bested them all. It was a painstaking process of cultivation and of anticipating her needs, all based on Whitney’s intimate knowledge of Auntie Zhang’s life and family. Before Auntie Zhang realized she even required something, Whitney provided it. After she did that a few times, Auntie Zhang was hooked.

  52. Every relationship came with its own calculations and its own dimensions.

  53. Serving Auntie Zhang at the center of power in China became Whitney’s life. Every time Auntie needed her, Whitney was there. She submerged herself into Auntie Zhang’s world and everything else fell away. Both of us became like this, catering to the whims of others. We were like the fish that clean the teeth of crocodiles.

  54. Years later, Whitney and Auntie Zhang would try to get Liu promoted to a vice-ministerial position, meaning he’d become a “high-ranking official” or a gaogan. That jump is the most important in any official’s career. Not only does it promise a more generous pension and access to the best hospitals, best medical care, and best food; it also portends entrée into the halls of political power.

  55. Whitney’s close relationship with Auntie Zhang ruffled the feathers of her children, particularly Lily, who’d complain loudly that her mother favored Whitney over her. Whitney tried to head off a confrontation by accompanying Lily to fashion shows and other events. She directed me to buddy up with Lily’s husband. But the bad blood remained.

  56. Although she never had any direct proof, Whitney had suspicions that Huang, despite his paunch and rusticated ways, was Auntie Zhang’s paramour. We referred to him as Auntie’s mianshou, a word from classical Chinese that means “the kept man of a noblewoman.” In short, a gigolo.

  57. “If you pulled my corpse out of my coffin and whipped it, you’d still find no dirt.”

  58. Still, Whitney was always playing three-dimensional chess.

  59. Whitney was giving Auntie Zhang veto power over the most intimate decision of her life.

  60. We called them the Taitai Bang, or the Gang of Wives.

  61. Jia Qinglin—who served on the Standing Committee of the Politburo,

  62. Whitney and Auntie Zhang had a verbal agreement that Auntie Zhang would get 30 percent of any profit from our joint enterprises and we and any other partners would share the remaining 70 percent. In theory, the Wens were responsible for putting up 30 percent of the capital as well, but they rarely did.

  63. Our deals required more work. None were sure bets. You needed judgment on two levels. The first was basic due diligence. That was where I came in. I analyzed the industry and had a good sense of the market. I did the legwork, visiting the site and delving into the details. The second type of judgment was an ability to size up a proposal’s political cost.

  64. As our relationship deepened, Whitney and I became far more than “white gloves,” shielding Auntie Zhang’s business activity from unwanted publicity. We became partners. We provided finance, direction, judgment, and, critically, execution. Auntie Zhang gave us political cover. We liked to say Auntie Zhang was our “air force” and we were the “infantry,” slugging it out in the trenches.

  65. Neither Whitney nor I felt much discomfort spending more than a thousand dollars on lunch. To me, it was just the cost of doing business in China in the 2000s. That’s how things were done. A big element was the Chinese concept of “face.” Everybody knew we were paying ridiculous prices for the soup, the fish, and even the veggies. And it was precisely that fact that gave our guest face. If I’d been buying lunch for my personal consumption, I would have looked at it as a value proposition. But I wasn’t there for fun, I was there for business, and if I wanted to do business in Beijing, that’s what lunch cost.

  66. Two-thirds of the people on China’s one hundred wealthiest list would be replaced every year due to poor business decisions, criminality, and/or politically motivated prosecutions, or because they’d mistakenly aligned themselves with a Party faction that had lost its pull. Anyone running a sizable business was bound to be violating some type of law, whether it be environmental, tax, or labor. So while the returns could be lofty, you were always vulnerable. When the Chinese government passes a law it invariably makes it retroactive, so events that occurred years ago that had been unregulated could become crimes today.

  67. They couldn’t understand the new world that I’d entered where the logic of the system compelled us to spend like sailors on shore leave. By my logic and Whitney’s, the accoutrements of a high-end lifestyle served our business interests. If you wanted to go for the maximum deal in China, you couldn’t seem weak. Who’d run with you then? No one. Putting on airs was part of the game.

  68. She was on a crusade to “show ’em.” Whitney’s cars, jewelry, and, later on, artwork weren’t just about consumption. They were about fortifying herself against the world, standing as a rampart against other people’s sneers.

  69. License plates were a huge status symbol in China. There were many different license plates on the streets of Beijing. There were military plates from the different services. There were plates from Party headquarters in Zhongnanhai. There were black plates for foreigners. The plates constituted a language of their own. And with Beijing’s streets constantly jammed, having high-status plates was a must. With the right plates, you could cruise down the bus-only lane, drive on sidewalks, make an illegal U-turn, run a red light, and park in a no-parking zone near a favored restaurant.

  70. For us, owning all this stuff was a talking point to prove to people in our inner circle that we, too, belonged at the apex of Chinese society and were beyond the contempt of those of more noble birth. Indeed, in our lives, everything had to be top-of-the-line. The car she drove, the jewelry she wore, the office where she worked, all of it became part of our personae, a reflection of who we were.

  71. Wen’s comrades at the Party’s heights routinely marshaled the entire judicial system of the nation for their personal benefit, employing corruption and other criminal probes to dispose of political opponents.

  72. Whitney, Auntie Zhang, and I determined that all of our combined shares would be held in Great Ocean’s name to avoid public scrutiny of the Wen family. I also took a seat on Ping An’s supervisory board, which I used to learn how a major Chinese company was run.

  73. In 2005, the Party paid out $12 million to each family of a former National Leader.

  74. In the West, a wedding such as ours would have been an event, a chance for people to see and be seen. But in China, where information is tightly held and fear permeates the system, we had to be careful. In China, connections constitute the foundation of life; we didn’t want to divulge ours to potential competitors or the public at large.

  75. Outsiders believed that the real estate business in China was a license to print money. They were ignorant of the challenges that made it so risky. It was highly regulated and policy changes came in unpredictable waves.

  76. In all, we needed 150 different chops, Chinese seals that are used in lieu of a signature, and every one was a story. It took three years just to start construction and even after that there were roadblocks aplenty. I stationed people outside the offices of officials from whom we needed a stamp. I sent people to hospitals to get chops from bedridden bureaucrats. My employees waited for months trying to curry favor with officials, bringing them fine teas, doing their errands, taking them to saunas, looking after their wives and kids. One of my employees accompanied so many people to so many bathhouses that his skin started peeling off.

  77. This differed from the family of China’s then president, Jiang Zemin. His representatives demanded obedience. But because her husband was in the dark about the family business, Auntie Zhang couldn’t afford to be so bold. She let people read between the lines.

  78. [发改委] Often, these things are very subjective. But they illustrate how every major aspect of the economy was controlled by the state, despite all the talk about capitalism in China. Any project of significance in China needed the approval of an organization called the National Development and Reform Commission, which had bureaus at all levels of the government: in the major cities, all thirty-two provinces, and Beijing.

  79. In some ways, China was little different from the rest of the world. Money, sex, and power drove people. Whitney and I could provide access to power, so we needed to offer less money and arrange for less sex. We rarely gave cash. Instead, we doled out presents: a set of golf clubs for $10,000 here, a $15,000 watch there. On one trip to Hong Kong we bought half a dozen identical watches from the Carlson Watch Shop in Hong Kong’s Central shopping district. This was pocket change to the people who accepted them. It wasn’t so much a bribe as a sign of our affection.

  80. Who was hosting whom was a closely held secret in a system where information was at a premium.

  81. They could give you a thousand reasons why an approval had been held up. They’d never refuse outright; they’d just tell you to wait. They wielded so much power that they were known throughout the Chinese system as the Bureau Chief Gang or the Chuzhang Bang.

  82. I took him out to dinner a few times and invariably he’d throw out a few sentences from classical Chinese poetry, to which I’d always respond with a shit-eating grin, declaring, “Director Kuang’s level of culture is very high!” He knew I was buttering him up, but he’d heard others say the same thing so many times that he actually started to believe it.

  83. Whitney and I twisted ourselves into knots catering to Kuang’s whims.

  84. In the end, however, he alienated too many people above his pay grade. In December 2009, state-run media reported that he was being prosecuted for corruption. He was sentenced to ten years in jail.

  85. Forging personal ties and establishing guanxi was the most difficult part. Guanxi wasn’t a contractual relationship per se: it was a human-to-human connection, built painstakingly over time. You had to show genuine concern for the person. The tough part was that I had so many relationships that needed managing, but I also had a project on my back with a deadline. I had to squeeze all of these interactions into a pipe, and the diameter of the pipe was time.

  86. Worried that so much of her family’s fortune was technically owned by Great Ocean, Auntie Zhang decided instead to transfer the name on the stock from Whitney’s company to that of Wen Jiabao’s mother. That move would prove to be a fateful mistake.

  87. Li Yousheng began inviting me to lunch with officials whose help I required. He tried to solve our problems on the spot. His message to his Party comrades was: “Let’s get this done.” And then he was promoted to executive district chief, which made things move even more smoothly. We’d become part of the Shunyi family.

  88. Saving Li’s life was proof that it was on me to build one-on-one relationships not with just Li but with a whole slew of middle-aged chain-smoking heavy drinkers who’d rarely left Shunyi.

  89. Being together with them for the sake of being together demonstrated that I was part of their group. I had to reacquaint myself with this kind of relationship. It was as if I were a boy back in Shanghai with my arms draped around my friends’ shoulders, gathering with people for no reason other than to bond with them, and doing it on a daily basis. The whole idea was to reinforce the sense of belonging.

  90. This was critical in a system where the rules regarding what was legal and what was proscribed were full of vast areas of gray, and every time you wanted to accomplish anything you had to wade into the gray. In the West, laws are generally clear and courts are independent, so you know where the lines are. But in China, the rules were intentionally fuzzy, constantly changing, and always backdated. And the courts functioned as a tool of Party control. So that’s why building this sense of belonging was so crucial. To convince someone to venture into the gray zone with you, you first had to convince him or her to trust you. Only then could you take the leap together.

  91. The whole affair was lubricated with bottles of aged Moutai. As it had when I was in Hong Kong, the alcohol stripped away my natural reserve, and it brought me and these men closer. By the end of the evening, there I’d be holding hands with a fifty-something bureaucrat, cracking off-color jokes, and slapping him on the back.

  92. I spent about $300,000 on Li Yousheng’s medical expenses. A few years later, the Shunyi District government reimbursed me for about half. The money didn’t matter. The goodwill that experience bought was priceless.

  93. Whitney’s parents began campaigning for a grandchild.

  94. Whitney brought the mind-set of a successful Chinese businesswoman to the project of getting pregnant in New York. She didn’t trust that she’d get good care unless she had a special connection with her doctor, so she cultivated the doctor’s entire family. His son was an aspiring artist. We attended his shows in New York, and Whitney leaned on him to accept the gift of an expensive painting. We took the whole family out for dinner numerous times. This was Whitney’s mode of operation; this was what she knew how to do. This is how she could guarantee good medical care in China. She figured New York couldn’t be much different and that human nature was the same the world over.

  95. Whitney was the product of an environment that emphasized personal relations. Without those ties, nothing would get done, especially in the critical area of medicine. In China, if a doctor didn’t accept your “red envelope” stuffed with cash, you immediately grew concerned.

  96. For his English name, I picked Ariston, derived from the Greek áristos, meaning “excellence.” For his Chinese name, Whitney settled on Jian-kun, two words taken from one of our favorite Chinese poems. Jian and kun stress the necessity of continued efforts to become, well, as weighty as Mount Tai. Some of our friends felt that these names formed too heavy a burden for our son to shoulder. But neither Whitney nor I belonged to that superstitious group of Chinese who called their children Smelly Mutt or Dog’s Balls to avoid the wrath of jealous ghosts. We figured Ariston could handle the gravitas of a big name.

  97. Whitney and I were born poor. But Ariston came into this world with a silver, even a platinum, spoon in his mouth.

  98. When a young kid has that kind of money, parasites attach themselves pretending to be friends. I didn’t want to put my son in a situation like that where he’d spend his whole life not knowing whom to trust, including his spouse, always wondering, Is she with me because of my money?

  99. I’d try to teach Ariston to achieve by embracing success, not fearing failure.

  100. At the same time, they also confronted a yawning moral vacuum in a society that had destroyed traditional Chinese values, tossed aside Communist communitarian norms, and was focused solely on the pursuit of lucre.

  101. Whitney and I went to Hong Kong and scheduled LASIK surgery on the same day back to back, not the brightest move, as we were basically the blind leading the blind all the way back to the hotel.

  102. We were like cavemen who’d finally made it out of the cave. Emerging from our hovels, we’d no idea what to buy, so we fixed on the brightest stars and the most famous brands and bought those, often at inflated prices. In wine it was Château Lafite. In cars it was Rolls-Royce. As Chinese lavished money on these luxuries, their prices skyrocketed worldwide.

  103. For my fortieth birthday, Whitney gave me a custom-made Swiss timepiece worth half a million Euros that took two years to make. The watch was from a series crafted by watchmaker F.P. Journe. I received the seventh in the series; from all accounts, Russian leader Vladimir Putin got the second.

  104. There’s a simplistic argument made these days that all of China’s rich are morally compromised. But if that’s the case, everyone who did business with, invested in, and engaged with China at that time was “morally compromised,” and that involves a large number of people, governments, and corporations from all over the world and even the people who held shares in those companies and filled their homes with made-in-China products, too. What the majority actually believed, I’d counter, was that China’s system was dovetailing with that of the West and that as time passed it would become more transparent and more open as private enterprise grew to dominate the economy.

  105. Wei’s daughter who was living in California with her American husband asked us for a $500,000 loan. Whitney was upset that she felt entitled to our money. We’d bought Ping An’s shares at the market price, she observed. Just because COSCO sold it to us didn’t mean we owed Wei or the rest of his family anything. We never gave Wei’s daughter the loan. We believed it wouldn’t be repaid.

  106. Whitney and I focused on being one step ahead of her to determine and satisfy her desires before she had time to realize what they were.

  107. This was one of the many instances where Westerners thought they were helping China evolve toward a more pluralistic society with a freer market when in reality the Party was actually employing Western financial techniques to strengthen its rule.

  108. In China, officials never reveal their ambitions in public. Biding one’s time is a key tenant of Sun Tzu’s Art of War. But behind closed doors, Sun moved aggressively.

  109. The life of an ambitious official involved constant dining out. On many evenings in Beijing, Sun would attend three dinners. One at 5:00 featured subordinates, people who had requests or needed favors. They’d agree to an early meal because they understood that Sun was busy and had other things to do. A second dinner at 6:30 was reserved for his superiors or political equals. Important political business was transacted in these gatherings. The third dinner at 8:00 was with people with whom he felt more comfortable. By the time he arrived there, he’d already be reasonably drunk, so he’d want an environment where he could drop his guard. His hosts consented to a time well past Chinese dinnertime because they knew he was on the make. Around 10:00, after the final meal, Sun would text Whitney and they’d meet in a private room at the teahouse and linger past midnight.

  110. Whitney noticed how tense Sun was, how worried he became at one point when he fell several months behind Hu in promotions, and how intent he was on catching up

  111. We were always doing things like this; we had an internal checklist of those who needed to be thrown chum. Every trip abroad was a chance to find a bauble for one of our contacts, to deepen the connection and show we cared. Back in the early days of our relationship, Whitney had criticized me for letting my mind idle. But I’d changed, adopting her view that we needed to keep our eyes on the prize, seeking opportunities to serve our masters in the Chinese Communist Party.

  112. Sun’s feet barely had time to freeze in Jilin. Even though he was technically based there, he spent almost half of his time in Beijing, meeting with Whitney and other supporters.

  113. Along with the Gang of Wives and the Bureau Chiefs Gang, the Assistants Gang—or Mishu Bang—constitutes a third pillar of power in China.

  114. Whitney spent hours on the phone advising Zhou how to deepen his relationship with his boss.

  115. The success of Whitney’s contacts reinforced our sense that the opportunities in the new China were going to be endless as we worked hard to install allies in positions up and down the Party’s pecking order.

  116. From my earliest days, I’ve been a curious person, seeking out new intellectual experiences and ideas, and Aspen allowed me to fully exercise that muscle.

  117. We wanted, if not an independent judiciary, at least a fair one where judgments were made on the basis of law and not on the whims of the local Party boss. We craved predictability in government policies because only then could we invest with confidence. Whitney, who was a Christian, also wanted more religious freedom. At the very least, she wanted the Chinese government to acknowledge that a Chinese person could love God and love China at the same time.

  118. I remembered how hard it was for me not to have any spare change in my pocket when I first went to school in Hong Kong. I wanted to give the kids walking-around money so that they’d have a social life and wouldn’t feel like second-class students. The two biggest issues for students from poor families were that despite their academic achievements, they often possessed low self-esteem and were socially awkward. If not dealt with, those issues would hinder their progress. Whitney and I met with them and shared our experiences. We organized outings for them, as well.

  119. Every university in China is run by the Chinese Communist Party and all universities, just like all K–12 schools, have Party secretaries who are usually far more powerful than school presidents, deans, or principals.

  120. He played a leading role in the Thousand Talents Program, a Chinese government effort to entice leading scientists, both Chinese and foreign, to move to China to teach and conduct cutting-edge research.

  121. Whitney undertook this challenge as part of her never-ending search for more connections. Sure, we had the Wen family, but they wouldn’t be around forever. And the Tsinghua alumni network was one of the best in China.

  122. We funded the Chinese literature department and in 2007, the year we sold our Ping An stock, we donated $10 million to build a 180,000-square-foot library, complete with a rooftop garden and barbecue to encourage free-flowing academic debate.

  123. Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. The CPPCC, as it is known, was part of a bureaucratic architecture called the United Front Work Department that has been used by the Chinese Communist Party to control non-Party elements both inside and outside China—from minorities, like Tibetans, to the religious faithful, entrepreneurs, and overseas Chinese.

  124. Authorities would dole out cash to us for plane tickets, which seemed silly to me considering that the net worth of most of us Hong Kong entrepreneurial types averaged north of $10 million.

  125. Now it was: Who are these capitalists trying to privatize part of what should have been a state-owned facility? This type of attitude wasn’t confined to our project; it infected the entire economy. “State-owned enterprises march forward, private firms retreat” became the new buzzwords, signaling a shift at the top of the Party. State-owned firms began to carry out forced mergers with successful private companies. Entrepreneurs had been the engines of China’s growth, but we were never trusted. Ever since it had seized power in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party had used elements of society when it needed them and discarded them when it was done.

  126. Party began to parachute officials in from other regions. China’s state-run press agitated against what it called “dirt emperors,” local bigwigs who disregarded directives from Beijing. But the new brand of official created new problems because these characters arrived with the intention of staying for only a few years before moving out and up. They searched for quick wins to justify a promotion.

  127. the smart way to do business in China was to build something, sell it, take money off the table, and go back in. If you invest $1 and you make $10, you take $7 out and reinvest $3. But if you keep $10 in, chances are you’ll lose it all.

  128. Men like Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, or Pony Ma, the CEO of the other Internet giant, Tencent, might have untold wealth on paper, but they were compelled to serve the Party.

  129. But starting in 2008, we were required to establish a Party committee. Once we had a Party committee, we had to give weight to its opinions. Its presence muddled management decisions.

  130. But after 2008, it was clear that the Party’s leaders viewed even a gentle nudge with alarm. We’d thought our wealth could foster social change. We were wrong. It was one of the saddest things I’d ever experienced.

  131. Capitalists became more of a political threat because we were no longer required as an economic savior. The Party could again tighten its grip.

  132. The Chinese Communist Party functions like the Mafia; it has its own code of omertà.

  133. Red aristocrats got a prison sentence; commoners got a bullet in the head.

  134. In January 2011, Prologis bought out our share of the joint venture, giving us a profit of close to $200 million.

  135. Jiang had also packed the Standing Committee of the Politburo with his cronies; for several years, Jiang’s men held five of its nine seats, preventing Hu from doing anything without Jiang’s approval. So, in 2006, when Hu’s loyalists saw an opportunity to take down Chen Liangyu, a prominent Jiang loyalist, they struck.

  136. When Chen was forced from office in September 2006, he was replaced by Shanghai’s mayor, Han Zheng. Han had only been in office for several months, Auntie Zhang told us, before it was discovered that one of his family members had stashed more than $20 million in a bank account in Australia. The Party couldn’t purge Han, too, because it would’ve been bad for the stability of the leading financial center of China to have both its Party secretary and its mayor ousted in swift succession. Auntie Zhang told us that Han Zheng was allowed to return to his old post as mayor while Xi Jinping was appointed Shanghai’s Party chief. Han Zheng, too, would be forgiven his sins; he joined the Politburo’s Standing Committee in 2017 and was appointed a vice-premier, showing that in China political alignment and loyalty trump everything else.

  137. Whitney and I had used our contacts in Zhejiang and Fujian provinces to try to determine why the Party had picked Xi to run China. The consensus among many of our friends and contacts was that he wasn’t even borderline talented. Mao Zedong’s former assistant Li Rui, who was close to Xi’s father, recalled meeting Xi a few years earlier and complained that he wasn’t educated. Regardless, Xi Jinping would prove to be a savvy and cold-blooded political infighter and become China’s most powerful Party boss in a generation.

  138. in China it wasn’t what you might have done, but who you knew.

  139. On board, as our wives chatted and sampled sushi, we played doudizhu, or Fight the Landlord, a popular Chinese card game with its roots in Communist China’s brutal land reform campaign of the early 1950s. Through multiple rounds of bidding, the first person to shed all his cards—and “kill the landlord”—wins.

  140. I was amazed at the stakes. I’m not an accomplished gambler and I was a reluctant participant. I dropped $100,000 on that leg. I was more embarrassed than concerned. Losing money to men like these could actually turn out to be good for business. Who doesn’t welcome a willing sucker? I knew they’d always invite me back, providing me with an opening to deepen a personal connection.

  141. In China, politics is the key to riches, not the other way around, and David Li was wired into the system politically. Whitney and I were there to make a connection.

  142. In China, there are several ways to get the attention of those in power. Xu’s preferred method was through giving outrageously expensive gifts.

  143. [白手起家] During the trip, our gang expressed little curiosity about Europe’s history or culture. My companions were part of the first generation of China’s wealthy: up-from-the-bootstraps entrepreneurs, like Xu; hard-nosed developers, like Little Ningbo; and members of the Communist aristocracy, like David Li. Daring was rewarded. Jail time was an occupational hazard. Education wasn’t a requirement. People like them weren’t interested in famous paintings in museums. They were all about putting their mark on the world. Anyway, it was time to shop.

  144. It’s a peculiarity of China’s system that the Party bans most retired senior leaders from leaving the country.

  145. After a few days, the bandages came off and Auntie Zhang, paying no heed to the prominent incision marks around her ears, was primed to hit the road. She was far hungrier for life than my entrepreneur friends. And she set a grueling pace.

  146. Under the rules, the land could only be sold after public bids had been solicited. But the process could be managed to scare competitors off. First, the item for sale wasn’t actually land; it was a holding company that owned the Huadu Hotel, which itself owned the land. None of the potential buyers, except us, knew the liabilities of this holding company. To them, it was a black box. In the end, our bid of $130 million was the only bid. Whitney and I pulled together the funds. This time, Auntie Zhang actually put up some money, about $45 million.

  147. For them, it was inspiring to work on a project they could put on their resumés. They’d never seen an owner ready to spend so much to do the best, to never cut corners, to pursue perfection, with bright red shoes.

  148. Whitney then announced that she wanted to shelve the decision for the time being. I was livid. “You think you’re so damn smart, you do it,” I yelled, adding, “I’m done with this.” I walked out. This was about more than just a difference of opinion. Whitney was openly disrespecting me in public, and given my lifelong concerns about face, this was particularly painful.

  149. Whitney focused on relationship building with Party bigwigs. But my team and I actually carried out the work. Whitney was not involved in much of that labor and that magnified her insecurity.

  150. Despite being married, and business partners, Whitney and I competed intensely. She’d shaped me and facilitated my success, but now she felt that I was challenging her authority and she worried that I no longer needed her. She had a point.

  151. With perspective, I can now see that we were never emotionally close enough and were too pragmatically analytical about our ties. Whitney had always argued that passion should take the backseat in our relationship and that as long as the underlying logic was strong we, as a couple, would endure. But my view is that logic wasn’t enough. In life, we approach key relationships by mixing a jump off a cliff with calculated self-interest. There’s no perfect formula. But Whitney and I clearly didn’t have the right one. There was too little emotion invested in our union. In retrospect, that was the glue that would have kept us together. Emotion could have functioned as the soft tissue so that, when the skeleton was weakened, there was still a vital layer to cushion our fall.

  152. Auntie Zhang changed her mind and ordered Whitney to take responsibility for the Ping An deal. She instructed Whitney to talk to Barboza and to tell him that all of the stock held in the names of the premier’s mother and other relatives actually belonged to Whitney and that she’d placed the stock in their names to conceal the size of Whitney’s fortune.

  153. In the back of my mind, I always knew that at a certain point Auntie Zhang would sacrifice Whitney. I’d imagined, however, that by the time that pivot occurred, Whitney would have better protected herself. But I was wrong. Whitney had invested too much of herself in her relationship with Auntie Zhang. She’d also embraced what we Chinese called yiqi, the code of brotherhood, the same code I adhered to with my buddies in Shanghai. She willingly became the fall girl to prove that Auntie Zhang had been right to trust her for all these years.

  154. The Party reacted to the Wen story by blocking the New York Times’s website.

  155. [看破红尘] This time, we were told, Wen demanded a divorce. In a rage, he declared to his relatives that he was preparing to shave his head and enter a Buddhist monastery after retirement. At that point, Party authorities stepped in—to stop both the divorce and Wen’s impulse to, as Buddhists say, “see through the red dust” of human desire and become a monk. That last move would have looked especially bad for a Party that was officially, at least, atheist.

  156. But Bo’s ambition brought him down. His fall began on November 15, 2011, when the body of British businessman Neil Heywood was found in room 1605 of the Lucky Holiday Hotel, a threadbare guesthouse in Chongqing. The initial report on Heywood blamed “sudden death after drinking alcohol” and his body was cremated without an autopsy. Heywood had been a longtime business partner of Bo’s glamorous second wife, Gu Kailai. When Chongqing’s police chief, Wang Lijun looked into the case, he discovered that Bo’s wife had poisoned Heywood over a business dispute.

  157. When no one spoke up, Xi Jinping, who was relatively low in seniority, broke with protocol to speak. He asserted instead that the Party investigate not only Wang but also anyone else who might’ve been involved. He didn’t need to mention Bo Xilai or Bo’s wife, because the implication was obvious to everyone at the meeting. Xi knew if he didn’t speak up then, he’d lose a golden opportunity to rid himself of his archrival.

  158. Auntie Zhang believed that her husband’s support for the investigation and his participation in the public shaming of Bo Xilai put him on a collision course with Bo’s allies, some of whom were in China’s security services. Other information that came to our attention supports Auntie Zhang’s view. In February 2012, Whitney and I heard chatter that Bo had hired Chinese journalists and academics to dig up dirt on Auntie Zhang and her children. Barboza, when asked how he came to write his story, has always denied obtaining information from Party insiders looking to help Bo get even with Wen Jiabao. But Auntie Zhang said she’d learned that security officers loyal to Bo Xilai handed over boxes of documents to Barboza in Hong Kong.

  159. In 2013, about a year after Xi Jinping had launched his anti-corruption campaign and a year after the Times story on the Wen family wealth, Auntie Zhang told us that she and her kids had “donated” all of their assets to the state in exchange for a guarantee that they wouldn’t be prosecuted. She said other red families had done the same. There was another reason behind this action. The Party wanted to rewrite history. In the future, if the Party faced allegations of tolerating systemic corruption, it could claim that these red families, in “donating” their wealth to China, had only been serving the state. All this seemed pretty surreal to Whitney and me. But then again, China’s Communists had a long record of stealing private property and distorting the truth.

  160. People at the top of China’s pyramid hired soothsayers, qigong masters, and purveyors of all sorts of hocus-pocus. In its seventy years in power, the Party had destroyed traditional Chinese values and had essentially outlawed religion. In the vacuum, superstition took hold. In an unpredictable system, where a person can go from top to bottom in a flash, totems promising to make sense of life become very appealing.

  161. Learning about the deception so late into our relationship was another blow.

  162. By 2020, China’s authorities had investigated more than 2.7 million officials for corruption and punished more than 1.5 million, including seven national-level leaders and two dozen generals.

  163. The irony was clear: What good was one man, one vote, when the only candidates you could vote for had first been vetted by Beijing?

  164. I found the whole exercise laughable. Everyone, from the Liaison Office officials to all of us marchers, was acting. Few, if any, believed in the main idea underlying the action—that Hong Kong needed less democracy or less freedom. Everyone was there because of self-interest and to gain brownie points in Beijing. In my heart, I never believed that China should interfere in Hong Kong’s affairs. I never thought that Hong Kong needed China’s guidance. We’d been doing fine without China’s interference.

  165. Ultimately, the Party imposed a national security law on Hong Kong that has basically nullified the right of free speech. Like all laws born in mainland China, it was purposely vague, full of gray areas, that gave the Party wide latitude to prosecute anyone it disliked.

  166. We were doing China’s bidding purely out of self-interest. But it also tells you how much we feared the Chinese Communist Party and the possible repercussions of saying no and speaking out. Maybe it was the same conundrum that faced officials like Chen Xi, Xi Jinping’s former roommate at Tsinghua University. We all went along with a system that we knew was wrong because to do otherwise would have cost us—and everyone around us, including loved ones—their livelihood, freedom, and, who knows, even their lives. The price just seemed too high.

  167. As Xi’s corruption campaign played out, I finally concluded that it was more about burying potential rivals than about stamping out malfeasance.

  168. In China, the Communist Party can fabricate evidence, force confessions, and level whatever charges it chooses, untethered to the facts. And, of course, many people gullibly believe the Party’s charges because the system is so opaque. It’s like China’s economic growth rate. The Party sets a target and every year China miraculously hits the bull’s-eye, down to the decimal point. Everybody mouths the same lie, including foreigners, because the Party is so adept at concealing the truth and silencing dissenting voices. It’s almost impossible to separate fact from fiction.

  169. The popular consensus was that Ling was purged not because he was any more corrupt than the average official but because he represented a competing political force.

  170. We believed the allegations against Sun and Ling were manufactured by the Party security services 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 Committee.

  171. The Party alleged that Sun paid for prostitutes and took bribes. But we knew him well. He didn’t lust for money or sex. He lusted after power. Why would he run after women or a few million dollars when he had a nation of 1.4 billion people potentially in his grasp?

  172. Granted, Whitney had been a key guide and teacher to me during some very dark hours. But as I evolved, I needed her to grow with me, to make space for me, and to see me as an equal.

  173. Basically, Whitney wanted me to be so lacking in funds that I’d be forced to return to her on my hands and knees. We’d always kept our money in accounts held by Great Ocean. I possessed very little of my own. My name wasn’t on any documents. I was in a real fix. Battling a two-front war with my erstwhile wife and erstwhile best friend, I faced the most difficult period of my life. This was far worse than the failure of PalmInfo, or the firestorm sparked by the disappearance of airport boss Li Peiying, or even the New York Times story. To help me cope, I recalled the lessons I’d learned during those crises. I resumed meditation. I returned to the philosophical texts I’d studied before. I began to detach myself from the daily goings-on of life, insulate my emotions, and, like my parents had when they first immigrated to Hong Kong, do what needed to be done to make it through.

  174. My only option was to play hardball. I debated whether to take this step. In the end, I threatened to release damaging information about her. I leveraged the New York Times story, too. Our businesses were on the radar of the Chinese authorities and, given the purposely pliable nature of Communist law, there were always things that could be interpreted in a negative light. Despite the reality that Whitney strived to keep her nose clean, my threats compelled her to accept a settlement that provided me with enough to live comfortably. On December 15, 2015, we finalized our divorce. Those two ordeals taught me a lot about the vagaries of life, especially in China. I learned that friendships aren’t reliable. Nor are marriages. What kind of relationship is left?

  175. [成王败寇] Communist system. From an early age, we Chinese are pitted against one another in a rat race and told that only the strong survive. We’re not taught to cooperate, or to be team players. Rather, we learn how to divide the world into enemies and allies—and that alliances are temporary and allies expendable. We’re prepared to inform on our parents, teachers, and friends if the Party tells us to. And we’re instructed that the only thing that matters is winning and that only suckers suffer moral qualms. This is the guiding philosophy that has kept the Party in power since 1949. Machiavelli would have been at home in China because from birth we learn that the end justifies the means. China under the Party is a coldhearted place.

  176. The sons and daughters of China’s leaders were a species unto themselves. They lived by different rules and inhabited what seemed at times like a different dimension, cut off from the rest of China. Their homes were behind high walls. They didn’t shop with the masses. Their food came from a different supply chain. They traveled in chauffeured limousines, attended schools that were closed to normal Chinese, were cared for at special hospitals, and made money through political access, which they sold or rented out.

  177. This type of duopoly was common in China, with a state-run player sharing the market with a company controlled by a descendant of the red elite.

  178. He noted that a particularly effective way to bond with a Party official was to share a room with him and several girls at once. He saw the shortcomings of the system, its corruption, and how it twisted people’s souls. He wouldn’t defend China in terms of ideology or values, but he was happy to be mining his bloodline to make a mint. I imagined him as being a bit like Michael Corleone in The Godfather. In my view, Wolfgang was a reluctant mobster.

  179. For years, Western commentators insisted that people like Wolfgang who’d been educated overseas were agents of change in China—that they’d import universal values from the West and push China in a better direction. But people like Wolfgang never saw themselves in that role. His interest was in China’s remaining the way it was. That’s what made him a very rich man and allowed him to reap the benefits of two systems at once, the freedoms of the West and the managed duopolies of authoritarian China.

  180. Chinese Communism. In exchange for a pot of gold, they’d sold their souls.

  181. Despite my battling with Whitney in court, she and I maintained a semblance of unity over Ariston’s upbringing.

  182. If I’d learned one thing from my research into family legacies, it was this: no parent ever regretted that they’d spent too much time with their kids. I also worked to improve my relationship with my parents. I took them on vacations around the world. I planned every step of the itinerary and made sure they were comfortable, well fed, and looked after. Over lunch in Florence during a vacation to Italy, my mother, staring off in the distance as if she were speaking to no one in particular, said, “You know, I’m surprised. You’ve turned out to be a good son.”

  183. At another point she turned to me and said, “I’m not good at relationships, I’m very insecure.” I was unmoved. What I wanted was a sincere apology, but she was too proud. Despite everything, she still believed she was superior to me in judging China and that I still needed to be schooled in China’s ways.

  184. In fact, so many people wanted to take money out of China that the government had slapped controls on the movement of capital.

  185. She dreamed big and went for it all. I often stopped her from doing things that seemed too dangerous or risky. But once we split up, she lost her sounding board, her guardrail, and perhaps her caution, too.

  186. Part of me thinks that one reason she hasn’t appeared is that she’s refused to admit guilt. She always used to say, “If you pulled my corpse out of my coffin and whipped it, you’d still find no dirt.” Whitney is (or was) as strongheaded as they come.

  187. Its 1997 Criminal Procedure Law allows the police to hold a suspect for up to thirty-seven days before either releasing or formally arresting him or her. But that’s a cruel joke. Whitney has been gone for years and still not a peep.

  188. [双规] But shuanggui is not limited by any law. Technically, detentions can last forever. I believe Whitney is being held under that structure. Again, what type of system allows a political party to operate above the law and keep its suspects incommunicado for years? Whitney isn’t the only one suffering this fate, but she’s the longest-held captive without a sound.

  189. Editors were sacked, publishers were arrested, professors were fired, the Internet was censored, and Party committees were forced on all private businesses. China’s growing economy presented the Party with an opportunity to reassert its dominance.

  190. There’s a lie perpetrated by the Chinese Communist Party that it prioritizes the collective over the selfish interests of the individual. Many in the West, unhappy with the West’s obsession with individual rights, buy into this fantasy that the Chinese Communist Party focuses on the common good. The reality is that the Party’s main purpose is to serve the interests of the sons and daughters of its revolutionaries. They are the primary beneficiaries; they are the ones sitting at the nexus of economic and political power.

  191. At the same time, I’ve come to realize that, more than wealth or professional success, basic dignity and human rights are life’s most precious gifts. I want to live in a society that shares that ideal. So I’ve chosen the Western world over China—not only for me, but also for my son.

  192. This is a book project that was started by courage and love. Love, loving, and being loved.

  193. Courage. It takes all the courage I can muster to stand up and speak truth to this unscrupulous power, the CCP.

  194. I want to thank my Great Ocean colleagues; together we created leading real estate projects in China. But, out of fear of retribution from the CCP, I can’t name them. You know who you are. I’m grateful for all your support.