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  Red Roulette       Source
Red Roulette cover

Red Roulette: An Insider’s Story of Wealth, Power, Corruption, and Vengeance in Today’s China is a 2021 memoir by Desmond Shum (ghost-written by John Pomfret). James Palmer of Foreign Policy wrote that the work serves as "one of the very few insider accounts we have of how things get done at the top in China".

Shum's former wife Whitney Duan Weihong, under arrest and incommunicado since 2017, placed a telephone call to Shum telling him to cancel the publication. Jude Blanchette of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) wrote in the Washington Post that the party attempted to use Duan and Shum's family as hostages to convince him to not go forward with publishing. Palmer explained that Shum, by writing the book and publishing it, went against the "omertà" of the Communist Party of China (CCP).

The work discusses how doing favors for other people becomes the backbone of guanxi personal relationships in China, and Palmer stated the "tragedy of those ties" becomes an important thematic element.[1] The book states how Shum and Duan formed a corrupt relationship with Zhang Peili and became wealthy as a result. Blanchette stated that the Zhang Peili connection is in the "heart" of the work.

Blanchette wrote that the CCP is depicted in the work as being "the epitome of capitalist excess". Blanchette added that the work shows that actual decisions go through "informal interactions" between key power brokers, with official meetings being for show; he stated that this "highlight[s] the limitations of more formalistic analysis of China’s political system."

Palmer wrote in terms of the author's assessment of himself within the work, as Shum was someone previously pro-CCP who later turned against the party, "unusually honest—though not completely frank".

Blanchette called the work "a remarkable indictment of the Chinese Communist Party" and "a rare bona fide insider account".

Publishers Weekly gave the book a starred review and stated that the book has an "enthralling" critique of the CCP and "is imbued with an aura of inevitable tragedy".

Kirkus Reviews described the book as "riveting".

For Hong Kong and Whitney Duan.

I wish I had the right words; just know I care.


Better to speak out and die than keep silent and live.

—Fan Zhongyan (989–1052)


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 project 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 more. And now suddenly she was gone.

How had that happened? And who is Whitney Duan?

Whitney Duan was my wife and business partner for more than a decade. By that point, we were divorced, but for many years we’d been close collaborators and confidants and together had enjoyed the wildest of rides. We’d achieved our shared dream of doing great things in China for China. Coming from poverty, we’d been seized with a desire to make something of our lives. We were awed by our own success.

We’d built one of the biggest logistical hubs in the world at the Beijing Capital International Airport. We’d conceived and constructed the swankiest hotel and business center in China’s capital—located on a choice swath of real estate near the city’s bustling heart. We’d done stock deals that netted us hundreds of millions of dollars. We’d operated at the center of power in China, cultivating premiers, high-ranking members of the Chinese Communist Party, and their families. We’d counseled the up-and-coming officials who had all of China in their grasp. We’d pushed for social and political changes to make China a better place. By doing well, we believed we could do good. We’d done the math; our net wealth totaled in the billions.

But now she’d disappeared. From my home in England, I reached out to Whitney’s housekeeper, who said that Whitney hadn’t returned from work on that day in September 2017 and hadn’t been seen since. It was as if she’d been vaporized.

I called people in the company we’d founded and learned that Whitney wasn’t the only one to have vanished. Two senior executives in her firm—along with a junior assistant who doubled as a housekeeper—were also missing. None have been heard from since. I’d only just left Beijing in late July, having dropped off our son for a summer with his mother. I wondered: Might I have disappeared, too, if I’d stayed a few more weeks in China?

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 out 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.

I called Whitney’s parents, but they knew nothing. I asked friends, senior officials in the Communist Party hierarchy who owed their positions to her. None were willing to intercede on her behalf. People were so worried about being ensnared by Whitney’s case and so afraid of the Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, which I’ve concluded is the organization that is holding Whitney, that they were unwilling to lend a hand.

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. Whitney had been extraordinarily useful to her friends. She’d arranged for promotions for scores of people inside the Chinese Communist Party and the government. She’d managed their careers and spent countless hours strategizing with them about the next move. But now that she was in danger, they’d dropped her like a stone.

As I thought frantically about what to do, what clever approach would deliver back to my son the mother who’d gone missing and the ex-wife who’d had such a transformative effect on my life, I reflected on the years-long series of incredible events that had led to this.

When Whitney disappeared, her net worth vastly exceeded what either of us might have imagined back in the early days of our relationship. A woman of outsize talents in a patriarchal society, she’d played the roulette-like political environment of the New China with unparalleled skill, parlaying an alliance with the family of a political titan into almost unimaginable success. Until she didn’t. She’d understood the real China, until she didn’t. I was her business partner and husband. We scaled the heights together. This is my story, and hers.

About the Author
Desmond Shum

ABOUT THE AUTHOR DESMOND SHUM, who was born in Shanghai and raised in Hong Kong, developed the largest air cargo logistics facility in China, the Beijing Airport Cargo Terminal. He also led the development of the Bulgari Hotel in Beijing. Desmond holds a bachelor’s degree in finance and accounting from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is a graduate of the joint EMBA program of Northwestern University and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.


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

I wrote it because of my love for my son, Ariston. He has given me the chance to be the father that I’ve aspired to be. I want him to know who his father and mother truly are, what we’ve achieved, and what we’ve been through.

Being loved. Without the support of my loved ones, I never would have had the guts to see this through. Ci Sun, my better half, has truly been a blessing in my life. Without her, it would have been so much harder to get my footing after turning the page on China. She has been forgiving and encouraging in every step I’ve taken.

She is also sacrificing part of her life to face with me whatever storms may hit us after this book comes out. She has prepared herself not to return to China. This is a very heavy decision she’s made.

I also want to thank my ex-wife, Whitney Duan. I wouldn’t be what I am today without her. She is my silent partner in this book. Then there are my parents. They love me in their own way. They also have been supportive of this project by readying themselves for possible persecution from the Chinese Communist Party.

Courage. It takes all the courage I can muster to stand up and speak truth to this unscrupulous power, the CCP. Many have helped me prepare for this undertaking. Keith Berwick was my mentor at the Crown Fellowship Program at the Aspen Institute. He inspired me when I was looking for a higher calling in life. He showed me the path of courage, righteousness, and love. He continues to motivate and encourage me. My fellows at 9th Symphony class inspired me with their dedication to help others and their desire to live a life for someone other than themselves. I still remember Jordan Kassalow’s story about facing a storm from an open window. Another Aspen Crown fellow, Bill Browder, has been an inspiration with the courageous publishing of his book, Red Notice. That memoir and Browder’s subsequent actions blazed a path for all those who confront unscrupulous authoritarian regimes. Then there is Matthew Pottinger, who served for four years on the US National Security Council. The image of him reciting in flawless Mandarin a line from an ancient poem by Fan Zhongyan —“Better to speak out and die than keep silent and live”—has stayed with me until today. Fan’s poem has been the motto of this book-writing journey, and that line serves as the book’s epigraph.

Of course, I can’t leave out the undaunted Hong Kongers who have sacrificed themselves in pursuit of human dignity. I have been in awe of their bravery, and I want to do my part for the city that I used to call home.

This book wouldn’t have been possible without my writing partner, John Pomfret. His knowledge of and experience in China made our exchanges smooth and fruitful. His thoughtfulness and diligence made working with him a delight. I look forward to continuing our friendship.

I also want to thank my friends who have exchanged ideas with me throughout the project. Andrew Small has been a friend since he graduated from Oxford. As he rises to be a leading researcher in geopolitics, I look forward to more conversations; I know I’ll always find novelty in our exchanges. Ken Zhou is a leading thinker and writer on Taiwan politics and cross-strait dynamics. His out-of-the-box thinking has been an inspiration for me over the past decade. Thomas Eymond-Laritaz has always been a supportive and thoughtful friend. His knowledge of global politics and business is truly exceptional. There are others as well, but I’ll keep their names to myself given the CCP’s lamentable tendency to punish dissenters’ friends and family.

Fashion and style are things that I’ve enjoyed since early adulthood. They have emboldened me to shoot for the stars, to reimagine what’s possible. My lifelong friend Stephen Luk is the person who brought me into that world. After forty years, we still swap fashion ideas and exchange information about the best craftsmen to make our beloved items.

I am forever thankful to ChinaVest, the leading private equity firm in the greater China region in the early 1990s. Jenny Hui hired me. Dennis Smith and Alex Ngan helped polish my business plans and investment acumen.

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.

I also want to thank my agents, Amy and Peter Bernstein. They saw the potential of my story and brought it to the attention of major publishing houses. They guided me through the process. Scribner has been an ideal partner. My editor, Rick Horgan, has been extraordinarily tolerant of this novice writer. His wisdom and patience have been exemplary. I also want to thank the whole team at Scribner who just seemed to get the urgency of our story. That includes publisher Nan Graham, director of publicity and marketing Brian Belfiglio, rights director Paul O’Halloran, senior marketing director Brianna Yamashita, senior production editor Mark LaFlaur, art director Jaya Miceli, and editorial assistant Beckett Rueda. Meg Handler did a great job on the photos.

Copyright © 2021 by Desmond Shum

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Copyright © 2021 by Desmond Shum

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First Scribner hardcover edition September 2021

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Interior design by A. Kathryn Barrett
Jacket design by Michael Nagin
Jacket artwork: Dragon by LY86/Getty Images and Peter Dazeley/Getty Images, Cityscape by Dukai
Photographer/Getty Images

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data has been applied for.
ISBN 978-1-9821-5615-2
ISBN 978-1-9821-5617-6 (ebook)

Read more: Red Roulette