You are born in Shanghai, the only son in a typically struggling family. A generation ago your family had certainty, means, even prestige, but the cultural revolution, as it did for all of China, proved a reversal of fortunes. How, starting here, do you become a multimillionaire? On what tides do you rise? What do you see in a life journeying up the red ladder?
Red Roulette is the autobiography of businessman and estranged emissary of China's dizzying economic rise, Desmond Shum. In it, Shum promises an insiders' account of the corrupted currents of mega-wealth and power in modern China - one whose release, it is at points implied, could even threaten his safety.
Over 250 odd pages, Shum tells his story. From that Shanghai village, through a Hong Kong adolescence and Western tertiary education, Shum finds himself positioned to bridge business in an opening China with Western finance. His autobiography traces the cultivation, in close partnership with his wife Whitney Duan, of multi-million-dollar projects and deals done deep in the Chinese bureaucracy and aristocracy.
In most ways, Red Roulette satisfies its titular promise. Still, the book is made up of personal and professional anecdotes told from his perspective, rather than a journalistic investigation. In this framework, Shum provides a detailed and specific account, with connections named, and corruptions allocated, alongside commentary on personal resilience and persistence in strange and unintuitive landscapes. The promise of Duan's disappearance in 2017, forecasted early in the telling, hangs over the cycles of purging that surround Shum and his wife.
Shum's writing style is clear and direct, relying mostly on the shock and magnitude of events to carry his story. Predictably, the most engaging parts are insights into the Chinese economic elite and bureaucratic structure, even where Shum himself does not develop these. Most prominent among these themes is the tension between capitalist liberalism and authoritarianism. Shum, for example, continually details his vision of himself, as a capitalist, as a politically reforming force that would bring China into what he saw as the liberal 21st century. What he tracks surrounding the rise of Xi Jinping is a reversal of that idealism - a reassertion of central authority - once capitalism had satisfactorily served its purpose in modernising and globalising the economy.
Whether Shum truly "reveals" anything entirely unknown may perhaps be overstated. But it's an account that will pique the interest of those concerned with this insiders' China, and, like many memoirs, may prove more interesting for what ideas the reader can extract for themselves, than from what the book specifically set out to develop.
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