John Pomfret is a contributing writer to The Washington Post’s Global Opinions and the author of “The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, From 1776 to the Present.”
Over the past three decades, as China’s growing economy has shaken the world, there has not been a single credible memoir by a Chinese insider who played at the nexus of the nation’s business and political elites. Purged Chinese Communist Party secretary Zhao Ziyang’s memoir provided some insight, but by the time it was published in 2009, Zhao had been dead for four years and the events detailed in the book had occurred decades earlier. Li Zhisui’s “The Private Life of Chairman Mao” provided an illuminating portrait of China’s founder, Chairman Mao Zedong, when it was published in 1994, but Mao had died in 1976. Perhaps the sole memoir that exposes the recent inner workings of the Communist Party is former Treasury secretary Henry Paulson’s 2015 book, “Dealing With China.” But Paulson isn’t Chinese.
Part of the reason for the lack of autobiographical material is, of course, the Chinese system, which ruthlessly punishes people who speak out of school. The Chinese Communist Party has effectively legislated against memoir-writing. In December 2012, in the first meeting after the rise of Xi Jinping, its current party boss, the party’s Central Committee issued eight regulations, which within the party have the force of law. The seventh regulation ordered leading Chinese not to “publish any works by themselves” and directed censors to pay close attention to any writings about the work of senior Chinese officials.
Other factors militate against an honest memoir. For one, given the corruption inherent in doing business in China, why would anyone who has risen on China’s ascent divulge the truth about it? Isn’t getting rich enough? And if that weren’t sufficient deterrence, prospective authors only have to look at the fate of five Hong Kong booksellers who were abducted by Chinese security forces in 2015 for the “crime” of publishing stories promising an inside look at the Chinese Communist Party.
The market in the West also bears some responsibility. Over the past several decades, books by Chinese writers from China that are translated into English generally have followed a timeworn path. A lone person or a family struggles against an ominously exotic backdrop populated by Red Guards, famines and the Chinese gulag. Ultimately, freedom is achieved by immigrating to the West. Then the story ends. Jung Chang’s 1991 bestseller, “Wild Swans,” perfected the pattern but it was also employed successfully by longtime D.C. resident Nien Cheng in her “Life and Death in Shanghai” in 1987 and Wu Ningkun in his 1993 memoir, “A Single Tear.”
This combination of Chinese repression and secretiveness and writers’ fears has made it difficult for readers to garner a Chinese insider’s impression of how China has changed. As a result, it has been left to Westerners to interpret the nation for the rest of the world. In recent years, books by journalists such as Richard McGregor’s “The Party” and Evan Osnos’s “The Age of Ambition” have led the way.
In January, Wiley published the memoirs of a prominent Chinese businessman, Weijian Shan. Shan’s book, “Out of the Gobi: My Story of China and America,” is a beautifully written story charting his naive embrace of Maoist politics, his inevitable disaffection with Maoist ideology, the subsequent desperation with which he pursued any avenue out China to the United States.
Shan does a wonderful job of taking the reader back in time. He describes the fervor with which he and his classmates loved Chairman Mao and the inexorable onset of alienation as he realized that Mao’s directives were destined for failure and that the Communism practiced in China was nothing but a cruel joke. What’s more, Shan’s measured tone — this is not a polemic by any means — makes the story more powerful. At the end of the book, he devotes a few pages to his life in the United States. He vividly describes the America he embraced in the early 1980s, rocketing through the University of California at Berkeley, earning a master’s degree and a doctorate. Then the story stops.
For a reader who is fresh to China, Shan’s book is a fine introduction to the country. But for someone who is aware of the pattern of past writing by Chinese about their lives, the memoir feels a little old. The main issue is that, in Shan’s case, his life did not stop when he left China and then graduated from Berkeley. In fact, it became more interesting.
Early in his career as an investment banker, Shan participated in a huge deal involving the Shenzhen Development Bank that put him in touch with the highest levels of the Chinese government and with American investors such as Richard Blum, the husband of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). Later, Shan served as JPMorgan Chase’s chief China rep and co-managing partner of Newbridge Capital. As a senior partner at TPG Capital, he oversaw its Asia transactions. He has served on the boards of a major state-owned Chinese steel company, Baosteel, one of China’s biggest banks, Bank of China, and the computer manufacturing giant Lenovo. But none of this is in the book.
What happened over the course of Shan’s career has been as fascinating as the far safer rags-to-riches tale he recounts in his book. During this time, China joined the World Trade Organization and morphed from an economic backwater into a global power. Deals Shan and others made in and around China facilitated this rise. What was he thinking while this was unfolding? Who profited and who lost? How did corruption work? Did Shan assume, like many at the time, that China was going to evolve in a more open direction? What does Shan think of China now? We can only guess, because he doesn’t tell this story.
At the end of his book, Shan hints that he may write another book. “How I got into playing high-stakes money games,” he says, “is perhaps another story worth telling.” And there is word that he is completing two additional manuscripts focusing on his life as a dealmaker. I sincerely hope he writes these two books with the same honesty with which he has approached his early life. But I also worry about the risks to him and his family. There’s a reason no leading Chinese executive or politician has shared his or her perspective on China’s rise. The story is almost too good — and definitely too dangerous — to tell.
By Weijian Shan
Wiley. 465 pp. $29.95