The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In China’s elite circles, thousand-dollar soups, luxury watches and detention roulette

Whitney Duan stands in front of Tiananmen Square in an undated photo. She was detained in 2017. (Family photo)

A Chinese businessman is offering a rare peek into the luxe lifestyles of former premier Wen Jiabao’s family and other Chinese elites, eliciting an unsettling phone call from his ex-wife who disappeared into detention years ago.

Desmond Shum’s new memoir “Red Roulette” has raised a flurry of interest among scholars because of the rarity of insiders going public with details about China’s political royalty. His ex-wife, Whitney Duan, had been a key figure in a 2012 New York Times investigation into the Wen family wealth, as she claimed responsibility for assets listed under Wen’s relatives’ names.

Shum’s book, released Tuesday, recounts Duan’s friendship with Wen’s energetic wife Zhang Beili, whom they called “Auntie Zhang,” and their joint investments and splashy lifestyles at a time in China when it seemed the sky was the limit.

“Neither Whitney nor I felt much discomfort spending more than a thousand dollars on lunch,” he writes. “To me, it was just the cost of doing business in China in the 2000s.”

Revelation of Wen Jiabao’s wealth comes at a sensitive time for China

In an interview from Britain, where he now lives, Shum said that he decided to go public with his family’s story to help people understand China’s inner workings.

“I got really angry over time,” he said.

Shum’s account could not be independently verified by The Washington Post, but longtime China scholars said it fits with what is known about events in Beijing at the time.

China’s State Council Information Office and the Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment. Wen’s family and Duan could not be reached.

Shum paints a vivid portrait of the waning days of China’s era of ebullience. Self-made billionaires, Duan and Shum included, scrabbled to the top, greasing palms along the way. Family members of senior officials sought business deals and enriched themselves.

With the help of political connections, Duan and Shum secured lucrative projects, including one to build an enormous air cargo hub attached to Beijing’s international airport. To help seal these sorts of deals, as Shum wrote in the book, they would drop $1,000 just for a soup made of fish maw, the air bladder of a large fish, and shower their business contacts with luxury watches.

“This was pocket change to the people who accepted them,” he wrote. “It wasn’t so much a bribe as a sign of our affection.”

Having Zhang onboard as an investor also helped them land business deals, Shum wrote.

“You’d be hard-pressed to say Auntie Zhang was in it purely for the money,” he wrote, of her 1990s diamonds business, among the first companies to be listed on the Shanghai Stock Exchange. “She saw herself as creating a new industry in China. She, too, was seized by a desire to do something extraordinary.”

In China, investigations and purges become the new normal

The premier’s discomfort with his wife’s business dealings had been whispered about for years, including in a 2007 cable from the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai that was published by WikiLeaks.

“He particularly dislikes his wife for her brazenness in trading on his name,” the cable said, of Wen.

The tone changed after Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. Xi instituted a sweeping crackdown on both corruption and his political rivals, which tamped down some of the fervor for deals and conspicuous consumption.

Shum and Duan, had in the meantime divorced, he said, due to business disagreements. Then in 2017, Duan was swept up in the crackdown and detained, although it’s still unclear for what cause and whether she has been formally charged.

Wen’s family members were not detained, however. After the New York Times investigation about the Wen family wealth, the Times’ website was blocked in China and the Foreign Ministry said the newspaper was trying to blacken the nation and had “ulterior motives.”

Shum said that Duan, who had been unreachable for four years, suddenly called him on Sunday to ask him to halt the book’s publication. He said that in their phone call, his ex-wife said the two of them had given gifts to people and appeared to be trying to implicate him.

“I’m guilty of crimes,” he recalled her saying. “We are partners in business. Then you must be guilty too.

“She kept repeating, ‘I’m guilty of crimes.’ ”

Shum told The Post he didn’t believe he was guilty of any crimes. While they had given people gifts in China, he said, it was something everyone did.

He said he asked her what the allegations were against her, and she said they couldn’t be disclosed. She had no outside news for four years, he said, and was unaware of the pandemic and her mother’s death during her detention.

She also warned that harm might come to him and their son, he said.

Without corruption, some ask, can the Chinese economic system function?

Shum believes Duan’s 11th-hour reappearance to demand a halt to the publication may have been orchestrated by the authorities detaining her. Whatever the motivation, it appears to have only goosed sales. “Red Roulette” was at No. 75 on Amazon’s bestsellers’ list on Thursday.

Following the book launch, Shum said he is now focused on his and his son’s security.

Xi’s crackdown on corruption and business extravagance has continued, intensifying in the past year to broadsides against Internet companies that used to be national darlings. Beijing is also scrutinizing the entertainment industry, most recently banning “American Idol”-esque TV competitions, with state media saying it “preys on people’s love for glamour and fame.”

Shum said the early rumbles of Xi’s crackdown prompted him to leave China for Britain years ago, a decision he is grateful for in retrospect.

“That’s the moment I realized, you know, I had a very good ride,” he said. “This thing is not going to go well, and I just had a divorce. And I said, well, the heck with it, let’s decamp.”

Lyric Li, Pei Lin Wu and Alicia Chen contributed to this report.

Revelation of Wen Jiabao’s wealth comes at a sensitive time for China

In China, investigations and purges become the new normal

Without corruption, some ask, can the Chinese economic system function?