These two books help to understand China

Chinese flag

Desmond Shum paints a picture of a “red aristocracy” who unashamedly enrich themselves on the boom.

(Photo: Reuters)

Dusseldorf Whoever wants to understand China in the present cannot ignore this book. It offers a glimpse into the mechanics of power. It’s also exciting to read. It’s an insider’s book. Desmond Shum tells his career, which alone reads like a novel: from nothing to a millionaire.

Tirelessly, Shum works his way up, first as a swimmer who almost made the Hong Kong Olympic team. Later as an analyst for an American private equity firm expanding in capitalist China.

His breakthrough in Beijing came with Whitney Duan. He marries the ambitious businesswoman who had close ties to the top of the Chinese Communist Party. They were so good friends with Premier Wen Jiabao’s wife that they just called her “Aunt Zhang.”

They expand the airport in Beijing with an international cargo terminal, build the Bulgari Hotel in the city with a shopping center and offices. Shum is the entrepreneur while his wife takes care of finances.

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Almost in passing, Shum talks about the intertwining of politics and business. One even meets with Xi Jinping. Shum paints a picture of a “red aristocracy” who unashamedly enrich themselves from the boom. The entrepreneur shows a feudal China in which the families of the political elite want to secure their position of power for generations at any price.

Desmond Shum: Red Roulette.
Simon + SchusterUK
London 2021
310 pages
15.16 euros

Shum is a credible witness. He openly admits mistakes and talks casually about corruption and careers. Because the Chinese really only want one thing: to make money and be successful.

But the purges under Xi cast their shadows ahead. In 2015, Shum’s wife disappeared, probably in prison or under house arrest, so far without charges. That’s the motivation for the book, said Shum, who lives in England with her now 12-year-old son. He wanted to tell him about his mother, from whom they have had no sign of life for four years.

Shortly before the book is published, she is allowed to call him after all. He should stop the publication. “How would it make you feel if something happened to our son?” she said. “And what would happen to our son if something happened to me?”

While Shum traces Xi’s authoritarian course within the country, journalist Joanna Chiu analyzes Beijing’s global influence. After years as a reporter in China, she traveled the world to detail Beijing’s global expansion.

Joanna Chiu: China Unbound: A New World Disruption.
Anansi Press House
Toronto 2021
304 pages
17.22 euros

In her home country of Canada, she sees compatriots being held hostage by Beijing. In Italy and Greece she looks at infrastructure projects of the new Silk Road and how they strengthen the dependency on Beijing and visits Muslim Uyghurs in Turkey who left the People’s Republic for fear of being arrested. Chiu diagnoses Beijing’s increasingly confrontational course and demands a confident response.

More: Demonstration of Power: Three Books Explaining China.