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Mystery of missing woman who struck deals with China’s ‘red aristocracy’

Four years after she disappeared in Beijing, Duan Weihong is still missing, believed to be detained by Chinese Communist party investigators.

“They never acknowledged taking her,” said Desmond Shum, Duan’s ex-husband and former business partner. “Even her parents have no information whatsoever from the government.”

For years, Duan, also known by her English name Whitney, and Shum wheeled and dealed at the highest levels. They used their connections with some of the party’s most powerful families and officials to gain access to lucrative property and logistics projects as well as equity investments in large state-owned enterprises.

Duan and Shum’s main contacts included Zhang Beili, wife of former premier Wen Jiabao, and Sun Zhengcai, a potential successor to President Xi Jinping who was purged in 2017. Duan disappeared on September 5 2017, just six weeks after Sun was detained for alleged corruption.

As months and then years passed with no information about Duan, Shum decided to write a book about their years at the dangerous nexus of business and politics in the world’s second-biggest economy. Worried about the direction China was taking under Xi, Shum decided to leave the country in 2015. He has not been back since Duan disappeared: “If I go in there, I’m not coming out,” he told the Financial Times.

Red Roulette, which will be published next week, is mostly about what Shum considers a “golden age” for Chinese entrepreneurs, beginning in the mid-1990s, when they enjoyed more freedom to operate than in decades.

But it is also about the fading of that interregnum as a resurgent Chinese Communist party became convinced it was on the ascendant against its western rivals, especially the US.

“Deng Xiaoping didn’t start economic reforms in 1978 because he believed in private entrepreneurship,” Shum said, referring to the architect of China’s economic resurgence after Mao Zedong’s death.

“The state was bankrupt. The party had to let private ownership and entrepreneurship flourish in order to save the country. But by 2005 the party could afford to revert to [state dominance]. They never changed, it was expediency.”

Duan Weihong, also known by her English name Whitney, in Tiananmen Square in the late 1990s

In his book, Shum argued that Xi, who took power in 2012, accelerated centralising trends that emerged under Hu Jintao, his predecessor. “Only in times of crisis does the party loosen its grip,” he wrote.

Shum also believes that Xi’s fierce anti-corruption campaign, which has enhanced his popularity, had the effect of cementing the dominance of party “princelings” who descended from families that participated in the Communist revolution. Xi is a member of this “red aristocracy” by dint of his father Xi Zhongxun, a senior party and government official under both Mao and Deng.

“The red aristocracy will always have privileges,” Shum said. “They go to different schools starting at kindergarten, they live in different compounds . . . That’s the way the system has always worked, that’s the way the system is structured. If you’re not connected to political power in China, you will never do anything of significance.”

Red Roulette centres on Shum and Duan’s relationship with “Auntie Zhang”, as they called the ex-premier’s wife. Shum writes that their dealings were never written down, but Auntie Zhang took a standard 30 per cent stake in the projects to which she facilitated access.

He also details Duan’s private meetings and discussions with people who remain at the pinnacle of Chinese politics, including vice-president Wang Qishan, when he was a vice-premier, Xi before he ascended to the presidency and Peng Liyuan, Xi’s wife.

At the other end of the political spectrum, Shum dealt with officials including “Boss” Li Peiying, who ran Beijing’s airport, and Li Ping, a local power broker, or “dirt emperor”, who ran the district surrounding the airport.

The economic interests of the airport administrators and neighbouring district officials were often at odds, leading to a tempestuous bureaucratic rivalry. But the two sides were also Shum’s partners in an airport logistics park, the success of which was one of his greatest professional triumphs.

The park provided China’s quarantine and quality-control administration with a new building, which featured tennis courts and a big restaurant but lacked the theatre and indoor gym of the customs officials’ facility. “You owe us,” a quarantine official teased Shum. “We were never as greedy as customs.”

Duan Weihong and Desmond Shum pictured during a trip to Lake Geneva in 2004 

Duan and Shum, both 53, divorced in 2015. They have a son who was just eight years old when his mother disappeared, and who now lives with his father in the UK.

Shum initially saw his writing project as “a gift” for his son that he did not intend to publish. But he decided to do so to put pressure on the party to confirm Duan’s whereabouts, as well as to shed light on a regime that he believes is taking China in the wrong direction and poses a danger to the world.

“You can rely on Xi to make the worst possible policy decision at every turn. If you want to guess where he’s going to go next, pick the worst option — he’s going to go there,” Shum said. As an example, he pointed to the party’s “rectification” drives that have disproportionately targeted private sector companies, as well as its clampdown on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.

Shum was born in Shanghai but moved to Hong Kong as a child when it was still under British rule, before attending university in the US.

“To see Hong Kong go down like it has really hurts,” he said. “I was happy living a very quiet life. But if people in Hong Kong are willing to sacrifice so much to defend their liberty and freedoms, maybe I can take a little step, too.”

Shum flew to Hong Kong in the summer of 2019 to participate in a mass protest against a contentious extradition bill. He returned in November that year to vote in district council elections.

“I have a responsibility to tell the world what China is, especially in today’s environment,” Shum added.

“The pandemic came out of China and changed everyone’s life, killed loved ones among us, closed down businesses we used to frequent . . . I think it’s incumbent on everyone to get a better understanding of the country that gave us that and more likely than not will give us another shock in our lifetime.”

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