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'Red Roulette' Reveals The Inside Of China's Wealth-Making Machine

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A Chinese businessperson who was missing for years has abruptly reappeared. Whitney Duan was connected to the wife of a powerful Chinese official. She and her husband, now ex-husband, involved themselves in numerous businesses using their connections. And they rose, as China did, until Whitney vanished in 2017. There was no word from any legal authority about an arrest.

Her ex-husband, Desmond Shum, is safely outside China and finally wrote a book about Whitney. It was receiving advanced publicity. And just as the book was about to be published, Whitney Duan reappeared. Desmond Shum is on the line to tell us about this. Welcome back.

DESMOND SHUM: Thank you having me.

INSKEEP: How did you hear from your ex-wife?

SHUM: She reached out. She called my phone. She called my phone - and - early in the morning. And I heard her voice for the first time ever in - for the last four years.

INSKEEP: And what did she say?

SHUM: She's - she said she's on temporary release and they can take her back any time. And she want me to cancel the book publication.

INSKEEP: She wanted you to cancel the book publication?

SHUM: Yes. That's - and then - but it's, you know, one of the very best thing - I mean, really the best thing is, you know, our son get to talk to her and then we get to know she's actually alive.

INSKEEP: You have a son, we should note, who is 12 years old. Is that right?

SHUM: Yeah. He's 12 now. And then he hasn't, you know, had a chance to talk to his mom since he was 8. You know, it's this very strange thing.

INSKEEP: And you have not had a word from her. She could have been dead, for all you know.

SHUM: Nobody has a word for the last four years. The government never acknowledged they have taken her. And they never charged her. Actually, it's funny - well, if that's the - such a word as funny. I asked her, what is her charge? She said - she says it need to be confidential. She cannot disclose what her charge is.

INSKEEP: So it seems certain to you that she really was in the custody of the Chinese government, which has still made no official statement. Is that right?

SHUM: Yes. Yeah, and she acknowledged that. She said, you know, they - it's - they have been lenient on her. I believe she is still under home detention. She is not really free, you know? And then - I mean, she's talking to me through them. I feel like I'm, you know, I'm essentially negotiating with her kidnapper.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that negotiation. You had this book. You'd recorded an interview with us that we were preparing to play on this very program this very day. And it was a book not only about your ex-wife's disappearance but about corruption in China, about the way the Chinese business system works. You told me that your ex-wife got on the phone and said you need to cancel the publication of the book. Is that even possible at this late date?

SHUM: I don't think it's possible. And I have no intention whatsoever. I mean - but I know bureaucrats in Beijing probably, you know, don't know that. They thinking probably I can pull it in the last minute. And then she gave me a second call after that, you know?

INSKEEP: Oh, that you - she gave you a second call. Go on. Go on.

SHUM: Yeah. She gave me a second call after the first one, you know, come to no result. And then the last one was more threatening, so more threats on this one. So it's...

INSKEEP: You understand the threat to be that if you don't find some way to cancel the book, your wife will go back into custody?

SHUM: That's being one of them because she's - you know, she told us she is a temporary release and then they can take her back any time. And then she actually tell, you know, sort of - she asked me the question, what would happen to our son if something unfortunate happened to me? She asked the question (sighing), how would I feel if something happened to our son? And then she used sort of the code slogan - you know, in China they have this slogan, so the ones who opposes the state will see no good ending.

INSKEEP: You understood that to mean that terrible things will happen to her.

SHUM: Yeah. She is - I believe she's not free. She's just on - have the home detention. You know, they just shipped her from the black cell and now to home detention because she said she - you know, the first thing she did was she called her father. That's - you know, I thought - at the time, I thought it was - that's really strange. They live in the same building. If you're free, why didn't you just walk over and go see your father? Now, obviously, you know, looking at the development in the last 24 hours, I can understand why.

INSKEEP: I think you - it sounds like you're saying you don't know that she's really free. You only know that she is alive.

SHUM: She's not free. She's probably under home detention. Somebody is listening on, of course, and telling her what to say. That's what I was saying.

INSKEEP: Book publication is tomorrow?

SHUM: Yeah. The book comes out tomorrow. And she warned me. She said, you know, be calm; don't publish the book. It would not - you know, it would bring more harm. It's no good to slander the states. I was like, no, I'm very calm. I work on this book over three, four years now. And it took me - I worked - and then I didn't even, you know, intend to publish when I first started the book. I decided to publish the book because I said, well, the world need to know more about what China - it really is and how things really work.

INSKEEP: In a sentence or two, do you believe that the best course for her safety is, in fact, to continue to speak out?

SHUM: I think that's definitely the best course because after the news broke of the book coming out imminently, she reappeared after four years.

INSKEEP: Desmond Shum, thank you for the update - really appreciate it.

SHUM: Thank you for having me. It's very much appreciated.

INSKEEP: Desmond Shum is outside of China now. He's a businessman. His book "Red Roulette: An Insider's Story Of Wealth, Power, Corruption And Vengeance In Today's China" is, as we heard him say, out tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANNE MULLER'S "AARHUS/REMINISCENCES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.