Latest Reading: Red Roulette & Killing Floor

I think China is a fascinating country and culture. With 1 billion people and going back centuries, Chinese culture has shaped Asia and the world. I have visited Macao, Hong Kong, Beijing and Xian on three trips to the country. Earlier this month I finished reading Red Roulette: An Insider’s Story of Wealth, Power, Corruption and Vengeance in Today’s China by Desmond Shum. It was recommended by The Economist as one of its top books of 2021.

I had two big takeaways from the book. The first is it is staggering to think of the amount of money that was made when China moved from a socialist, government-owned economy to a capitalist one. Shum became wildly rich during this era. This is similar to what happened in Serbia and Russia when state-owned assets were privatized. There is a lot of opportunity for corruption and nepotism in these situations. The second takeaway is the American government experts, led by Bill Clinton at the time thought that facilitating China’s entry into the World Trade Organization and capitalism would lead to a more pluralistic, free-market and eventually even a democracy. They were dead wrong and instead, it was a way for an almost bankrupt Communist Party to strengthen its grip on power and the lives of its citizens.

The author Shum was born in Shanghai and grew up in Hong Kong. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin, so has a good understanding of both Chinese and Western cultures. He walks us through his education and through his wife, of the aristocracy the party. The aristocracy are the descendants of the founding fathers of the Chinese Communist party and current high-ranking party officials. They live a separate life from ordinary Chinese and it was amazing to read of the money they made through their government connections.

I always thought the Chinese were ruthless and Shum thinks that comes from the Communist system. “Chinese are pitted against one another in a rat race and told that only the strong survive. We’re not taught to cooperate.” He also describes the rise of Xi Jinping, who cleared a path to the top by launching thousands of corruption investigations and jailing or firing rivals. I never understand how one man can accumulate so much power. They need everyone around him to believe he is powerful, including the police and military.

Despite becoming fabulously wealthy, Shum’s story is a tragic and sad one. The book opened my eyes to the inner workings of the Chinese Communist Party and how much the West, misunderstands China.

Some of the useful Chinese terms I learned from the book are as follows:

  • moutai – The national drink of China, fermented from sorghum and then distilled.
  • mishu – powerful personal assistants that control access to their bosses, shape agendas and sway decisions
  • guanxi – relationships built over time that people use to increase their business

I also read Lee Child’s first Jack Reacher detective novel, Killing Floor (1997). I often like to read a murder-mystery light book in the evenings to take my mind off of issues at school. It soothes me to read a chapter or two and then think through what happened and speculate on what is coming up in the plot. This was a pretty good book, but nothing spectacular. One of the streaming services made a television series on Jack Reacher, the 6’5″, ex-military policeman, a drifter that in this book, is a freelance detective trying to avenge the death of his brother. It is set in the fictional town south of Atlanta called Margrave, Georgia and by an unbelievable coincidence, Reacher is accused of murder. I don’t want to give too much of the plot but I will tell you it is set around a counterfeit ring. I did learn a bit about how mints print currency.

There was one good quote, “Then we’d grown up together all over the world inside that tight isolated transience that service families create for themselves.” Reacher is describing his army brat childhood where the family moved all over the world. I experience this with my global nomad family. The nuclear family grows tighter when the extended family is far away.

There are 20+ Jack Reacher detective novels that I probably won’t read. They would be a good airplane read, simple, lots of action and a mystery to solve. For this particular one, I got a little tired towards the end.

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