How Whitney Duan became China’s richest woman, then vanished

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How Whitney Duan became China's richest woman, then vanished

Once upon a time, Weihong “Whitney” Duan was the poster woman for the Chinese dream. 

After growing up poor, she wheeled and dealed her way to a billion-dollar fortune, making her name as China’s most successful female entrepreneur. 

Then, on Sept. 5, 2017, at age 50, she simply disappeared from the streets of Beijing. 

As her ex-husband Desmond Shum recounts in his new book, “Red Roulette,” (Scribner), out now, “she was last seen the day before in her sprawling office at Genesis Beijing, a $2.5 billion development project that she and I had built. There, Whitney had masterminded real estate projects worth billions more. And now suddenly she was gone.” 

The story of Whitney’s vanishing reveals how precarious it is to do business in China, where success has less to do with your acumen and more to do with your connections to the red aristocracy. 

And just when you think you’ve got the right connections, you turn out to be entirely wrong. 

Whitney Duan (pictured with her parents) grew up poor but was determined to succeed.
Whitney Duan (pictured with her parents) grew up poor but was determined to succeed.
Courtesy of Desmond Shum

For years, Whitney seemed to be a star whose rise would never stop. 

Her mother was pregnant with her when she fled an abusive relationship and later remarried. The family lived in a one-room apartment in a small town in Shandong province about as far from the corridors of power in Beijing as you can get. 

After Whitney failed China’s rigorous college entrance exam the first time she took it, her mother signed her up at a school for automobile mechanics so she could learn to fix cars. But she refused to accept her fate, cramming in the evenings and on weekends until she passed the exam the following year and enrolled in the Nanjing Polytechnic Institute. Driven to succeed, she graduated at the top of her class. (Like many of China’s movers and shakers, she preferred to be called by the English name she had adopted: Whitney.) 

Soon after, she was selected to be the executive assistant to the university president. 

“Working for the president of a Chinese university gave Whitney a priceless education in how to deal with Chinese officials, a skill she’d hone to perfection,” Shum writes. “She learned how to alter her attitude, tone of voice, and language depending on her interlocutor. Nanjing Polytechnic was closely associated with the People’s Liberation Army, so she also got a crash course in handling military officers.” 

In short, Whitney learned that to succeed at anything in China you must have excellent guanxi, that is to say, you must cultivate good relations with others, especially with officials in key positions. 

Whitney with her ex-husband, Desmond Shum, who recounts her disappearance in his book, "Red Roulette."
Whitney with her ex-husband, Desmond Shum, who recounts her disappearance in his book, “Red Roulette.”
Courtesy of Desmond Shum

In 1996, Whitney struck out on her own, founding a real estate development company called Great Ocean. Quick to spot and seize opportunities, she proved to be an exceptionally talented entrepreneur. 

But in the giant casino that is China, if you want to make it big you have to build close ties to Communist Party leaders — the higher in the hierarchy the better. 

This was especially true in real estate. All land in China is owned by the government, so building anything requires navigating your way through a cumbersome, corrupt and multi-layered bureaucracy. But Whitney, with her good guanxi, could always find a Party official to cut through the red tape. 

After several successful real estate projects in the city of Tianjin, Whitney moved to Beijing, the nation’s capital, in 2002 and began to cultivate senior officials in the city. 

Whitney forged a powerful connection with China's incoming premier, Wen Jiabao (above), who signed off on deals that made her rich.
Whitney forged a powerful connection with China’s incoming premier, Wen Jiabao (above), who signed off on deals that made her rich.
Getty Images

There, she met Desmond Shum, a man born in Shanghai and raised in Hong Kong, who studied in America and had a background in finance. He was the perfect match for 36-year-old Whitney, who felt it was time to marry, Shum writes. Their union became as much a business arrangement as a marriage, with Whitney acting as the senior partner, spotting opportunities and leveraging officials, and her husband turning the projects she envisioned into actual steel, glass and concrete buildings. 

Whitney soon proved herself to be a grandmaster at the guanxi game, forging high-octane connections with people at the very top of China’s power pyramid. As Shum writes, the two of them were always “seeking opportunities to serve our masters in the Chinese Communist Party.” 

Before long, Whitney connected with the family of the incoming premier, Wen Jiabao, who was slated to take office in 2003. 

As the partnership with the Wen family matured, Whitney would hold court at a local restaurant. 

“Ministers and deputy ministers, presidents of state-owned enterprises, and entrepreneurs angled to get an invitation to our table. Together we scoured the landscape for opportunities, scrutinizing potential partners and candidates for vacancies at top government posts that [Wen] could fill,” Shum writes. 

Beijing official Sun Zhengcai (above) helped Whitney build the largest air cargo logistics facility in China, which turned her into a billionaire.
Beijing official Sun Zhengcai (above) helped Whitney build the largest air cargo logistics facility in China, which turned her into a billionaire.
Getty Images

Having the second most powerful man in China as her patron, or houtai, helped Whitney secure a number of lucrative real estate deals. But Wen’s help didn’t come cheap: He demanded a 30 percent stake in the projects he supported. 

“The arrangement generally followed the ‘industry standard,’ ” Shum writes. “Other families of high-ranking Party members extracted a similar percentage in exchange for their political influence.” 

When government officials needed to be strong-armed into putting their “chop” — or official seal — on one of Whitney’s schemes, she would simply invite them to lunch. Sitting across from them at the banquet table would be the wife of the premier (Wen himself preferred to remain discreetly in the background), who would make it clear her husband backed the project. 

Whitney’s first billion-dollar deal came when she was able to buy into a Chinese startup called the Ping An Insurance Company with the premier as her silent partner. She cleared $400 million for herself and a couple hundred million more for the Wen family when the company went public a few years later. 

Another big score came when, with the help of an ambitious Beijing official by the name of Sun Zhengcai, she built the largest air cargo logistics facility in China, the Beijing Airport Cargo Terminal, which turned her into a billionaire. 

Whitney's days were numbered after Xi Jinping took power and started cracking down on his rivals.
Whitney’s days were numbered after Xi Jinping (above) took power and started cracking down on his rivals.
Getty Images

The only thing missing from her perfect life was a child. Unable to conceive a child naturally, she went to a fertility specialist in New York in late 2007. After several rounds of IVF their son, Ariston, was born in early 2009 when Whitney was 42. 

But Whitney’s days of success were numbered: She had aligned herself with a Party faction that was losing its pull. 

The first blow came in 2012 when the foreign press reported that Wen’s family had somehow accumulated a fortune worth more than $2.7 billion during his official career. 

Their biggest source of wealth, it was revealed, had come from the Ping An Insurance Company, which over the years had grown into China’s largest financial services company. Even Wen Jiabao’s own mother, a retired schoolteacher with no other source of income other than a government pension, reportedly owned shares worth a cool $120 million. 

Suddenly Whitney’s role in helping the Wens amass a fortune stood exposed. 

Nothing makes ordinary Chinese people angrier than finding out that Party officials and their families have gotten fabulously wealthy off their political influence. And yet, Wen Jiabao’s family was not the exception, but the rule. 

In fact, that same year, a Bloomberg report revealed that incoming Party leader Xi Jinping’s own family had somehow amassed a fortune worth an estimated $1.5 billion. 

After Xi Jinping’s rise, many of China’s rich have suffered. Real-estate mogul Ren Zhiqiang (left) was jailed for 18 years; agricultural mogul Sun Dawu (center) has been locked up for “provoking trouble.” And Jack Ma (right), once China’s wealthiest man, is undergoing “re-education.”
After Xi Jinping’s rise, many of China’s rich have suffered. Real-estate mogul Ren Zhiqiang (left) was jailed for 18 years; agricultural mogul Sun Dawu (center) has been locked up for “provoking trouble.” And Jack Ma (right), once China’s wealthiest man, is undergoing “re-education.”
Imaginechina; Getty Images (2)

In response, Xi launched a ruthless “anti-corruption” campaign to shine up his image. He established a Communist Party branch in every company with more than 50 employees and installed a Party representative on the board of every major non-state-owned company in the country. 

Xi also made it clear that billionaires were living on borrowed time, predicting in an early speech “the eventual demise of capitalism and the ultimate victory of socialism.” 

(Since then, hundreds of Chinese billionaires and CEOs have been disappeared. Some have emerged a few weeks or months later in recorded propaganda videos robotically expressing their undying devotion to the Party and Chairman Xi. Others are serving long prison sentences. Last September, Ren Zhiqiang, a real estate mogul who criticized Xi’s handling of the pandemic, was jailed for 18 years on corruption charges. Last month, Sun Dawu, a Chinese agricultural mogul, received a similar sentence for “provoking trouble.” Even Jack Ma, once China’s wealthiest man, was disappeared late last year after he publicly criticized China’s banking system. He is now reportedly undergoing “re-education” at the hands of Party officials in a secret location. Who knows when, or if, he will ever reemerge.) 

Back in 2012, Xi forced members of the red aristocracy, including the Wens, to quietly “ ‘donate’ all of their assets to the state in exchange for a guarantee that they wouldn’t be prosecuted,” Shum writes. 

Whitney Duan had both a marriage and a business partnership with now-ex-husband Desmond Shum — here with their son, Ariston.
Whitney Duan had both a marriage and a business partnership with now-ex-husband Desmond Shum — here with their son, Ariston.
Courtesy of Desmond Shum

The deal seems to have included amnesty for Whitney, since she not only escaped prosecution but was left with her fortune intact. And, for many years, the partnership between Whitney and Shum continued to thrive as well. But Shum was getting worried that the political climate in China was too hostile to entrepreneurs and he wanted to expand overseas, while Whitney was uncomfortable operating outside the Chinese context. The two of them had a falling out and a divorce followed. 

Desmond was right about the shifting political winds. It was not long before Whitney would become collateral damage — and all because she made the wrong friend. 

Sun Zhengcai, who had worked on the Beijing Airport project with Whitney, was a shooting star in the Chinese Communist Party. Tapped to run the city of Chongqing in 2012, he was being groomed for one of the top spots that would open up in 2022-23 — either the post of general secretary or even China’s premiership when Xi Jinping was slated to step down. 

And Whitney was one of Sun’s campaign managers. 

As Shum writes, “During his many trips to the capital, Sun sought Whitney out . . . Late at night, Whitney and Sun would meet at a teahouse on the east side of Beijing to discuss how Sun could beat out [competitors] for the top spot.” She would “help Sun move his pieces on China’s political chessboard.” 

Whitney was last seen at her office at Genesis Beijing where she negotiated real estate projects worth billions.
Whitney was last seen at her office at Genesis Beijing where she negotiated real estate projects worth billions.
Michael Greene

There was only one problem with their plan. Xi, the man they were plotting to replace as the next leader of China, decided he didn’t want to leave office in 2022-23 — or ever. 

After Xi decided he wanted to be president-for-life, Sun was a marked man. Throughout China’s long history, many emperors have killed off ambitious princes. “This was just more of the same,” Shum writes. 

Starting in February 2017, Sun’s career took a nosedive. In July, he was fired from Chongqing and placed under investigation for violating Party discipline, making him the first sitting member of the Politburo to be hit with corruption allegations since Xi took power. 

Then, in September 2017, Whitney disappeared. Because her housekeeper was taken at the same time, it is suspected she was at home when the secret police came. Perhaps they didn’t want to leave any witnesses to her abduction. Shum can only speculate, since none of the officials the two of them befriended over the years know anything about her case. None of them are even willing to make inquiries. Whitney has become toxic. 

The same month Whitney disappeared, Sun was expelled from the Party. By May the following year, he was sentenced to life in prison for “bribery.” Chinese news outlets reported that he took more than $26 million in bribes directly or through designated third parties, and his “designated parties” included two businesswomen. One of them was Whitney. 

Red Roulette cover

Four years later, Whitney’s whereabouts are still unknown. Her ex-husband, who is living in exile in Great Britain with their son, now 13, doesn’t know whether she is languishing in one of the Party’s “black jails” or if she has been secretly executed. 

Shum admits that the life that he and Whitney led in China does not make them sympathetic figures: 

“Whitney invited me on a journey into China’s heart. Each bend of the river carried us deeper. With each twist, we became more and more creatures of China’s ‘system,’ a Chinese code word . . . for the highest levels of the Chinese Communist Party. While most of China’s 1.4 billion people spend their lives under the spell of the system, we joined it and thrived inside it.” 

The two of them became, as it were, enablers of the wealth, corruption, and sheer evil that underpins the power of the red aristocracy. 

Whitney entered the heart of darkness that is China, and it consumed her. Shum, for his part, is grateful that he and his son managed to escape. 

Steven W. Mosher is the author of the “Bully of Asia: Why China’s ‘Dream’ is the New Threat to World Order.”

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