A real estate mogul dubbed “China’s richest woman” before her sudden disappearance in 2017 has recently reached out to her ex-husband.
Ascent to wealth: Weihong Duan, who also goes by her English nickname “Whitney,” became a billionaire through Taihong, the real estate development firm she founded in 1996. She ran the company until she mysteriously vanished on Sept. 5, 2017.
Duan reportedly grew up in a one-room apartment in a small town in Shandong province. She charted her path out of poverty through hard work — graduating at the top of her class at the state-controlled Nanjing Polytechnic Institute and later landing a job as executive assistant to the university president.
The job brought Duan in close proximity to Chinese authorities. Over time, she mastered the skills necessary to maintain good relations with high-profile people. “She learned how to alter her attitude, tone of voice and language depending on her interlocutor,” her ex-husband, Desmond Shum, told the New York Post. “Nanjing Polytechnic was closely associated with the People’s Liberation Army, so she also got a crash course in handling military officers.”
Duan set out on her own in 1996 and launched Taihong. After a series of successful projects in Tianjin, the business moved to Beijing, where Duan met Shum — a Shanghai-born, U.S.-educated man with a background in finance.
Duan and Shum eventually married. As a couple, they pursued business opportunities together. Duan sought out investments and forged important connections, while Shum executed her vision into actual buildings.
Where it went wrong: Duan’s downfall resulted from her ties to politicians whose influence in the Chinese Communist Party had deteriorated due to controversy. Among them is former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, whose family allegedly amassed $2.7 billion during his term, The New York Times reported in 2012.
Wen allegedly served as Duan’s silent partner when she bought stakes in a startup called Ping An Insurance Company. When the firm went public, Duan, through Taihong’s Hong Kong arm Great Ocean, reportedly sold her stake for $400 million, while Wen’s family ended up gaining $2.2 billion, a large chunk of their alleged $2.7 billion total wealth.
Duan became a billionaire when she built the Beijing Airport Cargo Terminal, China’s largest air cargo logistics facility, according to the New York Post. She allegedly did this in partnership with Sun Zhengcai, a Beijing official who would later be ousted from the Chinese Communist Party and sentenced to life imprisonment for bribery.
Sun was a contender for a top post in 2022 as either China’s general secretary, premier or even as a successor to President Xi Jinping. Duan served as one of his campaign managers, helping him “move his pieces on China’s political chessboard,” Shum said.
Xi, however, has expressed no plans of stepping down. In July 2017, Sun was fired as CCP’s chief in Chongqing. In September of the same year — the same month Duan disappeared — he was officially expelled from the party. In May 2018, he was convicted for taking $27 million in bribes and sentenced to life in jail, as per the BBC.
The surprise call: Last week, Shum released a book titled “Red Roulette,” which details how he and Duan navigated the hostile nexus of business and politics in China. Days before the publication, he received a call from his ex-wife — the first time he heard from her in four years.
Shum said Duan had called him twice asking him to cancel his book’s publication. He believes she is under home detention. “She said she’s on temporary release and they can take her back any time,” Shum told NPR. “Nobody has a word for the last four years. The government never acknowledged they had taken her. And they never charged her.”
Shum, who now lives with their 12-year-old son in the U.K., believes the calls were being monitored by Chinese authorities. He described Duan’s second call as “more threatening.” “She asked me the question, ‘What would happen to our son if something unfortunate happened to me?’ She asked the question, ‘How would I feel if something happened to our son?’”
In a statement to the Australian Financial Review, Shum said his ex-wife had also used the Chinese warning “No good comes to those who oppose the state” during her calls. “I believe she was forced to do this because the Chinese Communist Party is afraid of what I have written in ‘Red Roulette,’” he said.
The calls also marked the first time their 12-year-old son heard his mother in four years. Duan’s fate remains unclear, but the fact that her son got to talk to her — indicating that she’s still alive — was the “best thing” that came out of the interaction, Shum said.
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