Weijian Shan’s book reads like the classic tale of the American Dream, but with a twist: it starts in communist China.
Born the son of a Chinese customs administration official in 1953, Shan grew up in a one-room home in Beijing. Today he is chairman and chief executive of private equity firm PAG, one of the most respected investors in China.
His book Out of the Gobi: my Story of China and America offers a rare contemporary view of the events that helped to shape the psyche of China’s current business and political elite, from the brutality of the Cultural Revolution to the opening up of China under Deng Xiaoping.
His memoirs are told simply through colourful anecdotes. He recalls running through the streets of Beijing as a child throwing stones at sparrows because Chairman Mao Zedong had designated the little birds a public enemy for eating grain seeds during the Great Leap Forward of 1958 – the government campaign widely blamed for the Great Chinese Famine of 1959-1961.
Shan is brutally honest with the reader; he admits he was “filled with revolutionary zeal” at the tender age of 12 as he roamed China during the Cultural Revolution. He stood by as teenage girls beat to death their school’s vice principal in 1966.
When Mao wanted to rein in his infamous Red Guards, he deported 17 million urban students to the countryside. Shan was caught up in the exodus and left Beijing for the Gobi Desert in 1969, where he spent the next six years in the Construction Army Corps. Other writers who also bore witness to this “lost generation” of children sent to Inner Mongolia include Jiang Rong and Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo.
A sense of futility builds as Shan recounts the fruitless tasks set by his officers such as digging a canal in 1971 that was too high for water to flow through. He calculates that the Corps consumed three or four times the amount of food they produced every year in the barren Gobi. At one point he exclaims: “the entire economic system of China at the time made no economic sense”.
Aided with notes from his journal at the time, many small details help the author to recreate vivid images such as cutting reeds in temperatures often dropping to minus 20C.
Through hard work and sheer grit, Shan managed to improve his position despite many setbacks, much like the classic American hero. The reader roots for his success as he learns English from a dictionary or huddled over a radio listening to Voice of America, all the while hiding his books from the camp’s political instructor.
Shen got his big break after Deng’s visit to the US in 1979, which paved the way for Chinese students to travel to the US. He won a scholarship to attend a US university and endearingly chose the University of San Francisco because the president of his university in Beijing had heard of the city.
We experience through his eyes the sharp juxtaposition between everyday life in San Francisco and Beijing during 1980. Shan grapples with shower faucets, doggie bags and Halloween while cheese becomes an acquired taste and crime an unwelcome fact of life.
His trials are not over once he reaches the US. He continues to do battle with Chinese bureaucracy and US immigration officials to bring his family to America. He also teases us with the possibility of another book when he says how getting “into playing high-stakes money games is, perhaps, another story worth telling”.
The book creates a sense of how, amid the hard work and perseverance, he networked among the political and financial elites of America. He hobnobs with senators, the mayor of San Francisco Dianne Feinstein, the future ambassador of China, Jon Huntsman Jr, and partners of law firms. He also becomes a professor at the Ivy League Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
The pinnacle of this social ascent is Shan’s friendship with the former chair of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, who became his academic advisor in 1982 at Berkeley during his Ph.D. programme. Yellen wrote the Forward for Out of the Gobi.
How far he has climbed is underscored when he reunites 30 years later with an old acquaintance from the Corps, at the ruins of the camp where they cut reeds together. While his friend had become a drifter, Shan met him in a chauffeur-driven SUV.
His story is a must-read for those seeking to understand Chinese leaders’ fear of chaos. Debate still rages over Mao’s legacy and whether China should continue to pursue market-friendly reform or reinforce political control over the levers of the command economy.
The reader is left wondering which side Shan would take as he frustratingly ends his epilogue in 2005. What we do know is that he has in the past been a criticised reform of state-owned enterprises for being too slow and not going far enough.
China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, was born in the same year as Shan and was also sent to the countryside. In 2013 Xi called upon young people to chase the “Chinese dream" and "to dare to dream, work assiduously to fulfil the dreams and contribute to the revitalization of the nation".
While Xi associated the Chinese Dream with collective effort; Shan’s story shows how this hard labourer relied very much on his own wits and endurance to escape the Gobi.
By Weijian Shan. Out of the Gobi: my Story of China and America; Published by John Wiley & Sons 2019; 444 pages; $29.95