The Curse of Jealousy: China Watchers Can Learn From History

October 5, 2021 Updated: October 6, 2021


On Sept. 26, 2021, the current affairs program “60 Minutes” aired a fascinating documentary, which told the harrowing story of Chinese whistleblower Desmond Shum, whose ex-wife, billionaire Whitney Duan, disappeared on the streets of Beijing four years ago.

Until recently, nobody had heard from her, and her fate was unknown. However, when her ex-husband, who now lives in London with their child, was preparing to launch a tell-all book about the disappearance, the operations—or rather machinations—of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), he received an unexpected call from his ex-wife. Undoubtedly pressured by her Chinese handlers, she pleaded with him to abandon the launch.

Whitney Duan’s disappearance is, however, not an isolated event. Several billionaires have vanished over the last decade, and some have not been heard of or seen since their disappearance.

Eventually, most of these would be charged with corruption, and financial mismanagement—an easy charge to make considering the billionaires’ vast wealth—or they would simply vanish forever.

This unsettling fate is not just reserved for billionaires; there is a growing list of celebrities, academics, and media personalities who have suffered the crackdown unleashed by Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Among them are Australian television anchor Cheng Lei, and even China’s richest man, Jack Ma, who founded the Alibaba empire. Ma dared to criticise the Chinese regulator in October last year and disappeared in early November 2020 but re-appeared briefly in January and February 2021.

A man wearing a face mask walks past the offices of the Chinese e-commerce firm Alibaba in Beijing on Aug. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

So, what is behind all of this? The 60 Minutes program—in an interview with Desmond Shum—lifted the lid on some of the operations of a regime that wants to cling to power, even if it is necessary to crush any imaginable opposition ruthlessly.

The 60 Minutes documentary reminded me of the fate of Marquis Nicolas Fouquet, the Finance Minister of King Louis XIV (the Sun King) of France.

On Aug. 17, 1661, the King visited the new palace that had been built for the finance minister and partially paid for by resources presumably appropriated from the French Treasury. The King walked the beautiful corridors of the palace, admired the gardens and fountains; he was wined and dined in the opulent dining hall of the palace, with splendour all around him. It made the King very jealous because his own palace was not nearly as splendid as Fouquet’s new palace.

A beautiful portrait of the King hung in the dining hall, and when the King expressed his admiration for it, the finance minister gifted the painting to the King. But, alas, it was a step too late because the King, unaccustomed to the thought that other people might live in more luxurious surroundings, had him arrested a few days later for speculation (the public misappropriation of funds). After a lengthy court process, Fouquet was eventually imprisoned for life and exiled, dying in 1680.

The story of Marquis Nicolas Fouquet suitably confirms that it is dangerous for successful people to flaunt their wealth, especially in the presence of less wealthy but more powerful people. Following Fouquet’s downfall, the King decided to build his own glorious palace, employing the same architects and tradespeople as those used by the deposed finance minister. This new palace would become the Palace of Versailles.

This instructive historical insight may explain, at least in part, the disturbing disappearances of billionaires and other successful people in China. In China, any perceived or actual opposition to the CCP will eventually lead to predictable retaliation, possibly resulting in the disappearance of people, whose financial wealth is seen as a potential threat to the regime’s viability.

The gifting of valuable property and financial resources to the CCP cannot ensure their safety, even if they are members of the party.

In the end, when a private business empire becomes too strong, it may be regarded as a potential or actual threat to the ruling communist regime.

It is certainly not a good idea to directly oppose the regime either, as Ma did—who criticised the Chinese regulator a few days before his disappearance—or indirectly, by becoming too big and powerful to be a formidable opposition to the CCP.

Jack Ma
Jack Ma, chairman of Alibaba Group, attends the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 23, 2019. (Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters)

Under CCP rule, possessing wealth, like in Fouquet’s case, does not guarantee protection. Ultimately, if successful international businesses are perceived as formidable obstacles to the unassailable power of the CCP, it will generate a furious—but clandestine—response from the ruling regime.

However, history also tells us that the French monarchy only lasted another 100 years after the demise of the Marquis, and it ended (at least temporarily) in the guillotining of King Louis XVI on Jan. 21, 1793.

Similarly, it is not farfetched to predict the CCP will eventually be deposed or lose power, and perhaps the world will not need to wait another 100 years.

Evil regimes need to nurture their oppressive dominance by becoming ever more repressive to maintain power—something that will lead to their inevitable demise, especially in the present internet era that widely publicises the state’s malevolent actions.

The Fouquet story contributes to an understanding of present-day events. Specifically, it teaches that, in an authoritarian state, it is dangerous to make the ruler jealous by flaunting one’s wealth and power. Such a display might provoke the ruling party and result in the demise of those who otherwise would have made a substantial contribution to the development of their country.

But history also repeats itself: a saying that should warn autocratic regimes bent on maintaining their absolute power.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Gabriël A. Moens AM is an emeritus professor of law at the University of Queensland, and served as pro vice-chancellor and dean at Murdoch University. In 2003, Moens was awarded the Australian Centenary Medal by the prime minister for services to education. He has taught extensively across Australia, Asia, Europe, and the United States. Moens has recently published novels as well including, “A Twisted Choice,” and short story, “The Greedy Prospector” in “The Outback” anthology (Boolarong Press, 2021).