By Chet Yarbrough
Out of the Gobi (My Story of China and America)
By: Weijian Shan
Narrated by: David Shih
Weijian Shan (Author, CEO of a private equity firm PAG, former partner in TPG Asia, holds a Ph.D. from Univ. of CA.)
Weijian Shan is a capitalist, a Chinese economist, CEO of an Asian investment company, and former professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Wharton School. Weijian Shan was born and raised in China during the Mao era.
Shan has written a memoir of his experience in the Chinese Cultural Revolution which began in 1966 and ended with the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. Shan writes about China’s and America’s economic and political differences.
In 1966, Shan is barely a teenager, having only completed his grade school years. Shan, and many other teenagers, are sent to the Gobi Desert during the Cultural Revolution in China. Shan’s compelling story tells of his experience during the Revolution with an explanation of how he is chosen, at the age of 21, to go to college in Beijing. “Out of the Gobi” is published in 2019. Shan offers insight to Mao’s communist political ideas and gives listeners some thoughts about what Mao’s politics mean in the age of Xi Jinping’s rule of China.
Shan’s experience in the Gobi Desert is among many Chinese citizens who are ordered to leave their city homes to experience rural China’s farm life. The irony is that neither China’s Gobi Desert farmers, the bourgeoise, nor displaced youth were culturally, intellectually, or financially benefited. Rural farmers were victimized because citizen relocations impacted food availability for what were subsistence farms. Many farmers were barely able to feed themselves, let alone thousands of relocated city dwellers. Relocated youth were denied higher education and forced into labor camps that had a negative effect on rural prosperity.
From a political perspective, Mao’s Cultural Revolution is a brilliant idea.
This is not to praise Mao as an intellectual but as a pragmatic politician who understood the value of the Cultural Revolution’s youth-relocations to advance his vision of Chinese communism. Mao cleverly instills a sense of discipline and teamwork by indoctrinating China’s next generation with Maoist communism. Today’s Xi benefits from Mao’s Cultural relocation with a generation raised in the time of the 1966 Revolution.
Shan’s story is the triumph of Weijian Shan’s intellectual development without a structured pre-college education.
(Uighur re-education camp in the 21st century.)
Shan’s memoir is a tribute to his personal strength and determination. Reaching the age of 21 in the Gobi Desert did not impede his intellectual development. Through work experience, social engineering among peers, and a commitment to read everything he could find, Shan overcame his Gobi Desert relocation and lack of a high school education.
With little English language skill, Shan begins his education at a Beijing college to become a student of foreign trade relations.
This educational opportunity is presented to Shan at the time of Nixon’s opening of Mao’s China to the world. Shan had firsthand experience of Mao’s communist mistakes. Shan tells the story of lost prosperity and peace for Gobi Desert dwellers and intruders.
In the Gobi Desert, Shan experiences the deficiency of a government system based on bureaucratic control that distorts productivity reports to make superiors look good. The disconnect between real progress and reports of progress hides the truth of economic waste and deterioration. Shan shows how orders from above depress productivity in two ways. One, by government superiors being ignorant of true productivity, and two, by discouraging the value of competition.
Shan reveals the strength and weakness of Deng Xiaoping’s opening of China after the death of Mao.
Without question, Deng contributed to China becoming the world’s second largest economy by GDP in 2010. On the other hand, Shan suggests Deng’s decision to crush the Tiananmen Square demonstration is the Communist Party’s misreading of demonstrators’ intent and support of economic revisionism. Deng (though reported to have given the order to jail or kill demonstrators) is revealed as a foil to Mao’s dictatorial beliefs in communism. Shan points to the odd fact that Mao removes Deng from leadership but refuses to remove Deng from the Party. The inference is that Mao may have understood the value of capitalism as a communist precursor (as noted by Marx).
President Xi is reestablishing communist party authoritarianism and may make the same mistakes Mao made, without a foil like Deng. Singular authoritarian leaders in the 21st century often deny the merits of democratic free enterprise that reduces the threat of kleptocratic bureaucracy.