When Money Doesn’t Matter: Up Close & Personal With The Son of a Chinese Billionaire
by Charlotte Shane
The first time the son of a Chinese billionaire tried to hire me, I turned him down. By which I mean, I deleted his email. The second time he tried, I did the same. I rely heavily on employment screening to confirm someone’s identity, and all he’d given me in the way of professional details was
The third time he wrote, I replied. I didn’t think he would leave me alone otherwise. Slowly, with much resistance on my end, we established the terms of a daylong date. During the course of that first meeting, he told me dinosaurs weren’t real, poor people are lazy, and Tibetans love being occupied. He bragged about paying other students to do his homework throughout college and business school. He said things about black people that I won’t repeat here. Shell-shocked, I texted my best friend from the bathroom: “I think I’m with the most terrible human being I’ve ever met.”
Kai (not his real name) didn’t think much of the United States but he lived here because it gave him freedom from his parents who otherwise might object to his constant whoremongering and general slothfulness. His father was (is) a government official who couldn’t fully flaunt his fortune since it would make his corruption a bit too obvious, and I suppose that cramped standard of living — spending a million dollars on a single piece of furniture instead of a private jet — was too limiting for Kai. According to him, China has far more than the official (American) number of a 150 billionaires. 500, in his estimation. The richest people hide their money and avoid attracting attention, because there is no cover story to legitimize how they have such wealth. He had no problems with this state of affairs.
Kai fascinated me to the extent that he wore his awfulness on his sleeve, and his awfulness was un-plumbably deep. I regularly spend time around rich people; it’s how I myself made a lot of money. But Kai’s income, if you can call it that, was in another stratosphere. He was almost definitely richer than anybody I’d ever met and younger than them by half. Before we’d met, I found his email address on a blacklist, left there by a woman alleging he was unstable. “He clearly has a mental illness,” she wrote. “It’s not just the language or culture barrier.” I don’t think I would characterize that way. It was more like his wealth was a poison he’d been swimming in since birth, and it had mutated the core of who he was.
His thoughts on poor people: they complain too much and don’t work hard; the number of available jobs is irrelevant. His attitude towards the stock market: only invest if you have insider information. His relationship with his own job: for a year or so, he “worked” a few days a week at Goldman Sachs in a position his father bought him. Then he quit on a whim. His hobby: buying properties for no apparent reason, including three homes in one city that he rotated between based on his moods, if he wasn’t staying in a local hotel instead. His interests beyond the prices of various watches and which women are “ugly”: nonexistent.
What disturbed me most about his cruelest pronouncements was their impish delivery. He talked about corruption as if it were a sly triumph, the work of supremely clever minds who deserved to revel in their avariciousness, and he seemed to think his blanket racism was cute, a kid blurting out the truths no one else will say. “I don’t hate anyone,” he said once, a debatable claim given how he occasionally seemed to delight in the idea of poor people struggling. It would be more accurate to say that he didn’t take any other human being seriously enough to be angry with them. He did whatever he wanted whenever he wanted, without obstacle. Everyone in his environment placated and obliged. He chain smoked in hotel rooms and once tried to throw off his sheet during a spa massage. When an elderly man yelled at him about littering on the ground outside the hotel’s revolving door, an employee intervened immediately. His world was engineered around permission and convenience. What was there to hate?
He apparently had absorbed some rhetoric about inequality. “One percent” was a phrase he knew and used when reflecting on the sum of 15 million (“Even less than one percent of people will ever have that much,” I admonished him, to unknown effect.) But the larger implications didn’t stick. Compassion was not a factor in his life. During dinner one night, he fashioned a sort of game from asking me how much various professions — teacher, taxi driver — pay and then giving a verdict of “you can’t live on that” or “that’s not bad.” It had the distinct flavor of a child imitating something an adult had told him. He would venture, “you can’t live on that” as if guessing at a quiz show answer. The threshold for a reasonable salary was in the low thirty thousands. He told me he spends about four million dollars a year, not including the houses he buys.
“Is this nature or nurture?” I wondered on a regular basis. His parents had to assume some responsibility in cultivating his radically amoral heart but he was a grown man, albeit still in his twenties. He told me he’d arranged to be present at Chinese executions more than once and felt nothing while watching the prisoners die.
“Weren’t they scared?” I asked.
“No, they were happy,” he said. A living propaganda machine.
The other “game” he liked to play involved him insisting that he was a Chinese food delivery boy who couldn’t afford a Starbucks coffee. He laughed a lot during that one. It never got old.
The only pain he was attuned to was his own. Though not self-pitying, he spoke with some frequency about a general emptiness and lack of purpose, saying that his dream was to find something that felt meaningful. Unfortunately, he couldn’t conceive of any endeavor outside of spending money. He even bored quickly of his primary source of entertainment, the women he hired. I would have found him more misogynistic if his lack of respect didn’t extend so completely to everyone else regardless of their gender. He laughed wildly when I said my life was only as good as the good people I had in it.
He liked to think about what it would be like if he had been born somewhat middle class. Not abjectly poor, he hastened to clarify, but not well off. He imagined, I think, that he could build a fortune from the ground up, or that he would astonish everyone with a display of his intelligence and mettle in improving his lot. But since no such demonstration of superiority was demanded of him by circumstance, he was happy to assume it existed anyway and live his life as if he’d earned it all. “I know I’m not a self-made man,” was the more self-aware thing he ever said to me; it trailed off into the unspoken “but”: “I think I should be treated like I am.” Other Chinese nationals should leave the US and go back home, he said. He should be allowed to stay because he wasn’t taking anyone’s job.
It wasn’t just that Kai was underexposed to ordinary people and ordinary financial situations. (“What do normal people use a savings account for?” he asked me. “When you put money in, you can’t take it out?”) Rather, he was incapable of recognizing money as a consequential, finite resource establishing the quality and duration of most people’s lives. It was the only currency through which he himself interacted with the larger world yet it was so profuse as to be meaningless. The real elusive good, in his universe, was engagement, not funds.
He told me more than once that he envied me. I believed it, and I think he was right to. While I can’t excuse him or defend him, I can pity him. Never before had I seen such a stark illustration of the hell that is growing up in the .01%. There was nothing he could ever own, no actress he could ever pay to bed, no international private flight cushy enough to make me trade places with him for even a day. Of course I didn’t say that. I said as little as I could bear to say as rarely as I could bear to say it, correcting him with velvet gloves and a touch so light I’m sure he didn’t even register it.
“How would you feel if a client bought you a house?” he asked me one night, after telling me he’d bought one for a girlfriend in China. “You’d be excited for one, maybe two weeks?”
“Depending on what type of house it was,” I said, carefully but emphatically, “it could change my life.”
Charlotte Shane is the pseudonymous identity of a writer and prostitute living in the United States. She can be reached at charlotte at charlotteshane.com and found on twitter. Her TinyLetter is so much more than cool links.