Michael J Fox first found fame playing Alex P Keaton, a conservative, Ronald Reagan-obsessed teenager who clashed with his liberal, Democrat-voting parents. Their antics featured in a television show called Family Ties, which won the actor three Emmys and a Golden Globe.
Hong Kong’s television audiences are now talking about ‘family ties’ too, but in this more recent political drama it’s due to a Chinese tycoon, rather than the Canadian-born actor.
Last week, Wang Zheng, chairman of Shenzhen-listed property group Rong Feng Holdings, announced plans to acquire more than 50% of Asia Television (ATV) for a reported HK$2 billion ($257 million).
If and when Wang eventually takes the helm at ATV, all eyes will be on him. That’s not only because he has vowed to turn the weaker of Hong Kong’s two free-to-air TV stations into “Asia’s CNN”, but also by virtue of the fact that he comes from an extremely distinguished and politically-connected family in Shanghai.
Wang’s step-father Shu Tong was a high profile member of the Chinese Communist Party who held key positions in Shandong province. Mao Zedong praised Shu as “the pen of the Party, a Red Army calligrapher” for his talents. In 1948, when the Party was scheming to take over (or ‘liberate’) Taiwan, Shu was said to have been unofficially (and provisionally) designated as the first provincial secretary of Taiwan.
Wang’s mother has good ‘red’ credentials too: she was a soldier in the Eighth Route Army, one of the anti-Japanese communist forces that became the stuff of legend.
There is another heavyweight among Wang’s ancestors too. His great-grandfather – Sheng Xuanhuai – was known as ‘the father of industry’ in the late Qing Dynasty.
Wang – who was born in July 1963 – appears to have inherited his great-grandfather’s entrepreneurial spirit. But like his father, he also has a somewhat unassuming and bookish manner.
At the age of 18, Wang Zheng scored the second highest marks in Shanghai on his university entrance exams and enrolled in Huadong Normal University. He completed his degree in Russian, finishing top of his class, before going to graduate school. In his final year there, he was accepted to study in Stanford University, but his US visa application was rejected. Wang instead headed to Hong Kong and landed a job as a clerk, earning HK$5,000 a month.
After several months on the job, Wang’s boss saw his potential in business. He set up a company for Wang to run, giving him a 10% share, and on top of that a 10% bonus. “Knowing that I got to keep two out of every 10 dollars I made, I really went for it, and worked very hard to set up the trading business. I made HK$2 million in the first year,” Wang told the People’s Political Consultative Daily.
After his initial success in Hong Kong, Wang returned to Shanghai. At the time, many tycoons from Hong Kong were actively investing in plots of land in the city centre. With only limited resources, Wang turned to the suburbs to invest in building more affordable accommodation – figuring it would suit people forced to relocate to make way for major infrastructure projects.
Wang hit the jackpot in 1992, when the Shanghai city government had to resettle a large number of households as a result of its decision to build elevated roads. The government did a deal with him, in which Wang exchanged his housing developments for 87,360 square metres of land on the centrally-located Nanjing Road, thus earning his reputation as ‘the king of relocation housing.’ As the city developed rapidly, Wang was approached from all sides to develop more relocation housing.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Wang. During the 1997 financial crisis, he had to borrow money from an unidentified wealthy man in Hong Kong because of cash flow problems.
He was subjected to days of meticulous scrutiny before securing the borrowing. “I thought, if I can secure this HK$100 million, it will be a victory; it would mean survival. So I had to persevere, and could not give up. At last I got the funding, when many other people in the same situation weren’t able to. It all comes down to a person’s endurance,” Wang recalled.
After surviving that crisis, Wang continued to differentiate himself in the property market by coming up with new ideas. In Beijing, he took advantage of the city’s successful Olympic bid by developing housing projects that offered fitness facilities. Later on, his firm designed small units (around 20 square metres) for young buyers, which sold well. He also developed projects in second-tier cities like Chongqing and Changchun.
Wang – a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (see WiC52) – has branched out from property. In 2004, he scooped up 236 million shares in Bank of Beijing for Rmb450 million, and made a Rmb6 billion profit following the bank’s listing in Shanghai in 2007. In 2008, Wang’s property business went public through a back-door listing on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange.
But one has to wonder just what Wang sees in ATV, which has been struggling for years both in terms of viewership and funding. It has undergone more than half a dozen changes in ownership since its launch in 1957 under the name Rediffusion Television. Wang reportedly also considered a stake in its bigger rival TVB, but was discouraged since he wasn’t able to secure majority control.
Dennis Huang, the managing director of advisory firm Synergy Capital, thinks he knows why ATV interests Wang. “A property developer needs a good excuse to secure close relationships with the government, so that it could get its hands on a superior land bank,” he told the China Entrepreneur magazine. “Media ownership is a great bargaining chip to have when building close, reciprocal relationships with the government.”
Wang stressed that his ATV investment, which is made in a personal capacity, is purely a business decision, without any political motivation.
He told a press conference last week he intends to invest billions of Hong Kong dollars in the next two decades to turn ATV into “Asia’s CNN”, making it the go-to station for quality Asia-focused programming. Other plans include boosting the station’s market share in Macau, setting up a Mandarin language channel to be broadcast in China, and a listing in Shanghai next year.
All this will prove challenging. However, one thing Wang doesn’t need to worry about is financial muscle.
At last week’s press briefing, senior executives of China Overseas Group, Guangdong Enterprises, China Merchants Bank, China Life and Bank of Beijing committed to using ATV as a key advertising platform. Sun Wenjie, the head of China Overseas Group, promised to fully back Wang, and give him financial support in the future.
But with so many state-owned firms looking to back Wang, discussion of his ‘family ties’ and questions about editorial independence are only growing louder. Hong Kong lawmaker Lee Wing-tat has warned that the support of such companies implies a political agenda which could bias ATV’s news reporting.
Nor is it a done deal. An injunction has been filed by a Taiwanese shareholder of ATV to prevent Hong Kong’s Cha family from selling its controlling stake to Wang. Given that Taiwan frustrated his step-father’s ambitions, Wang will be hoping a Taiwanese doesn’t thwart his own.
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