To many Chinese Zhang Xin is an archetypal capitalist. In fact, she even played such a role in a brief cameo appearance in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (she leads a delegation of investors from China).
But Zhang – who is also chief executive of SOHO China, the largest private property developer in the country – may be trying to shed some of that image back at home. That’s because she has created something of a stir as probably China’s best known follower of the Baha’i faith, to which she converted in 2005.
Though not widely known, Baha’i has about 5-6 million followers globally. It originated in the 19th century in what is now Iran and teaches that all religions are one, embracing the spiritual unity of mankind.
Zhang, who frequently posts her understanding of Baha’i teachings on her weibo, told the Wall Street Journal last week that she hopes that religion, and the Baha’i faith in particular, can help China to bridge the gap between fast economic growth and a spiritual development that she feels is lagging behind.
“I think success and happiness are not directly correlated,” says Zhang in one recent weibo entry (her postings are ‘followed’ by 1.5 million Chinese). “True happiness comes from within, is an eternal pursuit and is not affected by the environment, but through our own efforts to change the environment and bring happiness to others.”
She also thinks that people are now focusing on the wrong things: “We’ve put too much confidence that materialistic abundance will bring along better education, which will in turn facilitate progresses in civilisation. But China’s development has smashed our illusion.”
More easily said, you might mutter, by someone who is no stranger to material abundance herself. Together with her husband Pan Shiyi, Zhang ranked number 55 on China’s Hurun Rich List, with the pair reckoned to be worth more than $2.3 billion. Stylish and glamorous, Zhang and Pan are the embodiment of middle-class Chinese aspirations for wealth and achievement.
But Zhang’s own path to success was a long one. In 1980, her mother took her to Hong Kong and Zhang got a job at a garment factory when she was only 14. After a few years of secretarial studies, she was awarded a scholarship in 1987 to study economics at the University of Sussex and then moved on to graduate in development economics from Cambridge, before landing her first job as an analyst at a Wall Street bank. Two hard working decades later, she founded SOHO China with her husband, taking it public in 2007 and raising more than $1.9 billion in the process.
“I find it hard to be labelled in this new ‘super-rich’ category because we all grew up with very little. The idea that ‘to get rich is glorious’ is really a new phenomenon. I certainly didn’t grow up like that,” Zhang told the UK’s Daily Telegraph last year.
“Happiness” as a sentiment has been getting more media play recently too, as part of government efforts to move away from purely quantitative GDP targets into a wider assessment of the impact of economic development. It also fits with a leadership keen to show empathy with the worse-off, and their increasing frustration at China’s growing income inequality.
The role of religion in all of this largely goes unmentioned, of course, although WiC has written before (in issue 28) that the pace of economic and social change in China has prompted a revival in Confucian and Buddhist thought.
Meanwhile, Zhang’s search for a more spiritual life has also encouraged her to devote more attention to philanthropy. Currently she is focusing on programmes for children in the remote and impoverished Gansu, her husband’s home province. In the last five years, the SOHO China Foundation has donated Rmb59.4 million to similar projects.
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