Chinese Character

Rights stuff

Wang Gongquan likes risks: both in his investments and personal life

Rights stuff

Some unusual ventures: Wang

Local officials first described the fate of villager Qian Yunhui as a “traffic accident” after he was crushed to death under a truck carrying rocks in December last year. But Qian’s history of challenging the government – he had already been arrested three times in land disputes – caused some to doubt the official line.

As photographs of Qian’s dead body were distributed on the internet, another version of the story started to spread – that he was murdered to make sure that he didn’t stand for re-election for the position of village chief, reported the Guardian at the time. According to the new version of events, Qian was killed after a group of police officers forced him to lie under an advancing truck.

Qian’s death quickly became a popular topic in online discussions. Enter Wang Gongquan, who suggested that the government allow an independent investigation by a team of citizens and intellectuals. Wang wrote that reputable citizens could help officials “observe and investigate the accident, seek the truth, supervise and then improve the government,” according to Caixin.

His proposal not only stimulated debate among readers, it also affected the government’s handling of the case, since local officials eventually set up just such an investigative group.

What makes Wang’s activism all the more unusual is that he is not a poor petitioner acting on the fringes of society, but a prominent figure in China’s venture capital industry – he founded CDH Venture in 2005. As such, he has a lot to lose from upsetting officials.

But as one of his friends admiringly told Caixin: “He fights for the rights of others, but he doesn’t get anything.”

Born in a village in northeastern China’s Jilin province, Wang studied administrative engineering at Jilin University of Technology, graduating in 1984. He then became part of a select group of graduates to get a job with the provincial government, where he worked in the propaganda department writing reports, speeches and the biographies of officials.

In 1988, Wang resigned from public service (becoming the first civil servant to ever quit from the Jilin Provincial government). He first joined the Tianjin Investment Company and later moved to Hainan Island, where according to China Entrepreneur magazine he inked his first big deal when he resold eight villas and, alongside his friend Feng Lun, established real estate firm Vantone in 1993 – where he served as president, chairman of the board, and managing director.

With Hainan’s property bubble about to burst he made the astute decision to switch its activities to Beijing.

One role at Vantone proved particularly important in Wang’s life. In 1995, he was sent abroad to set up the developer’s US operations. However, when he reached the US he soon became more interested in venture capital. He found the activities of Silicon Valley’s VC players more intellectually-stimulating than putting up buildings. “You come across many fresh things, innovative ideas and enterprising teams. It’s all very exciting,” he told China Entrepreneur.

In 1999, he became a partner in IDG Technology Venture Investment, where he served until 2005, making successful investments in a range of China companies – such as 3721, ChinaEdu, and Civilink. After he left IDG, he helped set up local player CDH Venture, which has two funds – one with $200 million under management, while the second has $500 million, according to Zero2IPO. His reputation as a smart investor was secured by CDH’s stake in Mengniu Dairy, which delivered a stellar return on its IPO. However, his major focus remains on investments in the telecoms, media and tech industries (one of his most high profile was Qihoo, see WiC98 for more on this company).

His next big return could be from an investment in a “cool” nanotechnology firm. “Of course, it will bring more uncertainty and risk,” he admits.

That same appetite for risk seems to apply to his civic activism too. It seems his three years in the US first awakened this interest. He read up on US history and in particular how the Founding Fathers created elaborate checks and balances to ensure the government remained subject to the supervision of the citizenry.

Wang is firm in his belief that the members of a society should be free to express themselves and make reasonable appeals to the government: “Only when ordinary people have equal rights, can they be real citizens,” he told Caixin, “then they have democracy, freedom, as well as the right to sit as equals at the same table with powerful people.”

In addition to his hectic work schedule, Wang has been active in a number of social causes. He has supported people who are fighting against the demolition of their houses, and he has campaigned against China’s hukou housing registration system that stops citizens from one part of the country accessing public services in another area. At the beginning of the year, he joined a protest outside a Beijing “black jail” (an extralegal detention centre used to hold people petitioning the government), trying to secure the release of several detained petitioners.

Wang’s activism might be regarded as more of a risk considering what is widely believed to be an ongoing crackdown on those with dissident opinions.

Whether recent detentions will see Wang opt for a lower profile remains to be seen.

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