Like many of his generation, 71 year-old Zong Qinghou is careful with money. The chairman of the Wahaha Group was born in Jiangsu in 1945. His first job after graduating from high school was at a salt farm, earning Rmb28 a month. It was only in 1987 when the Chinese economy began to open up that Zong set up his own business selling ice lollies in the eastern city of Hangzhou.
Today he is estimated to be worth more than $7 billion but Zong clearly likes to save: last month he was spotted travelling in a second-class seat on a high-speed train from Hangzhou to nearby Yiwu, both of which are in Zhejiang province.
A top-fare ticket would have cost him Rmb158 ($22.86) but he opted for the cheapest at Rmb50.
When news of Zong’s journey found its way online, netizens expressed their surprise. Afterwards Wahaha confirmed a longstanding rumour that he spends just Rmb50,000 a year on himself, preferring to wear cheap clothes and eat in the company canteen.
“It’s basically true,” ThePaper.cn quoted a company spokesperson as saying. “The chairman’s lifestyle is quite frugal.”
With such controlled outgoings, one thing seems certain: Zong’s estate will be in good shape when his sole daughter inherits it.
But for many others the question of their inheritance is a much thornier issue. That’s because there are 220 million people over the age of 60 in China and less than 1% of them have made a will.
As the first generation to get rich as a result of China’s economic reforms start to die, the courts are clogging up with inheritance rows and families are going to war. The courts have been forced to set up special mediation centres for dealing with disputes and in small cities like Suzhou courts have seen a fourfold increase in such cases since 2010.
The scale of the problem is such that the Communist-led government – previously no friend of inherited wealth – is treating it as a major concern. “When people die without a will, their children scramble for their property, damaging family ties and having a negative effect on society,” state news agency Xinhua has also warned.
The primary reason that most Chinese don’t complete a will is cultural: talking about death is taboo and preparing a will is akin to tempting fate. This kind of attitude is hugely counter-productive, says Hu Xingdou an economist at the Beijing Institute of Technology. “China is entering a crucial period. If we don’t find a way to transfer wealth responsibly it will affect social stability,” he warned.
To remedy the problem, the government is calling on local authorities around the country to establish legal centres offering free advice to people over 60. One charity doing that since 2013 is the China Will Registration Centre, founded by Chen Kai, a young lawyer who works to protect the interests of senior citizens. His offices in Beijing, Tianjin, Guangzhou and Nanjing have processed 40,000 wills for free since they were established and his practice is now the largest provider of probate services in China.
The waiting list for appointments at his first Beijing centre now stretches into September this year, proof that people will write wills if they can find support from those they trust, Chen claims.
“We want to teach old people that they are the masters of their fortune, that they have the right to decide what happens to their hard earned money,” he said.
At one such centre recently about a dozen seniors were squeezed around a communal table, diligently transcribing the final copies of their wills. They begin by dictating their wishes to a lawyer, who types up a draft. The clients are then evaluated by a visiting psychiatrist to establish clarity of mind. They record video testimony of their wishes in the presence of two independent witnesses, and finally they copy out the final document by hand.
For many this last step is the hardest. Most are over 70 and have shaky hands or poor eyesight.
Transcribing a page of formal Chinese characters completely mistake-free is no easy task. But Chen is adamant that his clients go through it this way, saying that he has seen too many badly written wills that are then challenged in court. He wants his clients to be sure their wishes will be respected even if their family members are unhappy with what has been bequeathed.
According to a recent article in the People’s Daily, 70% of inheritance cases in the Beijing courts stem from the lack of a will outright. In the cases where a will is challenged, 60% are also found to be invalid.
Chinese television has been highlighting similar issues in shows like Third Mediation Room, China’s answer to the Jerry Springer format, and Family Property, a drama about three brothers who fight over the family business after their father dies without a will.
At Chen’s centre in Beijing, many people said they wanted to complete a will after discussing their wishes with family members. Liu Maolin, 74, said he wanted to be sure his daughter, who cares for him, gets his apartment, not his son, a businessman who lives in Japan.
Liu’s family has agreed that this was a fair arrangement, but he concedes there is always a risk of a dispute at a later stage. “I didn’t want them to end up like the people on television. This way they can’t argue after I am gone,” he explains.
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