In the 1970s tractors were a rare sight in rural China and driving one was deemed as a prestigious job. Chen Ailian was one of the few women given the chance. The former farmer is now heading a car-wheel maker which is expanding into the aviation industry.
Chen was born in 1958 in Zhejiang’s Xinchang county. She was one of five daughters of a Korean War veteran and her mother worked as a Party official at the local commune.
She wasn’t “sent down” to rural China, a harsh “educational programme” for millions of young students during the Cultural Revolution. Instead she worked at a collective in Xinchang and her competitive nature got her that job as a tractor driver. In 1978 Chen began working for Xinchang’s local government and a couple of state-owned factories. In 1983 she met her future husband Wu Liangding, who was her boss at a state-owned textile firm. The couple took over the lossmaking plant and expanded into production of aluminium alloy wheels in 1994. The venture became Wanfeng Auto Wheel.
At the time China was starting its transformation from a kingdom of bicycles to a land of motorbikes. Wanfeng was one of the 100 or so start-up firms producing wheels and parts for the sector. It focused on taking on bigger orders. The strategy required a commitment to quality and in the drive to improve output company lore has it that Chen dismantled a new motorbike Ng gave her as a birthday gift.
According to the China Daily, Chen became a Communist Party member in 1995. Wanfeng started to secure contracts from bigger state firms and by 2007 its business had expanded to Europe and Japan, providing parts for automakers such as Toyota, GM and BMW. In recent years, Wanfeng has also ventured into the robotics industry and Wanfeng Aviation, the Canadian division of the conglomerate, has taken controlling share of a manufacturer of seven-seater aircraft. As of this week, Wanfeng’s market value stood at $5.6 billion.
Need to know
Chen was elected as a delegate to the 17th Party Congress in 2007, one of very few private-sector entrepreneurs invited to China’s twice-a-decade political summit.
Driving a Rolls-Royce, Chen has come a long way from her tractor days. She also made headlines when she threw an extravagant wedding banquet for her son in October.
In her own words
“Don’t stereotype a Party member, who can also be modern, fashionable and open-minded,” Chen once told China Daily. “Private entrepreneurs are also builders of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
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