Economy

A golden generation?

Business bosses lament the death of an iconic cigarette entrepreneur

Chu-Shijian2-w

Chu: tycoons have paid tributes

A front page headline in the China Daily on Monday proclaimed that “Xi backs private companies”. The message is a familiar one, especially at a time when the Chinese leader’s government has tried to reaffirm its commitment to private businesses at the National People’s Congress.

The problem is that plenty of entrepreneurs don’t believe it, amid a longrunning row about how China’s state sector is much more of a favourite.

The debate grew louder after an outburst by entrepreneur Mao Zhenhua, who accused the local government of taking land improperly from a ski resort he was developing (see WiC393). There was further anxiety when the acquisitive Anbang Insurance was nationalised and its boss Wu Xiaohui was sentenced to 18 years in jail (see WiC399) and the discussion deepened when economist Wu Xiaoping blogged that China should return to a purely statist economy (see WiC428).

The mood was so bleak in some quarters that Xi Jinping called private sector bosses in for a chat. These pep talks served as “anti-anxiety pills” for attendees, the People’s Daily assured its readers, sending a message that private enterprises are in the “same family” as their state-owned peers.

“We are constantly hearing some policy or remark from a leader described as an ‘anti-anxiety pill’ for private enterprises,” an editorial in Caixin Weekly responded. “The fact that there are so many such ‘pills’ shows how hard it is to quell these fears.”

That same uneasy feeling may have fuelled some of the tributes to Chu Shijian, arguably one of China’s most successful businessmen, who died last week aged 91.

We reported a year ago on Chu’s life story. He transformed a defunct local factory into a national tobacco champion in the 1980s. In the process he was recognised as a ‘model worker’ at national level and even named as the country’s most outstanding entrepreneur.

Soon after he was jailed for corruption. After being released on medical parole in 2002, Chu then embarked on another career, building an orange-growing business into a major brand (see WiC397).

Chu was respected as a ‘godfather’ figure, Southern Weekly says. Apart from his unyielding spirit, Chu personified the risks of being a high-profile businessman and the “inevitable institutional tragedy” that came with such a career path (code, it seems, for the view that it was almost impossible to keep your hands completely clean when China was transitioning into a market economy in the 1980s and 1990s: see WiC16 for more on the concept of ‘original sin’).

Wang Jianlin, boss of property conglomerate Wanda Group, described Chu as “a great figure in China’s reform and opening up” while Liu Chuanzhi, the founder of computer maker Lenovo, said it is people like Chu that have “pushed society forward”.

Outside the social circles of the leading tycoons, the obituaries weren’t always as positive. One article, titled “Who is godifying Chu Shijian” was particularly popular across social media. It said Chu’s entrepreneurial skills were unquestionable in his earlier career but that his second business venture in oranges was only successful because his peers wanted it to be – to symbolise the durability of Chinese capitalists.

A case in point, the article argues, was in 2008 when the first crop of ‘Chu oranges’ went up for sale. At the time there were too many oranges in the market but supportive firms were willing to buy Chu’s products at premium prices and give them to their employees. “Who would lend the money to an 80 year-old to start a large-scale orange venture?” the author wondered. “Chu didn’t need to worry about his seed money or that nobody would buy his oranges. How could he not be successful?”

Notably the article about Chu’s ‘godification’ hasn’t been scrubbed by the internet censors. Perhaps this fact alone underscores the ambivalence within parts of the government about his legacy.


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