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Then & now: a privileged few

Whatever their reasons for remaining in China after 1949, the red capitalists' strategies seem to have paid off, writes Jason Wordie

 

Enormous international fuss has been generated in recent months over the plutocratic wealth accumulated by the descendants of communist China's founding pantheon, as well as by current and recent state leaders.

"Red capitalists", as they have been quaintly termed, have enjoyed a long history in the mainland. Not all of the nation's industrialists and financiers fled to Hong Kong or Taiwan after the communist assumption of power in 1949. Shrewd self-interest - and more complicated national loyalties - dictated otherwise: most families ensured at least a few individuals remained behind to wait for the dust to settle. Many prominent business figures, in the early period after liberation, voluntarily signed over their factories or other family enterprises to the state in return for a small percentage of the turnover. These individuals then stayed on as "managerial experts" and retained considerable personal privileges, including (in most cases) the right to travel outside the country.

Contrary to popular belief today, regular passenger flights from China to Hong Kong were maintained well into the 1950s - connections didn't all grind to a halt in 1949. But traffic was steadily curtailed by political campaigns in the mid-50s, in particular the Hundred Flowers Campaign in 1956, in which citizens were invited to openly air their views then punished for dissent. This classic communist ploy helped to destroy any residual trust in the new regime.

Rong Yiren, the Shanghai tycoon who eventually became vice-president of the People's Republic, exemplified the red capitalist breed. A pre-war alumnus of St John's University in Shanghai (where he was a contemporary of Jiang Zemin, the president he later served under), Rong's family owned extensive cotton and flour-milling interests and retained control of those businesses until they were nationalised in 1956. The family received handsome recompense.

Rong was appointed vice-mayor of Shanghai in 1957 and later set up the China International Trust and Investment Corporation (better known overseas as Citic), which orchestrated most of the mainland's external investments following Deng Xiaoping's economic liberalisation. By the time of his death, in 2005, Rong was regarded as one of the richest men in Asia, with an estimated personal fortune in excess of US$1.9 billion. His son, Larry Yung Chi-kin (their surname is rendered differently in Cantonese), was chairman of Citic Pacific when the group came under the spotlight in 2008 over US$2 billion in losses on unauthorised foreign-exchange trading in Hong Kong.

This city also had its red capitalists, as wealthy, influential supporters of the Chinese state were known in the years when such support was deeply unfashionable. The long-serving chairman of the United Front-dominated (and therefore Beijing-directed) Chinese General Chamber of Commerce, K.C. Wong - whose business interests included shipping, real estate and department stores - was perhaps the most prominent.

Other red capitalists, such as the late Henry Fok Ying-tung, had iron-clad "patriotic" credentials stretching all the way back to active resistance to the Japanese during the Pacific war. These connections came to the fore during the Korean war United Nations embargo period, from 1950 onwards, when the mainland, ravaged by years of conflict and internal strife, was assisted by largesse from patriots here and elsewhere.

When, after 1978, the national economy was liberalised, these individuals were among the very first to be rewarded by a grateful government. And why not?

 

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