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From sweatshop to skyline queen: The story of Zhang Xin

From her impoverished beginnings, Zhang Xin has risen to become queen of the capital's skyline and the living embodiment of the Chinese dream, writes Leo Lewis

 

Inside the penthouse premises of the exclusive Beijing American Club, China's most powerful woman aims a quiet smile at a circle of armchairs; she targets each occupant with a flash of eye contact and brings the elite gathering to attention. Silence falls.

Property developer Zhang Xin, queen of the Beijing skyline, is the chief executive of Soho China, one of the country's most influential real estate companies. She is immaculately but not ostentatiously dressed in a scarlet blouse, chairing a discussion that touches delicately on the future of the nation, of the Communist Party and of China's engagement with the outside world. Sharing her sofa, and the main speaker for the evening, is British politician Peter Mandelson, whose book, The Third Man: Life at the Heart of New Labour, newly translated into Chinese, is already popular within the higher echelons of party leadership. Around them sits an assembly of business leaders, diplomats, journalists and high-financiers. It is an evening that reflects Zhang's status as one of the world's greatest female success stories.

Over the past decade, Zhang, 48, has become a role model for women, for the ambitious poor and for ordinary Chinese. The 6.7 million people who follow her on Weibo (the mainland's equivalent of Twitter) are doing so for a reason: the government may try to co-opt the concept of a "Chinese Dream" for political ends but Zhang is its living embodiment - a woman who has risen from her beginnings as a teenage sweatshop worker to become one of the wealthiest women on the planet, overseeing an empire worth US$3.6 billion.

Zhang's parents were educated Chinese-Burmese who moved back to China in the 1950s, when Mao Zedong's dream still appeared unsullied. But during the lunacy of the Cultural Revolution, their university degrees counted against them: a young Zhang and her mother were separated from her father and brother, and forced - as part of the country's "re-education" programme - to swap their urban lifestyle for the grinding poverty of the countryside.

When she was nine years old, Zhang was able to return to Beijing with her mother, but the city offered scant relief from debilitating poverty. The two were briefly homeless, obliged to sleep on the desks of the small office where Zhang's mother translated the grandstanding speeches of communist leaders.

A few years later, with the mainland's great economic boom still years away, the pair escaped to Hong Kong. Aged 14, Zhang toiled in the territory's cramped, punishing garment factories. Driven by the need for hard cash, she would switch employers for the sake of a single dollar's increase in pay.

"The motivation for working in the factories was to get out of the factories," she says. The girls alongside her appeared content with their lives, but she could never accept that. Convinced even then that education had the power to change everything, Zhang would scurry from each 12-hour shift straight to evening classes. She dreamed all the time, she says, simply of keeping pace with the education that "normal" teenage schoolgirls would be receiving back in the mainland.

Slowly, her savings grew to the point where she could afford a plane ticket from Hong Kong to London. Armed with nothing but an immigrant's raw ambition, she arrived in Britain and began another lowest-rung scrabble for cash. This time, there were English classes at the end of each workday. The strategy paid off: using grants and scholarships, she secured a place at the University of Sussex. Afterwards, she completed a master's degree in development economics at Cambridge University.

"If I look back at my life and ask myself what was the most important transformational element, I would say education," she says. "The point it all changed was when I decided to go to England to become a student.

"When I first got there, I thought, 'There has to be a model answer for these essays we write every week,' because that is how the Chinese write. I would submit the essay and my tutor would call us in, and he wasn't interested at all in whether this answer was right or wrong. Only later, I understood this was a way of cultivating your intellectual curiosity. That is still largely missing in Chinese education."

The big question for China, Zhang says, is whether those who don't receive an overseas education are being irreparably damaged by the domestic system. There appears to be no shortage of entrepreneurial spirit, but much of that derives from the relative infancy of the nation's economic system.

She wonders whether, had she been born into a developed economy, she would have been able to exercise such creativity. In the 90s, she sensed from a distance that China would offer such opportunities.

After her studies in Britain, Zhang headed west, for a career on Wall Street - a path that would take her to Goldman Sachs and the heart of the capitalist beast. The competitive hothousing of talent was ultimately exhausting.

"I was ready to leave. Wall Street didn't give me a chance to participate in China," she says, the accent of her (faultless) English swaying between a Sussex university tutorial and a Wall Street cocktail party.

Soho came into being when she returned to China. She met her husband, Pan Shiyi, in Beijing and he proposed just a few days later - not uncommon in the mainland.

"We are not the sons and daughters of anybody," says Zhang, strenuously rejecting the idea that, in a country where relationships with the government appear to be so important, the success of Soho is owed to anything other than vision and exceptionally hard work. "Nor do we have powerful friends, and we certainly do not spend any time cultivating those relationships. I know a lot of businesspeople do that. I normally go home at 7pm every evening and have dinner with my family. We don't socialise much."

The 49-year-old Pan is also a rags-to-riches hero, born in Gansu province into a family stricken by poverty during the Cultural Revolution. The couple have two sons, and Zhang has told of how she is "religious" about having breakfast and dinner with them every day, and attending their football and tennis matches.

The marriage, though, has not been without its squabbles and storm-outs. In 2010, it was claimed that Pan had a seven-year-old love child with a student at the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business.

Zhang was said to have forgiven him and last year posted on Weibo: "We've been through all kinds of trials and hardships, from the pressure in the early years of starting our business to the gossip that repeatedly says we are divorcing. But every trial has made our marriage more solid and made us cherish our family even more."

Husband and wife have endured as a frighteningly efficient business partnership. They have raised the bar for all developers in Beijing, enticing some of the world's most adventurous architects to fashion eye-catching buildings all over the capital.

Just down the road from the Beijing American Club are the undulating, alien-looking domes of Zhang's latest contribution to the city skyline: the Galaxy Soho, which consists of four towers of office and retail space atop a massive mall. More than its curves, the building's most striking feature is its colour: pure, provocative white. Designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, Galaxy Soho is a violent visual challenge to the soul-shattering grey of the Beijing in which Zhang grew up.

She seems especially at home in the Galaxy. Defiantly nestled between the dreary, blocky Foreign Ministry building and some dun corporate headquarters, few of her creations so clearly symbolise a desire to change the look of a city. If in the 70s Beijing offered a younger Zhang nothing but misery, in the early 21st century it presents opportunity - a canvas that has made her rich and adventurous.

The Galaxy Soho is a spectacular monument to both China's development and Zhang's own razor-edged hustle. The walk through the cavernous basement to the office dome in its southeast corner leads through a shopping mall with barely any occupants. The towers, their units sold to investors with little motive to rent them out, also look empty. She shrugs. Retail is a bit tricky, but the economics of the business in Beijing and Shanghai (Soho's main stamping grounds) are working fine, she says.

It so happens that, today, the Beijing skyline has been thwarted by the smog. Looking across town from the imperious windows of her office, it is nearly impossible to make out the other Soho developments that sometimes stand out so prominently from the sprawl. Zhang bristles at the idea that the pollution is linked to the sort of urbanisation of which her developments are part.

"If we use 'urbanisation' in a loose way to say it represents the past 30 years of economic reform and modernity, then, yes, all that development has produced, on the positive side, the cities and the high-rises. On the negative side: pollution, corruption and all kinds of problems. But I don't see how these are the by-products of each other," she says.

One discussion in particular is constantly floating around Zhang: her gender and how it relates to her success. She shrugs off the tag of "China's most powerful woman", suggesting that the relatively level playing field that exists at this stage of the country's economic development plays a critical role. Imbalances painfully gnaw at China but it leads the world in the creation of inspiring female business figures.

"Gender has two extremes," Zhang says. "On one hand, you go to rural China, where people don't even want girls. This is where you hear horrible stories of girls being abandoned. But China is also the place that produces more self-made women than any other country.

"There is more expectation on men to be successful than on women. But when you have these girls who are trained to be so driven and are given a fair opportunity, they do really well." She points out that in mainland villages, girls are typically relied upon to do a lot more than their male counterparts.

The glaring exception in all this is politics, and the higher reaches of the Communist Party. Why should a successful woman like her feel attracted to working in a system with no elections and no real opportunity for influence? This, she says, is one of the reasons she is so devoted to Weibo: "I think this is far more effective than any other way. Weibo is pushing society to be more open. On Weibo, everybody's voice is being heard."

As a titan of social media, Zhang is acutely aware of the restrictions the mainland places on free speech and, with it, free thought. Artificial barriers, such as the so-called "great firewall" that blocks websites including Facebook and YouTube, have allowed local versions of those sites to thrive, but perhaps at the cost of home-grown creativity. Similarly, with manufactured goods, a country that does not crack down on a counterfeiting culture is ultimately hurting itself. Zhang has been embroiled in a scrap in which one of her buildings was effectively copied by a developer elsewhere in the country.

"China is still at the stage of the easy copy," she says. "It has yet to be a place with a lot of original ideas. Temporarily, it hasn't damaged China so much, and it makes it easy for Chinese companies to survive. But when the wall comes down and true competition comes in, that is when we see whether Chinese companies can compete."

Zhang's influence has not gone unnoticed by the authorities. She numbers among the "big V" Weibo users - a designation given to those with a huge number of followers; people whose ability to lead public thought has drawn warnings from the government and recent orders to tread carefully. Zhang has good reason to believe that the most powerful men in the land - the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, including President Xi Jinping - read her Weibo posts: the 140-character musings that can move financial markets and frame the debates of the day. (With Weibo, 140 characters effectively means 140 words, so much more can be said than on Twitter.)

"I don't know how to lie," she says. "Honesty is desperately needed in this society. I am always debating whether I will be criticised if I post something. But if it matters, I think, 'To hell with it.' If you post the sort of cheesy, lovey-dovey, chicken-soup-for-the-soul stuff, then that will typically be forwarded a lot. I never do that. You self-censor but you also come to find your own personality."

It is a striking claim from the doyenne of an industry notoriously populated by sharks, charlatans and shysters. The anti-corruption drive, she says, is well-intended. She wonders, though, whether it will have any long-term effects if the underlying system remains in place.

"This system does not have checks and balances, which is what you get when you have absolute power," she says. "And it is not about seeing this corrupt person and putting him in jail. Put another person in his place and it will be the same, because you haven't systematically dealt with the checks-and-balances issue. This is human nature."

It may well be in China's best interests to listen to Zhang. Earlier this year, she bought, effectively out of her own pocket, a large stake in the 215-metre-high General Motors building in Manhattan, New York City. It was a big moment for China.

In the 80s, it was faceless Japanese corporations who bought the iconic properties in the West and prompted shivers of Asia-phobia. Today, it is an immaculately groomed Chinese mother of two.

News Syndication

 

 

 

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