China's business leaders divided over Liu Chuanzhi's 'don't talk politics' advice

In a private gathering, the leader of the world's second largest computer maker cautioned his peers of the elite Zhisland online club to "stay out of politics and talk only business"

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 July, 2013, 12:32pm
UPDATED : Friday, 12 July, 2013, 4:00pm

“Don’t talk politics” - a popular Chinese saying that advises people to keep away from public affairs and mind their own business - has left China’s top executives divided amid an unprecedented national debate on constitutional government, just months after China’s new leadership transition.

The message was recently driven home to China’s business leaders by Lenovo’s founder Liu Chuanzhi. In a private gathering, the leader of the world’s second largest computer maker cautioned his peers of the elite Zhisland online club-whose more than 2000 members include Alibaba's Jack Ma and China Vanke chairman Wang Shi - to “stay out of politics and talk only business.”

Zhisland’s chief executive officer Huang Lilu later shared the comment on its website. He believed the remark was made after Liu’s “thorough consideration” and, therefore, could be of value to others, according to China’s Southern Weekend.  

But not everyone agreed.

In fact, Wang Ying, a Beijing-based fund manager and longtime “Zhislander”,  was so appalled by Liu’s admonition that she immediately renounced her membership to protest the message.

“I am so shocked because an influential figure like Liu made this claim after business owners suffered so miserably in Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun’s ‘Chongqing model’, ” Wang later wrote in a statement, calling Liu’s remark an attempt to “reverse history.”

“China’s entrepreneurs shouldn’t just watch out for themselves in a historic moment like this,” Wang argued, referring to the recent national debate on constitutionalism, “ They should also share bigger responsibilities.” 

“I am not one of the entrepreneurs who don’t talk politics, and I don’t believe China’s business owners will survive if they kneel,” Wang concluded in her farewell letter.

Wang’s letter instantly went viral on China’s social media where it was reposted thousands of times and drew support from business owners, scholars and concerned citizens.

“It doesn’t matter if you talk politics or not,” wrote outspoken property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang, “It will influence the survival of your business.” 

“Not talking politics is also one kind of politics,” said Shanghai-based fund manager Pan Zuxin.

In a follow-up post published on her blog, Wang refuted past criticism from some fellow “Zhislanders” that accused her of carrying out “political" activities by organising study groups that read books include Robert’s Rules of Order, a book about parliamentary procedure. Members of the reading group ended up electing their team leader, using methods learned from the book. 

Wang admitted she had facilitated “democratic voting“  but denied the attempts were “political”.

Commentators across the ideological spectrum in China have been debating the meaning and importance of constitutionalism in recent months.

While liberal reformers and scholars say adopting consitutionalism will lead to separation of powers and a more democratic system, conservatives dismiss constitutionalism as a "Western" political idea.

In a phone interview with South China Morning Post on Friday, Wang said China's business leaders could choose to stay silent, but they should not stop other people from discussing politics.

"Entrepreneurs should also be encouraged to take part in social affairs and make a positive difference," said Wang, an avid supporter of environmental and educational NGO causes.

The government's suppression of dissenting voices from the public had reached such a level in recent months that "I feel I must make a statement," Wang told the Post.

"In China, business leaders haven't been given space in politics, but this doesn't mean we cannot talk politics or get involved in public affairs," she said.

Liu Chuanzhi couldn’t be reached for a comment on Friday.