The tycoon chosen for China's version of The Apprentice has not even seen the show but is no stranger to sacking staff ON A SHELF in the corner of Pan Shiyi's office, the DVD box sets of the hit American reality show The Apprentice sit untouched, still sealed in their plastic wrapping. 'I haven't even watched it yet,' says the diffident man whom reality TV guru Mark Burnett recently anointed as the Donald Trump of China. 'In fact, I didn't know I had been chosen until I read it in the South China Morning Post,' he says. Apart from their superficial similarities - both are rich and in the property game - Mr Burnett probably could not have picked someone more different from 'the Donald' than Mr Pan. While Mr Trump inherited a vast fortune from his property magnate father, Mr Pan was born in a destitute village in Gansu, China's poorest province, and grew up in an outcast family of 'rightists' sent down to the countryside to toil among the masses after the communist victory in 1949. 'When I was small, I was only concerned with having enough to eat, having clothes and a place to live - just the most basic elements of life,' Mr Pan said. His mother was paralysed and the family had to give away two of his younger sisters. They never had their own house and it was his itinerant childhood that sowed the seeds of his future calling. As China began its market reforms after 1979, Mr Pan was able to migrate to the capital to attend the Beijing Petroleum Institute in 1982 and, in 1987, he began working in property development in Shenzhen and Hainan. Like so many of the children of China's rightists and capitalist roaders, Mr Pan found the free market spirit ran thick in his blood and in 1992 he co-established property company Beijing Vantone before setting up Soho China with his wife, Zhang Xin, in 1995. Ms Zhang is from a different world, having spent four years working on Wall Street before returning to China to take a slice of the booming real estate market. At the company's 10-year anniversary celebrations on Saturday the couple will look back over six large-scale projects, five in Beijing and one on Hainan island, that have garnered total sales of 15 billion yuan to 16 billion yuan so far. The mainland market has been in a slump this year brought on by government policies aimed at cooling overheating and speculation. But between September 3 and September 5, the company sold 200 million yuan worth of floor space in the last stage of their Jianwai Soho project and Mr Pan expects to sell a total of 100,000 sq m for 1.6 billion yuan by the end of the year. Although Soho was preparing to list in Hong Kong two years ago, Mr Pan says they decided not to go ahead because of the 'responsibility to sell your decisions to shareholders, investors and analysts who sometimes can't tell the difference between the Peak and Mid-Levels'. Soho is an acronym for 'small office, home office', an example of the couple's ability to identify and help shape trends in the real estate business. At a time when other developers were concentrating on building ostentatious office blocks which would stand empty for the latter half of the 1990s, Ms Zhang and Mr Pan recognised a latent demand for small office space and the need for a design aesthetic that went beyond Doric columns and enormous cheap statues of Roman gods. 'She looks after design and I look after sales and marketing,' says Mr Pan. 'Ask anyone who has ever tried to teach their spouse to drive and you will know why we keep our business roles separate. But at home she is the undisputed boss.' Their first major project was Soho New Town, the site of their current offices as well as 48 shops, 283 offices and 1,897 apartments. Taken on its own the project is nothing special, but compared with the mess of toilet-tile covered apartment and shopping complexes with 30-year lifespans that have replaced Beijing's 400-year-old hutong and siheyuan neighbourhoods, Soho New Town is a wonder of modern design. One of their newer projects is the Commune by the Great Wall - 12 modern private houses designed by 12 Asian architects and built right next to China's greatest landmark. Another characteristic that sets Mr Pan apart from the Beijing business community is his active courtship of the media and the huge amount of publicity he and his wife attract. Humble and self-effacing he may be but that does not mean he is not a master of self-promotion. In fact, the humility is all part of what is, at least in the context of contemporary China, an incredibly sophisticated package. Although he is far from being the wealthiest or most successful developer in China, he is unquestionably the most well-known. In this he is well ahead of the curve in a country and industry notorious for its murky business environment and backroom dealings. Mr Pan is a sort of model worker for the new entrepreneur in China - a Lei Feng of the capitalist era, if you will. 'If I lived in Hong Kong the media would undoubtedly dig up dirt on me like they do on prominent local people but because I am far away, Hong Kong journalists mostly treat me like a guest,' he says. He claims to not even know what the head of the Beijing land bureau - the government organ responsible for doling out parcels of the capital city to developers - looks like. 'I have never evaded a penny of tax,' he says and proudly points out that Soho China paid over 300 million yuan to the tax bureau last year, making him one of the top taxpaying developers in the country. There is good reason for him to emphasise his tax record and paucity of government connections considering the cases of those, like actress Liu Xiaoqing (jailed for a year and fined 7.1 million yuan for tax evasion) and flower baron Yang Bin (18 years for tax fraud), who were pursued and convicted after courting the media too vigorously. Today, most Chinese entrepreneurs shun the spotlight because of the unwelcome scrutiny it can bring from the authorities and the various rich lists published in China have come to be known as hit lists. Not surprisingly, Mr Pan is reluctant to give any indication of what he is worth except to say that neither he or his company have taken a bank loan for over three years. 'Chinese admire people who've achieved success through their own efforts and haven't made use of guanxi [connections] to get where they are,' Mr Pan says. He points out that the Chinese version of The Apprentice is going to have to take into consideration Chinese attitudes and also how different his personality is from Mr Trump's. 'It is a reality show so it must reflect the current reality in China,' Mr Pan says. There will be no flourishes at the end of each show as he sends young hopefuls packing and there will be an emphasis on egalitarianism in the choice of candidates. 'I am very grateful to the time and to society for allowing me to realise my dreams from such humble beginnings,' he says, and tells the story of an uneducated Sichuan peasant coal miner he hired who became his deputy sales director on a salary of one million yuan. But the entrepreneur's empathy with the masses certainly does not make him incapable of firing people. Soho's staffing policy is particularly severe, with sales teams evaluated every three months and the worst-performing 10 per cent of staff fired without exception. When the show begins filming next month, he will earn 100,000 yuan an episode, a trifling amount compared to the more than US$1 million Mr Trump reportedly makes per episode. 'I would die of hunger if I relied on the money from this show,' Mr Pan says. A 10 per cent cut will go to Creative Artists Agency, the Hollywood agent that represents Jackie Chan and Jet Li, among others. 'I am number six on their list of Asian stars,' Mr Pan says, with a tiny slip of his humility. He says Mr Burnett wants his wife to be involved as well but she has not agreed as yet. 'She's more low-key than me; it will be hard to convince her,' he says. He also says she worries about the image of a rich businessman firing people at a time when China's 'iron rice bowl' is being demolished and vast multitudes are being laid off across the country. Older people especially have been steeped in egalitarian communist ideology from birth and many remember the not-too-distant day when even having an ancestor who lorded their wealth over others could get you paraded through town in a dunce cap or much, much worse. It is in this context that Mr Pan's good-natured humility and squeaky clean image is so important. Get ready to see it on display next March when China's Apprentice goes on air. Biography Pan Shiyi is co-chief executive with his wife, Zhang Xin, of Beijing property developer Soho China. Mr Pan, born in 1963, has two children - Luc, aged five, and Sean, aged six. He has been chosen by Mark Burnett, producer of hit US reality television show The Apprentice, to be the Donald Trump of China. The show begins filming next month and will start screening in March, most likely on local Chinese satellite television.