Jack Ma

New generation of Chinese tycoons putting good causes before money

We begin a fortnightly series profiling the mainland's economic elite by looking at the China Entrepreneur Club, where their voices can be heard

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 September, 2014, 5:37am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 September, 2014, 5:37am

Jack Ma Yun is about to make history. If Alibaba beats the US$20 billion prediction that analysts have laid out, it will become the biggest initial public offering ever seen. Yet Ma is in a group of Chinese businessmen whose success is no longer measured purely in monetary terms.

Besides trailblazing e-commerce IPOs, Ma also chairs the Nature Conservancy, an environmental non-profit group, and Alibaba's own philanthropic trust, which represents 2 per cent of the company's equity.

He is also a member of one of the richest non-profit organisations on the mainland - the China Entrepreneur Club (CEC). Its 45 members have a combined annual income exceeding two trillion yuan (HK$2.52 trillion), or roughly 4 per cent of the mainland's gross domestic product.

Founded in 2006, the CEC joins together some of the most powerful people in the mainland's private sector, to strengthen "entrepreneurial spirit", or the non-monetary values of the newly risen generation of businessmen in China.

"The creation of wealth and social responsibility cannot be separated," said Maggie Cheng, secretary general of the CEC. "If this group of entrepreneurs were simply aiming for financial gain, they could have quit a long time ago. The reason they are still on this path no longer has much to do with monetary success."

Monetary success is indeed not a concern for the star-studded collection of CEC entrepreneurs. Its members include Chinese business heavyweights, such as Lenovo founder Liu Chuanzhi, and the man responsible for Weibo, Charles Chao.

Another member is Wang Jianlin, of Dalian Wanda. His official online biography says: "The highest pursuit in life is that of the spiritual. The highest level of business management is business culture." This does not betray the fact that, valued at US$22 billion, he is China's richest man.

Such is the importance of this group of entrepreneurs that they have been hosted by the likes of British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande, and the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso.

Richard Branson, British business magnate and founder of Virgin, hosted a CEC delegation on Necker Island, his private luxury resort island, in August. The four-day trip saw an active exchange of ideas about entrepreneurship and sustainability.

"I told Richard that in China, there is a group of entrepreneurs who are just like him," said Cheng, who had just returned from Necker. "Entrepreneurs are people who can discover problems, and are particularly good at solving them."

To the CEC, entrepreneurs are a separate class of people from mere businessmen, who just want to make money.

"I think we need to be clear about the definition of an entrepreneur," said Cheng. "The very title of an entrepreneur has spiritual value."

In the more colloquial words of Ma: "We did not work this hard to become a bunch of tuhao."

Tuhao is a trending word on the mainland, used to describe the materialistic nouveau riche. Ma wrote this line in a letter to Alibaba employees in July, to prepare them for the offering.

Chinese tycoons are increasingly turning their attention to larger themes in the economy, such as sustainability, innovation, and cultivating a culture of entrepreneurialism.

"These themes cannot be avoided in the coming decades," said Professor Chen Long of the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business. "If you are an entrepreneur in China with ambition, then you can't avoid these themes either."

Chen was a speaker at the 2014 CEC Green Companies Summit, which convenes every year to discuss the most pressing problems faced by the private sector, and to hand out awards for the most "green" firms.

"I think at some point, entrepreneurs need to transcend their own company, and even their own industry, to become leaders of society," said Chen, who took the stage at this year's summit to discuss online banking with Yang Kaisheng, former president of Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, and Ma Weihua, former president of China Merchants Bank. "This is a group that can really represent the vivacity of the private sector, which is meaningful."

The private sector is indeed gaining traction in the mainland economy. Even the central government has recognised this, as the third plenum communiqué of 2013 said: "Both the public and private sectors are the same important components of a socialist market economy and the important bases of our nation's economic and social development."

CEC members seem to be have taken this to heart long ago.

Describing Liu's thought process in founding Lenovo in the 1980s, Cheng said it had little to do with monetary gain.

"He was working at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, where scientific innovations were winning awards - and then just being stored away. Liu wanted to know why we weren't making technology into products? So he and his colleagues created Lenovo - to make computers everybody can use," she said.

Today, one of Liu's holding company's less famous subsidiaries is Joyvio, an agricultural company. It seems a world away from Lenovo's IT success.

"The reason Legend Holdings went into agriculture is simple - why can't Chinese people eat safe food?" said Cheng. "Liu entered this industry to try to find solutions, or to push for a solution."

Cheng added: "After you have had success, there is a choice in what to do with your wealth. Some choose a lifestyle of extravagance. Some devote their money, time and energy into their values."