Rising stars of China’s business world

Kelly Brown & Kalley Tzuhui

China watchers Kerry Brown and Kalley Tzuhui Wu have chosen their top eight Chinese business people to watch out for, ranging from social media entrepreneurs to the man who bought the Volvo brand from Ford

China is now the world’s second biggest economy, but it is also becoming one of the world’s major outward investors. China’s stock of overseas direct investment has boomed in the last decade, rising to become the sixth largest source in 2012. But who are the faces behind this economic behemoth? 

The ‘big bang’ moment in China’s path towards its current status was its entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001. This unleashed the forces of productivity that continue to this day. The chief negotiator for the WTO deal on the Chinese side was Long Yongtu – in many ways this London School of Economics trained official stands as the father of a generation of modern Chinese entrepreneurs. Without his contribution, it is unlikely the globalisation of the Chinese economy would have happened so fast. 

The most important companies of China’s economy are split almost equally between state and non-state. But the non-state sector remains the primary source of dynamism and growth and is dominated by a diverse world of Chinese entrepreneurs. These movers and shakers, once regarded as pariahs under Mao Zedong, have been allowed to become Communist Party members since 2002. 

Zhang Xin, CEO of Soho

While women remain poorly represented in China’s political elite, they have made major strides in the last few years in business circles. As many as a quarter of the wealthiest non-state companies are run, or owned, by women. Zhang Xin, educated in the UK, is representative of this, running the real estate company Soho, which she established with her husband Pan Shiyi. Soho caters for the desire of the emerging middle class in urban China to own fashionably designed, affordable accommodation. 

Charles Chao, CEO of Sina Corporation

If there is one competitor to Tencent online, it’s Sina. Charles Chao is the US-educated CEO of Sina, the company that owns the Chinese version of Twitter, Weibo. Chao originally worked as a journalist before joining the company, rising to become CEO in 2006 and chairman in 2012. Weibo, a company that has proved dexterous in keeping on the side of government regulations about content, has over 350 million users. Chao was named by Time magazine in 2011 as one of the 100 most infl uential people in the world. 

Li Shufu, chairman of Geely

Geely came to global prominence in 2010, when Li Shufu negotiated the purchase of the Volvo car brand from Ford for US$1.8 billion. This was the largest investment to date in Europe by a Chinese company. Shufu has since admitted that the challenges of taking over a foreign brand in the automotive sector – culturally, legally and commercially – were steeper than expected. But with China being the largest purchaser of new cars since 2010, Geely’s approach demonstrates the desire for the Chinese not only to buy foreign-made goods, but also to purchase the companies that make them. 

Liu Chuanzhi, founder of Lenovo and Legend Holdings

When Liu Chuanzhi, a computer scientist, established Legend Holdings with a small group of colleagues in Beijing in 1981, the economic reforms that would make China one of the world’s major economies were in their infancy and private business had only just been re-established. Under Chuanzhi’s leadership, Legend Holdings has become a conglomerate, embracing industrial and investment business, and has built a number of subsidiary companies including Lenovo, which grabbed world attention in 2004 when it bought the US ThinkPad brand from IBM. This made it a supplier into the all-important US market and the first Chinese company to control a US technology brand. Lenovo is now the world’s largest PC manufacturer. 

Ren Zhengfei, founder of Huawei Technologies

Few companies from China are as controversial, or as successful, as Huawei. The firm was founded by Zhengfei, a former officer in the People’s Liberation Army, in the 1980s in the southern boomtown of Shenzhen. Huawei, which specialises in telecoms equipment, now does 60 per cent of its business internationally and has interests ranging from a deal with British Telecom to supply equipment in the UK, to major partnerships in Africa. Huawei has been accused of links with the military in China, however, and despite being only 20 per cent government owned, with the rest in the hands of its employees, the company has been blocked from bidding for deals in Australia and the USA on the grounds of security concerns. 

Zhang Ruimin, CEO of the Haier Group

Electronic appliance company Haier, based in the coastal city of Qingdao, has become one of the most dynamic modern hybrid companies – part state, part private – making its CEO Zhang Ruimin a key figure in modern Chinese business. Ruimin famously drummed the importance of quality into the company workforce by taking a hammer to substandard refrigerators and smashing them to pieces when he took over running the company in the 1990s. Since then he has been lauded as one of the most successful business figures of his generation. Haier has supplied much of the rest of the world with appliances, despite the low profile of its name. Its unique strategy has been to use entry to the US market as a means of becoming even more competitive back in China. 

Jack Ma (Ma Yun), executive chairman of the Alibaba Group

A former teacher who taught himself English while growing up in Zhejiang province, Ma is one of the best known of the new wave of Chinese entrepreneurs and someone who has a formidable reputation for ruthless focus on business outcomes. Established in 1999, the Alibaba Group now specialises in ecommerce for 65 million users and is a genuinely global enterprise, with investments in Europe (its headquarters are in the UK), the USA and Africa. Ma has become, through attendance at the World Economic Forum, one of the country’s highest profile business voices. He is also one of its wealthiest. 

Ma ‘Pony’ Huateng, founder of Tencent

The world wide web has swamped modern China, with an estimated 900 million people surfing the web on their mobiles alone. Tencent QQ is the dominant company in this booming sector, with a staggering 700 million users. Social media has revolutionised the way people communicate, despite the fact that the government has placed fi lters and restrictions on content, which means that popular foreign sites like Facebook and Twitter are blocked. Part of the reason behind this may well be to protect the rich potential of this sector in China. 

About the author:

Kerry Brown is professor of Chinese politics and director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney

Kalley Tzuhui Wu works for KyochiMyogo Consulting


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