China Watch Blog has picked up this March 6, 2011 Wall Street Journal (http://www.marketwatch.com/story/a-chinese-billionaire-developer-embraces-religion-2011-03-06) article’s interview with Zhang Xin, the billionaire Chief Executive of Soho China Ltd., who insists she’s not the woman she once was.
Religion has changed everything. At age 45, Ms. Zhang is reinventing herself as a moral and modest Baha’i convert who has transcended materialistic pursuits and now wants to focus on charity and education. “Baha’i has transformed me,” she says. (For details of Baha’i Faith, go to www.bahai.org)
It’s hard to square this vision of Ms. Zhang with her public image. Millions in China know her rags-to-riches success story: a textile factory worker at age 14 in Hong Kong, a night school student who made it to Cambridge University in the U.K., an early career with Goldman Sachs and Travelers Group. Together with her husband, Pan Shiyi, she founded Soho China and took it public in 2007, raising more than $1.9 billion.
They are the “IT Couple” of China, known for their glitzy parties, designer clothes and celebrity friends.
But when I sat down with Ms. Zhang recently in her chic white-toned office in Beijing’s central business district, she tells me, “If you knew me six years ago, you would think, ‘This is a very annoying woman.’ ” She was “very arrogant” then, she says.
“We’ve put too much confidence in that materialistic abundance will bring along better education, which will in turn facilitate progresses in civilization,” she wrote on Sina Weibo, a microblogging service where she has more than 1.4 million followers. “But China’s development has smashed our illusion.”
She hopes that religion, and Baha’i in particular, can help China to bridge the gap between fast economic growth and spiritual development that lags behind. A new religion with about six million believers globally, Baha’i emphasizes the spiritual unity of all humankind.
It’s curious to hear Ms. Zhang, of all people, lament the results of materialism in modern China. After all, she’s lived the China Dream more exuberantly than almost any other woman in the country. And for the past 16 years she and her husband have built their fortune selling that dream to the aspiring Chinese middle class. They are known for their futuristic buildings designed by Riken Yamamoto, Peter Davidson and Zaha Hadid.
In China, the property-developer label is synonymous with greed and excessive profits. Just last month, Premier Wen Jiabao pointed his finger at developers when talking about the country’s housing problems. He urged developers to “take all their social responsibilities,” adding that he believes “the blood flowing in their bodies should be moral too.”
I can’t help but ask Ms. Zhang why anybody would want to listen to her preaching about being good? Hasn’t anybody called her hypocritical?
She’s well aware of the image problem. “For many people who don’t know me, they will naturally think, ‘a developer, corrupted, not a good person,’ ” she says in her usual fast-talking, enthusiastic way. “I think many people, including me, are biased against many things. And bias comes from ignorance. Just like many Chinese, having never been to Japan, think all Japanese are bad people. Once the knowledge is there, the ignorance will go away, and bias will go away.”
Does she find any conflict between ethical behavior and money-making, particularly in China’s current business environment when abiding by rules can mean you’ll be less likely to succeed?
No, Ms. Zhang says. If you’re more honest than the other people, your business will perform better than them because your business partners will trust you more and want to do more business with you, she says. Besides, talented people like working for ethical companies.
To be sure, Ms. Zhang isn’t the only businessperson in the country hoping to tackle social problems with religion. How Chinese society has lost its morality —and how to regain it—is a hot topic on both the Internet and around dinner tables.
One of the more dominant theories goes like this: the Communist Party made all Chinese atheists; then the Cultural Revolution destroyed all Confucian doctrines that guided Chinese society for thousands of the years; finally, in their relentless pursuit of wealth in the past 30 years, Chinese broke away from whatever moral boundaries that were left. It’s a country that has no reverence, no respect and no fear.
People blame the loss of morality for social ills from pollution to corruption and infidelity. Along with higher living standards have come higher levels of anxiety.
Some have turned to religion for solace. According to a 2010 survey by the Chinese Academy of Social Science, there are more than 20 million Christians in China, and 73% of them were converted after 1993, just about the time the economy went into overdrive.
Ms. Zhang says she converted to Baha’i in 2005 after a family crisis made her question the meaning of the success she had worked so hard for. She found that prayer could be calming.
Mr. Pan converted about the same time. Now they sometimes post their prayers and their interpretations of Baha’i teachings on Sina Weibo, where Mr. Pan has about 3.5 million followers.
Ms. Zhang never lets her musings on religion stray into the area of politics. She claims to be apolitical, and doesn’t believe that changing the political system will lead to a better society. She says that the revolution in Egypt didn’t really change its society, citing the sexual assault on CBS correspondent Lara Logan immediately after Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president. It doesn’t make any difference if it’s a democracy or a dictatorship, she says. “The real change comes when people’s hearts change. When everybody has a better heart, the whole society will change.”
Then will the religious beliefs of China’s most famous business couple have as much influence on young people as their previous glamorous lifestyle?
“I hope so,” she says. “In our early days, we tried to be a creative developer. And we tried to throw the best parties. Now there are [other] creative developers like us. And we’ve come to the point in our lives that we believe that Chinese society needs spiritual guidance, and we’re privileged to receive such a beautiful thing. We need to share it with everyone.”
“But you’re a developer, and in China…” I asked again.
Ms. Zhang smiles, “It is indeed very interesting that we’re doing this. This is so ironic.”
Thank you Li Yuan, the writer of this article Wall Street Journal, for such an enlightening and inspiring article.
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