Beijing’s Jinbao Street, with its ritzy stores selling Lamborghinis and diamond-encrusted Rolexes, feels like a garish version of New York’s Fifth Avenue. And the woman who transformed this block of dilapidated houses into Beijing’s luxury-goods mecca has been the most recognizable face among the rising tide of Chinese female billionaires for nearly a decade.
Chen Lihua, popularly known as “Beijing’s real estate queen,” grew up in poverty in the Chinese capital and started off in furniture repair after dropping out of high school in the 1950s. She took her savings and moved to Hong Kong in 1982 at age 41 and got into luxury real estate investments, buying up a dozen villas and luxury apartments in the city’s Happy Valley area. Six years later, she established what has now grown into Fu Wah International Group, a conglomerate with interests in property development, asset management and finance. Chen first topped the Hurun list of self-made female billionaires in 2010 and again clinched the top spot this year with a net worth of $7.2 billion, partly owing to a few timely investments in China’s overheated luxury property market.
China is home to more self-made female billionaires than any other nation, according to the 2017 Hurun Rich List, released on March 8 to mark International Women’s Day. It counted 88 global women who had made it on their own without inheriting property from their parents or a husband, and China was home to 56 of them. The top five cities producing female billionaires were also all in China.
A positive trend regarding Chinese female billionaires in recent years is that many are making their fortunes outside of real estate. This includes China’s “scrap-paper queen,” Zhang Yin, and the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire, 36-year-old Wu Yan.
Zhang said in a rare interview with China Daily in 2006 that she started trading in wastepaper in Hong Kong in 1985 with just 30,000 yuan (about $10,000 at the time). Wu started off selling 3-D building designs while in college, and today, her Shenzhen-listed Hakim Information Technology is one of the biggest players offering IT solutions to smart cities.
Many have also made their mark in the Internet services sector, including Peng Lei, one of the founders of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., and Luo Qianqian, co-founder of Shanda Interactive Entertainment Ltd., one of the country’s biggest online gaming companies.
Rupert Hoogewerf, chairman and chief researcher of the Hurun Report, said one reason so many women strike it rich on the Chinese mainland is the traditional family structure. “The one-child policy coupled with traditional child care, whereby grandparents often play a much larger role in bringing up children than in developed countries,” has given women more space to pursue their ambitions, he said.
China’s strict family planning rule, in place for over three decades from 1979 until the abolition of the one-child policy last year, led to an increase in investment in girls’ education, particularly in cities, according to Dr. Chen Minglu, a senior lecturer in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. China eased the one-child policy in 2014 and replaced it completely with its two-child policy in 2016.
“There has been a gradual erosion of the confusion ideal that valued men above women,” she said. China’s “4-2-1 family structure,” which emerged after the one-child rule, with four grandparents and two parents all investing in one grandchild, has led to an explosion in the number of women enrolling in higher education, studying abroad and entering corporate boardrooms, Chen said.
But nearly two-thirds of China’s female billionaires were born before the one-child policy kicked in and are over 50 years old. Women born in the 1950s and ’60s may have benefited from the lingering influence of Mao-era egalitarianism that said “Women must hold up half the sky,” according to Chen, the author of Tiger Girls: Women and Enterprise in the People’s Republic of China. This older generation may have cashed in on the narrow window of opportunity created during China’s transition from a planned economy to a market-driven one in the 1980s, she said.
“Chinese society is more structured now. There were more opportunities for upward mobility in the 1980s,” Chen said. “But the elite groups have become more exclusive now, … so there is a sharp distinction between this older generation of billionaires and the younger ones. For the younger ones, it is a combination of personal merits and their family networks.”
Chen Li Hua’s rags-to-riches tale shows how this older generation of Chinese billionaires quickly rose to prominence soon after the country opened its doors to trade in the 1980s. It “dovetails with that of many other self-made entrepreneurs who came from families that had been well-off prior to the advent of New China and then lost everything,” said Daniel Garst, a former senior research fellow at Beijing-based think-tank Center for China & Globalization.
Chen was born in Beijing’s Summer Palace in 1941, to a family related to China’s last Qing emperor. Despite her blue-blood background, Chen never got a chance to enjoy her family’s wealth. The story goes that she hid some of her family’s valuable furniture during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 and later sold them off to start her real estate business, according to an investigation by Hong Kong Economic Journal in October. But Chen has denied this claim in previous media interviews.
Although mystery surrounds how she made her first big break, which allowed her to snap up expensive real estate in Hong Kong in the early 1980s, it hasn’t stopped Chen from owning some of Beijing’s most sort-after properties. This includes the Chang’An Club, where Beijing’s business elites rub shoulders with the top echelons of the bureaucracy not far from Tiananmen Square. The extent of the 76-year-old’s influence was visible earlier this year, when she presented the pope with an elaborately crafted block of red sandalwood gilded with gold. Her privately held Fu Wah International Group has also won construction deals at the Wellington International Airport and a Park Hyatt hotel in Auckland, New Zealand. Her pet project, the China Red Sandalwood Museum, is one of a handful of privately run museums in the country.
Other female tycoons had got into business “not just out of choice, but due to necessity … because for Chinese women, the corporate glass ceiling remains strong,” said Garst, a former senior research fellow at Beijing-based think tank Center for China & Globalization. “In the workplace, Chinese women face significant wage gaps, in 2013 they earned 40.7% less than men, and this gulf was actually significantly higher than had existed in 2000.”
China’s second-richest woman, Zhou Qunfei, is an example of this. Zhou is the founder of Lens Technology, which makes touchscreens for both Apple Inc. and Samsung. She dropped out of school at the age of 16 to work in a factory in Shenzhen. Her father was blinded in an accident in the 1960s, and her mother died when she was 5, according to a report in the Oriental Morning Post. As a factory worker “she had resented the bosses passing her over for supervisory positions,” Garst said.
In 1993, with about $3,000 in savings, Zhou started a small factory making glass screens for mobile devices, she said in a previous interview with Gansu Television. The fortunes of Zhou’s firm took a dramatic leap forward in 2001 when she won a lucrative deal to make glass screens for TCL’s cellphones. Today, her publicly traded firm, Lens Technology, has over $2.2 billion in sales annually, according to the company’s latest financial report.
According to Hoogewerf, one challenge in calculating the wealth of female billionaires is the difficulty in distinguishing between the wealth that belongs to a woman and her husband, especially in the case of women who had co-founded a business with a husband.
An example of this is Zhou Hongwen, 46, who co-founded Tomorrow Group with Xiao Jianhua. The conglomerate has investments in real estate, insurance, banking, coal, cement and rare earth minerals, and the couple is estimated to be worth $5.5 billion. Although Zhou was instrumental in the company’s early decision to invest in the Inner Mongolia region, its stock exchange filings do not differentiate who owns what, making it difficult to split the couple’s wealth, Hoogewerf said. And the recent disappearance of Xiao from the couple’s apartment in Hong Kong, presumably to help Chinese authorities with an ongoing corruption inquiry, has put Zhou in the spotlight and may affect her fortunes.
Although China’s economic engine has shifted down to a slower gear, it could still create enough opportunities for women to grow big, Garst said. The fact that many young female tycoons were making their money in emerging sectors like high-tech manufacturing was a sign of this. As for whether the new two-child policy will erode some of the gains made by women, it is too early to tell.
Picture: Chen Lihua with husband Chi Zhongrui. Chi is a Chinese actor best known for his role as the wondering Tang Dynasty monk Xuanzang in the 1986 television series Journey to the West. The couple married in 1990. Photo: Visual China
By Poornima Weerasekara