Thursday, October 12, 2006

China's Unlikely Tycoon

The richest man in China is a woman. The achievements of Zhang Yin are suggestive in several ways. First, unlike many of China's nouveau riche, as best I have been able to ascertain she made her money without relying on the close government connections that are the secret to many of China's greatest fortunes. Indeed, she made her money entirely through trade between China and the US, in particular, by taking wastepaper in the US and shipping it to China to be turned into packaging, which would then carry exports back out of China.

Second, she has achieved her dreams through business rather than politics. The Chinese Communists have always talked a good game about equality of the genders sexes. I have met many Chinese, male and female, who are completely convinced that women and men are as equal in China as in any country in the West. (On one occasion I heard this assertion by participants in an overseas MBA program that was overwhelmingly male, at the same time that the American classes down the hall were split roughly 50-50.) They are also fond of comparing themselves favorably, not entirely without reason, to Japan, where women are substantially hampered in business (although less than they used to be).

But when push comes to shove, I suspect that this equality is exaggerated, particularly in politics. While there are a fair number of women in the ornamental positions in the Communist leadership that hang decoratively below the highest levels where the decisions are really made, the only woman in China I am aware of who has had meaningful power during the communist era was Jiang Qing, and she achieved it only because (like Hillary Clinton) she piggybacked on her powerful husband – Mao Zedong.

But as I have argued elsewhere, equality in politics is done mostly for show, while equality in business, depending as it does not on its symbolic value but on the ability to make money, is much more profound. And when businesses compete freely, it is much more thorough too. (Not just with respect to sex but all forms of tribal equality.) Economic liberalization in China will be a far greater tool for achieving greater equality of the sexes and dignity for women than could be achieved in a thousand years of “progressive” or socialist governance. (For all their talk of equality, I cannot think of a single communist government that ever had a female leader. While some societies that tilt left have –in Scandinavia, in particular – had female leaders, equality in commerce, which is how you gain more control over your own life, is a different matter.)

I'm also struck by the fact that she and her family live not in China but in Los Angeles. While it is always a mistake to read too much into one particular life story, it speaks well of us that she could come here and achieve what she has given her background and demographic profile.


Post a Comment

<< Home