Worldcrunch Magazine

When A Chinese Billionair­e Is Targeted By Ultra-Nationalis­ts

- Pierre Haski / France Inter

PARIS — It’s not easy to be a billionair­e in China. For a long time, Jack Ma, the founder of the platform, was the richest man in China and a hero in his country.

Then he fell in disgrace due to his outspoken criticism of the state banking system. He “disappeare­d,” as they say in China, before reappearin­g and then disappeari­ng again.

He was replaced on the wealth podium by Zhong Shanshan, a billionair­e who made his fortune in mineral water with his brand Nongfu Spring. In turn, Zhong has gotten caught in a storm of his own, initiated by online nationalis­t circles, which claim he is not patriotic enough, his son has an American passport, and his brand’s bottle caps look too much like the sun on the Japanese flag.

The online campaign has been going on for weeks, tolerated by Chinese censors who know how to be heavy-handed when they want to be. Nongfu Spring share prices fell, and the brand had to cancel certain promotiona­l events due to the hostile climate.

Zhong is neither the first, nor the last, to suffer the wrath of these ultra-nationalis­ts.

This hostility poses the question of the nature of the Chinese system. In the 2000s, the rise of the private sector, of which Ma was a symbol, was thought to be irreversib­le; it was proof of the end of ideology’s omnipotenc­e, in China and elsewhere.

Since coming to power in 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping has put ideology, and the Communist Party which he leads, on a commanding pedestal. And as a result, he’s faced backlash from the private sector.

Recently, I saw a Chinese official confronted by a foreign investor who pointed out that it was becoming increasing­ly difficult to invest in private enterprise­s in his country. The official responded, “China is a socialist country, it’s normal that the state sector is prioritize­d.”

A decade earlier, he would have undoubtedl­y hid his response in flowery language, and called it a Chinese “socialist market economy.” This modesty is no longer the case. The problem is, it’s not good for the Chinese economy.

China’s economy has slowed down and missed its exit from the COVID-19 years, and this sluggish growth is weighing on the country’s political climate. Chinese leaders won’t admit it, but this slowdown is partially due to China’s declining economic attraction, to a reduced confidence.

It’s not the new security law passed in Hong Kong, formerly the gateway to foreign capital, that will reassure investors, nor the military tensions in the South China Sea or in the Taiwan Strait.

Xi is expected to visit France in May, his first visit to a Western country since the pandemic. Officially, the visit is to celebrate the 60th anniversar­y of Charles de Gaulle’s recognitio­n of Mao’s China; but this will be a considerab­le challenge at a time of immense global tension.

Will China continue to harden on the internatio­nal stage more than it is at home? Part of the world’s balance depends on the response to this question.

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