The courting of China’s powerful princelings
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As Ye Jingzi talks enthusiastically about her business and charity work it is easy to forget that she is a “princeling” – the privileged descendant of one of the founders of the People’s Republic of China.
This makes her the equivalent of a Roosevelt or a Kennedy, but with probably more power and influence.
Business in China is famously reliant on guanxi, the concept of personal relationships and reciprocal favours that underpin all deals, from village markets to the commanding heights of the economy.
So princelings are much sought-after by domestic and foreign businesses, which hope to leverage their personal networks to get ahead in the cut-throat Chinese market.
As a group, Ms Ye and her princeling contemporaries are notoriously shy and almost never speak out in public. But in an extremely rare interview, Ms Ye says that being from an important family can also have its drawbacks. While she acknowledges, and is proud of, the “red blood” that affords her all kinds of privileges, she is also keenly aware of the responsibilities that accompany her illustrious name.
“It’s very important to me that people understand I have made things happen for myself and not just been successful because of my family background,” she says.
“It’s also important that I use my position to help my country and my people.”
Her grandfather, Marshal Ye Jianying, was a veteran of the Long March and a founder of the People’s Liberation Army. He also led the group of generals that arrested Madame Mao and the Gang of Four, thereby ending the madness of the Cultural Revolution and paving the way for the ascendance of Deng Xiaoping, chief architect of modern China.
Born in the mid-1970s when her grandfather was in the process of putting the country on the path to its new prosperity, Ms Ye spent her childhood in elite schools for children of the communist leadership in Beijing. But when she turned 14 her family decided to send her to the US and called on an old family acquaintance – Henry Kissinger – to help get her into a prestigious girls’ boarding school.
“My father said he didn’t want me growing up as a princess with everything done for me and everyone scraping and bowing all the time. So, they sent me somewhere where I could have a slightly more normal life,” she says in American-accented, flawless English.
Her international upbringing makes her comfortable in virtually any setting and she is seen by western business partners and Chinese officials alike as an essential cultural bridge in the deals she helps broker and the events she organises.
Her eyes light up as she describes her latest project – hosting the final race of the 2010 DTM German touring car championship in downtown Shanghai on November 28. “We’re going to turn central Shanghai into the Monaco of east Asia,” Ms Ye enthuses.
The event’s 3.1km track snakes through the Pudong business district in the heart of Shanghai and has shut down important areas of the city that recently hosted the spectacular World Expo.
With Rmb100m ($15m) of investment, the fixture will mark the first time the DTM championship has held its final race outside Germany and is expected to draw about 80,000 motorsports enthusiasts.
“We are really happy about signing the contract with BCG [Brilliant Culture Group, Ms Ye’s company],” says Hans Werner Aufrecht, chairman of ITR, which holds the rights to the DTM race. “For us, the reason for having a race in China is obvious – it is one of the most important markets for our manufacturers, Audi and Mercedes-Benz.”
The fact that the race is being held in the central business district in Shanghai is a testament to the pedigree of Ms Ye’s connections and the power that still rests in the name of a communist founding father. Very few people, even among the ruling elite, would have the clout to convince the Shanghai government to close down large areas of China’s commercial capital for a car race.
Western companies are extremely reluctant to discuss the importance of family background in their choice of business partners, but most multinationals cultivate close connections with princelings at one time or another. “Everyone knows that a quick way to gain influence is to hire a princeling who has the ear of top decision-makers in the country,” says one influential western business consultant with decades of experience in China. “The problem can be finding someone who is also good at what they do.”
Ms Ye plays down her influence with the government and says she was able to get the Shanghai race approved primarily because of the record and professionalism of her company, as well as the event’s intrinsic attractiveness.
“I actually have to work harder than others to show that I’m able to put an event like this together without just relying on my background and connections,” she says.
This sentiment is echoed by many in elite Chinese political circles, who point out that while being the relative of such an important communist figure provides great access to officials and special treatment, it also brings intense pressure and scrutiny.
Foreign – and domestic – companies that do deals with the help of well-connected princelings sometimes run the risk of being caught up in one of the regular secret power struggles that characterise the Byzantine world of Chinese politics.
“We will always give a young princeling an internship to keep their important family happy, but we never hire people in China just because of their family background, because over the longer term that can get you too mixed up in factional fighting and turf wars,” says one senior China-based executive with a foreign bank.
Another problem in China is the popular resentment that can be directed towards the children of serving officials who use their parents’ positions to get ahead. But for people with Ms Ye’s heritage this does not really apply and there is about as much animosity shown towards her pedigree of princeling as might be commonly expressed in Britain towards the Queen and royal family.
Still, Ms Ye and her contemporaries are careful to keep a low profile and live relatively plain lives. Although a great car enthusiast, she prefers to drive a low-key SUV and has a comfortable and fairly understated lifestyle.
All proceeds earned by her company from the DTM race in Shanghai will be donated to the Soong Qingling Foundation, China’s most prominent official charity, of which Ms Ye is a board member and avid supporter.
For her, the family name is something that needs to be protected from smears, and accumulating wild riches through shady deals is not the way to build a legacy.
“My grandfather and his generation were idealists and they created the new China from scratch,” Ms Ye says. “Even if times are different and the ideology has changed, it is still up to my generation to honour their memory with our actions and through our contributions to society.”
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