China’s attempts at soft power have been unsuccessful in the extreme, but away from the halls of Chinese government (albeit not too far), there are Chinese people changing the world on their very own. The rise of the Chinese individual in the past few decades has taken the world by storm, and we decided to profile six influential people—masters of science, business, and the environment—that are changing the way the planet views China.
HU SHULI 胡舒立: CHINA’S SUPER HACK
Name: Hu Shuli
Affiliations: Caixin Century Weekly Magazine
Known for: Outstanding news reporting on business, finance, and public affairs
Education: Journalism, Renmin University
- Objective and in-depth investigative reporting that initiates social change
- Dean of the School of Communication and Design at Sun Yat-sen University
- Recipient of the 2014 Ramon Magsaysay Award
Hu Shuli is famed as “the most dangerous woman in China” according to Bloomberg Bussinessweek while The Washington Post described her as China’s “avenging angel”. One of her colleagues, upon meeting her for the first time, equated her to “a female Godfather”. This 1.58-meter-tall, now 61-year-old, woman has the power to move industries, even influence government policies, but she is no crime boss of the Chinese underground nor a female vigilante in disguise. She has, in fact, achieved her power with excellent journalism in one of the world’s largest and fastest-evolving economies.
Founder and former editor-in-chief of Caijing, a bi-weekly business and finance magazine branded as “independent, original, and unique”, Hu is a muckraker who sent tremors through the exchange industry. Her exposure of the unfair trading practices by over 20 companies in 2000 ultimately led to the implementation of a series of new regulations and a more transparent industry. Caijing soon took off as one of the few credible media sources in the country. Hu’s reporting only became bolder.
Hu also stepped outside the world of business into the sphere of public affairs. During the SARS breakout in 2003, Hu ran a series of stories on the fights against the epidemic, discussing local government’s incompetence and the flawed national disease control system. During the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Caijing focused on the schoolchildren who became victims of the poorly built school buildings as much as the earthquake itself, criticizing the malpractice of the local authorities.
“If it’s not absolutely forbidden, we do it,” Hu said. In China’s unique journalism environment, such statements are adventurous to say the least. But Hu has almost always kept her magazine away from criticism from above by demonstrating that her intentions are to help with social reform. But in 2009, tension grew in Caijing’s parent company, SEEC Media Group, when Hu insisted on continuing with her bold reporting style. They demanded all articles be approved by the group before publishing, and a number of her themes were deemed too sensitive to cover.
“With these critical reports, we’ve also had tremendous stress, including that from certain interest groups, but I feel that it is the media’s right to criticize, and the public’s right to know is greater than any interest groups’ self-proclaimed ‘historical duties’.” Hu wrote in her article “Undecided Vision”, one month before she resigned from Caijing in October 2009, “For the future, I hope we, the media, can have more freedom…and carry out our duties with ease.”
But that was hardly the last of Hu. She speedily started a new magazine, Caixin Century Weekly, taking the editorial team who quit with her in an act of defiance. “It’s lucky to be a journalist in China”, said Hu this August after just being handed over the 2014 Ramon Magsaysay Award, dubbed “Asia’s Noble Prize”, by the Philippines’ president, Benigno Aquino III, adding, “With endless news material and the prospect of really making a difference.” – LIU JUE (刘珏)
JACK MA 马云: ALIBABA’S BIGGEST GUN
Name: Jack Ma
Affiliations: Alibaba, Tmall, Taobao, Alipay, The Nature Conservancy
Known for: Founding the largest online store in the world, philanthropy, officiating mass weddings
Education: BA in English, Hangzhou Teaching Institute
- Founded Alibaba
- Successful IPO of Alibaba
- China’s richest man
- One of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world
Barely five foot tall, with a soft whispering voice and almost chinless to boot, Jack Ma seems to come ready formed as a caricature. Yet, as far as we know at least, the elfish Ma is the richest man in China. Due to his founding of one of the world’s largest internet trading companies, Alibaba, his net worth is a staggering 19.5 billion USD according to the China Rich List from Forbes, which isn’t bad going for an English teacher from Hangzhou. Time magazine has listed him as one of the world’s 100 most influential people, and like many a billionaire, he has graced the cover of Forbes magazine. Today Ma is big news, and there isn’t a major magazine or newspaper in the world that hasn’t profiled the diminutive tycoon.
Alibaba is huge, encompassing a wealth of Chinese online platforms including Taobao, Tmall, and Alipay. The Alibaba IPO in September 2014 attested to the company’s success when it became, not simply the biggest IPO of the year, but the biggest in history—the company valued at an eye-watering 230 billion USD. Most analysts had assumed it was worth half that, but like many before them, they had underestimated Jack Ma, and with China’s e-commerce growing fast, Ma is likely to get a lot richer in the near future.
Ma was one of the Internet’s early adopters. The story goes that he typed “China” and “Beer” into an Internet search engine and received so few hits that he was determined to set up a listings for all things Chinese. Just four years later, he was taking his first tenuous steps with Alibaba, with no equipment other than a battered, old desktop computer.
Where many choose titans of industry or ground-breaking politicians as their inspiration, Ma instead goes for the fictional: Forrest Gump. He clearly sees something of himself in the small town character made-good. Shortly before the Alibaba IPO, he told CNBC: “I watched the movie [Forrest Gump] again before I came here. It’s telling me, ‘whatever changes, you are you.’” Time and time again old friends and former colleagues attest to how little Ma has changed—it’s almost like he wants to be frozen in time.
Alibaba, in part at least, got where it is today due to Ma’s aggressive stewardship and ruthless decision making. Despite his charismatic approach and down-to-earth feel, he has a tough side too and is known for making aggressive business decisions. When Alibaba first started, it was Ebay’s China division that held all the chips in the Chinese market, but Ma gambled that Chinese consumers would prefer a platform that charged no fees and stuck with the idea despite the company hemorrhaging cash. It seemed a crazy move at the time, but Ma won out. Ebay’s China division no longer exists. And like many a rich man, he appears to have completely bought into the just world fallacy, reportedly saying: “If you are poor at 35, you deserve it,” which rather writes off a lot of humanity when you think about it.
What’s next for Ma is unclear, but aged 50 and with oodles of cash at his disposal, he can seemingly do anything he likes, and whatever it is, the great and the good will be keeping a close eye on the little guy that made it big. – CARLOS OTTERY
Stay tuned for profiles on Wu Changhua, Wang Jianlin, Chen Guangbiao, and Yuan Longping.