BEIJING // Zhou Qunfei’s childhood was scarred in many ways; her father was blinded in an accident before she was born in China’s Hunan province in 1970, she lost her mother when she was five years old and the end to her schooling came at 15.
But she rose from a factory worker to an entrepreneur and maker of glass screens used by Apple and Samsung. This month, Forbes magazine listed Ms Zhou, with a net worth of US$5.9 billion (Dh21.67bn), among the top 10 newcomers to join its list of 198 new billionaires in 2016.
China’s estimated population of 30 million women entrepreneurs has many heroines like Zhou Qunfei. They include Wang Fengying, the president of the major car maker Great Wall Motor and Dong Mingzhu, the head of the board of Gree Electric Appliances of Zhuhai, world’s largest air conditioner enterprise.
Women do much better in business than they do in politics or in the legal field in China. An estimated one-third of business personnel are women while the fairer gender accounts for less than one-fifth of people in active politics. Analysts cite several reasons for this dichotomy, one of which is the fact that the language best understood in business is money.
“Unlike in politics, there is better representation [in Chinese business], and women are able to operate on a more level playing field. There are less cultural prejudices and signs of Confucian patriarchy against women,” says Kerry Brown, the executive director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.
Chinese businesswomen come from diverse backgrounds. One category is the self-made business achiever, who often presents rags-to-riches stories. Another segment comprise daughters and granddaughters of politicians and senior officials, who use the advantages of financial security, better education and family contacts to venture into business. The third, and widely prevalent group, comprises inheritors – the scions of wealthy families and wives of successful businessmen.
But an emerging group is of internet-driven female entrepreneurs who have “built” millions of shops in the virtual world using online shopping platforms such as Taobao and jd.com.
A major proportion of wealthy Chinese women have emerged from the property sector, which boomed for decades as the country raced to urbanise 55 per cent of its vast land area. Although the property business has slowed recently, both because of the ongoing economic slowdown and the government’s efforts to cool down runway pricing, the sector continues to produce billionaires.
Three of the top five in a 2015 Forbes list of wealthy Chinese women represent the real estate sector. Leading the list is Chan Laiwa, whose Fu Wah International Group is a major property investor in Beijing. The company joined Beijing Construction Engineering to enter into an agreement on the expansion of Wellington International Airport in New Zealand in September last year.
Ms Zhou, the touchscreen queen, took the second place while the third went to Yang Huiyan, who holds a majority shareholding in Country Garden. Country Garden is the mainland’s sixth-biggest property developer in terms of sales and has a market capitalisation of US$61.87 billion.
Ms Yang became the mainland’s richest person at age 25 when her father Yang Guoqiang, who founded the firm, transferred 70 per cent of his holdings to her in 2007 just before taking his firm public in Hong Kong. Her company is currently building a $36bn residential development on four man-made islands near the border of Malaysia and Singapore.
The fourth place went to Wu Yajun and her family. Ms Wu made the not insignificant transition from journalist to a property builder and she co-founded property Longfor with her husband Cai Kui. They divorced in 2012 and he is also a billionaire. The company has developed properties across 21 cities in China since 1993.
He Qiaonv, who heads Beijing Orient Landscape, came fifth in the list. The landscape architecture firm obtained deals worth some $780 million in Wuhan in September last year.
Most analysts agree there is something in the present-day business climate in China that is more empowering for female entrepreneurs than in many other countries, with China especially rich in first-generation and entirely self-made businesswomen.
Hurun Institute, a Shanghai wealth research firm, recently found that China was leading the world in this respect by a huge margin; some 93 out of 124 self-made female billionaires in the world come from China, according to its recent Hurun Global Rich List.
“China is the best place in the world for women to do business. The country is full of women entrepreneurs who have built their business from scratch without a father or a husband to offer support,” says Rupert Hoogewerf, the head of Hurun Institute, which regularly produces ranking of wealthy men and women.
The huge crop of female entrepreneurs currently presents an encouraging scenario in a country where many women had traditionally lived with bound feet that was an extreme example of total male dominance within the household until less than a century back.
Analysts cite several reasons for this. One is the tremendous boom in entrepreneurship generally that China has seen since the late 1980s before it came to be regarded as the “factory to the world”.
The Communist Party did not encourage much private business until the country went through economic reforms. Thus, there were fewer long-established business families in China as compared to many other parts of the world, allowing new entrepreneurs to emerge without being steamrollered by powerful business dynasties. The boom made it possible for people of both genders to enter the business world.
In most Asian families, the daughter plays the second fiddle to the male offspring, and is often deprived of the best opportunities for nutrition and education. This did not apply to Chinese families in the past three decades as the government ruled that every family have just one child. Despite the preference for male children, the daughters who survived received all the opportunities available for education and growth as the single child in each family.
Analysts say women in China have a psychological advantage because they are not as stuck to the idea of “face” – what others think of them – and social standing as the menfolk. This makes them more flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances in business, says Mr Hoogewerf.
Some argue that being born into a business family does not necessarily give a female entrepreneur any significant advantage over those who have neither funds nor a network of daddy’s friends to fall back on.
“Although women from business families may get to know the business world earlier than others, it does not guarantee their entry into it. Many of them simply like to enjoy the benefits of living in a rich family,” says Ren Run, an associate professor of organisational management at the Peking University’s Guanghua School of Business.
All the same, women entrepreneurs do face some daunting hurdles.
“Women face more challenges doing business. They are still regarded as the family’s main caretaker. There is no specific policy from government or banks that favour women entrepreneurs,” says Ms Ren.
Liu Ming Ming, the president and chief executive of Voith Paper Asia, had her share of difficulties when she decided to move to Germany at the age of 39. Europe would be unwelcoming, her peers argued. But Ms Liu went ahead and eventually made her way on to the company’s board. Her next battle was to persuade the German company to invest in China, and she managed to overcome initial resistance to bring about that change.
“Ms Liu has a remarkable blend of both masculine and feminine leadership qualities,” writes Jean Lee, an expert at the China Europe International Business School, and Enoch Li, a business consultant, in a recent joint report.
They say such characteristics can help women managers and business owners because modern organisations encourage “an androgynous blend of masculine and feminine behaviours among managers”.
“This shift towards androgyny also allows women to better cope with the challenges of the ‘double bind paradox’: the conflicting expectations that women leaders should simultaneously behave in a masculine manner (for example, assertive and competitive) to fulfil the leadership role and in a feminine manner (compassionate and caring for instance) to fulfil the female gender role,” they say. This trend has made it possible for women to use both soft skills and assertiveness in their work, something many men in positions of authority struggle to understand, let alone deploy.
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