Tuesday, September 20, 2016

CHINA STILL IN THE RED




                           (first published in CHINA-US FOCUS, September 13, 2016)

BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM

Wang Jianlin is a capitalist on the go: a billionaire on a billion-dollar buying spree, a dreamer tilting at the Disney windmill, a sought-after speaker at Harvard and Oxford. He just published “The Wanda Way,” an inspirational book on how to manage money, and he just happens to be the richest man in China, the envy of a materialistic generation of Chinese strivers. Not bad for a high school dropout who to this day remains suspicious of book-learning. “I’ve never had full trust in books…”

Wang Jianlin came of age in Mao’s China, the influences of which still color his worldview. His somewhat jaundiced view of books and elite education echoes Chairman Mao who famously said, “to read too many books is harmful.” But Wang is also a product of Deng’s China, and he has taken to heart the maxim, “to get rich is glorious.” He scoffs at the idea he’s primarily in it for the money, though, what he really wants to do, after making a hundred billion or so, is to go into philanthropy.

His father, Wang Yiquan, a veteran of the fateful Long March, pulled strings to get his son in the army during the height of the Cultural Revolution. The discipline and loyalty inculcated during his 17-year tenure in the People’s Liberation Army are reflected in his business philosophy. “Don’t be independent, do what leadership wants.”

Listening to Wang’s speeches online, one gets treated to platitudes by the plateful, about hard work and the value of honesty, about the presence of opportunity in crisis and so on, but he also sees the world according to the kind of head-scratching dichotomies voiced by opinionated Beijing taxi drivers. “The US and UK are equal, because the US is bigger, but the UK is more free.”

Not a modest man by any measure, Wang has an easy avuncular style as a public speaker. When he starts crooning karaoke ballads, he is disarmingly corny, if not outright charming. Very much a product of his times in musical tastes, the 62 year old belts out epic communist ballads and treacly love songs, but also includes the faintly subversive genre of Cui Jian, Beijing’s original rock and roll star.

Wang is fit, but unprepossessing in appearance. Short and slight in stature,  woolly hairline receding gracefully, his YouTube videos show a tired but spirited-looking man oozing the kind of easy, flirtatious charm seen in karaoke parlors (of which he owns many) where age and looks matter less than the size of one’s wallet. Is it not more than idle fantasy that some women should be attracted to a man with billions in the bank, as he cries, microphone in hand, “please kiss my mouth,” emulating Cui Jian in the song “Fake Monk.”

Wang Jianlin’s intemperate attack on Disneyland earlier this year is out of key with the generally genial image he has cultivated in the media. There are all kinds of valid reasons why a Chinese observer might be less than enthusiastic about a magical commercial edifice where Mickey Mouse is king, guarded by a moat of rigorously-enforced intellectual copyright. But it comes off as hypocritical and self-serving for Wang, a direct economic competitor running blatantly derivative theme parks, to suggest that Disney shouldn’t operate in China because it’s “his” turf as it were.

Wang Jianlin tried to steal some of Disney’s fire by opening Wanda Park, a “patriotic” theme park predictably festooned with dragons, pagodas and other hastily built showcases of Chinese kitsch. The most surprising thing about the park is the location, inexplicably wedged in the third tier city of Nanchang, capital of Jiangxi Province. Surprising, until one recalls that this is close to the hills where the CCP established its legendary revolutionary base of Jinggangshan. What better place to take aim and attack Disney’s “occupation” of foreign-bedeviled Shanghai than a hallowed red redoubt?

Wang Jianlin’s indignant critique of Disney building a park in Shanghai may at first glance resemble a Red Guard waving the little red book, but he is also offering a blunt assessment of a competitor he wants to beat, and believes he can beat, if only because he is sure he has the party on his side, and Disney CEO Robert Iger does not. Wang’s self-professed business model is big on real estate, acquisitions and sucking up to power, while being low on intellectual originality and dismissive of copyright. By his own book, he, personally, wouldn’t have built a Disney in Shanghai. While it is very much in keeping with the man’s Napoleonic style to hear him scoff at one of the world’s most iconic franchises as a poorly-located “outdoor park,” he is absolutely right about the Shanghai weather; it is rather hot and humid in the summer, and often quite chilly and overcast in the winter.

But does the real estate magnate really think that Disney was so foreign to China as to not take this into account? Indeed, Disney seems to unnerve him beyond reason in a way that stimulates his pique as an investor. Is it mere coincidence that Wang Jianlin now plans to build a billion dollar “Europa City” park a short distance away from Disneyland Paris? The weather there is no better than Shanghai, so what’s up? Is he so eager to go head-to-head with self-described archrival Disney that he has let the thrill of the chase and whiff of conquest cloud his meteorological judgment?

Chairman Wang’s larger-than-life persona is a hybrid of the two biggest head honchos of his lifetime. Like Deng Xiaoping, Wang is a diminutive man from the big province of Sichuan, a soldier at heart, capable of discipline and self-restraint. He knows when to keep his head low and when to bide his time. But he’s also a powerful chairman in a country where the word chairman brings to mind a man named Mao. Wang’s apparently indestructible ego and grandiose ambitions echo the audacious Mao Zedong. To date, he has steered clear of third rail of politics, seemingly content to make money and influence people in the economic realm.

Wang Jianlin developed his Wanda business empire under the auspices of Bo Xilai, then Dalian mayor, now a disgraced jailbird, so he knows a thing or two about how fierce intra-party struggles can be. The way he came out swinging at Disney suggests an eagerness to seek favor with the orthodox wing of the communist party. To date, Wang has taken great pains to show support for, and to unctuously avoid offending, China’s current penultimate leader, Xi Jinping. Is his flurry of billion dollar acquisitions, aggressive pursuit of market domination and lavish media bling a kind of convoluted tribute to Xi, or his he stepping out as a contender, signaling that his own time has come?