Business and politics aren’t mixing well for China’s billionaire entrepreneurs turned civil activists

Protesters at the trial of Chinese activist Xu Zhiyong.
Protesters at the trial of Chinese activist Xu Zhiyong.
Image: Reuters/Kim Kyung Hoon
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Wang Gongquan, a financial backer of a Chinese activist movement against government corruption, was released from jail after making a confession (paywall) that he had “organized and incited criminal activities… to disrupt order in public space,” according to state media. Wang’s so-called confession—Chinese officials have been known to write confessions for detainees and coerce detainees into accepting them—underlines a debate about how involved public business figures should get in politics and social issues.

Wang, a billionaire entrepreneur who made his fortune in real estate, is part of a small but growing group of wealthy Chinese entrepreneurs whose large public following and business success make them a potent force over public opinion—as well as a target of officials. The group includes those like Charles Xue, a billionaire Chinese-American venture capitalist and Wang Shi, chairman of China’s largest residential real estate developer China Vanke, who said recently that entrepreneurs won’t avoid trouble by staying silent (paywall). Other outspoken business figures like Pan Shiyi, chairman of Soho China and a friend of Wang’s, as well as Kaifu Lee, former president of Google China, have spoken out about things like pollution, the need for greater rule of law, and internet freedom.

But as officials have started to come down on these vocal entrepreneurs, a phrase that could translate as “If you’re in business, then speak business,” or zai shang shang yan (在商言商) has begun cropping up with frequency. Wang’s detainment and confession follows that of Xue who admitted in October that his online following had fueled his vanity (paywall) and caused him to overlook his social responsibility as a public figure. Wang’s confession also coincides with the trial of activist Xu Zhiyong of the New Citizens Movement, which has campaigned for officials to disclose their assets and are almost certain to be found guilty.

In response to Wang’s confession, internet users posted comments (registration required) from earlier this month by a former colleague of Wang’s, Feng Lun, now chairman of the Beijing real estate firm Vantone Industrial Company. “I don’t support businessmen doing anything outside of being businessmen. Entrepreneurs should not be kidnapped by public intellectualism,”Feng told Economic Weekly on Jan. 15. Another blogger responded, “What businessman isn’t involved in politics today? Today’s entrepreneurs have power and should be using the opportunity to speak the truth…and to eliminate the fear of speaking about politics.”

As Wang said in an interview in July, months before he was detained, there’s an inevitable link between politics and business in China where deals often need the approval of various local government ministries or officials. Wang said,”The government’s philosophy and means of managing the economy means business and the government are closely related in many ways…Keeping business as just business in China is only a dream.”