China needs to learn to let go

EDITOR'S BLOG: Another Chinese billionaire has gone missing, but the politburo can't control capitalism's animal spirits.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 22 Jan 2016

Russia’s super-rich have known for a while that cutting a deal with Putin is a sine qua non of staying out of Siberia or an adverse encounter with Polonium. In China they are learning the perils associated with vast wealth the hard way

Being a Chinese billionaire used to be so simple. You seized your opportunity. You worked hard. You made your massive pile. You bought yourself a twelve bedroomed mansion in London and a clutch of new-build Thameside apartments, a yacht at least 100 feet in length and a hundred thousand dollar watch plus a vicuna overcoat for each day of the week. You invited Tamara Ecclestone around for cocktails at Christmas. Life was sweet.

Now to that list, it would seem, you have to add the peril of being hauled in by the Communist party apparatus to ‘assist with their enquiries’ once in a while. You’ll be whisked off in the middle of the night and nobody will be clear quite where you are. Your family might or might not receive a fax assuring them you’re fine after four or five days.

The latest megarich operator to be taken from his bed is Zhou Chengjian of one of China's biggest fashion chains, Metersbonwe. Metersbonwe was forced to suspend trading in its shares over his unaccounted absence. Zhou Chengjian has been named as the country's 62nd richest person by wealth publisher Hurun, which says he’s worth a cool $4.1 bn.

He started out as a tailor and built his Shanghai-based operation into one of China's biggest and best-known clothing companies. Such is his love of the rural life he built a peasant-style vegetable garden in the grounds of the company HQ which his dear old dad tends to. All a bit Marie Antoniette, you may think.

They learned a lot from Stalin in Beijing. A knowledge of how to use fear is vital when retaining absolute, unquestioned power. Except that when it comes to controlling markets, especially stock markets, the politburo has come up pretty short in the first few days of this year. Although closely controlled, the paradox is that the Chinese market is utterly unruly. The animal spirits of capitalism see to that. But the government is effectively saying what the value of companies should be.

Authoritarian regimes dislike volatility intensely. It makes them look foolish and out of control. They like things predictable with no surprises. That’s why democracy doesn’t appeal to them but fixed five-year plans do. This is the latest of China’s growing pains. It’s in all our interests that they get over them. Teenage sniffles give us all bad colds.

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