China's private entrepreneurs labelled 'unpatriotic' by netizens

Lianhe Zaobao correspondent Yang Danxu notes that the recent public outcry against the heads of two prominent private enterprises for apparent transgressions in the name of “patriotism” does not bode well for the authorities’ efforts in support of the private sector.
A man poses for a picture while visiting the Bund promenade along the Huangpu river in Shanghai, China, on 13 February 2024. (Hector Retamal/AFP)
A man poses for a picture while visiting the Bund promenade along the Huangpu river in Shanghai, China, on 13 February 2024. (Hector Retamal/AFP)

Chinese electric car giant BYD founder Wang Chuanfu has recently become yet another Chinese entrepreneur to come under the spotlight.

It started with a recent video released by Songsan Motors founder Zhang Xiaolei, accusing this Chinese new energy vehicle leader of having an extramarital affair which led to the birth of two illegitimate children who hold US citizenship.​​​​​​

Holding up his own identification card, Zhang asserted that Wang’s personal life was in a mess, and claimed that Wang, who has ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), owns several luxury properties in the US. Zhang added that Wang's illegitimate children were already involved in BYD’s business. Zhang urged officials to get to the bottom of the matter to prevent BYD’s data from falling into the hands of the US.

Songsan Motors founder Zhang Xiaolei (Screen grab from video)
Songsan Motors founder Zhang Xiaolei raised numerous accusations against BYD founder Wang Chuanfu. (Screen grab from video)

While BYD has yet to respond to these allegations, netizens are already engaging in intense debate. Some netizens believe that it is not easy for a private Chinese enterprise to grow and thrive and that there is no need to destroy the enterprise because of problems with the founder’s personal life that have yet to be verified. Besides, given the past business dispute that happened between both parties, are there ulterior motives for the exposé?

Now that Wang’s alleged illegitimate children are said to be naturalised US citizens and he is accused of possessing luxury properties in the US, if he does not manage to turn the tables, it will be difficult for him to get rid of the “unpatriotic” label.   

A tale of two entrepreneurs

On the other hand, some netizens supported Zhang and questioned Wang’s “patriotic” image. As Wang is not only a renowned entrepreneur and has held a number of official CCP posts, they believe that if there truly are problems with his private life, he is clearly not setting a good moral example.

While it is still uncertain if Zhang’s accusations against Wang are factually accurate or if Zhang had done so because of their grudges, Wang has already slipped into a “patriotism trap” amid the heated online debate.

Now that Wang’s alleged illegitimate children are said to be naturalised US citizens and he is accused of possessing luxury properties in the US, if he does not manage to turn the tables, it will be difficult for him to get rid of the “unpatriotic” label.   

Wang Chuanfu, founder and chairman of BYD Co., attends a news conference in Hong Kong, China, on 28 March 2018. (Billy H.C. Kwok/Bloomberg)
Wang Chuanfu, founder and chairman of BYD Co., attends a news conference in Hong Kong, China, on 28 March 2018. (Billy H.C. Kwok/Bloomberg)

At the same time, Nongfu Spring founder Zhong Shanshan has also come under the spotlight for similar reasons. In late February, following the passing of Zong Qinghou, China’s first-generation private entrepreneur and founder of beverage giant Wahaha Group, the history between Zhong and Zong was dug up by netizens, with Zhong being labelled as “ungrateful”. 

As a result, this low-profile entrepreneur who has always stayed away from politics was forced to step forward and clarify the situation. But even before the incident subsided, another arose, as netizens started targeting Zhong and Nongfu Spring’s national stance.

Zhong’s son was reported to hold a US citizenship and the packaging of Nongfu Spring’s bottled tea was also accused of being full of Japanese elements. Even the red bottle cap of the brand’s bottled water was dubiously said to represent the Japanese flag.

Some convenience stores even stopped selling Nongfu Spring products, because they “don’t sell products from companies that adulate Japan”.

In the name of patriotism

Immediately, there were online calls to boycott Nongfu Spring and to only drink Wahaha beverages. Some convenience stores even stopped selling Nongfu Spring products, because they “don’t sell products from companies that adulate Japan”. One can’t help but lament that it is often the case for Chinese consumers to boycott foreign brands, but this is the first time a domestic brand is boycotted.

Nongfu Spring founder Zhong Shanshan has recently come under fire in China. (China Daily)
Nongfu Spring founder Zhong Shanshan has recently come under fire in China. (China Daily)

This is the second private entrepreneur in a row that has gotten embroiled in a storm of public debate. Though the reasons and circumstances behind how both were criticised are not identical, there is a common trope tying them together — feelings of animosity against private entrepreneurs stirred by someone in the name of patriotism.

Such an atmosphere is closely linked to the changes both internally and externally to China’s environment over the past few years. Public opinion in China has become very fragmented in the last few years; due to the push from social media, Internet rage is easily stoked. On many issues, public opinion is split and contentious, forming a clear dichotomy of black and white, left and right.

... waving the banner of patriotism one can easily stir populism, bringing on a wave of mockery and attack against a stance that differs from one.

Patriotism as a tool

In the face of ever intensifying conflict between China and the West — especially the US — the officials have in recent years stepped up on encouraging and emphasising patriotism. On the one hand, such social sentiment would help to unite people in resistance against complex external pressures; but on the flip side, it has also provided fertile grounds for populism to grow. 

Under an environment of divided and contentious public opinion, there is a shrinking of space when it comes to public opinion leaning towards Western culture and values, and patriotism has become an even more convenient tool; waving the banner of patriotism one can easily stir populism, bringing on a wave of mockery and attack against a stance that differs from one. Moreover, spreading slanderous rumours and polarised behaviour is getting easier and more common by the day. 

This time around, it is private entrepreneurs that have become the target of animosity. This is extremely concerning, and runs counter to the authorities’ recent policy direction in advocating for support for private firms. 

People walk past plum blossoms in Nanjing, in China's eastern Jiangsu province on 19 February 2024. (AFP)
People walk past plum blossoms in Nanjing, in China's eastern Jiangsu province on 19 February 2024. (AFP)

With China’s economic recovery currently in a slump, and societal expectations in the doldrums, the officials desperately need to uplift confidence across all sectors. During the recent Two Sessions, CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping and Chinese Premier Li Qiang both sought to at different occasions rally confidence for private businesses, clearly expressing their support for spurring strong development for these private firms.

At the National People’s Congress, a law was announced to boost economic development for the private sector, and that laws to protect private enterprises will be strengthened. Also, both the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate have emphasised the continued enhancement of a law-based business climate to spur strong economic development for the private sector as well as the use of legal means to boost business development confidence as their annual work goals.

Effects of public opinion

But just as the authorities are showing signs of wanting to uplift confidence for the private enterprises, the atmosphere surrounding public opinion runs against this direction — private entrepreneurs have been branded as “unpatriotic”, and have to walk on thin ice amid a populist environment. One cannot help but lament; how then do private enterprises regain their confidence?

The officials likely do not take well to such public opinion and this manner of denigrating private entrepreneurs; after all, such attacks would impact businesses and mess with the grand policy direction of seeking to raise confidence in the private sector, and could even lead to social divide and cause inner conflict. 

But this is a thorny issue to tackle, as those on the offensive do so under the politically correct banner of patriotism. For the authorities, the issue of how to guide public opinion to prevent a mutation from patriotism to irrational populism is a tough question to handle in the light of the “patriotism trap” for private entrepreneurs.

This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “民营企业家的“爱国劫””.

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