Interviews | Politics | East Asia

Zhang Jian Vs. Jack Ma: CCP Capitalism

Insights from Elisabeth Köll.

Mercy A. Kuo
Zhang Jian Vs. Jack Ma: CCP Capitalism
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into Asia affairs.  This conversation with Dr. Elisabeth Köll – professor, department chair, and William Payden collegiate chair in the History Department at Notre Dame University and author of numerous publications, including “Railroads and the Transformation of China” (Harvard University Press 2019) – discusses the historical figure of Zhang Jian and his relevance in modern-day Chinese government messaging.

Briefly explain the historical and political symbolism of Zhang Jian.

When President Xi Jinping visited Nantong in November 2020, he praised the entrepreneur Zhang Jian (1853-1926) whose business conglomerate and cultural patronage had dominated the city and regional economy in the early 20th century. Zhang’s fame rests on his entrepreneurial success as the founder of China’s first large-scale industrial company with private investment in 1895, which in 1905 became one of the earliest companies legally registered with limited liability status. His numerous charities, ranging from schools, libraries, orphanages, a workhouse for the poor to electric streetlights and China’s first Western-style museum in Nantong city, helped to manifest his reputation as a patriotic entrepreneur and enlightened philanthropist among the Chinese elites and the foreign community in Shanghai at the time. Dasheng, Zhang’s textile mills, survived the Japanese occupation and civil war and were finally turned into a state-owned enterprise by the PRC government in 1953.

How is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) using Zhang Jian for political messaging for a domestic audience? 

During the Cultural Revolution, ideological propaganda vilified Zhang Jian as class enemy and ruthless capitalist exploiting workers in his factories. This characterization changed in the 1980s when the first economic reforms and the government’s focus on the promotion of local enterprise initiatives led to Zhang being praised for his contributions to China’s economic independence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When industrialization and economic modernization became core issues of China’s economic reforms in the 1990s, Zhang’s private entrepreneurship and Dasheng’s success as a company were celebrated by the local and national governments as an example of China’s early achievements in economic development, industrialization, and modernization.

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As the CCP championed efforts for indigenous development, Zhang was eulogized as the founder of modern Chinese industry. At the time, anyone walking into a Xinhua bookstore would have found a number of hagiographic biographies of Zhang Jian on the shelf. Because Zhang had pursued a distinguished career as a scholar and government official before becoming an entrepreneur, he produced a large body of work discussing the state of China’s challenging political and economic situation in the late 19th century. His ideas concerning economic development were informed by the competition with Japan as a rising industrial power and increasing Western economic imperialism. In his opinion, China needed to catch up in order to save the country’s economic, and by default, socio-political stability. This narrative allowed the CCP to frame Zhang Jian’s legacy as that of a patriotic “reformer” and successful, private entrepreneur oriented towards the common good of society and state.

Compare and contrast the CCP’s portrayal of Zhang Jian and Jack Ma as models of CCP-led capitalism.

Invoking Zhang Jian as a role model for Chinese entrepreneurs fits the current government’s desire to promote the development of China’s private business while at the same time trying to strengthen its control over the private sector. We need to remember that Zhang was not a rags-to-riches self-made businessman, but an official who had passed the highest degree in the imperial exams. When the late Qing government decided to “invite” officials to start industrial enterprises, Zhang volunteered to found and manage a cotton spinning mill. The government supported his efforts by creating a monopoly for his enterprise which kept competitor mills out of the area and allowed him to develop a sprawling business conglomerate including land reclamation, shipping, and manufacturing.

Jack Ma did not train as a scholar nor did he ever work in government, so these two entrepreneurial figures have different career trajectories. However, if Zhang Jian is the first and most prominent industrialist of the late Qing period, then Jack Ma is certainly the most prominent and charismatic entrepreneur whose successful technology conglomerate has a strong global footprint. I think that both entrepreneurs share recognition and admiration by foreigners as Zhang was praised by the foreign community in Shanghai and China in the early 20th century, while Ma is considered a rock star in the global business community. In addition, both entrepreneurs were and are engaged heavily in philanthropic activities. While Zhang’s philanthropic influence was focused on the development of Nantong and the northern Jiangsu region, Ma has created a bold and visionary program through his own foundation supporting domestic and global causes far beyond the Hangzhou company headquarters.

What is the CCP’s propaganda message of Zhang Jian to the global business community doing business in China?  

Zhang Jian is hardly a household name outside of China. I think that the CCP’s praise for Zhang is primarily geared toward the domestic audience. The strong endorsement of a Chinese entrepreneur who contributed to economic modernization and social stability through his charitable projects underlines the CCP’s current push for patriotic education and the expectation that social responsibility benefiting society ultimately enhances political stability. For the global business community, the Party’s emphasis on indigenous Chinese entrepreneurship stretching from Zhang Jian to the present signals China’s confidence and desire to further grow its globally competitive economy through creative entrepreneurship that relies on and succeeds with domestic talent.

Assess how the “spirit of Zhang Jian” fuels Chinese nationalism and China’s economic independence.

Zhang Jian is a perfect role model for government-sponsored national pride in terms of his engagement with business, education, social welfare, and cultural projects. On the one hand, he was an innovator introducing large-scale industrial manufacturing to a rural labor force; he founded China’s first modern museum, educational institutions, and extended his cultural patronage to Nantong. On the other hand, he used all these different projects and related networks to benefit each other, but ultimately also himself and the business, which was headquartered in Shanghai. He knew how to negotiate with local and regional political forces and never ran into trouble with the central government, which was very weak during the early Republic. Zhang carved out his sphere of influence in Nantong and in his role as entrepreneur kept out of politics.

In terms of Chinese nationalism, Zhang played an important role in introducing industrial production at a large and successful scale to a rural hinterland. He managed to build a business that showed neither a total acceptance of the Western corporate model nor the continuation of a distinctly Chinese business form in the early 20th century. Zhang was a first-generation entrepreneur and industrialist who combined autocratic and authoritarian leadership with patronage. His self-styled patriotic image easily supports a nationalist vision that presents him as a role model promoting China’s economic independence in tandem with political autonomy – and an entrepreneur whose profits do not represent a threat to the spirit of Chinese socialism.