US-China tech war: who is the ‘virtuous’ man Xi Jinping says is a model for other businesspeople?

Josephine Ma
·3-min read

Chinese President Xi Jinping has invoked a Qing dynasty (1644-1911) industrialist as an example for the country’s entrepreneurs to follow as the Communist Party tries to harness the private sector to spur national development.

It also comes after the Chinese leader highlighted the need for entrepreneurs to be loyal to the party.

On a trip to a Nantong in the eastern province of Jiangsu on Thursday afternoon, Xi described the late entrepreneur Zhang Jian – also known as Chang Chien – as a model for others, according to state news agency Xinhua.

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“He was a virtuous man from a previous era and a model for Chinese entrepreneurs,” Xinhua quoted Xi as saying.

He made the comments at Nantong Museum, which Zhang founded in 1905.

Zhang founded some of China’s earliest light industries including a cotton mill and a conglomerate to develop the port of Nantong and was briefly a commerce minister in the early days of the Republic of China. He was best known for promoting the idea that businesses could be used to save the country.

Xi called for Chinese entrepreneurs to learn from the way Zhang helped the nation through his businesses and education and social welfare institutes, Xinhua reported.

He said the museum, one of the oldest in the country, should become a centre for patriotic education, especially to strengthen confidence among young people in China’s socialist system, values and culture.

Zhang Jian was born in 1853 and died in 1926. Photo: Handout
Zhang Jian was born in 1853 and died in 1926. Photo: Handout

The public activities of state leaders are often choreographed to send a political message to the public. Xi’s trip comes as the party aims to accelerate hi-tech development and sustain economic growth amid a trade and technology war with the United States, while at the same time trying to extend its influence over businesspeople.

It also comes about a month after China rolled out its five-year plan, which covers the period from 2021 until 2025, and a blueprint to become a leading economic and tech power by 2035.

In a conference in mid-September, Xi highlighted the importance of entrepreneurs to be loyal to the party.

He ordered the United Front Work Department – the division responsible for projecting the party’s influence at home and abroad – and state-backed industry federations to unite the private sector around the party and rally them to make contributions to the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.

But Xi’s remarks on Thursday also follow the purging of some of the country’s biggest businesspeople, most recently Sun Dawu, who owned an agricultural conglomerate based in the northern province of Hebei.

Sun was detained by authorities after allegedly “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” in relation to a land dispute with a state-run farm.

Zhang, who died in 1926, founded several institutes of higher learning, including Fudan University in Shanghai and Nantong University.

The party touted him as a symbol of how entrepreneurs helped the country industrialise.

According to state media, late leader Mao Zedong said: “We cannot forget [the achievement of] Zhang Jian from Haimen [in Nantong] when we talk about the development of light industry.”

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