All eyes are on China’s human rights issues again yesterday when Xu Zhiyong, the founder of a New Citizens’ Movement that aims at promoting civil society and rule of law in China, went on trial in Beijing. At the same time, Wang Gongquan, billionaire entrepreneur who has been a main leader and the financial backer of the movement, was released on bail after making “confessions” that he and Xu “had organized and incited criminal activities to assemble a crowd to disrupt order in public space.”
Many insisted that Wang didn’t actually confess, and it was only a trick by the government to crash the image of an “iconic liberal activist.” Some others thought there was nothing wrong to confess to protect oneself. The most interesting conversation of all is one on the social responsibilities of businessmen in China.
Ever since the arrest of Wang in September, 2013, there have been discussions of whether businessmen in China should meddle with politics at all. On one hand, money and power always go hand in hand in China, especially in the real estate industry where Wang made his fortunes. On the other, the old Chinese saying that “businessmen speak only about business (在商言商)” is still held very dearly by many.
Wang Shi, one of China’s best known real estate tycoon, once urged his fellow businessmen and entrepreneurs to “break silence” because “no one is safe under the current political environment in China.” In a sense, he is right.
In 2013 alone, we’ve seen the hasty execution of one Hunan developer whose assets were sold off at cheap prices by local government. We’ve also seen the arrest and detention of prominent angel investor Charles Xu for online rumor mongering. And then the arrest of Wang Gongquan. The rich and resourceful in China don’t have much power…unless they are also one of the political elites.
For the exact same reason, however, many more Chinese businessmen choose to keep stronger silence. Liu Chuanzhi, the founder of Lenovo, said last summer: “From now on, we businessmen should keep it simple – business is business, and no politics. Our primary responsibility under the current political and economic environment in China is to do good business.” Jack Ma, the founder of China’s ecommerce giant Alibaba, once suggested: “No matter where you are, the government will be the same. Love the government, but don’t marry it or do business with it.” He though that it’d be very dangerous for businessmen to worry about politics, and for politicians to worry about businesses.
Feng Lun, another real estate tycoon, thus explained why he never talked about Wang Gongquan’s case: “I don’t approve of businessmen doing non-business stuff. As entrepreneurs, our core responsibility is to run our businesses, which, in itself, is a good thing for social improvement. It’s far better than shouting a few slogans like a liberal intellectual. It’s also wrong for the media and the liberals to force businessmen into going after ‘the truth.’ Businessmen should only go after capital.”
Wang Guanquan once said he missed a lot of opportunities because he refused to follow the stream. In China, business is business only when one chooses to be part of the corruption or at least keeps a blind eye. Business is never business in China.