Zhang Yin: The world's richest self-made woman

Zhang Yin, the 49-year-old founder of paper recycler Nine Dragons, has just emerged not only as the richest entrepreneur in China, but also as the wealthiest self-made woman in the world.

"Make way for the Big Momma of the Billionaires' Club," says the Daily Express. The Big Momma in question is Zhang Yin, a 49-year-old paper recycler who has just emerged not only as the richest entrepreneur in China, but also as the wealthiest self-made woman in the world. According to the Hurun Report rich list, Zhang, despite being almost unknown in the wider world, has suddenly arrived at the top of the list with a net worth of $3.4bn. Many of China's new entrepreneurs keep a low profile, but Zhang is in a class of her own when it comes to elusiveness. "Even her name is the subject of some contention" she's known to many as Cheung Yan. Short-haired, simply dressed and slightly stocky, she was ranked 36th on last year's list, with her leap in fortune being down to the public listing of her firm, Nine Dragons Paper, in Hong Kong in March.

Zhang, who continues to hold a 72% stake, had some powerful champions who helped put her on the map, notes the FT. Three of Asia's most influential businessmen, Cheng Yu-tung, Robert Kuok and Lee Shau-kee, snapped up some $20m worth of shares, leading to a stampede of interest in Nine Dragons: the shares have since rocketed by 165%.

The oldest of eight children, Zhang was born into a military family in the north eastern province of Heilongjiang in 1957, and still has a heavy regional accent. Being in the military carried some perks, but life was still tough in the grinding years that followed the rise to power of Mao Tse-tung. "In those days, we only had meat to eat on holidays," Zhang revealed in a rare interview. "But the lack of material things made me appreciate the value of possessions. My parents always encouraged us to face life and solve our problems independently." 

The introduction of more liberal economic policies in 1985 encouraged Zhang to start her first waste-paper business with less than 30,000 yuan (around £2,500) in savings. It wasn't easy. She "endured financial hardship, cheating business partners and intimidation from local mobsters", says The Daily Telegraph. But the timing was good. China's embryonic economy was booming and, within six years, Zhang had "substantial capital".

In 1990, Zhang moved to Los Angeles with her husband, Lai Ming-chung, and created America Chung Nam now the leading exporter of paper in the US with the aim of recycling waste into packaging for the Chinese consumer-goods sector. In 1996, Zhang returned home in triumph to set up a mill in the booming Pearl River Delta, which she named Nine Dragons. She has never looked back. The company is China's largest manufacturer of containerboard and is used by scores of brands, including Coca-Cola and Sony; over the past year, net profits have quadrupled.

The secret of her success, she says, is the ability to look ahead. "Forecasting the market ahead of our competitors is what made us into the market leader." But not all Zhang's calls are obviously wise, says The South China Morning Post. Her decision to name her 24-year-old student son, Lau Chun-shun, as the company's sole non-executive director, has raised eyebrows. She says that her "nurturing and influence" means that the boy's "character and integrity will be the company's future asset". Others aren't so sure, but most nonetheless are cheered to see that even China's iron lady of paper is capable of human weakness.

Zhang's meteoric rise a breakthrough for China's women?

Zhang saw off some formidable heavyweights to claim the title of China's wealthiest entrepreneur, including last year's leader, Huang Guangyu, founder of electronics retailer Gome, and Larry Yung, head of conglomerate Citic Pacific, who topped Forbes's last list. Her accomplishment is rightly hailed as a breakthrough for women in China, says The Daily Telegraph. Despite Chairman Mao's famous line that "women hold up half the sky", Chinese society and politics remain dominated by men and there are only 35 women on the Chinese 500 richest list.

Zhang's meteoric rise is all the more impressive given her peers "have not exactly been standing still", observes Chinadaily.com. "The rich in China are getting richer, faster", says Rupert Hoogewerf, the British publisher of the Hurun Report. "Eight years ago we only ranked 50 individuals with a cut-off point of $6m". This year, there are 15 billionaires on this list, up from seven in 2005. He compares China's current economic landscape to periods in developed countries when economies were exploited by "smart, ruthless and fast-moving" entrepreneurs. But it remains open to question how long the Chinese government will allow this status quo to continue unchecked, says The Times. Last week, state TV devoted half the evening news to President Hu's call for a more "harmonious society". The government is agitated by "growing unrest" at yawning income disparities and has vowed to narrow the gap. The arrest last year of investment tycoon Zhang Rongkun, for his suspected involvement in a pension-fund scandal, may be seen by some as a worrying harbinger of crackdowns to come.

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