Few better witnessed and embodied the ups and downs of modern China than Rong. Born into a privileged family, he handed over a large part of his family's assets to the state after the 1949 revolution and lost the rest during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, before finally rising to billionaire status by leveraging the country's economic reforms.
Rong was officially praised in the state media obituary as an "outstanding representative of the national industrial and commercial circle in modern China and a superb state leader and a great fighter for patriotism and communism." Indeed, the eulogy reflects the skills and wisdom with which Rong survived and influenced the unique Chinese political and economic system.
Born to a wealthy family in Wuxi, a city near Shanghai, in 1916, Rong began to help manage the family's flour and textile mills and banking companies in the late 1930s, after graduating from Christian-run St. John's University, at the time China's most prestigious college.
When the Communist Party came to power in 1949, Rong chose to stay in China, ceding much of his fortune to the communists and thus establishing himself as a "national" or "patriotic" capitalist who remained to help China end its poverty. In the first years after the revolution, Rong served in a number of important positions, including vice-mayor of Shanghai and vice-minister of the textile industry, among other advisory posts in the government.
Like most Chinese with privileged backgrounds, he was not spared during the Cultural Revolution and his home was ransacked, his art collections looted and his businesses confiscated. However, his political ties with top officials and cautious positioning during the turbulent years spared him from further harassment.
After the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping, China's top leader at the time, rehabilitated Rong as an advisor on the reforms the government initiated in the late 1970s. Deng called Rong his "red capitalist."
Rong founded the China International Trust and Investment Company (CITIC), which became one of the main investment arms of the Chinese government, with businesses at home and abroad ranging from banks to manufacturing facilities. He later held a series of prestigious positions in the government before he was named vice-president in 1993, becoming China's highest-ranking non-Communist official. He remained in that position until 1998.
In 2000, Forbes ranked Rong as China's richest businessman, with a net worth set at US$1.9 billion.
Rong is survived by his son Larry Yung (also known as Rong Zhijian), who heads CITIC Pacific, the Hong Kong-listed arm of CITIC.