Chinese female entrepreneurs are on top of the world. According to Hurun Report’s 2009 Rich List, five of the 10 most successful self-made female billionaires in the world hail from the Middle Kingdom, with their net worth rising 30% year-on-year.
The wealthiest woman in China (and the second-wealthiest person in China) is entrepreneur Zhang Yin, who made her fortune with Nine Dragons Paper, a company that buys scrap paper from the US and imports it into China. The so-called "Queen of Trash", whose assets are currently worth US$4.9 billion, outranked female moguls such as J.K. Rowling and Oprah Winfrey.
On the face of it, the phenomenon is puzzling. Although Mao Zedong coined the oft-repeated phrase "Women hold up half the sky," the truth is that China has had to run campaigns encouraging disappointed families to keep their girl babies. China has the world’s highest female suicide rate and is the only country in the world where more women kill themselves than men.
"The truth of the matter is that women here are not always regarded as important and men are given lots of opportunities and indulgences," said Carol Gaw, head of wealth management group SMP Partners’ Asian representative office.
Explanations for the puzzle vary. Yue Sai Kan, TV personality and founder of a cosmetic line which is wildly successful in China, attributes the disproportionate amount of Chinese women billionaires to the fact that nearly the entire Chinese population started from the same blank slate when economic reforms began in the 1980s. "When I got here in 1992, everyone was starting from the same level of absolute poverty," she said. "Because of this, even women had the freedom to explore different entrepreneurial opportunities and were able to permeate every business sector."
While most of China’s wealthy women made their mark in real estate, one can find high-level women everywhere, from finance to the car tire industry.
Zhao Yong, founder and CEO of her own company in Chengdu, believes her opportunities now are actually better than when she worked in London. Chengdu society is more receptive to women who want chase success with their own businesses. "Women here are at home with higher positions. While women make the money and have late business meetings, men are often the ones who stay home and cook," she said. However, she also believes this status varies regionally. "Cities in the south are probably the most accepting," she said.
Certain chauvinistic barriers still persist. Kan remembers that when she first decided to start her business in China, a lot of people told her she needed to learn how to drink and schmooze. "Obviously a lot of women like me don’t want to take these men to karaoke bars where the women are lined up like so many pieces of meat," she said. But she does not believe the barrier is overly significant. "Honestly, women get around it by sending their husbands out and it doesn’t end up affecting their business."
It is also possible to overstate the significance of the female advance. Despite holding the majority worldwide, Chinese women billionaires are still outnumbered back home. Nearly 900 of China’s 1,000 wealthiest people are male, and Chinese politics remains male-dominated.
Nevertheless, Gaw of SMP Partners says that her client experience leads her to believe that the gender gap will continue to shrink. "Instead of women being held back by their situation, they have actually become more robust businesspeople because they often have to work twice as hard," she said. "I find that my women clients are actually more aggressive in their investment strategies and take more risks that pay off."
While much attention has been paid to the shopping preferences of wealthy Chinese women, Gaw does not believe China’s investment and wealth management services community has made much effort to cater directly to this demographic, which is growing larger and younger every year. But this is a development that should not be ignored, she said.
"There are huge opportunities in the future of China’s women billionaires," said Gaw. "China is going through a reverse cycle, and the pampered men of this society are the ones who are starting to fall behind."