Zhang Jian, a pioneering 19th century capitalist, has been brought back to life many times by the Chinese Communist party since his death in 1926, depending on its propaganda needs.
But his latest reincarnation, as a patriotic nation builder and philanthropist, marks his highest profile reappearance yet, championed by no less a communist puritan than President Xi Jinping.
This month Mr Xi, who has emphasised the party’s centrality in all aspects of life in contemporary China, visited Zhang’s hometown of Nantong, a Yangtze river port 100km north of Shanghai. He toured a museum founded by Zhang — China’s first — and reviewed an exhibition about the life of the famed entrepreneur.
Mr Xi visited Nantong just nine days after regulators halted what would have been the world’s biggest ever initial public offering — by Alibaba founder Jack Ma’s Ant Group — and a fortnight after the party’s Central Committee formally placed “self-reliance” at the heart of China’s long-term development strategy.
Sima Nan, a pro-party blogger and commentator in Beijing, said Mr Xi’s message to Mr Ma, China’s richest man with a fortune estimated at $59bn, was clear: if Ant’s $37bn IPO had proceeded, the online lender would have boasted a bigger market capitalisation than even state-owned Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, the country’s biggest bank.
“Ma is rich, has starred in films, conducted orchestras and criticised regulators,” Mr Sima said, referring to some of the billionaire’s celebrity exploits and an October 24 speech that angered Mr Xi, who then ordered regulators to suspend the Ant IPO.
“Zhang Jian built factories and founded over 370 schools. Ant poses systemic risks. It is important to see how both men made their money and how they spent it.”
Mr Xi said Zhang was a “sage and role model” for China’s entrepreneurs. “When you see a virtuous person, follow his example,” he added, calling on China’s private-sector business leaders to “strengthen their feelings for the country and assume social responsibilities”.
A spokesperson for Mr Ma declined to comment. The internet tycoon’s charitable foundation, which focuses on education and environmental protection, was valued at $4.6bn and had distributed $300m by the end of 2019. It also holds a 2 per cent stake in Ant.
Mr Xi had first mentioned Zhang at a July meeting with business people. “Outstanding entrepreneurs must have a strong sense of mission and responsibility for the nation, and align their enterprise’s development with the prosperity of the nation and the happiness of the people,” he told them. “Zhang was a model patriotic entrepreneur.”
As a young man, Zhang aced the Qing Dynasty’s exams for scholar officials, giving him entrée into elite imperial circles. With state support, he founded a successful textile group and other enterprises. He was also sympathetic to reformist movements that aspired to modernise China so it could hold its own against a newly industrialised Japan and the European colonial powers.
Elisabeth Koll, a historian at Notre Dame university who has written a book about Zhang, notes that in contemporary portraits he appeared as comfortable in traditional Qing scholar outfits as he did in the western business suits preferred by modern reformers of the era.
“He was somebody who was very clever at moving back and forth between two worlds,” Prof Koll said. “I would characterise him as a conservative who, during a really difficult and messy time, wanted stability and peaceful development.”
While Zhang was not an active participant in the revolutionary underground that helped precipitate the Qing dynasty’s collapse in 1911, he successfully navigated the political turbulence, ending up a minister in China’s first but shortlived republican government.
Disillusioned by the chaos of republican China, which quickly gave way to a fractured era dominated by regional warlords, Zhang retreated to Nantong, where he wielded enormous power.
Qin Shao, who teaches modern Chinese history at the College of New Jersey, argued that this made Zhang a problematic figure for Mr Xi. China’s president has made it clear that true patriots must also love the party and follow its dictates. Chinese pro-democracy activists, most notably in Hong Kong, have categorically rejected the notion that country and party are one and the same.
“Zhang went his separate way and built Nantong as a local, independent and self-governing model for the rest of China,” said Prof Shao. “If anything, he provides an excellent example of separating the political regime and the country, and serving the interests of the country instead of the regime.”
The ways in which the party has portrayed Zhang over the years says as much about the Communists as it does about Zhang. In the 1980s and 1990s, when Deng Xiaoping was encouraging market-oriented reforms, Zhang was celebrated for his capitalist innovations, such as founding China’s first shareholding company.
“The party sees what it wants to see in Zhang Jian depending on where economic policies and reforms stand,” Prof Koll said. “The way he was portrayed [during Deng’s rule] made perfect sense with the first wave of economic reforms, and now there is this whole focus on patriotism.”
By contrast, she added, Zhang was vilified during the Cultural Revolution as a “bloodsucking capitalist and exploiter of the working class — the usual story”.
But in Mr Xi’s China, the party prefers to overlook Zhang’s deserved reputation as a tough factory boss, whose largely rural workforce could be sent back to their nearby farms when orders slowed.
“Zhang Jian sets an example,” Mr Sima said. “When entrepreneurs get rich they should love the country more, rather than move money out of China then come back to make more.”
Additional reporting by Xinning Liu in Beijing