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October 11, 2003

Chinese Big Bosses Rule – with the Backing of Beijing

by Sascha Matuszak

I spent this past week smiling and clinking wine glasses with a multi-millionaire from the town of GuangYan – roughly two hours north of the capital by highway.

This particular boss is one of a breed of new rich that rule the "small" towns and cities outside of the major hub cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and, in the west, Chengdu. These men are building empires in China's interior.

Many of them have certain characteristics that the big city folk have picked up and like to use to ridicule the new bosses:

"Big Bosses like to yell into their cell phones, wherever they are. They roll five to ten deep, and all the employees are relatives. Big Bosses drive the most expensive foreign cars, wear the most expensive suits, announce investments to the world. They have a belt with little pouches for keys, cell phones #1 and #2 and, if they are real country, the beeper. And they carry a black bag under their arm wherever they go."

Its common for a big boss to have a company in name, but a mafia-like crew in reality. Mafia in the sense that these fellas roll two to a car, thirteen cars deep, wear sunglasses, are married with girlfriend and have really big wads of cash on hand at all time.

My particular boss would reach into the requisite black leather bag and just pull out cash. 10,000RMB (1200USD) for dinner, 5000RMB for belts, another 4000RMB for dinner. Boss Sung lives around the iron eating schedule of the Chinese – 8am breakfast, 12pm lunch and 6pm dinner – and money. Everybody in China seems to be trying to trick everybody else out of their money, so a big boss will usually make a point of extolling the virtue of honesty and respect for underlings.

"Now, me for example, I make sure all my employees make the money."

And it is important that all the people around the boss look good, eat good and drive good. Any car more than two years old will get the "yeah well, its allright" look from the boss.

Aside from all the quirky little habits of the Chinese new rich, it must be clearly stated that these men are extremely shrewd and insatiable.

The current rage is real estate.

Boss Sung was deeply engaged in negotiations with a the mayor of a town just an hour east. The deal involves the development of 26 square miles of farming villages and small hotels scattered about a lush gorge fed by pure mountain spring water. The boss wants to build a resort to lie astride the highway being built through the area.

After spending a large sum of money feeding, entertaining and lodging two separate entourages, Boss Sung returned to HQ with the dismal news that the deal will be delayed indefinitely. The family moaned and everybody gathered together – from the lowliest intern to the right hand man – and went over the details with the Boss, trying to find a way to patch the multi-million dollar deal together. After roughly twenty mintues of discussion, the family collectively agreed that, indeed, the deal was on hold.

Everybody took a breath. In that breath, Boss Sung murmured that one of the spots that they took the mayor to on his tour of the Boss's hometown looked a little underdeveloped. "Not only that, but I have the number of the man in charge right here."

Ten minutes later a trip to the capital was postponed while the family prepared to discuss the development of this new area into a new resort. Its a confusing contradiction: how quickly these bosses can act on an idea, and the long drawn out period it takes for most deals to be completed in China.

As quick as these guys move on a local tip, they are a little slower to interact with foreigners. Business styles are very different and trust is difficult to build, no matter how many times one affirms mutual good will over glasses of stiff baijiu. Boss Sung's only encounter seems to be with that of a Canadian investor in real estate about two years ago. The family guided the Canadian through the maze of paper free of charge and the Canadian waved good-bye with a fistfull of cash two years later.

Boss Sung asked me what Americans think of the government. I said real Americans have no use for a bad government and and consider an invisible government the best. (Couldn't help myself ...)

Boss Sung scoffed. "Yeah well, that shows what you Americans know."

For super-charged capitalists like Sung, the government is hopefully a partner and friend. A thorny government surrounded by a wall of papers is Boss Sung's nightmare. Lord knows how much bosses spend on politicians during the Spring Festival, when such gifts are traditionally handed out.

Rich Guys are pretty much the same the world over, but what distingushes Chinese Big Bosses fromt the rest of the worlds is that there are so many of them and they move so quick. Every town with 200,000 people or more has a collection of big bosses. The guy that runs utilities. The guy with all the prime property. The hotel guy.

The bosses of one town know each other and work together, and it was never made clearer to me the power of the hometown than at my first dinner with Boss Sung and his people. Everybody was a native of GuangYan. Sung has lived there for 20 years. Sung is therefore not a native and never 100% "in."

These towns outside of the capital are exploding: universities, housing developments, huge parks and fancy hotels, highways, airports; basically everything you would find in a major city. These bosses are responsible for that.

These little empires run by good ol boy networks are prosperous, vibrant and completely subordinate to the government. Boss Sung's comment on government was made a bit clearer when I realized that the deal with the mayor had been delayed not because the mayor a town away was holding it back, but because a whole collection of papers had to be filled out and placed before the Man, in Beijing.

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  • Sascha Matuszak is a freelance writer living in Chengdu.

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