BEIJING – As Chinese career trajectories go, wealthy businesswoman Wang Ying's has taken an unusual turn. She quit her job as head of a private equity fund to become a full-time political critic.
Wang, who was a low-profile member of China's business elite for years, is now a leading voice among entrepreneurs troubled by the growing ranks of business owners who have suffered under the government's authoritarian excesses and by signs Beijing wants to further tighten its controls on society.
As China's ruling party holds a major economic planning meeting this week, it faces rising demands for change from entrepreneurs who feel a simmering anger at a system that extends privileges such as cheap credit and monopolies to politically-favored state companies. Entrepreneurs complain they are denied a say in how society is run even as their businesses create jobs, wealth and tax revenue. Worse, some have endured arrest, torture and confiscation of their businesses at the whim of local officials.
"You can make money because I allow you to," said Wang, summing up the attitude to private businesses among the politically powerful. "They say: You think the money is yours, but actually I'm just leaving it with you. I can take it back at any time, in any way."
By speaking out, Wang and others are testing an unwritten rule that many private business leaders have played by: They get room to grow their companies as long as they don't challenge the Communist Party's authority.
Wang, 60, resigned as chairwoman of Beijing Zhongheng Juxin Investment Fund Management Co., to protect it from any retribution as she spoke out. It's a move that underscores the risks of such activism, as demonstrated in September when Beijing police arrested Wang Gongquan, a wealthy venture capitalist and outspoken supporter of a group that organizes political discussions over dinner.
"Previously, private entrepreneurs tried to keep a distance from politics because the safety of their business depends on the government," said Mao Yushi, an economist. But recent abuses show that "the safety of private enterprises depends on rule of law," said Mao. "So more and more private entrepreneurs pay attention to political reform."
In August, the Unirule Institute of Economics, a think tank co-founded by Mao, held a forum at a hotel about three hours outside of Beijing. Around 200 businesspeople listened as lawyers and economists espoused the importance of free markets and the rule of law. Among the speakers was Hu Deping, the reform-minded son of late Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang, who to rounds of applause called for the government to pay more than lip service to China's constitution, which promises to protect individuals' rights.
At the forum, prominent attorney Li Zhuang described how a former client, Chongqing businessman Gong Gangmo, was handcuffed by police interrogators to high window bars for eight days until he signed a confession that he was the ringleader of a triad, as Chinese criminal gangs are known. Li said the charges were trumped up to strip Gong of his assets.
His ordeal was part of a crackdown on business owners in the southwestern city of Chongqing under Bo Xilai, the populist leader now serving prison time after his vaulting ambition unsettled the top echelon of the Communist Party. Entrepreneurs were tortured and jailed after summary trials, their assets seized.
Though the crackdown took place years ago, Chinese authorities have never provided a full account of the abuses, and many in the business world are only now hearing some details. Those who had misgivings about Bo's campaigns, which included mass Communist sing-along sessions, kept silent.
"At the time, I was repulsed by Bo Xilai's 'red song' and 'anti-mafia' campaigns, but I did not publicly speak out," said Wang Shi, head of China Vanke, the country's biggest property developer, at a June forum organized by online portal Tencent.
"As an entrepreneur, one cannot just work and not say anything," he said. "You must still stand up and say no when society is facing a backslide or a moment of danger."
Gong's experience was no isolated event caused by a wayward politician. In July, Zeng Chengjie, a businessman in the central province of Hunan who was accused of illegal fund-raising, was executed without his family being notified. His assets had long ago been sold to a state-owned company for a bargain.
His case also highlighted the risks of informal lending that entrepreneurs are forced to turn to because they cannot get loans from the state-owned banking industry.
Another businessman, Ren Zhiping, wrote a book titled "Loan Shark" after a local leadership reshuffle caused his coal briquette factory in Shanxi to be shuttered. He says it left him unable to repay high-interest loans from private investors.
Ren said he has been traveling around the country handing out his book to officials to lobby for better access to credit for private businesses.
Others, such as Wang Ying, have voiced their dismay at signs the party is tightening its controls on society.
Under President Xi Jinping, installed one year ago, Beijing has waged a crackdown on online speech and ideology it deems as undermining Communist Party legitimacy, rejecting calls for constitutionalism and greater freedom. Bloggers and activists around the country have been rounded up for so-called rumor mongering, including a well-known liberal commentator, Chinese-American investor Charles Xue. Most have been arrested.
Wang Ying, a grandmother, speaks in calm, soft tones but pulls no punches in her blog posts, media interviews and speeches.
"I feel that this is very obviously sowing fear, and we must always be on high alert for such things," she said. "I must say no. And this 'no,' I will say very loudly."
"As for any responsibility or pressure or losses that I might suffer because of saying this, I'm prepared to accept it."
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