Even in a country that has exploded in wealth and created a new economic ruling class, Zong’s story stands out. His rags-to- riches tale is remarkable not just for its trajectory but for the way he has thrived amid China’s seemingly impossible conflation of capitalism and communism.
Zong, who didn’t attend high school, lived on a farm commune from 1964 to 1978 during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. He read the Communist revolutionary’s books on leadership and learned about enduring through struggle. After Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s drive toward a market economy, came to power, Zong took over a grocery store in 1987 with two retired teachers and a $22,000 loan from relatives.
Now Wahaha’s chairman, Zong remains a frugal and autocratic manager, traits he honed in approving his first shop’s every expense, down to the purchase of a broom. He often sleeps in a sixth-floor office at Wahaha’s gray headquarters in Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province. For lunch, he heads downstairs to the canteen, furnished with formica tables, where he eats the same food as his workers.
“When you are poor, you’ll have to think of ways to be better off,” says Zong, recalling his early years while chain- smoking Davidoff cigarettes outside Beijing’s News Plaza Hotel. “That experience helps me to endure.”
Zong, a member of the National People’s Congress for the past nine years, also tells Bloomberg that he thinks policymakers are headed in the right direction as they seek to boost domestic consumption and promote further economic growth.
See also TIME’s rundown of the five richest men in China, a list which also includes Baidu’s Robin Li, Wanda’s Wang Jianlin, and Sany Heavy Industry’s Liang Wengen, who was China’s richest man in 2011.