Few people represent the journey that many senior figures in Chinese finance have had to go through more starkly than Weijian Shan, chairman and chief executive of private equity firm PAG in Hong Kong.
Weijian Shan, PAG
Shan, like many now at the top of financial services in China, went through great hardship during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. He details the experience in his book, ‘Out of the Gobi: My story of China and America’.
Shan was 12 years old when his Beijing school was closed and his education stopped. Three years later he was put on a train to the Gobi desert. He would spend six years there.
Along with 300 other young people on that train, he underwent starvation and freezing temperatures: minus 25°C was not uncommon in the winter. He crawled in manure as a farm labourer and later made bricks, before being assigned as a doctor for rural areas despite having no training in medicine – a so-called barefoot doctor.
In another story familiar to many of the time – such as Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank chief executive Jin Liqun – he took great risks in order to educate himself. He would go to a tool shed with a kerosene light, make a chair out of some bricks and a shovel and read. There wasn’t much to read. At one time he read an insecticide manual because there was nothing else to divert him. Even that was a huge risk: all books were banned at the time, other than those by Chairman Mao and Karl Marx.
Eventually the Cultural Revolution ended and education was permitted again. He was accepted by the Beijing Institute of Foreign Trade and, as Deng Xiaoping began to open China, won a chance to go to the US, either as a UN interpreter or to study in a US college. Doing so required him to leave his wife behind; it would be years before they were reunited. But he eventually won a doctorate from the University of California in Berkeley and later taught at Wharton.
Then came finance. First he went to Newbridge Capital, where he was instrumental in the deals for Korea First Bank and Shenzhen Development Bank, both of them hugely important and influential transactions. He has said that his tough experience in early life helped him to stay the course during the 15 months of negotiations with the Korean government.
Now he runs PAG – private equity, perhaps the pinnacle of capitalism. His story is extraordinary and yet not so unusual. Many senior Chinese still don’t like to talk about their experiences during the Cultural Revolution. But all of them were shaped by it.