Jiang Jianqing joined Industrial and Commercial Bank of China in 1986 as a lowly teller, one of more than a million employees at the lender. When he left 30 years later, it was as ICBC’s chairman and executive director, a man respected worldwide for transforming a bankrupt lender into the world’s largest bank.
Jiang shares many of the traits of China’s great generation of financial reformers, a group born in the decade after the end of World War II. Dogged and shrewd, a good numbers man with a strong sense of public duty, Jiang came of age at the height of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, spending his formative working years in a coal mine in Henan province.
Many Chinese suffered such privations, but a few emerged from the madness with the necessary drive and desire to make China great again. Jiang, bespectacled and softly spoken, was one. He graduated from Shanghai University of Finance and Economics and, aged 30, walked into his first white-collar job and began steadily to rise through the ranks.
In 1993, he was named vice-president of ICBC’s Shanghai branch, later rising to the position of president. He was made vice-president and vice-Party chief of ICBC in 1999, underlining not just his financial skills, but also the trust placed in the hands of a man at ease in elite financial and political circles. A year later, he was made president of the bank, rising to the position of chairman in 2005.
When Euromoney interviewed Jiang in 2000, he was candid about his ambitions for an outfit that often seemed more basket case than bank. Decades of state-directed lending had left ICBC on the verge of financial destitution. At the turn of the century, the bank’s non-performing loan ratio was just shy of 35%.
Yet Jiang refused to temper expectations. His aim, he said, was to transform ICBC into “not only the best domestic bank, but one of the best globally”.
A brace of bailouts, each of which cost the state $15 billion, teed up its blockbuster $21.9 billion Hong Kong-Shanghai IPO in 2006, at the time the largest share sale in history.
Jiang emerged from this period as one of the dominant commercial bankers of the era, while his employer was emblematic of a bolder and more ambitious and global China.
Before its listing, ICBC bought the Hong Kong subsidiary of Fortis Bank and sold a strategic minority stake to a trio of investors including Goldman Sachs, whose CEO at the time, Henry Paulson, applauded Jiang’s “bold and brash” bargaining style.
Under his leadership, ICBC rode out the financial crisis and went on a mini-shopping spree. It bought a 20% stake in Standard Bank, later adding to its portfolio the South African lender’s London-based global markets business and Argentina operations.
In 2014, it reported earnings of $44.53 billion, making it the world’s most profitable bank and the largest, as measured by assets and market capitalization.
A year later, Jiang bagged a double at Euromoney’s awards for excellence: for best emerging markets bank and, at a personal level, the gong for outstanding contribution to global financial services. When he walked out of the door for the last time in 2016, he left behind a lender as well run as any in Asia, with an NPL ratio at a shade over 1% and assets of $4 trillion.
He was extraordinary in other ways. Despite holding a vice-ministerial ranking in China’s hierarchy, he never evinced any desire to hold high public office. That political neutrality probably helped him avoid the fate of many of his early counterparts, including former China Construction Bank chief Zhang Enzhao, jailed for 15 years in 2006 on corruption charges.
To the end, he was viewed by his peers as a real banker who worked tirelessly to convince investors and analysts that ICBC was a real commercial lender run according to international rules and norms.
Even in retirement, Jiang is still active: he heads up Sino-CEE Financial holdings, an $11.15 billion fund set up in 2016 to invest in China-led belt-and-road projects in emerging Europe.
He is also a popular figure on the lecture circuit: a man who did as much as anyone else to transform the face of Chinese banking.