Why are so many women in China rich?

January 15, 2015, 10:30 AM UTC
SOHO China Chief Executive Officer Zhang Xin Interview
Billionaire Zhang Xin, chief executive officer of Soho China Ltd., poses for a photograph after a Bloomberg Television interview in Hong Kong, China, on Friday, Aug. 22, 2014. Zhang said Soho China is waiting for the right time for acquisition opportunities as China's property prices are not "low enough." Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Brent Lewin — Bloomberg via Getty Images

I’m halfway through Age of Ambition, Evan Osnos’ riveting account of 21st century China, when I start noticing the number of ground-breaking women who populate his story.

Osnos compares modern China—a billion-plus people suddenly baptized in the waters of aspiration and ambition—to the Gilded Age, when the number of U.S. millionaires exploded from 20 to 40,000 in just a generation.

But while America’s rush to fortune in the late 1800s was a man’s story, China’s financial wild west (as Osnos notes) includes the other half of the population. And if American women have been historically tepid about embracing a get-rich culture, women in post-Mao China haven’t been shy at all.

In China, where “the ethos of the last 30 years is that to get rich is glorious, that instinct is gender neutral,” Osnos tells me. “I never encountered a sense [among women] of being inhibited about wanting to get rich. One of the measurements they have for themselves is the financial success of their companies and themselves.”

Consider these numbers:

There are, of course, endless caveats to be applied to any conversation about the status of women in China. Osnos notes that women went into business because the Communist Party was–and still is–a boys’ club that shuts them out of political leadership. And men still boast far higher net worths, helped by parents eager to help them build real-estate nest eggs to attract daughters-in-law from a limited pool of women,

But the same one-child policy that led to a shortage of prospective daughters-in-law (with parents favoring sons in the womb) has also produced a generation of doted-upon only-children who happen to be girls. Deprived of sons, parents and grandparents heaped their high expectations on daughters and grand-daughters. Hence, Osnos notes, the most popular Chinese parenting guide was called Harvard Girl, not Harvard Boy.

The ambitions of Chinese women remain curtailed by family—they, more than men, are expected to care for aging parents—and entrenched cultural bias. A leading Chinese business school describes the paradox this way:

“In a country where men-only jobs proliferate, and hiring managers often probe female applicants about their dating life and maternal plans, it’s easy to forget that China is home to some of the highest net-worth female individuals in the world, the majority of whom achieved such status through their business success.”

Osnos prefers to go beyond the numbers to tell us the human story—like that of Gong Hainan, born small and sickly in a rural village, her leg and face later crushed in a tractor accident. Despite all that, Gong couldn’t repress her entrepreneurial gene. As a child, she bought and resold ice pops to villagers, mapping out a route of likely buyers and noting, “Whatever you do, you have to be strategic.”

Her mother was so dedicated to her daughter’s education after the tractor accident that she carried her up and down the stairs to classes. Gong later worked on a Panasonic assembly-line before returning to school and excelling in college. Considered “ugly” and unable to find a mate, she launched an online dating service, thereby breaking into the male-dominated high-tech world. By 2010, she was known as China’s No. 1 matchmaker. She took her company public on NASDAQ and ended the day worth $77 million, shared with –yes, she found one—her husband.

Gong’s story—from farmer’s daughter to board room “so fast she never had time to shed the manners and anxieties of the village,” as Osnos puts it, made me think of so many other up-from-the-bootstrap stories featuring women. One is SOHO China CEO Zhang Xin, the real estate developer who is transforming Beijing’s skyline. Zhang spent her teenage years on a Hong Kong assembly line but eventually made her way to New York, prominent UK universities, and onto Goldman Sachs.

Like China’s men in this “age of self-creation,’ these women “defied a history that told them never to try,” in Osnos’ words. But all that long-pent-up ambition, Osnos writes, is now colliding with another powerful force–China’s authoritarianism.

For women, that clash is playing out in government-led social pressure on ambitious women to marry or risk becoming Leftover Women, the title of Leta Hong Fincher’s 2014 book. The ruling Communist Party is pushing marriage to counter fears of social instability that could come from so many unmarried men–but the blame is being heaped on women, especially educated women.

As Fincher notes, the government’s All-China Women’s Federation had this to say about unmarried urban females over 27: “Do leftover women really deserve our sympathy? Girls with an average or ugly appearance … hope to further their education in order to increase their competitiveness. The tragedy is they don’t realise that, as women age, they are worth less and less, so by the time they get their MA or PhD, they are already old, like yellowed pearls.”

It remains to seen how these “yellowed pearls” respond.

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