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POWER ON THE PACIFIC RIM : Profiles : 10 Pacific Rim Giants Tread Own Paths to Influence : Rong Yiren: Staying Power Pays Off

May 21, 1991|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEIJING — One is the illegitimate son of a wealthy industrialist. The foundation of another's fortune was a long-ago U.S.-backed loan.

A third is a notorious high-stakes gambler liable to risk millions of dollars in a day at the racetrack, while yet another furnishes his house in plastic.

A capitalist who backed a revolution is on the list, as is a refugee from communism who is now devoting much of his energy to courting his giant Communist neighbors.

They're all among the wealthiest and most influential businessmen in Asia--10 titans of the Pacific Rim. Not surprisingly, several of them have extremely close ties to the political leaders of the region. Five are ethnic Chinese. Six were born to wealth, but four others started from little or nothing.

Meet a diverse group of business leaders likely to continue having a strong influence on the shape of the region:

Rong Yiren, heir to a Shanghai-based business empire, made a fateful decision when the Communists took power here in 1949 and most of his relatives fled overseas: He chose to stay.

That decision has paid off handsomely, for him and for China. Rong, 74, is now China's most influential business leader and perhaps its wealthiest man. As chairman of the China International Trust and Investment Corp. (CITIC), a state-owned conglomerate set up in 1979 under his management, Rong has made himself a key player in China's development of a more market-oriented economy.

Sometimes called "the red capitalist," Rong notes that he is no longer a capitalist and has never been a Communist Party member. He says he prefers to be called a businessman.

Rong's path has not been easy. The worst came in 1966, at the start of China's decade-long Cultural Revolution, when Red Guards ransacked his Beijing home, smashed the family's collections of porcelain and antique furniture and beat him and his wife.

He spent a year as a janitor, then another year undergoing thought-reform sessions.

He was plucked from obscurity in 1979 by China's senior leader Deng Xiaoping, who made Rong head of CITIC as part of an effort to enliven China's economy through introduction of foreign investment, market forces and rational management.

Rong was born in Wuxi, a town near Shanghai, to a family that already owned China's largest flour milling company. He learned his business skills after graduating from St. John's University, a Christian-run school in Shanghai. He first managed one of the family-owned mills, and by the late 1940s was running the entire business empire of 24 textile factories, plants and mills.

The Communist victory of 1949 scattered his family around the world, but he chose to stay.

"I could have had an easier, more comfortable life if I had gone abroad," he acknowledged in an interview decades later. "But I thought I would be more useful if I stayed here and worked to overcome China's poverty."

The Communists, short of business expertise, allowed "patriotic capitalists" like Rong to continue running their businesses until 1956. Private companies were then nationalized, but annual dividends were paid to former owners until the 1966 advent of the Cultural Revolution. During that time Rong collected about $6 million--the basis for his personal fortune.

After his business was nationalized, Rong served as a vice mayor of Shanghai from 1957 to 1966, when the Cultural Revolution brought his world crashing down.

The years from 1979 to 1989 were golden years for Rong, as he helped spearhead economic reform. Then in May, 1989, at the height of the student-led pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing, he released an open letter urging top party leaders to engage in dialogue with protesting students in Tian An Men Square as a means of easing the confrontation.

After troops and tanks put a bloody end to the protests, some observers thought that Rong might be punished for his show of sympathy with the students. But his business and political skills, combined with his value as a symbol of reform, enabled him to weather the storm.

Still ensconced in his CITIC office, looking the part of a prestigious board chairman, Rong recently defined himself for an interviewer: "I am a former capitalist who believes that socialism can work here."

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