Zhang Xin was born in China during the Cultural Revolution, which meant a childhood defined by poverty and privation. “Literally nobody had anything,” explained Xin on Thursday morning at the Women in the World Summit in New York. Her parents were university graduates sent to the countryside for reeducation. They lived in austere government housing, and food was rationed. The common dream was one of escape—finding a better life abroad.
Now Xin is one of the top 10 self-made women billionaires in the world. As the co-founder and CEO of SOHO China, she is often described as “the woman who built Beijing.” She is a leading sponsor of innovative designs by the world’s best architects as well as a prominent philanthropist. She is also known for her brash pronouncements on the future of China, such as her recent prediction that democracy will sweep the country sometime in the next 20 years.
In short, she is an astonishing success story. “You’re being raised in this torturous, deadly era of Mao, and you actually rise out of it, and you believe you can rise and do well,” Fox Business Network anchor Maria Bartiromo commented in amazement.
How did she manage it?
Xin explained that she was one of the “lucky ones”—she was able to leave China. First, she worked in a factory in Hong Kong, squirreling away approximately £3000 over five years. “Every day I was thinking: How do I leave this place and get an education?” Xin recalled. This money was enough to take her to England—Hong Kong was still a British colony at the time—where she worked in a fish and chip shop until winning a scholarship to study economics at the University of Sussex. Ultimately, Xin would go on to earn a master’s degree from Cambridge University and move on to Wall Street and the finance industry. She gave it up, however, to return to China.
“You would have thought life was pretty good there,” Xin said. “I decided it was better for me to go back to my country and help with the building of my country.”
The early 1990s was a period of incredible urbanization in China. China’s private economy was still in its infancy. High rises had yet to define the skylines of Beijing and Shanghai. Xin married Pan Shiyi, and together they founded SOHO China, developing projects that combined living and working spaces in innovative configurations. “Whatever buildings we build, they form the face of our cities,” she said.
Remarkably, Xin traces the roots of her success back to the Cultural Revolution. “Of all the horrible things you’ve heard about Mao, one thing he did … was to raise the woman’s standard,” she said. “He used to say women can raise half the sky.” Men and women worked equally for equal pay: “That, I think, was good for Chinese women.”
When Xin returned to China in the 1990s, this ethos of equality meant everybody was starting from the same level. Women had just as much opportunity to build businesses as men did. Looking at other countries, Xin said, she saw established industries that were “harder for women to penetrate.” By contrast, the newness of China’s private economy meant that many positions were up for grabs, which created a cohort of numerous strong, confident women in business. China now has more female billionaires than anywhere else in the world.
Xin recognized at once that architecture had both a utilitarian and a cultural dimension. “What kind of architecture would embody today’s spirit?” she asked herself. The answer, which also reflects her personal journey, was globalized architecture. She sourced talent from around the world to build in China. Her partnerships include a long-running collaboration with the late Zaha Hadid, an Iraqi-born British architect who is widely acknowledged as one of the finest architects of the twenty-first century.
Architecture, however, can go only so far in forging connections. When Bartiromo abruptly steered the conversation to U.S. President Donald Trump and his imminent meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Xin became more reserved. “I think you have two men who want to show who is stronger,” she said. “Usually it’s a tough game.”
Additional reporting by Kristyn Martin.