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A portrait of China’s biggest tech CEOs: visionaries, copycats, and playboys

CEO mashup

In the west – especially the United States – tech founders who make it big become celebrities. Few people who don’t work in the entertainment sphere are as publicly glorified (and disparaged) as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Sergey Brin, and the like.

But what about in China, where a new era of tech CEOs and founders reach rockstar status as their companies break records and disrupt entire industries? How has their fame shaped their public image?

To find out, we interviewed about a dozen native Chinese people in Beijing to find out a) who they saw as their entrepreneurial celebrities and b) what they thought of them. Most of those we interviewed had at least some background in the tech industry, but not all of them. When finished, we combined their responses to form a collective portrait of each man (no women surfaced in my conversations).

Below is a word cloud depicting the most common descriptors mentioned across the board. Below that are individual profiles of each CEO and/or founder, as best as we can hope to portray them on behalf of the Chinese people.

china ceo wordcloud

Jack Ma, Alibaba – visionary, media savvy, weirdo

jack ma alibaba ccIf there’s just one person on this list that the average Chinese person has heard of, it’s probably Jack Ma. The founder, former CEO, and current board member of China’s biggest ecommerce company is a media darling and is probably the most outspoken of the bunch. Chinese people see him as a forward-thinking visionary who plans for the long term. He sees opportunities where others don’t and never hesitates to jump on them, even if he isn’t necessarily prepared to do so. He’s skilled at persuasion and manipulation, and runs Alibaba like a cult leader. Ma’s salesmanship skills are legendary; he can sell something that doesn’t even exist yet. Even if a product is just okay, he will sell it like it’s the best thing ever. Because of his eccentricity and odd physical appearance, he was also described as a “weirdo” and an “alien from Mars.” Sophisticated, determined, and persistent, Ma brings dreams to life through sheer force of will and belief that he can.

Lei Jun, Xiaomi – reformer, salesman, late bloomer

Lei Jun, founder and CEO of China's mobile company Xiaomi, poses for photo ahead of an interview in ChengduThose who only see the surface of Lei Jun’s public image see him as a down-to-Earth businessman. Like Ma, he’s an excellent salesman. He falls somewhere in the middle between a high- and low-profile celebrity. Lei was a relatively unknown figure prior to Xiaomi, when he rose through the ranks to become CEO of Kingsoft. His most notable entrepreneurial successes came late in his life, and he didn’t start Xiaomi until well into his 40s. Those who delve a little deeper know Lei Jun as one of the best angel investors and mentors in the country. Notably, no one brought up the notorious comparison to Apple’s Steve Jobs. Lei is more than just an innovator; he’s a reformer. His admirers call him a genius, but his critics curse him for being shameless.

Pony Ma, Tencent – Practical, strategist, copycat

pony ma tencent ccEveryone by now has heard of Tencent, but not everyone is as familiar with its CEO, and Pony Ma probably likes it that way. Quiet and calculating, Ma keeps his public status on the down-low. He doesn’t care what people think of him, only that they like his products. He’s a relentlessly practical product guy and a skilled strategist, but can be short-sighted. Ma is patient, not aggressive, preferring to let other companies take the first dive into a new type of product. Then he swoops in and improves upon what the early adopters have pioneered. His methods have earned him a reputation as a copycat. The stable, mysterious, performance-driven CEO keeps things simple, including his business models.

Robin Li, Baidu – engineer, Americanized, gardener

robin li cc‘Booksmart’ is the often the impression Robin Li makes on Chinese people. Although educated in the United States, Li is rumored to have close ties to powerful friends in the Communist Party. He’s not showy or aggressive and is more of a scholar than a salesman, but he knows his company’s technology well. What Tencent is to social and Alibaba is to business, Baidu is to technology. He’s also effective at monetizing that technology. A famous anecdote that many Chinese people know some version or another of is that Li’s wife pushed him to found Baidu. While Li was perfectly happy working a corporate job and gardening at home, his wife allegedly threatened to leave him if he didn’t make something more of himself. To this day, many believe Mrs. Li is still a strong force in the company.

Zhou Hongyi, Qihoo – Guerilla, aggressive, fighter

zhou hongyi qihoo cc baiduWhere Zhou is often perceived as a litigious bully in the West, he’s viewed as a brutal warrior in China. He’s unashamed of using guerrilla tactics, and doesn’t even attempt to hide it. Extremely aggressive, energetic, and agile, but also a sophisticated, infectious businessman. He’s rumored to have a bad temper, but he knows how to handle arguments. Zhou sports a means-to-an-end mentality and is only interested in short-term gains. One person even called him a burglar. He’s a good product manager and cunning strategist, and is especially skilled at manipulating the media to attract customers. Some question the vocal CEO’s ethics, however.

Charles Chao, Sina – Bookkeeper, accountant, calm

charles chao sina cc baidu“Low-key” was a term used to describe most of the names on this list, but nobody seems to know anything about the CEO of Sina. This might be because Chao stepped into the position more recently than the rest of his counterparts, so he hasn’t had time to build up a reputation. Those who knew enough to talk about him described Chao as an accountant and a bookkeeper who didn’t know much about strategy or leadership. He’s calm, professional, and practical, with close ties to the government.

 

Willian Ding, Netease – Local, straightforward, pig farmer

ding lei ccLike his peers, William Ding flies below the radar. He only has a short term vision, and tends to only view his business from a domestic standpoint. He’s a coder-turned-CEO, with a pragmatic and straightforward business sense. His warm heart and kindness were touched on more than once. For a while around 2003, he became the richest individual in mainland China. In a more recent oddball move, Ding decided to branch out his internet media and gaming business into pig farming. Yep. William Ding raises pigs.

 

Charles Zhang, Sohu – Flamboyant, playboy, supermodel

charles zhang sohu cc baiduThe real wild card of the group, Zhang’s adult life is straight out of a tabloid magazine. He started off in the entertainment industry as a model and became an early Chinese internet celebrity. He attracts gossip like flies to old fruit. The most common characteristic pointed out was that Zhang is the only one on the list who is still single – a rarity for his age in Chinese society. He’s known as a young-at-heart playboy with an elite background and close connections to movie stars. At one point he went through a tough bout of depression and handed over control of Sohu to one of the other executives, but now he’s back in the driver’s seat. The “flamboyant Richard Branson wannabe,” as one person described him, was actually a straight-A student and is still a capable businessman.

This article was originally published in Tech in Asia‘s premium e-magazine.

Editing by Josh Horwitz

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