China's economy is suffering. The factories are booming and foreign investment is flowing. Even so, the wealthy and powerful people at the helm of some of the country's best-known corporations strive to get off the ground.
The latest are Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin, the couple who run Soho China, a real estate developer known for their clunky, futuristic office buildings. By closing a deal this week to sell a controlling stake in investment giant Blackstone for up to $ 3 billion, Mr. Pan and Ms. Zhang are handing over the company as high-profile entrepreneurs in China come under public and regulatory scrutiny like never before.
Soho China did not respond to a request for comment.
China's most famous tycoon, Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma, has been unusually restrained since late last year when the government began regulatory crackdowns on its businesses and the internet industry in general. Colin Huang, founder of Alibaba rival Pinduoduo, stepped down as chairman in March, less than a year after stepping down as chairman of the board. In May, Zhang Yiming, founder of TikTok's parent company ByteDance, said he would leave the post of chief executive to focus on long-term strategy.
Nationalism has resurrected in China under the Supreme Leader of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping, and the government has sought to exert direct influence over the private sector. Even before the sale this week, Mr. Pan and Ms. Zhang of Soho China had shunned the limelight more than they had in an earlier, freer era of China's economic recovery.
"Big tycoons in China these days generally need to be careful," says Ling Chen, who studies state-economic relations in China at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.
Highly visible entrepreneurs, especially those in risky sectors like real estate and finance, know that regulators will one day scrutinize their businesses, Professor Chen said. "They just don't know when that day is."
The rise of Mr. Pan and Ms. Zhang, as described in media interviews and online, reflected the rise of China.
Mr. Pan, 57, grew up in poor conditions in the remote northwestern province of Gansu and worked briefly for a state oil company after graduating. In the early 1990s, he started a real estate company with a few friends in southern Hainan Province and made his first bucket of gold.
Ms. Zhang, 55, was born in Beijing and immigrated to Hong Kong when she was 14 years old. She worked in factories for years before heading to the UK with the equivalent of a few thousand dollars in savings. After completing her Masters in Economics from Cambridge, she worked at Goldman Sachs.
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June 17, 2021 at 1:52 p.m. ET
She was introduced to Mr. Pan in 1994. Four days later he proposed. In 1995 they founded the company that was later renamed Soho China.
As their towers began to pierce the Beijing and Shanghai skylines, Ms. Zhang and Mr. Pan became an "It" couple in business and social circles. Their parties were attended by top entrepreneurs, government officials and intellectuals.
Mr. Pan was also one of the first Chinese business leaders to recognize the power of the Internet for marketing and public relations. He wrote a popular blog in the 2000s. Then when the Twitter-like social media platform Weibo hit the market, it quickly became one of its most influential voices, garnering more than 20 million followers.
In his Weibo posts, he wrote about his childhood, China's real estate policy, and Beijing's air pollution. He was never too keen to express his opinion. But he wanted China to learn from its mistakes, such as its cruel treatment of the wealthy and educated classes during the Cultural Revolution.
After Mr. Xi took office as China's top leader in 2013, the authorities began persecuting business people and intellectuals with large online followers. That year, the police arrested Wang Gongquan, a friend of Mr. Pan's and human rights supporter, for disturbing public order.
Mr. Pan and Ms. Zhang began selling real estate in China and spending more time in the United States. Ms. Zhang's family and the Safra family from Brazil, who have long been involved in international banking, have teamed up to buy 40 percent of the shares in the General Motors building in Manhattan.
Chinese news outlets asked why Soho China let loose billions of dollars in assets in China. They found that the couple made generous donations to Harvard and Yale, but not to Chinese universities.
After media reports accused Soho China of “fleeing” Shanghai by selling projects there, Mr. Pan wrote on Weibo: “Buying and selling is normal. Don't read too much into it. "
The company's last major public event was the opening of Leeza Soho, a sleek, spiral-shaped skyscraper in Beijing in late 2019. Zaha Hadid, the famous architect who designed the tower and was a friend of Ms. Zhang, had died a few years earlier.
Last year, Ren Zhiqiang, a retired real estate mogul and friend of Mr. Pan, was arrested for an essay he shared with friends in a private chat group. The essay criticized Mr. Xi's handling of the coronavirus outbreak and the direction in which he had taken the country. Mr. Ren was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
Today, Mr. Pan and Ms. Zhang's Weibo accounts are filled with boring, friendly material: holiday greetings, book recommendations, photos of flowers blooming in front of the buildings in Soho China. Both accounts are set up so that only contributions from the last six months are displayed.
On Wednesday evening, just minutes after Soho China announced the sale on its official Weibo account, Mr. Pan republished the announcement without comment, in what online commentators called a "silent farewell".
Albee Zhang contributed to the research.