01.31.2019

Zhang Xin, CEO of SOHO China

As the deadline for a US-China trade deal looms, Walter Isaacson sits down with self-made billionaire known as “the builder of Beijing,” Zhang Xin.

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> TURNING NOW TO A LOOMING MARCH DEADLINE.

NOPE.

IT IS NOT BREXIT BUT RATHER THE U.S.-CHINA TRADE DEAL.

CHINA'S TOP TRADE NEGOTIATOR VICE PRESIDENT LIU IS MEETING PRESIDENT TRUMP TODAY IN WASHINGTON, AND IF A TRADE DEAL IS NOT MADE BY MARCH 1st, PRESIDENT TRUMP IS THREATENING TO INCREASE TARIFFS ON $200 BILLION WORTH OF CHINESE IMPORTS.

OUR NEXT GUEST SAYS PRESIDENT TRUMP NEEDS TO TONE DOWN THE RHETORIC AND GET THE DEAL DONE.

KNOWN AS THE WOMAN WHO BUILT BEIJING, ZHANG XIN IS A SELF-MADE BILLIONAIRE AND CEO OF SOHO CHINA, A REAL ESTATE EMPIRE AND A WORLD AWAY FROM HER POVERTY-STRICKEN CHILDHOOD AND WITH BUSINESS INTERESTS AROUND THE WORLD SHE DOES HAVE THE EAR OF LEADERS IN BOTH WASHINGTON AND BEIJING, AND SHE TOLD OUR WALTER ISAACSON THIS IS THE WORST SHE'S EVER SEEN U.S.-CHINA RELATIONS.

THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR JOINING YOU GROUP AS A FACTORY GIRL AND THEN BECAME A MULTI-BILLIONAIRE.

YOU WERE BORN DURING THE CULTURAL REVOLUTION.

HOW DOES THAT HAPPEN?

YOU KNOW, MY GENERATION IN CHINA, WE ALL WERE BORN DURING THE CULTURAL REVOLUTION WHEN THERE WAS REALLY NOTHING.

MATERIALLY THERE WAS NOTHING AND POLITICALLY IT WAS UNDER SOCIALISM, AND SO THE MINUTE THAT CHINA'S DOOR OPENED TO THE OUTSIDE WORLD WHICH IS IN THE LATE '70s AND I WENT WITH MY MOTHER TO HONG KONG IN 1980.

I WAS 14 AND WE HAD NOWHERE -- WE DIDN'T KNOW HOW TO START A LIFE THERE OTHER THAN BEING FROM JUST THE VERY BASIC WHICH IS TO GET A JOB IN THE FACTORY.

SO I WORKED IN THE FACTORY FOR FIVE YEARS IN HONG KONG.

YOU KNOW, HONG KONG THEN WAS A MANUFACTURING CENTER IN ASIA, AND, YOU KNOW, I WOULD WORK FROM 4:00 TO FLOOR.

THESE FACTORIES ARE IN THE HIGHS RISE BUILDINGS.

ONE FLOOR WOULD DO COLLAR.

THE OTHER FLOOR WOULD DO ZIPPER AND THE OTHER FLOOR WOULD PUT THE SLEEVE TOGETHER SO I WOULD JUST DO FROM FACTORY TO FACTORY.

WHOEVER PAYS $1 MORE, I WOULD GO TO THAT FACTORY.

SO I DID THAT FOR FIVE YEARS AND OBVIOUSLY I WAS DESPERATE TO LEAST.

HONG KONG THEN WAS THE ENGLISH COLONY SO THE OBVIOUS PLACE TO GO WAS TO GO TO ENGLAND.

I HAD SAVED A LITTLE BIT OF MONEY.

I HAD SAVED ABOUT 3,000 IN ENGLISH POUNDS.

THAT WAS ENOUGH TO GET TO ENGLAND, BUT I DIDN'T SPEAK ANY ENGLISH, SO I HAD TO GO TO AN ENGLISH LANGUAGE SCHOOL.

SO I STARTED ENGLISH LANGUAGE SCHOOL AND THEN WENT TO HIGH SCHOOL AND COLLEGE AND THEN TO GRADUATE SCHOOL, ALL OF THAT IN.

SO YOU ENDED UP AFTER LEAVING CAMBRIDGE WORKING FOR PLACES LIKE BEAR RON'S AND GOLDMAN SACHS.

WHEN DID YOU SORT OF REALIZE THAT I SHOULD GO BACK TO CHINA NOW, THERE'S OPPORTUNITY TO DO SOMETHING PIG IN CHINA?

CHINA, GO BACK TO CHINA. TO YOU KNOW, GOING TO GOLDMAN WAS A TEMPORARY DETOUR FROM WHAT I WANTED TO DO BECAUSE EVEN AT CAMBRIDGE WHEN I WAS WRITING MY THESIS, THIS WAS ABOUT CHINA'S CHINA AT THE TIME IN THE '80s HAD ALREADY BECOME VERY, YOU KNOW, EXCITING WITH ALL THE TALKS OF THE REFORMS AND ECONOMIC REFORMS AND OPEN DOORS, AND I JUST WANTED TO GO BACK TO BE PART OF THAT, BUT, YOU KNOW, THE -- I COULDN'T REALLY GET A JOB IMMEDIATELY BACK TO CHINA BECAUSE I DID NOT KNOW HOW TO DO THAT.

IT HAPPENED TO BE THE INVESTMENT BANKS WHO CAME TO CAMBRIDGE TO RECRUIT AND THAT'S HOW I GOT A JOB, BUT FROM THE VERY BEGINNING WHEN I WENT TO WALL STREET WORKING IN HONG KONG, I HAD ALWAYS WANTED TO GO BACK TO CHINA.

HOW BIG WAS THIS ENTREPRENEURIAL EXPLOSION IN CHINA IN THE LATE '80s AND '90s THAT YOU WERE ABLE TO TAP INTO?

OH, TREMENDOUS, TREMENDOUS.

I MEAN, LIKE NO ONE HAD AN IDEA HOW TO DO ANYTHING RIGHT.

NO ONE KNEW HOW TO DO BUILDING RIGHT.

I -- I DIDN'T EITHER.

BUT ONE THING IS I REMEMBER I WAS ALWAYS GETTING INTO A FIGHT WITH MY HUSBAND.

I SAID, LOOK, I'VE SEEN BUILDINGS BETTER THAN THIS.

I CAN DO BETTER THAN THIS.

I TOOK ON THE JOB AS WORKING WITH THE ARCHITECTS TO DO THE DESIGNS AND THINKING ABOUT HOW THE BUILDINGS SHOULD BE BUILT, SO THAT'S LIKE -- EVERY SINGLE INDUSTRY START THAT HAD WAY IN CHINA BACK IN THE '80s, RIGHT?

TODAY WHEN YOU SEE THESE STATE OF THE ART BUILDINGS BUILT, JUST REMEMBER LIKE 25 YEARS AGO, 30 YEARS AGO, THERE WAS NONE.

YOU'RE KNOWN AS THE BUILDER OF BEIJING BECAUSE THAT'S WHERE THE BILLIONS CAME FROM THAT YOU AND YOUR HUSBAND DID WHEN YOU DID REAL ESTATE.

TELL ME ABOUT STARTING SOHO.

BACK IN 2000, YEAR 2000, THERE WAS A DOTCOM BOOM, BOOM AND BUST, AND I REMEMBER I AS A DEVELOPER THINKING, THAT YOU KNOW, PEOPLE WERE THINKING ABOUT CHANGE, RIGHT.

EVERYBODY IS GOING TO BE WORKING IN THE GARAGE.

NO ONE IS GOING TO GO TO THE OFFICE.PEOPLE ARE GOING TO DRESS CASUAL, AND LIFE IN THE WORLD IS ABOUT TO CHANGE, SO I WAS THINKING SO WHAT DOES THAT MEAN TO A DEVELOPER?

ARE WE GOING TO BE BUILDING DIFFERENT HOMES, DIFFERENT OFFICE?

PEOPLE GOING TO WORK AND LIVE DIFFERENTLY, SO THEN WHEN WE CAME WITH AN IDEA OF SMALL OFFICE, HOME OFFICE, THEREFORE, SOHO, AND SO ESSENTIALLY IT'S A DUPLEX OF, YOU KNOW, ON THE TOP HOME AND THE LOWER PART IS AN OFFICE SO YOU CAN WORK AND LIVE TOGETHER.

IT WAS VERY POPULAR.

THAT PRODUCT GOT SOLD LIKE THIS.

EVERYONE WAS LIKE -- GOT THIS DOTCOM BUZZ AND WANTED TO HAVE SOMETHING TO DO WITH THAT, BUT WE -- AFTER, YOU KNOW, AFTER 2000, AFTER THE BUST OF THE DOTCOM ERA, WE WENT BACK TO BUILDING TRADITIONAL OFFICE BUILDINGS AND, YOU KNOW, FOCUS ON ARCHITECTURE AND CREATIVITY AND NO LONGER DOING THE SOHO.

SOME OF THE CHINESE INVESTMENT OVERSEAS INCLUDING WHAT YOU I THINK PUT $1 BILLION INTO THE GENERAL MOTORS BUILDING JUST A FEW BLOCKS AWAY, IT'S STARTING TO COME BACK.

PEOPLE ARE BRINGING THAT MONEY BACK TO CHINA.

ARE YOU DOING THAT, AND IS THAT IMPORTANT FOR THE ECONOMY?

I THINK IT'S NOT THE MONEY BEEN BROUGHT BACK TO CHINA.

IT'S THE MONEY HAS BEEN STOPPED COMING BECAUSE CHINA A FEW YEARS AGO STARTED A CAPITAL CONTROL PROGRAM WHICH IS YOU CANNOT REALLY GET THE MONEY FREELY OUT OF CHINA, SO YOU'RE SEEING A DRASTIC DECLINE OF CHINESE INVESTMENT TO THE U.S. BECAUSE OF THAT.

IS THAT A BAD THING FOR THE IS THAT A BAD THING FOR CHINA?

I THINK THAT'S A BAD THING FOR THE U.S. BECAUSE YOU ALWAYS WELCOME THE INVESTMENT, RIGHT?

THE MORE THE BETTER, RIGHT?

THERE'S NEVER A LIMIT.

CHINA, I THINK THE CHINESE GOVERNMENT HAS TO DO IT BECAUSE OTHERWISE, YOU KNOW, THEY DON'T WANT TO SEE THE CAPITAL FLIGHT AND THEY HAVE TO PUT THE GATE AND SAY YOU CAN'T GET THE MONEY OUT AND THAT'S THE ONLY WAY AND THAT'S WHAT THEY ARE DOING.

HOW HARMFUL IS THIS TRADE WAR AND TALK OF TRADE WAR BETWEEN THE U.S. AND CHINA?

THIS IS BAD.

THIS IS REALLY BAD.

I MEAN, IT'S -- YOU CAN SEE THAT HERE IN THE U.S. IT'S -- IT'S SENT A JITTER TO THE MARKET, AND CHINA IS THE SAME, LIKE, YOU KNOW, EVEN MORE SO I THINK.

CHINA -- PEOPLE ARE -- THIS ONE TRADE WAR REALLY CAPTURES EVERYBODY'S ATTENTION.

ON TOP OF THAT, HAVE YOU THIS VERY POLITICAL -- AT LEAST IT'S INTERPRETED IN A VERY POLITICAL WAY BY CHINESE MEDIA AND PUBLIC THAT THE ARREST OF THE HUAWEI CEO, YOU KNOW, MOST CHINESE BELIEVE THAT'S A POLITICAL MOVE AND SHE'S BEING HELD HOSTAGE IN ORDER TO ADVANCE THE TRADE TALKS, SO THAT WAS UNFORTUNATE, SO THIS CHINESE ARE WATCHING IT AND THEN I'VE BEEN WATCHING IT IT SEEMS LIKE THE LAST TWO DAYS.

ONLY BEEN BAD NEWS COMING OUT FROM THIS.

LET'S HOPE THAT THAT IS GOING TO CHANGE AND GET BETTER.

AREN'T THERE SERIOUS CHARGES AGAINST HER?

I JUST DON'T KNOW THE DETAILS.

MAYBE IT IS, BUT YOU STILL NEED TO THINK ABOUT THE TIMING.

YOU STILL NEED TO THINK ABOUT WHAT'S THE RIGHT WAY OF DOING IT, AND IT SEEMS TO BE -- I DON'T UNDERSTAND -- IT SEEMS TO BE THE CHINESE DELEGATION ARRIVING THE DAY BEFORE THAT.

THIS IS AS IT WAS SENT OUT IN THE OFFICIAL NOTICE.

IF IT'S NOT AT ALL DESIGNED IT SEEMS TO BE MUCH OF A COINCIDENCE.

KOSS DONALD TRUMP HAVE SOME POINT THOUGH THAT PERHAPS WE HAVE TO REBALANCE AND RECALIBRATE OUR ECONOMIC RELATIONSHIP WITH CHINA?

I MEAN, TRUMP IS VERY FOCUSED ON TRADE DEFICIT, RIGHT, AND I DON'T KNOW THAT THIS TRADE DEFICIT CAN BE RESOLVED THIS WAY.

SOME JOBS LEFT THE UNITED STATES WERE REASON THAT THE JOBS -- THINGS ARE DONE CHEAPER IN OTHER COUNTRIES, AND THAT'S NOT JUST CHINA.

IT'S LIKE IF YOU'RE PRODUCING A MUG THAT'S CHEAPER TO PRODUCE IN INDONESIA AT HALF THE PRICE, YOU AS A MANUFACTURER WILL DO THAT.

WHAT CAN YOU DO THEN TO BRIDGE THE GAP BETWEEN THE U.S.

AND CHINA WHICH SEEMS TO HAVE BECOME VERY ACSLATED RECENTLY?

I THINK THAT THIS IS THE WORST TIME THAT I'VE SEEN IN MY HOW LONG, SINCE, YOU KNOW, 1980 I LEFT CHINA TO HONG KONG TO NOW.

THIS IS THE WORST TIME I'VE SEEN THE U.S.-CHINA RELATIONS, AND IT'S WORRISOME, AND I THINK SOMEONE LIKE ME WHO IS ALWAYS PRIDE MYSELF AS PART OF THE BRIDGE, BRIDGING CHINA TO THE REST OF THE WORLD AND U.S.-CHINA RELATIONS IS ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT RELATIONS, AND YET WE'RE SEEING, YOU KNOW, THE -- THE TENSION BUILD UP TO THIS LEVEL, AND I THINK THE MORE COMMUNICATION THE BETTER IT IS.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE THE AMERICAN LEADERSHIP OF WHAT TO DO TO HELP BRING DOWN THE TEMPERATURE OF THIS TRADE WAR?

WELL, THE THING IS I THINK CHINESE CULTURE AND AMERICAN CULTURE IS SO DIFFERENT, RIGHT, AND AMERICANS ARE USED TO BEING AGGRESSIVE NEGOTIATORS.

CHINESE ARE DIFFERENT.

CHINESE ARE ALWAYS LIKE WE SHOULD CREATE A FRIENDSHIP FIRST AND THEN IT'S EASY TO GET THE BUSINESS DONE.

IT'S A VERY DIFFERENT APPROACH.

SUPPOSE DONALD TRUMP WERE WATCHING THIS SHOW RIGHT NOW.

WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO HIM?

I THINK TONE DOWN THE RHETORIC AND GET THE DEAL DONE.

AND SUPPOSE THE CHINESE LEADERSHIP WERE LISTENING RIGHT NOW.

WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO THEM?

ALSO, YOU KNOW, JUST MAKE SURE THAT YOU GET THE DEAL DONE.

IT'S IMPORTANT TO GET THE DEAL DONE AND BILLIONS OF PEOPLE ARE DEPENDANT ON THIS.

TRADE WARS, NO ONE WINS OUT OF YOU PUT TARIFFS, THEY PUT TARIFFS AND YOU PUT MORE TARIFFS, AND ULTIMATELY WHAT?

CONSUMER IS GOING TO SUFFER.

YOU HAVE ON THE CHINESE EQUIVALENT OF TWITTER MORE THAN SO MILLION FOLLOWERS.

WOW.

THAT'S -- I MEAN, MAKING $3 BILLION AND SO MILLION FOLLOWERS, HOW DID YOU DO THAT?

WELL, FOR A WHILE THE CHINESE TWITTER CALLED WEIBO WAS VERY, VERY ACTIVE, LIKE TONS, TONS OF HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS.

PEOPLE WERE ON THAT EVERY DAY AND VERY VIBRANT SO I WAS JUST TWEETING A LOT.

I WAS ALWAYS TWEETING ABOUT MY WORK, MY LIFE, YOU KNOW, MY RUNNING, MY INTERVIEWS, MY TRAVEL AROUND THE WORLD, AND PEOPLE JUST FIND THAT INTERESTING, BUT NOW THAT IS NOT AS VIBRANT, YOU KNOW.

CHINESE TWITTER HAS BEEN HEAVILY CENSORED SO IT'S NOT AS VIBRANT.

I DON'T TWEET AS MUCH NOW.

DO YOU WORRY SOMETIMES ABOUT THE CENSORSHIP OF THE INTERNET AND SOCIAL MEDIA IN CHINA?

I DO.

I MEAN, I DO.

I THINK ANY CONSTRAINTS AND CONTROLS IS INEVITABLY SOMETHING THAT AFFECTS THE ENTREPRENEURSHIP. A FREE ENVIRO.

YOU NEED TO GIVE THE PEOPLE THE FREEDOM TO IMAGINE TO DO THINGS.

YES, DO I WORRY ABOUT THAT.

WOULD CHINA BE WISE TO JUST OPEN UP TO AMERICAN SOCIAL MEDIA, TO GOOGLE, TO THE FACEBOOK AND TWITTER AS WELL AS TO ITS HOME-GROWN SOCIAL MEDIA INSTEAD OF MAKING MORE RESTRICTIONS ON IT?

WELL, THAT'S -- WELL, I THINK WHEN SOCIAL MEDIA WAS INVENTED THAT WAS THE WHOLE IDEA, RIGHT, YOU CONNECT EVERYONE AROUND THE GLOBE, BUT I THINK INEVITABLY YOU WOULD HIT SOME STUMBLING BLOCKS BECAUSE SOME COUNTRIES WANT TO CONTROL TIGHTER, AND THAT'S THE CASE WITH CHINA, SO CHINA HAS ITS OWN SYSTEM, ITS OWN SOCIAL MEDIA.

IT'S NOT SMALL.

IT STILL HAS HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF PEOPLE THERE, BUT IT'S NOT CONNECTING WITH THE REST OF THE WORLD SO IT'S NOT LIKE CONNECTING.

IF YOU'RE ON FACEBOOK AND TWITTER, YOU'RE CONNECTING WITH EVERYONE AROUND THE WORLD.

CHINA IS ONLY CONNECTING WITH THE CHINESE, THAT SYSTEM, AND THAT'S SO FAR THE SYSTEM, AND I DON'T SEE HOW THIS IS GOING TO CHANGE IMMEDIATELY.

THERE'S A BILLIONAIRE BUSINESSWOMAN IN BEIJING.

ARE YOU SORT OF THE INSPIRATION NOW FOR MANY, MANY OTHER YOUNG PEOPLE IN CHINA SAYING I CAN ASPIRE TO BE THAT?

WELL, I GET INVITED TO SPEAK TO STUDENTS, YOU KNOW, A LOT, AND I LOVE IT.

I REALLY LOVE SPEAKING TO STUDENTS, AND IF ANYTHING I ALWAYS ENCOURAGE THEM TO GO OUT, STUDY AND BE THE BRIDGE AND CONNECT WITH THE WORLD AND, YOU KNOW, THE MORE ADVENTURE THE BETTER IT IS.

DID THAT HELP INFORM YOUR PHILANTHROPY THAT YOU'RE DOING THESE DAYS THIS, NEED TO HELP KIDS THAT DON'T HAVE PRIVILEGE TO GET A GREAT EDUCATION?

OH, DEFINITELY BECAUSE I LOOK BACK.

THE GAME-CHANGER IN MY LIFE WAS HAD HI STAYED AS A FACTORY GIRL I WOULDN'T HAVE CAPTURED THE OPPORTUNITIES LATER IN LIFE, AND SO WHEN I HAD THE MEANS TO HELP THE OTHERS, THE ONE THING THAT'S VERY CLOSE TO MY HEART IS THE FINANCIAL AID PROGRAM BECAUSE IT WASN'T SOMEBODY'S GENEROSITY TO SPONSOR ME TO GO TO COLLEGE, EVENTUALLY GO TO CAME BRIDGE, I WOULD NEVER BE ABLE TO DO WHAT I DO, SO I -- A FEW YEARS AGO MY HUSBAND AND I STARTED A SOHO CHINA SCHOLARSHIP PROGRAM WHICH IS TO PROVIDE FINANCIAL AID TO CHINESE STUDENTS COMING TO AMERICA TO STUDY.

THIS YEAR WE HAVE OVER 40 SOHO SCHOLARS AT HARVARD AND YALE.

THESE ARE FANTASTICALLY BRIGHT KIDS.

DIFFERENT FROM THE DAYS WHEN I WAS A STUDENT.

I COULDN'T SPEAK ANY ENGLISH OR VERY LITTLE ENGLISH AFTER LANGUAGE SCHOOL, BUT THESE KIDS ALL SPEAK FANTASTIC ENGLISH.

THAT'S HOW MUCH CHINA HAS CHANGED.

YOU HAVE STORIES ABOUT SOME OF THE STUDENTS COMING FROM RURAL AREAS AND YET SPEAKING ENGLISH AND YOU GET TO MEET THEM.

WHAT INSPIRES YOU ABOUT THEM?

GIVE ME ONE OF THOSE STORIES.

SO I MAKE A POINT OF MEETING THEM EVERY YEAR MULTIPLE TIMES, RIGHT?

AND THEN I HOST THIS FORUM EVERY YEAR IN THE FALL.

SOME OF THE OLDER SCHOLARS HAVE BEEN THERE LIKE A COUPLE OF YEARS AND SOME OF THE NEW SCHOLARS JUST CAME IN, AND I WOULD, YOU KNOW, ALWAYS TRY TO LEARN THEIR STORY.

ONE OF THE GIRLS REALLY STOOD OUT AND SHE -- SHE'S FROM A SMALL TOWN IN CHINA.

THIS IS A TOWN THAT PRODUCES VINEGAR, SO WE ALL KNOW THE PLACE AS A VINEGAR PRODUCER.

I SAID TO HER YOU SPEAK FANTASTIC ENGLISH.

WHERE DID YOU LEARN THAT FROM?

SHE SAID BY LISTENING TO TAYLOR SWIFT'S MUSIC.

THOUGHT, MY GOD, THAT WAS AMAZING THAT SOMEONE COULD LEARN ENGLISH THROUGH LISTENING TO SONGS OF TAYLOR SWIFT.

THANK YOU FOR BEING WITH US.

THANK YOU.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks with Juan Guaidó about his fight to oust Venezuelan President Maduro; Lawrence Wilkerson about President Trump’s disagreements with his staff; and Afghan MP Fawzia Koofi about the state of affairs in Afghanistan. Walter Isaacson speaks with Zhang Xin, CEO of SOHO China, about U.S.-China relations and her remarkable past.

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