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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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Turning now to a looming March deadline. No, it is not Brexit but rather the U.S.-China trade deal. China’s top trade negotiator, Vice President Li, 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 $2000 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, Xhang Xin is a self-made billionaire and CEO of SOHO China. It’s 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.


WALTER ISAACSON: Thank you so much for joining us. You grew up as a factory girl and then became a multibillionaire and you were born during the Cultural Revolution. How does that happen?

ZHANG XIN, SOHO China CEO: You know, my generation in China, we all were born during 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. We had nowhere — you know, we didn’t know how to start life there other than just being from 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 than was a manufacturing center in Asia. And, you know, I would work from floor to floor, because it — these factories are in high rise buildings. One floor would be the one that does collar, the other floor would do zipper, the other floor would do — put the sleeves together. So, I would just do it from factory to factory, whoever pays $1 more, I’d go to that factory. So, I did that for five years. And, obviously, I was desperate to leave. Hong Kong then was the English colony. So, the obvious place to go was to go to England. I had saved a little bit money. I had saved about 3,000 English pound, 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 language school, then went to high school, then to college and to graduate school, all of that in England.

ISAACSON: And so, you ended up, after leaving Cambridge, working for places like Barrington, Goldman Sachs. When did you sort of realize, “I should go back to China now, there’s an opportunity to do something big in China”?

XIN: I always wanted to go to China — go back to China. It was — you know, going to Goldman was a temporary, you know, detour from what I wanted to do. Because even at Cambridge when I was writing my thesis it was about China’s privatization. I was — China at the time in the 80s was already become very, you know, exciting with all the talks of the reforms and economic reforms and opened doors, and I just wanted to go back, to be part of that. But, you know, I couldn’t really get a job immediately back to China because I did not know how to do that. It happens 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’d always wanted to go back to China.

ISAACSON: And how big was this entrepreneurial explosion in China in the late 80s and 90s that you were able to tap into?

XIN: Oh, tremendous, tremendous. I mean, like no one had an idea how to do anything right. Like no one knew how to do a building right. 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.” So, I was like — 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 started that way in China, back in the 80s. Today, when you see theses state of the art buildings got build and — just imagine — you know, just remember like 25 years ago, 30 years ago there was none.

ISAACSON: You are 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.

XIN: Back in 2000, year 2000, there was a dot-com boom, boom and bust. And I remember, I as a developer, was thinking that, you know, people who are thinking about change, right, nobody — everyone is going to be working in the garage, no one’s 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, we’re going to be building different homes, different office, different people are going to work and live differently. So, with that, we came with this idea of Small Office Home Office, therefor SOHO. And so, essentially, it’s a duplex of — you know, on the top is the 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, you know, everyone was like got this dot-com buzz and wanted to have something to do with that. But we — after — you know, after 2000, after the bust of the dot-com era, we went back to just building traditional office buildings and, you know, focus on architecture and creativity and no longer doing this SOHOs.

ISAACSON: Some of the Chinese investment overseas, including like you, I think, put a billion dollars or so into the General Motors building just a few blocks away. It’s starting to come back, people — bringing that money back to China. Are you doing that and is that important for the economy?

XIN: I think it’s not the money been brought back to China, it is 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 coming to the U.S. because of that.

ISAACSON: Is that a bad thing for the U.S.? Is it a bad thing for China?

XIN: Well, I think bad thing for the U.S., you know, because you always welcome, you know, investment, right, the more the better, right, there’s never a limit. For China, I think, the Chinese government have to do it because otherwise, you know, they don’t want to see the capital flight and they have to put a gate and say, “You can’t get the money out,” and that’s the only way. And so, that’s what they — what they are doing.

ISAACSON: How harmful is this trade war and talk of trade war between the U.S. and China?

XIN: This is bad, this is really bad. I mean, it’s — you can see that here in the U.S., it sends that jitter to the market and China is the same, like, you know, even more so I think, you know, China — because people are — this one trade war thing, it really captures everybody’s attention. On top of that, you have this very political — well, at least, it’s interpreted in the very political way by Chinese media and public that the arrest of the Huawei CFO, you know, most Chinese believe that’s a political and she’s been held hostage in order to advance the trade talks. So, that was unfortunate. So, this — the Chinese are all watching it and then I’ve been watching it, it seems like the last two days really been bad news coming out from this. Let’s hope that it’s going to change and get better.

ISAACSON: But aren’t there serious charges against her?

XIN: I just don’t know the details, maybe this. 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 seem to be — I don’t understand this, it seems to be the Chinese delegation arriving the day before that, this was officially — send out the official notice, it seemed just to be to — if it is not at all designed, it seemed to be too much of a coincidence.

ISAACSON: Does Donald Trump have some point though that perhaps we have to rebalance and recalibrate our economic relationship with China?

XIN: I mean, Trump is very focused on trade deficit, right, and I don’t know this trade deficit can be resolved this way. Some jobs left United States for a reason that these jobs are just — 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, you know, at half the prize, you as a manufacturer would do that.

ISAACSON: What can you do to bridge the gap then between the U.S. and China, which seems to have become very aggravated recently?

XIN: Well, I think this is the worst time I’ve seen, you know, in my — how long — I mean, 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 has always prided 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 relationship. And yet, we’re seeing, you know, the tension and build up to this level. And I think the more communication, the better it is.

ISAACSON: What advice would you give the American leadership of what to do to help bring down the temperature of this trade war?

XIN: Well, the thing is, I think Chinese culture and American culture are so different, right. And Americans are used to being an aggressive negotiator. Chinese are different. Chinese are always like we should create a friendship first and then it’s easy to get the business done. That’s a very different approach.

ISAACSON: Suppose Donald Trump is watching this show right now what would you say to him?

XIN: I think tone down the rhetoric and get the deal done.

ISAACSON: And suppose the Chinese leadership were listening right now, what would you say to them?

XIN: Also, you know, just make sure that you get the deal done. It’s important to get deal done, you know, billions of people dependent on this. Trade wars are just — no one wins out of this. And, you know, you put tariffs, they put tariffs and you put more tariffs. And ultimately, what, the consumer is going to suffer.

ISAACSON: You have on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter more than 10 million followers. Wow. That’s — I mean, making $3 billion 10 million followers. How did you do that?

XIN: Well, for a while, the Chinese Twitter called Weibo was very, very, very active, you know, like tons, tons of the like hundreds of millions of people on that every day and very vibrant. And so, I was just tweeting a lot, you know, I was always tweeting about my work, my life, you know, my running, my interviews, my travel around the world and people just find it 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.

ISAACSON: Do you worry sometimes about the censorship of the internet and social media in China?

XIN: I do. I mean, I do. I think any constraints and controls is inevitably affects the entrepreneurship which needs a free environment and it needs to give people the freedom to imagine, to do things. Yes, I do worry about that.

ISAACSON: Would China be wise to just open up to American social media, to Google, to the Facebooks and Twitters as well as to its homegrown social media instead of making more restrictions on it?

XIN: 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 Twitter, and that’s the case with China. So, China has its own system, its own social media. It’s not small, it still got hundreds, millions of people there. But it is not connecting with the rest of the world. So, it’s not like connecting — if you — if you’re on Facebook, you have Twitter, you’re connecting with everyone around the world. China is only connecting with the Chinese, that system. And that, so far, the system and I don’t see how this is going to change immediately.

ISAACSON: And as a billionaire businesswoman in Beijing, are you sort of the inspiration for many, many other young people in China saying, “I can aspire to be that”?

XIN: 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, you know, be the bridge and connect with the world and, you know, the more adventures the better it is.

ISAACSON: And 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?

XIN: Oh, definitely, because I look back, the game changer in my life was education. Had I stayed as a factory girl, I wouldn’t have captured the opportunities later in life. And so, when I have 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 at somebodies generosity to sponsor me to go to college, eventually go to Cambridge, 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, and 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, you know, language school, but these kids all speak fantastic English. That’s how much China has changed.

ISAACSON: Tell me, you have stories about some of these 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.

XIN: So, I — you know, I make a point of meeting them every year multiple times, right. So — and then I host this forum every year in the fall, some of the older scholars will be in 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 stories. One of the girls really stood up and she’s from a small town in China called Jinjiang (ph). This is a town that produces vinegars. So, we all know this place is a vinegar producer. And I said to her, “You speak fantastic English. Where did you learn that from?” And she said, “By listening to Taylor Swift’s music.” I thought, “Oh, my God. That was amazing that someone could learn English through listening to songs of Taylor Swift.”

ISAACSON: Thank you for being with us.

XIN: 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.