For young technocrats such as Weng Xianding, China's complicated politics after June, 1989, prompted worries about whether government work was for them. Doubting he could make a major impact as a Beijing bureaucrat, Weng--a rising star at the State Planning Commission--joined the exodus of government officials into the business world.
Now, he runs an ambitious $120 million investment company in fast-paced Shenzhen, the economic zone near Hong Kong. Among the projects of his China New Industries Investment Co.: a futures-and-commodities trading firm, a clinic to treat nearsightedness with lasers, a raft of high-tech startups, a major office complex, and a glitzy sports club that boasts a gymnasium, racquetball court, karaoke lounges, and three bowling lanes.
Weng relied on his Class of '77 contacts to build the group. After working at a brick factory in Henan province, Weng scored so well on the 1978 university entrance exam that he was admitted into the master's program at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, then a hotbed of reformist economic theory. There, he met students who would later attain government positions. After getting a master's in banking and finance in Milan, Italy, Weng set up New China Industries. Its 17 shareholders include provincial governments from around China and his old employer, the State Planning Commission.
Weng believes his background prepared him well for the current phase of China's economic transition, in which most companies straddle the line between the public and private sectors. Over time, Weng thinks the business sector will become a major catalyst for change in Chinese society. "We don't care about ideology, we just want the system that works best," he says. "Changes will happen very fast through economic reform."
By turning New China Industries into a major financial-services company, Weng plans to play a big part.