Huawei’s Sabrina Meng Wanzhou is the new face of China’s rich and powerful corporate heiresses

Sabrina Meng Wanzhou’s arrest in Canada has turned the Huawei chief financial officer from a low profile executive into one of the most recognisable faces in the world, drawing attention to the emergence of a group of rich and powerful daughters who are set to walk into the limelight of the Chinese business world.

Before being imprisoned in Vancouver upon request of the United States earlier this month, a move which infuriated Beijing and created an escalating diplomatic row between China and Canada, the 46-year-old daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei had kept an exceptionally low profile.

Meng has been working for the family business for around 25 years, climbing the corporate ladder along with Huawei’s phenomenal expansion, but little information previously existed about her apart from a brief official profile and a small sample of photos.

But after her arrest at Vancouver International Airport on December 1 and subsequent court hearing and release on C$10 million (US$7.5 million) bail, Meng has had her personal life turned upside down with information about her marriage, children, passports and the value of her properties in Vancouver thrust into the public domain, shedding light onto the lifestyle of Chinese female heiresses who are set to run vast business empires created by their fathers.

Meng did not appear on the list of the top 50 richest women compiled by the Hurun Report this year, largely due to the fact there is little public information about her net worth since Huawei’s valuation and ownership structure information remains private.

But the list did include at least seven second generation women, who obtained their wealth from their parents.

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Generally speaking, they all studied or lived abroad, saw their parents accumulate massive wealth from scratch, and faced relatively little or no competition from siblings partly thanks to China’s rigid one-child policy over the last four decades.

They also face similar challenges such as handling relations with China’s male-dominated bureaucratic system as they make their way up and to the top of the corporate ladder, according to analysts.

“From a purely business standpoint, these female corporate titans probably face little gender-based resistance,” said Brock Silvers, managing director of Shanghai-based investment advisory Kaiyuan Capital.

“From a government relations standpoint, however, this can be a complicated development, as much of China’s high level bureaucracy is still male-dominated, and those social relationships can be an existential requirement for many business models.”

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The pressure “of filling a legendary father’s shoes” will also weight heavy on the heiresses, added Silvers.

In addition to Huawei’s Meng, Yang Huiyan is the second daughter of Yeung Kwok-keung, who founded property developer Country Garden.

Yang, 37, has a personal wealth estimated at 150 billion yuan (US$21.8 billion) due to her 57 per cent stake in her father’s company, from which she receives a salary of 15 million yuan (US$2.18 million) per year.

China’s richest women, according to the Hurun Report, took a step forward this month after being promoted to co-chairman of Country Garden along with her father, according to a stock exchange filing.

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Yang graduated from Ohio State University with a bachelor’s degree in marketing and logistics before joining Country Garden in 2005 and working her way through the ranks from head of procurement to vice-chairman before this month’s promotion.

Like Meng before her arrest, Yang has never accepted a media interview and her lifestyle is shrouded in secrecy.

Another prominent female heiress in the Chinese corporate world is Liu Chang, who took control of New Hope Liuhe, one of China’s largest animal feed producers under the conglomerate New Hope Group, in 2013 from her billionaire father Liu Yonghao at the age of just 33.

Liu, who has a 36 per cent stake in the group, shares a wealth of 14.5 billion yuan with her mother, according to the Hurun Report.

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She went to high school in the United States in 1994 aged 14, but went back to work for her father a decade later.

Before taking charge of New Hope Liuhe, she briefly ran cafes and accessories shops in Chengdu supported by investment from her father, and later took a job with the New Hope Group in Singapore, according to Chinese state media reports.

The annual report from Shenzhen-listed New Hope Liuhe showed she earned in the region of 3.85 million yuan (US$559,620) before tax last year.

Kelly Zong Fuli is another female heiress on track to take over from her father, in this case Zong Qinghou, who was China’s richest man in 2010, according to the Hurun Report.

Zong Qinghou created Wahaha Group, which is China’s largest beverage group, and his daughter now runs major subsidy Hongsheng Beverage.

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The 36-year-old attended San Marino High School in United States and graduated from Pepperdine Christian university in 2004.

In an interview with The Guardian in 2013, she was quoted by the British newspaper as saying that China’s economic development had come at a cost.

“I think we lost our soul. In the US, they have beliefs: Christianity, Catholicism. China has Buddhism but I don’t think people really believe it in their heart,” she was quoted as saying.