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Zong Qinghou, a self-made beverage entrepreneur who was as soon as the richest particular person in China, died on Sunday.

His demise was introduced by his firm, Wahaha Group, which stated that Mr. Zong had died from an unspecified sickness and gave his age as 79. The corporate assertion offered no additional particulars.

Mr. Zong’s rags-to-riches story had made him distinguished in China even earlier than a public feud along with his international enterprise associate significantly raised his profile — and his wealth. He based a beverage firm within the Eighties, and within the Nineties, he partnered with Danone, the French meals big, to launch one of many best-known meals and beverage manufacturers in China.

However tensions erupted in 2007 when Danone accused Mr. Zong of working secret firms promoting nearly similar merchandise that siphoned off as a lot as $100 million from the three way partnership.

Mr. Zong struck again, saying that Danone had recognized in regards to the firms. Vowing to punish Danone for its “evil deeds,” he rallied public opinion in China towards the international firm.

The dispute grew so acrimonious that France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, raised the matter in a gathering with China’s chief, Hu Jintao. In 2009, Danone bought its 51 p.c stake, giving Mr. Zong’s firm full management.

The next 12 months, Forbes named Mr. Zong the richest man in China, with a fortune of $8 billion. He achieved the excellence once more in 2012, with $10 billion. Forbes estimated that his wealth has since sunk to $5.9 billion, placing him at No. 53 on final 12 months’s record of China’s billionaires.

Survivors embrace his spouse, Shi Youzhen, and their daughter, Zong Fuli, (also called Kelly Zong), who’s the president of the Hangzhou Wahaha Group and Mr. Zong’s successor.

Mr. Zong, who grew up poor, was recognized for a spartan lifestyle. In interviews, he stated he arrived at firm headquarters earlier than 7 a.m. and labored till 11 p.m. He stated he had no hobbies — past smoking and ingesting Lipton tea.

In accordance with various accounts, he was born in October or December of 1945 (his firm might have used a conventional Chinese language methodology of counting ages wherein an individual is taken into account 1 12 months outdated at delivery) in or close to Hangzhou, a metropolis near Shanghai. He was amongst many youths despatched to the countryside through the Cultural Revolution, and spent years working at a farming commune.

He turned a touring salesman in 1978, the identical 12 months the nation’s new chief, Deng Xiaoping, started ushering in an period of capitalism. A few decade later, Mr. Zong opened a stall close to a main college, hawking delicate drinks and iced treats.

Seeing hungry kids go by prompted him to invent a vitamin drink, which he known as Wahaha Oral Liquid. “It solved the issue of children who didn’t wish to eat and suffered from malnutrition,” he stated in a BBC interview.

The Hangzhou Wahaha Group — “Wahaha” interprets loosely to “laughing baby”— was born quickly afterward, promoting bottled water, delicate drinks and teas. It later expanded into toddler components and youngsters’s clothes.

In 1996, it teamed up with Danone, the French meals firm greatest recognized for its yogurt, forming the Wahaha Joint Enterprise Firm. Promoting yogurt drinks, carbonated drinks and meals merchandise, it had amassed 15 p.c of China’s beverage market by 2012, trailing solely Coca-Cola and Tingyi Holdings.

After Danone accused Mr. Zong of misconduct, he fought again with an open letter, accusing Danone of spreading lies about his firm’s enterprise practices and slandering his household. Wahaha officers staged rallies and held information conferences denouncing Danone officers as “rascals.”

Danone ended up promoting its stake for about $500 million, far lower than analysts believed it was price.

The breakup despatched a frisson of concern by means of multinationals, notably in sectors like automotive manufacturing, wherein the Chinese language authorities required joint ventures and restricted international firms’ stakes to 50 p.c.

However it proved extra an remoted episode than a bellwether, and on reflection, a mere blemish in an in any other case halcyon period. Lately, multinationals have encountered different, far tougher obstacles.

Rising geopolitical tensions have led to waves of sanctions between China and the USA. Practically three years of “Covid zero” lockdowns and different measures badly harm manufacturing and gross sales for a lot of firms. And China’s state safety companies have turn out to be faster to close down international companies that concern them, notably due-diligence companies.

“It was a high-profile case that obtained folks’s consideration,” Ker Gibbs, a former president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, stated of the Danone episode. “However trying again on it now, it’s clear that the general atmosphere at that interval in time was fairly secure and pleasant to international companies.”

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