Caixin
Mar 06, 2019 09:13 PM
SOCIETY & CULTURE

Obituary: China’s Tobacco King Dies at 91

Chu Shijian. Photo: VCG
Chu Shijian. Photo: VCG

Chu Shijian, China’s “King of Tobacco,” died on Tuesday. He was 91.

The cause of death was not known.

Chu, former president of Hongta Tobacco (Group) Co. Ltd., was a businessman who was so committed to entrepreneurship that he didn’t stop pursuing it even after the most trying time of his life — imprisonment.

Born to a peasant family in 1928 in Yuxi, Southwest China’s Yunnan province, Chu joined the army before holding odd jobs at farms, sugar factories and wineries.

In 1979, he was offered the job to lead a near-bankrupt cigarette factory in his hometown. During his 16 years in charge, Chu transformed the factory, later renamed Hongta Group, into the largest in Asia in the 1980s and 1990s.

In 1995, the company rolled more than 100 billion cigarettes. The next year, Hongta — famous for its flagship brand Hill of Red Pagoda— reported $2.3 billion in revenue.

However, things took an unexpected and dramatic turn in 1999, when he was sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of corruption and embezzlement. He was 71. The sentence was later reduced to 17 years.

In prison, Chu developed a severe case of diabetes and was released on medical parole in early 2002. Instead of retiring, Chu embarked on a second career that made a lasting impression with the public.

Leasing 134 hectares of wasteland, Chu and his wife started an orange farm with 300 people in Yunnan. The oranges became hugely popular and fans affectionately called them “Chu oranges.” His plantation grew so large that it went on to produce more than 4,000 tons of oranges in 2009.

Obit2

Chu Shijian examines an orange in October 2009 at an orchard in Yuxi county, Southwest China's Yunnan province. Photo: VCG

In an interview in February 2018, Chu’s granddaughter told Caixin that Chu was a decisive entrepreneur. She recalled an episode in 2015, when the plantation had an issue with production quality. Despite facing opposition from all sides, Chu decided to axe parts of the affected plants, despite the toll it would take on the harvest. His decision was later proven right as the issue was resolved.

Liu Chuanzhi, founder of computer giant Lenovo Group Ltd., saluted Chu at a public event in 2014. He said Chu’s tobacco company paid 20 billion yuan ($2.98 billion) in annual taxes in the late 1990s — an astronomical figure at that time considering technology companies like Lenovo reported less than 20 billion yuan in total revenue a year.

Contact reporter Jason Tan (jasontan@caixin.com)

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