Zhang Xin, one of the richest women in China, is trying to acquire one of the crown jewels of Manhattan real estate.
Chinese property tycoon Zhang Xin is making a play for the historic General Motors building in New York, just as she's coming under scrutiny at home and makes at least one brazen call for China to embrace democracy.
Zhang and her family are reportedly in discussions to buy a 40 percent stake in the marble-faced 705-foot (215 meter) trophy building, home to FAO Schwartz and a flagship Apple Store. The tycoon, CEO of the largest commercial property developer in Beijing and Shanghai, joins a long line of Chinese investors queuing up for US real estate -- a trend reminiscent of the Japanese investors in the late 1980s and 1990s who bought iconic American commercial properties likeRockefeller Center and the Pebble Beach golf resort.
The price under discussion, according to the Wall Street Journal, would value the GM building at $3.4 billion -- by far the most expensive in the United States. Who is Zhang, and why is her family making such a major play for the GM building?
Zhang posts daily, mostly from her iPad on China's Twitter-like microblogging platform Sina Weibo, where she has over 5 million followers. Her posts range from photos of Beijing's pollution to musings on global news events, including the Newtown shooting ("Honestly, can't the politicians set aside politics and ban guns? There are always mental patients in the crowd and we can't give guns to them."), Mitt Romney (After he promised to bring jobs back to the US from China: "Don't talk nonsense. Would Americans really do the work Chinese people do?"), and Oscar Pistorius ("Terrible. A Valentines Day tragedy.")
She's a prolific blogger
Zhang is part of a class of Chinese business people who moved back home after working in the West and are known as hai gui, "sea turtles," a pun on a similar-sounding phrase for "returning from the sea." After moving to Hong Kong as a teenager, where she worked in a garment factory, Zhang studied at the University of Sussex and Cambridge University and then found work with Goldman Sachs. When she returned to China and married her husband, Pan Shiyi (He reportedly proposed to her within four days of their meeting; she took three days before saying yes) she was known among their coworkers as "Pan's foreign wife".
Zhang has become increasingly outspoken in politics. As recently as 2011, she claimed to be apolitical, but she regularly posts about Chinese reforms and the need to clean up pollution. Last year she said the reason why China has no one like Steve Jobs is because the political system squashes creativity. In an interview last week with 60 Minutes, she said: "If you ask one thing everyone craves for is what? It's not food. It's not homes. Everyone craves for democracy. I know there's a lot of negativities in the U.S. about the political system, but don't forget, you know, 8,000 miles away, people in China are looking at it, longing for it." Asked if she believed democracy would come to China in 20 years, Zhang said, "sooner." In 1995, the two set up a real estate company; within 10 years SOHO China became the country's largest property developer. They became some of China's wealthiest and most flamboyant property couples, entertaining the likes of Rupert Murdoch and his wife during the Olympics in Beijing in 2008. Pan is the company's chairman and Zhang is the chief executive.