Stephen Schwarzman may think he has image problems in America. He is the co-founder and CEO of the Blackstone Group, and he threw himself a $3 million party for his 60th birthday last spring, shortly before making many hundreds of millions of dollars in his company’s IPO and finding clever ways to avoid paying taxes. That’s nothing compared with the way he looks in China. Here, he and his company are surprisingly well known, thanks to blogs, newspapers, and talk-show references. In America, Schwarzman’s perceived offense is greed—a sin we readily forgive and forget. In China, the suspicion is that he has somehow hoodwinked ordinary Chinese people out of their hard-earned cash.
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Interviews: "Private Equity Deconstructed" (August 14, 2007)
Atlantic senior editor Clive Crook weighs in on the private-equity business—why it's booming, where it's headed, and what it means for American capitalism.
Last June, China’s Blackstone investment was hailed in the American press as a sign of canny sophistication. It seemed just the kind of thing the U.S. government had in mind when it hammered China to use its new wealth as a “responsible stakeholder” among nations. By putting $3 billion of China’s national savings into the initial public offering of America’s best-known private-equity firm, the Chinese government allied itself with a big-time Western firm without raising political fears by trying to buy operating control (it bought only 8 percent of Blackstone’s shares, and nonvoting shares at that). The contrast with the Japanese and Saudis, who in their nouveau-riche phase roused irritation and envy with their showy purchases of Western brand names and landmark properties, was plain.
Six months later, it didn’t look so canny, at least not financially. China’s Blackstone holdings lost, on paper, about $1 billion, during a time when the composite index of the Shanghai Stock Exchange was soaring. At two different universities where I’ve spoken recently, students have pointed out that Schwarzman was a major Republican donor. A student at Fudan University knew a detail I didn’t: that in 2007 President Bush attended a Republican National Committee fund-raiser at Schwarzman’s apartment in Manhattan (think what he would have made of the fact that Schwarzman, who was one year behind Bush at Yale, had been a fellow member of Skull and Bones). Wasn’t the whole scheme a way to take money from the Chinese people and give it to the president’s crony?