SOHO China may not be China’s largest real estate developer, but it has become one of the country’s best known, thanks in no small part to the flamboyant style of the company’s leadership couple, Chairman Pan Shiyi and his wife/CEO Zhang Xin.
Pan and Zhang have effectively leveraged social media, primarily through Sina’s Weibo platform to publicise themselves and their project. Pan currently has more than 16 million followers on his Weibo account and Zhang has more than 5 million.
However, the Chinese government’s recent crackdown on social media, which has included detention of at least one billionaire entrepreneur, apparently has Pan parroting the need to maintain “order” on the Internet.
During an interview with CCTV last week, the usually glib real estate mogul who had no trouble battling charges of dodgy business deals from rivals such as Fosun, and took on the government over the need to be transparent about air quality issues, suddenly sounded like a local politician when asked by a government TV interviewer about the “social responsibility” of high profile bloggers (known on Weibo as Big V’s).
Pan replied, “I feel that ‘Big Vs’ — people with a lot of fans — should have even higher requirements of themselves, should have more discipline. You can’t be so casual.” (The South China Morning Post has a sub-captioned clip of the interview online here).
Compare this to what Pan’s wife, Zhang Xin said when being interviewed by Forbes in 2011, about the way that she and her husband had embraced Weibo.
At 2:40 in this video Zhang says that “People are speaking freely, so you really get a sense of what’s going on. The sentiment, the feeling, the opinions. All very, very real.”
In commenting on how her positions in social media might be looked at by the government, Zhang said,”If you started giving these giving these rehearsed answers, people don’t want to hear that.”
Or maybe some people do want to hear that, especially right now when they are sorting out who is interested in playing along.
Following the interview many social media commenters complained that Pan was “selling out” in the face of government pressure.
“Big V’s” (the name comes from the large V for Verified symbol displayed on their account pages and tweets), are often seen as helping to shape public opinion on issues, and have been under particular scrutiny as the new government in China attempts to rein in discourse on a variety of issues.
Pan’s comments came during the same week that outspoken Chinese businessman Wang Gongquan (and formerly a a fellow Big V) was detained as part of what some have called a crackdown on anti-corruption activists by the new government. Wang’s Weibo account had more than 1.5 million followers before it was shut down last year.
In Pan’s case, the developer of commercial real estate projects in Shanghai and Beijing has more than 16 million followers, and he has previously been outspoken on issues such as the need to control China’s air quality.