Last week, Kong Dongmei, wife of an auction house boss and insurance magnate in China, appeared with her husband on a widely-followed list of the 500 richest people in China. Kong is the granddaughter of Mao Zedong, who you have to figure wasn't big on insurance company fortunes. Or private fortunes at all. Cue shouts of hypocrisy.
Kong is worth five billion yuan or about $815 million. So she's not George Soros-type loaded. But China is not a wealthy country, taken on a per-citizen basis. World Bank statistics from 2011 say China's gross national income per capita is less than $5,000, and that 170 million people live on less that $1.25 per day. "With the second largest number of poor in the world after India, poverty reduction remains a fundamental challenge," goes the summary accompanying those World Bank stats.
Now in her forties, this China Daily story claims Kong was a 1999 student at the University of Pennsylvania, then eventually opened a bookstore and cultural center focused on her grandfather. Allowing that China Daily has a Fox News-esque relationship to neutrality, the story describes a person interested in a family legacy she didn't experience directly (she was born at the end of Mao's life, and doesn't remember meeting him).
Her mother's memoir in 2000, My Father Mao Zedong, was a revelation and decided her eventual career path.
"My mother lived with my grandfather for 15 years and wrote about her experiences and observations. Unlike her, I had to seek other ways to figure out the answers to what I didn't understand," she says.
After returning from the U.S. in 2001, Kong set about retracing her family's footsteps. She interviewed family members and old acquaintances, dug into historical archives and published four bestsellers: Opening My Family Album: My Grandfather Mao Zedong; Grandmother's Story: Mao Zedong and He Zizhen; Those Days Changed the World: Conversations With Wang Hairong About Mao Zedong's Diplomacy; and Quotations From Chairman Mao.
"It is a way of getting to know more about them, and at the same time it is a journey to my roots," she says.
Or she's full of crap, trading on the family name to sell books. No one seems sure. The controversy around Kong cut two ways over the weekend, according to translations of some of the online noise at Chinese social media hub Weibo. (The International Business Times has a good summary.) Critics characterize the wealthy Kong as a classic gold digger figure, who traded on her name when it suited her, then schemed her way into wealth. Her husband founded the auction and insurance businesses before the couple married, and maybe before they met.
Stories about Kong rarely fail to note she'd been her husband's mistress during his previous marriage, and the couple now have three children, in apparent violation of China's controversial one-child policy. Also her half-brother, Mao Xinyu, is a general in the Chinese army, and tends to pop up in characterizations of Kong. Xinyu, the Good Son figure in the story, is usually shown eschewing the fame of the family name. Shanghaiist has some background on the family angle. Kong's supporters, meanwhile, paint her as a keeper of the family legacy, through her best-selling books and her chic bookstore, which China Daily claims is shown in the photo embedded above.