A very enthusiastic recommendation for Evan Osnos’s excellent profile of Cheung Yan and the Nine Dragons Paper empire in the March 30 issue of the New Yorker. Spectacular stuff. Now, Cheung’s name may not ring a bell, but her reputation, might: she was, until recently, the self-made Trash Queen, the richest woman in China, and the mastermind behind the unstoppable Nine Dragons Paper empire. Alas, despite all of its success, Nine Dragons proved to be as sensitive to the global economic crisis as other recycling companies, and – like many of its Chinese peers – it’s facing deep financial difficulties.
The Osnos piece is impressive for a number of reasons, not least of which is the access Osnos obtained to Cheung, her husband, Liu Ming Chung, and the Nine Dragons facility [update 3.26.09: and here, on his blog, Osnos gives a very entertaining explanation of how he pulled it off]. That’s no small trick. Cheung and Liu are notoriously stingy with the media – especially foreign media – preferring, instead, state-owned outlets and trade publications. For years, that PR approach allowed them to create an impenetrable image of success that was only punctured, in the last year, with the decline of the markets, several ill-advised remarks by Cheung, and temperamental labor activists. So, perhaps, the couple felt that they had nothing to lose by opening up to a profile.
In any case, earlier this decade I made several efforts to profile Cheung, but without success. Then, in September 2005 I was invited to join a delegation of nine US paper executives on a trade mission to several Chinese mills, including the Nine Dragons plan in Dongguan. I accepted immediately.
The account that follows is excerpted from a much longer account of that visit, to appear in 2010. Please keep in mind that the visit took place in a far different market environment, and during a period of expansion and growth for Nine Dragons. The company, as described by Osnos, is a much different place these days. The one that I visited was flush with success, and a bit unguarded in the presence of American paper suppliers: Continue reading