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China's once richest man, Zong Qinghou, dies aged 79

February 25, 2024

Zong Qinghou, whose drinks company Wahaha once made him the wealthiest person in China, has died. Beverages from the company are still a mainstay in Chinese shops and kiosks.

Zong Qinghou
Despite his wealth, Zong Qinghou claimed to live on less than $6,000 per yearImage: picture alliance/CFOTO

Zong Qinghou, a prominent Chinese business magnate with a rags-to-riches story, died on Sunday at 79 after "treatment for an illness proved ineffective," his company said.

In 1987, Zong founded the Wahaha conglomerate, whose bottled water, soft drinks, tea and other products can be found in retail outlets across China. 

He was listed by Forbes magazine as China's richest person in 2010, with a fortune of $8 billion (€7.4 billion).

Staying under a bridge

Zong did not go into business until he was in his 40s, when he began selling soft drinks to children.

At the time, he was reportedly so hard up that he was forced to sleep under a bridge in Beijing, as he was unable to find the cash for a hotel.

However, the conglomerate he then went on to found, Wahaha, flourished, and now employs more than 30,000 people.

Last year, Forbes estimated him to be the 53rd-richest person in China, with a net worth of $5.9 billion.

Despite his wealth, Zong claimed to live on less than $6,000 per year, saying he had learned frugality from the teachings of Mao Zedong.

Wahaha, whose name means "laughing child" in Chinese, has since extended its production to include baby milk and clothing.

In 2021, Zong took a back seat in the company, and appointed his daughter, Zong Fuli, as vice chairperson and general manager. 

tj/sri (AFP, EFE)