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10 People You Should Know in China

10 People You Should Know in China

Photo: Dieter Spannknebel | Getty Images

China's once-in-a-decade leadership transition marks a turning point for the world's second biggest economy. The super power will be in the limelight as it ushers in a new era of economic progress and development.

While there is a lot of interest in China's new generation of leaders, who are expected to keep the Asian giant on the path of growth, there are also individuals who are working behind the scenes, broking deals and influencing decision making.

We have put together a list of 10 most important people to know in China who are likely to have an impact on the country's future. Our top 10 includes China's elite who exert political influence, are economic leaders and well known social figures.

Click ahead to find out which Chinese politicians, heads of key organizations and businessmen and women you should watch out for.

By Rajeshni Naidu-Ghelani Posted: Nov. 7, 2012.

Xi Jinping

Photo: How Hwee Young | AFP | Getty Images

Xi Jinping is China's current vice president, and vice chairman of the Central Military Commission. He is set to become the president of the world's second biggest economy in March next year once the leadership transition is complete.

The 59-year-old is considered a "princeling," born into a powerful political family. His father was China's former deputy premier Xi Zhongxun. Xi, however, has worked his way up in the Communist party. As a young man he was sent to work in the poor northeast Chinese countryside during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), where he became a rural community official. He went on to study chemical engineering at Tsinghua University in Beijing, an elite school, which current President Hu Jintao also attended.

He spent the early part of his career in Fujian Province — where he spent 18 years rising to the rank of governor — before a transfer to Zhejiang Province just south of Shanghai, where he spent five years, until 2007, first as governor and then as party chief, the top post in the province. In October 2007, Xi became a member of the Politburo's Standing Committee — the ruling inner circle — putting him place for a role in the new leadership that will be announced this month.

In September, the leader-in-waiting was in the spotlight when he disappeared from public appearances for two weeks sparking rumors of illness and a troubled succession. But those fears were put to rest when Xi appeared at a university function in Beijing looking fine. When Xi assumes power next year, he inherits a slowing Chinese economy, along with calls for reform to tackle social issues like corruption, political freedom and a widening wealth gap.

Li Keqiang

Photo: Feng Li | Getty Images

Li Keqiang has been China's vice premier since 2008 and is set to become the country's next prime minister in March.

Like would-be president Xi Jinping, an 18-year-old Li was one of tens of thousands sent to work on farms in China's eastern provinces as part of Mao Zedong's "sent-down youth" campaign in 1974. He went on to study law at the prestigious Peking University in the 1980s, where he helped translate the British book "The Due Process of Law," by an English judge. Reports suggest that Li, 57, had friends who included activists that went into exile after the June 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.

Climbing his way through the ranks of the Communist Party's Youth League, Li eventually became a member of the influential Politburo's Standing Committee in 2007 and is considered a protégé of current President Hu Jintao. In August, sources told Reuters Hu is pushing for his ally Li to be made the vice chairman of the military commission this year — a move that would allow Hu to maintain influence over the group even when he ceases to be the chairman of the commission. Li's promotion will also ensure there is no political retribution against Hu or his family by rivals who stay in power once he's gone, according to analysts.

Jiang Zemin

Photo: Minoru Iwasaki | AFP | Getty Images

Former President Jiang Zemin is considered among the three most powerful men in China, along with leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping and current President Hu Jintao.

Jiang was president from 1993 to 2003 and was the chairman of the Central Military Commission for 16 years up to 2005. The size of China's economy almost quadrupled from $440 billion to $1.64 trillion during his time in power. Though he officially retired 10 years ago, 86-year-old Jiang still retains his political influence amid the leadership transition and reportedly has a hand in picking candidates for the party's top decision-making body — the Politburo Standing Committee.

Jiang has recently made several public appearances despite reports of his death by a Hong Kong television station last year. His public appearances before the leadership transition this month show the power retired elders have long had over China's political process. Xi — the future president — is considered one of Jiang's most prominent protégés.

Pictured left: Chinese president Hu Jintao (L) shakes hands with former president Jiang Zemin.

Zhou Xiaochuan

Photo: Getty Images

Zhou Xiaochuan has been the governor of China's central bank — the People's Bank of China (PBOC) — for nearly 10 years.

As head of the central bank, Zhou has emerged as a powerful player in steering the world's second largest economy. In 2005, the central bank played a major role in gaining consensus among the Communist Party to implement the landmark revaluation of the local currency — the yuan. The PBOC was also the key force behind the Chinese government's decision to end a two-year peg to the U.S. dollar in 2010, which was introduced to help the country deal with the global financial crisis. Zhou made headlines in March 2009 by proposing to replace the U.S dollar as the world's main reserve currency with a beefed-up version of the Special Drawing Right (SDR), the International Monetary Fund's unit of account.

Last year, Zhou, 64, was ranked as the 15th most powerful person in the world by Forbes, one spot ahead of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He was also named "Central Bank Governor of the Year, " by business magazine Euromoney in 2011 for his efforts to open China up to greater international trade and investment. Local reports suggest Zhou is set to retire from his role as governor of the central bank next year as he turns 65 in January and a new candidate will be picked to head the PBOC. But, he may later become a senior government advisor.

Zong Qinghou

Photo: Nelson Ching | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Zong Qinghou, 67, is China's richest man and the country's richest lawmaker as member of China's National People's Congress (NPC) since 2002.

As chairman and CEO of China's largest beverage producer — the Hangzhou Wahaha Group — Zong's net worth is estimated to be $12.6 billion, according to China's annual rich list from the Hurun Report. He founded the drinks maker as an elementary school shop in the eastern city of Hangzhou in 1987 with a loan of $22,000. The firm now has about 200 subsidiary companies, which also include children's clothing and 40 manufacturing bases across China. Wahaha has a 15 percent market share of China's soft drinks market and sales for its children's clothing line top nearly $1 billion a year.

As a key Chinese political figure, Zong is no stranger to controversy. The tycoon made headlines in 2009 when his company ended its partnership with French food group Danone. The high-profile legal battle led to mediation by the Chinese and French governments and saw Danone sell its 51 percent stake in its China joint venture to Wahaha. In 2008, Zong was reportedly investigated for income tax evasion to the tune of $42.9 million over the previous 10 years. A deputy in the NPC, Zong got a lot of local media attention in March when he said the Chinese government should cut taxes and allow private investment in more industries. He has also called for further reform on personal income tax, saying the tax threshold needs to be increased further, giving the Chinese people more money to spend.

Wu Yajun

Photo: Longfor Properties

Wu Yajun is China's richest woman and considered the world's wealthiest self-made woman with a personal fortune of $6 billion, according to the Hurun Report. She is also a member of China's National People's Congress (NPC).

Ranked as the 8th richest person in China, Wu has made Hurun's rich list for more than a decade. Her wealth comes from Longfor Properties, a company the former journalist founded in 1995 with her husband. Wu, 48, is chairwoman of the real estate development firm in which her family holds a 76 percent stake. Feeding China's property boom, the business magnate's wealth ballooned in 2009 to $4 billion when the company made its debut on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. Her personal fortune rose to $6.64 in 2011, but has since shrunk nearly 10 percent, impacted by Beijing's attempts to cool China's property market.

While she is considered an influential member of the NPC, Wu maintains a low key approach, shunning the media for interviews.

Ren Zhengfei

Photo: Wang Xiwei | ChinaFotoPress | Getty Images

Ren Zhengfei, 68, is the founder and CEO of Huawei Technologies — the world's second biggest telecom equipment maker.

Rising from humble rural beginnings as one of seven children to school teacher parents, Ren went on to serve as an engineer in China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) for nearly a decade, and was invited to join the National People's Congress (NPC) in 1982. Ren founded Huawei in 1987 with $3,300, and now the Shenzhen listed telecom giant has a market cap of $238 million. He helped transform the company from a local business in to a global telecommunications provider.

Huawei has long been plagued with suspicions of having close ties to Beijing and the military as it tries to expand globally, because of Ren's background. The company recently made headlines after an 11-month U.S. government investigation urged American firms to and smaller Chinese rival ZTE. It cited concerns that Beijing could use equipment made by the two companies to spy on certain communications. The Australian government also blocked Huawei this year from bidding for a $38 billion high-speed broadband project in the country on concerns its equipment could be used for espionage amid cyber security fears.

Zhang Yin

Photo: Philippe Lopez | AFP | Getty Images

Zhang Yin, also known by her Cantonese name Cheung Yan, is the founder and director of Nine Dragons Paper — one of the world's largest packaging paper producers.

Zhang, 55, founded the firm in 1996 with her husband and by 2005 the company had become the largest paper maker in China. Her business model of buying waste paper from the U.S. and shipping it to China at cheap rates to turn into paperboard has earned her the title of "Queen of Trash" in the country. Zhang became the first woman to be named the richest person in China by the Hurun Report in 2006 after listing her company on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. Her net worth was estimated to be $3.4 billion then, but Forbes now estimates her fortune has shrunk to $1 billion as weak Chinese exports cut into demand for packaging over the past year.

Zhang is a member of the National People's Congress (NPC) and also holds roles in several Chinese organizations. She is the vice chairman of the China Federation of Overseas Chinese Entrepreneurs and honorary chairman of the US-China Federal Association of Business Councils. In 2007, Zhang was awarded China's "Entrepreneur of the Year" by Ernst & Young.

Fu Chengyu

Photo: Jerome Favre | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Fu Chengyu is the chairman of China's largest state-owned company China Petrochemical Corporation or the Sinopec Group, which is also Asia's largest oil refiner.

Before joining Sinopec in 2011, Fu was the CEO of another state-owned giant — China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), which is the country's biggest offshore oil and gas producer. During his nearly decade long stint at CNOOC, Fu, 61, was credited with turning the state-owned energy firm into a global operation with oil and gas assets around the world. Currently, CNOOC's $15.1 billion takeover bid of energy producer Nexen is under review by the Canadian government. If approved, the deal would be China's biggest overseas takeover.

Sinopec, meanwhile, is also looking to boost operations with Canadian firms and is waiting for approval on a 49 percent acquisition of Canada's Talisman Energy. Besides heading China's two biggest companies, Fu is also a member of the Communist Party of China and part of its Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.

Charles Chao

Photo: Raul Vasquez | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Charles Chao, also known as Cao Guowei, is the chairman, president and CEO of Sina — China's largest internet portal.

The former journalist and accountant joined Sina in 1999 as vice president of finance. He led the online giant to usher in micro blogging into China with Twitter-like website Sina Weibo that now boosts of 368 million registered accounts. That compares to 140 million active Twitter users worldwide. Weibo has become a powerful tool for sharing and accessing information in China's heavily censored online environment and has been credited with lending a voice to the masses.

Weibo is expected to drive the company's revenue in the second half of this year after Sina started monetizing the website in 2012 by offering special services to business accounts and selling VIP membership to regular users. Chao has announced plans to continue investing in Weibo as the company builds up its user base among China's more than half a billion internet users. Chao was named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world in 2011.