IF YOU HAVE Rode one of China’s crowded and rickety green trains in 1989, bouncing in a hard-seat car, you might have noticed Yang Huaiding sitting nearby. Or maybe not. He had been careful not to stand out, wearing drab clothes and a faded faux leather duffel bag. The black-rimmed glasses, disheveled hair and stained teeth were her usual look. If he smoked more than usual and wiped off more sweat, it was because in the bag, covered with newspaper, there were thousands of yuan in ten yuan bills. He needed a police escort and sometimes he hired one.
He was traveling to Hefei, Anhui Province, from his hometown Shanghai, to buy Chinese government bonds. In 1988, the communist regime, needing to rebuild the economy and consolidate its state-owned enterprises, made limited decisions to let the public become investors. Bonds could be freely traded, initially, in just seven cities. But Shanghai and Hefei, two of the seven, were only a night’s train ride apart. And Mr. Yang had learned, by perusing the local papers in the public library extensively, that bonds priced at 94 yuan in relatively poor Anhui, where collective farmers received them as part of their wages, sold for much more. expensive in Shanghai. Hence the travel bag, containing (since he did not have a checkbook) a large part of his savings.
He was the first man in China to conduct long-distance bulk transactions in government bonds, earning one million yuan, his first “bucket of gold”. And he had also been the first to buy them. Most of the others were suspicious, even scared, of this strange capitalist enterprise, but not him. He loved the old adage that the first man to assume that a crab could be edible was either very far-sighted or very hungry. He was both, and later when he became a big name in investing, his business card read, “Learn from those who are brave enough to eat crab … and befriend them!”
On April 21, 1988, he was therefore on the verge of the start of the bond sale, with 20,000 yuan (then $ 5,400) saved on his job as a storekeeper at the Shanghai ferroalloy plant and on his wife’s trading enterprises. . That morning he put his money in one bond; in the afternoon, he sold it with a profit of 800 yuan, more than his annual salary. He was addicted. When in 1990 the government ordered transactions to be conducted through two national stock exchanges, it navigated the Shanghai securities market as if it had been born there. His first purchase was 2,000 shares in a TV tube maker, bought 100 yuan each and sold in six months for over 800. Another bucket of gold. He had long since left the factory for a private trading room in an investment firm where, fortified by giant tea pots and countless Double Happiness cigarettes, he watched and played the market all day.
Now his name was Yang Baiwan, Millions Yang, and crowds of impatient Chinese gamblers were jostling to follow his lead. If a storekeeper with only elementary education, living in a one-room apartment, could make such a fortune in the markets, so could they. They clung to his advice, besieged him in the streets and at his office door during lunch breaks, demanded tips. He had plenty of them: “When the front of the purse is full of bikes, sell. “” The only money you really have is in your pocket. “Hunt the bottom, avoid the top.” He wrote five books, lectured, and in 1993 – when the Shanghai market got too foamy and he cautiously dropped out when the index hit 1,500, missing the inevitable crash – was hired as a teacher. Although institutional investors quickly took over from amateur traders, China’s leap to become the world’s second-largest stock market was largely driven by people like him.
Wealth didn’t seem to change him much. After his first windfall, he bought himself luxury foreign cigarettes and shared them around the factory. He bought a pointy suit or two. But a polo shirt or anorak was more his style, and he continued to live for some time with his wife and son in the studio where, very early on, he had spread his profits in bundles all over the bed.
His fans called him the god of the stock, roaming the markets like a rising tide or walking boldly through his ravenous flames. He saw it more as ordinary life (his entire life), with its ups and downs. A large set of worry beads was also on his desk. When in 2007 on the state TV he recommended PetroChina stocks, which then plunged, he vowed not to tip so casually again. When some people complained, as they loudly did, that his Millions software was not working and his investment system was not making them money, he shrugged. It was not good to treat the market like a casino. You had to study it constantly, the companies, the conditions, the atmosphere, before jumping.
He also closely monitored what the government was doing. His big break in 1988 came from a surprising change in policy. Another could appear in the very next communiqué from a plenary session of the Central Committee. And he wanted to be sure that his creeping capitalist actions stayed within Communist rules. As a teenager, born in the “new China” under the red flag, he had been a red guard, fighting fiercely to enforce a traffic law in Shanghai according to which revolutionary red meant “Go”, not “Stop”. Now he was worried that what he was doing, urging the economy to buy cheap and sell dear, was profit and therefore a crime. Among his many firsts was a Chinese man’s first voluntary trip to a tax office (his father had worked in an office), to ask him if he owed tax on his bond sales. The soft answer was no.
In fact, he was pretty sure he was a people’s hero. Chinese state TV said so in 1998, when he was named “Man of the 20th Anniversary of China’s Reform and Opening-Up.” And he made the case himself. The purpose of the revolution, he said, was to make people rich, and that’s what a stock market did. It was a socialist university of finance without walls; anyone could play it, learn from it, and become as rich as him, or richer. He had set the example, picked up the crab, boiled it, opened it and feasted on it. Then all of China shared it and immediately decided that they liked it too. ■
This article appeared in the Obituary section of the print edition under the title “Manger le crab”