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Chu Shijian, one of China’s most iconic entrepreneurs, passed away in March, aged 91.

Chu made his name by transforming a near-bankrupt local cigarette factory into one of the largest tobacco companies in Asia in the 1980s and 1990s. In its heyday, Hongta Group contributed about 60 percent to the fiscal revenues for China’s Southeastern Yunnan province. The success of the Tabaco business brought Chu an armload of awards. He was honored as a ‘model worker’ by the local government and ‘top ten reformer’ by the central government.

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His legend did not end as China’s Tabaco titan. At the age of 75, Chu threw himself into orange orchard in the barren hills of his hometown and grew this small business into a fruit plantation empire. After ten years of hard work, his oranges are famous throughout China, giving Chu a new nickname as the “King of Oranges”.

The Roller-coaster Life

However, in between his two successful business enterprises, Chu’s life was turbulent and controversial.

His career as a prominent leader of the state-owned tobacco company ended up in disgrace when he was prosecuted for embezzling 1.1 billion yuan (US$174 million) from the cigarette conglomerate.

In 1999, Chu was sentenced to life imprisonment for corruption charges at the age of 71. His only daughter was also jailed. The old man lost his only daughter when stohe committed suicide in prison.

After serving about three years of imprisonment, Chu was bailed out due to his health condition in 2002. His sentence later was reduced.

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Never To Old To Start

At the age of 75, Chu made another boldest decision in his life. Instead of living a retired life, Chu and his wife started a new venture in agriculture.

When the ailing man decided to grow oranges, people believed he was out of his mind. However, genuine friendships Chu built in his business career were fruitful. He managed to finance more than ten million U.S. dollars within days.

Chu’s pursuit of excellence is in his genes, no matter what he does. Chu bought a small plot of land and began to labor in the mountainous areas in order to cultivate new varieties of oranges.

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Chu said that only by keeping himself busy from dawn until dusk, he was able to survive the dark days in his life and the deep grief of losing his daughter.

Chu’s hometown is famous for orange growing because of the climate and terroir. To ensure that the sweetness of the oranges is palatable to Chinese consumers and the water contained in the orange is sufficient, Chu led a research in developing a unique kind of organic fertilizer mixed with the stem of tobacco that allows oranges to fully absorb soil nutrients.

Chu’s hard work paid off. The orchard crew refined the growing procedures to produce fruits with the lowest pulp level, thinnest peel, and just enough tartness.

By 2010, Chu’s oranges were already very popular in Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan.

An Inspiring Story to Learn and Sell

In 2012, ten years after his release from prison, Chu’s creation attracted the attention of an ecommerce platform – Benlai.com.

The fresh grocery website marketed the oranges by highlighting the ups and downs of Chu’s life. The compelling story plus the good taste of the oranges appealed to consumers as they flooded buy the fruits. It is said that about 20 tons were sold out in less than four days.

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People began to ignore the initial brand name Yun Guan and labeled fruits “Chu oranges”. In 2014, Chu officially registered the trademark “Chu Orange”.

Presently, the orchard has expanded to be empire coving more than 5,000 hectares, with half of land mature enough to bear fruits. About 200 farming couples were hired there, with an annual earning more than 100,000 yuan.

Back In The Limelight

Chu’s life story distinguishes him from other Chinese entrepreneurs.

In December 2018, Chu was picked as an exemplary figure in a documentary celebrating the 40th anniversary of China’s reform and opening up movement.

In his talk to China Global Television Network (CGTN), the international arm of China’s state-owned media, Chu said, “I was confident about growing oranges. When we planted tobacco, we were dealing with one hundred times the size of the orchard now. This is a piece of cake. My oranges are sold well because costs are low, and they taste great.”

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“It’s not just for our own livelihood but good for the country, for the society,” the old man commented.

At his ninetieth birthday celebration, Chu was asked about the reason for his bouncing back and success. He said, “A person who is not diligent will never find success. The right path is embracing the vicissitudes of life. I believe in these basic ideas, and that people experience good times as well as adversity. When the situation is bad, don’t get discouraged. When things are good, don’t be overly proud.”  

Chu’s Legacy

In many ways, Chu’s life was a legend and his death was symbolic. Along with him, a generation of China’s entrepreneurs, who were born in the 1920s, bowed and left the center stage.

Chu will be remembered as a Tabaco and Orange King. As Chinese entrepreneurs paid homage to Chu for his management skills and his unyielding spirit, they also admired “his spirit of never giving up”.

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Chu’s life, from a reform hero to a convicted criminal and back to a spiritual figure, mirrored the uncertainties and aspirations of many Chinese business leaders and entrepreneurs who struggle and strive for China’s economic development in the past four decades.

“Our country has prospered in the short time of forty years, we’ve gone from a very poor economy to the second largest in the world. This is remarkable. That’s been possible because everyone has been working hard. So, over the past forty years, we’ve always tried to focus on the positives,” Chu once said.
Edited by Lei Zhang