Wu Yajun: A Pioneer of Prosperity during China’s Golden Years

In the winding corridors of China’s real estate elite, few names shine as brightly as that of Wu Yajun, the co-founder and former chairwoman of Longfor Properties. This formidable woman celebrated as one of China’s wealthiest, commands a staggering fortune, a testament to her unwavering journey from humble beginnings to the pinnacle of financial triumph.

Wu’s odyssey began in earnest at 16 when she embarked on her academic quest at Northwestern Polytechnical University in Xi’an. Armed with sheer determination, she emerged with a bachelor’s degree in engineering, a sign of her unwavering commitment to excellence. After donning her graduation gown, destiny led her to a state-owned factory in her hometown, a place where instruments and meters were manufactured. The paltry sum of US$16 per month was her reward for toiling tirelessly in those early years.

However, her journalistic sojourn ultimately paved the path to prosperity. In 1988, Wu embarked on a six-year stint as a real estate reporter at the China Shirong News Agency during what could only be described as a “golden age of profitability” for Chinese newspapers, as chronicled in The Economist.

The pivotal moment she arrived in 1993 when Wu faced a barrage of challenges while attempting to purchase her apartment. From the dearth of natural gas to inadequate lighting and malfunctioning elevators, her struggles catalysed the creation of Longfor Properties. Alongside her then-husband, Cai Kui, Wu ventured into uncharted territory, giving rise to a legendary real estate giant.

1997 witnessed the dawn of Longfor’s ascendancy with the sale of its first residential project in Chongqing. At US$157 per square metre, it eclipsed the average Chinese household income, marking the start of a remarkable journey. Longfor soon ventured into the realm of shopping mall development, welcoming an astounding 300 million visitors to its emporiums by 2017.

Wu’s leadership prowess shone brilliantly during her tenure as CEO from 2005 to 2011, and her legacy endured as she assumed the mantle of chairperson. However, in 2012, her life took a poignant turn with her divorce from Cai Kui. This seismic event saw her relinquish nearly US$3 billion, transferring around 40% of her company shares to her ex-husband.

A paragon of discretion, Wu’s penchant for maintaining a low profile even led to her being mistaken for a man in 2003. When queried about her avoidance of the limelight, she quipped, “Well, I have nothing to talk about. I am just a person focusing on my own business.”

Despite Longfor’s financial prowess, turbulent winds of change have buffeted the company through the past decade, causing its stock to plummet by up to 45% in a single day, reaching its lowest price since 2011 at HK$10.00 ($1.27) per share. This shift unfolded amid a broader trend of high-profile founders stepping aside in response to evolving regulations.

Following her departure, Wu, who owns over 40% of Longfor’s stock through her family office, assumed the role of a strategic development consultant, with Chen Xuping stepping into the chairman’s shoes. Longfor, ranked China’s eighth-largest developer by contracted sales, has a technically competent management team to steer the company forward in the choppy waters of Chinese corporate governance.

Her journey, however, is far from over. In 2018, she executed a pivotal manoeuvre, transferring her entire Longfor stake to a discretionary trust set up for her daughter, Cai Xinyi. This strategic move lays the foundation for the next chapter of the Wu family’s financial dynasty.

As her daughter’s net worth soars, thanks to her mother’s shrewd planning, the Wu family’s legacy has profoundly transformed. Wu’s journey from a modest upbringing to a real estate luminary mirrors the colossal wealth creation witnessed in China over the past decades. Her story epitomises the audacity to dream in a nation undergoing unprecedented transformation.

Wu’s resignation reverberated through the real estate sector, emblematic of the broader shift in China’s entrepreneurial landscape. As the nation grapples with wealth regulation, legendary figures like Wu Yajun symbolise transition, resilience, and an unwavering commitment to innovation and excellence. Her legacy endures, as does her indomitable spirit, casting a long shadow on China’s real estate landscape.

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