China's richest man is under fire over conspiracy theories that say he's secretly promoting Japan

An image of Nongfu Spring Water billionaire Zhong Shanshan
Nongfu Spring Water and pharmaceutical billionaire Zhong ShanshanVCG/Getty Images
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  • China's richest man is being targeted by nationalists who say he's not patriotic enough.

  • Zhong Shanshan has been accused of planting images of Japan in his bottled water label designs.

  • The online backlash began with the death of his competitor, Zong Qinghou.

Zhong Shanshan, the richest man in China, has been beset this month by accusations from an online nationalist crowd that he isn't loyal enough to his country.

The online anger toward Zhong, who owns the bottled water giant Nongfu Spring, evolved from questioning his patriotism to calls for a boycott of his firm built on claims that he's covertly promoting Japan.

Zhong's wealth has taken a material hit. Nongfu Spring shares fell about 6.5% to 41.55 Hong Kong dollars in the first five days of March, with the firm losing about $4 billion in market cap.

Zhong's net worth, estimated at $64.6 billion, fell about $2 billion in the same week, per Bloomberg's Billionaire Index.

Chinese state media and local influencers have since urged calm as authorities try to buoy a struggling domestic economy.

Zhong's recent reputational troubles stemmed from the death of one of his competitors, Zong Qinghou. The founder of the beverage company Hangzhou Wahaha Group, Zong was known in China as a fierce nationalist who competed with international brands.

Zong's death on February 25 sparked comparisons between him and Zhong, which quickly ballooned into accusations that the latter hasn't proven his loyalty to China.

Zong Qinghou, chairman of beverage maker Hangzhou Wahaha Group, attends a event on January 15, 2022 in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province of China.
Zong Qinghou, chairman of beverage maker Hangzhou Wahaha Group, attends an event on January 15, 2022, in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province of China.VCG/VCG via Getty Images

Central to this online fury is the citizenship status of Zhong's eldest son, Zhong Shuzi, who has a US passport, fueling concerns that the perceived heir to China's richest man is an American.

"Isn't it necessary for your eldest American son to withdraw his citizenship?" one Chinese blogger wrote.

Some think Nongfu Spring loves Japan

The hostility escalated this week into claims that Nongfu Spring was intentionally planting elements of Japanese culture into its product marketing.

Japan is strongly disliked by Chinese nationalists, linked in particular to atrocities committed during World War II and the country's refusal to acknowledge them.

Commentators on Weibo, China's version of X, took issue with a pagoda on the design of Nongfu Spring's green tea bottle label, saying it resembled the Sensoji Temple in Tokyo.

Others blasted the label of another beverage that featured carp streamers, which are known as Koinobori in Japan.

Even the longtime design of Nongfu Spring's signature bottled water came under fire, with some users saying a mountain in its logo closely resembled Japan's Mount Fuji.

People online think Nongfu Spring's logo looks like Mount Fuji.
People online think Nongfu Spring's logo looks like Mount Fuji.CFOTO/Future Publishing via Getty Images and Jinhee Lee/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Another complaint accused Nongfu Spring of using a red bottle cap that resembles the Japanese flag.

On March 3, Zhong posted a response to the backlash via Nongfu Spring's WeChat account, saying his relationship with Zong was marked by mutual respect and warmth despite past legal disputes.

"Mr Zong hated online violence during his lifetime. I never thought that after Mr Zong passed away, there would be a lot of online slander against me and Nongfu Spring," he wrote. "This was definitely not what Mr Zong wanted to see."

Zhong added that he hoped people "will not be swayed by individual self-media or influencers."

The Global Times, a Chinese media outlet known for promoting the ruling party's views, also reported on March 8 that Nongfu Spring said the design of its green tea bottle was based on a Chinese temple, not a Japanese one.

The nationalist movement against Zhong stays strong

In the wake of the backlash, several influential Chinese figures have called for the public to remain level-headed.

Hu Xijin, the former editor of The Global Times and a popular pundit on Weibo, wrote in a post on March 7 that the extremity of the backlash against Zhong was "vulgar and ridiculous" and an "insult to patriotism."

He later deleted his post, but on Friday called Zhong one of China's "most successful private businessmen," though he added that the Nongfu Spring founder shouldn't be immune to criticism.

"He runs the business well, provides high-quality products and services, and creates more jobs and tax revenue. This should be the most important criteria for society to evaluate him," Hu wrote.

On Tuesday, billionaire Li Guoqing, who runs Rongsheng Petrochemical, published a video calling the comparisons between Zong and Zhong a "farce."

The video was republished by China Newsweek, a channel owned by state media agency China News Service.

Li also called on Zong's daughter, Zong Fuli, to ask people to calm down, but he was subsequently criticized on social media.

China's nationalist groups have been notorious for turning on typically celebrated figures and businessmen.

Last month, Nobel-winning novelist Mo Yan was the target of a nationalistic campaign accusing him of slandering China's "past heroes" in his books about the country in the mid-20th century.

Nongfu Spring did not immediately respond to a request for comment sent by Business Insider.

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