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In the third in his three part series on Rupert Murdoch and China, Jock
McLean looks at the Sun King’s whirlwind marriage to the mysterious
Wendi Deng.

So, Who Is Wendi?

Up to now in this series we’ve concentrated on the political nature of
Rupert’s global ambition, with particular emphasis on the region of his
seemingly fondest fascination – China.

But even such a notable public figure as Rupert Murdoch has a private
life, and it’s one that he tenaciously guards against scrutiny, nowhere
is this more evident than in the case of his new love, the third Mrs
Murdoch, Wendi Deng.

Outside of her name, the fact that she has an MBA from Yale and worked
for a News Corp subsidiary in Hong Kong, the world really knows nothing
about her and are not about to be told anything if Rupert has anything
to do with it. In Hong Kong, for instance, everyone who works for a
Murdoch company, from the top down, has been ordered not to disclose
any personal information about Wendi. Given that so few know anything,
the order was probably unnecessary.

Very Hard To Get Anyone To Talk

In researching this piece it became fairly obvious that no one in the
corporation was prepared to talk, even off the record, for fear of the
consequences. Besides the interview in “Vanity Fair” last year, where
Rupert’s marriage to Wendi rates a minor role in a very long piece, and
an interesting piece in “Punch” by the Hong-Kong based Australian
journalist Steve Vines, almost nothing is known about her and nothing
has been published. A couple of close observers were however prepared
to speak to Crikey as long as their names weren’t mentioned.

Wendi herself has consistently been very reluctant to disclose personal
details. At various times over the last ten years she has hinted she
was really a Chinese-American and has given various versions of her
relations with Beijing officialdom.

She’s Certainly Very Tall

What can be said is that she is of Shandongese origin, Shandong being a
poor province in China’s northeast. This explains one of Wendi’s most
widely-noted physical attributes, her height (she is 5’11”). In any
group she towers above the other Chinese around her. Indeed, Shandong
is famous for producing people considerably taller than the rest of the
Chinese population.

Her family moved from Shandong to the more prosperous southern Guangdong province, formerly Canton, where Wendi grew up.

Wendi’s First Marriage And How She Got To California

Although she rarely ever talks of the specifics of her past, it is
believed around the age of 20 she married a wealthy American sports
goods manufacturer who frequently travelled to China on business. The
gentleman, whose name is a mystery, would seem to have been her first
“sugar daddy” – he apparently funded her and arranged for her American
visa (that said, no record of the marriage has been discovered). Short
of being a government agent (an intriguing possibility for which
unfortunately there is no evidence), Hong Kong Wendi-watchers are
baffled by the real mystery of how a Chinese girl of some twenty years,
from a relatively poor and uninfluential family, could so easily leave
Guangdong at that time and take up residence in California. Nothing is
known about her life in China prior to her arrival in California and
there has been no confirmation that she studied medicine at that time,
a claim she once made in California.

Wendi seemed to have arrived in California in 1990 and started studying
economics at California State University (CSU) at Northridge in 1991.
By all accounts she cut quite a figure on campus – with her physique,
her fashionable clothes, her relative affluence and her indomitable
ambition to get ahead.

Strange, Wealthy And Well-Connected

According to her economics professor at CSU, Ken Chapman, “She was a
strange person. You never really know what to believe about her. Here
she was, straight off the plane from the People’s Republic of China
with more state-of-the-art computer equipment than anyone had ever seen
before. She went on exotic vacations, travelling extensively during the
university holidays, and she clearly had a lot of money.”

There is absolutely no hint from the recollections of people she knew
in those years that she was a dissident of any sort or even entertained
ideas critical of the Communist Party line – and this at a time
immediately following the Tiananmen Square horrors, which must have
been a major issue on campus during her time there. In fact, all the
evidence is the other way. In California she grew close to Li Ning, one
of China’s most illustrious athletes having won three Olympic gold
medals at the LA games in 1984. He had set up fitness centres in the
Los Angeles area and Wendi worked for him.

She would also regularly act as interpreter for official Chinese trade
delegations when they visited California and she boasted, no doubt with
good grounds, of high level contacts with Communist Chinese party
officials.

There is some questioning as to why she went to CSU at Northridge given
that she had the brains and seemingly the money to go anywhere. As
Chapman observes, “She could have chosen far more ritzy universities
around Los Angeles but she chose our Northridge campus and I have no
idea why. Occasionally she mentioned her husband.But never called him
by name and certainly didn’t live with him. He had a place in Beverly
Hills and she had an apartment in the suburbs near the university in
Northridge. There was a lot of speculation among other students about
whether it was a marriage of convenience.”

Professor Chapman says that “Wendi said she had met him at an official
function in China, where she was chosen to dance with him because she
was the only woman as tall as him.” “But,” Chapman observes, “like a
lot of other things with Wendi, you didn’t know what to believe. She
cultivated an air of mystery around her and did nothing to deny gossip.
She was a brilliant student, by far the cleverest in her class and we
couldn’t understand why she had chosen to study at our university.”

A Brilliant Student

Another of her professors, Don Blake, the man who provided her with
references for Yale, observes that “in 25 years of teaching, Wendi was
the best student I ever had. Not only did she have a brilliant brain,
she knew how to exploit her own connections.” Blake suspects her family
back in China was politically well connected.

While clever in getting people to do things for her, her interest in
them doesn’t seem to extend beyond their immediate usefulness. For
instance, after writing glowing references for her, Blake never saw her
again, or even heard from her. “I would love to talk to her again,” he
says, “I left messages up at Yale and tried e-mailing her but I’ve
never heard from her since.”

Professor Chapman last saw her at a reunion at CSU, “She was also
wearing dark sunglasses and said she’d had cosmetic surgery on her
eyes. Wendy never said what she intended to do after Yale but I knew
she’d go far. However, her rise to the top of the ladder at STAR TV
(Rupert’s Asian satellite TV company) must have been meteoric. She only
left Yale in 1996 and within two years she’s vice-president of a TV
empire and set to marry one of the most powerful men in the world.”

Her colleagues at CSU remember that “She was very keen to learn as much
as she could from anyone if it would improve her career.” She once told
a female friend in Beijing, according to one account, that when it came
to boyfriends she “didn’t care it they were young or old as long as
they were rich.”

How Did Wendi Meet Rupert?

The story of how she got her job with STAR is intriguing. Realising
that she needed to get some work experience in order to graduate from
Yale, she booked a first class ticket to Hong Kong and, the story goes,
found herself sitting next to one of Rupert’s old war horses, Bruce
Churchill, who was then in charge of finance at STAR. Clearly impressed
she got a job as an intern, a job description which in American terms
can these days mean almost anything. While lowly in beaucratic terms,
one can rise to great heights very quickly, as we saw with Monica.
Wendi, however, had a lead on Monica, she had brains too.

As soon as she got her degree from Yale she returned to STAR with a
permanent appointment. By all accounts, she got to know all the top
people at Star very quickly and never lost an opportunity to socialise
with them. She first met Rupert in 1996 at a private cocktail party at
Hong Kong’s Harbour Plaza Hotel. She had flown down from Beijing to
attend the party at the invitation of Gary Davey, the former Adelaide
boy then heading up STAR. All those present remember that extraordinary
first encounter between Wendi and Rupert. This was no perfunctory
exchange between the “Old Man” and a junior employee. Observers say
that Rupert was engrossed. At the end of the evening Rupert told a
group of executives that “we need more people like that in the office”.
From that point on they would see each other frequently, Wendi acting
as his interpreter on trips to Beijing and other parts of China. Before
long they were living together at New York’s Mercer Hotel.

Running A Joint Venture With The Pla

By this stage she had been promoted to the position of vice-president
of Star, with main responsibility for its Chinese-language TV offshoot,
Phoenix. News has a 45% stake in Phoenix, a joint-venture with a
company, as the Hong Kong euphemism has it, close to the People’s
Liberation Army (PLA). It is a cable and satellite service which
broadcasts in Mandarin, and claims a 45 million viewership, whereas in
fact the 45 million relates only to those who could conceivably pick up
the station (it is mostly carried by the larger hotels catering to
foreign visitors).

Dump On Those Evil Septic Tanks

Interestingly, it has some current affairs output and it was notable
that at the time of the accidental NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy
in Belgrade, in May 1999, when Jiang and his hoods went raving bananas,
the “coverage” of Phoenix was even more aggressively anti-American and
vitriolic than the government’s official mouthpiece, the “People’s
Daily”. Similarly, in the lead-up to the 50th anniverary of the
Communist takeover last year, Phoenix, according to one professional
media watcher in Hong Kong, played the government’s paranoia line for
all it was worth, repeating and even fanning the government’s most
brutish defamations of the Falun Gong and Taiwan’s leadership.

This is the outfit that Wendi helped to run and for whom she reputedly
had the lead liasion relationship with the propaganda supermos in
Beijing. But for all this collaboration and grovelling, and like every
other News project in China, all Rupert got out of it was more losses,
more false hopes and deeper suspicion from all those in the West who
wonder what on earth he is doing in China.

Wendy was influential then with News China operations and, by all
accounts, still is (contrary to Rupert’s loud disclaimers that she is
no longer helping to run the business). According to one source, she
was the main force behind the sacking of Gareth Chang, the top man at
STAR who was supposed to “deliver China”. It was an objective he had
previously tried to pull off for McDonald Douglas and the electronic
giant Hughes. For the former, he was supposed to build planes in China,
and for the latter satellites. My informants tell me he failed on both
counts, and it seems he achieved precious little for Rupert. But then,
maybe Rupert will realise that doing business with Beijing was not only
not meant to be easy, it was always meant to be hell, no doubt the
price thuggery pays sycophancy.

THE FAMILY BUSINESS MINUS THE FAMILY

For the last four years the speculation about the Murdoch dynastic
succession has hotted up – much of it reading like a bookie’s
evaluation of race horses. The relative merits of Elisabeth – now
departed – and Lachlan and the long-term prospects of James (and the
current “BRW”, one observes, have just boosted the odds on James).

But all this assumed that being the man he is, Rupert would be at the
helm for another ten years at least. This now appears to be somewhat
unrealistic. Rupert is now 69 and was diagnosed three weeks ago with
prostate cancer, an affliction which killed his father at the age of
67.

In the last year he has ditched Anna, his wife of 32 years, the mother
of three of his four grown-up children, and he has married a young
business-savvy Chinese lady of mysterious origin known for her
intellectual sharpness, her Beijing sympathies and, not least, her
ruthless ambition. Is it any wonder that Rupertologists the world over
no longer know whats what or, more to the point, who is what. Indeed,
without adding any new element to the story, could it be that we are
now looking at the prospect of this one-man empire that is News
Corporation conceivably being transformed in a few short years from
now, if present trends continue, into a one-woman empire with, in this
case, Chinese characteristics.


Peter Fray

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