One man’s African journey from Mao-era teacher to millionaire entrepreneur

Hu Jieguo poses with two police guards in Lagos, Nigeria. Photo: Courtesy of Hu Jieguo

Hu Jieguo poses with two police guards in Lagos, Nigeria. Photo: Courtesy of Hu Jieguo

“We must study English hard for the revolution!”

A smiling Hu Jieguo, then a teacher in his mid-20s, points at the blackboard in a classroom in Shanghai, portraits of former leaders Mao Zedong and Hua Guofeng hanging above him.

That moment was captured in a black-and-white picture taken during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

Today, the man who taught English for the revolution has carved out a business empire in Nigeria and become a millionaire who owns a chain of hotels, restaurants and factories in the West African country. He became Nigeria’s first foreign “chieftain,” is known locally by his English name Jacob Wood and believes that US-style democracy is no way forward for Africa. We spoke to 68-year-old Hu Jieguo about his adventurous life.

Leaving home

Hu’s connection with Nigeria came from his father, who went to Lagos in the early 1950s and opened a textile factory there, becoming one of the first generation of Chinese immigrants in Africa. A prominent figure in Nigeria’s Chinese community, he often wrote to his son, asking him to join him there.

But Hu said he had never thought about leaving China. Growing up in Shanghai in Mao’s China, he was one of hundreds of thousands of urban youths who were taken out of formal schooling and moved to rural areas under the call of Chairman Mao.

“During the Cultural Revolution, the idea of leaving the country was tantamount to treason,” he told the Global Times. In the later stages of the Cultural Revolution, he was lucky enough to be enrolled in a college and was later assigned a job as an English teacher in a Shanghai high school.

It was a time when China based its foreign policy almost entirely on ideology, and the similarities in this regard between China and Africa – both having suffered from colonialism and imperialism – made Africa China’s ally.

As the Cultural Revolution drew to an end, going to Nigeria became a possibility. One day, during a trip back home, China’s ambassador in Nigeria met Hu in Shanghai’s Peace Hotel and told him, “The Party organization has decided to let you go abroad. Overseas Chinese need successors too.”

In 1978, just as China was readying itself for one of the biggest reforms in its history, Hu left China via Shenzhen’s Luohu Port and embarked on a journey to Nigeria, expecting to help lift African people out of their “misery.” “All the education I received in China taught me that people in Asia, Africa and Latin America lived miserable lives struggling against imperialist rule, so I left China with that in mind,” he said.

Pots of gold

Nigeria was nothing like what Hu had expected. In the 1970s, the country was in the midst of an oil boom which made it the wealthiest country in Africa. Its per capita GDP in 1980 was over four times that of China, whose economy had been badly disrupted by political movements.

Hu was shocked by what he saw in the former British colony. “By 1978, China had only one highway. But Nigeria already had a cross-sea bridge. I’d never seen a color television in China, but in Nigeria it was quite common among the wealthy,” he recalled.

Hu’s father laid a solid economic foundation for him in Nigeria, but Hu wasn’t interested in taking over his father’s textile business. Instead, with his English proficiency, he found a job at a high-end hotel in Lagos, learning hotel management from its Western managers.

After getting a business degree in Canada and spending years running local hotels in Lagos, in 1997, Hu opened his own Chinese restaurant in Lagos, a six-storey venue called the Golden Gate Restaurant, which held banquets for local dignitaries. In the years that followed, his business expanded to various different sectors including hotels, construction, agriculture and infrastructure.

His business success also helped him build close ties with the Nigerian government. In 2001, after donating four schools that can hold up to 10,000 students to the Nigerian government, he was given the honorary title of a “chieftain.” His ties with Chinese companies also earned him the post of personal consultant to former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo. In 2007, after several Chinese oil workers were kidnapped in Nigeria, Hu successfully negotiated their release using his position and local influence.

Better integration

The expansion of Hu’s business in Nigeria runs parallel with China’s increasing economic presence in Africa. But it has also prompted many to accuse China of being the new imperialists who have come to Africa for its resources, rather than thinking about real benefits for the locals.

“Many Nigerians tell me that the Chinese are building airports and railways in Africa, but with little travel needs, they are not benefitting from them,” he said.

Hu believes the best way for Chinese companies to earn local trust is by giving jobs to the locals. Among the 10,000 employees currently working at his Golden Gate Group, over 95 percent are Africans.

For Hu, who grew up in China’s hard-working culture, he doesn’t deny that hiring African workers sometimes means lower productivity. “African Muslims, for example, need to pray five times a day, which takes up working hours, and they are unwilling to work on holidays.” However, corporate responsibility is more important than profitability, he said.

Hu also runs a weekly Chinese newspaper which covers news in West Africa and is distributed among Chinese in West African countries. “Many Chinese living in Africa are pretty isolated from local society, with little or no idea what’s going on in the country they live in. I hope this newspaper will offer them some clues and help them integrate better,” he said.

Over 30 years after he first landed in Nigeria, Hu often compares the changes that have occurred in China and in Nigeria over the past three decades. “Today, Nigeria is still planning its fourth cross-sea bridge. And yet bridges and highways are so common in China that there are hundreds of thousands of them,” he remarks.

Probably as a result of his early years in China, Hu firmly believes that democracy is to blame for Africa’s slower growth. “US-style democracy ruined many developing countries. Democracy might be good for the US, but not for the developing world,” he said.


Newspaper headline: A Chinese chieftain in Lagos