Deng Wen Ge - she changed her name to Wendi in her mid-teens - was born in Shandong around the time that her future husband was buying London's News of the World. One of three children, she grew up in neighbouring Xuzhou as a Subei ren - a vernacular term for the robust, rosy-cheeked folk of northern Jiangsu province, who are known, if not always loved, throughout China for being blunt, blithe and somewhat uncouth.
Today is ‘Learn From Lei Feng Day' in China, commemorating the People's Liberation Army soldier who was transformed by propaganda into a communist icon of selflessness, nobility and modesty. They're qualities that Wendi's supporters and detractors - and there are plenty of both in the Murdoch milieux - insist she either has in spades or lacks in equal measure. She elicits polarised views, as a browse through postings on the 250-odd Rupert-and-Wendi sites generously hosted on the Murdoch-owned MySpace website reveals. Does she genuinely love him, netizens ask, and he her? Or is their relationship defined by what they can provide each other, she lured by his money and power, and he smitten by her youth or her intoxicating proximity to China's media market, access to which he so covets but has failed to gain?
Many people regard Wendi as a Chinese Becky Sharp, and think that the infatuated Rupert, usually so cold and shrewd, so corporately clairvoyant, can't or won't see it. When Anna Nicole Smith died, for example, Private Eye published a picture of Wendi as a catsuit-clad dominatrix, with the caption, "Anna Nicole Deng: the scheming temptress who stole her way into the heart of a foolish old man - and stole all his money as well!" For all the Wendi sceptics, though, there are those who insist she's the best thing that could have happened to News Corporation, rejuvenating it and its ageing leader at the end of his reign. Says Wendi's close American friend Kathy Freston, the wife of the former Viacom executive Tom, "people say [Rupert] is lighter and happier since knowing her. He lights up when she walks in the room; they are very much a team, truly each other's confidante." A News executive remembers being on the company jet with Rupert and Wendi, watching the two entertain each other with Hollywood gossip and tattle. "It was like both of them had read People magazine cover to cover. They were loving it."
What has become clear as I've journeyed through Wendi's China - Beijing, where the Murdochs have reportedly paid US$5 million for a traditional siheyuan (four-walled courtyard) house in the shadow of the Forbidden City; Hong Kong, where she joined Murdoch's Star TV as an intern in 1996 and where she partied in the heady build-up to the colony's change of sovereignty; Xuzhou and Guangzhou, the austere towns of her childhood and youth - is that she's no princeling. Known as taizidang, princelings are China's Red Aristocracy: the influence-broking offspring of Communist Party grandees who advise investment banks or glad-hand foreign joint ventures. Many around News Corporation - usually those without Sino sensibilities - believe that Wendi has similarly superb connections in Beijing, possessing the means to deliver China's 1.3 billion consumers to a company that thus far has made myriad blunders and only glacial progress in trying to reach them. But in Xuzhou, high-school supervisor Xie Qidong, who knew the Deng family well, says that Wendi's father was just a medium-level party official, at best, in the state ironworks. "He was an engineer," Xie remembers. "One could not be a big guy coming from a machinery works at that time."
If Wendi is known in China, then, it is as the Mandarin-speaking wife of a powerful Western businessman, who acts as his quasi-ambassador, handing around a business card that says simply "Wendi Deng Murdoch, News Corporation" and assuming that the Communist Party heavies whom her husband needs to get onside will recognise the surname. But even if they do, there's no certainty that they will be much help. Murdoch has power in the West largely because he operates in democracies which allow him influence; China is a rigid one-party state with little room for a Western media mogul used to having political clout.
At Beijing University's journalism college, where China's future editors are nurtured, the reach of the Murdoch empire is debated with sophistication by students who conclude that his is not the type of foreign company ‘the Chinese people' require, a damning indictment. A former News executive who worked with Wendi in China says, "she thinks she knows it better than she actually does," and points out that she hasn't lived there for about 20 years. He detects resentment towards her by some in Beijing: "almost a con-tempt as to how she's arrived in some circles, which is not particularly an asset for Rupert". Wendi, he says, has been openly disparaged by Chinese officials in front of her husband, with the non-Mandarin-speaking Rupert not under-standing their harsh comments.
It's a shame that Wendi refused to be interviewed for this article - a hostile News Corporation wouldn't even release her CV or allow emailed questions - as I'm desperate to ask if she pinches herself in disbelief at all that has happened to her in such a short time. The Chinese internet buzzes with Wendi gossip: surely that's not normal for a machinist's daughter from Jiangsu? "She appreciates that she has landed in a very exceptional life situation," says her friend Kathy Freston. "She doesn't pretend that she isn't Mrs Murdoch - but then, she also never abuses it."
Wendi Deng grew up in a three-room flat in a sixth-floor walk-up, in one of many blocks built during Mao's reign to house mid-level party functionaries. From her small primary school on Shao Hua Street, known for nurturing ping-pong skills, Wendi went to the Xuzhou No. 1 Middle School, where she was regarded as a student of average to upper ability. The grounds are studded with framed slogans of party heroes and illustrious alumni. Was she inspired by the good deeds inscribed on the Comrade Lei Feng Wall? Or did the aphorisms of Xuzhou's poets and philosophers resonate (All our dreams can come true - if we have the courage to pursue them)? Perhaps she learnt from Xuzhou's history: it's said that if you control the strategically sited city, you control all the territory around you.
Wendi's Xuzhou friends are disappointed that they haven't seen her since 1996, the same year she joined Rupert Murdoch's Star TV as an intern, three years before she married the boss. "I will complain to her once I meet her again," says Li Hong. "You have to stay in touch with your friends." Still, what's a decade for old friends? Li, Wang
Chongsheng and Xie Qidong talk about Wendi as though they saw her yesterday. "We've known each other since fourth grade, through middle school, and we lived together, we even shared clothes," says Li. "We biked to school, exercised together and studied at night together," she says. "I never thought that Wendi would achieve such success. I hope Wendi will come to China to invest, and let me hold some position. Isn't Murdoch eager to invest here?"
Li tries to keep up with Wendi's exciting Fifth Avenue life, overlooking Central Park in a US$44-million triplex. She collects every mention of Wendi in the local Xuzhou papers. "Tiandi zhi bie!" she declares, an old saying indicating that the contrast between the Wen Ge she grew up with and the Mrs Murdoch of Manhattan is "the difference between heaven and earth". But the 38-year age gap between her old friend and her old friend's husband doesn't bother Li Hong. From what she knows, she says, "Murdoch loves Wendi and her children. Love has no age limit, as long as it is love."
She wants to know more of her friend's new life, so I relate an anecdote told to me by a former News executive. Wendi's parents, a generation younger than their son-in-law, were staying at the couple's flat in London, which Wendi has remodelled in a modern Chinese minimalist style. (Her friends say Wendi is fascinated by many cultures and the beautiful things that symbolise them: a Japanese tea ceremony, a delicate orchid, exquisite porcelain.) Rupert came home from the office and was scolded by his mother-in-law for walking into the home with his shoes on: he hadn't removed them at the front door, as is customary for the Chinese middle class. Li Hong laughs - as, apparently, did Rupert at the time. "I know her!" says Li. "There are standards, you know!"
Throughout our day together, Li is feisty, fun and quick with a quip. "Wendi and I were both pretty attractive," she says. "We had a very high head-turning ratio when we cycled past people on the street." I tell her that Wendi's two children were each recently given US$100 million in News Corporation stock by their father. Li's teenage daughter - the only child the state allows her - is dependent on her father's policeman salary of around A$200 a month. I ask Li if Wendi ever gave voice to her ambitions. Did she want to be a doctor? A lawyer? To enter the world of business, or ‘to jump into the sea', as the Chinese saying goes? "At the time we were so pure-minded, we had none of these ideas," Li replies. "She always wanted to go to America and now she has realised that. She loves children; she wanted to have a lot of children."
Wendi Deng's volleyball coach, Wang Chongsheng, remembers her as "a calm girl, not very talkative": wenjing, meaning demure without being shy. Her high-school supervisor, Xie Qidong, says that Wendi had to catch up on classes during the year she was under his care. "She lagged behind other students because of playing volleyball," he says. Xie persuaded Wendi to give up sport and devote her energies to the upcoming university-entry exams. "Because she had good health, she could stay very late at night to make up her study," he says. "She has a struggling spirit and made big progress. I also would say she is smart. The cramming was very effective: her exam score reached the first-class university entry standards."
Life was tough in Xuzhou, but it seems that Wendi's parents escaped the worst of Mao's Cultural Revolution. Both were engineers, an acceptable occupation inasmuch as they were not considered intellectuals. Wendi has told intimates that her family was sent to a re-education camp, and that she planted rice and worked in the fields. But her high-school supervisor isn't sure about that. Wendi was a bit young for hard labour; if the Dengs were sent anywhere, Xie Qidong says, it was likely to be a May Seventh Cadre School. The Sinologist Geremie Barmé, of the ANU, describes these as "re-education labour schools but rather less than the Chinese gulag".
While Wendi was in high school, her father moved most of the family to Guangzhou for his job at the People's Machinery Works, but Wendi stayed by herself in Xuzhou for a short while. After she left for the US in 1988, Xie Qidong remembers her father proudly boasting that she had rented a house in Los Angeles for a time, subleasing part of it to make some money. "She also promoted cosmetics, door to door. She drove a lady to work and back home, using the lady's car, which meant she also had a car to use."
Xie is keen to see Wendi back in her old home town. A few years ago, while helping to organise the school's eighty-fifth anniversary, he obtained her email address from someone at CCTV, China's state broadcaster, who knew her. He sent her an invitation to the festivities. No response came.
At the Guangzhou Medical College, feelings are mixed about Wendi. Tutor Zhang Shanli is a little miffed that she doesn't seem to cite her time at the school, or to have completed her course elsewhere. But the college's Western-educated director, Professor Wei Donghai, realises the pulling power of a celebrity. Even though Wendi abandoned her studies in clinical medicine after two years, he'd like to get her back for the college's upcoming fiftieth anniversary. He must be proud of having such an illustrious alumni? "It's very interesting, but I think Miss Deng stayed here for just two to three years ... she was just a normal student." Have they talked to her since she left the college? "We once tried to reach her, but could not find a telephone number." I give him News' office contacts in New York.
They seem surprised to hear that Wendi visits China quite often, on business in Beijing for her husband's comp-any, and are impressed by reports that the Murdochs have acquired a house there. "Does she have children?" Zhang Shanli asks. "Boys or girls?" Two girls, I reveal: five-year-old Grace and three-year-old Chloe. Zhang seems pleased. Professor Wei, who earns a director's salary of about A$1000 a month, seems better informed. He talks about Wendi's daughters each receiving US$100 million in stock from their father. "Amazing, eh?"
I meet Du Xiaopeng in a Starbucks in downtown Guang-zhou, around the corner from his scungy office building. The city is heaving with people and traffic; flashing neon lights merge with drizzle to give the Cantonese night a Blade Runner feel. Du, 33, is a rumpled figure: black plastic raincoat, glasses, a hairstyle just a few renminbi away from a pudding-bowl cut. The owner of the Chinese fan site wendideng.com, Du runs many websites; his most popular one is devoted to Tang and Song Dynasty poetry, from which he makes good money.
He explains how he saw an article in the Chinese media about the Murdochs and "was shocked by the age gap between them" and "the lack of information about them", as if somehow the two revelations go together. Enthralled, he decided to do something about it. In August 2005, he registered the domain wendideng.com and started uploading content. Today, it is probably the most comprehensive website, in English or Chinese, devoted to Wendi Deng.
The site, which is reasonably well designed, has a blog and reader forums. One posting, from ‘Emma', reads, "Deng Wendi is my idol! My dream is to get into the political circle. Now I am only 14 but I must succeed!" Another entry, by ‘bbas', states, "if every woman who appeared at a high-level meeting without invitation and ‘spilled' the red wine on the older man's clothes, how would the world be? If that happens ‘Mr Right' would be taking a bath in red wine!" Du says he deletes some of the more offensive entries.
Webmaster Du tells me his rationale for the site was that there was "no concentrated information centred on her" - a powerful woman whom he believes will take a more influential role in the affairs of his country. "I'm not sure Wendi reads it," he says, almost blushing. Most of the site's visitors are from China, though he notices a few coming from the US. He says that no one from News Corporation has approached him to buy the domain name, and he doesn't think he is breaking any laws by registering Wendi's name as a domain. (The mostly undeveloped rupertmurdoch.com has been owned by someone registered in the Cayman Islands since 1997, and has nothing to do with News.)
I ask Du what he would accept for the domain name if a posse of News Corporation lawyers walked into his office to buy it. "I would give it away," he says. "I would give it for free, but maybe in the long term I would benefit from Murdoch." Which sounds vaguely noble and philosophical, except that I later learn he owns another Wendi Deng domain, dengwendi.com, which runs identical content to the first one. It suggests a commercial intent that a plundering media mogul might well understand. Perhaps News Corporation should hire him.
Or maybe not. Du tries to sell advertising on the web-sites, without much success. "I make no money from Wendi," he insists. Du is "awed" by her, and knows many details of her life, most of which he posts online. "For an ordinary Chinese she has been good at creating opportunities for herself," he says. "But I don't love her." He says his wife is bemused by his activities, but she is no fan of Wendi. "She thinks of her as you xinji," he says, a pointed, slightly pejorative Chinese phrase which translates as "having a calculating heart".
"Murdoch would not at all lack beauties [in his life], but I do not regard Wendi as beautiful," Du says. "She has an aim, and she has tried everything to achieve that high level. Many people think she is ambitious and wants to take over Murdoch's business. She should keep low-key. After all, she is Chinese; she represents the Chinese people outside China."
On 2 November 2000, little more than 16 months after Rupert Murdoch married Wendi Deng on the deck of the luxury launch he had bought for his retirement with Anna, the Wall Street Journal - America's premier business newspaper, and in May this year the subject of a takeover bid by News Corporation - published an article on its front page headlined "Meet Wendi Deng." The piece covered Wendi Deng's arrival in the US, in February 1988, describing how the well-meaning Cherry family, from Los Angeles, had taken in the teenage Wendi after meeting her in China.
Jake Cherry, at the time 50, was a technician working for a Sino-American joint venture in Guangzhou. The Cherry family's interpreter introduced them to a medical student keen to improve her English. Joyce Cherry, who was then 42, tutored Wendi before returning to Los Angeles with the couple's two children, ten-year-old Eric and five-year-old Kirsten; Jake Cherry stayed on to finish the contract. Soon after Joyce Cherry's return, her husband called to say that Wendi wanted to study in the US. Wendi had abandoned her medical studies in Guangzhou: would Joyce apply to some local colleges on her behalf ? The Cherrys sponsored Wendi's student visa and billeted her in the family home, where the 19-year-old shared a bunk bed with Kirsten. About the time Rupert Murdoch launched Sky Television in Europe, a deal which came close to bankrupting News Corporation, Wendi Deng became - by location if not yet, like, by vocabulary - a ‘Valley Girl'. She even managed to secure a place studying economics at California State University's nearby Northridge campus, CSUN. ("It's not that hard to get in," says Professor Ken Chapman, her tutor there.)
But Joyce Cherry grew "increasingly suspicious about Ms Deng's relationship with her husband", the Wall Street Journal reported. She'd discovered "coquettish" photos of Wendi taken by Jake Cherry in his Guangzhou hotel room. Jake became "infatuated" with Wendi, and she "started making recommendations about his diet and wardrobe". The two were having an affair. Joyce Cherry kicked them out of the family home, and they moved into a nearby apartment together.
Jake Cherry and Wendi Deng married in February 1990, two years after Wendi's arrival in the US. But Jake told Wendi to leave just four months after their wedding, because she was seeing someone else, an American in his twenties named David Wolf. They were divorced in 1992, having been married for two years and seven months - seven months longer, the Wall Street Journal reported, than was required for Wendi to obtain a Green Card. Jake and Wendi had lived together as husband and wife for "four to five months, at the most". "She told me I was a father-concept to her, but it would never be anything else," Jake Cherry was quoted as saying. "I loved that girl."
The article shocked Rupert Murdoch. "He didn't know half of this stuff," says one of the Wall Street Journal reporting team. "She clearly hadn't told him. He never sued us, because it was all true." This was News' own medicine administered to its leader, the man who built an empire in large part through tabloids - London's Sun, Sydney's Daily Telegraph - profiting from delving into the private lives of the famous. News Corporation insiders say that James and Lachlan Murdoch used the Wall Street Journal story to probe their father, partly for traction in the unresolved succession plans and partly to question his judgement.
A Wall Street Journal reporter remembers attending a conference in Los Angeles at which Murdoch was giving a speech, soon after the article was published. Part of the paper's beat in Los Angeles is to cover the movie business, and Murdoch, a major Hollywood player because of Fox Studios, usually made himself available to its journalists. No longer. "I've never seen a man more ashen-faced," says the reporter. "When he saw us, he literally went white and ran away as fast as he could." Maybe he was ill.
The Cherry home nestles in a quiet cul-de-sac at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. It is smallish by local standards, a tidy clapboard residence overlooking the smoggy sprawl of the San Fernando Valley. What a contrast for a teenager coming from the Chinese heartland! I imagine Wendi, fresh off the plane, marvelling at the relentlessness of the Americana: the consumer accoutrements of the middle class; the stand-alone bungalows with neat lawns inside white picket fences; the bewildering freeways (driving a car!); the ubiquitous industry that gives the valley its nickname, Pornodelphia; the swimming pools, supermarkets, endless malls, cineplexes, junk-food chains and car yards; the lack of Mao statues.
Joyce Hinton, as she is now known, is not home. But her daughter, Kirsten, 24, is hanging out with a friend, Steve. It was Kirsten's room that Wendi shared back in 1988. "I was young at the time; I was five," she says. "I later found out what type of person she was." Kirsten turns to Steve: "My Dad married her to get her into the country."
I reach Joyce Hinton by phone. She's chatty and thoughtful, and doesn't seem the type to deride people for the sake of it. She's reluctant to meet and discuss once more what she describes as a "very difficult time" for her and her children. "I don't want my 15 minutes of fame to be about Wendi Deng," she explains. "I said my piece to the Wall Street Journal." Hinton confirms the details of the 2000 report, and says that she and Jake Cherry never reconciled. She adds that the interpreter who introduced her to Wendi in 1987, Mr Xuan, later apologised for doing so. "She had a goal and she got there," Hinton says of Wendi. "Surely she's got enough? You'd think she would've accomplished her goal by now."
A New York friend of Wendi's defends her actions. "Can you imagine what it would've been like, how she got there with no knowledge of the culture? It was almost inevitable that she was going to make some mistakes. I don't think she has an evil personality; she just has this incredible ambition coupled with this lack of self-consciousness. She got to California and she wanted to social-climb, to get out of the situation that got her there."
Kathy Freston, who describes herself as a "renowned personal-growth author and spiritual counsellor", first met Wendi at a "media establishment" retreat in 2002. When I ask her about the Cherrys, she says that Wendi "hasn't talked a lot about her time [in Los Angeles], other than the novelty and excitement of moving to America, the newness and challenges of attending an American university."
Li Ning is arguably China's most famous athlete. Along with the American runner Carl Lewis, he was the star of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, winning three gold medals in gymnastics. Tall and good-looking, Li was a natural symbol of the new, modernising China. He used his celebrity to develop Li Ning sportswear, a sports drink and a nation-wide chain of sports shops - something hitherto unheard of in communist China. He's now one of the country's richest people, and one of its most recognisable: an anything's-possible icon for the post-Mao generations. And he's a friend of Wendi Deng.
Success in the Los Angeles games prompted Li Ning to open the International Gymnastics Academy in Chatsworth, the suburb next to CSUN, where Wendi was studying. Wendi began exercising at the gym and also helped manage the facility for Li, who was busy promoting Beijing's bid for the 2000 Olympics. CSUN tutors remember Wendi handing out ‘Beijing 2000' pins around the campus.
Working with Li and his business partner, Chen Yihong, opened doors for Wendi Deng: both had pull in Beijing, for Chinese politicians, like politicians anywhere, love being seen with famous sportspeople. "Every once in a while she'd be gone for part of a week, interpreting for a group of Chinese businessmen doing deals in New York or somewhere in the US," remembers Professor Daniel Blake of CSUN. "I figured she'd be a mover and shaker; she gave the impression of being well connected in China."
Fleeing the wreckage of two marriages - one of them her own - Wendi Deng was beginning to move in different circles. She did translation work for the sports channel ESPN; she sold cosmetics; she tried to introduce Li Ning's sports drink to California (it didn't catch on). Her CSUN studies continued, with success. Professor Ken Chapman, who has graduation photos of Wendi stored on his computer, remembers her being part of an "extremely bright bunch" of students. "When she arrived, her English wasn't very good, but she learnt rapidly. She did well - pretty much a straight-A student," says Chapman, adding that she was slightly evasive - "there were incidental cover-ups" - about her marital status.
Professor Blake remembers "a trendy dresser, a modern girl". "She wasn't shy outside class, but you had to coax her to respond in class. But you didn't have to tell her how things worked twice." She can't have been too shy: in her senior year, she wowed her class by illustrating an assignment about the economics of overpopulation with that famous image of a nude and heavily pregnant Demi Moore.
Wendi graduated in 1993 and spent the next year working almost full-time at Li Ning's gym - and, presumably, contemplating the future. Though CSUN had an MBA program, Wendi set her sights on Yale ("a better brand name, I guess", notes Professor Blake). She asked Blake to write her a recommendation. "I actually encouraged her to get out of here; she was going places," he says.
When Wendi left California for Yale in 1995, it's not clear whether she had already severed her connection with the Li Ning operation, but in 1996, when she last saw her friends in Xuzhou, she gave out her Li Ning business card, though she said she was studying at Yale. The Ivy League isn't cheap: a former News Corporation executive in China claims that Wendi's then boyfriend, David Wolf, who was learning Mandarin and managed Li Ning's business, helped fund her through the Yale course. Wolf, now a public-relations consultant in Beijing, refused to be interviewed for this article.
News Corporation spokesman Andrew Butcher seems anxious. I email a request to interview Wendi, and he responds, "Jesus ... you're scaring the shit out of me with this serious letter. Please don't treat me like a real corporate flak." He turns down the request on her behalf:
... there is no extensive business story to tell about Wendi - her recent interest has been solely focused on MySpace potentially doing something in China. She's not an executive at the company, doesn't fulfil an executive role, and doesn't intend to become an executive. Her primary role is as a great mum to two cute kids.
So, if Wendi isn't working for News Corporation, where should I send questions about her? "I'll look after any and all questions," Butcher replies. "I'm not going to answer questions by email."
A month later, Butcher sends me an unsolicited email. He's done some ringing around and believes I've only been seeking out people who "might have an axe to grind". His missive arrives the same night that I toast Wendi's health in Xuzhou with her old school chums, who are anything but critical of her.
Other friends and associates are much less forthcoming. There's Chen Yihong, the Beijing-based partner of Li Ning, who was close to Wendi when she worked at the Chatswood gym. There's David Wolf, whom she some-times referred to as her husband and whose mother, Valeria, attended Wendi and Rupert's wedding: I'd like to check whether they paid for her Yale tuition. And there's HS Liu, News Corporation's fixer in China, who says he has known Wendi for six years and has been deal-making and house-hunting for the Murdochs in Beijing. He'd love to talk, he tells me, but News recently had him sign a non-disclosure agreement. "I think it lasts a lifetime," he laments.
I seek Butcher's help in freeing these people up. He claims that they "barely know Wendi", and suggests that instead I contact a "long-time friend" such as Professor Jeffrey Garten, who taught her economics at Yale, where Wendi is one of 50-odd trustees of the management school she attended (and the only one whose spouse's occupation is detailed on the Yale website). Garten says he first met her in 1996, which hardly makes him a "long-time friend". "I thought she was very alert, very energetic, and worked very hard," Garten says. "I found her friendly and charming, very curious and interested in learning all she could."
Later, I follow up, seeking any anecdotes he might recall, wondering if Wendi ever expressed any feelings about her homeland. "[I] just didn't know her well enough to provide this kind of detailed info, sorry!" he replies.
Yale requires each of its MBA students to work as an intern. Wendi Deng undertook her placement in Hong Kong at Star TV, the Asian satellite broadcaster in which, in 1993, News Corporation had bought a controlling stake. She had sat next to Star's then COO, Bruce Churchill, on a plane, and the two got talking. Knowing how valuable - and how rare - a savvy mainlander could be for a Western-owned business in Hong Kong that was desperate to appear China-friendly, Churchill promptly hired her.
A Star colleague remembers Wendi's first week of work, in May 1996, when she set about introducing herself to the mostly male, mostly expatriate-Australian executive staff. "We were all there to learn, learn, learn - to suck in knowledge - but Wendi would say, ‘I'm going to meet that guy,'" the colleague recalls. "So she would waltz in to someone important's office, unannounced, and exclaim, ‘Hello, I'm Wendi, I'm the intern ... um, who are you?' It was excruciating. It made some people uncomfortable, but she would get away with it; in fact, she perfected it. Over time, I came to understand her approach," the colleague says. "Her English was limited, so what was she going to do with three binders on, say, the ins and outs of Japanese TV foreign-ownership regulations? She was as boot-strapped as they come."
Gary Davey, Star's CEO from 1993 to 1999, remembers Wendi being "a little bit clumsy; she didn't entirely under-stand the traditional niceties of corporate behaviour." It was, he says, "very refreshing. She was fearless, full of charming natural confidence. She didn't have that [Communist] Party arrogance about her that a lot of mainlanders we met did." Davey recalls that some of Star's Hong Kong Chinese staffers - those who had "made a living out of being Chinese" in a Western company - were "a bit uncomfortable with Wendi". Being smart and a mainlander "was a dangerous combination for a lot of them".
At the time, Star TV seemed a controversial asset for News to hold, not just because Hong Kong was returning to China but because Asian autocrats were ever anxious about the ‘cultural pollution' of Western-owned media. For a corporate chameleon like Murdoch, though, such politics was simply passing drama - he dropped the BBC News from Star's roster, and wouldn't publish Hong Kong governor Chris Patten's memoirs, after all - and far less important than Star, which was profitless, becoming a viable business.
By all reports, Wendi Deng livened up the place. One executive remembers her interaction with a colleague, Robert Bland, who ran the advertising department and whose ability to bring in revenue made him an important player. "He could get away with smoking these pungent cigarillos and wearing a ponytail around the office," the executive recalls. Bland soon caught Wendi's attention. The day after she had been introduced to him, he was walking down the corridor past her room. Recalls the executive, "Wendi, this intern, rushes out and grabs Bland's pony-tail, in front of all of us. And she gives it a yank and says in this squeaky voice, ‘Hi Robert! I'm Wendi! Remember me? I'm the intern,' and she just cackles with this kiddie laugh, ‘Ha ha ha ha ha.' Bland was not particularly friendly in the office, and he turns around with this I-can't-believe-someone-did-that-to-me look and sees Wendi standing there, grinning and saying, ‘Hi-ii, it's Wendi, I'm the intern,' and he just melts. That was the day we all got what she was about."
Wendi Deng left Star TV after a few months to finish her MBA at Yale. Gary Davey says that the office workers thought it was the last they would see of her, but some months later Wendi showed up again. It was 1997, the year of the Hong Kong handover, and Star was on the rise. The colleagues she'd farewelled the year before had been promoted and, as one executive says, "there was a well-oiled machine operating." Wendi, now earning about US$80,000 a year, was re-assigned to improve Star's sluggish effort in China, seeking outlets for its music channel. "This was perfect for her, because it was just schmoozing; you couldn't actually do much in China," a colleague recalls. "She knew some people, but it wasn't like she was the president's daughter. I don't think she had any existing net-work, but she just started making one. She had no fear."
Wendi moved into a tiny flat in the unprepossessing area of Hung Hom, near the Star office in Kowloon. Colleagues remember her as being well dressed and having "street-level tastes" outside the office. She'd lunch at a dai pai dong - a roadside hawker stall. On Friday nights, she turned heads partying in Hong Kong's fashionable bar district with friends like Rebecca Li and a Briton, Sue Taylor, who also worked in the media. Another Yale graduate working at Star, Tiffany Soong, was a friend, and she was very close to a wealthy British fund manager, Scobie Ward.
A Star colleague describes her as "a delightful charmer", and very popular with the male expatriate staff, something which inevitably gave rise to rumours. "She loved that she worked for a big, multinational, non-Chinese company in China," recalls one colleague. "She was ambitious, sure, but not in the way that ‘I'm going to write a killer business plan myself and make it work and be recognised for making it work'; she was ambitious in the way that ‘I'm going to meet this person and schmooze this person.'"
But there were times when Wendi did need some paperwork for important meetings. Sometimes she'd write her own and sometimes, one executive recalls, she would schmooze work from her colleagues, playing the role of the unworldly mainlander making her way. "She took advantage of people's naiveté and niceness," the executive says. "And she totally got credit for it. She presents this stuff to the bosses, and her charming self, and then she starts jetting off. If Rupert fell in love with her because of her Excel-spreadsheet business plans, then he should've married me."
Still, the Star executive harbours little malice towards her former colleague. "Was it wilful? Maybe. Does it matter? I've experienced worse. Some of us were a bit pissed off at the time, but we were all a team - at least, that's what we thought. I'm not trashing her ... I was very fond of her. I still am," the executive says, "but Star was no meritocracy. There's a certain amount of guileless guile about her ... she'll set her mind on something, and the way she'll go after it is with a sledgehammer. She's not a genius; she's a sweetheart, she's a party girl, she loves it when everyone is having fun - she likes to facilitate that. That's what she does."
While Rupert Murdoch was the guest of honour of Hong Kong's Chief Executive designate at the official handover ceremony on 30 June 1997, Wendi Deng saw in the transfer at the Hong Kong Cricket Club. A bastion of colonial privilege, the club was an unusual place for a mainlander - and the daughter of a Communist Party member, no less - to witness the act that Beijing believed would rectify an accident of history. And the historical significance of the moment didn't much move her, it seems: "Wendi doesn't have those type of views; she's not at all political," says a friend. "She's the type of person who'll go to a party and she'll come back and tell you who she met and what they said. She's not fixing rockets in her spare time; she's not dumb either ... she's got other gifts."
Wendi Deng's Star colleagues began to twig that some-thing was afoot in the first half of 1998. She became furtive and giggly; she took short vacations to Paris and London with someone she described as "my new boyfriend, an older guy", returning with expensive gifts. A News Corporation executive recalls "a weird period when the office started gossiping. Then we started hearing Rupert-isms from Wendi and Wendi-isms from Rupert." Colleagues saw Wendi at Hong Kong's Grand Hyatt Hotel at unusual hours. Then, Rupert and Wendi were spotted holding hands as they strolled around The Peak, a popular lovers' haunt. "She often said she liked older men," a colleague says, "even before she'd met Murdoch."
How did the two meet? One story circulating through Star TV is that she impressed Rupert in the office with a sharp business plan. Another has it that she gatecrashed a Hong Kong dinner he attended, contriving to spill wine on his lap. Rupert told Vanity Fair magazine in October 1999 that when Wendi visited London on Star business in June 1998, he - "a recently separated and lonely man" - took her out for dinner. "I talked her into staying a couple of extra days and that was the start of it," he said.
Gary Davey claims he introduced them, albeit by phone. He was in Delhi; Murdoch was in Japan en route to Shang-hai, and needed an interpreter. "I told her to go to the airport, meet this guy and take him up to Shanghai," Davey recalls. "She said, ‘What's his name?' and I said, ‘Rupert Murdoch,' and in classic Wendi style she said, ‘Oh, OK.'" A long-time Murdoch lieutenant and now a semi-retired private investor living in Coffs Harbour, Davey can't quite remember the timing of that phone call. Though Rupert married Wendi on 25 June 1999, just 17 days after finalising a US$1-billion-plus divorce, he has insisted he was faithful to Anna until the end of the marriage. Murdoch and Wendi "weren't swinging hands immediately," Davey insists. "It took some months for a relationship to develop."
The break-up with Anna stunned all who knew the Murdochs, including the rest of the family. "I thought it was a very strong marriage," says Andrew Neil, a former editor of Murdoch's Sunday Times in London. Gary Davey says that Rupert and Anna "were bullshitting one another" that Rupert would gradually withdraw from the cut-and-thrust of empire building. "He wanted to maintain a halfway-sensible relationship with Anna. I knew he was very unhappy ... There was a polarisation between Anna and Wendi that just transformed him. Rupert was never a ladies' man, but he was invigorated by this young woman who showed an interest in him, was smart, was Chinese, could comfort him ... here was somebody who was energetic, excited, passion-ate, motivated, really smart ... somebody who loves business on a level that almost equals him, and someone who was intimate with a culture that he's most intrigued by."
A Star colleague recalls the time when the relationship went public. Wendi "wanted to talk about all the famous people she'd met. There was a certain amount of boastful-ness to it, but she wasn't really dropping names; she was genuinely starstruck, in a guileless way. The whole thing was very weird." In a similar vein, a News executive remembers that not long after he and his wife met Wendi, she would call them for tips on what to wear to functions she was attending with Rupert. "It was quite sweet, actually. She wasn't showing off; she was genuinely unsure of what was appropriate," he says.
Copies of Rupert Murdoch's New York Post are piled high inside the entrance of the Shuang Wen High School, on New York's Lower East Side. The papers are part of a $500,000 donation Wendi made to the school, even though her daughter Grace is schooled elsewhere. Shuang Wen - Mandarin for ‘dual cultures' - sits on Cherry Street, in a tough neighbourhood adjacent to Chinatown. It has one of the state-school system's most impressive academic records, and is popular with uptown New York families who want to give their children a way into China's economic future.
Shuang Wen High School is one of the handful of trusts and charities with which Wendi is associated. She's also a trustee of, and a donor to, the Asia Society, located just a few blocks away from her uptown home. The society is a major networking spot, where the grandees of America's Asian establishment gather to debate policy. News Corporation had its annual meeting there last year. On 30 January this year, the society inaugurated its China Centre with a speech by Henry Kissinger on how he and Richard Nixon began talks with Mao in 1972. It was a big event for New York's Asiaphiles and diplomats: surely Wendi would join Richard Holbrooke, Christopher Hill and the academic Orville Schell in the audience? She didn't.
Perhaps she was with her parents. She moved them to New York soon after marrying Murdoch, installing them in an apartment in Queens, in the middle-class Chinese neighbourhood of Flushing. She showed them the sights and took them shopping on Madison Avenue: a crash course in the West. "It was like Wendi wanted them to catch up," says a friend. "They were decked out in super-fine fabrics, but you could tell that they felt completely uncomfortable. It didn't matter to them, any of that; they would've been just as happy wearing anything." They were "pretty bewildered; they had no English," the friend says, describing them as "very nice people" but "beaten down" after living much of their life under Mao.
In New York, the Murdochs are said to be friendly without being particularly social; they're in the process of crossing from trendy SoHo to the sedate Upper East Side, which is more Rupert's natural habitat. The couple's first formal home, the loft on Prince Street where Rupert started donning the metropolitan black garb that Wendi chose for him, was sold after James, Lachlan and their wives left town. Wendi showed a savvy side when she did a rare interview - with the New York Times' real-estate pages, in October 2005 - ostensibly to help sell the hard-to-shift SoHo loft after Rupert had bought their new apartment on Fifth Avenue. "We are trying to simplify our life," she said in the piece, headlined "Make an Offer" - while lamenting that she'd "have to get a better wardrobe" now that she was moving into the rarefied uptown area.
New York gossips claim Wendi still has some awkward social moments. One friend comments, "I've been at a dinner party where she'll just blindly jump into the conversation, and say something harmless but completely unrelated to the table discussion. Rupert will indulge her, laugh it off, almost in the same way that you'll indulge a child, and Wendi doesn't pick up on that." It's something that the friend presumes is a result of the cultural gap, a "mainland Chinese suddenly flying around on a private jet to meet world leaders. That's got to be weird."
Kathy Freston says she's in contact with Wendi at least once a day as they shuttle between their respective homes in Los Angeles and New York. They share yoga teachers, and Kathy is trying to teach Wendi to meditate. She says that Wendi "talks a mile a minute, and I know sometimes she would like to slow down, but I think there is so much she'd like to get done in a day ... that everything comes tumbling out. I adore her because she is very thoughtful and quirky and brilliant in a completely original and unpretentious way. She has no interest in knowing the right people - she likes who she likes, no matter what station in life they occupy. She doesn't put on false airs."
Shortly after he married Wendi Deng in 1999, Rupert Murdoch said in an interview that his new wife's job was "as a home decorator": that she was not "some business genius about to take over News". "She's intelligent, but she's not going to do that," he said. Her friends were incensed. "She didn't marry him to sit at home and be a society wife," says one.
There seems recently to have been a shift in Wendi's role in News Corporation. After the couple visited Beijing late last year, News confirmed reports that it was planning to launch MySpace in China, with Wendi involved in the rollout. Soon after, the Australian CEO of Star TV, Michelle Guthrie, was removed from her post, along with senior executives in Star's Indian operations. That followed the September sell-off of more than half of Star's long-held stake in Phoenix TV - one of News' few meaningful assets in the Chinese media - which reduced its holdings to 17.6%. That was an "ill-advised" move, says Gary Davey, who notes that Phoenix's well-connected chairman, the former People's Liberation Army colonel Liu Changle, "was never comfortable with Wendi always asking questions".
News' offices around the region are now rife with talk that Wendi is starting to exercise her power, starting to build an empire in Asia - something which News denies. "They should absolutely use her," says Jessica Rief Cohen, Merrill Lynch's senior media analyst in New York, when I ask her about Wendi's role in China. "She knows the company, she knows the country and News desperately wants to be in that country in a big way ... they'll do what they have to do to have a presence there."
If she is assuming a grander role for herself at News, can Wendi deliver China to her husband? Gary Davey says that at the very least she'd be an improvement on her predecessors. Over the years, he explains, News has been inundated with fixers, influence-brokers and spruikers promising riches in China but not delivering. "We'd have two or three a day," he remembers, "members of the politburo who'd show up with their hands out. It was just revolting. It's all very well having the connections, the guanxi, and all of that nonsense, but most of the guys who are in that racket wouldn't have a bloody clue about how to run a business." Wendi is different, Davey says, bringing to the role an understanding of the culture and language, and also "really intense business nous, one of the missing pieces of the China puzzle".
That's debatable. In 1999 and 2000, Wendi and her step-son James went on an internet spending spree in China, buying up community websites such as NetEase, SinoBIT, Sinobyte, 21CN and RenRen. All had high profiles in the heady days before the dotcom bust; today, most of them have been wound down by News, with millions of dollars lost. "Her choice of business partners in China has been odd," says a News China colleague.
The internet is one area in which China does not lag behind the West; its emergence as a powerful medium has coincided with the country's economic boom. "Even though MySpace is a big brand in the US, there are plenty of other things in China that have a big head start on MySpace," the News China executive says. "Online gaming is way bigger, so putting Wendi onto MySpace China may be just like putting Wendi in a corner where she can't do much damage." Wendi's former boyfriend David Wolf, who runs a blog on Chinese technology, also seems sceptical. In a posting about the arrival of foreign-owned community web-sites in December last year, Wolf wrote, "MySpace: is China really core to their business? Do they offer something that can't be readily replicated? I cannot shake the feeling that MySpace is showing up now because Rupert has the online bug and Wendi is bored."
"There is no one in the company with Rupert's vision or breadth of interest," warns Andrew Neil, a former senior Murdoch employee. "Rupert is the one who had the over-arching vision and the global reach. James knows Britain pretty well now - and Star in Asia, and therefore probably Fox - but does he know anything about motion-picture studios? Does he care about newspapers?" he asks. "Lachlan certainly doesn't care about the British newspapers. [Peter] Chernin, seen as the major executive who would take over if Rupert was not there, couldn't give a stuff about BSkyB, The Times or the papers in Australia. Chase Carey [who runs News' satellite-TV operation in the US] couldn't give a stuff what The Times says. Could Carey find Australia on the map? There's no one."
Neil foresees a break-up of the News empire after Murdoch's death: that his lieutenants will try to secure their corner of the enterprise through management buyouts. "The company will be unbundled, no question; the institutional investors will finally have their say," he says. "My guess is [the break-up] will be messy, because these things usually are, as they divvy up parts of the company. This is a share price that has not performed. Given that the asset value of the company is far greater than its market capitalisation ... there'll be a big push among the shareholders when Rupert goes.
"Wendi has two young kids to look after, but every-body's view is that she is biding her time. She keeps her hand in as to what is going on. He's very close to her. Everybody expects to see her as a rising player. From every-thing I hear about her, underestimating her would be very foolish, particularly in a post-Rupert world. She'll want to be there when the carve-up happens, and she's got two kids who are increasingly being cut in to the post-Rupert pie," says Neil.
"The children of Anna's marriage get on fine with Wendi, but they are wary of the dynastic implications of her and the two children. It worries Anna as well. They're all waiting for the Chinese kids to be inserted into that [dynastic] place, and it causes them apprehension. Rupert's run that company not for the benefit of the shareholders but for dynastic reasons, to keep control of it. His biggest threat to that is a combination of the family falling out [after his death] as they try to divvy up the assets and the institutions saying, ‘News Corp. is over, that's finished, we want to sell,'" Neil explains. "And she, Wendi, will be there for that."
Deng Wen Ge - she changed her name to Wendi in her mid-teens - was born in Shandong around the time that her future husband was buying London's News of the World. One of three children, she grew up in neighbouring Xuzhou as a Subei ren - a vernacular term for the robust, rosy-cheeked folk of northern Jiangsu province, who are known, if not always loved, throughout China for being blunt, blithe and somewhat uncouth.
Today is ‘Learn From Lei Feng Day' in China, commemorating the People's Liberation Army soldier who was transformed by propaganda into a communist icon of selflessness, nobility and modesty. They're qualities that Wendi's supporters and detractors - and there are plenty of both in the Murdoch milieux - insist she either has in spades or lacks in equal measure. She elicits polarised views, as a browse through postings on the 250-odd Rupert-and-Wendi...