BEIJING, Feb 25 — Zong Qinghou, a Chinese business magnate whose leading beverage firm once made him the richest person in the country, died on Sunday, his company said. He was 79.

Zong was the founder of the Wahaha conglomerate, which specialises in bottled water, soft drinks, tea and other products.

He died Sunday morning after “treatment for an illness proved ineffective”, the company said in an obituary on its Weibo social media account.

A memorial service for Zong will be held on Wednesday at the company’s offices in the eastern city of Hangzhou, the statement said.

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State media reported this week that Zong was receiving hospital treatment but gave no details of his illness.

Zong only went into business in his 40s, selling soft drinks to children and reportedly being so short of cash that he slept under a bridge in Beijing because he could not afford a hotel.

He established Wahaha in 1987 and built it into a beverage giant whose drinks are a fixture in shops and kiosks across China.

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In 2010, Zong was listed by Forbes magazine as China’s richest person with a fortune worth US$8 billion.

Its estimate last year put him in 53rd place nationally with a net worth of US$5.9 billion.

The tycoon previously voiced support for lowering taxes as a strategy for boosting investment, telling reporters in 2013 that China’s growing wealth inequality was not a problem.

“If we had egalitarianism... we wouldn’t have enough to eat,” said Zong at the time. “It’s best to encourage people to create wealth.”

In recent years, Wahaha — whose name means “Laughing Child” in Chinese — has branched out into various other sectors including baby milk and clothing.

In 2021, Zong took a step back from frontline work, appointing his daughter Zong Fuli as Wahaha’s vice-chairperson and general manager. — AFP