If the west has lost confidence in itself during the financial crisis, it is clear where some of the old can-do spirit has ended up: in China. Li Shufu, whose automaking group Geely will soon be the proud new owner of Volvo, personifies this burgeoning surplus in self-assurance.
On Sunday Mr Li’s company is scheduled to sign one of China’s highest-profile takeovers of a foreign brand at a ceremony in Volvo’s hometown of Gothenburg. With Xi Jinping, China’s vice-president, in likely attendance, Geely – China’s largest private carmaker – will agree to pay Ford Motor $1.8bn (€1.3bn, £1.2bn) for the producer of famously solid estate cars and executive sedans.
In Volvo, Mr Li will be taking on a carmaker with revenues about five times Geely’s and a European premium brand that he himself admits he can tamper with only at its peril. The deal will be a bellwether for China’s ambitions to add supremacy in global automaking to its newly won title as the world’s largest vehicle market.
The 47-year-old Mr Li is just the kind of larger-than-life character to act as the figurehead for a new age of carmaking with Chinese characteristics. “He says ‘Why not’ while the rest of the world is asking ‘why’,” says Bill Russo, former head of Chrysler in China and head of Synergistics, an auto consultancy. “He is the kind of story that exists in China today, that existed in the west 100 years ago”. Mr Russo mentions Carnegies and Rockefellers, not Henry Ford. But associates say Mr Li savours the irony of helping out the company Ford created.