Byline: James Reginato
NEW YORK — Being able to read between the lines is always useful. But sometimes it’s right there on the page: “Mr. and Mrs. Rupert Murdoch, gala chairmen, cordially invite you to the Opening Night Preview of the International Asian Art Fair, to benefit the Asia Society,” read an invitation recently sent out for the event tonight at the Park Avenue Armory in New York.
No need for tea leaves. This was a sign that Wendi Deng, the formerly unknown 32-year-old Chinese woman who married one of the most powerful men on earth last June, was ready to step out into the public arena.
Nonetheless, it is surprising when Deng agrees to grant an interview, her first ever. She does so on one condition: that she can talk about the work of the Asia Society.
Walking into a conference room at the organization’s Park Avenue headquarters one recent afternoon, Deng seems somehow confident and shy at the same time. Six feet tall, dressed in a stylish but low-key pinstriped Richard Tyler suit, she radiates energy, especially when she flashes a big smile, which she does frequently. Unprepossessing and open, she is excessively polite.
“I think I’m too nervous to say anything,” she begins. But her shyness, no doubt due to the newness of being interviewed, soon evaporates as she begins to recount some of her travels. “We returned from China Thursday. Friday we went to Washington. I just got back to New York yesterday.”
When news of Rupert Murdoch’s romance with Deng leaked out early last year, the story carried ramifications beyond the standard married-mogul-finds-younger-girlfriend tale. For the 68-year-old-chairman of The News Corp., who was separated from his wife of 32 years, Anna, here was possibly as much a strategic business alliance as a love match. Would Deng, a Chinese national and Hong Kong-based vice president of Star TV, Murdoch’s pan-Asian satellite network, help him fulfill his long-term dream of winning the Chinese market?
Charming and intelligent, she is undoubtedly an asset for Murdoch as he navigates his way though the complex Asian world. Although Deng resigned from Star TV before her marriage, and although she is not officially employed by News Corp., she clearly maintains a role there. “I don’t work anymore, because it’s hard to work full-time and be Rupert’s wife, because we travel so much. But I help him translate when we go to China, which is a few times a year. I help him communicate, which, for a Western businessman, is really difficult. I can explain to him the subtleties, the underlying things — what things mean under the surface.”
Notwithstanding the importance of communication, Deng seems to downplay her own professional contributions — perhaps due to the deference Asian women traditionally show their husbands. But, according to sources inside and outside of News Corp., she is playing a serious role advising her husband. While she admits to doing “special projects,” Deng says simply, “I get a lot of professional and personal satisfaction from traveling with him and supporting him. It keeps me really busy, so I guess I’m always working.”
Indeed, Wendi, just back from a three-week trip to China with her husband, is pumped. “We were looking for Internet companies to make strategic investments in. In the business area, China is modernizing quickly. It used to be that the Chinese students who came to the U.S. wanted to stay after their studies. Now the majority are going back to China. They’re all bright, talented, really ambitious. I think some of them will become the business leaders of the world. Last week, I met over 100 Internet entrepreneurs.”
Mrs. Murdoch also stresses the varied makeup of her country. “In fact, China is very diverse. In different parts of China, people look different, they have different dialects and traditions, contrary to the stereotypes and misconceptions many Westerners have. The Asia Society is helping to break these misconceptions.”
“The Asian-Pacific region is made up of approximately 30 different countries, all of which have different religious backgrounds, cultures and traditions,” she explains. “It’s hard to generalize about them. Comparing India with China is like comparing Spain and Sweden.”
The Asia Society, a nonprofit educational institution founded in 1956 by John D. Rockefeller 3rd, has a unique role and ability to foster awareness, she notes. “I think the Asia Society is a really powerful force to link up America and all the countries of the Asian-Pacific region,” she says. “In the past, it has enhanced mutual understanding and appreciation of the different cultures, and I think it will become even more important as globalization brings people together.
“My husband is really committed to the work of the Asia Society, and it gives me great pleasure to support him.”