Zong Qinghou, Beverage Tycoon in China, Dies at 79

Zong Qinghou, a self-made beverage entrepreneur who was once the richest person in China, died on Sunday.

His death was announced by his company, Wahaha Group, which said that Mr. Zong had died from an unspecified illness and gave his age as 79. The company statement provided no further details.

Mr. Zong’s rags-to-riches story had made him prominent in China even before a public feud with his foreign business partner considerably raised his profile — and his wealth. He founded a beverage company in the 1980s, and in the 1990s, he partnered with Danone, the French food giant, to launch one of the best-known food and beverage brands in China.

But tensions erupted in 2007 when Danone accused Mr. Zong of running secret companies selling virtually identical products that siphoned off as much as $100 million from the joint venture.

Mr. Zong struck back, saying that Danone had known about the companies. Vowing to punish Danone for its “evil deeds,” he rallied public opinion in China against the foreign company.

The dispute grew so acrimonious that France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, raised the matter in a meeting with China’s leader, Hu Jintao. In 2009, Danone sold its 51 percent stake, giving Mr. Zong’s company full control.

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