China’s billionaires begin to add up

When China's "rich list" was launched in 1999, it had just one U.S. dollar billionaire. "Red capitalist" Rong Yiren, the former China vice-president who founded the sprawling, state-controlled Citic conglomerate, topped the list with an estimated wealth of $1 billion. Now the Hurun Report: 2007 China Rich List has 106 U.S. dollar billionaires, up from only 14 last year.

  • Occupying the top spot with $17.5 billion – three times Rong's wealth – Is 25-year-old Yang Huiyan, whose fortune derives from her 59.5 per cent stake in the family business, Country Garden, a property development company.

  • Yang's remarkable growth in personal wealth reflects the changes that have taken place in a country where private property was taboo and capitalism a dirty word until about 30 years ago.

    China's wealthy are rapidly becoming richer:

  • The average wealth of the 800 members of Hurun's rich list this year was $562 million, more than double last year's average.

  • And the country's billionaire club now has more members than anywhere except the United States.

    Analysis of the list shows that the family wealth of Larry Rong and Yang Huiyan is the exception rather than the rule – the majority of China's wealthy are first-generation, self-made entrepreneurs.

    A lack of transparency about business and government operations makes the acquisition of wealth a sensitive subject. Many on the rich list are politically well connected. Residual ideological opposition to "western decadence" and, in some cases, allegations of corruption and wrongdoing, have made China's rich an often-reviled class in the past 20 years, especially as the gap between rich and poor has widened.

    According to Hurun:

  • A third of the 800 on this year's rich list are members of the Communist party.

  • Some 38 are delegates to the National People's Congress, China's rubber-stamp parliament.

  • Others are connected through longstanding family ties.

    The trigger for this billionaire boom was the economic liberalisation that began in the 1980s under Deng Xiaoping. His famed pronouncement – "let some people get rich first" – has evidently come to pass.

    Source: Robin Kwong, China's billionaires begin to add up, Financial Times, October 22, 2007.

    For text:

    For Hurun Report:

    For more on International Issues:

    FMF Policy Bulletin/ 30 October 2007
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