When China’s “rich list” was launched in 1999 it had just one US 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 $1bn.
Now the Hurun rich list has 106 US dollar billionaires, a massive rise from only 14 last year. Today, in spite of the five-fold growth in the Rong family’s wealth to $5.3bn, Mr Rong’s son Larry, the head of the family business whose dynastic wealth is unique in surviving the cultural revolution, has fallen to sixth place on the list.
The individual tales of how newcomers acquired their billions underline the startling scale and diversity of commercial opportunity in China. “The stories of China’s rich and successful tell the story of modern China,” says Rupert Hoogewerf, compiler of the Hurun China Rich List.
Occupying the top spot with $17.5bn – three times Mr 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. Ms Yang’s remarkable growth in fortunes reflects the changes that have taken place in a country where personal property was taboo and capitalism a dirty word until about three decades ago.
And Ms Yang’s wealth tells the tale of China’s burgeoning middle class and property boom. The company was founded by Ms Yang’s father, Yang Guoqiang, once a poor farmer from the Southern province of Guangdong. In the early 1990s, Mr Yang was able to acquire large swathes of land and distressed assets in the countryside so that when the housing market took off in 1997, Mr Yang churned out affordable townhouses and holiday homes for China’s growing middle-class. It boosted the company’s fortunes so that now Hong Kong-listed Country Garden is valued at around $27bn.
China’s wealthy are rapidly becoming even richer – the average wealth of the 800 members of Hurun’s rich list this year was $562m, more than double last year’s average. And the country’s billionaire club now has more members than anywhere except the US.
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.
Analysis of the list shows that the family wealth of Larry Rong and Yang Huiyan is the exception rather than the rule – the vast majority of China’s wealthy are first-generation, self-made entrepreneurs.
More typical is the rags-to-riches story of Chen Rong, a former mechanic from Shanghai who started a textile workshop in 1984 using his life savings of $250. Mr Chen invested his profits from the workshop in the stock market in the early 1990s. That gave him $12m as seed capital to found Zhonglu, the largest manufacturer of ten-pin bowling equipment in China.
Zhonglu has since branched out into automated Mahjong tables as well as bicycles, having acquired one of China’s top brands from an ailing state-owned company five years ago. Mr Rong came 320th in Hurun’s rich list this year with a net worth of $350m.
Mr Chen’s philosophy – “Everyone has an equal opportunity” – testifies to his rags-to-riches tale. “The key is to know how to grasp it,” he has written. “Where does opportunity come from? One main point is from the country’s policies – whenever a major new initiative is launched, that signifies a new opportunity. If you can act when others are hesitant and unsure, you will be the winner.”
Mr Chen identifies a contentious issue: the nexus of politics and wealth in China. A lack of transparency about business and government operations makes this a sensitive subject. But many on the rich list are politically well-connected and retain a residual ideological opposition to “western decadence”. In some cases, allegations of corruption and wrongdoing have made them a visible target for criticism.
One-third of the 800 on this year’s rich list are members of the communist party, according to Hurun and 38 are delegates to the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp parliament.
Others are connected through long-standing family ties. Diana Chen’s late grandfather, Lu Dong, was China’s metallurgy minister in the 1960s and 1970s. Ms Chen still recalls taking a train alone as a 9-year-old girl to the Beidaihe resort – where the top brass of the Communist party used to hold an annual summer meeting – to meet her grandfather.
Ms Chen founded the Pioneer Iron and Metals group in 1995 with her mother after studying in the US, and in little more than a decade transformed Pioneer into one of the largest private importers of iron ore into China. Last year Forbes magazine estimated Ms Chen’s wealth at $216m.
She admits that being the descendant of a top communist official has helped, “but only in the sense that people knew you came from a respectable family. My grandfather was never corrupt, and my mother always told me not to shame my grandfather’s name… I had the guanxi [connections], but I never used them.”
Mr Hoogewerf believes public attitudes in China towards the wealthy have been transformed in recent years. “There has been a huge change in the image of wealth,” he says. “People are now glamorising success.”
When he first started compiling a rich list, “I asked my researcher to go to the bookstore to look for any biographies or any books about successful Chinese businessmen. There were none. In the summer of 1999 all the biographies were on communist leaders like Deng [Xiaoping] or Mao [Zedong].”
Today, half of the entire first floor in one of Beijing’s largest and most popular bookstores, the Wangfujing Bookstore, is devoted to business biographies, as well as books teaching people how to get rich, how to invest in stocks or how to manage businesses. A local version of Donald Trump’s The Apprentice even appeared on television.In terms of personal wealth creation, Mr Hoogewerf believes “2007 has been China’s coming of age.”