The US has more billionaires than any other country: 415 by the last count of Forbes magazine. No. 2, and closing fast? China.
A year ago, there were 15 billionaires in China. Now, there are more than 100, according to the widely watched Hurun Report, and 66 according to Forbes.
Unlike America’s rich, China’s are hardly famous, even here. Bill Gates and Warren E. Buffett are known around the world. But Yang Huiyan and Robin Li? Yet, who they are, and what they decide to do—or are allowed to do—with their money and newfound influence will have political and economic consequences in China and probably far beyond, analysts say.
“They could start buying companies in the US,” Chang Chun, an economist at the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai, said of China’s new rich. “They have so much influence.”
Jack Ma (left), founder and chairman of Alibaba.com, and Ronald Arculli, chairman of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, hold up a giant portrait of the 18 founders of Alibaba at the exchange
Aptly, China’s new billionaires are building their staggering wealth on the backs of the richest companies you have never heard of.
Thanks to the capitalist stock mania sweeping the communist mainland, Chinese private and state-owned companies issuing stock for the first time are becoming the most valuable companies in the world—sometimes overnight. On Monday, the first day the state-owned energy firm PetroChina Co. Ltd listed shares on the Shanghai Stock Exchange, its market valuation ran up to more than $1 trillion (Rs39.3 trillion), topping that of any company in history.
Analysts are sceptical about the way China’s stocks are valued, particularly those such as PetroChina with huge amounts of untradable government shares. But on paper, at least, it has dethroned Exxon Mobil Corp. as the most valuable company in the world.
Similarly, China Mobile Ltd is the world’s most valuable telecommunications company. The state-owned Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, a commercial bank that was nearly insolvent a decade ago, is worth more than Citigroup.
And when Country Garden, a southern China real estate company, went public in April, its initial public offering (IPO) was bigger than Google’s.
On Tuesday, another newcomer, Alibaba.com, one of China’s biggest Internet companies, had another blockbuster stock offering, raising nearly as much as Google, and soaring 193% on its first day of trading.
But, many analysts argue that there is nothing underlying the skyrocketing values, or that the obscure finances of the companies make it impossible to know their true value. And, if China’s stock market is a bubble, the new billionaires will disappear as quickly as they rose. “A lot of people are surprised at how fast this has happened,” said Jing Ulrich, an analyst at JPMorgan Chase. “But this is the power of the capital markets. A lot of people’s wealth is based on newly listed companies.”
After a nearly decade-long bear market for Chinese stocks, investors here are in party mode. The Shanghai Stock Market is up 400% in two years. The Hong Kong Stock Exchange is shattering records.
The emergence of the superwealthy is a dramatic turnaround in a country that once branded enemies of the state “capitalist roaders”. But in the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping broke with Maoist dogma saying, “to get rich is glorious,” setting off a wild scramble that has produced a generation of hungry entrepreneurs. Who the shadowy billionaires are will matter, because the super rich tend to make a name for themselves far beyond their borders—they gobble up global assets and they change cultural landscapes with their charity.
Many analysts believe the Chinese are so new to this type of money that they themselves do not know what they will do with it—assuming it lasts.
As much as the bounty of billionaires is a source of pride, it is also a potential cause for concern in a nominally communist country. Per capita income in China is less than $1,000 a year. “One issue is social stability,” says Emmanuel Saez, a professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley. “In Latin America, you had such a concentration that revolutionaries wanted to redistribute it.”
Perhaps for that reason, many wealthy Chinese entrepreneurs fight to stay off the rich lists. Plus, early lists of the wealthy often led to unwanted scrutiny, including investigations and jail for some on tax evasion or corruption charges.
But times have changed.
With the economy of China roaring and entrepreneurs sensing a golden age of stock riches, everyone seems to be mouthing the words shang shi, Chinese for IPO.
Among the most celebrated are the young Internet tycoons. Robin Li, the 38-year-old founder of Baidu—which is called China’s Google—is now worth about $2.4 billion, making him richer than Yahoo Inc.’s Jerry Yang. And Jason N. Jiang, the 34-year-old founder of Focus Media, is worth $1.1 billion. Jiang grew up in Shanghai, and studied literature before turning his focus to business while in college. He says he started out selling advertising in Shanghai and then, in 1997, formed what is now Focus Media with the idea of placing video monitors broadcasting advertisements in elevators, supermarkets, and even on street corners. With the help of Goldman Sachs and Credit Suisse, Focus Media went public in 2005 on the Nasdaq—and its shares have jumped about 800% since.
But it may be ambition more than money, at least so far, that motivates him. “I want this company to be the greatest media group—the greatest media company in the world,” he said in an interview. He says he works 8am to 2am, and does not feel tired. He also says he has no time for anything else, including spending his enormous wealth. He has upgraded to a nicer home in recent years, he says, but has little time for sports or anything else. “I think this is typical,” he says of successful entrepreneurs in China.
While Forbes this year estimates that there are 66 billionaires in China, Rupert Hoogewerf, publisher of the Hurun Report, a luxury marketer here, has already found more than 100, and there could be many more, he says. Hoogewerf also says six of the 10 richest self-made women in the world, are from China.
The richest person in China, since last April, is also a woman: Yang Huiyan of Country Garden, the real estate company. Yang, 26, is easily the richest woman in Asia. A graduate of Ohio State University, she is worth about $16 billion, making her richer than George Soros, Rupert Murdoch and Steve Jobs. Her father, a real estate developer in southern China, gave her most of the family’s fortune in stock, just before Country Garden’s blockbuster Hong Kong IPO.
In keeping with their reputation for discretion, of about 15 billionaires contacted recently, only one, Jiang, agreed to be interviewed. They tend to hide their billions, friends say, sometimes with offshore purchases. Some even boast that they still get a $2 haircut.
The rise of the Chinese billionaire is remarkable not just because of the speed with which it has happened—the country only opened up to capitalism 25 years ago—but because it happened without the help of a single global brand, no Sony or Toyota. (Japan has only 24 billionaires.)
Indeed, China’s wealthiest, largely real estate tycoons and manufacturers, appear singularly focused on making it inside China, not outside.
That is the next challenge of the billionaires. And some are already embracing it.
© 2007/THE NEW YORK TIMES