When you think of billionaires in China, Jack Ma is the name that comes to mind first. However, the universe of the very rich is growing in the country – and still little known outside of here.
For starters, Jack Ma, co-founder of Alibaba, is not the richest person in China. With so many tech companies, like Tencent, owner of WeChat, and ByteDance, of TikTok, which one would have produced the current number 1 on the list?
For the richest guy in China produces bottled water. Everyone here recognizes Nongfu Spring bottles. But it’s no surprise that this generated the greatest fortune in China, where artificial intelligence, big data and electric vehicles are making headlines.
Zhong Shanshan started out as a construction worker and was a vendor in the beverage business. He founded the company in 1996 and went public on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange last year. He also has a stake in a medical company. Not to be unfair, they say their company has a strong technological base.
Right after the water bottle businessman, it is true that the Chinese billionaire club is full of names associated with technology. Unlike other countries, the state-controlled financial sector does not generate individual fortunes. Or rather, they don’t appear in the rankings – but, every now and then, corruption scandals show they do exist.
Until the start of China’s economic opening in 1978, everyone was, so to speak, equally poor. The idea that some might get rich first, helping to boost the country’s growth, was publicly endorsed by Deng Xiaoping. This is where the Chinese started to warm up to the billionaire lists.
Due to the relatively recent history of opening up the economy, the cases of inherited fortunes are still limited. In tech, wealth almost always started from zero, but most of today’s super-rich weren’t exactly poor. Several have attended good Chinese universities, such as the founder of Tencent Pony Ma, second Chinese on the Forbes list.
Although with limited resources, some lived in the United States and were exposed to the country’s innovation ecosystem. This is the case of Colin Huang, from Pinduoduo, an e-commerce platform with discounts for groups, a mixture of e-commerce and social network. It is the third largest fortune in China.
In 2020, the stock market produced a big wave of the super rich in China. Behind the United States alone, the country now has 626 billionaires, according to Forbes. In 2019, there were 388. The growth in the number of Chinese billionaires over the past two decades is impressive – but the increase in 2020 is surprising.
In this country which is communist and which is not, which is capitalist and which is not, the Chinese perception of the accumulation of wealth intrigues me. Speaking to some, I get the impression that the growth in economic inequality is worrisome, but, paradoxically, the existence of billionaires does not bother. On the contrary, they serve as inspiration and motivate the Chinese to work (even) more.
I remembered that in Beijing there was the so-called billionaire restaurant. With high prices, but not absurd, the owner explores the market of Chinese who like the idea of belonging to the club.
The other day I was with a Chinese and an American, both of whom have extensive experience in both countries. I asked about the difference between billionaires in the United States and in China. More talkative, the American quickly replied: in the United States, billionaires run the government. In China, the government rules over billionaires. Without his name needing to be mentioned, Jack Ma was back on the agenda.
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