China only trails U.S. in billionaires

A woman reads the Shanghai-based Hurun Report earlier this week at a Beijing hotel.
China ranks second only to the United States in the number of billionaires, according to an annual report of the 1,000 richest people in the country.

The Hurun Rich List counted 130 billionaires in China this year, up from 101 a year ago and none in 2003. An additional 825,000 people had personal wealth of more than $1.5 million, said Rupert Hoogewerf, an accountant who has compiled the list since 1998. “You can double the real number of billionaires in China to 260,” said Hoogewerf in a statement. “There are still a large number of billionaires off the radar screens.” Often, wealthy people in China try to avoid the scrutiny of tax authorities by keeping their finances private. The man who topped the list last year, for example, is under arrest for alleged financial irregularities. The most prominent dropout from the list is injured Houston Rockets basketball player Yao Ming, whose fortune was valued at $100 million last year.

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The list indicates that China’s wealthy have been buffered from the global financial meltdown, which has tycoons in other countries reeling. A separate list, released in June by Capgemeni SA and Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, found that China’s economy grew by 9 percent last year, even as the United States and Europe slipped into recession. That list found that the combined riches of China’s millionaires surpassed that of the United Kingdom’s. Most business owners who made the Hurun list — both as billionaires and millionaires — made their fortune in real estate and related industries as China has undergone dizzying urbanization. The construction ministry estimates that the country’s urban population will increase by 300 million people by 2025. Few of those making the list relied on exports to Western economies. But the richest man in China this year, Wang Chuanfu, jumped 102 places to the top after billionaire U.S. investor Warren Buffett agreed to buy a 10 percent stake in his company. Buffett’s announcement sent shares in Wang’s company, BYD, surging 387 percent this year. The company initially made its name with rechargeable cell phone batteries, but this year launched mass production of a plug-in hybrid electric car. Other highlights from the list: Less than 1 percent on the list inherited their wealth, compared with 25 percent in the United Kingdom and 35 percent in the United States. The typical rich list member is a 50-year-old self-made man who started out 16 years ago and has made his money from property development. 102 women were among China’s 1,000 richest. Chinese women make up more than half the world’s richest self-made women. The top three hobbies of wealthy Chinese are travel, swimming and golf. The United States, Australia and France are their preferred destinations.

Though the list mentions China as second to the United States in the number of billionaires, it did not specify how many the latter produced. A Forbes magazine tally of the world’s richest people, released in March, counted 359 billionaires in America.