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Communist fat cats: Forbes counts 168 billionaires in China

“To get rich is glorious” – Deng Xiaoping’s famous aphorism has clearly been taken to heart by at least 168 people in China. That’s the number of billionaires identified in Forbes’ annual China Rich List…

There are a record 168 billionaires in China, according to the most recent Forbes list. Adam Nelson

“To get rich is glorious” – Deng Xiaoping’s famous aphorism has clearly been taken to heart by at least 168 people in China. That’s the number of billionaires identified in Forbes’ annual China Rich List.

Second only to the United States, the swelling ranks of the spectacularly wealthy are at best an incongruous anomaly in what is still notionally the People’s Republic. At worst they are a threat to the legitimacy and durability of the existing political order in China.

No doubt many will think this is no bad thing. China is, after all, an authoritarian regime with limited tolerance of opposition and dissent. It’s human rights record doesn’t withstand close scrutiny – unless lifting millions of people out of grinding poverty is recognised as a not insignificant contribution to the life chances of the most disadvantaged.

For those who wonder why there hasn’t already been more unrest about growing levels of inequality in China, this has to be part of the answer. The reality is that the benefits of successful economic development have been widely shared, even if some have done significantly better than others.

Big Earners: China’s Top Five

Moneybags: Wang Jianlin has made a fortune out of developing real estate in China and is expanding his business around the world. Fortune Live Media

Wang Jianlin ($14.1 billion): Joined the army in 1970 and the Communist Party in 1976. Sits on a number of powerful state bodies. A property developer, owns a chain of cinemas in the US, is building a $1 billion hotel in London, loves celebrities.

Zong Qinghou ($11.2 billion): A self-made man, borrowed money to start a small drinks business which is the now the largest in China. Has been a delegate to the Chinese National Congress since 2002.

Li Robin ($11.1 billion): Recieved the highest high school scores in his state and was sent to the State University of New York. Worked for Dow Jones and Infoseek in the US before making his fortune with Baidu, China’s largest search engine.

Li Hejun ($10.9 billion): Originally acquired small dams until he built the world’s largest privately owned hydropower station in western China. Has a fast expanding renewable energy business. Enjoys golf.

Ma Huateng ($10.2 billion): Owner of enormous internet company Tencent, which has a series of products with messenger services, online games and video players.

The problem for the Communist Party of China and the elite group of its members who actually run the show is that they have yet to develop a discourse that actually makes sense of this fundamental “contradiction”, as the Marxists used to say.

It is not simply that inequality is becoming an ever more visible part of the contemporary social order in China. There is also the problem that some of the comrades are clearly benefiting from their connections to China’s expanding capitalist class. Indeed, many in the senior ranks of the Communist Party of China – or close members of their families – are the capitalist class.

When the New York Times revealed last year that former premier Wen Jiabao’s mother had, amongst other things, a $120 million investment in a financial services company, more than eyebrows were raised. Despite the Chinese government’s efforts to limit discussion on increasingly influential social media outlets, the damage to “Uncle Wen’s” man-of-the-people image was significant.

China’s netizens have become similarly indignant and outspoken about the antics of the sons and occasionally daughters of China’s ruling class. Not only has conspicuous consumption apparently become de rigueur, but so has an expensive education at the most prestigious schools and universities in the West.

The fact that disgraced former power-broker Bo Xilai’s son had been educated at Harrow was one of the more bizarre revelations of the recent political turmoil in China.

The idea that Bo represented “the left” in China and was the inheritor of Mao Zedong’s socialist mantle was equally confounding. Perhaps it is no more unlikely than a plutocrat like Mitt Romney claiming to be a regular guy, but there is one important difference, of course: in the US the ability to accumulate vast wealth is seen as a validation of fundamental national values and individual achievement. Despite the fact that this goal is increasingly harder to achieve for the vast majority of the population, it has done little to undermine the centrality of this belief.

Will inequality break the Chinese political system? Not if everyone is better off, even if some are far better off. EPA/Qilai Shen

In China there is no such legitimating discourse. Whatever Xi Jinping’s “Chinese dream” is supposed to be about, it’s still linked rhetorically to socialism and the collective fate of the nation. It may, indeed, also be about encouraging entrepreneurial activity and contributing to sustainable national development, but it is still a long way from the Communist Party’s traditional role as the representative of the proletariat.

Luckily for China’s leaders, not many people are interested in, much less take seriously, Marxist ideology anymore. But there are plenty of people in China who do care about corruption and the apparent links between political power and personal enrichment.

Even members of Xi Jinping’s own family have become conspicuously wealthy, although there is no evidence to suggest that he played any direct role in this. Nevertheless, it’s not a good look for the leader of a communist party trying sell the idea of collective endeavour and common purpose.

Almost There: The Next Five Richest

Wei Jianjun ($9 billion): Started a truck company which became Great Wall Motors, the 9th biggest car company in China. Sells nearly a million units every year, and has started exporting elsewhere, including Australia.

Yang Huiyan ($7.2 billion): China’s richest woman, mainly her father’s wealth. He was another real estate developer. She graduated from Ohio State University in 2003.

Jack Ma ($7.1 billion): Failed high school twice, then became a university lecturer before starting one of China’s first internet companies. Launched Alibaba in 1999, the website is now one of the world’s largest e-commerce sites.

He Xiangjian ($6.8 billion): Owns a large share in China’s biggest appliance maker, Midea, which is the second biggest appliance manufacturer in the world.

Liu Yongxing ($6.1 billion): Made money in the quail breeding and animal feed industries before launching a conglomerate that makes plastics. Still owns China’s largest animal feed companies.

It is not too fanciful to suggest that China is currently the most successful capitalist economy on the planet. Significantly, however, China’s capitalists are not pushing for political liberalisation in the way some in the West think they could or should.

The nexus between political and economic power that has been such a feature of the so-called East Asian miracle continues to underpin a remarkably effective and – thus far, at least – stable Chinese developmental model.

Whether, the proletariat can be persuaded that this model is still in their interests, too, remains to be seen. The highly publicised misdemeanours of the over-privileged off-spring of the rich and powerful have incensed the majority of China’s less fortunate masses.

China’s leaders might do well to remember that history suggests too much conspicuous consumption by a fortunate few is not good for social cohesion anywhere. It could be especially galling and corrosive in the People’s Republic.

Join the conversation

19 Comments sorted by

  1. Paul Richards

    integral operating system

    Appreciate the article. From this worldview a brief look at China is clever in the context of relatively recently announced Pacific Rim focus in foreign policy by the US.
    Mark Beeson wrote; "It is not too fanciful to suggest that China is currently the most successful capitalist economy on the planet." Most capitalist is certainly accurate as the US and many others have evolved into corporatist economies, with capitalism left as just a projection of past values. What is also interesting is the rebranding…

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    1. Wei Ling Chua

      Freelance Journalist and Author at

      In reply to Paul Richards

      I cannot agree with Paul about the article. Sorry to say that, this is a shockingly bias article. People should take note that the CCP has a membership of over 85 million. When Australia cannot even prevent the few hundred elected MPs, Ministers, former and current PMs from rorting the system at tax payer expense, how can the CCP roots out corruption when the economy is expanding at a speed of over 45 times within 3 decades? One should note that the membership in CCP is about 4 x the size of entire…

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    2. Raine S Ferdinands

      Education at Education

      In reply to Wei Ling Chua

      Wei Ling Chua, your patriotism to your mother country is commendable. What you say about our Aussie MPs and other politicians roting the system is only partially correct. That we debate and rant and rave about such sorts are a reflection of how well our Aussie democracy is functioning. We have, you must admit, a good check and balance system. Imagine the absence of such an open system and the damage it does to a nation.
      Your claim about democracy in China is only an illusion and the application…

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    3. Wei Ling Chua

      Freelance Journalist and Author at

      In reply to Raine S Ferdinands

      Raine, I should let u know that I am a born Singaporean, and my dad is a born Indonesian. China is not my country. The reason I passionately defend China is because of the often false allegations Western journalists and writers recycle each other works to smear against the Chinese government.

      I do not make statements without supporting documentations and examples. Just read any articles on my personal blog to know that many of the information you read about China in the Western media are simply…

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    4. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Wei Ling Chua

      Wei Ling Chua wrote; "I cannot agree with Paul about the article."
      What is it you disagree with? Your comments in disagreement are opaque. You have made quite a lot of assumptions in reply about my knowledge, but left nothing in disagreement.
      The overview of China was interesting though and there is nothing there anyone could disagree with in your summary of her.
      Wei Ling Chua wrote; "... self-criticism to perfect one own political system" Interesting comment, however the article was about China. So adhered to the context of the article on the thread. That makes your response in comment adversarial and unwarranted. More a projection of political will, than a conversation on "The Conversation".
      From this worldview the 'little emperor' hypothesis seems to be alive and well in your comments.
      In China there is still a lack of personal freedom tied to unevolved tribal values not shed during the cutural revolution -

    5. Wei Ling Chua

      Freelance Journalist and Author at

      In reply to Paul Richards

      Hi Paul,

      Despite Western ongoing negativities again China. The Chinese government consistently enjoyed the highest level of people satisfaction in the annual PEW survey with up to 87% approval rating: , while most Western governments received only around 30% or below.

      When Western media promoted the idea of a Jasmine revolution in China, PEW report shown that 91% of the Chinese respondents thought that the government's handling of the…

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    6. Wei Ling Chua

      Freelance Journalist and Author at

      In reply to Wei Ling Chua

      By the way, I hope that Professor Mark Beeson can also click through all the above links I provided, and explain to us why an academic article could be imbalance in his analysis about China?

      What's wrong with 1 out of 168 billionaires as a member of the Communist Party? Don't someone deserved to be rich simply became he is one of the over 85 million CPC member?

    7. Mark Beeson

      Professor of International Politics at Murdoch University

      In reply to Wei Ling Chua

      Hi Wei Ling,

      Many thanks for all the valuable references and thoughtful comments and apologies for not responding sooner - I've been overseas.

      Let me firstly say that I was not expressing an 'anti-Chinese' view. I remain profoundly impressed by the development that has occurred in China over the last few years and this undoubtedly helps to account for the generally high levels of support the government enjoys.

      Secondly, corruption is hardly unique to to China or Asia, as the many recent scandals in Australia, the US and the international banking sector remind us. My main point though was that managing issues like corruption and inequality is - or should be - more difficult in a notionally socialist country than it is in a capitalist one, where such excesses are frequently seen as part of the cost of unleashing the dynamism of private interests.

      It will be interesting to see how China's increasingly politically savvy government manages such 'contradictions' in the future.

    8. Raine S Ferdinands

      Education at Education

      In reply to Wei Ling Chua

      "Western journalists and writers recycle each other works to smear against the Chinese government"???Hmmm.. I thought only PRC politicians held such paranoia.
      Wei Leng, you may be a first generation Singaporean, but most generational Singaporeans are rather westernized and perhaps more USA and /or UK centric. than China or India focused (except the vernacular mini-minority). Generational Singaporeans don’t care two hoots about defending Chinese Communist leaders or Chinese corruption. Sandwiched between corrupt neighbors (Malaysia & Indonesia), Singapore remains squeaky clean with a highly (western) educated populace and with little tolerance for corruption or radical religious zealots. As an expatriate, I have also worked in SEAsia, Hong Kong and China to know the difference. Your un-broken tie with China is puzzling; unless you are a great proponent of the principle of jus sanguinis that requires complete loyalty to China what ever its faults.

    9. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Wei Ling Chua

      You again have written a great deal that no one can disagree with or would bother to.
      Wei Ling Chua wrote; "Why smear again the Chinese when everybody is having the same problems." What smear did I make? Address that. Or are you just lost in compiling a disconnected jingoistic response. Unable to counter anything in my comments?
      Just to reiterate, you were addressing me. That is the context of your comment about China. So it is your turn to 'explain' what I said was wrong. Your first comment was; "I cannot agree with Paul about the article."
      So what do you disagree with in 'my' comments.

    10. Raine S Ferdinands

      Education at Education

      In reply to Wei Ling Chua

      Info out of China is censored!! We only read what the LEADERS want us to read or know. We are not allowed to chat with the locals without the 'watchers' and their gov cameras. The Russians are good at that too. Even the devil can quote the bible, Wei Ling, to prove a point.

      "From this worldview the 'little emperor' hypothesis seems to be alive and well in your comments" by Paul Richards (above) is spot on.

    11. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Wei Ling Chua

      Still can't point how my comments were wrong. Hmmm .... interesting. They stand unchallenged then and just leaves a segue to yours.
      Wei Ling Chua wrote; "What's wrong with 1 out of 168 billionaires as a member of the Communist Party?" As an observation there is nothing wrong. It is a reality and does not really matter how many communist party members survived.
      Today geopolitically, transnational and national corporations are headed by an elite. The CEO, CFO clearly paralleling Kings, Princes…

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    12. Wei Ling Chua

      Freelance Journalist and Author at

      In reply to Mark Beeson

      Thank for your reply, Prof Mark Beeson.

      There are many things about China are hardly reported by the mainstream media. In many cases their reporting are highly selective, partial, distorting and in many incidents fabricated (see for details) . I will organize an article over the weekend titled "Balance reporting: Missing facts about China in the Conversation', hopefully, the editors in the Conversation will see the merits of having an alternative view. The information in the article will answer many of those comments below. Ignorance about China is very much the problem.

  2. Dale Bloom


    Looking down the list of billionaires, I get the feeling that a considerable amount of protectionism has been occurring in China to allow these billionaires to get so rich.

    For example, Chinese internet companies started rather late, and would have been quickly overtaken by internet companies from the US if there had been a level playing field.

    A number of other companies such as car manufactures and appliance manufactures would have been quickly overtaken by Japanese or Taiwanese companies if there had been a level playing field.

    And of course property developers in China can only be Chinese.

    The concept of “free trade” is a myth, and China has exploited that myth for its own benefit.

  3. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    What's to say!

    No wonder the current leadership are looking to a future where Communism will be outmoded. The future has already started.

    If there are huge gaps in the rich and poor in India, it will reach unprecedented levels in China......probably even more than the U.S. !!

  4. Alex Cannara

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Thank you Apple, and all our other outsourcers across the land!

  5. Paul Prociv

    ex medical academic; botanical engineer at University of Queensland

    Yes, it’s almost funny – makes you wonder how anybody over there views communism, or could take it in any way seriously. When the USSR collapsed, I was amazed by the rapid emergence of the oligarchs, and even more amazed by their origins – high-level bureaucrats of the recently-deceased Soviet system! How could they possibly justify their instant transmogrification, just to themselves if not their lesser mortals? I can think of only one mechanism which would enable an individual to achieve this…

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    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Paul Prociv

      Sadly ironic in China and Russia, that after years of living through Communist rule (both it's highs and lows) for many decades, and learning to live within that philosophical and political framework, the tide has again turned for the working, middle and peasant classes.

      They are now going to suffer the travails of being poor in a completely new philosophical and political environment.

  6. Raine S Ferdinands

    Education at Education

    One has to have lived there to understand the magnitude of nepotism, cronyism, and corruption at every level throughout China. Party leaders and party members get away with anything and everything. Most of the Chinese foreign students in Australia, Britain, America and Canada are the children of the Communist Party leaders. Most Chinese people join the part for economic advantage. The purchase of big homes in blue-ribbon suburbs are Chinese connected with the Party. Big business is also connected with or supported by Party members. I suppose this is what happened in Europe in the early days. Perhaps it is a natural human evolution and almost always ends in revolution. The Chinese leaders are not naive, though.