“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
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.
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.