China's wealthy find being rich is glorious

New economy whizkids are jostling for space on millionaires row in China.

Led by Edward Tian, chief executive of China Netcom, 14 Internet bosses have made their mark on the latest list of China's 50 richest entrepreneurs compiled by Forbes Magazine.

High-tech gurus such as Netease founder William Ding, at 29 the youngest on the list, join an eclectic group of old economy tycoons who have followed Deng Xiaoping's maxim - to get rich is glorious.

But many have yet to get the chance to see if Deng's saying holds true.

The average Chinese annual wage in 1998, the most recent official figure available, was 7,471 yuan ($902.30), an amount that has been increasing since Deng threw open the doors two decades ago to make way for "a socialist economy with Chinese characteristics".

Some 120 million survive on less than a $1 a day.

The list of the richest, compiled by former accountant Rupert Hoogewerf and published in early November, shows the rich in China are getting richer with a sevenfold increase in the wealth of the person at number 50 - motorcycle merchant Yin Mingshan, worth $42 million.

By next year, anyone wishing to scrape into last position will need at least double the wealth of the present occupant, Hoogewerf reckons.

"The number 50 guy is going to be worth double," Hoogewerf said.

And as the bar to entry is pushed higher, the names are changing quickly. This year there are 30 new entries.

China's looming admission into the World Trade Organisation is set to breathe even more life into the country's booming private sector and concentrate yet more wealth in private hands.

"The government wants to build these companies up so that when WTO starts taking effect, they will have Chinese companies that will be able to employ Chinese people," Hoogewerf said.

Since the list was compiled to highlight China's self-made talent, it ignores "princelings" who have amassed their wealth by being related to China's political or military elite.

Instead it toasts success stories like 44-year-old Fang Xiaowen, the richest woman on the list, who made a fortune breeding pigeons, a Chinese delicacy, before widening the menu to include peacocks, ostriches and emus.

TIP OF THE ICEBERG

Hoogewerf concedes his list is just the tip of the iceberg and does not capture fabulously rich individuals who have mastered the art of stashing their money out of sight of the taxman.

The absence of these grey economy operators has led to grumbling by some on the list that they don't belong there at all.

Still, Hoogewerf maintains he has found a representative sample.

His information is culled only from publicly available and therefore state-sanctioned sources, backed up by interviews with the millionaires themselves.

One of those Hoogewerf finds most interesting is number 50, Yin, who made his fortune after spending two decades in prisons, labour camps and on farms as punishment for his capitalist tendencies under Mao Zedong.

"He absolutely represents the new China and how far China has come. When he was allowed to follow those capitalist tendencies, he went on to build the company that puts him at number 50," Hoogewerf said.

PEASANT MILLIONAIRE

Many began in very humble ways, such as 7th-ranked Zhang Hongwei, whose early years are simply described: "peasant". He went on to establish a construction business that became Orient Resources Group , China's first private firm to gain a stock market listing.

Almost half of the 50 never went to university, many of them having to cut short their education in the chaos that swirled through China during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.

There are three women, all in businesses with their husbands.

The oldest person on the list is also the richest, 84-year-old Rong Yiren, a former vice president who, with his family, is worth $1.9 billion.

Rong set up China's premier investment firm, CITIC Pacific , which his son Larry Yung now runs. Before the Communists came to power in 1949, the Rong family was the wealthiest in China.

Hoogewerf expects to see even more new faces next year.

"As people get more confident and as they 'legitimise' their businesses, so we'll find more people coming to light."

Casualties dropped from the limelight of last year's list include disgraced tycoon Mou Qizhong, sentenced to life in jail after being found guilty of a $75 million foreign exchange fraud.

Another is Rebiya Kadeer, a businesswoman from the restive northwestern region of Xinjiang who was sentenced to eight years in jail on charges of leaking state secrets and providing information on dissidents to Westerners.

A lesson, perhaps, that not all the rich become glorious.

($1=8.276 yuan).

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