China is rapidly producing new billionaires despite Covid-19

Still the most influential entrepreneur in China.
Still the most influential entrepreneur in China.
Image: Reuters/Charles Platiau
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China added 257 billionaires in US dollar terms as of August, adding to the existing 621, according to the annually released Hurun China Rich List on Tuesday (Oct. 20), which has been tracking the wealth of the ultra-rich for 22 years. Overall, China has 878 billionaires, the highest number the country has ever seen. As recently as 1999, there was not a single billionaire in China.

In total, China has 2,398 individuals with a net worth of more than 2 billion yuan ($290 million), the cut-off for being on the list. The rich listers have a combined wealth of $4 trillion, which is similar to the GDP of Germany, up from $2.6 trillion in 2019.

China first surpassed the US in the number of billionaires in 2015 and now has more of them than any country in the world, according to Hurun. The US now has around 700 billionaires.

“The world has never seen this much wealth created in just one year. China’s entrepreneurs have done much better than expected. Despite Covid-19 they have risen to record levels,” said Hurun chairman Rupert Hoogewerf. A number of new listings and stock markets booms have helped with the creation of new billionaires, he said.

Much of the wealth creation still lies within the tech sector. Jack Ma, the former founder and CEO of Alibaba, retained his top spot in the list for the third consecutive year with a net worth of nearly $60 billion, up 45% from last year on the back of an upcoming mega IPO of his fintech arm Ant Financial and the good performance of Alibaba. Pony Ma, the CEO of Alibaba’s strong rival Tencent, ranked second on the list with a net worth of $57.4 billion.

The results have painted a striking picture of China’s quick economic recovery from Covid-19. While critics wondered whether the outbreak would become China’s “Chernobyl moment,” amid mounting misery and discontent among citizens toward the government at the peak of the pandemic, Beijing has since got back on relatively solid ground thanks to its draconian measures of controlling the pandemic.

China reported a 4.9% growth in GDP for the third quarter yesterday thanks to recoveries in industrial production and retail sales, compared with a 6.8% drop and 3.2% expansion in the first and second quarters, respectively. One important driver of the recovery comes from the improvement of consumer confidence, with citizens now ready to go shopping and traveling again. The rebound in confidence was probably illustrated best by the “revenge travel” boom during China’s eight-day holidays in early October when a total of 637 million trips were made within the country.

Nonetheless, there are suggestions that China’s wealth gap is widening during the pandemic, with the rich bouncing back quickly while the poorer population continues to suffer from a lack of financial support.