China’s elusive rich unveiled

SHANGHAI (China): ”We got another one!'' 

Rupert Hoogewerf punches the air triumphantly and slaps his mobile phone shut. The former accountant has bagged his latest quarry, identifying another of China's richest entrepreneurs. 

Rupert Hoogewerf showing a location of Chinese wealthy people on the map at his office.

Hoogewerf, a boyish, 34-year-old Briton, is making a career out of tracking down China's elusive wealthy elite – discovering fortunes made from pig farming and wood carving, from fish food and feminine-hygiene products and pastry bakeries. 

“If I can work out the story of these people,'' he said, “then I can work out the story of how China is.'' 

China's new millionaires – un- abashed capitalists in a country still ruled by communists, albeit evolving ones – tend to shun publicity.  

But Hoogewerf has found them. He drew up his first tally of 50 wealthy Chinese in 1999, as international interest in doing business with China was heating up. After working for a Western accounting firm in Shanghai, he was seeking a career change and a way to turn years of Chinese studies into profit. 

The financial magazine Forbes Global, known for its own rankings of billionaires and top companies, until recently published Hoogewerf's list, which now includes the top 100 richest Chinese. 

But determining the size of any individual's fortune can be tricky, especially in China, the Shanghai Tatler magazine noted in a recent feature on Shanghai's “Invisible Billionaires.'' 

“For Chinese, especially for wealthy Chinese, transparency about personal assets can be very dangerous,'' Shanghai's Tatler said. The publication, modelled after Britain's Tatler magazine, caters to China's very rich. 

The sense of insecurity is understandable given China's tumultuous history and the recent arrests of a number of prominent tycoons accused of tax evasion and other economic crimes. 

Among them was Yang Bin, a flower mogul who was picked to run a North Korean special economic zone and who's serving an 18-year sentence for fraud and bribery. And Mou Qizhong, one of the earliest communist-era tycoons, is serving a life prison sentence for bank fraud. 

Changes in China's political and economic culture mean China's rich don't face the kind of jeopardy they did after the communists took power in China in 1949 and many wealthy families fled to Hong Kong or elsewhere. These days, the Communist Party has begun admitting business people to its upper ranks, recognising the importance of entrepreneurship to the economy. 

“Wealth is not an evil thing. It can create a lot of job opportunities and the whole society can benefit,'' said Guo Guangchang, chairman of the Fosun Group, one of China's biggest private conglomerates, and owner of a fortune estimated by Forbes to be worth US$360mil. 

Many provincial business leaders now hold posts in an influential national advisory body, and some have actually begun seeking greater recognition. But far more prefer to bask in obscurity – Chinese firms routinely keep several sets of books and face minimal financial disclosure rules. 

Still, as private entrepreneurs find foreign venture partners and acquire other companies, details about their businesses and their personal lives are gradually slipping out. – AP 

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