Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s economic reforms, is reported to have exclaimed: “To get rich is glorious.” But an annual report naming China’s richest people has in recent years been noteworthy more for the strenuous effort tycoons and property magnates seem to make to ensure their names don’t appear on the list. As economic inequality grows in China, the mega-rich in the Hurun Wealth Report have turned into easy targets of popular discontent, particularly on the Internet. Tax collectors and state economic investigators, too, appear to have become particularly interested in those deemed China’s wealthiest individuals. At least 17 people who have graced the Hurun list in past years now languish in prison, while two have committed suicide and one was assassinated.
Nevertheless there is a list—and someone has to be named. In April, 960,000 Chinese were catalogued by Hurun as possessing personal wealth of 10 million yuan (or roughly $1.5 million), up nearly 10% from the year before. Last Saturday the Shanghai-based consultancy, which touts its lists as the Chinese equivalent of the Forbes efforts, also named 56 Chinese under the age of 40 as yuan billionaires, meaning their wealth equals around $155 million. The richest youngster, according to Hurun, is Ma Huateng, the 39-year-old co-founder of Internet giant Tencent. The No. 2 spot goes to Yang Huiyan, the daughter of a property tycoon who happens to have a plethora of real-estate shares in her name. Given the concentration of money in younger hands, it’s not surprising that the average age of luxury consumers in China is a full 25 years younger than that of their American counterparts, according to the World Luxury Association. Nor does the Chinese luxury boom show any signs of abating. A report released this month by business consulting firm Bain & Company predicts that the number of luxury buyers in China will increase by 25% this year, meaning it could possibly double by 2015.
But some 150 million Chinese still live in poverty—and the glory days of economic reform when it felt like anyone could get rich with a little luck and a lot of grit appear to be fast receding. With the wealth gap widening in China, the perception that the rich must have gotten their gains through shadowy means is becoming more common. This week, the Global Times, a staunchly pro-government newspaper, took China’s rich to task, noting: “A survey by Renmin University of China showed only 5.3 percent of the thousands of respondents believed the rich obtained their wealth legally. This is often reinforced by the many media reports of bribery, stock fraud and corruption, making the wealthy the favorite punching bag of the dissatisfied.” No wonder a mention in a Hurun report isn’t so much a badge of honor as an invitation for suspicion.