China’s Ultra-Rich Lawmakers Make U.S. Officials Look Poor

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One of China's richest men, Zong Qinghou (Left), chairman of Hangzhou Wahaha Group Co., leaves the Great Hall of the People after a session of China's National People's Congress on March 10, 2011 in Beijing, China.

Talk about the 1%. The richest 70 members of China’s legislature added more to their wealth in just the last year than the combined net worth of all 535 members of the U.S. Congress, the President and his Cabinet, and the nine Supreme Court justices, Bloomberg reports.

Here’s how the numbers stack up: The top 660 U.S. officials pooled from all branches of government have a combined net worth of $7.5 billion, Bloomberg finds. That’s nearly 35% less than the $11.5 billion that China’s 70 lawmaker tycoons added to their riches last year. Their total net worth stands at 565.8 billion yuan ($89.8 billion), according to figures from the Hurun Report, a Shanghai-based magazine that publishes a Chinese rich-list every year. “It is extraordinary to see this degree of a marriage of wealth and politics,” Kenneth Lieberthal, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at Washington’s Brookings Institution told Bloomberg. “It certainly lends vivid texture to the widespread complaints in China about an extreme inequality of wealth in the country now.”

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In the last three decades, China has staged something of an economic miracle. Through economic reforms and rapid urbanization, it has lifted over 600 million of its 1.3 billion citizens out of poverty, according to World Bank estimates. Clocking a growth rate of 10%, China surpassed Japan in 2010 to become the world’s second largest economy. But progress in China has been uneven at best and many have slipped through the cracks of its economic evolution. China’s per capita annual income in 2010 was $2,425, less than in Belarus and a fraction of the $37,527 in the U.S., Bloomberg points out. And much like other rapidly developing economies, the Asian giant is grappling with income inequality. China’s Gini co-efficient, a widely recognized measure of how wealth is distributed, crossed the 0.4 mark two years ago, touching “alarming” inequality levels. (The number of billionaires in the country doubled between 2009 and 2011, according to Hurun.)This widening gap between the rich and the poor has, in recent months, been the source of much social unrest and rebellion. Last year, residents of the village of Wukan in southern China took to the streets protesting real estate deals they say have impoverished residents while enriching local leaders.

The intermingling of political power and China’s sprawling private sector is tricky business. The Communist Party has gradually increased the number of party cells it maintains inside private businesses, the Economist reports.  And it has been over a decade since those working in the private sector were first invited to join the party. (It has been reported that China’s richest man, Liang Wengen, may soon become the first private businessman to join the party’s ruling Central Committee.) China’s National People’s Congress, a nearly 3000-member legislative body that is set to resume business in Beijing on March 5, counts among its delegates some of the country’s wealthiest real estate executives and business movers and shakers. Lawmaker Zong Qinghou for instance is China’s second richest person and chairman of the beverage company Hangzhou Wahaha Group. And Wu Yajun, a legislator whose family wealth soars upwards of 40 billion yuan ($6.5 billion), is an influential property baroness.

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It’s not as if the U.S. Congress is not dominated by the rich. The financial gap between average Americans and their representatives has considerably widened over the years, a Washington Post analysis reveals. Between 1984 and 2009, the median net worth of a member of the U.S. House of Representatives more than doubled from $280,000 to $725,000. Even so, the wealthiest member of the U.S. Congress is no match for the Chinese. Darrell Issa, a Republican from California, had a maximum wealth of $700.9 million in 2010, according to figures obtained from the Center for Responsive Politics. If he were in China’s NPC, he would be ranked 40th, according to Bloomberg.

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