China's New Wealth Underscores Inequalities

New surveys of mainland China's wealth show the country has at least 345,000 U.S. dollar millionaires and 108 known billionaires. As VOA's Kate Woodsome reports from Hong Kong, soaring stock and property prices are key factors in this rising wealth - and a major contributor to a growing income gap that has China's leaders worried.

A 26-year-old woman worth $17 billion is the richest person in China, and in all of Asia. Yang Huiyan achieved her lofty status thanks to her majority stake in Country Gardens Holdings, a real estate development company founded by her father.

The Shanghai-based Hurun Report counted Yang among its list of China's 800 wealthiest people. Last year, the report listed just 15 U.S. dollar billionaires, but this year, the number has risen to 108.

The figure means that China now has more billionaires than any other country in the world except the United States, which has more than 300. Forbes magazine, which regularly documents such things, says there are 36 billionaires in India, and 24 in Japan.

Rupert Hoogewerf, who publishes the Hurun Report, says Yang Huiyan and many other ultra-rich Chinese made their fortunes listing their companies on the stock market.

"The stock market over the past year has surged by over 100 percent in China. And the main driver of it is there's a lot of money overseas looking for good growth opportunities. Domestically speaking, it's been the same issue," he said.

China's rapid modernization has spawned a building boom. New buildings are popping up in cities as fast as old ones can be torn down. The World Bank has estimated that between now and 2015, half of the world's construction will take place in China.

Hoogewerf says all this new real estate has created a lot of instant wealth.

"Last year lots of billionaires that were created - really was predominantly through property and retail. And both of those were led by urbanization. Because China's going through a massive urbanization phase," he said.

Migrant workers from China's impoverished countryside are the muscle behind the growth, but they, like most of China's 1.3 billion people, reside at the opposite end of the economic scale from people like Yang Huiyan.

As many as 200 million Chinese have left their rural homes to work in factories and construction sites on the country's southern and eastern coasts.

Rights groups say the migrants are paid paltry wages or, sometimes, nothing at all.

Paul Cavey, a China economist with Macquarie Securities, says the migrants suffer because of rapid political and economic changes that have benefited powerful businessmen rather than the working class.

"What you have in China is authoritarianism but also extreme capitalism," he said. "If you look at a more market-driven economy in the West, there's a lot of protection for people who lose from the system. There's a lot of restraints on competition and monopolies. None of that exists in China. There's very little protection for workers."

A decade ago, the Chinese government held all land and individuals could not obtain loans. Urban residents worked in state-owned companies and lived rent-free.

In the late 1990s, the government privatized housing and began granting individual loans. It also privatized many state-owned enterprises, which accounted for most of China's production.

Robin Munro is with the China Labor Bulletin, a workers' rights group in Hong Kong. He says managers of these enterprises took advantage of the reforms by deliberately bankrupting their companies, then obtaining bank loans to buy the companies at a low price.

"The former managers emerge as big private entrepreneurs with massive private wealth in their hands. They would lay off most of the workforce and replace them with cheap labor from the countryside," said Munro.

The migrants are easily exploited and denied social services because they are not legally registered in the cities. Many do not register because they lack required documents. Others fear losing their land back home, so they make frequent trips back instead of settling in a city.

The state has cut agricultural taxes to help farmers, but Cavey says to narrow the wealth gap, land rights must be respected, and freedom of movement granted.

"If you leave the countryside but you still own your land at home, you can rent the land out to other farmers so you have an income. And therefore you can monetize the land, so the minimum wage needed to attract you away from the countryside is that much higher," he said.

The loss of farmland and homes to development projects has sparked thousands of protests in recent years. This unrest has been a significant factor in President Hu Jintao's call for creation of a so-called "harmonious society."

President Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao have won praise for acknowledging that the inequality exists.

In his speech to the 17th Chinese Communist Party Congress last week, Mr. Hu outlined plans to distribute economic growth benefits more evenly, in part by spending more on social programs.

Cavey says the government knows what reforms are needed, but it does not know how to get the old Communist guard and the new capitalists to agree on them.

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