BEIJING - There are now more billionaires in China than any other country besides the United States, according to Forbes magazine.
According to the latest list of rich people put out by the magazine, the US continues to top the list with 403 billionaires. But what has really been surprising has been the strong ascendancy of China. The country increased its number of billionaires on the list to 64 in 2009 from 28 in 2008.
The richest man in China is Zong Qinghou, who runs the multi-billion-dollar soft drink firm Wahaha Group. Zong is ranked 103rd on the list with an estimated wealth of around $7 billion. Not only has he nearly tripled his wealth from $1.9 billion in 2008, he has also improved his standing from 376th earlier.
Plain-suited Zong, who is also a deputy to the National People's Congress (NPC), told China Daily on the sidelines of the ongoing session that he was not surprised at his ranking considering that his company has been extremely profitable in recent times.
Rupert Hoogewerf, the British founder of Hurun rich report, said Zong's ranking does not come as a surprise. "Wahaha means 'laughing children' in Chinese and is one of the most valuable brands in the country. The self-made billionaire has always been focused on being the leader in the beverage segment ever since he started his firm in 1987," he said.
The magazine said the number of Asian billionaires went up substantially as the rich in the region expanded their fortunes at a quick pace last year.
Lending more credence to the increasing number of Chinese billionaires on the list is also the fact that the nation is likely to overtake Japan as the world's second-biggest economy this year.
Hoogewerf expects Chinese entrepreneurs to figure among the leaders soon and could even bag the top slot in the next 15 years as the economy continues to boom. He expects that it most probably could be someone from the IT industry.
Hoogewerf likens Zong to an army general who is not too keen on surrounding himself with luxurious trappings.
Luo Laijun, an expert at the international economics department of Renmin University of China said improvements in market mechanisms over the past decades have helped create more wealth opportunities for Chinese people.
"Zong is one of the first set of Chinese entrepreneurs from the 1980s and they are now enjoying an upsurge in fortunes," he said, adding that government has also chipped in with supportive policies for financing and taxes.
Zong's company resolved its long-standing row with Groupe Danone last year when Wahaha acquired the French food giant's 51 percent stake in their joint venture. The two sides had locked horns over Danone's complaint that Wahaha Group was running separate businesses like Wahaha-branded drinks.
Zong had then defended his stance as a patriotic effort by the Chinese firm to protect its brand name.
But experts like Luo feel that despite the Danone divorce, Wahaha has gained a lot of business experience from the marriage, something that would help in the long run.
As per the latest ranking, Mexican telecom tycoon Carlos Slim is now the richest person in the world, pushing Microsoft founder Bill Gates into second place.
The Hurun report said China has 825,000 residents with a net worth of more than 10 million yuan ($1.46 million) each, while 51,000 individuals have holdings of more than 100 million yuan each.
Zhu Zhe contributed to the story.