The (Chinese) billionaire boys’ club

In China, magnificent floorings of Imperial Palace halls, emperor’s chambers and courts were paved with jinzhan (gold bricks) for 2,000 years, dating from the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 B.C.). 

During the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911), the bricks became distinctive features of classical architecture. Today “gold bricks” have become a metaphor for great wealth, particularly China’s distinctive billionaires, who lead the pack of the world’s 1 percent.  

Since dynastic days, millions of tourists have trod the “gold brick”-paved floors and courtyards of the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Ming Tombs and other imperial monuments, perhaps without realizing the value of what they were stepping on. Although the bricks are not made of real gold, they are so-called because they are hard as rock and when tapped produce a metallic sound. Bricks of this quality could only be used in the royal palaces in the capital. 

Since Beijing has overtaken New York as the “billionaire capital” of the world, the phrase “gold bricks” is back in fashion. Most of China’s billionaires live in Beijing, followed by Shenzhen, Shanghai and Hangzhou. China’s annual rich list, compiled by the Hurun Report for the past 18 years, is one of the most accurate assessments of wealth in China and often compared to the Forbes list in the United States. It has indicated that the country has more dollar billionaires, 594 compared to 535 in the U.S., and the gap is widening. However, none of China’s super-rich is listed in the global top 20, which is led by Microsoft founder Bill Gates with $75 billion, followed by American investor Warren Buffet.

The real estate magnet Wang Jianlin of the Dalian Wanda Group Co. Ltd. leads the list of billionaires in China. This mild-mannered gentleman sits on a personal fortune of $32.1 billion. His company made headlines in 2016 with its acquisition of Legendary Pictures for $3.5 billion, a bold foray into the American movie market. It has also stepped into U.S. and U.K. cinema chains and is striking a deal with Sony Pictures.  

Probably the best-known self-made billionaire is Jack Ma, the colorful CEO of Alibaba Group, a collection of internet-based businesses, who comes in as close second, with  $30.6 billion, his wealth having risen 41 percent since 2015. Coming in third with $24.6 billion is another Ma, Ma Huateng, known as Pony Ma, co-founder of the internet and gaming giant Tencent. The biggest increase in wealth came from Yao Zhenhua of the investment and real estate firm Baoneng Group, whose fortune jumped 82 percent to $17.2 billion, putting him in fourth position. 

Rupert Hoogewerf (Chinese name Hu Run), publisher of the Hurun Report, says Yao’s financial investment model represents the new wave of wealth creation in China. He explained, “The first money made in China 20 years ago came from trading, followed by manufacturing and real estate. Today it is about using the capital markets for financial investments.” 

Unlike most American billionaires, who tend to avoid pretentiousness, most Chinese flaunt it. The amount of riches possessed by China’s nouveau riche climbed in 2016 to U.S. $2.1 trillion. The “must-haves” for the class-conscious, super-hot shots in their so-called socialist, “classless” society include a luxury mansion, filled with an English-trained butler and other servants; a Rolls-Royce and perhaps a couple of sport cars; bodyguards; a yacht; and a private jet.

Pu Yun, marketing director for TIBA’s Chengdu campus, told News China that China’s high-end real estate market has recently encountered a bottleneck in development. “Materially, we don’t know what else we can do to improve properties,” he said, “The only thing left to do is to cover each brick with gold.”

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