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China’s Parliament is a growing billionaires’ club

BEIJING — In a country where the Communist Party makes all the big decisions, Chinese lawmakers hold very little political power. But they have plenty of money — US$650 billion (S$858.78 billion) of it — and that is growing.

A man walks past a store of the luxury jeweller Cartier in Beijing, China. The net worth of the 153 "super rich" members of China’s Parliament and its advisory body amounts to US$650 billion, according to the Hurun Report, a research organisation in Shanghai that tracks the wealthy in China. Photo: Reuters

A man walks past a store of the luxury jeweller Cartier in Beijing, China. The net worth of the 153 "super rich" members of China’s Parliament and its advisory body amounts to US$650 billion, according to the Hurun Report, a research organisation in Shanghai that tracks the wealthy in China. Photo: Reuters

BEIJING — In a country where the Communist Party makes all the big decisions, Chinese lawmakers hold very little political power. But they have plenty of money — US$650 billion (S$858.78 billion) of it — and that is growing.

According to the Hurun Report, a research organisation in Shanghai that tracks the wealthy in China, the net worth of the 153 members of China’s Parliament and its advisory body that it deems “super rich” amounts to US$650 billion, up by nearly a third from a year ago.

That is just a touch below Switzerland’s annual economic output.

While President Xi Jinping has pledged to close the income gap and alleviate poverty, the wealth of the nation’s lawmakers has kept soaring.

In 2017, it topped US$500 billion, more than doubling from the year before. The surge in wealth reflects the strength of the Chinese economy, which grew 6.9 per cent in 2017, and stock markets all over the world.

Delegates to Parliament, or the National People’s Congress, rubber-stamp most of the policies set out by the party’s leadership and are expected to approve Mr Xi’s plan to scrap term limits and allow him to rule indefinitely when they meet in Beijing next week.

But the gathering provides businesspeople with an opportunity to hobnob with one another. The title of delegate also gives them extra cachet in making business deals.

The number of billionaires in China’s legislature could contribute to the perception that the government is out of touch in a country where disposable income per capita was just over US$4,000 in 2017.

But many Chinese are proud of how quickly the ranks are growing.

China added 210 billionaires over the past year — about four a week — 40 per cent more than the United States, according to a separate list of the global rich by Hurun.

The wealthiest lawmaker is also China’s richest person, Mr Pony Ma, whose net worth is US$47 billion. He is the founder of Tencent, which owns WeChat, a social media mobile app that is indispensable in Chinese life.

Tencent is now valued at US$540 billion, more than Facebook.

Mr Ma was trailed by Mr Xu Jiayin, the chairman of the property developer Evergrande Group, whose net worth is US$41 billion. Mr Xu was China’s richest person in 2017, according to Hurun.

Other Chinese property developers also dominated the list.

Mr Lee Ka-kit, vice chairman of Henderson Land Development, is worth US$34 billion, while the net worth of Country Garden Group’s founder, Mr Yang Guoqiang, reached US$32 billion.

The fortunes of China’s entrepreneurs have changed significantly since the Communist Party, which was founded to work for the interests of workers and stamp out capitalism, welcomed businesspeople into the party more than a decade ago.

About 20 per cent of the nearly 3,000 delegates to Parliament are businesspeople, according to government news media.

Associate Professor Victor Shih from the University of California, San Diego and an expert on money and politics in China, said that being a member of the National People’s Congress “affords a considerable protection for the wealthy.”

“If you’re part of the NPC, you become a state cadre, and so the local police can’t arrest you easily without cause,” he said, referring to the congress.

“That’s not the case for a wealthy person who has no affiliation with the Chinese government, and wealth becomes very vulnerable to predatory action by a local government.” THE NEW YORK TIMES

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