Seven out of 10 of the world’s wealthiest self-made women are mainland Chinese, most of whom made their fortune from real estate and manufacturing, according to the Hurun Rich List.
Property tycoon Wu Yajun, 48, takes the crown as the richest woman in China and the world’s wealthiest self-made woman in 2012, with a personal fortune of $6 billion. Wu is followed by Chen Lihua, 71, also a property developer, who has personal assets valued at $5.4 billion.
Another two female entrepreneurs Zhang Yin and Zhang Xin, who own personal fortunes of $3.2 billion and $2.7 billion, respectively, are ranked third and fourth on the list.
It is not surprising that most of these women made their fortune from real estate, the country’s most profitable industry, and are headquartered in Guangdong, the cradle of China’s entrepreneurial spirit.
Zhang Xin, chief executive of Soho China, has said that Chinese women enjoy many freedoms and opportunities in the country’s private business sector — more so than their foreign counterparts.
Mao Zedong famously proclaimed more than 40 years ago that “women hold up half the sky” to encourage women to work outside of the home. But it seems that Mao was not talking about the public sector. Chinese women are barely represented in China’s top political advisory bodies and the big state-owned enterprises.
Of the 22 richest self-made female entrepreneurs in the world, half are from China, five are from the US, three from the UK and one each from Spain, Italy and Russia.
The results led Rupert Hoogewerf, chairman and chief researcher of Hurun Report, to an exaggerated conclusion: “If they are among the richest females in the world and are self-made, then they are probably Chinese.”
Hurun’s rich list and other studies on China’s super-rich often capture headlines around the world, but the truth about the country’s rich is obscured by the ambiguous grey income and hidden wealth of those in power. It is common to see even modestly paid officials wearing expensive watches and driving expensive cars.
China’s property industry has generated explosive growth in wealth, contributing to a dramatic widening of the country’s wealth gap. Local governments have made the poor poorer by confiscating their farmland, and the rich richer by selling the land at a discount.
While the entrepreneurial spirit is an undoubtedly powerful force in the country’s private sector, much of China’s new wealth is still a product of government relationships rather than innovation and creative destruction.
The most successful self-made women in the West come from a wider range of trades, such as Rosalia Mera, co-founder of Spain’s Inditex, the world’s biggest fashion group; US talkshow host Oprah Winfrey; and JK Rowling, the British novelist who gained worldwide fame as the creator of Harry Potter.
Such diversity is healthy. It is creditable that China’s entrepreneurial women are successful in a traditionally male-dominated industry, but the concentration of wealth in real estate is far from healthy.
Foreign reporters and commentators should start taking China’s super-rich seriously when it tops the list through creativity and innovation, rather than profiting from opportunistic speculation and cronyism.