Virtually all of China’s billionaires have made their own fortunes © Alamy

Rich Chinese entrepreneurs are joining the global billionaires club at the rate of two a week, driving a record $1.4tn annual increase in the collective wealth of the world’s most exclusive tribe to an all-time high of $8.9tn.

Just 30 years after China allowed private enterprise, the country’s billionaires now number 373 and account for almost one in five of the global total of 2,158, according to an annual survey compiled by UBS, the world’s largest wealth manager, and PwC, the professional services provider.

“China has overtaken the US as the place where exceptional wealth is created at the fastest rate. China’s vast population, technology innovation and productivity growth, combined with government support, are providing unprecedented opportunities for individuals to build businesses,” said Josef Stadler, head of ultra high net worth at UBS’s wealth management unit.

The explosive growth of the Chinese billionaire class is contributing to rising inequality across the country, an issue of mounting concern to policymakers in Beijing. 

The 19th national congress of the Communist party, held in October 2017, identified the building of a “moderately prosperous society” as a goal, implying a recognition of the need to spread the benefits of China’s growing economic wealth more fairly. 

Virtually all of China’s billionaires, who saw their combined wealth surge 39 per cent last year to $1.2tn, have made their own fortunes even though many of the early successful entrepreneurs had little formal education.

Technology entrepreneurs building businesses in the internet, ecommerce, biotechnology and artificial intelligence sectors are now contributing a growing number to the new entrants to China’s billionaires cohort.

Stock market flotations have helped the founders of companies to crystallise huge gains, with many of the initial public offerings on the country’s stock markets in 2017 commanding high valuations.

Wang Jian, a former research fellow at the University of Washington in Seattle, became an overnight billionaire when BGI Genomics floated on the Shenzhen exchange in July 2017. Mr Wang owns a 32.5 per cent stake in BGI, which saw its market capitalisation surge from $1.2bn at the time of the IPO to a peak of about $16bn in November before dropping to about $2.9bn this week.

A total of 631 new companies floated on stock exchanges across the greater China region in 2017, raising a total of $52bn, according to PwC.

The explosive growth of the Chinese billionaires class is contributing to rising inequality across the country, an issue of mounting concern to policymakers in Beijing. 

The most recent national congress of the ruling Communist party, held in October 2017, identified the building of a "moderately prosperous society" as a goal, implying a recognition of the need to spread the benefits of China's growing economic wealth more fairly.

In the US, membership of the billionaires club reached 585 after gaining 22 net new joiners, helping to swell their combined wealth by 12 per cent to $3.1tn.

Mr Stadler said growth in the US was far slower than five years ago, possibly due in part to pressures on hedge fund managers where both fees and performance have deteriorated.

“We are also witnessing the rise of ‘stealth wealth’ where the tendency to keep businesses in private ownership for longer before a listing on the public market means that wealth creation is under-reported in the US and also in Europe,” said Mr Stadler.

Seventeen new billionaires were minted in Europe, taking its ultra-rich population to 414. The combined wealth of Europe’s billionaires rose 19 per cent to $1.9tn, partly reflecting the substantial appreciation in the value of the euro against the dollar last year.

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