Asian Times: Beijing

Tycoons rule the people's republic of free enterprise
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To get rich is glorious," the late great Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping instructed his nation. Four brothers from Deng's home province of Sichuan have covered themselves in glory by becoming the first US dollar billionaires in modern Chinese history.

From hawking quails' eggs in the muddy streets of Sichuan, to clinking cocktail glasses at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this family, and China, have come a very long way in a remarkably short time.

The US magazine Forbes, every tycoon's favourite, announced last week the 2001 China Top 100 list of entre-preneurs, a "who's who" of movers and shakers in the private sector that has eclipsed state-owned industry as the main force behind China's enviable economic growth, despite the many obstacles this communist giant still erects for private businessmen. Topping the list are the pig- feed kings, the Liu brothers' Hope Group, with assets worth $1bn (£696m). In 1982, when Deng's market reforms first challenged socialist orthodoxy, the brothers pawned their watches, bicycles and personal belongings to raise $120, the seed money to buy and sell quails eggs in their Xinjin county home town.

While the brothers now dominate China's animal-feed market, and risk investing in other Asian nations, they have also branched out into real estate, banking and other sectors. Their fellow tycoons show a similar desire to diversify. Forbes' number two Yang Bin, chairman of Euro-Asia Agricultural Holdings, grows orchids, puts up buildings, and develops tourism.

Real estate was this year's top earner, followed by pharmaceuticals, mostly traditional Chinese medicine, invest- ment and construction, in the list compiled by a British chartered accountant, Rupert Hoogewerf. Among the top 100 entrepreneurs – only seven of whom are women – 73 had their education interrupted by the Cultural Revolution, the Liu brothers among them. For the keenly superstitious, Forbes revealed that the most common Chinese zodiac sign was the rabbit, with 16 entries on the rich list, but monkeys only managed four.

China's shift away from its role as leader of public ownership marks a sea change in economic policy. The non-state sector now supplies two-thirds of industrial output and employs 200 million people, 70 million of them in almost 30 million private firms. Despite residual distrust in some quarters, there is now constitutional recognition of the private economy as a vital engine of growth, compared to the loss-making state-owned enterprises.

Spearheaded by men like Liu Yonghao, 50, the private sector is lobbying ever louder for equal access to loans and capital markets. For his part, Mr Liu is anxious to engage the authorities in what remains a highly political economy. In recognition of years of charitable work, he was elected in 1998 as a standing committee member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, China's top advisory body, the only private entrepreneur to hold such a position. Mr Liu is the acceptable face of capitalism.

When China's President, Jiang Zemin, laid down a controversial proposal this July to invite entrepreneurs into the Chinese Communist Party, Mr Liu was quick to praise the long overdue initiative.

Forbes' findings seem to justify his optimism, in the face of many dangers, imitators and detractors. "Just as I am confident about my own company, I am confident about our country's future," said Mr Liu. "Once China is opened up, nothing can change it.

"I can't imagine I'd be happy to go back to the old life, when my salary was only 38.5 yuan (£3.30) per month."