Woman tops list of China's richest people

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The Independent Online

Chairman Mao once said women hold up half the sky, but he surely could never have predicted that one day the paper recycling tycoon Zhang Yin would top the list of China's wealthiest people with a fortune of £1.8bn.

Nor could the Great Helmsman have foretold that her riches would be built on a pile of old rubbish, but socialism with Chinese characteristics is capable of producing all kinds of surprises.

Ms Zhang, the 49-year-old founder of Nine Dragons Paper, which buys scrap paper from the United States for use in China, shot from 36th to pole position in the annual China Rich List compiled by Hurun Report, the luxury publishing and events group, making her the first woman ever to top the Rich List.

"She is the wealthiest self-made woman in the world," said Rupert Hoogewerf, a researcher who has been compiling the rich list for seven years. Her fortune trumps that of US chat show queen Oprah Winfrey and the Harry Potter creator J K Rowling. Her wealth was estimated at £202m last year, but the share price of Nine Dragons has tripled since she listed her company on the Hong Kong stock exchange and the market for recycled products is growing at a furious pace.

The previous incumbent, Huang Guangyu of China's biggest electronics retailer, Gome, has been knocked into second place, with his personal wealth thought to be £1.3bn.

China is getting richer at a staggeringly fast pace. The number of billionaires in the booming country has doubled to 15 from last year. There are 35 women on the 500-strong Hurun list, seven per cent of the total.

The Rich List highlights the great task facing the government of President Hu Jintao in narrowing the gap between rich and poor in China. With the economy growing at double-digit percentage rates every quarter, some people are getting exceedingly rich but others, the 800 million rural poor, are not seeing much of the spoils of rampant economic expansion.

The list also shows a geographical divide in the way wealth is distributed - four of the 10 richest people in China live in Guangdong Province, across the border from Hong Kong. "Urbanisation and ever-increasing household incomes have continued to be the key drivers for wealth creation in China," said Mr Hoogewerf, who is based in Shanghai. In many ways, the rich lists have mirrored changes in Chinese society - in recent years the ranks of the super-rich have included real estate barons and dot.com tycoons. But with raw materials in short supply, the demand for recycled products has turned paper into gold for Ms Zhang.

Her story is a classic tale of rags to richest. The eldest of eight children in a military family in north-eastern Heilongjiang province, she moved to Hong Kong in 1985 and set up her business with just £2,000. She moved to the US in 1990 with the dream of becoming an "empress of waste paper". Proving the old adage that where there's muck, there's brass, in 1996 she set up in Dongguan, near the southern Chinese boomtown of Shenzhen in Guangdong province. There the waste paper is recycled into containerboard at factories in southern and eastern China.

Along the way she triumphed over cheating business partners and pressure from local mafia, according to local media.

Asked what the secret to her success is, Ms Zhang says, modestly, her down-to-earth personality has been a big factor. And luck. She listed shares in her company on the Hong Kong stock exchange in March. A four-fold rise in net profit to £94m last year prompted a surge in the value of Nine Dragons.

Other women on the list include Chen Ningning, a metals trader, who with her mother, Lu Hui, is 19th on the list, with wealth of £438m. Beijing property developer Chen Lihua (£404m) and the television-presenter-turned-businesswoman Yang Lan of SunMedia Investments (£270m) also feature.

While the property market has taken a battering in recent months since new rules kicked in aimed at cooling the economy, by clamping down on wild real estate speculation, the property magnates are not going hungry. Seven of the 10 richest are property developers.