China has more property tycoons than US, Britain, Hong Kong combined

A model showing a residential and commercial compound is seen at a real estate showroom in Yanan, Shaanxi province, China Jan 3, 2019.
PHOTO: Reuters

China has the world's largest community of property tycoons, as a generation of developers grew wealthy over three decades of rapid economic growth, which fuelled the aspiration to have a roof over every head.

The second-largest economy had 108 dollar-denominated billionaires, out of 239 around the world, according to the 2019 Hurun Global Real Estate Rich List. The United States, with an economy that's one and half times larger, has 26 real estate billionaires, while the UK has 17, and Hong Kong has 25.

China's economy expanded at an average clip of 9.7 per cent every year since data collection began in 1992, lifting 500 million people out of poverty and created a middle class of 140 million households, according to the World Bank's estimates. That has attracted millions of people to migrate from the countryside and villages into the cities in search of jobs and better income, leading to a surge in demand for housing.

"The urbanisation mega trend in China has driven the biggest wealth explosion in the history of world, with the result that most of the world's largest real estate developers today come from China," said Rupert Hoogewerf, chairman and chief researcher of the Hurun Report .

Housing in China used to be provided by the state during the early days of the Communist Party's centrally planned economy, part of the benefits of living in a socialist welfare state. Private housing only emerged two decades ago as the government experimented with capitalism to allow homes to be sold for profit, with the country's very first land sale taking place in 1987.

A year after Shenzhen's pioneering move, a national law was enacted to officially define the concept of "economically affordable housing" and "commodity housing," or privately owned homes in today's parlance.

Photo: South China Morning Post

Shanghai - then, as now, China's most internationally flavoured city - jumped into the experiment as well. Two types of housing were available for sale. The city government offered to sell "economically affordable" housing to low-income workers - separating housing from employment - while fancier flats were made available to better-off non-mainland Chinese.

With that turning point, policies began to be relaxed, and entrepreneurs piled into the real estate industry to build homes, and later offices, retail space and shopping malls. Many of the biggest Chinese developers today - including Country Garden Holdings, China Vanke Group, China Evergrande, and the Wanda Group - owe their establishment to the economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s.

China's sales of new homes topped US$1.7 trillion (S$2.3 trillion) in 2017, seven times the total transactions in the United States, according to Stansberry Churchouse Research. One in five of mainland China's dollar billionaires is a property developer.

Seven of the world's top 10 property tycoons is Chinese, led by Evergrande's chairman Hui Ka-yan, also known as Xu Jiayin in his native Henan province, with an estimated net worth of 250 billion yuan (S$50.5 billion).

Photo: South China Morning Post

Hong Kong, with a total area about a third of the US state of Rhode Island, has always been a city of property magnates, with 25 dollar-denominated billionaires including Li Ka-shing and Lee Shau-kee. Shenzhen is in second place with 17, while Beijing has 15, Hurun's report said.

Around the world, real estate is the second-largest wealth creator, with property magnates making up about 10 per cent of the Hurun Global Rich List 2019, behind technology.

Tos Chirathivat, the chief executive of Thailand's Central Group, was the only tycoon among the top 10 who saw an increase in wealth last year, with his fortune swelling 73 per cent to US$19 billion.

The Bangkok-based family empire, which traces its history to Tiang Chirathivat in 1947, now owns shopping malls and department stores across Thailand.

Donald Bren, chairman of US-based Irvine Company, is the richest real estate billionaire in the US. US President Donald Trump's wealth from his family business is estimated at US$3 billion, in 82nd spot.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.