Chinese Parliament Holds 83 Billionaires

Jamil Anderlini
Photographer | Collection | Getty Images

The legislature of the world's last major communist country is almost certainly the wealthiest in the world, according to a popular rich list that names 83 dollar billionaires among the delegates to China's parliament this year.

Meanwhile, in America there is not a single billionaire in the House of Representatives or the Senate while the wealthiest member, Texas Republican Michael McCaul, is estimated to be worth a paltry $500 million.

Among the delegates gathered in Beijing this week to attend the National People's Congress, the China-based Hurun Global Rich List identified 31 people with more than $1 billion in personal assets.

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The richest is Zong Qinghou, founder of Chinese drinks maker Wahaha, with an estimated fortune of $13 billion, according to Hurun.

The NPC is tasked with approving legislation proposed by the ruling Communist party but in practice it plays a mostly ceremonial role. Another 52 billionaires are delegates to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, a toothless advisory body that meets at the same time as the NPC for about two weeks each year in early March.

Given the difficulties involved in calculating the hidden wealth of many of China's top leaders and their families, analysts say the Hurun report probably seriously understates the true number of super-wealthy participants in the political sessions.

The number of dollar billionaires identified by the report was up 17 percent this year from last year, when 28 billionaires attended the NPC and 43 were at the CPPCC.

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In China's authoritarian but nominally egalitarian system, the convergence of power and great wealth is a highly sensitive topic and one that Communist leaders themselves regard as potentially destabilizing. Xi Jinping, the newly appointed head of the party and military who will formally take over as president by the end of the current NPC session on March 17, launched a campaign against extravagance and corruption immediately upon taking office in November.

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But this appears to have convinced China's ultra-wealthy that, now more than ever, they need to be inside the political tent.

"Our government is a totalitarian one with an axe hanging over everybody's head and the decision over whose head it will fall on lies with officials," said Xingyuan Feng, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think-tank. "When business people amass a fortune they need to protect it – so they either find an agent to [do so] or they become an official themselves.

"Another popular choice is to acquire a foreign passport and we are already seeing a lot of CPPCC members who have become foreigners."

The top three richest members of the CPPCC are all sons of Hong Kong tycoons, with Victor Li, the son of Asia's richest man Li Ka-shing, coming in first with an estimated family fortune of $32 billion.

Hong Kong's relatively smooth transition from a former British colony back to Chinese territory over the last 15 years has been helped by support from the territory's richest citizens, who were mostly co-opted by the Communist party in exchange for business opportunities on the mainland.

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The average fortune among the 83 wealthiest NPC and CPPCC delegates is $3.35 billion, according to the Hurun report, compared with the average annual wage for Chinese urban workers of less than $7,000.

Each of the 83 richest members of the US House of Representatives and Senate has an average of $56.4 million, according to figures from the Center for Responsive Politics.

At nearly 3,000 delegates, the NPC is the biggest legislative assembly in the world while the CPPCC boasts around 2,200 delegates.