Millionaires & Billionaires

Richest man in China? 'The Sun King'

Chinese rich under pressure

Call him the "Sun King." China's richest man is now Li Hejun, founder of the thin-film solar company Hanergy, according to China's leading wealth expert.

Li Hejun is worth an estimated $26 billion, according to Rupert Hoogewerf, founder of Hurun Report, the leading wealth research firm in China. That puts him ahead of Alibaba's Jack Ma, with around $24.5 billion. In an interview with CNBC, Hoogewerf said that Li Hejun, Jack Ma and Wang Jianlin of Wanda Group now make up the "Big Three" on the China Rich List.

"They may change positions now again, but these three guys are really at the top," he said.

Greater China now has around 478 billionaires by official count, Hoogewerf said. But he said the official number is just "the tip of the iceburg" and that the real number of billionaires may be closer to 1,200.

"For everyone one that we have found ... we've missed at least one, if not two," he said.

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That's especially true as more of the Chinese rich tried to shield their wealth from government attention. The government's crackdown on corruption has netted thousands of wealthy Chinese, with many being charged with theft or fraud and some sentenced to death.

Hoogewerf said that the government's crackdown on the rich has been politically popular in China. But it's put the wealthy on edge.

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"A lot of the entrepreneurs are getting themselves stirred up because they're waking up in the morning and trying to work out who's going to be arrested next," he said. "And they're wondering 'is there a connection?' "

He said there's even a website that traces the links between government officials with wealthy businesspeople going back to high school "so you can work out who's next to go."

Li Hejun
ChinaFotoPress | Getty Images

The crackdown, coupled with the desire by many Chinese to diversify and secure their wealth, has led many to move their families and fortunes overseas. In a survey, Hurun found that 64 percent of wealthy Chinese have either moved overseas or plan to move abroad in the coming years. Hoogewerf said that trend is likely to continue, helping to drive up real estate prices in the U.S., Australia and other popular Chinese destinations.

"China is stagnating, so they're looking for a growth market," he said. "That's where the U.S. comes to the minds of many Chinese. They're looking for stable political systems, and they're looking to put their money here. China's real estate tycoons are now thinking 'where's the next market?' Let's see if they shake up the U.S. real estate market."

Much of the attention on Chinese purchases of U.S. real estate has focused on residential. Chinese buyers were the largest overseas home buyers in the U.S. last year, with $22 billion in purchases. Yet Hoogewerf said the next real estate wave could be Chinese companies and investors buying or building commercial real estate in the U.S., including projects in Los Angeles, Chicago and Brooklyn.

"We'll see if they continue to remake the U.S. real estate market," he said.

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