World Economy

Chinese billionaires amass in the country's heartland

This club counts China's top business leaders as members
This club counts China's top business leaders as members

This article is part of a "Reporter's Notebook" series, wherein CNBC journalists submit tales and observations from the field.

ZHENGZHOU, China — Here in China's heartland, in the capital of its Henan province, some of the country's most powerful leaders are meeting.

But these are not the political elite that have run the country for decades, this is a new crop of leaders — all from the private sector.

This city, near corn and wheat fields, is hosting an annual meeting from the China Entrepreneur Club. That's an invite-only group composed of 55 Chinese billionaires, at last count. In other words, they're the richest — and among the most influential — people in a country that's already minting millionaires monthly.

Unlike many of the moneyed elite from other developing countries, who accrued wealth from a privatization land-grab, almost all of China's entrepreneurs started from scratch. And these entrepreneurs aren't just titans of industry, but also technology, energy, finance and retail. In many ways, they are China's new economy.

How they've succeeded, mostly despite the Communist government, is a major and under-appreciated part of the story of China's transformation over the past 35 years.

In fact, even before the Chinese government officially acknowledged the benefits of private companies, hundreds of thousands of businesses had already begun. A handful of those have become international giants.

Huawei is now one of the largest telecommunications equipment makers in the world, but it started by importing used gear from the telephone exchange in Hong Kong. The company now known as Lenovo, the world's top PC-maker by market share, started by selling televisions imported into China. Geely, now one of China's biggest carmakers, started by selling parts for refrigerators.

The people behind those names are China's first generation of entrepreneurs. The second generation came about in the 1990s, and the country's third crop of entrepreneurs includes people like Alibaba's Jack Ma, and Tencent's Pony Ma (no relation), who are now the focus of most of the Western world's attention. And China is already churning out a new slew of tech titans in the making.

Jack Ma and CNBC's Martin Soong on the sidelines of the China Entrepreneur Club meeting.

By some measures, China's private sector now accounts for two thirds of its economy. Entrepreneurs, not politicians, are now the ones driving the long-sought economic rebalancing away from a dependence on manufacturing and exports and more toward services and consumption.

But one of the major questions about China's future is what the dynamic will be like between entrepreneurs and state-owned enterprises. So far, Beijing has largely treated private success benignly because the biggest stars, like Alibaba, are more valuable to the national cause without official direction or interference. Those companies are flying China's flag, in an increasingly international capacity, more effectively than any state campaign or directive could ever hope to achieve.

But the state and its companies still comprise a full third of China's economy, and when state-owned enterprises begin to get crowded out, there will likely be tension.

Officially, the government hasn't opened up strategic sectors, including finance, to private players. In reality, though, firms like Tencent through it's almost ubiquitous WeChat messaging platform have already moved far ahead of China's stodgy and debt-laden state banking system. Millions of Chinese pay their utility bills, buy movie tickets, order delivery for dinner and even do their banking on WeChat.

China's lumbering state banks are trying to catch up, but are already several years late to the game — the private sector is where the innovation is happening.