Heiress Tops List In Chinese Billionaire Boom

Yang Huiyan is a 26-year-old real-estate developer and graduate of Ohio State University who also happens to be the richest person in China.

Yang Huiyan (right) and her husband
Yang Huiyan (right) and her husband

Yang is riding the leading edge of a surge of personal wealth in China, with a fortune estimated by Forbes at $16.2 billion. Her fortune is based on the 59.5% stake she holds in Country Garden Holdings, the South China development firm founded by her father, who continues to hold the titles of chairman and chief executive. Forbes researchers say property values in China have been soaring as people move into cities from rural areas, driving up the demand for homes and making fortunes for real estate developers who had bought up property at bargain prices.

Yang's father, Yeung Kwok Keung, worked as a farmer and a construction worker before becoming a developer. Country Garden Holdings, based in the southern city of Guangdong, builds villas, townhouses and large apartments. Yeung transferred his stake in the company to his daughter two years ago.

Among the 40 wealthiest people Forbes finds in China, all 40 are now billionaires. Last year, only 15 of them were.

The Web site of a Shanghai-based magazine, Hurun Report, finds the jump to be even more dramatic, counting 106 American-dollar billionaires in China. That would be an increase of more than 600% from last year's 15, and would rank China second among the world's nations in the number of billionaires. Not exactly the 482 that Forbes counts among Americans, but closing fast.

"There's still plenty of growth opportunity as China's top entrepreneurs turn their sights to the vast underdeveloped and largely unregulated economic hinterland," says Hurun Report's publisher Rupert Hoogewerf."

Hurun pegs Yang Huiyan's fortune at $17.5 billion, and gives second place on its list to Zhang Yin, whose wealth tripled to $10 billion. Zhang, who owns 72% of Nine Dragons Paper Holding along with her husband and brother, is described as the world's wealthiest self-made woman, wealthier than Oprah Winfrey, eBay's Meg Whitman, or Harry Potter creator J. K. Rowling.

The average wealth of the 800 people on the Hurun list is $562 million, an increase of more than 100 percent from last year.

Property development has built the biggest personal fortunes in China, but stock holdings have also been bonanzas. Investors in Minsheng Banking Corporation, Ping An Insurance, and Western Mining Company have made out especially well.

And the huge gains in personal wealth have not escaped the attention of official Beijing. The Chinese government is reportedly considering taking steps to tackle the gulf between rich and poor, because of fears that it will threaten social stability.

In the meantime, Yang Huiyan enjoys immense wealth, and is now said to be sharing it with a government official she met on a blind date -- and married earlier this year.