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Shuli Ren

China’s Billionaires Aren’t As Rich As They Look

Is Zhong Shanshan really a bigger tycoon than Warren Buffett? On paper perhaps but the picture is different once liquidity is calculated.

The former richest man in China and the current richest man in the world

The former richest man in China and the current richest man in the world

Photographer: HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP

One day you’re in, the other day you’re out. China’s billionaire rankings seem as stable as hydrogen. In 2017, Hui Ka Yan, founder of real estate developer China Evergrande Group, was the nation’s richest man. That throne was claimed by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.’s Jack Ma one year later. Now, Zhong Shanshan, chairman of water bottler Nongfu Spring Co., is China’s wealthiest; in fact, he is even richer than Warren Buffett. Eye-popping billions seem to spring from all walks of life.

The swift reshuffling in part reflects structural changes in the Chinese economy. Real estate developers were riding high until late 2017, when Beijing launched a draconian corporate deleveraging campaign. That diet checked the asset expansion of the likes of Hui, who runs the world’s most indebted real estate business, and paved way for the rise of tech tycoons. Over the last three months, however, the wind shifted again. This time, Beijing is cracking down on Big Tech over antitrust. Its last-minute suspension of Ant Group Co.’s $35 billion initial public offering, for instance, cost Ma billions. Now, China is all about Big Food — where everyone from fiery baiju makers to pig farmers enjoy record sales from a windfall of discretionary consumer spending. Zhong’s dramatic rise to fame is part of that phenomenon.