Although China has its gigantic problems, as it assumes its status as a nation on the verge of becoming one of the great economic powers in the world – perhaps even outpacing the USA in the next two decades – it nevertheless moves into hitherto unexpected directions. The growth in female billionaires is outstripping that of their male peers, as self-made Asian women leap up the ranks of the world’s wealthy.
There are now 145 female billionaires, almost a seven-fold increase in the past 20 years, outpacing the five-fold expansion of their male counterparts over the same period. There are 1,202 male billionaires in China however, still hugely outnumbering the women.
A survey of billionaires by the consultancy firm PwC and Swiss global finance company, UBS, reveals more than half of Asia-based female millionaires have built their companies from scratch, compared with 19 per cent in America and 7 per cent in Europe. They are also younger than their peers elsewhere, with an average age of 53.
One of the most prominent names is the Chinese property tycoon, Zhang Xin, 50, who grew up in poverty during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. At 15, Zhang moved to Hong Kong where she toiled in sweatshops to save the airfare to Britain. Once there, she studied economics at Sussex and Cambridge universities, then landed a job on Wall Street with Goldman Sachs. In 1994, Zhang returned to her homeland, where she and her husband founded Soho China, the largest commercial property developer in Beijing, now known for its visually striking buildings. The businesswoman has more than 9 million followers on China’s answer to Twitter, Weibo, and her net worth stands at $2.8 billion.
The success of women in the Chinese boom may have its roots in Mao’s tumultuous rule. Despite disastrous famines and the hardships of the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s philosophy of equality between men and women appears to have borne fruit. ‘The three major sovereign states where there’s growth of the billionaire class are Mainland China, Singapore and Hong Kong,’ said Michael Spellacy, global wealth leader at PwC US. ‘The quality and promotion of education, the acceptance of a strong work ethic, extraordinary resilience and the relentless focus on their business, is clearly a dynamic that has taken place.’
Joe Stadler, a global head of the Ultra-High Network team at UBS said: ‘High standards of education and recent Chinese politics have played a role in women’s success. One thing often overlooked is the one-child policy, where parents simply don’t have the choice of giving the male the business.’
The women singled out, on a list complied last year by Forbes, have amassed huge fortunes in hotels, transport, property and investment funds. Zhang is joined by Chu Lam Yiu, 46, who has a fragrance and tobacco business and Zhou Qunfei, 45, a former factory worker who founded a company that manufactures smartphone touchscreens with a net worth of $8 billion. She is Asia’s richest woman.
While most female billionaires come from Europe and America – including France’s Liliane Bettencourt, the L’Oréal heiress and the media mogul Oprah Winfrey – Asia has shown the most impressive growth of first generation entrepreneurial women. ‘The wealthy already look less like the West and more like the general population of the world – more women and more diverse’ says the Forbes report. ‘Overall the number of billionaires has been rising since the first billionaire survey in 1995. However, only 126 billionaires, or 44% of the class of 1995, can still boast of billions today.’
Who can now say that women haven’t got the tenacity and the ability to compete with men on equal footing and thereby silence those whingeing feminists with their myriad of woes?