Rise in billionaires tests China's rich-poor divide

Thu Mar 10, 2011 6:47am EST
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By Ben Blanchard and Sui-Lee Wee

BEIJING (Reuters) - Getting rich remains glorious for many Chinese, but such aspirations pose a challenge to the government's attempt to bridge a potentially divisive rich-poor divide.

China's transformation from an impoverished backwater to the world's second-largest economy has created a growing army of super wealthy, with the number of billionaires nearly doubling to 115, according to the Forbes annual list of the world's richest people.

Some have gained more than others. A maxim widely attributed to former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping said that "to get rich is glorious," but that wealth has gone to a narrow segment of the populace.

Rural incomes have been rising more slowly than urban incomes for two decades -- a factor that could threaten social stability in a country where 150 million people still live on just $0.50 a day.

The issue is especially thorny for Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, who have largely staked their public legitimacy on addressing the widening wealth gap.

Rife corruption and collusion between government officials and businessmen have also fueled popular discontent that could bring down China's Communist Party, its leaders have warned.

"If someone's a billionaire, that's a good thing," said Mao Yushi, an 82-year-old economist and a critic of China's one-party rule. "But one needs to look closely at how that person got the wealth. Did he depend on the market or did he depend on special privileges?"

"The opportunities here are not equal. China is a society that has special privileges. Not everyone has it, only a small number do."   Continued...