China’s wealthiest come from only a few regions

In Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy he argues that the difference in per capita economic wealth between Europe and China is a relatively recent phenomenon. One of the major arguments he makes is that one has to make an apples-to-apples comparison. Comparing Northwest Europe to China is not apples-to-apples, but comparing Northwest Europe to the lower Yangzi Delta region of Central China is apples-to-apples. Using this measure Europe and China are roughly comparable up until 1800.

At least that’s the argument. Others make the case for much deeper and older roots for the differences between Western Europe and the rest of the world, most articulately in Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms.

I don’t have a dog in this fight and am not decided, though I follow the field somewhat closely. Rather, I’ve always been curious about differences between Chinese regions, and how they never undermine national unity. I recall reading years ago in The Age of Confucian Rule that imperial examinations to determine candidates for the bureaucracy had quotas on candidates from the southeastern province of Fujian. They were simply filling up too many slots, at the expense of northern Chinese candidates.

The tension between social and economic orientations of different regions of China cropped up periodically. Basically, the Overseas Chinese community is derived from southern regions such as Guangdong and Fujian, the central government over the centuries attempted to stamp out these regions’ propensity toward international commerce. A figure like Howqua is typical, though he certainly would not be met with approval by stern Neo-Confucians such as Zhu Xi (also a southern Chinese born and bred).

With all this in mind, I was curious about the origins of the 20 wealthiest Chinese as of 2017. Below you see the results:

Name Net worth (USD) Sources of wealth Province Certainty
Wang Wenyin 14 billion mining, copper products Anhui  
Liu Yongxing 6.6 billion agribusiness Fujian  
Ma Huateng 24.9 billion internet media Guangdong  
He Xiangjian 12.3 billion home appliances Guangdong  
Yang Huiyan 9 billion real estate Guangdong  
Yao Zhenhua 8.4 billion conglomerate Guangdong ?
Zhang Zhidong 8.4 billion internet media Guangdong ?
Hui Ka Yan (Xu Jiayin) 10.2 billion real estate Henan  
Lei Jun 6.8 billion smartphones Hubei  
Liu Qiangdong 7.7 billion e-commerce Jiangsu  
Zhang Shiping 6.7 billion aluminum products Shandong  
Wang Wei 15.9 billion package delivery Shanghai  
Robin Li 13.3 billion internet search Shanxi  
Wang Jianlin 31.3 billion real estate, Sichuan  
Xu Shihui 21.1 billion solar power equipment Sichuan  
Jack Ma 28.3 billion e-commerce Zhejiang  
William Ding 17.3 billion online games Zhejiang  
Zong Qinghou 7.2 billion beverages Zhejiang  
Li Shufu 21.1 billion automobiles Zhejiang  
Guo Guangchang 6.3 billion diversified Zhejiang

A few of the individuals I’m not totally sure about in terms of where they were born, but I think I guessed correctly. Comparing representation on the list to national population by province, and you get:

Province Pop % On list
Guangdong 8% 25%
Zheijiang 4% 25%
Sichuan 8% 10%
Fujian 3% 5%
Anhui 5% 5%
Henan 7% 5%
Hubei 4% 5%
Jiangsu 6% 5%
Shanghai 2% 5%
Shanxi 3% 5%
Shandong 7% 5%

Zheijang-Jiangsu-Shangai is the core economic region highlighted by Pomeranz. About 12% of China’s population resides in these jurisdictions, but 35%, 7 out of 20, of its 20 wealthiest individuals were born here. Guangdong, as ground zero of the new economic revolution has clearly benefited.