The country's wealthiest people are growing even richer amid furious construction, but good news for those at the top could spell bad news for everyone else as the income gap grows and social discontent increases. Daniel Bardsley, foreign correspondent, reports
As new skyscrapers climb higher into the sky over China, wealth in the country has soared, with tycoons in construction cashing in on the boom.
Leading the way is Liang Wengen, 55, the chairman of Sany Heavy Industry, which makes piledrivers and other key equipment for the building industry.
In a remarkable double coup this week, Mr Liang was named China's wealthiest person in the Hurun Rich List, published on Wednesday, and the Forbes China Rich List, which came out yesterday.
The Hurun and Forbes league tables respectively value Mr Liang at US$11 billion (Dh40.4bn) and $9.3bn, with most of his fortune tied up in a 58 per cent share of Sany, which has doubled in value during the past 12 months.
"Even though the stock market is going down, the wealth of the most successful people in China is going up," says Russell Flannery, a senior editor and Shanghai bureau chief for Forbes magazine.
Just behind Mr Liang in the Hurun Research Institute list is Zong Qinghou, 66, whose $10.7bn net worth comes from his drinks company, although he is only fifth in the Forbes magazine ranking, which estimates his wealth at $6.5bn.
Li Yanhong, 43, a co-founder of the Chinese search engine Baidu, is third in the Hurun rankings with $8.8bn, and second on the Forbes list with $9.2bn. This year, Baidu cemented its position as the leading search engine in China after Google pulled out of the mainland.
"The internet is becoming increasingly influential, and everyone recognises that, and I think we have the same goal, which is to make the industry healthy," says Jennifer Li, the chief financial officer at Baidu.
Still, it is the dominance of property magnates that really stands out, with five of the remaining seven members of Hurun's top 10 owing all or most of their fortunes to that sector.
"The high GDP growth rate simply gives a big platform and a lot of room for people to find new businesses," says Mr Flannery.
Indeed, in a statement, Hurun described construction, along with retail, as "the key drivers for growth in wealth".
According to the Chinese list, there are now 271 dollar billionaires in the country, up from 189 last year.
But because many tycoons like to keep their fortunes a secret to reduce their tax bill, the true number could be as high as 600, says Rupert Hoogewerf, the chairman and chief researcher of Hurun.
With China's urban population increasing by 13 million a year, and property one of the most popular investment opportunities, the property sector has enjoyed considerable expansion.
The dominance of property magnates on China's rich list follows a pattern seen in other Asian economies, says Chau Kwongwing, a professor in the department of real estate and construction at the University of Hong Kong.
"People in this business, particularly in the early stages, are likely to run a huge profit," he says. "In Japan in the 1970s and '80s, the rich people were also in the real estate business. It's a general phenomenon for Asian countries during the early stages. As the economy matures, the situation may be different."
The Beijing authorities have tried various measures to prevent overheating in the property sector, including restrictions on lending, and some analysts have predicted a slowdown in construction.
But with urbanisation expected to continue, prospects remain positive, despite calls by Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, to restrict housing prices.
"We must unswervingly curb irrational housing demand, continue to strictly implement differential housing loans, tax policies and restrictions on purchases," Mr Wen wrote in Qiu Shi magazine, an official publication.
Yet that is unlikely to hit Sany's profits in the short term. The company was founded in 1989 and was listed on the Shanghai Stock Exchange eight years ago. According to media reports, it could be the subject of an initial public offering in Hong Kong in the near future.
Sany makes machinery used in road building, excavation and port operations, as well as construction, and all these areas have benefited from the billions of dollars China has pumped into infrastructure projects.
The company also manufacturers turbines for the wind power industry, which last year achieved 70 per cent growth in China, reaching 45 gigawatts.
"China's relentless construction boom coupled with a growing domestic retail market have been the key drivers for the growth in wealth," Forbes said.
While the rise in the number of billionaires in China has been spectacular, it brings into sharp focus the increase in inequality that has accompanied the country's economic boom over the past three decades.
Deng Xiaoping, the architect of "socialism with Chinese characteristics" and former leader, is reputed to have said that "to get rich is glorious" and some places should be allowed to "get rich first".
Yet even if officials have given their blessing, disquiet over inequality is starting to rise.
"I think it's a reflection in a bit of a sea change in Chinese society right now," says Mr Flannery. "There's a lot of concern in China about the wealth gap."
To underline the point, the Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality in which zero represents complete equality and one indicates extreme inequality, is believed to have reached about 0.47 in China.
A figure above 0.40 is a cause for concern, analysts say.
"[Inequality is] the biggest concern in China right now," says Simon Fan, a professor in the department of economics at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. "[This is a] potential threat to the government."
A key problem has been the increase in house prices, which have forced young graduates into grimy areas with rock-bottom rents.
"They cannot really live in cities. That could be the trigger point," Prof Fan says.
But finding affordable housing is unlikely to be a problem for Mr Liang and China's other construction magnates.
"In the short term, there may be a slowdown in construction as a whole but … there's still a lot of things to build in the future. In infrastructure there's still a long way to go," says Prof Chau.