If it weren't for the recent reports of a few events involving rich people, I would never realize that China's wealthy population was quite so numerous.
During a three-day "International Fair of Top-Class Personal Belongings" held in Shanghai late last month, 7,000 rich people bought 200 million yuan (US$24.7 million) worth of luxurious commodities, ranging from famous brand convertibles priced at several million yuan to sandalwood furniture priced at 12 million yuan (US$1.5 million) a set.
The news caused a great sensation across the country. Many people, including foreign merchants at the fair, exclaimed: "It's incredible that China has so many millionaires!"
I believe the number of rich people and the total of their wealth is still smaller than in developed Western countries. However, the sight of clusters of plutocrats contending with one another to lavish wads of yuan on "international top-class" luxuries still amazed me, given that China was struggling with nationwide poverty just two decades ago.
And similar reports have kept coming. Last Wednesday, Airbus announced that a Chinese buyer had confirmed the purchase of three A-319 private aircraft, which will in total be worth more than 1 billion yuan (US$125 million). The news, which was revealed yesterday, dwarfed an earlier report that a coal mine owner in Shanxi Province had bought three Rolls Royce autos.
It seems we have realized the goal set in the early 1980s to "let a part of the population get rich first."
When China formulated that policy, the aim was to encourage people with better enterprising mindsets to strive for wealth through more efficient work under market economic mechanisms, and let these trailblazers set an example for the whole nation.
Now an affluent class has begun to take shape but they seem to be breaking away from the vast majority of the population rather than leading them onto a "path towards common prosperity."
A recent report about the charity situation in China has placed Chinese entrepreneurs under the spotlight. An authoritative survey found that 99 percent of the 10 million companies registered with industrial and commercial authorities "had never donated to charity."
Many critics put the blame on China's tax law, which dictates too small an exemption for corporate donations.
The tax law is undoubtedly culpable, but I don't think it is the only, or even the main, reason. The entrepreneurs' weak sense of social responsibility is the main reason.
A fairly large part of private entrepreneurs were former farmers or labourers. Many of them made their fortune by grasping opportunities generated by China's transition from the old economic system to a market economy, while the market mechanisms had not yet grown mature enough to replace the old administrative rules to ensure a fair, reasonable distribution of resources and social wealth.
Memories of past suffering plus the experience of making quick profits through speculative moves have led these under-educated private businesspeople to develop an unhealthy attitude towards wealth. They have more interest in enjoying a luxurious life than honouring their responsibility to society; they may even have no concept about this responsibility at all.
A recent event showed the poor quality of some private entrepreneurs. At a car fair in Beijing, a female model showed some contempt at the rude manners of a few coal mine owners from Shanxi Province. The moguls replied to the woman: "Tell us a price, we'll take you together with the car."
One cannot expect this kind of entrepreneur to "shoulder their social responsibilities." And neither can one expect them to become really successful businesspersons, like Bill Gates, who not long ago announced he would donate all his wealth to society rather than leave it as inheritance.
A boss who fails to realize what he owes to the employees who help generate his company's wealth will never have the strategic foresight to achieve continuous successes.
I believe private entrepreneurs like the above-mentioned coal mine owners only account for a small part of the whole group. But China's private entrepreneurs do need to improve their quality through learning.
Fortunately, some of them have realized such a need. China Daily reported yesterday that 40 businesspersons from across the country are studying traditional Chinese culture at Peking University.
"As my career developed, I felt I needed strategic thinking," a computer company boss said when explaining why she had spent 24,000 yuan (US$3,000) on the course.
(China Daily November 23, 2005)