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On the Trail of the Rich and Famous
Rupert Hoogewerf has become well-known in China in his own right for tracking down the country's super-wealthy. But as he tells Shanghai Daily, not all of them want to be found.

In 1999, before Rupert Hoogewerf joined hands with Forbes, the U.S. magazine famous for its annual rich people's list, Chinese people barely had any idea of the personal wealth in the country, where owning massive wealth was once deemed as "shame" or "evil" in the early days.

"The meaning of the Chinese rich people's list is not just one photograph, but it looks more like a comparison of the photograph of the private sector," said Hoogewerf, whose Chinese name is Hu Run, sitting in his 19th-floor office on Fumin Road.

It has been four years since the 33-year-old British chartered account began working with Forbes, to bring to light China's richest business people, those who have been playing a more and more prominent role in powering the country's fast-growing economy.

After working for now-defunct Arthur Andersen for nearly seven years in London and Shanghai, Hoogewerf took his first crack at sorting out China's hidden millionaires when he made public the list of China's top 50 richest people in 1999. The number of people who can be called 'tycoon' has kept growing three years on as the list has now expanded to 100.

The rich people's ranking has put Hoogewerf, who is fluent in Chinese thanks to his one-year language study at the People's University in Beijing, in the spotlight as he is already a public figure in China now, often making headlines in newspapers and magazines.

Over the past four years, from May to late November, Hoogewerf and his research team work on the rich list project. Sometimes they even pay personal visits to candidates to ensure the amount of their wealth, that is calculated based on public information sources, such as library dossiers, media reports and statements of public companies, are legitimate.

"Most of the people I have contacted take a do-not-care attitude. If the company is quite solid, then you are not frightened with either being on or off the list," said Hoogewerf, who was born in Luxembourg and had his higher education at Durham University of England with majors in Chinese, Japanese and history.

With most candidates taking a casual attitude, surely there are also those that went to extremes, which has much impressed Hoogewerf in his attempt to compile last year's list.

"I would not name who they are, but there are two people who do not particularly want to be on the list," he said. "Besides cultural things that you do not want to be the tallest tree, I think that is either because they got special tax incentives that other people do not have or maybe because their first capital was gray from the current point of view."

While the low-profile stance toward the exposure of the private fortune is seen as plausible in a country like China, in which much of the economy is still dominated by the public sector, anyone who is willing to make public their personal wealth may also arouse Hoogewerf's suspicion.

"The two people particularly wanted to be on the list and they gave me much pressure. Maybe, they were trying to use (the list) to get a better position in, for instance, access to banking," he said.

With his quick rise to fame in China, Hoogewerf has also come under challenges for the accuracy and authority of the wealth ranking.

Right after last year's list hit the newsstand, Hoogewerf was told that he was wrong in putting Rong Zhijian, with a personal wealth of US$850 million, on the title of the richest person in China.

"One person I met with told me that two people should have been the No. 1. They have more money than the No. 1 guy and both of them are based in Guangdong," he said. "That is really the challenge for me."

Hoogewerf admits that he might leave out some rich people, which are nowhere to be found in the public information.

"There are certain people who have not come to light yet," he said. "I cannot expect to find everybody, because many persons have not floated to the surface yet.

"If you look at the U.S. Forbes or Forbes World 500, they have the same problem. According to public information, we are ninety percent correct. If we are missing more than 10 people, I will be very surprised. I haven't today heard one person in the public information that we haven't found," he said.

"But as people are more confident of the business, more private tycoons will list on the stock market and we will find more people," he added.

What Hoogewerf did not expect of his rich people list was that the exposure might help to tip the government on the ill-gotten assets obtained by some wealthy businessmen.

At present, five people that were enlisted by Hoogewerf have found themselves mired in court trouble.

The five people are Yang Bin (2001's No. 2), Yang Rong (2001's No. 3), Mou Qizhong (1999's No. 16), Rubia Kadell (1999's No. 34) and film star Liu Xiaoqing (1999's No. 45).

Except Kadell, a Xinjiang resident, who was charged with separatism, all the other four were found to have committed economic crimes, such as tax evasion and fraud.

"Only a very small fraction of people have problems and I think most of the people on the list do have clean money," Hoogewerf said.

He slips into a stony silence when asked about more personal feeling toward troubled tycoons.

As Hoogewerf sees, the much pent-up idea of personal wealth in China did not get off the ground until 1992 when late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping encouraged the flourishing of the private sector in his tour of southern China.

"No longer are people now interested in making quick bucks. They want to build a long-term business," said Hoogewerf.

What China's private sector is besotted with is not the uncertain government policy, but the paucity of the talented management staff, according to Hoogewerf.

When asked about how many more years he is going to work on the Chinese rich people list he replies:

"That's the future. I am not sure," said Hoogewerf, who has bought an apartment in Shanghai and moved his family here.

(eastday.com January 22, 2003)

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