China Leads World In Billionaire Flame-Outs

By Russell Flannery , Forbes Staff

NEW YORK ( Forbes) -- China's importance in the Forbes Billionaires List has soared in recent years as its economy has boomed. Last year, a record 115 mainland Chinese made the list, compared with hardly any a decade ago.

Entrepreneurs involved in everything from Tibetan medicine to sports shoes to the Internet have joined an elite group populated by the likes of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. Their growing financial heft has put the hitherto unknown Chinese successes at the center of attention worldwide for the likes of immigration agents, charities and universities scrambling to admit their children and attract their cash. Collectively, they ranked No. 2 in the world on the Forbes Billionaires List in 2011, second only after the United States.

Yet this year, the trend reversed. The number of mainland Chinese billionaires dropped by 20 to 95. Behind the decline: Some 35 billionaires from China that made the lift last year didn't make it this year. The arrival of fresh faces - some 16 - wasn't enough to offset the decline.

Fortunes shrank as profits and stock valuations were hurt by the country's slower economic growth, brought on in part by a global slowdown and tight credit policies that to break real estate prices. Shanghai's main stock index plunged by nearly 20% in the 12 months that we surveyed for this year's list. Hong Kong, where many Chinese entrepreneurs also list, suffered a 9% drop in its main index.

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Among the 2011 Chinese billionaires that didn't make the list this year is Nike rival Ding Shizhong, whose family controls sports footwear maker Anta; and Lei Jufang, a supplier of Tibetan medicine whose main business Tibet Cheezheng Tibetan Medicine lost 28% of its value in the last year. Other flame-outs: Zhang Changhong, chairman of financial information provider Shanghai Great Wisdom, whose lost 55% of its value, and Li Hongxin, the chairman of paper producer Sun Paper, a joint venture partner of New York-listed International Paper. Its shares lost nearly a third.

And in a year when the China's powerful central government was moving harshly to suppress real estate prices, it's no surprise e that members from that group disappeared, too. Among them were Qi Jinxing of Hangzhou Binjiang Real Estate Group of Hangzhou, a city that was a favorite of Macro Polo when he visited China centuries ago. Qi's shares in Hangzhou Binjiang Real Estate Group lost about a third in the past year. Chu Mang Yee, chairman of Hong Kong-listed real developer Hopson Development also didn't make the list after its shares tanked by about a quarter.

China still has a lot of billionaires - 95, to be exact and ranks third in the world after the U.S. and Russia. And it still has a lot of entrepreneur talent, embodied this year's top-ranking list member from the country, Robin Li, CEO of search engine Baidu.

Yet it isn't a sure that that the billionaire boom will return soon. The government, after following an export-led and industry-heavy development model for years, appears to be struggling to nudge the economy in new direction. And China, long a high-ranking member of the "Forbes Misery Index" due to steep tax rates, appears to be looking for ways to increase its take from successful entrepreneurs and individuals through new tax hikes at a time when many entrepreneurs are already worried that state-owned companies receive growing under treatment.

"There's a huge risk" that entrepreneurs who would otherwise start-up companies will not do so if the investment climate turns less favorable, Dingkun Ge, president of the China-U.S. School of Entrepreneurism and Innovation, told a lunch of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai that convened yesterday to discuss the new Forbes Billionaires List.

--Written by Russell Flannery at Forbes.
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