Asia's Billionaires' Easy Path to Riches

There has been much crowing in the media around Asia over the rapid advance of Asians into the ranks of global billionaires. Chinese are now second only to Americans in the top 1,000 and India has eight in the super rich top 100 category. The US has been dethroned from topping the list and several names from developing countries have leap-frogged the Europeans.

However a closer look at the composition of the list would suggest that riches are often ill-rewarded and that those businessmen who have contributed most to Asian nations' advance in industry and technology have often been poorly rewarded, at least compared with those who either inherited their wealth or gained it through local monopolies and cozy deals with governments.

The place that should feel most chastened by its positions on the list is Hong Kong. Not only does it boast Asia's richest man, Li Ka-shing of the Cheung Kong property empire but two more property developers in the top 50 and another four in the top 150. This concentration of property billionaires in an economy of just 7 million people tells a sad tale of the gouging of residents that has gone on for years thanks to the cozy nature of the relationship between government and their developer cronies.

Indeed Hong Kong boasts as many in the list as Japan, an economy almost 20 times larger, in the list of top 25 Asians in the Forbes list. Its top ranked property tycoon Mori ranks only at 124 while Australia's top property developer Frank Lowy and Malaysian baker Quek Leng Chang are at a relatively lowly 205 and 376 respectively.

Meanwhile the Asian entrepreneurial families who have changed the world rank low on the list – though it is interesting that in Korea and Taiwan they at least top the local rich leagues rather than the masters of manipulating governments. Taiwan's list is topped by Terry Gou of Hon Hai electronics but even he is only 136th in the world. Other electronics and other manufacturers share most of the 18 Taiwan in the top 1000 with various financial and real estate tycoons. Korea is even more sparsely represented in the billionaire list. Samsung's Lee Kun Kee is top but only number 205 in a world where the Samsung name is ubiquitous. Chung Mong Koo of Hyundai is even further down at 488 with a fortune estimated at a measly $1.5 billion.

The rise of Chinese names in the list is partly a reflection of its rapid economic growth. But most of the names are in the lower ranks. And many, like almost all the Russians, got there through their clever privatization of state assets rather than building from scratch – though there many exceptions too, particularly the internet billionaires.

The Forbes lists contains lots of guesswork and in some cases huge family wealth may be split in ways which make it appear smaller than it is. Some names appear surprisingly far down the list – Macau casino king Stanley Ho is at 701 and Thailand's regional agribusiness king Dhanin Chearavanont is at 559.

Indeed, the road to mega riches is occasionally achieved by innovators like Bill Gates (number 2) but more likely by those like the man who tops the global list: Mexico's Carlos Slim, beneficiary of deals with officials which have given him a near monopoly of the domestic telecoms market. A super gouging of consumers in a still poor country has given him a fortune estimated at $54 billion. The wonders of monopoly capitalism. No wonder Marx still has a following!