Meet Rupert Hoogewerf, the British Man Who Opens A Rare Window Into the Complex World of China’s Super Rich

Hurun's rich lists chronicles the rise and fall of China’s billionaires. But what he captures is only half the story of the Chinese economy.

Rupert Hoogewerf
Rupert Hoogewerf, chairman and chief researcher of the Hurun Report. MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images

In China, the most trusted voice on the country’s richest people is a British man named Rupert Hoogewerf, better known in China as Hu Run. Hoogewerf is the founder and chief researcher of Hurun Report, a chronicler of the wealthy in the world’s second largest economy since 1999.

Sign Up For Our Daily Newsletter

By clicking submit, you agree to our <a rel="nofollow noreferer" href="http://observermedia.com/terms">terms of service</a> and acknowledge we may use your information to send you emails, product samples, and promotions on this website and other properties. You can opt out anytime.

See all of our newsletters

Through ranking wealthy individuals and, in more recent years, startups and large public companies, Hurun’s rich lists document the rise and fall of China’s fledgling business moguls like Alibaba founder Jack Ma and real estate tycoon Wang Jianling during the most vibrant years of China’s economic reform. Its annual rankings also tracked the shift of industries where wealth was created and concentrated over the years, from traditional manufacturing to real estate to internet and technology.

Hoogewerf’s work sheds light on a burgeoning and unfamiliar world of China’s newly super rich, who are on average much younger than their Western counterparts, inexperienced in being rich, and therefore have a different set of aspirations and challenges. By his own acknowledgment, his list is also a  gapingly incomplete picture of wealth in China, as a percentage of the country’s private fortune is simply unknowable, generated by state-controlled interest or in the hands of criminals.

Who are the top 0.0001% in China?

Almost everyone in the top ranks of Hurun China Rich List is a first-generation entrepreneur. For several years before 2020, the list was consistently crowned by Ma, whose net worth was estimated at roughly $40 billion as of 2019. A pandemic later, the current wealthiest person in China is Zhong Shanshan, the 68-year-old founder of Nongfu Spring, a bottled water company, and a major shareholder of Beijing Wantai Biological Pharmacy Enterprise, a drugmaker. Zhong, 68, is estimated to be worth $67 billion. 

“Here we are in 2022 when technology is driving so many changes, it’s unbelievable to think that the richest person in China is a traditional bottled water seller,” Hoogewerf said. 

Zhong is closely trailed by a host of tech-y names, though: Zhang Yiming, the founder of TikTok parent company ByteDance; Zeng Yuqun, the CEO of electric vehicle battery maker CATL; Tencent CEO Pony Ma and Ding Lei, the CEO of NetEase. Jack Ma has dropped to No.9. 

This year, Hurun has ranked more than 1,200 individuals with a net worth above 5 billion renminbi, or $720 million, in Greater China, which includes Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. 

The first rich list in China

Hoogewerf, 52, took an academic interest in language early on. Born and raised in Luxembourg, Hoogewerf grew up speaking four languages (English, Luxembourgish, German and French) and picked up Latin, ancient Greek and Portuguese in high school. When attending Durham University in England, he studied Japanese in order to win a scholarship to study abroad in Japan. And when living in Japan in the 1980s, Hoogewerf became interested in Chinese characters and eventually began learning the language. But he had no plans to work and live in China until visiting the country for the first time in the 1990s, he said. After college, Hoogewerf worked as an accountant for Arthur Andersen, a now defunct American accounting firm (its consulting services continue today as Accenture), for seven years between London and Shanghai before founding Hurun Report in 1999. 

At the turn of the 21st century the world was closely watching China’s booming economy, which was growing at more than 5 percent each year. But private-sector business was very much a world of its own, Hoogewerf said. There were no household-name entrepreneurs; self-made billionaires were largely unheard of; and the most recognizable business names were almost all state-owned corporations. 

Hoogewerf said he started Hurun Report with the goal of telling the story of the Chinese economy, by cataloging its most successful business people for an overseas audience he thought should know about China’s growing importance in the global economy. But his rich list, arguably the first of its kind in China, enjoyed unexpected popularity domestically, which encouraged him to strengthen his foothold in China. 

Throughout the 2000s, Hurun’s rich list was widely cited by the Chinese media and Hoogewerf was named one of the “100 Top Influencers in China’s Globalization” by Global Entrepreneur, a Chinese business magazine, in 2004. Being named on Hurun’s rich list was considered a badge of honor for many business leaders and celebrities. 

Over the years, Hoogewerf has met with most of the people he’s put on Hurun lists and made a few friends from the group, he said. To some extent, as an entrepreneur, Hoogewerf has become one of them. Today, Hurun Report, based in London and Shanghai, employs about 150 researchers globally to compile lists by country and industry. Roughly two thirds of the research team focus on China alone. Hoogewerf takes pride in the accuracy of his team’s estimates of individual net worth, calculated based on regulatory disclosures, industry benchmarks and credible information from private investors. 

However, not everyone likes to see their name and net worth featured in a widely distributed list, and sometimes the work can bring great risk to the compiler. 

One night in 2002, a group of men knocked on Hoogewerf’s door in Shanghai and barged into his apartment, demanding that he leave someone off his rich list. Hoogewerf put him on the list anyway. The person in question was an infrastructure entrepreneur. He was arrested a few years later over financial fraud charges, Hoogewerf said. 

More recently, the young founder of a $5 billion company told Hoogewerf over dinner he would prefer to stay off any lists to avoid unnecessary attention. But, because he has disclosed a 35 percent stake in his company in securities filings, which made him among the handful of the richest people in China, Hoogewerf included him eventually. 

“If publicly available information indicates a person should be on our lists, we will include them, even if they don’t want to,” Hoogewerf said. “It’s all about the integrity of the list.”

Alibaba founder Jack Ma
Alibaba founder Jack Ma. VCG/VCG via Getty Images

China’s unmeasurable hidden wealth

Despite his best efforts, Hoogewerf says he has captured only half the story of the Chinese economy, at best. Per his latest count, there are about 1,000 known billionaires (measured in U.S. dollars) in China. There are possibly just as many unknown billionaires, Hoogewerf said.

A big chunk of what he misses are those who run private businesses or are large shareholders in state-controlled corporations, which are not included in most of Hurun’s research. About 10 percent of them, Hoogewerf estimates, are owners of so-called vampire wealth, or money made through illegal means that “can’t see the light of day,” he said. “Those people go to extraordinary lengths to hide their wealth.”

David Barboza, a former China correspondent for the New York Times, is unsure if it’s even possible to put a number on China’s hidden wealth. “There is a tremendous amount of undisclosed wealth in China. I don’t know if anyone would have an exact figure on it because it’s hidden,” he said.

In 2013, Barboza won a Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for his exposure of corruption at high levels of the Chinese government and massive secret wealth owned by the relatives of Wen Jiabao, China’s former premier from 2003 to 2012. That report alone exposed $3 billion in hidden wealth associated with the Wen family, which would have placed him in the top 50 on that year’s Hurun rich list.

“There are a lot of ways to hide wealth in China,” Barboza said. “A lot of people hide their wealth offshore. Some hide it through friends and relatives, or use shell companies—in China they are called ‘white gloves.'”

Over the past two decades, Hurun China Rich List has featured a few high-profile former politicians turned business tycoons. On Hurun’s very first rich list, published in 1999, Hoogewerf put Rong Yiren, China’s former vice president and the owner of a diversified investment conglomerate, in the top spot. In 2014, he named Zhu Rongji, the Premier of China from 1998 to 2003, on a philanthropist list for donating nearly $6 million in book royalties to charity.

Hoogewerf admits he has limited ways to uncover the fortunes of corrupt politicians, because his research is primarily based on publicly available information.

“It’s a very big and complex country. There will always be people making money in the shadows,” he said.

Tencent founder and CEO Pony Ma.
Tencent founder and CEO Pony Ma. Visual China Group via Getty Images/Visual China Group via Getty Images

A window into China’s first-generation ultra-rich

For now, Hoogewerf is focusing on what he can and does know. 

On Hurun’s Global Rich List, a list of roughly 3,200 international billionaires (in U.S. dollars), the average age of Chinese nominees is 15 years younger than their American counterparts. Among them, about 95 percent are first-generation wealth creators, compared with 65 percent in the U.S. and roughly half in India. And the remaining 5 percent generational wealth is highly concentrated in Hong Kong and Taiwan, which have a longer history of a market economy than mainland China. 

“That creates a whole lot of different dynamics. That throws up a class of more energetic and ambitious entrepreneurs,” Hoogewerf said.

Unlike founders of previous generations, today’s Chinese entrepreneurs tend to start their businesses with a global mindset from the very beginning, Hoogewerf observed. Some of them have built hugely successful global brands like TikTok and Shein in just a few years on a scale incomparable to China’s first wave of internal brands ten years ago, which were predominantly home appliance makers.

A surprisingly high percentage of Chinese entrepreneurs choose to go back to school in some capacity after setting up their businesses, Hoogewerf said. “I haven’t seen this in the U.K. or the U.S. It’s rare for entrepreneurs to take four days off every six weeks just to chat with their peers in a classroom.” 

With rare exceptions such as Jack Ma and Lei Jun, the founder of smartphone maker Xiaomi, most Chinese entrepreneurs, especially those at the top, are extremely media-shy. Ma’s longtime rival, Tencent’s Pony Ma, for example, seldom speaks in public or gives interviews. Neither does TikTok founder Zhang Yiming or Shein’s Chris Xu. 

In the past two years, amid the Chinese government’s antitrust crackdown on the country’s tech industry, even the most spotlight-seeking founders have turned quiet, and the already low-profile ones are even less visible. Ma has largely disappeared from the public eye since 2020 and now secretly lives in Japan, reports show. Zhang Yiming, who stepped down as ByteDance CEO last year, reportedly lives in Singapore now. 

For less accomplished entrepreneurs earlier in their careers, the near future looks challenging, Hoogewerf said. “People tend to forget that most Chinese businesses are very young. They haven’t had that much experience of global exposure. And just when they might want to go international, they can’t,” he said. 

Meet Rupert Hoogewerf, the British Man Who Opens A Rare Window Into the Complex World of China’s Super Rich