China's richest man says wealth gap not a priority

BEIJING (AFP) - China's yawning divide between rich and poor does not need to be tackled, the country's richest person said on Wednesday - as long as everyone can become wealthy.

"We don't need to solve the problem of the rich-poor gap, we need to solve the problem of common prosperity," said Mr Zong Qinghou, whose family fortune is estimated at US$12.6 billion (S$15.8 billion).

Mr Zong, founder of a huge soft-drinks conglomerate which has branched out into baby milk and children's clothing, said that "rich people should help everyone to become prosperous".

"If everyone is wealthy, society will be harmonious, and more comfortable," the 67-year old entrepreneur told reporters in Beijing at an event to mark the launch of a series of high-end shopping malls.

Mr Zong only went into business in his 40s, selling fizzy drinks to children and reportedly being so short of cash that he slept under a bridge in Beijing because he could not afford a hotel.

But the company he launched, Wahaha, whose name means "Laughing Child" in Chinese, went on to become China's third largest soft drinks company, according to Euromonitor International.

His fortune, as estimated by China-based luxury magazine publisher the Hurun Report, makes him the richest person in China and one of the wealthiest in Asia.

China's rich have become targets for public resentment as the gap between the country's richest and poorest grew following market reforms beginning in the late 1970s.

China's Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality with 0 representing total equality and 1 representing total inequality, stood at 0.47 in 2012, according to government statistics. That would put it close to the US, which had an index figure of 0.56 in 2009, according to the World Bank.

But a study last year by the Survey and Research Center for China Household Finance, a government-backed research group, said the figure was 0.61 in 2010.

That would put China at the top of a list of 16 countries issued by the World Bank.

Nonetheless, Mr Zong warned: "If we had egalitarianism... we wouldn't have enough to eat." He called for lower taxes to stimulate investment. "It's best to encourage people to create wealth," he said.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.