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First woman tops list of richest people in China

NEW BREED Zhang Yin, who controls assets estimated at US$3.4 billion, made her fortune shipping US waste paper to China, where it is recycled into containerboard

AP , SHANGHAI

China's wealthiest person prospered by turning recycled paper from the US into Chinese packaging products -- and like many fellow tycoons, by listing her company on an overseas stock market.

Zhang Yin (張茵), 49-year-old founder of the Nine Dragons Paper Co (玖龍紙業) with a fortune estimated at US$3.4 billion, is the first businesswoman to top an annual list of China's richest individuals, published by Shanghai-based researcher Rupert Hoogewerf.

Zhang's company listed shares on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in March, becoming one of scores of mainland-based companies enriched by international investors' fervor for Chinese assets. The company recently saw its share price surge after reporting that its fiscal 2006 net profit more than quadrupled to 1.375 billion yuan (US$174 million).

Lists of China's richest people tend to reflect shifting economic trends.

Dot-com magnates of years past have yielded rank to real estate tycoons and electronics retailers, who in turn are ceding ground to newcomers like Zhang and fifth-ranked Shi Zhengrong (施正榮), chairman of NASDAQ-listed Suntech Power Holdings Co (尚德太陽能), a maker of photovoltaic cells for solar panels.

No. 2 is Huang Guangyu (黃光裕), also known as Wong Kwong Yu, who founded GoMe Appliances (國美電器), China's biggest electronics retailer. Huang, who was ranked first last year, now has personal wealth estimated at US$2.5 billion, according to the list.

Along with his brother, property developer Huang Junqing's US$800 million fortune, the Huangs hold wealth estimated at US$3.3 billion.

"Urbanization and ever-increasing household incomes have continued to be the key drivers for wealth creation in China," said Hoogewerf, who has been compiling lists of China's wealthy since 1999.

Paper tycoon Zhang, the eldest of eight children born to a military family in northeastern China, emigrated to Hong Kong as a young adult and built up her business shipping waste paper from the US to China, where it is recycled into containerboard at factories in southern and eastern China.

As is true elsewhere, real estate is key to many personal fortunes: seven of the top 10 richest Chinese are at least in part property developers. Likewise, seven of the top 10 have companies with shares traded in Hong Kong.

Among the other top women tycoons is Chen Ningning (陳寧寧), a metals trader, who along with her mother Lu Hui is 19th on Hoogewerf's list, with wealth estimated at US$813 million.

The ranks of China's wealthiest have expanded, with 15 people having fortunes exceeding US$1 billion, up from seven last year, Hoogewerf said.

The average size of the wealth held by each individual also rose, by 48 percent over a year earlier to US$276 million.

The growing divide between rich and poor is a politically volatile issue in China, despite the Communist Party's wholesale shift away from central planning toward a more capitalist-style economy.

Helping the vast majority of have-nots was to top the agenda at closed-door meetings held in Beijing this week.

Though most of China's newly affluent are little affected by such high-level politicking, fortunes are sometimes made and lost quickly amid power plays by top leaders, Hoogewerf said.

One of the tycoons absent from this year's list was Zhang Rongkun (張榮坤), a Shanghai real estate and highway millionaire implicated in a sweeping probe into alleged corruption and misuse of city pension funds that toppled the city's Communist Party chief, Chen Liangyu (陳良宇).

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