Losing count of billionaires

Billionaires are hard to count, apparently.

Here’s one total: “Chinese billionaires, of whom there are ninety-five …”.

And here’s another, based on “a report published on the eve of the 2012 congress by the Hurun Report, the best source of intelligence on China’s rich”: “according to Hurun, there were 271 billionaires in China in 2011”.

This difference—one count being almost triple the other—is striking. It’s all the more striking after one learns that the counts are found 3 pages apart in the same book. The count of 95 is on page 205, and the count of 271 is on page 208, of Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else (Penguin, 2012), by Chrystia Freeland.

If the reason for the discrepancy were the distinction between “Chinese billionaires” and “billionaires in China”, I, at least, would expect the former tally to be greater than the latter, not the reverse, given the large count of Chinese entrepreneurs outside of China.

Freeland doesn’t cite a source for the count of 95, but as of today the English edition of Wikipedia gives that very same count, and it, in turn, cites Forbes, which agrees.

So, what does Freeland make of the discrepancy? She doesn’t seem to address it directly (or even acknowledge it), but does say (on page 205) that “China’s billionaires are among the world’s most discreet”. This, she says, is because “they know that the Chinese regime—still, after all, a one-party communist state—is highly ambivalent about its plutocrats.” She describes a state that occasionally charges, convicts, and imprisons one of them for corruption. The problem for me in that implied analysis is that she contrasts the reclusivity of Chinese billionaires with the ostentation of Russian ones, and yet the Russian state, too, is sometimes punitive toward its economic oligarchs.

My last question is why the professional corps of Penguin copy editors didn’t notice this. Did they forget what they had read 3 pages earlier, just as the author apparently forgot what she had written?

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