SHANGHAI -- A new generation is coming to prominence among Chinese billionaires with assets of 2 billion yuan ($290 million) or more.
This year, the number of millennials -- people born after 1980 -- in the "2-billion-yuan club" is 132, up 32 from last year, according to Shanghai-based Hurun Research Institute.
Some of the burgeoning corporate giants that have the potential to join the ranks of the most successful Chinese startups, led by the three leading Internet service companies Baidu, Alibaba Group Holding and Tencent Holdings, are headed by next-generation entrepreneurs in their 30s.
Leading the pack is Wang Xing, the chief executive of the takeaways-to-taxis app Meituan Dianping, whose market value surpassed $44 billion after its initial public offering in Hong Kong in September.
Wang, who pulled off the gargantuan IPO at the age of 39, has become a shiny new symbol of the Chinese Dream. Meituan offers a broad array of lifestyle services via its online platform, including food delivery, shopping, tickets, hotel booking and bicycle sharing.
Wang's move to found Meituan in 2010 had its genesis in his first encounter with social media like Facebook in 2003, when he was studying at the University of Delaware.
There was no such service in China at that time. After returning home, Wang launched a Facebook-like social network dubbed Xiaonei, which translates as "within the campus," in 2005. He later sold this venture for $2 million and used the money to start up Meituan.
Wang's path to his status as a newly minted tech billionaire has many parallels with Alibaba co-founder and executive chairman Jack Ma's career. Ma surprised the world when he announced in September that he will step down from the sprawling e-commerce empire in September 2019.
Ma, one of the most respected names in China's business community, was also inspired by the transformative power of the Internet in the U.S. when he visited the country as an interpreter in the mid-1990s. Ma went on to found Alibaba, which has revolutionized the way Chinese consumers spend their money.
While the 54-year-old Ma is retiring from the business, the 39-year-old Wang seems to be poised to bring the next big change to Chinese society.
Wang is not the only young entrepreneur who could lead China's economy into its next phase.
Hurun Research's list of the richest Chinese born after 1980 includes a legion of top executives leading a wide variety of companies, from listed firms to startups.
The assets of Huang Zheng of Pinduoduo, the e-commerce company that made its IPO on the Nasdaq Stock Market in July, reached 95 billion yuan.
The net worth of Frank Wang, founder and CEO of DJI, the world's leading seller of consumer drones, soared to 45 billion yuan, while that of Cheng Wei, founder of Didi Chuxing Technology, a ride-sharing business, rose to 18 billion yuan. They have both become 30-something tech billionaires.
But these up-and-coming tech companies still have a long way to go before they can claim to be next BATs (Baidu-Alibaba-Tencent).
Meituan, Didi and Pinduoduo are all struggling to generate profits as their bottom lines have been battered by heavy upfront investment costs.
The external environment is getting more severe. The number of Chinese billionaires of the haloed 2-billion-yuan club decreased to 1,893 in 2018, down 11% from last year's 2,130, according to Hurun Research's 2018 China Rich List. The decline, the first in six years, has been caused by falling stock prices.
Ma Huateng, also known as Pony Ma, the founder and CEO of tech giant Tencent, is among the super-rich Chinese whose net worth has sunk. Real estate magnate Xu Jiayin, chairman of Evergrande, who was last year's wealthiest Chinese, fell to the second place as his assets dropped by 40 billion yuan to 250 billion yuan. Xu has lost the No. 1 title to Jack Ma of Alibaba Group, who topped the list for the second time in four years.
Wang Jianlin, the founder of Dalian Wanda Group, a leading real estate development conglomerate, has been a big loser, with the total value of his assets shriveling by a third from its peak of 220 billion yuan in 2015. Wanda has been selling off assets like theme parks and hotels, under pressure from the government to reduce its debt.
Tencent's market value has plunged as its core gaming business has been hit by a regulatory crackdown. Chinese regulators have effectively stopped allowing the company to sell popular online games, causing its smartphone game revenues to crater.
This has taken a big bite out of Ma Huateng's assets, which fell by 10 billion yuan to 240 billion yuan.
As the U.S.-China trade dispute escalates, concern about China's economy is growing. The environment surrounding the new generation of leaders has become severe compared with the time when Jack Ma first became a billionaire.
Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent have not just brought about radical social changes in China. They have also established a viable cycle of investment-driven expansion in which profits earned are plowed into new, promising businesses that in turn change the workings of society.
To join the pantheon of business "greats," the rising generation of Chinese entrepreneurs need to demonstrate their ability to keep creating new visions while developing viable business models to achieve them.