China’s richest man Jack Ma, NBA star Yao Ming and foreign guests were among 110 people recognised by the Communist Party on Tuesday for their “outstanding contributions” to the country’s 40-year economic rise.
The dignitaries received medals from President Xi Jinping and other party leaders in a ceremony at Beijing’s imposing Great Hall of the People to mark the anniversary of the launch of “reform and opening up”.
The group was put on the same pedestal as China’s first female Nobel laureate, an astronaut, military officers, and deceased role models of the party.
State media revealed last month that Ma — the founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba and China’s most famous capitalist — was a Communist Party member.
He was joined onstage on Tuesday by fellow billionaires Pony Ma, who founded internet behemoth Tencent, and the chief executive of search engine Baidu, Robin Li, though neither have been identified as card-carrying party members.
Yao, the seven-foot-six (2.29-metre) retired center who played for the Houston Rockets, is now an entrepreneur and member of China’s top political advisory group, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).
Ten foreign guests received “reform friendship” medals, including German economist Klaus Schwab, founder of the Geneva-based World Economic Forum, the annual gathering of global government and business leaders where Xi delivered a defence of globalisation last year.
China posthumously awarded medals to former International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch, who helped Beijing organise the 2008 Summer Olympics, and former Japanese prime minister Masayoshi Ohira, who was behind the normalisation of relations between Japan and China in the 1970s.
The ceremony commemorated the December 18, 1978, Communist Party conclave that endorsed late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s reform drive, which transformed the once poor country into the world’s second biggest economy.
The 100 Chinese honourees included scientists, inventors and academics.
Among those awarded are Nobel laureate Tu Youyou, who helped develop an anti-malaria medicine, and Yuan Longping, China’s “father of hybrid rice.
The event also put the spotlight on low-ranking party cadres who had spent decades working in either the countryside or state-owned industries. Some of them had helped spur growth in rural China by reforming land rights or establishing village committees.
It also included those who dared to push the envelope in the early days of reform.
For instance, a representative of a group of farmers from Xiaogang village in Anhui province, who banded together to subvert the Maoist-era collective farming system, was among the honourees.