Charity Facts

Gates' charity banquet tests China's billionaires

Updated: 2010-09-07 22:16
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BEIJING -- Less than three weeks before a Chinese billionaires'  banquet, sponsored by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett on September 29, only two Chinese businessmen have confirmed they are attending.

Gates and Buffett initiated a project, "The Giving Pledge", in June aimed at persuading billionaires in the United States to give the majority of their wealth, 50 percent or more, to charity.

Although the Microsoft mogul has announced that he would not lobby Chinese billionaires to follow suit, the banquet is turning into a test for donating to China's charities, as the two American billionaires promote philanthropy in the world's most populous country where donating personal wealth to charity has yet to become a common practice.

A deep-rooted concept among wealthy individuals in China is to leave their entire fortunes to their descendants, which might be a major obstacle preventing donations to charity, according to Zhang Yinjun, spokesperson with one of China's largest charity organization, the China Charity Federation.

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"If Gates and Buffett's visit and banquet could change Chinese billionaire's concept on the handling of their fortunes, that would be a good start to encourage more people to donate to society," Zhang told Xinhua on Tuesday.

"China has a totally different social condition and environment, so whether or not Chinese billionaires accept Gates'  and Buffett's ideas, will be their personal choice," Zhang said.

The first pledge

One of the two Chinese billionaires accepting the invitation to the charity banquet was Chen Guangbiao, China's most famous philanthropist, and CEO of a resources recycling company in eastern Jiangsu Province.

Chen posted an open letter on the company's website on Monday, reminding wealthy Chinese that each of them earned their fortunes thanks to the support of government policies and to a stable social environment.

"I will donate all my wealth to charity when I leave this world. This is my present to welcome your gentlemen's (Gates and Buffett) charity meeting in Beijing," Chen pledged.

Chen said in his letter that he has, so far, made charitable donations worth 1.34 billion yuan ($197 million) over the past 10 years. In 2009 alone, he donated 313 million yuan, accounting for 77.6 percent of his company's profits that year.

Chen also shared his motto with wealthy Chinese: "When you have a bucket of fortune, you keep it at home. When you have a pool of wealth, you share it with others."

Zhang Xin, CEO of SOHO China, China's leading real estate developing company, also confirmed her plans to attend the banquet.

Wealthy people in the shadow

Gates' project office is still having difficulties in confirming the attendance of others in the select group of about 50 wealthy individuals, as many still hesitate, said Zhang Jing, spokeswoman of the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation Beijing Representative Office on Tuesday.

She said the office had to repeatedly convince those who received invitations that the organizers had no combined donation plan for the charity meeting and that the activities would be closed to the media in order to keep the participants' identities confidential.

According to Hurun Wealth Report 2010, China has 55,000 billionaires.

Zhang said the office did not intend to invite the richest 50 on the wealthy list, but selected wealthy people who had shown an interest in philanthropy.

The charity meeting has also sparked considerable discussion on charity among the Chinese public on the Internet.

"China's charity cause is still at a primitive stage," noted one comment.

"Few on China's wealthy list have taken on philanthropy. Those who donate are not very rich," said net surfers on the popular Chinese Internet portal

But netizens generally hope the American philanthropists would give a push to China's charity system and its management mode so that those who have a philanthropist' s heart would have easier access to charitable giving.

Enlightened interest on charity

The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences reported in September last year that China's individual donations had surpassed corporate donations for the first time in 2008 to account for 54 percent of total donations.

Wealthy Chinese individuals have also opened their purses after severe disasters, such as the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake and Yushu earthquake this year, as well as the Zhouqu mudslide.

"These charitable actions have rebuilt the image of wealthy Chinese people," said Zhang Yiwu, a professor with the prestigious Beijing University and a renowned commentator.

He said although some media reports suspected some donations are only a show for some wealthy people, the "show" at least was evidence of the wealthy group's increasing interests to build their image of giving to charity.

"The problem is that the number of wealthy people who donate to a charitable cause is still too small in China," he said.

A Chinese businessman who only gave his name as Lin said his donations had helped build several schools in poverty-stricken areas in northeast China as part of the Hope Project.

"It is difficult to find a trusted channel to manage my donations. I chose to give the money directly to the people who used it. Students and their parents often lined in queues in front of my office to get donation money at the beginning of every semester," he said.

He added that business people like himself are not "rich enough to get on Gates and Buffet's invitation list."

"I believe a great number of rich people have a loving heart, but their charitable actions are obstructed by concerns about the management of the fund," he said.

Zhang Yinjun said that China, so far, has neither specific law or administrative regulations for charities, nor a social supervision system of it, but wealthy people interested in charity should be encouraged and tolerated.

"The public should not always criticize those wealthy people, claiming that they donate only for public appreciation," Zhang said.  "What' s more, charity has no necessary bond with how much wealth an individual has. That is to say, charity is a cause that everyone could participate in."