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Billionaires’ Dinner Sparks Debate About Social Responsibilities of China’s New Super-rich

Posted by Author on September 29, 2010

Tania Branigan in Beijing, guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 29 September 2010 –

It should have been the social event of the year. The setting was said to be a full-scale replica of the Château Lafite, complete with Greek statuary, a moat and its own wild duckpond. The hosts were world famous. The guestlist featured 50 of China’s richest business people.

Yet several billionaires snubbed Bill Gates and Warren Buffett – apparently fearful of demands to open their wallets at the charity-promoting banquet – and in doing so have provoked a debate about their apparent stinginess.

Critics argue that China’s new rich have ignored their social responsibilities in the rush for wealth. Among the most scathing is one of last night’s guests, Chen Guangbiao, who says Gates has inspired him to leave his fortune to charity when he dies.
“This makes me so mad. How did we get so rich? We’ve had favourable economic policies and China’s working class helped us get there. I think we need to repay society,” he told NPR – even threatening to leak the names of those who had turned down the invitation.

Defensive tycoons retort that giving should be a private choice and dismiss American philanthropy as little more than a tax-dodge.

Zong Qinghou, named by the Hurun Rich List as China’s richest man with a $12bn fortune, told Phoenix television he had a previous engagement and said real philanthropy was creating wealth and jobs.

“If I want to donate, I will; if I don’t want to, I won’t be persuaded to either. I don’t think donating a lot of money is real philanthropy. It is just a way to get around the high inheritance tax and other taxes,” he said.

Gates and Buffett, who have asked US billionaires to commit to leave most of their wealth to charity, wrote to guests to assure them the dinner was not a fundraiser. They said they merely wanted to promote charity development.

Experts have suggested the rich fear exposing their wealth lest it attract envy, criminals and perhaps too much scrutiny of its origins. Even when they give, they prefer to do so privately.

Wang Zhenyao, director of the Centre for Philanthropy Research at Beijing Normal University, said high public expectations were another deterrent.

“Many people think that no matter how much rich people donate, it is just not enough. That’s wrong thinking: philanthropy is a voluntary act. In China there are now many rich people who fear to donate, because it will attract people’s criticism,” he said.

But charitable giving is unquestionably on the up. According to the Hurun philanthropy list, the 50 most generous donors gave an average of $25m last year – eight times the average of the first list in 2004.

And experts say China is seeing a revival of a domestic idea, rather than the introduction of a foreign one.

“There is a history and tradition of philanthropy in China pre-dating 1949, but if you look after that the sector is underdeveloped. The Communist party basically nationalised philanthropy,” said Shawn Shieh, visiting professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

It re-emerged when the government began establishing foundations and charities in the 1980s, with new regulations in 2004 paving the way for private foundations.

“One obstacle is the mindset of the nouveau riche, the idea that they should think about giving their money to society. In the past, these entrepreneurs, if they donated money, donated it to government foundations as a way to improve their relations with officials or [for] public relations, showing they are working with government,” said Shieh.

“The second obstacle has been systemic – reflected in the lack of regulations that would promote the sector in an effective way. You have regulations but private foundations have restrictions placed on them; they can’t publicly fund-raise, for example.”

Yet despite the difficulties non-governmental organisations face, tiny grassroots groups are springing up as well as private foundations.

And, although no data is available, Liu Youping, deputy director of the China Charity Donation Information Centre, suspects that – as in many countries – ordinary people give a higher proportion of their incomes than the wealthy do.

While the Americans wooed their mega rich peers, a less glitzy dinner was due to take place in a Beijing restaurant last night.

A website designer who calls himself Lao Wu had rallied artists, doctors and academics under the slogan “Common people’s philanthropy is challenging the Gates and Buffett banquet.”

“Charity is not just about rich people. More ordinary people should get involved,” he told Beijing Times. (The Guardian)

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