China's Pusher of Philanthropy

Actor Jet Li is taking time off from films to work on his foundation in China, which has one of the lowest rates of charitable giving of major economies.
Actor Jet Li is taking time off from films to work on his foundation in China, which has one of the lowest rates of charitable giving of major economies. (One Foundation)

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By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 31, 2009

BEIJING Surrounded by mist-covered hills, smiling children in pink costumes and a band playing drums and horns, Jet Li and Donatella Versace looked as if they could be on a movie set.

The Chinese action star and Italian fashion icon were actually in a remote mountain village in December to dedicate a psychological care and trauma center for children who survived the devastating May earthquake in China's Sichuan province. At least 70,000 people were killed, and about 18,000 are missing, according to official figures. Many of the victims were children who were trapped when their schools collapsed on them.

Celebrities jetting off to Africa to help malnourished children or to the Amazon to save rain forests is no longer headline news. But Li is the first to attempt something on this scale in China -- a place where the laws on philanthropy are still being written and where the ruling Communist Party treats charities with the same suspicion it has for any other organization it doesn't directly control.

Li, 45 -- who is known for his graceful martial arts sequences in such movies as "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor," "Hero" and "Romeo Must Die" -- is taking a break from acting to focus on projects such as this. He has spent two years setting up a charitable foundation and recruiting the world's rich and famous to donate their time and money to help those in need in China.

Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Jackie Chan, Andy Lau and executives from Disney, Ferrari and Universal have also signed on to help.

Li considers recruiting the easy part. Now he is turning his attention to residents of China, which has one of the lowest rates of charitable giving of the world's major economies, despite its newfound wealth. In the United States, giving represents about 2.1 percent of gross domestic product; in China, it's closer to 0.35 percent.

"The role we played is more like a pusher of philanthropic culture," Li said in an interview. "Right now, people still have a fuzzy recognition about philanthropy and volunteerism. . . . My dream is to change the concept of philanthropy in China from simply helping others into responsibility."

The core idea of Li's One Foundation is that in a country the size of China, if everyone gave a little, the impact would be enormous. Li is urging everyone to donate one yuan -- about 15 cents -- a month. "We set the lowest entrance barrier," Li said. "Nobody can say no.

"This kind of small amount of donation is very important. During bad economic times, getting an enterprise to donate 100 million yuan is not realistic. But getting 100 million of 1.3 billion people to donate a little is easy to achieve," he said.

Many of the donations used to assist victims of the earthquake, for example, came from individuals who had never donated before. In all, the foundation has received 500 million yuan from a million people. The foundation had raised the equivalent of $13.7 million by July.

Li spent two years traveling to study the world's most effective charities and trying to find a model that would work in China. He teamed with the Red Cross Society of China, an aid agency with close ties to the Chinese government, to create an "uber-charity" that would aggregate donations and pick the most worthy projects in the areas of education, health, environment and poverty.

Li modeled his foundation on a publicly traded business accountable to its shareholders -- in his case, donors. Transparency is essential. The charity issues quarterly reports and is audited by international accounting firm Deloitte & Touche.

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