China's wealthy ponder whether to help others
Thursday, September 16, 2010; 10:44 PM
BEIJING - It began with an idea as simple as it was well-meaning. Fresh off a successful tour pushing philanthropy among the rich in the United States, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett proposed another trip - to visit newly minted billionaires in China and get them more involved in charitable giving.
But a curious thing began to happen.
Chinese businessmen - initially excited to meet the two American billionaires - started making discreet calls, inquiring whether they would be forced at the dinner to pledge their fortunes. A few even backed out, citing schedule conflicts. Once the Chinese media caught wind, accusations of miserly conduct began flying as well as breathless speculations about who exactly had been invited and who had declined.
The result has been much soul-searching among the wealthy in China about how best to help society and what responsibilities come with newfound wealth.
As in America's era of robber barons, new titans of industry are emerging every year in China. But in the United States, the industrial age also ushered in a generation of philanthropists - names such as Carnegie and Rockefeller that still resound today - and it is unclear whether the same is happening, or will happen, in China.
China now has one of the world's largest collection of billionaires, second this year only to the United States, according to Forbes.
But giving away that wealth has proved more difficult at times than earning it.
While the Chinese government has been eager to compete with the United States and the rest of the world in other fields, philanthropy is one sector in which it remains hesitant. China's leaders have not fully embraced the idea of handing over to individuals or groups the power to help the nation's people - a role traditionally reserved for the Communist Party.
"One thing holding back philanthropy may be the reluctance among the rich. But the other is the worry of the government," said Li Huafang, a researcher for the Shanghai Institute of Finance and Law. "They don't want other entities competing with them for the people's hearts. But if they continue holding back philanthropy, it may not win the people's hearts either."
Giving in China, of course, is nothing new. Generosity is built into aspects of the culture, as was evident in 2008 when annual donations soared to 15.7 billion after the Sichuan earthquake, with the majority coming from the Chinese public.
But the practice and infrastructure to support philanthropy are just emerging and, by many estimates, donations in China lag significantly behind the United States and other major countries.
The Gates-Buffett dinner, still over a week away, has sparked one of the widest-ranging discourses on philanthropy in years. The pair have recently convinced dozens of America's wealthiest men and women to donate at least half their fortunes to charity. But in China, the worries and debate were so fierce that Gates and Buffett - who have both pledged their fortunes to charity - issued an official letter this week to the state news agency Xinhua to clarify that the attendees will not be asked to donate anything. [Buffett and Gates's wife, Melinda, are Post Co. directors].