China’s tribe of billionaire philanthropists growing

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August 30, 2013

According to Shanghai-based research firm Hurun, China surpassed the US this year as the country with the maximum number of billionaires.

August 30, 2013

According to Shanghai-based research firm Hurun, China surpassed the US this year as the country with the maximum number of billionaires.

BEIJING: Fans across the world know him for his martial arts prowess but few are aware that Hollywood action-man Jet Li has another side to him. Li's One Foundation — which he founded after he narrowly missed being drowned during the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 — recently raised almost 90 million yuan (about Rs 90 crore) for carrying out rehabilitation work in the Ya'an area of Sichuan province which was hit by a massive earthquake in April this year.

Li is one of the more high-profile faces of a growing tribe of Chinese billionaire philanthropists. According to Shanghai-based research firm Hurun, China surpassed the US this year as the country with the maximum number of billionaires. Many of them — like real estate tycoon Hui Ka Yan who topped the Forbes 2013 China philanthropy list with almost $68 million donations — are now beginning to give back to the country through non-profit projects.

Some like Wang Jianlin, chairman of Dalian Wanda Group, which among other businesses, owns the largest chain of movie-theatres in the country, pledged $150 million to help rebuild the Porcelain Tower, a historic temple that dates back to the Ming Dynasty. Eccentric billionaire Chen Guangbiao who made news by selling cans of fresh air in smog-hit Beijing, has pledged to give all his fortune to charity after he dies.

So what has led to Chinese billionaires developing this altruistic streak? "The huge economic growth in China has brought with it both environmental and social deficits, and there is increasing expectation that those who have benefited from growth, will play their role in addressing these deficits," says David H Evans, head of philanthropy and values-based investing for Asia-Pacific at UBS Wealth Management.

Another significant reason is the revival of Chinese traditional culture and values after the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. "The rampant restoration of Chinese traditional religions, mainly Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism, has been playing a vital role in the rise of Chinese billionaire philanthropists since many of them are followers or supporters of traditional values," says Qinghong Wang, an expert on China at Hawaii's East West Center.

"A large group of Chinese billionaires also look at philanthropy as a means to implant Chinese traditional values in their children, their employees, and their communities," he adds.

Although the Chinese government doesn't have a focused policy to promote private philanthropy, it is trying to get its act together. New charity laws and regulations have been introduced since the late 1990s, especially the "Regulations for the Management of Foundations" which came into effect in 2004 and was the first comprehensive national rule on the subject in over 15 years.

"Unlike many Chinese people who look at the rich with distrust and are cynical about the sources of their wealth, the communist government doesn't treat rich philanthropists with suspicion," says Lu Dezhi, chairman of the Huamin Charity Foundation.

The primary reason for the distrust among average Chinese of billionaires giving away wealth is that it is ill-gotten or that they are trying to evade taxes. In that sense, says Evans, the situation in China is similar to that in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. "In the US, enormous growth allowed certain individuals to amass huge personal wealth apparently miraculously in a short space of time," he says.

"Men such as John D Rockefeller, Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie were subject to immense suspicion and criticism. Yet today, we honor their incredible philanthropic legacies with scarcely a thought as to the "true" motives of the founders. I believe the next few years will see the emergence of similarly influential philanthropic organizations in China."


Courtesy: TOI