What Will China Think of The Giving Pledge?

On September 16, 2010, in Articles, by Josh Perlsweig

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are taking their Giving Pledge campaign on the road. China’s Xinhua News Agency’s published a copy of a letter by Gates and Buffett describing their intentions for an upcoming trip to meet with their wealthy Chinese peers. The billionaire duo is sensitive to the philanthropic differences between the US and China, but recognize the potential to engage a new generation of philanthropists, writing,

“In just a few weeks, we will be returning to China. One part of that trip we are looking forward to is the opportunity to sit down with a number of successful business people and philanthropists to learn about philanthropy in China and to share some of our own experiences about the impact giving can have on society and our world.

[...] we know that the Giving Pledge is just one approach to philanthropy, and we do not know if it’s the right path forward for China. Some people have wondered if we’re coming to China to pressure people to give. Not at all.

[...] The present generation of successful entrepreneurs has an opportunity to set an example for future generations in China. It is very likely they will have a substantial impact on how large scale philanthropy grows and develops in modern China.”

Attitudes toward the Chinese reception of the Giving Pledge are mixed. According to reuters, the number of known billionaires in China has now reached 130 (ranking them second only to the United States for most billionaires). However, only two have publicly stated their intention to join Gates and Buffett at their event.

Reuters explains, ”some wealthy Chinese fear generous donations could expose fortunes larger than the government or rivals had calculated, inviting unwanted attention”. After all, as recently as the 1970′s  China’s ruling Communist Party  ”condemned entrepreneurs and private business people as capitalist exploiters”.

Over the summer, Social Edge featured an interview on the role of NGOs in China. The identity of the interview subject was concealed which turned out to be revealing of a systemic problem. When asked “How do the Chinese culturally view the NGO?” he responded,

“It is a concept that is not that familiar to many Chinese. Many will ask – isn’t the work you are doing something that the Government ought to do? In a centralized one-party rule system, people are expecting the Government to solve problems. Citizen self initiated organization to address social or humanitarian problems can be viewed as a criticism or acusation of failure of the state and therefore a risky venture.”

But Chinese society is gradually becoming more open. Gates and Buffett concluded their letter by recognizing China’s charitable traditions and looking forward to the discovery of a new philanthropic model.

“Of course, there is noteworthy philanthropy going on at all levels of society in China, not just among the very fortunate. One neighbor helping another is every bit as praiseworthy as a large monetary gift by a wealthy individual. We are all called to do what we can, as described beautifully in an old Chinese saying: “Remember what you have received. Forget what you gave.” ”

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