Letter from Hong Kong: cultures of giving – The Irrawaddy



HONG KONG – The September 29 Beijing gathering chaired by American billionaire businessmen Bill Gates and Warren Buffett was billed in advance as futile a mission to try persuade stingy Chinese super-rich to part with their money.

The reality is more subtle, even if a mid-September survey by the UK-based Charities Aid Foundation ranked China 147th out of 153 countries when it comes to giving to charity or corporate philanthropy.

Lights over the harbour in Hong Kong (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

The two men were in China to follow-up on their much-publicised “Billionaire Pledge”, persuading people in that category of financial wealth to give up half their money to charity. There should be rich pickings – for want of a better word – for the two men.The Hurun Rich List 2010 is China’s equivalent of the Forbes list and was published the morning after the Gates/Buffett event. According to Rupert Hoogewerf, who compiles the list, “China probably now has the largest number of billionaires anywhere in the world. We already know of 189 U.S. dollar billionaires in China this year, but you can safely say that we have missed at least half again, meaning that there are between 400 and 500 USD billionaires.” This would put China almost on a par with the number of US-listed billionaires published annually by Forbes Magazine

A week before the event, rumours circulated that only 2 of the country’s billionaires responded to the Gates/Buffet invitation, but in a press conference given afterwards, the American duo extolled the event, which they insisted was about brainstorming, and not about asking rich Chinese to put their hand in their pockets. Afterwards, Chen Guangbiao, the first Chinese businessman to make the pledge to give away all of his personal wealth when he dies, along the lines of the Billionaires Pledge, said “We should have more such exchanges,” he said, suggesting a regular dialogue mechanism be established between Chinese and American philanthropists.

According to the British charity survey, only 11% of those interviewed in China said they had made any financial donations to charity. This percentage is anywhere from 5 to 7 times less than the top 50 countries ranked in the index. However the West’s much-longer history of post-industrial wealth along with the capacity to donate based on greater affluence and disposable income, puts the findings about China in a wider context.

There are cultural differences at play. The concept of guanxi underpins business and social relations in China, meaning a reciprocal bond between people, based on mutual assistance and personal relations. On a more micro-level, the respect for the elderly integral to Chinese culture means that when parents and grandparents are ill, or are elderly, children or grandchildren take them into their homes, in contrast to the formal outsourcing of care now common in the West.

The West has a long-standing tradition of charity, which in its real sense of caritas in Latin, or agape in Greek, means more than benevolent giving but rather an underlying and all-encompassing selflessness in relationships with and dealings with others

Kam-tong Chan is Director of the Centre for Third Sector Studies at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. He told me that “it seems that the Chinese way of doing charity is more a ‘personal’ and you can see there are many foundations named after a person – unlike the western foundations are named after a family or a corporation.”

There are more mundane reasons why charity and philanthropy might be slowr to get off the ground in china, and might end up being done in a different way. While the legal regime in Hong Kong is relatively clear and supportive of charity, with generous tax breaks, it is a different story on the mainland. According to Kam-tong Chan there are concerns about whether charities could be used as tax shelters by corporations. In a country where official corruption widespread – as acknowledged by the Communist ruler – this might stymie a culture of western-style donations if people do not trust that the money will be used for stated, charitable purposes.

Here in Hong Kong, there does not appear to be any ambiguity about or difficulty with charity or philanthropy, hinting that over time, China will too catch up. The semi-autonomous region of China ranks 18th on the Charities Aid Survey, and is home to a wide variety of foundations, corporate philanthropies and small, private charities. Walking around the city, posters, newspaper advertisements and billboards can be seen, making pitches for donations to various causes. I sat in on a forum of Irish officials and businesspeople seeking to burnish investment links with Hong Kong. Rita Lau, the region’s investment secretary, addressed the gathering, where delegates sat at tables laden with envelopes seeking donations for a local epilepsy charity.

The Hong Kong Government is again backing the 2010 Social Enterprise Summit to be held November 19-20 in the city, an event that long predates the Gates/Buffett overtures to China’s wealthy. Hong Kong is home to one of the world’s richest men, the intriguingly and appropriately-named Li Ka-shing. He has donated US$678 million in the last two years via his own foundation, which supports projects on the mainland and overseas.

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