"Barbie" dinner ignites fierce debate for China's rich

BEIJING (Reuters) - A visit by two of the world’s richest men to China has ignited a fierce debate on the merits -- and difficulty -- of philanthropy and charity for the country’s own colorful band of newly wealthy.

Billionaire investor Warren Buffett (R) and Microsoft Corporation founder Bill Gates (L) appear together for a town hall style meeting with business students broadcast by financial television network CNBC at Columbia University in New York, November 12, 2009. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett will host a dinner for a select band of Chinese billionaires on Wednesday to promote giving, dubbed by media the “Ba Bi” -- Chinese for “Barbie” -- dinner after the Chinese transliterations of their names.

The invitation list is unclear. Chen Guangbiao, worth an estimated $440 million according to last year’s Hurun rich list, has made a big deal about his attendance, and his efforts to get people to sign up. Others have been more tight-lipped.

Media speculation has centered on the traditional reticence of many rich Chinese to discuss their wealth in public, fearful of exposing fortunes larger than the government or rivals had calculated, inviting unwanted attention from tax collectors and hatred from millions of have-nots.

Private philanthropy became obsolete after the 1949 revolution when the Communist Party introduced a cradle-to-grave welfare system. But the country’s wealth gap widened after it embraced capitalist reforms in the late 1970s.

Natural disasters in recent years have stoked patriotic sentiment and rekindled an interest in charity.

For many rich Chinese, giving is not totally new.

The top 50 philanthropists donated nearly 3.9 billion yuan ($582.9 million) in total last year, according to the 2009 Hurun Philanthropy List, four times the figure from six years ago.

“It’s something that should be marked as a watershed in the whole era of philanthropy in China,” Rupert Hoogewerf, founder and compiler of the Hurun lists, told Reuters, referring to the dinner. “I’m sure it’s going to be very well attended.”

Still, some people have complained that the last thing China needs is outsiders lecturing them, especially considering the nation’s own long-standing historical tradition of charity.

“We don’t need foreigners coming here to tell us how to be charitable,” sniffed one anonymous Chinese philanthropist to the Global Times, a popular tabloid with a strong nationalist bent.

Gates and Buffett have gone out of their way to say they do not intend force anyone to give up their wealth, writing in an open letter before the visit that all they want to do is share their experiences and listen to Chinese views.

China’s enthusiastic blogging community has tackled the visit with gusto. While many praise it, some have slammed Gates and Buffett for putting unfair pressure on Chinese magnates. Others accuse the two of naivety.

“The intention is good, but they won’t understand China and I fear they’ll go home empty-handed,” wrote “Giant” on the portal “A lot of these so-called rich people aren’t really rich ... Their money came illicitly.”


However, there is a more practical problem to giving in China: Who to give to?

The country has a growing number of non-governmental organizations and charities, though many get themselves in trouble by tackling sensitive issues like AIDs, or become embroiled in corruption scandals and misuse of funds.

Movie star Jet Li, who plans to attend the dinner, told Reuters that China needs a philanthropy law in order to give surety to would-be donors. Li’s One Foundation, a partner with the Chinese Red Cross, has been unable to get government approval to set up as an independent charity.

“Creating a foundation in China is just like driving a car on the freeway, but there are no red or green lights, only yellow. I’ve been driving through yellow lights for three years, and don’t know if the next one will be red, or green,” he said.

Chinese philanthropists tend to give money directly to projects, avoiding middle men where possible, added Hoogewerf.

“The main reason is because there is an inherent mistrust in giving your money to any third party to pass it on. They’re convinced that for every 100 that they give, the end party won’t receive anything near that 100,” he said.

“But in the same breath you’ve got to say that the Chinese non-profit sector is very young. It needs to build its trust and reputation. This is a work in progress; there’s still a long way to go.”

($1=6.691 Yuan)

Additional reporting by Lucy Hornby; Editing by Benjamin Kang Lim