Sunday, October 3, 2010

Not necessary that billionaires Buffet and Gates must lead philanthropy; you too can

IT must have been quite an experience for Bill Gates and Warren Buffett when they hosted 50 of China’s uber-elite to a special dinner in a Beijing suburb last Wednesday.

The guest list was kept secret and it is open to speculation if shark’s fin soup was on the menu.

For two of the wealthiest men in the world, there is the realisation that philanthropy does not necessarily cut across all cultures, and that what works in a western developed society may not necessarily be embraced in the East.

Some of China’s super rich apparently declined the dinner invitation for fear that the two Americans might use the occasion to “persuade” them to give up half of their wealth, as what they have succesfully done with 40 American billionaires under their Giving Pledge campaign.

According to reports, that was not their intent. Gates and Buffett wanted to find out more from their guests and in the 90-minute discussion that preceded dinner, they obviously learnt a lot.

At a press conference after the dinner, they stressed that China would need to find its own approach to philanthropy, appropriate to its unique situation.

“We expected China to surprise the world in how it embraces philanthropy,” said Buffett. “Hearing about the giving that happens at every level of society in modern China was inspiring. If Bill and I could contribute to encourage the very fortunate to follow their desire to do more, then our trip was a complete success.”

Said Gates, “We’re grateful so many people made the time to attend, and for their candour and insights. People are doing some very good thinking about how their good fortune can have a positive impact on China and the world.”

China is on the radar because it now has the second most billionaires in the world, after the United States.

According to Forbes, China is home to 64 of the world’s 937 wealthiest people, but various estimates put the actual number of buillionaires at between 400 and 500.

When it comes to philanthropy, it is natural that most people will expect the nation’s most influential people to lead the way. They certainly can grab the headlines more effectively than if they were virtual unknowns.

But is that necessarily so?

I believe many of us, in our own small way, appreciate and practise the joy of giving.

But the spirit of philanthropy must not be measured in terms of just ringgit and sen.

I wrote in January last year when StarBizWeek did a cover story on the business of philanthropy that we must not be overly focused on money, with the assumption that once we know what needs to be done, money is all that is missing.

Sometimes, ordinary people can get overwhelmed by the big-hearted acts of charity that some extraordinary people are doing.

Gates and Buffett wisely tempered their Beijing visit without the typical American rah-rah. Their next stop is India, another country with an emerging group of billionaires. And it would be good if they go there to listen more than talk.

Billionaires Gates, Buffett dine with China's rich for charity

BEIJING: Billionaire investor Warren Buffett said a meeting about charity he attended Wednesday with Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates and dozens of China's super rich was "a tremendous success," despite earlier concerns that the country's newly minted millionaires would be pressured to give up their fortunes.

"Our hopes for this meeting were to learn about giving in China, and share our own views," Buffett said in a news release from him and Gates late Wednesday. "We had a terrific exchange of views, and learned a great deal about the good work that is already under way."

Some reports had said some invitees to the private dinner in Beijing were reluctant to attend because they did not want to be pressured.

Because of that concern, Gates and Buffett, who have campaigned to persuade American billionaires to give most of their fortunes to charity, issued a letter earlier this month saying they wouldn't be pushing anyone to give up their fortunes but wanted to promote philanthropy.

The private dinner, in a mansion on the edge of Beijing modeled after the baroque 17th century Chateau de Maisons-Laffitte in France, drew 50 business and philanthropy leaders for a 90-minute discussion, the news release said.

"At Mr. Buffett and Mr. Gates' request, the guest list will not be made public, in deference to the privacy of their guests," the release said.

The state-run Global Times newspaper said Wednesday that Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin, chairman and CEO of property developer SOHO China, and Niu Gensheng, founder of Mengniu Dairy, were among the invitees.

Veteran actor Jet Li and tycoon Wang Chuanfu, who owns automaker BYD Co., were also among those likely to attend, the China Daily paper said.

There are at least 875,000 U.S. dollar millionaires in China, according to Shanghai-based analyst Rupert Hoogewerf, who studies China's wealthy and compiles the country's equivalent of the Forbes list. But over the past decade, the distribution of wealth has grown increasingly uneven — incomes averaged just $3,600 last year.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation office in China said earlier this month that some invitees to the dinner had asked if they would be required to pledge donations.

This prompted the two billionaires to issue a letter last week, carried by the official Xinhua News Agency, saying that while 40 super-wealthy American families have signed what they call the "giving pledge" at the urging of Gates and Buffett, the drive was not necessarily suited to China.

"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," they wrote in the letter.

Some of China's super rich are skeptical about Gates' and Buffett's approach. China's wealthy don't have to "copy the U.S. charity mode," billionaire Guo Jinshu told Xinhua in a story Wednesday. "In China, an entrepreneur's top responsibility is to keep his own business sound, to fulfill taxation payments, and create jobs. This is also out of a philanthropist heart."

Gates and Buffett, who has pledged to give most of his fortune to charity over time with the biggest chunk going to the Gates Foundation, said they just wanted to share experiences with China's successful businesspeople. But they noted the country's newly minted wealthy were at a key moment when they could make a significant impact.

"People are doing some very good thinking about how their good fortune can have a positive impact on China and the world," Gates said in Wednesday's statement.

Jing Zhang, communications officer for the Gates Foundation's Beijing office, said after the meeting that the office wasn't answering questions about the event but a news conference was scheduled for Thursday.

Buffett is also in China to attend a series of events by BYD Co. to highlight the company's clean energy strategy. Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. owns a 10 percent stake in BYD.

At an event Wednesday in Beijing, BYD announced it would donate 1,000 sets of electricity storage systems for houses in remote areas of Tibet.

"We take for granted having electricity. Many families haven't had electricity. It can change the world," Buffett said. - AP

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