BEIJING, China — In 2010, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, two of the world’s most admired humanitarians, hosted a conference in China to encourage greater philanthropic activity amongst Chinese billionaires. On April 6, Gates publicly reaffirmed his commitment towards realizing a more charitable China.
Although China is one the world’s fastest growing economies, the country has a lackluster track record when it comes to doling out funds for charitable causes. According to the World Giving Index, China ranks 133 out of the 135 surveyed countries on a scale that evaluates citizens’ willingness to assist strangers in need.
“When you have something like a disaster you see the basic generosity, but if you look at systemic things like giving to health causes, giving to universities to do research, giving to handicapped people, it’s not there yet,” Gates explained to Reuters, an international news organization based in London.
The lack of philanthropic activity has been attributed to the unprecedented rate of China’s economic explosion. Put simply, a fully-fledged philanthropic sector has failed to develop alongside the impressive growth experienced by the country, as many charitable organizations are still subject to archaic regulations that prohibit basic activities like private fundraising. To make matters worse, many charities have been accused of exploiting others’ generosity and directing funds to less altruistic sources. Gates believes these problems are a product of inexperience and expressed optimism that these obstacles will be overcome as the Country continues to grow economically.
“What you have is a first generation of fortune and it’s natural that they’re thinking through, in this society in particular, What do you do?”
However, many believe the lack of charitable donations can be attributed to Chinese cultural norms. Social science researchers, such as Wang Zhenyoa of Beijing Normal University, argue that many wealthy Chinese citizens do not want to be publically scrutinized for not giving enough and thus decline to give donations altogether. Other journalists cite a cultural emphasis on providing for one’s family over all else, a sentiment that stigmatizes large public donations to strangers.
However, the meeting hosted by Gates and Buffet offers some hope for the future. Two-thirds of the invited billionaires accepted the invitation, and both attested to a lively discussion that included positive feedback from participants.
“I was amazed last night, really, at how similar the questions and discussions and all that was to the dinners we had in the U.S,” Buffet told reporters at a news conference following the event.
Challenges remain to put these encouraging thoughts into action in China. The number of Chinese billionaires who have signed Bill Gate’s celebrated “Giving Pledge” remains in single digits while many citizens earn less than $1,000 of annual income in rural areas of the country.
In order to reverse this stubborn trend, a fully fledged philanthropic sector needs to be fostered. Burdensome regulations that plague private philanthropic organizations need to be removed and large individual donations need to be tax deductible. Finally, the Chinese government can serve as a model for its citizens and provide greater relief when tragedies strike around the globe.
Will the Chinese meet these challenges? Rest assured Gates will be watching.