Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are on a mission to make the world a better place. Using their vast fortunes and public visibility, they have launched an effort to get the world’s billionaires to donate more of their wealth to worthy causes. What would happen, some wondered, when they took their effort to China?
The early returns are in, and they aren’t pretty. This piece in the New York Times tells the tale. The gist is that, in anticipation of a visit to Beijing to promote their effort, the response rate among the Chinese super-rich was lukewarm. 50 people had been invited, and while there is no verifiable number of RSVPs, one report, from China’s official Xinhua news agency, pegged the number of committed attendees at…2.
What’s happening? The Times piece is a broad-ranging exploration of possible factors, including the rapidity with which wealth has been created in China, and the associated lack of public philanthropic tradition; the underdeveloped legal and incentive structure around making donations in China; and suspicion, bordering on jingoism, that Gates–Buffett is some sort of American conspiracy.
Hinted at in the piece is an aspect of a difference in mindset between the U.S. and China that isn’t spoken or written about much. I wrote about this in an earlier blog post. In essence, Americans tend to think of philanthropy from a “God’s eye” view: it is just plain the right thing to do to give away money if you’re rich. In China, though, money is primarily a tool for the advancement of oneself and of one’s social “in-group”: immediate family and perhaps one’s very closest friends. The notion of highly public, large-scale philanthropy is fairly new in China. This is noted in the Times piece:
The Chinese have been very generous for a long period of time,” Rupert Hoogewerf, who publishes Hurun Report, said by telephone. “The difference has been that they do it between families, and don’t publicize it. What we’re seeing now is a new era of transparency.”
Thankfully Bill and Warren are behaving sensitively. The article quotes a joint letter they wrote in response to the low turnout: “China’s circumstances are unique, and so its approach to philanthropy will be as well.”
It will be fun to watch how this plays out. Meanwhile have a look at another related blog post, which hints that the “individualist” versus “collectivist” divide may not be all it is claimed to be…