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Showing Off: Chen Guangbiao during an environmental protection exhibition in Nanjing, eastern China.
Showing Off: Chen Guangbiao during an environmental protection exhibition in Nanjing, eastern China.
Yao Shujie

-OpEd-

Chinese philanthropist Chen Guangbiao recently staged yet another high-profile charity event, this time in the United States, by inviting “poor and destitute Americans” to lunch in New York’s Central Park and to accept a cash gift of $300 each.

He seems to have three goals: to find and express his personal convictions, to push the boundaries of traditional philanthropy and to attract public attention. Unfortunately, he has achieved the last two objectives — not the first.

Sir Run Run Shaw, a Hong Kong entertainment mogul who died last January at the age of 106, left his name all over China's prestigious universities. Sir Kashing Li, another Hong Kong business magnate and also Asia's richest person, contributed significantly in founding and developing the University of Shantou in Canton Province, his homeland.

Tan Kah Kee, the late businessman who owned an entire business empire in Southeast Asia and who is China's best-known philanthropist, created the Xiamen and Jimei universities in his hometown of Xiamen, in the process boosting this remote coastal town to enviable cultural and educational heights.

Philanthropists contribute enormously to society. But how a philanthropist donates money depends on the benefactor's personal vision and character. Without those, a philanthropist's contribution to society is limited.

Chen does contribute, in part by trying to refute the idea that wealthy Chinese are selfish and only spend their money on luxuries. With his impulsive giving, he demonstrates that not all rich people are “heartless,” and he no doubt creates some bit of happiness for those he helps.

But no matter how much Chen throws his money around, he has yet to find and focus on a meaningful cause. His charity has been random, showy and inefficient. Unlike peers who have focused on creating institutions that will continue to contribute research and education for years to come, Chen's achievements have been shallow.

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Philanthropist Chen Guangbiao — Photo: VOA

His theatrical philanthropic stunts provoke a lot of criticism. Neither Chinese people nor Americans appreciate his style. And why does he go to the United States to give money to the homeless when China has more poor people? Besides, there are far more and far richer philanthropists in the United States than in China, and they are generally much more generous than wealthy Chinese.

Here's how it's done

Bill Gates has decided to donate 95% of his wealth to charity. The primary reason why Harvard and Yale are counted among the world's top universities is because American philanthropists have given to them generously.

Chen is giving away his money in a far too fragmented and casual way. It won't play a significant role in China's social or economic development. The reasons why philanthropists such as Tan Kah Kee, Run Run Shaw, Bill Gates and Ka-shing Li have left or are leaving a legacy is because they are particularly attentive to targeting social domains that are often neglected by governments — or social causes where their contributions can have significant sway.

Education, health care and reducing poverty are what governments often neglect. Contributions in these areas can generate far-reaching social and economic benefits. Run Run Shaw, for example, understood China's educational backwardness, so he focused all his investment in various prestigious universities which in turn trained countless members of the Chinese elite.

Bill Gates gives a lot of money to AIDS treatment and research and in helping the world's most vulnerable people. His contribution to mankind will certainly go down in history.

Chen Guangbiao is wealthy and obviously very generous. But the way he contributes and stages sensational media stunts is counterproductive. Of course, how Chen wants to spend his money is his business, but we can't help but wonder when China's nouveau riche will escape from the image of being low-class and blundering.

*Yao Shujie heads the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham.

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