The Chinese Philanthropist Who Gets It All Wrong

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


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.

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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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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