A golden age of philanthropy

April 29, 2016

I hope and believe that we are embarking on a golden age of philanthropy among Chinese business people.

It has been said in the past that government regulations almost make it more difficult to give away money in China than to make it. Certainly it has taken the passing of a new charity law by the National People’s Congress earlier this year to make giving truly practical.

The new rules enhance tax incentives and make it easier to establish charitable trusts in the manner of the long-standing American tradition. They also demand that charities are more transparent too, to boost confidence in the emerging Asian Third Sector.

Last autumn meanwhile saw the China Global Philanthropy Institute established in Shenzhen. And a recent Harvard report showed that China’s top giver (in absolute terms) was billionaire He Xiangjian, who showed enormous magnanimity through donating more than US$60 million to social welfare causes.

So where do the philanthropists engage with the world’s needs? Some of the Chinese billionaires who attended the recent Global Philanthropy Leaders Program in London are interested in supporting education by providing scholarships or building schools. Others will find common cause with the arts, universities, disaster relief funds, the environment or by supporting government-backed charities.

While the modern connection between great wealth and philanthropy is a relatively new one for China, the tradition of altruism is strong in its people.

It makes me think of Ren, the moral principle of Confucius which he considered one of society’s highest ideals. To hold to Ren means fulfilling one’s obligations and responsibilities to society and to be kind-hearted to others. It begins with familial love, but is particularly important when practised by officials and those in positions of power.

In his collected sayings, known as the Analects, Confucius says: “Now the man of perfect virtue, wishing to be established himself, seeks also to establish others; wishing to be enlarged himself, he seeks also to enlarge others.”

I believe that in modern philanthropy we are interpreting this quality of Ren for the 21st century. I am fascinated at how these old truths seem to span the centuries, and are reinvigorated as a result.

We may not live in the courtly age of Confucius, but we are much freer to become successful, regardless of our backgrounds, and then to decide how we want to share the fruits of that work. If it is easier to establish ourselves, it is also easier to “enlarge other”. This may look like the growth and flowering of a new approach to philanthropic capital, but the roots were inside us all along.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation