China’s most high-profile philanthropist likes to be seen handing out his money. His ties to the state are strong, but the authorities are watching his largesse with growing concern, says Paul French, China editor

Right now it’s impossible to open a paper or watch TV without Chen Guangbiao popping up handing out wads of cash to someone either poor or distraught.

Without doubt Chen is now China’s best-known and most outspoken philanthropist. He’s much debated on China’s internet, with some bloggers offering support and others deploring his in-your-face and unapologetic self-promotion.

Xu Yongguang, secretary-general of the Narada Foundation – a charity known for largely working behind the scenes on rural poverty and education issues – recently described Chen’s style as “violent philanthropy”, sacrificing the dignity of the less fortunate to his own needs. Chen replied: “If I didn’t let people know I’ve done a good deed, I’d feel miserable.”

Simply put Chen is very rich and very generous and makes no apology for wanting to be publicly seen to give.

Chen’s story is the typical rags-to-riches New China tale. Born in rural poverty, his brother and sister starved to death in a famine.

What is certain is that Chen’s fortune is shrouded in mystery – lucrative government construction contracts to demolish buildings and recycle metal form part of the story. And Chen is certainly well connected – reportedly more than 70% of staff at his Jiangsu Huangpu Recycling Resource Group are former members of the People’s Liberation Army.

Still only in his 40s Chen has already pledged his entire fortune, estimated at £280m, to charity after his death. His sons will have to make do with “spiritual wealth”. When Chen talks his reference points are rather random – the Communist party, Warren Buffett, Buddha, Mao and Bill Gates. He claims to have helped “approximately 700,000 people” with his donations.

This is not traditional Chinese philanthropy. This is new, loud, outspoken nouveau riche Chinese charity.

But what do ordinary Chinese make of Chen? Of course in China it’s hard to tell. A number of journalists have criticised Chen for his brashness, suggesting that Chinese philanthropy should show more humility and less self-aggrandisement.

Tax man’s cut

It has been suggested that before his fortune is given away it should perhaps be audited in case any was due to the taxman first. But Chen’s connections are strong – the Communist party’s propaganda department issued a notice to journalists banning any “negative reports” about Chen.

This hasn’t stopped Taiwan’s media discussing Chen. Lin Cho-shui, a former Democratic Progressive party legislator in Taipei, applauds the desire of China’s new rich to give back and concedes that a new group of showy donators like Chen will persist for a time.

According to Lin, Chen reveals that “the charity mechanisms in modern Chinese society are complex. It’s only when values are in flux due to rapid social change and explosive economic growth, and when NGOs are lacking because of control by a totalitarian government, that we see odd varieties of philanthropy like Chen’s.”

But now, perhaps after tolerating Chen’s style for a while, Beijing’s attitude is hardening. Donations are fine, but when philanthropists start to make the Communist party look laggardly then they become a problem. When Chen appeared in Yunnan after a recent earthquake his straightforward handing out of 100 yuan (£10) notes to the crowd attracted some criticism from the party’s mouthpiece, the China Daily.  The paper said: “Chen is showing off and stripping the dignity of recipients.”

But Chen may well be the future. The official China Charity and Donation Information Centre reports that contributions to charities in 2009 totalled $8.23bn – not quite half that of 2008. Last year saw another fall. Yet, the number of private charity foundations (such as Chen’s) has doubled, despite a state-required minimum donation of 2m yuan. Their number rose from 436 in 2007 to 846 in 2009, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

For now, Chen Guangbiao is still out there handing out cash in front of the cameras. Other billionaire philanthropists across China have started following his style.

It may be crass and showy; it may turn the charity recipients into media objects to further the image of the “philanthropist”; and it may be worrying Beijing that it’s all happening without the party controlling a penny. But it seems that Chen and those like him are, for the time being, the future of Chinese philanthropy.

Paul French has been based in China for more than 20 years, and is a partner in the research publisher Access Asia.


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