Charity doesn't begin at home for China's Bill Gates

Clifford Coonan on the billionaire philanthropist who won't help his poverty-stricken family

Chen Guangbiao, one of China's "new rich", is in many ways the model philanthropist. But his generosity has a very unusual limit: when it comes to his immediate family, his wallet is permanently closed.

It is not that the roots of his charitable giving are not in his own heritage. He says that his donations of billions of yuan to those less fortunate, and his decision to leave his entire fortune to charity after he dies, are inspired by his mother, who he describes selflessly helping other poor farmers when he was growing up in dire poverty in Jiangsu province.

"When other farmers needed help to reap the harvest, she was always the first. When someone else's baby was hungry, my mother would try and feed that baby too, even though my own little brother was hungry," said Mr Chen, an assured and energetic 42-year-old, who has risen from those humble beginnings in the eastern province to become chairman of the Nanjing-based salvage firm, Huangpu Renewable Resources.

The surprising part comes with his siblings. His sister is a dishwasher, earning about £170 a month; his brother is a security guard. But Mr Chen, who says he has tried to help them in the past, says he has no intention of giving them another penny. One gambled, the other failed in a business venture; to his mind, they have squandered his help.

However tough-minded, there is no doubt that Mr Chen is one of his country's most eminent philanthropists. It is the rise of people like him that has drawn Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to Beijing, where they hosted a banquet for 50 wealthy entrepreneurs last night. (Mr Chen was among the first to sign up.) While the duo have been careful to insist they were not interested in putting pressure on China's new rich to donate, their history of persuading America's billionaires to part with their money has suggested otherwise. But ahead of the dinner, much of the response was unenthusiastic.

Not from Mr Chen, who was angered by the lukewarm reception to which the visitors arrived. Unlike some of the others invited, he comes from a background of the utmost poverty himself. Once, he had four siblings; two died of starvation in the wake of Chairman Mao Zedong's disastrous economic policies.

"I had a tough time when I was young, and know what it's like to be needy," Mr Chen says. By last year, though, he was worth around £280m – a sum that he is ready to see disappear. "I've always given money to those in need when I had it, donating about half of net profits every year for the past decade."

His pledge to leave his fortune to good causes after he dies comes after giving away £127m already. His own sons will not be much better off than their uncle and aunt. They will, he explains, have to be content with the "spiritual wealth that comes from philanthropy".

Mr Chen's idea that charity can mean spiritual wealth has not always been popular in China. Chairman Mao could not allow the notion of charity to undermine Marxist-Leninist notions of the all-providing People's Republic, leaving philanthropy as the preserve of capitalist running dogs. But Mr Chen is trying to push his agenda through the Communist Party itself. Like every other aspect of public life in China, the Communist Party is keen to ensure that charity comes from within the organisation.

Accordingly, Mr Chen says he wants "to bring harmony to society," echoing a favourite term of President Hu Jintao. And he points out that his success would not be possible without the Communist Party's help. This is a crucial factor in how he manages to be such a high-profile benefactor. As a member of the advisory panel to the Communist Party's annual parliamentary meeting, the National People's Congress, Mr Chen has called for a 60 per cent inheritance tax to be introduced.

As Mr Chen has worked through official channels, other would-be philanthropists have taken more unorthodox approaches. But these have not always paid off. Even the fame of action star Jet Li has not been enough to secure the legal status of the One Foundation, his charitable body; now it is waiting to see if its application for charitable status will be accepted.

There have been some spectacular "misunderstandings" too, based on poor accountability – an issue that dogs charitable organisations all over the world.

China's most famous actress Zhang Ziyi, who Western audiences know best from Memoirs of a Geisha or House of Flying Daggers, went around the Cannes Film Festival with a pillowcase collecting money to help the victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. There was uproar when months later a fair whack of the cash was missing. Even though Zhang had said she had paid one million yuan (£95,000), she was forced to issue an apology and cough up the shortfall. Her reputation has suffered badly.

Giving can also be dangerous in China, and the rich tend to keep their heads firmly below the radar. Nearly 30 billionaires who have appeared on the annual Hurun rich list have been charged with bribery or are at the centre of a police investigation.

Nonetheless, the country has a strong tradition of donation, evidenced in the striking murals in Dunhuang in Gansu province, which were often paid for by merchants returning from the Silk Road flush with cash, or the temples built by philanthropic donors. And in many of the imperial dynasties, rich local merchants built clinics and schools.

Mr Chen is thus confident that, whatever the welcome they give to Mr Gates and Mr Buffet, his fellow entrepreneurs are going to come on board. "There are more and more people following my lead," he says. "I have a dream that in 10 years' time, China will become a big charity country."

The top five Chinese Tigers

Zong Qinghou, £7.6bn

The richest man in China. Mr Zong, 65, is the chairman of China's biggest drinks maker Wahaha. "Drinks King Zong" heads a company with 30,000 employees and expected profits this year of $1.5bn, according to the list compilers, the Hurun Research Institute.

Li Li, £3.8bn

The pharmaceutical tycoon was catapulted into China's élite when his company, Hepalink, went public in May. Mr Li, who used to work for a state-owned meat-processing factory, founded his business in 1998. It makes heparin, a drug to prevent blood clots.

Zhang Yin, £3.5bn

Known as the "paper queen", Ms Zhang, 53, is the richest woman in China, and the richest self-made woman in the world, according to Hurun. Her wealth has grown sharply over the past year owing to a boom in the domestic paper market.

Liang Wengen, £3.4bn

Mr Liang has made his fortune from the Chinese construction boom. He supplies heavy machinery and has made himself richer than any property developer in the process.

Robin Li, £3.3bn

The 42-year-old entrepreneur co-founded the search engine Baidu. His company benefited from the departure of Google from China and saw his wealth double in a year. He is expected to move into online shopping.

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