Philanthropy and Loathing Among China’s Wealthy

The Seattle Times describes the efforts of Yang Lan, one of several “Chinese Oprahs”, to build a US-style culture of philanthropy among China’s rich:

China is second only to the U.S. in the number of billionaires. China has more than 200 people with wealth over $1.5 billion, Yang said. (The United States has 412, according to Forbes).

More surprising, perhaps, is that China is home to more than half of the world’s richest self-made women — 11 of the top 20, Yang said.

At the same time, the charitable impulse is growing, with a number of young entrepreneurs creating their own family foundations. Some are motivated by a desire for social recognition. Chinese tradition valued scholars and looked down upon merchants, Yang said. Today there’s widespread mistrust or even hatred toward the wealthy, fueled by cases of fraud or corruption.

“Business people want to demonstrate their social value beyond personal material success,” she said ….

With government unable to mend cracks in the social system, “civil society can take care of some of the burdens,” Yang said. To develop a lasting and effective philanthropic sector, though, China will have to loosen restrictions on private charities and provide a framework for them to operate legally, she said.

Philanthropy might help address growing resentment among those who feel that “the wealthy have become the de factor political rulers” and live above the law. An article in Le Monde, translated at Worldcrunch, explores China’s ambivalence towards the super-rich, and the new phenomenon of inherited wealth.

“When a reckless young man drives a BMW, he is considered a member of the ‘rich second generation,’ If he is caught, it increases tenfold the anger people feel,” says Yang Yiyin, from the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). According to Yiyin, Chinese people do not object to wealth in and of itself. “They all want to be rich! Particularly when considering that most of the people who became rich these last 30 years were poor before,” he says.

Nowadays, however, people “are convinced that it has become far more difficult for them to rise socially than in the 1980s,” adds Yiyin. “When they think about the reasons why these people were able to become rich, they can’t help thinking that they must have done it illegally in some way. The Chinese consumer-citizen feels powerless.” […]

In addition, many Chinese who would be part of the middle class in other countries – civil servants, small business owners, teachers and executives – refuse to be considered as such in China. Why? Because, according to Guo Yuhua, they have no sense of professional or economic security. “Your flat can be demolished overnight. You can be evicted. There’s no guarantee of any stability,” he says.

To protect themselves, Chinese people want to become rich, very rich… even if it means that they will be despised.

Public resentment, however, may not be the worst problem facing the newly wealthy. At Forbes, Ray Kwong calculates that a Chinese billionaire dies every 40 days, and suspects foul play:

Mortality rate notwithstanding, what’s more disturbing is how these mega wealthy souls met their demise. According to China Daily, 15 were murdered, 17 committed suicide, seven died from accidents and 19 died from illness. Oh, yes, and 14 were executed. (Welcome to China.)

I don’t know about you but I find it somewhat improbable that among such a small population there could be so many “suicides,” “accidents” and “death by disease” (the average age of those who died from illness was only 48). I’m only speculating but the homicide toll could really be much higher.


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