Gates, Buffett Talk Charity With China's Wealthy

Fifty attended but some opted out for fear they'd be asked to donate.

September 30, 2010, 5:51 AM

Sept. 30, 2010 — -- Two of the wealthiest men in the world -- Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, also known in China as "Ba-Bi" -- are there on a mission to talk to the super rich about how to give back to society.

At a mock, 17th century French chateau, Gates and Buffett, the world's third-richest man and chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway, wined and dined 50 of China's uber-elite Wednesday night.

"Overall, it was fantastic to see the energy and interest," said Gates, Microsoft Corp.'s cofounder, during a news conference today.

There were reports before the dinner that some billionaires had balked at the invitation for fear they'd get hit for big donations. Buffett emphasized that the two were not in China to seek donations but simply to talk.

"We have never asked anyone to stand up and sign something," Buffett said. "It's just not our style to do something of that sort."

Both men said the purpose of the dinner was to stimulate discussion on ways to give to charity if that's what the Chinese wanted to do.

"Whatever is being done to promote smart philanthropy, Warren and I want to be supportive of whatever is done all over the world," Gates said.

"Here in China, it's incredible that you're at a stage where these pockets [of philanthropy] are coming up," he said. "The thing that's unusual is that 30 years ago, there really weren't people of great wealth, so what you have is first-generation fortunes."

Buffett said patterns of giving were much more solidified in places like Europe, where there was considerable old wealth.

According to The Associated Press, the two may hold a similar event in India next year.

Buffett-Gates Visit Sets Off Firestorm

The pair's visit has set off a firestorm about the role of philanthropy in a country where bicycles and Mao suits have been rapidly replaced by Bentleys and haute couture.

According to this year's Forbes list, China is home to 64 billionaires -- the highest number in the world after the United States. However, in this year's World Giving index, which looks at charitable behavior across the world, China ranked close to the bottom.

It's a country of haves and have-nots, with close to 500,000 millionaires and an average yearly income of $3,600.

"China's rich people have become what they are now only in the past 10 to 15 years," said Chinese demolition tycoon and philanthropist Chen Guangiao, who attended the dinner.

Chen is a big admirer of Gates and Buffett, and gave millions to relief efforts in Sichuan province after the earthquake in 2008.

"The philanthropic cause here is still in the developing stage," Chen said. Three years ago, he vowed to donate 95 percent of his personal wealth to charity upon his death. Earlier this month, he tweaked that pledge and will now give his entire fortune away.

He said that although the Chinese government supported and encouraged the private sector and the rich to engage in philanthropy, there were obstacles.

"It's not that rich Chinese don't want to donate money," he said. "They don't know where some of the donated money goes. China's philanthropy needs to be improved and perfected. We need a system and standards for that."

In the United States, Gates and Buffett have helped persuade 40 superwealthy American families to agree to a "giving pledge" to return most of their fortunes to society.

Chen said Chinese culture had an effect on philanthropy as well.

"There is a saying that goes 'Fame is fatal to men just as fatness to pigs,'" he said. "Some people don't like to let their wealth be known. They just work quietly to get rich. Some people just don't want others to know how much money they have earned."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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