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Philanthropist sees China as charity superpower

by Staff Writers
Beijing (AFP) Sept 19, 2010
When Bill Gates and Warren Buffett visit Beijing this month in a drive to promote philanthropy among China's super-rich, one person they won't need to convince is Chen Guangbiao.

The demolition company tycoon pledged this month to give his fortune -- estimated at more than 700 million dollars -- to charity after he dies and says more than 100 other rich Chinese had since contacted him to promise the same.

And the man who already has given away more than 200 million dollars over the years hopes such pledges can spur China to become a "great charitable nation" in line with its growing wealth.

"If you have a cup of water, that's for one person to drink. If you have a bucket of water, that's for your family to drink. But if you own a river, you should share it for all to enjoy," Chen, 42, told AFP in an interview.

Such views have made a media darling out of Chen, who has been honoured as China's top philanthropist in the past two years, and put him at the centre of a debate over whether the country's swelling ranks of super-rich are too selfish.

China had 64 dollar billionaires last year, second only to the United States' 403, according to Forbes magazine.

But several of China's richest have been laid low by corruption charges just as a widening wealth gap has caused official concerns of unrest among the poor.

Reports suggesting that the super-rich have been slow to answer an invitation to a September 29 banquet hosted by Gates and Buffett, out of fear that they would be pressured to donate, has done little to enhance their poor image.

The reports angered Chen, who sports a bristling buzz-cut and who says he wants to be like "Jesus Christ, sacrificing myself to make other people happy," although he is not religious.

"When I heard this, I was indignant. Rich people like that are just too selfish," said Chen.

"They think their wealth is purely a creation of their hard work and has nothing to do with the opportunities created by their country or society."

Charity has grown as China prospers. About five billion dollars were given last year, according to official figures.

That is down from a 2008 spike of 16 billion dollars due to a massive earthquake that devastated southwest China that year, but slightly above previous years.

Chen built his fortune through his Huangpu Renewable Resources Utilization Group, based in the eastern city of Nanjing, a demolition company that recycles salvaged materials.

But he says none of that would have been possible if not for China's Communist Party-led economic transformation -- views that have been lapped up by state media, no doubt due in part to an official desire for a positive "rich" role model.

Chen's rags-to-riches story perhaps makes him the perfect fit.

Growing up in rural eastern Jiangsu province as China was struggling to recover from Mao Zedong's disastrous economic policies, two of Chen's four siblings died of starvation, he said.

Still, his parents often gave away what little they had, imprinting on their son a combination of personal thriftiness and generosity.

That thrift -- and other idiosyncrasies -- can reach extremes.

Chen pantomimes how he blows his nose in his hands to save a tissue and boasts that he takes taxis for his many trips to the airport rather than employ his personal driver.

In 2008, he changed the given names of his two young boys in 2008 to "Huanjing" (environment) and "Huanbao" (protect the environment).

But his decision to leave none of this wealth for his sons -- a breach of tradition in family-oriented China -- is perhaps the clearest sign of his maverick nature.

"My parents left nothing to me and I wish to leave nothing for my kids" except the "spiritual wealth" that comes from philanthropy, said Chen.

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