Li Ka-shing

Charity begins at home

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 November, 2004, 12:00am


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All freewheeling capitalist societies defend a common principle: you are free to make as much money as possible, preferably legally, and you can spend it any way you choose.

Hong Kong's best-known tycoon, Li Ka-shing, recently chose to exercise this right with a $100 million donation to the national swimming centre being built in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics, a gesture that has re-enforced his credentials as a patriot.

Mr Li does not exactly remind me of Microsoft boss Bill Gates, the world's richest man, but since we are talking about money, a comparison is not inappropriate. How rich men spend their money is something that the rest of us cannot help but marvel at. In doing so, we sometimes imagine how we would spend that kind of money if we, too, were rich. We include all the usual things - lavish houses, luxury cars and fabulous holidays. But our human side also tells us that we must be compassionate, and we serve our conscience by spending some of that imaginary money on the poor.

The fortunes of Mr Li and Mr Gates are not imaginary, and spending large amounts of real money calls for discipline. Rich people can choose to be disciplined yet compassionate, or simply serve their own ends, in using the power of their wealth.

Having covered stories about Mr Gates for several years while based in Seattle, I was struck by the passion with which he saw his responsibilities as the world's richest man. Like others with money, he makes the usual donations that ensure his name is on buildings. But the lasting images of Mr Gates are those of him in poor countries, where he uses his fortune to fight disease and poverty. I remember one forum where the heads of major corporations promised to bridge the digital divide with donations of computers to developing nations. An agitated Mr Gates reminded them that people in those countries, who survive on less than US$1 a day, have no electricity to run the computers and would prefer full stomachs and a roof over their heads. I do not recall seeing images of Mr Li or any other home-grown tycoons passionately fighting poverty and disease in poor countries, or even here in first-world Hong Kong, where the Council of Social Service says one million people live in poverty.

In a city reeking with wealth, charitable donations amount to just $3 billion a year, which is about 0.2 per cent of gross domestic product, and corporations account for a mere 10 per cent of total donations.

Christine Fang Meng-sang, chief executive of the Hong Kong Council of Social Service, says there is a lot more room for giving. Oxfam Hong Kong's executive director, Chong Chan-yau, is less charitable with his words. He faults local donors for placing patriotism over poverty, something he says can be traced to cultural and world-view differences. In the past 15 years, Oxfam has received only one large local donation, from a Hong-Kong-based expatriate who gave US$15 million to fight poverty in Africa.

Like the America of post-September 11, one's patriotism must be visibly proved in post-handover Hong Kong. There are many ways to do this cheaply: stay away from 'Long Hair' Leung Kwok-hung; never participate in the July 1 protests; and never miss the video on patriotism that is aired daily before the evening news. To really seal your patriotic credentials, you can distribute money to China's Olympic gold medallists, as Henry Fok Ying-tung, another of our famous tycoons, is known to do.

For those who believe in happy endings, maybe the patriotism video featuring China's Olympic heroes will have the desired effect. Some of our poor people may be so inspired by it that they become outstanding athletes. They might even get to train in Mr Li's Beijing swimming centre, and go on to win gold medals - which would make it necessary for Mr Fok to hand them heaps of cash.

Michael Chugani is editor-in-chief of ATV English News and Current Affairs