Not quite the miser

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 August, 2010, 12:00am

I have talked about charitable giving and the growing importance of philanthropy in our community in this column over the past two weeks. Around the same time, there was an editorial in a popular Chinese-language daily saying that the Chinese social structure and traditional culture do not encourage philanthropy. Therefore, we will never see Chinese people giving generously like American billionaire Warren Buffett and Chinese immigrant Betty Chinn, who was recently awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal by Barack Obama for her dedication to helping the homeless.

This was an unduly humble observation that unjustifiably belittled our culture.

China has gone from one extreme to another over the past 30 years, transforming itself from a closed society to an economic superpower. However, having built the nation on the socialist ideal of working for the common good, most mainlanders have not yet mastered the art of selfless giving.

Since Deng Xiaoping declared that the country should let some people get rich first and opened it up to the world in 1978, the nation has gone through an impressive economic transformation, reshaping not only its own economy but also the global economic model. Unfortunately, its rigid political system has not evolved at the same speed and this has inevitably given rise to pervasive corruption.

The success of China's economic reforms has resulted in massive social changes, creating a new breed of nouveau riche and aggravating income disparity on the mainland. Most people seem fixated on money. This mercenary mindset has led many to be sceptical about charity, and doubt that philanthropic activities will ever bear fruit on the mainland.

The nation's rapid social and economic development has inadvertently created an ideological vacuum. But I believe that nurturing a culture of giving can fill this gap and help individual beliefs and social values take root, to ultimately benefit society.

China has been plagued by natural disasters in recent years, and there have been plenty of philanthropic examples to help the needy and homeless deal with these emergencies. In the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake, donations from people all over the mainland surpassed those collected from overseas. Not only did people help with relief efforts, some even adopted earthquake orphans.

Action speaks louder than words. We cannot deny that a culture of philanthropy is firmly taking root on the mainland. A good example is mainland action star Jet Li's One Foundation initiative, which encourages every citizen of China to donate 1 yuan (HK$1.15) to help the needy.

Sceptics may have to re-evaluate their judgments; we have many Warren Buffetts and Betty Chinns. They may not come from the ranks of the super rich or the elite, but then philanthropic activities do not always have to involve monetary contributions.

There's no denying that America is a uniquely charitable country. But we don't have to be cynics to understand that inheritance tax is extremely high in the US. The federal estate tax rate is 55 per cent for assets worth over US$3 million, plus a state inheritance tax of 15 per cent. Many American tycoons would rather donate their assets to charity than handing them over to government, so that they can leave a lasting legacy.

In Hong Kong, where we have no inheritance tax or any other form of wealth or gift taxes, billionaire Li Ka-shing has donated one-third of his fortune to charity. Local industrialist Tian Jiabing has donated 80 per cent of his assets to education and medical care, while Chiang Chen has contributed his entire fortune to sponsor mainland and industrial research and training.

Critics should abandon the flawed perception that the grass is greener on the other side. The essence of giving is giving without expecting anything in return. And giving may not always be easy, especially to those who do not truly understand its true meaning.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator