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Chinese billionaires hesitant to attend fundraising dinner

Warren Buffett (L) and Bill Gates.

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Kai Ryssdal: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have never been the types to just sit back and count their billions. Gates has his foundation. Buffett has his company, Berkshire Hathaway. And they have something they're working on together. They're trying to convince other members of the economic stratosphere to give a big chunk of their money to charity.

Buffett and Gates are in Beijing this week, where they've invited 50 of China's wealthiest people to dinner tomorrow. It might turn out to be a more intimate affair than they'd expected. Hardly anybody responded. The Chinese press reports that only two people bothered to RSVP. Are they being stingy -- or is there something else going on?

Marketplace's China correspondent Rob Schmitz reports.


Rob Schmitz: Chen Guang Biao's worth nearly a billion dollars. He's saved the date for the Gates-Buffett banquet. But if his fellow invitees are no-shows, here's his plan.

Chen Guang Biao: If they refuse to go, I'll leak each of their names to the media. They have no excuse not to come to this dinner.

Chen made his fortune from his recycling business. He's been a businessman as long as he can remember. In third grade, he hiked miles to the nearest village to sell well water -- all you can drink for half a penny. It sounds like a cute "young entrepreneur" story until he tells you why he did it: His older brother and sister had just starved to death. If he didn't do something, he'd be next.

Guang Biao: In fourth grade, I sold popsicles. In fifth grade, I sold vegetables in the market. In junior high school, I had enough to buy a film projector, so I played movies for farmers.

Chen never stopped selling, and that's why he's worth so much at the tender age of 42. Many among China's 117 billionaires have similar stories, so Chen almost flies off his seat when asked about the lack of response to Gates and Buffett's call to philanthropy.

Guang Biao: This makes me so mad. How did we get so rich? We've had favorable economic policies and China's working class helped us get there. I think we need to repay society. China still has more than 40 million people who aren't able to eat three meals a day.

Chen thinks his wealthy counterparts just don't get it. They've only been rich a short time, he says, and they want to hang on to what they've got. But there are other, more complicated reasons, starting with how the Gates Foundation publicized the dinner. In fact, publicizing it in the Chinese press was the problem.

Russell Flannery: If I were advising them myself, I think I would've started on a much smaller scale.

Russell Flannery compiles the Forbes China rich list. He says it's not that China's wealthiest don't want to give -- many are already doing so. He says those invited to the dinner tell him they feel anxious about such a public invitation. They would've preferred a more private affair with fewer people invited.

Being rich in China isn't something you advertise. That's because how you got there is oftentimes a little dodgy.

Flannery: You were doing something wrong at that time, you became rich from it, and now society doesn't tolerate that or it might be considered to be illegal. A fair number of people in China that are successful built up their resources and their capital in that kind of environment.

That's why the Forbes rich list in China is dubbed "the death list." Dozens who've appeared on it have been imprisoned or investigated for corruption. Another problem is the lack of philanthropic infrastructure: China gives no tax breaks for charity. And charitable foundations are shackled by Beijing, which prefers people see it as the only charity in town. None of this is stopping Chen Guang Biao, though.

Chen attends an event at the World's Fair in Shanghai. He's being celebrated for his pledge to donate his entire fortune to charity when he dies. He says a meeting with Bill Gates last year and then this dinner invitation convinced him it was the right thing to do. Chinese bloggers criticized the decision, saying he should give more money to his family.

Audience member Ding Li Fang is a little skeptical, too.

Ding Li Fang: How do we know if he'll actually go through with it? But if he doesn't, we shouldn't criticize him. You become wealthy through hard work. It's his money, and he can do what he wants with it.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are sure to be pleased by Chen's generosity. Now if they could just convince China's other billionaires, they might be able to avoid twiddling their thumbs in an empty banquet hall in Beijing.

In Shanghai, I'm Rob Schmitz, for Marketplace.

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.

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