Ebola crisis highlights inadequacy of China's billionaire tycoons in culture of philanthrophy

China has contributed over US$120 million (S$155 million) to fight the spread of the Ebola virus, but its billionaire tycoons - it has more than anywhere outside the United States - have, publicly at least, donated little to the cause, underscoring a
China has contributed over US$120 million (S$155 million) to fight the spread of the Ebola virus, but its billionaire tycoons - it has more than anywhere outside the United States - have, publicly at least, donated little to the cause, underscoring an immature culture of philanthropy in the world's second-biggest economy. -- PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (Reuters) - China has contributed over US$120 million (S$155 million) to fight the spread of the Ebola virus, but its billionaire tycoons - it has more than anywhere outside the United States - have, publicly at least, donated little to the cause, underscoring an immature culture of philanthropy in the world's second-biggest economy.

As the ranks of China's wealthy and the success of its corporations grow, donating to good causes has yet to take off in a significant way. China sits towards the bottom of the list of countries where people give money to charity, volunteer or help a stranger, according to The World Giving Index, compiled by the Charities Aid Foundation.

Donations to charities totalled 98.9 billion yuan (S$20.9 billion) in 2013, according to Chinese government data, recovering from two straight years of declines. In comparison, Americans gave more than US$335 billion, according to the National Philanthropic Trust website.

Many big Chinese companies have invested in Africa - China is Africa's leading trading partner - and some 200 operate in West Africa, where Ebola has been at its most lethal, killing close to 5,000 people. These include construction, infrastructure and telecoms firms such as Huawei Technology, China Henan International Cooperation Group and China Communications Construction.

A Huawei spokesman said Africa was an important market, but declined to comment on philanthropy or specific ventures in Ebola-hit countries. China Henan and China Communications Construction did not respond to requests for comment.

The World Food Programme (WFP) last month called on Chinese companies and tycoons to donate more to fighting Ebola.

"No one's been willing to do anything big yet," said Mr Brett Rierson, the WFP's China representative.

The Ministry of Commerce said Chinese companies and industry associations had pitched in to help transport medical equipment in the region and donated around US$600,000 in cash, food, oil and motorcycles to local governments.

The state-owned China-Africa Development Fund plans to contribute US$450,000 to Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone - the three countries most affected by the Ebola outbreak, said Vice-Minister of Commerce Fang Aiqing.

Charity experts say Chinese construction companies with projects in the worst-affected regions could donate building materials and labour. "They could easily step in and say: 'We'll help you clear roads and put in emergency roads and clinics'," said Mr Gary Rieschel, managing partner at Qiming Venture Partners.

"If they put their shoulders behind moving some of the infrastructure for health care, they could be incredibly valuable."

Mr Fang at the Ministry of Commerce said aid from Chinese companies should be led and coordinated by the government.

"They're unlikely to come forward independently and would assume the government, which does have experience in contributing for emergencies, will be better at knowing what to do," said Professor Deborah Brautigam, director of the China Africa Research Initiative and a professor at Johns Hopkins University.

"They probably also wouldn't trust that cash donations to these governments would be used responsibly."

China's Foreign Ministry, though, said it was encouraging businesses operating in Africa to make their own contributions, but did not note any specific examples. "We encourage these companies to leverage their strengths and help these countries," Mr Lin Songtian, director-general of the ministry's Department of African Affairs told a briefing on Friday.

"Chinese citizens in those countries have a responsibility to share their experience as long as they can do so while remaining safe."

Mr Dudley Thomas, Liberia's ambassador to China, said his government was in talks with China-Union (Hong Kong) Mining Co, a unit of Wuhan Iron and Steel Group, and the China-Africa Development Fund, which facilitates investment, about possible donations.

He said Liberia secured one donation of US$100,000 from a large Chinese construction firm that has projects in the country, but few other contributions. "China's involvement (in West Africa) has been increasing year by year, the share of their engagements is also becoming much bigger than before," said Mr He Wenping, director of African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

"I think companies should aid countries impacted by Ebola."

He said Chinese firms operating in West Africa and elsewhere in the developing world are generally more likely to contribute to relief for natural disasters, such as earthquakes and floods.

Philanthropy may also have been slow to catch on in China as there's a lack of trust in non-profit groups after a string of scandals involving charitable donations, experts said. "It certainly makes them more cautious," noted Mr Rieschel, adding the Chinese government's lack of transparency in handling the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) just over a decade ago may have contributed to eroding trust.

"At an individual level, when you look at how opaque the government was about Sars, there may be a tendency to say 'we don't trust any government when it comes to these things,'" he said.

In its latest Philanthropy List, released last week, the Shanghai-based Hurun Research Institute ranked Mr Jack Ma, founder and chairman of Alibaba and China's wealthiest individual, top with donations of close to US$2.4 billion.

The report noted that most philanthropic money in China goes towards education, ahead of social services and disaster relief.

United States philanthropist Bill Gates wrote an editorial in the official People's Daily newspaper in April calling for Chinese businesspeople to give back to the poor, both at home and internationally.

His Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged US$50 million to fight Ebola, while Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has said he is donating more than US$100 million.