BEIJING — Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates and billionaire investor Warren Buffett plan to sell the art of giving to China's super rich in a visit later this month that's already sparked some soul searching among the world's second-largest number of billionaires.
Reactions to Gates and Buffett's trip have been swift and varied: One prominent Chinese philanthropist quickly pledged his entire fortune to charity, while the head of a private foundation said Chinese businesses should be leery of emulating American-style charity donations before essential corporate standards such as worker's rights are improved.
Many have pointed to shortcomings in China's charity system, which critics say lacks transparency.
The discussion underscores what experts say is the relatively immature state of philanthropy in China, where in just three decades economic reforms pulled hundreds of millions out of poverty and created a generation of millionaires.
Gates and Buffett have been campaigning to persuade other American billionaires to give most of their fortunes to charity and hope to spread the idea of generosity on a trip to China later this month. Their campaign includes a private dinner in Beijing with a group of wealthy Chinese — and some are wary.
A "small number" of the more than 50 invited guests called to ask whether they would be required to pledge a donation at the dinner, said Jing Zhang, press officer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is coordinating the Sept. 29 event. But Gates and Buffett just want to talk, Zhang said Tuesday.
Still, that hasn't stopped one of their guests, multimillionaire philanthropist Chen Guangbiao, from declaring in an open letter to Gates and Buffett that he would donate all of his fortune upon his death.
"I'm a rich man, but I don't want to be a miser," Chen said. "China's economic reform started only 30 years ago. For lots of people who became rich, they believe they earned their fortune through hard work. They don't think about society and only want to leave their fortune to their children."
Chen, 42, a peasant-turned-CEO of a renewable-resources and recycling company in eastern Jiangsu province, has an estimated fortune of $440 million and is ranked 340th on the 2009 Hurun list of China's wealthy.
Topping the Hurun rich list last year was auto and battery maker Wang Chuanfu, estimated to be worth $5.1 billion, who has been invited to the Gates-Buffett dinner, according to state media. Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway is an investor in Wang's company, BYD Co. A company spokeswoman declined to say whether Wang would attend.
There are at least 875,000 millionaires in China, according to Shanghai-based analyst Rupert Hoogewerf, who studies China's wealthy and puts together the Hurun list. Among them, 130 are billionaires, a number second only to the United States.
Hoogewerf said that at an average age of 39 years, the rich Chinese are generally 15 years younger than their foreign counterparts and are generating more wealth faster, in the service, property and manufacturing sectors.
While philanthropy is becoming increasingly important, it isn't often considered an immediate priority.
"You wouldn't expect a 40-year-old to have the same time and energy to put into philanthropy as you would into wealth creation," Hoogewerf said.