Feng Lun: “Donations should be made to society, not to the government.”

Following up on this recent post, below is a translation of this interview between Southern Weekend reporter Wang Xiaoqiao and Beijing’s Vantone Real Estate Co. Chairman Feng Lun. In the interview, Feng Lun discusses his reactions to the Gates-Buffet dinner, including his take on philanthropy and what China needs to do to increase charity for the future.

Feng Lun, Vantone Real Estate Co. Chairman

Translation

Southern Weekly: Buffet has said that philanthropy is a personal matter, but he was willing to share his own experience. Was there anything about what he shared that moved you? Do you think his experience is suitable for China?

Feng Lun: It’s not right to casually judge whether or not [his approach to philanthropy] is right for everyone in China. However, I know that his thoughts and experience certainly touched me. For example, he emphasized that people should look after their family first, and then think about philanthropy. Philanthropy should not interfere with you or your family’s current standard of living. For example, when thinking about [making a donation], one should discuss the matter first with his or her family and listen to their comments. One should also reevaluate his or her will every five years, discussing with family members what is and isn’t appropriate.

SW: So, one shouldn’t give everything one has to charity then?

FL: Right. In fact, westerners do not have this type of mentality. They also do not advocate that this is a simple approach to philanthropy.

Buffet also believes that one should wait until he or she has retired or left his or her job full time before considering [getting involved in] philanthropy, and not getting involved at the peak of one’s career. Bill Gates followed this by saying that he starting getting involved [in charity] while he was still head of Microsoft. It wasn’t until after awhile that he realized he wasn’t able to do either of these jobs well, and that’s when he resigned as CEO to devote himself to charity.

Buffet isn’t demanding that anyone simultaneously take up philanthropy and their business, as donating one’s money and time is not a simple matter. This is different from China where people wish to both do well in business and give to charity.

SW: It seems that this is what a lot of Chinese are doing. How has everyone learned from [Gates’ and Buffet’s] experience?

FL: Give your money to a professional, independent and civic-minded foundation. In Buffet’s case, he entrusts all of his money and power [to spend that money] in the Gates Foundation. You can see he still hasn’t retired.

These two points really got through to me. I feel that he’s been very sincere in sharing his experience with us.

SW: You relate to what Buffet has said because you’re still working full time, but also trying to give to charity. How have his thoughts on waiting until retirement affected you?

FL: This really is an issue. There have been people at work who have commented that I spend too much time outside [doing other things], but there’s no way around this. China’s has too few privately run volunteer health and relief foundations—there’s not enough professionalism or specialization. For wealthy Chinese who want to donate to charity, we do not have the same options to donate on a large scale like Buffet does to the Gates foundation. It’s better for us to do more and push ahead.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffet Discussing Philanthropy

SW: Chen Guangbiao has once again stated that he plans on giving over his entire fortune to charity as a gift to Gates and Buffet. Pan Danyi just said that everyone is heatedly discussing this topic of giving away all one has.

FL: We haven’t discussed this between the two of us, but many people are mentioning it.

I want to take an opportunity to point out [something about this], though. If all the rich in a society decided to give away all of their wealth, what would happen next? Especially after we’ve spent our whole lives “giving it all away” to build up the country, establish private enterprise and joint operations between private and public sectors. Isn’t this also a type of sacrifice? Everyone knows the product [of China’s hard work] resulted in the economic reforms and opening up, and China thrived[….]

SW: So, one shouldn’t give away all of his or her fortune, but should donate more. Now, public opinion is that too few business people are donating [to charity].

FL: Last year was the first year that the private sector gave away more than the public, and this is largely thanks to private business[….]

China’s businessmen and women have only just recently awakened to the idea of philanthropy. The creation of most contemporary foundations has only been occurring over the last 10 – 15 years, where as Bill Gates has been involved for 25 years.

History has enlightened us on one thing: donations should be made to society, not to the government. The reason America’s philanthropists have been successful is because they give money directly to independent public welfare foundations which have the right to direct cash flow to areas which need it the most—the funds are not for the government. The people don’t worry [about where their money is going].

Today, America has over 120,000 non-governmental foundations, all of which are publicly run. On the other hand, China only has about 800.

SW: In other words, though still too few, China’s privately-run foundations have grown quickly in the last five years?

FL: That’s correct. No one is objecting to businessmen and women donating more [to already established charities]; but we also need to move quickly on establishing independent civic-minded foundations. If we fail to establish independent charities while continuing to donate [to poorly run charities], and be pressured into making contributions, history will inevitably repeat itself[….]

So, [Chinese need to do] three things: donate, establish independent charities, and protect our investments. These are all things we must do, and do well. Talking about taking action, but not taking action, or donating, but not donating enough, is pointless.

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0 thoughts on “Feng Lun: “Donations should be made to society, not to the government.””

  1. “中国民营企业家的慈善觉醒时间,其实比西方还短。从创业到建立企业基金会,平均都是10到15年。比尔盖茨呢,是创业后25年开始做慈善的。”

    A better translation would probably go something like this:

    “The time for Chinese entrepreneurs to realize the need for philanthropy is actually shorter than their Western parts. [For Chinese entrepreneurs] the time between the start of their entrepreneurship and the establishment of their corporate philanthropic foundations is on average 10 to 15 years. Bill Gates, on the other hand, did not take up philanthropy until 25 years after he started as an entrepreneur.”

    That was pretty rough, but you get the general idea. My point is that by “慈善觉醒时间”, the speaker was referring to the time when an individual “wakes up” to the idea of philanthropy, not when an entire class embraces it.

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  2. “Today, America has over 120,000 non-governmental foundations, all of which are publicly run. On the other hand, China only has about 800”.

    Those 800 are GONGOs (government-operated non-governmental organisations), which are not “independent” organisations like western NGOs. There are no real NGOs in China registered as such, although some survive by registering as commercial businesses. The gov does not allow a non-gongo (i.e. a real ngo) to exist, let alone attract the money of wealthy philantropists.

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  3. @ Joe,

    I’d say there are quite a few real NGOs, though as you note, they have to register themselves as commercial businesses. And donating to them is difficult–albeit not impossible.

    More generally, I think Feng Lun is wrong on a key point: it’s NOT necessarily better to give to non-profits than the government. I for one wish Chinese businesses were taxed at a more consistent (and higher) rate and that individual wealthy Chinese paid property taxes, etc.

    While it’s great for them to be philanthropic, they should contribute more to a general, rational wealth redistribution first. Same goes for the wealthy of a lot of countries.

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