Chinese Philanthropist Hits Cultural Complications The Chinese have traditionally been careful to conceal their wealth. One Chinese businessman has had difficulties as he tries to introduce the idea of philanthropy to his countrymen.
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Chinese Philanthropist Hits Cultural Complications

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Chinese Philanthropist Hits Cultural Complications

Chinese Philanthropist Hits Cultural Complications

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Cohen.


I'm Madeleine Brand.

China is known for its gung-ho capitalism; the softer side, philanthropy, has yet to become as developed.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn has this profile of a man trying to give back in Eastern China.

ANTHONY KUHN: Local businessman Shao Jianbo chooses people who are both needy and motivated and brings them to his two-story shopping arcade in downtown Nanjing. Instead of giving them cash, he pays their rent and gets them merchandise to sell. He teaches them both how to do business and practice charity.

Mr. SHAO JIANBO (Businessman): (Through translator) I have an agreement with them, that if they make money here, they must take 20-30 percent of their annual profits and establish a fund to help other disadvantaged people.

KUHN: Disabled farmers and unemployed former soldiers staff most of the 80 shops here. Shao stops at one stall, where a young man is selling stuffed animals, like this talking toy dog.

(Soundbite of toy dog)

KUHN: Shao is typical of philanthropists of China's gilded age. He hails from Yian Jao(ph) City, the nation's epicenter of private enterprise. He was still in high school when he hired his first employee back in the late 1970s. This was a risky move, as people could get thrown in jail back then for private enterprise. Shao traded in anything that would make money, from steel to postage stamps. He can't remember when he made his first million. That's yuan, not dollars. Shao is a Buddhist. He had a life-changing experience when he was six years old.

Mr. SHAO: (Through translator) My mom gave me some change to buy a Popsicle. I was careless when crossing the street. A big truck came at me and I froze. At the last moment a soldier saved me.

KUHN: Shao has trying to repay his debt to society. He's donated the equivalent of nearly $400,000 over the past two decades. The publicity this has generated has sometimes had unintended consequences. Last month a group of more than a dozen men showed up at his home looking for handouts. Shao was out of town, so they harassed his elderly mother, who got upset and started coughing up blood. Days later, China Central Television was interviewing Shao and his mother about the incident in her hospital room. Just then a blind man in a white smock calling himself Dr. Ding walked in.

Mr. SHAO: (Through translator) I don't want a penny from Mr. Shao. I just want to get to know him. If everyone was like Mr. Shao, our society would just be one big happy family.

KUHN: The blind man then pulled Shao aside, where he thought the reporters couldn't hear him.

Mr. SHAO: (Through translator) I really shouldn't be bringing this up, but if you can do it, I'd like to borrow 3,000 yuan from you, just to help me through this tough time.

KUHN: Shao has become a very public figure and he's reluctant to talk about his frustration at being mobbed by freeloaders. But other Chinese philanthropists have told state media that they have to deal with similar problems. For the past three years, the Chinese language edition of Forbes Magazine has published a list of China's top philanthropists to both track and encourage the trend. But this year Forbes scrapped the list. Editor in chief Zhou Peng explains why.

Mr. ZHOU PENG (Chinese Forbes Magazine): (Chinese spoken)

KUHN: Chinese society still has an egalitarian streak in it, he says. Some people look at our lists and say these people are so rich, why don't they donate more money? We're concerned that our lists will encourage this kind of thinking. The growing gap between rich and poor has become a major headache for China's leaders, with the richest five percent of the people controlling half of the nation's bank deposits.

But charitable donations by one estimate account for only five-tenths of a percent of the world's fourth largest economy, compared to roughly two percent in the U.S. Philanthropy's problems in China are part of the slow growth of civil society in general. Until this situation changes, the task of caring for the country's poor will remain largely with the government.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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