23 June 2015

Chinese billionaire's charitable vision inspires by its example

As a trust and charity lawyer in Hong Kong, I work with clients to organise and preserve their wealth. Commonly, this is the wealth that was created by affluent families over generations. Through this work, I have gained insights into the dynamics and objectives of these families, besides the management and growth of their businesses.

In recent years, I have noticed that more families are turning their focus to charity foundations. For some, a family foundation keeps the multiple generations together through philanthropy. The joy of helping the less fortunate becomes a passion and provides a common interest among the family.

One example is of a Chinese billionaire entrepreneur, so influenced by his philanthropic beliefs that he announced in 2010 that his entire fortune would be donated to charity. He is believed to be the first, and probably, still, the only, person to make such a promise. He stated: “If my children are more capable than I, then it is not necessary to leave them a lot of money. If they are incompetent, a lot of money will only be harmful to them.”

The grandson of this Chinese billionaire, Mr P, in his 40s, joined the family business after he graduated from a Canadian university. He works with his grandfather in the business and the family foundation. During this time he learned about his grandfather's work ethic.

A prevailing belief in Chinese culture is that older generations should be a role model for their families and inspire younger generations to give back to society. The Confucian interpretation of this obligation extends to the societal level, where successful members of the community are supposed to help the unfortunate.

In Hong Kong, about 500 charities with tax exemption are set up every year with wide-ranging causes, from providing after-school tutorial classes to helping foreign maids cope with unexpected pregnancies (there are reportedly about 6,000 of these cases a year). There is bound to be something that touches these families' hearts.

As Mr P suffered from cataracts, his grandfather knew the pain, fear and helplessness one suffers in the dark. If the cataract patient happens to be a poor villager, the whole family suffers as they cannot work and must rely on others to help. For more than 10 years, Mr P joined his grandfather in a massive project to help restore the vision of more than 400,000 people from more than 20 provinces across China.

They stayed at the poorest of the villages for seven days at a time, and were touched to experience first hand the changes the project made in patients' lives.

The effectiveness of a charity is not easily measured, so how do you choose which candidates should receive benefits? Both family charity foundations and corporations need professional help in this area. In Hong Kong, philanthropy counsellors such as WiseGiving Advisors offer this service to help donors to plan and search for a suitable project. I asked Mr P:“You will be left without a penny; do you blame your grandfather for his pledge to donate his fortune?”

Mr P replied with a smile and fire in his eyes. “No, this was his wish and we must honour him. He was a role model for our family. We have great plans for some grand projects.”

May his grandfather's legacy live on.

The article was originally published in South China Morning Post on 23 June 2015.