"Barbie" dinner ignites fierce debate for China's rich

Tue Sep 28, 2010 9:33am EDT
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By Ben Blanchard

BEIJING (Reuters) - A visit by two of the world's richest men to China has ignited a fierce debate on the merits -- and difficulty -- of philanthropy and charity for the country's own colorful band of newly wealthy.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett will host a dinner for a select band of Chinese billionaires on Wednesday to promote giving, dubbed by media the "Ba Bi" -- Chinese for "Barbie" -- dinner after the Chinese transliterations of their names.

The invitation list is unclear. Chen Guangbiao, worth an estimated $440 million according to last year's Hurun rich list, has made a big deal about his attendance, and his efforts to get people to sign up. Others have been more tight-lipped.

Media speculation has centered on the traditional reticence of many rich Chinese to discuss their wealth in public, fearful of exposing fortunes larger than the government or rivals had calculated, inviting unwanted attention from tax collectors and hatred from millions of have-nots.

Private philanthropy became obsolete after the 1949 revolution when the Communist Party introduced a cradle-to-grave welfare system. But the country's wealth gap widened after it embraced capitalist reforms in the late 1970s.

Natural disasters in recent years have stoked patriotic sentiment and rekindled an interest in charity.

For many rich Chinese, giving is not totally new.

The top 50 philanthropists donated nearly 3.9 billion yuan ($582.9 million) in total last year, according to the 2009 Hurun Philanthropy List, four times the figure from six years ago.   Continued...

<p>Billionaire investor Warren Buffett (R) and Microsoft Corporation founder Bill Gates (L) appear together for a town hall style meeting with business students broadcast by financial television network CNBC at Columbia University in New York, November 12, 2009. REUTERS/Mike Segar</p>