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BEIJING (Reuters) - China has contributed over $120 million to fight the spread of the Ebola virus, but its billionaire tycoons - it has more than anywhere outside the United States - have, publicly at least, donated little to the cause, underscoring an immature culture of philanthropy in the world's second-biggest economy.
As the ranks of China's wealthy and the success of its corporations grow, donating to good causes has yet to take off in a significant way. China sits towards the bottom of the list of countries where people give money to charity, volunteer or help a stranger, according to The World Giving Index, compiled by the Charities Aid Foundation.
Donations to charities totaled 98.9 billion yuan ($16.1 billion) in 2013, according to Chinese government data, recovering from two straight years of declines. For comparison, Americans gave more than $335 billion, according to the National Philanthropic Trust website.
Many big Chinese companies have invested in Africa - China is Africa's leading trading partner - and several operate in West Africa, where Ebola has been at its most lethal, killing close to 5,000 people. These include construction, infrastructure and telecoms firms such as Huawei Technology Co Ltd [HWT.UL], China Henan International Cooperation Group and China Communications Construction Co Ltd.
A Huawei spokeswoman said Africa was an important market, but declined to comment on philanthropy or specific ventures in Ebola-hit countries. China Henan and China Communications Construction did not respond to requests for comment.
The World Food Program (WFP) last month called on Chinese firms and tycoons to donate more to fighting Ebola. "No one's been willing to do anything big yet," said Brett Rierson, the WFP's China representative.
Charity experts say Chinese construction firms with projects in Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone - the three countries most affected by the Ebola outbreak - could donate building materials and labor.
"Building firms could easily step in and say: 'we'll help you clear roads and put in emergency roads and clinics'," said Gary Rieschel, managing partner at Qiming Venture Partners. "If they put their shoulders behind moving some of the infrastructure for healthcare, they could be incredibly valuable."
But it's likely that state-owned firms would prefer the Chinese government to take a lead on this, said Deborah Brautigam, director of the China Africa Research Initiative and a professor at Johns Hopkins University. "They're unlikely to come forward independently and would assume the government, which does have experience in contributing for emergencies, will be better at knowing what to do," she said. "They probably also wouldn't trust that cash donations to these governments would be used responsibly."
China's Foreign Ministry said it was encouraging businesses operating in Africa to make their own contributions, but did not note any specific examples. "We encourage these companies to leverage their strengths and help these countries," Lin Songtian, director general of the ministry's Department of African Affairs told a briefing on Friday. "Chinese citizens in those countries have a responsibility to share their experience as long as they can do so while remaining safe."
Dudley Thomas, Liberia's ambassador to China, said his government was in talks with China-Union (Hong Kong) Mining Co Ltd, a unit of Wuhan Iron and Steel Group [WHISG.UL], and the state-owned China-Africa Development Fund, which facilitates investment, about possible donations.
He said Liberia secured one donation of $100,000 from a large Chinese construction firm that has projects in the country, but few other contributions.
Sihuan Pharmaceutical Holdings Group, a Chinese drug maker with military ties, has sent several thousand doses of an experimental Ebola drug to Africa and is planning clinical trials there.
"China's involvement (in West Africa) has been increasing year by year, the share of their engagements is also becoming much bigger than before," said He Wenping, director of African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "I think companies should aid countries impacted by Ebola."
He said Chinese firms operating in West Africa and elsewhere in the developing world are generally more likely to contribute to relief for natural disasters, such as earthquakes and floods.
Philanthropy may also have been slow to catch on in China as there's a lack of trust in non-profit groups after a string of scandals involving charitable donations, experts said.
"It certainly makes them more cautious," noted Rieschel, adding the Chinese government's lack of transparency in handling the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) just over a decade ago may have contributed to eroding trust. "At an individual level, when you look at how opaque the government was about SARS, there may be a tendency to say 'we don't trust any government when it comes to these things,'" he said.
In its latest Philanthropy List, released last week, the Shanghai-based Hurun Research Institute ranked Jack Ma, founder and chairman of Alibaba and China's wealthiest individual, top with donations of close to $2.4 billion. The report noted that most philanthropic money in China goes towards education, ahead of social services and disaster relief.
U.S. philanthropist Bill Gates wrote an editorial in the official People's Daily newspaper in April calling for Chinese business people to give back to the poor, both at home and internationally. His Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged $50 million to fight Ebola, while Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has said he is donating more than $100 million.
(1 US dollar = 6.1136 Chinese yuan)
Editing by Ian Geoghegan