No one has ever been quite sure how the internet giant Tencent got its English name. Most likely it is because it sounds similar to its Chinese name Tengxun. But earlier this month the company’s founder Ma Huateng, also known as Pony Ma, added to company folklore when he gave away about ten cents on each dollar of his wealth to a new foundation.
The donation of 100 million Tencent shares, worth about $2 billion, will be used to tackle problems in healthcare, education and the environment, he said.
The foundation, which is yet to be named, will be professionally managed in order to allow the 44 year-old Ma to maintain his focus on his internet empire.
“After 10 years of exploration and participation in philanthropic activities, I increasingly feel a better way to continue giving back to society is to do it over the longer term and in a more organised way,” he said in a statement.
Ma’s decision to donate a large chunk of his $20 billion fortune comes at a time when attitudes to charitable giving are changing. For years the ruling Communist Party took on formal responsibility for looking after most aspects of society, leaving little space for charitable activity.
Now, after 35 years of economic growth, there is more wealth to redistribute. Some of those who have been successful would like to contribute and the government is happy for them to do so as long as they give to causes it approves of.
Earlier this year the government passed the country’s first charity law, which should help to boost donations further, by providing tax incentives and allowing for more domestic charities to be set up. The new law also makes it easier for people like Ma to set up private foundations.
One of the things that has held charities back is a widespread lack of trust. The internet abounds with disingenuous requests and real charities often find that criminals try to cash in on public good will.
In one case in Shanghai a charity which had put large, Panda-shaped bins around the city to collect unwanted clothes, soon discovered that fake bins were being installed to grab a share of the donations.
Then there is the issue that many business folk don’t want to give away sums that might raise questions about their wealth or personal finances.
Information on how much is being donated across the country is incomplete. A recent study on philanthropy in China by the Harvard Kennedy School had to limit itself to public statements from donors and recipients, as well as the records of publicly traded companies, for working out who was giving what.
Many donations, it said, are probably made under the radar.
But the study did conclude that China’s billionaires are looking to donate to charity much more. In the period it analysed — September 2014 to August 2015 – He Xingjian, the founder of home appliances maker Midea, was the most generous person, donating Rmb425 million to an eponymous foundation and social causes such as elderly care in his hometown of Foshan.
Wang Jianlin, the chairman of Dalian Wanda group came second in the generosity stakes, with donations of Rmb315 million for school building, disaster response and poverty relief.
Alibaba’s Jack Ma came ninth in the rankings because the study only looked at monies transferred during its year-long window. That ignored the fact that just prior to its commencement, Ma and his business partner Joseph Tsai had set up a foundation using $3 billion worth of Alibaba stock.
Earlier this year that entity handed out its first grants – Rmb10 million to fund 100 rural teachers working in western China.
Many of these good deeds don’t seem to win their donors as much positive publicity as you might imagine. A common view is that the business people who set up private foundations are trying to avoid the tax man. Another widely held opinion is that much of the rich’s wealth was probably earned improperly, and thus it giving it away shouldn’t be celebrated as a generous act.
But attitudes may be changing on this score. After Pony Ma announced his donation of Tencent stock he got dozens of weibo comments offering (sometimes) grudging praise. “I suppose it’s a good thing,” said one. “Maybe one day we’ll be able to talk about a Chinese Bill Gates,” said another.
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