Last year when he was worth a mere $4 billion or so, Chinese tycoon Jack Ma told the Wall Street Journal he had no intention of signing the Giving Pledge. “This idea of giving your money out was not created by Gates and Buffett. It was created by the Communist Party in the 1950s!” he joked. Ma is not the only Chinese businessman skeptical of American-style philanthropy. Though his country is home to an estimated 358 billionaires, exactly none have signed the Giving Pledge. When Bill Gates and Warren Buffett teamed up to promote philanthropy in Beijing in 2010, many wealthy Chinese failed to show up at the meeting. The Chinese have historically kept their money within the family. And if they give to charity, they tend to do so in modest ways. In addition, China’s legal and regulatory climate isn’t philanthropy-friendly, to say the least. The Communist Party did slightly loosen restrictions on charitable organizations in November, however, acknowledging the value of an active civil society.
Meanwhile, as his company Alibaba is about to stage an IPO that could add another $8 billion to his fortune, Jack Ma’s views on philanthropy are evolving. Apparently concerned that China’s rampant pollution contributed to his father-in-law’s recent death from cancer, he and a company co-founder announced in April that they will pour several billion dollars of their private wealth into a new trust to fund environmental improvements and health care, as well as education, in China. Along with this grant, highly unusual in their country, Ma also agreed to serve as chairman of the Nature Conservancy’s board of directors for China, putting his managerial instincts as well as his money to work in the nascent sector experimenting with non-governmental solutions to public problems in his homeland. —Kara Runsten