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U.S., China billionaires dine and talk charity

BEIJING – Would they or wouldn’t they?

For weeks, there’d been intense public speculation here about whether 50 of China’s richest entrepreneurs would turn up to a private banquet hosted Wednesday evening by two of America’s wealthiest businessmen: Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

The discussion was sparked after it became widely reported that many of the gilded set were declining, because they feared Gates and Buffett were on a mission to persuade them to part ways with at least half their cash for a good cause.

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Warren E. Buffett and Bill Gates talk to the media during a press conference about philanthropy at the China World Summit Wing Hotel on Thursday in Beijing, China.

The debate also touched a nerve, forcing into the open some popularly-held Chinese prejudices against the class of super-rich. China now has the world’s second-highest number of billionaires, after the U.S. – all of whom amassed their wealth during the last 30 years.

Chinese Netizens were divided on the subject. Many criticized the wealthy for turning their back on society, lamenting the nation’s growing materialism. Others maintained that the concept of charity was relatively new in China, compared to how it’s viewed in the West. While cynics argued that it was only because of tax advantages that America’s tycoons gave away so much.

China’s richest man, Zong Qinghou, was seen on Phoenix Television, a Hong Kong broadcaster, saying he’d been invited to the banquet but wasn’t attending because he had a prior commitment. He also said he doesn’t believe philanthropy is about donating money but about creating wealth and jobs.

That argument was echoed in an op-ed piece headlined, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” in The Global Times, a Communist Party newspaper with nationalist leanings. The column, which praised the Americans’ philanthropic outlook, also urged the Chinese public “not to deify them.”

American academics jumped to China’s defense. “China’s philanthropists in the pre-Communist period confronted some of the largest natural and manmade disasters in the world with generosity and remarkable initiative,” wrote one historian.

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Warren E. Buffett and Bill Gates flip over their Dairy Queen Blizzard treats, the most successful product ever released in the history of Dairy Queen, a U.S. desert chain with over 300 stores in China, at the opening of a new branch in Beijing on Thursday.

A successful evening
In the end, the dinner went off without a hitch. At a press briefing Thursday morning, Gates and Buffett said two out of three of those invited did turn up. But the guest list was still kept quiet.

Eventually some names did emerge, including Hong Kong action star Jet Li and property mogul Zhang Xin. Another notable participant was Chen Guangbiao, who has already sworn to give to charity his estimated $440 million fortune, earned from recycling waste material in the construction industry.

Others refused to be identified, claiming they’d signed a confidentiality agreement, according to local reports.

Still, over a lavish meal in a mansion on the outskirts of Beijing, the attendees had a dynamic conversation about the idea of charity in China, according to Gates.

“Here you have a first generation of fortunes and people who are questioning what to do with it,” Gates said during the news conference. “What do they give away, what do they leave to their children, and how much is too much? If you have a privately owned company, then how do you go about donating? People are thinking about all these issues.”

Of course, they remained mum on whether or not anyone did open up a checkbook.

So what’s the next stop for the globetrotting philanthropic duo? “We may do an event in India,” said Gates.

Incidentally, Gates – who was unable to access his Twitter account while in China – signed up to a Chinese micro blog instead, writing his posts in English. Over 114,000 users had signed up to follow him by Thursday afternoon.