BEIJING — Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and billionaire investor Warren Buffett said Thursday they were impressed by the passion they saw among China's super rich for giving back to society during a dinner for Chinese millionaires. The American businessmen said they will try to hold a similar event in India next year.
The dinner to discuss philanthropy – hosted by Gates and Buffett in a mansion on the outskirts of Beijing – initially sparked concern among some of China's wealthy that they would be pressured into contributions. But the Americans repeatedly said they merely wanted to start a discussion about the best ways to give in China as the country develops mega-fortunes for the first time.
"Overall it was fantastic to see the energy and interest," Gates told a news conference of predominantly Chinese journalists on Thursday in Beijing. He said that two-thirds of the rich Chinese who were invited to the event attended and that the discussions about charity were candid and broad ranging.
There are at least 875,000 U.S. dollar millionaires in China, according to Shanghai-based analyst Rupert Hoogewerf, who studies China's wealthy. On Thursday, his Hurun Rich List announced that beverage billionaire Zong Qinghou, the founder of Hangzhou Wahaha Group, was China's wealthiest person, with $12 billion.
The list also said China may now have the most billionaires in the world. But over the past decade, the distribution of wealth has grown increasingly uneven – incomes averaged just $3,600 last year.
One of the attendees, the co-chief executive of property developer SOHO China, Zhang Xin, gushed with praise of Buffett after the dinner.
"Buffett is 80 years old. He has a smiling face and speaks with gratitude and listens to each question carefully," Zhang wrote on her blog. "He's a wonderful person. He said, 'I haven't sacrificed anything for charity. I don't need to save on food or other things for a donation.' His humbleness is so moving."
Another land developer who was at the dinner, Wang Shi, said on his blog that guests mainly discussed four issues over dinner: their attitude toward wealth, their thoughts on making donations, how to make donations more effective, and how charity impacts a family.
At the press conference, Gates and Buffett commented on how young fortunes in China were and how charitable habits were just being formed, creating a window of opportunity to encourage good practices.
"In terms of the rich people here in China, the thing that's unusual is that 30 years ago there really weren't people of great wealth so what you have is first-generation fortunes," Gates said. "It's natural that they are thinking through in this society in general 'What do you do in terms of giving it away, creating a foundation?'"
Buffett said patterns of giving were much more solidified in places like Europe, where there is considerable old wealth.
"We did not pressure anyone obviously in China," Buffett said. "We never had the intention to ... It's just not our style to do something of that sort."
Gates said he and Buffett may hold a similar philanthropy event in India next year. He said it would also be aimed at generating discussion but gave no other details.
In the United States, Gates and Buffett have helped persuade 40 super-wealthy American families to sign what they call the "giving pledge" to return most of their fortunes to society, but Gates said that type of drive might not be the right model of giving for China.
"We don't know if here in China they may create something similar," Gates said. "They may not. It's completely up to them. Of course things are quite unique here and philanthropy will take its own course."
The private dinner, in a mansion modeled after the baroque 17th century Chateau de Maisons-Laffitte in France, drew 50 business and philanthropy leaders for a 90-minute discussion, said a news release issued Wednesday.
Gates said the list was not made public to protect the privacy of the guests.
Some of China's super rich are skeptical about Gates' and Buffett's approach. China's wealthy don't have to "copy the U.S. charity mode," billionaire Guo Jinshu told Xinhua in a story Wednesday. "In China, an entrepreneur's top responsibility is to keep his own business sound, to fulfill taxation payments, and create jobs. This is also out of a philanthropist heart."
Associated Press researcher Xi Yue contributed to this report.