Italy’s centuries-old philanthropic groups and foundations have taken on a new purpose: to help their nouveau riche counterparts in China learn how to give back to society.
The European country has emerged as an interesting case study for Chinese millionaires, as both cultures share a deep tradition of family-run businesses across generations, experts say.
Some in Italy were quick to seize upon the politically symbolic moment in March when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Rome and approved a memorandum of understanding on developing philanthropic research with Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.
“In terms of the history of China’s charitable affairs, it is unprecedented that a state leader witnessed an agreement reached by civil societies,” Wang Zhenyao, president of the China Global Philanthropy Institute, said after a recent visit to Italy.
The Italian experience would be the subject of “long-term study” for Chinese millionaires, he said.
“Europe’s charitable affairs are so closely connected with social welfare and social services that we in China find it hard to imagine,” he said.
“We need to study how Europe’s centuries-old family charities and foundations have played a leading role in sharing Europe’s policies.”
Wang is critical of the existing state of charitable affairs in China, saying: “Our professional level in terms of philanthropy is relatively low. The link between philanthropy and social services is very weak.”
Wang was accompanied on his trip by Niu Gengsheng, the founder of Mengniu Dairy, who ploughed hundreds of millions of dollars of his own money into the Lao Niu Foundation, which works to improve education and the environment in China.
The two men also visited the Fondazione Zegna, a foundation named after Italian luxury fashion house Ermenegildo Zegna.
In the 40 years since late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping launched his policy of reform and opening up, private wealth has soared. Subsequently, “Chinese philanthropy is growing rapidly into a powerhouse for domestic and international development, having quadrupled in size since 2009”, according to a report in April sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation in the United States.
China passed its Charity Law in 2016, and Wang said there were now more than 800,000 social organisations, employing nearly 10 million people.
Dr Rajiv Shah, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, said in the report that just 1 per cent of China’s foundations were engaged in grant-making, which he said would enable their funds to have far more impact.
“This indicates there is an untapped opportunity for growth and partnership between China’s change-making philanthropists and international organisations,” he said.
Professor Giovanni Andornino, who signed the memorandum observed by Xi and is now secretary general of the China-Italy Philanthropy Forum in Turin, said that as Chinese businesses became increasingly globalised, so too should their charitable projects.
“Chinese philanthropists are ensuring that the next generation of foundation patrons and managers command know how and develop an international network to match their vast and growing resources for maximum national and global impact,” he said, adding they were “acutely aware of the need to be exposed to the best international practices”.
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