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Opinion

Chinese tycoons have a duty to follow Jack Ma into philanthropy

Tech leaders' skills and capital can drive solutions to country's social problems

Jack Ma attends a 2018 award ceremony for rural teachers in Sanya, China organised by his personal foundation.   © Reuters

China's wealthy now outnumber their American counterparts, according to research by bank Credit Suisse. But all too few of China's nouveaux riches have seen fit so far to follow Jack Ma's example in committing to put their wealth to use in helping their society.

"When you donate money, you yourself change," said Ma, who again topped Hurun Research Institute's list of China's wealthiest last year, in a 2018 speech on public service. "Only because you change might the world change."

Ma, whose net worth Hurun estimated at $39 billion, has put his focus on education, public health and other social causes since retiring as chairman of e-commerce empire Alibaba Group Holding in September.

Without responsibility to shareholders or taxpayers, philanthropists like Ma are able to take risks in how they invest their wealth which businesses and governments cannot. Real philanthropy is about using loss-absorbing capital, expertise and a deep understanding of structural issues to bring long-term change.

Bill Gates, for example, has, with his wife Melinda, dedicated his wealth and skills to tackling issues of global health and poverty, including combating malaria. Since 2000, malaria deaths have been reduced by half, in part due to the research and vaccination drives he has funded.

In China, the work done by the Narada Foundation, founded by property developer Zhou Qingzhi together with former Communist Party official Xu Yongguang, in supporting access to education and health care for the children of migrant workers has also been exemplary.

Notably, Narada was the first local foundation to offer grants to nonprofit service groups in China. One of its new ventures will fund the construction of 100 nongovernment public welfare schools for migrant children over the next five to 10 years.

Jack Ma has also come to realize the opportunities this style of giving can provide. His foundation, set up in 2014, has focused on improving education, the environment and public health. It has supported projects to train rural teachers, protects wetlands and promote soccer for girls, among other efforts.

High impact private philanthropy can make a huge difference in China in access to eye care. Recent research has estimated that over two-thirds of Chinese children will suffer from myopia by 2050, with potential consequences for their education, health and work productivity.

In a controlled trial on an Indian tea plantation, a group I founded to target vision problems called Clearly found that providing glasses to those with impaired eyesight could improve workers' output by 22%. In Rwanda, Vision for a Nation, another group I founded, trained 2,700 nurses to help provide vision correction in the country's low-resource environment.

China is home to 28,000 ophthalmologists -- five times as many as its population needs under World Health Organization guidelines -- and is one of the world's leading manufacturers of glasses. Yet until recently, eye care was a low priority on China's health agenda despite the prevalence of myopia among the country's children.

Eye care was a low priority on China's health agenda despite the prevalence of myopia among the country's children.   © Reuters

My journey in catalytic philanthropy -- where you fund what Bill Gates called "a vast, unexplored space of innovation" -- by tackling poor vision through Clearly and Vision for a Nation has never been straightforward. But through trial and error as well as collaboration, I believe we are reaching a tipping point in how poor vision is prioritized as a health issue.

Whether it is vision, or any of the other major social and health issues affecting China, the country's wealthy can help with long-term engagement and investment -- not just financial donations -- to identify, fund and prove ideas which government can then scale up to fundamentally change the course of society.

Chinese companies like Alibaba, as well as Huawei Technologies, Tencent Holdings and Xiaomi, have become players in global business. Their founders have the skills and capability to de-risk solutions to some of the biggest issues underlying social and economic inequality in China.

This successful business elite needs to understand the role it can play in growing the economy and addressing social problems via philanthropy. Chinese economic prosperity will be at risk if the rich do not do their bit to drive social change to narrow the wealth gap.

Jack Ma has taken the first step in this approach, but we need many more of his peers to commit and follow in his footsteps.

James Chen is chairman of Wahum Group Holdings, a manufacturer of packaging and cookware, and chairman of the Chen Yet-Sen Family Foundation as well as the founder of Clearly and a trustee of Vision for a Nation.

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