The Path of Asian Philanthropy on the Belt and Road

By Genevieve Ding

The extraordinary growth of China over the past few decades saw a surge in ultra-high net-worth individuals, many of whom are seeking to establish impactful strategies for their philanthropy.  China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) presents valuable opportunities for philanthropists in China and South East Asia (SEA) to transcend national borders in their philanthropic ventures, bolstering a new age of cross-border altruism in the region.

To promote social investment in China, on 7 December 2018, the Asia Philanthropy Circle (APC) launched the cross-border China giving guide during a two-day international conference on Singapore as a nexus of China’s BRI, attended by more than 250 academics, government officials and business leaders from Singapore, China and around SEA.  The conference was organised by one of the partners for the guide, Nanyang Centre for Public Administration (NCPA) at Nanyang Technological University.  The other key partner to the guide was China Institute for Philanthropy and Social Innovation (CIPSI) at Renmin University.

As China continues to poise itself as a global political and economic powerhouse, it presents considerable opportunities for foreign partnerships both in terms of commercial and philanthropic work. However, under-developed institutional infrastructures in the social sector and a lack of knowledge of the Chinese philanthropic landscape make it difficult for overseas philanthropists to venture into China.

The giving guide to China aims to help overseas philanthropists navigate the regulatory and sociopolitical environments when engaging in philanthropic activities in China.

In his opening address at the conference, Mr Laurence Lien, CEO of APC and Chairman of the Lien Foundation, emphasised the importance of collaborative philanthropy in the region – countries should not be reinventing the wheel, rather, they should learn from each other and facilitate cross-border transfer of knowledge.

Dr Ang (second from right, and philanthropists Cherie Nursalim, Lionel Li, and Lee Hanshih.

The need for a philanthropic vision guided by the sharing of best practices was echoed by the panel discussion on aligning philanthropy with the BRI the following day.  As Dr Ang Hak Seng, Singapore’s Commissioner of Charities explains, beyond trade connectivity and infrastructure development, the BRI offers a platform for knowledge exchange and capacity building between the region and China.

In fact, Chinese foreign policy frames the BRI as reviving the “Silk Road Spirit” – a contemporary reinvention of the historical exchange of cultural heritage and wisdom amongst great civilisations along the ancient Silk Road.  Therefore, at its inception, the BRI aspired towards a shared value system in the region.

While the main BRI programmes focus on infrastructural development in this region, Chinese philanthropists are in a position to actualise the above aspiration, spreading goodwill and creating unencumbered social impact alongside Chinese globalisation through cross-border charity initiatives.

Increasingly, Asian philanthropists are crossing national borders in search of new philanthropic giving models.  Leveraging on the potential of the BRI to foster connectivity in the region, philanthropists could expand the scope of their charity impact to address evolving social challenges of sustainability and inclusivity.

Focusing on the philanthropic landscape of China, Mr Stanley Tan, Chairman of APC, shared that as China positions itself from a global manufacturer to a thought leader of the digital economy, its philanthropic needs have evolved from requiring material contribution to the sharing of knowledge and data.

As emphasised in the giving guide, the Chinese model of philanthropy capitalises on digital initiatives to achieve large-scale impact.  In China, the sector divide between the corporate and social sector is collapsing, as corporations increasingly spearhead social change.  Specifically, Chinese tech giants are fostering a culture of giving through their digital platforms.

Since 2015, Tencent has been hosting 9.9 Charity Day with hundreds of charities and corporations.  This annual society-wide event is dedicated to charitable giving, with Tencent matching each public donation 1:1.  Through this initiative, in 2017, Tencent counted nearly 12.7 million individual donations amounting to around RMB830 million in a single day.

The power of online altruism in China speaks to the strength of combined willpower and philanthropic innovation in bringing about systematic change.  In particular, the digital driven dimension of the BRI makes it easier for philanthropists in Asia to pool together resources for cross-border initiatives.

Stanley Tan addressing the audience, with (from left) Laurence Lien, Prof Kang from Renmin University, Chinese philanthropist Lin Feng, and Dr. Celia Lee from NTU

For philanthropists in Asia, the BRI could be approached as an opportunity to develop a uniquely Asian model of philanthropy.  In response to Lien’s question on his prediction of China in the future, Tan expressed his unswerving vision for advancing Asian giving in the region.  He speculated that if China becomes the world’s largest economy in 2050, he hopes China and Asia will lead the New World Order with the heart, with an emphasis on charitable giving.

On a national level, Tan emphasised the complimentary effect of philanthropy and government initiatives: effective governments can only build the body of society; philanthropy will build the soul.  “To be a great nation,” he stressed, “you need both”.

For digital or hard copies of the guide, please contact