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Originally published July 24, 2011 at 9:58 PM | Page modified July 25, 2011 at 6:37 AM

In Person: Yang Lan nurtures philanthropy among China's newly wealthy

Chinese television celebrity Yang Lan, one of her nation's wealthiest women, is leading a movement to encourage the growth of philanthropy.

Seattle Times business reporter

Yang Lan

Age: 43

Bio: Media entrepreneur, talk-show host and chairwoman of the Sun Culture Foundation, which works with academic institutions to train Chinese philanthropists and nonprofit leaders.

Quote: "Business people want to demonstrate their social value beyond personal material success."

quotes to paraphrase richard nixon....we're all capitalists now. curiouser and curiouser.i... Read more
quotes Hope she will not get oppressed by her government since majority of the high ranking... Read more
quotes Philanthropy will never take the place of rational economic policy, either her or in... Read more

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In a country that spent the last three decades getting rich, Yang Lan wants to show that giving back is glorious.

Yang, a television host and one of China's wealthiest women, is leading a movement to encourage the growth of philanthropy.

Last year she co-organized a banquet in Beijing with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that brought Bill Gates and Warren Buffett together to discuss philanthropy with more than 30 of China's billionaire families.

This spring, she traveled to Seattle to meet with Gates, talk to local philanthropists and give a lecture at the University of Washington. She aims to gather some of the best resources from the U.S. nonprofit sector to help China build a modern system of philanthropy, and bring Chinese philanthropists here for exchanges with American foundations.

China is second only to the U.S. in the number of billionaires. China has more than 200 people with wealth over $1.5 billion, Yang said. (The United States has 412, according to Forbes).

More surprising, perhaps, is that China is home to more than half of the world's richest self-made women — 11 of the top 20, Yang said.

At the same time, the charitable impulse is growing, with a number of young entrepreneurs creating their own family foundations. Some are motivated by a desire for social recognition. Chinese tradition valued scholars and looked down upon merchants, Yang said. Today there's widespread mistrust or even hatred toward the wealthy, fueled by cases of fraud or corruption.

"Business people want to demonstrate their social value beyond personal material success," she said.

Philanthropy in China has the potential for the kind of flowering it saw in the U.S. 100 years ago at the time of industrialists John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, she said.

"For the first time in the history of modern China, there is the capability of wealth accumulated" to do that, she said.

But the rush toward capitalism has left a lot of people behind and created a dangerously wide gap between rich and poor.

With government unable to mend cracks in the social system, "civil society can take care of some of the burdens," Yang said. To develop a lasting and effective philanthropic sector, though, China will have to loosen restrictions on private charities and provide a framework for them to operate legally, she said.

Philanthropy is a relatively new concept in China, where the government retains tight control over nonprofit organizations, and the public remains suspicious that many state-run charities are just out to take people's money. One Chinese billionaire, Chen Guangbiao, prefers to travel to disaster zones and hand out cash directly to victims rather than go through an existing charity.

Yang, 43, and her husband, media investor Bruno Wu, last year were among China's richest families with assets of more than $1 billion, according to the Hurun Report, which tracks China's wealthy. In 2005, they donated half of their shares in Sun Media Investment to start their charitable foundation.

Yang hosts two popular TV programs: the interview-style "Yang Lan One on One," and "Her Village," a show aimed at empowering urban women that reaches more than 200 million viewers. Her microblog on Sina.com attracts more than two million readers. English-language articles often call her "China's Oprah," though that title has been given to at least three women in China, and Yang considers her style more akin to Barbara Walters of ABC's "The View."

For a girl who grew up without a TV, she has come a long way.

Yang's own life mirrors China's transformation and whirlwind development. Her grandmother grew up at a time when women had bound feet and most girls were illiterate. Her mother became the first college student in the family.

As a student in Beijing, Yang got her big break when she won a spot as co-host of a Chinese variety show over 1,000 other applicants. She later came to the U.S. to study at Columbia University, where she met her future husband, Hong Kong entrepreneur Wu.

Six years ago she created the Sun Culture Foundation in Hong Kong to promote education and build "a culture of philanthropy" in China.

Yang, meeting for an interview over breakfast at Seattle's Fairmont Hotel, speaks flawless English and has the coifed hair and polished perfection of someone who is always in front of a camera.

When she gave the Severyns-Ravenholt Lecture May 31 at UW, so many people were clamoring to attend that organizers had to move it to a larger hall. Dozens of fans, mostly students, crowded into the aisles and waited in line by the door. When those standing up were asked to leave for fire safety, they promptly sat down on the floor.

"She's a very forward-thinking woman," said Susan Heikkala, who helped host Yang in Seattle through the Washington Women's Foundation. "Philanthropy in China is advancing rapidly and in a more sophisticated way than one might think."

Heikkala visited China in July and met with Yang's foundation to discuss ways to expand the kind of collective giving developed by the Washington Women's Foundation.

China has a long tradition of charity, from the Confucian philosophy that "a benevolent gentleman loves humanity," to the Buddhist idea of gaining spiritual merit by helping others, Yang said.

The 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, which killed an estimated 68,000 people and left millions homeless, unleashed a wave of philanthropy driven by emotion, Yang said.

Two years later, Gates and Buffett visited China to talk about a businesslike approach to giving. That event also created huge public interest. "All different layers of the society got stirred up to talk about it," she said.

Yang has benefited from China's economic rise, but she also sees its shortcomings.

"If you regard material success as the only goal in life, then you have so many [problems such as] fake food, poison food, fraud in construction of schools, which collapsed during the earthquake," she said. People in China have compared the effects of the earthquake in Sichuan with the recent tsunami in Japan. "Look at their houses, even when they floated away in the flood, they didn't collapse."

Her foundation has partnered with the Center for Civil Society Studies at Peking University, Columbia and Harvard University to offer educational programs for nonprofit and civil society organizations. So far they have trained more than 400 nonprofit executives and held workshops for 50 philanthropists.

Later this year, she's organizing a forum in Qufu, the hometown of Confucius, to talk about ways traditional culture can shape a modern system of philanthropy in China.

"I think there's outcry from the general public saying material success is not the only goal of our country," she said. "To be a more respected country in this world, we should show our moral dignity instead of just our spending power."

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com

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