Brushing Shoulders with China’s Nouveaux Riche
By Melody Song Senior Development Officer, Calgary Zoo
The dinner was in a private dinning room with high ceilings and grand windows looking out to the dancing lights of downtown – a jungle of glass towers and pedestrian streets, bustling at all hours in this massive urban capital of one of China’s most populated provinces. Above the enormous round table was a beautiful modern chandelier, which set the quiet, but extravagant tone of the whole decor. The room also came with a private bathroom, bar, and a team of waiters. Our host, Mr. Zhang was a successful local entrepreneur, impeccably dressed at all times, humble and soft-spoken. As a fundraising professional from a zoo in Canada, I was with my President to attend.
We had been enjoying Mr. Zhang’s hospitality for the past day. Although we had organized the main event of the day, our host had assumed the responsibility of taking care of every aspect of our stay simply because he was from the region. We had only met him the night before. Our transportation was taken care of with a convoy of one mini-bus and three SUVs. We also had an English-speaking tour guide (another arrangement by our host that came up as a complete surprise to us) who prepared hand-made signs for the group and introduced us to local culture and architecture while we toured the main attractions of the city. A guest in the group, Mr. Wang, who flew from another city to join us for the one-day event, had brought his own wines for the occasion (selected from his 20,000 bottle collection back home). Today’s selection included three whites and three reds, two of which were on the top 100 wine list in the world. Wine connoisseurs were rare in China, as the banquets in the country were still dominated by shots of pure liqueur or beers. Mr. Wang made a fuss about how the waiter poured the wine (in shot style) and how some of the Chinese dishes (like soup) and drinks (like almond milk) would disrupt the pallets. The food was exquisite. We hadn’t even looked at the menu, but knew of the Chinese custom for the host’s assistant to pre-select the banquet menu in advance.
The President of my organization and myself were on a four-city, two-week trip in China. I had built an aggressive schedule around a conference that the President needed to attend. We had meetings with two groups of wealthy individuals including this one arranged via a parent from a private school in Canada. Like our host, Mr. Zhang, the men in our group were all successful Chinese businessman with families living in Canada. Mr. Zhang was a university graduate of the late 1980s. China had just gone through the economic reform when private properties and businesses were allowed in the country for the first time since 1949. After working for a few years in state-owned factories like everyone else, Mr. Zhang took the plunge (“Xia Hai” as it was called in Chinese, literally meaning “jumping into the sea”), quit the government job (which was perceived to be risky and radical in a negative way back then) and became an independent product distributor and entrepreneur. It was a typical story for China’s new class of Nouveau Riche consists of people the like of Jack Ma. Unlike Jack Ma though (who was an English teacher before making it big), the entrepreneurs we met spoke very little English even with families living overseas mainly to obtain resident status. As it was a Chinese custom to make toasts and empty your glass individually with everyone around the table, I had to interpret for my President for the most of the time. As wine flowed, we were able to have some of the people we met promise to come and visit us in Canada during one of China’s major holidays (the time when Dads visit their families overseas). Great, another engagement opportunity! However, would the extravagance and generosity that overwhelmed us translate to philanthropy? We would have to see.
As a prospect researcher turned fundraiser, I had heard so much about China’s new rich that I was so thankful for this first-hand prospecting opportunity. One of the biggest realizations that dawned on me when I was there was that while universities were leading the charge on getting more money from mainland Chinese philanthropists, the majority of the children of the new rich are still young – between eight and fifteen. They won’t reach university age some time. The matter of the fact is that there is no old money in China (private property was illegal before the 1980s). Everyone we met was between the age 40 to 55 and had children late in their life (as China’s one-child policy encouraged people to marry late and have children late).
I also noticed that the wealthier our prospects were, the more and higher government titles they had. Most business cards had regional CPCCC (Community Party of China Central Committee) title listed first. We had some success in fundraising from Chinese State-Owned Enterprise (SOEs) locally through good “Guanxi” (connections) with the Chinese consulate. I have now reached the conclusion that if you want to fundraise in Mainland China, there is no getting away from maintaining a good and meaningful relationship with the Chinese government as it could help even with individual prospects.
While we still need to see if the generosity we experienced would turn into dollars for a zoo, it certainly did for the private schools that the kids were attending. Since Chinese culture held good education as a crucial criteria for creating a good life for oneself, China’s wealthy class would do anything including donating six-figure major gift to get their children “the best” education. For an educational institution looking to raise fund from this group, having a good ranking (Ivy league preferred!) is a must. Chinese mainland donors are also not as sophisticated as North American or even donors from Hong Kong, Taiwan or Singapore. The motivation was less passion for a cause but rather stemmed in the desire to be more socially acceptable, to create better relationships, and in the Buddhist essence of kind and generosity. Value alignment and passion definitely come second after the significance of the relationship factor. Just like doing business in China, Chinese like to be friends first even outside of work. If you are planning your first trip to China, you should put “making friends” as the first priority as opposed to “socializing the case for support for your organization” or “asking for help”. Everything should be done in a more casual (as opposed to business-like) approach. Another motivation of giving is simply an attitude of “because I can” or a form of “show off”. I have heard once that philanthropy was compared to the status of owning luxury goods for Asian donors which made a lot of sense to me after our experience. Again, who gets the donation depends on the relationship with the potential prospects.
As dinner was coming to an end, Mr. Zhang’s assistant stood up and conducted a presentation of gifts for each member of the group. It was obvious that he had put much thought into this. The gifts include a pair of art works of traditional embroidery unique to the region and a selection of products from Mr. Zhang’s company. In comparison, our gifts – pins the shape of Canadian animals and maple-wood letter openers, seemed so small, almost embarrassing. Luckily, earlier in the day, our Chinese partner had presented a gift bag of customized memorabilia of our day’s experience which we felt had made up for it.
Gifting is just as big an item as toasting in a typical Chinese banquet. Even when planning business meetings, one of our connectors had asked me if there should be a gift exchange ceremony. There were definitely times when the hospitality and the gifts were a little too extravagant for the North American comfort level, however, coming from a Chinese cultural background, I understood that it was important that we honored the host by gracefully accepting them.
A few days later, we arrived in Shanghai and went to the famous Bund – waterfront area with older financial district on one side of the river and the skyline of the new CBD Shanghai on the other side. Even on a November week evening, the promenade by the river was full with people. Streets by the waterfront were lined with luxury brand-name stores. Skyscrapers from the other side formed a dazzling light show not unlike scenes from the futuristic movie Blade Runner.
For a while, it felt like you are in the centre of the world. An old couple walking by us looked at the scene with true wonder in their eyes. Perhaps in their 60s, they were still both dressed in the Mao style – a remnant of the communist days. I was born in the 70s and went through the economic reform myself that had transformed the economical, political, and geographical landscape of China completely, so I could only imagine the kind of changes that they had experienced. On the other hand, my experience of the wealth in China was just as surreal. It is a country that is still undergoing rapid changes. The wealth is new, philanthropic practices are newer. There are just as many challenges as opportunities. As we are excited with the possibilities the new Chinese dream presents, we should first have a solid understanding of the language, the culture, and how people connect in this society as well as how they relate to our society at home.