Can China’s New Billionaires Solve Its Pollution Problem?

China’s explosive economic growth has created as many as 358 billionaires, where just 20 years ago, the country had practically zero. Philanthropy has been slow to follow, but one of the country’s most prominent entrepreneurs hopes he can inspire private funders to tackle the country’s notorious environmental woes. 

Jack Ma, the billionaire behind online retailer Alibaba, and co-founder Joe Tsai have established charitable trusts equal to two percent of the company’s equity. The company is preparing an IPO later this year—no doubt a factor behind the announcement—but the trusts could be worth as much as $3 billion. Ma said he would continue to feed his own funds into the trust over time. Funding will be devoted primarily to the environment, health care, and education in China and abroad, but given the well-documented pollution crisis in the country, green giving seems to be a large focus.  

"We hope to live in a world with bluer skies, cleaner water and better access to healthcare,” Ma said in a statement announcing the trust. Ma also recently became the chairman of The Nature Conservancy’s China program, and he's publicly expressed concern about the issue. 

As China has rapidly industrialized in recent decades, pollution has become an increasingly severe and deadly problem, with Beijing seeing air pollution levels during a recent smog crisis as much as nine times the safe limit recommended by the World Health Organization.

The Chinese government is beginning to take action, strengthening pollution laws just this month. But having seen pollution take a toll on his own family’s health, Ma told the Wall Street Journal that he hopes his commitment will wake people up to the problem. Ma said he sought the advice of Bill Gates when establishing the fund, and Gates, along with Michael Bloomberg and Warren Buffett voiced their support for the endeavor upon its announcement. Ma and Tsai are hoping to start something of a bandwagon among the country’s relatively new crop of private wealth. 

Estimates vary wildly, but the number of billionaires in China has been listed as low as 152 and as high as 358. But philanthropy hasn’t yet taken hold in a country that has only recently produced its uber-wealthy. China ranks low on the list of countries with private philanthropists, likely because Chinese billionaires don't want to draw attention to their wealth, and because they confront political and legal hurdles that make philanthropy more difficult. 

But if the new trust established by Ma and Tsai has its intended effect, we could see a new surge in environmental funding springing out of China, with its wealthiest following in the footsteps of some of America's biggest philanthropists. That could add a huge new dimension to global environmental funding.