Jet Li & Chinese Philanthropy

Jet Li is the martial arts movie star of films like The Mummy, Lethal Weapon 4, and many Chinese blockbusters.

He might also be one of the most important people in philanthropy today.

Last week I mentioned that Li was sitting on a panel about Philanthrocapitalism at the World Economic Forum in Davos. The other people on the panel? Tony Blair, Richard Branson, Bill Clinton, Bill Gates and Muhammad Yunus. So what is an action film star doing with world leaders, the world’s richest person and a Nobel Peace Prize winner (in microfinance)?

In 2004, Li was caught in the Asian Tsunami and the near death experience changed his life. In 2007 he formed the One Foundation with the goal of bringing a culture of philanthropy to China (where charitable giving runs about 0.35% of GDP compared to 2.1% in the U.S.) In an interview with The Washington Post, Li said, “The role we played is more like a pusher of philanthropic culture. Right now, people still have a fuzzy recognition about philanthropy and volunteerism. … My dream is to change the concept of philanthropy in China from simply helping others into responsibility.”

It seems that there are two elements to a strong philanthropy, wealth creation and a culture of philanthropy. China has had the wealth creation, but there has not been much of a culture of philanthropy. This is what Li has identified and where he is putting his efforts. “Many talk of money, money, money,” he told CNN. “Money is important, but we are also spiritual. We need to be balanced.”

In researching his decision to set up the One Foundation, Li says he identified four issues holding back Chinese Philanthropy:

  1. There are no NGOs with high credibility in China.
  2. There is not a very transparent system in operation.
  3. There is no a clear and long term vision for most NGOs.
  4. There is too much hassle for a Chinese to donate.

So according to the Washington Post, Li “teamed with the Red Cross Society of China, an aid agency with close ties to the Chinese government, to create an “uber-charity” that would aggregate donations and pick the most worthy projects in the areas of education, health, environment and poverty. Li modeled his foundation on a publicly traded business accountable to its shareholders — in his case, donors. Transparency is essential. The charity issues quarterly reports and is audited by international accounting firm Deloitte & Touche.”

So why does this matter? Because their are 1.3 billion people in China and over the coming decades China will almost certainly be a major center of global wealth creation. Li has friends in the right places to project the credibility he needs to convince individual Chinese citizens to give and the Chinese government to let him spread his message.

In 2006, when Bill Gates announced he was going to work for his foundation full time and Warren Buffett announced he would be giving most of his wealth to the Gates Foundation, the most dramatic aspect of the event was not the money. It was a 50 year old corporate superstar deciding philanthropy was more important and one of the world’s wealthiest people deciding to give his money away while he was still alive. That cultural legacy remains no matter what the stock price of Microsoft and Berkshire Hathaway (Buffett’s firm) might be.

Jet Li might seem like an unlikely candidate to bring a philanthropic culture to China. But then I live in California where we’ve elected both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ronald Regan as our governors. So Jet Li might have exactly the right job to sell the people of China on the importance of philanthropy.


  1. I’m writing from Beijing, and I agree that Jet Li is an ideal spokesman to promote a culture of giving in China. His international fame, popularity among both men and women, and commitment to transparent philanthropy make him a role model to people both inside and outside China.

    China’s charity sector has lagged behind that of other countries, due to legal hurdles, lack of sustainable funding sources, skepticism and corruption, and a limited culture of giving. I think that celebrity attention can draw attention to the real issues plaguing China’s poorest, and encourage citizens to get involved.