China’s Billionaires Could Be a Game Changer in Conservation Funding

A snow leopard. Photo: meunierd/shutterstock

A snow leopard. Photo: meunierd/shutterstock

A $20 million commitment to wildlife conservation would be news any day of the week. This one also happens to come from an unexpected source—not Leonardo DiCaprio or Silicon Valley, or some green hedge funder—but a Chinese landscaping billionaire named He Qiaonv.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as He says this is the start of her plan to give $1.5 billion to wildlife conservation, which could end up the biggest-ever personal philanthropic commitment to the field, Bloomberg reports

The seven-year pledge comes from one of the wealthiest entrepreneurs in the country, as He has built up a $3.4 billion fortune as founder of Beijing Orient Landscape. That means the commitment would move a remarkable portion of her net worth, and rocket her to the forefront of the world’s environmental donors, seemingly out of nowhere. It’s the latest in an exploding philanthropic sector in China, not known for its environmentalism, but where a rise in wealthy individuals is translating into huge nonprofit funding.

The first commitments from He’s plan go toward global big cat group Panthera and Oxford University’s WildCRU (which you may have heard about during the Cecil the Lion uproar in 2015). Funding will go toward building out a snow leopard conservation program in China and lion conservation in Africa. It will also begin a wildlife management training program in China to serve newly established conservation areas in the country. This is the first such international partnership for He’s Beijing Qiaonyu Foundation, although it’s currently supporting 79 projects in China. 

Again, the size of this grant is remarkable—Panthera’s total expenses in 2016 were around $12.7 million—but it also marks something of a coming out for Chinese philanthropy and large-scale conservation efforts. 

China is better known, in fact, for its environmental crises, with its fast economic rise leading to massive carbon emissions and notoriously poor air quality in cities. It’s also the largest market for ivory and other illegal wildlife poaching. But the country is making progress, with President Xi Jinping making moves toward conservation and emissions reductions. Public engagement with environmental issues also seems to be on the rise. Until recently, it wasn’t possible to establish a privately owned nature reserve, but now Xi is beginning to establish public-private partnerships for land protection, Bloomberg reports. 

The country’s incredible surge in private wealth is also paving the way for its philanthropic sector’s growth. The number of billionaires in the country grew to nearly 600 in 2016, and even with political and legal hurdles, donations from just the top 100 philanthropists in mainland China have more than tripled between 2010 and 2016 to $4.6 billion, according to one study. As we predicted would happen a few years back, when Jack Ma made the environment a high priority for his growing giving, China is becoming a real force in green funding. 

It’s hard to know how China’s philanthropic sector will grow, however—an analog to Gates-style big philanthropy, giving large amounts but drawing ire for the way it wields its power, or something else entirely. As philanthropy historian Benjamin Soskis wrote for the Atlantic a while back, Gates and Warren Buffett have been recruiting international billionaires to join in American-style philanthropy. But this new generation of global givers, he adds, might be better off with something less top-down, and more like a community foundation. 

It’s definitely exciting to see this kind of huge funding headed toward environmental issues, and to see such attention being paid in a region where they haven’t taken center stage. But you also have to wonder how this might sway environmentalism in the future, and whether China will replicate or dodge problematic aspects of American philanthropy.