- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 29, 2010

BEIJING (AP) — Billionaire investor Warren Buffett said a meeting about charity he attended Wednesday with Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates and dozens of China’s super rich was “a tremendous success,” despite earlier concerns that the country’s newly minted millionaires would be pressured to give up their fortunes.

“Our hopes for this meeting were to learn about giving in China, and share our own views,” Mr. Buffett said in a press release from him and Mr. Gates late Wednesday. “We had a terrific exchange of views, and learned a great deal about the good work that is already under way.”

Some reports had said some invitees to the private dinner in Beijing were reluctant to attend because they did not want to be pressured.

Because of that concern, Mr. Gates and Mr. Buffett, who have campaigned to persuade American billionaires to give most of their fortunes to charity, issued a letter earlier this month saying they wouldn’t be pushing anyone to give up their fortunes but wanted to promote philanthropy.

The private dinner, in a mansion on the edge of Beijing modeled after the baroque 17th century Chateau de Maisons-Laffitte in France, drew 50 business and philanthropy leaders for a 90-minute discussion, the press release said.

“At Mr. Buffett and Mr. Gates‘ request, the guest list will not be made public, in deference to the privacy of their guests,” the release said.

The state-run Global Times newspaper said Wednesday that Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin, chairman and CEO of property developer SOHO China, and Niu Gensheng, founder of Mengniu Dairy, were among the invitees.

Veteran actor Jet Li and tycoon Wang Chuanfu, who owns automaker BYD Co., were also among those likely to attend, the China Daily paper said.

There are at least 875,000 U.S. dollar millionaires in China, according to Shanghai-based analyst Rupert Hoogewerf, who studies China’s wealthy and compiles the country’s equivalent of the Forbes list. But over the past decade, the distribution of wealth has grown increasingly uneven — incomes averaged just $3,600 last year.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation office in China said earlier this month that some invitees to the dinner had asked if they would be required to pledge donations.

This prompted the two billionaires to issue a letter last week, carried by the official Xinhua News Agency, saying that while 40 super-wealthy American families have signed what they call the “giving pledge” at the urging of Mr. Gates and Mr. Buffett, the drive was not necessarily suited to China.

“We know that the Giving Pledge is just one approach to philanthropy, and we do not know if it’s the right path forward for China,” they wrote in the letter.

Some of China’s super rich are skeptical about Mr. Gates‘ and Mr. Buffett’s approach. China’s wealthy don’t have to “copy the U.S. charity mode,” billionaire Guo Jinshu told Xinhua in a story Wednesday. “In China, an entrepreneur’s top responsibility is to keep his own business sound, to fulfill taxation payments, and create jobs. This is also out of a philanthropist heart.”

Mr. Gates and Mr. Buffett, who has pledged to give most of his fortune to charity over time with the biggest chunk going to the Gates Foundation, said they just wanted to share experiences with China’s successful businesspeople. But they noted the country’s newly minted wealthy were at a key moment when they could make a significant impact.

“People are doing some very good thinking about how their good fortune can have a positive impact on China and the world,” Mr. Gates said in Wednesday’s statement.

Jing Zhang, communications officer for the Gates Foundation’s Beijing office, said after the meeting that the office wasn’t answering questions about the event but a press conference was scheduled for Thursday.

Mr. Buffett is also in China to attend a series of events by BYD Co. to highlight the company’s clean energy strategy. Mr. Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. owns a 10 percent stake in BYD.

At an event Wednesday in Beijing, BYD announced it would donate 1,000 sets of electricity storage systems for houses in remote areas of Tibet.

“We take for granted having electricity. Many families haven’t had electricity. It can change the world,” Mr. Buffett said.