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After China Mengniu Dairy Group went public in Hong Kong in 2004, the firm's founder, Niu Gensheng, was baffled to suddenly find himself enormously rich.
Mr. Niu's parents were so poor that they sold him for 50 yuan to a couple when he was barely a month old. (That's about $7 at the current exchange rate, but it was more than a month's salary for average Chinese then.) Now 50, he started in the dairy industry 25 years ago, washing milk bottles. After his company went public, neither he nor the people around him could quite grasp what the windfall of hundreds of millions of yuan meant.
"When you're rich -- especially when you're rich in a place where most people are poor -- they look at you differently," he told me in an interview in New York. His province, Inner Mongolia, is landlocked and poor. He felt that people expected him to reach into his pocket every time the community or local government needed money. At his children's school, he said, whenever there was an event that needed to be paid for, everybody would look at his kids.
Mr. Niu also worried about his safety: He'd read news reports about newly-rich local businessmen getting kidnapped and killed, and knew that one of Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing's sons had been kidnapped and only released after the family paid a huge ransom.
"We asked ourselves, 'What happened?' and 'Why?" Mr. Niu said of his family. "We were not happy at all."
In order to keep "good life, good health and good reputation" for himself and his family, Mr. Niu said he decided to donate all his shares to set up a foundation to support causes related to agriculture, education and medicine. The shares were worth some $500 million at the end of last year.
After his donation became public, Mr. Niu felt that many people -- from his friends and relatives to employees and local government officials -- started looking at him in a much-friendlier way.
"You have more friends when you're poor," he joked.
Mr. Niu's story reflects a reality of China: Rich people are burdened by the suspicion, jealousy and resentment of others. That's probably true everywhere in the world, but it's a revelation to the newly rich in China, where people place enormous importance on how others think of them.
I don't think Mr. Niu parted with hundreds of millions of dollars just for his own peace of mind. He mentioned that people definitely respect him a lot more than when he was simply a successful businessman, and added that he gets great satisfaction from helping those in need. But in philanthropy, I think he's found a way that promises better lives for both the very rich and the very poor in China.
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