06/01/2020 No. 156
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Rockefeller family sets worthy example for HK’s super-rich
By Sheng-Wei Wang
April 1, 2017

American banker, presidential emissary and adviser, philanthropist and patron of the arts, David Rockefeller died on March 20, 2017. He was 101. At the time of his death, Forbes estimated his net worth at $3.3 billion (Global Rich List, ranking No. 603) and that he gave away $2 billion to charity in his lifetime. 


The Rockefeller family was synonymous with American aristocracy. On his travels overseas, David is often treated like a head of state, hardly surprising when he is said to have met 200 heads of state in 40 years, during which time he not only actively promoted the interest of his Chase Manhattan Bank, but more importantly, understanding between nations. As one former colleague at Chase puts it: “He was an internationalist first and an international banker second.” It will be the former role that his legacy will be most remembered and for the current generation of tycoons everywhere to emulate.


The Rockefeller family’s giving and devotion to the service of others started from David’s grandfather John Rockefeller who together with another American industrialist Andrew Carnegie started the American philanthropism practice. Both felt their social obligations after amassing great wealth. Carnegie once explained: “Surplus wealth is a sacred trust which its possessor is bound to administer in his lifetime for the good of the community.” I believe this magnanimous spirit of public service contributed to the early success of America. It is also a particularly fitting example for Hong Kong, which has one of the highest concentrations of billionaires in the world. A few of Hong Kong’s super-rich have practiced philanthropism, but many more should chip in after they have greatly benefited from our free market economy to help minimize our wealth gap and improve harmony. Their effort would go a long way towards promoting a healthier attitude towards money along the following lines:


1) Learn the true value of wealth


Wealth can benefit people in need, but can also be destructive if not handled wisely. The Rockefeller family managed to avoid fights over inheritance. Our wealthiest man Li Ka-sing has impressed his two sons the importance of frugality, which dovetails with David Rockefeller’s belief that while material things can make people happy to a certain extent, if they do not have meaningful relationships and meaningful goals in life, they would still feel quite empty despite their extravagant material enjoyment. 

2) Leverage our influence, fame and fortune for good everywhere


David once pointed out that “We now live in a world where we are related by economics,   politics, the environment, technology and human nature. We can no longer think of the people and problems in other parts of the world as ‘foreign’ to us.”  Hong Kong generally supports his view except for the localists. Considering that at least 12 of the city’s top 20 billionaires are in the real estate business, they should take people’s grievances – unaffordable housing being the most serious – into account in their business calculations.


3) Practice meritocracy  


The management of the Rockefeller business empire was determined by meritocracy and not blood ties. Among family members, only those who have proven their competence are given positions accordingly. Others made a name for themselves outside their immediate family business. It is this rejection of nepotism that has allowed the Rockefellers to defy an old Chinese proverb: “Wealth does not last more than three generations”. In fact, 70 percent of rich families would lose their wealth by the second generation.


4) Understand the changing world


David Rockefeller graduated from Harvard College in 1936 and did graduate work at Harvard with economist Joseph Schumpeter before earning a Ph.D. in economics at the University of Chicago in 1940. Paul Samuelson, the famous economist and the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, was his classmate. David had a profound insight on economics, business and government policy influence. These insights widely affected the US economic direction and policy formulation as he was a major influence in the business world for decades at his prime. He redefined the identity of the entrepreneur, and believed that entrepreneurship itself represents an opportunity for people to fulfill their desire for innovation and risk taking, and profit is just a by-product coming out of their earnest effort.


5) Cultivate an indomitable spirit


David’s grandfather John Rockefeller started work at age 16. He realized from an early age that nothing good comes easy. This is a point that young Hongkongers can take to heart. So rather than complaining about this and that constantly, they should just get on with it and take whatever work they can find. Not many people can honestly say they have an ideal job. Young people most certainly cannot expect their first job to be an ideal fit. In fact, they should look on difficult jobs as ideal training ground that may help them climb up the totem pole of the job market.

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Born in Taiwan, Sheng-Wei Wang is an independent scholar and freelance writer. She has a Ph.D. in Theoretical Chemical Physics from the University of Southern California. In 2006 she founded the China-U.S. Friendship Exchange Inc., which seeks to promote understanding and cooperation between China and the United States. Her book: China's Ascendancy: Opportunity or Threat? is on China's growing influence around the world and its relationship with the U.S. Her Chinese new book is Chasing Dragons: the True History of the Piasa (Chinese Edition; 《郑和发现美洲之新解》).
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