The Mercator Salon is a series of events run by Stiftung Mercator in Beijing. Following the advent of the ‘Enlightenment in Dialogue’, held in 2011, the first two Mercator Salons took place in Beijing in 2012 under the title ‘Cultural Metropolis-Metropolitan Culture’. The second round of salons has now taken place, on 15 and 16 June at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. With these rapid-fire conversations, which are becoming a significant feature of the Beijing cultural scene, the two latest salons explored the correlation between economic prosperity and happiness and the contributions of foundations to wellbeing and happiness.
The first salon featured Ole von Uexkull of the Right Livelihood Award and Professor Liang Jie, economist at Fudan University, who has recently authored the book Happiness Index: Are Chinese people happy? The second salon included Wang Zhenyao, Dean of the China Philanthropy Research Institute, and me. Both of the salons were fluidly and ably moderated in English and Mandarin by Michael Kahn-Ackerman, who posed provocative questions and effortlessly engaged the standing room only audience for a total five hours.
The first salon quickly focused on the usefulness of GDP and alternative indicators and through the occasional projection of a slide permitted the audience to parse the correlations between one and the other. The questions were fast and furious on the complexity of philanthropy and GDP growth. The questions raised, by a mixed Chinese and foreign audience, ranged widely but the salon ended up by looking closely at other ways of judging well being than mere GDP statistics. The conclusion was, perhaps predictably, that one should not depend too much on one indicator (GDP) to understand what is going on and measure well being but to become familiar with and utilize a wider series of other indicators.
The second salon, which took place the next day, was perhaps slightly less well attended and, if anything, seemed to be composed of a younger audience than the previous day’s participants. The presentations and the subsequent discussion focused on the rapid development of philanthropy in China and the differences between different forms of philanthropy, especially the differences between US, European and Chinese philanthropy. It was clear that the audience was unfamiliar with the state of play of philanthropy in China. At one point, in response to a question from the audience that implied lack of transparency in Chinese philanthropy, the head of the Chinese Foundation Centre, Chen Gang, informed the audience about the centre’s Transparency Index. If you haven’t seen this amazing index of over 2,000 Chinese foundations, run, don’t walk, to your computers and look at a transparency index that will put US and European attempts to do similar things to shame.
The Mercator salons will continue. The third round, scheduled to take place in November 2013, will focus on the role of intellectuals and the role of science in China and Europe.
Gerry Salole is chief executive of the European Foundation Centre.