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Baidu CEO and Bill Gates Take On Smoking

11 June 2011

Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Baidu CEO Robin Li launch an anti-smoking campaign in Beijing, calling on Chinese people to say no to passive smoking. Video courtesy of Reuters.

Focusing on the harmful effects of exposure to others’ smoke, the initiative will aim to help smokers quit and encourage nonsmokers to ask people not to smoke around them. At a news briefing the two billionaires donned green T-shirts reading “Say no to forced smoking” in Chinese. The Microsoft founder won a burst of applause by slowly reciting the slogan, repeating the words after Mr. Li, who is chief executive of the Chinese online search company.

Charity has grown only recently in China, where the number of billionaires is growing but personal fortunes are a relatively new phenomenon. Mr. Gates and fellow billionaire Warren Buffett, as part of a global campaign to encourage the ultrarich to embrace philanthropy, met with 50 Chinese tycoons in Beijing last September.

“There’s no doubt philanthropy in China is at an earlier stage, and so I think sometime in the next few years that philanthropists here may decide to put a group together, and they’ll have to decide if it involves a pledge” to give away wealth, Mr. Gates said in an interview after the briefing.

Mr. Li and the Baidu Beijing Charitable Foundation, which the Chinese search engine recently launched with funding of 20 million yuan ($3.1 million), will each make a donation to the initiative, Mr. Li said in the interview, declining to name the amount. Mr. Gates said China “will be a big focus” for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s work on tobacco control, but also declined to give financial details.

Baidu CEO Robin Li and Microsoft founder Bill Gates in their matching ‘Say No to Involuntary Smoking’ shirts

Mr. Li is working on setting up his own charitable foundation, though regulatory issues have made the process “longer than I had expected,” he said. He declined to estimate when the foundation will launch.

China’s Ministry of Health launched a national ban on indoor smoking in May, but lacking specific penalty guidelines—and attracting public criticism—it faces an uphill battle in many of the country’s restaurants and hotels. The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention has called for replacing the loosely enforced ban with a law.

“Doing the ban in May actually was pretty brave,” Mr. Gates said. “Over time, they need to raise the taxes even more, they need to probably put some teeth into these regulations, but it’s a good start.”

“The greatest thing,” he said, “would be a grassroots sense that people don’t want forced smoking.”

The chairman of mobile carrier China Unicom (Hong Kong) Ltd., Chang Xiaobing, also spoke briefly, as did a health ministry official.

China leads the world in cigarette production and in smokers; nearly a quarter of the country’s 1.34 billion people light up. About a million Chinese die each year from tobacco-related causes, estimates “Tobacco Control and China’s Future,” a report issued in January by a group of 60 Chinese public-health experts, which puts the health costs of tobacco last year at nearly 62 billion yuan (roughly $9.5 billion).

The partnership between the Gates Foundation and the Baidu Foundation is “open-ended” and could produce further health initiatives, Mr. Gates said.

He declined to say whether he and Mr. Li talked business between their two companies, saying others at Microsoft handle the details of ties with Baidu. Under a revenue-sharing deal, the Chinese company provides ads that appear on Microsoft’s Bing search engine in China, and Baidu has said it wouldn’t rule out broadening the cooperation.

Mr. Gates also declined to comment on whether Microsoft needs a management shakeup. Questions over the board’s support for Chief Executive Steve Ballmer bubbled into the market last month after hedge-fund manager and investor David Einhorn said it was time to replace him.

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