Friday, March 4, 2011

Philanthropy in China

I had attended a very interesting webinar yesterday hosted by Foundation Search and Metasoft Systems on Philanthropy in China.  I had long been questioning the overwhelming response in the North American fundraisers on a so-called “emerging civil sector” in China.  As someone who is born and raised in China, I don’t see a true civil society and a voluntary sector in China unless drastic changes are made in the social and political landscape first.  I am very glad that the webinar had included a presenter like Blake Bromley who had a way deeper understanding of the problems China’s facing as well as seeing through the façade of “Chinese philanthropy” that North American fundraisers are naively embracing.  

Here is a summary of what I had experienced and also learned about philanthropy and the civil sector in China:

Government Controlled Causes
There are no truly independent NGOs in China.  Every charity organization had to be approved by the government.  The causes these NGO supports therefore have to be in line with the state or party principles.  This means that government effectively controls what causes can be supported in China.  

Reading Between the Lines
What got most North American fundraiser excited is the published numbers of donations by China Daily.  China Daily is a 100% government controlled media.  Chinese and expatriates in China had long learned the art of “reading between the lines” as government controlled media, as Blake Bromley had pointed out in the webinar, only publishes what they want you to hear.  When I see such number published, instead of rejoicing for an “emerging civil society” in China, I would question the motive and strategy of the government for placing a piece like that in the media.  

Lack of Transparency
There is still a tremendous lack of transparency in China on how the relieve fund were used.  The authority of using the fund usually lies in local governments (dictated by Central government).  There is a huge gap among local governments in China and between central and local governments in terms of government transparency and sophistication.  Deals are happening under the table and the so called donor reports and donor stewardship could be manufactured to be “what they want you to hear or what you like to hear”.  Even when Vivan Smith mentioned an organization that’s consists of 100% volunteers.  A Chinese person would immediately question: Are people volunteered or voluntold?  Nothing can be taken at face-value due to the complexity of Chinese society.

The Power of the Business Community
I have argued in my Master thesis on Cultural and Ideological influence of Chinese Advertising (Song 2000), that the emerging Chinese business community is the only voice that could potentially challenge the government authority and government endorsed values (especially the re-engineering of the revitalization of the Confucius values) .  Being away from China for more than 15 years, I am glad to hear from Blake Bromley yesterday that this is still the case that the most innovative ideas that came from China are from the private sector where businesses are granted relatively more freedom due to their contribution to the economy than NGOs in the civil sector.  I believe the elite class in China will continue to find ways to get their voices heard through the private sector instead of the “civil sector”.

Is there philanthropy in China?
It doesn’t mean that there is no philanthropy in China.  Government controlled NGOs are doing some work.  Control causes are better than no cause especially when it comes to disaster relieves.  Chinese people might prefer to give clothing, books or durable household items instead of money to make sure that people in distress are being helped.  The deep rooting family value in the Chinese culture will still manifest its influence so that supports and wealth can be shared amongst family members often stretched geographically due to the rural to urban migration movement.  I would be more worried about the Chinese Youth (to Blake’s point of the “disappearing family” in China) than rejoicing to the “Strong Youth in China” (which is one of the things they want the AFP delegates to hear).  What does the “disappearing family” mean to the value of people helping each other in a clan or a family network?  That would truly be an interesting phenomenon to see as the new generation in China takes reigns in a decade.   It’s true that there are wealthy people in China. But it does not mean that China is on the same level ground as those of us in North America when it comes to civil sector and philanthropy.  Is the Chinese society ready for a true civil sector where true philanthropy can thrive?  I don’t think so.  The huge economic disparity in urban and rural China, the government transparency issue, currency control, and the control of ideology are all but just a few of the social economical barriers for a true civil society.  

Asian Philanthropy: What is the opportunity?
So what is the true opportunity here as asked by the title of this webinar? I don’t see Chinese wealth flows out of Mainland China into North America at all with the government control of foreign reserve and the lack of motivation perhaps for Chinese to help causes in North America (why? Isn’t there enough problems in China left to be fixed first?).  We also had to make a big distinction between Hong Kong and Mainland China.   The wealthy people in Hong Kong are educated in the West, globe trotting cosmopolitans who have liquidity (often means wealth in Western banks instead of Chinese banks) to donate to the west as well as the affinity to mainstream values in the West.   There are certainly opportunities there.  However, I think fundraisers in North America should put in the same amount of enthusiasm and dedication into understanding the Chinese ethic group who live in North America.  Especially in Canada where ethnic population will increase exponentially and we are left facing a different demographic landscape.  The true opportunity of Asian philanthropy lies at home after all.

Song, Qian (Melody) 2000.  Rethinking Cannes: a study of the debate on the cultural and ideological aspects of commercial advertising in China.


  1. Reposting comments from Anne Ran in Vancouver:

    Personally I wouldn’t donate to any charity organizations in China because I don’t trust them. I donated through Red Cross in Canada for Wen Chuang earthquake
    I have one comment on your article:
    1. The Central government doesn’t completely control the local governments. The power struggles between the central and local governments have been evident through the history. 天高皇帝远,上有政策下有对策 (Central Government has policies, local government has counter-policies). Why don’t the real estate bubbles burst in China despite all the efforts from the central government. It is because the local governments have too much stake in this inflated market. The most recent example of this is the recent local regulation 沈阳(Shenyang) issued in the line with the centre government’s 国十五条 (#15 State Policy) which is trying to curb the overheated housing market.
    If you want to dissect the philanthropy in China, a very interesting case to look at is 陈光标 (Guangbiao Chen). He is a very high profiled entrepreneur and philanthropist in China. He gained lots of fame through Wen Chuang earthquake and gathered lots of spotlights in his charity activities. I saw lots of praises about him also read very horrible accounts of his true colour of self promotion (沽名钓誉) 。Personally I don’t like him. In his trip to Taiwan, he was distributing cash on streets to people as part of his charity thing. How disgusting!

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  3. Thanks for sharing this article - really enjoyed reading. I've recently discovered Tony Charalambides fundraising blog - he has recently uploaded a great article you might find helpful!