Truth or Slander? China's Stingy Philanthropy

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 11/15/2014 01:30:00 AM
China's rich learn to give a little.
One of the recurrent media tropes that gets rehearsed when disasters and catastrophes strike around the world is that the Chinese cheap out on helping their fellowmen. This accusation stings since China likes to portray itself as a champion of third world solidarity and is ostensibly a communist nation besides which should concern itself with the fate of a global working-class proletariat. We got a flavor of this about this same time last year when Typhoon Haiyan leveled large parts of the Philippines. Because of its ongoing territorial squabbles with the Philippines, the Chinese originally provided a measly amount for disaster relief--only for the PRC to increase it after a barrage of international criticism:
China has increased its offer of aid to the typhoon-ravaged Philippines after an embarrassing outcry over its meagre $US100,000 initial donation - but the attention has already turned to the damage to its reputation, and doubts over its military capabilities, in the very region in which it is vying for influence with the US and Japan.
The initial response to the calamity, $US100,000 from the foreign ministry, matched by the government-controlled Chinese Red Cross Society, raised eyebrows in the region and stacked up poorly compared to contributions from Australia, Japan and the US - who have all stumped tens of millions in financial aid and on-the-ground assistance.
On Wednesday, China said it would provide 10 million yuan ($1.75 million) of relief supplies - in the form of tents and blankets - to communities devastated by typhoon Haiyan.
You'd' think this would've silenced China's critics, but no. "IKEA sent more money to the Philippines than China!" cried one headline when IKEA doesn't even have stores in the Philippines. And so on and so forth.

More recently, we have the Ebola crisis in Western Africa to slam the Chinese on. China being a large investor in the continent as a source of raw materials to power its mighty industrial machine--including the Ebola-affected countries--it certainly does not escape attention. Despite sending rather more private and public funds to combat Ebola, campaigners in the West are still saying the Chinese are stingy:
China has contributed over $120 million to fight the spread of the Ebola virus, but its billionaire tycoons - it has more than anywhere outside the United States - have, publicly at least, donated little to the cause, underscoring an immature culture of philanthropy in the world's second-biggest economy.

As the ranks of China's wealthy and the success of its corporations grow, donating to good causes has yet to take off in a significant way. China sits toward the bottom of the list of countries where people give money to charity, volunteer or help a stranger, according to The World Giving Index, compiled by the Charities Aid Foundation.

Donations to charities totaled 98.9 billion yuan ($16.1 billion) in 2013, according to Chinese government data, recovering from two straight years of declines. For comparison, Americans gave more than $335 billion, according to the National Philanthropic Trust website.

Many big Chinese companies have invested in Africa - China is Africa's leading trading partner - and some 200 operate in West Africa, where Ebola has been at its most lethal, killing close to 5,000 people. These include construction, infrastructure and telecoms firms such as Huawei, China Henan International Cooperation Group and China Communications Construction Co Ltd. A Huawei spokeswoman said Africa was an important market, but declined to comment on philanthropy or specific ventures in Ebola-hit countries. China Henan and China Communications Construction did not respond to requests for comment.
I have some interest in the nonprofit and voluntary sector and find the (non-)emergence of Chinese philanthropy fascinating. (While working at LSE IDEAS, one of our partner institutions was the Institute for Philanthropy.)To be fair, there are factor militating against the emergence of major charities in China. Given its stringent controls on permissible civil society actors as potentially rival political organizations competing for the people's loyalty, you cannot expect charities to freely operate there. To the point, fundraising independent of the state is largely disallowed. On the other hand, China's critics who portray it as a malign influence in the coarsening of global public-spiritedness would link its cheapness regarding humanitarian causes to a cultural trait of hard-heartedness. Witness the media firestorm covered worldwide over motorists ignoring Wang Yue, the toddler run over by a car and ignored by passers-by until she passed away.

As with most things, I believe the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes: Officials treating do-gooders with less suspicion would certainly help in nurturing a culture of giving which is not quite as prevalent in China (yet) as it is elsewhere. That said, the government has yet to move past the "to get rich is glorious" exhortation of Deng Xiapoing to incorporate social concerns of a more globalized nature. We'll see.