Will Xenophobia and Cynicism Obstruct Chinese Philanthropy?

Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have arrived in Beijing to meet with some of China’s richest tycoons and discuss philanthropy. Gates and Buffet have been visiting the world’s richest people to sell the idea of “The Giving Pledge”—a commitment to donate a large majority of one’s wealth, either during their lives or upon their death, to charity.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffet

Since beginning this campaign, they have convinced over 40 U.S. billionaires, including Michael Bloomberg, Larry Ellison, George Lucas and David Rockerfeller, to pledge giving at least half of their fortune to charity. While Gates and Buffet have been very clear that the objective of the meeting with the Chinese is not to ask for contributions, but instead to share their experience, xenophobia and cynicism seem to be a major obstacle to establishing a Chinese rival to western philanthropy.

According to CNN, China boasted 477,000 millionaires (in U.S. dollars) at the end of 2009, a 31-percent increase from the previous year and trailing only the United States, Japan and Germany, according to a report jointly released last June by consulting firm Capgemini and investment bank Merrill Lynch.

CNN also reported that wealthy Chinese seem unwilling to open their purse strings for charitable causes, however. In 2009, a government-sponsored honor roll listed 121 Chinese philanthropists who donated a combined $277 million, less than half of what a single family — American financier Stanley Druckenmiller and his wife — gave away in the same year in the United States.

So what is it that is keeping the Chinese from opening up their wallets and giving? Recently, Economic 30 Minutes has released a three-part series on Chinese philanthropy. The first part examines the reactions of some who were invited to the meeting. Below are reactions to the invite, as well as some insightful comments by Zhang Xin, CEO of Soho China.

Translation

Chen Guangbiao

Chen Guangbiao, Chairman for Jiangsu Huangpu Recycling Resources: I hope to learn from their experiences. [Hopefully, they] can enlighten more Chinese entrepreneurs on philanthropy. I gladly accept their invitation.

Wahaha Group Co., Ltd. Chairman, Zong Qinghou, respectfully declined the invitation, saying, “As I’ve recently been invited to attend a Forbes CEO meeting, the timing is inconvenient. I hope no one misunderstands. I’m not afraid of being pressured into making a contribution. It’s just that I don’t have the time [to attend].”

Fuyao Glass Group Chairman, Cao Dewang, said, “There’s still sometime before the event. I’ve yet to decide on whether or not I’ll attend.”

Soho China CEO, Zhang Xin, said, “This is an opportunity to advance my own experience by studying from foreign philanthropists. I will certainly attend.”

Zhang Xin: Recently there have been a number of official groups which have come and discussed with us philanthropic opportunities and channels which exist. I feel that these channels are not very affective. Realistically, philanthropy isn’t about just donating money. It’s about donating your experience, your compassion and your spirit. It’s about identifying those within society who need to be identified [and helped]; this is the quintessence of philanthropy.

Zhang Xin, CEO Soho China

Zhang Xin: [One of the largest problems is that] there is really no system. Today, we come across this opportunity, so we donate. Tomorrow, we come across another opportunity, so we donate [directly to that cause]. Sometimes we donate to orphanages, sometimes we donate money for surgeries to repair hare lips in pediatric cases. After some time of donating, and realizing that net contributions were starting to increase, we had to begin doing some serious research to consider how to go about continuing our philanthropic causes. [Since the start] we’ve really just been crossing this river stone by stone. [We’ve had to consider], do we simply just write a check to a charity that’s already established, or do we try and do something on our own.

Analysis

Clearly, there are a number of Chinese who are genuinely concerned and actively involved in philanthropy. Of notable mention, Chen Guangbiao, worth an estimated US$440 million, has pledged his entire fortune to charity upon his death. Chen commented, “I don’t want to become a slave to my wealth. Every dollar I made was with the help of others — so I want to give it back to society and make my life more meaningful and valuable.”

But why isn’t this charitable line of thinking more prevalent in China? If China is home to the second largest group of billionaires, why aren’t more Chinese stepping up to challenge charitable groups such as the Gates foundation and others?

The answer likely lies in China’s xenophobia and cynicism to giving to charity, both foreign and domestic.

What will China's wealthy do with their money?

In regards to how the banquet has been portrayed by many invitees as well as the media, many are referring to the Gates-Buffet event as the “Hongmen Banquet”, a reference to an episode in Chinese history where guests were lured to a fancy dinner which turned out only to be a ploy to murder the attendees. The idea propagated here by the media is that Gates and Buffet are trapping China’s rich, and will pressure them into making large donations.

Another red flag for many would-be philanthropists is the skepticism that money donated would even reach the cause. Jet Li said in a recent interview that, “The main reason [why Chinese are skeptical about donating is] because there is an inherent mistrust in giving your money to any third party to pass it on. They’re convinced that for every 100 that they give, the end party won’t receive anything near that 100.”

Such an example can be found in reports that have been filed on how Sichuan earthquake relief funds have been seized and misappropriated by corrupt officials. Such acts not only hurt those who would be directly benefiting from such donations, but also further cynicism amongst the rich and discourage them from donating.

Zhang Xin and others have commented that transparency amongst domestic charities is an issue. According to Wang Zhenyao, director of the Center for Philanthropy Research at Beijing Normal University, “The environment is not ready in China for rich people to donate large sums of their fortune, where the progress is mainly led by the government and driven by the public…. Chinese rich people cast doubt on the transparency of charity operations. For example, very few of the country’s growing number of charity organizations and foundations offer feedback to the donors or publish the money flow.”

If transparency and a lack of systems is the leading excuse for China’s rich to keep their wallets closed, then the Gates-Buffet banquet should prove to be an excellent opportunity for potential donors to learn about what charitable causes and opportunities exist, channels they can use for making charitable contributions, as well as systems which can be used to established independent charities in China and develop trust amongst the public.

But it seems many wealthy Chinese are more willing to take a chance giving to domestic charities, as a recent pledge head by Chen Guangbiao suggests. While only a small number of the Gates-Buffet invitees accepted the invitation to attend the dinner, Chen had persuaded more than 100 entrepreneurs to donate all of their personal wealth to charity ahead of the Gates-Buffet dinner.

Is China willing to learn from western philanthropists?

Does such a pledge suggest that Chinese pride is also an obstacle to giving—that the Chinese do not want to admit that their charities and donation systems are underdeveloped compared to that of the West’s? Such sentiment seems to be evident, “We don’t need foreigners coming here to tell us how to be charitable,” sniffed one anonymous Chinese philanthropist.

Regardless of the reasons why more wealthy Chinese aren’t giving, they would do a tremendous amount of good in living up to their long-standing virtues of modesty and humility and learning from others with substantial philanthropy experience, regardless of race and nationality. After all, it was the Chinese who coined the term, “One World One Dream”. Perhaps its time that they start putting their money where their mouth is.

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Beating Up on the Shanghai Expo

I have to start this post off with a whole bunch of disclaimers. First of all, I have nothing but respect for Yang Hengjun, whose work we have translated many times on this site. Moreover, I myself have expressed doubts about the value of the Shanghai Expo and I haven’t visited it myself. Still, I was a bit surprised to see this hit-piece by Yang Hengjun in the Epoch Times.

OK, maybe I should rephrase that. I’m not surprised at all that the place I saw it was in the Epoch Times, but I am surprised that it exists.

Here’s the basic idea behind the piece, which is also published on Yang’s blog:

Absent are halls filled with advanced technologies of previous World Fairs. Instead, scalpers, long lines, empty buildings, and videos are waiting for you at the World Expo in Shanghai.

All arguably true, I suppose. But when you actually read the article, it’s pretty petty. The entire thing is based on Yang’s tour (he spent only four hours there) with a single, anonymous Expo worker, who reveals shocking secrets like the fact that ticket scalping is happening and that the authorities don’t want people to die on Expo grounds. He also suggests that some of the exhibits are faked, but gives only one example, and says the Macao pavilion downplays Macao’s status as a gambler’s paradise (can’t imagine why).

And yet the entire state-run media apparatus has been involved in an all-out marketing campaign promoting the Expo, turning it into a gigantic deal about the country’s image. I think the World Expo in China, just as the Olympic Games, have been politicized by authorities, and ordinary Chinese are made to pay for it.

The World Expo is a place where the world meets China. What does the world see about China, and what do Chinese people see about the world at this World Expo? Our guide had told me, “This place is full of deception and lies.”

Here’s where he loses me. I get that the Expo has been made into a political issue and a source of national pride to an extent, but I’m not sure I see where ordinary Chinese are being forced to pay for it. Obviously, it’s been constructed in part with government money, so in that sense Chinese people have paid for parts of it, but again, the national pavilions he is complaining about (with the exception of Macao) were all paid for by foreign countries. Yes, there are long lines and scalped tickets, and some of the exhibits are underwhelming (since each country made their own pavilion, though, I fail to see how that’s the government’s fault). But long lines, scalped tickets, and disappointing rides are an issue at Disney World, too. Is the Epoch Times going to “expose” that?

Mr. Yang is, of course, entitled to his opinion. It’s just a shame that he didn’t spend more time or talk to more than one person, and that the Epoch Times saw fit to run the piece as-is. One gets the impression from it that the Expo is some elaborately crafted Communist ruse, but in actuality, a lot of people — experts, even — are really enjoying it.

Visiting the major national pavilions is, by all accounts, lame. But it’s a shame Yang Hengjun didn’t go deeper than that, as many reviews like the one linked above have suggested that the Expo has all of the things Yang claims it doesn’t — future technology, creative exhibits, and short lines — you just have to do more than scratch the surface.

I am not, frequent readers of this site know, adverse to attacking the Chinese government. But if you’re going to do that, it should be about something real. From what I can tell, lots of people — foreign and Chinese — are genuinely enjoying the Shanghai Expo, and they might just be learning something about other cultures, even if all they’re doing is watching videos. Yang’s article reads a bit too much like Yang Hengjun and the Epoch Times went to Shanghai looking for something to complain about.

In Brief: Reflecting on the Diaoyu Incident

Much has been written about the boat collision that took place in the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. A few days ago, a friend of mine ran across this message, posted as a status update to the Xiaonei (China’s Facebook) profile of another friend. This kind of thinking on the incident is probably one reason the turnout at the 9/18 protest was so abysmal:

A boat captain was locked up by Japan’s Justice department and everyone across the country started worrying about him. But I wasn’t concerned that he would meet with any inhuman treatment, because Japan is a country with the rule of law. But every day in Beijing, there are hundreds of our countrymen locked in Anyuanding’s black jails. They’re beaten and abused by corrupt police officers, given food to eat that’s not fit for dogs or pigs, and sleep at night without even blankets to cover themselves. Men and women are mixed together, denied respect and human rights. Being a prisoner in Japan is better than being a Chinese citizen.

The guy who wrote this — I’m being intentionally vague to protect his identity — is not a “dissident”, and has in fact been repeatedly described by our mutual friend as a fenqing. Maybe the time these guys are spending online talking about China has led them in a few directions they weren’t expected…

(Another interesting reflection on the incident can be found here.)

ChinaGeeks Blocked in China (Again)

Well, I can’t say I didn’t see this coming. The site seems to have been GFWed as of sometime around noon today, with people in multiple locations and multiple connections all confirming the block.

As with all blocks the government makes, there was no notification or reasoning, so we can only speculate as to what finally brought the hammer down.

The government does seem to be starting to pay attention to English-language China blogs though, and more and more have been blocked over the past few years. Just a month or so ago, the excellent ESWN was blocked. I suspect that our blog will not be the last, so if you’ve been holding out on buying a VPN, you might want to finally make that leap.

The block will certainly affect our traffic, and is a serious issue for our Chinese-language version, as most Chinese readers don’t have and can’t be expected to buy VPNs. We’ll try to set up a mirror or something like Danwei II so that people without a way to scale the wall can still see the site. In the meantime, if you don’t have regular access to a VPN, there are some temporary solutions. I suggest vtunnel, or one of the many proxy extensions that exist for browsers like Firefox and Chrome (I use Chrome and have been using the “One-Click Proxy” extension at work where I have no VPN, it works).

In any event, rest assured that posting will continue uninterrupted. Just don’t expect anything else today. Today, all you get is this image of a Panda hopping the Great Firewall. We’re happy to leave the creepily manicured pastures of China’s internet and join the other Grass Mud Horses ranging freely on the open plains of the real internet, where river crabs fear to tread.

Help a Child in Lijiang

Last night I got an email from Rachel Beitarie, journalist and blogger at Bendi Laowai. Because I don’t know anything more about the situation than what she sent in her email, I’m going to post most of it verbatim here:

I took the attached photos this afternoon near the entrance to old town in Lijiang, Yunnan province. It’s a street very busy with traffic and pedestrians, mainly tourists.

This boy is a contortionist beggar, doing some rather appalling and dangerous spins. We couldn’t see where the person handling him was.

Talked to the kid briefly: said his parents were home in Henan, he is seven years old and got to Lijiang all by himself (which is almost certainly a lie) he said he’s only got here yesterday and people who pass this street everyday confirmed he’d only arrived recently. I’m not sure I can place his accent accurately as Henanese but think he’s from somewhere in the North, definitely not from Yunnan or Sichuan.

This is all we know. There are several other kids around doing the same thing. One of them is older and has been here several years (that one has two broken legs and wouldn’t let me take a photo of him). Some locals said they have contacted the police and the mayor’s office but nothing was done about this.

So if you can think of a way to help identifying and helping this kid and other like him please do so: add few words in Chinese, post this or send to more friends in the media or the blogsphere or anything else that you think might be helpful in making noise and shaking some government or police butts.

And while you’re making noise about this, don’t forget that sadly, it isn’t just a local issue. Child beggars are everywhere, and it’s not uncommon to find them with no adults in sight. A few weeks ago, I myself ran across a girl begging in the Chaoyangmen subway station in Beijing who could not have been older than 5. She was not accompanied by any adults, although thankfully a caring passer-by had stopped and was trying to figure out where she was from and where her parents were.

This is something the police and the government should be paying attention to. Of course, the chengguan are happy to kick these people off the streets whenever they find them, but I get the feeling no one looks much deeper into the situation. Rachel’s email seems to confirm that plenty of people know about these kids, but no one really seems to care.

Peace Prizes

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

A few days ago, the New York Times ran an editorial written by three of the original drafters of Charter 77, a document that helped topple the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia (remember when that was a place?). They suggested that Liu Xiaobo, the recently-imprisoned author of China’s Charter 08, should receive this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

Despite Liu’s imprisonment, his ideas cannot be shackled. Charter 08 has articulated an alternative vision of China, challenging the official line that any decisions on reforms are the exclusive province of the state. It has encouraged younger Chinese to become politically active, and boldly made the case for the rule of law and constitutional multiparty democracy. And it has served as a jumping-off point for a series of conversations and essays on how to get there.

[…]

Liu may be isolated, but he is not forgotten. Next month, the Nobel Peace Prize Committee will announce the recipient of the 2010 prize. We ask the Nobel Committee to honor Liu Xiaobo’s more than two decades of unflinching and peaceful advocacy for reform, and to make him the first Chinese recipient of that prestigious award. In doing so, the Nobel Committee would signal both to Liu and to the Chinese government that many inside China and around the world stand in solidarity with him, and his unwavering vision of freedom and human rights for the 1. 3 billion people of China.

I have already said this on Twitter, but I think this is a good idea. I watched The Gate of Heavenly Peace again the other day and was struck — again — by the moment on the morning June 4th when the students come across a gun, which Liu Xiaobo desperately tries to smash on the stone facade of the Monument to the People’s Heroes. It is a moment of self-preservation, to be sure, but there is more to it than that.

Liu has paid dearly for his convictions, which are not altogether unreasonable. Certainly, his continued advocacy of human rights has advanced the cause of peace. Why not give the Nobel Peace Prize to him?

Speaking of peace prizes, I have heard through the grapevine that a Chinese organization is hoping to create and award one of their own, called the “Silk Road Peace Prize”. There’s not a lot of information available about this yet, but supposedly they’re modeling it after the Nobel Prize, and its winner will be judged by a similarly international committee of diplomats, artists, and politicians.

To be honest, I’m fairly skeptical of this. Although it’s probably unfair to judge things so early in the planning stages, the fact that they’re meeting with people like the vice-premier of Montenegro might not be a good sign ((Sorry Mr. Vice-Premier, but your name doesn’t look that impressive.)). Granted, I have no way of knowing who else is involved, as the project is apparently still in the planning stages. And I suppose these prizes have to start small.

My bigger concern is that this being China, the group may have to avoid entirely ever awarding their prize to someone Chinese. Candidates that would be approved by the Chinese government and the international community are scarce, so the group would be forced to choose between sacrificing international legitimacy and picking someone government-approved (which would be seen as a propaganda move even if the selection was actually fair), or sacrificing government approval and possibly endangering itself by picking someone who works for peace outside the official system.

Of course, they can easily pick people from other countries; still, it seems a shame that a Chinese organization couldn’t occasionally award their prize to someone Chinese, especially since the Nobel prize has never been given to anyone Chinese (unless, of course, you count a certain Lama…).

Thoughts?

The 9.18 Protest: a Show of Force

Much like Tom Lasseter, I had never been to a protest in China before yesterday. Unlike him, though, I’m not a professional reporter, and I got to the scene late, so I was mostly confined to the outskirts with the Chinese media, some expelled protesters, and a few curious onlookers.

I happened to have a camera, and created this video. Nothing about it is particularly good from a videography point of view–virtually everything that could go wrong did at every stage of its production–and to top it all off I got the date wrong. Not the most auspicious start to our plans for adding video content to this site. But I’m going to post it anyway, because I think there are aspects of it you will find interesting.


(Here is a direct link to the video on Youtube. If you live in China, you will need a VPN or some kind of proxy to see it.)

It was especially idiotic of me to get the date wrong, considering that it wasn’t exactly an accident the protesters chose September 18th.

But, as Mr. Lasseter said, it wasn’t much of a protest. It was rainy, there weren’t many people there, and I don’t think Japan is going to leave the Diaoyu Islands or return the Chinese captain just because somebody baked a cake.

Han Han recently wrote a blog post on the subject that was quickly deleted in which he expresses his thoughts on the protest:

People without their own land fighting for someone else’s land; people who aren’t respected demanding that someone else should be respected…how much per kilogram do people like that cost?

But anyway, protesting [something like this] is safe, fun, and makes you look cool. The key is that after the protest is over, you can still work and study as usual, in fact it might even look good on your resume.

[…]

Anyway, none of that is important, what’s important is that if I was allowed to protest for Tang Fuzhen and Xie Chaoping today, I would gladly protest for the Diaoyu Islands or the Olympic Torch tomorrow. But it’s a paradox, because in a time when you could protest for Tang Fuzhen and Xie Chaoping, you wouldn’t have problems like the Diaoyu Islands or [people trying to snuff out] the Olympic Torch to protest about. Protests of external issues are meaningless to a people who can’t protest peacefully about domestic ones, it’s all just an act.

What was impressive was the show of control put on by the police, especially given that the protesters were there in support of the official government line. By the time we got there in the afternoon, police had cordoned off at least a one-block radius in every direction around the Japanese embassy. The streets to the north and east of the embassy, outside of the police tape, were lined with PSB officers, one standing every five feet or so for several blocks. There were easily a hundred of them, and obviously many more inside the police tape.

At the northern entrance to the cordoned-off area on Ritan Road, People’s Armed Police officers in green camouflage guarded the area, but most of the other police there were regular PSB officers, milling about and sometimes photographing or filming the crowds outside their lines. Police vehicles were entering and exiting the scene regularly.

By the time we got to the Western approach to the embassy, where a small crowd had gathered on the intersection of Xiushui St. and Xiushui North St., there were reportedly no protesters left inside the cordoned off area, just some Western reporters and a whole lot of police. It was a show of force, a demonstration of control.

The reporter you can hear in the video above was not the only one complaining bitterly about how the Chinese media wasn’t allowed in. After our camera was turned off, another reporter came up and asked how to get in. “Good luck,” the first reporter said, “they’re not letting anyone Chinese in.” “I’m from Taiwan,” the second reporter said, but he, too, stayed outside the lines. A team from another domestic media outlet circled the scene with us (coincidentally), filming down each street towards where the protesters had been, but were never allowed to pass through police lines.

As I spoke to the protester you hear in the video, one of his friends circled us, photographing me repeatedly. I have no idea why, but it underscored the mood amongst the crowd at the Western entrance — angry, suspicious, and mostly all armed with cameras.

The police, on the other hand, were calm. They directed people around the blocked off area, they stared, and they waited. After all, there were so many of them that nothing was going to happen. And there’s only so long one can spend filming police cars before it’s on to the next story.