In November three important events related to philanthropy and civil society in China were held in Beijing. The most important of these was the ‘Third Plenum’ of the Communist Party, which among other things highlighted civil society. The others included the China Philanthropy Forum on November 13-15, sponsored by the China Private Foundation Forum (CUSP) and the China Philanthropy Research Institute (CPRI), based at Beijing Normal University. The latter was the Caijing Philanthropy Summit, held in connection with Caijing’s Annual Summit for Global Leaders. As the former was more oriented to grass roots Chinese CSOs and foundations, as well as other tax and governance related issues, this blog will concentrate on it.
According to the South China Morning Post (SCMP), “Communist Party leaders meeting for the third plenum in Beijing … announced that there would be fewer government restrictions on NGOs. A number have been registering recent weeks including the children’s educational group Our Free Sky, suggesting to some analysts that the central government’s distrust of the sector may be waning.” See here >
Wang Zhenyao, of the Philanthropy Research Institute, was quoted by SCMP as follows: “The third plenum reflects bold reform to allow NGOs’ development,” he said. “The recent NGOs’ smooth registration shows the new reforms were a positive step.” Wang said he was convinced the government was easing its policy towards the sector.
The Economist’s take on this was as follows: “Society is becoming too complex for the old structures to handle. Hence the government’s decision to allow the development of what it calls ‘social organisations’. In essence these are NGOs. The party dislikes the idea of anything non-governmental and has long regarded NGOs as a Trojan horse for Western political ideas and subversion, but it is coming to realise that they could solve some of its problems—caring for the sick, elderly and poor, for instance. The growth of civil society is not just important in itself. It is also the bridge to the future, linking today’s economic reforms to whatever putative future political reform might come.” See here>
Range of Issues Discussed at Philanthropy Forum
The Forum addressed many issues and some sessions were conducted in Chinese language. Others, in which there were speakers from other countries/regions, discussed issues related to developments in other places that may prove useful for the Chinese government to explore.
Disaster Response and Relief
One of these discussed the manner in which Chinese grass roots organizations could work together with foundations in providing disaster relief. This is a crucial need in modern China, with its many floods and earthquakes. Prior to the onset of the Communist system, when the party-state began to tale over all such functions, the Chinese people had regularly stepped in themselves to assist the state with relief supplies during famine and flood, hospitals for the poor and wretched, as well aid for the disaster victims.
It is thus a welcome sign that the state now appears to accept the role of grass roots CSOs as well as privately funded foundations in such efforts. In fact I have noted previously in this space that the government’s reaction to the parts played by all types of CSOs and citizen activists has changed considerably between the very large earthquake in Sichuan province in 2008 and the more recent ones in Xijiang and Sichuan.
One of the interesting features of the Forum was that two different panels were asked to provide comparative analysis and research. In our keynote speech for the November 14 session, Dr. Leon Irish and I talked about incentives for charitable giving in the U.S. The slides are available on the ICCSL website.
Our presentation focused on why China is being encouraged to provide better benefits for giving as it moved toward the adoption of an estate and gift tax. We also addressed incentive schemes in the region – for example in Singapore and Japan – that China might look to for comparison.
On November 15, a panel of Chinese and Chinese–Americans presented a paper on charitable trusts in the U.S., which is also available on the ICCSL site. Most of the discussion about charitable trusts focused on why China should make more use of the provisions of the charitable trust law (copied from Japan). But it seems rather unnecessary in a civil law country, which provides for public and private foundations, to make use of this common law legal form. In fact, Melissa Berman, President of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisers, made clear in her presentation that she thinks charitable trusts are far from a panacea.
A personal note
The reason why your correspondent has been late in filing this report is that on November 16, she fell in her home in Beijing and broke her left wrist and left hip. After two major operations and five nights in the hospital, she has returned to the US and is continuing to mend at her home in CT.
For all who travel to Beijing, she cannot say enough good things about Beijing United Family Hospital (BJU)! Great place – state of the art, and all doctors and nurses speak excellent English. If you are even in need, BJU is the place to go.
Happy festive season to one and all and good wishes for a wonderful 2014!
Karla W Simon (西 门 雅) is chairperson of ICCSL