Interesting times for philanthropy and civil society in China


Karla Simon

Karla Simon

Karla Simon

This past month has been an interesting one for civil society in China because there have once again been a large number of developments and press stories that bear on the sector and its needs. Perhaps the most interesting story is the first one.



Bill Gates in China


BEIJING, 29 May (Xinhua Reporter Qian Tong): Vice President Xi Jinping met with the United States Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Co-Chairman Bill Gates.

‘Xi said the two sides in accordance with the two heads of state reached consensus to actively promote mutual respect, partnership building, mutually beneficial and win-win cooperation, bilateral cooperation in a wide range of areas to flourish. This will not only benefit the two peoples but also be conducive to world peace and development. Xi Jinping expressed appreciation for the Gates Foundation’s long-term concern and support for human health and career development, work towards the elimination of global poverty and disease control, and actively carrying out mutually beneficial cooperation in areas such as health, agriculture, science and technology with the relevant departments of the Chinese government. Xi Jinping hopes that with Chinese partners, the Gates Foundation will have a really good grasp of the implementation of cooperation projects, continue to explore innovative and effective mode of cooperation, and improve cooperation mechanisms to achieve complementary advantages; taking full advantage of the channels for a variety of resources, to strengthen scientific and technological innovation and results applications, in order to play an active role to enhance the level of health in China and other developing countries.

‘Bill Gates said … the foundation is actively engaged in global health and development projects and attaches great importance to cooperation with China. It will continue to promote projects and make its own contribution to disease control and health development in China.

‘The Minister of Health Chen Zhu and other officials were present at the meeting.’

Learning about philanthropy
The following includes some interesting reactions to a delegation from China that went to the US to learn about philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania and other organizations they visited. According to a story in the Seattle Times:

‘Non-government grassroots organizations have sprung up [in China], but they can’t solicit money, and their ability to operate is tenuous. “If the government is not happy with what you are doing, they can close you at any time,” said Qiu Tianxue, of Beijing, a graduate of Penn’s master of sciences program in non-profit leadership.

‘At the same time, there is increased public interest in charities, fueled, in part, by the growing number of rural families moving to Chinese cities for work. The law requires people to receive education and health care in their birth towns, with the result that millions of children now are going without.

‘But what sharpened China’s philanthropic focus was the 7.9-magnitude earthquake in Sichuan province in 2008 that killed at least 70,000. Donations poured in to Chinese charities, Qiu said, but questions arose about how the money was spent: “There is no transparency.”

‘By contrast, US charities must file Internal Revenue Service Form 990, showing which proportion of revenue is spent on helping others, not on overhead.

‘The Chinese officials visiting Penn “seemed to have a hard time getting their head around the idea of philanthropy without government,” Richard Gelles of the Penn’s School of Social Policy and Practice said. For example, Gelles said, they asked: “Don’t some of your non-profits exist to agitate against the government?”

‘Yes, he explained, some non-profits do work to change government policies. It was a strange idea, he said, to a government “whose knee-jerk reaction is to repress”.

Eileen Heisman, who heads the Jenkintown, Pa.-based National Philanthropic Trust, which manages $1.1 billion in assets and dispensed $143 million in grants in 2011,
said the group very politely asked her the same question about 10 different ways. They wanted to understand the relationship between an executive director, like herself, and the board, and how both could operate without government influence. “It’s so counter to how their world is structured,” she said.’

Click here to see more (edited for context by me).

While I would not agree with the comment about the knee-jerk reaction to repress (I met with the delegation in New York), I would agree that it is difficult for China’s regulators to manage a civil society that both works with government and advocates against government policies. This is an aspect of civil society that needs attention.

Resources for charities in China
On resources, this story was carried by the China Daily:

‘Micro-charity workers are typically poorly paid in China, and for this reason charity experts worry that the country’s highly interactive philanthropic organizations may be unsustainable.

‘Low remuneration is the biggest challenge to the development of micro-charities in China, but the Blue Book of Non-governmental Organizations: Report on China’s Non-governmental Organizations (2011-2012) released in May didn’t mention the problem, micro-charity organizers told Xinhua.

‘ “Charity organizers’ average wage is about 3,000 yuan ($476.20) a month, without any social welfare or health insurance,” said Deng Fei, director of the journalist department of Phoenix Weekly, and founder of the ‘Free Lunch’ project for students living in remote areas.

‘ “Three thousand yuan is okay in some second-line Chinese cities, but not enough in a city like Beijing,” he said. The ‘Free Lunch’ project, started in April 2011, has involved 500 journalists and employs 13 full-time workers, however, the employees’ status could only be considered as full-time volunteers because the project is not organized by a real non-governmental organization, Deng said (Ed. – it is not properly registered).’

More troubling with respect to both financial and human resources is what has happened recently to Wokai. In early May, Wokai, China’s main P2P microfinance organization, announced that it will temporarily close its operations. This organization was solely directed at lending money to impoverished farmers in China. Fortunately, new poverty alleviation efforts and microfinance projects continue to be developed in China. Wokai’s founder and CEO Casey Wilson decided it was time to move on. The organization carried out a search for a new CEO, but has been unsuccessful this far. Then, a major source of funding dried up. A Chinese language story about this development (with a picture of Casey) can be found in Gongyi Shibao’s article on Wokai’s recent travails.

As this blog has repeatedly emphasized, CSOs in China need both more money and more training for their staff if they are to function in a climate in which philanthropy is promoted. And the government needs training to better understand the advocacy role of the sector and the fact that it can be helpful rather than harmful to the government. It is interesting to me that Jia Xijin, one of the rising stars in research and analysis of China’s CSO sector, is very cautious about what may happen under Xi Jinping’s presidency:

‘But my own opinion is that I don’t expect him to do much reform to push civil society forward. I think Xi may do something less radical, not involving a change of the current orientation. Whether or not he will depend on civil society depends on what people really want. If there is strong social demand, he will have to make some reform, but if he can find a more gentle way [than] the “Chongqing model” to calm social tensions then he won’t have a strong incentive to reform.’

Of course, this interview was given in February, before Bo Xilai was brought down and the Chongqing model of development (nationalistic hard-line governance) was discredited. But Ms Jia’s caution is warranted. Although the government is promoting giving, direct registration, and all that, as I mentioned in my last post, it has not fully wrapped its head around the idea of a Western style civil society. When and if it will do so remains to be seen.

Karla Simon (奚文雅) is professor of law and director of faculty development at the Catholic University of America and has worked in China for over 16 years

Comments (1)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *