George Ding: On Charity

Before this year, I didn’t get philanthropy. I knew it was important, and gave a moderate amount when disasters like the Sichuan earthquake struck, but still, it rarely felt better to give than to receive. However, it’s been a tumultuous year for charity in China and I don’t think anyone living here feels quite the same about giving as they did a year ago.

In September of last year, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett met with 50 wealthy entrepreneurs in the name of promoting philanthropy but in 2010 donations from the largest state-owned enterprises was only 2% of net income and the numbers for 2011 are likely to be worse for one simple reason: Guo Meimei.

In the beginning of June of this year, China’s charity sector found itself under intense scrutiny when theGuo Meimei scandal broke.

It is hard to describe the impact of this debacle on China’s charity sector, except to say that it’s the biggest thing to happen to Chinese charity since the invention of the donation box. In the three months after the scandal, charitable donations fell a staggering 80%. Zhao Baige, the executive vice president of the Red Cross Society of China, the charity implicated in the scandal, has come out in public to promise reforms. Even declining blood donations are being blamed on the Guo Meimei affair.

This downturn in donations is not the result of Guo or her Hermes bags per se—she merely served as a lightning rod for criticisms of Chinese charities, which, far from being transparent, are translucent at best, like a hamburger wrapper soaked in grease. The rancorous feelings engendered by the Guo Meimei scandal and the fallout afterward is a manifestation of the wider lack of trust in Chinese society.

This crisis of trust was exacerbated by the Wenzhou train collision in late July and the death of Little Yueyue in October. The latter incident brought China’s crisis of conscience to the forefront. Though citizens responded by donating money to Yueyue’s parents when she was still alive, the situation quickly became muddled with speculation. Some postulated that Chen Xianmei, the scrap peddler who tried to rescue Yueyue, did so to get famous.

All this points to the severe dearth of trust in China.

It’s no surprise that after all these shocks to the national psyche—not to mention the rash of school bus collisions in November and December—citizens would be suspicious of charity and wary of trusting others. But to shy away from charitable giving because of fear and distrust is exactly the wrong thing to do.

These scandals do not prove that kindness and charity are worthless—just the opposite, they prove that empathy and responsible charity has never been more necessary. This turbulent year has exposed a void of accountability in Chinese society that private citizens and civil organizations must stand up and occupy.

It is true that corruption exists within the charity sector and this issue must be faced if China is ever to develop a healthy charity sector, but donor shouldn’t be so quick to throw the baby out with the bath water. There are many honest people who are trying to help and there are many charities that are accountable and transparent. Forbes China recently released a list of the 25 most transparent Chinese charities so if you’re looking to give, the top of that list would be a good start.

There are signs that the central government is also focusing on the issue of transparency. The China Charity Federation, under the auspices of the Ministry of Civil Affairs, is working to establish a donation disclosure platform. According to the People’s Daily:

CCF and more than 300 member organizations will disclose information such as donation amount and the usage of the donations on the China Charity News twice a year, in the middle of and at the end of each year, respectively.

The Shanghai municipal government is trying to pass its own regulations which may include fines for charity organizations that don’t disclose their finances.

Time will tell if these regulations can increase the overall level of accountability in the Chinese charity sector, but as we engage in our personal year-end introspection, let us be grateful for what we have and think about what we can do for those less fortunate.

In this year, as a result of working at Project Pengyou, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet many inspiring individuals who are working hard to foster environmental understanding in Chinese schools and improve the lives of Chinese children with disabilities and children of migrant workers. They have shown me how giving can be as good as or even better than receiving.

2011 has been a year marred by tragedies, and though no one wants these tragedies to happen, it is important to learn the right lessons after they do. If Chinese charities realize how much citizens care about transparency, that their money is used in a responsible way, and if citizens push to support those charities that have shown they deserve to be trusted, then we may look back on 2011 as a watershed year for Chinese philanthropy, and not the end of the world.