After reading my last blog on philanthropy in China, one of my Chinese friends urged me to examine the case of Chen Guangbiao—the self-proclaimed “China’s First Philanthropist”. In fact, she told me that she despised Chen who is obviously taking advantage of his charity work for self-promotion. At first, I think it’s interesting how philanthropists are viewed in China and in the West. High-profiled philanthropists are generally considered as inspiring in the West but sources of controversy in China. Philanthropy is not new in China. But Chinese traditional idea promotes anonymity. As one of the Confucius virtue goes: “we should not expect to be remembered when we give, but a gift is never forgotten when we receive” (施恩不念, 受恩不忘). Even the Communism Regime promoted self-less act of kindness like my childhood hero the People’s Liberation Army soldier Lei Feng, who helped others anonymously.
The 2008 Sichuan Earthquake has given rise to a new generation of Chinese philanthropists. According to the article Philanthropy the Chinese Way, “During the 2008 Sichuan earthquake for example, a large number of Taiwanese businesses donated huge sums of money but this was all done in a low-profile manner. Chinese enterprises meanwhile adopted a completely different approach. Chinese beverage giant Wang Lao Ji in Guangdong donated 100 million yuan (US$15.2m) but also generated quite a lot of publicity in doing so. Some local media reports even described the massive donation as a good piece of business. By contrast, similar amounts were donated by certain Taiwanese enterprises, though they did it quietly” (2011, wantchinatime.com).
Chen Guangbiao has been the representative of the Chinese high-profiled philanthropists from the beginning. Let’s look at a chronology of Chen’s good deeds:
- 2008 Sichuan Earthquake: Chen donated 181 million Yuan (about CAD$30 million)
- 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake: Chen organized a private rescue team including himself and rescued 11 survivors. However, he made earthquake survivors took a photo with him holding up 200 yuan bills in their hands. Some in the press accused Chen of conducting “violent philanthropy” by taking advantage of a tragic situation for shameless self-promotion.
- 2009 Chen hosted a banquet with Bill Gates and Warren Buffet promoting philanthropy. He pledged all his wealth to charity after he dies.
- 2011 Chen built a “money wall” with his donation of 15 million yuan (CAD$2.5 million) at an event in Nanjing where a huge pile of hundred yuan notes was stacked up behind him, providing the media with a good photo opportunity. Similar photo ops were also held in other parts of China.
- 2011 Chen went to Taiwan with a delegate of Chinese entrepreneurs and distributed cash on the street to low income families. A staged event to distribute cash to representatives of low income families had ended chaotically with large amount of people grabbing and shoving. The incident generated unfavorable press in Taiwan mainly accusing Chen of not being considerate of the dignity of people he wanted to help and to create high profile promotional opportunity for himself.
So where did this new Chinese way of philanthropy come from? What’s wrong with the picture of the Chinese philanthropist grinning in front of a money wall?
Despite of China’s enormous economic success, Chinese society is not “business as usual” as most people in the West would assume. Looking closely, anything to do with ideology including arts, culture, and religion do not enjoy as much freedom as the business community. The art world in China, for example, either exudes inexplicable surrealism or extreme commercialism. Artistic, cultural, and religious communities are carving their ways around the Party lines to seek alternative voices to compensate for the lack of freedom of expression especially after the Tian’anmen crack-down in 1989. Philanthropy, especially the concept of a cause, has numerous ideological undertones that the Chinese government doesn’t like or even is afraid of. A cause is essentially an idea often related to social reform and social change. It often involves mobilizing the masses. Although everyone is advocating for less government involvement in the Chinese NGOs, I don’t’ see government giving free reign on the subject of “causes” any time soon just because the ideological implications. On the other hand, random act of kindness without specific purposes are greatly encouraged. Chinese government perhaps would have more problems with a philanthropist advocating a cause than someone like Chen Guangbiao’s outrageous display and self promotion. In a way, like the art community, a commercial twist might be the way to negotiate the growth for philanthropy in China.
A sharp contrast is the reaction of Taiwan to Chen’s money-throwing tour. Taiwan media and Taiwan authorities expressed overwhelming disapprovals. According to one report, Chen’s refusal to give through charity organizations and to directly distribute cash to the hands of the needy showed that he is mal-informed of the Taiwanese civil society. Unlike mainland China, Taiwanese charity organizations are regulated and accountable for donations. By disregarding this “cultural” difference, Chen caused the commotion that had hurt the dignity of those who were supposed to benefit. This incident further shows the lack of understanding of how philanthropy works in a democratic society by the newly riches of China.
In conclusion, ideological suppression paired with the lack of sophistication of China’s Nouveau Riche had given birth to this Philanthropy the Chinese Way and its philanthropists without a cause.