A Summer of Charity and Controversy in China

Last week two of China’s leading periodicals, Caixin, and Nanfang Zhoumou devoted substantial space to ALS sufferers across the country. Nanfang Zhoumo featured a number of haunting images in a photo essay of those stricken by the disease with while Caixin focused on the inadequacy of the Chinese healthcare infrastructure to diagnose and treat rare illnesses. These stories were well timed. After the ALS ice-bucket challenge seemingly took over a significant portion of the Chinese internet in the dog days of August, with real estate moguls, movie starts, and athletes dousing themselves in ice, the topic began to fade from view.

Beyond this most recent viral sensation, charity—if, how and where to donate money and the nonprofit institutions that facilitate charitable giving —sometimes hovered in the background and sometimes stood at the center of many Chinese news stories this past summer.

Guo Meimei, who burst to fame and infamy several years ago after posting pictures of herself with expensive cars and clothes while claiming to be the business manager at the Chinese Red Cross lingered in a jail cell, accused of a variety of misdeeds, including prostitution and hosting gambling parties in a Beijing apartment. The original story involving Guo from three years ago only confirmed the perception of many Chinese who saw the world of charitable foundations as murky, corrupt and unreliable. You could never know what your donations were actually funding. The Chinese Red Cross, who had always denied any affiliation with Guo, tried to stop people from contemplating Guo’s demise and instead direct attention to the recent earthquake in a remote part of the southwestern province of Yunnan. It took a few days but the narrative eventually changed: soon an online merchant grabbed headlines for donating 5 tons of qiegao nutcake to earthquake victims.

Earlier in the year, the charitable foundation of actor Li Yapeng came under suspicion for misuse and embezzlement of funds, a common and recurring accusation. Several years ago the charitable work by actress Zhang Ziyi suffered from the same doubts, with Zhang ultimately holding a teary press conference. As The Wall Street Journal points out through a number of interviews, these scandals make charitable organizations like a black hole: your donations go in and then disappear. Previous scandals combined with constricting legal regulations means, as Huang Yanzhong of the Council of Foreign Relations writes, the “philanthropic sector continues to face a social capital (i.e., trust) deficit.”

Beyond the question of outright misuse of charitable funds is the issue of whether the ultimate destination of donated funds is appropriate. In July the couple behind the real estate company SOHO, Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin, signed an agreement with Harvard University, to establish a fund to help Chinese students from poorer families afford the school’s tuition. The $15 million dollar donation is part of a larger plan to give $100 million to universities in the U.S. and U.K., all earmarked for lower-income Chinese students.

This donation came under attack immediately and from a number of angles. Why was the couple donating to Harvard when there were so many educational disparities in China? Pan, from a remote, underdeveloped part of Gansu province in the northwest of China, one thread of commentary went, should know better. Surely, others speculated, the gift was only a thinly guised strategy to insure Pan and Zhang’s children had a place at Harvard when the time came. Pan, an active user of Weibo, turned off the comments on his Weibo feed after he suffered a stream of invective, saying it had become nothing more than a trash dump. In many ways, response to Pan and Zhang’s donation to Harvard mirrored the controversial bequest to Yale’s School of Management by hedge fund manager Zhang Lei, in 2011.

Among the most controversial, and certainly the most colorful, charitable donations of the summer months came from the headline-grabbing billionaire Chen Guangbiao who hosted a “Lunch for the Poor” in New York. Taking out advertisement in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal he invited 1,000 Americans to lunch and promised that he would give each guest $300 in cash. Before the lunch he was seen trying to give out $100 bills to random New Yorkers but at the lunch itself, complete with a number of volunteers dressed in People’s Liberation Army outfits, only a small handful received the promised cash, with others told they would receive vouchers redeemable at a local homeless shelter, though the process of securing the vouchers produced controversy as well. The entire episode did not play that well in the United States, or in China.

In this background, the ALS Ice Bucket provoked a number of responses from Chinese figures who had challenged in videos. Luo Yonghao, founder of Smartisan technologies, posted a message that he would not be taking part of the challenge (不凑热闹 )because he thought that the original intent of the challenge had been lost as some people failed to display the ALS website on the videos of them getting doused in ice. He did not take part in the challenge but donated $39, 500. Taiwanese model Lin Chiling also declined to take part in the challenge but pledged money, saying that instead of ice water she hoped streams of warm water ran over everyone.

Lurking behind all the discussions about charity is the simple but still unanswered question of what it means for China, as a country, and for individual Chinese citizens, to be rich. Stay tuned


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