On May 12, 2008 a major earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale devastated Sichuan province in China, killing approximately 87,000 people and displacing millions. Within hours of the earthquake, hundreds of non-government organizations had organized to solicit donations and volunteers to aid earthquake victims. China’s most popular internet portal sites, including Tianya, Tencent, Sohu, Taobao, and KongzhongNet partnered with several charitable foundations to launch a massive online fundraising drive for earthquake victims, raising over 24 million RMB (US $3.5 million) within three days, mostly from individual online donations. Within two weeks of the earthquake the total amount of social donations as reported by the Ministry of Civil Affairs had reached 30.876 billion RMB (US$4.5 billion). (see Yang Guobin’s article at http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/civil-society-emerges-earthquake-rubble and Jia Xijin’s article at URL:http://www.nautilus.org/fora/security/08056Jia.html)
Does the explosion of charitable giving that followed this earthquake represent a one-time spike in philanthropic activity in China triggered by a particularly tragic disaster? Or is it indicative of a more long term trend in China towards the development of a healthy philanthropic sector? While it there continues to be many obstacles to the development of such a sector in China, there is significant evidence to suggest that there is growing demand and space for philanthropic activity in Chinese society.
China has traditionally seen relatively little philanthropic giving outside of the family. Various observers have offered numerous explanations for why this is so. Some point to cultural barriers, noting that both Confucianism and Chinese Marxism promote a culture in which social and political issues are viewed as being primarily the domain of the elite. Others note that in spite of the enormous economic gains made by China since the beginning of reforms in 1978, a relatively large portion of the Chinese population continues lack the resources to participate significantly in philanthropic giving. Another important factor impeding the development of a philanthropic sphere in China has been the dominant position of the government in Chinese society, particularly during the Mao period.
Recent events, including the Sichuan earthquake and the 2008 Beijing Olympics, suggest that these barriers are breaking down fast. Social donations skyrocketed in 2008, increasing 246 per cent since 2007, as did volunteerism with over ten million volunteers participating in earthquake relief efforts and millions more getting involved in the Beijing Olympics. Simon Elegant of Time views this describes this spike as a “shock of consciousness… a new confidence in the ability, even duty, of ordinary Chinese to contribute to building a more virtuous society and a willingness to press the government for the right to do so” (see his article at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1808638,00.html). This development has had a profound impact on both domestic and international corporations, who have had to ramp up there social responsibility programs to avoid be labeled as misanthropic “iron roosters,” as well as on grass roots non-government organizations, who have benefited greatly from the increase available funds and volunteers.
The event of 2008 revealed that a large number of people in China have both the desire and the resources to participate in philanthropic activities. Furthermore, philanthropic organizations in China are becoming increasingly organized and professional. Countless non-governmental organizations dedicated to dealing with social and humanitarian issues are operating in China with progressively higher degrees of autonomy from the government. Most importantly, the Chinese government is allowing more space for philanthropic work in China. This is partially a consequence of the increasing difficulty of managing an ever more diverse and complex of Chinese society, but also reflects acknowledgment on the part of the Chinese Communist Party of the immense contribution a healthy philanthropic sector can make to a society.
While the level of donation and volunteerism has inevitable receded in the year since the earthquake, there is significant evidence to suggest that there is enormous potential for the philanthropic sector to grow rapidly in the coming years. In short, international charities, religious organizations and special interest groups which focus on disaster relief, charity, and providing social services without crossing political boundaries are likely to find an increasingly open and friendly reception by the Chinese government and people.