Hong Kong lies just a hop, skip, and a jump from Mainland China yet the philanthropic landscapes of these two entities differ significantly. While Hong Kong’s third sector is still young compared to the west, it has been called the . Last year contributions from Hong Kong made up 64% of charitable donations in China and during the 2004 Asian Tsunami, the level of giving per person ranked highest in the world. What has prompted the giving habits of the Hong Kong people and in what ways will we see similar trends on the Mainland?
Makeup of Philanthropy
Part of the reason for greater philanthropy in Hong Kong lies in the fact that the charitable sector has had a long and fruitful history in the city. Voluntary agencies initially grew as the British colonial government adopted a policy of non-involvement in welfare provision. In order to encourage economic growth, the government established a system of low taxes that limited its social services budget and instead encouraged churches and charitable organizations to fill in these service gaps. A strong nonprofit presence thus emerged as these organizations offered health, education, and other social services.
The legacy of the Hong Kong colonial government’s policies left a permissive environment and legal framework for non-governmental organizations to flourish. In contrast, the third sector in China was made irrelevant after 1949, when the state preceded to take care of all aspects of social provision. Only in the past two decades or so has the concept of charity reemerged on the mainland with the opening of the economy. As a result, the cultural norm of participating in and donating to charitable causes found in Hong Kong is only just beginning to take root on the Mainland.
Culture of Giving
The opportunities to give abound in Hong Kong. There are a large number of very public charitable organizations. Additionally, citizens have daily options for giving on their daily route with donation sites at MTR stations, malls, and even coffee shops. Creative fundraising methods such as telethons and regular flag days in which volunteers stand on the street collecting donations for various organizations, allow everyday individuals to contribute to charity. Popular fundraising events such as the annual Dress Special Day organized by the non-profit Community Chest have drawn a growing number of participants. Schools and organizations are involved in the citywide event by encouraging people to dress casual on a working day and donate money to charity. In recent years, the event has raised up to HKD 20 million (USD 2.56 million) annually.
Volunteering is also a norm for Hong Kong citizens. A survey of 1,555 residents taken in 2001 found that 12% had volunteered an average of 11.9 times or 34.8 hours in the previous year. 65% had participated in some form of volunteering in the past. Another survey found that 93.7% of those polled had donated money in the previous year, most donating indirectly through other organizations.
Although influenced by the city’s history as a British colony, Hong Kong’s distinct culture of philanthropy has also been shaped by the traditions of the Chinese population. For example, charitable giving tends to focus on helping local needs and those with familial ties, which means that money is often sent back to ancestral schools and villages. Chinese family tradition also encourages wealthy Chinese to pass their entire fortune to the next generation; however, some Hong Kongers have been increasingly open to leave less to their children and more to charity. In a, Li Ka-shing, the richest man in Hong Kong was reported to have called on Asia’s rich to “transcend this traditional belief” and set a new philanthropic precedent in the region.
Kong’s Big Spenders
High net worth individuals such as Li Ka-shing have contributed significantly to philanthropy in the city, as well as in other parts of the world. However, donations among the wealthy often remain hidden from the public, with many donors opting to keep their names out of the spotlight. Yet when big donors have taken credit for their large gifts, their philanthropic acts have sometimes been met with resentment. For instance, when Li Ka-shing’s foundation donated one billion HKD to the University of Hong Kong and the medical school was renamed after him, university graduates took to the streets protesting that Li was buying the name of the institution. Such reactions convey the distaste that Chinese people have towards public displays of wealth and highlight aspects of Chinese philanthropy that may differ from the west.
In many ways, philanthropy in Hong Kong reflects the way in which business has historically been done in the city. Like the many family-run companies that have created much of Hong Kong’s wealth, family foundations have emerged within the philanthropic landscape. Yet, due to the private, familial nature of these foundations, many remain hidden and lack transparency, which can be a hindrance on effectively matching donors to the most suitable beneficiaries. Nonetheless, there are signs that the next generation of philanthropists are seeking to modernize foundations. They are bringing a business-style approach to philanthropy that emphasizes strategic and proactive giving, as well as measuring the effectiveness of donations.
As donors in Hong Kong become increasingly engaged and sophisticated, the hope is that a similar trend will eventually be seen in the mainland. While experts have said that philanthropy is slowly catching on in China, a wider culture of giving has yet to be established and will take time to foster. Even so, it seems likely that some of the characteristics of philanthropy seen in Hong Kong will also shape the unique ways in which charity is done in China.