Jet Li’s One Foundation has raised over 300 million RMB for charity and contributed to relief efforts in every major disaster that has hit China over the past three years. The organization has had a very public presence on the Mainland since it came into being in 2007 and has mobilized citizens’ giving by encouraging people to donate as little as one dollar or yuan to charity. But the organization’s moniker is a bit of a misnomer—One Foundation is not actually a foundation at all and in the past several months its stability has been called into question, as well as, the role of public foundations in China.
Technically, One Foundation is a project under the jurisdiction of the Red Cross Society of China, a GONGO with public foundation status. Public foundations are the only entities legally allowed to publically fundraise in China. As such, the Red Cross earmarks all donations to One Foundation into their special account; however, the Red Cross (which is separate from the international humanitarian organization) still technically has the right to use that funding at their own discretion.
Even as the quasi-organization has flourished with RMB 67 million (US $10.1 million) in its account to date, rumors began to circulate in September that One Foundation’s three-year contract with the Red Cross was expiring and likely to be shut down. Speculations that One had pushed the boundaries of public fundraising also contributed to rumors of its demise.
While Wang Rupeng, secretary-general of the Red Cross, said the fund won’t be terminated as long as there is money in the account, it is clear that Li is not content being just an earmarked fund under the behemoth organization. He has spoken out publically on numerous occasions about the need for change in China’s social sector and his desire to register his “kid without an identity” as a public foundation.
There are several reasons why Li would want his organization to be loosened from government control. With the public already wary of the transparency and accountability of government run charities, Li understandably feels the limitations of being a mere bank account . And as mentioned above, One Foundation can only use its funding under the discretion of the Red Cross. Being a separate foundation would also allow One Foundation to expand their fundraising activities and even the scope of their activities.
And it is not that One Foundation has been unable to do good things. With the well-liked celebrity at the helm, One Foundation has been one of the most visible and active charities in recent years enouraging the general public to give charitably.
The question is—why can’t One Foundation register as a public foundation?
It is certainly not from a lack of trying, but so far, the government has denied Li’s application. In fact, most applications fail even though there are no laws banning civil organizations from establishing themselves as public foundations.
There are a number of reasons why this might be the case. For one, foundations are even newer than NGOs in China, and establishing a national foundation requires a minimum of RMB 8 million (US $1.2 million) in capital. At the end of 2009, there were only around 1,800 foundations, with 991 of those being public (versus private foundations that are only allowed to do targeted, private fundraising).
The risk of corruption is another reason the government may be reticent to sign off on more foundations. Each foundation must be sponsored by a government department, which could be held responsible if there is a scandal. Additionally, the government is concerned that too much fundraising might make the public averse to giving, according to Liu Zhongxiang, an official in charge of foundations with the Ministry of Civil Affairs who also said that “the current number of public offering foundations is ample.”
There is hope for fewer restrictions in the future. An article translated from Chinese on the Hauser Center blog reports that Beijing officials are moving towards giving GONGOs more autonomy. If this were to become a norm in the capital, it could spread to other areas of the country. As we reported recently, the need for legal fundraising organizations is imperative for the grassroots NGO sector to take off in China.
For now, Jet Li’s One Foundation maintains its status under the Red Cross indefinitely.