For a country that is generally so distrusting of charitable giving, a new string of online giving campaigns shows that many Chinese are at once embracing giving and simultaneously putting themselves at risk of nefarious netizens.
An article in the Global Times reports that everyone from journalists to those hard on their luck have requested money for charitable causes using the Internet. In March, two men independent of one another started online campaigns requesting donations to help impoverished school children pay for their lunches. Liang Shunxin, a marketing director for an online forum, raised US $199,810 (RMB 1.3 million) and Deng Fei, a journalist, raised US $1.24 million (RMB 8.04 million). Both Liang and Deng posted regular updates on their campaigns in an effort to be transparent, and both have since come under the heading of a government charity, which allows them to continue their work legally.
Taking Advantage of Sympathy
Others asking for money have not been as upright. The Global Times cites several pleas for donations that turned out to be less than honorable. In one case, a mother asked for money to treatment her infant daughter’s eye cancer (read here in Chinese, translations here). Shortly thereafter the mother told her online audience that a wealthy man offered to give her US $3,090 (RMB 20,000RMB) if she would walk several blocks on her knees but reneged after she performed the humiliating act. The Global Times reports that the woman “was found to have colluded with an online forum administrator to win public sympathy and receive donations.”
Whether they turned out to be altruists or rakes, this trend in online giving demonstrates an interesting change in the mentality of giving in everyday Chinese people.
- Expanding circles: Only five years ago it would have been unheard of for large numbers of Chinese to give money to people completely outside of their spheres of influence. I don’t think it is too presumptuous to say that the generous response to online giving campaigns could show a shift in how Chinese view their fellow countrymen. Considering China’s population, the individual seldom takes precedence over the masses. Through these online forums, people are hearing the stories of individuals and small groups from different corners of the Middle Kingdom, and their response is sympathy and generosity. The multitude of natural disasters coupled with extensive media coverage has no doubt contributed to this expanding view of the community.
- Giving from the Middle: Since the Communist party came to power, many Chinese viewed helping the needy as the responsibility of the government and in recent years, expected the wealthy to also contribute (which has happened). Additionally, there was a view that small donations were of little impact and therefore unnecessary. The online giving trend shows that more Chinese are willing to give small amounts and also that the rising middle class is moved by the needs they’ve seen online to give up their disposable wealth.
- Knowing When to Give: What this giving trend also demonstrates is that as Chinese develop a more compassionate stance to strangers in need, they are unsure where to give and/or distrusting of established nonprofit organizations. In our research at SVG, we find that young professionals in Shanghai are interested in giving and volunteering but are unsure how to find reliable, transparent groups. The inability to publically fundraise for nongovernmental NGOs (vs. GONGOs) limits their visibility. Additionally, Chinese NGOs (both government and grassroot) have been slow to adopt transparent practices. The recent Red Cross Society of China debacle in which employees expensed an extravagant meal fuels existing distrust of the social sector. Like Chen Guangbiao who hands out money to the poor, online giving shows a distrust in nonprofits and a lack of understanding as to their potential impact.
A Better Way to Give
Above all, the type of giving these online campaigns rely on is almost exclusively emotional. While emotional giving definitely has merit, giving to unchecked sources has led to many people being cheated. And there is danger that some Chinese will give up on giving all together. We all know that a few negative reports can overshadow those truly trying to do good (ie Liang and Dei), but there are less risky ways to give.
While many people are wary of nonprofits, registered ones do have more accountability than random people online. NGOs need to be more visible not only in the communities where they work but also in their cities and beyond. That requires mobilizing volunteers to spread the word and investing time and money in installing transparent systems and clear mission statements. Perhaps the best option for potential donors is to start with local organizations where they can volunteer and observe operations.
"The public has shown great enthusiasm in helping those in need but sometimes people do not know how to turn to professional charity organizations for help, which is why online donations have become a solution for many who need very urgent help," says Li Zhaohui, deputy director of the research center at the China Charity Foundation. At SVG we believe our China Charity Gift catalog meets an obvious need in the online community by providing the general public (donations start as low as 18RMB) with a selection of projects from registered, vetted nonprofits.
While these solutions will not meet every need, ultimately, we hope they will cultivate an increasingly compassionate and generous society. And that society will find creative solutions to help the disadvantaged in big ways.