Hoping for charity, without getting faith involved

The New Republic has an article by Gordon Chang on the lack of philanthropy among China’s rich. As he points out, one of the things blocking the emergence of charity organizations is China is the Party, which is very reluctant to approve the creation of any sort of organization outside itself, so it is hard even for the ideologically approved very rich to get permission to do so. Of course they could just donate to organizations they don’t control, but Chinese rich people (like all people everywhere) are at least partially motivated to do good by the praise they can win for doing so publicly.1

This is too bad, in part because lots of people who could use help are not getting it, and in part because China could really use an active civil society that would feed the hungry, cloth the naked and heal the sick. The problem with that is that that sort of thing can shade off into comforting the afflicted, and that is getting into political criticism. The Chang article was a response to Bill Gates and Warren Buffett visiting China to try and encourage more charitable giving. Gates and Buffett come from a society where it is unthinkable that the state would prevent the very rich from doing whatever they want, but also from a society where the state has long since made its peace with charity. Actually, Western states did relatively little charity, leaving most of it to the church for a long time, and of course this has led to conflict, possibly most noticeably over control of education in a lot of Catholic countries.

In Late Imperial China, at least, providing benevolence to the people was always one of the duties of the state, and even when it was provided by the local elite (and they did a lot of it) they did so a surrogates of the state, not as representatives of a rival organization.2 This actually changed some in the Late Qing. Katheryn Edgerton-Tarpley discusses this in her book about the response to the great famine in Shanxi in the 1870s. Chinese charity, from orphanages and soup kitchens to providing education and sponsoring public improvements was always localized and particular. In response to the famine, however, elites in Shanghai began to take action on a national level, despite the fact that Shanxi was a long way away. Tarpley discusses how the newspaper Shenbao and its writers both organized charity on a new level and were implicitly critical of the government’s unwillingness to adopt new, Western methods to deal with this and other crises. For a government that accepts nurturing the people as one of its duties almost any form of organized charity outside the structure of the state is an implicit criticism. I’m not sure that the CCP really accepts nurturing the people as one of its duties at present, but I am not surprised that they are reluctant to see organizations doing this job for them and thus criticizing either their ability or their will. I’m not sure how this contradiction could be resolved, but it is depressing that the state can’t even work out some sort of arrangement with Jet Li, who I would not really call an oppositional figure.

  1. Even when you give money anonymously you are motivated in part by the warm glow you feel and only in part by the desire to do good for others. Since you can’t entirely untangle these motives in yourself I don’t find it all that helpful to try and do so when looking at others.  

  2. I’m leaving out the Buddhists here, who were separate organizations and did charity but were not oppositional to the state.  


  1. Perhaps what mainland China needs, then, is state-run charities: The Lu Xun Fund for Art and Culture, the Lei Feng Fund for Local Aid, the Red Star Disaster Relief Fund. This might appeal to the Islamic minorities, as well, who are supposed to give zakat to the community but whose religious charities invariably fall under suspicion for ties to non-Chinese radical groups.

    I’m not sure that I really like the idea of the Chinese state running charities, but it would be a way to thread the needle.

  2. Carolyn Reeves has a nice piece “Bill and Warren’s Excellent (Chinese) Adventure,” on the September 22 China Beat, my second favorite blog. Reeves calls out those who blame Chinese culture for the lack of charitable support, which Chang lists this as his third factor. He claims “many aspects of Chinese culture discourage giving to help others” and quotes the old Chinese saying, “You sweep the snow only in front of your own porch.” Reeves, who did her dissertation on the Chinese Red Cross in the early 20th century, points out the long tradition of charity in early modern and late imperial China. Westerners had a vested interest in presenting their charitable work as filling a gap in Chinese culture. My own impulse is to doubt cultural explanations on this level and to prefer political and structural ones.

  3. Could you expand on the point about Buddhists? Because my understanding was that the failures of both state and local elites at famine relief, and the more effective relief of Buddhist organizations, allowed a Buddhist secret society like the Red Bandits to take over power.

  4. M,

    If by the Red Bandits you mean the Red Spears 红槍會 I would not really classify them as a Buddhist charitable organization, although I think they may have been influenced by Buddhist ideas. I was thinking more about the type of charity work you can find discussed in Naquin’s Peking: Temples and City Life, 1400-1900

  5. “they did so a surrogates of the state, not as representatives of a rival organization.” Don’t you think that putting all religious organizations (except Buddhist ones -Tang dynasty and Wuzong’s decree may prove to be an exception to that assumption) in the same bag without distinction is clearly a dangerous and not historically up to the facts attitude/prejudice?

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