Thursday, 5 June 2008

Charity!

One topic has dominated the business lunches, dinners, meetings and just general chit chat during the past couple of weeks, the topic of Charity in China. The recent earthquake in Sichuan has left all of us shell shocked. The sights, the sounds, and the despair beamed into our homes has been evenly matched by an enormous outpouring of generosity, aid, acts of selflessness and dare I say it – ‘Charity’.






To those of us brought up in the West, Charity has never been a ‘dirty’ word, and some of you reading this may be wondering why I am referencing the word with exclamation marks.



Brought up on a diet of ‘Live Aid’, Village Charity fares, a one eyed teddy bear and a regular stream of slick advertising encouraging us to part with money for deserving causes. We are accustomed to the concept, and acclimatized to supporting orphans, sick dolphins and diseased tress across the globe. However in China things are a little different.


Don’t misunderstand me, as with most things, Charity in China goes back thousands of years. The teaching of Confucius, taught people that helping people in need, was a way to reverse wrongdoings in this life, and would help ensure a better – next life. In fact the Chinese for Charity (Ci Shan) is directly translated as love, kindness, friendship and sympathy, charity was mainly between individuals, and mostly done in secret to prevent embarrassment on behalf of the receiver.

Events were organized by Government departments, or even further back by the emperors to help those in need, but you would not have found any privately managed institutions or groups of individuals ‘clubbing’ together to organize fund raising events.

I am told by Chinese friends that the words Juan kuan reflect the current outbreak of Charity more correctly, as this sequence of words reflects more accurately the giving of money due to a sudden disaster – as with most languages mandarin has many different words to describe similar activities.

After the Revoluion of 1949, Ci Shan became a system of balancing the unequal spread of wealth in the country, a Robin Hood philosophy of taking from the rich and giving to the poor. Responsibility for looking after those in need was the domain of the government; after all there was no concept of being rich or poor in a communist “everyone is equal” society!



This philosophy continued up until the 1980’s, when the opening of trade barriers and a softening of the communist system, led people to turn their attentions to economic growth. This didn’t initially result in a rush to participate in charitable acts, however it has led to an enormous growth of those that ‘have’, and the enormous gap between those that ‘have not’!

China is now home to the second largest number of US$ billionaires in the world, as well as being home to more than 80 million living below the poverty line (less than 1 US$ a day), however despite all of the millionaires and billionaires, 40% of all charity raised in China is via a national lottery, rather than specific donations. Does modern day China still have an issue with Charity?




Regarded as “a decoration of the ruling class used to cheat the people’ during the 1950’s, it is clear to see that individual charity has some clear obstacles to maneuver around before becoming the ‘norm.’ in China, however recent events show that perhaps China is on its way to sweeping away these old perceptions of Charity.




Domestic and foreign donations for the earth quake survivors has reached nearly 40 billion Yuan (US$5.7 billion) with some 22 billion Yuan of aid coming from within China, including a staggering US $130 million from China’s richest 100 people.



What has shocked most of the foreigners living here is not necessarily the numbers, but the fact that this incredible outpouring of public generosity has been completely voluntary. Spontaneous voluntary acts are rare in China; everything is organized, commissioned and directed by committee. An individual outpouring like this, has to have the Chinese government worried - why?



Well I walked into my office 2 weeks ago, and people were collecting money in a brown envelope – not an unusual occurrence in a western office, shop or factory – where there is always someone about to give birth, get married, celebrating a graduation, driving test success or 3rd week anniversary. But during my time in China you rarely see anyone walk around with a collection – it’s just not done. The closest I ever got to it, was when I organized a November the 5th bonfire party at NAC MG, and we pushed a Guy Faukes effigy around in a supermarket trolley – people did give generously, as the children shouted “Penny for the Guy’ in Chinese (another one on the list of Top 10 surreal moments!) .



This current activity wasn’t some dictate from management or government; it was a spontaneous and moving response to the events in Sichuan.



You may wonder why we need to analysis the reasons, and say that we should simply embrace the ideology and generosity, rather than trying to understand it. But the “Why?” could prove to be a significant moment in Chinese history. As for many of us this is a massive change in a country where very few question “Why?” and even less publicly defy ‘normal’ or “expected” behavior.



I examined the question with colleagues, Chinese and Western and all believed it was a mix of emotions brought on by a number of recent factors; the outrage at interruptions to the Olympic Torch relay, the growth of national pride as the Olympics draw closer and the vast amount of unedited coverage of the disaster, which for China is unheard of, and has allowed the population to see the shear extent of suffering caused by a natural disaster on this scale.


All of these have combined to bring this country and its people closure. From the “I Love China” avatars left on peoples MSN and ICQ accounts, to the recent outpouring of generosity The sense of national pride and belonging is immense and frightening, the combination of freedom of mind and desire to make a difference, within a population of over 1.3 billion is an immense force, and one that can change policy, destroy red tape, and even topple governments.

Want to do your bit? please continue to give generously to the http://www.redcross.org.cn/

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