On Charity

2011 year-end roundup.

Before this year, I didn’t get philanthropy. I knew it was important, and gave a moderate amount when disasters like the Sichuan earthquake struck, but still, it rarely felt better to give than to receive. However, it’s been a tumultuous year for charity in China and I don’t think anyone living here feels quite the same about giving as they did a year ago.

In September of last year, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett met with 50 wealthy entrepreneurs in the name of promoting philanthropy but in 2010 donations from the largest state-owned enterprises was only 2% of net income and the numbers for 2011 are likely to be worse for one simple reason: Guo Meimei.

The face that launched a thousand inquiries.

In the beginning of June of this year, China’s charity sector found itself under intense scrutiny when the Guo Meimei scandal broke.

It is hard to describe the impact of this debacle on China’s charity sector, except to say that it’s the biggest thing to happen to Chinese charity since the invention of the donation box. In the three months after the scandal, charitable donations fell a staggering 80%. Zhao Baige, the executive vice president of the Red Cross Society of China, the charity implicated in the scandal, has come out in public to promise reforms. Even declining blood donations are being blamed on the Guo Meimei affair.

This downturn in donations is not the result of Guo or her Hermes bags per se—she merely served as a lightning rod for criticisms of Chinese charities, which, far from being transparent, are translucent at best, like a hamburger wrapper soaked in grease. The rancorous feelings engendered by the Guo Meimei scandal and the fallout afterward is a manifestation of the wider lack of trust in Chinese society.

This crisis of trust was exacerbated by the Wenzhou train collision in late July and the death of Little Yueyue in October. The latter incident brought China’s crisis of conscience to the forefront. Though citizens responded by donating money to Yueyue’s parents when she was still alive, the situation quickly became muddled with speculation. Some postulated that Chen Xianmei, the scrap peddler who tried to rescue Yueyue, did so to get famous.

All this points to the severe dearth of trust in China.

The Gansu bus collision in November left 20 dead.

It’s no surprise that after all these shocks to the national psyche—not to mention the rash of school bus collisions in November and December—citizens would be suspicious of charity and wary of trusting others. But to shy away from charitable giving because of fear and distrust is exactly the wrong thing to do.

These scandals do not prove that kindness and charity are worthless—just the opposite, they prove that empathy and responsible charity has never been more necessary. This turbulent year has exposed a void of accountability in Chinese society that private citizens and civil organizations must stand up and occupy.

Continue reading at Project Pengyou.