When I first came to China, the apparent lack of Chinese interest in supporting charitable work was quite shocking. When asked for donations, many Chinese would respond simply that, “It isn’t my business,” or “I’ll do something later, when I have more money.” In 2005, I faced this situation even more directly, when I co-founded a non-profit charity to help a Chinese ethnic minority group, the Mosuo (www.mosuoproject.org). Appeals to foreigners generally garnered interest and support, while appeals to Chinese mostly garnered excuses and rejections.
I was not alone in concluding that this was indicative of a general selfishness, or lack of concern for others, within Chinese culture. However, with time, I came to see that, as with many cultural issues, it wasn’t quite so simple. Among many factors, there were two in particular that were affecting this situation.
First was the perception of dishonesty within Chinese charity organizations. Funds are not used in the manner that they were supposed to be, and efforts by donors to get detailed information about how their money is spent run into a brick wall. Nepotism leads to people with questionable experience or qualifications being put in charge of huge sums of money. The pervasiveness of this problem, combined with a lack of real government oversight, has led to an understandable skepticism among about giving money to any such organizations.
The second factor is the Chinese culture’s roots in Confucianism, which teaches that there are different circles of responsibility. Your greatest responsibility is to your immediate family. Then your extended family. Then your friends. Then your community. Etc., etc., etc. The less of a direct connection you have to someone, the less responsibility you have towards them.
…and therefore, giving that money to someone else is effectively stealing from their own children’s legacy.
More than that, if you do give money to help people with whom you have no direct connection, you may be seen by those who are closer to you—your family, your friends—as giving away “their money.” Why are you giving money to people you have little or no connection to, rather than giving it to people toward whom you have a clear responsibility? This perspective is particularly common within families, where the parents’ legacy is seen as belonging to their children, and therefore, giving that money away is effectively stealing from their own children’s legacy.
However, there’s another side to this that I think many people aren’t seeing, and which I find to be very promising for China’s future. It all started in 2008, with the devastating earthquake in Sichuan. Now, you have to understand, prior to that earthquake, the response to pretty much every major national disaster was that people would give exactly the amount their government or employer told them to give. And then, once that was done, feel that their responsibilities had been fulfilled. There was very little sense of personal responsibility, or desire to get more involved.
That changed in 2008. Not among the older generation, who mostly stuck to established patterns, but among the under-25 generation. High school and university students, based on nothing but their own personal initiative, set up fund-raising drives to buy much-needed supplies for the earthquake victims. Some young adults who already had jobs actually left their jobs in order to take supplies to Sichuan, or to offer their help there. The most amazing thing was that nobody was telling them that they should do this; they were doing it on their own initiative.
What particularly struck me about this was the massive shift in perspectives. Chinese professionals in their 30s, with stable jobs, homes and cars would tell me that “I don’t have enough money,” but they would certainly donate money at some unspecified future point, once their own financial situation was secure. Yet here we had 16-25 year olds, with far less money, putting significant effort into helping others. They didn’t make excuses. They saw a problem, and asked the most obvious question: “What can I do to help?”
This trend has continued since 2008, particularly on high school and university campuses, where students are becoming active in community work, volunteering, charity, and fund-raising. In fact, some are even now looking beyond China, getting involved in projects to help people in other countries.
I understand the reasons for the ‘old’ attitudes towards charity and helping others, but as China changes, so attitudes, too, need to change. And this current shift among the younger generation is one of the most promising changes that I’ve seen in China. It demonstrates more than a willingness to help others. It demonstrates a fundamental shift from a world view that is confined mostly to those immediately around you, to a perspective of having a responsibility towards humanity as a whole.
John Lombard has worked in China since 1993. For the last 15, he has trained multinational companies in cultural intelligence, was a consultant to the Beijing Olympic Committee, and has founded two companies and one NGO in China.