In China, charity begins at home

The ninth Beijing Terry Fox Run in 2007 – racing to give cancer sufferers hope. Courtesy

Despite its legion of 569 billionaire titans now topping the U.S.’ 537 billionaires, China has comparatively few charity organizations or private philanthropic donors. One of the main reasons for this is because there is no tax incentive for giving to charity organizations in China; therefore, few people make regular donations.

The Chinese attitude toward giving money to charities is quite different than the West’s. Most Chinese contend that every worthy person or family should be responsible for their own standard of living unless they are survivors of a natural disaster. When it comes to donations to help the poor with food, shelter and medicine, the Chinese generally feel that if a person is not physically ill or disabled, being poor because they are too lazy to fill their own rice bowl is not a valid reason to be helped by charity. But when a natural catastrophe occurs — such as earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, storms and other calamities considered a result of fate — the innocent victims are not to blame and therefore deserve all the help they can get. In times like this, the Chinese people rise to the occasion and exhibit tremendous courage in rescue operations, make large donations and volunteer for disaster relief to help those who have lost everything.

After the major, two-minute earthquake in Sichuan in 2008 that left 69,000 dead and 4.8 million homeless, thousands  of volunteers, including my adopted Chinese son, Peter Ronning, rushed from Chongqing to the epicenter near Chengdu at the risk of their lives, braving aftershocks to help rescue survivors and dig out bodies. Actually there were so many volunteers they had to be turned back to keep the roads clear for Caterpillar machinery and ambulances. The government spent $146.5 billion to rebuild ravaged areas.

Unfortunately, as with some Western countries, there are charities that acquire bad reputations, including the Red Cross in China, mainly because they cannot or will not provide proof of how the money is spent. All donations from charitable organizations must be combined with the government disaster relief fund and managed collectively by government agencies. Like a few other charities in both East and West countries, there is sometimes a lack of trust and a deep suspicion of corruption and fraud.  

Many people fear that a large part of their donations will end up in the pocket of corrupt officials. And that fear can prevent help reaching those who need it most.

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