Top 5 Events Marking Trends in China’s Philanthropy

Written on June 19, 2015 & Published on

The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences released the Annual Report on China’s Philanthropy Development (2015) last Friday. It presents, by the numbers, a thriving Chinese non-profit sector: the projected total value of social donations—an estimate which includes welfare lottery tickets and volunteer service hours—rose by 33.5% from the year before to 198.1 billion RMB in 2014. The number of registered social organizations also grew by nearly 10% relative to 2013.


There’s no denying that these numbers are encouraging, yet taken alone, the data paints a rather mono-color picture. To uncover some of the key trends, PIM scrutinizes the Top 5 Philanthropic Events of 2014 mentioned in the Report. The changes, happenings and controversies reveal a philanthropic sector that is indeed growing but perhaps more complex than the data alone suggests.

Event #1: Open-Door Legislation on Philanthropy Law

In 2014, the National People’s Congress began preparing a new philanthropy law. Several social organizations, universities and research institutes produced a total of seven non-official drafts. This close collaboration marked a remarkably high level of civil society’s active engagement in China’s legislative process.

However, as mentioned in the previous post The Future of Foreign NGOs in China, the legislation on non-profits can best be viewed as a double-edged sword: the upcoming law might protect non-government organizations’ rights, as declared in its preamble, by sheltering them with the armor of the law, but the tightened regulation will more likely drive out many organizations and increase operating burdens for remaining ones.

Event #2: Ice Bucket Challenge in Fashion

“Light Public Welfare” is the term used in China to describe crowdfunding campaigns that rake in large amounts of very small donations. Some may argue that Ice Bucket Challenge’s success in China was a sign that the country’s social sector had moved into a new stage of giving. Compared to more traditional “heavy” charity marked by large donations and tragic story-telling, the rising “light” form has some notable characteristics: dependence on social media, micro giving, and a relaxed environment, among other changes.

The trend of Light Public Welfare shows little sign of slowing, following the rapid pace of technological development in China. The Internet not only provides non-profits with advanced platforms to conduct funding, administration and communication, but also discloses the substantial potential of brand building on social platforms—the viral spread is vital for building up social impacts.

The ease and growing popularity of E-payment platforms for mobile devices has enabled many successful campaigns hosted on Wechat, Weibo and other similar apps. There are plenty more opportunities for other non-profits; for example, the new online crowdfunding platform Kliptap enables everyone to launch their own campaigns. The technology facilitates China’s philanthropy by increasing the giving channels on the one hand, and taking in more givers on the other.

Event #3: Government-directed Ludian Earthquake Relief

On August 3, 2014, a devastating earthquake hit Ludian, a Yunnan town, killed more than 600 people and injured thousands. The government first reacted to the disaster and furthermore led the relief work with support from social organizations. As the debate on how much the government should intervene in the social sector continues, the government’s role in relief efforts highlighted the Chinese government will continue to take the lead in promoting social welfare and philanthropy.

Event #4 Credibility Crises of Social Organizations

2014 was not an easy year for many well-known social organizations. Various scandals challenged the credibility of One Foundation, Angel Mother, and Smile Angel Foundation. Immature and even corrupt practice within charity organizations is one of the main reasons accounting for the declining public confidence in non-profits; budget transparency and third-party inspections have been demanded for years, but are still far from common practice.

Gaining public trust will be both a vital and challenging stride for China’s non-government sector.

Event #5 Disputes on Donation to Harvard and Yale

Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin, eminent founders of SOHO, China’s largest real estate development company, donated millions of US dollars to Harvard University and Yale University in 2014, sparking a fierce controversy across China. Some reckoned that the couple had a responsibility to give back to Chinese society, while others believed they had the right to decide how to spend their own money. This argument deepened the debate over the philosophy of philanthropy in China—it is not only about who should give, but also about how should they give.

Pan and Zhang are not alone. According to the Report, 80% of donations from leading enterprises and entrepreneurs went to foreign receivers in 2014. At the same time, more and more domestic organizations reached abroad to seek greater impacts. China’s philanthropy has a clear tendency to become international.

These Top 5 significant philanthropic events illustrate the various trends in pushing and pulling China’s social sector, a sector that is much more complicated than numbers and data alone might suggest. Philanthropy is still developing in China today, but with so many debates and struggles on the way, it will hopefully march towards a brighter tomorrow.

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