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Four years ago when Bill Gates and Warren Buffet traveled to China, they were struck by the region’s cultural aversion to charitable and philanthropic giving. Commenting on their Eastern tour, The Economist later wrote that “few Chinese fat cats have embraced charitable giving.” Attempting to change this culture, Gates later plead in the People’s Daily (a Chinese daily newspaper operated by the Communist Party of China): “Only when we help poor people break away from destitution and illness can the whole world achieve sustainable development.” According to the Guardian, China is home to the second most billionaires in the world (with 358 at the end of 2013) yet ranks 115th among 135 countries in donating money and dead last in volunteering (figures provided by the Charities Aid Foundation).

As an effect of the comparative differences of charitable behavior between the United States and China, the latter case has provided a curious laboratory for a great deal of philanthropic research. Just over the past month, a number of refereed articles and discussion papers have been published on the topic of Chinese philanthropy. Without endorsing the methodologies or conclusions of this growing research agenda, it is worth highlighting some of the top-line findings to provide a comparative lens to the U.S. philanthropic sector. I note three of the studies below, and conclude by introducing some further questions for future research.

First, a discussion paper out of Australia’s Monash University by Zhong Qin, Minghuan Huang, and Wenli Cheng recently discovered a noteworthy trend, finding “positive correlation between . . . companies’ philanthropic giving and their ability to obtain bank loans in the subsequent year.” While the authors conclude “corporate philanthropy in China seems to be a case of doing well by doing good,” they readily identify their inability to explain motivation. They posit that philanthropy may be being used as a tool to facilitate positive relationships between the government and Chinese companies.

Second, somewhat responding to the question of governmental influence intimated above, another paper by Tianli Feng, Philip Bromiley, and Runtian Jing explored how philanthropy is often used as a tool of legitimation: “[Our] findings emphasize the dilemma of corporate social behavior in China where private enterprise philanthropy may serve more as a tool of political legitimization than an expression of altruism.” Focusing on the Guangcai project (for reference, see here), their conclusions suggest a nontraditional interpretation of corporate social behavior.

Finally, one of the most interesting recent papers on Chinese philanthropy analyzed the influence of celebrity on philanthropic strategies. This paper, published by Weiping Liu, Yanling Lian, and Cuili Qian, argues that celebrity catalyzes “contradictory strategies simultaneously,” viz., strategic inclinations for both higher philanthropic engagement and less transparency. Although the paper’s strategy raises some methodological criticisms (particularly regarding their instrument for "celebrity"), the questions these authors ask have direct applicability to American charity (e.g., their method could easily analyze the Giving Pledge’s signatories).

These articles only represent the tip of the iceberg of recent scholarship regarding Chinese philanthropy. (Curious readers should also be on the lookout for a string of articles out of the China Philanthropy Initiative, housed by the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University and the IU Research Center for Chinese Politics & Business.)

These three articles raise a number of questions for American philanthropy. First, in terms of research methods, the China case represents an interesting comparative example; while there are many similarities across the U.S. and China, cultural and governmental differences allow scholars to isolate the effects of significant variations. Second, in terms of research questions, the China case raises interesting substantive puzzles. For example, although the above research is largely mute on motivating factors, the relationship between philanthropy and economic utility cast doubts upon hypotheses grounded in altruism or charity. Future studies aimed at testing these hypotheses would largely benefit our understanding of governmental influences on philanthropic behavior.

Although many have quipped “It’s the culture, stupid,” few have rigorously tested this supposition. An even closer look at China may elucidate some of the logic explaining the oft-mentioned intersection between charitable behavior and civil society.

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