Last week's piece by Eduardo Andino on China’s new ‘Charity Law,’ which official Party organs in China are hailing as a landmark piece of legislation, pointed to some areas of growth in the country's charitable giving. While it’s true that the law does create a bit of breathing space for civil society groups to form and operate, friends of philanthropy may wish to reserve their praise for the moment.
As the Wall Street Journal’s reporting helps to make clear, the law faces more than a little resistance at the local level, where bureaucrats and officials have no good experience processing tax deductions, let alone understanding the sort of philanthropic culture needed to sustain them. The economic growth that has underwritten the Chinese Communist Party’s political legitimacy for decades has come (and now gone, if recent trends continue) without any analogous growth in philanthropic culture.
But the fish rots from the head down. President Xi Jinping has distinguished himself from his predecessors by his ability to charm the West into thinking he is some sort of enlightened reformer, all the while overseeing the most significant political and social crackdown in China since the Cultural Revolution. If the People’s Congress has rubber-stamped this new charity law, it is only because Xi sees in it no substantial threat to his repressive rule.
For instance, The Diplomat reports that the new law creates onerous reporting and fundraising requirements that will “encourage larger domestic [charities] to survive, [while] crowd[ing] out smaller ones.”
In other words, China’s legal culture is still subject to political control and abuse, and still ultimately serves the interests of the political class. A civil society expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Anthony Spires, concludes that this law has been “ten years in the making, and [now] probably seven or eight years too late.”
So the presence in China of the occasional oligarch-donor like Jack Ma or the new “panda” bins for anonymous clothing donations shouldn’t on their own inspire any particular hope in the future of Chinese civil society. But still, the new law provides an opening that diplomats and civil society groups in the West can seize upon, demanding that China allow more and more foreign groups, especially ones committed to political development and trans-Atlantic exchange, to set up shop unmolested. As soon as charity in China sets its sights towards goals the regime deems dangerous, President Xi’s new law will be exposed for the cynical ploy that it is, and a genuine growth of civil society in that country can perhaps proceed in earnest.