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An Economist article from a few months back discusses the cautious growth of charitable giving in China.

It begins by discussing “pandas,” large, bear-shaped receptacles installed in cities throughout China to receive anonymous donations of clothing for those in need. According to Yang Yinghong, founder of the organization responsible for the pandas, many Chinese citizens drop off their donations at night, wary that they might be seen. In his estimation, this is due to a fear still prevalent among many Chinese that someone may “think badly of them for giving away perfectly wearable clothes.”

Nevertheless, the number of donors depositing clothing is impressive. There are hundreds of pandas around Shanghai, with more appearing all over inland and coastal China, and donations have reached as high as one million items of clothing per year.

The article also mentions how in 2008, after the devastating earthquake in Sichuan province, volunteers and aid poured into the region. A look at the statistics shows that charitable giving nearly quintupled from 2007 to 2008.

At the same time, “elite” philanthropic giving is growing, with figures such as Jack Ma, co-founder of Alibaba, establishing a philanthropic trust in 2014, Zhang Xin and Pan Shiyi, property developers, establishing a fund to help poor Chinese students attend university abroad, and Gensheng Niu becoming the first from Mainland China to sign the Giving Pledge. Just last month, Jack Ma hosted the Xin Philanthropy Conference, which brought together philanthropic elites from China and around the world.

In 2010, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett hosted a dinner in Beijing for some of China’s richest, hoping to persuade them to start giving more to charity. Many did not attend, and one businessman even dismissed charitable giving as a way to dodge taxes.

So why, in recent years, have there been such significant developments in China’s philanthropic sector?

Jack Ma explains that at that time, China’s philanthropic sector was still in its infancy. One Harvard study suggests that a generational change among China’s elite has led to increased giving. Whereas the old generation of donors limited their giving to educational organizations based mostly in the already wealthy regions where they lived, a younger generation of tech billionaires is changing the face of Chinese philanthropy.

Though regulations have tended to make philanthropic giving in China difficult, this March, the Chinese government passed legislation which makes it easier for nonprofits to legally register and raise money, improves tax incentives for making donations, and makes it easier to establish charitable trusts (Some, of course, are skeptical that the laws will actually facilitate the growth of the nonprofit sector).

While China ranks quite low on the Charities Aid Foundation’s World Giving Index, the past few years have pointed to a growth in its charitable giving. It is true that China’s giving is still, per capita, at about one hundredth the level of that of the United States. But the explosion of panda receptacles across China is a sign that everyday people are willing to give to those in need. Along with with the growth in recent years of a new Chinese philanthropic elite, and the possibility of easier processes for starting nonprofits, these pandas may indicate that China’s charitable giving will be on the rise in the coming years.

2 thoughts on “The Cautious Growth of Chinese Philanthropy”

  1. Eduardo says:


    Thanks for your interest in my article. Your question, “What role might a greater understanding . . . of Chinese history and culture play” in understanding the philanthropic sector in China is the sort of question that motivates my broader interest in this topic.

    When we discuss anything from elite philanthropy to “civil society” to everyday charitable giving in China, we have to take into account Western concepts of philanthropy, since Communism and economic liberalization (both Western influences) affected Chinese culture in ways beyond politics and economics. But knowledge of traditional Chinese culture (as well as a look further back in history than the 20th century) is key to a fuller understanding of what’s really going on. To adequately answer your question, a much deeper study of traditional Chinese culture and its concepts of charity and philanthropy would be required. If you are aware of any such studies, I would love to hear about them. I hope this response addresses your concern, and I welcome any further thoughts you may have. Thanks again for reading and commenting.

  2. Martin Novom says:

    Thank you for sharing your observations about what you’ve gleaned regarding philanthropy in China. While I lived in Japan for three years I only visited Hong Kong once, very briefly. I am struck with the question of how I might better understand the philanthropic sector in China. What role might a greater understanding on my part of Chinese history and culture play? Surely I limit my understanding if I only apply Western cultural concepts and a Western historical context (ie. philanthropy as it is structured in the US). I write this not as criticism but in the spirit of inquiry.
    Martin Novom

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