A Philanthropic Society: China’s Future

At first I didn’t dare to seriously consider using the title that you see above you. But after thinking it over, nothing better came to mind. Of course I can’t tell exactly what China’s future will look like, but at least I can try my best to envision it. A friend from South Africa once said that Japan was Asia’s Germany and China was Asia’s United States. I found this comment enlightening. Whenever people think of the United States, they think of it as the most developed economy. But few of them know that the United States is the most developed society from a philanthropic perspective as well.

Wealth and charity are related and yet they are in contradiction: so how can the United States combine the two so perfectly? Recently an article written by Xu Yongguang on market-driven philanthropy made me think that it is necessary for us to talk about charity from the angle of society’s future development.

China has been gaining wealth at a rapid pace. But the attitude that having money enables you to consume at will is harmful to social harmony. Rich people passing on their wealth to their offspring and enlarging the social gap is even more harmful. Philanthropy, a further contract for social harmony in addition to taxation, is no doubt the best way for wealth to return to society.

I have cited some examples of charity from the United States in my previous works, since the US is the most developed country in this area. I am new to the idea of philanthropy (I have had contact with it for a long time, but I have seldom thought about it deeply). Many of my views may be immature, and sometimes may seem inconsistent. What bothers me most is the relationship between gaining and donating wealth.

Many people around me are not rich, but they live a fairly decent life. They all seem to have an attitude of “it’s not easy to earn money, so why should we donate it?” The United States provides us with an example of maximizing wealth and popularizing charities at the same time. Some people say that in the US the rich donate to avoid taxes, but many American scholars disagree with this, because it doesn’t explain why some people choose to donate all of their possessions.

In my view Chinese people’s wealth is growing and the number of people becoming rich is increasing. Though donations are increasing, I can’t predict whether they will reach the level of 2% of annual GDP (the American level). Indeed, judging from the present culture of donations, I think this would be unlikely.

Of course donations don’t have to reach a specific amount. However in a really big country like China, philanthropy can’t depend solely on the government. As national wealth keeps growing, philanthropy should play a bigger role, and this calls for more resources.

When I was looking at the development of charity in the US, I found that it developed for certain historical reasons. The English pilgrims and Quakers arriving in the US in the 17th and 18th centuries were influenced by egalitarianism. They established an egalitarian land system on the new continent, gave support to those who needed help, and built public infrastructure using private properties. This might be the historical origin of the development of philanthropy in the country.

This is obviously all quite different from China’s agrarian culture and historical traditions. However, this doesn’t mean that we can’t have a modern philanthropic society. As such a large country, with growing wealth, it would be dangerous for China not to develop into a welfare society. No matter how analysts predict the trends of social development to go, gradually developing into a modern society of social welfare in which altruism and egoism are balanced and self-assistance and mutual aid are combined should be the future of Chinese society. So, what should the features of a modern philanthropic society be?

▼ The Spirit of Public Volunteering and the Culture of Donations

Modern philanthropic society is mainly based on donating and volunteering. The spirit of volunteering is about more than just being a volunteer, and it includes maintaining a basic consensus towards the social order, for instance spontaneously obeying the traffic rules.

When this spirit is absent, there will be an increase in the government pressure towards maintaining the social order, which will increase the costs of social management and at the same time cause new conflicts. We can often see that during the morning rush hour, there are people helping to keep order at busy road crossings. Yet still there are pedestrians running red lights despite all persuasions, and open conflicts with those attempting to keep the order may occur.

Another example is the frequent occurrence of food safety incidents. We tend to blame these on lack of monitoring. But if monitoring is needed in every single place, how big of a labor force will that require? Durkheim says that modern society’s legislation should only be complementary – and that’s what these examples show.

I think these problems are caused by our lack of a spirit of charity and volunteering. Also, a culture of volunteering includes a willingness to sacrifice one’s own interests and wealth for the benefit of others. In developed societies, where the spirit of volunteering is well developed, there are no associated police or urban management officers. Simply put, this is because people there are more socially aware. What does that mean? I think the spirit of volunteering is the core of social awareness. Waiting for a red traffic light could lead to being late for work. In a sense it is a kind of self-sacrifice, one that leads to the maintenance of social order.

Of course, this spirit of volunteering needs a condition for its nurturing, which is equality–those who have power shouldn’t use it to trample on the social order. The spirit of volunteering directly involves the cultural issue of donations. In a modern philanthropic society, donations shouldn’t be made just by several rich people, but rather charity should come from the masses. Of course I admit that there is a relationship between wealth and donating. A poor country cannot become a philanthropic society. However in China, a society developing at an increasing pace both in terms of national wealth and personal gain, we have reasons to hold certain expectations for our social development.

Many of us hold the concept that “I am not rich enough to donate”, and believe that donations are a matter for the rich. Rich westerners are often astounded at the wealth of Chinese when they see how some of them consume in foreign countries. These same people are probably the ones who would never donate more than 100 Yuan in a year.

Some people may say that the advanced development of charity in the US owes its credit to the large amount of donations made by the rich. But in fact, most of the donations come from ordinary people. In the beginning of the last century, workers in the US donated 3.7% of their average income annually. And that’s not to mention the donations made by the rich. Public donations come from all social levels in the US, and have become a solid foundation for a stable and prosperous development.

The general culture of public donations has its historical roots, and it is also related to the fact that philanthropy is closely combined with the public interest. In a certain sense, philanthropy is an expression of self-benefit. Public health, education and innovation are the largest areas of charity expenditure in the US, and they are directly related to ordinary Americans’ social benefits.

If general donations are boosting the research and production of new medicine and the development of universities, the public is willing to contribute. We can’t see charity as an altruistic act, because benefiting others is only one side of charity. Emphasis on pure “altruism” makes charity unsustainable, and charity should also be matter of egoism.

In my opinion, in order to nurture a modern philanthropic society we need to promote and practice it, and more importantly education from a young age is called for. We are lacking a common tradition of family charity, and children seldom inherit the value of charity from their family, which means that the promotion of a charitable spirit should be started in pre-school. Nurturing a citizen into developing a charitable mindset from an early age makes it possible to develop a charitable society.

▼ Positive interactions between philanthropy and economic development

Modern society is about more than just charitable donations and assistance. It is also a market economy. Though we may have some criticisms of the market economy, it seems impossible to do anything to change it. Philanthropy involves the redistribution and donation of social wealth, and the market includes the reinvestment of gained wealth, which makes the two seem contradictory.

The practice of social development in the US on the one hand proves the positive role charity can play as an invisible social bond in redistributing social wealth and easing the exploitative characteristics of capitalism. On the other hand, it also shows how charity and the market can go hand in hand in modern society. As shown above it is the spirit of charity, combining altruism and self-interest, which creates social consensus towards charity. Americans most revere the creation of wealth. They highlight the roles opportunity and technology play in creating wealth.

America’s advanced market economy is rooted in the support of charities. In the early days, many universities and colleges in the US were built by donations. Many libraries, scholarships, innovative research, and even the hiring of professors were supported by donations.

These donations made it possible for the US to posses high-quality talents, technological innovation and an advanced ideology, which happen to be the core of the market economy of the US. And inversely, the market has created a huge amount of wealth for the US. Not long ago, I was in a meeting of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and visited the innovation workshop started by Mr. Gates. This is an innovation workshop designed to solve social problems.

Mr. Gates made large investments and hired lots of scientists and technicians to solve major difficulties. They invented a fridge that doesn’t need electricity (it maintains its temperature for a week), and thus solved the problem of preserving vaccinations without electricity that is a necessity in some developing countries.

They then registered for a patent and later transferred it for free to an enterprise in Qingdao, China that could put it into the market. This is an example of charitable innovation, which also reflects the ways charity and the market are combined.

I have already mentioned the so-called “philanthropic cases”, which intend to broaden our understanding of charity. Often we deem charity to be some sort of selfless donation and assistance, which is true, but this is only one side of the story. Charity originated in Europe, but charity in Europe is now lagging behind compared to the US. The main reason is that European charity is not that closely linked to the market, while the governments play a stronger role in society.

Some people may say that the American market’s innovative force comes from enterprises. Indeed many enterprises do have their own laboratories, but innovations have to come from research. No enterprise is fully equipped with all the resources it needs in this field, so universities have always been the US economy’s real bases for innovation. Universities are also the major destination that charity resources flow to. Philanthropy redistributes wealth through donations, while it stimulates the market economy through investment in education, health care and human resources, and creates a virtuous cycle of wealth accumulation and allocation.

Economic development also calls for the input of other elements, and we tend to believe that it’s the responsibility of governments and enterprises, which is not wrong. However, as society develops in an increasingly complicated way, we need to develop timely solutions towards all sorts of problems, which are unlikely to be handled smoothly by government bureaucracies and enterprises’ short-sightedness. That is why charity can make a huge impact. Only when charity has a big influence on solving social problems can civil society be called mature, and it is possible for the government, civil society and market to build a harmonious relationship.

I am not talking about social development from the angle of the system, or talking about economic development from the point of view of the market. I am not advocating that we should copy the model of the US. American philanthropy has its own “violent” attributes and oligarchical tendencies. However, we can learn from the experience of this country’s flourishing charity and advanced market, in order to boost the co-existence of charity, government and market.

The relationship between charity and markets also involves the market mechanisms of philanthropic operations. A recent article by Xu Yongguang stirred up some discussion on this. In my mind, the marketization of charity is not about changing its essence. In contrast, it is about boosting the sustainability of charitable resources. If an enterprise has earned money in the market and, excluding the costs, invests the profit into innovative solutions for social problems, and then transfers the patent for free or for a low price so that the poor can afford to buy the resulting products, isn’t this also counted as charity?

Even if the enterprise yields high returns, in my view it is still conducting charity. The future of China’s society resides in the development of a lively charity sector. The nurturing of a robust charity depends on whether it can coexist harmoniously with the government and the market. The advanced development of philanthropy can not only boost the accumulation of wealth, but also adjust its allocation. Charity, this invisible bond of social harmony, makes up for the insufficient role the market and government play in reallocating wealth, and has become one of the most important mechanisms for an advanced society to function effectively.

In Brief

Renowned Chinese academic Li Xiaoyun reflects upon the impressive popularity and reach of charities in American society, and considers what China could learn from the United States as it tries to become a philanthropic society.
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