Elite donations and civic engagement in China: is philanthropy only for the rich?  (part 2)

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As elite donations become the main driving force, Chinese philanthropy desperately needs to engage with other sectors in order to make giving more sustainable. In other words, elite donations are narrowly focused  and giving could be diversified by widening public participation in philanthropy to areas other than poverty alleviation, such as environmental protection and disaster relief –areas that are often overlooked.

Consequently, it is important to identify the framework of civic engagement in philanthropy as well as the influencing factors of public donations. Only by identifying problems, will it be possible to maximize donations to charity.

Government philanthropy helps connect with spiritual civilization. Spiritual civilization refers to a program of simultaneously advancing the Chinese market economy with socialist culture. It aims to establish modern community-focused philanthropy that is government-organized and shaped by the values of spiritual civilization to establish standardized municipal governance and public civility.

Under the framework of spiritual civilization, public engagement in philanthropy is often characterized by two patterns, anonymous giving and mandated giving. Anonymous giving echoes the philosophy of “Let it be” (shun qi zi ran). It reflects the altruistic motives of public donations, and it is usually through online platforms. Mandated giving can be seen in school as well as being a requirement in some government positions. Some cases of mandated giving in school are claimed as voluntary, while civil servants’ voluntary giving or volunteering activities are mandatory for governmental promotions.

Social identity, including political identity and moral perceptions, influences the civic engagement of philanthropic activities. The urban-rural dual structure of Chinese society dictates individual social identity. First, it usually restricts the sources of public participation to philanthropy. Urban residents, who have more social resources than rural residents, are more likely to have a better psychological status. In contrast, low-income groups are likely to experience financial pressures and personal insecurity. Because the opportunity cost is too high, low-income groups such as immigrants and rural residents are less likely to donate to charity. In a sense, a person’s social identity in terms of status reflects the possibility of participating in philanthropy. Urban citizens with relatively high incomes are more likely to have the extra time and money to participate in philanthropy.

On the other hand, the giving preferences of immigrants are strongly influenced by their perceptions of their social identity in the cities where they live. Their perceived inclusion in the community and their familiarity with local norms and culture will make them donate more to local charities.

Besides status and inclusion, individual moral identity also affects middle-class donating behaviors. Moral identity is defined as the mental representation of one’s moral character that is held internally and projected to others through moral actions in the world. Morality at the individual level refers to the protection and fair treatment of individuals, while morality at the collective level is based on purity, loyalty, and traditions.

The dual moral identity constructs a moral-psychological mechanism further impacting a person’s political identity. For example, conservatives tend to have more authoritarian personalities associated with religious fundamentalism and prejudice. The donating behaviors of the conservatives are characterized by donations to their in-group. They will tend to donate to altruistic causes without individualistic concerns. However, people with a liberal political identity are more likely to have individual motives when choosing to donate. Yet, conservatives are inclined to donate to privately managed charities, while liberals are more prone to donating to government charities that prevent harm and ensure fairness to individuals.

The micro-level social identity cannot be detached from the macro-level moralization in the state initiatives.  The moralization of philanthropy in China echoes the individual establishment of social identity. During a natural disaster, macroscopic moralization plays an important role in donations. During the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008, the “politics of compassion”, Bin Xu suggested, built the figure of “moral governance”, and successfully responded to social challenges. As a political tool, morality encourages people to view donations as a form of social responsibility. Ideologically, it follows the discourse of Aixin, which means a loving heart.

The discourse of Aixin has been promoted based on the concepts “blood is thicker than water” and “we are all family”. As Yang Zhan suggested, “Aixin obscures class difference. Rather than being a universal humanitarian virtue, it is a nationalist virtue that guides state-managed welfare.” Middle-class donation behaviors intend to transform one’s subjectivity through doing good, while they would desire a meaningful experience in the process of acquiring Aixin through “self-cultivation, self-discipline, and even self-sacrifice”. In this sense, as the desired quality, Aixin reshapes middle-class social identity.

Middle-class donations are strongly shaped by people’s social identity, including their status and perceived inclusion, as well as moral and political identity. On the other hand, the macro-level configuration of moralization discourse also affects middle-class identification with their social identity, which further leads to changes in their donation behaviors.

Elite donations have consistently supported philanthropic activities in China, while for middle-class people, the different inclinations and the state manipulation of the discourse of Aixin show that philanthropy is still a minor option. Maybe the real question is how to reshape the mentality of philanthropy. At the very least, it should not be privileged and capitalist, and we should not even begin with the question of “is philanthropy only for the rich?”.



Deng, Guosheng, and Elaine Jeffreys. “Changing Government In China Through Philanthropy: On Socialist Spiritual Civilization, Civilized Cities And Good Communists”. Economy And Society, vol 50, no. 4, 2021, pp. 517-541. Informa UK Limited, https://doi.org/10.1080/03085147.2021.1932087.

Liu, Zhiming, and Haiwei Jia. “What Influences Philanthropic Participation By Chinese Internal Immigrants: Research Based On The Perspective Of Integration”. VOLUNTAS: International Journal Of Voluntary And Nonprofit Organizations, vol 31, no. 2, 2019, pp. 390-403. Springer Science And Business Media LLC, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11266-019-00166-9.

“The Ash Center For Democratic Governance And Innovation”. Philanthropy In China, 2022, https://chinaphilanthropy.ash.harvard.edu/.

Zhan, Yang. “The Moralization Of Philanthropy In China: NGOs, Voluntarism, And The Reconfiguration Of Social Responsibility”. China Information, vol 34, no. 1, 2019, pp. 68-87. SAGE Publications, https://doi.org/10.1177/0920203×19879593.



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