Philanthropy with Chinese characteristics: the China Medical Board and the Asia Society Celebrate 100 years of philanthropy in China

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CDB interns Kelly McCarthy and Ezra Stoller report on the growing philanthropic sector in China.

On June 5, 2014 the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations and the China Medical Board (CMB) co-hosted a forum and panel discussion in New York titled “American Philanthropy in China.” This event, attended by many notable China-scholars and specialists, provided an opportunity to both reflect on the role of American philanthropy in China, and honor the accomplishments of the China Medical Board. This year, CMB, the Cambridge, MA based American foundation, celebrated its 100-year history in China.

During the first half of the program, Mary Brown Bullock, Executive Vice-Chancellor of Duke Kunshan University and Chair of China Medical Board, spoke with Jonathan Spence, distinguished author and Professor Emeritus of Yale University. During the second half of the program a panel discussion was hosted by Lincoln Chen, President of China Medical Board. Panelists included Melissa Berman, President and CEO of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, Inc., Tony Saich, Director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation and the Daewoo Professor of International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, and Chen Yimei, Executive Director of China Development Brief (CDB).

Although the program title suggests a discussion focusing on American philanthropic efforts in China, the panelists’ contributions in fact focused on broad trends shaping China from within Chinese society itself as well. It is true that the development of a modern philanthropic sector in China has been significantly influenced by international organizations. However, like any country, China retains its own distinctive qualities, and these qualities were important points of discussion throughout the talk.Traditional views and philosophies have deep roots in China. Confucianism, for example, is one such ideology that still retains strong influence in society today, a sentiment affirmed again by Chen Yimei during an interview several days after the panel. For Chen, some Confucian ideas about social order and harmony between the environment and human beings are seen in aspects of modern civil society today, especially with environmental protection organizations. Yet, Chen also admits that she does not see Confucian ideology driving the development of philanthropic organizations in the ways that Christianity, Buddhism, and other religions have done.

As Tony Saich pointed out during the panel discussion, the impacts of events from the last century could be said to have a greater influence on modern Chinese attitudes toward wealth and giving. On the one hand, Chen cites a Chinese notion of wealth, which prioritizes passing wealth down to the next generation. However, following the beginning of the Reform period and the subsequent “rags to riches” tales of many Chinese businesses, Saich believes that residues of social embarrassment about having wealth still cling to society today. The result is what he calls a strong “obsession with corporate responsibility” and “giving back.” Many of China’s new wealthy got rich by taking advantage of certain policies (or policy loopholes), yet still are not too far removed from humble village upbringings where the memories of hardship of the Cultural Revolution still live on. This stark contrast between the existing poverty and the sudden new wealth has compelled many to give back. These specific economic circumstances coupled with Chinese cultural prioritization of ‘face’ and reputation have all shaped modern Chinese philanthropy.

The Chinese state occupies a prominent position in Chinese society, and many Chinese, particularly those of the older generations, trust the government more than public interest organizations such as philanthropic or nonprofit organizations. This is a challenge for the development of the sector, but as the panel moderator Lincoln Chen pointed out, more grassroots philanthropic work is needed. To tackle public health related problems and other societal challenges, Lincoln Chen asserts that China “can’t do it through the top-down system. It needs the engagement and innovations from below.” A distinguishing factor of the current Chinese philanthropic landscape is a structure with few intermediaries like NGOs. Currently much of Chinese philanthropic giving happens through direct giving to those who are poor or suffering from illness because of the weak NGO sector. But as NGOs continue to develop in China, Chen presumes that this aspect of Chinese philanthropy will change.

As the world of philanthropy becomes increasingly global and international, Chinese philanthropy in the United States and elsewhere is developing quickly. Chinese philanthropy will not just be limited to domestic, ‘indigenous’ initiatives. While some critics believe that Chinese philanthropic giving internationally may be at odds with Chinese government ideas of the diplomatic use of soft power in other countries, Chen Yimei believes that it need not be a case of one or the other. Both government resources and encouragement and private individuals and companies have the potential to make a positive impact. A good example of this trend can be seen by examining Chinese diaspora giving in the United States. As Chinese people move around the world, and second and third generations settle in the US and Europe, some feel more compelled to give back to their local Chinese diaspora community, not necessarily their home village in China. “It’s human nature,” says Chen. “You feel a sense of belonging and want to help people around you. They see opportunities where they can contribute.”

Of course, Chinese giving abroad (like any international giving) is complex and has to find a balance between a local and global focus. Businessman and founder of the investment firm, Hillhouse Capital Management Ltd., Zhang Lei, in 2010 donated over $8 million to the Yale School of Management, where he earned his M.B.A.. Zhang received a lot of backlash for his decision to give to Yale rather than give to schools in his native China. Some argued that it was wrong for him to give to a prominent and wealthy US university rather than to less-well funded Chinese institutions. Zhang defended his decision by saying that he felt compelled to give back to the university that in many ways completely changed his life.

Each of the three panelists expressed significant optimism about the future and continued growth of philanthropy in China. A possible development which would change the philanthropic sector in China is the introduction of an inheritance tax. This sort of policy does not currently exist, but officials have started to talk seriously about this sort of legislation, which in Chen’s view, could be a strong incentive for those with large amounts of wealth to give. Following the panelists’ moderated discussion, the floor was opened, and members of the audience were invited to ask questions. Questions ranged from asking about the role of environmental advocacy groups in China, to pondering the Chinese conception of personal responsibility to a larger whole. One common theme was apparent: those overseas, in the U.S. and other countries, still have, and will maintain a strong interest and commitment to philanthropic efforts in China. With increasing private wealth in China, a more enabling regulatory framework, rising professionalization of the NGO sector, and greater civic engagement and public interest in types of issues that many philanthropies seek to address, the panellists, and many members of the audience, believedthat the future of these organizations is very promising.

More information about the event, including a link to a complete video of the panelists’ discussion can be accessed here:

In Brief

This event, attended by many notable China-scholars and specialists, provided an opportunity to both reflect on the role of American philanthropy in China, and honor the accomplishments of the China Medical Board.
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