The Shenzhen Charity Fair: Charity Banquet or Awkward Show?

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Introduction: The Shenzhen 2014 Charity Fair was held a few months ago. In this article, Chen Qian’er looks back on the 2013 edition which raised a few important questions on the meaning of this kind of events in China.

Sun Yanhong was incredibly excited to be in Shenzhen despite having taken a 28-hour train ride on the cheapest seats. As the director of a grassroots NGO in Zhengzhou, Sun Yanhong’s aim on her trip was to attend Shenzhen’s charity fair. Starting on September 21st  2013, the fair was held for 3 consecutive days in the Shenzhen’s Convention and Exhibition Center, and 828 charities and other similar organizations attended, showcasing their projects from different regions of the country.

It was her first time attending, and Sun Yanhong spent the entire day running around the 30,000 sq. meter exhibition hall, speaking to her counterparts about their experiences. She also attended a forum on the development of public welfare. After three days, she felt she had benefitted tremendously.

On the other hand, this bustling charity fair attracted some negative responses. Zhang Zhiquan (pseudonym), who attended the first two editions of the Fair on behalf of a national public foundation, felt that the exhibition focused more on “form than reality”, and looked as an entertainment show for people within the industry. The founder of the “One Kilogram More” project, An Zhu, criticized the fair as ‘ridiculous’, and more and more distant from the essence of welfare and civil society. Moreover, there were several organizations that felt the fair was inaccessible to people outside the industry.

This was the second time the Ministry of Civil Affairs partnered with the Shenzhen Civil Affairs Bureau in attempting to organize such a big exchange platform bringing together public interest organizations from all over the country. Just as people in the industry were getting optimistic and enthusiastic, doubts and criticisms began to appear, and An Zhu even wrote a blog entry titled ‘100 reasons not to go to the charity fair’. The exhibition was plagued by questions regarding how it could establish transparency and ensure fair participation; how it could tangibly contribute to the public good; and how it could portray itself.

I’m not the only one doing charity in China

In her hometown of Zhengzhou, Sun Yanhong has been working in the public interest sector for thirteen years. She worked in a bank when she was younger, but became a full-time mother after the birth of her child. When her child grew up, she began planning to ‘try to do something again’, and that brought her into the welfare sector.

“I wasn’t looking for a stable income, but to help others, and realize my own self-worth”, Sun Yanhong said. Her initial impression of welfare services was limited to social workers appearing on foreign films, it is only later that she started relying on herself to read and speak to college professors in Zhengzhou to learn more about the industry.

In 2001, Sun Yanhong took 300,000 yuan from her personal savings, and opened a service for the elderly, youth and children of migrant workers. Over a year ago, her organization officially registered as a social service center, and today it employs 20 full-time social workers. On the outside, it looks like everything is progressing smoothly, but Sun Yanhong always feels helpless about funding, staffing, and other policy-related issues. “It feels like there isn’t a door in front, but neither is there a way back”, she said.

Attending the Shenzhen charity fair has changed her mentality. She realized there are many people in China doing the work she does, that she is not the only one, and that the ranges of issue they tackle are very broad. After listening to the challenges her peers faced, she felt prouder and stronger.

In this year’s charity fair, although the number of exhibitors and the area space of the exhibitions were small, the content and the crowds were dazzling. There were organizations coming form places as far as Tibet and Yinchuan meeting with local Shenzhen organizations. Some of the organizations’ beneficiaries were youth and children, the elderly, the disabled, or other disadvantaged groups; others focused on community development, or on sexual and gender related issues.

According to the nature of the project, the hall was divided into 8 zones: “disaster relief”, “social organizations”, “corporate social responsibility and foundations”, “international cooperation and Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan”, “charity in the city”, “innovation in charity”, “public interest sector experiences” and “environment”. Although there were many themes, many of the organizations were grassroots NGOs: they represented 628 of the 828 participants, compared to 260 in the first charity fair.

This was, according to the director of Tsinghua University’s Innovation and Social Responsibility Research Center Deng Guosheng, one of the fair’s best selling points. “Grassroots representation was high, and the number of museums and state-owned enterprises was comparatively lower, therefore the fair seemed more pragmatic”.

Some grassroots NGOs even meticulously planned their exhibits, using interactive and creative methods to shed light on societal problems, the predicaments of underprivileged groups, or the results of their projects, such that even casual audiences who didn’t understand much about the industry could still easily learn something.

The Western Sunshine Foundation obtained support from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and used simple wooden boards to erect a labyrinth: visitors walked through a dark and narrow alley, experiencing the life of left-behind children (children whose parents go to the city to seek employment). Through the alley, cinematic clips play recordings of left-behind children, and there are props such as simple beds from the countryside, a letter a child wrote to his father who was working odd jobs in the city, and, finally, a small desk for visitors to write back to the children.

A group of environmental NGOs teamed together to organize a “garbage collection” activity, which sent workers to collect trash from the event and classify them according to recyclability, spreading environmental awareness. A group focusing on rare diseases invited some patients to share their stories, and launched a “human library”, allowing visitors to understand a patient’s view of the world.

In the “social organizations” zone, Sun Yanhong’s organization used nine square meters of space to showcase their project. An overseas foundation’s representative told Sun Yanhong to “let him know should she need any help” after seeing her exhibition.

This encouraged Sun Yanhong. “My story touched some people”, she said, adding that she still felt excited thinking about the fair. Prior to this, because funding was limited, Sun Yanhong never travelled for work.

Public funding here is a one-way street

Unlike Sun Yanhong, many people in the industry already sense problems arising with the charity fair. For the representative of a national public foundation, Zhang Zhiquan, the fair’s most important goal is to facilitate the transfer of resources from charities to beneficiaries and promote a dialogue between organizations and beneficiaries. The event organized put in a considerable amount of effort in inviting both charities and beneficiaries to the fair, but beneficiaries were significantly underrepresented.

“As an NGO, on the one hand we must face our beneficiaries, and on the other funders. In the fair, we cannot simply have organizations discuss on how they should operate. The fair’s main purpose should be to establish a dialogue between NGOs and funders, including foundations, provincial governments and CSR departments of companies.” Zhang Zhiquan also added “in this regard, the fair’s current impact is not too ostensible. Public interest resources are a one-way street, and there isn’t a two-way flow, or a demand-side”.

This year is Zhang Zhiquan’s second year attending the event, and he observed that the majority of the attendees are from the sector, especially people who are new to the sector. Only a few Shenzhen citizens come, and the ones who do are only interested in what local foundations do; the rest is people from grassroots NGOs seeking funding, or industry insiders who go ask around if “the people we know came today”.

Although most foundations attending the event were grant-making foundations, Zhang Zhiquan said that it was not easy to find organizations to fund at the fair. “Most of our funding targets are organizations working in isolated mountain areas, and they did not make it to the fair”, he said. In fact, most of the booths occupied by grassroots NGOs were rather cold. Although the organizers publically declared that the fair’s moto was “nationwide universal participation, comprehensive charity event”, most of the general public did not attend.

“This fair is more like a gathering of industry insiders,” Zhang Zhiquan said. Some colleagues joked that the event was “busier at night than it was during the day”: the exhibition was during the day, and the night was livelier and more about networking within the industry.

It looks like a show, but in the backstage, public interest sectors workers began investigating the actual cost of the event. At the fair, most booths are nine square meters large and the booths are set-up by the organizers, although organizations have to bring their own panels and exhibits, and most cannot afford to. In addition, the fair also provides bigger booths of eighteen and thirty-six square meters, which are taken by NGOs with better financial resources that can afford to decorate their booths well.

A member of a grassroots NGO began investigating by asking staff of the bigger booths how much they spent in total. According to that investigation, led by the Society of Entrepreneurs and Ecology, the 66 environmental NGOs in the “Green China” section spent about 900,000-1,000,000 RMB altogether, the One Foundation’s booth cost approximately 350,000 RMB, the China Children’s Charity Relief Foundation spent 35,000 RMB, the China Environmental Protection Foundation spent 10,000 RMB, and Amity Foundation 9,000 RMB.

However, when he asked the Shenzhen Welfare Foundation how much their booth cost, he was always told that the “person in charge wasn’t around”. The Women’s Development Foundation’s response was more alarming, with replies such as “what do you want” or “don’t quote me”.

“Charity is about improving society’s situation, on the one hand, we need to think of how to provide the best service at the lowest cost, and on the other of how to obtain funding, donation and support at the lowest cost”, Zhang Zhiquan said. In this year’s event, his organization’s takeaways were limited, and he was not too keen about attending next year.

In this regard Deng Guosheng had similar opinions. In his view, “NGOs don’t need to participate every year, or the cost would be too high. Not only is the cost high, but attending too frequently would result in diminishing marginal returns.”

How distant is the fair from public interest?

“Would participating in the fair worthwhile?” While some public interest organizations are pondering the question of cost effectiveness, others are asking how distant the fair is from public interest.

On the surface, everything is understandable: the people here are NGO workers, the fair is about charity, and its slogan is “charity makes China more beautiful”. The organizers even branded Shenzhen as a “charity mall”, where “charity and love are provided”, and the discussions are about the development, growth and innovation of charities.

Is everything too joyous? Is there something hidden or forgotten?

“The entire event seems pointless. Before, when we spoke of NGOs, we also spoke of civil society. Now, we speak of social organizations and charities, and we start meetings talking about building organizational skills to provide growth. It looks bustling and professional on the outside, but it is really strange and useless. We have so-called organizations but what about social issues? They have been thrown away a long time ago.” In his blog, An Zhu bluntly raised these criticisms.

Beauty, innovation and love are compelling words, but if you want to know about the current plight of China’s underprivileged, or if you want to know about China’s social problems, the fair would not be a good place to start. On the contrary, on the stage set-up by the government, charities and public interest organizations cannot prevent being censored, and some slightly sensitive organizations did not have the opportunity to register and present their activities.

The “LGBT Rights Advocacy China” organization raised this point, adding that China currently has hundreds of organizations working on LGBT rights, but not one was qualified to enter the fair, because such groups have long found it difficult to obtain registration with Civil Affairs. Some of them managed to borrow others’ booth space to promote their organization, but from 22nd Sep 2013, on the second day of the fair’s opening, event staff broke into these booths and demanded that organizations remove all LGBT related material, or face the threat of being kicked out of the event.

To a certain extent, the “government sets the stage and people sing” model inevitably restricts the development of the charity sector. “The government cannot do charity work. The nature of this public service model is that it comes from the people!” In a discussion in the fair, Yuan Yue, the chairman of Horizon Research Consultancy Group, raised this point while some of the leaders of the Shenzhen Civil Affairs Bureau were listening in the audience, and was much applauded by the audience. Although the government did not directly speak at the fair, it organized the event, and these questions challenged the government’s degree of openness and courage.

After attending the fair, Sun Yanhong returned to Zhengzhou, and continued managing her community service center and getting headaches because of problems such as the fact she had no way of getting tax-exemptions. She left a stack of name cards she obtained at the fair in an office drawer, thinking her peers and the businessmen she met once because she was meant to might be able to help her one day.

Zhang Zhiquan mentioned that many of his peers might not want to attend next year’s event. “The Shenzhen government is still liberal and efficient, but it’s hard to say if they can better the fair’s image and quality”, he said.

In Brief

The Shenzhen 2014 Charity Fair was held a few months ago. In this article, Chen Qian’er looks back on the 2013 Fair which raised a few important questions for the meaning of these kind of events in China.
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