China’s Lack of Philanthropic Culture?

In November 2014, the Charities Aid Foundation published its annual World Giving Index, which measures and ranks global giving behaviors. In the report, China was ranked 128 out of 135 countries. Last year, China was also criticized by Reuters because few wealthy Chinese citizens donated publicly to fight the spread of the Ebola. And back in 2010, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett’s invitation to charitable giving, known as the Giving Pledge, was turned down by many of China’s millionaires.

At first glance, it might seem fair to say that China, the world’s second-biggest economy, is lacking a philanthropic culture, and that its people are reluctant to donate to  charitable causes. But maybe we should examine what several wealthy Chinese citizens said about their giving behaviors.


When asked for his opinion on the Giving Pledge, Charles Zhang, the Founder and current CEO of Sohu Inc., said he would not follow the same donation model that Bill Gates used. Instead, he preferred to pay more money in taxes to the government, because he believed that this was also philanthropy, and the best way of helping the poor. Charles Zhang is not the only one who feels this way. Last year, the World Food Program called on Chinese firms to donate more to fighting Ebola. Deborah Brautigam, director of the China Africa Research Initiative, said “It’s likely that state-owned firms would prefer the Chinese government to take a lead on this…They’re unlikely to come forward independently and would assume the government, which does have experience in contributing for emergencies, will be better at knowing what to do.”

It is believed that hoarding culture, the absence of religious motivations, and emphasis on family wealth–a tradition from an imperial, agrarian society— collectively make the Chinese give the cold shoulder to charity giving. Nevertheless, that’s not true.

Since childhood, every Chinese citizen has been taught to emulate their ancient role models who would gladly be “the first to bear hardships before everybody else and the last to enjoy comforts.” Showing concern for the country and its society is the essence of Confucianism. It encourages people to commit themselves to the welfare of the society when they are successful, and to stay disciplined when they are in distress. Confucius taught people to contribute to welfare through government. He believed people should “cultivate his personal life, regulate his family, and then govern his state; when all the states are well governed, that person brings peace and harmony throughout the world.” Cosmopolitanism exists in Chinese culture, but there is little initiative on how to help others as a third party outside the government. This phenomenon is rooted in the social structure of China.

The current social structure in China is focused on a strong state and weak society. China’s lack of philanthropic culture is largely due to heavy restrictions on civil society. People are accustomed to relying on the government, resulting from the government’s unlimited power in the past. The public always expects and trusts their government to solve social problems. Such inertia in thinking impedes social engagement. Unlike the “necessary-evil” political tradition in the west, the state is “the good” for the Chinese. Owing to people’s unawareness and inability, civil society grows slowly in this “acquaintance society.” However, is a thriving civil society really necessary to create a philanthropic culture? Myanmar
 was ranked first in the Index with restricted civil society.

Those who help others are always noble, however minuscule their contributions are. But it is equally important to seek out the for reasons behind people’s behaviors, rather than merely criticizing them. Hopefully, there will be changes in China. Jack Ma, the co-founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, is pouring much of his personal wealth into the creation of philanthropic trusts, which represents 2% of the company’s current equity (roughly $3 billion). This might be the dawn of a new era of giving among China’s freshly minted billionaires.



Giving, More Giving & Giving for More Giving

In addition to Paul Allen, Warren Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates have successfully rallied more than 40 billionaires to give at least half of their fortunes to charity as a part of the Giving Pledge, which we covered in detail here. Part of the effort apparently consisted of calling nearly 80 of the people on the Forbes list of the 400 wealthiest people worldwide.

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The Pledge That Keeps on Giving

Illustration: Shel Silverstein via; edited by Haein Lim

Score another one for Andrew Carnegie and his Gospel of Wealth. Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, publicly announced that he would give his fortune to charity after his death.

With this announcement, Allen joins a short list of billionaires—including Eli and Edythe Broad, John and Ann Doerr—who have accepted the Gateses and Buffet’s philanthropic challenge, the Giving Pledge, which we previously covered.

According to Forbes, Allen is the 37th richest person in the world, with an estimated fortune of $37.5 billion. If every member of the Fortune 400 took the pledge, roughly $600 billion would become available for non-profits.

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Lifestyles of the Über-Rich and Famous

Photo: Mark Peterson, via CNN Money

“I like having an expensive private plane, but owning a half-dozen homes would be a burden,” said Warren Buffett, who is among the few billionaires who could realistically own six homes.

In a Fortune Magazine article entitled “My Philanthropic Pledge,” Buffett expounds upon the reasoning behind his decision to donate 99% of his net worth to foundations—not to be stowed away for years in the form of an endowment but spent on current needs—by the time of his death. This discussion leads segues into the Giving Pledge, which is “an effort to invite the wealthiest individuals and families in America to commit to giving the majority of their wealth to philanthropy” hatched by Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates.

In the Fortune Features Blog, Carol Loomis details this new project, conceivably the largest fundraising drive in history. Their targets are billionaires, starting with the Forbes list of the 400 wealthiest Americans, whose lives are embellished with private jets and multiple homes. Their challenge is to persuade them to pledge half of their net worth to philanthropy, in their lifetimes or at death.

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