Charity Begins at Home

Sometimes the Chinese do not seem particularly charitable, but the reasons behind it are a lot more complex than they can first appear…

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One of the most positive changes that I’ve been seeing in modern Chinese culture are attitudes towards charity. I started my own charity organization in China over a decade ago and thus, have had plenty of experience in appealing to both expats and Chinese for donations.

For many years, I found this a dreadfully frustrating experience, one that gave me a very negative view of Chinese people. When I talked with expats, they’d find what I was doing to be interesting and be willing to donate. But when I talked with Chinese, they’d always praise me for wanting to help, but refuse to give any money.

It wasn’t a financial issue. Many of the Chinese that I talked to had more money than the expats. And not unreasonably, I chalked it up to them being selfish.

Confucian values still have a very deep impact on Chinese culture, and included in those values is a kind of descending ladder of responsibility to those around us. The greatest responsibility is to immediate family

In the years since then, I’ve come to see that it’s far more complicated than that. Confucian values still have a very deep impact on Chinese culture and included in those values is a kind of descending ladder of responsibility to those around us. The greatest responsibility is to immediate family, then extended family, then friends, then local community, then your town, then your province, etc. Essentially, the closer people are to you, the greater your responsibility to them, and conversely, the farther they are from you, the less the responsibility you have for them.

It’s not that Chinese are selfish. It’s that they set different priorities. A wealthy Chinese man will refuse to give any money to my project because it is in an area of China that he has no direct connection, but he’ll give huge sums of money to build hospitals, schools, or other such things in his home town. Chinese parents will give much less money to support children they don’t know, but will sacrifice much more to ensure that their own children get every possible advantage.

While some people may condemn this, the truth is that in the past, this was really necessary. It wasn’t that long ago in China’s history that the only people you could count on for anything was your immediate family, when almost everyone in the country faced a daily struggle for survival. You didn’t put much thought into helping people you didn’t know when the people you knew were having very real problems.

But I’m also very happy to see a significant shift in the younger generation of Chinese people: children or young adults who’ve grown up in an environment where things are much easier and where their needs and the needs of their immediate family and friends are not so urgent.

I first saw this in 2008, with the earthquake in Sichuan. In all previous disasters in China, people simply gave whatever amount of money the government or their employer told them to give and then felt their responsibility was fulfilled. But in 2008, we saw significant number of Chinese young people mobilizing to raise money, to get supplies and even to travel to Sichuan to volunteer to help. All without anyone telling them to do so. They did it simply because they had a personal conviction that it was their responsibility to help.

And in my charity, I’m seeing a similar trend. If I talk to a Chinese person over 30, their response is usually negative; but if I talk to someone under 25, they are often much more willing to get involved and help. Even if they don’t have money, they’ll actively ask if there are other ways that they can help, by volunteering, by helping to raise money, etc.

I hear a great deal about how modern China is becoming a very selfish country with the spoiled ‘little emperors,’ with people ignoring people hurt or attacked on the street, etc. And certainly, these are important social issues, but there’s another positive side that I think needs to be emphasized. Also, with the advent of the internet, higher standards of living and with the opportunity to learn about and even travel to other countries, at least some of the younger generation is growing up with a much larger, more inclusive view of the world around them.

A generation that feels a growing sense of responsibility to not just to their immediate family or community, but to the larger world around them can only be a good thing.