Serving the People
In China's rapidly transforming society, its citizens find a new spirit — and mode — of charity
By Carolyn Hsu
On the afternoon of May 12, 2008, I was sitting in my apartment in central Beijing with my husband, Christopher Henke, when the building began to sway. Chris was convinced that it was an earthquake, and hurried us outside. But I wasn’t sure until the web reports came trickling in half an hour later — an earthquake in Sichuan province, near Chengdu. Chengdu? I gasped. Chengdu is almost 1,000 miles away from Beijing, as far as Kansas is from Hamilton. How could an earthquake in Chengdu shake buildings in Beijing?
Of course we all know the answer now: a huge earthquake, 7.9 on the Richter scale. One that caused a devastating amount of damage: nearly 70,000 people dead, 375,000 injured, and 5 million people homeless. Yet this enormous tragedy, broadcasted all over the world via television and Internet, also inspired an enormous response. Hundreds of millions of dollars in cash and materials, accompanied by volunteers, poured in from international sources. But there was another source of donations and volunteers: China itself.
By May 20, domestic donations had topped $500 million, according to the New York Times. Thousands of Chinese volunteers flowed into the devastated region, individually and as members of organizations. The Chinese and Western media profiled people who lied to their families and hopped on airplanes to Sichuan, knowing their parents or spouses would never countenance them going into such a dangerous region. A businessman told me about his friend, also an entrepreneur, who packed suitcases of supplies and money and left her business to work in the devastated region for two weeks. The people I knew in Beijing donated to the government and the state-run Chinese Red Cross, but they also gave money to acquaintances who happened to own trucks that could be filled with necessities and driven out to a village where someone had a personal connection. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that had served other regions turned their focus on Sichuan and sent their people there to see what could be done. Planes and hotels empty of tourists and business travelers were refilled with volunteers.
|Above: A Chinese volunteer salvages photos left by Sichuan earthquake victims as mementos amongst the debris in Beichuan County. (Photo by Getty Images)|
Top: The Beilin Hope Primary School in Heilongjiang province is supported by China Youth Development Foundation's Project Hope, which rebuilds and serves schools in poor rural areas. (Photo by Carolyn Hsu)
Both CNN and the New York Times described the public outpouring as unprecedented and potentially transformative, even “defiant”: Chinese individuals were so moved by the earthquake that they were shaking off state control and taking matters into their own hands. Western journalists and scholars pondered: Could this be a turning point for Chinese society? Could this be the moment when China’s apathetic urban middle class becomes aware of, and begins to take ownership of, rural social problems?
Although the impact of the earthquake cannot be underestimated, in fact all of those transformations had been emerging well before May 12. I know this because that’s why I was in China: to study the rise of charities, NGOs, and volunteerism in the People’s Republic of China, an investigation I have been conducting for four years.
Indeed, the past decade has witnessed an explosion of NGOs in China. On the other hand, the rise of NGOs and volunteerism is unprecedented, so it’s reasonable that people have been caught by surprise. In fact, had you asked me or other experts in our field in the 1980s if we’d predict the appearance of grassroots or foreign NGOs in China we would have said, “No way.” But it is important to clarify exactly what is new and what is not, and to understand how Chinese society is changing.
A very short history of charity in China
There is actually a long and rich tradition of voluntary and compassionate giving to the poor and needy in China. But while the Western concept of charity values giving to strangers, the Chinese framework idealizes giving to kin. Institutionalized giving in imperial China (prior to 1911) was dominated by clan-based lineage organizations, which cared for widows and orphans and supervised education (only for boys — but that’s another paper!). Clan-based charity had a broad understanding of family: lineage organizations not only kept elaborate records of kin to make sure even the remotest relative wouldn’t be left out, but also sometimes provided for people who were not on the rolls but did have the right surname. The idea was that everyone would be covered by kin-based charity. In this realm, religious or private charities were moot.
Of course, some people fell through the cracks of this system. In these cases, the state would act as “family,” and the government built orphanages and poorhouses. The state would also step in during times of major disasters and in very bad times often urged (even compelled) wealthy citizens to help (for example, by donating resources or even setting up food kitchens in times of famine).
|Volunteers collect clothes for Sichuan earthquake survivors at the Jiuzhou Stadium in Mianyang. (Photo by Getty Images) |
After the 1949 Communist Revolution, lineage organizations were eradicated. The Communist party-state was the only “family” people would need from now on, according to the new regime, which proceeded to set up a redistributive economy to take care of everyone’s needs. However, in times of disaster, the paternalistic regime would call on the “popular masses” to support its work through donation drives. During the aftermath of the horrific 1976 Tangshan earthquake, which killed approximately 250,000 people, ordinary Chinese people reached into their wallets to contribute to the rescue and rebuilding efforts. Citizens have been called on to donate in response to floods and droughts and, most recently, the freak blizzards that wreaked havoc in China’s usually temperate southeast over the Chinese New Year holiday this year.
In other words, there’s nothing particularly shocking or unusual about the donations that poured in after the Sichuan earthquake — except in terms of scale. This disaster was more devastating than anything China has experienced since the Tangshan earthquake. The reach of television and the Internet meant that people could see and hear and feel the horror of the situation more fully than in the past. People in China also have greater financial capacity today. In 1976, citizens contributed the equivalent of pennies and dimes. In May, the members of the new middle class could give thousands of dollars, and the wealthy could contribute hundreds of thousands, even millions.
The new generation: volunteerism and NGOs
State-sponsored charity may not be anything new in China, but independent volunteerism and NGOs certainly are. Even 20 years ago, NGOs were essentially nonexistent in China. In recent years, however, hundreds and maybe thousands have been founded, focusing primarily on the areas of environmental protection, poverty alleviation, and education. The Chinese state, caught off guard, had to write up regulations governing these new entities, which went into effect in 2004. This transformation has been fueled, in large part, by the idealism and energy of young people. In the early 1990s, when I taught at a Chinese university, college students had never heard of NGOs, or volunteering, or internships. But this year, a professor at Beijing University told me that all of her students talk about volunteering and discuss the possibility of finding jobs in the nonprofit sector. And they don’t just talk — even before they graduate, they begin volunteering. At the offices of Golden Key, a charity that serves blind and visually impaired children, a constant stream of student volunteers types and translates documents. The founder of Hua-Dan, an NGO that conducts theater workshops for Beijing’s migrant children, told me, “The one thing we don’t lack is volunteers.” In fact, Hua-Dan has more volunteers than it needs. And this year, Project Hope, an organization that rebuilds and serves schools in poor rural regions, started a volunteer teaching program similar to Teach for America. China’s best college students lined up to apply.
Chinese young people not only join existing organizations; they also start their own. In fact, many of them are suspicious of existing bureaucracies and prefer to rely on their own efforts; for example, student organizations volunteer at orphanages and retirement homes. An online group of Chinese backpackers set up the “1kg Project” — backpackers heading toward impoverished areas would add 1kg of supplies, such as school supplies, food, or books, to give to local residents. According to Ning Zhang at the University of Pittsburgh, the 1kg Project is maintained by volunteers scattered all over China. This desire to do something helpful, but to work outside of the state and existing bureaucracies, also motivated the individuals who founded the Chinese grassroots NGOs I studied. It also inspired the thousands of individuals who poured into Sichuan to volunteer for earthquake relief, some of whom will no doubt organize themselves into future NGOs.
One of the purposes of my research was to examine why this spirit of individual volunteerism is so strong in China today, especially among the young, middle class urbanites. The first factor is the shrinking of the Chinese state. In the United States, we tend to view the Chinese state as powerful and intrusive, but it plays a much smaller role in Chinese society than it did 30 or even 20 years ago. Before the market reforms of 1978, the Chinese state essentially ran the whole economy — all the factories, all the stores, all the service agencies. Because the party-state bureaucracy ran everything, it had a monopoly on all of the higher-paying jobs. The Chinese who came of age in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, and most of the ’80s all sought party-state jobs, whether they desired power or wealth or to make a difference in society. Since the reforms, the Chinese state has been transforming itself from a paternalistic caretaker into more of an economic manager. Beginning in the late 1980s and 1990s, the best and the brightest no longer wanted to work for the state; instead, they sought to start their own businesses in the emerging private sector, both because that’s where the money was and because a series of corruption scandals and the Tiananmen Square massacre tainted the appeal of the government.
|Founded in 1985, Golden Key Research Center of Education for the Visually Impaired helps visually impaired children receive educational and vocational training and counseling in poor and remote areas of China. (Photo by Golden Key)|
Today’s young people were born after the economic reforms, and they were children during the Tiananmen protests. They have never experienced the all-embracing socialist state. Working for the government is “just one of 300 occupations,” as one young man told me, and not a particularly appealing one. A government job is seen as comfortable, but not particularly challenging; it’s for those who value security over ambition.
For those who want to make a difference in society, a job in the government is no longer the obvious choice, or even a reasonable one.
And many of them do want to make a difference. The college students I taught in the China of the 1990s were individualistic and apolitical. Their idea of a good job was one with a good paycheck. Today’s college students are the children of China’s economic boom. Although few would be wealthy by U.S. standards, a substantial portion are from the new urban middle class and grew up with more wealth than any previous generation in China. Because of the “One-Child Policy,” they are almost all only children, which magnifies their privileges. For them, money is not the be-all and end-all that it was for those in times past because they have never truly experienced the lack of it, and, given China’s continuously growing economy, they do not expect to experience it in the future. Li, a volunteer who was doing a one-year stint in China’s western desert, explained to me, “Nobody has to be incredibly worried about getting a job anymore. You know that you can get a decent one. So that means people can think about other things. You can think about what interests you, not just what is going to bring in
Li, and others like him, are seeking new experiences, personal development, and to do something meaningful in the world. Brimming with self-confidence, they believe they have something to offer. Song, a volunteer at a rural school in the far northeast, told me, “We give our students the wings to fly… We inspire them to study hard at school. They’ll give the next generation wings, too.”
Carolyn Hsu shares more of her new res
earch on the rise of NGOs and charities in China in“Rehabilitating Charity in China,” which appears this fall in the Journal of Civil Society. An associate professor of sociology, she has published articles on Chinese business practices and entrepreneurship, and on political corruption.
| (Photo by Andrew Daddio)|
In her book, Creating Market Socialism: How Ordinary People are Shaping Class and Status in China, Hsu explores the central role of ordinary people — rather than state or market elites — in creating new institutions for determining status in China. By analyzing shared stories about status and class, jobs and careers, and aspirations and hopes of people from all walks of life, Hsu reveals the logic underlying the country’s emerging stratification system.
Hsu holds a BA from Yale University and MA and PhD degrees from the University of California at San Diego and has previously taught at Williams College. A member of the Colgate faculty since 2000, she says one of her favorite courses to teach is the senior capstone seminar in sociology and anthropology, in which students do their own original research.
Above: The logos (left to right) of three nonprofit organizations that Hsu researched: Golden Key, Hua-Dan, and the China Youth Development Foundation (sponsor of Project Hope)