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Wang Keqin’s office is not the polished workplace you might expect from a major Chinese charity. The space is borrowed, the furniture donated. As Wang expounds on China’s social problems, he whips out a tissue and scrapes a thick coating of dust from his desktop. And yet, thanks to Wang’s fresh approach to online fundraising, his organization has managed to raise tens of millions of yuan in a year, with almost no operational costs.

Since the end of 2010, Wang has been publicizing the plight of workers with pneumoconiosis, a terminal lung disease contracted when workers breathe in dust from coal and building materials. Wang estimates that as many as six million people in China suffer from pneumoconiosis, making it the most common terminal illness contracted in the Chinese workplace.Unlike bigger, more established charities, Wang’s primary fundraising platform has been the microblogging service Sina Weibo. Since its launch, Wang’s organization–its English name is “Love Save Pneumoconiosis”–has raised over 80 million yuan from online donations alone. His office, which belongs to a friend, is staffed by around five volunteers every weekend.

Wang’s is one of a small number of Chinese non- governmental organizations (NGOs) turning to microblogs as a fundraising tool. Groups have launched microblog-based fundraising drives for causes as diverse as school lunches in China’s poverty-stricken countryside, treatment for children with leukemia, and even return trips home for Chinese soldiers abandoned in Burma in the 1970s. Meanwhile, private individuals in China are increasingly eager to donate to non-governmental organizations, with charitable donations up 3.5 percent since last year, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Not only do microblogs allow charities more direct access to their disproportionately educated, middle-class users, they help circumvent the tough regulations that dictate how charities can raise money. And because raising money over microblogs requires barely any overhead, it allows small charities to compete with relatively large bureaucratic counterparts like the Red Cross Society of China.

Strictly speaking, there are no charities in China, as the government does not provide a legal definition for a charitable organization. Instead, it uses “social organization” as a category to cover all non-profit groups, from grassroots NGOs to local chambers of commerce. Just over 440,000 of these “social organizations” had registered with the government by the end of last year, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, the government department that regulates charities. But many more NGOs–an estimated three or four million–are unregistered.

Most of these unregistered organizations are not allowed to ask the public for funds. That right is limited to the 1,300 or so officially recognized “public foundations,” as well as any “social organizations” that officially register their activities as programs of these public foundations. Only a small fraction of Chinese NGOs have registered and are therefore permitted to raise funds, according to Karla Simon, a professor at Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law who co-authored a study on Chinese civil society for the World Bank and the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs in 2009.

In practice, many charities fundraise anyway. For example, Chinese actor Jet Li’s One Foundation is legally entitled to collect donations only in the southern city of Shenzhen, but currently solicits from all over China. The organization may have more flexibility than most, as its chairman, Ma Hong, is a high-ranking official in the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

In addition to connecting charities to donors, microblogging platforms connect donors to each other. Wang’s first 140-character post simply listed the name of one pneumoconiosis sufferer, the date he contracted the disease and a bank account in the name of a local villager. Within days, a group of volunteers had arranged to travel to his village for a dinner and film screenings, including the Kung-fu epic Shaolin Temple, Wang said.

Deng Fei, a journalist at the Chinese magazine Phoenix Weekly, started a campaign to rescue abducted children by posting photos given to him by parents. “I felt that I could achieve a lot more by campaigning on weibo than from writing articles,” he said. He soon realized weibo could help him raise a lot more than awareness. In 2011 he founded Free Lunch, an organization dedicated to raising funds for school lunches in remote rural areas.

Finding donors may be relatively easy. The difficulty for unregistered charities is setting up a bank account. When Wang started soliciting funds, he couldn’t open an account because he wasn’t associated with a public foundation. He instead directed donors to send their money directly to a bank account owned by a farmer in Gansu who lived near several pneumoconiosis sufferers. The man received around 8,000 yuan, but refused to transfer the money to other villagers. “It was a massive headache,” Wang said.

It was the Internet companies Sohu and Tencent that finally offered to connect Wang with a public foundation. In July, Wang registered under a public fund, and since then has been able to publicly solicit cash. Deng also registered Free Lunch with the help of some friends in Beijing. “The process was very easy, but you need the right connections,” he said.

Registering with a public foundation brings a new set of headaches. “We have to get approval from the fund every time we want to withdraw money,” Wang said. The organizations also pay a five percent fee to the funds on any income they collect.

Microblogs have also played a role in turning public opinion against some large charities. This June, a Sina Weibo user named Guo Meimei, who listed her employer as a branch of the Red Cross Society of China, posted a series of photos showing her posing with expensive sports cars and designer handbags. The photos seemed to confirm what many Chinese suspected: that charities like the Red Cross refused to publicize their incomes because they were misusing donor’s money. It turned out Guo had lied about her Red Cross affiliation, but the damage was done. Genuine scandal soon followed, when news broke that the Henan Soong Ching Ling Foundation, a children’s organization and one of China’s largest charities, converted into luxury apartments a plot of land set aside for a youth activity center.

The controversies had an immediate detrimental impact on big charities–and may have helped small ones. A branch of the Red Cross in Shenzhen reported that donations fell by 97 percent in the month immediately following the Guo Meimei scandal, while another branch in central China reported a 94 percent decrease. Wang and Deng, meanwhile, saw thir donations increase.

According to Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business (CKGSB) Associate Dean and Professor of Marketing Sun Baohong, an expert on social media, microblogs have produced a more transparent model for Chinese charities. “The transparent nature of social media has enhanced fundraising, by dramatically reducing donors’ concerns about the inappropriate use of funds,” she said. Free Lunch posts its receipts and expenses to its microblog daily, and requires all schools participating in the project to report how many lunches they serve. Wang’s organization also posts its accounts online. “Because we solicit donations, we have to prove we’re using the money responsibly,” he said.

Wang and Deng’s organizations may have similar origins, but their relationships with the state couldn’t be more different. Deng’s Free Lunch has been welcomed by educational authorities in remote villages, whose budgets are too slim to fund their own lunch programs. This September, the Chinese central government pledged 16 billion yuan to fund a lunch program almost identical to Deng’s. “We were always a strategic charity,” Deng said. “We wanted to act to bring the government’s attention to the problem.”

Wang has encountered less support. Local governments are nervous about the attention his organization brings to worker’s compensation issues, guaranteed by law but often denied by officials who have financial links to the mining companies required to pay fair wages. One volunteer for Wang’s organization was detained by local police in northwestern China’s Liaoning Province last summer and told to stop his investigation of pneumoconiosis. In response to this harassment, Wang has adjusted the tone and content of his microblog feed. “I tell our volunteers not to write microblog posts about local government corruption, but about saving lives,” Wang said.

Wang has also had trouble finding support in China’s print media. This July, China’s central propaganda department banned domestic media outlets from reporting on his organization. “Giving food to children makes for positive reports,” he said, referring to Deng’s Free Lunch program, “but our organization touches on more sensitive matters.”

“Now we depend entirely on the Internet for promotion,” Wang said.

Deng said he chose to focus on school lunches knowing the issue would draw support. “I’d like to found an organization focused on protecting migrant workers, but the issue is too sensitive,” he said.

There are signs that the legal environment for NGOs is liberalizing. The government of Guangdong Province launched reforms last November that simplify the process NGOs undergo to register with the government. These reforms are likely to spread nationwide in the next five years, as local governments realize that NGOs are often more effective than the state is at addressing social problems, Simon said. Deng sees charity liberalization as inevitable. “The government will increase the involvement of NGOs in social management,” he said. The first step, perhaps: Allowing non-profit organizations to raise funds directly from the public. “I expect to see that happening,” Simon said.

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