An uncomfortable truth has emerged as Chinese individuals and corporations have donated to earthquake relief efforts in record numbers: someone’s keeping score.
Internet search engines have published lists ranking corporations by the amount of money each has given to earthquake relief. Those companies – both foreign and local – deemed too stingy have then been taken to task in cyberspace. The practice can also be witnessed on an individual level, where lists have appeared outside apartment complexes detailing residents’ donations.
One problem with lists like these is that they don’t account for the broad range of charitable donations one can make. They don’t recognize if someone volunteered their time, or made an anonymous donation in a trust box. Nor do they account for in-kind donations of food, clothing or even valuable tents.
Also unrepresented in such lists are the unsavory practices underpinning some corporate donations in China. One industry insider told CHINA ECONOMIC REVIEW that some firms require their employees to sacrifice a day’s pay in order to make their company-mandated donation.
It does seem to defeat the purpose of charity if donations are coerced through peer pressure or company fiat. But leaving the moral argument aside, the real problem with shame-based donations, say those with ties to non-governmental organizations, is that they may actually hurt the long-term growth of charity in China.
One expert said that he thinks the practice of shaming people into donations may sour them to the practice. Another said that the problem with donations obtained through shame for national crises is that they may create a mentality that charity is a one-off event to be performed when all eyes are upon you, rather than a regular, sustained practice.
Some prominent Chinese, notably Jet Li, have spoken out against the use of rankings for donations. But shame is a powerful motivator and its use as such doesn’t appear to be on the wane. One way the government could help is by allowing citizens to educate themselves about charitable giving by opening the industry to more than a few approved players.
Now that would be the start of a real charity boom in China.