Philanthropy Faces Obstacles in China, as Shown by One Foundation

September 21, 2010 6:48 pm Last Updated: August 14, 2012 9:27 pm

[xtypo_dropcap]C[/xtypo_dropcap]omments made by Jet Li about the status of his One Foundation in China earlier this month have become a cause for reflection on the state of philanthropy in China.

In a Sept. 12 interview with Face to Face, produced by CCTV, Li said: “[One Foundation] was born without a certificate… this kid is now turning three and cannot go to school.”

He was referring to the fact that the foundation’s contract with the Red Cross Society of China is slated to end this year, and without the contract, its private status bars it from public fundraising.

The Chinese regime forces private charities to function under the jurisdiction of the Red Cross Society of China through three-year contracts, and they are required to follow its guidelines when seeking public donations; the collected donations are then earmarked for the receiving charity.

The actor explained that One Foundation lacks independence, which has inconvenienced its operations and raised questions of transparency from the public. Li said he hopes Chinese law will soon allow private fund-raising in China.

An official later clarified that the foundation’s contract with the Red Cross Society of China would be continued, according to Asia News.

The non-profit organization One Foundation was launched in Beijing in 2007; Li, the Beijing-born actor, has been devoted to philanthropic work for several years.

Li has made other statements on the importance of NGOs to be independent from regime control and interference. “My biggest lesson from the Sichuan earthquake rescue is that grassroots NGOs can help the government in its blind spots.

“Government relief is not always detail oriented. Grassroots NGOs can’t be as big as a government effort, but they need to be flexible and independent,” he said in an interview with Alliance magazine in Dec. 2009. “Grassroots should not be merged. Once merged, they are no different than governmental organizations.”

One Foundation has participated in such monumental disaster relief efforts as the 2007 snowstorm rescue in southern China, the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, and relief aid to the 2010 Gansu mudslide victims, in which the foundation released emergency supply funds of 200,000 yuan (US$24,000).

A Personal Interest

Li knows what it is like to be on the receiving end of the generosity of others. The youngest of four children, his father passed away when he was two.

His talent for martial arts was recognized at an early age, and he and his family was encouraged and helped through difficult times. His exceptional martial arts skills and numerous awards contributed to his obtaining work as an actor, and he went on to star in over 38 films over 28 years.

Many of his films have story lines that bear similarities to his own struggles, or have underlying philosophical themes that resonate with his personal philosophy. He is a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism and is a citizen of Singapore.

He and his family narrowly escaped tragedy in 2004 while vacationing in the Maldives. An earthquake occurred in the Indian Ocean, accompanied by a tsunami that nearly swept away his eldest daughter, and separated the family from his youngest daughter, a toddler. After appealing to the community, he was reunited with his child.

In 2007, Li was inspired to found One Foundation. He took a leave from acting for one year to devote his energies to the fledgling organization, which concentrates on the environment, education, health, poverty and disaster relief issues.

Philanthropy’s Troubles in China

The Jet Li case is a relatively more high-profile complaint about a system that is beset by problems, both cultural: the rise of money worship and greed in reform-era China, and institutional: built-in disincentives for charitable giving.

Recently, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett issued an open letter to the wealthiest of Chinese, explaining that the purpose of a pending trip to China is “to learn philanthropy in China.”

Gates and Buffett are scheduled to host a banquet in Beijing for 50 Chinese billionaires on Sept. 29. Thus far, fewer than expected from the exceptionally well-heeled group have displayed much interest.

Weeks ago, reports circulated that many invitees had, upon getting word of the event, begun making furtive phone calls to discover whether donations would be expected. The hosts later had to come out and clarify that, in fact, they wouldn’t.

Zhu Xueqin, a professor in Chinese society and history studies at Shanghai University, expressed in an interview with the Chinese BBC that philanthropy in China still has a long way to go for the public to recognize it as a social obligation, especially given how the regime monopolizes funding channels.

He also pointed out that in the past few decades, while the economy has been developing and prospering, social welfare, social vitality and social spirit have been headed in the opposite direction, taking a steady downward trajectory.

Corruption over charity donations and relief funds occurs with disturbing frequency in China. China’s National Audit Office (NAO) received a total of 1,962 reports of cases of corruption in the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake rescue relief effort.

Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reported that local officials in some areas exaggerated earthquake losses to the tune of 1.23 billion yuan (US$ 180 million).

In other cases, some governmental departments significantly held up the distribution of relief funds and goods to the victims of the disaster.

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