Cultivating spirit of compassion likely to take time
When Li Miao, director of the World Food Programme's Beijing office, arrived for work one Monday last month, it seemed the day would be like any other - until he saw a money transfer slip on his table.
The 300-yuan donation from Ning Yuchen, a high school student in the Inner Mongolian city of Baotou, was the first one received from an individual since the agency had begun soliciting contributions at the beginning of the year.
It was exactly what the 74-year-old had been waiting for.
Mr Li and his small team in Beijing are on an unprecedented mission to raise awareness of China's emerging role as an aid donor, and Yuchen's contribution signalled that the message was starting to get through.
The agency sent its last shipment of food to China early last year after more than 25 years of support to the country's central and western regions.
In 2000, Beijing and the UN agency agreed that China's economic, nutritional and food security indicators suggested the nation was self-sufficient and no longer needed the UN provisions.
Mainland authorities have increasingly taken on the role of aid donor, and contributed US$20 million to help victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami. But the idea of giving has still to take off among the public.
Mr Li said Yuchen represented that small proportion of the Chinese community developing a sense of social responsibility and was willing to act.
He said such awareness was greater in developed countries, where rich individuals were willing to donate large portions of their wealth to a number of social causes.
'But in China there is a difference and we probably have to go through a number of years before we can expect that here,' Mr Li said.
'In China, people say 'we can donate, but what do we get in return?' For some reason, the pure humanitarian spirit has been more or less lost.'
He does not believe China is a tight-fisted nation, however. It will just take time to cultivate a sense of social responsibility.
The UN agency's Beijing office has tried to foster that spirit through advertisements on China Central Television's drama and sports channels. Yuchen said she sent in her donation after watching one.
The agency's office also organised a trip for journalists from four major mainland media outlets to Lesotho and Mozambique, two African countries devastated by poverty and Aids.
The director of international news at the Beijing Youth Daily, Xia Lei was one of those invited. He said the conditions he saw were not especially shocking compared with what China suffered four decades ago.
'But we are much better off now and can afford to help them,' he said.
The agency is also working with the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games to boost its profile in China, but the response from government and business on the mainland has been muted.
Mr Li said he hoped to raise US$3 million in donations by the end of the year. Yuchen's 300 yuan is one small step towards that goal.