Ebola shows up China's lack of philanthropic culture
Ranks of the country's wealthy and the success of its corporations are growing rapidly but donating to good causes has yet to take off
China has contributed over US$120 million to fight the spread of the Ebola virus, but its billionaire tycoons - it has more than anywhere outside the United States - have, publicly at least, donated little to the cause, underscoring an immature culture of philanthropy in the world's second-biggest economy.
As the ranks of China's wealthy and the success of its corporations grow, donating to good causes has yet to take off. China sits towards the bottom of the list of countries where people give money to charity, volunteer or help a stranger, according to The World Giving Index, compiled by the Charities Aid Foundation.
Donations to charities totalled US$16.1 billion last year, shows government data, recovering from two straight years of declines. For comparison, Americans gave more than US$335 billion, according to the National Philanthropic Trust website.
Many big Chinese firms have invested in Africa - China is Africa's leading trading partner - and several operate in West Africa, where Ebola has killed nearly 5,000 people.
The World Food Programme (WFP) last month called on Chinese firms and tycoons to donate more to fighting Ebola. "No one's been willing to do anything big yet," said Brett Rierson, the WFP's China representative.
Charity experts say Chinese construction firms with projects in Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone - the three countries most affected by Ebola - could donate building materials and labour.
"Building firms could easily step in and say: 'we'll help you clear roads and put in emergency roads and clinics'," said Gary Rieschel, managing partner at Qiming Venture Partners. "If they put their shoulders behind moving some of the infrastructure for health care, they could be incredibly valuable."
But it is likely that state-owned firms would prefer the Chinese government to take a lead on this, said Deborah Brautigam, director of the China Africa Research Initiative and a professor at Johns Hopkins University. "They're unlikely to come forward independently and would assume the government, which does have experience in contributing for emergencies, will be better at knowing what to do," she said. "They probably also wouldn't trust that cash donations to these governments would be used responsibly."
China's Foreign Ministry said it was encouraging businesses operating in Africa to make their own contributions, but did not note any specific examples. "Chinese citizens in those countries have a responsibility to share their experience as long as they can do so while remaining safe," Lin Songtian, director general of the ministry's Department of African Affairs told a briefing on Friday.
Dudley Thomas, Liberia's ambassador to China, said his government was in talks with China-Union (Hong Kong) Mining, a unit of Wuhan Iron and Steel Group, and the state-owned China-Africa Development Fund, which facilitates investment, about possible donations.
He said Liberia secured one donation of US$100,000 from a large Chinese construction firm that has projects in the country, but few other contributions.
Sihuan Pharmaceutical, a drug maker with military ties, has sent several thousand doses of an experimental Ebola drug to Africa and is planning clinical trials there.
Philanthropy may also have been slow to catch on in China as there is a lack of trust in non-profit groups after a string of scandals involving charitable donations, experts said.
"It certainly makes them more cautious," noted Rieschel, adding the government's lack of transparency in handling the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) just over a decade ago may have contributed to eroding trust.
In its Philanthropy List, released last week, the Hurun Research Institute ranked Jack Ma Yun, founder and chairman of Alibaba and China's wealthiest man, top with donations of close to US$2.4 billion. It noted that most donations in China goes towards education, ahead of social services and disaster relief.
US philanthropist Bill Gates wrote an editorial in the official People's Daily newspaper in April calling for Chinese businesspeople to give back. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged US$50 million to fight Ebola, while Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is chipping in with more than US$100 million.