When I came to China in late 2000 to seek my redemption, I spent about 18 months in the far North town of Qiqihar teaching English and German to students aged 16 to 22 at Qiqihar University and its affiliated Herman Gmeiner Vocational School. What left a lasting impression though were my additional volunteer weekends at the SOS Orphan’s Village, where I sang English songs and played games with up to 30 children aged 2 to 10. I had a wonderful time giving without expecting anything in return, but was richly rewarded by each smile on the children’s faces and by getting to know my today wife. Then, there where only two such SOS Orphan Villages in China, one in Qiqihar and one in Yantai; now there are 10. The SOS international organization provides a home and a family to 65000 orphans worldwide and is ranked 33 amongst the top 100 NGOs in regard to social impact.
I have never really paid attention to charity work in China after I left Qiqihar, but occasionally I hear from initiatives like Shanghai Healing Home. Friends of ours posted this heartbreaking video on the occasion of their birthday party on wechat and asked the invited crowd to donate for the project instead of buying any presents. Both thumbs up for both Shanghai Healing Home and our friends’ empathy.
This June I was lucky to participate in a CSR workshop in software giant SAP’s Shanghai R&D lab. The 2-day training, which aimed at helping German companies to grow substantial and purposeful roots in Chinese society was part of the larger More than a Market initiative from the German Chamber of Commerce in China and the Bertelsmann Foundation. My group worked on an autism self help platform for parents of affected children, and we learned that although 1 million children suffer from autism in China, no comparable organization like in Western countries or in Korea and Japan exists to alleviate the hardship endured.
Today I recalled a short post of mine from a few months ago: Public transportation is definitely one of the few upsides in contemporary china and exemplifies how autocratic capitalism can accelerate a society's progress. Infrastructural progress has nevertheless sooner or later be balanced with value (call it spiritual or moral as you like) progress. China gains rapidly ground in the first, but is devastatingly empty in the latter. In Europe the picture looks more and more the other way round. Both conditions are not desirable.
And I asked myself why such humanitarian projects are in China mostly initiated by foreigners, exactly those people who CCTV host Yang Rui collectively stigmatized as white trash. Is there a lack of empathy in this country which I call my home? Has the time not yet arrived to think about society at large, because of socio-political backwardness or is the Chinese psyche essentially ego-centered like the scholar Lin Yutang wrote in 1935: The Chinese are a nation of individualists. They are family-minded, not social-minded, and the family mind is only a form of magnified selfishness.
This is yet another occasion to remind ourselves that we should better forget about passports, and judge people by their deeds only, no matter where they hail from.
A visit to the Shanghai NGO Incubator gave me some answers to my above questions and as always, I tend to blame the system rather than the individual. A befriended social entrepreneur who has registered his NGO in 2015 told me that it took him six months to go through the entire procedure. His papers were checked thoroughly by the Administration for Civil Affairs | 民政局, and he was eventually even approved to move into the incubator park, where he pays for a decent office only a fraction of the market price.
He moreover explained that with January 2017 a new NGO law will also permit foreign NGOs to register in China, but to the discomfort of such aspirants, the Administration of Public Security | 公安局 will be in charge of the procedure, indicating that foreign interference into civil affairs is considered as clear security threat. I am not surprised of such an approach, considering that China has a long track record of keeping any civil activity at bay. Damin Ma and William Adams wrote in their informative title In Line Behind a Billion People: How Scarcity Will Define China's Ascent in the Next Decade that
in 2011, China allocated 624 billion yuan ($100 billion) for domestic public security, a 14% increase from the previous year and over 6% of total public spending, higher than healthcare spending. By contrast, China’s reported defense budget in the same year was 601 billion yuan (less than $100 billion).11 Spending on domestic security and national defense was projected to hit $111 billion and $106 billion in 2012, respectively.12 Of the $100 billion public security budget, about 70% went to domestic police and the paramilitary force, the People’s Armed Police (PAP), while the courts and judicial functions received a much smaller fraction. On matters of law and order, there isn’t much competition—order wins by a wide margin, at least in terms of resource allocation.
My friend therefore reckons that e.g. Shanghai Healing Home is not an accredited NGO, but an organization which operates in a grey zone. Even if there is only one foreigner on the board of a non profit initiative it is considered a foreign NGO and would have to go through the PSB procedure. But there are easy ways around the law like operating without formal registration and providing accounting transparency by implementing annual third party auditing. Things are not too bad after all.
The brilliant Shanghai Civil Affairs Museum | 上海民政博物馆on the grounds of the Public Welfare Park | 公益新天地, an antipode to the close by Xintiandi entertainment district, which could also be aptly called Public Well-Off Park, showcases on two stories an exhibition about the history of social grass root work in China. I was sort of amused that tightly controlled civilian activities are under headlines like “Broadening the line of thinking and adopting innovative measures” or “Strengthening democracy”. Strolling through the museum I felt a revolutionary spirit perverted into autocratic conformism.
Considering that political change is always slower than social or entrepreneurial change, I conclude, that hampering civil society can’t be beneficial for the development of a society at large. And without doubt, this is where China has one of it’s most obvious deficits. As long as a rigid Confucian hierarchy does not permit the citizen to develop at its own pace, as long as cardinal relationships between father and son, master and disciple, emperor and citizen remain stuck in a one-way communication, where facilitating progress is suffocated for the sake power politics, there will be no genuine development.