Chinese charities fight for funds

By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

Image caption,
Chinese charities struggle because giving is not yet an established practice

Groups of foreign tourists regularly crowd into the small courtyard that is home to the Huiling community centre in Beijing.

They go to watch people with mental disabilities put on a series of performances, which include songs, stories and comic sketches.

Afterwards, the tourists are encouraged to buy a gift or two from the handicrafts on sale, most of which are made by those who go to the centre.

Without the shows there would be no tourists, and without the tourists the centre would struggle to survive.

Many Chinese charities like Huiling face financial difficulties.

China is a country where the government has traditionally provided for its citizens and individual giving, at least in modern times, is not a well-established practice.

'Government obstruction'

Chinese people are charitable: during the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 they donated millions of dollars in aid.

Image caption,
Chinese people donated millions of dollars following the Sichuan earthquake in 2008

Many ordinary individuals made their own decision to drive relief supplies for those left homeless and hungry in affected areas.

But the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949 with the idea that it would provide for all its citizens' needs.

Charities were marginalised - a situation that still exists today.

Meng Weina, the woman who set up Huiling, blames the government for the difficult financial position faced by charities like hers.

"The Chinese government doesn't like - and even obstructs - charities. It doesn't want to give them money because that will give them strength and power," she said.

"That makes the Chinese government nervous because it could threaten its ability to rule," added Ms Meng, who oversees centres in 10 cities across China.

She said this attitude had also helped shape many people's poor opinion of charities.

Huiling gets about a third of its funding from the families of the adults who attend its day centres, open from Monday to Fridays.

The rest comes from donations - and most of that money is given by foreigners, including foundations, embassies and individuals.

On the day the BBC visited, the foreign tourists were only too happy to hand over some of their money.

"You wonder what happens to people with disabilities and so it's great to see there are places like this," said 30-year-old Luke Stanley from Australia, one of the foreign visitors.

But not everyone is happy with this method of raising money.

Liu Shunan, who works at the centre, is sad that more Chinese people do not give to charity.

"We get very few tourist groups from China. We probably need to raise people's awareness," she said as she taught the group of foreign visitors about Chinese calligraphy.

"Some Chinese people know those with mental disabilities, but there are still others who look down on them."

'Change comes slowly'

Many more people in China do now though appear to be warming to the idea of giving more of their wealth away to charity.

Image caption,
Bill Gates went to China to meet some of the country's richest individuals

The Shanghai-based Hurun Report, which produces lists of China's richest individuals, publishes information on the country's most important philanthropists.

It reported this year that China's 50 top givers had handed over about $1.2bn (£0.7bn), far more than they used to.

US billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffett came to China a few months ago to talk to some of these wealthy people to learn more about charity in China.

Both men are behind a campaign in the United States to get American billionaires to give away their money.

Mr Gates said giving was not well-established in China partly because its people had only recently become rich enough to think about charity.

"Because the wealth here is so new, a lot of these non-profit groups have not been developed," said the Microsoft chairman.

"The notion of what is the role of government verses philanthropy is still being developed."

That change is not coming fast enough for Huiling's Meng Weina, who constantly has to move her Beijing centre to smaller and smaller locations because of rising rents.

She said the key to change was the forcing the government to admit that charities have a role in providing services. She does not think that will happen soon.

"Change comes at a snail's pace. It would be hard for us to change even if there were 100 people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett urging us on," she said.

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