Huang Fang, 19, is celebrating her 20th birthday in a local hospital in Neijiang, Sichuan Province.
Why a birthday party one year ahead?
Actually it was just the curtain raiser of a well-deliberated show.
Hope for life fades
Huang Fang is a country lass from a remote village in Sichuan; in reality she's a second-grade student at the Neijiang No. 12 Middle School.
But in March of this year random medical tests diagnosed her with chronic granulocytic leukemia.
An endless treatment process then began.
Around 300 yuan was needed on a daily basis for chemo and other therapies. But bone marrow transplants, the ultimate salvation for all leukemia patients, costs 200,000 yuan at the very minimum.
Huang's parents both work at a garment factory in Guangdong province; they each earn less than 800 yuan per month. Not surprisingly, Huang's medical bills are astronomical in their eyes.
After asking for loans from all their friends and relatives, Huang's parents felt deeply dismayed: the total amount of money that they had managed to scrape up was utterly inadequate to cover their daughter's treatment.
Destitute and desperate, Huang Xinyou, Huang Fang's father, suddenly thought of charity groups and the government.
He first approached the local Red Cross Society but received a disappointing answer. "Im sorry but we cannot help you. The city's economy is not doing well; no one feels enthusiastic about donating. Many people in similar situation like yours request money grants from us. We'd love to help you, but we are not able," a worker at the Red Cross explained.
The Neijiang Charity Federation gave him the same reply.
The city government said that the only thing they could do was to call upon the general public to help Huang Fang. A long time passed and no one responded to the government's plea.
The local Civil Affairs Bureau did promise a 4000-yuan donation. One month slipped by; the promise did not convert into cash.
An unexpected call
When Huang Fang and her family were on the verge of giving up, they received a call from a stranger.
Huai Wangxing, the caller, claimed that he learned Huang Fang's story via the Internet. He said that he would love to help her "in his own way".
His idea was to attract media coverage and public support for Huang Fang by planning and throwing charity events. People like Huai are known as "charity event planners".
Huai's plan for Huang Fang was to "celebrate one birthday every week". This concept would symbolically highlight a leukemia patient's yearning and love for life by experiencing it beforehand.
Huang Fang and her family were not sure whether the scheme would work, but they decided to try it anyway. Left with no choices, they felt desperate enough to grasp at any straw.
Hence the scene at the beginning of this article.
A news agency made a lengthy report on this event, but failed to trigger much public interest.
Huai refused to accept defeat and decided to hold a second birthday party. Some extra twists were designed this time around to make the event more newsworthy. For instance, Huang would skip all the years in between and celebrate her 28th birthday instead of the 21st; she would also invite another seven people with the same birth date to join her.
The party took place as scheduled and drew the media, but only a few journalists actually reported the story. "It has gone too far," said a newspaper editor.
The failure this time was a heavy blow to both Huang Fang and to Huai. But Huai was not a man who gave up easily. He believed that the two setbacks could help improve future activities. Without hesitation, he planned a third party on a much larger scale.
On June 23, 2007, Huang Fang had her "128th birthday" on Neijiang's Daqian Square. She also read aloud an article about leukemia patients, calling for the public to give more support to this vulnerable group.
This time their efforts were not in vain. Some good-hearted citizens contributed several thousand yuan right after the event. But the mainstream media would only carry the story on condition that Huai, the mastermind behind all this drama, would agree to step out into the spotlight.
Altruism or hype?
Huai knew that he would have to be exposed to publicity eventually, but denied the accusation that he was doing these kinds of public events in order to gain personal fame. "Some people stir up hype to become rich and famous. I do it simply to help others," Huai affirmed.
"But sometimes a little fame can help your achieve your goals," he added. "For example, a charity event attracts much more press coverage if there is a celebrity involved. We all know that the media plays a big role in charity."
"If I wanted to be famous, I would have been five years ago," Huai explained. "I wrote a couple of poems that deeply touched a TV producer. He asked me to be a guest on his show but I declined. That's not where my interest lies."
He also did something extraordinary in China during his college years: he quit college halfway through his studies because he "wanted to focus on what he truly interested in".
After college, Huai led a gypsy life. In order to support himself, he did all sorts of odd jobs, including working as a porter on a construction site.
Huai decided to settle down after meeting his wife. The couple opened a "public phone bank" and they had a child, who is now going on three.
"My life consists of milk and water now, but I have never forgotten my dreams," said Huai. "No one wants to end up mediocre."
In May this year, he came up with the idea of creating a "Bald Kingdom". Simply put, he dreamed of mobilizing all the residents in a small town and persuading them to become baldheaded so as to attract more tourists. Tourism revenue generated by the scheme would then be used to help leukemia patients.
"I always wanted to help the poor and needy. Leukemia is the first thing came into my mind," Huai explained.
After meeting with several leukemia patients, Huai glimpsed their indescribable sufferings. Because of this he decided to postpone his grand "Bald Kingdom" plan and to do something practical for this extremely fragile group instead.
Once he got started, Huai found it difficult to apply brakes of any kind. From May to the present he has designed about 100 PR events for 28 leukemia patients.
Huai said that it does not matter whether he is behind the scenes or in the spotlight; the most important thing is to ensure that the event yields positive results.
If fame has brought him any "benefit", it is actually costing him more out of pocket than before. Rather than charging his patients for an event's expenses, he pays the bills himself. Other than that, his life is the same as usual.
The birthday program did not save Huang Fang from her financial impasse.
"I haven't given Huang Fang much help," admitted Huai. The actual amount of charitable donations generated by Huai's projects varies from patient to patient, but nothing has been fundamentally changed. Events were held, the media have reported, but donations simply did not come along. We Chinese have a proverb to explain this dilemma: 'All we hear is thunder, but no rain falls'."
Huai's most successful event barely managed to collect a mere 8,000 yuan in donations.
Huai concluded that this is due to the overwhelming apathy of modern society. He also pointed out that some swindlers have cheated the public under the veil of charity. Unable to distinguish the good from evil, some people have decided not to give at all.
That is why Huai began targeting corporations rather than individuals for charitable donations right from the start. He hoped that businesses would sponsor his programs in exchange for some positive PR.
This assumption proved false. No company seemed truly interested in his charitable programs. Huai's high expectations were again brutally defeated.
A press person commented that Huai had unrealistic expectations concerning the power of the media. The truth is that modern mass media literally reports on anything that produces a shock effect. Most stories are fleeting and quickly lose the public's eye.
Huai also tried to figure out why corporations gave him the cold shoulder. He guessed that companies perhaps feared that once they had made a donation, a flurry of financial requests would follow. Business organization would become financially overburdened.
A business manager also explained that hypes like this are very short-lived. Companies would rather advertise themselves more effectively by supporting less-choreographed events.
Besides, the same publicity scheme for one patient is often used on another. It is possible that the media and the public would get tried of this kind of repetition.
Still, Huai did not shrink from these setbacks. Instead, he began to explore other possible directions. For instance, he now wants to establish a foundation or work with charitable organizations under government control. Private philanthropy is extremely under-developed in China; it is the government that leads the country's most philanthropic efforts.
The government's mighty hand
While private philanthropy struggles, government-led charity prospers.
In June of this year, the government of Weihai City in Shandong Province launched a "charity month" program, calling on public servants and enterprise employees to donate for charity purposes. Donated amounts will be used to measure an organization's and its leadership's performance.
Within a mere ten days, 20 million yuan in cash donations were collected and over one billion yuan worth of funds were pledged by various business enterprises.
In China, such government-initiated fund-raising activities are widespread. Voluntary donations are mobilized through vertical patronization throughout an administration or other organization from the top to the bottom. Under such circumstances, many employees who would not otherwise give in charity donate nonetheless.
Some local governments even went one step further to "loan" money from the employees. For example, the government of Pingyao County in Shaanxi province decided to confiscate one-month's worth of salaries from all government employees and allocate the money to build roads.
This is an accepted practice in the past, but has met with ruthless criticism today from both the media and the involuntary donors themselves.
During the Weihai "charity month", a plumber working for a government building was asked to donate 500 yuan out of his 1500-yuan monthly salary. When he went home and told his wife about it, his wife retorted, "Oh, when will you be asked to donate a wife? I am ready!"
Caught in a dilemma
Certainly, the government does not want a bad reputation but it is trapped in a quandary.
On the one hand, China has 30 million people living in absolute poverty and another 30 million urban laid-off workers. Combined with the disabled and disaster-stricken population, people in need of social services account for over 10 percent of the total population.
On the other hand, the government is in no position to get involved in philanthropy.
According to Article 4 of the Welfare Donations Law of the People's Republic of China, "Donation shall be made voluntarily. Any allocation of donations by compulsion or in disguised forms shall be prohibited."
A professor from Tsinghua University also commented that the government is only responsible for welfare, while philanthropy is a purely private thing. A clear-cut line must be drawn between the two.
Therefore, the best answer still lies with the development of private charitable organizations. China's private philanthropy has a long and bumpy history. It is still in its infancy even today.
A brief look at the history
China has a long history of philanthropy, according to Zhou Qiuguang, a professor at Hunan Normal University. Philanthropic activities can be dated back to Han Dynasty (202 BC – AD 220). By the end of 19th century, the number and scale of the private welfare programs even outstripped governmental ones.
However, China's philanthropy fell to the very bottom in 1949. "The Chinese people have established their own government. China's future lies in their own hands. Charities are no longer the tools used by the oppressors to deceive and beguile the oppressed," said Dong Biwu, then the vice premier of the People's Republic of China, thus setting an unfavorable tone for philanthropy. Subsequently, the philanthropic organizations were either shut down or taken over by the government.
China had virtually neither charities nor philanthropic activities from 1954 to 1980. Disaster relief and poverty alleviation were taken care of by the government. The general public accepted this policy. They believed that their communist system would provide for every social need. Philanthropy was unnecessary. Donations were condemned as wealth displacement, which was considered counter-revolutionary. Rumors say that a worker who donated 200 yuan to the disaster-stricken area in early 1970s was denounced as a vulgar man who brought shame upon socialism.
In 1978, China entered a new era. Thanks to the reform and opening up policy, China has taken huge economic strides; people have better lives. But tens of millions of Chinese citizens are still living in poverty. Natural disasters and social problems have constantly stretched government resources to the max. The government has realized that it could not face the challenges alone; the idea of promoting public charity was put on the agenda.
But complicated restrictions set by the government has put a damper on the third sector. Most large charities have governmental backgrounds. For example, the Chinese Communist Youth League founded the China Youth Development Foundation. The National Population and Family Planning Commission of China established the China Population Welfare Foundation. Given their limited resources and influence, the private philanthropic groups in a real sense function only marginally.
Charity foundation's attempt to stand on its own doomed
The China Charity Foundation (CCF), the first general purpose charity in China, was set up in 1994. Although its chief architects, Cui Naifu and Yang Mingfu, were senior officials of the Ministry of Civil Affairs, they positioned the foundation to act as a one-hundred-percent charity instead of a government welfare program. The accounting, human resources, and other administrative operations acted differently than other governmental organs.
In 1998, a catastrophic flood catapulted the CCF into the limelight and pushed China's philanthropy drastically up. Yan Mingfu, then the Acting Chairman of CCF, began to organize relief immediately after the flood was reported. On August 6, 1998 more than 300 million yuan was collected during the first televised donation party staged together by the China Charity Foundation, the China Central Television and the Red Cross Society of China.
This not only triggered a turnaround of people's perceptions regarding philanthropy, but also demonstrated the importance of charities to the government. A string of laws and regulations were passed to foster the philanthropy development, such as the Law on Donations for Public Welfare and the Provisional Measures on Exempting the Import Tax Levied upon Donated Materials for Poverty-relief and Charity Purposes.
However, governmental reforms in the same year clipped the CCF's wings. Officials of the Ministry of Civil Affairs over the age of 45 were placed in other affiliated foundations. As a result, the headcount of the CCF increased from 8 to nearly 30. Costs surged. The new comers ditched the existing regulations. For instance, an official adjusted from the Ministry of Finance dumped the CCF financial system. He had read the financial statement and found it lacking in legalities.
"There is always progress and always setbacks. When philanthropy is embraced by the general public, this is progress. When the CCF lost its independence this was a setback," said Yang Tuan, one of the directors at the CCF.
Philanthropy or welfare?
During the fourth plenary session of the 16th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China in 2004, charity was regarded as one of the four pillars of the social security system. Philanthropy was no longer "an important supplement of government's undertakings" but a part of the government's responsibility. It had become a government social service.
"Most of the foundations are run by the government," said Zhou Qiuguang. When philanthropy is used as one of the measurements to evaluate an official's performance, it is no longer a voluntary expression of caring and compassion for others. The philosophy and the operation of this kind of organizations, to some degree, have been distorted. As these charities are affiliated to and administrated by various departments, they are not adept at cooperating with each other. Donors who do not give donations to the designated foundations run by the government are not entitled to tax exemptions. This imbalance in resources distribution and differentiated treatment restrains China's development of philanthropy.
Zhou Qiuguang asserted that private charities should be philanthropy's mainstay. Some argued that the government should focus on welfare services, such as setting an adequate minimum wage and ensuring that every citizen is covered by medical insurance; philanthropy should be left in the hands of charities.
A positive turn
The call for independent charity in recent years has brought about modifications in philanthropic organizations. They have intensified their interactions with international NGOs and they have internalized many advanced concepts and experiences from their peers in the other countries.
The Red Cross Society of China (RCSC) is one of the frontrunners. Wang Rupeng, its secretary general, said that the RCSC was "a non-profit organization with a legal personality". RCSC job opportunities are open to all eligible citizens instead of just officials from certain departments. Donations are managed transparently.
Wang hoped that more private charities could get on board. Cash donations and others collected by the RCSC in 2006 reached a record high of 120 million yuan. But it's still far from enough to assist the needy.
Positive news also comes from the legislative front. From January 1, 2008, the newly revised Enterprise Income Tax Law will come into force. Based on the new law, 13 percent of taxable incomes will be corporate-income-tax free if donated for charitable purposes.
"That is huge!" gushed Feng Lun, president of the Vantone Group. "If the law is implemented, the current situation will be completely reversed. Charities would no longer be short of donors. Instead, entrepreneurs would vie against each other to donate to their favorite charities."
Some experts have cautioned that the existing law already grants a 3 percent tax break for donated corporate incomes. Apparently, the incentive failed to spur charitable donations from Chinese entrepreneurs with deep pockets. Just like corporate social responsibility, corporate philanthropy has been at a standstill for a long time in China. To what extent this larger tax cut works remains yet unanswered.
(China.org.cn by Zou Di and Ma Yina, September 18, 2007)