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China: Charity pulled for thankless poor students

A lot of embarrassed discussion has come out of the scandal this past week which many are calling CharityGate (慈善门), when five of the nineteen lower-income university students sponsored by an impromptu charity group consisting of twenty-two businesswomen in Xiangfan, Hubei province had their second year of funding cut as punishment for not expressing thanks to their benefactors.

Freelance blogger-pundit and senior news editor Chang Ping writes on his Tianya blog that ‘charity must not be about demands‘:


In a funding activity for impoverished students in Xiangfan city, the organizer announced that it had canceled five university students’ qualification to continue receiving funding, the reason being that “they had received a year's worth of funding without taking the initiative to call, write or even give a word of thanks to the donor.” So just because thanks was never delivered, the charity became a punishment and condemnation of the recipients. Can the organizers and donors really be so self-righteous about this?

Judging from news reports, a year ago the organizer had arranged for 19 female female entrepreneurs to partner up and make the commitment to each year donate CNY1,000-3,000 to 22 impoverished university students. A commitment is at least a gentleman's agreement, and the amount of money is not large, the students most likely never have suspected that the donors would renege halfway through, and quite possibly rearranged their courses of study and lives based on this commitment. At present, only a quarter of the commitment has been honored, and now the entrepreneures want to cancel it. This reason of not having received thanks is really just a little far-fetched; and not just that, the students have been cast as “thankless” and “ruthless university students”, a typical public condemnation; with the chickens now killed to scared the monkeys, you can imagine what pressure the remaining funded students are under.

You can't say that these 5 university students have not erred, but as I see it, in this instance, the entrepreneures have made an even bigger mistake; not only have they increased the mental pressure on poor people already in deep need, but they've also distorted the meaning of philanthropy.

In China, charity is widely seen as an act of bestowing favor. The notion behind bestowing favor is not just to demonstrate one's own rank, but far too often also comes with the demand for the beneficiary to repay it. This only gives the beneficiary enormous mental pressure, even leaving them feeling humiliated; that's why there are stories like “Food Handed Out in Contempt.”

In efforts to resolve this conflict [between shame and need], Chinese in ancient times took two sides: one side emphasized “bestow the favor, but don't preach while you're at it”, and the other emphasized “you can accept the favor, just don't ever forget you did.” As those bestowing the favors were the ones also with power and influence, this is why we so often seen in books admonitions like “drink the water, just don't forget who dug the well.”

Southern Weekly editor Chen Min shares on his Netease blog a story this incident brought to mind in his post, ‘To love you need an ordinary heart‘:


A while back, I was invited to go check out the Tecsun Homes in Suzhou, and I just happened to run into an entire family that had come to the company to thank the boss. The family was a poor one, from the Anhui countryside; after the daughter finished her undergrad here in China, she was accepted into a Master's program at one well-known American university, only the family didn't have the fiscal capacity. I don't know what guanxi they tapped to find the Tecsun boss, and the Tecsun boss had never seen any of them before, but the boss was nonetheless willing to act as financial guarantor for them. The entire family was extremely moved, and had insisted on coming to Suzhou to pay their thanks. The Tecsun boss was unable to dissuade them, and in the end could only agree to meet, sending a van especially to bring the family to the office. While with them, the boss came straight out with his true feelings: ‘I'm helping you not because I was born so nice, but because of an American influence.’


And why would he mention American influence? The Tecsun boss studied at Stanford University once, and lived in America for over ten years, receiving help from many American friends. He said that at the beginning, he was overcome with emotion, constantly thinking of ways to pay back his American friends for the help they gave him. Then later he noticed that those American friends had no need of his payback whatsoever, and didn't even need this gratitude. Because the American friends who were able to help him were all very well-off and powerful, all completely self-sufficient both financially and emotionally—what help could they possibly need from anyone else? So when they themselves helped others, it was all done very discreetly, regarded as an extremely, extremely private affair; the inner satisfaction and calm they received from having helped someone was enough; they wouldn't have been willing to make it publicly known.

So to sum up what he learned from all this, he said that after having received help from others, the most important thing was not to give thanks to them, but to learn to be like them, and within the limits of what it is in his power to do, do his best to help those around him who were less fortunate than himself; like offering coal during winter, helping them when they needed it. Forming such a relay of love ensures that those who need love most will get as much as possible, and thusly repaying all of society might very well have been the original intention for those Americans who at the beginning had helped him.

From here he made a conclusion, that of the help his American friends gave him, the most important thing wasn't that this helped him to go on to become successful, but that it fostered compassion within him, made him a compassionate person. Helping people with no expectation of repayment, from then on this became a part of his personality. So he admonished that student about to go off to America: once you get to America, the most important thing you must do is to learn from American culture, especially what love is in American culture, and allow yourself to become a more perfect person, a person with compassion, and through your own actions, do your best to spread love, and through you let the love travel as far as possible.

Bullog blogger Liu Tianzhao takes a more direct approach to the subject with his post, ‘Avoid the awkwardness of philanthropy and open up civil society charity groups: the rotten subject nobody dares to write‘:


Over a year ago, twenty-two impoverished students in Xiangfan, Hubei received an endowment from a group of entrepreneures from the local Party union, and two-thirds of the students did not write thanks to their sponsors. Reportedly, this display left the sponsors feeling disappointed, and this year five of those students were unable to further receive funding. The sponsor organization's media spokesperson feels that university students are thankless, and lack the correct “sunny disposition” for which to deal with others and society.


As for the disposition of poor university students, it seems there's definitely an obligation to discuss this. In fact, how impoverished youth reconcile their own identity, reconcile what they see as the especially merciless reality of society, is definitely a social issue extremely worth looking into. But from another angle, there's nothing which says the donors’ dispositions must be healthy. In Chinese traditional morality, drips of beneficent water must be repaid with overflowing fountains of gratitude, this is the demand put to the beneficiary; but to have favors bestowed without repayment of any form, this is also the beneficiaries’ anticipation. In actuality, it's only those donations which come without requiring repayment that truly possess moral connotation, or else it would all become some sort of trade, like “thanks” were a product you could go and purchase. Of course we could also say that requite-seeking donations also have carry own psychological intent, that being to gain a personal moral gratification——however this is a self-contained process, and being virtuous just for the sake of virtue is nothing more than creating benefit for one's self and others through these means.




But, we see that the donor highly anticipates letters written from the beneficiary university students, or else they wouldn't have ceased funding for feeling unappreciated. Just like people are criticizing the students for being thankless, this is a sort of moral condemnation; but to accuse the donors of seeking to using money just to purchase the feeling of “being a benefactor” would be even stronger criticism. The fact, however, remains that in this controversy, neither the donors nor the recipients behaviors leave on feeling very good about all this, feeling that the charitable are not charitable, that the kind are not kind, and no matter where you look now even a shadow of virtue is nowhere to be found, or difficult in finding to the point of leaving one disappointed.

Though, for the donor organization to require the students to write reports on their schooling lives is completely justified. The donor has the right, prior to granting the funds, to put forth a few requirements, such as where the money is to be spent, or what level of performance the students are to attain——basically donors and charity organizations must all make use of these sorts of approaches to ensure that their money doesn't get abused, and to see the fruition of their original intention. But in this case in Xiangfan, the local union is not an independent charity organization, it's only just played the role of middleman. And this charity project took the ‘one-to-one’ approach, wherein those putting up the money and those receiving it must meet directly; as well, the “report on state of school life” letter must also be delivered to the donor in person.

Writing letters to the funding organization or to the funders themselves sounds like a small enough difference, but if one were to experience even a little of what it's like to be a charity recipient, one would see that the difference is in fact quite large. Writing letters directly to the donors implies they will be faced with an extremely unequal relationship, with what seems would be a forced, mandatory expression of feelings of appreciation. The later situation proves that this coerciveness is not just psychological pressure, but that it's part and parcel of the whole engagement. This would leave one with an extreme desire to get out, not perhaps of giving thanks itself, but of the forced requirement to do so.

As if the moral issues surrounding charity donations and recognition weren't sensitive enough, the discussion was further complicated a few days later with the revelation that the father of one of the university students whose funding had been pulled was in fact the deputy director of one government department in Xiangfang and the family neither lacking their own housing or bringing in just six hundred yuan a month, as the young woman had written on her charity application form.


  • Giving should not have string attached. For Chinese enterprenuers to understand this would take religious conversion, it will be difficult.


  • Cheating is so widespread in China, and it goes into every each social fiber. It is not surprising to see an applicant for charitiable funding is a fraud.

    Donators should not be discouraged by this. It will take a generation or two to get the acceptable social behavior deep rooted into the Chinese society.



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