Close

Support Global Voices

To stay independent, free, and sustainable, our community needs the help of friends and readers like you.

Donate now »

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‘:

在襄樊市的一个助学活动中,主办者宣布取消5名大学生继续受助的资格,原因是他们“受助一年多,没有主动给资助者打过一次电话、写过一封信,更没有一句感谢的话”。就因为没有当面言谢,慈善变成了对受助者的惩罚和谴责。主办方和捐助者真的可以这样理直气壮吗?
从报道中可以看出,主办方组织的19位女企业家一年前曾经作出承诺,以结对子的方式,每年向22名贫困大学生捐助1000~3000元。承诺至少是一种君子协定吧,这些钱也不多,大学生们应该不会怀疑捐助者中途毁约,还有可能根据这个承诺安排了自己的学业和生活。如今,承诺才兑现了四分之一,女企业家们就要取消,没有听到感谢这个理由实在是有些勉强。不仅如此,还把他们作为“不知感恩”的“无情大学生”典型予以公开谴责。杀鸡吓猴,其他还在继续接受捐助的大学生的压力可想而知。
不能说这5位大学生没有过错,但是我认为,在这件事情中,女企业家们的做法过错更大,不仅使已经深受物质之困的穷人又增加了精神压力,而且扭曲了慈善的意义。
在中国,慈善被普遍视为一种施恩的行为。施恩的观念中不仅有自身高人一等的意思,而且往往要求受惠者的回报。这样就会给受惠者造成非常大的精神压力,甚至感到屈辱,所以就有“嗟来之食”那样的故事。为了解决这个矛盾,中国古人两头劝,一边强调“施恩勿念”,一边强调“受惠莫忘”。由于施恩者总是掌握话语权,所以书上到处写满了“吃水不忘挖井人”这类训诫。

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‘:

前不久,我应邀去苏州德胜洋楼公司参观,刚好碰上一家老小到公司向老板谢恩。这是安徽农村的一个贫困家庭,女儿国内本科毕业后考上美国一家著名的大学读硕士,但没有相应的支付能力。不知道通过什么关系找到德胜的老板。德胜老板跟他们素昧平生,但仍慨然为他们做了经济担保。一家人非常感动,执意要到苏州致谢。德胜老板拗不过,只好同意见面,派专车把他们接到公司。其间老板坦陈心迹:我帮助你们不是我天性就这么善良,而是美国文化的影响。

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.’

为什么说是美国文化的影响呢?德胜老板曾就读斯坦福大学,留美十余年,得到美国朋友的很多帮助。他说,最初,他在感动之余,总想要如何如何回报帮助他的美国朋友。但后来他发现,那些美国朋友根本不需要他的回报,甚至不需要他的感谢,因为能帮助他的美国朋友,都很强势,经济上精神上都是完全自足的,哪用得着别人来锦上添花。而且他们帮助别人,都极其低调,都看做非常非常私人的事情,他们因帮助别人而得到一份内心上的满足和安宁,就够了,根本就不愿意谁去大肆张扬。
于是,他总结出一个心得,在得到别人的帮助后,他应该做的主要不是向帮助他的人谢恩,而是应该像帮助他的人那样,在力所能及的范围内,尽可能地去帮助身边弱势的人,最需要雪中送炭的人。这样来形成爱的接力,让需要爱的人尽可能都得到爱,这样来回报整个社会,也许才是当初帮助他的那些美国朋友的初衷。
他由此得出一个结论,美国朋友对他的帮助,最重要的不是让他成了才,而是培养了他的爱心,使他从此成了一个有爱心的人。帮助人而不求任何回报,从此成了他的性格的一部分。所以他告诫那位即将赴美的学生:到美国后,最重要的是学习美国的文化,尤其是美国的爱的文化,让自己成为一个完善的人,一个有爱心的人,用自己的行动,尽可能传播爱,让爱因为你而走的更远。
刚好从苏州回来,就读到了湖北捐助人索恩的故事。对比之强烈,让我非常感慨。就已有报道来看,说捐助人索恩或许并不准确,更准确的说法应该是捐助组织者索恩。因为我没有听到捐助人自己的说法,我只听到捐助组织者对受助者提出这样那样的条件,只听到捐助组织者大喊委屈和大表愤慨。

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‘:

湖北襄樊22名贫困大学生,一年多以前受到当地工会组织的女企业家的捐赠,其中三分之二未给资助人写信。据说这样的表现让资助者心寒,其中5名学生今年没能再获捐赠。媒体组织捐赠的负责人认为,大学生不知感恩,缺乏正确对待他人和社会的“阳光心态”。

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.

关于贫困大学生的心态,似乎确实有讨论的必要。实际上,贫困的年轻人如何接受自己的身份、接受对他们来说格外残忍的社会现实,这确实是一个非常值得探讨的社会命题。但是反过来,捐赠者的心态也未必就很健康。在中国传统道德中,滴水之恩涌泉相报,这是对受惠者的要求;但是施恩不图报,这也是对施惠者的期待。实际上,也只有不图报答的捐赠,才具有道德含义,否则就变成了一种交易,仿佛是去购买一种名叫“感恩”的商品。当然我们可以说,不图报答的捐赠,它也有其心理动机,那便是收获个人的道德满足感——但这是一个自足的过程,而美德之所以为美德,就是借由这种方式让自己与他人都受益。

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.

但是,我们看到捐赠者似乎非常期待受资助的大学生写信来,否则也不会因为心里不是滋味就停止了捐赠。就像人们批评大学生不知感恩,这是一种道德谴责;如果指责捐赠者是想花钱来购买“做恩人”的感觉,那更是诛心之论。事实不过是,这一场风波中,捐赠者和被捐赠者的表现都让人感到不美好,让人觉得慈者不慈、善者不善,从哪个角度去看都找不到美德的影子,难堪且让人失望。

不过,组织捐赠的机构要求学生写信汇报自己的学习生活,这本来也是合乎情理的。因为资助方本来就有权在资助之前提出一些要求,例如这些钱必须用在哪些方面,又或者这些学生在学校的成绩必须达到某个标准——大概捐赠者或者慈善机构,都必须借助类似的方式来保证它的钱不被滥用、完成初衷。但是,在襄樊这个具体案例中,当地工会并不是一个独立的慈善机构,它只起到了一个中间人的作用。这一慈善项目采取的是“一对一”的方式,就是说出资人与受赠者必须直接接触,而那封“汇报学习生活状况”的信,也要直接写给捐赠者。

写信给资助机构或者资助个人,听起来这似乎是非常小的差别。但是只要稍微体会一下受赠者的心态,就会明白这个差别很大。直接写信给资助人,就意味着要面对一种非常不对等的关系,而且几乎是强制性地、必须表达自己的感恩之情。后来的情况证明,这种强制性不仅是心理压力,而且是行动事实。让人非常想要逃避的,或许并不是感恩,而是对感恩之心的强制要求。

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