Civil Society Under Pressure as China Hosts First Philanthropy Conference

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July 11, 2016, China Topix

The Alibaba Foundation, established in 2011 by Alibaba Group, hosted the Xin Philanthropy Conference this past weekend, a first-of-its-kind event in China. The Alibaba Foundation earmarks 0.3 percent of annual revenue to fund environmental initiatives and social responsibility in China. The company foundation includes a voluntary three-hour donation of time per year for employees interested in serving a charity.

The Xin Philanthropy Conference brought together prominent Chinese philanthropists, global leaders in philanthropy, and major multinational organizations and NGOs to meet, share best practices, and inspire China’s wealthy elite to consider becoming engaged philanthropically. The conference headliner was Jack Ma, founder and executive chair of Alibaba Group and China’s most celebrated philanthropist. Mr. Ma donated $2.4 billion worth of Alibaba share options to his charitable trust. Mr. Ma’s areas of philanthropic interest include healthcare, education, and the environment in China.

Ma revealed that the idea came after Alibaba held a staff swimming competition at Hangzhou’s Qiantang River to celebrate the opening of Alibaba’s new headquarters in 2009. Employees came ashore with plastic bags and garbage they picked up along the course. Shocked and dismayed over the state of the river, Alibaba took a step for a change.

The conference also served as an opportunity for Mr. Ma to defend himself amid the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission probe into Alibaba’s accounting practices in the United States. Suspicions about Alibaba’s rapid growth have been a subject of controversy.

“If you want to sue us, sue us,” Ma said. “It’s an opportunity for us to let them understand what we’re doing.”

Other speakers included Ban Ki Moon, United Nations Secretary General; Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister of the UK; Salman Khan, Founder and CEO of Khan Academy; Yao Ming, retired NBA athlete and founder of the Yao Ming Foundation; and Jet Li, actor and founder of the One Foundation. Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates made video presentations.

The conference included panel discussions on education, disaster relief, environmental protection, healthcare, and philanthropy in the Internet era. The conference was live-streamed; photos are here.

Given Beijing’s looming restrictions on the development of civil society in China, it will take much more than this conference to mobilize China’s other 430 billionaires to demonstrate an interest in helping to meet the world’s needs.

In 2013, Eileen Heisman, CEO of National Philanthropic Trust, spoke at a conference in China for NGO leaders. Heisman concluded her description of the experience in NPQ with this positive assessment:

Philanthropy has been a hallmark of American culture since its inception, one that Alexis de Tocqueville noted in the 1800s. It is an honor that China looks to the U.S. as a model for “good giving.” I, for one, will not be surprised when the day comes that we look to China’s nonprofit organizations’ achievements and wonder, “How’d they do that?”

A year earlier, NPQ wrote about China’s first-ever charity fair in Shenzhen, “a south China municipality that aspires to become a ‘city of philanthropy’ and a ‘city of volunteers.’” The Ministry of Civil Affairs (MOCA) and the local government hosted the fair.

While advances continue, such as China’s new law against domestic abuse, in the past year, China’s president, Xi Jinping, has reined in opposition to the Communist party, and that offensive includes restricting civil society. Chinese nonprofit groups say the new laws are as severe as those in the days following the 1989 military offensive against Tiananmen protesters. Not coincidentally, the Tiananmen Square protest memorial museum in Hong Kong was just shut down.

Religious persecution in China includes this story about a couple buried alive trying to prevent their church from being demolished. Foreign NGOs operating inside China are not spared. The Chinese Human Rights Defenders group, run by overseas activists, described and criticized the new laws in this statement.

Here is a recent story about a Swedish NGO chief working in China to promote access to legal services who was detained for 23-days before being deported:

On the 10th day of Peter Dahlin’s captivity in a secret Beijing jail, Chinese state security officers sprang one of their big surprises—something he found even more astonishing than hearing a colleague being beaten in a room above his cell. They showed him a document…prepared by the National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit group based in Washington that is largely funded by the United States Congress.

Nevertheless, some 1,000 attendees attended the inaugural Conference, brimming with excitement and expectation.

According to Alibaba Vice President Brian Wong, who helped plan the event, the conference emphasized the use of technology at the grassroots level to drive change. “Combining the entrepreneurial spirit with innovative approaches to doing social good by leveraging technology is key to making an impact today.” Alibaba Group held its inaugural Global Conference on Women and Entrepreneurship in China last year.

China has 1.3 million millionaires and is expected to add another 1 million by 2020. A May 2016 United Nations Development Program report entitled Unleashing the Potential of Philanthropy in China found that “total charitable giving in China is just 4 percent of the level in the U.S. or Europe. In many respects, China is still a place where philanthropists are finding it hard to operate due to a combination of public distrust in the sector because of some recent scandals, and an unclear legal and policy framework.”

Which face of China will triumph? Mr. Ma’s eager conference-goers, mostly young entrepreneurs representing China’s next generation of leaders aglow with the prospect of discovery and accomplishment, or police state enforcers grimly reading their mail should they attempt to embrace the promise of philanthropy?—James Schaffer