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A Chinese boomtown test drives the concept of charity

Migrant workers watch Olympic matches on TV in a room at Huangbeiling Village in Shenzhen of south China's Guangdong province Aug. 10, 2008.

Chen Yihuai/ColorChinaPhoto/Chen Yihuai/ColorChinaPhoto

This is part of The Globe and Mail's in-depth look at the evolution of philanthropy. Read more from the series here.

Shenzhen has long been one of the easiest places in China to get rich. Now this boomtown is also earning a reputation as one of the simplest places to give away money, as the local government experiments with concepts that have long been anathema to the ruling Communist Party: charity, philanthropy and civil society.

A quiet fishing village until three decades ago, Shenzhen was plucked from obscurity by Deng Xiaoping and chosen as the testing ground for China's grand experiment with market economics. The laboratory for today's much smaller test is a hard-to-find office building amid the forest of factories and apartment blocks that is this still-growing metropolis of 10 million people. On the fourth floor, up a broken staircase from a store that ships pre-made chandeliers around the world, is the busy office of the Non-Profit Incubator.

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Since Shenzhen's latest experiment began in earnest in 2008, the Non-Profit Incubator – which receives funding from sources as diverse as the British Council, the Ford Foundation and China's Ministry of Civil Affairs – has given start-up money and training to dozens of non-governmental organizations and charities. Most of the organizations it has helped launch are involved in helping those left behind by the economic reforms that began in 1980, a sign the government knows it needs help dealing with the unwanted side effects of its economic successes.

NGOs and independent charities are still unwelcome in most of China, viewed as a threat by governments worried about alternate power sources and foreign influence. Shenzhen, however, has lifted restrictive regulations that required NGOs and charities to effectively attach themselves to a government department (something that proved very difficult since few in government wanted to be responsible for the behaviour of an independent entity). Since that change, charities and NGOs that had been operating in legal grey areas in other parts of the country have been flocking to Shenzhen to register, and hundreds of new organizations have been launched. Each hopes the local government is as sincere as it claims to be about supporting civil society.

"It's very difficult to operate a charity in China," said Hu Jun, a volunteer with, an organization that tries to encourage parents to read to their children. After three years of operating without legal status, the organization now receives rent-free office space and funding to cover the salary of one full-time employee via the Non-Profit Incubator. "It's far more open here than in other parts of China. We have more opportunities," Ms. Hu said.

This is still very much a controlled experiment; NGOs interested in promoting concepts such as freedom of speech and democracy, or charities with religious ties, need not apply. But the very existence of the Non-Profit Incubator and the NGOs it supports represents a remarkable breakthrough: the Communist Party acknowledging that it can't solve all of this country's woes, and asking for help.

"The government can't and shouldn't do everything. The government is not so good and efficient," said Ma Hong, head of Shenzhen's Bureau of Administration for Non-Government Organizations. Ms. Ma said the number of NGOs in the city – registered and unregistered – has quadrupled from 960 a decade ago to more than 4,300 today.

She pointed to the example of schools for the children of the millions of migrant workers who have moved to Shenzhen since the economic reforms began. The local government has a school system built to accommodate holders of Shenzhen residence permits. The children of those who move around looking for work were falling between the cracks, Ms. Ma acknowledged. "If there are NGOs that can [provide education to the migrant children] we should leave it to them."

It's a common sentiment in the West, but a quasi-revolutionary statement from someone within China's thick bureaucracy. "Shenzhen is the front line in the battle," said Deng Guosheng, director of the Innovation and Social Responsibility Research Centre at Tsinghua University in Beijing. "What happens in Shenzhen is definitely significant to the rest of China. It's the same as with the economic reforms. I believe in the future [the new attitude towards NGOs]will spread to the whole country … when officials in other places see nothing bad happens and [the experiment]was successful in Shenzhen and Guangdong, they will feel safe to copying it."

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Shenzhen's experiment has already been adopted in the rest of Guangdong province, where local Communist Party boss Wang Yang has embraced the reforms as part of his undeclared campaign to win a spot on the Standing Committee of the Politburo, the nine-person body that is at the top of China's power pyramid. The southwestern city of Chengdu, which saw grassroots civil society spring up in the wake of the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake, has introduced similar reforms, as has the Beijing municipal government, though those who work in the charity sector in Beijing say announced changes have yet to be implemented.

But what is missing even in Shenzhen is the other half of the equation: private philanthropists and a culture of widespread charitable giving. China's top philanthropists have thus far steered clear of the Shenzhen experiment (with the notable exception of kung-fu star Jet Li, who registered his One Foundation here), preferring instead to donate their money to state-funded charities, or – in a few high-profile cases – to be photographed walking around poor villages dispensing 100-yuan notes by hand. Ordinary Chinese, meanwhile, have been taught by a series of high-profile scandals to be wary of charities, which are often just another arm of the government, riddled with the same opacity and corruption that infects other departments.

"I don't think China right now has a culture of philanthropy. People have no habit of constantly but slowly donating to something throughout their lives," said Wang Jinjin, secretary general of the Guangdong Harmony Foundation, an independent NGO support network that registered this year in the city of Guangzhou. "Many entrepreneurs earned their money in the past 10 to 20 years. They just got rich, just got past their financial worries. But it's now becoming trendy [to donate to charity] and more and more people are starting to follow the fashion."

Shenzhen residents say the concepts of charity and philanthropy are better understood here because of the city's close proximity to Hong Kong, which some of the world's top philanthropists – most notably the territory's richest man (and Canadian citizen), Li Ka-shing – call home. Some, however, remain skeptical of the reforms, seeing only an effort to convince foreigners that China is changing faster than it really is. "Shenzhen is not really free – they're just pawning this off on the NGOs to keep them quiet for the next 15 years," said Clare Pearson, who edits the overseas edition of The Charitarian, a magazine that covers charity and philanthropy issues in China.

Ms. Ma acknowledges that the opening the government is providing would quickly slam shut if organizations drifted beyond their social welfare mandate into areas such as human rights. "We won't have anything like Occupy Wall Street here," she says.

But those on the front lines of Shenzhen's experiment say it has at least made it easier for government-approved charities and NGOs to do what they've always wanted to do: help out.

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"This is a new concept for China. After 30 years of economic reforms, the government is now focused on building society," said Zheng Weining, a wealthy entrepreneur and hemophiliac whose eponymous foundation – which provides high-tech and animation jobs, as well as medical care and an accessible dorm, to disabled workers – was the first legally registered non-profit organization under the new reforms.

"Civil society will take a long time to develop. But we are the pioneers."

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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