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People in China's Hubei province push a van with disaster relief supplies to help those caught in mass flooding last month.

Charity in China: Can it be coerced?

The ruling party’s command for the wealthy to donate to social causes only highlights how much the party needs philanthropy and the depth of charity among the Chinese.

In its latest attempt to alleviate poverty in China – nearly half the population remains poor – the ruling Communist Party last month turned to an unusual source. It announced that wealthy people and companies should donate to charities, which are closely regulated. With a hint of coercion, party leader Xi Jinping said the rich would be motivated by social pressure to “give back.”

The hint was quickly taken, especially by tech firms. E-commerce giant Alibaba, for example, pledged $15.5 billion to social programs. Donations from billionaires are now about 20% higher than a year ago. With the party in firm command of the economy, no wealthy person or corporation wants to be tagged an “iron rooster” – so stingy as not to share even a feather – or possibly be subjected to tough government treatment.

For China’s charities, which have grown along with the nation’s wealth, the added flow of private money was welcomed. But many worry that forced philanthropy is no philanthropy at all. Generosity starts with empathy, such as toward people in impoverished situations. A climate of coerced donations might put a damper on individual giving, the kind that is done from the heart and not in response to implied threats.

The good news is that Mr. Xi recognizes that the party needs private giving for various goals. He just wants to funnel donations in state-directed ways and not create power centers that threaten the party’s control over society.

This is a long way from 1949 when the party took over China and banned private charity. Only in 1994 did it admit that philanthropy was compatible with communist ideology. By 2016 it passed a law that both regulated charities and encouraged giving with tax incentives.

Public generosity has taken root again in China, a reflection of its Confucian past, and especially so with the ease of giving over the internet. It is now seen as part of China’s social safety net, with or without a government nudge.

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