I recently attended a panel discussion at the New York Asia Society about civil society in China and the health of NGOs in the country. During the event, one of the speakers mentioned that according to the annual Charities Aid Foundation’s (CAF) World Giving Index, China was ranked as one of the least giving countries in the world. The CAF Index quantifies how people around the world give through charitable acts and help those in need. According to the 2017 study, China ranked 138th place—there were 139 participating countries total.
“That’s not possible,” I thought skeptically.
The speaker continued on to cite the deep mistrust between people and the government, or the fear of corruption as possible reasons for China’s low ranking. He also touched on the fact that unlike in the U.S., you cannot write off your donation to the temple for a tax deduction.
While I have no expertise in data collection or China’s socioeconomic landscape, I couldn’t help but feel conflicted by this statistic. When I got home, I did some more research. I trusted the Index’s methodology, but “one of the least giving countries in the world” stood in stark contrast to my personal experience during my trip back to China in early January.
During this visit, I traveled to Dali, Yunnan, with my family. Dali is known as a popular destination for domestic and international tourists looking to soak in vibrant natural and cultural beauty. One evening, after a long day of hiking, my father caught a bad cold. Tired and hungry, we settled on dinner at a family-owned restaurant near our bed and breakfast.
After ordering a few simple dishes, we huddled around the table in an open-air dining room. Without any heating, and the temperatures dipping below zero degrees Celcius, we were all eager to get some food in our bellies and return to the warmth of our rooms.
Soon enough, steaming dishes of homemade tofu, wild mushrooms, and cured ham were brought out. As we dug into our bowls, an elderly man came to pay us a visit. He introduced himself as the owner of the restaurant with a somewhat toothless grin. He asked if the food suited our taste and whether we’d like to have some coal brought into the room to warm up. It was a resounding “yes!” to both.
Throughout dinner, we learned that the restaurant owner used to be a doctor. After the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution, he left his home to pursue a medical degree in a neighboring province. Yet after practicing for several years, he returned to his home village to open a clinic and serve the community where he grew up.
Yet as tourism began to develop near Dali, the local government cracked down on services that they perceived as damaging to business. As a result, the clinic was closed. Frustrated and unable to practice, the doctor bought property throughout the village and opened a series of pharmacies. Most are still open today, and one happened to be where we picked up medicine for my dad that evening. As for the original clinic? The doctor transformed it into a local bed and breakfast and restaurant—where we were eating that night!
Listening to his story, I was struck by how time after time, the doctor continued to act for the benefit of others. Despite every setback, his experiences were knit together by a commitment to serving others and giving selflessly.
As I sat in the auditorium of the speaking event I attended, I reflected on the different cultures of “giving.” I do not agree that China is one of the least giving countries in the world. In fact, I believe that giving is ingrained in the fabric of Chinese culture. Whether it’s in the way parents sacrifice everything to provide for their children with opportunities for a good education; or the way children care for their elders in return. In this way, giving happens on an intimately interpersonal and social level that cannot be quantified easily. These exchanges escape the metrics radar, but emerge once the conditions for mutual trust and respect are established. These acts of care and generosity are confined mostly to insiders, and so often go unnoticed by the outside world. Yet these acts of giving still matter because whenever they are extended, someone receives them. Quietly. Over time, they make their mark.