By Ho Wing (Lawrence) Yu

Ho Wing (Lawrence) Yu is a Post-doctoral Teaching Fellow of Schwarzman College, Tsinghua University. Lawrence, as an Oxford D.Phil. in Experimental Psychology, is also currently heading an international mental health research project funded by Wellcome Trust. As a long-term public affairs enthusiast, he co-founded Good City Foundation to foster cooperative arrangements between young leaders of public and private institutions mainly in the Asia-Pacific region. For his contributions to intercultural exchange, Lawrence received the “Global Study Award” from the British Council IELTS, the title of “Leader of Tomorrow” from the St. Gallen Symposium, and the Great Britain-China Education Trust Award.

As a young scholar and NGO founder dedicated to development in Southeast Asia, I was pleasantly surprised when I received an invitation to work as a “charity detective” this summer, studying and investigating a rural poverty-relief program in Southwestern China’s Chongqing region.

I delved into the details of the invitation from Tencent Foundation, a non-profit division of Chinese internet giant, Tencent, and was amazed by the scope and ambition of the program. I was assigned to a team of “True Detectives for Charity” — effectively external monitors, and embedded in a project of rural revitalization and poverty alleviation. Located in the northeastern part of the mega-municipality of Chongqing, Diangjiang County was far underdeveloped with only RMB 35,000 GDP per capita. The project, “Rural Revitalization by Philanthropy”, supported by RMB 7 million (US$ 1 million) raised via Tencent’s charity platform, is operated by a local charity group, Chongqing Dianjiang County Charity Association. The project includes 5 types of charitable and public welfare sub-projects, including infrastructure construction, medical assistance, technological application, and building of social service outposts in rural communities.

As these objectives are almost a perfect match to what I aim to accomplish with my own NGO, Hong Kong-based Good City Foundation, I gladly took up the offer and spent the rest of the summer in drought-stricken Chongqing. I was impressed with the fact that each of the sub-projects was highly rooted in community-level official units (i.e., towns and villages), which bridge the gap between the association as the benefactor and those beneficiaries.

This observation is consistent with a key phenomenon in China’s internet philanthropy, a subject of deep personal and professional interest to me in recent years. Namely, over 80% of the total number of services are oriented toward community-level charitable projects (mainly poverty alleviation). Another observation I’ve arrived at concerns a holistic philanthropic ecosystem with civil society organizations (“out-system units”) and local governments (“in-system units”). For example, the secretary of the association told us, “last year, the government officials played a key role in the success of a fund-raising event by showing up to solicit public support and thus create an overall donor-friendly ecosystem.” All the above efforts are helping Dianjiang County step away from the haze of poverty by embracing rural revitalization. This year, the association aims at raising an additional fund of RMB 3 million with the matched donation of Tencent on the upcoming 99 Giving Day.

“Philanthropy” is a deeply rooted yet developing idea in China. On the one hand, cultivating good deeds in everyday lives, however small, is a highly regarded virtue in traditional Chinese culture. On the other hand, many stereotype philanthropy as large sums of donations. Therefore, those “good deeds” were mostly displayed as giving money to beggars on the street while most systematic donations in China came from enterprises and high net-worth individuals. The potential of the wider public’s philanthropy was thus left untapped and undervalued until the last decade. The turning point to unlock the great potential of public participation in philanthropy was the popularity of the internet. “Internet philanthropy 3.0”, a hot concept in the latest development of the industry, refers to the ecosystem of “extensive philanthropy” where sharing, donating, and substantial actions could be achieved. In this case, this user-centric system would integrate user data with machine intelligence, thus enabling philanthropic activities beyond donations (e.g., “step donation”). Following the implementation of the Charity Law in 2016, the government recognized a total of 22 online fundraising information platforms, 13 of which were initiated by internet companies. Since the idea of philanthropy met the internet, it has started to go viral in China.

Today, China’s internet philanthropy is accessible, flexible, transparent, diverse, and more importantly, secure. Thanks to the internet, philanthropy has become far more donor-friendly than before. First, internet philanthropy engages the whole online community, consisting of people from all walks of life. Second, it allows high flexibility in the amount, frequency, purposes, and means of donations. With innovative donation scenarios available (e.g., mini-application games), “donors” are no longer necessarily the ones who give money. Moreover, the objectives, financials, and timeline of each project are clearly displayed through an online platform. This high level of transparency is important to effective altruism by which donors could make a sensible decision between projects. Internet philanthropy has also grown to cover many different areas of public good, ranging from environmental protection and preventive healthcare to poverty alleviation and disaster relief. China’s internet philanthropy gives the public confidence in two key respects: the online fundraising platforms are regulated by the government; and the fact that projects are rooted in community-level institutions. The above features have attracted internet users from Generations Y and Z to “philanthropy at your fingertips” in a relatively fraud-free environment.

Tencent Foundation has been a pioneer in the development of China’s internet philanthropy. Founded in 2007, Tencent Foundation set up its online platform, Tencent Charity to serve not only as a channel for charity organizations to promote their philanthropic projects but also with a ground-breaking motto — “philanthropy is not limited to specific individuals”. By organically combining philanthropy with the internet, the Foundation has developed public awareness of charity projects through innovative platforms (e.g., “charity hiker”).

The next breakthrough was the kick-start of the 99 Giving Day in 2015. Before that, major donors to charity in China were primarily the government, institutions, and the wealthy. In contrast, most ordinary individuals, even with a strong desire to regularly engage in “good deeds”, found it hard to make regular charitable contributions. The 99 Giving Day has made charity more accessible and interactive to everyone by using the internet and social media. Tencent Charity collaborated with hundreds of celebrities, charity organizations, and well-known companies to start a fund-raising campaign. One of its most attractive features was that Tencent promised to match all public donations with its own funds, which successfully inspired individual donors to transform their good deeds into philanthropic actions. Another innovative feature was that internet users can contribute by a variety of means, not just limited to giving cash. For example, users can record the number of steps they take every day and choose to “donate” them to a good cause, with matching funding provided by brand sponsors who in return burnish their image as promoting a healthy lifestyle and supporting charity. People can also “donate” their voices by recording themselves reading stories, and self-produce them into streaming bedtime stories for children in underdeveloped areas with easy-to-use audio editing tools provided by Tencent. These have helped create a stress-free, trendy and donor-friendly atmosphere in China.

The “True Detective for Charity (‘Gongyi Zhentan’)” program that I was a part of this summer is the result of Tencent’s latest push for a higher level of transparency in internet philanthropy.

Even though Tencent Charity has worked hard to disclose the financial information and impact figures of charity organizations, the evaluation process has remained in-house so far, lacking public visibility and participation itself. This August, by inviting 100 public stakeholders including myself to be the first batch of “charity detectives,” it is aggressively expanding public and professional access to the transparency process. With fellow “detectives” including journalists, scholars, donors, charity enthusiasts, and workers, we were sent to 56 cities in China for field research on 100 Tencent-funded projects spanning themes such as equity and inclusion, youth development, gender education, rural revitalization, and environmental sustainability. On behalf of all shareholders, we participated in sub-project hands-on, evaluated their impacts, discovered flaws and unaddressed needs, provided criticism and feedback, and followed up on all the questions and issues we discovered. After the visit, each of us charity detectives would generate an output in various forms (e.g., reports, blogs, or videos). These outputs could influence public perception of a particular project, and whether the project would receive public contribution and the subsequently matched donation by Tencent Charity. We would also continue a one-year online assessment of the projects and constantly provide feedback to the charity organizations for improvement. In short, this scheme is the first ever of its kind to directly involve the wider public in the evaluation of charitable projects for the sake of “transparent philanthropy”.

An investigation of rural revitalization in Dianjiang County, Chongqing

One of the memorable sub-projects that I worked on as a “charity detective” was the renovation of a local primary school’s playground. Before the renovation, the playground was covered with gravel that led to flying dirt in the air when it was in use. This inevitably posed concerns for air pollution and pupils’ respiratory health in the long run. Also, pupils would easily fall and get injured if they run on the gravel ground. After the renovation, the playground was replaced with synthetic rubbers that addressed the above issues about children’s and environmental health. After creating a sports-friendly environment, the school could introduce different sorts of ball sports to the pupils. Given the increasing importance of sports education in China, this renovation project opened the door for local pupils to a better pursuit of higher education. This seemingly small change in a playground could lead to big differences in the future of our next generation. I was surprised at how the association had paid attention to details and found out the need for positive, enduring changes in the local community. This story has also provoked me to rethink the ultimate goal of philanthropy — empowering beneficiaries by creating beneficial conditions, and more importantly, bringing hope to their lives.

Key takeaways from the investigation

Charity begins where society needs to survive but philanthropy begins where society hopes to thrive. Mr. Chen Yidan, a co-founder of Tencent and one of China’s biggest donors to charity causes to date, once said “Philanthropy begins where society pains”. The terms, “philanthropy” and “charity”, while being often used interchangeably, are different in nature. From a psychological perspective, charity is motivated by the feeling of “sympathy”, but philanthropy originates from the ability of “empathy” — the principle of treating others the way we want to be treated ourselves. Therefore, “empathy” is more active than “sympathy” when it comes to the creation of positive and enduring changes in the world. Derived from sympathy, charity is a passive response to helping accommodate immediate needs such as shelter, food, and medical treatments. In contrast, derived from empathy, philanthropy is a long-term strategy to actively identify and address the root causes of an issue before it turns into a problem. Based on these fundamental differences, charity is referred to as major crises and disaster relief (e.g., the 2008 Sichuan earthquake) while philanthropy is defined as projects to enhance the quality of life in the long run (e.g., rural revitalization). Traditionally, donations from the wider public were only present in China when natural disasters or other major events broke out. Strictly speaking, there was no philanthropy except for wealthy people until the launch of Tencent Charity in 2017. With online platforms, the potential of China’s philanthropy is unlocked. Even ordinary people can make regular donations to support long-term, philanthropic projects like “Rural Revitalization by Philanthropy” in hope of making the world a better place. Although the impacts of these philanthropic projects may not be immediate and obvious to us, our future generation would benefit from these good deeds done by us today.

Philanthropic practices on a micro-scale could influence a large-scale environment for China’s internet philanthropy. Philanthropy goes virtual in China due to the ubiquity of the internet. Internet companies like Tencent have successfully redefined philanthropy as a regular practice available to ordinary people. As internet philanthropy develops, internet users have started to be aware of their effective altruism, thus demanding “transparent philanthropy” and “rational philanthropy”. These demands arouse the betterment of the macro-level philanthropic environment. For example, Tencent launched the 99 Giving Day and the scheme of True Detective for Charity to increase the level of public participation. Also, the Chinese government introduced China’s Charity Law to secure a fraud-free environment by regulating online platforms. Nowadays, internet philanthropy would function to foster the “common prosperity” campaign in China. Therefore, small actions make big differences; philanthropy comes from our good deeds. Sometimes I ponder why good deeds in Chinese culture are hidden virtues while donors in internet philanthropy love to share their contributions on social media. Given that China’s internet philanthropy is developing, perhaps “good” deeds in the internet era are evolving into “great” deeds by sharing.