Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Chinese Confucian over American philanthropy

In the prior post, Guambat related the WSJ story of John Paulson, who made billions by betting on the credit bubble bursting. The Journal story including the anecdote that Paulson
"has told friends he'll increase his charitable giving. In October, he gave $15 million to the Center for Responsible Lending to fund legal assistance to families facing foreclosure. The center lobbies for a law that would let bankruptcy judges restructure some mortgages."
Coincidentally or not, the Journal also ran a column from its jounalist Li Yuan, entitled "Understanding American Philanthropy", in which she explains the puzzlement that Chinese people have about the American trait of giving. Ms. Yuan frames the puzzlement as follows:
This couldn't be further from the traditional Chinese belief that "fertile water should be kept to your own soil" -- wealth should be passed down through families. Confucian belief also holds that charitable donations should be done quietly, and a man of virtue should shy from fame.
She looks at some statistics and many individual acts of giving and notes the many different reasons American cite for giving/donating/tithing. She concludes,
It's also hard not to be philanthropic in this country. Public radio and TV stations keep reminding you over the airwaves that you should support them. Around Christmas and New Year's, newspapers and magazines offer page after page of advice on how to give wisely. And your friends will enlist you in their own causes. Raising several thousand dollars for a charity can get you a guaranteed entry in the New York City Marathon -- which is how my friend Piya ran in 2006.

And then there's the mail. Looking through it one recent weekend, I found letters from Amnesty International, UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, and the Smile Train, which provides free cleft-palate surgery to children in developing countries. Robin, a filmmaker, told me over Thanksgiving dinner that the letters make her feel that she's not giving enough.

Sometimes I'm still puzzled by the fact that some Americans are as generous as they could be to strangers half a world away, but reluctant to help out their immediate families. But while I wouldn't want Chinese people to lose our tradition of filial respect, I think we could benefit from expanding our horizons in thinking about who really needs help.

With social unrest looming amid the growing income disparity in China, it might be in the interest of the rich to have their wealth benefit more than their offspring. I hope they would have more freedom to set up foundations and other charitable organizations. I also hope that they wouldn't be shy about lending their names to charities, and that the public would spend less time judging whether or not their philanthropic acts are done completely out of altruism. What does it matter if their motives are pure or not? The most-important thing is that those in need are getting help.
It's a pleasant read, particularly the sidebar note describing her column, "About Beautiful Country". Read and enjoy. It's even available in a Chinese language version.


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