Since China’s Deng Xiaoping embraced the Open Door Policy in 1978, the Chinese economy has witnessed astonishingly rapid growth, leapfrogging Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy. Along with a vertical increase in the number of billionaires (China trails only the United States now), the number of Chinese private foundations has increased from 202 in 2005 to 1,186 in 2011, according to the China Foundation Center.
Both the number and speed of private foundations now have overtaken the growth of public foundations-the quasi-government organizations that are eligible to raise money from the general public and to operate programs that advance mainly government agendas. Various nonprofit professional trainings, research centers on philanthropy, and nonprofit academic programs also have been developed across China in recent years. The development of organized philanthropy in China is unprecedented, robust, and vigorous.
But it is not all good news for the Chinese philanthropic sector. A recent report from the Beijing Normal University One Foundation Philanthropy Research Center stated that the restrictions on the interactions and operations of international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) on the mainland highlighted the changes of the Chinese regulatory environment in 2010. INGOs have fostered the growing nonprofit sector over the past two decades. Yet they are still perceived as a threat to Chinese authority.
In a society where political stability is the top priority and the rapid modernization of society has greatly increased the gap between the rich and poor, the Chinese government now chooses to foster philanthropy, especially domestic private foundations, as a preferred way to curb social unrest supported by foreign countries, reduce the social antagonism toward the wealthy, and share burdens with the government in addressing social problems in an increasingly complex country.
Although INGOs’ operation in China is restricted, the opportunity for the international philanthropic community to collaborate with Chinese philanthropy remains open. From my experience both as a Ph.D. candidate in philanthropic studies at Indiana University and as a summer associate at the Council on Foundations, I see the following three opportunities:
As people often say, “When one door closes, another door opens.” Restrictions on INGOs’ direct operations may be limited. But the international philanthropic community, including the Council, can help the Chinese philanthropic sector improve its effectiveness and professionalism-and open the door to untold possibilities for philanthropy in China.
Lijun He is a summer associate for global philanthropy at the Council on Foundations.