Officials in China do not hog the spotlight after retirement. But Wang Zhenyao is an exception. He is perhaps a more popular figure now as head of Beijing Normal University's One Foundation Community Research Institute than he was a month ago as the director of the Ministry of Civil Affairs' Social Welfare and Charities Division (SWCD). Does it have anything to do with his transformation from a high-ranking official to a "social activist"?
It's a meaningful change from being manager to participator in China's charity cause, says Wang. The new role will help "me to do more practical things, especially at a time when the country is facing so many social contradictions".
Wang had won public praise as much for his work as director of SWCD as for his pertinent and forthright comments on and response to many charity issues. He says three factors are preventing the building of a sound charity system in China: official monopoly of charity foundations; low level of professionalism, efficiency and transparency; and poor sense of philanthropy. The efforts to rectify the situation has made him an even busier man today as he rushes from one forum to another and manages to find some time in between to talk with journalists.
"We have to overcome the systemic obstacles to create a better environment for more people to donate to charity." This was part of Wang's speech at the inauguration of China Foundation Center, a network that aims to make charity work more transparent, recently.
According to international practice, a sound charity system can be built only if philanthropic organizations publish the donation figures timely; give a detailed account of the money and/or materials they spend on a project or for a cause; and respond timely to the wants of the needy. Unfortunately, China is still struggling in the first stage, Wang says.
Donations per se are not a problem in China. Chinese people are not insensitive to social problems and many would readily donate to help others, he says. They are part of the tradition that Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism have cultivated for more than 2,000 years. But people would like to know how their money is being spent and who did it help, which sadly they rarely can.
Wang's argument is not unfounded, for only 28 percent of China's 991 registered public foundations publish their financial report, according to the China Charity and Donation Information Center.
The public foundations do not function like proper charity organizations because most of them are affiliated to some government department or the other. Bureaucratism prevails in many of these foundations, and they raise the needed funds when required because of administrative support, which in turn makes them ignore the publication of their accounts.
Administrative interference is evident at every step of charity work, Wang says. In theory, registered foundations, public and private both, have the right to raise money any time. But the administration authorizes only a few public foundations to receive donation when disaster strikes.
That's not what the rule of law demands, he says. Government "guidance" makes many public foundations inefficient and opaque, and prevents private organizations from becoming more professional. This is the reason why people sometimes feel they are being pressured to donate, instead of considering contributing to charity their social responsibility.
That most of the donations are received after a catastrophe reflects the backwardness of China's charity system. Ideally, people should be donating round the year to ensure charity organizations have enough funds to help victims whenever or wherever a disaster strikes.
To raise social awareness, he suggests exerting soft pressure on people all round the year. People can be urged to buy a flower for a certain amount to remember a hero or pay homage to victims of a disaster. The money thus collected can go to a charity fund. Wang got the idea of flower from his experience at London's Heathrow Airport. He saw people buying flowers for 1 pound each at the airport on some Memorial Day" and felt obliged to buy one himself.
Rich people, on the other hand, can be asked to donate a specific amount (say 100,000 yuan, or even 1 million yuan for the super-rich) to charity every year. "This way the rich would set a good example and may be less disliked by the common people."
Another important task is to make people aware that though charity means selfless devotion to a cause, charity organizations need financial support to function properly and reach help to the needy. But for that, the charity organizations have to make their detailed accounts public.
Wang has appealed to the government to ease the restrictions imposed on private foundations and other NGOs so that transparency and efficiency can become the goals of public and private charity organizations both.
There are more than 1.1 million charity foundations in the US. In contrast, the total number of NGOs, including charity organizations, in China is only 400,000, of which only 1,837 are foundations.
These foundations have just more than 20,000 staff, whereas Chinese charity organizations need at least 1 million professional staff.
On legislative support to develop charity foundations, Wang says that even existing laws are not implemented properly. For example, donors are supposed to get income tax exemptions for the money they donate. But many officials insist on collecting tax on the gross income of an individual.
A number of donors don't even know that the amount they donate is exempted (sometimes partly) from taxation.
In such cases, tax officials should tell taxpayers about the provisions. This can prompt potential donors to loosen their purse strings to help other people, especially victims of natural disasters and accidents.
(China Daily 07/22/2010 page9)