Grabby Beggars and Showy Givers – Cultural Differences in Charity in China

If you’ve been reading this blog for more than a few weeks, you probably already know that I enjoy looking at cultural differences, and like to highlight just how vast a subject culture can be.

Grabby Beggars

Let me start my describing a fairly typical scene here in China, which I experienced yet again just two days ago. I was walking to a restaurant with my wife when an old woman in grubby clothes came up and asked me for money, when I didn’t reach into my pocket right away, she started pulling on my sleeve and pleading that she wanted to eat. When I shook my head ‘no’ she stepped in front of me to block my path and continued begging from my wife who also shook her head ‘no’ and tried to keep walking.

If you are from the States (or Europe or Australia) I’m guessing you wouldn’t be very inclined to give this type of beggar any money, but yet in China this is how a beggar is supposed to act.

I will never forget a story one of my university professors told me of the time his Asian wife first arrived in America and saw a homeless man sitting with a sign that simply asked for change. She asked him “How does that man expect to get any money when he doesn’t try to get anyone’s attention?”

I was still surprised when I got here to find just how pro-active the beggars can be.

Note to any Chinese beggars who might be reading this: I will almost always give passive beggars money just because they aren’t harassing me.

There are also lots of child beggars in China, especially in the more touristy areas. I encourage you to never give money to these children. As much as it may break your heart, there have been dozens of cases where children have been kidnapped or taken away from their families under false pretenses to “work” as beggars for the benefit of morally disgusting individuals.

I was more surprised though by the attitude of Chinese people toward most beggars. I have lost count of how many times a student or co-worker has told me that these beggars are secretly rich, and that the whole thing is just a scam. Given the importance of “face” in China, I find this hard to believe.

Showy givers

I don’t know if this is just a part of Western culture or from my upbringing in a Christian family, but bragging about making a donation rubs me the wrong way.

In China after any major disaster schools and offices will set up an event to publicly donate money to the relief efforts. At these events people file past cameras and display the amount of money they are giving before sliding it into the box. These donations are also carefully recorded in a book next to the giver’s name.

After the Sichuan Earthquake every foreign teacher I know was called to attend one of these events, and most of them had no idea what exactly was going to happen. They were mortified when it was finally their turn to give.

This kind of activity though seems to have the potential to increase giving, since there is so much public attention on the givers. You would think that this might make a person reconsider their stingy donation, but at the same time a person might scale back their donation so as not to appear too rich in front of their neighbors.

I don’t mean to say that either of these practices are wrong, but if you are getting ready to come to China, you might want to be prepared.

If you have an interesting story relating to these thoughts I hope you will add your experience in the comments below

10 responses to “Grabby Beggars and Showy Givers – Cultural Differences in Charity in China”

  1. Lizzy Colley says:

    After the Sichuan earthquake, a friend of mine was told by her supervisor at her office that they would be deducting donations from every employee’s paycheck. My friend objected and said that, while she would donate again (having done so before already), she would do it on her own time. Furthermore, she argued that it wasn’t right for them to just take money out of their paychecks and also, how was she supposed to know that her donation wasn’t just being siphoned off by the government or some other suspicious charity’s “administrative” fund? Hearing this, her supervisor became enraged, saying, “You don’t care about Chinese people!” She shot back, “Of course I do, I’ve already donated! It’s my right to donate my own money to a charity of my choice.” Her supervisor continued to suggest that she still didn’t care about Chinese people because, if she did, she wouldn’t be so opposed to this. Her supervisor, in an attempt to brag, said, “I donated 10 yuan to the victims, what about you??” My friend replied, “I donated 400 yuan to a charity that I know is on the ground helping provide aid to the victims.” At this point the entire argument shifted and her supervisor began criticizing her for donating so much, “You are such a braggart, you only did that to show off, you’ve shamed everyone else by donating such a large amount, etc., etc.”

    • NiubiCowboy says:

      That was written by me but, because I didn’t notice my visiting sister’s info had been generated in the input fields, I blindly posted without realizing it.

    • Tom says:

      Really interesting stuff, thank you so much for sharing this. Thanks for this Niubi

  2. Chopstik says:

    Just a quick thought regarding showy givers – I don’t find this at all surprising. I have been asked on multiple occasions about how much money I make and have suffered through the various comparisons on what I have versus what others have. When giving money for Spring Festival, it is important that everyone know how much I have given (or not given, as the case may be). It is still difficult for me to have those sorts of conversations as they are verboten in the West in most cases – certainly in mine. I’m not sure of the cultural underpinning for this but I would be curious to know if this is truly a Chinese cultural aspect or something that has been given rise within the last 2 decades?

    • Tom says:

      Great question Mr. Chopstick, I hope one of our Chinese friends will offer an answer, if not I’ll try to track one down.

  3. Allan says:

    I remember after Wenchuan 2008, i was told that our company was going to the Red Cross to donate money. Fair enough i thought, more than happy to do my bit. So imagine my shock when i a suddenly dress in a sash declaring which company i come from and then thrust in front of a camera to give my opinion of the disaster! Then equally quickly i rush rushed back to work. Felt like i had been ambushed and felt i a tad dirty and sick. I didn’t even get a chance to donate money myself. Consequently i went back the next day, alone with no cameras around and donated money.

    • Tom says:

      I’m thinking this must be tied to the differences in the ways we talk about money. After all I would feel just as sick talking about my salary as talking about how much I gave.

  4. Allan says:

    I should have clarified that i felt sick by the thought that i was essentially an advertising board for my company and they were, to my mind, exploiting the disaster and therefore the suffering of people for their own ends.

    In regards to salary, when i first came i felt uncomfortable talking about it due to, as you say, cultural differences but you soon get over it.

  5. Joel says:

    Chinese-style donating has intrigued me since we first got here and saw the big handwritten lists in every neighbourhood showing the residents’ names and how much each person donated. And when our neighbours would point-blank ask us, “How much did you donate?” Wrote about it here: Donating money… with Chinese characteristics and “So, how much did you donate?” (sorry for being spammy!)

    People told us doing things secretly or privately has negative connotations, like you’re doing something bad that you’re afraid will be found out.

    I just linked to your blog. Can’t believe I didn’t find it before.

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