Reports on the way Chinese tycoon and philanthropist Chen Guangbiao (陳光標) has been throwing money around during his trip to Taiwan have become a hot topic on the Internet, with Chinese netizens saying Chen should become “Minister of Unification.”
However, the pan-green and pan-blue camps disapprove of Chen’s action and a Yahoo online poll found that 43.3 percent of respondents disliked him, while 20 percent thought he was going too far. This is probably the first time in a history that philanthropic work has caused such a strong reaction. If Chen’s actions were part of China’s unification strategy, they must have had a rude awakening because his actions have in fact hurt China.
Chen said he wanted to set a good example by showing what charity was all about. China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) issued a statement saying this could help avoid “fake donations.”
Taiwanese have a reputation when it comes to charity donations, whether they are made through the Tzu Chi Foundation or the Red Cross. Taiwan’s GDP per capita is much lower than that of Japan, but the amount of donations per capita after the 921 Earthquake was much higher than the Japanese donated after the 1995 Kobe earthquake. Taiwanese businesspeople also donated much more than their Chinese counterparts after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
Given these facts, it is strange for Chen to say that he wanted to come to Taiwan to demonstrate what charity is.
Chen should understand that charity not only involves distributing wealth, but also respect for other human beings. He should also know how in civilized societies, people make use of official channels or non-government organizations to put donations to good use.
When the TAO said Chen’s way of showcasing charity helps avoid cases of “fake donations,” it was making a statement based on its experience in China. For instance, Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi (章子怡) had been accused of exaggerating the amount she donated following the Sichuan earthquake. Another form of “fake donation” is when donations are appropriated by disaster relief officials, as what happened after that earthquake. Given China’s lack of concern for society and volunteer work and the undeveloped state of its non-governmental and charity groups, Chen’s actions might be seen as appropriate there.
However, things are very different in Taiwan, which is why Chen’s behavior has been viewed as being strange.
Some people liken Chen to the rich gentry of old. However, in traditional Asian societies, where people have very fixed value systems and a strong sense of community, businesspeople tended to be disliked. It is true that examples of charity purely for altruistic motives and not out of the desire to be seen doing good are quite rare, regardless of how difficult it is to remain discreet about it. However, certain rules of propriety did apply to the gentry helping the unfortunate. In modern civil society, charity mechanisms are even more complex. It is only when values are in flux due to rapid social change and explosive economic growth and when non-governmental organizations are lacking because of control by a totalitarian government that we see odd varieties of philanthropy like Chen’s.
China’s current values are different from traditional ones, and its values, politics and social organizations are out of line with modern society. As a result, Chen’s and the TAO’s ignorance of the differences between Taiwan and China has led them to mistake Taiwan for China. It is this that has caused the recent uproar over Chen’s charity work.