China, the economic success story of the 21st century so far, is calling on its growing middle class to share more of its good fortune with the needy.
The government has made an appeal for charity amid rising criticism that the spirit of philanthropy is developing a lot less quickly than the urge to accumulate wealth, as the country becomes richer but more divided.
Almost twenty-five years of spectacular economic growth are estimated to have created more than 10,000 people with assets in excess of US$10 million.
But while the new rich are spending, investing and gambling more than ever, their willingness to give something back to a society which still contains tens of millions of people living on less than a dollar a day is being called into question.
Last week Vice-Minister of Civil Affairs Li Liguo (李立國), said the government needed more help from the private sector to deal with natural disasters. Last year was one of the worst in memory for typhoons, floods and droughts, which claimed 2,500 lives, left 15 million people homeless and created food shortages for more than 70 million, mostly in the poor western and northern regions.
"We ask for greater support from charity organizations and from society," the minister said.
"The government will make new policies, such as the introduction of tax breaks, and try to create a more a encouraging climate for corporate donations," he added.
The appeal would have been unthinkable a generation ago, when the Communist authorities boasted that they would provide for every social need, and displays of wealth would have been condemned as bourgeois and counter-revolutionary. But the private sector now accounts for more than half of China's economy. Although tax revenues have grown, public spending has not prevented a widening gap between rich and poor, particularly with regard to health and education.
International funds, once an important source of support for the poor, are drying up. Citing China's economic success, the UN world food program closed its last humanitarian project in the country two years ago. Japan, the biggest provider of aid over the past 30 years, has said it will do the same soon. And the British Department for International Development is among many other big donors now scaling back their activities.
To counter these trends, the government has established thousands of charity centers to accept donations of cash and clothing from the public. Last June it introduced the country's first tax relief on donations, though initially only to a small number of foundations.