What a Maserati and Jet Li Say about Civil Society

A supposed Red Cross employee with her Maserati and Jet Li supporting his charity, The One Foundation.

A while ago the Chinese internet latched onto the story of Guo Meimei, a young woman who posted pictures of herself wearing luxury clothes and driving a Maserati. The controversy is that the girl also claimed she worked for the Red Cross Society of China. She doesn’t, but the Red Cross already had a touchy reputation and the pictures prompted a general public outcry against charity corruption.

The story is a symbol for the current state of civil society organizations in China, if only to show they’re having trouble with some of the basics. It’s a reminder that charities and non-profits are a new thing for Chinese society, and face huge challenges just getting up and running let alone doing effective work. Just look at Jet Li and his charity, The One Foundation.

Jet Li started The One Foundation in 2007 and appears to have put about as much effort negotiating the organizational details as actually engaging in charity. The charity started as a project under the Red Cross Association of China because of the difficulty of independent registration. Because of a contorted financial relationship Jet Li has been moving toward greater autonomy ever since, but still maintains an unclear association with the Red Cross. In 2008 the charity became Shanghai’s One Foundation and just this year moved it’s registration to Shenzhen, all in an attempt to gain more legal acceptance.

(Shenzhen is the city just across from Hong Kong that became the experimental center for market reforms after ’79. It’s still administered under different rules than most of the country and has consistently been used to test new policies. Jet Li’s foundation moving to Shenzhen is a part of a new experiment; the city is a test center for civil affairs reform.)

Beyond registration issues, the foundation takes great pains to allay corruption fears. In addition to strict auditing standards, it’s enough just to read a few of Jet Li’s quotes on the issue. There’s, “Money is not a big problem. Breaking a donor’s heart (because of corruption) is a bigger one.” and, “We respect every yuan of One Foundation’s funds just like we respect every heart that does good.”

But perhaps most telling is what Jet Li’s foundation actually spends it’s time doing. In addition to disaster relief the foundation’s two other main projects are “Developing Awareness of Charity and Philanthropy” and “Awards for Philanthropy”. That means a huge chunk of their effort is spent simply getting the word out about what charity is and how it can benefit society. Talking about starting from square one, they’re working just to get people used to the concept of civil society.

An example: in the next year The One Foundation plans to spend one quarter of their funds training their own employees. And, in recognition of the fact that across China there is a lack of training the foundation recently set up a Philanthropy Research Institute at Beijing Normal University. The whole field is just so new that no one knows what they’re doing yet.

The other component of that, however, is that they are growing. Perhaps the best illustration is a statistic. In a recent survey, 65.7 percent of 451 sampled NGOs plan to hire more staff in 2011. They’re also getting more support, like the experiment in Shenzhen. Just listen to the director of the Civil Affairs Bureau there, “It’s time to give free rein to China’s grassroots foundations and time to consciously fade out the government monopoly.”

What Jet Li’s foundation says about civil society organizations is actually part of a bigger theme in China these days: institution building. It’s happening in the private sector where companies are focusing on research and development and moving up the design “food chain” and in the public sector with tons of new efforts from food safety, environmental protection and budget transparency to higher education and health-care. China is organizing.

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