Philanthropy in the Chinese Diaspora: Chinese American History


As numerous people have noted, China’s charitable past has remained fairly unknown. For my generation, who grew up in China, philanthropy did not enter our vocabulary or consciousness. This was not just because the country was generally impoverished.  Equally important, philanthropic activities, traditionally in the purview of the local gentry, did not fit the prevailing political ideology. 

The rise of the Chinese economy has generated growing attention to this previously ignored topic.  Many have noticed that China’s rich individuals have fallen far behind those in countries like the United States today.

On April 28, 2014, Bill Gates, one of the world’s richest capitalists, published an article in the world’s largest Communist newspaper, People’s Daily, calling on China’s wealthy people to invest in the poor.   The wealthiest Chinese in this regard have not caught up with their counterparts elsewhere in the world.  In 2013 China’s top 100 philanthropists donated $890 million, less than the donations made by Mark Zuckerberg and his wife made.  Such facts led critics to conclude that the Chinese perhaps have more genes for gambling than for giving.

The Chinese diaspora affords us a different context in which to understand Chinese philanthropy.  Free of the constraints in China today, the Chinese in the diaspora – both the rich but also by ordinary individuals - have demonstrated enormous philanthropic spirits.  As part of an international project to examine Chinese philanthropy in different parts of the world, my work examines Chinese Americans’ wide range of collective and individual philanthropic activities to aid their compatriots in both the United States and China.  Such an examination also gives an opportunity to reconsider some popular Western misassumptions about philanthropy in general.

This research is carried out by professor Yong Chen. Yong Chen’s research is part of an international, multidisciplinary, multi-year project to understand philanthropy in the Chinese diaspora, a topic that has been overlooked for a long time.  Among leading scholars of this project include Professor John Fitzgerald, President of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, who is also a leading expert on China, Australia, the geo-politics of the Asia-Pacific region and Chinese philanthropy; and  Professor Hon Ming Yip of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.