In the past weeks, several posts on Minjian International discussed the issue of Chinese volunteers and charities overseas. The posts suggest that this is still more a potentiality than a reality, but there is a sense that it is a matter of time until it happens. The current Chinese leadership has specifically mentioned the dispatching of Chinese volunteers to Africa as part of its FOCAC pledges, although as always, it is not entirely clear who is included under this label.
Sometimes there are references to thousands of volunteers teaching Chinese at universities, Confucius Institutes and “Confucius classrooms” around Southeast Asia. From Nitnoi Faming’s research in Laos, it appears that such individuals are volunteers in the sense that they respond to calls for applications by the Chinese Language Office or the Overseas Chinese Affairs Bureau of the State Council, transmitted to their institutions, but they continue to receive a salary from the state while they are teaching overseas. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to see the whole volunteer business as just a state effort at expanding China’s “soft power.” Clearly, at least some of these individuals share the moral impetus and the curiosity or adventurousness that the term evokes in the West.
Another trend to watch is the expansion of Chinese charities’ activities overseas. As I mentioned in an earlier post, there have been suggestions from official academics that China intensify its outreach to NGOs overseas, particularly in Africa, in order to counter what they describe as their biased and Western-oriented perception of China. Luo Jianbo of the International Strategy Research Institute of the Central Party School writes (“Feizhou fei zhengfu zuzhi yu Zhong-Fei guanxi,” Xiandai Guoji Guanxi 4/2008, pp. 10-16) that the Chinese government supported the creation of a Chinese Unofficial (minjian) Organisations’ Association for the Promotion of International Exchange in 2005. Another article, in China Development Brief, states that China’s Poverty Relief Fund (Zhongguo Fupin Jinjinhui) has has adopted an “internationalization strategy” in 2004. This strategy includes expanding both the circle of donors and recipients beyond China as well as adopting “international ideals and methods” (guoji de linian, guoji de fangfa) for poverty relief work, and the year after provided disaster relief to post-tsunami Indonesia, post-earthquake Pakistan, and post-Kathrina New Orleans. In 2009, fund officials visited Sudan, and the fund is now planning to set up 13 mother-and-child clinics in the country, modelled on similar maternity health projects within China. These would include construction, equipment, and volunteers to train medical and managerial workers.
For all their emphasis on foreign NGOs as a target for intensified overseas propaganda work, authors such as Luo recognise that the impact of overseas activities of Chinese GONGOs, or even disaster relief, on international public opinion is relatively limited, and there are calls for the establishment of Chinese equivalents of Western foundations that fund NGO activities (the Ford Foundation is frequently mentioned).
Chinese government foundations that target children, such as the Soong Qingling Foundation, have a long history of bringing foreign children to China. More recently, in 2009, the Chinese Youth Development Fund (Zhongguo Qingshaonian Fazhan Jijinhui), which is involved in supporting rural schools in poor areas under Project Hope (Xiwang Gongcheng), experimented with working together with the China-registered private foundation of a Malaysian Chinese businessman who owns plants in Zhongshan City, Guangdong. The foundation is called Wanmei Hexie Gongyi Jijinhui (Wanmei Harmonious Foundation for the Public Good), Wanmei being the name of the sponsor company and “hexie” a reference to the Chinese government’s slogan. The cooperation consisted of a trip to Malaysia to visit Chinese schools there, and as such is really more in line with traditional overseas Chinese ties and the politics of engaging overseas Chinese than with China’s efforts to improve its global image.
Nonetheless, an article reporting on this event says that Chinese corporations such as TCL and CNOOC have made proposals to engage in charitable activities overseas, but these initiatives did not go through “because of diplomatic reasons.” The article goes on to state that the globalisation of Chinese corporations will inevitably result in the expansion of their overseas public activities. In the China Development Brief article, a vice-president of the China Poverty Relief Fund, He Daofeng, says that the Chinese government is looking for new avenues to support public engagement overseas, since the state enterprises have failed to gain public acknowledgement for their good deeds abroad, and the funding given directly to foreign governments has often been wasted. In He’s view, China must change its image overseas and meet the high expectations that it is confronted with.
In the same article, He expresses his confidence that “growing civic engagement” (literally “growing citizenliness,” guominxing chengzhang) will inevitably occur with higher incomes in China. This increased pool of private charity will, however, not find recipients in China who are poor enough, hence the natural expansion overseas.