Monday, September 6, 2010

The gift that keeps on biting

News reports, including one in the rag I toil for, indicate you're coming to China soon to sell newly minted Chinese million and billionaires on the idea of philanthropy a la the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

As CNN recently reported, “but the fear of being seduced into giving up part of their fortunes might have scared some of the tycoons away from a dinner that the crusading US. billionaires are hosting in Beijing this month.”

That's because they're afraid of being put on the spot for donations with no promises of anything back, as in stock tips by Buffett or IT tradeoffs from Gates. And there's the strong numerology factor as well. No one would be ponying up millions or thousands or billions of $250 or $400 (god forbid $444) but more probably something with a lot of 8s if they were so inclined. That part is good, but don't hold your breath.

And giving for giving for givings sake simply isn't part of the culture here. I have some small experience in this matter – less than trivial actually, given what the Gates-Buffett Brigade (both widely idolized in China) are trying to do, but allow me to pass it on.

My first experience with public donations other than the money I give to beggars – and am usually chastised for doing so by Chinese companions – was at China Daily in 2008 shortly after the Sichuan Province earthquake. Foreign staff was alerted that their presence and donations were anticipated at the paper's large greeting hall.

Like most notices of these kinds, there was about a 10-minute deadline, followed by 60 minutes or more standing around, picking our noses before anything happened. We were lined up and as cameras were readied, pointed to a box that said “Earthquake Donations” in the middle of the hall. Single file we each dropped 100 yuan or whatever into the box.

The next day there was a color picture and small story on the bottom of Page 2 showing me and a couple other hapless barbarian employees dropping bills into the box under a headline that read something like: “China Daily Foreigners Care About China too.”

We made jokes among ourselves about where the money was really going as in the “Sichuan Cadres' Massage and Party Girls Fund” and left it at that, though, big surprise, several officials have since been put on trial for embezzling some of the charity money.

Fast forward to April this year at Global Times and another earthquake in Qinghai Province (with a heavy Tibetan population) and a“donations right now!” alert went out on our email system.

I was asked to marshal foreigners for support and could only do so half-heartedly knowing their mostly justifiably skeptical thoughts on where the money was really going. I did my best, threw in 250 yuan and forgot about it until the next day when posted on a company bulletin board was a complete list of every employee, foreigner and Chinese alike, and how much they'd given.

I saw I had donated slightly more than other “foreign experts,” and slightly less than my Chinese “bosses” but had preferred that my donation was anonymous. And I couldn’t imagine why the list had been so public. Hit me with the idiot stick. Turned out that I asked a few Chinese reporters I learned that the “donations” were compulsory (on top of their already underpaid salaries). Some had had to borrow from others just to make a minimal 50-yuan “contribution." It was a shame system, basic CCCP management style 101.

I also got smiling quiet questions about why I gave 250 yuan. “I dunno,” I said. “It was what I had and I needed enough left over for cab fare and dinner. No significance."

“Do you know what 250 means in Chinese?” asked one. “No. But probably nothing that will do me any good,” I replied.

Turned out that somewhat like 4 (sounds like death and is "inauspious" like 13 in Western countries) 250 also can be construed, if read in a certain way, as meaning “imbecile." Was I trying to make a clever point? That I'm an imbecile for giving or the company is an imbecile for asking?

“Uh. No. Neither. Honestly. You know my lack of Chinese. After 7 years here, I still can't ask for directions for the toilet. How am I gonna know the significance of 250? Like I said, just gave what I did and hopes it helps.”

I got a sly “we know better" smile in return and waited for the next disaster. As anyone vaguely familiar with international news knows, it was not long in coming.

Floods and mudslides of Biblical proportions followed as they do every time here this year. And the company email for donations was even quicker, though I'd been mercifully spared of having to beg my fellow westerners for money.

Still I shelled out something I hoped wasn't a double meaning amount and begged the clerk in charge of donations to keep my name and other foreign employees anonymous. None of us liked the exposure. Giving is a personal thing. We don't need our names on it. Just don't use it for happy endings and baiju for corrupt officials, thank you.

Wrong call. Two mornings later several Chinese coworkers greeted me, “You gave XXX! How generous! More than some of our leaders!”

WTF? There it was again – names, amounts all on the bulletin board again. I went into Ugly American overdrive to one sensible Chinese pal who tolerates my fits. “Loss of face!” I finally sputtered. “In the west, we can choose whether or not to have our names publicized if we give donations, whether it is $1 or $1 million. I do not want my name associated with what I have given. Just put 'Anonymous Foreigner' or something.”

Amazingly, after all the time it usually takes to settle issues – minor or huge – here, the list was taken down within 30 minutes and every foreigner who gave was listed as “Anonymous Foreign Expert.”

I'm not expert by any means, still learning after all these years, but be careful what and how you give and stay away from the sensitive numbers.