Author: Jian Xu, Deakin University
In China’s dynamic philanthropy sector, ‘internet philanthropy’ (hulianwang cishan) is now a leading trend. This refers to the new forms of ‘e-giving’ that allow ordinary people to make low-cost, fast and flexible donations through digital platforms — such as crowdfunding, online peer-to-peer donations, online charity auctions, and running for charity.
Internet philanthropy emerged in China in 2005 when two charitable organisations set up charity e-shops on Taobao. The ‘Free Lunch for Children’ campaign initiated by Deng Fei in 2011 and the ‘Love Save Pneumoconiosis’ project initiated by Wang Keqin that same year made internet philanthropy a buzzword.
Inspired by these two projects, China’s internet philanthropy grew when China’s major internet enterprises — including Sina, Tencent, Alibaba and Baidu — established their own dedicated online charity platforms. China’s existing social media platforms and e-payment systems, such as Weibo, WeChat and Alipay, have been key for the rise of internet philanthropy, providing the digital infrastructure for online fundraising and donations.
The Guo Meimei scandal in 2011 plunged the Red Cross and other official philanthropic organisations into a crisis of credibility. This created perfect conditions for a boom in internet philanthropy, which is widely regarded as more participatory, efficient, transparent and reliable.
The government soon harnessed this new trend. In 2015, Premier Li Keqiang proposed the Internet Plus (hulianwang jia) initiative. The initiative primarily aims to use digital technologies to re-energise traditional industries, but is also applied to various public service sectors such as social work, employment, community management and philanthropy.
The implementation of ‘Internet Plus philanthropy’ marks the start of the centralisation of China’s internet philanthropy. In August 2015, the government set up the China Internet Development Foundation (CIDF) — a public foundation registered with the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA) and managed by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) as the leading foundation to promote internet philanthropy.
At the 2015 World Internet Conference held in Wuzhen, the CIDF launched the initiative ‘Let the Internet Become a Sea of Love: Proposal to Develop Internet Philanthropy’. In collaboration with China’s leading internet enterprises, this formed the first national alliance to develop internet philanthropy. Since 2016, the CAC — China’s central internet regulator — initiated the ‘Internet Philanthropy Project’ (wangluo gongyi gongcheng). The project annually selects, awards and propagandises advanced philanthropic organisations, online charity projects, volunteers and local CAC branches for their achievements.
The government is also increasing the regulation of internet philanthropy in order to ensure its legitimacy. The MCA has accredited 20 online charity platforms as legitimate channels for public fundraising online. In July 2017, the MCA issued two standards to strengthen supervision of online charity platforms to promote transparency and equity. The enforcement of the 2016 Charity Law and 2017 Foreign NGO Law introduced further restrictions on NGOs and foundations at home and abroad conducting charitable activities in China.
Why has the Chinese government embraced internet philanthropy, and what are the politics of promoting and centralising it?
Calling on internet enterprises to embark on internet philanthropy is a soft approach to governing China’s cyberspace. Different from the traditional hardline regulation, internet enterprises’ collective promotion of internet philanthropy through their digital platforms could produce a cyberspace with more ‘positive energy’ (zhengnengliang) content and subtly influence people’s everyday internet use.
The CAC guides these enterprises’ internet philanthropy work. For internet enterprises, embarking on internet philanthropy gives them a positive reputation. Ingratiating themselves with the state could also ensure they receive tax revenue support from the state for sustainable economic gain. This win-win situation could create a more sanitised cyberspace while bringing long-term profitability to internet enterprises.
Internet philanthropy is also an effective means to govern NGOs. NGOs often seek to organise their own institutions and harness citizen participation and engagement for policymaking and social change. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) views NGOs as a potential…