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The Ice Bucket Challenge, A Lesson For China's Philanthropy

Chinese have looked skeptically at charitable organizations, for cultural reasons and a series of scandals. But as China's rich and famous join the ALS challenge, something may be changing.

Singer Andy Lau accepts the Ice Bucket Challenge
Singer Andy Lau accepts the Ice Bucket Challenge
Wang Zhenyao*

BEIJING — The Ice Bucket Challenge has swept China's social networks, attracting a wide range of curiosity and media attention. More than 70 celebrities have joined in on the online challenge relay, including entrepreneurs such as Jun Lei, founder of Xiaomi Tech, one of China's largest technology companies, Robin Li, CEO of Baidu, one of the country's major web services firms, as well as Chinese stars such as the actress from the Oscar-winning film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Ziyi Zhang, and singer Andy Lau.

So is this "ice bucket charity" movement just hype drummed up by a small bunch of celebrities, or it is a new door that will lead to the opening-up of sustainable philanthropic work?

I personally believe that through the celebrity effect this movement is opening a new type of charity model in today's social networking era. Its greatest significance is that the charity work steps down from the altar of seriousness and becomes accessible for the general public. It highlights the attention to vulnerable groups and enlarges charitable donations.

Within just a few days, through the media focus on celebrities the public’s awareness and knowledge of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a rare disease, was promoted far more than it has ever been.

In addition, the campaign has brought along a more relaxed atmosphere as well as new ideas for China’s charitable work. Before this, Chinese people had always thought that charity can only be carried out in a serious way.

Power in small sums

Too often, when talking about donations, the focus would be about the openness and transparency of the charitable organization, as well as its management. Repeated questions about the rectitude of philanthropic organizations' operations, organization and governance have made society reticent about participating in charity campaigns.

Actress Ziyi Zhang accepts the Ice Bucket Challenge and nominates Sophie Marceau

By making giving an online gimmick of fun and crowdfunding, driven mostly by small sums of money, the ice bucket challenge has helped to remove the psychological burden on celebrities and charitable organizations.

In the past, when a Chinese public figure donated a lot of money he would be criticized, either for showing off his wealth, or if he gave too little, for being stingy. Now, we see how pouring a bucket of water or donating $100 can also make a difference.

Still, even if celebrity participation in the Ice Bucket Challenge is raising people’s awareness of ALS, there's the risk that the fundamental meaning of philanthropy will be lost if the movement remains little more than online comedy.

Seeing famous expand=1] people involved arouses attention at only the first level. The second level would be the encouragement of more of the public toward other charity action; while the third level is promoting society and the government in establishing together a long-term mechanism for assisting vulnerable groups.

There is no harm if the rich and famous bring attention, by hype or sensationalism, to the plight of disadvantaged groups of patients with rare diseases. But even more important now is that China introduce and learn from advanced medical technology abroad and set up a better social security system for these patients.

The latest highlight is that Mao Qun'an, the spokesman of the National Health and Family Planning Commission, was also named to participate in the campaign and had donated in his own name. With government officials’ participation, this campaign may truly help lead China’s philanthropy to a better place.

(As told to Caixin"s Sun Wenjing)

*Wang Zhenyao is the director of China Philanthropy Research Institute at the Beijing Normal University

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