Why do we live and work in China? Here at the Chamber, this question has as many answers as we have members. Reasons will likely include the idea that people are looking to make an impact and create a difference, whether it’s with a company, our family or the community.
Some are motivated to simply do what they can to help their fellow human beings, and they came to the one place on earth that has the most of them. They build libraries and schools, feed the poor and protect the weak.
Last year, AmCham provided financial support to expand a program helping displaced and homeless people in Shanghai. I recently visited the Renewal Center to check progress. They have doubled the number of people for whom they provide hot meals, clean showers and fresh clothes. They opened the “Fresh Start” cafe to offer training and a path to employment for people who have been living on the street. Numerous AmCham members have contributed money, put in time and donated products to the Renewal Center. It’s working.
Now, China has placed new restrictions on organizations like the Renewal Center, making official recognition and fundraising even more difficult. Has China had a change of heart toward foreigners who are looking to help? Following in the wake of other policies, some people point to this as one more step in the process to reduce Western influence on Chinese society and the economy. China wants foreign network security products removed from their banks, they want our publishers blocked from their readers, and they want new restrictions placed on foreign charities.
This may be the view of some policy makers in Beijing, but is it what the Chinese people want? It’s certainly not what the Chinese people at the Renewal Center want. Here in Shanghai, what’s the message we hear?
To me, local people seem pretty much unchanged. They welcome foreigners and they’re glad we’re here. They see initiatives like the Renewal Center as something to admire and emulate, not a dangerous element to guard against.
A large number of foreign NGOs operate here in China, and have done so for many years, helping China address pressing social needs. Charity and social support in China has typically been at the family and local level. Mobility and urbanization, and the end of cradle-to-grave benefits, have changed that dynamic, creating a greater need for charitable organizations. The number of Chinese NGOs, many of which collaborate with a foreign partner, more than tripled between 2000 and 2013. Is this the kind of “Western influence” about which Beijing seems so concerned? Do foreign NGOs need to be treated as a potential security threat?
The NGO law is just one example of the negative headlines coming out of China. As we break for the summer, many of us will return to the U.S. to visit family and friends. They will ask about China’s attitude toward the United States and if something has changed. Tension surrounding the South China Sea only reinforces the feeling that the bilateral relationship is troubled. After decades of enjoying a peaceful and mutually prosperous relationship, have the Chinese people somehow become our enemy?
Just as we each have our own reason for living in China, we will have our own narrative as we address these questions. We have an opportunity to present a nuanced view of the realities on the ground. People outside China need to hear about conversations we’re having with our local friends, neighbors and coworkers. There are multiple voices in China, and they are expressing very different things. Headlines have a way of hiding the common story, the story that may be uninteresting but is nevertheless true. On the ground level, far from Beijing, people here get on with the business of business. Today, business in China includes foreign firms. Chinese people gladly work with us. The headlines coming from Beijing may obfuscate that part of the story.