The centrepiece is a ramshackle school - with barely functioning electricity - that services the basic educational needs of the area’s children. Like most schools in the area, this one receives only a modicum of local government funding.

As a result, it is not to Mao or Lenin (whose photos adorn the school walls) that the children owe their education but to former resident Xiao, whose donations from overseas funded the school’s construction and whose bust now occupies the entrance hall.

Local governments continue to relinquish many of the roles that were once considered mandatory in a communist system. Now, the onus for many community based projects lies with the benevolence of wealthy individuals such as Xiao and Tang (who built the nearby hospital) or a collective whip-round, as was the case when the village’s one and only university graduate needed help paying his tuition fees.

But this ad hoc system of charity is also undergoing change.

Due to changes in personal wealth and concepts of social responsibility, a continuing number of both state and privately run Chinese charities are now operating across China. According to experts, such changes are welcome.

State control

"While the government has been withdrawing from the notion of a state controlled economy, there has been an unclear direction as to how to build a model welfare system or focus clearly on public services," explained Professor Ding Yuanzhu, director of a charity research centre at Beijing University.

"One cannot take an international concept of charity and apply it to China"

Nick Young, social development magazine editor

Such a situation necessitates the “long-term growth of the charity system” to help balance the economic uncertainties of government reform, he adds.

Currently, like many aspects of Chinese society, the issue of charity is in transition. Although there are plenty of foreign charities and aid agencies, no overall committee exists to oversee them. There is still no clear definition of what the word "charity" means other than the loosely phrased term "public benefit work".

The 200,000 odd charities in China are required to have an affiliation with a government work unit and, even then, many smaller private organisations still have no right to request donations from the public.

"One cannot take an international concept of charity and apply it to China," says Nick Young, editor of a magazine that focuses on China’s social development.

"In Western eyes, the system is highly unprofessional with few means of actual accountability as to what constitutes a charitable donation or statistical knowledge of total charitable donations."

Phoney aid

Young cites an example of a company that had established a factory in China’s comparatively impoverished Western provinces (an area the government has highlighted for special development) and then passed it off as a charitable action.

Some Chinese firms now realise
the benefits of giving to charity

In another case reported in a Chinese business periodical, an investigation into one company’s literature on their philanthropic activities found that the $125,000 reportedly donated to a school was, in fact, the interest off $125,000.

Like their international counterparts though, Chinese firms are starting to realise some of the benefits to be had by donating to good causes.

Although the reasoning behind such donations will extend beyond any genuine desire to give back to the community – some consulting companies even offer "strategic philanthropy" services to clients - the overall trend is being welcomed by charity donation managers.

Business minds

"Since starting our charity in 2002 we have raised just under $1.9mn, half of which has come from the Chinese business sector," explained Chen Qianqian of the Great Wall Foundation, a charity that offers scholarships to impoverished university students.

To date, one Chinese charity has
raised just short of $1.9mn

"The amount of business sector involvement definitely seems to be increasing and this is where we focus our lobbying efforts," he added.

According to Ding Yuanzhu, the "spirit of charity" is increasing as evidenced by the involvement of youth groups and college students in volunteering. But, overall, he admits that there is still a considerable difference between the high GDP growth rates of seven to nine per cent published each year and money given to good causes.

"Remembering that perhaps 80-90% of the population lives in fairly impoverished conditions, the number of people involved in charity work is very small," he says. "In the next five to 10 years though, China should seize the opportunity to promote the social sector."

Growth sector

Certainly, the role charity can play in China’s ongoing development has not been lost on the government which helped host a recent international conference on the issue.

To outsiders, the still complex registration process required for charity status appears bewildering, but the government seems to be actively encouraging the sector's growth, and future changes to enhance charitable giving appear likely.

One possible area of reform is in providing tax breaks for large corporate and individual donors, a system that has gained credence in the US.

This, according to Ding Yuanzhu, would be an instrumental change that would help promote a sector that, unlike the West, has few recognisable names, as well as aid the government in its quest to redistribute the nation's wealth.

Thoughtless gestures

One charity spokeswoman though was a little more circumspect.

Children, whose parents are in
prison, at a charity funded school

"Of course there will be advantages to the sector if such laws are made but we wish companies could pay more attention to the usefulness of what they give," says Hui Chen, who helps run a regional charity looking after children whose parents are in prison.

"Often, companies just offload old produce on us and take the credit for being charitable but really our schools just become celebrated storage depots."

However, in promoting charity, some urge caution. “One must remember that charity can only ever play a supplementary role in China," warned university sociologist Xia Xueluan. "It is the government who needs to focus on their own internal reforms without relying on the limited resources of charities to plug the gaps."