“So, how much did you donate?”

Donating money is a public thing in China — like a big group peer-pressure exercise. In your company, they might send an e-mail around listing everyone’s name and how much they donated. In neighbourhoods like ours, they’ll put up big posters by the main entrance with the names of residents who’ve donated and how much (and maybe whether or not they’re a Party member). Though there’s a common public standard for how much you should donate, you can’t donate too much or you’ll make other people look bad. For example, you wouldn’t want to publicly donate more than the company boss. Sometimes it goes beyond peer-pressure to coercion:

A few days ago a public servant friend said that, for the Wenchuan earthquake last time, at least the employees had been “mobilized” to donate; this time they simply had our salaries docked. The boss hypocritically notified everyone: Whoever doesn’t wish to donate, come talk to me in my office. Who dares to go to his office and say “I’m not willing to donate”? Unless one doesn’t wish to live! [from Yushu Earthquake Donation: Compassion or Tyranny?]

Our first encounter with this quirky (to us) practice of very public charity was after the Sichuan earthquake, when neighbours asked me point-blank home much we’d donated.

“For QÄ«nghÇŽi Yùshù Disaster Area Donation Name List”
wèi qīnghǎi yùshù zāiqū juānkuǎn míngdān

This time we decided to donate through our neighbourhood committee rather than through our N.G.O. Although the money would be better accounted for with our NGO (there’s controversy over what happened to large amounts of the Sichuan earthquake donations – see here, here, here and here) and we have a closer personal connection to how it would be used, this time we wanted to try a more local approach and we were curious to see how it would go over. Plus it’d be kind of funny to see our names up on the poster by the front gate.

If you haven’t heard, there was another big earthquake in which thousands of people died, this time in Yùshù, QÄ«nghÇŽi (青海玉树). See these links for more photos and controversy:

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