Tea Leaf Nation

Brother, Can You Spare a Renminbi?

China's new First World problem: deciding who's truly needy.

A young woman eats a snack beside a home
A young woman eats a snack beside a homeless person at Tiananmen Gate in Beijing, 21 November 2007. As China's economy booms the income gap between rich and poor is rising with millions of migrant workers flocking to the capital to try and find work or scrape a living selling items on the street. AFP PHOTO/Peter PARKS (Photo credit should read PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images)

Who deserves to be poor in modern China? One man in China’s southern Zhejiang province certainly seemed sympathetic: Each day, he pushed himself along the street on a homemade wooden skateboard, his apparently paralyzed legs tucked under his body, holding out a can to ask for spare change. But in December 2014, a reporter from Chinese state media agency Xinhua secretly photographed the man standing up, tucking away his gear, and hopping on a bus, an incident that quickly spread through the Chinese web and set off online anger at a phenomenon now notorious in China: fake beggars. The same month, state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) reported that police had busted a professional begging racket in the southwestern city of Chongqing; its members owned expensive watches and high-end mobile phones. On March 2, state-run China Net reported that police had busted a “beggar millionaire” who made so much money pretending to be crippled that he had purchased two apartments in Beijing.

Has China suddenly become a nation of (admittedly entrepreneurial) scammers? It’s not entirely clear whether fake begging is relatively new or is a long-standing trend that social media has made easier to detect. But there’s no debate that since China’s economic reforms began in 1978, the Community Party has dismantled much of the country’s welfare system, leaving only a thin social safety net for the urban poor. Relaxed domestic travel restrictions have unleashed a flood of rural migrants to the cities, while swift but uneven economic development has left China with a wealth disparity among the widest in the world. That means there are many in truly desperate straits, but there’s also more money sloshing about for those with the chutzpah to feign poverty. The question is how many have truly falsified their beggar status and how many have been erroneously held out as exemplars of the practice — fake fake beggars, in other words.

The chatter surrounding the new phenomenon might sound familiar to Americans reared on outlets like Fox News that bemoan the sloths, shills, and other ranks of shameless who plead poverty while (allegedly) living the rich life. But in China, where 40 years ago nearly everyone lived in poverty, the debate is new. “In the modern era, begging is no longer a pitiable, desperate, involuntary, and unfamiliar behavior,” wrote one user in an online forum generally unsympathetic to those asking for money on the street. “It’s a high-income industry that requires essentially zero investment to get started.” Panhandlers make so much profit, wrote another user, that “many aren’t even willing to go to rescue shelters.” Another blamed the good-hearted people who give handouts. “If no one ever gave money,” wrote the user, “people wouldn’t blast music and walk through subway cars” — a common method of begging in China — “and they wouldn’t stand at street corners in all kinds of weather holding signs, slowing down traffic.”

Online debate has thus far elided the distinction between the fake poor and what some Westerners might call the “deserving poor.” In a March 20 forum on popular question-and-answer site Zhihu called “how to differentiate real beggars from fakes,” a common piece of advice was to offer a beggar something besides cash. If the beggar accepted, then the person was genuinely in need — but if the beggar rejected it, the con was on. Another user advised passers-by to offer to escort beggars to the nearest shelter; if they refused to go, then they too should not be trusted. Still another wrote that the only beggars she gives money to are children, the elderly, and the disabled. “If they are youthful, with hands and feet,” wrote the user, “I don’t give them a penny.”

For its part, Chinese state-run media appears more interested in calling out fraud than tackling the larger social issues at play, which might tend to point the finger at government authorities. State-run China Daily reported in June 2013 that in the southern provincial capital of Nanjing, 80 percent of those begging in the city’s subways were fake, meaning they were capable of work and did not come from poor homes. This narrow definition does not take into account any of the many extenuating circumstances that may prevent a physically whole person from obtaining employment. Citing the Modern Express, the report lamented that some beggars “have a monthly income of more than 10,000 yuan ($1,630),” more than three times the monthly per capita disposable income of Nanjing residents.

Critiques of fake begging are likely to find a ready audience in China, where the philanthropic sector is still nascent. One reason for this is a social media kerfuffle that’s four years old but still having an impact: In 2011, the Red Cross Society of China (RCSC), China’s largest charity, became mired in scandal after Guo Meimei, a woman falsely claiming to be a Red Cross employee, posted pictures of herself online posing with a Maserati and bragging about her luxurious lifestyle. Suspicions swirled about where Guo had gotten the money and how RCSC handled the donations it received. The scandal cast a shadow over the whole country’s charitable sector; that year, donations plummeted to $13.6 billion from the 2010 peak of $16.6 billion, and the country has yet to recover to pre-2011 levels, which were never high to begin with. Chinese philanthropy is especially anemic when compared with that of the United States: According to a government-issued report, China registered $15.9 billion in charitable donations in 2013, a mere 4.7 percent of all U.S. donations that same year. And according to the World Giving Index 2014 report, published by U.K.-based nonprofit Charities Aid Foundation, only 13 percent of China’s adult population donated to charity over a one-month period in 2013, compared with 68 percent of the U.S. adult population.

To be sure, Chinese charity does have a future. In early 2014, Jack Ma, founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba and China’s richest man, established a charitable trust worth $3 billion aimed at combating the country’s massive pollution. Zhang Xin, a real estate tycoon who recently established a $15 million fund to send poor Chinese students to Harvard University, wrote in December 2014 for the New York Times that China is “on the cusp of change” as a new, prosperous generation of Chinese look to give back to the society that has afforded them so many opportunities. And while many in China may have qualms about personally helping out beggars, those who do are often admired. A March 20 post by Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily on its Weibo account told the story of a young woman eating in a porridge restaurant who had shared her breakfast with a beggar, after the old woman had approached her and said simply, “I’m hungry.” The post garnered more than 7,900 likes and 1,000 admiring comments.

But in a country of growing wealth and inequality, poverty and its solutions are rarely so black and white. One Zhihu user, a young college graduate living in Shanghai, wrote that he had recently come upon a ragged young woman with a baby, begging outside a busy Shanghai train station. “My first thought,” he wrote, was to wonder why she had chosen to give birth to a baby that she wasn’t able to support. But then he chided himself for judging her so quickly. “How difficult it must be,” he wrote, “for a [single] woman with a baby to find a job in Shanghai.” The young woman’s predicament, and his own reaction, troubled him, and he described it as “two small people in my head fighting each other.” In the end, he fished out some small bills from his pocket and gave them to her. “There are some problems,” he concluded, “that just aren’t that easy to figure out.” The start, perhaps, of a First World problem.

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

Corrections, March 26, 2015: The China Daily, citing the Modern Express, stated that some beggars in Nanjing “have a monthly income of more than 10,000 yuan ($1,630),” more than three times the monthly per capita disposable income of Nanjing residents. An earlier version of this article transcribed the quote incorrectly and mistakenly said 10,000 yuan is more than three times the monthly per capita income of the city’s residents. The China Daily article attributed the information to original reporting by the Modern Express. Also, the government-issued report on charitable giving was published in 2014 and was about donations in 2013. An earlier version of this article mistakenly said the report was published in 2013.

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy, where she covers Chinese government influence in the United States. @BethanyAllenEbr

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