Next Magazine (Second opinion A004, 2013.11.14)
Hong Kong people are generous as evidenced by our 7,592 tax-exempt charities. In the last fiscal year they donated $9.45billion to tax-deductible charitable organizations. These figures however go no-where near reflecting Hong Kong people’s civic spirit. Many donations are not reported to the Inland Revenue Department. Church Sunday collections, unregistered charity contributions and chance raffles ticket purchases for instance are not claimed for tax deduction. Similarly undocumented are donations outside Hong Kong and support within the family, but they are all part of Hong Kong’s quintessential culture of giving.
Such great institutions of benevolence like the Jockey Club, the Tung Wah Group, the Community Chest, and our many churches have been an essential part of the fabric of Hong Kong that make this a more special place than just a large city with a rich history of commerce. The data suggests that educational institutions are amongst the biggest recipients of donations.There are reasons to fear that this tradition might be fading. The Charities Aid Foundation in the UK publishes the World Giving Index survey, which measures the proportion of people donating money, volunteering time and giving aid to strangers. Hong Kong is in the top 20 globally in the index. However, whilst our average ranking over five years was 9th, in the most recent 2012 index, we slipped to the 19th place. In 2011, 73% of our people made a charitable donation, but this proportion dropped to 64% in 2012. Whilst we are generous givers of money, according to this survey, in their hustle and bustle, only 13% of our people volunteer their time for charity.
To understand why Hong Kong people’s benevolent spirit might be sapping, we need to understand how it came about in the first place. Hong Kong’s many benevolence institutions emerged to fill the void left by various traditional Chinese charities that provided mutual aid along family, clan and religious lines. One of the reasons for this was the colonial government’s “benign neglect” toward the Chinese population. Left to their own devices, with shared needs for hygiene, order and aid in the event of the regular disasters that befall harsh climates, they had little choice but to create their own institutions to meet these community needs.However, the government did provide a business friendly climate that created wealth to support people’s benevolent aspirations, and buttressed them with legal systems that gave donors the confidence that their monetary contributions would not be misused. Even in the early days of Hong Kong’s development, low taxes helped make supporting charitable causes affordable. Private contributions were behind most of the great educational, healthcare, welfare and religious institutions that have long been a mark of pride for Hong Kong.
What has changed? We no longer have a “hands-off” government. It has assumed sole responsibility to fix all of Hong Kong’s ills. It has increasingly muscled in on worthy causes, so people see it less and less their civic duty to pitch in to help; instead they clamor for more government intervention. Encroaching albeit with good intentions, intervention inevitably crowds out private help. As the government’s role grows, people assume that having paid their taxes they have discharged off their civic obligations. If our low tax is ever to rise this apathy will grow even more.The well-intentioned desire to deal with social ills, perversely leads to less giving and more taking within the community. As government becomes more involved in charity and welfare work, it cannot help but seek more control.Initially this was done in the name of the prudent use of public funds, in time bureaucracy takes on a life of its own. Bulging bureaucracy inevitably stifles innovation and discourages the energetic creators that inspire the founding of most great institutions. Matching grants are again well intentioned, but they all come with strings attached. Already we hear more calls for stricter regulation of non-profits and tax deductions, threatening to strangle benevolence.Government involvement removes the personality, intimacy and trust that have made small charitable organizations incredibly effective while starving them of volunteers to support their missions. As trust in authority and the good intentions of people in public life are being eroded, it becomes ever more imperative for our private benevolent institutions to thrive, but ever more difficult for them to do so.
Bill Stacey is in his 10th year as a resident of Hong Kong and is Chairman of the Lion Rock Institute.