Gender in Chinese Philanthropy, Factory Work and Entrepreneurship

April 9, 2018


In the spring of 2008, China was practically electric with pre-show jitters and excitement as the nation prepared to host the Olympic games and to broadcast itself to television screens around the globe.  It was in this climate that I interviewed a handful of Hangzhou residents about zhongmei kuaguo hunyin, or American-Chinese transnational marriages.  In these interviews, I was told that a good match required husbands to be relatively qiang (strong, powerful, superior), and wives to be relatively ruo (fragile, delicate, weak) compared to their spouse.  According to my interlocutors, American men were more likely to marry Chinese women than the other way around (Chinese husbands with American wives) because of America’s strong economic position in relation to China.  However, these statements were qualified—America was “currently” (xianzai) in a position of greater economic power, and China “still” (hai) lagged behind.  In other words, the prevalence of American men taking Chinese wives was read as indicative of what Edward Said has called the “positional superiority” of the West over the Orient.  But, in 2008, my interlocutors sensed that these relative positions would soon be shifting. 


Like transnational marriages, transnational donor-recipient relationships—whether between individuals or between philanthropic foundations and nonprofit grantee organizations—can be seen to index the relative strengths of each nation, and even be interpreted as allegory for the international relationship.  Thus, the Ford Foundation granting money to a Chinese NGO represents a relationship of American dominance over China. 


Not only are recipients feminized (portrayed as passive, dependent, etc), and recipient nations seen to occupy the ‘female’ role, but seemingly oppressed women are seen as deserving recipients of philanthropy, and the opportunity to ‘save’ women has been a motivating factor for entering into an ostensibly philanthropic relationship.  Chinese women have long been portrayed as in need of Western assistance. Orientalist representations of such practices as foot-binding, prostitution, female infanticide, forced abortions, and unequal access to education (see Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s 2010 book, Half the Sky), have evoked pity and provoked philanthropic responses from the West.  Consistent with Gayatri Spivak’s formula, philanthropy in China has often entailed white men (and women) saving Chinese women from Chinese men —simultaneously demonstrating Western positional superiority and justifying Western imperialist intervention.


Today, China has surpassed the U.S. as number one producer of billionaires, and the 2016 charity laws prohibit foreign foundations from granting to Chinese nonprofits, while supporting the creation of indigenous Chinese philanthropic foundations.  Meanwhile, as newspaper headlines consider whether China might be the newest colonial power, Chinese foundations and philanthropists are entering into philanthropic relationships with recipients in African, South American, and Southeast Asian nations.  In this way, the emergence of institutionalized Chinese philanthropy and, specifically, China’s occupation of the donor role in transnational philanthropy, is a symbolic reclaiming of a masculine (qiang) position after centuries of Western domination. 


Zooming in from the macro-scale donor-recipient relationship centered around the bestowal of a charitable gift or grant, my own forays into the ‘philanthropic sector’ in New York and in Beijing have revealed that institutionalized philanthropy actually consists of a whole network of smaller exchanges, and requires all sorts of compensated and uncompensated labour done by people occupying diverse roles.  These include: founder, foundation director, board member, grants officer, nonprofit development associate, grantwriter, intern, volunteer, client, and more.  We might also add: researcher at philanthropy institute, professional working to regulate, measure, or evaluate philanthropic organizations, student or teacher at philanthropy training program.  On this smaller scale, we can ask questions about the relationship between this emerging economy and the gendered individuals who engage in it. 


It is not news that economies both shape and are shaped by gender.  As reform-era economic policies have replaced China’s exclusively state-run economy—itself associated with an ideology of radical gender equality—we have seen the feminization of factory labour and the masculinization of entrepreneurship. In her 2005 ethnography, Made in China: Women Factory Workers in a Global Workplace, Pun Ngai describes how Chinese female rural-to-urban migrant workers (dagongmei) are triply oppressed—by global capitalism, state socialism, and familial patriarchy. She points out that the term gongren, translated as proletariat, was popular during the Maoist era, and denoted privileged class status at the time.  In contrast, the term used to describe female factory workers is quite different: “dagong…refers to casual labor—labor that can be dismissed at will, that can be replaced by anyone who is willing to sell his or her labor for a lower price”(Pun 2005: 12). At the opposite end of the economic spectrum, John Osburg’s 2013 ethnography is called Anxious Wealth: Money and Morality Among China’s New Rich.  Set in Chengdu, it reveals the deeply gendered social practices in which entrepreneurs and state officials gift and consume food, drink, and sexual services together, creating mutually beneficial “fraternal” bonds.  Osburg makes it clear how difficult it is for women to enter these spaces of entertainment, except as hostesses and potential sexual partners, and thus how difficult it is for women to cultivate business partnerships and access the capital necessary to launch a business. 


While it may be too soon to say, my personal observations suggest the feminization of the philanthropic sector in China, or at least of certain roles in this economy.  Founders and foundation directors may be predominantly male, but those carrying out the daily labour are often female.  The Beijing office of a philanthropy institute where I spent part of my summer in 2017 was populated almost exclusively by women.  Tea breaks included the sharing of baby pictures and advice for relieving painful menstrual cramps. When my coworkers generously invited me for a night out, I was one of eight women sharing Korean food and then a private room at a KTV hall.  Two beers were consumed among us, and the evening was over by 10:30pm.  While the night was far less extravagant than those described by Osburg, it nonetheless served to strengthen affection—in this case more of a sisterly nature. 


If the philanthropic sector is relatively feminized, why is this the case?  Is it because the charitable economy espouses altruistic rather than self-interested motivations, and women are often perceived to be more selfless than men?  Because a career in the philanthropic sector is less prestigious and less lucrative than other careers available to educated Chinese people?  Or because institutionalized philanthropy is a professionalized version of the kind of (women’s) unpaid care labor that usually takes place in the domestic sphere?  Regardless, we might conclude that China is relying on female/feminized labour in the emerging charitable economy in order to advance soft power and recuperate a position of (masculine) dominance on the world stage. 

Elizabeth Crane is a doctoral student in Anthropology at Rutgers University, USA. Her research interests include philanthropy, critical humanitarian studies, economic anthropology, representations of US-China relations, and intimate relationships across gender, race/ethnicity, and nationality. Her current dissertation research looks at China’s emerging charitable economy, and at the refashioning of people from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds into Chinese ‘philanthropists.’ Image credit: He Maofeng/China Daily.







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