A recent China Central Television (CCTV) report quoted statistics from the China Charity Federation indicating that 70 per cent of charitable contributions to the Federation came from foreign countries or from the Chinese regions of Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, while charitable donations from wealthy benefactors in Mainland China accounted for less than 15 per cent of the total value of the donations.
At the same time, many world-famous luxury brands have targeted China as a major growth market for the next decade and beyond. Jacques Franck Dossin, analyst with the Goldman Sachs Group Inc, claims China will be the world's fastest growing luxury market over the next 10 years and that it will become the world's second largest luxury market in that time.
Luxury goods are not consumed by the poor or rank-and-file office workers, they can only be purchased by the wealthy. In China, the lack of charity and indifference to the plight of the poor shown by wealthy people is in stark, thought-provoking contrast to their craving for luxury goods.
There are reasons for this. Charity is a social virtue, and the development of charity requires a conducive social environment which includes an appropriate conception of wealth and social values favouring charity.
The sad fact is that Chinese people in general do not possess such high-minded notions of wealth and charity. People nowadays are more concerned about the ways and means of making money than such things as the culture of wealth, the ethics of wealth and the responsibility of wealth. Under such social circumstances, most people are self-absorbed in the pursuit of money, comfort, success and the good life, while largely oblivious to the social responsibility of wealth.
In sharp contrast to advanced countries such as the United States, here in China people are much less charity-conscious. Available data indicate that 99 per cent of Chinese enterprises have never donated to charity. In 1996, per capita charitable donation in the United States was US$695, while in 1998 - when China experienced some of the most severe floods in its recent history - per capita donation was around US$1, or roundly 1/700th that of the United States. Of course this disparity in charitable donations has something to do with the per capita national income gap, but more importantly, it also reflects the huge gap in public awareness of charity between the two countries.
To raise public consciousness of charity, our society needs a new culture of charity. First of all, the wealthy classes should be made to understand that they owe much of their great fortune to the extraordinary development of our country and to the society in which they live. Next, measures should be introduced to provide additional incentives to encourage donations to charity. Finally, we need to engender a cultural atmosphere which inspires and encourages people to develop noble character, high ideals, a sense of social responsibility and a positive, healthy attitude towards wealth.
At the present stage of China's development, spending a large amount of wealth in the wasteful pursuit of luxuries is not good for the society as a whole; instead it may enhance the propensity to spend. The reason is that the consumption of luxury goods is unproductive, in comparison to how this surplus value could have been more usefully employed. Moreover, consumption of luxury goods is a stark manifestation of widening income inequality. Though moderate income inequality may help sustain economic growth, drastic income inequality can choke it off.