Perhaps best known for his graceful martial art sequences in movies like Hero, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, and The Warlords, Jet Li has been assuming another identity in China: that of the philanthropist.
Li launched the One Foundation, a charity project under the Red Cross Society of China, in 2007, raising more than Rmb63 million ($9.2 million) for disaster relief in the first two weeks after the devastating Sichuan earthquake. The core idea of Li’s One Foundation is that for a country the size of China, if everyone gave a little, the impact would be enormous.
So Li is urging everyone to donate Rmb1 — about 15 American cents — a month. “We set the lowest entrance barrier,” says Li. “So nobody can say no.”
Li, who is a Buddhist, believes that China has a strong tradition of giving: “Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism — they all talk about how happiness lies in helping others and how one good turn deserves another. But in the past 100 years China has been quite poor, so there has been a gap here.”
China has one of the lowest rates of charitable giving among the world’s major economies. In the US, giving represents about 2.1% of GDP; in China, it’s closer to 0.35%.
Li hopes to change this. “The role we play is more like a pusher of philanthropic culture. Right now, people still have a fuzzy recognition about philanthropy and volunteerism. My dream is to change the concept of philanthropy in China from simply helping others into responsibility.”
Perhaps some of this message is getting through. At the end of September last year, a total of 1,361 philanthropic foundations and 4,100 charitable organisations had been registered in the country, an increase of 40% on the previous year.
Total charitable proceeds were also significantly up to Rmb107 billion (from home and overseas donations), according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs. Much of this increase relates to the public response to the Sichuan earthquake.
Philanthropy got another celebrity boost this week when Kobe Bryant, the NBA superstar, also launched a charity foundation in China. The Kobe Bryant China Fund will partner with the Soong Ching Ling Foundation, an organisation backed by the Chinese government, to raise money in China for education and health programmes.
Bryant is hugely popular in China. Basketball shirts bearing his name are the topsellers, exceeding those of the national favourite Yao Ming.
One of his existing funds, the Kobe Bryant Family Foundation, also pays the salaries of four teachers to teach Mandarin and Chinese culture to middle-school students in Los Angeles.
“I want to help these kids see the possibilities of China and just understand that the world is much, much bigger than what they see around them,” says Bryant.
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