If you live in a Chinese east coast metropolis, with all its Western brand paraphernalia, it's easy to forget that China is still a developing country. In a typical month you're likely to see more chauffeured Rolls Royces than hand tended rice paddies. It won't be too long however, before China does what it does best and upsets your established perceptions. Street beggars, often terribly disfigured by untreated medical conditions or industrial accidents, serve as stark evidence that not all Chinese are riding their country's wave of development. And if you're a Westerner, it is quite probable that soon into your stay in China, you'll be approached by a beggar and reminded of the true nature of your expat reality. This article will take a look at why Western expats are particularly singled out by Chinese beggars, what kinds of beggars there are in China and what you should do if approached for money.
Why foreigners are first targets
The obvious answer to the first question is that for many poor Chinese there still exists an association between being white and being wealthy. As a white Westerner myself, I was once reminded of this fact while walking down a street in China with a black, Western friend, when an elderly lady directed her request for money solely at me. My friend asked her with mock indignation why she hadn't approached him, and she confidently replied while pointing at me 'because he is richer'.
Another more subtle aspect influencing begging behaviour, especially in more rural areas, is the philanthropic legacy left by late 19th and 20th century American and British missionaries who, in the course or cause of their conversion work, established many schools, health clinics and other free services. (For an excellent insight into the rights and wrongs of missionary work in China, check out Hilary Spurling's biography of Pearl Buck, 'Burying the Bones'). It's probably a combination of different cultural associations and assumptions, which leads to Western foreigners being targeted by China's under-privileged. And perhaps in truth, there's no definitive answer as the life circumstances that lead to someone ending up begging on the street in China are so variable.
Indeed, this fact is reflected in the many different types of beggars that can be found on the streets of China. Very broadly speaking, and for the purposes of this article, they can be divided into four categories:
1) Those in need of medical treatment
It is fairly common to see beggars with open wounds requiring immediate medical attention. There are also large numbers with chronic illnesses or genetic deformities which have led to destitution. Often these individuals will have a brief written history of their condition displayed in front of where they sit, sometimes including medical receipts for treatment received so far. China does not have a fully funded public health system and so considering the severity of some of the medical conditions you often see, it is probable they really are unable to afford treatment.
2) The elderly
Elderly beggars are commonly weather beaten, arthritic Chinese villagers, no longer able to perform their agricultural work. In general, Chinese society has a much more cohesive and supportive family structure towards older generations than in the west, but of course cases exists where these family ties have broken down. Considering most elderly Chinese will have a traditional and conservative mindset, their willingness to suffer 'loss of face' by asking strangers for money makes it more likely than not that they are in genuine need.
Child beggars often work in pairs and many seem to share the features of having a runny nose and dirty, over-sized clothes. You may also see children dressed in school uniform with written notes stating that their parents are unable to afford school tuition fees. If you have lived in China for even a small amount of time you are probably aware that China has documented cases of child beggars organised and exploited by adult gangs. If you pay attention it is often possible to see adult individuals directing children's begging activities on the streets.
4) Street performers
Street performers are often elderly musicians playing traditional Chinese instruments such as the erhu or pipa. There is a long history of street performers in China, one of the more recent famous examples being Abing (Hua Yanjun), who was a blind erhu player active in the first half of the 20th century.
Deciding who or if to give money to someone on the street is obviously not a China specific dilemma but a personal moral choice applicable anywhere. It is not this article's intention to force an absolute answer as there isn't one! Burdened with complex cultural associations and the fact that whatever your employment or salary, as an expat you are probably earning above the average Chinese wage, you might feel morally compelled to give money to beggars.
Or perhaps you want to contribute directly and immediately towards alleviating the pain of someone with an obvious medical problem. Maybe it's even that after a maddening ride on a crowded public transportation system after a day at work, it is easier for convenience’s sake to doll out a couple of Yuan to a child beggar in order to ward off their often quite insistent begging techniques.
A greater bang for your buck
All of these reasons for giving money are perfectly understandable. However, if you're serious about providing lasting benefit to those you see in need on the street, and you want to be certain your money is not encouraging exploitation, it is a better idea to donate to an organised charity operating in China. Even as far back as 2005, the Ministry of Civil Affairs announced there to be 280,000 NGOs operating in China. These take the form of government organised NGOs (GONGOs), foreign NGOs, or grass root Chinese NGOs, of which there are thousands catering to specific causes. If you do choose this route for giving, with a quick search on the internet it shouldn't be hard to find a charity working with the social group you'd like to help.
Here are a few links that you may find useful:
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Keywords: beggars in China wealth disparity in China giving money to beggars in China begging in China beggars and foreigners in China
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My opinion: I am a visitor to China. I see that there are many beggars. Many of these beggars should have medical treatment (or a form of housing, or simple employment) provided by charities or by a Government agency. This is for the Chinese people (and agencies) to solve. I never give to beggars because this only encourages more begging, which delays the best solution (above). Only my opinion.
Sep 20, 2011 15:45 Report Abuse
The main problem is for example, your at a bus station and a begger approaches you. Maybe give them 1 or 2 yuan, and go about your way. But then 5 minutes later another begger approaches, and another, and another, what do you do? How many beggers can you give money to in 1 day? The problem is too big and although we may be giving ourselves a sense of fulfillment by giving money to 1 begger, it is merely the tip of the ice berg.
Sep 20, 2011 17:26 Report Abuse
A well-researched and thoughtful article.
Certainly in large cities on the east coast like Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Shanghai, many of the adult beggars are controlled by mafia groups who will actually pay them a monthly salary.
This is why at Chinese New Year and during the National Day holiday, you very rarely see beggars on the streets of the cities I mention above; it's simply because they have all gone back to stay with their families.
I'm sure that there are genuine cases of hardship that have lead to this deplorable situation, but it is worth remembering that many of the beggars in the aforementioned cities are there to make money for others, and whilst this may seem a touch cynical, giving a couple of kwai to a beggar may be funding organised crime.
Sep 20, 2011 17:52 Report Abuse
I prefer to give some fruit or food directly to a needy person on the street.
Sadly, the odds of money getting from a large charity to the needy is low. Many examples of charity money going missing have been published in China, and many more not published. Like public companies here, the level of financial controls is not up to the same standards as developed countries.
Sep 22, 2011 17:27 Report Abuse
Even in America only an average 10% of every dollar ( 10 cents) or less given to charity makes it to the needy. the rest is allocated for "expenses" of running the charity- I prefer to give directly to the person in need- therefore i know my money is helping 100% and not 10%.
Sep 30, 2011 22:37 Report Abuse
Where did you come up with that 10% statistic, The Idiots Guide to Charities in the U.S.? Come on, don't be a sucker for someone whose profession is to take you for as much as they can get on the street. Give to a proven charity like the Salvation Army and see the money well spent.
Aug 28, 2012 08:31 Report Abuse
I don't mind giving directly to needy people in the street, especially those who it seems have 'fallen through the cracks' of all avalable support systems. Even though I am retired and far from welthy, I know that what is a trifling amount to me,means much more to a Chinese, especially someone in desperate need. I know that there are some unscupulous fakers out there, but I don't really care if some of those get a bit of my money,as long as most that get it are deserving.So when I am out and about, I always take coins and small denomination notes with me, and so does my wife. Oh! I buy from street traders too.
Sep 23, 2011 04:46 Report Abuse
Once met a senior American Engineer in a shoe store here in Suzhou. Turns out he had only been here for 3 weeks, I cautioned him not to give money to beggars because they are often part of an organised network.
I was aghast when he told me he had given 100 RMB to a beggar on the previous day. I smiled and told him to go to the site and ask the beggar for 98 RMB in change.
Sep 29, 2011 02:46 Report Abuse
It's good that you've learnt English to share your true story. Cinism nonetheless goes beyond languages. It's a matter of character and cruelty like your suggestion to that American guy. You can't ask somebody to not be generous only because you are not or believe your understanding about that matter is higher than others. It is hard to understand the reasons of poverty. So I stopped trying to understand it. I simply follow the path of a compassion.
Jan 25, 2013 10:26 Report Abuse
You mean that those guys who come up to me and show a few small notes weren't trying to give them to me? They were begging? This would explain why they always ran away when I tried to accept their offerings. (It's my way to be polite to everyone.) I thought it was a game they played with foreigners.
Sep 29, 2011 17:13 Report Abuse
My Chinese wife nearly always gets pissed off with me when I give to beggars. She nearly always tells me that Chinese mafia employ beggars who after their stint on the streets go away to live a life in luxury or similar. I did however take note of 2 instances when she tried to give our "doggy bag" which we planned to eat later, to beggars only to be refused and asked for money. Could have been a 2 off which only cemented my wifes and many other middle class Chinese to beggars.
Jan 25, 2013 07:04 Report Abuse
I also believe that by giving money directly to a beggar also helps organized crime. Of course, there are a few deserving cases but when you are being pestered, you have no time to sort the wheat from the chaff. I remember some years ago, some Chinese friends told me never to give because they said that the beggars were kidnapped when small and their kidnappers removed one of their limbs and put them on the street to beg, all the donations went to the bosses to pay for their dismal keep. If you really want to help then donate to charities, I know some will take a portion for expenses but at least you will know that it will go to genuine cases. Occasionaly, if we have a meal out, then any left over food will be placed in a polystyrene container and a plastic bag(bad for the enviroment,I know) and leave it in a convenient place so that if the genuine beggar is hungry, he will at least have some food in his belly and ease my mind about never giving money directly to a beggar. I remember in London, some beggar asked me for fifty pennies for a cup of tea, I said here is another fifty pennies for a cup of tea(for me) but he just vanished and I never got my cup of tea for fifty pennies.
Jan 25, 2013 08:03 Report Abuse
That's a poor article, written from the superficial point of view. It may scratch a bit the objectivity of such matter. Yet, it is far too sensible to ignore that where you have to look is deep in the soul of the poverty and begging issues. Nonetheless, I don't refrain myself from giving a poor money or food as I believe that it may happen to me anytime and risk to be like them one day. There is no difference between me and them except that it is a matter of time and circumstances to bein their situations. So I better learn to go humble. Who knows if one day I will be like them? Well, the way I treat them, I gather the hope to be trated the same I treat them today. With respect and humility.
Jan 25, 2013 09:17 Report Abuse
Chinese beggars are attracted to any foreign face... Your article although it clearly highlights aspects of this begging phenomenon in China, fails to limit itself within its locus of control! Do you think in the mind of beggars that Whites (English teachers in majority) are as well off as other businessmen of other races in China? I think you are biased if not ignorant of your own status.. Keep thinking that you are white , so u are most esteemed ! I've been in more than 10 big cities in China, but these beggars even address to the chinese folks although foreigners are golden targets, but not whites exclusively. Go to different mosques in China, you will have a better ideas of what Chinese beggars think. They know muslims are unconditional charity givers and 99.9% of them are non-white. I sometimes just get irritated at reading bullshits from any co-called westerner who tries to fingerprint a masturbational elitism in whatsoever line he stands on. I even doubt about your tale with your black friend....the way you wrote gives hints that it's mounted in pieces...
Jan 25, 2013 12:13 Report Abuse
Exactly! It's stuck in my brain that story about him and the black guy too and it sounded... incoherent. Not to mention that he puts in a bad light the black guy, hence, in his mind he believes he is superior to his "imaginary friend"... Well I just mentioned it, why not. It definitely sounds like an imagined story and I wonder why would he make it up?
Jan 25, 2013 12:46 Report Abuse
How is this story uniquely Chinese or even interesting? Your heart's in the right place, but beggars are everywhere dude. In Sociology class in college I do remember reading that upwards of 90% of homeless people world-wide are women and children. 70% of those have a mental or physical handicap. Why not talk about how the Chinese discard their handicap relatives. A practice dating back to when productivity was emphasized and your family members were only as good as their ability to make money working in the factory. Now that's uniquely Chinese.
Jan 26, 2013 16:05 Report Abuse
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