A Great Wall of Funding? American Philanthropy and the Rise of China

China has five times as many people as the United States and is the second largest economy in the world, which is why China's rise is right up there with climate change as one of the top trends shaping the 21st century. And why President Obama is making his second trip to China, starting today. 

Things could get scary with China in a bunch of ways in coming decades. Rising nationalist conflicts with its neighbors could destabilize Asia and the world economy. Or internal civil disorder could produce chaos with similar results. Or a new pandemic in China, with its packed cities and weak public health system, could be uniquely deadly.

We're already seeing glimpses of these dangers in rising tensions with Japan over territorial disputes, growing unrest among the long repressed Uighur minority, and mass protests in Hong Kong. 

Oh, and let's not forget that China is the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, and is slated to build dozens of coal-fired power plants every year for the next decade. 

Given what's at stake here, you'd think that U.S. foundations and philanthropists would be investing heavily in work that aims to ensure the best outcomes as China rises. 

Are they? 

To some degree, yes: A fair number of multi-million dollar grants have focused on China in some way over the past decade. But funders are not investing as heavily in China as you might expect. Here's a rundown of who's been funding what over the past decade.

Climate: The big climate funders like Hewlett and Packard have been keyed into the centrality of China for years, and have funded an array of initiatives aimed at curbing that nation's greenhouse gas emissions. Smaller funders like the Rockefeller Brothers Fund have also paid keen attention to China: RBF has made a bunch of grants focused on Chinese environmental issues, and Southern China is one of the foundation's "pivotal places." Interestingly, Hewlett gave RBF $1.5 million to further this grantmaking earlier this year. 

Health: Top global health funders like Gates and Bloomberg haven't ignored China. Both these funders have given big to reduce tobacco use in China, while Gates has also funded work to fight tuberculosis and improve vaccination efforts in the country, including a $33 million grant to the Chinese Ministry of Health in 2009 to combat TB.

Cultural Exchange and Scholarship: A few funders have invested heavily in efforts to deepen and enrich U.S. ties with China through education initiatives, and also for scholarly work on China. Most notable here is Stephen Schwarzman's $300 million commitment in 2013 to a program to help future world leaders better understand China, the Schwarzman Scholars Program. The Starr Foundation has been another major funder investing in this space, making large gifts for several initiatives at Yale and elsewhere over the past decade. Ford gave $1 million last year to the 100,000 Strong Foundation, which seeks to increase the number of Americans learning Mandarin and studying abroad in China. Ford has also pumped money into the Institute for International Education to support travel to China. 

Security and Policy. If China really starts to throw its weight around militarily, it could upend the geopolitical order in Asia, and perhaps elsewhere, too. The Carnegie Corporation of New York is one funder that, predictably, has seen the need for new policy analysis in this area, giving $1.8 million last year to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Likewise, the Ford Foundation gave a grant to the Center for American Progress this year for its new U.S.-China Rising Scholars Program. Still, grants like these haven't been as plentiful as you might think, and there isn't a huge amount of think tank capacity focused on China. That could be a problem if territorial tensions in East Asia escalate furthur, or China steps up its involvement in Africa, or trade ties deteriorate, and U.S. policy elites don't have the depth of knowledge they need to understand these challenges.  

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I could go on with other examples of China funding, including for education, human rights, and women's empowerment. Open Society Foundations is in China, as you might expect, but it's hard to tell how much they're spending there, or on what. Likewise, many corporate funders operate in China, where they have branches and facilities, but that spending can also be tricky to trace. Some funders have good reasons for not being so transparent about what they're doing, especially on rights issues. 

So, no, American philanthropy is definitely not ignoring China. But the overall flow of funds focused on China is not quite what you'd expect given this country's size and importance. My guess is that this will change in coming years, especially if security and human rights problems related to China grow more serious. Also, I'd expect the big tech companies like Facebook, Google, and Apple to do more philanthropy in China in coming years. Mark Zuckerberg is learning Mandarin and also has gotten serious about philanthropy. He could emerge as a leader here.