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The digital life of goodness: National heroes, NGOs, and commercialised charity in China



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This thesis studies a historical redress movement which aims at assisting and honouring the Kuomintang (KMT) veterans who fought in the War of Resistance against Japan (1937-45) but, due to contemporary politics, have lived in straitened circumstances in China since 1949. Unlike the World War II veterans of other countries who received support and recognition for their service, the Chinese veterans suffered great injustices for their political identities during the communist period. The majority of surviving veterans—who usually live in impoverished rural areas—continue to struggle through abject poverty. To right those perceived historical wrongs, in the late 1990s, local activists from different regions began to conduct peer-to-peer caregiving programmes in their native setting. The last decade has seen that foundation be developed further by charitable NGOs which brand the KMT veterans as ‘national heroes’ through online platforms. These organisations transform the early scattered grassroots activities into a charity project that receives political support, financial resources, and societal recognition. Foregrounding the institutional production and social networking among different stakeholders, this ethnographic study interrogates a new modality of doing good as featured in the digital turn of Chinese society: the e-commercialised charity.

Building on intensive fieldwork focusing on NGOs and activist communities, this dissertation closely examines the social-mediatization and digital-financialization of redress activism in China. After the introduction, chapters 2 and 3 document the historical development of the redress phenomenon with an institutional ethnography. Chapter 4 concentrates on the moral experience of the local activists who consistently provide care to those they consider authentic national heroes in different regions. Chapter 5 shows the regionalization and nativism of the hero-making programme, unpacking a phenomenon of solidarity centred on the province which exists among activists. Chapter 6 focuses on the role of the state in creating a philanthropic and charity sphere in China, illustrating how a crowdfunding market has opened up in support of the social welfare system. Chapters 7 and 8 closely examine the operation of this online crowdfunding market in which internet companies act as infrastructure providers. By introducing competition schemes and digital marketing into the charity sphere, online platforms and charitable NGOs brand the veterans as the worthiest recipients of the charity to boost fundraising, inadvertently widening regional disparities among activist communities. The thesis closes with a reflection on how the internet-based charity shapes the moral landscape by giving rise to a new way of doing good for ordinary people in China.





Chau, Yuet Chau


China, anthropology of charity, NGOs, Chinese e-commerce, Second World War


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
St John’s College Student Fund FAMES fieldwork fund Chiang Ching-kuo doctoral fellowship.