Commercializing Benevolence: The Architecture of Grassroots-Oriented Corporate Philanthropy in Contemporary China

Yuhao Zhuang, Sociology

Prevalent research and popular media accounts have suggested that government-controlled charities in China solicit philanthropic donations from firms via intimidation and clientelism, yet little is known why corporate gifts increasingly flow to grassroots nonprofit organizations unaffiliated with the state. Drawing on comprehensive corporate donation data, 15-month participant observation, and 120 in-depth interviews, this dissertation identifies the conditions conducive to this unanticipated grassroots-oriented corporate philanthropy on the sides of both donors and recipients. Rather than sacrificing monetary resources for access to political capital as in collaboration with government charities, according to this dissertation, Chinese firms seek to prioritize their own commercial objectives of business growth when contributing to grassroots nonprofits. Specifically, the current dissertation advances three interconnected arguments: First, private exercise of government functions extricates Chinese firms from obligation to donate to state-controlled nonprofits. Second, grassroots-oriented corporate philanthropy creates opportunity for Chinese government contractors to promote and innovate corporate products. Third, commercially-oriented corporate sponsors funnel more donations to grassroots charities that engage in intense yet ambiguous local status competition, where nonprofits become more capable of social problem-solving and more malleable to lucrative pursuits. These findings inform a strategic commercialization theory of corporate philanthropy and contribute more broadly to theories of political embeddedness, market-society relation, and social status hierarchy.


Yuhao Zhuang is a joint doctoral candidate in Sociology and Business at the University of Chicago. His research primarily asks how interrelationships between state, market, and civil society evolve across various political contexts. Drawing on qualitative, statistical, and computational methods, his dissertation focuses on the unanticipated disengagement of corporate philanthropy from the repressive state’s exploitation in contemporary China. In other recent projects, he studies procurement strategies of the U.S. government, discursive transformation of China’s state media, and the role of physical copresence in bridging political opinion dividesin the social services sector of China. Yuhao’s research has been supported by the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation, the Social Sciences Research Center, and the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Chicago, among others. He holds an M.A. in Social Sciences from the University of Chicago and a B.A. in Sociology from East China Normal University, China.