Why I (Almost) Always Give Money to Beggars

It’s that season, just before Spring Festival, when beggars proliferate, hoping to make some extra money before the holiday like everyone else. Two new ones appeared in my neighborhood last weekend, pitiable things out there in the cold holding pieces of ripped cardboard scrawled with their sad stories. They stood at intersections of busy streets, shuffling from car to car, getting nothing. And then there was one new one near my office near iAPM. He sat on the ground, shirtless. His left arm was the size and shape of a cucumber. I gave them all money. Just a coin. I almost always do. Here’s why.

The usual excuse for not giving to beggars is some variation of “they are all cheats.” This is the first line of defense for Chinese people and foreigners alike. Check out this article courtesy of Shanghai Expat devoted entirely to outing beggar swindlers. And then there was this thread on Reddit in December. Same deal. My Shanghainese friends are even worse about it. They always have some news report they reference backing up their contention that everyone begging on the streets is a scammer.

But the level of indignation my local friends express over the issue of street beggars indicates something that far outweighs the single silver RMB coin most beggars are after. It comes across as a deep personal outrage and I find it inexplicable. A street beggar, it seems, isn’t just a cheat, but very worst kind of cheat, an archfiend of cheaters, an unforgivable Osama bin Laden of cheaters. What’s all this really about?

The other day we got on the subject and I asked my Chinese friends, “Are all beggars cheats?” They all answered “No.” So how do you tell a “real” beggar from a “fake” beggar? They all told me their rules and practices derived from arcane, passed-down wisdom. None of them, of course, actually stops and talk to the beggar. Hell no. They assess purely on visual cues. The responses went something like this.

Does the beggar have a cell phone? Yes? Not a real beggar.

Does the beggar smoke cigarettes? Yes? Not a real beggar.

Is the beggar real dirty? Yes? Then MIGHT POSSIBLY be a real beggar, but you never know.

Does the beggar have a clear physical deformity? Yes? MIGHT POSSIBLY be a real beggar, but then again there was that story of that guy in Guangdong who maimed himself to look more pathetic…and then there are those people who actually got injured at work and are on permanent workers’ comp…they don’t even need the money but they are out there, too, on the streets, begging. Some of them make more than I do, my friends assured me.

Does the beggar have a child with him? Yes? Even if real, this kind of beggar cannot be supported, because that MIGHT NOT BE THEIR CHILD! Then they tell you about these roving gangs of child thieves who strike mercilessly all over the city, all over the country, all over the world. They mention the #FINDOURKIDS weibo hashtag and all the work done by these people to reunite stolen kids with their devastated parents, sometimes after years of separation. It’s true. They’ve all seen a news report on it, probably something out of Hunan.

Does the beggar at least offer some sort of entertainment or performance? Yes? Then we might give a coin because at least the beggar has LEARNED A SKILL and is TRYING TO WORK.

There are so many problems with these lines of reasoning that I hardly know where to start. Let’s start with this. It’s one fucking RMB. What’s that to you? Nothing. Look at your life. You waste way more than that every day.

And how many beggars are hitting you up? Thousands? No. I see at most one or two every day and it’s mostly the same dudes who camp out on Donghu Lu. If you’ve ever been up and down Donghu Lu, you’ve seen them too. So that’s a monthly expenditure of 30-60 RMB. That’s really cutting into the bottom line, isn’t it? You may have to forego a 70RMB craft beer from Union Trading Company once a month and get a regular old Stella instead. Big sacrifice.

Or how about this one–the beggar makes more money than I do. So what? So do a lot of people. I still give my money to Apple even though Tim Cook doesn’t need my money. A beggar can pull off a routine that nets him 30,000+ RMB a month? He deserves an award. That’s the way to live.

But that’s all sophistry and loses sight of the fact we are talking about humans here. We are talking about actual people asking for your real help. For some reason everyone abhors asking other people for help even though the truth is that not a single one of us could get anywhere in life if it weren’t for help from others, monetary and otherwise. It’s your fellow human! Sometimes shit goes wrong and you end up a bum on the street. It’s happened to better people than you.

“I don’t like to be cheated.” I hear this a lot after I start cross-examining people’s initial rationale for not giving. Guess what? You are being cheated, lied to, swindled and otherwise conned all the fucking time. A) Government–Chinese people know that more than 50% of the shit that gets served up by media mouthpieces is pure garbage. They still quite happily pay their taxes and get out their flags and root for their athletes. B) Businesses–companies are caught in lies all the time (hello, Das Auto). Anyone returning their Audi because of moral indignation? Didn’t think so. In business, those who run the biggest, best scams are called “smart.”

Maybe I’ll start a little digital platform–RealBeggars.com. I’ll talk to the beggars, carry out due diligence on your behalf. Learn their story. Examine their bank records. Observe them for awhile. The ones that pass the pathos test get into my app. Download the app to see which beggars are real. I take a cut of these supposed millions of RMB the city’s beggars are pulling down every week. StartUpGrind here I come.

Maybe it’s not about being cheated, maybe it’s about being manipulated. People hate the way beggars play on the instinct for empathy. A really amazing bit of advice from an expat on the Reddit thread: “Don’t have emotions. Don’t look at them. Just walk on. The intention is to play with your emotions.” This is complete bullshit. We pay good money all the time to have our emotions manipulated. Why else do you go to the movies? And then why would you ever not want to have emotions? Empathy is not a weakness, it’s a strength. It’s a superpower! We just never really learn how to deal with it and we are desperately afraid of how overwhelmingly strong it really is. The beggar forces us to confront this which is the last thing you want to do on the metro at 8am on a Monday.

The beggar also forces us to confront one of the the ultimate paradoxes of life–some people drive the car, some people shovel the shit and no one really knows why or how that is. Giving a coin to a beggar becomes tacit agreement in this compact of inequality. Easier to ignore it altogether and live in a fantasy land that we are all equal or all could be equal. Since you’re unwilling to stop and talk to a beggar, you’re left only with the contemplation of the unfairness of it all–catnip for the liberal imagination.

Aside from the authenticity question, the other big excuse for not giving a coin to the beggar is that from a socio-economic standpoint one should not reward this type of activity because of the potential ramifications for society at large. Give a coin to a beggar, the thinking goes, and you are either A) supporting organized crime (see above) or B) creating more beggars. Under this regime of thought, the whole structure of society would collapse in a heap of fleas and rags and open sores if we all started giving money to beggars. This, too, is shortsighted. If everyone suddenly began giving coins to beggars, the whole shape, look and dynamics of the begging world would change. Cynics see the streets overrun with panhandlers. Optimists see a new society fueled by compassion. The truth is, as usual, somewhere in between. My guess is that we would simply end up turning beggars into a new class of consumers, possibly a new leisure class.

In the same vein, what ticks people off is that beggars don’t have to slave away at same shit jobs they do, quietly grinding their lives away. That’s what the whole “I only give to street performers” crowd is trying to say. What they are against is a society without work-function. They don’t want a viable social space for people to live without the necessity of performing work. This dominant Weberian viewpoint conveniently ignores the fact that for many centuries societies have quite happily supported a class of people who did very little “work”–namely aristocrats. Aristocrats performed a role but did no “work”. They also managed to create–or patronize those who created–some of the greatest works of art known to us today. How much better to have a leisure class predicated on compassion than the mere random chance of birth? There’s a viable future in that, methinks.

In the end, though, I think it’s about control. We have little control over our lives–Chinese people especially–and refusing a coin to a beggar gives us the momentary illusion that we can control something. Somehow, sadly, this kind of thing always comes at the expense of the weakest of the herd.

I slowly put together this thought process in the course of my near two decades in China and it’s pretty much what I live by now. I give money to the people who ask for it. No skin off my back. I’ll say only three more things about my coin giving habit.

First, I don’t go out of my way to give money to beggars. I don’t run across the street if I see one on the other side. Nor do I search around for a convenience store to break a hundred if I don’t have a coin or a 1RMB note on me. Most of the time I do have a coin. Most of the time everyone does. But if I don’t, I don’t. It’s not a crusade I’m on. I’m just trying to live the kind of society that I would like to see around me. If everyone did about the same, we could take care of all the beggars in the course of our daily lives without changing a single habit.

Second, I almost never give more than 1RMB, sometimes I give less, a brown 5 jiao coin or even a handful of those 1 jiao coins that you don’t even bother picking up if you see one on the ground. I don’t feel bad about giving a jiao. If everyone did the same, then the jiao would very quickly pile up into real money. In fact, that’s why I like giving small change, because the ultimate success of the act is predicated on whether you all do it too. And I like the thought there are more me’s out there, quietly giving coins, building a new leisure class of panhandlers, who will someday write the greatest books known to history because they will be written with compassion as inspiration, not aristocratic birthright.

Corollary to that, if a beggar starts bitching about just getting a kuai–fuck them. There’s no place for ingratitude in my new world, not from beggars, not from anybody.

Lastly, I ask you to consider Buddha. I am told by reliable sources that occasionally the Buddha will disembark from his celestial cloud and come to earth disguised as a beggar. And he ALWAYS disguises himself as the kind of beggar that is borderline authentic, borderline scammer. He does that because he’s testing you, to see what kind of person you really are.

One thought on “Why I (Almost) Always Give Money to Beggars

  1. Lü Dongbin has also been known to do the beggar routine, and I just read an early Qing novel (豆棚閒話) in which the author’s moral exemplar of choice was “a lowly beggar who was truly filial,” so 1 RMB will cover you for all three of the major philosophical/religious traditions. And if it is Lü Dongbin, you might even get a magical immortality pill out of the deal.

    Good post. My usual response, when people say that they don’t want to be cheated, is to ask whether they’d rather err on the side of kindness or hard-heartedness. Seems to me to be one of those questions that actually does have a right answer, but what do I know.

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