Disaster Shows Faith in China’s Red Cross Badly Shaken [Updated]

Saturday’s 6.6Mw earthquake in Sichuan has killed 193 and injured over 12,000, but has also laid bare the extent of damage to the reputation of the Red Cross Society of China. At The New York Times, Edward Wong examined the effects of cases such as the infamous Guo Meimei scandal, which compounded distrust of what China Daily described as the Red Cross’ “long-established shady operation and lack of internal transparency.”

Many Chinese traveled to Sichuan to volunteer. Charities were inundated with donations. By February 2011, the Red Cross Society of China, a member of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, had received about $650 million in donations from within China and abroad for that quake, according to a report on the Web site of the official China News Service.

But the Red Cross became a pariah in the eyes of many Chinese after a scandal two years ago that centered on Guo Meimei, a 20-year-old woman who had posted photographs of herself online posing next to Italian sports cars, hoarding Hermès handbags and flying in business-class cabins. She said on her microblog that she was the “commercial general manager” at the Red Cross. People speculated about whether she had gotten her title by being the mistress of a top Red Cross official. She became the most talked-about subject on the Chinese Internet during those months, and her name invariably comes up in discussions of philanthropy here.

As a result, Chinese are saying on microblogs and other forums that people who want to give to current relief efforts in Sichuan should, without a doubt, avoid the Red Cross.

[…] The Red Cross Society of China declined to comment for this article. Zhao Baige, an executive vice president at the organization, told a reporter from Southern Metropolis Daily that there were may online critics who had deep-rooted misunderstandings and prejudices toward the group.

China Real Time’s Josh Chin reported the immediate and visceral backlash against the Chinese Red Cross on Saturday, when its announcement on Sina Weibo that it had dispatched an investigation team was met with thumbs down and worse:

“Little Red, you’ve really lost the people’s hearts,” read one of the few responses suitable for print on the website of a family newspaper.

“Investigate your [expletive] you gang of swindlers,” went another.

Why so much vitriol?

Unlike most Red Cross organizations, which operate independently of government, the Chinese Red Cross has close ties to the state. For several decades after the Communist victory in 1949, it was an actual government agency, operating essentially as a branch of the Ministry of Health. Although now separate from the ministry, it maintains active links with health officials and is one of only a handful of organizations officially allowed to solicit contributions from Chinese citizens.

For much of its existence, that semi-official status gave the Chinese Red Cross clout that Red Cross branches in other countries lacked, but it has also helped make the organization a target for public anger over official corruption.

Though photos have shown Red Cross collection boxes sitting empty, the organization had in fact collected over 50 million yuan by Saturday evening, according to Global Times. But as the newspaper’s Chen Tian reported, more public donations were flowing through new platforms set up by China’s Internet giants:

Sina Micro-charities, which was launched this February, had initiated 29 quake relief projects with the help of institutions and individuals for the hardest-hit city of Ya’an by Sunday morning, according to a notice posted on the platform late Sunday.

The Sina Micro-charity projects, which allow the public to donate money with debit cards, credit cards or the online payment platform Alipay, have gathered nearly 80.4 million yuan ($13.01 million) from more than 60,000 Internet users.

Meanwhile, other Internet service providers offering online payment platforms, including Tencent and Alipay, have collected tens of millions of yuan in donations for the quake-hit areas.

[…] Wang Zhenyao, president of Beijing Normal University’s One Foundation Philanthropy Research Institute, told the Global Times that the [Sina] platform offers information in a way that allows donors to know where their money is going.

“The purpose of each micro-charity project is clear and highly targeted, and the project timelines track how the funds are utilized,” Wang said. “This reassures people and makes them want to donate.”

Disillusionment with the fate of money sent to the mainland has spawned an anti-donation campaign in Hong Kong, with participants seeking to block a proposed HK$100 million package from the government. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has insisted that although he “supports all national measures against graft […] financially, the Hong Kong society should donate to the people affected” on a basis of “love, care and support for compatriots.” But in an online poll at South China Morning Post, 92% opposed the donation, even if conditions are imposed to prevent misuse. Online polls are unscientific and notoriously easy to manipulate, but there were many expressions of opposition through other channels as well. From Emily Tsang and Joshua But at South China Morning Post:

Such reluctance comes in sharp contrast to the generosity that followed the Sichuan earthquake five years ago, when the government gave HK$10 billion, and non-government groups raised HK$15 billion from the public.

[…] The Democratic Party and the Civic Party said they would decide today whether to support the government’s proposed donation. Democratic Party chairwoman Emily Lau Wai-hing said she received many objections about the funding plan.

“I am deeply sorry and feel sympathy for the disaster … but the mainland lacks a system rather than money. I do not wish to see the money fall into the pockets of corrupt officials,” Lau said.

[…] “HK$100 million could be used in many better ways to help Hong Kong, rather than wasting it on the mainland bureaucracy,” one user wrote. Another said: “I doubt that even one dollar in a 100 would really go to helping the victims.”

Senior journalists familiar with mainland affairs also reminded Hongkongers to think twice before donating. They said some of the money raised five years ago was wasted on fancy meals and building unused roads. A HK$2 million secondary school was built with donations but torn down after 11 months to make way for luxury flats.

Updated at 2:00 PST, April 23: On Twitter, SCMP’s George Chen clarifies that funds used for the demolished school were returned:


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