Red Cross stuck in the firing line

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 July, 2011, 12:00am

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A new page created by the Red Cross Society of China on Sina Weibo, the Twitter-style social networking service, on Monday was meant to reach out to the public. Instead, in the latest development in a fierce online campaign against the mainland's biggest charity, it ended up being swamped by indignant comments.

Many demanded the refund of donations, while others wrote that they would never give another nickel to the Red Cross Society, which has been targeted for a perceived lack of transparency in the wake of a bizarre, ongoing saga involving a young female blogger, fast cars and murky business connections.

The charity's troubles can be traced back to a 20-year-old woman known in cyberspace as Guo Meimei. Photos of Guo on her Weibo microblog under the name Guo Meimeibaby- photos that showed her posing with a Lamborghini and a Maserati convertible she claimed to drive as well as a collection of designer handbags- began to circulate on the internet around June 20.

Her microblog also claimed she had been, since May, general manager of the Red Cross Chamber of Commerce, an apparently non-existent organisation which many assumed must be a subsidiary of the Red Cross Society. Cue widespread indignation that a woman purporting to be a Red Cross employee could afford such a luxurious lifestyle.

Online vigilantes then began combing cyberspace for information about Guo and her possible links to the Red Cross Society. In the process they discovered that several private businesses had been involved in murky deals with Red Cross China Business System, a business arm of the Red Cross Society controlled by a Beijing marketing consultancy.

They also tracked the licence plate of the Lamborghini in the pictures to Wang Jun, a man in Shenzhen who turned out to be Guo Meimei's boyfriend, according to his business partner, Weng Tao. Weng also revealed that Wang had been on the board of Zhonghong Boai Assets Management, a company that worked with Red Cross China Business System selling advertising space on Red Cross ambulances.

Wang, he added, bought the Maserati sports car registered in Beijing under Guo Meimei's name.

Professor Deng Guosheng from Tsinghua University's Centre for Innovation and Social Responsibility said the campaign against the Red Cross Society had taken him aback. It amounted, he said, to a no-confidence vote in philanthropy on the mainland.

He said he did not see anything wrong in the partnerships between Red Cross China Business System and private companies in rolling out charity projects, except for a general lack of transparency.

'The problem is that the public has hardly any faith in such partnerships because of murky deals among those involved,' he said. 'So the Red Cross Society should take a good look into the overwhelming public distrust and get reform off the ground and introduce a mechanism to allow public scrutiny to win back trust.'

The lack of trust in charity organisations on the mainland was demonstrated last year when Cao Dewang, the philanthropic founder of Fujian-based auto-glass manufacturer Fuyao Group, demanded a detailed report from the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation every 10 days when he donated 200 million yuan (HK$241 million) to be distributed to families in five drought-stricken southwestern provinces. Cao also set a three per cent cap on what the foundation could charge for administration costs, compared to the usual rate of 10 per cent.

The Guo Meimei saga, meanwhile, continues to resemble a soap opera. In a blog entry on July 5, she denied Wang was her boyfriend, but continued to duck questions over how she could afford the luxuries she had flaunted.

On Thursday, police in Dongcheng, Beijing, were said to have ruled out any 'direct' ties between Guo Meimei, a native of Yiyang, Hunan province, and the Red Cross Society but stopped short of saying whether she was guilty of the disruption of public order the Red Cross Society has accused her of.

Professor Shen Yang , a new- media expert at Wuhan University, said the whole affair reflected growing distaste for those showing off their wealth as the gap between rich and poor on the mainland widened.

'People would automatically wonder how a girl could be so rich at such a young age,' Shen said. 'Then the ties to the Red Cross Society she claimed channelled public attention to the issue of the transparency of charity organisations, given the unflattering record of some of them.'