Splitting the roles

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 July, 2011, 12:00am


Guo Meimei, the 20-year-old mainland woman who lied about being the general manager of the Red Cross Chamber of Commerce, presumed to be a fictitious organisation, and posted her photos on her Sina Weibo blog to show off her wealth, triggered a credibility crisis for the real Red Cross Society of China. Although an investigation revealed her deception, the charity has earned more suspicion than sympathy from the public, many of whom believed what Guo said about the organisation was true and demanded that their donations be refunded.

Guo's fabrication was not built on nothing. Two months ago, a receipt was posted online purporting to show that Shanghai Red Cross officials from the Luwan branch had spent nearly 10,000 yuan (HK$12,000) on a single meal. In the face of mounting public pressure, the charity ordered the officials to reimburse the Red Cross for the amount that exceeded legitimate expenses, and reported the case to other Red Cross units in the city. But that was the end of the matter - the public wasn't even told who those offending officers were. This was why people were furious when they saw Guo flaunt her wealth by pretending to be a senior official who was somehow connected with the Red Cross.

The public called on the Red Cross Society to disclose its books, but it refused.

At that time, the Ministry of Civil Affairs released a set of guidelines for the development of charitable entities in China for 2011 to 2015. According to the ministry, the guidelines would make charities more transparent and accountable for their activities over the coming five years. The ministry would monitor the disclosure of information, financial statements and major activities of official charities. An informed source told reporters that details of the guidelines were released early to pacify the public outcry.

It was unusual, to say the least, that a government ministry would step in to save a charity like the Red Cross in a credibility crisis. While calling on charities to disclose their books, internet users are probably unaware that supervision is not a priority under the current administrative framework.

The Red Cross Society of China is an official organisation, and its senior officials are in fact high-ranking government officials. Delegating officials to supervise their fellow officials only encourages corruption.

The biggest bargaining chip the public has is to tighten their purse strings and stop donating to the Red Cross. But, the truth is that the charity is not as anxious to receive donations as we think. Following the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, one company came forward to make a large donation to help the victims. It asked the Red Cross Society about how and where the money would be used, but the charity ignored the request, saying instead that the company could decide not to donate the money.

The company then tried to donate the money through other organisations, including the few private charities around at the time. However, some of these were soon declared unlawful entities by the government and their donation-receiving accounts were suspended. The government said later that only the Red Cross Society of China, the China Charity Federation and China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation were authorised to accept donations.

The company then discovered that withdrawing or cutting its donations would be easier said than done. First, the quake victims and their stricken areas needed financial assistance. Second, many netizens were counting how much money each company would donate, with little regard to where the money would go. Small donors were labelled 'misers' and condemned - and even attacked in some cases. More importantly, business entities were expected to raise certain amounts in donations. If they were large companies, their performance on this score would be watched closely.

Personal donations make up only a small portion of donations to the Red Cross Society of China. But that does not mean individuals can say 'no' when the hat is passed around, no matter how small the amount will be. Administrative staff at their workplaces urge them to donate. Some workers might find donations automatically deducted from their wages. This is why donations are often called a 'charity tax' on the mainland.

Many problems were revealed at mainland charities in the wake of the Sichuan earthquake. The situation has improved greatly in recent years, thanks to experts' advice and public opinion. For instance, some NGOs can now obtain financial support directly from the Red Cross Society. However, the core problems remain unsolved; links between the charity itself and the government grow even tighter.

The fundamental issue is that genuine non-governmental organisations are treated with suspicion by the government and subjected to stringent control. As a result, they find it difficult to survive unless they become so-called government-organised non-governmental organisations. Not only are NGOs required to comply with strict legal and registration formalities, they are often treated with animosity.

I was invited to take part in an awards programme for charitable organisation last year and to serve as one of the adjudicators. I convinced the organisers to present honours to NGOs with high civic awareness. After the awards presentation, the organisers received from a relevant authority a list that, much to their surprise, showed that more than half of the judges and award-winners were under official surveillance by the authorities.

Chang Ping is a current affairs commentator writing on politics, society and culture. This commentary is translated from Chinese