Black mark against China's charity sector

Chang Ping says whatever the Red Cross Society of China says, its tattered reputation with ordinary Chinese can't be mended unless the charity sector is wholly restructured

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 May, 2013, 4:04am

Soon after the Yaan earthquake in Sichuan , a weibo message of concern posted by the Red Cross Society of China attracted pages of derisive responses from internet users, with many telling it to "get lost". The charity should not be surprised.

It got a similar reception last year during Beijing's deadly floods. But perhaps it thought things would be different this time, since compared with the lower casualty numbers of the floods, an earthquake of tragic proportions would surely elicit more sympathy from people, much as the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake did.

The cries for the charity to "get lost" must have touched a nerve. Zhao Baige , its executive vice-president, has been in the news almost daily to promise greater accountability and transparency in a mission of damage control. Earlier this week, she even vowed to resign from her post if, in two to three years, she had failed to help the Red Cross get rid of its "black cross". Clearly, she understands how black its name has become.

Yet, in the same breath, she told reporters that as of 5pm last Saturday, the charity had received a total of 566 million yuan (HK$707 million) in donations, most of which - according to her - came from private companies and individuals. The way she saw it, the money raised disproved any crisis in confidence in the Red Cross. "I am very moved," she said. "At a time when there seem to be so many voices of doubt, the people are showing us that they still trust us."

With these words, she killed the modicum of sincerity detected in her earlier pledge to improve. So, back to the lies and deception. The people trust the Red Cross - really? Perhaps the many comments telling the charity to get lost were only a misunderstanding? Perhaps the string of scandals and mismanagement exposed over the past two years - expensive staff meals, the whiff of corruption that dogged the Guo Meimei scandal, the use of luxury cars for employees, and the refusal by wary Hongkongers to contribute to the fund - perhaps all these never happened?

Some people have complained online of being forced to donate to the disaster relief by their work units, which in turn channelled the money to the Red Cross. People familiar with how things work on the mainland will know that this kind of fund-raising is the rule rather than the exception. This, then, is the donation from "private companies and individuals" that Zhao described.

In mainland China, whenever the occasion arises requiring citizens to show their "love and care" for society, all kinds of organisations, from work units to committees and unions, will mobilise to collect money. The hat will be passed around and you'll donate either by order or simply because you feel obliged to give. Some organisations even directly deduct the money from employees' wages. The enforced collection of funds will then be presented to charities such as the Red Cross as "voluntary" contributions made by individuals and private companies.

Organisations that compete to see which has more "love" to give are even more aggressive in "encouraging" their staff to donate. Some unfortunate individuals who belong to several organisations have no choice but to put on a show of "voluntary donations" more than once.

With the credibility of the Red Cross and other government-run charities hit, some people have found it a little easier to say no to such obligated giving, just as their bosses are now under less pressure to organise it. Even so, the Red Cross managed to raise over 566 million yuan this time.

China's charity sector is a government monopoly (Zhao Baige's most important title is party secretary of the Red Cross). The money raised through mandatory donations mostly goes to the Red Cross, the China Charity Federation and the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation. The only independent charity allowed to operate on the mainland, One Foundation, always seems almost pathetically grateful for the "permission" to do good.

There is a newly established institution called the Social Supervisory Committee of the Red Cross Society of China. As its name suggests, the committee is supposedly an independent watchdog set up to monitor the charity's activities. But if you follow its weibo posts, you'll conclude that it is a very strange watchdog indeed.

It is an unabashed champion of the Red Cross, often telling people to "Please give generously with no worry. We will watch over how every cent is used on your behalf!" Its promise to clamp down on corruption is somewhat alarming: "If you suspect corruption is taking place, please report it! We will act accordingly: those who should be fired will be fired; those who should be jailed will be jailed; and those who should face the firing squad will face the firing squad!" Really? A public watchdog has the power not only to get Red Cross executives fired, but even get them jailed and executed?

The supervisory committee has repeatedly denied rumours that China's Red Cross is not part of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Yet it fails to point out that membership in this case means little; the international organisation does not monitor the activities of the national bodies. The Red Cross Society of China has always operated outside its purview. No wonder people say the supervisory committee merely provides harmony for the Red Cross tune.

A monopoly that has the full backing of the powers-that-be will not sincerely change no matter how big the blow to its credibility. The only way change can come is through competition: open up the charity sector, and lies and deception will truly be forced to get lost.

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