Reform move brings Red Cross no relief from disaster
Step towards reforming agency falls flat and fails to consign series of scandals to history
Still reeling from a series of scandals last year, the RCSC last week announced two new branches which will have the facility to be able to track donations electronically and make more information available to the public.
The branches - in the western provinces of Qinghai and Sichuan - are being promoted as test sites for a model to make the agency more accountable and transparent.
Only, the RCSC had promised eight new branches when it outlined the pilot project in September. And it offered no explanation for the change, although it did say it was still seeking a third site.
Furthermore, mainland media reported that the RCSC did not expect to complete the pilot phase of its reform plan, which will be overseen by the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, for two to three years.
A second phase, in which the reforms would be extended nationwide, could take as long as seven years to finish.
"It's a slow-going process, showing the typical obstacles of bureaucratic authorities, including a fear of taking responsibility and the protection of personal interests," said Tang Jun, a researcher at the Institute of Sociology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
At a public seminar in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, last week, RCSC executive vice-president Zhao Baige insisted that the agency was committed to radical reform and establishing an efficient and transparent system of management.
It followed a fall in donations of about 60 per cent last year, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs.
"If the reform is going to take seven years or longer, I will definitely not donate one cent in the meantime," said Lin Jialiang, a Shanghai-based IT engineer. "It's a shame for an institution that competes every second for disaster aid."
The series of scandals hit between April and July last year. There was the representative in Shanghai who spent nearly 9,900 yuan (HK$12,200) on a lavish lunch for 17 people.
A senior official in its Kunming, Yunnan province, branch was accused of misspending 56,000 yuan on hotel stays and luxury items, while the agency's foundation was accused of overcharging hospitals hundreds of thousands of yuan for medical supplies.
The worst damage was probably done when a young woman named Guo Meimei posted photos of herself posing with luxury cars and carrying designer handbags - while claiming she worked for the "Red Cross Chamber of Commerce".
Guo's claim turned out to be false, but the incident reinforced public distrust, leading to calls to stop donations.
Even the State Council weighed in, ordering the RCSC to reform its system of governance with a focus on improving efficiency and transparency.
In response, the RCSC published an online database system allowing the public to track donations and see which projects they had helped. But some data did not match up, and the fumbled roll-out raised more questions than it answered.
The RCSC's bureaucratic structure and its built-in resistance to change has taken much of the blame. Unlike its counterparts in Western countries, the RCSC is an arm of the government, an administrative-grade agency at the vice-ministerial level. It is also listed as a top item in the central government's budget. Red Cross societies at all levels are listed as government-funded institutions, with a staff of more than 11,000 people appointed by governments and treated as civil servants.
"The Red Cross Society of China is officialism-oriented," said Tang Jun. "I bet no draft regulations will be available until next year, after the 18th National Party Congress."
Tang said he believed officials in local Red Cross branches were opposed to reform because most proposals put forward involved the agency simplifying its administrative structure and cutting staff. Not a single local branch volunteered to join the pilot programme, according to www.caijing.com.cn.
"The reform is so difficult to get moving," said Yang Tuan, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told The Beijing News. "We went to one local branch for investigation and research; as soon as they heard we were there about the reform, they became nervous, saying we were there to get rid of government employees.
"No progress can be made if the people which are part of the reform are opposed to it," she said.
Zheng Wenjing, a Shenzhen-based Human Resource manager, sums up the feelings of a jaded public. "I do not see enough sincerity and determination from the Red Cross Society of China," she said.
"The officials have misused our donations for a long time, and now they are just spending months discussing the number of pilot sites to correct their mistakes."