Political donations

In the aftermath of the Ya’an quake, new spotlight on charitable giving

Political donations

Chen presents in wedding gown

For Chen Ying what was supposed to be the happiest day of her life, soon became one of the saddest. Chen was scheduled to be married on Saturday, reports Sina. Instead the Ya’an TV anchor rushed to the epicentre of the city’s earthquake, broadcasting news of the natural disaster in her wedding dress.

The 7.0 magnitude quake hit Sichuan’s Lushan County hardest, and although less severe than the disaster that struck the province in 2008, it still caused 193 deaths, more than 12,000 injuries and enormous damage. Like his predecessor Wen Jiabao, China’s premier Li Keqiang was quickly on the scene, as were 18,000 military personnel supported by helicopters. Li was soon vowing to build a better Ya’an (not to be confused with revolutionary hotspot Yan’an; see WiC178).

News of the disaster was soon spreading via Sina Weibo, the country’s Twitter equivalent, with the Ya’an City Group using weibo to request donations of items like blankets “for victims we have yet to find”.

Weibo was also in use by corporates keen to show their support. China Unicom’s local office advised on its weibo that all calls and text messages in the area would be free during the disaster period. Chinese-owned Volvo was also prompt to respond, donating Rmb20 million ($3.23 million) and also caused a spike in the usage of the phrase ‘feng yu tong zhou’ (which translates as ‘together, in the same storm-crossed boat’). It used the phrase in its weibo posting.

Foreign companies were likewise using weibo to publicise their donations. Notably Apple offered Rmb50 million to help those in the earthquake region. Then Samsung Electronics posted on weibo just over an hour and a half later, donating Rmb60 million and offering its “deepest condolences”.

But the most chat online was about how the country’s richest tycoons were making their own donations. For example, real estate developer Pan Shiyi (followed by 15 million people on weibo) said he was giving Rmb5 million to the One Foundation, a charity founded by actor Jet Li. Shi Yuzhu of Giant Interactive and the founders at Alibaba and Tencent were also vocal in saying they were giving their cash to Li’s charity too.

Netizens were quick to point out the significance: that people like Pan were snubbing the Red Cross of China, a charity administered by the government. As we reported in WiC113, that organisation (which has nothing to do with the Geneva-based entity) drew controversy in 2011 following coverage online of a young woman who claimed to work for the charity. Guo Meimei soon became known as ‘Red Cross Girl’ and the photos of her lavish lifestyle led to suspicions that donations to the organisation were being misused. The Red Cross of China issued denials, but the scandal ran deep, with the perception that it was yet another corrupt government body.

Following the latest quake, online commentators were making much of the fact that donations to the Red Cross seemed to be drying up. One (unconfirmed) datapoint circulating online is that Rmb11 billion was donated to Red Cross after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, but the public’s given it just Rmb30,000 this time.

Lawmakers in Hong Kong seemed similarly inclined when asked to approve a HK$100 million ($12.8 million) grant in the wake of the current crisis. A welter of legislators spoke up against giving money directly to government officials, such that the meeting concluded without a vote.

“What China lacks is not money but rather clean government,” said Claudia Mo, one of the legislators. “Our trust in those provincial governments has gone bankrupt.”

After the 2008 quake, the Hong Kong government donated $1.2 billion to victims of the disaster. But news that a school funded by the donation was then bulldozed to make way for luxury apartments sparked indignation last year.

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