It’s hard to tell which crises the Chinese Red Cross has had to deal with more frequently: humanitarian ones or scandals of its own making. As many readers will remember it was just over three years ago that the damaging tale of Guo Meimei first emerged. The 23 year-old Guo, hitherto a nobody, had used her Sina Weibo account to brag about her flashy lifestyle. There were pictures of designer clothes, expensive handbags and sports cars. Guo’s explanation for such luxury was that she was the “commercial general manager of the Red Cross’s Chamber of Commerce”.
Charity certainly seemed to begin at home, if Guo’s lifestyle was anything to go by. The Red Cross was soon claiming that it had no knowledge of Guo. But it was too late. The damage was done and Guo got nicknamed ‘Red Cross Girl’. The story seemed to confirm what people thought they had known all along – that China’s largest charity had serious governance issues and was undeserving of the public trust.
Although the Red Cross has always denied that Guo’s case has had any impact on donations, it was lousy timing when on August 4 – the day after a large earthquake in Yunnan – Guo hit the headlines once again, this time for running an illegal gambling ring.
To make matters worse the internet portal Tencent then published a story accusing the charity of subletting its government-donated, emergency response centre on the outskirts of Beijing to international logistics firms.
The Rmb117 milion ($19 million) warehouse was built in September 2008 shortly after a massive earthquake in Sichuan’s Wenchuan county killed almost 70,000 people. Located next to Beijing’s main airport, it was supposed to speed up the delivery of emergency aid. But the vice president of the charity said the decision to lease it, which earned the organisation Rmb900,000 a year, was necessary to pay salaries, but had not impacted on its work. “Funds obtained in cooperation with other companies were all paid to the Red Cross in accordance with Ministry of Finance regulations. They were used to further the humanitarian work of our organisation. The agency’s own Commission for Discipline Inspection has found no Red Cross workers have derived any personal gain from this decision,” insisted Zhao Baige on the organisation’s website.
Zhao also said that the Red Cross still had priority at the warehouse for emergencies, and added that it was wasteful not to lease the space out during quieter periods.
Tencent’s reporter, mind you, was still puzzled why there was no sign of disaster relief equipment anywhere in the warehouse. Predictably, the reaction online was one of derision too. “China’s Red Cross should change its name to the Black Cross,” stormed one contributor. Another wrote: “We should just let DHL stay there and deliver our aid, they would be more effective and less corrupt.”
Guo Meimei has since admitted to CCTV that she has no Red Cross connections. “I lied because I was vain,” she said. “ I hope that people don’t miss out on help because of me.” The Red Cross is a state-affiliated body with no connection to the international body of the same name.
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