After the devastating earthquake that killed 69,227 people in Sichuan province in 2008, actress Zhang Ziyi pledged to donate Rmb1 million ($146,000 at the time) to the Chinese Red Cross Foundation. Having made the commitment during the Cannes Film Festival, Zhang was widely admired for her generosity.
But in 2010 netizens found out that Zhang had failed to fully deliver on her promise, with records from the charity suggesting a donation of Rmb840,000. After online criticism mounted, the actress later apologised that there had been a “communications glitch” between herself and her team and that she had since made up the shortfall.
“People can donate as little as one cent or as much as Rmb1 million,” the spokesperson for the charity said at the time. “It doesn’t matter how much Zhang has donated, her call for people to donate toward earthquake aid could not be measured in money.”
More than a decade later, a new generation of stars would be well advised to learn from Zhang’s mistake, after a fresh round of celebrity donations have come under huge scrutiny on Chinese social media.
The disaster that brought the giving into focus was a calamitous flood that killed at least 99 people after record-breaking rainfall was experienced in Henan province. With city streets turned into rivers, a rush of donations then poured in from some of the country’s biggest stars to help with the relief effort. For instance, singer Han Hong offered Rmb30 million from her foundation to assist in flood relief. She also travelled to the disaster area with superstar Wang Yibo, a Henan native, to help distribute resources to people who had to be relocated.
Taiwanese actress Chang Ting and her husband Lin Ruiyang then got netizen attention by donating a further Rmb5 million to the recovery effort. Singer-actor Huang Zitao, too, won praise for donating Rmb3 million to the cause, as well as sending clothing from his apparel brand to the flood zone. Other A-listers including Zhao Liying, Hong Kong actor-singer Nicholas Tse and Taiwanese actor Eddie Pang, each announced donations of Rmb1 million too.
Some other stars saw a chance to rehabilitate their reputations. Pop idol Show Lo, whose former girlfriend accused him of cheating with multiple women last year (see WiC493), was quick to post a receipt on his Sina Weibo account that showed him donating Rmb500,000 to the relief fund alongside the slogan “Go Henan!”.
Actress Fan Bingbing, who has been without obvious employment since a tax evasion scandal in 2018 (see WiC412) donated the same amount to the Zhengzhou Red Cross.
Wang Sicong – the high-profile son of property tycoon Wang Jianlin – was next to make a move, announcing on his social media account that he’d donated Rmb5 million for the relief effort. The contribution struck some as odd given that Wang has spent time on the Chinese central bank’s blacklist for failing to repay his debts, although perhaps he wanted some better PR after his aggressive pursuit of internet celebrity Sun Yining caused a backlash online (see WiC546).
“From the actions of these poorly behaved celebrities, we can see that these people have a strong desire to revive their careers. The reason why they are so eager to donate is likely to prepare for their future comebacks. After all, this is the kind of thing that would endear them to netizens. So, to establish a good image, these celebrities rushed in to show their effort,” Tencent Entertainment scolded.
According to statistics from local media, over 200 celebrities have donated more than Rmb200 million to the disaster relief initiative in Henan so far. And it didn’t take long for netizens to put together a ranking of the donated amounts – singing the praises of the celebs who gave the most and trolling those who were perceived as more parsimonious in their contributions.
Starlet Cheng Xiao received so much abuse when she gave ‘just’ Rmb100,000 she had to shut down her weibo account for a short period, for instance. And superstar actress Angelababy was accused of stinginess for donating only Rmb500,000 – given her A-lister status. “For a top-tier celebrity, Rmb500,000 is really not a lot, especially if she can earn hundreds of millions from one drama,” one netizen scoffed.
Celebrities who failed to make any donation at all were shamed to an even greater degree, including Hong Kong actress Anita Yuen. “To be honest, you and your husband have made so much money from appearing on so many mainland variety shows. In the wake of the disaster, we hope to see you do your share,” one netizen taunted.
That same night, Yuen posted images on her personal weibo of two bank deposits for a combined amount of Rmb1 million to Han Hong’s charity foundation (the singer who made the huge Rmb30 million donation) and the Zhengzhou Red Cross.
Commentators have described the intense pressure on stars to contribute to charitable causes as a form of “moral kidnapping”.
“Calling out celebrities for not donating enough or failing to donate at all, is to a certain extent, creating an unhealthy atmosphere of ‘forcing donations’,” the Beijing Times pointed out in a strident editorial. “While it is normal for public figures such as entrepreneurs and celebrities to feel greater pressure than most people when it comes to charity donations, once these expectations start to rise to the point of ‘bullying’ that is no longer reasonable.”
“After all, charity should be voluntary. Comparing how much each celebrity donates and criticising those who don’t give enough creates an unhealthy pressure on society,” the newspaper added.
Guo Donglin, a comedian, also thought that netizens were being unfair. “ ‘How much did you donate?’ Why must I tell the whole world? Friends, trust me. I know what I’m supposed to do. I don’t need you to remind me constantly. Let’s be the kindest version of ourselves. This is too tiring.”
A lesser-known rapper going by the name DrakSun also felt the pressure to stump up some cash. He last week posted a screenshot of a receipt that showed him donating Rmb18,000 to the Zhengzhou Red Cross. But eagle-eyed netizens then ran an online search and found that he had only donated Rmb100 and that he’d then photoshopped the amount on the receipt.
Needless to say, the singer was soon making headlines in ways that he didn’t want. “You can choose not to donate, but forging a donation? That’s just despicable,” Tencent Entertainment thundered.
As it turns out, DrakSun had wanted to doctor the receipt to show that he had given much more but thought better of it and dropped a zero. “I thought Rmb18,000 was already too little. I actually thought about putting Rmb180,000… All the other rappers donated over Rmb300,000,” he was alleged to have told a friend.
The 23 year-old, who claims to have made up the shortfall since the deception came to light, issued a grovelling apology on weibo too.
“I was stupid, childish and selfish. There’s nothing I can say to defend myself… I only felt better today after I fulfilled my promise to donate the said amount. I appreciate everyone for their harsh criticisms. It was an important lesson for me. I am very sorry,” he pleaded.
© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.
Sponsored by HSBC.
The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.