After Earthquake, Chinese Seek Out Private Charities for Their Donations

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BEIJING – The devastating earthquake that struck southwest China last weekend has drawn a flood of donations from across the country.

But in contrast to the pattern after a major quake in the same region five years ago, those eager to bolster relief efforts are looking to donate to private charity organizations, not to official groups that now have a reputation for corruption.

The Red Cross Society of China, a state-run organization that is one of the country's largest charities, has yet to recover from a 2011 scandal that struck a serious blow to China's nascent notions of philanthropy, especially philanthropy guided by the government.

"Compared to the opaque system that most state-supported charity organizations have, nongovernmental organizations and the newly emerged so-called micro-charities follow a more transparent system," said Deng Guosheng, director of the NGO Research Center at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

On its microblog, the Red Cross said that as of 5 p.m. Sunday, it had received more than $10 million. One private group, Sina Micro-charities, reported collecting more than $13 million, according to Global Times, a state-run newspaper.

On Monday, relief and rescue efforts continued in the broad area around Ya'an in Sichuan Province, the epicenter of an earthquake with a preliminary magnitude of 7 that struck Saturday morning. The Ministry of Civil Affairs announced Monday that at least 188 people had been killed, while 25 were missing and nearly 12,000 had been injured. The quake had affected 1.72 million people, the ministry said. Rescuers on foot finally reached Baoxing County, the area hardest hit by the quake, at 1 p.m. Monday.

The Civil Affairs Ministry also "asked charity groups to regulate donations intended for Sichuan, calling for transparency and social supervision," according to China Daily, an English-language newspaper. The report said the ministry had issued a statement that said groups organizing donation drives for quake victims "should publicize information about their activities and donation incomes in accordance with existing regulations."

China has a few flashy philanthropists, most notably the recycling magnate Chen Guangbiao, and a handful of prominent private charities, including One Foundation, founded by Jet Li, the kung fu film star. But the notion of giving to worthy causes is less widespread than in the West. In 2010, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates flew to Beijing to encourage philanthropy and invited a select group of tycoons to meet with them; some declined to attend.

But in times of disaster, there are always individuals who rush to give aid. Such was the case with Li Chengpeng, a writer in Sichuan and frequent critic of Communist Party policies. On his microblog, Mr. Li, who was a volunteer relief worker after the 2008 quake, wrote about the experience of organizing donations to the stricken area around Ya'an over the weekend. He said his team had delivered 498 tents and 1,250 cotton quilts to the village of Wuxing on Sunday night.

The high point of recent Chinese philanthropy was touched off by the 2008 earthquake, which ravaged large sections of Sichuan and nearby provinces. About 90,000 people were killed or went missing, and many more were injured. Entire villages were wiped out.

Many Chinese traveled to Sichuan to volunteer. Charities were inundated with donations. By February 2011, the Red Cross Society of China had received about $650 million in donations from within China and abroad for that quake, according to a report on the Web site of China News Service, an official agency.

But the Red Cross became a pariah in the eyes of many Chinese after a scandal two years ago that centered on Guo Meimei, a 20-year-old woman who had posted photographs of herself online posing next to Italian sports cars, hoarding Hermès handbags and flying in business-class cabins. She said on her microblog that she was the "commercial general manager" at the Red Cross. People speculated about whether she had gotten her title by being the mistress of a top Red Cross official. She became the most talked-about subject on the Chinese Internet during those months, and her name invariably comes up in discussions of philanthropy here.

As a result, Chinese are saying on microblogs and other forums that people who want to give to current relief efforts in Sichuan should, without a doubt, avoid the Red Cross.

"It is so sad to see how much a state-run charity organization is struggling; the Red Cross in China evidently has a very low credibility," wrote Xu Shaolin, a frequent commentator on societal issues and politics, on his microblog.

Global Times said in its report on Monday that distrust of the Red Cross had driven many people to make donations through microblog services started by private Internet companies. One of those services, Sina Micro-charities, which began operations in February, had started 29 relief projects by Sunday for Ya'an with the help of individuals and institutions. For those efforts, Sina had collected $13 million from more than 60,000 Internet users, Global Times reported.

Liao Dong, the founder of an online gaming company, donated about $147,000 to one of the projects. He told Global Times that he had chosen that charity because it was "more transparent."

The Red Cross Society of China declined to comment for this article. An executive vice president at the organization told a reporter from Southern Metropolis Daily that there were may online critics who had deep-rooted misunderstandings and prejudices toward the group.

Shi Da and Wang Qiang contributed research.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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