Earthquake reveals shift in charity sector

0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Xinhua, April 27, 2013
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Since a 7.0-magnitude quake rocked Sichuan Province on April 20, China's private charities have served as an important channel for individual donations.

Meanwhile, facing the pressure of public criticism, the country's official, government-affiliated charities have taken more initiative in improving transparency and efficiency.

On the same day the earthquake shook Ya'an City, Sichuan Province, the One Foundation, a private charity initiated by kung fu film star Jet Li, took in over 10 million yuan (1.6 million U.S. dollars), compared with the 140,000 yuan collected by the Red Cross Society of China (RCSC), the country's largest official charity body.

In the five years since the devastating Wenchuan earthquake struck Sichuan, private charities have built up a solid reputation among the public, which has praised their transparency and orderly handling of donations.

The RCSC, which is still reeling from a public trust crisis sparked by a 2011 scandal, moved quickly to mobilize relief materials through its nationwide network. The organization has over 98,000 sub-organizations and more than 26 million members in China.

Eight hours after the earthquake, the RCSC's first batch of relief materials -- 500 tents and some food -- arrived in Lushan County. The tents were immediately pitched for affected people, many of whom were still in a state of panic.

Wang Zhenyao, director of the China Philanthropy Research Institute at Beijing Normal University, said the RCSC was among the first to responders after the disaster.

"It had to act fast. The RCSC now has no other choice but to conduct relief operations more efficiently in order to rebuild its image," said Wang.

Deng Fei, the initiator of the Free Lunch for Children program, wrote on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter equivalent, that he has seen many tents set up by the RCSC in the past few days.

"Almost all the tents in Lushan County and neighboring Baoxing and Tianquan counties were provided by the RCSC and the Civil Affairs Ministry," he wrote.

The reputation of the RCSC took a major hit in 2011, when a young woman calling herself "Guo Meimei" wrote on Sina Weibo that she was a manager in the organization and used the social media channel to flaunt her extravagant lifestyle.

An investigation later concluded that "Guo Meimei" had nothing to do with the RCSC, but pointed out grave flaws in the organization's management system.

The results of the investigation, however, have not made Chinese citizens less skeptical of the RCSC. Many have continued to speculate that the organization's employees embezzled donated funds, and passersby have largely ignored the public collection boxes set out by the RCSC following the Lushan quake.

In the face of continued public criticism, the RCSC is looking for a change. Wang Haijing, vice president of the RCSC, told Xinhua that the RCSC will keep updating details on how donations raised for the Lushan earthquake are being used, including the amount of relief supplies purchased, unit price and transportation costs.

Deng Fei, the man who started Free Lunch for Children, said external supervision is important. "If one charity group refuses external supervision, it will die."

Wang Zhenyao, the philanthropy researcher, said he does not want official charities to disappear from China.

"Most of the time in rescue and relief operations, people in affected areas do not ask which organization you represent. What they want is efficiency. The sooner the operation is conducted, the better," said Wang.

"In this way, we say public and private charities are not racing against each other in relief work," he added. "They are racing against time."

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