These days, when tragedy strikes — children orphaned, adults beaten close to death, students starving in schools — Chinese citizens increasingly depend not on government or officially sanctioned nonprofit organizations, but on Twitter-like microblogs called Weibo, for donations.
The emergence of Weibo philanthropy has been spurred on by widespread suspicion and exasperation among Chinese with their government’s decades-long stranglehold over the social assistance and charity sector.
And for the ruling Communist Party — in the midst of a once-in-a-decade transition of leaders — the trend suggests a troubling disconnect. The fact that increasing numbers of citizens would rather donate to random strangers online than to state-managed charities points to a growing distrust in government institutions.
“Weibo is putting great pressure on the government because it shows that if they don’t solve basic problems they are responsible for like food and health, the people will solve it without them,” said Deng Fei, a former investigative journalist who launched a campaign last year to provide lunches for impoverished students in rural schools.
Deng’s movement, the most successful Weibo campaign thus far, raised more than $6 million and prompted a promise from the central government to devote an additional $2.5 billion to student lunches.
“Weibo,” he said, “is the best gift God has given to the people of China.”
‘An issue of control’
Just four years ago, things couldn’t have looked better for China’s philanthropy sector. The massive Sichuan earthquake in 2008 thrust charity into the national conversation, banding the country together with pledge drives and record-breaking levels of donations.
But last year, the sector imploded with scandal.
It all began with the vain Weibo postings of a young woman who said she worked for a charity affiliated with the Red Cross Society of China. The woman, named Guo Meimei, tweeted Paris Hilton-style photos of her lavish lifestyle: posing on the hood of her Maserati, toting expensive Hermes handbags.
Her photos enraged Chinese netizens, who accused her of embezzling funds. Other scandals followed.
At the heart of the anger was suspicion over how charities are run in China — entirely at the mercy of the government.
Current laws prevent the existence of any nonprofit group unless it is partnered with a government-related entity. Even then, such groups cannot raise money — a right reserved for a small number of government-controlled charities.
Those are the very charities now under suspicion in the wake of scandals. And overall giving to official charities has declined for the past two years.
Transparency also remains a problem. Even now, a year after the Guo Meimei scandal, no laws exist requiring nonprofit groups to publicly disclose finances. And the government’s monopoly on fundraising is not likely to change anytime soon.
“It is an issue of control,” said Jia Xijin, an expert at Tsinghua University’s NGO Research Center. “In the eyes of the government, there is a limited social resource for donations. The government has already defined the right causes and the right groups for those donations, so their thinking is: Why should the money go anywhere else?”
‘It is not sustainable’
With Weibo charity so new and because its donations are often made from one private citizen to another, experts don’t have a way to track it. Even if they could, the total is still thought to be a tiny fraction of what government-sanctioned charities collect. But with China’s charities still recovering, Weibo has been one of the sector’s hottest and only growth areas.
New ideas for regulation have also increased its legitimacy. Soliciting donations person-to-person is technically illegal under China’s charity laws. But some grass-roots nonprofit groups have begun combining the Weibo model with traditional legal channels. Those groups find individuals seeking help on Weibo and partner with government-related charities to use their sanctioned bank accounts to receive donations on the individuals’ behalf.
A push for transparency has begun percolating among donors, resulting in some Weibo solicitors posting medical charts, doctors’ notes and hospital receipts to update supporters on progress.
But there’s been online soul-searching as well. After a particularly attractive woman with leukemia nicknamed Lu Ruoqing captured nationwide donations this spring, some Web users questioned whether a less-attractive girl would have gotten as much support.
“This is the major problem with Weibo charity compared with NGOs,” researcher Jia said. “It is not sustainable, is not regulated. There is a high chance of scamming. And it depends entirely on the heart.”
Many of society’s toughest problems, she pointed out, can’t be solved case-by-case by often fickle and disorganized netizens.
The counterargument comes from those like Ma and her leukemia-stricken baby, Yiyi, for whom Weibo has meant the difference between life and death.
Since Ma first posted about her daughter in the spring, their family has received nearly $16,000 from strangers — more than twice its annual income. Some Web users who matched her baby’s rare blood type traveled from other provinces to give blood.
Speaking by phone from her 13-month-old baby’s bedside at a Shanghai hospital, Ma described the outpouring she has received.
“They tell me, ‘No matter what happens, we are here for you,’ ” she said. “Some have already donated several times, and sometimes I want to tell them to stop because they’re not rich and have their own families to support. . . . All I can say is Yiyi has been saved by them, not by a big charity group or big media story. It’s just individuals finding each other online.”
Liu Liu contributed to this report.