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.