The quiet death on January 13 of a 24-year-old woman in Guizhou, China’s poorest province, triggered national outrage. Wu Huayan died from the effects of severe, long-term malnutrition. According to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, Wu “spent much of her life caring for a sick brother and fell ill after eating only boiled rice and pickled chili for five years.” Not only does her death provide a stark contrast with China’s much vaunted poverty eradication programs – she received minimal government social assistance – Wu died despite a campaign that attracted one million renminbi in charitable donations in her name aimed at saving her life.
The strikingly low living standards of Wu’s family drew widespread sympathy. According to the BBC, Wu and her siblings had struggled to survive for many years after their parents died when they were young. They were supported first by a grandmother and later by an uncle and aunt who could only provide 300 renminbi each month. Most of the money went to the medical bills of her younger brother, who had mental health issues.
The response to her case by a nonprofit group, China Charities Aid Foundation for Children (CCAFC), is what has sparked the most anger. Accusations against the CCAFC include not delivering the publicly raised money in time to save Wu and using the impoverished woman’s story to encourage more donations without providing sufficient help to her. Despite a lack of clear-cut evidence pointing to fraud or mishandling of donations, there have been calls for “stronger governmental management and standards on the charity industry”, according to the state-run Global Times newspaper.
Wu’s death has raised a number of questions. Should CCAFC be the only organization held accountable? Or was this also a failure of a public-welfare system responsible for basic food and healthcare for rural families? Should such incidents as Wu’s death indicate the need for further government control of charities, or should the state scrutinize deficiencies in its own welfare provisions and the drivers of increasing income inequality?
The philanthropic sector in China has a relatively short history and has had several major setbacks due to scandals. More donors are now concerned about transparency, and there have been efforts toward self-regulation and voluntary information disclosure among grassroots charities. According to research published in 2018 that drew on the first national Survey of Transparency on Grassroots Organizations (2013–2015), the transparency of Chinese grassroots nonprofits has increased, with the index improving from a score of 27.6 (out of 100) in 2013 to 34.1 in 2015.
Disclosure, however, remains a major concern. Many charities still do not fully reveal their operational details, particularly financial information. Based on the Doing Good Index 2018, a survey by the Hong Kong-based Centre for Asian Philanthropy and Society (CAPS), only 30 percent of Chinese nonprofit organizations feel that the public trusts their sector. This is the third-lowest result among 15 Asian economies.
Take the Weibo online donation portal, a fundraising platform run by Sina Corporation that attracted 742,600 user donations in 2018. The procedure for how the platform transfers donations to charities is described in merely one line: “Donations are transferred from Weibo accounts to Alipay, which are then transferred to charity foundations’ bank accounts.” There is no information about how much time transfers might take or about monitoring of the process.
On January 14, CCAFC posted on their Weibo online donation page that they would use the rest of donations made for Wu to help others in need, and conduct timely communication with donors about how the fund would be handled. Yet no further updates have been posted since then.
Amidst the recent coronavirus outbreak, public frustration and anger has once again surged against some of the country’s largest charities, including the Hubei Red Cross. Critics take issue with the “monopoly” this small number of major charities have on donation channels as a result of government restrictions, their lack of transparent reporting about donation allocation, and their inability to handle effectively the logistics of donated medical supplies.