China’s Red Cross is in trouble. It began in June of last year, when a 20-year-old girl named Guo Meimei, claiming to be an employee of an arm of the Chinese Red Cross, posted pictures of herself on Weibo, China’s Twitter. The images showed Guo driving a Maserati, posing against a wall of Hermes bags, and otherwise living a life far beyond the means of any honest charity worker.
The backlash was torrential after the story went viral. Scrambling to salvage its image, the Chinese Red Cross Association commissioned a law firm to investigate and report on the matter. Individual giving to one Red Cross chapter in Jiangsu declined 90% in the second half of 2011.
Charitable giving in China was not an easy sell even before Guo burst onto the scene. Chinese are heavy savers, and historically have focused their giving on extended family members, a tendency which no doubt has been reinforced by memories of hardship and poverty in the recent past. An old saying advises, “Only shovel the snow in front of your own doors.” When these cultural tendencies combine with a growing sense that charities, like so many other large institutions, “don’t smell right,” the resulting mix is toxic.
More than money is at stake. One Weibo user blamed the Guo Meimei incident for a reported decrease in blood donations, pointing to “a lack of trust among average people [that] leads to both conscious and unconscious boycotts. The Guo Meimei incident dealt a profound blow to China’s charitable sphere.”
On December 31, 2011, the Chinese Red Cross Association issued its promised report (in Chinese), finding “no connection” between Guo and the Red Cross Association. Guo turned out to be the girlfriend of an investor in a non-profit company that worked with the Red Cross on a few projects.
The report has been shared widely, but counts few defenders. Many feel that the report, which frankly admits to management deficiencies but makes only vague assurances of reform couched in bureaucratic jargon, is more aimed at absolving the Red Cross than at finding solutions. One commenter demanded to know, “Do you think this will restore public trust? For what reason? What measures have you [actually] taken to restore trust?” Another added, “Only a fool would believe this report.” Yet another simply posted a string of characters meaning “bah!”
Despite such overwhelmingly negative sentiment, the long-term effect of the Guo Meimei incident remains hard to gauge. One commenter noted the Guo Meimei incident may, in the end, have a “good effect,” because “it has caused Chinese charities to take the creation of systems [of accountability] seriously and to increase their level of transparency.” Others urged potential donors to “take [your] love and give it directly to those who need help; you don’t need a third party.” Perhaps heeding this advice, a masked superheroine recently appeared on the freezing streets of Beijing to help the homeless.
To be sure, the grievances of donors with money to give, however well-grounded, do not comprise the real tragedy. One netizen kept the incident in perspective: “The biggest victims are those who actually need these resources!”