If one were to characterize China’s online netizens, it would be tempting to describe them as a rowdy group of hard-hitting and disillusioned social critics. But, despite their online spewing of profanity and frustration, reason does occasionally prevail, in particular when social media’s immense potential is leveraged to do good works. At Tea Leaf Nation, we have covered this topic before (see here and here), but now we ask, how is social media in China being used to carve out a new role for netizens, transforming them from mere watchdogs or critics into real citizens for change?
Notable social campaigns that have found their footing through the power of social media tweeting platforms like Weibo include the Free Lunch (免费午餐) and the Love Save Pneumoconiosis (大爱清尘) initiatives. Both were championed by investigative journalists who uncovered atrocious cases of social injustice in the course of their work. The “Free Lunch for Children” was designed to provide free lunches for rural children at school after Deng Fei, a famous journalist from the Phoenix Weekly (凤凰周刊) discovered many schools had no canteens for students. He began raising money from his 1.4 million followers on Weibo and TMall, the largest B2B online shopping site in China, soliciting small donations of only 3 RMB, or about US$ 0.40.
Love Save Pneumoconiosis was founded by fellow journalist Wang Keqin (@王克勤) from The China Economic Times (经济时报), in an effort to publicize the horrors of black lung disease, which affects nearly 6 million Chinese people who have contracted the disease by inhaling dust from coal and building materials. It is the most common terminal illness contracted in the Chinese workplace. Wang has used Weibo as his primary fundraising channel, raising 80 million RMB (about US$12.1 million) online. The Love Save Pneumoconiosis Sina Weibo account now has over 12,000 “fans,” or followers.
However, these online fundraising campaigns straddle a murky legal line. In the world of Chinese nonprofits, government-supported organizations enjoy limited regulation and oversight while private organizations lumber through a mountain of legislation and arbitrary crackdowns. Public foundations are allowed to raise funds from the public while private foundations are not. This prohibition extends to online solicitations. Many organizations or individuals raise money anyway, but are hampered in their ability to disperse the money without the government’s consent to set up a bank account.
Enter Philanthropy 2.0, Tencent’s attempt at an Internet revolution to change philanthropy in China. Tencent Foundation’s Executive Secretary, Dou Ruigang, puts it more elegantly: “Using the power of Web 2.0 and social networking platforms, we can develop products that connect netizens and arouse their interest to participate in philanthropy. We hope to make philanthropy a new and trendy lifestyle choice that appeals to the youth.” By launching Tencent Gongyi (腾讯公益), Tencent, a massive Chinese company that includes “social networks, web portals, e-commerce, and multiplayer online games” in its portfolio, aims to mobilize its impressive user base and create the most efficient and influential, go-to site for charity in China.
Tencent’s online donation platform Tencent Gongyi has been systematically integrated with many of their social features, including the ubiquitous QQ instant messaging application, which boasts 590 million users. Users donating to the causes featured on Tencent Gongyi earn “compassion points” that are visible to their QQ friends, earn a special crop for their QQ Farm, and get shiny silver and gold badges for their avatars in the QQ Show online game. Even Tencent’s version of Paypal, Caifu Tong (财付通), is used as an online donation payment method. By highlighting the donation on their individual profiles, users broadcast their philanthropic interest to their peers and to a greater degree define their online identities.
To date, Tencent Gongyi features 760 organizations and foundations, 441 online projects, and 1,347 offline projects from which to choose. If that sounds dizzying, there are useful filters such as location and area of interest to organize the information.
They’ve also provided a safe haven for important movements like Love Save Pneumoconiosis, both online and offline. Tencent not only provided an online platform for Love Save Pneumoconiosis, one of the few external platforms to promote the cause, but also connected founder Wang Keqing with a public foundation, allowing the charity to register as a public fund and thus to ask for donations from the public.
It remains to be seen how effective Tencent’s vision for Philanthropy 2.0 will truly be, and there is surely a long way to go. Tencent Gongyi has so far only raised donations from 2 million-plus users, a paltry proportion of its 590 million user base. However, its work to support Love Save Pneumoconiosis points to a hopeful future for other grassroots organizations wishing to enable netizens to mobilize for social good in China.