Doing charity work means you have to earn the public’s trust. And that means you have to have credibility. No one, otherwise, is going to contribute to your cause.
In old China, charity relied on personal credibility. Whenever there was large-scale charity drive, there generally had to be a sufficiently big name heading up that drive. This had to be someone with public appeal, and great prestige to boot. In the Republican Era, Xiong Xiling (熊希龄), the former premier under Yuan Shikai (袁世凯), had the proper credentials, as did Shanghai gangster Du Yuesheng (杜月笙).
Although Du, known also as “big-eared Du,” relied on drugs and gambling to make his fortune, he was a great lover of charitable undertakings. Every year he gave money generously to assist the poor, even if it meant emptying his pockets. The more he engaged in such work, the more credibility he had. And many relief campaigns following major floods along the Yangtze River, for example, required Du Yuesheng’s participation to be pulled off successfully.
If we do not rely on personal credibility for charitable actions, we must rely on organizations, particularly philanthropic organizations.
In the late Qing Dynasty and during the Republican Era, organized charity work was principally taken on by the churches. The bulk of charitable funding for the churches came from overseas, and credibility was vested in the churches themselves. Both catholic and protestant churches in China regularly did charity work over the years, and their charitable organizations won the trust of the people. By the Republican Era even Chinese who weren’t Christians willingly participated in church-run charitable drives.
Clearly, the credibility of charitable work is closely related to the conduct of the participants and organizers. If it’s an issue of personal credibility, then not only does the personality out front need to maintain a good name, but those running the show also need to be kept in line. Otherwise, if anything untoward happens, disrepute will follow all the same. In the Republican Era, there were a number of cases in which disaster relief donations were abused for profit. And in every case there was some personality or other who got pulled down into the muck. But in fact, all cases of foul play were perpetrated by those underneath.
In all these cases, it was perhaps only Du Yuesheng who remained clean. Through all the many times he collected for charity or organized charity performances, he was not once tainted by any hint of wrongdoing. The reason for this might have been that he was, after all, a gang boss, and his minions were bound to a strict code of loyalty.
In the case of organizational charity, the credibility of the churches derived from years of charity work, which had built up an abundance of goodwill. And so, the conduct of those people or organizations engaging in charity work has to be able to withstand pressure and scrutiny.
The Red Cross Society of China is an official government organization, and its business lies squarely in the charity sector. It has powerful backing, and comes from good kin, [having been found in 1904, becoming part of the International Federation of the Red Cross in 1919 and up to the founding of the PRC in 1949]. The organization gives off a feeling of heavenly mission. But it also suffers from congenital weaknesses. Owing to its official nature, it is unable to rely on personal reputation. And its most serious problem is that its operating practices have long lacked openness and transparency.
In recent years, there have been constant whisperings about the Red Cross Society of China. Most frequently denounced has been the fact that the society levies a management fee on charitable donations. Some say it takes 10 percent, others say 19 percent, and some have even said the organization takes as much as 50 percent.
It’s incredible the way the leadership of the Red Cross Society of China has for so many years simply endured the rumors and accusations, rarely even stepping out to offer and explanation, just letting the malicious gossip fly.
The Guo Meimei incident (郭美美事件) now fermenting in China is really the explosion of doubts about the Red Cross Society of China built up among the public over many years.
But the Red Cross Society of China stubbornly remains its old self. In this internet age of ours, it persists in doing things as it always has. When the Guo Meimei incident emerged last week, it didn’t move quickly for an investigation by a third party. Instead, it came right out with a thirst for blood, issuing two statements, the first dully asserting its innocence, the second hemming and hawing before the media. This only threw oil on the fire, building the scandal up even more.
In any country, charity work touches on the raw nerves of the nation. No one can tolerate the abuse of charity for self-gain or its being embezzled away. This is something people find impossible not to be furious about.
Therefore, if charity organizations wish to maintain a positive public image, they must always graciously accept public scrutiny. An organization accepting donations from millions of people must face severe examination by these same millions. This is a basic truth about charity. Once credibility is lost, the beating heart of charity stops.
A version of this article appeared in Chinese in the July 2 edition of The Beijing News.