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China: The Problem with GONGOs

By Paul French, China editor, Ethical Corporation, in Shanghai

As my current China Column is on the showy Chen Guangbiao, China’s most notorious philanthropist who blasts cash at the needy with personal appearances and self-promotion, I thought I’d try and explain why the Chen style of charity seems to be more high profile than traditional charitable bodies working behind the scenes.

Now Chen and his nouveau riche like may lack humility but then this case pops up from the Red Cross and perhaps he doesn’t look so bad.

Imagine you work for a body that sounds rather like a charity, that solicits donations from people and corporations in the manner of a charity, has flag days like any normal charity, that sometimes does work that looks a lot like charitable work but that when there’s a problem suddenly declares itself a government department. That’s, apparently, the Shanghai Red Cross.

Bloggers in China are now calling for a full investigation into just what exactly the Shanghai Red Cross is after a microblogger posted a receipt from a lunch held for 17 people by the Shanghai Red Cross totaling 9,859RMB (about US$1,500.)

But apparently it’s OK; Red Cross Shanghai is in fact a government body with a government-provided administrative budget that doesn’t come from donations. Tian Yongbo, a former publicity officer for Red Cross Shanghai (and like many publicity officers in China a sufferer with severe Tin Ear Syndrome) then told the concerned bloggers, “Our annual budget from the government is too much to be used up, so why would we use donations?” Yes, when you’re called the Red Cross and you’ve got money left over in this year’s budget what else to do with it but blow it on a right regal lunch for 1,500 bucks.

But the online community is not pacified and is calling for a full audit of the Shanghai Red Cross’s expenses (including gifts, entertainment, food, etc.), a halt in donations and officials (technically government employees and many also members of that other big organisation that runs China) to be reprimanded.

Of course the case raises the core issue of charity in China – non-profits aren’t allowed to operate independently of the government, so charities end up looking a lot like the usual corrupt and graft ridden self-serving government departments everyone in China has come to know and love so well.

It doesn’t do much for charity either, the Shandong Business Daily newspaper held a poll that found that 90% of respondents had lost faith in the Red Cross. The other 10% had gone to a Red Cross lunch presumably to help then use up their budget.

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