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A Red Cross to bear

By Chang Meng (Global Times)

08:23, April 26, 2013

"I've received dozens of abusive phone calls and text messages since the earthquake hit Ya'an on Saturday, some even at midnight, but we've still got to do our job," Wang Yong, spokesperson from the independent supervisory committee overseeing the Red Cross Society of China (RCSC), told the Global Times in a tired voice.

The credibility of the charity organization - China's largest - has been in tatters ever since Guo Meimei, a young woman who fabricated a title as the general manager of "Red Cross Commerce" bragged about her massive wealth on her verified Sina Weibo account in 2011, prompting a storm of public outrage, which has been further weakened by a series of other scandals.

An RCSC Weibo entry Saturday afternoon that said "our rescue team is on the way to Ya'an to conduct inspections" received over 140,000 identical comments saying "Go away!" over a two day period, and thousands of similar comments dogged follow-up entries by the RCSC.

"We're focusing on disaster relief now and can't focus too much on the accusations," Tao Yijun, a spokesperson from the RCSC, told the Global Times.

In contrast, private charity organizations such as the Shenzhen-based One Foundation, founded by film star Jet Li, received unprecedented public trust on this occasion.

"We publish information on donations online and have the victims sign off when they receive supplies, and only contact the civil affairs authority to learn about victims' needs," said Zeng Min, a rescue officer from One Foundation.

The One Foundation is not alone. Many private agencies the Global Times spoke to said that they have adopted similar requirements.

Believing the worst

Since Saturday, rumors damaging the RCSC have been swirling online, demonstrating how eager the public is to believe the worst about the charity. Media reports falsely indicated that the charity asked for 5 million yuan ($810,295) from its Taiwan counterpart for help, and a picture showing a staff member wearing a luxury watch aroused anger before it was revealed that the person in the picture was a reporter with the Beijing News.

"The committee has received over 60 reports and is investigating 15, but most of them proved to be false. However, the RCSC must respond to our investigation requests quickly. It takes forever for the public to receive a complaint reply directly from the RCSC," said Wang, in reference to his independent committee, which was formed in the wake of previous damaging scandals, to try to halt the RCSC's rapidly declining reputation.

By the end of Saturday, the One Foundation had received over 10 million yuan, while the China Red Cross Foundation under the RCSC had received just 30,000 yuan.

Tao said that a lack of transparency and previous scandals were the major reasons, "but we have a set of protocols."

Embezzlement of donations and opaque financial disclosure are the most serious problems facing the RCSC. Its online tracking system, built to improve credibility, doesn't contain detailed breakdowns of spending on projects financed by donations, with general descriptions of projects included instead.

"A significant amount of donations were raised through administrative measures," Deng Guosheng, director of the NGO Research Center at Tsinghua University, told the Global Times. "Administrative measures" typically refer to measures such as compulsory donations from the wages of government employees.

The situation has changed. As of late Thursday, the RCSC system had received cash and goods donations worth over 389 million yuan and had used 86 million, in contrast to the 140 million yuan received by the One Foundation.

"Despite its severe problems, the RCSC's resources and effect on urgent disaster relief as a member of the National Disaster Reduction system is still imperative," said Deng.

Despite suffering a wave of online vitriol, 25 RCSC rescue teams are working hard to save lives and distribute supplies. "It's been hard to bear the curses, but I'm happy that victims, volunteers and companies still welcome us while seeing our logo," a member of the RCSC's Lantian rescue team who asked to remain anonymous, told the Global Times.

Compliments also came from private organizations working on the front line. "They're tenacious, almost all the tents I saw in Lushan, Baoxing and Tianquan were set up by the RCSC," Deng Fei, a volunteer charity worker, told the Global Times.

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