What would happen to NGOs after the Ya’an Earthquake?

Source article in Chinese: 雅安救灾后非官方NGO的命运

By He Qinglian on May 3, 2013.

There are two things about the Ya’an earthquake in 2013 that are worth taking note of: 1) the credibility of the Red Cross Society of China (China Red Cross, CRC) (which is actually the credibility of the Chinese government) and 2) the exceptional disaster relief work of NGOs, as opposed to the Government-operated NGOs (GONGOs).

As people commended the operational capacity of these NGOs, few seemed to have thought about what would possibly happen to these organizations after the disaster.

Credibility of CRC, the face of Beijing

Fund-raising of CRC for disaster relief in Ya’an was a focal target of the people’s boycott, and the predominant reason of this boycott was the Guo Meimei scandal.

The Chinese people have not actually seen Guo as the root of all evil of CRC—they are all aware that she is but a bud that grew out of a tree of corruption, it is with CRC and the government that the people are frustrated. 
Hence, what the Chinese people truly meant to express when they brought up the Guo Meimei scandal was the decline in the credibility of CRC and the Chinese government.

Any person who has an understanding of the political background of CRC would know that the organization is the number one of the GONGOs managed by the Chinese government, a very handy tool of the CPC regime.

Former CPC General Secretaries Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao have become Honorary Presidents of CRC in succession, and the President of the organization is a title previously held by Peng Peiyun who, like his predecessor Wang Zhongyu, served as a top official of the Chinese government. The current CRC President Hua Jianmin was a member and the Secretary-General of the State Council, his previous title, Vice-chairman of the Eleventh National People’s Congress Standing Committee, has seemingly landed him in the rank of “Party and State leaders”.

Because of CRC’s entangled ties with the government, its (dis)credibility is a reflection of that of the Chinese government. The fund-raising setback that CRC suffered following the Ya’an Earthquake is effectively a slap in the face for the power that be.

During its fund-raising this time, CRC received 120,000 (some put it at 160,000) times the expression “get lost” on the Internet. And on the night of April 20, CRC received only over 140,000 yuan of contributions while One foundation received was as high as 22.4 million yuan. This contrast greatly infuriated Beijing. For in Beijing’s eyes, the amount of contributions CRC received is not just about money; more importantly, it is about the obedience and support the people show in making donation to CRC.

The authority and face of the government would be no more when the people do not obey and support it.

A constant practitioner of “state opportunism”, Beijing wisely adjusted its policy under the circumstances at that time. To save face, the Ministry of Civil Affairs announced it would no longer set restriction as to which organizations could receive donation, and it would stop asking charitable organizations to remit to government departments the contribution they received.

But how would Beijing suffer this disgrace and do nothing? So, out of the considerations to maintain its political authority, Beijing promptly ordered local governments to 'help' making donation to CRC. With effective forced donation around the country, the amount of contribution to CRC became more or less even with that of One Foundation by April 24, both received over 120 million yuan in donation.

The local governments then instructed local Party organs to put in more effort. In the end CRC received over 570 million of contributions, accounting for half of the country's total.

With this end result, Beijing felt at long last it managed to save its face after considerable efforts. Little did they expect that CRC would be caught in another scandal: the organization was forced to admit that it embezzled a staggering 84.7 million yuan of donation for disaster relief in Wenchuan. That money was from the renowned painter Fang Lijun and more than 100 other Chinese artists who staged a charity sale of their works to help the victims in Wenchuan earthquake five years ago.

With this came to light, some in China commented that, “the stain of CRC would not be washed away, not even after it raised 570 million.”

Temporary victory of the real public opinion

Back when the Chinese public responded to the propaganda of the Central government that “disasters revive a nation” following the Wenchuan earthquake, they were sincere in making donation. This assessment is based on the evidence below.

Before 2008, individual contribution to charitable donation was less than 20%, corporate contribution made up for 80% of that; after the Wenchuan earthquake, the sources of contributions became evenly distributed between corporate and individual donors. According to an institution that analyzed the 16 billion yuan contributions with traceable source on the log of the system managing donation for disaster relief in Wenchuan, 7.012 billion was individual donation, which accounted for 43% of the total contributions, surpassing the 6.929 billion of corporate donation and the 2.427 billion of community organizations.

After the Ya’an earthquake, however, individual contribution shrank to below 10%, indicating the marked decline in the credibility of CRC and the (Central) government behind it.

It could be said that back when Beijing mustered all the country’s forces for the Olympic Games in 2008, the people’s trust in CRC was in effect their trust in the (Central) government.

Many of the Chinese people were very excited about the upcoming Olympics that China hosted in 2008, taking it as the sign of China’s peaceful rise.

Even when some of the human rights activists criticized the “tofu-dreg” constructions and the incarceration of Tan Zuoren later on, most of their comments were directed at the local government of Sichuan province.

In short, as the dream of a powerful China that the Chinese government promised died along with the Olympic flame in 2008, the people’s opinion changed tremendously.

It should be said that since 1989, the CPC has encountered for the first time the wave of the people expressing their refusal to make donation after the Ya’an earthquake. Those inside the highest political levels in Beijing realized that behind those 120,000 cries of “get lost” is a gross dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Among those who criticized the people forcing students and parent of preschoolers to make donation as “moral hijackers”, some have been seen by the authorities as the thorns in their eyes and are summoned for inquiry. These people included vocal critic Ye Yin.

A Party that never reflects itself, that never knows what is meant by admitting mistakes, the CPC would not tolerate refusal to donation, whether it is from mainland Chinese or those in Hong Kong. And so the Party first instructed Hong Kong's Ta Kung Pao to run an editorial on April 26, accusing the boycott as an act of anti-Central government and anti-nationalism; The People's Daily Overseas edition then published a commentary entitling “a small number of the people in Hong Kong boycott donation for disaster relief, can their arguments hold water?”, with the motive to stir up conflicts between the people of Hong Kong and those in mainland China, and smear the donation boycott.

The result surprised Beijing: many netizens in China expressed their support for the donation boycott in Hong Kong.

Such is the public opinion, the CPC, with all its oppressive policies and fifty-centers, could only control, repress, but not manipulate or change it.

Can NGOs in China expand their space of survival?

The important role private organizations played in the disaster relief effort after the Ya’an earthquake has been evident to all. However, few have analyzed whether this would in the end be a blessing or a curse for NGOs without government background in China.

The cover story of the latest issue of Asia Week is “NGOs played a key role in disaster relief after the earthquake in Sichuan”. It said:

Compared with the earthquake in Sichuan five years ago, the performance of the officials has made some improvement this time. The government and the military promptly responded to the earthquake and made deployment, while private organizations played the biggest part in social mobilization. Non-government aid agencies demonstrated strong organizational capability and professional standards. Their joint operation, their concerted relief effort and their endeavor to raise transparency and credibility propelled CRC and other government-operated charitable institutions to change.
The article mentioned specifically the specialized rescue team organized by public intellectual Li Chengpeng that went into the disaster zone quickly, with Weibo celebrity raising funds and purchasing materials as backup support. The whole process was open and transparent; an efficient civil rescue team was formed, engaging ahead of the PLA in relief work in some of the areas hit by the disaster.

If this happened in democratic countries, I believe the government would thank One Foundation and individuals like Li Chengpeng for their efforts that have been beneficial to the victims and helped lessened some of the government’s burden. But the Chinese government, in its core, still clings to the autocratic mindset like that of the ruthless emperor Zhu Yuanzhang: all acts of grace come from the highest authority, no transgression from his subjects will be tolerated.

In the political culture of the CPC, all community organizations are seen as crucial “political fronts” which control is exclusive to the Party, all other social forces must not be permitted to meddle in any of those. This is the lesson the CPC learned from the defeat of the KMT.

According to the CPC, the main reason its arch rival the KMT lost the country half a century ago was that it allowed the [independent] existence and development of community organizations, the CPC and other political parties.

This important “historical lesson” has been passed on from the first generation of CPC State leaders to its fourth, and taking control of “political fronts” like NGOs became an important measure of society control.

Ever since the early days of reform and opening up, the Chinese government has busied itself with establishing all kinds of government-operated “NGOs” so as to adapt to the international community, sending them out to exchange and interact with NGOs of other countries, to take part various international activities and to gain access to international aids.

Even if those international agencies and foreign governments are aware that China’s NGOs are operated by the government, they turn a blind eye and provide them with aids all the same.

According to the statistics of the Foundation Center, from 2002 to 2009, its aids to China, excluding Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, was about $ 430 million. Of those aids, 44.01% went to academic institutions, 25.38% went to government departments and 16.62% went to GONGOs. The aids these three categories of recipients combined made up for 86.01% of the contribution, whereas grass-root NGOs received only 5.61% of the aids.

The performance of NGOs in the disaster relief work after Ya’an earthquake has greatly agitated Beijing.

Its announcement that contributions would not be nationalized was merely a measure of expediency in the face of mounting public pressure.

I knew by experience that the Chinese government would definitely retaliate against the NGOs in future, especially when, to the CPC, what these NGOs have done are “acts of rebellion” that aimed to compete with it for popular support.

The only thing is where Beijing would strike, and that they would deliberate and plan in their next move.

Right after I finished writing, I saw a tweet on twitter by @Danmuzhiyu, which said:
In a notice to units at village level, the government said rumor has it that villains have infiltrated the disaster zone to cause sabotage. As a result, people are so frightened that they dare not receive materials privately even if they are given some.

I wish I am merely worried too much.