Microsteps Online for Chinese Charities

Wang Keqin was working as the head of the investigative bureau of the Chinese newspaper The Economic Times, when a journalist at the paper uncovered the story of Gulang, a rural county in Gansu province where 300 locals had contracted so-called black lung disease from working in a local coal mine. None had received compensation.

In an effort to aid the miners, Wang stumbled onto an innovative approach to fundraising that has since enabled the organization he established -- its English name is “Love Save Pneumoconiosis" -- to raise tens of millions of yuan in just a year, shouldering the operational costs himself and with a few friends. He did it through microblogging.

Wang’s first 150 character microblog post simply listed the name of one of the villagers, the date he contracted the disease and a bank account in the name of a another villager. Within days, a group of volunteers had arranged to travel to Gulang for a dinner with the village’s 300 sufferers, followed by a screening of the Kung-fu film Shaolin Temple, Wang said.

Since the end of 2010, Wang has been publicizing the plight of workers with black lung disease, known medically as pneumoconiosis, a terminal lung disease contracted when workers breathe in dust from coal and building materials. Wang estimates that as many as 6 million people in China suffer from pneumoconiosis, making it the most common terminal illness contracted in the Chinese workplace.

Unlike bigger, more established charities, Wang’s primary fundraising platform has been the microblogging service SinaWeibo. Since its launch, Love Save Pneumoconiosis has raised over 80 million yuan from online donations alone. His office, which he borrows from a friend, is staffed by around five volunteers every weekend.

Wang’s is one of a new breed of Chinese charities and non-governmental organizations turning to microblogs as a fundraising tool. Microblogs give charities fast access to their disproportionately educated, middle-class donors, and organizations have launched microblog-based fundraising drives for causes as diverse as school lunches in China’s poverty-stricken countryside, treatment for children with leukemia, and even return trips home for Chinese soldiers abandoned in Burma in the 1970s.

Strictly speaking, there are no charities in China, as the government lacks a legal definition for a charitable organization. Instead, it uses “social organization” as a category to cover any non-profit group, from grassroots NGOs to local chambers of commerce and business associations. Just over 440,000 of these “social organizations” had registered with the government by the end of last year, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, the government department that regulates charities. But many more NGOs—an estimated 3 or 4 million—are unregistered, according to the China Association for NGO Cooperation.

Most of these unregistered organizations are not allowed to ask the public for funds. That right is restricted to the 1,300 or so officially recognized “public foundations,” as well as any “social organizations” that officially register their activities as programs of these public foundations. Only a small fraction of Chinese NGOs have registered and are therefore permitted to raise funds, according to Karla Simon, a professor at Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law who co-authored a study on Chinese civil society for the World Bank and the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs in 2009.

In practice, many charities fundraise anyway. For example, Chinese actor Jet Li’s One Foundation is legally entitled to collect donations only in the southern city of Shenzhen, but currently solicits from all over China. It doesn’t hurt that the chairman of the One Foundation, Ma Hong, is a high-ranking official in the Ministry of Civil Affairs. “Jet Li has some of the best connections in China,” Simon said.

Microblogging platforms also help charity donors connect to each other.

Finding donors may be relatively easy. The hard part for unregistered charities is setting up bank accounts. When Wang started raising funds, he couldn’t open a bank account because he wasn’t associated with a public foundation. Instead, Wang asked donors to send their money directly to a bank account owned by a an ex-miner in Gulang county. The man received around 8,000 yuan, but refused to transfer the money to other villagers. “It was a massive headache for us, and the other villagers were furious,” Wang said.

It was the Internet companies Sohu and Tencent that finally offered to connect Wang with a public foundation. “They knew I was worried about donations, and could solve the problem,” Wang said. This July Wang registered under a public fund, and since then has been able to publically solicit cash.

Deng Fei, a journalist at the Chinese magazine Phoenix Weekly, founded Free Lunch, an organization dedicated to raising funds for school lunches in remote rural areas in 2011. “I felt that I could achieve a lot more by campaigning on Weibo than from writing articles,” he said.

Deng also registered his Free Lunch organization with the help of some friends in Beijing. “The process was very easy, but you need the right connections,” he said.

Registering with a public foundation brings a new set of headaches. “We have to get approval from the fund every time we want to withdraw money,” Wang said. The organizations also pay a 5 percent fee to the funds on any income they collect.

Microblogs have also exposed the less savory side of Chinese charity. This June, a Sina Weibo usernamed Guo Meimei, who listed her employer as a branch of China’s Red Cross, posted a series of photos showing her posing with expensive sports cars and designer handbags. The photos seemed to confirm what many Chinese suspected: that charities like the Red Cross refused to publicize their incomes because they were misusing donor’s money. It turned out Guo had lied about her Red Cross affiliation, but the damage was done.

Genuine scandal soon followed, when a local branch of the Soong Ching Ling Foundation, one of China’s largest charities, was revealed to have converted a plot of land set aside for a youth activity center into luxury apartments.

The controversies had an immediate detrimental impact on big charities—and may have helped small ones. A branch of the Red Cross in Shenzhen reported that donations fell by 97 percent in the month immediately following the Guo Meimei scandal, while another branch in central China reported a 94 percent decrease. Wang and Deng Fei, meanwhile, saw donations go up. “People saw our organization as more grass-roots and transparent,” Deng said.

According to Deng Fei, microblogs have produced a more transparent model for Chinese charities. “Because we solicit donations, we have to prove we’re using the money responsibly,” he said. His FreeLunch organization posts its receipts and expenses to its microblog daily, and requires all schools participating in the project to report how many lunches they serve. Wang’s organization also posts its accounts online.

Wang and Deng’s organizations may have similar origins, but their relationships with the state couldn’t be more different. Deng’s free lunch organization has been welcomed by educational authorities in remote villages, whose budgets are too slim to fund their own lunch programs. This September, the Chinese central government pledged 16 billion RMB to fund a lunch program almost identical to Deng’s. “We were always a strategic charity,” Deng said. “We wanted to act to bring the government’s attention to the problem.”

Wang has met with more hostility. Local governments are nervous about the attention his organization brings to worker’s compensation issues, guaranteed by law but often denied by local government officials who have financial links to the mining and construction companies required to pay fair compensation. One volunteer for Wang’s organization was detained by local police in Northwestern China’s Liaoning province this summer and warned to stop his investigation into local pneumoconiosis sufferers. In response, Wang has toned down his criticism of local governments. “I tell our volunteers not to write microblog posts about local government corruption, and to write about saving lives instead,” Wang said.

Wang has also had trouble finding support in China’s print media, since state propaganda departments order media outlets to minimize negative news. “Giving food to children makes for positive reports,” he said, referring to Deng’s free lunch organization. “But our organization touches on much more sensitive matters.” This July, China’s central propaganda department banned all media from reporting on his organization. “Now we depend entirely on the Internet for promotion,” Wang said.

Deng anticipated pushback if he was too critical of government policy, which is why he chose to focus on children. “I’d like to found an organization focused on protecting migrant workers, but the issue is too sensitive,” he said.

There are signs that the legal environment for NGOs is liberalizing. The government of Guangdong province launched reforms in November that simplify the process NGOs undergo to register with the government. These reforms are likely to spread nationwide in the next five years, as local governments realise that NGOs are often more competent than the state is at dealing with social problems, Simon said.

Deng Fei sees charity liberalization as inevitable. “The government will increase the involvement of NGOs in social management,” he said. The first step, perhaps: Allowing non-profit organizations to raise funds directly from the public.“Unless there’s some kind of big social upheaval, I expect to see more NGO reforms,” Simon said.