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How China’s Red Cross serves the Communist Party

Charity helps the state keep a grip on public donations for emergencies

Javier C. Hernández And Sui-Lee Wee/New York Times News Service New York Published 28.04.20, 08:16 PM
Clerks wear face masks to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus as they wait for customers at the entrance to a restaurant in Beijing

Clerks wear face masks to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus as they wait for customers at the entrance to a restaurant in Beijing (AP photo)

Donations flooded in to fight the virus devastating the city of Wuhan, and the ruling Communist Party directed them to a group it could trust: the Chinese Red Cross.

Bearing the familiar red-and-white logo, it looks just like any Red Cross group that rushes to disasters, deploys medics and raises funds across the world with political neutrality and independence.


But there is a big difference: China’s Red Cross has been built, funded and directed by the Chinese Communist Party — effectively making it an arm of the state, and at times pitting the group’s goal of helping people against the party’s interests in maintaining control over society.

In Wuhan, the charity’s officials were quickly paralysed by bureaucracy, competing mandates and chaos. For days, tens of millions of dollars in funds went unused, while piles of protective gear sat in a sprawling warehouse as desperate health workers battled the virus without it.

When officials did distribute aid, they sent tens of thousands of masks to private clinics that were not treating coronavirus patients. In one early shipment, they prioritised local officials over health care workers. In another delivery, the equipment was substandard.

“I just wanted to cry,” said Chang Le, a doctor at Wuhan’s Hankou Hospital, in a video he posted online after the Red Cross delivered thousands of non-medical grade masks.

For the party, the Red Cross, with 90,000 branches in the country, is a reliable vehicle for tackling some of the country’s toughest public health challenges. The party reaps the benefits of philanthropy without loosening the social controls that would allow civil society to flourish.

The Red Cross, one of the nation’s wealthiest charities, helps the party keep a grip on public donations for emergencies, allowing Beijing to determine how the money is spent and ensuring the state gets credit for good deeds. At the same time, the group’s dominance limits the growth of independent non-profits that could challenge the party.

But the layers of bureaucracy and political directives imposed by the state can slow the group’s response in a crisis. Smaller branches require the approval of the higher-level chapters overseeing them. Party members inside the organisation keep employees in check. In Wuhan, the Red Cross was hamstrung by local city officials who were slow to decide how supplies were to be distributed.

The group has also struggled to shake off its scandal-ridden past, which has eroded public trust.

“During this epidemic, the shortcomings of the Red Cross were displayed to an even greater extreme,” said Jia Xijin, deputy dean of Tsinghua University’s Institute for Philanthropy. “The Red Cross cannot make decisions.”

The Red Cross Society of China did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, of which China’s Red Cross is a member, defended the group’s response in Wuhan.

“Red Cross teams worked around the clock to provide essential humanitarian aid and human resources to reach the most vulnerable people,” the federation said in a statement.

As public criticism mounted, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, called on the Red Cross to be more open. “Charitable organisations and the Red Cross must operate efficiently, enhance transparency, and actively accept supervision, so that compassion and good will can be promptly fulfilled,” Xi said in February.

For Xi, the credibility of the Red Cross is essential.

Under his leadership, China’s Red Cross has been increasingly deployed abroad to help the country’s image. The organisation is a major player in his ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, bringing a humanitarian touch to a state-led programme to build economic and geopolitical ties across Asia, Africa and Europe.

Now, the Red Cross is also an emissary for the country’s success in battling the coronavirus pandemic. The organisation’s medical experts are handing out supplies and advice on the ground in Italy, Iran and Iraq. Its leaders are espousing China’s infection control strategy and urging countries to take more aggressive action. hese efforts are helping China push back against international criticism that the government exacerbated the outbreak by initially concealing and playing down the virus.

“The Chinese Red Cross is the perfect agency to play a leading role in China’s ‘coronavirus diplomacy,’ ” said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor of politics at the University of New South Wales. “It appears ostensibly independent from the Chinese Communist Party, when in fact the opposite is the case.”

When a natural disaster strikes, the Chinese government often gives the Red Cross a near monopoly on collecting donations. But the Red Cross shares the traits of many of the country’s government ministries and state-owned enterprises. It is often staffed by officials with little field expertise. Centralised authority can delay its decision-making on the ground.

In Wuhan, such issues quickly came to a head.

The charity had no logistics network to distribute supplies but was unwilling to let other groups help. The lockdown of Wuhan on January 23 exacerbated the problem as the group struggled to find vehicles to pick up deliveries. The local government controlled how the Red Cross would distribute aid to hospitals, but its sluggish response quickly drew an outcry.

On a chilly day in early February, several medical workers waited anxiously outside a sprawling exposition center in Wuhan to collect donated medical supplies. The centre — the size of 17 soccer fields — was filled with boxes of masks, safety gowns and other protective equipment.

Dr Chang, the physician at Wuhan’s Hankou Hospital, said he went to the warehouse because a donor had sent the hospital 10,000 N95 respirators. But when he arrived, he said, the masks had been redirected elsewhere, and the Red Cross instead gave him substandard supplies.

“I would like to ask the Wuhan Red Cross: The donations that were supposed to be assigned to us, how could you go ahead and distribute them yourself?” Dr Chang wrote in a post on Weibo, a social media site.

“Getting donations from private citizens is the fastest way because it would not be constrained by the system,” he said later in an interview.

Frustrated activists combed through data posted by the Hubei Red Cross and found that it had donated 36,000 masks to two private hospitals that were not treating coronavirus patients.

A video also circulated online showing a man at a Red Cross warehouse in Wuhan loading 3M masks into a car marked for government officials.

Public anger swelled after the Red Cross said on January 30 that it had spent only $7.6 million out of more than $56 million it had collected in donations.

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