It all began with a television report showing the hardships endured by students in an impoverished county in Guizhou Province, which moved 35-year-old Liang Shuxin so deeply that he decided to launch an online donation campaign.
The response took him by surprise. Since the campaign started in March, he has raised enough money to buy free lunches for the 205 students at Hongban Primary School of Jianzhong township for three consecutive years.
“The latest figure is 1.3 million yuan ($199,810),” marveled Liang, who is the marketing director of a popular online forum in China.
At the same time, another free lunch project established by Deng Fei, a journalist at Phoenix Weekly, has raised a total of 8.04 million yuan ($1.24 million) mostly through online donations since it was launched, also in March.
From helping a sick child with leukemia to offering free lunches for students in the impoverished countryside, these privately organized online donation projects have emerged in recent years as important platforms to mobilize social resources and carry out good deeds.
“The public has shown great enthusiasm in helping those in need but sometimes people do not know how to turn to professional charity organizations for help, which is why online donations have become a solution for many who need very urgent help,” Li Zhaohui, deputy director of the research center at the China Charity Foundation, said to the Global Times.
“To some degree, this makes up for charity organizations’ disadvantages and should be encouraged,” Li added.
However, controversy has dogged these efforts almost as soon as they began, with people questioning the identities of the people who receive the donations as well as the way the money is spent. As a result, there have been calls to establish a mechanism to better regulate and supervise such donations, which many believe to be an important supplement to charity work.
Anyone who clicks on loveegg.taobao.com, one of the donation pages Liang and his team built on China’s largest auction site, is met with a picture of a schoolgirl smiling sweetly in front of her half full lunch box.
For five yuan, a donor can buy two set lunches for students.
Although support has been strong since he started the project, the criticisms and questions have been endless.
Liang said that he has been under pressure from millions of Internet users who constantly question the reliability of the project and its expenses, despite the fact that he and his team, who run the project on a voluntary basis, publish details of the funds on a regular basis.
The suspicions are not without their reasons. With more and more people going online to seek help, there has also been a surge in frauds and scandals.
In one of the most controversial cases, a woman who was seeking money to pay for her daughter’s eye surgery in Guangdong Province early this March was found to have colluded with an online forum administrator to win public sympathy and receive donations.
Shi Jinquan, the administrator, first claimed in an online message that he was a wealthy man who would give the woman 20,000 yuan if she could walk a few blocks on her knees. He then changed his mind and decided not to give her the money.
After seeing pictures of the woman kneeling on the street holding her sick baby, the public was outraged and started showering her with donations, only to realize later that she and Shi had planned the whole thing to win public sympathy.
Six years ago, Chen Yi, a female college student from Chongqing, also set off an online storm after announcing in a post that she would sell her body to pay for her dying mother’s medical expenses.
The public donated more than 100,000 yuan to Chen but soon began questioning her use of the money after a Web user claiming to be her classmate said in a post that she had purchased luxury clothes and shoes. Under pressure, Chen was forced to give 70,000 yuan of the donations back to charity after her mother died.
On April 5, Liang’s project was listed under the Guizhou Youth Development Foundation and started raising money using the foundation’s account, three days after Deng’s free lunch project was listed under the China Social Welfare Education Foundation.
“It was actually quite a relief,” Liang said, revealing that he had been raising money under his personal account since the beginning, causing concerns that his activity might be considered “illegal fundraising.”
Furthermore, Liang’s sales of free lunches, which is considered a virtual product, is also a breach of taobao.com’s policy, as the auction site only allows organizations that have permission to raise public funds to sell virtual products, according to the Beijing News.
Deng Guosheng, director of the NGO Research Center at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said to the Global Times that there is currently no law that specifically bars individuals from raising money from the public.
“The government agencies need to amend the relevant regulations to catch up with the development of the Internet, otherwise there will be more problems in the future,” Deng said.
Guangdong Province is expected to implement a charity regulation this year that would prevent uncertified individuals or organizations from raising public money, the Southern Metropolis Daily reported, citing local civil affairs official Wang Xianshen.
Wang said that the Ministry of Civil Affairs wants Guangdong, where charity organizations are more developed, to test run the new regulation.
The author Huo Xiaofei is an intern editor of M4.cn. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org