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Hong Kong earthquake donors wary of Chinese corruption

Lessons learned from 2008 quake prompt caution

Hong Kong earthquake donors wary of Chinese corruption
Children in Sichuan province this week queue up to donate relief funds (photo courtesy of Faith Press)
Bo Fan, Hong Kong

April 25, 2013

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Since China reopened to the world in the late 1970s, whenever there has been a natural disaster, Hong Kong people – rich or poor – have generously donated money and relief aid to victims there.

Blood is thicker than water. As Chinese, we should help our countrymen on the mainland when they’re in trouble – that’s the Hong Kong mindset.

After the Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan province in May 2008, the public donated HK$2 billion, nearly US$26 million, in the first month after the tragedy and the administration issued a special grant to Beijing.

A year after the 8.0-magnitude quake, the total amount raised in Hong Kong reached HK$13 billion.

But Hong Kong people are reluctant to act this time after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake hit Ya’an, also in Sichuan, on Saturday.

On Wednesday, Hong Kong’s Legislative Council was unable to approve a special grant of HK$100 million after opposition parties opposed the move.

Several Hong-Kong-based reporters who cover China posted on their Facebook pages that they would not donate a cent.

It is not that they are unsympathetic. Instead, they indicated that they would rather choose charitable organizations they could trust with their money. They know that if donations go through the official channels, much of it will be skimmed off by corrupt officials before it reaches the victims.

Journalist Lui Pingkuen said in a radio program this week that when he reported on the shabby buildings which collapsed in the Wenchuan quake, he was taken away by China’s national security officers, not to a detention center but to a restaurant.

They tried to dissuade him over a meal – a classic Chinese setting for a negotiation – and put their point across that scrapping the report would represent a friendly gesture.

Lui recalled that the officials ordered many more dishes than they could consume, a common practice in China to impress guests but hardly appropriate behavior in the midst of an earthquake in which many thousands had been left homeless and without food.

At the end of the meal, Lui could not help but reprimand the officials for not taking responsibility for the quake victims and the donors, and then he insisted on paying the bill.

The government in Sichuan did not punish property developers who built the shabby buildings which so easily collapsed. One of them was even rewarded with a contract to build a new museum, said Lui.

The Hong Kong government donated HK$10 billion through a trust fund for reconstruction following the Wenchuan quake. However, it was revealed that 80 percent of the reconstruction did not fulfill basic safety requirements.

A new middle school built at a cost of HK$2 million from the trust fund was demolished after just one year to make way for a new shopping mall, leaving the students to receive their education at a temporary campus.

This was yet another waste of public money and a dagger in the charitable hearts of people in Hong Kong.

We have learned from too many cases that our donations will only make mainland officials rich.

They would no doubt even use the money to crack down on political dissidents, victims of injustice, human rights defenders or the media, as they tried to do in Lui’s case.

Environmentalist Tan Zuoren is still imprisoned in Ya’an for making public his investigation into poorly constructed buildings which collapsed during the Wenchuan quake. He was sentenced to five years in 2010 for inciting subversion of the state.

His circumstances remind us that, even if we want to help the victims, this aid must not go through the hands of Chinese government officials, or else more people might suffer.

It’s not just people in Hong Kong who have become more wary of donating through official Chinese channels; Chinese on the mainland have too, especially after the Red Cross Society of China was accused of fund mismanagement.

Though we know that some NGOs in China are not really independent and are in fact governmental organizations in the sense that they have strong state links and support, there is still the hope that they might carry out their work effectively.

The Ministry of Civil Affairs in Beijing certainly seems to be aware of the criticisms of the past. On Monday, it released two documents on donations for the Ya’an quake with orders that donations not be sent to designated departments or organizations.

Beijing needs to initiate a positive, comprehensive response to recent criticisms. It would help the country complete a much needed revamp of the charity sector in the longer term.

Bo Fan is staff reporter of the China Office based in Hong Kong 

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