World

After quake, Chinese open wallets, a few of them under pressure

Rescuers search for victims in Dujiangyan in southwest China's Sichuan province Wednesday.
Rescuers search for victims in Dujiangyan in southwest China's Sichuan province Wednesday. Color China Photo / AP

BEIJING — Chinese citizens have opened their wallets to the victims of last month's savage earthquake, but not all their generosity has been voluntary.

At some companies, bosses have put up lists of names of employees who've donated and how much they've given. Pressure is high to pony up.

The president of the Hasee computer company in Shenzhen, Wu Haijun, circulated a notice labeling the 1 percent of his employees who didn't offer donations "coldblooded people" and said, "We hope they leave this company."

For most Chinese, generosity has come naturally since the earthquake ravaged southern China's Sichuan province May 12, killing more than 69,100 people. So far, China has tallied $6.3 billion in relief donations from at home and abroad. Tens of thousands of volunteers flocked to the quake zone to offer assistance, and millions more participated in an unprecedented outpouring.

Some social scientists describe the phenomenon as a milestone in China's social development, saying it shows a rise in individual compassion and charitable giving.

"It's good news for civil society. People are aware of their social responsibility," said Jia Xijin, a scholar at the school of public policy and management at Tsinghua University.

But grumbling has erupted over the zeal at which company executives and lower-level government officials have demanded donations. And those complaining aren't just ordinary Chinese. Feeling pressure to display generosity, some executives of foreign companies with operations in China quietly voice fears that they may be targeted for boycott if they aren't seen as exemplary in their giving.

Even foreign diplomats say that the Foreign Ministry in Beijing is pressuring them for disaster donations. One European diplomat, who wasn't authorized by his government to speak publicly, said it was clear that China was "keeping score" of how much each country gave.

The large flows of money for quake relief have prompted a smattering of citizen commentary on the Internet over how to ensure that the aid is properly spent.

In response, Beijing has promised increased transparency, even as censors have begun deleting Internet postings questioning details of relief spending and have warned newspaper editors to stay away from the topic.

The National Audit Office said Thursday that it had deployed 6,000 people to the quake zone to prevent any effort by private relief groups "to hide, intercept or misappropriate" money, the state Xinhua news agency said.

"Ensuring the proper use of every penny received is a challenge," said Wang Zhenyao, the director of the disaster relief division of the Ministry of Civil Affairs, adding that the current system "cannot cope with the amount of donations that have poured in."

Much of the relief aid has been channeled through the Red Cross Society of China, which has special legal status and strong ties to the government. The Red Cross has given the public an accounting of the $570 million it's received for quake relief.

"We publish the donations we receive in the newspapers, and update our Web site daily with the amounts," said Wang Haijing, the secretary general of the Red Cross Society, adding that the Red Cross receives "almost 100,000 checks" a day in donations.

Tougher to account for are the tens of thousands of state-owned and private companies and government institutions raising money from employees for quake relief, and scores of nongovernmental groups in the quake zone helping with relief efforts.

Employees attached to work units sometimes are told how much they're expected to contribute, only to get new appeals from neighborhood associations and other social groups to donate to separate quake-relief efforts.

A journalist, Qian Lifu, recently wrote in on the QZone bulletin board to criticize Wu, the Shenzhen computer-company chief, for browbeating employees to give through his company.

"Donations are voluntary," Qian said. "They are not an obligation or a tax."

Jia, the scholar of public policy, said employees might have legitimate concerns about how relief money collected by companies was spent.

"The people who donate don't know where the money finally goes," she said.

Jia added that China needs "an independent social auditing agency" to ensure that private companies and nonprofit groups that are collecting money handle it properly.

But she said that the ruling Communist Party was leery of institutionalizing the role of nongovernmental organizations, giving them a role that could grow and provide a counterweight to the one-party state.

Party leaders have voiced worry about what happened this decade in nations such as Ukraine and Georgia, where civil society groups helped dethrone authoritarian leaders.

"The government is a little worried," she said. "The traditional way people participated in the past is through their work unit or through the party system."

Now, she said, other groups are arising to fulfill a social need.

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