Charity in China during a health crisis

The coronavirus outbreak has led to massive private donations, filling a vacuum of leadership – and a vacuum of distrust in the ruling Communist Party.

Chen Hui poses for a selfie in a protective suit with another volunteer as they deliver food to workers building a hospital in Hubei province, China, Feb. 11.

The magnitude of the coronavirus outbreak in China, measured by the millions of people still under quarantine, has triggered a remarkable magnanimity. In January, after doctors in Hubei province made urgent pleas on social media for protective gear and medical supplies, Chinese citizens poured in massive donations. Many Chinese volunteered to aid sick people.

In fact, the level of charity has been so overwhelming that the Communist Party has tried to put a stop to it, or at least redirect it. On Jan. 26, it required all donations to go through only five government-controlled charities. The private generosity had become an embarrassing sign of a rising distrust in the ruling party and its response to the health crisis. The party fears a crisis over its long-held authoritarian leadership.

The distrust burst onto social media platforms like Weibo and WeChat with stories of official cover-ups of the outbreak and the inefficient distribution of medical supplies. People were angry that donations to the party-controlled charities were simply handed over to the government and not given directly to hospitals. Three officials from the Hubei Red Cross were punished for “mishandling donations for the coronavirus.”

Ge Yunsong, a Peking University law professor, posted an article asking the government to end its monopoly on philanthropy. Hospitals and individuals, he wrote, “also enjoy the right to receive donations.”

As in nature, love abhors a vacuum of love. The Chinese people have risen up with loving hearts to fill an absence of trust in their leaders. One way or another, the high level of charity in China will reach those laid low by the coronavirus.

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