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Devastating Rain and Floods in Henan – A Hashtag Timeline

Manya Koetse

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The torrential rainfall and floodings in China’s Henan Province have completely overwhelmed the region, with dozens of cities and villages seeing massive disruption to everyday life. What’s on Weibo lists the main Chinese social media hashtags that went trending over the past week during the deadly floods.

Disastrous rain and floodings continue to plague China’s Henan province, where Zhengzhou city and surrounding towns and villages have been dealing with the strongest rainfall ever recorded.

Henan, home to 99 million residents, has seen extreme rain since Friday, July 16, leading to floods and critical situations in the region on July 20, when the city of Zhengzhou was hit especially hard.

According to reports on July 24, the death toll from the torrential rains has risen to 56. More than a million of people were relocated and over 7,5 million people are affected.

In this blog, we will list some of the main stories relating to the floods in Henan that have gone trending on the Chinese social media platform Weibo over the past week up to July 24.

 

TRENDING TIMELINE

 

July 20

 

PASSENGERS TRAPPED IN ZHENGZHOU SUBWAY (Hashtag: #郑州地铁5号线一车厢多人被困#)

On the late afternoon of July 20, a terrible flood occurred around the Wulongkou parking lot of Zhengzhou Metro Line 5. On Tuesday night, around 18:00, the water burst into the underground area between Shakou Road station and Haitansi station, trapping a train with approximately 500 passengers in it. The critical situation led to terrifying images and videos of passengers caught in the carriage, the water reaching up to their necks. Due to the lack oxygen in the carriage, many people fainted.

Image via Chinatimes.

After several hours, rescuers were able to get people out through the roof of the carriage. Although hundreds of people were saved, at least twelve did not survive. Footage that circulated on social media showed lifeless bodies lying on the floor of the station during the rescue operation.

The incident is one that kept generating online discussions after it happened, with survivors telling their stories and saying it felt “like the Titanic sinking.”

Around 20:00, twelve people were trapped in at the subway line 14 Olympic Sports Center station, with the water running up to two meters high. The fire department was able to rescue all twelve.

 

ZHENGZHOU HOSPITAL POWER OUTAGE (Hashtag: #暴雨中的郑州医院#)

The First Affiliated Hospital of Zhengzhou University, one of the biggest hospitals in the world, ran into major problems on July 20 when there was a power outage due to major flooding.

On social media, Weibo users cried out to request help for resources to rescue patients. This led to city residents coming in to bring electricity generators. The next day, on July 21st, the hospital’s critical patients were all evacuated to other medical facilities.

 

July 21

 

STRANDED PASSENGERS AT ZHENGZHOU EAST STATION (Hashtag: #郑州东站 音乐是有力量的#)

Hundreds of passengers were stranded at Zhengzhou East Station when all services were suspended after 2:00 AM on July 21st. A youth orchestra group decided to pull out their instruments and perform in the station’s main hall.

The kind gesture moved many Chinese social media users to tears.

 

CONTROVERSY OVER HENAN REAL ESTATE COMPANY ‘HIGHLAND’ ADVERTISEMENT (Hashtag: #康桥地产致歉#)

An ad by the local real estate company Kangqiao Real Estate promoting its ‘high lands’ properties led to online controversy. The Kangqiao Group poster highlighted the height advantage to its real estate locations, using the slogan: “Highland – live in the highland and only let the wind and rain be your scenery.”

The ad started making its rounds while Henan was in the midst of a huge rainstorm and flooding. Many deemed the timing of the ad insensitive, as well its wording. “Let the wind and rain just be your scenery” could also be understood as staying away from the hardships experienced by so many in Henan. Many felt the company was taking advantage of the disaster in Henan to promote its own real estate.

On July 21, Kangqiao Real Estate issued a statement of apology, saying that the advertising was canceled and that those responsible for its content would be removed from their position.

 

BABY RESCUED FROM DEBRIS (Hashtag: #三个月大婴儿被埋废墟一天一夜获救#)

A 3-month old baby was pulled from the ruins of a collapsed house in Xingyang, Zhengzhou. The infant reportedly was rescued a day after the building collapsed to landslides caused by the heavy rainfall. The child was sent to the hospital. The child’s mother was initially said to be still missing. BBC later reported that the mother died after bringing her baby to safety. The child is unharmed.

 

FIREFIGHTER COLLAPSES AFTER RESCUE (Hashtag: #郑州消防员救出最后一个孩子后累瘫#)

Around 14:30 in the afternoon, a fire erupted in a residential building in Zhengzhou, leaving 23 residents in a dangerous situation. Local firefighters managed to carry out all residents, mainly elderly and children. Due to the extreme weather conditions and high temperatures in the building, one firefighter collapsed at the scene. His colleagues immediately provided medical assistance.

 

ZHENGZHOU INSTALLS TEMPORARY PUBLIC WATER TAPS (Hashtag: #暴雨后郑州街头安装临时水龙头#)

As the majority of residential buildings in the city of Zhengzhou were cut off from water after the torrential rains and floodings, the city installed temporary water taps on July 21st.

 

July 22

 

WEIHUI AND HUIXIAN EMERGENCY SITUATION (Hashtag: #卫辉暴雨#, #辉县暴雨#)

In the early morning of July 22, the people in Weihui sounded the alarm over the situation in their town. Around 4.00 AM, water started flooding into people’s homes due to excessive rain and overflowing reservoirs.

As the rain still continued, water levels kept rising up to waist level and there was a lack of sandbags. A similar situation unfolded in the Huixian area.

Weihui is a county-level city with about 480,000 inhabitants, Huixian has approximately 790,000.

 

HUIXIAN HOSPITAL FLOODED (Hashtag:#辉县暴雨#)

Some 300 patients and staff at the local Gongji Hospital (辉县市共济医院) were trapped by the water. With power being cut off, not enough food available, and not enough manpower, the staff started reaching out for help via social media.

 

PASSENGERS GET OFF K206 TRAIN AFTER BEING STUCK FOR 45 HOURS (Hashtag: #滞留K206列车旅客回忆救援过程#)

After being stuck on the Qingdao-bound K206 train for 45 hours due to the floods, train passengers were finally able to get off their train.

The train departed from Chengdu on July 19 at 6pm. Caught by the severe weather conditions in Henan, the train was stranded and had no electricity, supplies, nor air conditioning for nearly two days. On July 22, the 1100 passengers were welcomed to stay at the Zhengzhou Business School until they could continue their journey.

 

ELECTRICITY TO BE RESTORED IN ZHENGZHOU (Hashtag: #郑州力争今晚恢复高层居民小区供电#)

The Zhengzhou local government held a press conference on the afternoon of July 22 that they expected electricity in the city to be partially restored on Thursday night.

 

ONLINE ANGER OVER COMPANIES USING “HENAN FLOOD MARKETING” (Hashtag: #多家地产公司借暴雨营销#)

After the online outrage over a local real estate company promoting its ‘highland’ property in light of the floodings, other companies also sparked controversy for using the Henan floods as a marketing strategy.

Two local companies selling parking space used the devastating floods, in which countless cars were flooded, as a way to promote their supposedly safe parking lot. The companies, Yongwei (永威) and Yaxing (亚星), were denounced for promoting their company in this way at a time when the entire country was still praying for Henan and going out to help those in need.

 

July 23

 

CRITICAL DAY FOR XINXIANG FLOODS (Hashtag: #新乡大块镇上万村民被洪水围困#)

Xinxiang, a city of 5.8 million people just 70 km north of Zhengzhou, also saw extreme rain and floods this week, leading to a critical situation on July 23. Efforts to block the Wei river from flooding villages near Hebi failed. Thousands of locals were trapped without water and electricity.

Global Times reported that reporters tried to get to the hardest-hit counties in Xinxiang on Thursday morning, but were informed that the situation was so severe that teams without boats could no longer get in. Firefighters and rescuers used forklift trucks and rubber boats to evacuate the residents from the flooded villages in Xinxiang.

 

HUNDREDS OF DRIVERS TRAPPED IN JINGGUANG TUNNEL, AT LEAST TWO DEAD (Hashtag: #京广隧道#)

Earlier in the week, hundreds of vehicles were trapped by the water at Jingguang Tunnel, a 2-km-long underpass in Zhengzhou. On Friday, Global Times reported that at least two people had died in the tunnel. Meanwhile, drainage and dredging work was still underway.

People became stuck in traffic at the underpass around 4 pm on Tuesday, July 20, when there was heavy rain. According to witness reports, the water level rose very rapidly and cars were soon flooded. One witness told Global Times that the water was completely over the car roofs within 20 minutes after the water levels started rising.

 

CHINESE SPORTSWEAR BRAND ERKE BECOMES ONLINE HIT AFTER DONATING 50 MILLION (Hashtag: #鸿星尔克的微博评论好心酸#)

The domestic sportswear brand named Erke (鸿星尔克) donated 50 million yuan ($7.7 million) to the Henan flood. This attracted a lot of attention on Chinese social media, since Erke is a relatively small and low-profile brand that seemingly has not been doing too well over the past years.

After people found out that the company donated such a high amount of money to help the people in Henan despite its own losses, its online sales went through the roof – everyone wanted to support this generous ‘patriotic brand.’ While netizens rushed to the online shops selling Erke, the brand’s physical shops also ran out of products with so many people coming to buy their sportswear. One female sales assistant was moved to tears when the store suddenly filled up with so many customers.

 

ONE-LEGGED MAN COMES TO THE RESCUE IN XINXIANG (Hashtag: #独腿小哥自发驰援新乡转运老人孩子#)

A man with one leg attracted attention on Chinese social media when footage and images came out of the Puyang resident helping the elderly and children in Xinxiang get away from the water. The young man pulled a boat and made many trips to get people across the water. The man’s hometown of Puyang is about two to three hours from Xinxiang – he came down to Xinxiang to help locals out.

 

July 24

 

HELPING OUT FOR HENAN HASHTAG HITS 15 BILLION VIEWS (Hashtag: #河南暴雨互助#)

A special Weibo hashtag dedicated to seeking assistance and providing help during the Henan floods hit 15 billion views on Saturday, making it one of the most-viewed news-related hashtags of the year. The social media platform Weibo became an important communication tool during the Henan floods, with countless of posts using the hashtag to seek help and provide information. See our article dedicated to this topic here.

 

ENORMOUS LOSS OF CROPS AND LIVESTOCK (Hashtag: #暴雨后百余只羊仅找回一只#)

With ongoing rescue efforts in the region, more ‘after the rainstorm’ videos and social media posts came out on Saturday showing the devastating consequences of the heavy rainfall and floods. Many villagers have lost their homes, crops, livestock, and belongings.

People’s Daily reported that one family in Xingyang county that had more than a hundred sheep, only had one animal left after the floods.

 

THE FLOODS IN HEBI (Hashtag: #鹤壁暴雨#)

The Olympics have started, and many of the trending topics on Weibo were no longer related to the floods on Saturday. Many Weibo commenters were therefore calling out to generate more attention for the situations in Henan’s rural areas, particularly in Anyang, Xinxiang, and Hebi, which are still underwater and are seriously affected by the floods.

“We’ve been doing online volunteer work in the disaster area in Henan, and the reality is far more serious than we can even imagine,” one Weibo user commented.

Also see our articles on Henan here.

By Manya Koetse (@manyapan)

With contributions by Miranda Barnes

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China Insight

A Snowball Effect: How Cold Harbin Became the Hottest Place in China

Part of Harbin’s enormous success can be attributed to a snowball effect, but the hype is also the result of a well-coordinated campaign.

Manya Koetse

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There is one topic that has been dominating Chinese social media recently: Harbin and its remarkable influx of tourists. How can the buzz surrounding this frosty city be explained?

The new year has just started and Harbin already seems to be the hit of 2024. The capital of China’s Heilongjiang Province, which is famous for its Ice and Snow Festival and Russian heritage, has been dominating trending topics on Chinese social media from late December well into this second week of January.

Every day recently, there’s another hashtag about Harbin that is hitting the hot charts on Chinese social media platforms Weibo, Douyin, and Xiaohongshu. Whether it is about Harbin travel, food, or funny memes, there seems to be an endless stream of stories and topics coming from the city in China’s northeast.

The sudden hype surrounding Harbin is similar to that of Zibo in 2023. The Shandong city, known for its local BBQ culture, became all the rage in spring of last year for its joyful atmosphere and post-pandemic celebratory mood.

Is Harbin the ‘Zibo’ of this 2023-2024 winter season? How come the historical city became such a social media phenomenon?

 
Harbin’s Hottest Festival
 

This year marks the 40th edition of the Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival (哈尔滨国际冰雪节), which is the largest ice and snow festival in the world. The official opening ceremony on January 5th not only celebrated the milestone of the 40th edition but also highlighted Harbin’s role as the host city for the 2025 Asian Winter Games. This will also be the first festival after the end of China’s ‘Zero Covid’ policy (the event was previously still held but kept much smaller).

Harbin winters are tough, with temperatures plummeting to as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius (minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit) or even colder. The idea for a Harbin ice festival first emerged in the late 1950s, when local officials wanted to cheer up the city and its residents in the dark and gloomy winter days.

They therefore introduced a winter festival centered around the idea of ice lanterns, of which the history goes back to the fisherman on the Songhua River using candles inside frozen blocks to give light on long winter nights. The festival was successful from the start; nearly 250,000 people participated in the 1963 edition (Dewar et al 2001, 524).

First edition of the Snow and Ice Festival in 1963.

After the Cultural Revolution put a halt to the festivities in 1966, local authorities reviewed the festival again in 1984, and revived it as an event to boost the local economy. About a decade later, it had already become one of the biggest of its kind globally, with its ice sculpting competitions and snow sculpture parks, including thousands of ice structures and spectacular lantern venues.

This 2023-2024 season turns out to be another important moment for Harbin and its ice festival. In November of 2023, the city launched a press conference in which they stressed the importance of strengthening the city’s position as an (international) leader in the field of ice and snow tourism in this post-pandemic era and fully focus on turning the season into a “people’s festival” and a “people’s event” (“使冰雪季和冰雪节真正成为人民的节日、百姓的盛会”).

From string quartets to hot air balloons, Harbin is going all out to entertain and impress visitors this year, and all the efforts are paying off.

More than two million people are expected to visit Harbin for this year’s festival, including its ‘Ice and Snow World’ (哈尔滨冰雪大世界) which opened on 18 December and will run until late February. This amusement park is a major attraction within the larger festival, and this 25th edition, with its 810,000-square-meter, is the largest-ever held.

In a time when Chinese domestic travelers are exploring their own country in new ways, from Special Force travel style to show-inspired journeys, the latest buzz surrounding Harbin is something that many simply do not want to miss out on, causing the coldest city to become one of the hottest destinations of the moment.

 
Turning Bad Publicity into Something Positive
 

On December 18, Harbin officially opened its Ice and Snow World to the public, welcoming thousands of visitors. This is also when the city and its festival first started trending on social media, but not necessarily in a good way.

Visitors initially complained that despite making reservations, they had to wait in lines at the entrance for hours, and that the time slot reservation system (分时预约) – introduced in Covid days – actually made things more difficult rather than facilitating a smoother crowd management process.

People also complained when Ice and Snow World issued a notice that they couldn’t accommodate more than 40,000 people and had already reached their limit during the early afternoon, therefore halting further ticket sales on the 18th. The 40,000 people limit seemed strange to many, who commented that other events and venues across China, such as Shanghai Disneyland, could welcome much more visitors.

People who had been waiting in line for hours starting shouting that they wanted their money back, and that incident went viral online as the “ticket refund incident” (#哈尔滨退票事件#, 170 million views on Weibo).

Not only did these incidents generate more public attention for the events taking place in Harbin, Snow World’s response also became a hot topic as they soon issued an apology, swiftly canceled the time slot reservation system, gave ticket refunds, and introduced a ‘first come first served’ system (#冰雪大世界取消预约制#, #哈尔滨冰雪大世界致歉#, 370 million views).

A side effect of this incident and how it was handled was that a so-called “underdog effect” became visible on social media, where many people started defending Harbin and Snow World. Supporters questioned whether visitors would similarly express frustration while waiting in lines at Disneyland or Universal Studios.

One Weibo blogger (@刘成春) wrote: “Please do not dismiss Harbin’s Ice and Snow World just because of some minor shortcomings. A group of simple, honest, hardworking people have spent days on end creating these sculptures with ice taken from the Songhua River at temperatures below minus 20. They’ve been making so much efforts, and Harbin just wants to present these works as gifts and the city’s signature to the people (..) Please don’t discredit the only snow and ice landmark of Northeast China.”

After the incident, this sentiment echoed widely on Chinese social media, where many believed in Harbin’s genuine efforts to make its snow and ice season a success, recognizing the sincerity and goodwill of those involved. The idea that Harbin really deserves to shine this season was further strengthened because of videos emerging on social media of previous Covid years, when the smaller festival looked empty and staff still worked hard to try and entertain the few visitors that were there.

 
Southern Little Potato Hype
 

On New Year’s Eve, videos showing celebrations in Harbin rapidly gained traction online, showing that Harbin was doing everything it could to entertain and create a welcoming atmosphere for its visitors.

These visitors have also become part of the buzz surrounding Harbin this season, mainly the emergence of the so-called “Southern Little Potatoes” (南方小土豆 nánfāng xiǎo tǔdòu). This term refers to the increasing influx of tourists from China’s warmer southern regions who are making their way to the snow-blanketed north.

The term “Southern Little Potatoes” humorously describes these southern tourists, especially women, who are frequently spotted sporting light-colored down jackets and hats. Their short height, distinct travel attire makes them stand out among the typically taller and darker-dressed locals in northeastern cities, leading to the playful potato comparison by northerners.

One of the ‘Southern Little Potatoes’ memes (via 21jingji.com).

As “Southern Little Potatoes” became a trending term online, southern tourists also started using it to make fun of themselves and it came to be used to highlight the warm and sometimes funny exchanges between the north and south.

The “Southern Little Potatoes,” who are not used to not used to ice, snow, and extremely cold weather, are also known to get into tricky situations, needing locals to help them out. On January 9, one tourist from the south went viral for stepping out of the train as he quickly wanted to experience licking a metal pole in freezing temperatures. The moment his tongue got stuck, the train staff kindly helped him get unstuck.

For locals, these silly southern tourists are a great business opportunity. One street seller started offering a supervised metal pole licking experience: you can lick a small metal pole for 5 yuan ($0.70), a bigger one for 10 ($1.40), and the tallest one for 15 ($2) (photo below).

Metal pole licking experience.

The Southern Little Potato trend has set off the online meme machine, as well as sparked a small local economy. Some Harbin taxi drivers, for example, promote themselves as being designated “little potato drivers” to serve their ‘friends from the south.’ Street sellers selling ‘little potato’ plush toy keychains for 15 yuan became all the hype.

Little Potato merchandise sold in the streets of Harbin (via 21jingji.com).

You could say that this general trend has also strengthened ties between the north and south. In Chinese, Harbin (Hā’ěrbīn 哈尔滨) is now affectionately shortened to ‘Ěrbīn‘ by visitors and netizens, with the dropping of the ‘Ha’ reflecting a more casual, friendly familiarity with the city.

 
A Snowball Effect
 

Although part of Harbin’s enormous (online) success can be attributed to a snowball effect that began after December 19/20, with people showing their appreciation for the city and joining the hype, the attention on social media was also a result of a well-coordinated campaign.

As described by Chinese media outlet The Paper (澎湃新闻), Heilongjiang Province’s Cultural and Tourism Department Party Secretary and Director He Jing (何晶) recently stated in an interview: “This year’s popularity [of Harbin] isn’t accidental; we’ve been preparing for a year.” He explained how, since early 2023, they started focusing on new media and social media strategies to promote Heilongjiang and Harbin in multiple ways.

For this season, Harbin Snow World made sure there were several online influencers and celebrities promoting the festivities, such as Chinese influencers Kiki (陈洁Kiki) and Barbin (Barbin.ili芭比) or Olympic champion speed skaters Fan Kexin (范可新), Zhang Hong (张虹), and Zhang Yuting (张雨婷). There are also various brand collaborations, such as with Tencent and its Game for Peace (和平精英). Local official media channels and big state media accounts also collaborate with Harbin in posting a lot of promotional videos related to festivities.

This year, Harbin also introduced all kinds of activities and venues to increase their appeal. The ice-made terracotta warriors, for example, or the hot pot restaurant housed within an ice structure, where even the tables are sculpted from ice. These are just some of the many ‘must-experience’ attractions in Harbin that have garnered attention on Chinese social media (#哈尔滨把火锅玩出了本地特色#).

There is also a 20-meter high snowman wearing a red hat, that has come to serve as a must-go photo opportunity for visitors. The local tourism ambassador, the Exploring Pinguin (淘学企鹅), with its cute appearance and orange backpack, is also one of those things that further adds to the appeal of Harbin and its Snow World.

Local authorities, including the tourism department, also pulled out all the stops to ensure visitors felt welcome and accommodated. They made sure local hotels and other business maintained fair prices despite the surge in tourists and to increase the focus on customer service.

They also made sure to listen to (online) feedback and quickly act on complaints. For example, after so many tourists from the south arrived at Harbin Airport and had to change into warmer clothing in the chilly central hall, they increased the number of airport dressing rooms, equipped with seats, mirrors, and carpets. This kind of attention to detail and drive to serve visitors is a strategy that has greatly contributed to Harbin’s current success.

You now see that the combined efforts of local authorities and businesses in Harbin, both online and offline, have cultivated a unique festive atmosphere. This atmosphere is contagious; it motivates locals to actively contribute to maintain the standards while also encouraging visitors to actively promote the city. This leads to new groups of visitors getting enthusiastic to travel to Harbin.

While this success is partly orchestrated, with authorities and state media being key players, there is also that ‘special something’ — a kind of genuine charm, sincerity, relatability, and likability — which is much harder to schedule through strategies. It’s an organic ingredient that is a major part of the buzz. In this way, Zibo and Harbin are very much alike.

Despite some criticisms about prioritizing short-term fame and social media hype for Chinese tourist destinations, it seems that Harbin’s success will be long lasting. As some social media users say: “I can’t make it this year, but I definitely will go to Harbin for the next season. I’ve never even seen snow in my life.”

By Manya Koetse, with contributions by Ruixin Zhang and Miranda Barnes

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References

Dewar, Keith, Denny Meyer, and Wen Mei Li. 2001. “Harbin, Lanterns of Ice, Sculptures of Snow.” Tourism Management 22 (5): 523-532.

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China Insight

Red Cross Society of China in Bad Light Due to Online Rumors after Gansu Earthquake

Even though the rumors surrounding the Red Cross might be false, the public concerns surrounding charity efforts are real.

Manya Koetse

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A handwarmer for 500 yuan ($70), a tent for 2200 yuan ($308), a blanket for 100 yuan ($14)? An online list detailing items supposedly procured by the Gansu Red Cross for earthquake relief efforts has ignited controversy on Chinese social media in recent days. Although the Red Cross has denied all rumors, the incident underscores public skepticism towards the organization.

After the devastating 6.2-magnitude earthquake struck Jishishan (积石山), a county in China’s Gansu Province’s Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture, on December 18, Chinese social media platforms were flooded with news related to the disaster. The overnight earthquake killed at least 148 people and left hundreds injured.

News of the earthquake resonated deeply throughout the country, and the ongoing search and rescue operations and relief efforts, hindered by landslides, ruined infrastructure, and freezing temperatures, have attracted major attention online.

While much of the discourse revolves around the goodness of the people contributing to charities and doing all they can to help victims in the affected areas, there is also public distrust surrounding the motives of some charities or helping organizations that might use the disaster as an opportunity to make a profit.

One hotly debated topic revolves around the Red Cross Society of China, after a list surfaced online of items allegedly purchased by the Gansu Red Cross for relief efforts in the aftermath of the Gansu Earthquake.

Image published on Weibo via Red Cross Society of China (@中国红十字会总会).

The procurement list raised controversy due to the high prices of the common items listed, and because of a supposed “management fee” (管理费) of 1.6 million yuan ($224k).

In response, the Red Cross refuted these claims, asserting that they had not issued any such list (#甘肃红十字称没发布任何物资清单#). On December 24, the Gansu Red Cross took to Weibo (@甘肃省红十字会) to clarify that the circulating information was “grossly inaccurate.” They assured the public that all donations would directly aid earthquake relief efforts, without incurring management fees.

The Red Cross statement on Weibo.

Even though the procurement list might be false, the public concerns surrounding charity efforts are real.

“Why does the Red Cross end up in the top trending lists every time?” one commenter wondered: “Their information should be more transparent and timely.”

Others also suggested that merely denying the rumors was not enough, and that they hoped that the Red Cross would provide more details and information to show netizens, of whom many donated money, how their charity money is being spent to help relief efforts in the affected areas in Gansu and Qinghai.

The fact that the Red Cross Weibo post did not allow any commenting did not help: “Why are you afraid to let us openly discuss this?”

 
Red Cross Society of China: Tainted by Suspicion
 

The Red Cross of China, the nation’s largest charitable organization, continues to grapple with a tarnished reputation that partly stems from the 2011 “Guo Meimei Incident.”

Guo Meimei (郭美美), whose real name is Guo Meiling, became an infamous internet celebrity in the summer of 2011 after flaunting her excessive wealth online whilst claiming to work as a “commercial general manager” for the Red Cross Society of China.

The issue severely eroded the society’s credibility, which has been designated by the government as the central public donation organization during times of disasters (Cheng 2016). From luxury handbags to sports cars, the 19-year-old Guo showed off her money on Weibo, and quickly went viral on various message boards as people were angered over corruption and potential misuse of charity money.

Guo Meimei

Despite efforts by the Red Cross Society to debunk these rumors and distance itself from Guo, speculations persisted. Many speculated about Guo’s potential ties to the organization, even if she did not officially work there. As highlighted by Cheng (2016), the public’s negative sentiment toward the Red Cross triggered “a chain of credibility crises” and even spread to other charitable groups in China.

During the 2020 Wuhan Covid outbreak, the Red Cross faced scrutiny for allegedly stockpiling public donations of medical supplies in warehouses rather than promptly distributing them to frontline medical personnel facing shortages.

The current allegations against the Red Cross of China in the aftermath of the Gansu Earthquake also echo other past controversies, such as the one they dealt with after the 2008 Sichuan quake. Red Cross officials were then also accused of misusing donations by purchasing needlessly expensive tents and vehicles.

 
Donations for the ‘Underdog’: The Han Hong Foundation
 

The growing public distrust towards the Red Cross has arguably paved the way for other Chinese charities to gain prominence. A prime example is the Han Hong Love Charity Foundation (韩红爱心慈善基金会), established in 2012 by renowned Chinese folk singer Han Hong (韩红, 1971).

Although Han Hong has been engaged in charity for many years, during which she invested a lot of her own money, the charity she established became more known after the Han Hong Love Charity Foundation was committed to aid efforts during the Wuhan Covid outbreak in 2020 and the Henan floods in 2021.

Han Hong (center), picture via Xiaohongshu fan of Han Hong.

After the earthquake in Gansu on December 18th, Han Hong’s organization immediately organized rescue teams and provided people in the affected areas with clothes and (medical) supplies. Hang Hong was able to rake in millions thanks to her reputation of being compassionate and altruistic, as well as through her strong network in China’s entertainment industry, leading numerous Chinese celebrities to support her relief efforts.

But Han Hong’s organization is also affected by the public distrust surrounding charity in China. On December 23, it was rumored that her Charity Foundation was officially asked to leave the disaster area as well as to hand over a portion of their donations.

The foundation refuted these claims by issuing a statement on December 25 (#韩红基金会辟谣#).

Statement by Han Hong Love Charity Foundation refuting rumors that their charity work was hindered by officials.

In the public view, there seems to be a big difference between perceptions of large entities like the Red Cross and other ‘official’ charitable organizations versus smaller, more independent initiatives like the Han Hong foundation, which operates as a private charitable entity.

Reflecting on the rumors surrounding both the Red Cross and Han Hong’s foundation, one Weibo commenter noted: “These rumors come into existence because so many of these so-called charitable foundations actually treat charity as their business. And so, they become ‘competitors.’”

Meanwhile, Han Hong’s organization stresses that it operates under the guidance and oversight of the party and government, and only provide emergency support through their support.

In online discussions on the power of the Red Cross versus Han Hong’s organization, some commenters suggest that it is time for the government and authorities to reflect on why a private organization would be more trusted than the Red Cross, a government organized NGO.

One Weibo commenter wrote: “What Han Hong does is true charity instead of business.” Another person replied: “The biggest disaster here is actually the erosion of public trust.”

By Manya Koetse

References

Cheng, Yang. 2016. “Social Media Keep Buzzing! A Test of Contingency Theory in China’s Red Cross Credibility Crisis.” International Journal of Communication, June 2016: pp. 3241+.

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