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Another University Murder: Time To Get Serious About Dorm Life Problems?

A recent Sichuan university murder case has shocked China’s netizens. As one of the most heinous campus crimes in China’s recent history, it has attracted much public discussion about the underlying factors that played a role in the murder. Is it time for Chinese universities to get more serious about its dormlife problems?

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A recent Sichuan university murder case has shocked China’s netizens. As one of the most heinous campus crimes in China’s recent history, it has attracted much public discussion about the underlying factors that played a role in the murder. Is it time for Chinese universities to get more serious about its dorm life problems?

On the 27th of March, Lu, a 20-year-old art student in a university in Chengdu (Sichuan), was brutally killed and beheaded in his dormitory. Two weeks later, on April 15, a regional branch of Chengdu Police Bureau confirmed to local media that the case was solved and that the suspect, Teng, was placed under arrest. A psychiatric evaluation has been ordered for him.

“March 28 is a day that will be engraved in my mind forever”

According to fellow roommates, Lu and Teng had an altercation on March 26. Lu was singing in their dormitory that night, which reportedly annoyed Teng. When their conflict became physical, the other boys took them apart. The following night, Teng returned to the dorm room with a cooking knife and asked Lu to come out.

Lu’s body was later found in the study area of his dormitory building. As reported by several media, Lu had been stabbed over 50 times and was then decapitated by his roommate. Lu’s brother told The Paper that his younger’s brother’s body was so mutilated after the attack that it had cost 18,000 RMB (±2800 US$) to reattach the body parts by stitching.

While the case is still under court procedure, the victim’s brother has opened a Sina Weibo account to advocate justice for Lu: “Netizen friends, hello,” he wrote on April 18: “I am Lu Haiqiang, the brother of the victim of the 3.28 campus murder case. I first want to thank you for following this case. March 28 2016 is a day that will be engraved in my mind forever..”

“I cannot sleep with all this noise”

Meanwhile, the suspect Teng has admitted to the murder and the police has agreed to psychiatric evaluation. Results of this evaluation will be released in late April or early May. Teng’s mother reportedly said that her son had done two suicide attempts when he was still in high school by cutting his wrists. His family has been seeking psychological help for their son ever since.

Further investigation is needed to establish whether Teng was mentally disturbed at the time of the crime. Teng’s family does not know what caused their son to commit such a heinous crime, but the mother stated that during his first year at university, the boy had called home to complain about dormitory life, saying: “It’s too noisy here at night, all this farting and snoring. I cannot sleep with all this noise.”

“The Fellow that Sleeps on the Bunk above Mine”

What turned a seemingly trivial fight into a matter of life and death? At the base of Teng and Lu’s was a disagreement about the proper use of their shared living space. With half a dozen youngsters living together in a compacted room, China’s campus life is not always easy.

Most universities in China provide on-campus dormitories for their students. A dorm room is often around 20-30 square meters, with bunk beds, tables and wardrobes in the living area. A toilet is included in some cases. For undergraduates, usually 4-8 people live together in one room. Students will be randomly allotted a dormitory at the beginning of their campus life, often sharing with fellow students of the same major or department.

For many students, the dormitory is like their first social environment, second home, and third classroom. Besides sleeping there, students on average spend 5-7 hours in their dorm. Roommates often get along well and end up being friends for life. Chinese folk singer Laolang has a famous song about this kind of roommate friendship, titled The Fellow that Sleeps on the Bunk above Mine (睡在我上铺的兄弟).

Dorm life is not all roses

But dorm life is not all roses. A group of grown-ups living together in a compacted space without knowing each other too well can cause problematic situations. A 2010 survey of 850 university students in Hebei province showed that almost 60% of students were not content with their dorm life; nearly a quarter said they didn’t want to live with their current roommates if they had the choice. Apart from the generally poor living conditions, frictions among roommates are often a source of complaint.

Different backgrounds, peculiar personal habits, certain personalities, and even the social life of each individual can become a cause of disagreement amongst roommates. In a survey of Chengdu universities, 60% of participants said they disliked one or more persons in their dorm.

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Living together with total strangers can be a challenge in itself, but is extra strenuous for China’s single-child generation, who never had to share their space with brothers or sisters. Leaving the comfort of their parents’ home, university dorm life is their first experience of a shared living space. Small things like eating habits and one’s daily rhythm can suddenly become the reason for troubled dorm relations, causing much stress for those involved. For students who are already mentally unstable, this might worsen their condition.

While most conflicts stop at cold words or small mischiefs, they sometimes get out of hand. In 2004, biochemistry student Ma Jiajue at China’s Yunnan University killed four of his roommates. He said he hated the victims because they didn’t treat him as a friend.

In 2013, a Fudan student died of drinking from a poisoned water cooler. A fellow medical student who had trivial conflicts with the victim had purposely poisoned it. That same year, in Nanjing, a boy killed his roommate for disturbing him when playing his video game – showing how trivial matters can lead to extreme aggression.

Time for universities to step up?

Under the hashtag of ‘Sichuan Normal University Murder Case’ (#四川师范大学杀人案#), thousands of Weibo netizens have been discussing the murder on Lu. One netizen says: “Looking at this murder case, I’d like to raise again that some things about dorm life require attention. I hope people will start to understand this, so that problems can be dealt with in time.”

There are few alternatives for those unhappy with their dormitory life. Students who live close to their hometowns can move back to their parents’ place; but many students attend university in cities that are far from their family. Renting an own place is often difficult and expensive, especially in big cities. In some cases, students are lucky and can switch to another dorm. Psychological help for students suffering from the pressures of dorm life is often unavailable, and long-term stress can negatively influence study results.

Extensive exposure to irritation and low chances of changing the situation makes dormitory conflicts an important source of psychological stress amongst students. According to an article by a Chinese school psychologist, 45% of his 200 consultancies in 3 years concern problems in dorms. According to the article, the solution to China’s dorm problem is in the students’ hands: they have to divert their attention, put themselves in the shoes of their roommates, and clearly communicate with each other.

“How to avoid getting murdered in your dorm”

On Weibo, the recent murder case has seemed to raise more awareness on preserving the peace amongst dorm students. According to a Sina Weibo post on how to live a better dorm life, student’s suggestions are small and simple: make sure to be quiet when others are sleeping, use earphones when listening to music, clean up your things and do not use each other’s things without asking.

But sometimes seemingly simple solutions are easier said than done. Apart from encouraging students to solve their own dorm problems, it is time for universities to step up. Acknowledging that the downsides of dormitory life can lead to serious problems is a first step. Students need help and support in dealing with their dorm troubles. This kind of guidance would also allow school authorities to detect problems before they get out of hand.

China’s dormitory system is unlikely to undergo significant change in the coming years due to China’s population density and increasing university intake. But universities could lighten some pressure by showing more flexibility and giving students a chance to change into another dorm if their current situation shows no signs of improvement.

Although little research has been done on whether university dorm living conditions actually heighten the risk of conflict, the many shocking tragedies that China’s universities have seen over the past decade are a clear sign that the potential downsides of dorm life require more social attention. By now, the hashtag ‘how to avoid getting murdered in your dorm’ (#如何避免在宿舍被杀#) is gaining popualiriy on social media. However crude it may be, it might be a first step in opening the discussion on a safer and more pleasant dorm life.

– By Diandian Guo

Read more on crime in dormitories
http://www.china.org.cn/chinese/2013-04/22/content_28621559.htm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yao_Jiaxin_murder_case

Read more on dormitory lives of Chinese university students
许传新,大学生宿舍人际关系质量研究,《当代青年研究》2004(4): 6-9
曹加平,大学生宿舍人际冲突原因与对策分析,《江苏大学学报·高教研究版》2006, 28(2):27-30

Featured images: (left) the murder scene – study room in a dormitory building, blocked after the crime. Pictures from The Paper (澎湃新闻). (right) ordinary dorm room in Chinese university.

Additional editing by Manya Koetse
©2016 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Diandian Guo is a China-born Master student of transdisciplinary and global society, politics & culture at the University of Groningen with a special interest for new media in China. She has a BA in International Relations from Beijing Foreign Language University, and is specialized in China's cultural memory.

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Rob

    April 23, 2016 at 1:57 am

    One of the issues that keeps students from going for help is the fear that they will be black-listed in some fashion by admin. I know that my students would not go to the counselling department or department heads because (a) they were made to feel that they were being a burden, (b) they feared getting in trouble, and (c) there was no real privacy. The minute a student spoke with the fudaoyuan at our school, their details were disseminated throughout the department to every teacher, and the standard response was to simply walk on eggshells around the students and go easy on them so they wouldn’t commit suicide. There really is no impetus from the school to actually treat the issue; they simply want to avoid any collapse until such time as the students are no longer their responsibility.

    There comes a time when the schools have to take responsibility and actually deal with the issues they help to create rather than avoid them or pretend they are not there.

    • Avatar

      Diandian GUO

      April 24, 2016 at 7:11 pm

      Hi Rob! When a university student, I experienced the exact thing you described. Teachers in my department were reluctant to tackle a dormitory problem where one boy seemed to be disturbed, unstable and had intentions to hurt. In the end the boy was detained to a lower year, but he still had problems with his new room mates.
      I was wondering if you have seen more cases of dormitory problems? Do you think these problems should have attracted more attention? Can bad dormitory life affect university life in general? From you words, I think you are a teacher. Do you have any thoughts on how things could be improved?

      • Avatar

        Rob

        April 27, 2016 at 1:10 am

        Hi DianDian,

        Yes, I have worked as a teacher at a Uni in Beijing. I’ve had talks with my students who have had issues with roommates – one looked to transfer her major just to get away from her roommates; another student has indicated that one of her roommates has an issue with everyone in the dorm, so they avoid her as much as possible. It’s a challenge, absolutely, and it definitely goes unreported – as someone who is Chinese, you probably understand the cultural focus on harmony and unity and NOT rocking the boat, which also compounds the issue. The Uni I taught at even had a murder-suicide at one point (but this was attributed to the female roommates being lesbians, though I have my doubts).

        Among the males, there are different issues, but they still have issues (especially among the students who are gay).

        I can guarantee that an unstable living environment will definitely impact students negatively, both in terms of their studies and social interactions but also in terms of stress and depression.

        As for how things can be improved – when I lived in York, we shared a living area but had private rooms, which would be a nice design for the dorm rooms, but of course, with large populations this becomes a challenge. What might be worth trying is to limit dorms to four people, and then cycle roommate groupings each year. This may increase student socializing and give them greater access to forming networks. As well, an induction teaching them to be sensitive to each others needs might be a good requirement – have students sign a contract regarding mutually respecting each other and then submit it to the fudaoyuan; if something comes up, then students can approach the fudaoyuan who can resolve the issues based on the contract/roommate agreement.

        Those are just thoughts off the top of my head.

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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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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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