The kindness of strangers: Chinese mobile apps allow people in need to reach potential donors

For Chinese mother Wang Tao, WeChat – the nation’s hugely popular free messaging and calling service – has a greater importance than just chatting with friends.

The app is a vital source of funds in her impoverished Henan family’s life-and-death struggle to save her ailing son.

In only 30 days, Wang’s request for online donations on WeChat last May raised 44,000 yuan (HK$ 51,000) from 700 different people – much of that from strangers.

“I am grateful for the people who know or don’t know us, but have donated to us,” Wang said.

Her son, Sun Mohang, aged four, has a rare blood disorder, Langerhans cell histiocytosis, which causes the proliferation of abnormal cells. It requires costly long-term chemotherapy, which causes damaging side effects to Mohang’s liver.

When doctors in Shanghai first told Wang her son urgently needed a liver transplant, she felt she was in an almost impossible position. Her rural family’s only income comes from Wang’s husband, who has only intermittent work on a construction site.

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They had already borrowed tens of thousands of yuan from relatives and had no one left to turn to.

WeChat offered a ray of hope after Wang read online posts about families with similar problems that had received donations through the app.

The response to Wang’s WeChat post, written in May, though not enough to cover the cost of the transplant, was a huge boost for her and her family.

“Since Mohang was identified with the illness three years ago, the government gave us virtually no money,” Wang told the South China Morning Post.

These days, many mainlanders use smartphones to make online donations on social media platforms regularly. The ease with which they can be sent has overcome past problems that affected people’s charitable intentions, such as inconvenient payment methods and a growing public distrust of some charities.

Mainland donations to charities grew sluggish after the scandalous high-profile behaviour of Chinese internet personality Guo Meimei, who badly damaged the reputation of the Chinese Red Cross in 2011.

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Guo, then 23, posted photographs on Weibo flaunting her lavish lifestyle while falsely claiming to be an executive of the charity.

Mainland society has also been accused of being heartless and indifferent to the plight of the poor. The current levels of donations to charities by increasingly high-profile, wealthy mainlanders and enterprises pale in comparison with those of Western philanthropists.

China-watchers around the world see repeated images of China’s rich billionaires buying international businesses and wealthy Chinese travellers snapping up luxury homes and goods abroad, which are often in heartbreaking contrast to photos of mainlanders on the wrong side of the tracks.

Shocking images of the death of a two-year-old girl in Foshan, Guangdong, in 2011 – run down by two vehicles and ignored by a dozen people as she lay fatally injured – made stark international news.

Yet the situation – and poor perception – is changing gradually.

It is not against Chinese law for people to appeal for financial help for personal difficulties, so WeChat, with access to 800 million or so users, plays an important role for Wang and others in need.

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Beijing-based crowdfunding operator, Qingsongchou, which is connected with WeChat, is another of the prominent appeal forums, which also include, Sina Weibo and

Qingsongchou, which charges 2 per cent commission on donations it receives, is among the mainland’s first batch of legal online donation platforms, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

Last year it handed over public donations of 180 million yuan to 23,000 mainland families.

In the first half of 2016, 40,000 families received financial support from donations totalling 450 million yuan through the platform.

Zhang Gaorong, a researcher at the China Global Philanthropy Institute, said China’s boom in online charities was the result of the huge popularity of mobile social media alongside advanced technology that ensured donations could be made from anywhere at any time.

In the past, many people regarded charitable institutions as remote and distant, and considered making payments at banks as troublesome, Zhang said.

Today, social media requests for donations could go viral on the internet and reach many more people in a much shorter time, he said.

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Another important factor was that donations could be made through WeChat – a social media that features a person’s acquaintances, he said.

“China is an ‘acquaintance’ society, meaning people value relations among their acquaintances,” Zhang said. “In many cases with donations, peopledonate not because they want to help the person in need of help, but because they have seen the posts circulated by friends and are doing a favour for their friends.”

Guangzhou white-collar worker Zhou Rongrong said she donated tens of yuan – without checking details – whenever she saw her friends forward a donation request on their social media accounts.

“It’s not a big deal since the amount of money donated is not huge,” she said. “After all, helping people in need is also accumulating blessings from God, I think.”

Yu Liang, Qingsongchou’s co-founder and chief operating officer, said his company had designed special mechanisms to overcome the problems experienced by traditional charities.

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Its technologies and team of 100 staff could vet the identities of people seeking donations, including checking their medical records, he said. Its vetting procedures were also quicker than most other charity organisations and it used a whistle-blowing system so people could report fake claims.

Mohang’s mother, Wang, said traditional mainland charities were not easily accessible.

She said in the past three years, she made 20 visits to her hometown’s office of the China Charity Federation – one of the largest charitable organisations in China – yet was only once able to meet the person in charge of allocating funds.

“He told me they had never heard of my son’s disease and couldn’t offer us any aid,” she said.

Several other, smaller charities told her they only helped people older than 18, or targeted people with other diseases.

So for now, Wang’s best chance seems to lie withonline requests for help, although she still hopes to find a charity who can help her son, as online donations can not be relied on. She said a friend who also had a child with a serious disease sent a donation to his friends in Wenzhou, a wealthy area, “and within hours he received 300,000 yuan in donations”.

Zhang, the researcher, said successful online donation requests usually have a touching story communicated well.

“The ideal situation is that charity organisations grow stronger in terms of types, numbers and quality,” he said. That’s because they operate more professionally and take fairness into consideration.

Until then, Wang’s hopes for her son’s future will continue to rely on the kindness of strangers.

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