A Chinese father recently has raised nearly 2.7 million RMB (about 0.31 million GBP) through an online appeal on WeChat, China’s most popular social media platform, for his daughter who is suffering from leukemia. On Wednesday this week, however, the campaign was caught up in bitter controversy as people started to question the father’s financial situation and the motives behind the whole incident. Within 5 days, the originally successful crowdfunding campaign had turned into a mire of doubts and interrogations, and was finally called off with all the money returned to the donors.
Luo Er, 48, father of a five-year-old daughter, used to work as an editor at a life magazine in Southeastern China city of Shenzhen. On November 25th, Luo published an article on his personal WeChat account about his daughter’s sickness, titled “Luo Yixiao, staying stand for me”, articulating a father’s fear and agony that his daughter, named Luo Yixiao, may die before him.
Luo Er’s article, “Luo Yixiao, staying stand for me” on WeChat
In the article, Luo said the medical treatments cost at at least 10,000 yuan a day and it is a huge financial burden for the family. He did not ask for donation directly, instead, a local peer-to-peer lending firm, Xiaotongren showed great support. The company reposted the article on its WeChat account, “P2P Guancha”, and promised that it will donate 1 yuan to Luo every time the article is shared by the audience. Besides, the audience can also “tip” Luo via WeChat’s digital wallet.
People are not able to”tip” the article for the total tip has reached 50,000 yuan
The article immediately went rival on WeChat (over 100,000 views), which attracted over 110,000 people to donate money via the WeChat’s tipping function and brought about donations of 50,000 yuan (the maximum tipping amount WeChat allows for each article) within half a day. WeChat had to temporarily disable the tipping function of this article, which only prompted people to find Luo’s personal WeChat account and tip him directly instead. Donations soon reached over 2 million yuan, including the sharing-led donation promised by Xiaotongren.
On the 29th, Luo expressed his gratitude in another post, saying that he had received enough money to cover his daughter’s medical expense and asked the public to stop donating. He also explained his close friendship with Xiaotongren’s CEO, Liu Xiafeng, which is the reason why the company had been so generous. So far, it seems to be a very successful charitable crowdfunding: generous donors, grateful receiver, and a child to be saved soon. However, on the 30th, the story invited unexpected backlash as people started to question Luo’s financial situation, the real cost of the medical treatment and the motives behind the company that initiated this drive.
People found some of Luo’s less-read articles posted previously on his personal WeChat account, in which he wrote that he is the owner of “3 apartments, 2 cars and a promising advertisement company”, which drew a rebuke from the public, “Why don’t you sell your houses to save your daughter?” Internet users were angered, “You live in an apartment in Shenzhen where the average house price stands at 70,000 yuan per square meter, and you ask for money online, shame on you.”
Later in response to Chinese media The Paper’s interview, Luo confirmed that he did own three houses worth over one million yuan and a car, but said that he cannot sell the houses yet because he is still paying off the mortgages, and the family only lives on his 4,000 yuan monthly salary from his magazine job.
The actual amount of the medical fees for Luo’s daughter called in question as well. A picture posted by a self-claimed doctor has been widely circulated online, displaying that the daily expense of the daughter is about 5000 RMB, more than 82% of which can be covered by the government healthcare insurance. So among the overall treatment fees of about 110,000 RMB, the Luo family only has to pay 20,000 RMB. The Shenzhen Children’s Hospital where Luo’s daughter is receiving treatment said on Weibo that Luo had so far spent 36,000 yuan on Luo Yixiao’s three-month leukemia treatments. Yet, Xiaotongren company alleged in the first post that Luo needed half a million yuan for the treatment. That means the amount of money appealed for online was, indeed, considerably exaggerated.
The public also doubt whether the company Xiaotongren acted out of benevolence or a desire for publicity, as the fundraising campaign has successfully drawn substantial attention to the company because of its “1-yuan donation each time Luo’s article is shared” promise. Many thus speculated that the whole campaign may be an event marketing exercise or even a downright fraud.
Luo said in an interview that he turned to his friend Liu Xiaofeng for help after his daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. The two friends came up with the means of crowdfunding after discussions. “Xiafeng is the CEO of the company; it (posting the article and setting the ‘share’ rule) can not only attract more viewers for the company, and but also raise money for Xiaoxiao (Luo’s daughter), so I agreed.”
Some sharply argued that the company could have made its donation directly instead of devising ploys in order to boost its own exposure. “If it was me, I would never draw on this incident to push my kid in front of the public,” one commented on Weibo. Another wrote, “parents’ anxiety about their child’s sickness is understandable, but turning it into a marketing campaign is just too awful. They exploited people’s sympathy, exaggerated the medical fees, tricked people to share the article and did free advertisement for themselves. It cannot be cheaper.”
Author Cao Lin commented on it in his article, “it might be true that they need charity from the society. However, once the it is contaminated by such a marketing purpose, it is not the same any more.”
Luo’s father received the interview in tears
“I’m so desperate…My daughter is now struggling to live, and no one cares about whether she is guaranteed [treatment], everyone only wonders if I’m a liar… why don’t they have any sympathy?” Luo said amid tears.
While many people and media accused that the commercial motive fundamentally undermines the noble charity cause, some see that it is not at all unjustifiable. Miss Zheng from a charity organisation said, “in the past, it was fairly difficult to raise money through traditional media. This time, the ‘sharing’ and ‘tipping’ functions enabled by new media has proved much more effective. It aroused social concern on leukemia-stricken children, I think it’s very good.”
However, Liu confronted the criticisms and announced on the morning of December 1st that he and Luo will use all the donations to set up a leukemia foundation, and then from the foundation they will apply money for Luo’s daughter’s treatment through legal means.
Even so, it failed to palliate the public indignation as people could not accept that their acts of goodwill were taken advantage of and called Liu and Luo “frauds”. On the afternoon of the same day, Tencent, the operator of WeChat announced a final statement that, after reaching a consensus with Luo, Liu and the Shenzhen civil affairs authority, it will return all the money raised to donors within three days. In the statement, Luo and Liu apologised for the negative social fallout the incident has made.
Grass-root donations and self-started crowdfunding for charity have become very popular on Chinese social media in the recent years, especially after a many official charity organisations in China have been found embezzling donations and therefore lost trust from the public. However, it also concerns many donors as there have been several cases of people asking for donations online under false pretense. “You could even say people have no other choice but to do charity on social media, unaware of the real motives behind the cause,” an internet user wrote, “a lot of middle-class people want to do charity, but they just don’t know to whom they should give the money.”