EU diplomats have expressed concern that China’s mass shipment of medical supplies to member-states had the ulterior motive of extending its influence within the EU, China’s largest trading partner. Chinese diplomats have denounced such interpretations, portraying the country’s global relief aid as a sign of its inherent “kindness” and “humanitarian concerns.”
This moralizing rhetoric, though, has also been accompanied by a string of misinformation, from accusations that the virus originated in the United States to a doctored video falsely showing Italian civilians expressing gratitude toward China. Furthermore, countries like the Netherlands and Spain have had to trash faulty masks and testing kits sent by China.
But perhaps the most worrying aspect of this campaign is that one of its leading faces, China Red Cross, is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Chinese Communist Party. For the past few weeks, the government-organized NGO, or GONGO, has delivered medical supplies and expertise to some of nations hit hardest by COVID-19, such as Spain, Italy, and Iran. State media has covered the organization’s exploits with enthusiasm, filming video conferences where President Chen Zhu is shown directing the charity’s dispersed teams on the ground.
During these missions, China Red Cross has not shied away from publicly criticizing the countries receiving its aid. On March 21, Sun Shuopeng, executive chairman of the organization, speaking at a press conference in Milan, publicly admonished the “very lax lockdown policy” in Lombardy, the Italian province hardest hit by COVID-19. Sun held up the lockdown imposed on Wuhan, where the novel coronavirus originated, as a model to follow.
Taken at face value, the advice is very sound. However, it is ironic that the dressing down was given by someone representing an organization that botched its own response to the COVID-19 crisis in Wuhan.
Around late January, nationwide outrage followed a viral video showing a government vehicle picking up a box of high-quality face masks from a China Red Cross warehouse in Wuhan. The same warehouse had turned away angry medics demanding supplies for the frontline. Censors jumped in after a few days of online venting.
It should come as no surprise that Party or government officials would enjoy privileged access to this stockpile of donations. China Red Cross, after all, is not beholden to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), famous for providing medical aid in war-torn countries. Rather, it is China’s most powerful and oldest GONGO, its birth tied directly to the establishment of the People’s Republic.
After the Communists emerged victorious from the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949), Beijing nationalized the Red Cross branch that had been operating in the country since the beginning of the 20th century. Premier Zhou Enlai personally oversaw the revision of the organization’s constitution. China Red Cross thus became a politicized, international mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – its leaders would go on to frequently denounce Taiwanese independence and other policies not in line with the PRC’s interests.
The apolitical humanitarianism often associated with the ICRC allows China Red Cross to appear independent from Beijing – even when the organization’s domestic practices run counter to this image. China’s top political brass are routinely invited to serve as honorary chairmen. Before the incumbent, Vice President Wang Qishan, President Xi Jinping’s predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao held the post.
GONGOs have long served as one of the CCP’s main tools for hijacking China’s civil society. Although Chinese GONGOs are officially registered as “social associations” (shehui tuanti), and thus purportedly part of civil society, they are often created and propped up by the government. This patronage allows them to scale up quickly and promote their brand nationwide. Come donation time, these entities have the widest reach.
“Although the government holds private charities to high standards of transparency, GONGOs can play by their own rules,” said Dr. Shawn Shieh, founder of Social Innovations Advisory, a consultancy that assists international NGOs operating in greater China.
GONGOs are designed to obey. Legislation passed in 2018 by the Ministry of Civil Affairs has forced all civil society organizations to form Party cells. Professor Jessica Teets, who has conducted extensive interviews with Chinese GONGOs, notes that while NGOs will usually have an individual serve as the Party “cell,” GONGOs have official Party representation in the organization.
China’s leaders have long feared that a bustling civil society would appear more capable than the government, undermining the Party’s authority. Xi’s rule has also been marked by a crackdown on countless advocacy-oriented NGOs (domestic and foreign) operating within mainland China. Meanwhile, the political clout accrued by China Red Cross continues to give it immunity from the strict laws governing most Chinese charities.
It has also allowed China Red Cross to receive exclusive rights to donation collection and distribution, despite its infamous track record of embezzling and mismanaging donations during China’s most vulnerable moments. In 2008, yearly donations tumbled thanks to a series of scandals, all pointing to gross mismanagement and embezzlement of relief aid for the victims of the Sichuan earthquake that took 87,000 lives.
In 2011, public trust eroded even further after a Beijing socialite by the name of Guo Meimei shared pictures of her luxurious lifestyle while wearing China Red Cross merchandise. Despite the tenuous connections between Guo and the charity, the backlash cemented China Red Cross as an organization synonymous with corruption.
Thanks to these fiascos, “China Black Cross” has become a popular moniker for the GONGO among Chinese netizens, according to Dr. Andreas Fulda, a long-time researcher of Chinese civil society at the University of Nottingham.
Tellingly, Xi distanced himself from the tarnished reputation of China Red Cross. In 2017, he broke precedent with Hu and Jiang, refusing the invitation to serve as honorary chairman. Naming his long-time political ally Wang Qishan to the post was a clear signal that the GONGO was going to reform – Wang had spearheaded a Xi’s infamous anti-corruption campaign.
Even more telling, however, was Beijing’s reaction to the Wuhan scandal. On February 1, Zheng Gongcheng, one of China Charity Federation’s five vice chairman, published an op-ed in the People’s Daily, the Party’s mouthpiece, defending China Red Cross – a signal that the organization still enjoyed Beijing’s support. Three days later, one director of the Hubei branch was dismissed, while two others were given “administrative demerits.” No further punishments were handed out.
China Red Cross’s cozy relationship with the Party is characteristic of civil society groups in other authoritarian countries. Fulda points out that the “co-optation of the Red Cross by an autocratic host government is not unusual,” noting the well-documented case of the Assad regime in Syria purging the society of its independent board members in order to provide aid based on partisan criteria.
But while both the Syrian Red Crescent and China Red Cross are complicit in the dismantling of their respective host country’s civil society, only one is engaging in international operations. As China infiltrates UN human rights committees and questions arise about the World Health Organization’s independence from Beijing, the discrepancy between the domestic reputation of China Red Cross and its international activities merits greater consideration.
Governments accepting aid and counsel from China Red Cross should not overlook the political character of this organization. It is neither detached or independent from the Party. Unlike any other organization purporting to represent Chinese civil society, this GONGO has a decades-long history of serving the Party’s domestic and foreign policy interests.
Eduardo Baptista is a Hong Kong-based freelancer. His work has appeared in The Economist, Nikkei Asian Review, Foreign Policy, The Diplomat, among many others.