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Microblogs, an effective tool for charity

By Tom McGregor | CRI | Updated: 2011-08-09 16:45

Encouraging a culture of charity in China would help the nation emerge as a more benign economic superpower. Nevertheless, donating and volunteering in China is easier said than done, due to government restrictions and recent scandals involving high profile charities.

Chinese government regulations impose rigorous requirements on charitable organizations, forbidding them to engage in fund-raising activities. Meanwhile, only a few charities are officially recognized by the government.

So what can China do to overcome this dilemma? Apparently, microblogs have become an effective tool for charitable contributions to make an immediate impact upon society.

The China Daily reports, "microblogs are surging in popularity in China with more than 195 million registered blog users. Although most users log on purely to chat with friends and share news, others have harnessed the power of microblogs to help people who are in dire need of assistance."

The prevalence of microblogs in society shows the new-found freedoms of all Chinese people. Meanwhile, microblogs have transformed from gossip-filled chat rooms to an instrument by which the latest local, national and international news can be obtained. And now, microblogs are even being utilized to launch a people's movement of charity.

A number of heroic deeds have already come about as a result of microblogs. The China Daily posted a story about a 6-year-old boy from north China's Shanxi Province. Last winter, most of Wang Genxiang's skin on his head was burned during a straw fire accident. He now has to wear a surgical mask to prevent scars from becoming infected. His parents could not afford expensive skin-grafting operations.

A photo of Wang wearing a surgical mask and playing with a puppy was widely circulated on microblogs. The picture captured the hearts of millions of netizens and in just over a month, over 600,000 yuan ($91,000 U.S. dollars) was raised for the boy, who was then able to undergo skin grafts.

The story serves as a reminder of the greatest potential of microblogs to save those in desperate need of help. Wang is not the only child with a poor medical condition in China. I recall when I was on the Beijing subway and observed a little girl with severe burns all over her body. She sat next to her father as they held hands. She looked peaceful, but I still wanted to hug her, though I wasn't sure how the family would respond to my request.

Afterwards, I felt a strong desire to help children suffering from serious medical problems. I was later informed by a number of Chinese people that one microblog seeks to get Beijingers to visit disabled orphans in rural villages across China. I contacted the group and took a special trip to the Liming Orphanage in Hebei Province, and have since told everybody that this was my best day in China so far.

Yu Jianrong, a professor with the Rural Development Institute under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, also deserves special recognition for utilizing a microblog to help child beggars. He opened his microblog in January and called on visitors to take photos of beggar children so he could upload them. As of August 4, he has already attracted over 200,000 followers.

Yu explained to the China Daily that "the emergence of microblogs as a medium for social assistance actually reveals the deficiency of China's charitable efforts. Microblogs provide a perfect outlet for the love and sympathy of the public."

Microblogs hold strong appeal since netizens can garner more public attention, join discussion groups and make more friends. Many Chinese are innately shy and talking to strangers seems unfathomable to them. But when many of them sit in front of their computer screens, and join these microblog communities, they feel a closer connection to the public.

Many dedicated netizens bring an emotional attachment to microblogging, so when they see photos of a badly-burned boy playing with a puppy it's much easier for them to donate money to his cause.

However, there is a risk that using microblogs as a tool for charity could also be used for the purposes of scamming people. "The microblogging sector is still in its infancy in China. There are no laws or regulations concerning how they are used, and the authenticity of information posted on microblogs can be hard for most users to verify," according to the China Daily.

Zheng Yuancheng, an official overseeing charity work for the Ministry of Culture, told the Beijing Today that, "micro-charity, when widely participated in, can have a big impact. But there are no specific laws governing the creation of microcharities by individuals."

Nevertheless, the benefits of microblogs for charities can outweigh the risks if the public makes efforts to verify stories. A simple procedure such as contacting a microblogger, who is requesting a donation, to ask them for documented proof of their claims would be an appropriate measure to take.

The popularity of microblogs could boost donations to legitimate charities and rescue many people from dire straits. A spirit of giving should become the new norm for all of Chinese society.

Tom McGregor writes a China-World Affairs column for China Radio International.

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