Donations flooded in to fight the virus devastating the city of Wuhan, and the ruling Communist Party directed them to a group it could trust: the Chinese Red Cross.
Bearing the familiar red-and-white logo, it looks just like any Red Cross group that rushes to disasters, deploys medics and raises funds across the world with political neutrality and independence.
But there is a big difference: China’s Red Cross has been built, funded and directed by the Chinese Communist Party — effectively making it an arm of the state, and at times pitting the group’s goal of helping people against the party’s interests in maintaining control over society.
In Wuhan, the charity’s officials were quickly paralyzed by bureaucracy, competing mandates and chaos. For days, tens of millions of dollars in funds went unused, while piles of protective gear sat in a sprawling warehouse as desperate health workers battled the virus without it.
When officials did distribute aid, they sent tens of thousands of masks to private clinics that were not treating coronavirus patients. In one early shipment, they prioritized local officials over health care workers. In another delivery, the equipment was substandard.
“I just wanted to cry,” said Chang Le, a doctor at Wuhan’s Hankou Hospital, in a video he posted online after the Red Cross delivered thousands of nonmedical grade masks.
For the party, the Red Cross, with 90,000 branches in the country, is a reliable vehicle for tackling some of the country’s toughest public health challenges. The party reaps the benefits of philanthropy without loosening the social controls that would allow civil society to flourish.
But the layers of bureaucracy and political directives imposed by the state can slow the group’s response in a crisis. Smaller branches require the approval of the higher-level chapters overseeing them. Party members inside the organization keep employees in check. In Wuhan, the Red Cross was hamstrung by local city officials who were slow to decide how supplies were to be distributed. The group has also struggled to shake off its scandal-ridden past, which has eroded public trust.
“During this epidemic, the shortcomings of the Red Cross were displayed to an even greater extreme,” said Jia Xijin, deputy dean of Tsinghua University’s Institute for Philanthropy. “The Red Cross cannot make decisions.”
The Red Cross Society of China did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, of which China’s Red Cross is a member, defended the group’s response in Wuhan.
“Red Cross teams worked around the clock to provide essential humanitarian aid and human resources to reach the most vulnerable people,” the federation said in a statement.
As public criticism mounted, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, called on the Red Cross to be more open. “Charitable organizations and the Red Cross must operate efficiently, enhance transparency, and actively accept supervision, so that compassion and good will can be promptly fulfilled,” Mr. Xi said in February.
For Mr. Xi, the credibility of the Red Cross is essential.
Under his leadership, China’s Red Cross has been increasingly deployed abroad to help the country’s image. The organization is a major player in his ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, bringing a humanitarian touch to a state-led program to build economic and geopolitical ties across Asia, Africa and Europe.
“The Chinese Red Cross is the perfect agency to play a leading role in China’s ‘coronavirus diplomacy,’ ” said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor of politics at the University of New South Wales. “It appears ostensibly independent from the Chinese Communist Party, when in fact the opposite is the case.”
Money and Chaos
As the coronavirus besieged Wuhan, tens of millions of dollars of donations flooded in, and much of it was funneled to the Red Cross, one of only five state-run charities allowed to accept donations to deal with the contagion. General Motors gave $700,000; LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton $2.3 million; Honda $1.4 million.
When a natural disaster strikes, the Chinese government often gives the Red Cross a near monopoly on collecting donations. But the Red Cross shares the traits of many of the country’s government ministries and state-owned enterprises. It is often staffed by officials with little field expertise. Centralized authority can delay its decision-making on the ground.
In Wuhan, such issues quickly came to a head.
The charity had no logistics network to distribute supplies but was unwilling to let other groups help. The lockdown of Wuhan on Jan. 23 exacerbated the problem as the group struggled to find vehicles to pick up deliveries. The local government controlled how the Red Cross would distribute aid to hospitals, but its sluggish response quickly drew an outcry.
On a chilly day in early February, several medical workers waited anxiously outside a sprawling exposition center in Wuhan to collect donated medical supplies. The center — the size of 17 soccer fields — was filled with boxes of masks, safety gowns and other protective equipment.
Dr. Chang, the physician at Wuhan’s Hankou Hospital, said he went to the warehouse because a donor had sent the hospital 10,000 N95 respirators. But when he arrived, he said, the masks had been redirected elsewhere, and the Red Cross instead gave him substandard supplies.
“I would like to ask the Wuhan Red Cross: The donations that were supposed to be assigned to us, how could you go ahead and distribute them yourself?” Dr. Chang wrote in a post on Weibo, a social media site.
“Getting donations from private citizens is the fastest way because it would not be constrained by the system,” he said later in an interview.
Frustrated activists combed through data posted by the Hubei Red Cross and found that it had donated 36,000 masks to two private hospitals that were not treating coronavirus patients. A video also circulated online showing a man at a Red Cross warehouse in Wuhan loading 3M masks into a car marked for government officials.
Public anger swelled after the Red Cross said on Jan. 30 that it had spent only $7.6 million out of more than $56 million it had collected in donations.
The Red Cross was overwhelmed. Calls had been coming in every three minutes, state media reports said. Volunteers were divided into shifts around the clock to answer phones.
One volunteer said he was shocked when he was told to record donations using a pen and paper, instead of computers. Two volunteers said they knew of others who were kicked out of mobile chat groups run by the Red Cross after they made suggestions for improving the process.
In late January, the Hubei Red Cross apologized for mismanaging the donations. The charity said that donors could also deliver supplies directly to hospitals.
The Hubei Red Cross also started releasing daily reports detailing how donations were used. It later punished three officials.
By late April, China’s Red Cross had received more than $300 million in public donations of cash and supplies for the coronavirus response.
Politics and Scandal
The mismanagement of the crisis in Wuhan revived more than a decade of criticism of the Red Cross.
The organization was widely attacked for redirecting more than $11 million from Chinese artists that was meant to build an art school and support reconstruction after a devastating 2008 earthquake in the province of Sichuan. The school was never built.
The Red Cross apologized after a public outcry ensued, but insisted it was only at fault for poor communication, not misappropriation.
The public’s frustrations with the Red Cross boiled over in 2011 when a woman who claimed to work for the organization posted photographs online of herself posing with sports cars and luxury handbags. Many speculated that Red Cross funds were paying for the expensive lifestyle of the woman, Guo Meimei.
Ms. Guo later said that she did not have any ties to the organization. But the incident exposed a number of shadowy groups affiliated with the Red Cross that had been pursuing for-profit projects.
The Red Cross later said it would disband such affiliated groups.
Donations plunged by about 60 percent in the aftermath, and the Red Cross brought in a new party secretary to clean up the organization, so tarred by scandal it was often called the “Black Cross.”
Within three years, that party secretary, Zhao Baige, resigned amid another scandal. The Red Cross in Beijing had leased out to private companies government-financed warehouses that were supposed to be used to store emergency relief supplies.
Ms. Zhao called the move necessary to pay the wages of Red Cross staff, comparing the organization to an “honest girl who was forced into prostitution,” invoking a Chinese idiom. “The problem is quite big,” she told a state-run news site.
China’s Red Cross was born in 1904, when local elites set it up to deliver supplies to thousands of Chinese civilians caught between Russian and Japanese forces in Manchuria.
Chinese officials recognized the political role the Red Cross could play. When Mao Zedong’s Communist army prevailed over the nationalists in 1949, the Communist Party deployed the Red Cross to denounce “traitors” in rival Taiwan and “imperialist” Americans fighting in the Korean War.
“It was a huge propaganda machine for China under Mao,” said Caroline Reeves, a researcher who has studied China’s Red Cross.
In recent years, the party has opened branches across China. It has pushed government employees and workers at state-owned enterprises to serve as volunteers and offer donations.
The government has promised to strengthen oversight of the group. New rules were imposed in 2017, requiring the Red Cross to publicize audited annual reports and that its local branches tell donors how their money is spent.
In 2018, the head of the Red Cross, Liang Huiling, outlined a plan to be less bureaucratic and more transparent. But she also said that the reforms would “strengthen the leadership of the party” over the group.
“It has an inbuilt system of party decision makers, so while it might gain a slightly clearer boundary from government, it is, if anything, increasingly strongly party-led,” said Holly Snape, an expert in Chinese politics at the University of Glasgow.
Blurred Lines and Global Ambitions
As the Chinese Communist Party looks to expand its influence overseas, so goes the Red Cross.
In Pakistan, where China is building an 1,800-mile network of roads, railways and pipelines, the charity has offered ambulances and medical professionals. In Afghanistan, it has treated children with heart disease. In Sri Lanka, it has donated funds for flood victims.
China is hardly unique in using aid to advance its political interests. But the party has turned to the Red Cross to promote some of its most ambitious foreign policy projects, including the Belt and Road Initiative, the $1 trillion infrastructure plan at the heart of Mr. Xi’s vision to reclaim China’s place as a world power.
Three years ago, the Red Cross established the Silk Road Fraternity Fund, aiming to provide humanitarian services to countries from East Asia to Europe that are central to Mr. Xi’s initiative.
“President Xi’s proposal for a Health Silk Road, which strengthens and renews ancient links between cultures and people, with health at its core, is indeed visionary,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organization, said in 2017.
Now, China is following a similar playbook in its coronavirus diplomacy. The charity’s image has become crucial to Beijing’s efforts to quell anger about its early missteps in dealing with the outbreak. The Red Cross has sent doctors, masks and traditional Chinese medicine to Iraq. It flew more than $600,000 in testing kits and surgical hoods to Pakistan.
As they travel the world, Red Cross employees are splashed across Chinese media outlets in a propaganda drive that helps to fuel national pride and blunt public anger at a time of economic distress.
In Baghdad, they are shown discussing the construction of a coronavirus testing center. In Pakistan, they are depicted helping children put masks on. In Italy, they are portrayed visiting hospitals.
On March 15, the Red Cross sent experts and equipment to Italy’s Lombardy region. The aid, which was distributed through the Italian Red Cross, was received with gratitude.
“When I got the news last night at 10 that 40 respirators had been donated by the Italian Red Cross, I nearly began to cry,” said Giulio Gallera, the region’s top health official, according to news reports. “Starting today, we are giving hope to 40 Lombardy residents.”
Reporting was contributed by Cao Li in Hong Kong, Elisabetta Povoledo in Rome, Hana de Goeij in Prague and Alissa J. Rubin in Baghdad. Albee Zhang, Amber Wang and Liu Yi contributed research.