The Han Hong Foundation’s response to the initial coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan is a story that exemplifies both the potential of celebrity-led philanthropy in China, and some of the constraints it faces.
Han Hong (韩红) is a Chinese singer who became famous in the early years of the new millennium. She is of mixed ethnic heritage, born in Tibet in 1971 of a Tibetan mother and a Han father. It was her mother, a Tibetan folk singer, who passed her love of music onto to her daughter. Han Hong was sent to Beijing as a child to be brought up by a grandmother, after the death of her father and the re-marriage of her mother. Much of her success is linked to her Tibetan heritage, with songs that present a romanticised image of the Tibetan plateau for audiences across China.
After achieving success as a performer, Han Hong started to get involved in charity. After the devastating 2008 earthquake in Wenchuan, which was a watershed moment for Chinese philanthropy, she teamed up with the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation to fundraise for the affected areas. The Han Hong Love Charity Foundation (韩红爱心慈善基金会) was started in 2012, with the singer donating 2 million Yuan out of her own pocket. Although the foundation is named after Han Hong and rides on her popularity, from a legal perspective the singer and the foundation are separate entities.
Last January, when the novel coronavirus first struck in Wuhan, the Han Hong Foundation was thrust into the spotlight through its efforts to fundraise for the relief efforts in Hubei province. While the fundraising drive itself was highly successful, it quickly overwhelmed the foundation’s own capabilities and gave rise to public scrutiny.
The foundation launched its fundraising effort on the 24th of January, the day after Wuhan was locked down, officially announcing the start of the “Han Hong Love Rushes to the Rescue of Wuhan” (韩红爱心驰援武汉) project. The project’s goal was, specifically, the donation and distribution of medical resources to the cities of Hubei. Donors were able to make a donation either through their phones or by going to the bank. Han Hong called for other celebrities to come forward and donate. “I would like to call on my friends in the art circles to donate and help the people affected by this terrible viral outbreak” the singer posted on her Weibo account, which has millions of followers.
According to the Charity Times’ count, 216 other celebrities donated to the project, including names like actor Wang Yibo and singer Jackson Yee. Ordinary members of the public also donated in large numbers. On the 27th the Foundation released an official statement, detailing all of its fundraising activities over the previous three days. According to the statement, by midnight of the 24th they had already fundraised in excess of 15 million Yuan, all of which was used to buy medical supplies for Wuhan and the surrounding cities.
On the 25th, 26th and 27th, the first three batches of medical equipment were delivered to various hospitals in Wuhan, including sterilising wipes, hand-washing liquid, and protective clothing. A fourth batch of equipment was on the way at the time of the statement’s release. The statement included a very specific list of all the hospitals involved and of the precise quantities of medical equipment donated. It was assured that an auditing would be conducted by a professional third-party after the end of the project, to ensure its transparency.
The statement also explained that, in order to “actively respond to the state’s urgent emergency aid policy on unified allocation of medical resources”, the foundation had devolved 3 million Yuan out of the fundraised money to the Wuhan Red Cross.
It is necessary to take a step back here: one day earlier, on the 26th, China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs had issued a public notice requiring all donations of money and supplies for the Covid-19 crisis in Hubei to be channelled to five state-backed charities, or GONGOs: the Hubei Red Cross, the Wuhan Red Cross, the Hubei Charity Federation, the Wuhan Charity Federation and the Hubei Youth Development Foundation. All five bodies are local branches of national GONGOs (the Chinese Red Cross is independent from the international Red Cross, and run by the state). All donations were to be funnelled to these charities, and then deployed by the Wuhan and Hubei Epidemic Prevention and Control Command Centres, government bodies set up to manage the outbreak.
This policy allowed the state to control the flow and deployment of donations, so as to make coordination easier. At the same time, it essentially locked independent charities out of intervening directly in the unfolding public health crisis. There was, however, a caveat in the Ministry’s notice: donations that were “earmarked for a specific purpose” (定向捐赠) did not need to be handed over to the five GONGOs. This caveat was what allowed the Han Hong Foundation to carry out its own project: since the funds were earmarked for a very specific project and purpose, rather than just generally destined to the fight against the epidemic, it was possible for the organisation to maintain control over its project. The donation of 3 million RMB to the Red Cross was quite possibly a way of signalling that the foundation was not ignoring the Ministry’s guidelines, highlighting the importance for Chinese charities to show that they are taking government policies seriously.
The success of the Han Hong Foundation’s fundraising initiative probably also owed much to the controversy over the handling of donations by the Red Cross. As mentioned above, only five “official” charity organisations were designated to handle the donations, and two of them were the local arms of the Chinese Red Cross. Very soon, controversy erupted over the operations of the Red Cross, sparked by various media reports and videos shared on social media. In particular, a report by the respected Caixin magazine found that much of the donated medical equipment was lying unused in a local warehouse, with only a limited number of people sifting through it for distribution.
The Red Cross officially apologised for the mishaps, and some officials from the organization were later sanctioned by the authorities for mismanagement. The reality is that its local branch was probably just overwhelmed by the large quantity of donations, such as it had never had to deal with in the past. All the same the negative publicity, combined with the memory of previous scandals linked to the Red Cross, may have pushed donors to look for other outlets through which they could help Wuhan and Hubei. The Han Hong Foundation was well placed to be a receptacle for the public’s generosity, because of its timely response, its well-known figurehead, and the support it received from other celebrities.
Eventually, however, the foundation’s fundraising drive turned out to be a victim of its own success. On the first of February, the Han Hong Foundation released a new statement to the effect that they would no longer be accepting donations. They explained that by the 31st of January they had already received 140 million RMB in donations, overwhelming their processing capacity. Over the following weeks, the foundation continued purchasing and delivering new medical equipment, with frequent updates published on their Weibo and WeChat accounts, detailing all the donations to ensure maximum transparency.
In spite of this, on the 13th of February a Weibo user going by the username of 司马3忌 reported the Han Hong Foundation to the Beijing Civil Affairs Bureau ( it is the Ministry of Civil Affairs that deals with foundations and charities). The Weibo user claimed that since May 2012, when it was set up, the foundation had never made public its annual reports or information about its investments, as it was required to do according to the law. Furthermore, it was alleged that the foundation had been raising funds from the general public before it had received the qualification for public fundraising.
On the 20th of February, Beijing’s Civil Affairs Bureau released an official statement with the results of its investigation into the matter. It was found that since it was set up, the foundation’s operations had stayed “relatively within the rules” (较规范), and it was recognised that it had made an important effort in the fight against the pandemic. At the same time, it was stated that some issues had been identified in terms of investment projects not being timely publicised, and of the foundation conducting fundraising without the required qualifications. The bureau had already demanded the foundation to rectify these issues “within a set timeframe”. The investigation also determined that the foundation had raised a total of 329 million Yuan for the coronavirus crisis, and a total of 531 million Yuan since it was created in 2012.
On the 21st the Han Hong Foundation released a statement in reply, admitting that they had only received their qualification for public fundraising in August 2019, but that from 2013 to 2018 they had fundraised through their website and Weibo account. It was added that the sum raised, 2,890,000 Yuan, constituted only 1.69% of all the funds raised up to that moment, and it was used entirely for charity. The other problems raised by the investigation were also recognised, and the foundation pledged to address them.
Meanwhile, the foundation continued the work of purchasing and delivering medical material for Hubei province, and providing regular updates on its activities on its Weibo account. On the 20th of March, the foundation posted a notice on its account announcing that the third round of aid distribution was coming to an end, and reporting on the project’s achievements. The project had raised a total of 329 million Yuan from “artists, society, enterprises and institutions”, out of which 253 million had already been spent, while the remainder was going to be used on continued assistance. 271 hospitals and medical centres in 17 cities and 101 counties across Hubei had received material assistance through the project.
Now that the pandemic had mostly been brought under control, it was announced that the foundation would also start providing aid in the worst-hit regions to vulnerable families and groups who had had deaths or infections or had fallen into dire straits due to the pandemic.
On the 29th of June the Han Hong Foundation announced the closure of the fourth and final phase of the project, in which medical and protective equipment was donated to 830 institutions across Hubei, including old people’s homes, orphanages, mental hospitals and rescue stations. The foundation has also begun the process of helping vulnerable groups in the province by collecting data regarding the people and households in need of assistance. It is focusing particularly on disabled people who are categorised as impoverished or have been diagnosed with Covid-19, aided by the Hebei Disabled Persons’ Federation to collect the data.
The Han Hong Foundation’s activities during the coronavirus pandemic certainly represent an admirable example of a private, independent foundation successfully navigating official rules and practical constraints to deliver effective aid to the hospitals and medical workers on the frontline. The fact that the organisation was reported to the authorities by a social media user, in spite of its best attempts to be as transparent as possible, are indicative of the level of scrutiny that charitable organisations in China currently face from a skeptical public, and from the risks associated with not following the country’s detailed legal provisions to the letter. The report of irregularities by the Weibo user was technically accurate: the Han Hong Foundation did engage in a degree of public fundraising before officially receiving the qualifications to become a “public fundraising foundation” in 2019, and it did fail to disclose certain documents on its official website, even though it was mandated to do so.
These facts should be seen in context, however. The current legislative framework for Chinese charities revolves around the “Charity Law”, which only went into effect in 2016. When the foundation was set up in 2012, the legislative environment for the charity sector was much less clear than it is today, with a much higher tolerance for grey areas and irregularities. In the foundation’s official statement in response to the allegations and the investigation, it is claimed that if the legal system’s current specifications towards their public fundraising between 2012 and 2018 are “different from the foundation’s own understanding at the time”, then they would respect the law. This turn of words also suggests that at the time the fundraising was seen as falling into a grey area, not exactly allowed but tolerated nonetheless.
Workers distribute donations in Hubei. (Source: Han Hong Foundation’s WeChat account, 29th of February 2020)
An article published in April by the Charity Times (公益时报), China’s most respected news outlet that covers the charity sector, looked at the allegations in depth. After pouring through its annual reports, the journalist concluded that the Han Hong Foundation is actually quite a small organisation, in spite of its well-known name. In 2013 it made 40 million Yuan in donations, and in the following five years the funds raised never exceeded 26 million annually. The foundation’s staff is also limited to a total of 15 people, with an average monthly income of 7000 Yuan.
As the article puts it, it is not surprising that a foundation whose annual funds don’t normally reach 30 million would have trouble suddenly dealing with 329 million in donations in the space of a month or two, and this is the reason why they were forced to ask the public to stop donating. The journalist also found that the foundation’s official website was still missing the annual reports for 2012 and 2013, and certain information about outside investments that is supposed to be made public according to the Charity Law. This can be put down, however, to the fact that the website was only created in December 2019, after the foundation acquired the public fundraising certification.
The Charity Times article also notes that there have been many cases of Chinese stars setting up foundations in recent history. Some other such foundations have also ended up on the receiving end of doubts and scrutiny from the public. For example, Jet Li (李连杰) set up a charitable foundation that plaid a big role in the aftermath of the Wenchuan earthquake of 2008. Thanks to the star’s charisma, they fundraised sums that dwarf those raised by the Han Hong Foundation during the recent crisis. The foundation then became the target of suspicion due to the fact that it could not immediately put the funds to good use, compounded by the fact that the donations came entirely from the public, without Jet Li making a significant contribution from his own pocket. Later on, the foundation tried to create an image that was less dependent on its famous founder.
The article further quotes Tsinghua professor Deng Guosheng, one of China’s most respected experts on the charity sector, who notes that this kind of foundation suffers from an excessive identification with its founder. The public has excessive expectations of famous figures, and this can lead to “moral capture”, which is not favourable to the development of such organisations.