HONG KONG – To save money for her brother’s medical bills, the woman in a Chinese village often only ate rice and steamed peppers or buns. Years later, malnutrition wasted his body and worsened a heart problem, and turned to the Internet for help.
The woman, Wu Huayan, was a 24-year-old university student, but she weighed less than 50 pounds and weighed only 4 feet 5 inches, according to state news reports. It became an instant symbol of the harsh effects of poverty and hunger, and triggered a large amount of $ 140,000 in donations, a significant amount in rural China.
Then, on Monday, Ms. Wu died in a hospital, and the public’s sympathy quickly turned into pain and indignation.
The images of his fragile and stunted body provoked a torrent of criticism that officials had not been able to help the disadvantaged at a time when China’s leader, Xi Jinping, promised to eliminate extreme poverty. For many Chinese, Ms. Wu’s plight was a clear reminder that despite the promises of the party and the jumps that the country has made economically, poverty remained a harsh reality in some parts of rural China. Some also established a link between tragedy and the country’s problem with the official graft that consumes public resources.
“How much money do corrupt officials have to embezzle before they get caught? Has this not already damaged our country and our people? “Yu Fannuo, a technology commentator, wrote in a blog “Why Wu Huayan, Guizhou’s girl weighing 43 pounds, was only discovered and helped when she was on the verge of death?”
Ms. Wu’s death also highlighted widespread public skepticism and distrust of philanthropy, which is a nascent concept in China. Questions were raised about how several charities handled the money that had been flooded to pay for women’s hospital treatment and why only one tenth of the funds were used. In a comment, People’s Daily, the official spokesman for the ruling Communist Party, asked whether the charities had exploited a tragedy for commercial purposes.
“At what scale is the false fundraising and the consumption of tragedies happening?” The newspaper said.
Ms. Wu grew up in a village in the poor and very rural province of Guizhou, state media reported. She subsisted for several years on a poor diet to help take care of her younger brother.
Malnutrition caused her to lose her eyebrows and part of her hair, and made her untreated diseases worse. She began having trouble breathing in 2018 and was admitted to a hospital in October for heart and kidney problems.
That month, an appeal began at Shuidichou, an online crowdfunding site, saying that medical costs that would add up to almost $ 30,000 were well above their means. Her family and friends had already made loans and she was desperate, she said.
“I’m just asking for help because I don’t have another way out,” he wrote. “I still want to live a proper life. I still want to contribute to society and I will use all my strength to fight my illness. “
His story was first reported by China Youth Daily at the end of September and then circulated widely on social media. Ms. Wu said after that in a video interview with a local media outlet that she had received 100 calls and messages.
“I feel like I can suddenly see the sun again after being abandoned in the dark night,” he said. “I don’t know your name, where you are and what life you are living, and I haven’t appeared in your lives before, but I want to thank you for your sacrifices for a common stranger like me.”
In a video interview filmed in November by The Cover, a state media outlet, Ms. Wu said that claims that only 30 cents a day usually subsisted were disproportionate. She said she always spent as little as possible on food, but that her people took care of her and that a teacher had paid the school fees without telling her.
Some charities also helped raise money, including the China Charities Children’s Aid Foundation, a private organization supervised by the Ministry of Civil Affairs.
The charity started a crowdfunding campaign that raised almost $ 30,000 for Ms. Wu. He said he transferred about $ 3,000 of that amount to his hospital in November. Under pressure to account for the rest of the money, the foundation said in statements that swelling in its organs had prevented Ms. Wu from undergoing surgery, and that Ms. Wu’s family had requested that the money be used for the operation and its recovery.
The foundation acknowledged public criticism of how it handled donations and said it was investigating the matter. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.
Ms. Wu died of heart and kidney disease on Monday, according to a Announcement published by the school he attended, Guizhou Forerunner College. That was three months after she started her crowdfunding appeal.
Philanthropy is in the early stages of development in China, and the sector has been affected in recent years by scandals. The Red Cross Society of China, a state organization that is one of the largest charities in the country, was severely affected by a 2011 scandal that hurt public confidence, especially in government-led efforts.
Concerns about transparency and accountability in philanthropy have increased along with the popularity of crowdfunding for charitable causes.
Internet platforms created by Chinese technology giants have allowed charities and nonprofits to finance their projects, and those efforts have been faced with increasing scrutiny, said Shawn Shieh, an independent expert in Chinese philanthropy and civil society.
“China’s social media culture demands immediate answers to funding questions quite frequently without understanding the whole story,” Shieh said. “We are seeing how the charity sector is increasingly striving to deal with public criticism of these public cases.”
Albee Zhang contributed to the Beijing investigation.