Backlash Plagues Viral Donation Drive for Girl With Leukemia
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2016-11-30 15:06:38

A father’s online diary entry going viral has elicited millions of yuan in donations for his 5-year-old daughter’s leukemia treatments. But by Wednesday, the campaign had become mired in controversy as net users questioned everything from the family’s financial situation to the motives behind the company that had initiated the call for donations.

The episode started on Sunday with an online diary entry from Luo Er, who works as an editor at a lifestyle magazine, on his public account on messaging app WeChat. In his post, titled “Luo Yixiao, stay where you are!” referencing his daughter’s name, Luo writes with grief about how he fears his daughter will die before him.

Luo Yixiao poses for a picture. From Luo Er’s public WeChat account

Luo Yixiao poses for a picture. From Luo Er’s public WeChat account

Luo didn’t ask for money, but when Tong, a financial marketing company, reposted the article on its WeChat account promising to match donations given to Luo, netizens opened their digital wallets with fervor.

Tong’s post quickly received 50,000 yuan ($7,250) in donations, the maximum WeChat allows in tips per article. In a comment under the post, the company’s CEO wrote that Tong would further donate 1 yuan for every user who shared the article on his or her WeChat moments, the app’s social network.

The donations drive went so well that WeChat eventually blocked the tip function for Tong’s public account. This prompted net users to tip Luo Er directly, maxing out article after article on his account. In total, Luo received 2 million yuan in tips, and Tong has said it will donate more than 400,000 yuan — partially made up of tips from users — to the cause.

On Tuesday, Luo said he had received enough money to cover his daughter’s medical fees and asked the public to stop donating and tipping. He also said that he and one of Tong’s investors were friends to explain why the company had been so generous.

The charity drive seemed a success, until net users started to question both Luo and the company on Wednesday. Social media feeds filled with rumors questioning whether Luo was really in need of money, how much his daughter’s treatment would cost, and whether the company had acted out of benevolence or a desire for publicity.

A screenshot from Luo Er’s public WeChat account shows the different sums of money that users can choose to donate.

A screenshot from Luo Er’s public WeChat account shows the different sums of money that users can choose to donate.

With the story growing ever larger, media reports tried to verify the online claims. Regarding his financial situation, Luo told Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper, that he owned three houses and a car but that his monthly salary, the family’s sole source of income, was just 4,000 yuan.

Regarding claims that Luo did not need the millions of yuan he had been given, the Shenzhen Children’s Hospital where his daughter is receiving treatment said on its Weibo microblog that Luo had so far spent 36,000 yuan on three months’ worth of leukemia treatments for his daughter. In comparison, Tong had said that Luo needed half a million yuan for the family’s medical fees.

Following the accusations, Tong said it planned to establish a fund for leukemia patients with the leftover money and that it invited media and government supervision. Luo told party-affiliated newspaper Beijing Youth Daily that he would return the money if the public truly thought there had been foul play.

Grassroots donation drives are common on Chinese social media, but several cases of people asking for donations under false pretenses have made donors wary. In January, a man was arrested for cheating donors out of more than 100,000 yuan after posing as a well-educated, good-looking girl suffering from a heart disease and in need of money.

China’s first charity law went into effect in September. Civil lawyer Han Xiao told Sixth Tone that according to this law, it is illegal for individuals to start public donation funds. However, publishing information online about a desperate situation is not illegal. Luo received donations that he did not himself ask for, so he did not break the law, Han explained.

Hu Yihua, a lawyer at Beijing Hanliang Law Firm, told Sixth Tone that the law allows anyone to receive donations, regardless of identity or financial status. Regarding online donors’ suspicious attitudes, Hu said, “So many people strive to be first and fear being last when they donate. They did the same when they expressed their doubts.”

(Header image: Luo Er gives an interview in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, Nov. 30, 2016. Huo Jianbin/VCG)