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    Grassroots Cancer Community Has Half a Million Pitching In

    Donations help patients cope with crippling costs of cancer treatments.

    With nearly two decades of experience in finance, Zhang Mading knows a thing or two about making money. But that’s not what his latest venture, a grassroots, internet-based health care project with hundreds of thousands of clients, is about.

    Zhang, 38, told Sixth Tone he started the “Fighting Cancer Community” in 2011. The idea is simple: Whenever any of its members comes down with a serious illness like cancer, everyone pitches in to cover the medical costs. “I call it ‘mutual aid’,” he said.

    Undergoing treatment for a serious illness can be financially crippling in China. Government welfare gives those registered as urban citizens basic health care, but in most cities not all costs are covered. Welfare for people who live in the countryside is very limited, and few buy additional insurance.

    According to the World Health Organization, cancer is the number-one cause of death in China. Every day, about 7,500 Chinese die of cancer.

    Zhang, a native of Taian City in eastern China’s Shandong province, said he was inspired to start the FCC during a hospital visit with his mother, who at the time was receiving treatment for cancer. “A Chinese Christian came in and asked the doctor for some documentation,” Zhang recalls. “He said that with the documentation, he could get financial aid from his brethren.”

    Zhang set up a website, recruited a few staff members, and set out to establish the community’s rules. Five years later, the FCC counts nearly half a million members. Between 2,000 and 3,000 people join each day, Zhang said.

    When they fall seriously ill, a member can receive up to 300,000 yuan ($45,000) from the program, which means that members are asked to donate less than 1 yuan ($0.15) each time. The FCC has a public account on messaging app WeChat, where members can add money to their account using the app’s mobile payment function.

    Although the FCC sets almost no threshold for member applications, they strictly vet members who request financial aid. For one, people can only receive donations if they have been paying members for at least one year, and not all illnesses qualify for financial aid. The FCC’s website lists 30 diseases in total, including Parkinson’s, diabetes, and paralysis. Only for cancer can a member get the full payout, and the maximum amount is lower for older members. 

    When a member applies for aid, they go through a rigorous approval process that requires an insurance company to investigate their claim, and other members can check their personal documents once they have been uploaded to the FCC website. So far, the community has helped out 10 cancer patients, but the pace is picking up. “Every month, we receive about 20 applications from our members, and usually five to six qualify,” Zhang said.

    Mr. Ji, who did not want to use his full name for privacy reasons, is one of the 10 members whose medical bills the FCC has helped pay. The 33-year-old told Sixth Tone that his wife found out about the community in early 2015 when he was healthy, and they signed up together, thinking it was a good way to help patients alleviate the financial burden of treatments.

    In December 2015, Ji was diagnosed with colon cancer. After a vetting process of about a month, Ji was approved to receive nearly 290,000 yuan. In the name of transparency, a financial statement and a letter from Ji were put on the FCC website.

    Though the FCC is in ways similar to medical insurance, Zhang said there are important differences. “Our members don’t need to pay to join. We don’t have a pool of capital. That’s not insurance,” he said. Another difference is that the application process is fast — prospective members just need to fill in their name and ID number online.

    Hu Jingbei, an economics professor at Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, is enthusiastic about Zhang’s project. “I think the Fighting Cancer Community is an innovation, both economically and socially,” he said. “It makes mutual help and love the core ideas.”

    A 2012 editorial in party newspaper Guangming Daily was also high on the FCC, writing that “The Fighting Cancer Community is not illegal crowdfunding, but rather a positive supplement to the social care system.”

    But despite the FCC’s initial success, its business model is not sustainable, Zhang said. By design it generates no profits, and to set members’ minds at ease their donations don’t end up in any one person’s pockets — the organization has entrusted a bank to handle its money. While this increases transparency and trust, the fact that the FCC doesn’t manage its own money also makes the group unattractive to investors, Zhang said.

    Still, Zhang is optimistic. He has plans to monetize the FCC, both with advertisements and by introducing paid services. But for now, he’s mostly just concerned with growing membership.

    Professor Hu believes the FCC has the potential to attract millions of members. “The appearance of a mature society comes with a precondition: that there are good people who are willing to contribute without receiving rewards themselves,” he said. “There are good people in China, but what we lack is a system that will encourage these good people to do more, and that won’t cheat them.”

    (Header image: Medic Image/VCG)