His actions were livestreamed by a state media outlet Saturday and immediately sparked outrage online.
“We didn’t donate stuff for government officials to use, they were for those on the front lines,” wrote one user on Chinese social media site Weibo, where the government official’s number plate became one of the most searched terms over the weekend.
The Wuhan government later said the Red Cross had given the man in the video approval to take the masks as the “relevant protective equipment” had been distributed to medics and communities.
The Red Cross is the country’s biggest charity. But while it is a member of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), unlike in most other countries, the Red Cross in China is government-controlled and gets most of its funding from the state.
“The Red Cross in China is not just the Red Cross — it’s a quasi-government organization,” said Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. “So the problems with the Red Cross undermine the trust, the confidence in the government.”
Need for supplies
People in China and overseas responded to the call.
On January 26, a doctor in Wuhan told her the first shipment had arrived, she said.
Since then, Liu said none of her packages have reached the recipient doctors. Shunfeng — the delivery company she used — said in a statement that it was prioritizing deliveries to charities and government departments.
“I’m p***ed off,” she told CNN. “I paid for masks and they just got stuck there.”
Despite the donations, doctors and hospital workers describe a desperate situation.
Dealing with the fallout
Over the past week, Chinese authorities have moved to address the criticisms of the Red Cross.
The doctor in Huanggang said the Red Cross had been “overwhelmed.” “They don’t have enough people to register the goods, they’re really slow. But we have to be sympathetic,” he said, adding that many public donations were poor quality. “Ninety percent of the stuff we’re getting is not up to standard,” he said.
A Red Cross volunteer manning the phones at the charity’s Wuhan headquarters said the number of volunteers had dropped sharply due to growing anger against the organization online.
“Because of the last two days, the name Red Cross really stinks,” she said. A number of volunteers had been brought to tears by angry callers. “You have to be sympathetic because after all, they’ve been stuck indoors for so long … so they pick up the phone and yell at us for a bit to get some of the rage out,” she said.
Meanwhile, heads have rolled for mismanagement of the situation within the Red Cross in China.
CNN has made multiple attempts to contact the national Red Cross, as well as the Hubei and Wuhan branches, but hasn’t received a response. Gwendolyn Pang, head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies country cluster support team in Beijing, said: “The Red Cross Society of China is committed to accountability and transparency.”
The bigger picture
This isn’t the first time China’s Red Cross has come under fire during a national crisis.
For the Red Cross’s reputation to be called into question again could be damning not only for the organization but for the government.
“When (the public are) criticizing the China Red Cross for real here, they’re criticizing the government,” said Carolyn Hsu, a sociologist at Colgate University who studies NGOs in China. “When people are making these accusations, they know it’s a powerful accusation.”
To Hsu, this criticism illustrates that citizens feel more empowered than in the past to push back against the government.
“It’s a scary situation, people are obviously really upset and afraid,” she said. “In a place where people are really upset that the people who need them don’t have the supplies that they need, I think this is not an abnormal response.”
“They can throw those people under the bus,” she said, referring to the local level leaders. “It looks like that’s already what’s happening.”
CNN’s Yong Xiong contributed to this story from Beijing.