This episode is part of the National Committee’s Coronavirus Impact Series.

The coronavirus outbreak has prompted a wave of public action in China, including fundraising, volunteering, citizen journalism, advocacy, and more. Professor Bin Xu examines varying forms of civic engagement in China, its implications for Chinese society and government, and its pitfalls, most notably the Red Cross Society of China scandal. He explores the novel use of social media and online platforms by the public and compares civic engagement today to the response to the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan.

Speaker Bio

Bin Xu is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Emory University. His research interests lie at the intersection of politics and culture, including disaster, collective memory, and civil society. He is the author of The Politics of Compassion: The Sichuan Earthquake and Civic Engagement in China (Stanford University Press, 2017). His second book, on collective memory of the “sent-down youth” (zhiqing) generation, has been finished and under review with a university press. He is currently working on his third book The Culture of Democracy: A Sociological Approach to Civil Society (under contract with Polity Press). His research has appeared in leading sociological and China studies journals. Dr. Xu is a National Committee on U.S.-China Relations Public Intellectuals Program fellow.


What types of civic engagement have occurred in China since the start of the coronavirus?

Dr. Bin Xu: So let me briefly define civic engagement. So I usually understand civic engagement as citizens’ participation in public activities that are aimed to improve some aspects of the society to promote the public good of the society. So this includes a variety of the types of civic engagement from volunteering to collecting donations or making donations and to public debates and activism all of which are aimed to solve some problems reviewed in the big crisis or events such as this one, the coronavirus event. So let’s talk about volunteering first.

So, in the wake of this outbreak, Chinese citizens in and outside of China quickly began to donate money through online crowdfunding and some more traditional forms of volunteering. Such as volunteering in face-to-face settings also happened in Wuhan. For example, I saw in Wuhan very early, just immediately after outbreak private car owners organized themselves to help doctors and nurses commute because buses all stop. And one of the groups I observed even had about 4,000 car owners. So this kind of a traditional volunteering, face-to-face volunteering stopped after Wuhan prohibited private cars from driving.

But in other places this volunteering never stopped, for example, people organize themselves into groups. Were organized by home-owners committees or homeowner associations to do grocery shopping together. And then receive and distribute online shopping deliveries at the residential area, sometimes becoming vigilante at the checkpoints, to check people’s temperature and receive, you know, packages and so on and so forth.

So all of these forms are what I call the compassion despite politics because despite politics, despite all the draconian quarantine, surveillance and political controversies, there’s still warm undercurrents of mutual helping and engagement in public activities.

Another form of civic engagement is engaging in public debates. People are also actively engaged in public debates over various issues, such as the debate over the government’s lack of transparency, you know, slow response and the Red Cross scandal. So this form of engagement is much politics of compassion, which is not compassion, despite politics. In other words, an expression of compassion through open debates within the public sphere and also with some political implications. And this kind of debate is certainly affected by the political structure, and particularly on the censorship from the government.

One particularly important moment about this kind of public debate was the death of Dr. Li Wenliang, one of the early whistleblowers, I’m sure you know that. We have seen a huge sudden wave of expression of sorrow, anger online and offline. Some people actually did the offline mourning and went to the hospital where the doctor actually used to work and use the whistles, the actual whistles. The blowing the whistle, to pay tribute to the doctor and to express their sorrow and also some of the mainly like the warning to remind people that if you cover up the truth and the consequences will be very tragic and also devastating. But most people actually forward his pictures and made memes online and vehemently criticized the Chinese government’s lack of transparency and slow response and the effort to cover up information about the virus.

So it happened at a time when the whole country, especially people in Wuhan, were astonished by the quick deterioration of the situation in terms of death tolls, and also people suffering on the ground. So the main ideas expressed in this mourning included to demand freedom of speech, and the high expectation for the government’s responsive governance and also their further proper response to the disaster. But there were some interesting new ways of engagement.

So, in this kind of engagement in the public sphere, it was very hard to say any organizations were behind it, it’s just by individuals, and this is just one individual. So far, I don’t think I have systematic evidence to talk about this issue, but I saw from social media and traditional media several interesting ways of civic engagement.

Since it’s natural for me to ask at this point, what role has Chinese social media played in civic engagement?

Xu:So I believe that WeChat and Weibo because people are under quarantine so there’s no way for you to do face-to-face interactions now, become the major ways of interaction. If you open a WeChat now, it’s not just you know, communication or posting online. It has a lot of things integrated into this app. You can buy things online, you can make payments, you can, you know, organize a lot of things. So with this app with your cell phone, and that actually sort of facilitated the interactions and the civic engagement to some extent, such as, you know, buying groceries together for the whole building. Some volunteers I observed online, they do psychology, they have already had psychological training, so they offer online counseling. And also people organize donations online through crowdfunding and also transmitting information about the demands from hospitals, from doctors even individual doctors and nurses.

Another interesting example I’ve seen is an online wishing account by Nanjing University School of Journalism and Media. This account asked their students, their undergraduate students mostly, to play the role of citizen journalism to observe the local situations in their hometowns. Where, during the winter break, they saw a lot of things and interviewed people, and then recorded them. And then wrote articles and to share online through this account. So today, I saw this is number 62 episode of this account. So this kind of action was very much in line with their major, which is journalism. And also a wonderful opportunity for the young students to step outside of their bubbles, and to know the society, to learn the people’s experience on the quarantine and to practice their professional skills.

And another interesting form of engagement was just by one person. This person is a writer whose name is Fang Fang. She was a very famous writer even before the virus issue, a Wuhan local person. And she kept her diaries online which were widely spread and discussed. So she basically talked about her experience on the quarantine and fairly honestly, aired her grievances about the local situations, sometimes criticized the government. T he censorship try to block her account, deleted her posts but you saw that the posts actually emerge elsewhere.

Think about, you know, 1.4 billion people online. So the volume of information is huge, which actually overwhelms the state censorship. So you would see 10 minutes after a post was deleted, it emerged again, and that actually challenged the state’s control and also facilitated some of the public debates. So now if you are on Weixin (WeChat) you’ll hear a lot of critical voices are still ongoing despite all the censorship effort by the government.

Could you talk a little bit more about who organized these activities? Was it coming from the central government, provincial government, NGOs, grassroots individuals, or a combination of all of this?

Xu: I would say a combination of all of these. One of the mistakes that people often made when they observe China, when they talk about civic engagement, is that it often ignored the fact that most of the civic engagement was actually organized by governments or so-called GONGOs, Government Organized Non-Governmental Organizations, which is an oxymoron, which but in reality that was true and widespread, such as the Red Cross and China Charity Foundation and things like that. Despite all the controversies, they actually played a very important role in organizing civic engagement. For example, most nurses and doctors are mobilized by state-owned hospitals by the governments directly. And most local residents at the checkpoints of the residential areas were mobilized by street administrations, and also the local branch of the government. And most local residents who were doing all kinds of civic engagement were also organized it by the staff members in the street administration.

But this kind of state-organized civic engagement was mostly top-down—taking orders from higher level of government. To be fair, it made the state response more rapid. I don’t think any country could implement this kind of China-style quarantine without help from the huge army of volunteers who were organized by the state. And I also think the boundaries between the volunteers, the ordinary people, and the staff, the paid staff in the street administrations, got really blurred, or more theoretically, the boundaries between the state and the society got blurred. For example, many staff members also after work, they did extra work to help the community. But there’s a problem and many problems with the state mobilized engagement, which were also obvious in the event that it was the top-down model rather than spontaneous reactions from the grassroots society, where citizens know what they want and know what they want to do. Sometimes this kind of engagement intervened in the local communities so much that it somewhat suffocated creativity and spontaneity from people.

And also, more importantly, it may make some issues of the GONGOs, such as the Red Cross even worse, such as the corruption, and lack of transparency, and all these issues. It helped the GONGOs but made some of the issues even worse in the real-world practices. And I think the civic engagement organized by [true] NGOs are more understandable for outside observers, but this time, it was relatively weaker. I still don’t have a definitive explanation for this relatively weaker performance. Maybe it was because the feature of the disaster which was an epidemic, and which prevented people from doing face-to-face interactions and collective actions may be related to the epidemic feature and the state’s monitoring in the quarantine are so pervasive and strict that NGOs are less able to act on the ground.

There are also—I mentioned Fang Fang—so individuals who are basically just a one-woman NGO doing all kinds of engagement. And also you have grassroots groups based on WeChat chat groups, and Weibo, and very, very, sort of social media-based online ways of communication. They talked about their experience in Wuhan and elsewhere. Now, I know that many people are writing their diaries, writing their Weibo and WeChat posts. So I want to say it will be very valuable sources for later researchers and historians to look at the people’s experience under quarantine and how they think about all the issues and all kinds of things. It will be a great resource for many researchers.

Do you think that the public involvement in this response is different from that of previous disasters, namely the Sichuan earthquake? And is that just because of the tools and the platforms being different? Or is it because of the nature of the disaster being an epidemic rather than a natural disaster? Or has something else changed in the relationship between the public or society and government?

Xu: I think all of them, all the factors will contribute to the difference. Let me talk about the Sichuan earthquake, which is the one that I’m most familiar with. I want to say the scale of civic engagement after the outbreak was certainly not as large as the one after the Sichuan earthquake, when back then millions of people went to Sichuan and elsewhere to help. This time, we don’t see this huge wave of convergence in Wuhan. Again, this can be explained by the feature of the disaster being an epidemic and people trying to avoid contact and interactions. And also at the local level, as I mentioned, the top-down total control and quarantine also prevented associations and small groups from playing a bigger role. And the response was basically dominated by the government and leaving very limited room for spontaneous action.

But it also can be explained by some long-term trends since 2013 when President Xi Jinping came into power. I would say civil society scholars now all agree that the constraint on civil society since 2013 is getting stronger and stronger, particularly the restriction over NGOs funding sources and institutional controls through the party. Not just through the government but through the party, because the party tried to build branches in NGOs, which is a big step forward in terms of the control. And also the civic associations did not have enough social and financial room to develop its own capacity to deal with such a big disaster, not just the number of the NGOs or the money they can collect, but also the specialization. So in this response, I don’t see a lot of NGOs with professional specialization in medical, in emergency, in public health to respond. I will say this can be explained by some of the lack of specialization training and professionalization due to the limited room for the NGOs.

Another difference is that in the wake of this disaster we don’t see a lot of citizens’ advocacy and activism. In 2008, there was a very important advocacy that was from the liberal intellectuals and media to propose a national mourning for the Sichuan earthquake victims that was historically unprecedented. Because it was the first time that the Chinese government mourned these ordinary citizens instead of the leaders. But it was raised by the public sphere and accepted by the Chinese government. So it was a very touching and moving moment. And the Chinese government was widely praised even by an overseas media. But this time we saw the spontaneous morning for Dr. Li Wenliang where the voices of advocacy were not as strong as those in the Sichuan earthquake. There was no advocacy for a national mourning and the Chinese government actually didn’t think about it. I saw somewhere posts talking about whistleblowing laws or something like that, but it wasn’t responded to by the Chinese government.

I guess part of the reason was that the heavier restrictions on the public sphere, particularly on the public opinion, since President Xi came into power. Of course, media outlets like Caixin did a very good job in recording this virus event. But no media now performed the advocacy function [that they did] in 2008. In 2008, if you still remember, several media actually played a very important role, their columnists and their editors wrote, op-eds and editorials to advocate for a lot of things, but that function now is basically gone. Caixin is doing great reporting but it’s just reporting, not advocacy. Another thing if you remember from 2008, was the activism organized by Ai Weiwei and Tan Zuoren, who sent volunteers to the earthquake zone to collect the names and other information of the students who died in their own schools. But this time we didn’t see much activism, not even online activism for these.

So, I will say this difference is somewhat disappointing. I believe that it is too early to say this is just a one-time thing or is something that in the long-term will become a trend. But I believe that the trend of the Chinese state of becoming more and more restrictive on civil society is continuing instead of pausing or stopping or reversing. Probably some of the measures used to respond to the virus, such as total control over the grassroots society, once the virus has gone, maybe those measures will exist or persist in the government’s practices, monitoring citizens, you know, this control over the grassroots society may be the new normal.

Could you summarize the Red Cross Society of China (Red Cross) scandal? Because a lot of Americans, if they heard of this, would think of the American Red Cross and may not understand the distinction of what the Red Cross is in China. Could you provide some context for the story?

Xu: The Red Cross in China is a quintessential example of a GONGO which means a government-organized non-governmental organization, an oxymoron. But in reality, many, many NGOs in China are GONGOs. The Red Cross is directly controlled by the civil affairs ministry in the central government and the civil affairs bureaus in local governments. The honorary president of the Red Cross of China is vice chairman of China, who is Wang Qishan now. So it is part of the state system instead of outside of the state system.

It is interesting to see the Red Cross scandal, which actually started a long time ago, twelve years ago, in 2008, after the Sichuan earthquake. There was a lot of criticism then about their lack of transparency in terms of the amount of money they collected, how they used the money, and how they distributed the money. And later, the situation worsened, and people were more and more critical of the Red Cross, particularly after the Guo Meimei incident.

Guo Meimei was a young woman who was showing off her wealth online, but was suspected to have connections with one of the Red Cross’ high level managers. (Editor’s Note: In 2011, Guo implied connections with the Red Cross Society of China that were later confirmed as being untrue. But the association of her online ostentation with the Red Cross caused support for the organization, already suffering credibility issues, to plummet.) The trust and relationship between the Red Cross and the public quickly worsened.

In the current (COVID-19) event we saw similar scandals, or even worse versions of the scandals about the Red Cross. Not the central Red Cross, but the Hubei and Wuhan branches. So they basically stopped some of the donations, and also people had questions about whether the donations and the materials actually got to the places where they’re supposed to be. And because the hospitals, doctors, and nurses are still tearfully asking for more donations online, while we all know that millions of boxes (of supplies) are being delivered to those Red Cross entities, so there was a big question mark on this kind of practice.

But on the other hand, people rarely noticed that the Red Cross carried out a lot of functions in China. They are the major agency to respond to all kinds of disasters. They have warehouses, they have vehicles to respond to disasters—it’s a tiny agency carrying out all kinds of functions. Sometimes the functions actually overwhelm their capacity in big disasters, which actually results in all the scandals. Of course, the lack of transparency is a problem, and there’s no way for us to defend the Red Cross.

The impact of the Red Cross scandal is obvious. For example, now you see that the (donation) number is significantly lower. The donations to Red Cross are just at a minimum, and many people actually donate their money to private foundations such as the one from Han Hong, who is a singer. Han Hong’s foundation actually got a lot of praise from the public and Tzu Chi, which is a Buddhist foundation based in Taiwan and actually working in China as well. But on the other hand, mainly this lack of funding, lack of donation to the Red Cross has the unintended consequence of discouraging disaster response, because the Red Cross is still the major organization for disaster response. Without resources they probably cannot do their work better. I will say this is more like a mutually reinforcing trend from this Red Cross scandal, which is unfortunate. I guess this is the time for the China Red Cross to reform itself to be more transparent to the public, to be more responsive to the public’s criticisms, and also to reform its bureaucratic structures.

Question: Have there been any calls to reform it from within the government, or is this still mainly on social media and in public discourse, something that’s being advocated for?

Xu: Yes, the call for reform is mainly from the public sphere instead of the government, because in the power structure within the Chinese government, the Red Cross is actually powerless. It’s mainly one of the so-called public institutions. So it’s more like an agency affiliated with the government, instead of one of the government bureaus. I would say many of the government officials actually don’t care so much about the Red Cross if there’s no scandal going on. If there is a scandal, then it is considered a Red Cross problem, not the government’s problem. But usually the public perception is of the two together. The government and the Red Cross are pretty much the same thing. They know that it is a GONGO, and the GONGO is supposed to be a state organization instead of an NGO. So previous cases of scandals have a negative impact on the government’s reputation and trust relationship with the public as well.

Question: Do you think this will encourage true NGOs to try and occupy that space in civil society, or do you think that the constraints that have been increasing on these non-government parties will prevent them from stepping up?

Xu: I think the scandal actually gives room for foundations like the Han Hong Foundation and also the earliest, Jet Li’s One Foundation, to participate in disaster response, particularly at the moments where people have very little trust in the Red Cross, and then (popular singer and philanthropist) Han Hong made a case that her charity work is transparent about pretty much everything. And once you donate to our foundation, they will list it online, your name, and you can look for that information online. It’s all transparent. Where your money goes and where your donation goes, it is made clear online. Also, in 2008, around the Sichuan earthquake, I saw not just those foundations, but also grassroots groups. They played the role of donation collectors, and they also try to compete with the local Red Cross by being more transparent and being more responsive, being more active in the public engagement.

I would say the Red Cross now is in serious trouble. Now they have to compete with all these foundations which are more active and more responsive. And the staff members of those foundations and small groups work around the clock and they don’t have just eight hours working time. They work for, perhaps fourteen hours daily during big disasters. The Red Cross now needs to rebuild their reputation and their status in the public sphere, and to regain the trust from the public sphere.