China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs announced (in Chinese) on January 16 that it had begun investigating the China Charities Aid Foundation for Children (CCAFC), a well-known organization dedicated to empowering children with life-threatening medical conditions. The news follows allegations of the charity taking advantage of one of its beneficiaries, Wú Huāyàn 吴花燕, who passed away at age 24 on January 13 due to heart failure.
Wu grew up in the impoverished village of Shaba, Guizhou Province. Diagnosed with Hutchinson-Gilford Progeria Syndrome (HGPS), a rare premature aging disease that leads to patients’ death at an average age of 14, she was admitted to a hospital last October for multiple complications related to the condition. Many people donated money for Wu’s treatment through the 9958 Rescue Center, a charitable project managed by CCAFC.
Wu’s hospitalization, publicized by CCAFC, led to a substantial number of donations from individuals and organizations. Per the Beijing News (in Chinese), Guizhou Forerunner College, a vocational school that Wu had attended before her hospitalization, raised over 60,000 yuan ($8,750) for her.
According to a school official close to Wu’s matter, the 9958 Rescue Center also approached Wu’s brother and convinced him to launch fundraising campaigns for his sister. On October 25, the organization set up three donation drives through crowdfunding websites.
The crowdfunding pitch said that CCAFC had “accepted Wu’s family’s request for fundraising help” after a strict process of “assessment and verification,” and promised that all donations would be used for Wu’s treatment, and would go to her without delay.
By the end of November, CCAFC had raised about 1.1 million yuan ($160,360) for Wu, much more than necessary for her medical fees. But news media later revealed that by the time Wu died, her family had only received 20,000 yuan ($2,910).
When questioned on social media by concerned members of the public why it failed to deliver the money in time, CCAFC explained in a January 14 note (in Chinese) on Weibo’s fundraising platform that it had withheld the majority of the donations because of interference from Wu’s family and the local government. But in an interview (in Chinese) with the Beijing News, a government official from Wu’s hometown denied the charity’s accusation, saying that he had never been in touch with CCAFC.
Immediately after Wu’s death, Chinese social media users posted hundreds of tributes, and even more demands for an explanation from CCAFC. In response, CCAFC released another statement (in Chinese), also on January 14, saying that the delay in handing over the cash was in line with the wishes of Wu’s family. CCAFC also assured the public that it would consult with Wu’s relatives on how to spend the rest of the money and would announce the results when available.
But the statement only intensified the uproar. Critics demanded to know if CCAFC had asked for Wu’s permission when launching crowdfunding campaigns, and bemoaned the general lack of transparency in its operations. “When a nonprofit organization becomes an enterprise for profits, charitable work is reduced to a scam. It leverages the misfortune of people and takes advantage of people’s trust and kindness,” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese).