Anger is increasing in China after it was revealed only a fraction of the million yuan ($144,000; £111,000) donated to a severely malnourished student reached her before her death.
People across the country had given money to help Wu Huayan, whose plight emerged after she was taken to hospital with breathing difficulties last autumn.
The student, who weighed little more than 20kg (43lb), had been surviving on pennies a day for five years.
She later explained how she had watched both her father and grandmother die because they did not have enough money for medical care. She was determined not to let the same happen to her, with the media appeal her last chance.
And it appeared to work: the donations flooded in. But it wasn’t enough to save Wu, who died on Monday aged 24.
Those who had been rooting for her were devastated, but there was worse to come. It transpired the money they had given – or at least the vast majority of it – never reached Wy Huayan. Official records seem to suggest just 20,000 yuan ($2,900; £2,225) was paid towards her hospital bills.
It has left many asking: how on earth did the system let this young woman down – and who exactly is to blame?
The campaign to save Wu Huayan
The first pictures of Wu Huayan – her 135cm (4ft 5ins) visibly emaciated – were released in October. She and her brother, who is understood to have mental health issues, had been relying on an uncle and aunt for support, but they could only provide 300 yuan ($43.60; £33.45) each month. After her brother’s medical bills, there was only two yuan a day left for Miss Wu’s food.
Immediately, people began to donate. The money was collected by Charity 9958, a project under the China Charities Aid Foundation for Children (CCAFC), using two different funding platforms. It was meant to help pay for heart surgery.
But it never happened. According to reports, Miss Wu never gained enough weight to undergo the operation. According to official media, she weighed less than 30kg when she died.
The corruption allegations
Within days of her death, a scandal began to emerge. A state-media outlet called The Cover accused 9958 of running “a deadly scam”.
Zheng Hehong, a prominent activist and former member of staff at 9958, came out alleging the charity sought out particularly ill or vulnerable people, and then withheld funds as part of a ploy to keep the proceeds as long as possible.
“They waited until the patient died so they could take the interest income,” she told Phoenix New Media’s Ifeng.com. “This income, by law, can be given as a staff bonus instead of charitable aid.”
But the charity has hit back, saying it was holding onto the money on her family’s request. They said it had not been paid because she had not met the criteria needed to undergo the surgery – and that it had planned to release the funds afterwards.
However, one acquaintance told The Cover that Ms Wu didn’t even know about 400,000 yuan of the money.
Then, further complications: 9958 said it had stopped raising donations for Miss Wu after local government officials said that they would “take care” of the third year university student and her family.
The town has denied this, saying they had not been in contact with 9958.
A wider problem?
But is it all as simple as that? There have been a series of high profile scandals involving Chinese charities in recent years, journalist David Paulk points out in a Twitter thread.
They include charities set up to help girls but which gave money to boys, and one which used duplicate photos as it encouraged people to donate to impoverished children, the news editor of Sixth Tone explained in a Twitter thread.
But conversely, the CCAFC – the parent body of 9958 – was named China’s most transparent charity in 2019 “achieving a perfect score of 100”.
Regardless, BBC Monitoring’s Kerry Allen says that China’s official media have acknowledged that there has been “chaos and confusion” in China’s charity industry. The official China Daily says that there are “too many overlapping authorities and liabilities”, and called for better regulation, saying that online charity fraud has become rife.
The publicity surrounding stories like Ms Wu’s has also left charities wary of taking on similar cases, for fear the repercussions of being blamed for not doing enough.
The South China Morning Post noted that Wang Fuman, an impoverished schoolboy who touched the nation’s hearts after a picture of him with frost in his hair went viral, had been granted a happy ending by being offered a place at a private school. However, it was later retracted because the school could not cope with “the intense extra scrutiny from the authorities and pressure from the media”.
China’s government media has also been wary about the potential of families exploiting their children for online fame and donations. Wang Fuman’s father told Inkstone News that funds donated to his son were withheld amid allegations the family were being “greedy” and distributed to other “ice boys”. “Our family only received a small amount of money,” he told the site.
But reports contradicting a “happy ending” in such cases have never reached mainland China, where media is heavily regulated.
Consequently, Ms Wu’s death has angered social media users in the country, and led to suspicions that local governments are taking a cut of charity funds for themselves. Many have noted scandals where former officials in the impoverished region have been able to live a life of excess.
The government are likely to be keen to shift any blame away from their officials, as they have been working hard to paint them in more positive light and point towards successes in poverty alleviation.
China’s Communist Party has said it wants to eradicate extreme poverty by the end of 2020, trumpeting success in places like Jiangsu province – which claims it has just 17 people living in poverty.
Stories like that of Ms Wu and her little brother, then, are not what it wants to see making headlines.