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November 20, 2012 7:15 pm

My part in China’s war on corruption

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An expression of gratitude is sullied when it lines pockets, writes Patti Waldmeir

China is hardly the most corrupt place that I have ever worked – but Beijing would not much like being lumped in with the other ones (Zaire under Mobutu Sese Seko anyone?).

Now China wants us all to think that it is rising above corruption. Virtually anyone who said anything at the 18th party conference that has just ended found a way to mention how much they hate it. And Beijing has diverted Wang Qishan, the west’s favourite economic reformer, from managing the economy to hunting corrupt officials. I am planning to do my bit to help him. It involves refusing to donate even one renminbi this holiday season, unless I know exactly how it will be spent. Sound simple? You’d be surprised.

In the 12 years since I adopted two Chinese babies, I’ve had plenty of time to practise donating cash to mainland orphanages. These days, I never do it unless coerced (or unless Half the Sky Foundation, a US charity, controls it). Unfortunately, coercion does sometimes come into it.

Like other foreign adoptive parents, I sometimes take my children to visit the institutions where they spent their infanthood. We parents go there with hearts overflowing with gratitude for the priceless gift of a precious child. Some orphanage directors are more than happy to relieve us of that burden of gratitude.

One of my children is from an orphanage where the director, a government official, has created a nice little business in orphan homecomings, which include a lavish meal, hugs from the caregivers, and a shower of gifts for the returning child. The quid pro quo is: the parent makes a large cash donation.

Insiders warned me that a donation in crisp new renminbi would never see the outside of the director’s pocket, so last time I promised to shop locally for things the orphanage needed – and pay with my bank card.

Banx illustration

When we arrived, the director scooped up my daughter in a bear hug – and informed me that he had already purchased the goods he wanted me to donate, and could I please pay for them. I pleaded lack of cash, but he made clear that a trip to the ATM would be required, before there would be any more hugs.

I never had much luck resisting pointed requests for bribes in Mobutu’s Zaire, and neither did I with him: we were whisked off to inspect a room full of new quilts, at which point the director asked me how much I was prepared to donate for them.

“How much did they cost?” I asked, displaying the New World naivety so despised in the ancient culture that is China. He quoted a figure that was many times their market value. I handed over the cash, he handed over the fake receipt, and another stone was laid in the edifice of corruption in China.

When I later discovered that other families had also been shown the same quilts, and told they had paid for them, I tried to warn visiting families of the quilts-with-nine-lives scam – but found that most did not want to hear it. Some put into words what I know was in my heart that day: to give my daughter positive memories of that difficult time in her life, I was prepared to be cheated.

I decided to avoid that orphanage in future, until I could find a way around the quilt scam. So instead, I made a trip to an institution for severely disabled children, close to our home in Shanghai – only to find that Wang Qishan may have some work to do there too. Foreign volunteers at that orphanage told me that they always brought clothing and toys to donate, but had never seen them in use on subsequent visits – a classic red flag that the goods are at worst being sold, or at best being locked away from the intended recipients.

Then I heard that the well-meaning foreign volunteers were planning to pay in cash for some building repairs: another classic opportunity to charge donors 10 times the cost and pocket the difference. But the donors did not want to believe that could happen: they declined to use their own contractor or insist the orphanage get more than one quote. They prefer to feel good about giving – and leave the rest to fate.

After a couple of sobering experiences of charity scams at Chinese schools, I have made up my mind to help Mr Wang by refusing to buy one more fake quilt, pay for one more fake building repair, or even fund one more fake hug for my darling daughter. I am going to do China the favour of not treating it like Zaire. I too am responsible.

patti.waldmeir@ft.com

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