Yao Bo (姚博, 1972-) is a former Beijing-based journalist and influential blogger who offers a running commentary on contemporary Chinese affairs from his base in Kyoto, Japan. He produces a YouTube channel under the name Wuyue Sanren 五嶽散人 wǔyuè sǎnrén, literally ‘The Dilettante from the Five Sacred Mountains’. Yao’s sobriquet is reminiscent of the artistic names favoured by members of China’s long-defunct scholar-official class. The expression 散人 sǎnrén usually describes a relaxed, seemingly blasé individual who, more often than not, makes acerbic observations about the follies of the world and Yao Bo’s sardonic monologues have the relaxed air of a world-weary resident of Old Peking.
The self-description that Yao offers on his YouTube channel is even written in the style of ‘a nonchalant wiseguy’ 散淡的人:
Beijing-born and of Manchu ancestry, I’m presently living in Kyoto, Japan, my favourite city. My YouTube channel is unedited and produced with virtually no special effects. It’s a venue for my monologues, which occasionally veer into outrage about the state of affairs. Since I wrote a regular newspaper column on current affairs for well over a decade, I’m something of a ‘news hound’. Now, however, I’m completely free of all of those taboos and this channel is a place where I can say whatever the fuck I like. [As that line in the classic Book of Poetry 詩經, in James Legge’s translation, puts it, though:]
The woodmen’s blows responsive ring,
As on the trees they fall;
And when the birds their sweet notes sing,
They to each other call.
So, if what I have to say resonates with others, that’s all well and good. If not, why should I care? So long as I feel good about what I’m doing, that’s all that matters.
[Note: For an unsympathetic overview of Yao Bo’s career in China, see 如何評價五嶽散人?.]
Over the years, China Heritage has featured the voices of a number of incisive commentators from the Chinese world — their number includes Lee Yee, Ni Kuang and others in Hong Kong, Chen Qiushi, Liang Hongda, Li Chengpeng and Mei Liu’r from mainland China and GouGe from North America (the Chinese names of these authors: 李怡、倪匡、陳秋實、梁宏達、李承鵬、梅六兒以及狗哥). Wuyue Sanren 五嶽散人 and Wang Zhi’an 王志安, former mainland Chinese journalists, are prominent independent online commentators based in Japan and both were included in our roundup of the year 2022: Chinese Time: the struggle of memory against forgetfulness, Chapter Twenty-three of Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium.
Wuyue Sanren delivers his monologues in the style of a ‘caustic essay’ 雜文 zá wén, a popular literary form. We are grateful to Yaxue Cao of China Change for permission to reproduce the following translation of Wuyue Sanren’s thoughts on disaster relief in contemporary China. (We previously featured the work of China Change in ‘I Do Not Believe’ — Xu Zhiyong on being jailed, again, Appendix XL of Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium.)
Since Wuyue Sanren’s commentary is really a voice from ‘the other China’, it is only fitting to include it in a series titled The Other China. Our entry point is, once more, the art of Liu Chan 劉蟾, a calligrapher, essayist and social commentator based in Beijing.
For an edited Chinese transcript, see below.
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
8 August 2023
‘Not a Single Penny’:
Why One Overseas Chinese Won’t Donate to
‘Disaster Relief’ Efforts in China
5 August 2023
Translated by China Change
Wuyue Sanren (五岳散人), or Yao Bo (姚博), was a well-known Chinese journalist, a Weibo “Big V” with a large number of followers until he was banned, and one of the 303 signers of Charter 08. In recent years he has been residing in Kyoto, Japan. He runs the popular @wuyuesanren YouTube channel commenting on current affairs in China. Below is a translation of his commentary on August 5, 2023 in which he explains from three aspects: the government, the charity organizations, and the people. We appreciate his deep experience and clear insight, and would like to share it with our readers. The transcript has been lightly edited for brevity.
— The Editors of China Change
Yesterday on Twitter, I saw a netizen, who by no means is a supporter of the Chinese government, saying that you overseas Chinese have no goodwill towards China, and that he had not seen anyone come out to organize donation drives and other activities for relief work for victims of the recent flood in Beijing and Hebei province. I have to make my attitude clear on this matter before addressing the main issues. My attitude can be summed up in a few words: Donate, my ass! Are you out of your mind? I would have to be crazy to donate! How much water must be in my head? — a lot more than the water you saw in Zhuozhou (涿州) to donate anything to help with the disaster relief.
Why do I say this? I’m going to talk about it today from three aspects.
The first is of course the government. The second is charitable organizations. And the third are the people themselves. Because of these three factors, the majority of overseas Chinese, including myself, are less than enthusiastic to do anything to help. Our hearts are not completely cold, but our blood temperature is probably akin to that of lizards in the morning.
Let’s start with His Majesty Xi Jinping. He has continued to be invisible in the midst of the disaster, but not completely invisible. He had two brief appearances recently. The first was on August 1, when he expressed condolences to the victims of a suicide bombing in Pakistan, a friendly country to China. Another was that he went to Beidaihe for vacation. [Politburo member] Cai Qi (蔡奇) was in Beidaihe too and the news was that he visited some experts who were there on a summer retreat.
With Xi Jinping at the helm, you basically haven’t heard anything from the top leadership about the disaster. In imperial China, apart from emperors like Hui of Jin (晋惠帝) and his “let them eat cake” (何不食肉糜) adage, just about any monarch would probably at least go and visit his own people, issue an edict or something like that. He would have done that. But the current Chinese leaders, no. In any case, by the time I recorded this video, I hadn’t seen them come out. It’s possible that I don’t read the People’s Daily conscientiously enough, so if I’m wrong, please point out in the comments section on which day Xi Jinping braved the storm and appeared 200 kilometers away from the capital, showing His Majesty’s person.
Another thing to note is the disappearance of the entire local government. The Party Secretary and the mayor of Zhuozhou are nowhere to be seen, so much so the local populace has spontaneously begun to report them as missing persons on social media. It’s possible that these two chief officials have visited certain places, or were helping with disaster relief and rescue, and the people merely missed the news. But in my own experience, I know of too many times that government officials hindered, rather than helped, disaster relief efforts. As far as non-governmental rescue teams are concerned, their efforts would probably go more smoothly if the local authorities could sit still and stop putting so many “review and approval” hindrances in their way.
In terms of government aid, it is reported that 110 million yuan in urgent relief funds has been allocated to the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region for flood prevention and relief. At the same time, we’ve seen far greater sums of money sent to foreign countries. What does 110 million yuan mean? The number of people affected this time must be over 10 million at minimum, which translates to a total of 10 yuan (about US$1.40) spent on flood relief efforts per each affected person on average. What can you do with 10 yuan? It’s a pittance. So many people have lost all their possessions. Some people may say that the 110 million RMB is only the initial installment and there may be subsequent allocations. I really don’t have much hope that this is the case, because it’s not the first time that China has sacrificed the people in such a situation. We can check the historical record to see how much compensation people had received before. Basically, it’s very rare and lucky if a family can have a third of their lost assets be compensated. More often than not, the compensation amounts to a few dozen to a few hundred yuan. The amount makes “a drop in the bucket” sound like a lot.
There is also the propaganda from the state media. Their reportage has been lauding all kinds of rescue and relief efforts, an example of which is the dramatic clip of a helicopter rescuing people stranded on rooftops. But the footage accidentally reveals that the floodwaters below are no more than an inch above the ankle. People in the north might not be familiar with the power of floods; it is possible that the water will sweep you away when it reaches your knees, but you’re going to be fine if it’s below that. The Hebei Communist Youth League posted a photo of a firefighter falling asleep from fatigue while eating from a lunch box, but netizens pointed out that the photo was from three years ago and taken in a whole different region. But the photo stayed on the Youth League’s account for an entire day without any explanation or apology. They knew they posted fake news, they just didn’t care that it was fake.
You can’t help but see that from top to bottom, the government is filled by people for whom their position is just a free lunch. From their vantage point, the people are consumables. How can you expect me, an overseas Chinese, to show my love for our compatriots? I wouldn’t say there’s no possibility at all, but the chances I can be bothered are slim.
Now, let’s talk about the charity organizations. As we may know, the Red Cross Society of China is a semi-official organization. I have described this kind of semi-official, so-called charity as “begging with a gun in one’s hand” — they hold a rice bowl in the left hand to ask for alms, and a Type 54 pistol in the right hand: Give, or else. During the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008, there was the so-called special Party membership fee, but it was at least just for the CCP members. But the reality was, in many places, you had to pay regardless whether you were a Party member or not. At the time, I was still working in the system, at China Daily, and I wasn’t a Party member, but they still forcibly deducted donations from my paycheck to help with disaster relief. Of course, it wasn’t much, I remember it was a few hundred yuan, because after all, my salary wasn’t much to begin with.
These charities have done a lot of unscrupulous things, and we all know it. Take for example the recent exposure of the pay grades of Red Cross staff. Their average salary was 435,000 yuan a year. I am not saying that those who work for charities must live paycheck to paycheck. But for comparison, in Beijing, where the headquarters of the Red Cross Society of China is based, the median income is roughly 11,000 yuan a month, that is, about 140,000 yuan annually. Why is the income of a public charity organization more than three times higher than that of Beijing as a whole? It is also much higher than civil servants at the municipal and provincial levels. Where does the Red Cross get its income? A portion of it comes from the state, and a great deal of it comes from forced donations, as well as from voluntary private donations.
During the Wenchuan earthquake, the Red Cross received about 62.5 billion yuan in donations, 80% of which was supposed to have gone to the government’s financial account; in other words, 50 billion yuan simply went unaccounted for. Later on, a newspaper called Public Welfare Times (《公益时报》, a paper run by the Ministry of Civil Affairs) came out debunking the rumor, saying that it could not be called “unaccounted for” when the funds were transferred to the government, because, as it claimed, in 2008, China’s social organizations were not well established, and people trusted the government more as a result, so a lot of money was donated directly to the government, and donations to charitable organizations were also turned over to the government to handle.
This explanation is nonsense. If China’s public charities are not well established, the primary reason is that the Chinese government does not allow China’s NGOs to flourish. When the government-operated “civil organizations” can’t use up the money they’ve amassed, what do they do? They transfer it to the government account, from the left hand to the right. As for people trusting the government more, the Chinese people’s trust in the government is indeed quite high, and I must say that the Chinese government is very fortunate to have such people. All I can say is that, as an ordinary person, say whatever you want, as long as it makes you happy.
This is not even getting into the big money. On the fifth anniversary of the Wenchuan earthquake, I was invited to visit the site to observe the changes. At that time, all regions across China, including other parts of Sichuan province, had been paired with a reconstruction project in Wenchuan, and the reconstruction was all paid by local governments across China. I was utterly amazed when I got to Wenchuan. Next to the ruins of an elementary school, new streets had been built. One was in an ethnic minority style, another was full of buildings with white walls and pointy rooftops with dark blue tiles — water town style in Zhejiang. These aid projects were paid for by the local governments.
You will also remember the Guo Meimei incident (郭美美事件) and the various other shady practices involving the Red Cross. It is a very important piece of common sense that no government-run charity in China can be trusted. The government, from the central to local, and these charities have extinguished from people’s hearts whatever desire to do good that they have once had.
Next, let’s talk about the people’s side of the story. I don’t know if you’ve read the Bible, but there’s a story in it about Sodom and Gomorrah, where “sulfur and fire” came down from God and destroyed the two cities. When God was about to destroy the city, Abraham asked God if he could stay His judgment if there were still righteous people living there. God said the city could be spared if 50 such residents could be found, then lowered the number to just 10. But apart from Lot and his family, no other righteous townsfolk could be found, so God destroyed the two cities with “fire and brimstone.” (Genesis 18:23-32.)
In other words, it actually matters what kind of people reside in a place. How many righteous people are there? What is the percentage? God said if there were 10 righteous people to be found that He would not destroy the cities. Cities were small in ancient times, maybe there were a few thousands in Sodom and Gomorrah? Then 10 righteous people is not too small a percentage. But honestly, that’s God doing the math. Do I look like God? It’s certainly unlikely that I would approach these things with such forgiveness. The people in China have also discouraged me from wanting to engage in their affairs, such as making any more donations for “disaster relief.”
One of the most recent lessons was the mask-hoarding that happened when the coronavirus pandemic hit China. At the time, we didn’t think it would spread to Japan, so we collected masks in Japan and sent them to China, and we were very happy doing that under the slogan “We may have different mountains and rivers, but we share the same sky and the same moon” [山川异域，风月同天]. Of course I wasn’t the initiator of the mask initiative, but I sent a lot of other things later on. No sooner than we began this undertaking did the Chinese begin saying on social media: “You did not stay here to build the motherland, but you’re the fastest to poison it by scurrying back here from a thousand miles away.” Then they started to make all sorts of disparaging remarks about other countries. It wasn’t just a small group of people doing this, but a massive campaign involving a great multitude.
Take Zhuozhou as another example. Based on your life experience and your understanding of Chinese society, what percentage of the people in Zhuozhou who have access to social media had wished that Typhoon Doksuri would hit Japan and disperse afterward? If I estimate the percentage was 80%, you’d probably think my reckoning was too conservative.
On so many Chinese social media platforms, you see so many people clamoring for destroying Japan with nuclear weapons, and waging war to unify Taiwan. The next day, they were hit by disaster and on top of that, they got a taste of the iron fist of the government. How do I know my contribution will not fall in the hands of these people? Why should I donate money to save someone like that? I can make targeted one-on-one donations, which I still do to help students from impoverished families, mainly girls. But if I donate money to the government or these government-run charities, first of all, the government is not doing much to provide funds or goods. Secondly, I couldn’t be sure what the Red Cross or other official channels would do with my private donations. Thirdly, even if the donations and goods are sent down, it may reach such people. You tell me, why should I donate money? Why would I want to organize something like this? Am I out of my fucking mind? There’s nothing wrong with these three questions.
Recently, Big Eyes (Li Chengpeng 李承鹏) visited Kyoto. We drank and chatted, and we talked about the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008. Li Chengpeng collected a lot of relief supplies and distributed them in the disaster areas. There were also people like Rou Tangseng (肉唐僧) and Luo Yonghao (罗永浩), so many of them went there. Later they were being questioned viciously, something like they replaced larger tents with small tents, and so on. They distributed whatever they received, and such “replacement” made no sense. Rou Tangsen is the most scrupulous person I’ve ever known, and in the campaigns he organized, even a pack of napkins was accounted for. But how much dirty water was thrown at people like them!
So why do we do it again? Make sure you don’t do it, or you’ll be hounded to death. I know from my sources that the people vilifying them did so at the behest of the authorities to provoke those who did not know the truth and to confuse those who were aware of the real situation. Those who attacked him of their own volition were even scarier.
At that time, Li Chengpeng and Han Han (韩寒) donated a building to a school in Wenchuan. Later, when the principal of that school was looking for these celebrities to donate, Chengpeng said, “I donated money to you once, but I can donate again.” The principal said, “You didn’t make any donation.” He had completely forgotten that the school building was donated by Li Chengpeng and Han Han. He didn’t remember any of this stuff at all. How many major donations like this do you think a school receives? Yet he doesn’t recall it in the least.
So I still ask the three questions: Why should I do this? Am I crazy? Is there something wrong with me? You have to understand that we were not the way we are now. From our level of education to our self-expectations, we were willing to help our compatriots to the best of our ability, But having gone through these three layers of filtering, from the government, to the government-run “NGO” charities, to the people themselves, I just don’t feel like helping anymore. I’d rather give money to funds that help guide dogs, disaster relief efforts, and stray cats and dogs in Japan, than give a penny to China. Not a single cent. We are not cold blooded, but we must apply our passion in the right places.
- Wuyue Sanren, ‘Note a Single Penny’ — Why One Overseas Chinese Won’t Donate to ‘Disaster Relief’ Efforts in China, China Change, 5 August 2023
Edited Chinese Transcript:
再說說中國的機構。大家都知道，中國紅十字會算是一個半官方機構。我原來一直形容這種半官方的所謂慈善機構是「帶槍乞討」，左手端飯碗要飯，右手端一支Type 54 pistol ，你給，還是不給？汶川地震的時候，就有所謂的特別黨費這一說，但這還是禍害他們自己人。實際上在好多地方，甭管你是不是黨員，你必須得交錢。當時我還是在體制內工作，在《中國日報》。08年地震的時候，我可不是黨員，但是他們還是強行從工資當中扣除賑災捐款。當然也沒多少錢，我記得是幾百塊錢，因為畢竟工資也沒多少。
往下就該說到咱們人民群眾這一塊了。我不知道各位讀沒讀過《聖經》，裡面有索多瑪那一段，天降神火「sulfur and fire」，把兩個城市Sodom and Gomorrah毀滅了。上帝要毀滅這個城市的時候，有人【Abraham】就問上帝，說那裡要是有100個義人(我有點忘了具體數字，這不重要)，你要毀滅這個城嗎？上帝我不毀。有50個義人，你毀嗎？我也不毀；有10個你毀這個城嗎？上帝說有10個義人我也不毀這座城。連10個都沒找著，就只有羅德一家，然後上帝就一揮手，硫磺真火什麼的，啪嘰把這城給毀了。
最近的一個事情是疫情中蒐羅了口罩這個事了。當時我們不覺得會傳到日本，就蒐羅口罩寄回國內，山川異域風月同天什麼的，特開心就給送過去了。當然我不是發起人，但是後來我其他東西送了很多。In a blink of eyes, 他們說，祖國建設你不在，千里投毒你最快，然後就開始各種各樣對境外的詆毀。這是一個全民性的活動，並不是一小撮人。大量的人都是這樣。