The emergence of so-called Weibo philanthropy has been driven in part by the Chinese public's distrust of and exasperation with their government's decades-long control over social assistance and the charitable sector. Under current Chinese law, nonprofits must be partnered with a government-related entity, and only a small number of government-controlled charities are allowed to raise funds. In 2011, scandals at some of those charities resulted in public outrage at the lack of transparency in the sector.
Soliciting donations person-to-person is technically illegal under Chinese law. But some grassroots nonprofits are now combining the Weibo model with traditional legal channels, finding individuals in need of assistance on Weibo sites and partnering with government-sponsored charities so they can receive donations on the individuals' behalf.
"Weibo is putting great pressure on the government because it shows that if they don't solve basic problems they are responsible for like food and health, the people will solve it without them," said Deng Fei, a former investigative journalist whose Weibo campaign to provide lunches for impoverished students in rural schools raised more than $6 million last year and prompted the central government to promise to devote an additional $2.5 billion for student lunches.
At the same time, concern about the sustainability of Weibo philanthropy, which is noticeably lacking in transparency, is growing. "This is the major problem with Weibo charity compared with NGOs," said Jia Xijin, an expert at Tsinghua University's NGO Research Center. "It is not sustainable, is not regulated. There is a high chance of scamming. And it depends entirely on the heart."