HONG KONG — To save money for her brother’s medical bills, the woman in a Chinese village often ate only rice and chili peppers or plain steamed buns. Years later, malnutrition wasted her body and worsened a heart problem — and she turned to the internet for help.
The woman, Wu Huayan, was a 24-year-old college student, but she weighed less than 50 pounds and stood at a mere 4 feet and 5 inches, according to state news reports. She became an instant symbol of the harsh effects of poverty and hunger, and set off an outpouring of $140,000 in donations — a significant amount in rural China.
Then, Monday, Wu died in a hospital — and public sympathy quickly turned to grief and outrage.
The images of her frail, stunted body touched off a torrent of criticism that officials had failed to help the disadvantaged at a time when China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has vowed to eliminate extreme poverty. For many Chinese, Wu’s plight was a stark reminder that despite the party’s pledges and the leaps the country has made economically, poverty was still a harsh reality in parts of rural China. Some also drew a link between the tragedy and the country’s problem with official graft that eats up public resources.
“How much money do corrupt officials have to embezzle before they get caught? Hasn’t this already damaged our country and our people?” Yu Fannuo, a tech commentator, wrote on a blog. “Why is it that Wu Huayan, the girl in Guizhou, was only discovered and helped when she was on the brink of death?”
Wu’s death also cast a spotlight on the widespread public skepticism and distrust of philanthropy, which is a nascent concept in China. Questions arose over how several charities handled the money that had flooded in to pay for the woman’s hospital treatment and why only a tenth of the funds was used. In a commentary, People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, asked if the charities had exploited a tragedy for commercial gain.
“At what scale is phony fundraising and tragedy consumption happening?” the paper said.
Wu grew up in a village in the poor, heavily rural province of Guizhou, state media reported. She subsisted for several years on a meager diet to help care for her younger brother.
The malnutrition caused her to lose her eyebrows and some of her hair, and made her untreated illnesses worse. She began to have trouble breathing in 2018 and was admitted to a hospital in October for heart and kidney problems.
That month, she started an appeal on Shuidichou, an online crowdfunding site, saying that medical costs that would add up to nearly $30,000 were far beyond her means. Family and friends had already made loans, and she was desperate, she said.
“I’m only asking for help because I have no other way out,” she wrote. “I still want to live a proper life. I still want to contribute to society and will use all my strength to fight my illness.”
Her story was reported by national news outlets in October and then widely circulated on social media. Wu said after that in a video interview that she had received 100 calls and messages.
Speaking in a soft voice from a hospital bed and wearing fuzzy blue pajamas, she thanked her donors, saying that the support made her feel less alone.
“I feel as though I can suddenly see the sun again after being abandoned in the dark night,” she said. “I don’t know your name, where you are and what lives you are living, and I haven’t appeared in your lives before — but I want to thank you for your sacrifices for an ordinary stranger like me.”
A few charities also helped to raise money, including the China Charities Aid Foundation for Children, a private organization that is overseen by the Ministry of Civil Affairs.
The charity started a crowdfunding campaign that raised nearly $30,000 for Wu. It said it wired about $3,000 of that amount to her hospital in November. Under pressure to account for the rest of the money, the foundation said in statements that swelling in her organs had prevented Wu from undergoing surgery and that Wu’s family had requested that the money be used for the operation and her recovery.
The foundation acknowledged the public criticism of how it handled the donations and said it was investigating the matter. It did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Wu died of heart and kidney diseases Monday, according to an announcement posted by the school she attended, Guizhou Forerunner College. That was three months after she started her crowdfunding appeal.
Philanthropy is in the early stages of development in China, and the sector has been roiled in recent years by scandals. The Red Cross Society of China, a state-run organization that is one of the country’s largest charities, was badly hit by a 2011 scandal that hurt public trust, especially in efforts that are led by the government.
Concerns about transparency and accountability in philanthropy have surged alongside the popularity of crowdfunding for charitable causes.
Internet platforms created by Chinese technology giants have enabled charities and nonprofits to finance their projects, and those efforts have been met with increasing scrutiny, said Shawn Shieh, an independent expert on Chinese philanthropy and civil society.
“China’s social media culture demands immediate responses to questions on funding quite often without understanding the whole story,” Shieh said. “We’re seeing the charity sector go through growing pains on how to deal with public criticism about these public cases.”