Beijing CNN  — 

On a gray afternoon in the Chinese city of Wuhan, a suited man lifts a box of 3M masks into the trunk of a black vehicle next to a Red Cross warehouse. White characters on the side of his car read: “Vehicle for government officials.”

His actions were livestreamed by a state media outlet Saturday and immediately sparked outrage online.

“We didn’t donate stuff for government officials to use, they were for those on the front lines,” wrote one user on Chinese social media site Weibo, where the government official’s number plate became one of the most searched terms over the weekend.

The Wuhan government later said the Red Cross had given the man in the video approval to take the masks as the “relevant protective equipment” had been distributed to medics and communities.

Whatever the reality, the video tapped into public anger over hospitals struggling to get enough supplies, despite the Red Cross in China – and other organizations – having received millions of dollars in donations. More than 600 people have died from the coronavirus, about 28,000 have been infected globally, and much of China is still on lockdown.

The Red Cross is the country’s biggest charity. But while it is a member of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), unlike in most other countries, the Red Cross in China is government-controlled and gets most of its funding from the state.

“The Red Cross in China is not just the Red Cross – it’s a quasi-government organization,” said Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. “So the problems with the Red Cross undermine the trust, the confidence in the government.”

Need for supplies

About two weeks ago, Wuhan medics began appealing for resources. “There’s a shortage of medical supplies, help!” Wuhan Children’s Hospital wrote on Weibo on January 23.

People in China and overseas responded to the call.

Staff members and volunteers transfer medical supplies at an exhibition center warehouse which has been converted into a makeshift hospital in Wuhan on February 4, 2020.

One volunteer was Tracy Liu, a native of China’s coastal Jiangsu province who lives in the United States. She set up groups on the social media platform WeChat to connect donors with doctors, who could request specific supplies, such as respirator face masks, the type recommended for healthcare workers by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On January 26, a doctor in Wuhan told her the first shipment had arrived, she said.

But on that day, the Ministry of Civil Affairs announced that all donations should go through one of five government-backed charities: Hubei Provincial Red Cross, Wuhan Municipal Red Cross, Hubei Charity General Association, Hubei Teenagers Development Foundation, and the Wuhan Charity General Association.

Since then, Liu said none of her packages have reached the recipient doctors. Shunfeng – the delivery company she used – said in a statement that it was prioritizing deliveries to charities and government departments.

“I’m p***ed off,” she told CNN. “I paid for masks and they just got stuck there.”

Medical staff arrive with a patient at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital in Wuhan on January 25, 2020.

Liu wasn’t the only one trying to help the struggling doctors in Hubei. On February 1, a government official said that the public had donated more than 600 million yuan ($86 million) and goods including 9,316 masks, 74,522 medical protective suits, 80,456 goggles and some medicine to the Wuhan Red Cross, according to China Daily.

Despite the donations, doctors and hospital workers describe a desperate situation.

One doctor in Huanggang – named by Chinese state media as the city second-worst affected by the outbreak – told CNN over the weekend that his hospital has no useable hazmat suits, face masks or shoe covers. Another worker at a different hospital in Huanggang described the situation as “grim,” adding that her facility was lacking in N95 masks, protective suits and goggles. In a video shared by the state media outlet Global Times last weekend, a doctor says he waited for over an hour at a Red Cross distribution center, only to get a box of 500 masks.

Dealing with the fallout

Over the past week, Chinese authorities have moved to address the criticisms of the Red Cross.

Wuhan officials have pointed to a high demand for supplies from hospitals, and the wrong kind of items being donated, as reasons for the continued shortage of equipment, according to state media.

The doctor in Huanggang said the Red Cross had been “overwhelmed.” “They don’t have enough people to register the goods, they’re really slow. But we have to be sympathetic,” he said, adding that many public donations were poor quality. “Ninety percent of the stuff we’re getting is not up to standard,” he said.

A man wears a protective mask on February 5, 2020 in Wuhan, China.

A Red Cross volunteer manning the phones at the charity’s Wuhan headquarters said the number of volunteers had dropped sharply due to growing anger against the organization online.

“Because of the last two days, the name Red Cross really stinks,” she said. A number of volunteers had been brought to tears by angry callers. “You have to be sympathetic because after all, they’ve been stuck indoors for so long … so they pick up the phone and yell at us for a bit to get some of the rage out,” she said.

Meanwhile, heads have rolled for mismanagement of the situation within the Red Cross in China.

Three officials from the Hubei Red Cross have been punished for “mishandling donations for the coronavirus,” and the organization has apologized for its failures. The Wuhan government dismissed one government official, and warned another two over taking masks from a Red Cross warehouse.

CNN has made multiple attempts to contact the national Red Cross, as well as the Hubei and Wuhan branches, but hasn’t received a response. Gwendolyn Pang, head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies country cluster support team in Beijing, said: “The Red Cross Society of China is committed to accountability and transparency.”

The bigger picture

This isn’t the first time China’s Red Cross has come under fire during a national crisis.

After the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, which killed almost 90,000 people, questions were asked about where money raised for disaster relief went, including funds donated to the Red Cross. That lack of accountability cast a shadow over the credibility of the organization and it subsequently formed a committee dedicated to improving its transparency over donation spending.

Medical staff carry medical materials from a helicopter in Wuhan, China, on February 1, 2020.

For the Red Cross’s reputation to be called into question again could be damning not only for the organization but for the government.

“When (the public are) criticizing the China Red Cross for real here, they’re criticizing the government,” said Carolyn Hsu, a sociologist at Colgate University who studies NGOs in China. “When people are making these accusations, they know it’s a powerful accusation.”

To Hsu, this criticism illustrates that citizens feel more empowered than in the past to push back against the government.

People wait for medical attention at Wuhan Red Cross Hospital in Wuhan on January 25, 2020.

“It’s a scary situation, people are obviously really upset and afraid,” she said. “In a place where people are really upset that the people who need them don’t have the supplies that they need, I think this is not an abnormal response.”

However, questions over the handling of Red Cross donations are unlikely to hurt the central government and President Xi Jinping long term, says Hsu. That’s because the accusations are against local authorities, not the central government, so leaders can avert the crisis by allowing regional figures to take the fall.

“They can throw those people under the bus,” she said, referring to the local level leaders. “It looks like that’s already what’s happening.”

CNN’s Yong Xiong contributed to this story from Beijing.