TOO CLOSE TO CALL
A father’s plea to help his cancer-stricken daughter has embroiled him in controversy. But the truth was uncovered by journalistic diligence rather than ‘moral’ mood swings.
Within half an hour on Nov 30, I went on a personal roller coaster between feeling mildly good about myself to feeling duped.
It was all because I had forwarded an article on WeChat.
The article detailed the difficulties faced by Luo Er, a reporter in Shenzhen, whose 5-year-old daughter, Luo Yixiao, was in intensive care for leukemia. He mentioned the treatment could cost between 10,000 yuan ($1,500) to 30,000 yuan a day. But instead of explicitly asking for donation, he said forwarding his article would suffice as a third party would pay 1 yuan each time it was reposted.
I normally refrain from doing such “good deeds” but Luo’s status as a journalist, his recounting of the details of his daughter’s situation and his non-coercion in seeking public support lend it credibility. Most crucial of all, my brother recently died of colon cancer and I had a reflex of empathy for Luo.
Little did I know that when I was reposting it to my friends on the app, the piece was being debunked: Luo had three properties in the city where real estate prices are sky high. He had vastly exaggerated his financial need.
The whole thing was a scam concocted by a company whose goal was to accumulate eyeballs.
I quickly deleted my post, feeling bad about anyone who might have lost money because of my impulsive act. But I also thought things weren’t as clear-cut as they were made out to be.
Thanks to the timely reaction of local media and relevant organizations, the truth emerged the next day. And indeed, it was not all black and white.
The medical condition of Luo’s daughter was accurate. In China, it would be a gross violation of ethics if a parent makes up such a claim. It would be seen as a curse on one’s child.
Luo indeed has three properties — one in Shenzhen, where the family resides, and two in neighboring Dongguan. The Dongguan apartments have not been issued ownership permits yet, which makes resale a bit hard. And all three units are far from being highly valued.
Luo’s monthly salary is 4,000 yuan and he is the only breadwinner in his household. It seems the family is on the lower end of the middleclass spectrum.
Luo’s deal with a marketing firm was not complicated. The company would pay him a minimum of 20,000 yuan and a maximum of 500,000 yuan for the total number of repostings, accounting for the 1 yuan donation.
But I still cannot figure out whether the donations from readers of the post would go to the firm or to Luo. Anyway, a total of more than 2 million yuan was raised before Luo told people to stop sending money.
Now the part I would like to dwell on: the amount needed. The hospital has revealed that the total cost so far for the treatment of his daughter is around 100,000 yuan and insurance has covered most of it, with Luo paying some 20,000 yuan out of his own pocket. This was later confirmed by Luo himself.
This is an amount most Chinese families can afford — even without putting up any asset for sale.
In the past year I have learned firsthand that money is often not the make-or-break factor in treating a cancer patient. Most people have the notion that the more money we can spend, the more likely our loved ones can be saved. But in most cases that I know, this is not true.
Sure, some treatments are costly and not covered by insurance. But the cruel truth is, the miracle cure is simply not there yet for whatever amount of money. The rate of cancer survival depends on early diagnosis.
I got Opdivo, a very expensive drug, for my brother two days before he passed away. The doctor told us that it works well for most patients with skin cancer. For others, the likelihood of a cure is very limited. Now, my sister-in-law wants to donate the remaining medicine to someone who cannot afford it.
But the change of hand must be authorized and explained by a doctor, I insist, because I fear the recipient may be misled by the high value of the drug into thinking it is a panacea.
I honestly believe that China’s medical system covers most who need help and the few who fall through the cracks can be helped by philanthropy, including online donations in small amounts.
Judging from all the reports, I have a feeling that Luo did not set out to dupe anyone.
When his daughter was taken into an intensive care unit, it was natural for him as a father to feel sudden despair. He exaggerated the amount needed probably because he was trying to cover future medical costs. Also, as he said, he never expected his article to go viral. Most such pleas never go out of one’s circle of acquaintances.
There is a streak in the Chinese mentality that favors exaggeration and simplification. Luo may be an example of it, but those who accuse him of various “sins” and “crimes” seem more culpable. They rely on hearsay instead of conducting investigations. The road to the moral high ground is always crowded with people who think in either-or terms.
I salute those who uncover fabrications of “good deeds”.
About a year ago, there was a father’s post of his drive along with his teenage son to the western part of Sichuan province. The son was suffering from altitude sickness, but the father did not know better. By the time they sought help at a local hospital, it was too late.
This was meant as a cautionary tale for travelers from the plains who are unaware of such risks. It did not carry a whiff of financial gain. But the hospital mentioned dutifully checked its record and found no such incident.
To date, I have no idea what the hoax was about. Maybe it was a novelist who forgot to state he was writing fiction.
In the age of internet, even a token gesture of giving 1 yuan or forwarding a post will require a certain familiarity with journalistic ethics of properly vetting and doublechecking things. I just don’t know whether this is a sad or glad turn for the public.
By the end of Dec 1, Luo, Tencent, the online platform where the fund was raised, and other relevant parties issued a statement that the money would be returned — every cent of it.
Contact the writer at raymondzhou@ chinadaily.com.cn