China's social media companies put aside competition when they come to work together for social good, setting a great example from which other countries can learn, according to a senior officer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
"Countries use social media very differently, and it's very dependent on their particular cultures. But I do think China is setting an incredible example in terms of the way that social media companies put aside the competition when they form an alliance for social good," said Kate James, the foundation's chief communications officer, in an exclusive interview with Xinhua during the Beijing forum of the Social Good Summit 2012.
"It could make real progress because their resources and their technologies are absolutely essential," she said.
Beijing, for the first time, was chosen to host a sideline forum of the Social Good Summit, which took place in New York on Sept. 22 to 24. Hub events and "meet-ups" were also held in Nairobi, Kenya, and in nearly 100 countries to make the summit a global conversation about social good issues.
The summit, held in conjunction with the UN General Assembly's week-long annual meeting in New York, brought together public and private partners, as well as on-site and online audiences, to tackle the world's biggest challenges, including poverty reduction, disaster relief, endangered species and environmental protection.
"The reason why it's so important to have China as one of the central hubs is just the sheer size of the opportunity," James said, adding that her belief was reinforced by Tencent's WeiChat platform that reaches 200 million people.
"That's why China must be part of the conversation," she said.
James was very impressed by social media's involvement in the tuberculosis (TB) prevention campaign in China early this year. "As a result of the campaign, all the TB prevention officers across the country established their own Weibos (China's Twitter-like microblogs), so they could really reach remote rural areas to raise the awareness and understanding of the dreadful disease."
China remains among the world's 22 TB high-burden countries, and it has the world's second-highest TB population. China reports 120,000 new cases of multi-drug resistant TB (MDR-TB) annually, a quarter of the world's total.
"I think the campaign is phenomenally innovative and an example that can be easily applied to another country," James said.
China has seen online charity flourish in recent years, with major microblog websites serving as a growing platform. The free lunch program, one of the most successful ones initiated on Sina Weibo, raised 18 million yuan (2.9 million U.S. dollars) last year, providing free lunches to malnourished children in 129 rural schools. However, false information and fraudulent fundraising spread across the Internet, prompting the public to question the sector's transparency and validity.
"Social media is pushing transparency, not just in philanthropy but across all sectors. The charities are exposed to greater accountability and tighter scrutiny, and the public's expectation on philanthropy is far greater than it used to be. I think that's reasonable," James said.
But she also pointed out that social media is still very much in its infancy in terms of charity. "There's no doubt that the most powerful campaigns at the moment are still those with both online activities and traditional activities working together."h She used the campaign on World No Tobacco Day as an example. The campaign, aiming to raise the awareness in China of the dangers of passive smoking, or secondhand smoke, was kicked off with an online petition and video, which quickly gave more life to traditional activities across 10 cities in China, involving 1,500 volunteers and 50 celebrities.
"The result was that the national awareness of the danger of passive smoking rose from 5 percent to 19 percent and it continues to rise," James said. "But I don't think it would be as effective as it was if there had been either social media or traditional campaigns."
But she admitted that in a long-term view, social media offers a great way to broaden wisdom. "They enable you to reach out to a much bigger audience and, hopefully, a much richer source of ideas."
She says the Gates Foundation is also working hard to attract the emotional engagement of the online audience in order to connect them to the work on the ground. Grand Challenges Explorations, an initiative of the foundation to award great ideas on how to solve various challenges concerning health, recently opened for ideas concerning communications.
"We just launched the next round of Grand Challenges Explorations, hoping to find new ideas about how to use mobile technologies to build awareness and engagement across the online community," James said.
"We are particularly expecting to get some great ideas from China," she said. "With the last round, we received entries from more than 85 countries, and over 100 entries from China. We know there's enthusiasm and energy in China."
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