The Hong Kong Red Cross (HKRC) has inadvertently triggered a political row over immigration and China’s influence on its autonomous city.

The charity issued an urgent appeal on social media last Thursday, saying that its inventory would only be enough to provide blood for four more days.

The appeal read: “What does [the issue] have to do with me? If someone close to you needs a blood transfusion four days later, does it still have nothing to do with you?”

The post attracted an overwhelming – mostly negative – response from online commenters. Many accused the charity of resorting to emotional blackmail through “cursing” and “scaremongering.”

They also questioned whether much of their inventory had been used to treat mainland Chinese, either through the provision of blood to mainland hospitals, or by supplying it to local hospitals that may serve a large number of mainlanders or recent immigrants from China.

The row intensified as some critics alleged that there was an influx of Chinese visitors using Hong Kong’s healthcare services. They also blamed the 150-per-day quota system for mainlanders to move to Hong Kong.

Some criticised HKRC for its “lack of transparency” and urged the charity to disclose details of the recipients of its blood supply, including their nationality.

Others complained of poor service from HKRC staff members, inadequate stations and short opening hours.

HKRC responded to the wave of criticism a day later: “We sincerely apologise for the wording which offended and disturbed some people.”

Hong Kong Red Cross
Blood donation at Hong Kong Red Cross. File Photo: GovHK.

“We restate that we have never sent blood collected in Hong Kong to places outside the territory,” it said. “All of the blood collected is given to patients – regardless of their nationality and identity – receiving treatment at local hospitals.”

The charity attributed the problem of frequent blood shortages to the city’s aging population, as more elderly people are in need of blood transfusions.

It added that changes in Hong Kong’s academic structure – from seven years of secondary education to six – had led to a decline in the number of secondary school students available for blood donation.

Meanwhile, some defenders of HKRC criticised the xenophobic sentiments that they believed drove the debate. Journalist Lam Yin-pong wrote in Apple Daily that it is unreasonable to refuse to save someone’s life because of their nationality or political ideology.

Activist Derek Lam of the Demosisto party, who was diagnosed with leukemia ten years ago at the age of 13, said he was saved by blood donors.

“You can distrust the Red Cross, but please trust that the blood you donated did not go to waste or was all given to rich mainlanders. Your blood can really save lives,” Lam said.

Surge of donors

Despite the controversy, the charity saw a rush of blood donors following its appeal.

Hong Kong Red Cross mobile service
The Hong Kong Red Cross Blood Transfusion Service. File Photo: GovHK.

HKRC Director Jimmy Yuen Hong-wing said Sunday that the charity receives a daily average of 800 to 900 blood donors, but the number rose to 1,300 and 1,000 on Saturday and Sunday. He said the ideal daily target is 1,100 donors if the charity is to ensure a stable blood supply.

Yuen asked the public to go to blood transfusion stations during lunch breaks or after work on weekdays, in order to avoid long queues at weekends.

But Democratic Party district councilor Henry Chai Man-hon criticised HKRC’s administration for being “out of touch” with reality.

“The Red Cross operates like it did 20 years ago,” he said. “When it is low in blood supply, it only makes appeal through traditional means and appears unaware of the internet’s power to mobilise young people… When ‘enthusiastic’ citizens are free to donate blood on their days off, it strangely asks them not to flood to the stations on weekends.”

Secretary for Food and Health Ko Wing-man said Sunday that the Red Cross will study how to adjust the duration of blood collection in response to public complaints over long waiting time.

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Ellie Ng

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.