HONG KONG — Hong Kong lawmakers fiercely opposed a plan Wednesday to donate money to a Chinese provincial government for earthquake victims, underlining widespread public concerns about mainland corruption.
The city's leader, Leung Chun-ying, proposed donating 100 million Hong Kong dollars ($13 million) to the Sichuan provincial government for relief efforts following an earthquake Saturday that struck Lushan county, killing at least 196 people and injuring more than 11,000.
Lawmakers said they wanted to help the victims but opposed giving money to government officials because of fears about corruption and misuse of funds. They said they would prefer that the money be channeled to aid groups and non-governmental organizations.
The debate reflects wider public wariness in semiautonomous Hong Kong about official corruption in mainland China, an enduring problem that Chinese President Xi Jinping has promised to root out. It marks a sharp change in sentiment compared with reactions to previous disasters that prompted residents to open their wallets, such as a devastating earthquake that struck the Sichuan region in 2008, killing 90,000 people.
Following that quake, "the government donated HK$9 billion in return for scandals and also a lot of substandard projects," lawmaker Kwok Ka-ki said.
Hong Kongers were especially miffed after learning early last year that a Sichuan secondary school built in 2010 with HK$2 million in quake relief funds was later torn down to make way for a luxury housing development. The Hong Kong government said Tuesday that the province later returned the funds.
Numerous other legislators also voiced their opposition to the donation at a special meeting of the finance committee, which ended before they could vote on it. It's unclear whether another meeting would be held.
"What China lacks is not money but rather clean government," said lawmaker Claudia Mo. "Our trust in those provincial governments has gone bankrupt."
Hong Kong web users have flooded online forums to express their disgust with the proposal. Some posted cartoons mocking Leung, who is backed by Beijing but widely unpopular, and circulated a satirical photo-montage joking that donations would be spent on prostitutes, shopping trips and expensive cars and houses for Communist Party bureaucrats.
The skepticism is not limited to Hong Kong, a former British colony that's now a special administrative region of China with its own legal system and currency.
It's also reflected in a photo that has gone viral among Chinese internet users that shows Premier Li Keqiang touring the disaster area with a local official sporting a watch-shaped tan line on his wrist. The official, Lushan county's Communist Party chief Fan Jiyue, may have been trying to avoid scrutiny suffered by other officials in the past year after they were spotted wearing pricey wristwatches.
Internet users posted photos of Fan at other events wearing what they believed was a Swiss-made Vacheron Constantin worth 210,000 yuan ($34,000).
In another sign of the struggle to win over public trust, China's Red Cross will reopen an investigation into a 2011 incident involving a young purported staffer shown in photos carrying expensive handbags and posing in her Maserati, the state-run Beijing News newspaper reported on its website.
The mainland Chinese agency disavowed any connection with the woman at the time. But as it takes part in quake relief efforts, it has found its fund-raising efforts still hampered by the scandal. An independent oversight panel for the charity has decided to launch a new investigation into the incident next month, the paper said, citing panel spokesman Wang Yong.
Watch photo: http://bit.ly/ZB0tZT
Research Flora Ji in Beijing contributed to this report.