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Actress denies charity fraud

March 16, 2010   |   Written by Raymond Zhou

Celebrity actress Zhang Ziyi admits she lacked experience in handling charity donations during an exclusive interview with China Daily over the weekend in an undisclosed place in Liaoning province where she was shooting a movie.

Zhang Ziyi has been criticized for not replying to accusations of charity fraud leveled against her, but in an exclusive interview with Raymond Zhou she tells all.

LIAONING PROVINCE: Zhang Ziyi has vehemently denied accusations that she committed fraud in the name of charity, but admitted to inexperience when organizing a donation drive for the relief of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake victims.

In an exclusive interview with China Daily, the internationally-celebrated Chinese actress – for the first time – answered some 100 questions, most of which involve details about the money she gave to charity or collected for her own foundation.

Ever since an advertisement featuring her was defaced with paint in December, Zhang has been embroiled in a series of allegations.

The most serious of the accusations – mostly from netizens – are about discrepancies in the sums that surfaced in various reports. Shortly after the earthquake struck Sichuan on May 12, 2008, killing some 80,000 and dislocating millions, she decided to donate 1 million yuan ($147,000) to the China Red Cross.

As she was in the United States at the time, she asked her representative in China to transfer the money. But due to what she claimed to be a “communication glitch”, only 840,000 yuan was sent. She said she took “primary responsibility” for it and had already made up for the shortfall.

The other contentious figure was $1 million, which she said she had “hoped” to raise, but had never claimed to have “already” raised. The actual amount pledged for the Zhang Ziyi Foundation is slightly less than $500,000, most of which has not been paid.

The event in the eye of the storm was a fund-raising drive on May 21, 2008, at the Cannes Film Festival. During the one-hour “hastily arranged” initiative, only $1,392 in cash was collected, far less than the previously reported $50,000. The rest were informal pledges.

The total adds up to about $500,000, which is the amount she said she had always referred to when answering the media.

Since then, she said she had been making efforts to pressure the donors to honor their pledges, but her efforts have not been very successful. So far, only $15,050 has been collected.

Zhang said she would personally make up for the shortfall but would not reveal the people’s names against their will.

Zhang also mentioned her foundation was registered in California two days before her fund-raising effort in Cannes. The foundation, a non-profit organization, is of good standing and there have been no financial irregularities, she said.

Tears welled in her eyes when she talked about the incident’s impact on her and her family, and again when she recounted the solace and support she got from friends.

She said she wants to give back to society because she had got so much from it, using her heavily-subsidized tuition in the drama academy and the dance school as an example.

Q & A | Zhang Ziyi

CD (China Daily): You donated 1 million yuan ($146,500) out of your own pocket (for Sichuan earthquake relief), right?

ZZY (Zhang Ziyi): Yes.

CD: You gave it to the China Red Cross?

ZZY: Yes.

CD: But only 840,000 yuan ($123,000) was transferred.

ZZY: That’s correct.

CD: You made up for the shortfall only recently (Feb 8, 2010). Why was that?

ZZY: I was not in China (May 2008). I just gave the instruction to donate and did not follow up. I traveled from the United States to Cannes, France. I take the main responsibility for the lapse and causing my staff to mix it up.

CD: When did you first realize your donation was short of what you had announced?

ZZY: Later, when news came out and we did an investigation.

CD: What exactly went wrong?

ZZY: Some kind of communication problem.

CD: Have you ever said things like: “Please give money to the Red Cross?”

ZZY: Yes.

CD: At Cannes?

ZZY: Yes.

CD: Were you encouraging people to donate to the Red Cross? Or, were you asking them to give you the money and you would pass it to the Red Cross?

ZZY: I was encouraging them to give directly to the Red Cross. Not a penny of other people’s money passed through me to the Red Cross.

CD: Have you ever raised money in the name of the Red Cross, but for your own foundation?

ZZY: Never.

CD: Have you ever thought of putting the 1 million yuan you gave to the Red Cross into your own foundation?

ZZY: No.

Fundraising in Cannes

CD: Your fundraising in Cannes (May 21, 2008) got a lot of media coverage in China. But there have been different reports about the sum raised. The oft-quoted amount for cash is $50,000, which includes some Hong Kong dollars and euros converted into US dollars. Is that correct?

ZZY: That’s not correct.

CD: Then, what was the amount of cash raised?

ZZY: About $1,300.

CD: How come it was so little?

ZZY: The fundraising event was hastily arranged. We did not have a place. It was lent to us. I did not have many people with me, and I’m grateful to the volunteers from Sohu. Not many people showed up. At Cannes, everyone was busy watching movies and attending parties. And people do not carry much cash around, especially non-Chinese.

CD: How much did you raise in pledges?

ZZY: We got a little more than $400,000.

CD: How much of that has been honored?

ZZY: Around $39,000.

CD: Did the “almost $500,000″ include the $100,000 pledged by Wendi Deng (Rupert Murdoch’s wife)?

ZZY: Yes.

CD: In the past two years did you try to get the pledged money?

ZZY: I made calls and corresponded with the pledged donors.

CD: What was the result?

ZZY: I hope to have a concrete project to show them and see whether that will interest them.

CD: What if you fail to collect the whole?

ZZY: (Long pause) If they do not honor their pledges that will give me another chance to give. I’ll make up for the shortfall of $400,000 (the amount earmarked for a Sichuan Children’s Center).

CD: Have you ever mentioned that you raised more than $500,000, say, $1 million, which is often mentioned in media reports? What about $2 million, $5 million, and the highest I’ve read, $7 million? Do you know where those figures came from?

ZZY: None of these is right. In the interviews after that fund-raising party, I said we raised “almost $500,000″ and my goal is to raise $1 million. I have seen the $2 million report, which seemed to have something to do with Vivi (Nevo, Zhang’s fianc). But he did not have a clue when I asked him about it. As for the other numbers, I have no idea.

Zhang Ziyi Foundation

CD: Some say you have two foundations, one in California and one in New York. The one in New York is actually an ESL school. How is that?

ZZY: We have only one foundation, which is registered in California. But we added a New York mailing address for convenience of correspondence.

CD: Some say your foundation is registered as a business.

ZZY: That’s not true. It is a not-for-profit organization, a charity.

CD: Some say (the registration) has expired.

ZZY: It is always in good standing.

CD: Some say you have only $45,471 in the account, others say the foundation’s assets are zero. Which is correct?

ZZY: There have never been zero assets in the account. The $40,000-plus should be $39,000 in donations plus $5,000 in expenses, which came from my own pocket.

CD: Did all donations go to this account?

ZZY: Yes.

CD: Did anyone send money to your own account and you had to transfer it to the foundation?

ZZY: This never happened.

CD: Is this money managed by a professional, say, an accountant?

ZZY: Yes.

CD: Has there been any withdrawal – for any reason?

ZZY: Never. It has always been there. I want to say that all information about the foundation is open and we have never done anything not transparent or illegal. Everyone can go and check on it.

CD: There was a full-page ad in Hollywood Reporter, in which the editor-in-chief and you appeal for funds for the relief of the Sichuan earthquake. Is that true?

ZZY: Yes.

CD: Did you pay for the ad?

ZZY: No. They wanted to help me when they found out what I was doing and they were moved.

CD: Did anyone donate because of the ad?

ZZY: It was a pity we did not receive any donations (induced by the ad).

Care for Children

CD: You said this money will be given to Care for Children and be used for building a Children’s Center in Deyang, Sichuan province. Can you give us a brief description of the organization?

ZZY: Care for Children is an international charity headquartered in the United Kingdom and with an office in Beijing. It has handled 38 projects in 27 provinces and autonomous regions across China.

CD: Why did you pick Care for Children?

ZZY: I had worked with them before the 2008 earthquake. What they do is to help those children who are deserted by sending them to foster homes. I wanted to cooperate with them and help the children left homeless from the earthquake.

CD: But your money has not reached Care for Children yet. Why?

ZZY: We had to get government approval for the project. It took a long time.

CD: Now it has been approved, right?

ZZY: The approval came in November 2009.

CD: When will the money enter the account of Care for Children?

ZZY: Within three weeks of breaking ground on the center.

CD: How much will the center cost? And how much do the monies from your foundation and Care for Children account for?

ZZY: The total cost will be 9 million yuan ($1.3 million), and our donations will be 4.5 million yuan, which is about $658,000. Of this amount, $400,000 is from my foundation.

CD: Will you shut down the foundation once this project is over, or keep running it?

ZZY: This project has just been approved. We’ll put our energy into it. I’ll think about other things later.

Learning about charity

CD: What qualities do you think are required for doing charity work, besides passion?

ZZY: Besides passion, I think one needs a lot of energy, a professional team and enough knowledge.

CD: Do you think you possessed them?

ZZY: I had passion and energy, but not a professional team, or the right approach.

CD: When entertainment celebrities engage in charity work, it usually gives people the impression that they want to spruce up their public image. Have you considered a low-profile or anonymous approach to charity?

ZZY: I wish I could do that. But … I still hope to use my name and influence to raise awareness for the issues involved.

CD: What position does charity work occupy in your life and career?

ZZY: A very important position. The achievements I have made today are the result of the many years that my country invested in me If the country suffers, we have to do our part. You cannot make up the feeling that you have with the country and the people. It is real.

CD: What’s your philosophy for charity?

ZZY: My interest is in kids, especially disabled children. When I see them – whatever country they come from, I hope I can work for them, to improve their welfare.

CD: Since the controversy about your donation, you have hired a Los Angeles law firm to investigate. Now it has issued its report, which is quite detailed. There are four donors who each pledged $100,000, and one for $50,000, but they have not yet honored their pledges. Why are their identities not revealed?

ZZY: Donors have the right to reveal or conceal their names. It’s about privacy.

CD: If they end up not honoring those pledges, basically you’ll take the responsibility for them. Right?

ZZY: Yes, it can be interpreted this way.

CD: You kept silent for two months. Why didn’t you come out earlier and explain?

ZZY: I wanted to clarify it from the very beginning. But then I found out I should use legal means to clarify everything. That’ll be more convincing. We sent all the evidence to the US. The process took a long time.

Impact of the controversy

CD: Do you think there was someone manipulating the controversy, or it was the netizens who wanted to find out the truth?

ZZY: I believe most netizens have a sense of justice and will seek truth from facts. When they know the truth, they can judge for themselves.

CD: What impact has the controversy had on you and your family?

ZZY: A lot. It’s about me and I have to face it. But I don’t want to see my family getting worried because of me … (fighting back tears)

CD: Did you get angry and feel it’s unfair?

ZZY: Of course there were moments I felt bad. I wanted to do something good, but we had our problems, such as my lack of experience, my failure to disclose to the public, my limited knowledge about philanthropy and other reasons.

CD: Would you see this as a setback?

ZZY: It was certainly a setback. But I learned something new from it.

CD: Some say you quit (the Wendi Deng-produced movie)Snow Flower and the Secret Fan because of this, and some brands dropped you as their spokeswoman. Is that true?

ZZY: No. I prepared for this movie for two years. But I underwent a surgery after doing an action scene, which prevented me from proceeding with that (Wendi Deng) movie.

CD: What about endorsements?

ZZY: Nothing unusual has happened.

Black paint incident

CD: When the current controversy first broke out, it had nothing to do with donations. A certain Zhao (Xinyu) accused you of something. Would you care to respond?

ZZY: This incident has already caused trouble for a lot of people, especially my family. I have endured much, and I don’t want others to go through the same pain.

CD: Do you think the public has a right to know the private lives of celebrities?

ZZY: There should be limits.

CD: What about your love and marriage?

ZZY: If it’s nothing unethical, there’s a need to let the public know.

CD: Do you think a star should be a role model of morality?

ZZY: Stars are ordinary people, too. But they should conduct themselves better.

CD: You have international fame. Some say what you do represents the whole country and you should receive special protection or be placed under special constraints. What do you think?

ZZY: I want to do better, but I don’t want to give myself too much pressure or a sense of mission. I want to be an ordinary person, but I’ll work to make it as perfect as possible.

CD: A professor once said, you, Zhang Ziyi, are more powerful than Confucius in promoting Chinese culture overseas. What’s your take on it?

ZZY: How can I be compared with Confucius …

CD: What do you want your public image to be?

ZZY: I want to be compassionate, responsible, hard working and full of personality.

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