Tea Leaf Nation

China’s Bizarre Fixation on a 23-Year-Old Woman

China’s Bizarre Fixation on a 23-Year-Old Woman

GUANGZHOU — On August 4, a 6.5-magnitude earthquake viciously struck Ludian County, a township in the southwest province of Yunnan, with a death toll surpassing 400. The news swiftly hit Chinese headlines, and images of the devastation circulated widely on Weibo, China’s massive microblogging platform.

None of this has diminished Chinese state media’s enthusiasm for a story that, by comparison, appears trivial at first blush: The misdeeds of a 23-year-old woman, Guo Meimei, an Internet sensation with a ruinous fondness for the good life. Guo now sits in a jail cell, detained in early July by Beijing police along with seven others on suspicion of gambling on World Cup matches. At around midnight on August 4 — just eight hours after the Ludian earthquake — Weibo lit up with seemingly coordinated official accounts of Guo’s confession on state-run China Central Television, or CCTV. The posts came from state outlets including Xinhua News Agency, People’s Daily, China National Radio (CNR), and CCTV itself, all of which almost simultaneously shared the news of Guo’s mea culpa.

Xinhua News agency struck first with an article, nearly 4,000 Chinese characters long, carrying the titillating headline, From Ostentation to Gambling — Why Did She Fall Into the Criminal Abyss? The article reads as an exposé on Guo’s background, touching on her family, her relationship with her sugar daddy, and, crucially, her alleged affiliation with the Red Cross Society of China (RCSC). The article quotes Guo insisting that none of her friends or loved ones work for the RCSC, "and I don’t know anyone that does." Guo apologized for making "a huge mistake out of vanity" which has "seriously destroyed the reputation of the RCSC. Saying ‘sorry’ isn’t enough to express my remorse." While she was at it, Guo also confessed to operating illegal gambling venues from which she gained a profit of thousands of dollars, fabricating news stories about having fallen deep into debt, and having sex with men for money.

Minutes later, People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party and the government it controls, published 12 consecutive tweets on its official Weibo account about Guo. CCTV then issued 10 of its own, and CNR followed. In no time, #exposéonguomeimei had become one of the top trending topics on Weibo.

For Guo herself, it was a public tarring-and-feathering on the same medium that made her a celebrity in the first place. In June 2011, Chinese netizens gleaned from Guo’s verified Weibo account that she liked posting images of her lavish lifestyle, which included Hermes handbags, a Maserati, and a jet ski. In her Weibo profile, she fatefully identified herself as "commercial general manager of the Red Cross Chamber of Commerce," although such an organization does not in fact exist. The apparent connection of such a profligate youngster with the RCSC, one of the largest government-linked charity organizations, outraged Chinese netizens, who had already suspected that Red Cross donations were being misused. Although both Guo and the RCSC later denied any ties to each other, the RCSC was met with an unprecedented crisis of trust with continuous disclosures of its staffers allegedly squandering the donations. (In December 2011, the RCSC issued an internal report finding "no connection at all" with Guo, but most online commenters responded with incredulity.)

Even before Guo’s confession, she has been widely blamed for destroying the reputation of the non-profit RCSC, which is not affiliated with any international Red Cross organization. The perception is a somewhat self-serving one, allowing the online vouyerism and sexism that drives much of the fascination with Guo to borrow the mantle of righteous indignation. A search for Guo on Baidu, China’s search engine of choice, calls up over 73 million results, including many of her now-ubiquitous selfies as well as articles debating the meaning of the "Guo Meimei phenomenon." In other words, Guo’s proclivity for (over) sharing met an Internet eager to seize on characters like her. As a result, fairly or not, Guo has become tightly associated in the public mind not just with the RCSC, but with China’s gilded-age excesses in general.

Given that netizens have spent the subsequent three years calling for an in-depth investigation on the alleged affiliation, state media might be forgiven for expecting Chinese netizens to react gleefully to Guo’s downfall, or at least be grateful that officials were finally responding to the scandal with what appeared to be a direct answer.

But state media bungled the effort. Releasing the Guo exposé so soon on the heels of a major earthquake only focused attention on an old controversy at a time when the RCSC had bigger fish to fry. In an effort to divert attention, the foundation issued its own statement on Weibo hours after Xinhua’s report, pleading with the public to "forget about Guo Meimei for right now," arguing that "nothing’s more important than rescue operations in the Ludian disaster zone." The statement reminded readers that "the death toll has already surpassed 300, a dark number that will probably grow this summer night," as it did.

Not everyone was convinced. Ren Zhiqiang, an outspoken real estate investor with over 22 million followers on the Twitter-like microblogging platform Weibo, asked rhetorically why the RSCS hadn’t "used law to protect its honor in the first place," an apparent reference to using Chinese defamation law against Guo. Ren claimed he had personally urged RCSC officials to do so, to no avail. Grassroots netizens also evinced continuing suspicion of the RCSC. "It seems to me that the media is deliberately trying to clear public’s suspicions about the RCSC by publishing so-called inside stories about Guo," read one post. The author speculates that the story was intended to make readers forget that the RCSC "might have misused our donations during the Wenchuan earthquake," a May 2008 disaster that claimed over 60,000 lives.  (Indeed, in May 2013, the RCSC admitted to redirecting a donation of over $12 million, originally intended for earthquake relief).

Others decried what they felt was official media’s undue focus on Guo in the teeth of a wider tragedy. In a widely shared comment, Zhan Jiang, a journalism and communication studies professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, questioned CCTV’s decision to focus on Guo during its television news broadcast the evening of the Ludian quake. The show led with Ludian, but, Jiang wrote, "From 10:20 to 10:49, it was all about the exposé on Guo Meimei." Jiang asked, "Who made such a decision? News media had been used as a mere tool." In another popular post, Ye Tan, a finance and economic columnist, warned that law, not broadcasters, should be the judge. (Starting in August 2013, Chinese state media has featured several public confessions from accused individuals not yet afforded their day in court.)

For now, it’s not sure what Guo’s own verdict will be — she, too, has not had a chance to explain herself to a judge. Whatever the ruling, it’s likely the public will forget about Guo Meimei eventually. But the issues her fame has raised about Chinese charities, and the character of the country’s Internet, are likely to last.