'Enemy of the state' finds no charity
Updated: 2011-09-16 07:59
By Wu Wencong and Cui Jia (China Daily)
Twenty-year-old Guo Meimei, who sparked a national scandal about the Red Cross Society of China, sat for an interview with China Daily in a teahouse in Chaoyang district of Beijing on Sept 14. Liu Zhe / China Daily
Woman at the center of Red Cross luxury picture outrage has learned hard lessons, Wu Wencong and Cui Jia report in Beijing.
Guo Meimei, a young woman whose online displays of luxury severely damaged the credibility of the Red Cross Society of China, said her experiences in the past three months have caused her to "grow up five years".
During an interview on Wednesday, the 20-year-old adjusted her bangs while looking at a live image of herself on her mobile phone and said she was "ignorance personified, with no interest in school and a love of luxury".
Despite her admission of immaturity, Guo has learned a hard lesson: all actions have consequences.
In early June, Guo bragged on her micro blog about her wealth, and claimed that she was "the manager of the Red Cross Chamber of Commerce", a post she in fact fabricated.
Netizens suspected that money given to the Red Cross Society of China had gone to keep staff members in the lap of luxury.
In response, some people stopped donating to charities in general and donations to some Red Cross branches reportedly dropped by 90 percent.
There is no doubt that Guo has been chastened by her experience. Whenever her name or image appears online, it provokes an outpouring of invectives.
Guo said that the animosity she has stirred up even led to thoughts of suicide.
"I feel like I am an enemy of the state," Guo said on Wednesday. "The truth is that I am just a stupid girl who did something really stupid. No matter what I say, no one wants to believe me. No matter what I do, nobody wants to forgive me. I didn't break the law in any way. Would these people be happy if I died?"
Despite her boasts of wealth, Guo dresses just like any other 20-year-old who takes a fancy to fashion, wearing black high-heels and tight, torn pants. She said she had grown up spoiled by her single mother and aunts, who had let her have whatever she had wanted.
Careful what you wish
While traveling in Thailand just before she turned 18, she made three wishes. All of them, she said, came true.
Her first was to have a car when she reached adulthood. On her 18th birthday, her mother gave her a red BMW Mini Cooper as a birthday present (see picture).
Her second was to have 5 million yuan ($782,000) to her name before she turned 20. Now she owns two cars that are together worth nearly 3 million yuan, which, combined with her other sources of income, mean she has exceeded her goal.
Her wish last was to be famous. That, too, she has achieved.
"But trust me, it's not the way I wanted it to be," said Guo, who has already acted in some small TV roles.
In late June, millions of netizens began disseminating photos of Guo showing off her Hermes bags and her 2.4-million-yuan Maserati.
Thus began a massive "campaign" against the Red Cross Society of China, one that has subsequently brought many other philanthropies under suspicion.
According to the China Charity and Donation Information Center, Chinese charities in July saw the amount of donations they received fall by about 90 percent below what they had been in the previous month.
Guo said she was only the spark that ignited the public's long-held suspicions about the Red Cross Society of China. "A police probe has proved that I have nothing to do with the Chinese Red Cross," she said. "I think people just want to see some corrupt officials get fired. And they would be (fired) if there were any."
Several experts, meanwhile, said Guo is being attacked more because of what she represents in the public's mind than what she has done.
"Guo herself may not be immoral," said Hu Xingdou, an economics professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology. "The public is merely directing its anger against corrupt officials or the wealthy at her. So she has become a 'punching bag' that people beat to let out their anger."
He said Guo's case will result in changes for the good since it will push charities in China to accept more public supervision.
"Like many large State-owned enterprises, large charities in China have difficulties with being inefficient and expensive," said Hu. "All of this attention will help them to change."
Shi Zengzhi, a professor at Peking University's school of journalism and communication, likewise thought Guo was merely being used as a representative of something the public really distrusts.
"Many girls like to brag about their wealth," she said. "And none of them has attracted this much attention. Guo did, though, because she claimed an affiliation with China's Red Cross. This is really about the public's lack of trust toward charities."
As for Guo's claim of being affiliated with the Red Cross, it was quickly repudiated, first by the organization and then by Guo herself.
The China Red Cross responded on June 22 to her initial statements, saying it neither has a sub-organization called "The Red Cross Chamber of Commerce" nor employs someone named Guo Meimei.
Days later, Guo wrote on her micro blog that she had made up the title of "manager of the Red Cross Chamber of Commerce".
Netizens wouldn't drop the matter. On July 3, they brought forward information about Zhonghong Bo'ai Asset Management, a Shenzhen company that does business with the Red Cross. A director of the company, Wang Jun, 42, was someone who Guo said was like a father to her. He is also who bought her the Maserati.
Hearing Guo's explanation of the relationship, many netizens refused to accept it and began to wonder if Wang, who has a family in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, was having an affair with Guo or her mother.
Speaking about her car, Guo said she had first wanted a Mercedes-Benz SLK for her 20th birthday. But on a trip to a showroom she saw a white Maserati, which cost about 1.6 million yuan more than the Mercedes, and found herself entranced.
"I called Wang Jun then and there and told him I want a Maserati for my birthday," she recalled. "He paid a deposit of 500,000 yuan on it straight away."
Guo said Wang was shocked when she called to ask him to pay off the rest of the 1.9 million yuan. She said he first paused on the other end of the phone and then asked, "Are you sure?"
"I thought he would know the price of a Maserati because he owns a Lamborghini," she said. "But actually he didn't."
Guo said Wang paid the money in the end because he considered Guo to be a "family member". Guo said she sees nothing objectionable in Wang's decision to buy her a car because he is like a parent and has no other sort of relationship with her.
Micro blog mobs
Since causing the controversy, Guo has found that the people she meets in person are far less aggressive toward her than those who make comments online. She said micro blogs seem to have given "mobs" and people with "split personalities" an outlet for expression.
"People are just curious about me when they spot me on the street," she said. "But on the Internet, anyone who shows support for me is attacked with abusive comments."
Online writers have taken to calling Guo a variety of names: show off, shameless, xiao san (which means mistress in Chinese), ugly and others. She said she deserves none of them.
"I hate the people who say that I am a xiao san and ugly the most," Guo said. "I have to admit that I really care about my looks and, of course, my reputation."
Guo said she once underwent plastic surgery to make her eyes look bigger and has received Botulinum toxin injections to make her face appear smaller.
"Do you think I could lose the baby fat on my face after I become mature?" she said.
Guo said that for more than a year and a half she has had a boyfriend, whom she declined to talk about because she wants to protect him from the public's abuse. She said he has proved invaluable in helping her through this difficult time in her life.
"I've learned to treasure him and people who truly believe in me and love me," she said.
Everyone's a critic
In the three months since Guo's boasts of wealth first appeared online, netizens have not relented in their criticism of her.
On Aug 3, Guo and her mother were guests on a business talk show featuring Lang Xianping, a leading Chinese economist. Various journalists later complained about the appearance, saying it seemed to them that "the host was in the corner of the people being interviewed".
Netizens also took aim at Lang, contending that he had only invited Guo to his program because he had taken money from her. Lang denied the accusations.
About a month later, Guo wrote on her micro blog that she had finished making a recording of herself singing the theme song for an online game that has yet to be released. Many netizens immediately responded by saying they will not buy the game.
Guo said her brushes with the media should not be taken as indicating she wants to be even better known.
"People say I am looking for publicity when I accept interviews," she said. "What I am actually trying to do is to clear my name. If I wanted to gain publicity, I wouldn't turn away so many interview requests.
"I am a rebel. The more people refuse to believe what I say, the more I want to come out of hiding and clear things up.
"People have even criticized the media outlets that have published my interviews and say they don't have a moral compass. Could someone tell me what a moral compass is? Does that mean they should not give a young girl an opportunity to tell people the truth?"
She said she most regrets missing her chance to set the record straight about her affiliation with the Red Cross after the rumors about her began to circulate three months ago.
"I felt really low at that time," she said. "Everybody was blaming me. Even my mom called me tuo youping (meaning a burden from a previous marriage). I was simply too sad to face the media."
On Monday, an article about her with glossy photos appeared in the Chinese version of the international magazine Marie Claire, prompting another series of newspaper reports.
The new splash of publicity once again irritated the public, which accused her of shamelessly promoting herself.
The criticism was intense enough to prompt the magazine to publish an apology on its micro blog on Wednesday.
"We have chosen an inappropriate topic and will take responsibility for our mistake," the post said. "We have no intention of spreading bad social values or of offending public sensibilities, and we apologize sincerely to netizens and the public."
Guo said she was glad when she was told her photos would be taken for Marie Claire. She has since realized, though, that the scenes the magazine set her in were actually used to make her look ridiculous.
One photo showed her sitting down to eat. But instead of food at the end of her knife, there was a ring. Another showed her holding leashes that were attached to high-heel shoes rather than dogs.
"I now know they were making fun of my worship of money," she said. "I would have never gone to that photo shoot if I had known what they really wanted to do."
Despite the harsh treatment, Guo said she hasn't lost her lust for fame.
"I had no long-term plan before I got this bad name," she said. "Acting and singing were more like hobbies than a career.
"If I make it in showbiz, that would be great. If I don't, I might as well open my own restaurant. But I still want to be a celebrity."
Wang Yan and Zhang Yuchen contributed to the story.
For more information about the Red Cross scandal, please read "Red Cross faces credibility crisis" on www.chinadaily.com.cn
(China Daily 09/16/2011 page1)