With unfortunate timing state television screened a confession by 23-year-old Guo Meimei of scandalous behaviour that ruined the reputation of the Chinese Red Cross, on the same day more than 600 lost their lives in an earthquake in Yunnan province. The broadcast was meant to restore public confidence in the charity, severely dented by images posted on Weibo in 2011 of Guo's lavish lifestyle, including driving luxury cars, as she falsely claimed to be an executive of a Red Cross subsidiary. These images, and evidence of corruption at the charity, led to a massive drop in support. It now remains to be seen, from the response to the Red Cross' earthquake appeal, whether donors have forgiven it.
Meanwhile, the confession has made Guo herself one of the nation's biggest talking points. It perversely serves a love-hate public fascination with the ostentation of the nouveau riche who proclaim success with displays of wealth.
Apologising on state television for damaging the Red Cross' reputation, she said that when an older partner who paid her well for sex planned to use the Red Cross brand for a business venture, she fabricated her affiliation with the charity out of vanity and added her fake job title to her Weibo account.
Though the Red Cross had long since denied ties to Guo she continued to share photos of herself at luxury resorts and restaurants and Macau's casino tables on Weibo. In the CCTV report she admitted to operating a gambling venture in Beijing and working as an expensive call girl. She was arrested recently after a police investigation apparently conducted under pressure from the Red Cross. This should be seen in the light of the reality that the Guo affair prompted the online community to probe deeper into the charity, uncovering rampant corruption and misuse of donations. Guo was a catalyst for exposing a bigger scandal.
Apart from showing film of her confession ahead of any due process, state media has also played up a criminal family background. Ultimately, however, this about the reputation of a global institution. It will take more than Guo's conviction to clean up corrupt mismanagement. It is to be hoped that people respond to an appeal from the Red Cross to forget about Guo and focus on the earthquake. But it needs to do more to regain public confidence, like focusing on accountability and transparency in carrying out humanitarian work.