A 6.1-magnitude earthquake rocked Yunnan province in China in the late afternoon of Aug. 3, killing hundreds and injuring many more. A disaster like this is exactly when Red Cross China goes into action, but it wasn't the beleaguered organization's relief work or calls for donations that headlined state media's news feature that night.
It was a confession from Guo Meimei, the most notorious female celebrity on Twitter-like Sina Weibo, regarding her decadent lifestyle of wealth, gambling and prostituting and bogus ties to Red Cross China.
Guo, who introduced herself as the general manager of Red Cross China on her Weibo account, caught the world's attention in June 2011 by posting a photo in front of a Mercedes. In her other publications, she revealed her possession of a large villa in Beijing and collection of luxurious handbags. Guo's flamboyant style served as more “proof” of corruption allegations against Red Cross China, which have dogged the organization since the Sichuan earthquake in 2008.
Though Guo confessed back in 2011 that she had faked her identity and relationship with Red Cross China, netizens kept digging and discovered that she was in fact the girlfriend of Wang Jun, an investor in a company called Bo Ai, which builds community service stations in the name of Red Cross China. Guo has ever since been depicted as a femme fatale figure who single-handedly ruined the credibility of the charity.
Guo was arrested in July for gambling on a football match. Her televised confession on CCTV was carefully staged by Chinese propaganda authorities. China Digital Times translated the instruction:
All websites are kindly asked to prominently display Xinhua and CCTV coverage of Guo Meimei, and to actively organize and direct commentary. (August 4, 2014)
In the confession, Guo apologized to the Red Cross China for undermining its credibility. Wang Jun also appeared on the show with his face blurred. He claimed that Guo was his girlfriend and she was a nightmare to him. His appearance was to clear the “rumor” regarding Guo's connection to Red Cross China. But many netizens didn't buy the story and believed the man was a dummy Wang Jun, not Guo's real boyfriend.
Many speculated that the confession was intended to rescue Red Cross China's credibility as the charity was calling for public donations for its earthquake relief work in Yunnan. However, it seems propaganda authorities have underestimated people's political wisdom. Instead participating in the public bullying of Guo, many cursed state media. Offbeat China highlighted some of the netizens’ immediate reactions on Weibo:
“Are these state media nuts? Why the hell do they give Guo more media attention than those earthquake victims?” Many netizens asked.
“You don’t care about the several hundred lives lost in Yunnan. You don’t care about the inglorious factory that has took away dozens of hardworking lives. And now what? You suddenly care about Guo Meimei? After ignoring years of calls for her investigation?” One netizens angrily commented.
Even worse, many netizens seem to believe that these reports of Guo are but a PR run by China Red Cross in the time of an earthquake when they need to call for donations again. As many netizens asked: “Is the current heavy media takedown of Gou Meimei a pre-donation run for China Red Cross?”
The censor machine had to work overnight to delete angry posts, but some can be recovered on Free Weibo, a site that allows uncensored searches of Sina Weibo. Among the recovered comments, many were reminded of the “struggle sessions” of public humiliation during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 70s under Mao Zedong by the media's collective attack:
【Media manipulation and the return of the Cultural Revolution】The People's Daily dug into Guo's relatives’ backgrounds and revealed their criminal history as if it is a family tradition for committing crime. Isn't this a punishment by family affiliation? Beijing Youth Daily even used swear words in its commentary. Such a practice is the return of the Cultural Revolution. The court is yet to issue a judgement, and CCTV has listed all the crimes. We may as well shut down all the courts and hand over cases to CCTV.
Many corruption cases in China involve sex scandals. A recent case is CCTV's news anchor Ji Yingnan's affair with the deputy director of policy and regulation under the State Archives Administration Fan Yue, who paid her 1,000 U.S. dollars daily when they first met. By comparison, some argued that Guo Meimei's private life is far less scandalous:
When compared to other corruption cases, Guo Meimei's gambling is so minor. When compared to the CCTV's anchor sex trade with a central government official, Guo's decadent private life means nothing. How come they don't have a public confession on CCTV? Even if Guo did commit the crimes, CCTV has no right to cast her confession and expose her parents, uncles and aunts’ backgrounds. Does state media have no moral baseline? This is a failed attempt to clean up Red Cross China's reputation.
Recognizing its failure, the propaganda issued another media instruction the next day (via China Digital Times):
Turn down the heat on Guo Meimei news. Do not use this as an opportunity to attack the Red Cross. (August 5, 2014)
The credibility crisis of Red Cross China originated from its corruption during disaster relief work after the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. People attacked Guo because of their resentment against the charity, not vice versa. Obviously, Chinese propaganda authorities chose not to face the real problem and stuck to the popular femme fatale story with an intention of rescuing the charity's reputation. But the plan didn't work.